Wednesday, December 22, 2010

A Story, Within a Story, Within a Story, Within a Dream

--by Janin Wise

*Please be advised, these have not been edited. They are just as they were typed for the NaNoWriMo project.*

Would it surprise you to know that I dream stories on occasion? I suspect if it did, it won’t for long. And so the dream began,

A traveler began his journey on a well worn path through the woods. The smell of autumn was in the air. Some trees were dressed out in their autumn finery—bright golds, vibrant oranges, fiery reds, that rustled and danced in the wind. The sound of dead leaves crunched pleasingly beneath his boots and the periodic hawk flashed its white breast through the sky as it hunted for it’s meal.

He paused a moment, closing his eyes and lifting his face to the warmth of the sun before inhaling a deep breath of the crisp, cool air, then continued on his journey.

Now he was an unassuming man, but his eyes were always drinking in his surroundings. Very little escaped his attention, so he was not caught completely by surprise when he came to the fork in the road and found a gibbet with it’s fresh dead occupant only beginning to ripen the air with decay. As he stood pondering which direction to turn, he wondered what this poor soul had done to end up in such a state, when the corpse woke up, opened it’s cage and demanded that he tell it a story, or it would steal his life for its own.

The traveler said, “I will tell you a tale, but when it is done, you will answer me a question.”

“Agreed.” Answered the dead man.

And so the traveler began to set up camp there.

“Make me a fire, for my bones are so cold!” demanded the corpse. And the traveler obliged him. After it was a nice warm roar, the traveler sat down and began his tale.

“Once upon a time, long, long ago, in a kingdom far, far away, animals were gifted with the language of man. Oh, I know what you’re thinking. There must have been many a plea for nuts and berries, handouts, pettings and scratching, but only wise animals can appreciate a gift of tongues, and being wise, they did not waste their words on these petty thoughts.

Now in this kingdom, they were ruled by a wise and gentle leader, a man. But he had no heir and the day soon approached that he passed from this world into the next, leaving no one to take his place as king.

All the creatures great and small, for you must understand that man was considered equal to the beasts, were in a clamor and uproar as to who would be the next ruler. The leader of man stepped forward, saying, “The previous ruler was a man, therefore the NEW ruler should be a man!”

A great eagle, as the swiftest of the birds countered, “But he was not always leader, and others before man have held the position as well! I believe a bird should take on the mantle of leadership, for we are swift with far-seeing sight and a leader is needed now.”

And suddenly there was a great commotion as each type tried to shout out all others that the leader should be picked from their own—the bears, the cats, the snakes—all of them arguing, the cacophony almost overwhelming!

They were on the verge of coming to blows and making war within this once peaceful land, when the humble donkey brayed once and gathered everyone’s attention.

“When I was a young foal, my herd gathered to celebrate the fullness of the moon and the brightness of the stars. As we celebrated in an open clearing, my grandfather told us a tale.

My grandfather began, “Long ago, when the grass was thin and sparse and hunger ruled, the mule had no herd. Our ancestors were solitary creatures, each fending for themselves. What mattered if your neighbor starved, if you could have a full bite?

Each day, always the same—fight for what was yours. Live to fight another day. There was so much misery. And it was so lonely.

One day, a foal was born, and like all foals he took his first steps moments from his birth to take his first taste of his mother’s milk. But unlike all foals before, when his mother saw him, she saw more than future competition: His silky coat, his funny tentative steps, and the complete and total trust as he approached her for the first time. She felt something she had never expected, something she had never known, something she could not define, though we know it as ‘love’.

And so, when the day came that he no longer needed her milk, she did not abandon him, to fend for himself, as all mothers always had. Instead, they stayed together. They looked for fresh water together. They shared the grass and grains they came across.

And something began to happen! Something unexpected and unusual: food was easier to find. There seemed to be more of it, and better quality. And the other mules began to notice.

At first, they would chase the mother and child off—but the bounty always stayed with them, it mattered not where they went. You chase them from the water, it dried up into a dusty mud hole and sprouted where they stopped.

For the land was flourishing from their love and caring, as they themselves were.

It was not long that a solitary mule took a different approach, and walking towards them cautiously, without intent to drive them away, he introduced himself and asked if he could join them. Without hesitation, mother and child told him, “Yes.” And when he stooped his head to taste the sweet oats, they stayed beneath him. And when he dipped him muzzle to feel the cool water, it tasted of refreshing purity.

Other mules noticed, and slowly they joined, and thus the first herd was formed, based on love and sharing.”

When the mule reached the end of his story, he said no more, only dipped his head to take a bite of the sweet grass at his feet and the other animals stood in shame of their behavior. For it mattered not who the leader was, a leader would come when a leader was needed. What mattered was that they were united in purpose—a world of peace, prosperity and hope. Working together, they had achieved it. Continuing to work together, they could maintain it.”

As the traveler finished his story, the corpse nodded. It could appreciate the wisdom of the tale, and so responded, “You have passed and I will let you live. What is your question?”

And the traveler asked, “How is it that you ended up in a hang man’s cage at this junction of the road?”

And the corpse began his tale.

“Well, you see, I was much like you: an adventurer out to seek my fortune in the world, when I chanced upon a town in mouring. All the windows were draped with black fabric—no children played in the streets and the old women sitting on their porches openly weeped.

I stopped a man of the town to ask what terrible thing had befallen them.

“It is not a thing that –has- happened. It is a thing that –will- happen. For the Baron’s beloved daughter is gravely ill and no one has been able to cure her. And with each doctor who fails, the Baron grows more and more enraged. He has placed their heads on spikes around his keep as a warning to charlatans who would come to pretend to cure her in the hopes of becoming heir to his property.”

