Wednesday, January 27, 2010

At the Gate of Story


The gatekeepers cannot see where the tide of pilgrims begins. Its source lies far to the north, beyond the Pillars of Hercules, the olive groves and forests of cork, even beyond the stern keep of the man of iron dreams on a high wind-raked plateau. The travelers are so many that their feet have emptied the strait, making a land bridge between the continents. Such was the report of one who reached the Gate of Story.
---Yawning on their cushioned seats by a wall bleached to the color of smilodon bones, the gatekeepers do not rule on the veracity of this account. Like the knight of La Mancha, they know that facts can be the enemy of truth. Judging the truth of a story by whether it stirs or disturbs the hearer, they turn the man who parted the seas away. Too many others have tried to pawn this story before; it has been drained of surprise.
---"Altagracia!" croaks a man whose flesh has fallen away so his linen suit hangs off him like a flag of defeat. Some of the crowd cross themselves or finger amulets against the evil eye. An imam directs a boy to offer the parched traveler a waterskin. "Altagracia!" the man cries again, water frothing from his cracked lips.
---No one has spoken that name at this gate before. The gatekeepers motion for the man who has used it to be advanced to the front of the line. Camel drivers open a way for him with their switches, without regard for the age or gender of those they are beating back.
---"You have three minutes," says the chief keeper of the Gate of Story. He flourishes a pocket watch and spins it, on its chain, from his long pointing finger.
---"She is Altagracia," the story man begins.

She is very pale, with lustrous black hair and black eyes. Her traveling clothes are the color of sand in shadow. She wears a veil under her hat. She has pushed it back, but it can be drawn over her face to keep off blowing sand and flies. She has a good deal of luggage, including a hatbox, handled with ease by her giant black servant, Fidel, who has been assigned by her father, The Professor, to keep her safe. Fidel can speak only in little mewling sounds, which the cats of the city understand. His tongue was cut out, perhaps at his own volition, to guarantee that he will live up to his name, which means "faithful", when it comes to keeping secrets, since he is also illiterate.
---Each time the story of Altagracia is told, it expands, and the world with it. Last time I spoke of her she did not have dogs, but now she has a pair of them, resembling greyhounds, that she calls her sight hounds. I said that Fidel is illiterate and mute, but as I speak his shadow is slipping ahead of him through the city gate in the form of a black cat. It is running into the Sultan's library, where it stands on its hind legs to remove a precious copy of the seventh volume of Pliny Maior's
Natural History from a cabinet that others always find locked. He wll go to the harem and delight his hearers all night long with the exact descriptions of dogheaded men, Triballes who kill with a look, and lions with the tails of scorpions. He will be rewarded with dishes of sherbert and leg-humping until the chief eunuch will order his tongue, or another particle, to be excised. The feline Fidel is not so easily bested. By naming - both in lapidary Latin and in the Berberous Arabic of the court- all the creatures of Pliny's hearsay, he has brought them to life. The eunuch's scimitar is no match for a manticore.
It became harder and harder to hear the teller of this tale, because as each word was uttered, the scene and the action around the gate became more profuse. The crowd parted and reformed as animals out of legend galloped and bulled their way through. The shadow of immense wings cooled the hot sand. A ship in full sail appeared on a canal that surely was not there before. A man with his head under a black cloth took pictures on glass of a couple of newlyweds boarding a train whose engine puffed perfect blue smoke rings. A cat that was also smoking, with the aid of an amber cigarette holder, shuffled a Marseilles deck and purred, "Pick a card, any card at all."
---The head gatekeeper, invoking the Most High, ordered the man who knew Altagracia to pass through the Gate of Story, and threatened to do terrible things to his mother unless he passed through without delay.
---"The Gate is closed for today," he announced to the host of story pilgrims. They groaned and wept and raged. Many of them, desperate to be heard, tried to shout their stories over each other, producing a weird cacophony that made the keepers press their hands over their ears. Blue-eyed janissaries appeared on the battlements of the gatehouse and fired warning shots into the air.
---In the sudden silence, a voice said in a placeless accent, "You will hear me."
---The voice belonged to a short, spare man with a clipped goatee, who held an umbrella over his head.
---"We will hear no more Namers today," the head keeper spoke in a voice of thunder.
---"I am neither a Namer nor an un-Namer. I am the sculptor of the Immortal Sentence."
---These words, also, had never been heard at the Gate of Story. The keepers were bound by a rule laid down in the remotest of pasts to give the speaker a hearing.

