They are here. I can feel them. The words in the air, on the tip of the tongue… the words that need paper and ink and a human to write them. They talk to me and feed me and keep me company. But the feelings themselves, they stay for a time; the best stories are drenched in emotion, dripping with truth, the stories that keep me alive and strong and hungry, always hungry.
Oli tells good stories. He has words inside of him, struggling and scraping and striving to get out, to be heard. All he needs is me. Me and my world where he will not worry. He will just tell his story, because I’m hungry. I am always hungry. He has to finish. Finish and begin again; keep going, until the story ends. He’s getting better at telling. I can feel his feelings, his thoughts, his words…
Oli stops speaking.
‘Tell the story to its end,’ I prod with a grin. I can’t lose him now, not when there’s so much more that he has to say, so much more to tell.
‘When I reach the end,’ Oli says cautiously, ‘what happens? You’ll have the whole story.’
‘Pff!’ I laugh. He doesn’t get it yet, does he? ‘Have it?’ I ask him, not expecting an answer. ‘Have it and own it? Boy, I am the whole story.’ It's neither a lie nor a truth, because their essence can't be contained by one thing itself, but Oli won't understand that. Yet.
‘Then what happens if I tell you the last bit?’
‘When you tell me, you mean. What happens then?’ Oli nods, and I’m thinking about his question. Why should you wonder what will happen if you already know what has?
‘Hmm,’ I say, and lick my lips. ‘What happens then? Why don’t we find out?’ I pause, listening Oli breathe for a minute. I feel his sadness, his loneliness. Here, I feel everything, I hear everything, I know everything, except the stories. The stories are different. I need them. I can feel Oli now. He is close enough.
‘There were some things you missed,’ I continue. He will learn. He is special, not like the others. ‘Eh? Weren’t there? Stick with those feelings. The sadness. The hunger. The bump, bump, bump of confusions and hurtings! Oh, yes. Stick with them. They’re good. I like those ones. The dark ones. The real ones. Let me hear those. Tell me about those.’
He nods. ‘Dark ones?’ Yes, boy, yes. Tell me your story. And when it’s done, it will begin again. It’s the circle, the inescapable circle. I’m trapped here, with nothing but my stories.
Oli begins. ‘I remember the moon. It was bright and slim. It looked like a knife in the sky…’
Yes, I think, and listen.
I laugh the first time he tells me that nobody believes in fairy tales.
‘You think stories are lies?’ I await his answer patiently. I have all the time in the world, up here. Oli won’t leave me.
‘They’re not, then?’ He asks. I scoff.
‘Ha! Spittle mouse. Shows what you know.’ So young. So naive. Oli. We look at each other. I grin and rustle my wings. I like this form, this time. Oli has imagination.
‘I’m hungry,’ I say. ‘I need a story.’
‘Tell me one, then.’ No, not the same. Can’t you see, boy? It’s not the same.
‘That’s not how I work. I’m hungry. Behave!’
He shivers. ‘I don’t know any good stories, still.’
I smile. I have time. I always have time. ‘I can wait.’
‘How long?’ Oli asks me.
‘Till the end,’ I say. ‘What did you think? Till the end, of course.’
He starts speaking, and I am lost. Lost in his imaginings. I can hear his Uncle Robert as he says to Oli, ‘Here, you can climb up.’ Climb to me, I think.
Oli keeps talking. ‘…and turned back to the loft,’ he is saying. ‘The black square in the ceiling had a shaft of light coming down from some window higher up in the house, and bits of dust were circling round and round. I started climbing the ladder. The cold metal felt like bites on my palms.’
Not good enough, I think.
‘Is that how you remember it?’ I ask him. He’s not good enough yet. ‘The ladder was cold? The dog was panting?’ He'll learn.
‘Sure,’ he says with a shrug. No, no, no. Not enough. Still hungry.
‘Hmm. How about your feelings?’ I have to teach. Oli is different, in this. I have to teach, not tell.
‘What kind of feelings?’ He asks me.
‘Were you happy? Sad? Hungry? Weren’t you curious about your mama, why the road to London made her suddenly… change?’
‘I’m not stupid,’ he tells me insolently. ‘I knew why. I just… don’t want to think about it.’
‘You still don’t understand. Good stories need a lot of thinking. About things you don’t want to think about. Grief. Anger. Love! Hate, of course, is best, but you’re a bit young.’
‘I just wanted to go into the attic.’
‘To see what you could see,’ I prod.
‘And you found me, of course,’ I say. He pauses. I feel his worry. I don’t like the way it smells. Wet and rotten and stale.
‘I found you,’ He repeats. I smile.
‘Well, actually, I found you. That’s how it should work.’
‘You found me…’ He echoes, sounding confused. I smile again, big this time. He is forgetting. Once he forgets, he can stay with me and no more worry. Except in the stories. Never forget the stories.
‘You opened the loft, see,’ I remind him. ‘Pandora’s Box. You broke the seal! The cat’s out of the bag now, boy. We were destined, you and I, after that.’
‘What comes first? Stuff or the stories about it?’ Oli ask me. I don’t like this question. It has no answer. Others have tried to explain and confine and it's never the truth.
