June 3, 2016

Fiction by Muhammad Nasrullah Khan: "The Last Storyteller"

"Muhammad Nasrullah Khan is from Pakistan currently living in Saudi Arabia, where he is Lecturer in English at Taif University. Writing is his passion and teaching his profession. His 15 years of experience in the field of writing has honed his capacity to compose basic fascinating stories about the human experience. Enlivened by the stories of great English and Russian writers, he has taken a pinch of fact and a cup of fiction to weave an embroidered creative work of adoration, trust, and agony in his stories. His work has appeared in Indiana Voice Journal,Newtopia Magazine, Gowanus Books,Offcourse literary Journal University at Albany, The Raven Chronicles, and many others. He exists on twitter as @nasar_peace ,at nasar_peace@hotmail.com, nasar_peace@yahoo.com, and https://www.facebook.com/nasar.peace "


The Last Storyteller

In my home I have three windows, each named according to the time of day when they illuminate my life: Sunrise, Sunset and Twilight. Sunset spreads transparency over most of the wall, filling the room with an endless palette of colors, until the sun dips below the edge of my world, gone for another day.  When the light of Sunset fades to dusk, I close the shades and turn away, unable to face it for another moment.  When I turn to the smaller Twilight, I see a more subtle opening above; stars and the moon fill my world.  I peer into Twilight until sleep overtakes me.  On the morrow, my eyes turn to my favorite, Sunrise.
Sunrise opens into my walled garden, where I keep company with the many birds seeking sanctuary. They split their days between luxuriating in the fountain and indulging in the buffet of seeds suspended in feeders or formed into cakes of suet. The timbre of their tunes echo gratitude from willowy trees and bounce against the high stonewalls that surround us as the affection of the Sunrise rests upon our faces.  I cannot imagine a day without the company of birds, especially the blue sparrow whose presence I have come to relish in my garden. Each day, I find her poised on a nearby branch, eyeing the lofty top of a tree near the feeder favored by the sparrows or spying a resting place where she may to join in with the other birds. Deliberately, she makes her way towards them hopping to one branch, alighting briefly on another. Once the other sparrows note her approach, she is driven back by forceful beaks, buffeting wings and sharp talons. She ends up sitting alone.
The day I first saw her, perched atop the garden wall, she recused herself from the host of drab gray sparrows. Her rare beauty threatened them and they punished her for it.
The writer in me struggles to find the story, the origin of the Blue Sparrow.  How had she come to me?  What drew her to this walled-in paradise?  Perhaps, her host left her and she rests here, stranded. I wonder at her lack of confidence -- she should rule the garden as a monarch resplendent in her elegant plumage.  But she lingers, unsure of her true place among the sparrows, as if she tests the waters of her new liberation, having escaped the confines of an iron cage.
This morning as I gaze through Sunrise, she ruffles her feathers and stretches out her wings to bask beneath stray rays through the leafy canopy.  She unfolds like the petals of a morning glory outstretches under golden rays; her wings are reminiscent of the clear sky curtained by royal blue wingtips.
The blue sparrow inspires an obsession within me.  Somewhere between the pale blue of her face to the vibrant cobalt stripes of her wings and tail, I forget my need to write her story. I long to catch her, to possess her beauty. Stronger than my desire to cage her is my fear of seizing her. As each day draws to a close, the fear of her permanent departure returns. In doubt I flee from her, from her story yet to be written, I retreat from her bright presence.  Every day, lost in my own fear, I depart Sunrise and its promise of stories yet to be written.
My day comes to an end and the sun reposes on the horizon. I want to frolic with the stripes of oranges and purple swinging through the air. My Singing blue sparrow fades out her songs. Sunset, the most flamboyant of the three, beckons to me.  I lose myself in the majestic colors which pour through Sunset.  Each color, magnified by the rays of the setting sun, sprawls onto the canvas of my walls trailing brilliant reds, giving way to wisps of pinks, and undulating purples.  The majesty of life, of all conflict and of the entire world, pours through the flimsy lens of a window pane and draws me away from tales unwritten.  I lose myself in memories and ideas as I stare through this bombastic fenestella.
Sunset casts me out on a playground where I watch young boys, full of boundless energy and strength, shriek and scream in the midst of their wild games. They continue blissfully unaware of the gaze from one who fondly remembers his carefree membership of their number. I remember long summer days I spent as a boy, running without pause; where I had no time for exhaustion or concern for injury.
The boys on the playground frolic and laugh while bowling and batting with their homespun swords.  Their stories are written by their action, their parts play out on this vast stage of life.  Among them I find company in the freedom of their hearts. Their play extends into eternity, propelled by youthful stamina. There they are caught up in this frozen moment, where time has no charge.  The game of life, plays out with a cricket bat or a wooden sword, envelopes and caresses them and they embellish their roles with zeal.