When I first told this story, it took longer than one thousand and one nights to reach the end. Every day since then, I have shortened the story by a sentence. Now that it fills less than a page, I reduce it by one word in each telling. In this instance reducing is the opposite of reduction. With each word I remove, I approach closer to the quintessence of the tale, which is also the key to the making and unmaking of worlds. The consummation of my art will be to deliver the Immortal Sentence, which will replace the knowledge of the world and become the theme of all branches of a new literature and science. Some have thought that the Immortal Sentence will consist only of four letters. This cannot be known until all the words that veil it have been stripped away.

"Cease speaking!" the head gatekeeper commanded. His composure had been shaken. There was whiteness around his mouth. "You may enter."
---The man with the umbrella strode with long decisive steps - unusually fast for a person of small stature, but then he worked his whole legs, from the hips - through the Gate of Story. The immensely high cedar doors began to swing shut. The gatekeepers had gathered their cushions and magic carpets. But the head keeper turned back when a new voice addressed him by his secret name, the name he shared only with Khidr, the guide of those who have no earthly guide.
---It was a woman’s voice. When he faced her, he was pleased to see that she was veiled, though her features could be seen through the gauzy stuff. Her clothes were of English cut, he thought, made by the finest seamstress. Yet something about her made him think of the forbidden vineyards of Shiraz.
---"Come up on the rooftop," she invited him. "We will share a cup of wine."
---"Are you a djinn?" he demanded, now fearful.
---"I am the Sustainer. Every day, I must repeat the one story that keeps the world turning. Every syllable must be flawless, because this is the code on which the world depends."
---"Then why have we never seen you at this gate before?"
---"Do you suppose I have only one form?"
---"Whatever form you take, if you are repeating a story that has been told before, we will know it, and you will have failed the test."
---"You understand very little, and after hearing the story you will know even less. The nature of the story that sustains the world is that it is never different and never the same. By repeating it perfectly, each teller creates a new story and renews the world."
---"This defies both God and reason."
---"Then listen."
---Somehow the head keeper found he was seated beside her on the roof of the watchtower, with the sweet taste of the forbidden wine on his lips.
---The veiled woman speaks:
The gatekeepers cannot see where the tide of pilgrims begins. Its source lies far to the north, beyond the Pillars of Hercules, the olive groves and forests of cork, even beyond the stern keep of the man of iron dreams on a high wind-raked plateau. The travelers are so many that their feet have emptied the strait, making a land bridge between the continents. Such was the report of one who reached the Gate of Story.


fran said...

Ah, lovely, Robert, just lovely!

It brought forth a feeling of joy and it makes me want to take a story to the Gate of Story. I suppose I will have to make it something worth hearing if I want to get through the gate. Hmmmm...

Savannah said...

Whoo hoo... this is great Robert - I especially enjoyed your spin on the feline Fidel :-). Cat sure didn't get your tongue!

Catherine (Cate) said...

Breathtakingly beautiful... thank you, dear sir.

Christoph said...

That is shurely a story from the gates of horn and blesse by Khidr !

Wanda Burch said...

"Never different but never the same"...but repeated perfectly. Now I better understand the story told perfectly and exacting detail.

So beautiful, such genius. Thank you - and I believe I have been given - with others - the challenge of story.

Unknown said...

Absolutely mesmerizing.

Absolute genius.

Justin Patrick Moore said...

You are proving to be an able hand at the short form. Reading this is just like "dream reentry": crystal clear and perfectly real.

Patricia said...

This story has shaken me to my roots. There has been a thread around 'story' now for days. Your comment a couple of entries ago reminded me of the power of story and how important it is to know our own story. That lead me to remembering a dream I had quite a few years ago where I am standing on a hilside looking out across the burnt out hills with a fire advancing towards us. We are encouraged to leave the place in a hurry and I say, 'But this is the place where the spider built its web in the tree.' Our guide said, 'There will be other trees and other spiders, just don't forget the story'.
As I said, this story of the gatekeeper has shaken me to my roots.
Patricia from Oz

Robert Moss said...

