The story first appeared in Rosebud, (issue 57)

 

The Narrator

 

It did annoy him, but not so much because his shadow was gone, as because he knew there was a story about a man without a shadow, which everyone at home in the cold countries knew; and if the learned man went there and told them his own story, they would say he was merely imitating the other, and that he had no business to do.

—Hans Christian Andersen, “The Shadow”

 

 

The writer was ill. For days he sat in his chair, facing the window, where the sun lit the world on fire. Nothing surprised the writer in that world and nothing made him wonder. In the house across the street, beautiful flowers bloomed all year round on the balcony, yet all the windows remained dark. The doors leading to the balcony were half-opened late every evening, and soft music could be heard trailing through the air and into the writerís heart. It was a slow, lugubrious piece that only deepened the writerís malady. But perhaps the writer fancied it, for everything in his current state and place was upsetting to him.

The writer had little appetite, and he didnít venture out of the house unless at night because of the intolerable heat that coated the city like a thermal blanket. Many years ago, long before he was called a writer, heíd traveled to this country from another one, a cold and somber land. He imagined he would run about this new country as he did at home, indulging in its prosperity and warmth. But soon he got out of the habit of doing that, as did other sensible people who remained indoors all day long. The sun emaciated them. Once upon a time, the writer had been a curious man, ravaged with desire to learn the truth about the world. But in this new hot climate, everything grew and changed so much quicker—things and people and even shadows. It was really quite unbearable for the writer. Each day he woke up worrying that he knew less about the world than he did the day before. He became wistful and prosaic; his stories shrank, the characters fading from the page.

The writer missed home. He missed poplar fluff, and birch sap, and silent Vs of migrating birds stretched across the murky autumn sky. He missed the winters, all the bright crisp snow that added a layer every day, white puffs of air coming out of his mouth and floating about the hut like shreds of a veil. Every week, his mother used to make tvorog, a rich cheesy paste that hung over the sink in a cloth pouch until it stopped dripping. In the spring and fall, his father had spread manure under the fruit trees, the stench thick in the air, forcing the writer to pinch his nose.

It had been a long time ago, so long that the writer couldnít remember their faces, except that they were yellowed and frail. Each year the writer had promised to visit his parents, but the separation only deepened the distance, removed any palpable evidence, until their absence became irrevocable to him. Season after season, the writer was immersed in a new project while he imagined his parents young and still living. He imagined their looks and ways, their stern or cheerful demeanor. In some stories, they appeared as large and enduring as a mountain, in others as gentle and vulnerable as the flowers growing on its slopes. He gave his parents jobs, hobbies, endowed them with opinions and desires; he broke their hearts and he mended them, reconstructing, extending their lives, all contained within a stroke of his pen.

The writer had married—years back. A clean, durable woman cooked his meals and encompassed the writer with care and safety, drew him to her white breasts like clouds puffing from her shirts. But she could not understand her husbandís malady, his feeling of unease, the tender throbbing right under the writerís parched skin. She offered him cornhusk lotion and hearty stews, but otherwise could do nothing to soothe the writerís moods. She was too close, too wide-hipped, too comfortable. Even her dreams held no mystery to the writer; he saw them as a continuation of her person—a bleak road travelled much too often and leading in the same direction of Christmas holidays, him sitting by the window, among his wifeís relatives, wishing desperately for snow.

One night the writer woke up. His balcony door was ajar and the curtain was ruffled by the breeze. In a moment, he was dazzled with a marvelous light coming from the house across the street. All the flowers in the pots were swaying and shining like brilliant flames, and among them stood a slender, graceful maiden in a burst of shimmer. The writerís eyes burned, and he shut them as tight as he could and awoke completely. Curious, he got up and tiptoed to the balcony, peering behind the curtain. But the maiden disappeared, so did the light; the flowers, though blooming, lost all vibrancy and color. The open windows remained dark and from far within, the music was trailing, plaintive and beautiful. The writerís heart swelled with longing as he remembered a young girl in his home town, naÔve and gentle, leaning out of the window, promising to wait for his return. Her body had been slim, her bones narrow, her flesh light and luminous, like that of a fledging who was yet to grow its feathers—so pink and tender and sweet. He felt his lips pull in and thrust apart, his tongue sweeping the lower teeth. Certainly sheíd married—he reasoned—had children, her hips spread and thickened. The writer couldnít ask anyone, and he couldnít visit, not after eighteen years of living in another country, on another continent, with another woman, whose sturdy unsurprising body sustained and comforted his.

