– Fiction by Andrew Finch –
The Narrator’s cane taps an uneven rhythm against ancient stone tiles as he hobbles through the library. There is almost no light to see by, but this does not slow his pace. Clasped gingerly in a gnarled hand as though it were a priceless heirloom is a thick, leather-bound book. The Narrator’s robes are as white as his beard, which gently dusts the weathered floor as the old
man lifts his head and inhales, sensing the legions of literature marching row upon row, shelf upon shelf, into the musty darkness above and around. Somewhere nearby, there is a rustle of pages, an intake of breath, an electric silence of someone doing their best to not exist. The Narrator inhales through his nose and lets out a sigh. It is dry, and carries a hint of weariness.
“Poe?” The Narrator’s voice is not dry. It wraps around that single syllable like many layers of deep velvet silk. It slips through the ears and reverberates through the brain with the intricacies of birdsong and majesty of thunder. It is the verbal equivalent of gold; soft, pure, malleable, rich,
untarnishable, and incredibly rare. It is currently curved with an edge of exasperation.
“Oh! Uh. M-master! I was just…eheh…dusting?” Poe’s voice is the verbal equivalent of broken glass. It is jagged, uneven, painful, and full of cracks. Each awkward pause and panicked stutter is punctuated by a nervous laugh, drawn from anxiety as opposed to amusement. The Narrator peers through one of the shelves to see the large round shape of his young pupil, hunched over a reading-stand that supports the pages of a very large, ornate tome. Poe’s acne-stained face is doing its best to go bone-white. The Narrator sighs again.
“Wait there, Poe.”
The Narrator slowly makes his way down the aisle, his cane tip-tapping its unsteady rhythm. The old man pauses to place his precious book in its position amongst the ranks of ink and paper, giving Poe plenty of time to stew. When The Narrator eventually arrives, Poe’s hands are clammy
and his stringy brown hair is soaked with sweat. The Narrator’s cane clicks against the tiles one last time as the old teacher stares up at his panicking student. Poe does his best to cower before his master, who is half his height and a third his width.
“N-narrator! Ehehe… Fan-fah-fancy meeting you here!” Poe’s voice cracks on “you”, it hits a pitch usually reserved for rodents. The Narrator’s bushy eyebrows collide as he notices the title of Poe’s late-night reading.
“Speaking of fancy, what is Forsaken Tides doing out of its vault?”
“Oh!” Poe stares at the book perched atop its stand with an expression too laced with panic to properly feign surprise, “who put this hhhere?”
The Narrator’s eyebrows jump. He has noticed the flickering light behind Poe’s ample back. His eyes flash with fire. His thunderous voice is an explosion in the silent library.
“And pray tell, boy, why you would allow a flame anywhere near a Masterwork!?”
Poe’s face is a picture of terror and confusion before his master’s wrath. Then understanding dawns.
“Oh! Master! I didn’t use a…ehehe…lantern! I ha-had an idea!” With rays of pride poking through the cloud of fear, Poe presents a jar to the fuming Narrator. Inside, a dozen iridescent insects flit back and forth, each giving off a warm yellow glow. The Narrator’s ire cools as he watches the insects in silence for a few moments, his eyebrows un-knit, but his eyes do not soften.
“Impressive, Poe. I had never considered using insects.” His moustache billows as he huffs with grudging acknowledgment, “…for this, you may remain my apprentice, but it does not excuse these… rash actions! How do you justify risking the work of countless Narrators?” Poe’s shoulders slump, he stares at his feet, wrapped in thin canvas slippers.
“I…thought that if I read it, I’d figure out how to…Narrate like y-you.” The Narrator glares up at the sheepish, adolescent mountain that is Poe. He feels the edge of his anger blunt against the fragile glint in his pupil’s eyes.
“Listen, Poe…” The Narrator begins as Poe continues to stare at his slippers, “To Narrate a story…it is no simple task.” He gestures to a nearby bench, its weathered frame sagging under the remembered weight of past occupants. Wood groans in protest as Poe wordlessly slumps next to The Narrator. The boy does not look up. “It doesn’t matter how powerful the text is, Poe. To Narrate, you must draw from within.” Poe says nothing, but The Narrator knows what the boy is thinking. “I didn’t choose you for the voice you have now, Poe. I chose you for the voice you will someday possess.” Poe shifts, a little.
“That’s easy for you to s-say. The Wordsmiths are always t-telling me how you never had any t-trouble Narrating.” The Narrator hides a wince beneath his beard.
“Who told you that, Poe? Was it Atwood? Or Rowling?”