Now it so happens that I was born with the gift of understanding animals. And as the man finished speaking, a crow pecking at the eye of one of the unfortunate doctors said, “If only they knew that she is so gravely ill because her mother is a jealous witch who has been poisoning the girl! Each night she brings her a potion ‘to help her sleep’ that steals away her vitality and will eventually drain away her life. If they could kill the toad that croaks beneath the vile queen’s window, she would no longer be able to take the girl’s vitality for herself.”

So I headed to the Baron’s keep to see for myself what was what. I was greeted and welcomed in by the staff, and they told me of their misfortune. As I stood there, I saw the Baron approaching with his wife and the household doctor, a slim, cunning looking man who had apparently not tried his hand at curing the girl, as his head was still attached to his body.

The Baron stopped in the court yard and addressed me in a rage, “What is this?!? Another ‘doctor’ come with false promises and hope?”

To which I replied, “No, Sir. I am no doctor. But I believe that I can help your daughter. If you would give me permission to stay three nights, I believe she would be much improved.”

“Ha!” laughed the desperate and disillusioned Baron, “I will give you two. And when you have failed, I will place you in a dead man’s cage at the crossroads as a warning to all who would deceive me.”

I accepted the terms, confident in the words of the crow. And so that first evening, I hid in the shadows of the sickly heiress’s room. I could see that she was gravely ill, but even thus, she was a beauty. I remained hidden in the dark corner as the Baroness came in with her poisoned drink, gently stirring the girl from her deep slumber,

“You must drink your sleep aid my dear. It will help you rest, and rest will help you recover.” Said the Baroness.

And so the drowsy girl drank from that vile cup and a wicked smile curved the mouth of that evil woman.

After the girl had fallen asleep and the Baroness had left the room knowing that her evil deed was done for yet another night, I crept out into the courtyard to find the Queen’s chamber and the toad that croaked beneath her window.

It was well into the early hours of morning before I chanced upon it. I crept to the toad and crushed it beneath a heavy rock. She would draw no more death from it.

But I did not know that the Baroness had already drawn poison from the vile creature that morning. And so I rested easy that night, believing that the girl would recover in the morning of the second day from lack of the draught.

I was rudely awakened in the morning by two guards who dragged me before the Baron.

“Charlatane!” he bellowed. “Pretender! My daughter is no better now than she was the day that you arrived, and your two days have passed!”

I was given no moment to explain, but thrust into the cage you saw me in when you first arrived at these crossroads.

As I withered away in it from starvation and thirst, I heard that the girl began recovering the very next day—and the doctor was taking credit for my deeds. As anger and rage filled my heart and my body began to die, I swore vengeance at any cost. And so here I am, falsely accused, unjustly sentenced, and completely dead.”

Now the traveler felt compassion for the dead man, “Is there anything that I could do to help?”

“Yes,” answered the corpse, take my pointer finger on my right hand with you and travel the path to the left to the town that was the death of me. Bring me to the Baron and I will be avenged.

As the traveler made his promise, the dead man handed him the finger bone and the rest of him drifted away as dust. The traveler wrapped the finger in a bit of cloth and placed it in his pack, then slept for the night.

In the morning, true to his word, he headed down the path to the left. As he came over the rise of a hill, he saw a town before him decked out gaily for celebration. Banners and steamers, laughter, music and merriment all greeted him as he entered the town square. He stopped a man, “What is the cause of celebration? Is there a faire?”

To which the townsman replied, “No, stranger, but you come with such good timing! The Baron’s beautiful daughter had been on the very verge of death and we all despaired at the prospect of her loss—but then the house doctor cured her of her illness and now that she is much recovered, the Baron has promised her hand in marriage to him and so we are preparing the celebrate their wedding!”

The traveler made his way to the keep, where the heads had been removed (for really, who wants to see dismembered heads on their wedding day?), and was welcomed into the court by the servants. As the Baron, Baroness, their daughter and the Doctor entered, the finger bone in his pack began to hum.

You would think something so muffled in otherwise such a noisy area would go unheard—but everyone there could hear the hum clearly as though it were right beside their own ear.

“What is that noise?” asked the angry Baroness.

The traveler answered, “I believe it is coming from my pack.”

“Well take it out and let’s see!” the Baroness demanded.

And so the traveler removed the wrapped bone from his pack, as he removed the cloth from it the bone raised into the air of it’s own accord. It flew towards the wicked Baroness and all could hear it plainly exclaim,

“The Baroness used a poisonous toad, three drops a day in a potion, to steal the life of her own offspring, what a evil and vile notion!”

And as it pointed at her, accusing, the ghost of the corpse appeared to the Baroness alone in all his rage. She intook breath to let out a scream and instead was turned instantly to stone for her terrible actions.

Then the finger pointed to the house doctor,

“Timing is such a peculiar thing, for you never tried your hand at a cure, but when my deed made the young maid well, you could not resist the allure.”

And the ghost of the corpse appeared before them all, attached to his finger as he turned to the Baron,

“And you, oh Baron, are the worst by far, for you took my very life, I cured your girl as I said I would, and you give her falsely to him as a wife.”

Then the ghost vanished, his revenge achieved, his peace spoken.

The Baron turned to the doctor and asked him the truth of the ghost statement, to which the man stammered and stuttered, thus showing the truth of his lie. And when the Baron turned to the traveler to find out how all these terrible and marvelous things had come to pass at his arrival…. He was no where to be seen.

For after the ghost had had his say, the traveler had kept his promise, and felt no longer obliged to remain, but turned and continued on his journey, every now and then stopping to enjoy the warmth of the sun on his face, or the sound of the cool, autumn breeze stirring the leaves.

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