‘Why do you ask me that, matey boy?’ - even though I already know, because so many before him have asked the same, stuck in their silly human minds.
‘Well… it matters,’ Oli tells me, as if it's something obvious. ‘What came first.’
‘Such a human answer.’ I laugh. ‘It matters. Like it matters what was here first. You rate things wrong, that’s your problem.’
‘Then it doesn’t matter?’ He asks me. I shift. Too many questions. I’m still hungry.
‘I’ll tell you an answer, if you want,’ I say. ‘It was the stuff. The stuff, then the stories.’ It didn't. I am lying again.
‘Stuff, like… everything? Life?’ He asks persistently.
‘Or… maybe the stories led to the stuff. Do you think I care?’ I hiss; there are too many questions, now, and I am still hungry. Oli falls to the floor. The wood underneath him creaks. I don't care.
‘It doesn’t concern me, what led up to the stories,’ I tell the boy. ‘There’s nothing outside of them now. Nothing! Nothing outside!’
I feel hot anger come off of Oli. It tastes much better than his worry. Thick and fiery and overpowering. He grinds his teeth and lashed out in the dark. I smile.
Too many questions, not enough answers.
‘Why do we tell stories?’ I ask Oli. It’s almost a test, but not. I want the answer. I want my answer. But Oli doesn’t know. No one does. They are too young. They have not lived like I have, lived a thousand million lives.
‘We tell stories,’ I tell him, ‘because we know no other ways to fly.’
I’m happy. I’m not very hungry. Oli is getting better with his telling. So, so much better.
‘So much to learn,’ I say. ‘So much to do!’ I am high on words.
‘Why do you care about me?’ Oli asks. I tilt my head. If I tell the truth, if I say ‘for the stories’, he will leave. I can’t let him leave. I can feel the hunger coming already.
‘A better question,’ I say, holding up a single finger, ‘would come if we shift the focus a bit. Why, young Oli, did nobody else care? Eh? Mommy and Daddy and everyone else, running around and pretending everything else was so important.’
‘I–‘ Oli begins.
‘No, no, don’t you pretend as well,’ I say. His confusion washes over me, slipping and tugging at the corners of my mind. He is growing. I feel too much when he is around. But I can’t not have him here. He holds the words that keep me alive. I can find another, yes, but Oli is the one for now.
‘Not with me,’ I say, in reference to his confusion. ‘Stories I love. Pretending I hate. Stories are truths. Pretending is lies! So, no. Be honest. Why didn’t all the grown-ups listen to you?’
I feel his eyes burn, as if I am him. He says nothing.
‘I listen,’ I tell him. ‘I always listen to the young and the lost.’
‘Here, you see, is something I can work with,’ I say. I lick my lips, then reach over and stroke his cheek. My story-holder. ‘Shh, now, tidbit,’ I say.
‘Yarns and tales and the telling, they’re all about unraveling the truths that life hides, right? It’s about finding out, if a princess is locked in a tower, how would you get her down? It’s about you, and the story, and where the two meet.’ He doesn’t speak. ‘Listen to my own little ditty,’ I say. ‘Let the music take away your thoughts.’
Oli leans in, anticipating what I will tell him. ‘Once,’ I say, ‘there was a man, and he lived in a place that was dark, and cold, and fierce winters would bite at his heels…’
I spin a story of my own, dancing around him and sitting still, a statue and an actor all at once. I tell him the tale of a man who lived far in a time too cold; one who tricked a star so that she would keep him warm; a man who started a war simply because he wanted comfort and did not care for the consequences. It is an old story.
‘The man was so pleased he wept, just a little, for joy,’ I finish, and Oli blinks.
‘But…’ He says, brow furrowed and mouth frowning. ‘Why would he be happy when he started a war?’
‘Because, Oli. People don’t care for anyone but themselves.’
‘Do you care?’ He asks me. I growl.
‘I listen. Isn’t that enough?’
‘I suppose it sometimes is,’ Oli mutters, ‘but the story… How can it end like that? How do you know what happens?’
‘Boy, don’t you learn?’ I ask him. ‘I will drive it into your soul. Stories don’t end because they can never die. They’re truer than true. The star, what happens to her? Won’t the man get found out? There’s no end.’
‘But if the man gets found out, wouldn’t that be the end? And the star could clear it up with everyone that she was tricked. That would be the end.’
‘No, that’s the happily ever after,’ I growl again. ‘Those don’t exist. Those aren’t real ends. Real ends themselves aren’t real. If the man got caught, he was caught. But he still has a life. Things still happen. They may not make a good story, but they’re there. True stories never end, because time goes on. It always has and it always will.’
‘It never ends?’
‘Weren’t you listening? The fake ones do. The ones adults tell their children to make them feel like life is worth living. But the good ones are different. Those never come to a conclusion. They never die. So yes, your stories end.’ I pause, then say, ‘Mine don’t.’
I smile, teeth bright and sharp in the shadows of the loft.
There have been so many. I can't count them all. Little girls, little boys, old men and women with minds half-gone, full of ideas and thoughts and new, old, both. Oli is - another.
I sit and listen as he speaks. He is learning.
I lick my lips.
He will learn.