Thanks for all the wonderful encouragement and enthusiasm! I find it helps me tremendously, as a writer, to picture the faces of some of those who will read my stories and books. I love to read a page or two - sometimes more - to someone very close to me at the end of the day. Sometimes I have the sense, in posting here and enjoying the feedback, that this form of blogging can come close to such a telling. While writing may be a solitary art, storytelling requires a gathering, and sometimes - in the online communities we are growing here and at my forums at the Spirituality & Health website - it feels like we are moving towards an electronic version of the ceilidh of my Celtic ancestors, the gathering by the fire at which the bard shares story and song.

Epona said...

Very lovely and pure magical! I can't come up with anything more at this time! Just overwhelmed.

Robert Moss said...

Patricia - Always good to hear your voice, blowing across the waters from my native Oz. I am reminded of two things from Aboriginal tradition I heard as a boy. The first is that when the ancestors walked this earth, naming things, the act of naming brought things into the world - a lorakeet, a she-oak, a mountain, a platypus, a bull ant.

Perhaps there is an echo of this in the gatekeeper's reference to "Namers" at my Gate of Story. Your bittersweet dream adds the thought that as long as we have the stories, we can renew the world and bring forth life again.

Then there is my absolute favorite statement about the nature of story itself, which comes out of the Dreamtime: the big stories are hunting the right people to tell them.

Nicola said...

Now I know where all those word birds fly to, reassembling themselves with such originality from the fingers and tongue of the Jade Scorpion.
Seductive and deliciously slippery.
Thankyou Robert.

Blue Heron said...

I am reminded of story shared around the evening fire in the damp air of Mosswood Hollow. Magical moments, timeless deep, deep waking dreaming. Cedar crackles and pops, flames leap. Words rise, lifted by smoke into the twilight sky.

Robert Moss said...

Blue Heron, What a lovely evocation of the word magic we weave at one of my favorite places for dreaming and creating within a supportive circle. I can smell the wooodsmoke and the freshness of the cedars, see the mist, feel the crackling energy of the group and hear its laughter and gasps of delight. We'll soon be at Mosswood Hollow again, for "Writing as a State of Conscious Dreaming", from February 22-26.

Robert Moss said...

Nicola - "Jade Scorpion"? Hmm, I wonder whether they would let Woody Allen through this Gate of Story.

I haven't been lured through the gate of that movie, and maybe you have something else in mind. In any case, your comment sends my mind back to a dream of quite a few years ago that I titled "The Jadeite Key". It involved a complex intrigue in China in an earlier period. I'll need to pull the report out of an old journal and see if there's a story there that might hold the attention of those gatekeepers.

Nicola said...

Not sure why the term Jade Scorpion popped out; an impressionistic term combining the symbolism of the jade pillow as being the point at the back of the throat that connects the spinal column with the brain (cranial pump)and refered to as, The Mouth of God; perhaps combined with a rather enticing mix of scorpionic observation.
I had forgotten about the woody Alan movie, which is about a dodgy mesmerist who hypnotises his victims into commiting various crimes involving the theft of jewels. Can't stand Woody alan, though I do rather like this movie.

Robert Moss said...

Glad we got that sorted out, Nicola! I doubted that you were talking about Woody Allen, but I had no other context for "Jade Scorpion", though I wouldn't be surprised if it turns up in a period piece by Sax Rohmer (Fu Manchu) or Ernest Brahma (The Wllet of Kai Ling). As I said, you may have given me a story prompt, because I've recorded a long series of "Chinese" dreams over the years that are begging to become tales.

Carol Davis said...

Filled with high grace and freshness, older than ancient and effervescent with new life. Of course I know all this and yet I know nothing. Well, I do know one thing, this story quenches my thirst. With this sustenance I will live to explore another day in the mystery. I send deep gratitude.

Robert Moss said...

"This story quenches my thirst." Spoken like one who truly listens at the Gate of Story, Carol, as the travelers arrive from their long and dusty journeys. Thank you for your beautiful words.