The writer sighed. His heart bridled with worry and regret as he thought of the sweet girl heíd left waiting in his native land and wished to see so desperately. The writer sat on the balcony while the full moon rose high behind him, and his shadow squatted among the flowers on the balcony opposite. “If only someone could do it for me, someone I trust and who would care to do and say exactly as I wish.” No sooner than he said that, the writer turned toward his desk, and his shadow toward the dark house across the street.

The writerís hand reached for a pen. “Moustache,” he muttered, scribbling as fast as he could. “No moustache. It must be authentic. You are in fact me.”

 

 

Next morning, the writer glanced at the written pages, from which he had vanished, leaving the story in the hands of a narrator, who only remotely resembled the writer. The young man was freshly shaved and behaved in such a brazen way that the writer shuddered and cowered in his chair. The narrator was touching a gentle, beautiful girl, his fingers tangled in her shimmering hair. She had smooth pale shoulders he bent to smell and kiss, the tip of his tongue drawing slow loops. He cupped the girlís breasts and tickled her bright-pink nipples, then brought them to his lips like ripe berries he was about to suck off the vine. Her right breast was slightly larger than the left one, a tiny mole tucked under the hard nipple. The narratorís tongue paid attention to it before sliding lower, down to the girlís belly button, dipping in and out of the soft hollow. The writer grew aroused, but the narrator didnít stop, his impudent fingers pulling off the girlís undergarments, burrowing into the curlicues of kitten hair. She was like a spring forest—the writer did think the comparison was a bit corny, but it fit—new and dewy, her flesh folding into his mouth as his desire swelled between her thighs.

She did not scream. When he finished, she lay still while he remained inside her, panting, a warm rosy trickle soaking the sheet. “Sorry,” he said. “Why, why didnít you stop me?”

“Because,” she said. “I didnít want you to stop.” She kissed him on the nose and the lips.

“What if I got you pregnant?” he asked. “Oh, no—that would be terrible.”

“Donít worry,” she said, her voice as dreamy and pleasant as the commingling of trees. “I will take care of it.”

The writer was spent. He was afraid to think up another word because he couldnít envision her pregnant or raising a child alone. In the cold countries, beautiful maidens were seduced and abandoned quite often, but no one told stories about them or their ill-fated brood. Once again, the narrator was on his own, responsible for the writerís mistakes, his guilt and his longing, and the lack of verbs.

 

 

In the evening, after he ate and napped, the writer was still unable to continue the story; neither could he bring himself to read what heíd already written, each time stopping before the last scene. Days faltered by, and the writer had succumbed to a melancholy and then a desperation; weeks later he could be found sitting in the same position, hunched over a heap of crumpled pages. He nudged the plot and egged on the characters until one night he scooped the unfinished manuscript off his desk and flung it out the balcony. The pages scattered and twirled in the moonlight like pale languid birds, submitting to gravity.

Months stalled and passed, and years—many years—during which the writer attempted to write books about what there was of truth and goodness and beauty, but no one cared to read them, and no one called the writer a writer anymore. His wife deserted him, and he became hopelessly lonely. All day he did nothing but reread the books heíd written, which seemed dead to him, rotten through the hardcovers; and at night, when he couldnít sleep, he lay in his bed dreaming about his native land and the hometown, where the sweet girl might still live.

One evening he languished in his study, drink in hand, when he heard a gentle knock.

“Come in,” he said, but no one entered, so he ambled to the door and opened it. There, standing before him, was a tall well-dressed man. He appeared much younger than the writer, thin and weightless like a sheet of paper. He skittered to the heavy mahogany desk and positioned himself in a twin leather chair, one leg folded over the other.

“Who are you?” the writer said, slipping back in his seat.

“I thought you might not recognize me,” the visitor answered. “Iíve actually got flesh and clothes. You didnít expect to find me in such fine condition, did you?” The manís mood was buoyant, oozing with confidence. A gold chain circled his neck, and he wore a heavy diamond ring.

“What do you mean Ďflesh and clothesí?”

“I mean flesh and clothes.” He tugged at his cheek and suit, flicking off a dot of lint. “Think now, donít you recognize me? Not at all?”

“But it canít be,” the writer whispered and sagged deeper into his chair. “You arenít real.”

