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Presented by State Library Victoria

If Stories are True

 

High in a tower room, sundial to the city a cry ravaged the stone. Through the window, that threatened a fall of thirty yards, a man could be seen leaping like a dancer in comical rage. Jack was not amused. Moments before, he had penned the last word of ‘The Adventures of Sir Pigswort and the Green Barnacle’, only to be smacked hard in the face by the realization it was terrible. Four precious years he had spent, locked away in the University’s most secluded tower, achieving nothing.

 

He was a spindly fellow, Jack and it must be said, he did not have an aptitude for employing the correct punctuation. If it wasn’t comas it was full stops and if it wasn’t full stops it was exclamation marks and if it wasn’t exclamation marks, the sky would fall down on his head in all likelihood. He was a person with a temper as keen as a knife but despite that, he was very kind-hearted.

 

To write is to dream and to dream is to do absolutely nothing at all. The realization that he should have studied philosophy, punctured his anger like a dart. Jack growled and flopped down onto the grand four poster bed that harboured every spare dream (that was not packed into his mind. A chaotic scramble of words and pictures that stuck like egg onto every waking moment.

 

Looking through eyes that were open a dragon-like sliver, Jack saw the guilty manuscript resting bold as brass on the window sill. He willed the wind to whisk it away. A breeze from the north obligingly complied. Satisfaction is did not come. Instead as he felt spite, which stung like a hornet.

 

Pages of his words would be snowing down upon the city. Already he was dreaming again. His mother had always said that dreaming would be the end of him. She was right, as she so often was. He remembered the time she had stopped him putting horse manure in his father’s shoes, and the time she had cunningly talked him out of jumping off a cliff at the age of five, with nothing but a parachute he had made out of a blanket. To say the least, it was apparent that even at that young inventive age of innocence, Jack was not cut out to be an engineer. So, he had turned his mind to writing.

 

Every single page had drifted away now, like the feathers of a bird. Except the last page, on which he had written in his very best calligraphy – The End. Well it certainly was the end of his years at university. It was time to go down the five hundred and twenty-three steps to greet the world again. His rage morphed into defeat and with an eagerness to tread in the world below, Jack got up, combed his hair into the fashionable style of four years ago and opened the door of his tower.

 

The door screeched. Jack winced.

 

It was cold and silent as he made his way down the steps. The lace of his right boot was missing and as his heel broke loose from its prison at every stride, Jack took great gulps of air. The chilling air of the tower room had been rather thin, thought Jack. Already he could feel the goodness infiltrating his brain. With the end of the stairs in sight, he took the steps five at a time and skidded to a stop at the bottom. Three hallways glanced off in different directions, the grey stone passages inviting him to plunge forth into adventure. With only the slightest hesitation he took the left way, the way outside.

 

The passage twisted and turned, past the library with its ancient ghostly tomes. Then he was on the threshold of the university, gazing down yet more steps that lead down into the city square below. These stairs were grand, stretching the length of the building. Up in the blue sky he could see two birds circling under a small wispy cloud. Jack waved at them and yelled his greetings, which echoed down the stairs and fell back at his feet.

 

Jack shook his head. Now that he was back in a world where there were others, he would have to pick up his manners and dignity again. He couldn’t go talking to birds.

 

It was just then that Jack understood that he could talk to as many birds as he wanted. Quite clearly, all the tall stone houses and twisting streets that lay before him, said that nobody was there. That not a single living soul was in the vicinity, he was alone. The silence held him, and he stood very still thinking of what on earth he could do.

 

Then slowly he made his way down the stairs and into the empty square. Where should he go? What should he do? Where was everyone? What had happened? The questions fluttered in his innards, full of beans at the sharp awakening. He decided to go down to the river, which in ordinary times was the true heart of vibrant city life. He started across the square until he reached the centre of the swirling mosaic of red, green, yellow and blue, that gave the grey stone of the buildings around, resemblance to a broken spider web lost on the wind.

 

The sun went behind a cloud and the buildings all around him seemed to reach out their shadows, trying to catch him. Jack felt himself drawing in a breath. The buildings began to whisper to him. He opened his mouth to tell himself he was in a dream. Jack jumped a foot in the air. His shadow, tall and thin in the midday sun was running away. After his initial shock that his shadow had just detached itself from his body, Jack gave chase. If he was truly alone, he thought it terribly unfair that his shadow should run away. Without too much thought into the matter, Jack found himself hurtling down the streets. He was going to catch his shadow if it was the last thing he ever did. About the only thing being a writer had offered was a four-year course in patience, which came in useful as the shadow was fit as a fiddle. Besides, his shadows legs were only growing longer as evening approached.

 

Eventually Jack caught it, with only a little foul play. He caught the shadow in the shade of his shoe, and as long as he kept the interior devoid of sunlight the shadow could not escape. To break silence that was riddled with his shadow’s pitiful sobs, Jack nervously lowered his voice and tried to ask a few pressing questions without sounding like a tyrant. It was tricky, as he had just run all across the city and was short on breath and patience.