In a single moment, a brilliant flash breaks the spell as the last golden beam of the setting sun dwindles and turns the world into a gentle mixture of burnished gold and opulent pinks. Sunset kisses the boys’ faces as the last piece of the scintillating yellow disc slips below the horizon. Soft hues wash over the playground, the shadows lengthen and the air chills.
The departing light leaves the boys shadowed in the caress of the evening, adorned with the intensifying glow of celestial bodies caught deep within its arms. In the corner of my window I see the crescent of a new moon barely visible above the horizon and recite aloud an old poem from school -- a poem that I never fully understood as a child, but finally find its meaning within the departing boys:
“Till the little ones weary
No more can be merry;
The sun does descend,
And our sports have an end.”
I force myself to look to the stars or the moon, but instead my eyes wander inexplicably to the old graveyard astride the playground. My gaze trails among the misshapen marble, forlorn in stark contrast to the playground at its heart.  Once again, I am reminded that stories must end and stories unwritten lay forever beneath the virginal clay of an idea.
The gravestones are oversized and haphazardly scattered: some large, a few are small, while others stick out at crooked angles.  With the boys gone and all possible stories shredded by their absence, I am reminded of the inevitable.  This graveyard will spill onto the playground with the constant creeping of the fingers of death, a monster that comes for everyone. Even now it searches for the absent boys. One day, I will face the devoured playground, the loss of the stalwart youth, and Sunset will become the final resting spot of those who lose their struggle.
With an exhale that mingles resignation and composure, I close the curtains over Sunset, shut away the lost light and the lost stories in equal measure.
I turn to my final hideaway, my Twilight window.  Here I repose, my gaze fixed on the aperture of forever.  The iridescent shine of the moon unravels into Twilight. In subtle beauty, the cool shades of indigo usher stars into their full elegance, where they illuminate my world in ways the sun never could.  In this place my hope and ideas combine unbidden into incredible tales I never quite hold on to in any other window, in any other corner of my mind, or sparkling slice of my soul.
The glimmering romance of newborn moonbeams spread their smooth shades over everything. Within the depths of shadows the presence of a muse is summoned, she mingles delicately within the reciprocation of glow and gloom. Here, in their company, I spend as much time as they will allow. Sitting beneath this lunette, I have waited for many years to write one story.  The muse seduces me with her splendor, her soft kiss fills me with hope and desire.  Her caress saturates my senses and gives me an urgency I lack even when faced with all of the possibilities of the corybantic youths.  Her tender ministrations elate me with an invigorating passion which even surpasses the desire I feel when I gaze upon the perfection of the blue sparrow.
Before I greet Twilight, each day is filled with hopeful, fresh empty pages, offering sanctuary to the Story that lingers at the tip of my pen.  A story so fresh, so alive, it refuses to resign itself to capture on the page. But at the end of the day in the company of the silvery muse, I am reminded of my failure as iridescent shades of Twilight illuminates blank pages as my beacon of defeat.
Like my blue sparrow, I long to encase the characters of this story, with whom I share my life. Roaming without boundaries they dwell in my head, all threads of the singular, elusive Story. Exposed by the muse, caught in the silvery-gray and indigo infinity of this final translucent pane, the shadow of each character taunts me, flitters just out of my reach and mocks my attempts to contain it with pen and ink.
The Story takes pleasure in outwitting me.  Day after day, it eludes my grasp.  No chains contain the ethereal story, not even my muse can seduce a single sentence or take hold of a cardboard character which might allow me to entice a protagonist or ensnare a villain.
“You can’t catch me,” The Story reminds me in my futile pursuit, and in the stark echoes of gleaming blank pages, I hear a taunting laugh.
As I rest in the glow of Twilight, aware of the familiar oblivion that peers over my shoulder, derided and mocked by failure, success lingers just beyond my reach. Sleepless, my mind fumbles for the Story in darkness; urged by the characters that would have once graced these empty pages but fall, defeated. The self-satisfied growl of the predator -- who consumes each scene, devours conflict and resolution, destroys antagonist and hero -- vibrates in my head and resonates in my bones until I cannot think. Yet my mind will not allow them to lose the war.
Within the deepening dark, Story turns to me: “How many times must I tell you, you cannot constrain me?” And then once more Story leaves me in utter darkness, and my thoughts trail behind it.  As a broken-down hunter, I follow each trace and track it into the unknown.
Twilight lets in an errant breeze which flutters over me, blows the blank papers from my desk, and demands my attention. I move to the window, caress the frame as if it is a lover.  So much lost, I ache in my heart, but with that touch I feel its quiet wisdom. I look at the panes fondly, remembering what this window has revealed to me over the years.