“It doesn’t m-matter who.”
“It does, Poe. I was a rare exception, and those stories are greatly exaggerated.” They weren’t, but The Narrator knows this knowledge will not aid his pupil. He decides to take a different tactic.
“Poe, even if you could Narrate right now, it wouldn’t be as…nice as you think.”
“Well, do you know the story of Atlas?”
“The Titan who s-stands atop a mountain and holds up the s-sky?”
“Exactly. Imagine how terrible that must have been, the crushing weight of the whole world on your shoulders. Day after day, not a moment to pause for breath, not a moment to think, not so-much as a thanks from the unknowing planet you struggle your whole life to preserve. Close your eyes. Good. Now can you picture it? Can you feel that weight, Poe?”
“Good. Now imagine that instead of holding up one world, you had to juggle a hundred.”
Poe’s eyes snap open, and finally leave the floor as he turns to stare at his master.
“That is what it means to be a Narrator, Poe.” The boy is silent for some time. He looks back at Forsaken Tides, still open on its stand.
“But can’t you just p-put the book down?”
“Can Atlas just put the sky down?”
“When you Narrate, you breathe life into words. An entire world is shaped with your every vowel. Countless lives balance on the tip of your tongue and every time you close a book before it is finished you put to risk every single one of them.”
“But the b-books do end, don’t they, Master? Can’t you put them d-down then?”
The Narrator gazes up at the dusty shelves of books, faded threadbare spines shifting in Poe’s flickering light. “True, but by then two books have taken the one’s place. For every world I hold up two must be dropped. And how do you choose, Poe? How many Masterworks have we missed because I could not Narrate fast enough?”
“I…don’t know, Master.”
“Neither do I.” The two sit together in the dark for a while. It is the Narrator’s turn to stare at his slippers. Poe watches his master with uncertainty, for the first time he looks past the voice and notices just how frail the old man is. The pupil stands suddenly and returns to Forsaken
Tides, still open on its stand.
“ ‘H-how t-to…’ ” Poe pauses, looks back at the mournful Narrator, then down at the fleet of letters lined row upon row across the page. He clears his throat. “ ‘ How t-to describe Huxley’s Perch? You’ll have to f-forgive me, it isn’t an orthodox place. Let’s start at the bottom and work our way up, shall we? S-st-start w-w-with…’ ” He stops, feeling embarrassed, hating his clumsy tongue.
“Sorry, Master. I-”
“ ‘Start with the waves…’ ” Mutters the Narrator, interrupting his pupil’s apology. Poe hesitates, then he inhales through his nose and lets out a sigh, just as his master always did.
“ ‘When y-you can see them, they are dark and hungry, looming ranks of silent soldiers marching t-towards a rocky shore. Most of the time they approach in secret, hidden beneath a blanket of fog.’ ” As Poe’s words reverberate through the dark library he feels a faint, damp draft whisper
between dry, dusty books. “ ‘It shifts and swirls like a swarm of white specteres and hangs to every surface like a heavy wet blanket. Now look up, towards the towering spires of stone that rise from those pearly clouds. Five in total, clustered together, connected by dubious bridges and worn wires that hang high, high in the cold sea-scented air.’ ” He can smell it now, and taste the briny ocean-spray on his tongue. “ ‘Now attach buildings cobbled from old ships to those columns, carve paths into the slick stone, watch them wind dangerously up through the water-weathered rock.’ ” Poe stops as The
Narrator looks up, a faint smile creasing his wrinkled face.
“Don’t stop now, it only gets better! Go on! ‘ The people here are lawless both in nature and profession…’ ”
Poe stares back down at the book. He can see past the pages and the ink now, hear the roar of the sea. He thinks of Atlas on his mountain, holding up the sky. He wonders why no-one ever bothered to mention the view. He grins, and continues his Narration.
“ ‘Now, let us focus inwards, swoop through the fog and find a little metal steamer chugging laboriously through the water. The vessel and her crew are clumsy and inexperienced, yet onwards they sail, bolstered by the countless tales of adventure…’ ”
Together in their flickering bubble of light the pupil and the master share a story together, carried to far-off seas long into the night.
About the Author – Andrew Finch
A narrative hoarder by nature, Andrew Finch hasn’t thrown out a single idea since he started telling stories in 3rd grade. Instead, he lets them congeal in the back of his mind like half-eaten casserole in the back of the fridge, until they mutate into something more interesting. Now overwhelmed by a little too much “interesting,” he pursues a Bachelor of English at Mount Royal University in a hopes of learning how to properly present his over-eager thoughts.
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