 

“What on earth are you doing? How are you suddenly walking and crying and running away!” His voice rose as he addressed his hand clamped firmly over his shoe.

After sniffing several times, the shadow replied in a small nasty voice. “I have no idea…I suppose I never felt the need to make your acquaintance, and you shouldn’t pick on shadows! We are extremely delicate and nervous creatures. I was running away from the shade. Shade makes shadows – “It gulped and continued tremulously. “It makes shadows fade.” The shadow broke down in sobs.

 

It was hard to understand but Jack got the feeling that he was making the shadow very scared by confining it in a dark and stinky shoe. It did appear as though it was rather delicate and nervous. “I shall let you out, on the condition you don’t run away again, “he said. His words were met with a solid wall of stubborn silence. “I promise I will protect you against the shade.” He offered coaxingly, even though there was probably nothing he could do against such a wily enemy.

 

“OK,” said his shadow. Jack removed his hand and it crawled out. When Jack placed his shoe back upon his foot, it felt as though he was standing on little shards of ice. Although he didn’t ask about it, he felt sure he was standing on the tears of his shadow. He could feel them melting slowly away under his heel. “Let’s go down to the river,” he suggested. The shadow agreed, so they set off side by side.

 

“Do you have a name?” Inquired Jack.

 

“No, but you may call me Skipper,” the shadow replied. Jack had to stop his eyebrows flying away at the unusual title. However, he did not want to offend Skipper because it would be inappropriate to call the creature his shadow, now that Skipper had demonstrated that he was a fully independent being. It was best, Jack decided, to stay on friendly terms. In a city devoid of people, even a shadow, is welcome company.

 

“Could you explain about the shade again? I didn’t really understand what you said about shadows disappearing and all that.” In the privacy of his own head, Jack acknowledged that he was silently drowning, way out of his depth. At this rate, any kind of sketchy answer about anything would suffice.

 

“Well,” began Skipper, “Shade is the absence of light, not the shadows cast on the ground by the sun like me but a foreign shadow without form, that descends when the sun goes behind a cloud. For shadows, being submerged in such a shade, is like falling through a pitch – black void and we can get lost. Mostly however, the shade begins to fray us at the edges. If we spend too much time lost in the shade, we tatter into scraps and disappear completely. Every time a shadow enters the shade it is robbed of some of its form. It is very scary, feeling yourself fade away.” He gulped. “Nowadays shadows are thinner than paper and lighter than air. We stand clear-cut in our natural habitat of sunlight and firelight and are able to blend into the night, so that we may slip through the thinnest cracks under doors and the smallest of keyholes. Shadows can detach themselves from their physical counterpart. Only the shadows of trees and stone can fight the shade and most others, must stay hidden when the shade comes hunting,”

 

Jack did not fully understand. He had a feeling deep within his stomach that told him that Skipper’s explanation was something that the human mind could never truly decipher. Jack opened his mouth to say that he thought he was beginning to understand, when a green and yellow hurricane barrelled into him, sending him flying into the gutter. Little stars winked mischievously in front of his eyes and it took several seconds for the world to click back into focus.

 

For a moment, a man in a flamboyant pea green jacket rippled before him. Jack blinked several times. It was, of course, impossible but the man seemed to be holding a rope that was tied around the neck of a lion. It couldn’t possibly be, but it was. The man who had just extended a hand to help Jack up, was holding a beast with the majestic aura of an entire royal family and a brilliant flaming mane that was an impressive imitation of the setting sun, on the end of flimsy piece of string!

 

“That isn’t a lion,” said Jack as firmly as he could, looking around for Skipper to confirm that he had been knocked silly.

 

“It is indeed a lion,” said the green coated man proudly, hoisting Jack enthusiastically to his feet. “Got him from the wild plains of Afranon myself. You see,” the man lowered his voice, “I am in business! I am a registered merchant now, with a liscense to sell bravery. Angelo at your service – Sorry about the unfortunate collision,” he added quickly.

 

Jack exhaled slowly. “Er, thanks for your concern, I think I am alright. Actually, my friend and I,” he gestured to Skipper who was loitering unobtrusively on a wall enveloped in ivy, “were hoping to meet someone who could tell us what has happened to everyone. Ah, do you know anything?”

 

“I am afraid my good fellow, I am not from this city. I have come from abroad and when I arrived everyone had already gone. Anyway, I found a newspaper that yielded a few answers.” He waved a folded page under Jack’s nose. “It seems,” he went on, “that the city was burdened with a plague of rats who consumed all the edibles and penetrated her majesty’s castle and many other city dwellings, causing distress and imperilment to all city residents,” read the merchant. “The decision was made, to evacuate and seek refuge over the sea,” said Angelo, referring to the paper again.