Twilight never provides warmth like Sunrise nor does it gloss over the imperfections of the day with the radiant glow of Sunset.  It never distracts me from all that perplexes me. Twilight reveals to me, in cold steady truth, the things I need to see.
And tonight Twilight shows me a familiar sight, The Last Storyteller.  The ache in my heart and the thrumming in my bones fade away as I am provided the perfect view of the QISA KHWANI BAZAAR. "The Bazaar of Storytellers” was once famous for recitals.  Crowds gathered, thrived on daily folktales, as one thrives on oxygen. Huddled in close by the chilling wind, they gathered around the fire and listened to storytellers as they shared their tales of long-forgotten bravery and courage.
But as time passed, and crowds thinned, those once hungry for the journeys of the imagination now indulged in the luxuries of the ever-evolving world. Even with the disappearance of crowds, The Last Storyteller still makes his home here in the dull light of a small, yellow lamp hanging from a blackened ceiling above him.
As he has done every night, The Last Storyteller unfolds his straw mat upon the pavement and sits once more, awaiting his audience. His legs crossed, hands clasped in his lap, he prepares to share the words that have captivated audiences in years past. Wavering above his head is a sign simply stating:
“I Tell Stories”.
But tonight there is no one to listen. Sitting there, alone, he is the embodiment of a wavering candle, using his remaining light to call to those who still seek him.  The exhaustion etched into his face now tells his stories better than he ever could.
No audience materializes, not even a passing mouse or a struggling old lady laden with jugs of water.  So he begins to read to pass the time, his lamp illuminates the old book in his hands. The orange and yellow lights of the bazaar hang in the still air, as they call moths to sacrifice themselves in a deadly dance with flame.
Eventually, however, a small crowd gathers before The Last Storyteller.  The tiny congregation does not compare with the throngs he used to command, but it is enough to call him to his craft. There in front of the audience, The Last Storyteller draws himself from the shadows and a gleam returns to his eyes. By virtue of his story, he cuts through the night's darkness with threads of imagination and pathways of escape.
Here, at Twilight, I sit transfixed upon The Storyteller, forgetting that I have my own tales to tell. I continue to watch as he casts his tales out into the crowd, giving each story glimmers of life.
This night, in a rude awakening, outsiders approach the edges of The Last Story Teller’s audience; they stick out in appalling fashion. High tech reporters are easily identified by microphones, notebooks and shiny vehicles; they seek to report about him as if he was the only ridiculous creature left on this planet.  Their report about the near extinction of storytellers is headline news.
These reporters care nothing for the tales he shares but instead for the tale he could provide them. Their hungry pens hope to use him as their centerpiece human interest story. To them The Last Story Teller is an exotic spectacle of the past to add spice to the mundane world.
Intruding on his story they prod at him with questions, "Storyteller, how do you create your stories?"
He continues with his story, but their voices break once more over his tale, “Tell us, how do you imagine your characters?”
Pressing onwards he tries to regain the fading spell of his narration, but with his cadence broken, he falters as the reporters’ pestering persists. They will not allow him to go on until they are satisfied. And in the reporters’ cacophony, the listeners began to drift away.  With a shrug, the last listener reluctantly departs.
The Storyteller arises to walk away.
Still the reporters chase him, “How do you feel when you find a new story?”
“Like a hen after laying eggs,” The man whose face was etched by time let his response, like his irritation, hang in the air among them. At last he renders them speechless, and to this, he cackles.
The reporters retreat once more into the darkness, and The Story Teller stands there looking into the distance with cloudy eyes.
There he stands, lost in his thoughts, I clearly see a shadow lurking in his path, eluding his gaze and perplexing his mind. His once beaming eyes darken; the glow of his stories leaves him and his shoulders stoop from an unknown weight.
Within The Storyteller I find familiarity in the shadows of sadness etched onto his face. In his faraway gaze I know the sight he seeks. From my distance I wonder what has brought him to this point. He eventually gives into sleep, his head buried in his hands.
In his repose, his grip loosens around a paper he has clutched in his hand, and it is torn away by an errant draft where it travels to me at the edge of Twilight.
In my hands I find a letter from his son.
“Dear Father,
Much time has passed since I left home.
You never quit storytelling, regardless of the poverty we were in. Our conditions never improved. To this day I keep thinking if I were in your place, I would have done anything except for storytelling, which failed to bring us from our impoverished state.
Now I am here, far away, where I work hard every day to survive. I can remember what you said to me when I was leaving—you said to me that you weren't rich, but you could give me advice.
In the end, Father, you gave me neither money nor advice.
Even now I work from dawn until dusk, every day, but still cannot earn enough money to help myself, let alone you. You taught me many things, but never how to make money.
Father, I am sure story telling still gives you much satisfaction, but it also brings with it much uncertainty.”
