The storyteller looked down from the night stars and let his eyes rest on the folk who huddled around his fire.
Children looked on without seeing, their eyes wide with memories of colored things and laughter and cheering that seemed to lilt in the air even now. No one said anything for a long time, and at last there was nothing left of the story but the cold night air and the steady crackling of the great fire. The storyteller looked around at the villagers, his eyes steady and bright.
“That is the beginning of the tales of Curdie, the orphan,” he said seriously.
One by one, the people began getting up. Someone went up and put out his hand; he was almost young, with strong, working arms and a rugged voice.
“You’ve certainly earned your roast pig, and a flagon or two of mead as well, old man,” he said, as the storyteller shook his hand steadily.
One boy watched from a far edge of the fire pit, his eyes serious and watchful. One by one the people left, giving the storyteller coins and trinkets and various compliments. At last no one was left but the boy. The storyteller gathered up his sack and turned to go. The boy walked up beside him, and the old man looked down at his young face.
“Are those stories really true?” he asked, his small voice whispering earnestly. The storyteller turned and bent down to answer him, the edge of his mouth whisking into an amused grin. For a moment he said nothing. Then he spoke.
“Are they true, you say? Well now, do you think they are true?”
The boy looked down and turned his mouth into a line. He piped up.
“Well, how could they be true? I have never seen anything really that was like it was in your stories.”
The old man knelt down by the boy, a wry smile still in the corner of his mouth.
“Well, your mother will be waiting for you. Why don’t we talk about this tomorrow?”
The child stared at him, as if watching clouds.
“I have no mother,” he said plainly, like reciting a laundry list. The old man picked up a rock and looked down at it, rolling it in his fingers.
“Oh… oh… I see.” he said, speaking in a hushed tone. “Well, in that case, why don’t we talk now.”
He said no more and continued walking along, and the boy rambled along beside him, going ahead and then back, as if impatient. The old man turned and walked steadily up a slope, and the boy clambered up ahead, the bushes and trees on either side like a great black emptiness swirling in the freezing wind.
After a while they reached a small flat space, free of rocks and brush. As the boy climbed up, he saw the whole town spread out ahead of him like a huge lumpy blanket below the hilltop, twinkling with a few lights. The air was clear and fresh here, and filled with the scent of wild forest heather.
The old man made his way up behind him, and at last came up beside the boy in the center of the clearing, straightening up and looking a bit stronger than before, looking about and putting his hand to his belt. The boy gazed down at the town, watching all the great lumps of buildings as they slept in the wide darkness of the land.
The man pointed up into the sky now, and for the first time the boy looked up, up, into a vast swirling of night stars. As he looked at them, he felt that nothing had ever existed before these stars before, that he had been gazing at all the endless lights forever, as they formed pictures too beautiful to have any end, that spread out with no beginning or ending, one into the other. The old man stood beside him and watched as well, patient and still. Finally he spoke.
“Are the stories real… now that, is a fine question. Few ask it anymore, and even fewer care. Most think that I tell stories for a glass of ale or a piece of bread, and are content simply to laugh for the night and bask in the warmth of the story and the fire, listening as one listens to a meaningless song.”
“Some of them were true once, but that was so long ago that they are now very different than when they happened. Some are made up entirely. But some, I believe, are truly real, however fantastic they may be. Heroes of long ago… who by some hidden way, discovered their destinies and made us remember the way things were made to be…”
“Life can sometimes seem like a broken story… wandering, pointless, and without end. So much so that we almost forget it was a true story to begin with - that there was ever anything good in it. But if we will believe our life is still a good story, and act like we would if our story was still whole - not becoming part of the twisted brokenness of it – then, I believe we will see things like in these stories I have told, so often that they are like my old friends, like the cloak I wear.”
He lowered his voice to a whisper and bent down beside the boy.
“That… is the meaning of these stories. But you must keep this truth in your heart, and never let it go, never!”
The old storyteller stood up straight again and looked up at the stars, his hands on his belt, his voice trailing on as if it were indeed flying up to them…
“Some men live their whole lives and leave nothing behind them but dust, added to the dust of those who came before.”