 

“Holy bananas!” Exclaimed Jack weakly. Angelo nodded sympathetically, “They have made a terrible fuss about a few rodents. I arrived yesterday and I haven’t seen a single one. Although,” he pointed to the lion which was sitting like a statue on the road, “They are probably steering well clear of old Leonardo. He can be ferocious when he wants to be,” he said affectionately.

 

“Mm,” said Jack, thinking about other things.

 

“Come on Jack,” chimed in Skipper. “We should get going before the shade comes. Let’s go down to the river, get a boat and go after everyone.” Jack shook his musings away. It was probably the best course of action.

 

“There aren’t any boats left at the quay, except mine,” said Angelo. “You are welcome to take it if you want, for I am going to stay here.” Inside, Jack collapsed thankfully. “Back in my homeland, there is a place in the market for silence. Who knows, one day I might return and become rich.” Angelo remarked dreamily. “You could put silence in a bottle, could you not?”

 

“Sure,” said Jack, extending his hand and secretly wondering if he would ever meet so strange a person again. They shook hands and Skipper rose up tall on the house behind them, his head rippling on a tendril of ivy which swung from the eaves. As though he had just made up his mind, Angelo reached into the pea green pocket of his coat and drew out what looked like a small silver teabag on a leather cord.

 

“Here is a gift for the journey, the ocean is a wild and mysterious place.” It was an amulet, which had a strange, cold beauty about it and when Jack took it, he was surprised by how heavy it was for such a small object. He put it around his neck.

 

“Where did you get it?” He asked.

 

“Like I said,” replied Angelo, “I am a merchant of bravery. If you are quick, you can catch the pieces of bravery that fly away when a lion roars. Bravery is a pesky thing to imprison in an amulet but I heard from a pedlar back at home that fish skin is the best way, because it doesn’t leak. They were priced at three shillings but I am giving it to you for free because you are going abroad and I knocked the south wind out of your lungs. Now I must be off, Leonardo and I wish you the best.” And with that Angelo turned on his heel and strode off, with the lion padding silently behind. Jack watched the flaming mane and pea green coat disappear around the corner.

 

“What a chatterbox,” said Skipper.

 

“Still, it was good of him to give us his boat,” replied Jack.

 

Before long the river came into sight and Jack and Skipper stood in the middle of the grand boulevard that ran along its bank. Relief washed over Jack, he was going to find his family, his friends and all the other people of the city, who had been as distant as little black ants for the past four years.

 

Something fluttered in the corner of his eye, for a moment Jack thought Angelo had come back but when he looked he saw a number of drenched green pages. They were pegged up on a piece of string that stretched between two lampposts on the jetty. A figure crouched on the edge of the jetty and was rescuing more of the pages from the river with a silver net, on the end of a long rod of bamboo. “The minute you come to accept you are alone in an empty city, people start appearing from the cracks in the pavement,” said Skipper. “Who on earth is it?”

 

“They are my pages,” thought Jack. “C’mon,” he said to Skipper and they hurried over. The figure with the net, turned out to be a little old woman that reminded Jack of a walnut. She stood up when they reached her, disentangling another two pages from the net and pegging them beside the others with the help of a rickety ladder. “I think those are my pages,” said Jack, as she descended the ladder. She turned to face him.

 

“They’re not your pages anymore. You didn’t want them, you threw them away.”

 

“I know,” Jack sighed.

 

“Somewhere,” began the old woman, “People cannot have green pages to write their story. So, once these pages have dried I am going to make sure that they get to those places.”

 

“Yes, I am sure you will,” said Jack. “Sorry, I didn’t catch your name,” he added. She squinted up at him.

 

“And I am sure you never will. Anyways, you can do without the pages, so get along now and go to wherever the sea takes you.” She winked at them and turned again to the ladder. Jack opened his mouth to ask if she needed any help. She looked quite frail, all alone on the ladder that rocked in the wind but instead he and Skipper got into Angelo’s boat. It was sturdy enough, despite its size. They waved to the walnut woman but already she looked smaller, and soon she vanished.

 

Before too long even the grey stone buildings, were only a number of thin sundials against the horizon and then they were out on the open sea. The ocean was indeed a wild and mysterious place. A large, grey shark haunted the wake of the boat for a little while. The fish skin amulet around Jack’s neck, grew slightly lighter as he watched the murky silhouette glide over the green water. Eventually the shark went away.  A glittering iceberg grew from a little pile of salt into a castle, that towered over them. A family of walrus’ blinked blearily at him from the ice. He turned to tell Skipper but the sun had gone behind a cloud.

2 comments

rhapsody

This is utterly amazing! Reminds me a lot of Cornelia Funke! ♡♡♡

28th Jan, 18
flynneobrien

Bess your descriptions leave me mesmorised and my eyes glaze over when I read your writing and I forget that it is actually you that has written it! I am speechless and just want to say congratulations on an absolutely incredible piece of writing! Xx

28th Jan, 18