“Iím as real as you made me. Iím the Narrator.”

The writer was silent. He recognized the stubbornness with which he used to defend his characters, their plausibility a question for others, but not for him.

“But how, how is this possible?” he finally asked, squinting. “Why did you come back?”

“Well, it is by no means a simple matter,” said the Narrator. “But then, you arenít a simple man either. Iíve been living with you for years; yet, as soon as you dumped me on the streets, I was left to defend myself. But I have few complaints as Iíve come upon a great fortune in your old land, people know and respect me. However, I felt a kind of a longing to see you once more before you die. And die you must—as youíre mortal.”

“Is that really you? I cannot believe that my old narrator could return to me as a man,” the writer said.

“It is really me.” The Narratorís slender, transparent fingers touched the writerís. A prickly sensation ran down his spine. The long hairs on his arms swayed in the direction of the Narrator, as though manipulated by a magnet.

“Do tell me about your travels,” the writer said. “What new exciting things did you see back in the cold country?” He marveled at how much of a man the Narrator was, dressed in the finest of garments: a grey wool suit, a white satin shirt, and a red silk tie that flowed down his chest, tongue-like. His guest was well-spoken and well-mannered too, and it was a remarkable thing indeed.

“Sure, Iíll tell you my story,” the Narrator said, planting his feet on the other twin chair. “But first, do you want to know what became of that beautiful maiden?”

“Yes. Yes, of course. Iíve thought of her quite often.”

“Well, she did wait for you as sheíd promised.”

“I was afraid of that!”

“And while she waited, she wrote poems and more poems. Years passed and she turned into the most glorious poetess the world had known. I spent three weeks listening to her and felt as though Iíd spent three thousand years reading and hearing everything that had been sung or written. Iíve learned the truth.”

“Poetess?!” the writer exclaimed. “But how? How did you manage to stay there? What business is it of yours? Poetry?”

“I didnít stay in the house, but in the shed, in the twilight. I saw everything and I know everything. Itís like being in the court of Poetry, in the ante-chamber, if you will. But when I came out, I pretended to be you.”

“Me?”

“Well, yes. It wasnít that hard either. I went back to your old house. It was empty, all run down. Birdsí nests and mice. But I cleaned it up, patched the roof, cut the grass. It looks good now. Youíd be proud.”

The writer was silent, brooding over the Narratorís words. They irritated the writer, grazed at his vanity. What right did the Narrator have to step into the writerís old life and claim it as his own? Why was he boasting about it to the writer as though heíd done something heroic when, in fact, heíd stolen his story, the writerís chance at greatness?

“What else did you see in the cold country?” the writer brought himself to ask. “Has it changed a lot? Is the change for the better? Are the people really free? Living without fear or shame? Are there no more dictators or gulags?”

The Narrator pinched his nose, just like the writer did when he was young. Then he blew the air out. “Thereís always fear, I suppose, and dictators. But no, no more gulags, yet complete anarchy—which turned me into a man. I saw everything there was to see, and I tell you, had you stayed there all those years, you wouldnít have turned into a man. But I did. I learned to know myself, my nature. When I lived with you, I never thought about it. I wasnít visible except when you were writing, and especially at night. So, while living in the shed, it became clear to me—I could be small and invisible during the day but gain power by night. I saw what nobody else saw and heard what nobody was meant to hear. And I must tell you, the world is not a happy place as youíd tried to paint it in your books. Itís ignorant and vicious, and I wouldnít have wanted to become a man if you hadnít convinced me that it was good to be one. But Iíd also learned many secrets, and I kept quiet unless the situation presented itself, and then I acted fast and without regrets and was rewarded accordingly. I became known in certain circles and somewhat admired, and feared. People bought my knowledge and my truth. I grew rich and invincible—an omniscient oligarch, an entertainer—as I nestled next to women and men, on couches and in beds.”

“Unbelievable!” the writer said, scratching his head, his weedy hair.

“It is indeed,” the Narrator confirmed and lit a cigarette. “You used to smoke, remember?”

The writer nodded and swallowed a cloud of tobacco.

“So how have you been, dear Writer?” the Narrator asked.

“Not well, to tell you the truth. All my life Iíve been writing about the good and the true and the beautiful, but nobody cares. People donít buy my books.”

“Of course they donít. Youíve run out of experiences. Thatís to be understood at your age. And staying inside all the time. Letís travel back to the cold country. Smell the native soil, so to speak.”