A name is scrawled at the bottom, but I cannot make it out.  It could be any name, but it matters little.  That tale has been told.  Drawing myself from the contents of the letter, I look once more and see The Last Storyteller standing before me. The man I gaze upon seems entirely different than The Storyteller I feel a kinship to, through many watches from my Window. His wizened eyes delve deep into my soul and I feel the full weight of his resignation. Now in standing this close to him I no longer see the light in his eyes. I now know it is only reserved for the stories he tells.
Embarrassed, I cough, “Is this your letter?” and thrust the paper towards him.
Before turning to go, we look at each other and understanding fills the space between us.
He touches my shoulder and speaks simply. “I know you write stories, but our lives are afflicted by the stories that write us.” With that, he continues on his way, ambling towards his pitch, taking his letter with him.
I continue to watch as the bazaar becomes more barren. Every time I open Twilight, I see even less than the night before.  The bazaar is dying, slain by a changing economy, by a world which has moved on.  Eventually, I close the curtains to the Twilight Window- I cannot watch this any longer.
Months pass by until a cold wind pushes its way past my curtains under the drumming of icy rain. I cannot help but shiver as I stare at the closed and curtained windows as an arctic draft wafts through cracks, producing an echoing creak.
Night after night, I keep company with The Story I fruitlessly pursue, and hour-by-hour it evades me with layers of sleet and delicate hoarfrost on the windowpane. I can no longer bear to open the curtains on the Twilight, for I cannot bear its truth.
Days pass me until I seize my courage and whip open the curtains on Sunrise. Before me, I find the crisp chill of a bright winter morning, and relief floods my heart.  My fear was for naught. I cast my eyes over the frozen ground once covered with birds. The sparrows have flown south to warmer climes, their stories unfolding before them.
And then my eyes catch on dull blue on the hard frozen ground, cold and outstretched on the frosted grass.
Grief seizes me, where moments before I felt free.  She is dead.
I feel the familiar twinges of desire, to catch her, posses her beauty.  Where once I thought to protect her, I find my failure on all accounts.  The essence of the blue sparrow has taken wing and I own her corpse only in death. My heart aches as I put her into the ground for her final rest. As I hold her frozen body in the palm of my hands, her soft feathers sway mournfully in the cold breeze like a colorful anemone in an icy ocean current. As I place dirt over her, I know the colors I once admired at the height of the sun will now only survive in my most exquisite dreams.
The day drags on as I resign myself to a reality without Blue Sparrow.  In desperation, I turn to my gaudy Sunset Window for comfort. I draw back the curtains once more and find the playground empty. The creep of the graveyard caught up with the wild youths while I was not looking. Graves spill out into the foreground, forbidding boys from coming to play.
And finally I turn to Twilight.  A single tear wells in my eye as grief and hope battle.  I muster the courage to look deep into the indigo night, searching for the bazaar.
The Storyteller’s dim lamp is no longer there.
“Well, that’s it,” I resign myself. “The Story Teller has no listeners and no money. He has gone!”
The next morning when I wake up, I know I need more than the light of Sunrise shining into my home, so I open the curtains to all three Windows.
My eye is caught by Twilight; the marketplace is bustling in full daylight, alive with noise and sound. There are colors, laughter, spices, and smiles. The loud hum of haggling is tossed over the matters of goods and wares.
Then, just there, out of the corner of my eye, I see a familiar sight, The Storyteller’s shadow.
He is in his usual place, but above him his sign reads, “Vegetables for Sale.”
The stall in front of him is lively and packed with many customers demanding to buy from him. His face is full of life and vigor as he counts out potatoes and wraps a squash.
From my portal, I strain to summon his gaze and watch as he refuses to see me. In fact, his eyes refuse to see anyone at all. Somehow he is no longer there, his mouth is speaking, but his eyes betray the truth -- The Last Storyteller is gone.  He has gone with the blue sparrow. The Last Storyteller is dead, and The Vegetable Seller now lives in his body. I now know I reside in a world without stories, full of bodies that will never truly live.
I return to my table and take the scattered papers I have dotted with bits and pieces of the Story. I shred them into small pieces, and scatter their remains through my three Windows. Some pieces land on the ‘corpse’ of The Last Storyteller. He smirks at me, and in his smile I hear The Vegetable Seller tells me that our world does not need stories, it wants commodities.
In the last dirge of The Storyteller, he extols, “I told the stories of beauty and magic, as well as of love and loneliness and none of it matters. The world only desires tangible things - items that can be bought and owned. Life necessitates biting in order to continue fleshly existence, and to feed the soul is an abstract task.”
I peer one last time through the Twilight Window and shut it forever.

~ Muhammad Nasrullah Khan ( Pakistan) 
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