Stories. That was all she had, that was all she would ever have. The ability to create worlds, and fill them with color and life, and give those listening something near hope.
The saddest thing about her ability was that she could create alternative lives, so clear in her mind that they could almost be real, and in those lives were another her, another more happy version of herself where she had found love, and happiness and hope. She could taste those worlds, smell them so clearly that she would be sad when it was time to leave. That was the pain in the gift. The downside.
But in the days since the darkness, being a carrier of stories was a gift that allowed her to eat and sleep under a more secure roof. No amount of dreams or story-lines could compensate for the touch or smell of another being. She had realized that we were all born with a hunger for many things, but the need for the company of another human was the strongest of all; plus she had to eat, we all had to eat but she was searching for something else, too.
In the early days, in those complicated days just after the darkness fell, when the sun had stopped all the wirelesses of the world working, there was only one way to pass information on and that was by the word of mouth.
It had been told that all references to life before the darkness had been bleached and censored from the stories that were passed from father to daughter, and mother to son. No one wanted to know about the times before the darkness, and soon no one remembered, nor cared. The time after the darkness was all they knew.
Some of the stories that survived had come before the dark times, stories of a boy magician at a school, stories of star wars, stories of love and hope.
And each of these troubadours would walk from settlement to settlement, camp to camp, dwelling to dwelling, telling storied to entertain, and amuse, and to inform. People passed messages from one to another by means of the troubadour and in doing so, gave a feeling of hope to each of the other clans – that they were not alone.
That is what she was – a troubadour who walked and told stories and passed messages. There was no family for her, except for those she visited from time to time. In the walks between encampments she would conjure and manipulate new stories in her head. Some would make her smile, some she would keep to herself, and some would make her and those she met cry.
In one of the days – of what was once called Spring – she came across a dwelling that was sheltered in behind a large waterfall. You might pass the shelter and never know it was there, but she had seen the sign that had been made, a mark on a rock that only the troubadours and those who caused the marks, knew about. It told them that a troubadour would be most welcome and that the others were waiting nearby.
When a story-teller came to a group of people, it was like their sun had shone again, like a light had been lit. Those in the tribe would paint their faces, and some special food would be prepared for everyone. In each encampment there was usually a troubadour’s chair where the honored guest would sit, and after a hearty meal they would tell a story.
After she had eaten, she had sat upon the highest chair which had been carved from a hard-stone. The chief waved an arm and the whole tribe fell into a hush. This is what they waited for, this was a speaker of tongues who brought color to their lives.
“My friends, my dwellers, I come to tell you a story to take the sting from your hearts.”
Normally this was greeted with a large round of applause. Then she would tell her tale, sometimes she used the flickering shadows from the fire to help the story live. Other times she would use her arms and hands to make a point in her story.
On this day, she came to give them a tale of strangeness.
“My fellows, my friends, I give you my story for you to take to your minds, to allow you to dream of other places and times.
I was never always a troubadour, and indeed when I was a child it was the farthest thing from my mind. I was born and grew up on a farm about one hundred clicks north of here. My job was to take the soil, sieve it, check it for radiation levels and then return it to another field. There was about thirty of us in this little haven. Thirty happy, and mostly healthy, souls.
My brother, my birth brother, went by the name of Joshua. He was a year older than me, and as such was my closest friend. Both of us worked the outer fields, one would dig the soil while the other watched out for bears, wolves and other animals.
One day when I was digging a patch of dirt from the eastern field, Joshua fired a shot into the woods. I stopped in case it was an attack and Joshua called on me to follow him towards the forest – he didn’t want to leave me unprotected.
I asked him to describe the threat and he said to me that he couldn’t, not properly, because it looked like a half-man, half-beast. Now we had heard of such things – from before – creatures known as Big Foot but they were only stories told to entertain, still Joshua swore on his life that it was what he had seen.
To be truthful here, there were strange tracks in the mud, ones that I had never seen before, but considering I had never really wandered more than a few clicks from the farm that wasn’t really surprising. Back then there weren’t too many folks calling themselves troubadours, so we tended to speak stories among ourselves. Same ones, always the same.
Joshua heard a cracking of a tree to his left and shot a bullet in that direction. Then he ran off and I was left on my own in the middle of the forest.