“Thatís a silly expression.”

“Isnít it though?”

The writer kept quiet. The smoke had filled his study, and he could hardly see the Narrator, who appeared thinner and also translucent, as though forged from the tiny letters of dust and air. He also wore a felt hat that the writer hadnít noticed earlier. It was black, with large brims that shadowed the Narratorís face.

“So will you go with me?”

“Maybe. If I can afford it. Iíve spent most of my savings.”

“I shall pay your expenses if you travel as my narrator. In the cold country, Iím known as the Writer, you see.”

“What nonsense?”

“If you agree to be my narrator, you wonít have to pay a penny.”

“But thatís madness!” the writer exclaimed.

“Then the world is mad,” said the Narrator and rammed the cigarette into the palm of his hand. The writer flinched from pain and the smell of singed flesh.

 

 

Some more time passed, and the writer was in a bad way—he lost all appetite and could hardly get out of bed. He grew thinner and thinner until one day he took out his gray suit to wear for the holiday and it slid right off him, wrinkled on the floor in a wooly pool of fabric. His arms hung limp and one of his eyes twitched maliciously at the trembling dark silhouette inside the mirror.

“You really need to go with me,” the Narrator said, who paid him a visit that evening. “The change of venue will do you good. You need fresh air instead of this unbearable stifling heat. Iíll pay all of your expenses, and youíll write a story about it and entertain me. Iím also getting married. You can write about that too. Now, be sensible and accept my invitation. Weíll travel as old friends.”

So it was settled, and off they went—the writer as the narrator, and the narrator as the writer, except when they were alone. On their journey, they rarely slept or ate but held numerous conversations about life and death, art and craft, and what it meant to be a man. If any other travelers were to ask questions about the sun and the moon and the human condition, the writer (who was really the Narrator) laughed as he proclaimed all their questions too simple, so simple that even his narrator knew the answers. And so the narrator (who was really the Writer) was polite and addressed all the questions most wisely and in great detail. While his companion entertained the travelers with ludicrous jokes, the other uncovered for them the kind of prosaic and gritty truth that underlay all menís existence. He spoke of the universal loneliness and vulnerability of a human mind, the unfathomable grief that only deepened with knowledge. The loss of love. The travelers listened, amused and astonished, for they thought what a great man must the writer be if he had created such a wise narrator.

Finally, the companions made their way to the cold country, where it was already fall and smelled of muck and dirt and the mossy fungi that had eaten into tree trunks and roofs. Sharp wind scoured the streets, piercing through the writerís body draped in a linen shirt. Heíd lived so long in the hot country, he didnít own jackets or sweaters, and none of the Narratorís clothes would fit him. He was as light as a leaf and seemed to have been ferried by the wind. When, at last, the writer arrived at his old house—a decayed log cabin with boarded windows and a sunken roof, a short crumbled tooth of a chimney—a howl ripped out of his chest. It was loud and full of futile plea; the writer sank to his knees, shielding his face.

“Youíre being overly sentimental,” the Narrator said as he leaned against the door.

“You told me you fixed it.”

“I lied. But only to make you feel better. Come inside. Itís dry and warm. But thereís no food as I donít require it. But perhaps thereís something left buried in the root cellar. Come, really. Or youíll get sick and die. And Iím getting married tomorrow. I need you to be my best man.”

With difficulty, the writer rose to his feet and hobbled inside the cabin, tearing through cobwebs and dead leaves. Up against the window, there stood an oak table on which his had mother had sculptured dough into pirogues. The table was missing a leg and lurched to one side. He saw a half-melted candle inside a grimy jar and patted his pockets for matches. In the corner, his fatherís shovel towered next to a pair of felt boots dusty and crusted in mice droppings. It was almost evening; the writer scratched a few matches against the damp box and lit the candle. On the floor and the adjacent wall, his shadow stretched—long and mighty.

“I canít come to your wedding or be your best man,” the writer said, his voice pulsing with the candle flame. “I donít deserve it. Iím not a man, but a shadow.”

“You really are overdramatizing,” said the Narrator. “Before long, youíll be feeling sorry for yourself and even I wonít be able to help you.”

“I promised to visit and I didnít. I didnít even come back for their funeral.”

“Thatís understandable. You were busy. You didnít want to get upset. To make it real.”

“Stop patronizing me or making excuses.”