I could smell it before I saw it: a wolf. They always gave off a cold, wet, stale musky smell and I knew it could probably smell me too. I knew that running wasn’t the answer, but climbing a tree might save my life. I still had a lot of farming to do, and losing me would put the farm back a few weeks. I turned to grab the nearest branch when the wolf grabbed my ankle. I tried to kick it away but it did no good. I said my farewells to this life and asked for a graceful death, when all of a sudden I heard the wolf howling like it was going to leave this place before me. I looked down and sure enough it was deader than any dead thing you could mention.
And so I let go the branch and dropped to the ground, and guess, go on guess what I saw? There was a half-man, half-beast standing right above me. Now you’re going to say that I was crazy in the head but it smiled to me. A real warm smile, then my brother came calling out of the woods, asking if I was okay. I shouted I was – but it didn’t stop him running back to find me. When I looked at the beast, it put its fingers to its mouth as if to say, me and him shared a secret and I wasn’t to say a thing. You know what folks? I told my brother that I blooded my ankle when I tripped and that was all there was to it. He asked if I’d seen anything and I said, I had seen diddley squat – not a thing.
Me and Joshua went back to the soil but I got to tell you folks, that day changed my life. And that is why I became a troubadour, because I just got to find the half-man, half-beast that saved my life. Every dwelling I go to I ask the same question, have you seen one. Always the same though, never anyone has laid eyes on it. So I thank you kindly for listening to me and I’ll be on my way.”
The folks banged and shouted their approval and most of them returned to whatever it was they did to keep going in this world.
Just as the troubadour was leaving by the wooden gate, a young boy came running up to her and pulled on her skins.
“I seen it,” he said, “just yesterday.”
They had been used a very long time ago – long before the long winter, longer even than the oldest soul in the tunnels could remember. There had been a war once, not like the last war but one that had lasted for years. People had sheltered in these chalk caves that lay below the towns of what was once known as Kent.
Down here, they had shared food, stories, and most importantly, the company of each other. Chalk was easy to dig out without sophisticated tools, and so there were traces of people who had sought shelter here for millennia. Those hiding from the Romans, the Celts, Anglo Saxons, Normans, Vikings, and the French.
Tunnels had been created to join forts above which stood on guard against Napoleon and his armies. A man could get lost down here and never return.
When the long winter had first appeared, no one had been sure what had happened. The skies had grown dark and it had snowed in July. Little by little, those who could not keep warm headed for the tunnels. It was easy to enter at first but soon, those folks who had built dwellings were unwilling to share with the newcomers. It seemed the fears from above followed them all into the depths.
As well as their misgivings, they had also brought down their possessions, photos, clothes, electronic readers, phones, televisions – some even brought books. But whatever had caused the long winter, it had also stopped anything electrical or electronic from functioning. Some saw this as sign from God that his children had strayed too far from the fold. The books and papers that they had brought were eventually burned in order to keep the caves and tunnels warm. When those too, dried up, there were hunting parties sent into the upper world to fetch wood. Some went and returned, many never came back. There were stories of cannibalism and slavery in the upper lands but no one was sure if these were only to control the movement of the tunnel souls. Those who did return would talk of lands devoid of animals and birds.
In the western sector was an old soul, by the name of Travis and like everyone else, had been born in the tunnels. When his father was sent to the dark place where souls were laid to rest – his dying wish was that Travis take care of their greatest possession – a book, ‘A Christmas Carol’ by Charles Dickens. It had been this book that Travis had been taught to read and write by his father, just as his father before him. It was their family secret.
Travis had read the book several hundred times until he could recite the whole thing by heart. It was one night in the late period of that year when a friend had suggested that Travis tell his group the Christmas Carol story. Many had never heard such an amazing tale before and there were those who had tears in their eyes, and everyone cheered at the ending.
Travis started to move through caves and tunnels telling each group the story of A Christmas Carol. One day, one of the younger members of his family suggested that he tell another story by the wonderful Charles Dickens and that was when Travis had trouble.
He decided to tell those who waited, a new story which he had created in his head- but written in the same style and in the same era as Dickens. He called the first story, The Broadstairs Man in memory of his great, great-grandfather, who had apparently lived in such a place above their heads.
To his surprise, the crowds roared and cheered at the story as if it had been written by Mister Dickens, himself.
Over the years, Travis wrote many stories using the name Charles Dickens and when he finally was taken to the dark place to have his last sleep, someone inscribed, ‘Travis, Storyteller’ in the wall above.
And the hundred and one stories which Travis wrote under the name of Dickens, lived through the great winter and for many years beyond.
bobby stevenson 2017
art: joethepanzer @ deviantart