“Iím not. Not in my nature,” the Narrator said. “But you must come to the wedding. It wonít be the same without you.” He placed his finger into his ear. The writer heard a gentle soughing suck of air as though a plastic tube had been fitted into his brain.

“No,” the writer said.

“Arenít you at least curious?” the Narrator asked and let out a chuckle.

“Why should I be? Itís your life. You can do as you please.”

“In that case, I must tell you a secret—Iíll be marrying your daughter.”

“What?!” the writer said. “But it canít be!”

“I delayed telling you as I thought perhaps youíd protest.”

“Protest?! Itís insane. You canít marry my daughter. I have no daughter.”

“Oh, yes—you do.”

“But I didnít know. I shall go to her at once and explain everything.”

“She wonít believe you. She doesnít know you exist.”

“But you donít exist either! You arenít real!”

“Stop saying that. Iím more real than you are at the moment. And if you donít shut up, youíll be spending the night outside. Then youíll die for sure.”

“But so will you!”

“No. I canít die unless you kill me. You canít kill me because you threw me out on the streets. You didnít finish the story. You didnít feel obliged. You used me, and then you tried to dispose of me. So I became someone elseís narrator in someone elseís story. It is published and it exists. And it will do so unless you can find each single copy and destroy it, which you wonít. Iím immortal, you see. I own this story. You donít.”

The Narratorís words penetrated the writerís heart like poison-tipped quills. With as much strength as he could conjure, he sprang up in the air, but the Narrator ducked sideways and the writer crashed on the floor. He pinched his lips from pain and drew his knees to his chest.

“Listen,” the Narrator said. “Donít be a fool. Iím a powerful man, and Iím about to offer you something special, for old timeís sake. You shall live with us in our newly built mansion on the hill and drive one of my foreign cars. And I shall give you a considerable pension you can spend any way you wish. But you must allow yourself to be called a narrator. You must not let anyone know that you were once a writer. You must not claim the books youíve written.”

“No! I canít do that.” The writer forced himself up, adhering to the wall. His body ached, and there was suddenly a bright luminous light in the room. He could see everything so much clearer than many-many years ago, when he thought that to write a good story one must travel to a better world.

“Iím afraid you have no choice,” the Narrator said.

“Youíre insane!”

“Me?”

“I wonít allow it. Itís a lie. Youíre a liar.”

“So are you.”

“I only ever lied once,” the writer said.

“And each time your wrote one of your pretentious happy books.”

“Iíll expose you. I shall tell the whole story—Iím the writer, and you are the narrator dressed in fancy clothes.”

“No one will believe you. Theyíd think youíd gone mad. Youíd be placed in a home, where youíd die. Be reasonable now. Do as I tell you.”

“Never.”

His vision darkened and he tumbled on the floor, his tongue numb inside his mouth. He attempted to get up but couldnít feel his body; it was the strangest experience ever—he could hear his own thoughts passing through his head, but he couldnít hold on to them and he couldnít register any sensation anywhere else.

 

 

The Narrator shivered as he stood before his bride. He took her small hands into his and placed a rustling kiss on each finger.

“Whatís wrong?” she asked. She was a beautiful maiden, soft and tender. In her silk slip, she shimmered under the moonlight.

“Iíve had the most unfortunate experience that can occur to a writer,” said the Narrator.

“What happened? Tell me.”

“Itís really very sad. My narrator, oh, that ill-natured vagrant—heís gone mad. He believes himself to be the writer, and me—unthinkable!—his narrator.” The Narrator raised his dry, ink-blue eyes to her sweet face.

“Thatís awful!” she said, her eyelids fluttered like a butterflyís wings. The Narrator thought the comparison to be a trite one, but he allowed it as he really had little control over the written text. “Poor Narrator,” his bride continued. “We should get him some help.”

“I did. Heís resting peacefully. But Iím afraid heíll never recover.”

 

 

The following evening, fireworks burst and ruptured all over the town and the wedding festivities began with sumptuous food and wine and candlelight. Everywhere flowers blossomed in clay pots and music could be heard in each window. The Beautiful Maiden and the Narrator went out on the balcony of their multistory house to bow to the crowd and receive one last “Happily Ever After!” The spectators cheered loudly for they could not imagine their lives without either one.

The writer heard nothing of all this as he had already died.

 

 



“The Narrator” first appeared in Rosebud, (Issue 57).