The Art of Living

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13. Storytelling

What was the problem with this old man? For years she had been isolated in this cabin, and he has nothing to say to her? Did it hurt to open his mouth a little? Of all things she craved, she craved stories. She wanted to hear of the outside world, beyond this little mountain and its mysterious creatures. Even worse, she felt a connection to him he had not grasped yet. Every time she looked at him, and she looked at him quite a bit, he reminded her of Sarah. She pictured the pair in their casual embrace all over the cottage, and the story was beautiful, but at the very end, it had turned hollow and heartless. He had disappeared much like he had appeared, like snowflakes on the hard wooden floor. She had expected heartbreak, tears, destruction, but Sarah would not bend. Instead, she withdrew, finding an invisible shell to crawl into. Perhaps, hidden from the eye, she had wept in loneliness for the man with the gleaming wedding ring to come back.

And then she had disappeared. Mumbling something about answers and ancestors and poetry no one would understand, she had gone off into the mountain path, and the old woman never saw her again. Like this old Professor, Sarah had come like she had gone- aimlessly. Even if she had had no special real attachment to the cottage, the wolves had stirred her mind every day. She had spoken to the beasts, somehow finding their rough speech interesting and conversational. Or perhaps, it was much nicer to speak and assume you are understood. And so the old woman assumed, fruitlessly, that Sarah would return just for her daily wolfish conversation.

But the next days rolled on, and Sarah did not appear at the top of the mountain path. And as she broke away from everything on this mountain, the wolves seemed to break from their pack. The old woman felt like her family had been crumbled, and the pack had become a reflection, if it were even possible. The old woman had to tell the truth to somebody. At this point, at this crucial juncture in her life, when she was old and perhaps would not grow young ever again, when an old acquaintance had returned, maybe she needed to tell him. But tell him what?

That the answers and the ancestors had spoken to her as well? That she had refused the call? That, like Sarah, murmurs of poetry had appeared in her dreams, and unlike Sarah, she had remained in the confines of her wooden home? It became clear all at once to the old woman. The man sitting in the corner had not surrendered to the vagueness of the words around him. It had happened to her. So many things had collided with her logical sense, she began feeling like a child lost in a snowstorm. Instead of venturing out in the blizzard, she had found herself the perfect little cage, albeit a warm and cozy one. And the signs were all around her, but had she noticed even one? When the ferocious pack of wolves nonchalantly paced her territory- their territory to be honest – she still hadn’t noticed a difference.

She didn’t think the regularities of their behavior were anything odd or special- for who could predict the mercurial nature of a predator? The wolves chomped away at their meat and hot stew, but had it not been for her cooking skills, would her wooden cage still stand? How easy must it be for a pack as powerful as theirs to tear down her shambling cottage? But they did not, proceeding to disappear one by one. It had seemed a sorrowful mystery to her, almost a note of rejection sounded with each disappearance. But then- like a warrior emerging triumphant from a bloody battle – the old-young-man appeared at the end of the mountain path.

And he was a warrior. Perhaps, in her age and wisdom, the old woman had not seen him for he was. Or rather, who Sarah thought he was. Had he looked much like this when he had appeared before her? She could see the age hanging off of his body the moment he crouched down- as if he had spent years expecting pain in his joints. It told her immediately that he had been through what she had been through, though they were separated by the sheer years between them. And yet, he was here, miles from where he ought to be, miles from the classrooms he spoke so much about. In a way, she could still feel the same strange feeling from him- as if, trapped in his skull, he continually mumbled to himself. How did he manage to teach if his head was swimming with so much?

When he had been here last, he had been a shadow. Now, it seemed like his shadows had crawled out of him with great difficulty, and the new lights around him had led him to this solitary mountain once again. Had his wife left him, she wondered. Had he left her, she mused. No- it seemed that in a way, he had not left her as yet. She had mistaken it for age and wisdom, but no, she was hanging off him in threads. It did not make sense to the old woman, for him to still be tied to her and yet be here. But if she looked carefully at his every movement, his every internal mumble, the threads were slowly cutting themselves away from him.

How was he doing it? As she watched his musings, more threads detached themselves from his lithe body. By sheer thought, he was letting go of the mysteries that she knew nothing of. And here was she, old and getting older, but still a child, for there were thick ropes tying her to this cottage. If she wandered too far, the ropes would pull her back. She felt like the sail of a ship loitering in the doldrums, never gusting with the wind but erect and useless. The ship would sink if she floated too far, for it would never move again. As long as she remained, its crumbling remains would not sink beneath the depths. As long as she stayed, there was a glimmer of hope, but that hope was fast disappearing.

And quickly, it happened. The ropes tugged at her, and she felt her mind go taut. The cottage and the endless green of the trees were flattened by a great bellowing storm, and buildings the color of rust flowered into being. The streets were meticulously tiled and maintained as well. The houses were littered with signs of occupation, colorful clothes hanging sopping wet and dripping onto the stone tiles, even children rushing to and fro. The balconies hanging out above the streets were fenced in pearly white, and of them, one was not empty. She could see herself, a pretty young thing wearing a pretty summer dress, reading a book with one eye on the road below. The familiar smells of roasting meat wafted from her kitchen. From where she stood, the old woman felt a fool. It was a horrible feeling, watching a younger version of yourself, so adept in being youthful and thoughtless, when you can see through every flaw. Admittedly, she had been pretty. But the one eye that endlessly glanced for a handsome passerby was like a flash of a diamond- incredibly noticeable. Such obvious desperation had been at play, the old lady had forgotten who she had been entirely. More obvious was the lunch cooking on the unseen stove. The pretty girl had carefully chosen out the perfect ingredients, the ones that smelled the best in a stew.

When she saw it now, she looked almost like a wolf stalking her prey. The luscious stew sent a powerful scent through the stone street, like carefully laid out bait. Like a deceivingly golden thread, it wound through the pavements, curling around streetlamps, lifting discarded newspapers into the air. Her glance began to turn into a disappointing stare, for no handsome creatures had been attracted by her presence. How could she not be the perfect wife? For sitting like a still flower, surrounded in the smells of life and nutrition, had she not been absolutely desirable?

And then, the shadows emerged. They tugged themselves out of the crevices between the tile-stones, and formed into men that began walking slowly up the street. As if perfectly in tune to her surroundings, the pretty girl began rifling through the pages on the book, acting as if she were so engrossed she did not notice the presence of the potential lining up below her. The old woman, in disgust, watched as the shadows one by one, glanced up at her balcony.

She saw so many familiar faces- even the shadowy creatures had quirks, a walk she recognized, or a body-shape she had touched. From where she stood, she could see the hunger in their eyes, the bloody murder playing on their lips as they looked up at the pretty young thing playing her part. She had mistaken the hunger for desire, and in their feverous embrace she had called out their names many a time, the words coming so easily to her mouth. As if she watched her entire life zoom by, shadows detached themselves from the pavement, traveling up to her abode in the balcony. She saw herself laugh girlishly, a skilled hand extending to a muscular chest as she did so. And she saw the shadows lean forward, and she saw coal-black lips mix with hers. One by one, the men appeared in her balcony, proceeding to disappear into her home. She heard the violent screams of passion, though now they seemed empty and false. And then, all of a sudden, she was back, glancing down the road, pretending to read the same book, cooking the same food, until another shadow found its way up to her. And then, once again, she was back at her spot, laying out the traps. But the old woman noticed now, that every time she came back to perch on the balcony, the girl was less pretty than before. The carefully picked eyebrows no longer held their seductive charm, for their curves no longer sat above rich, eager eyes. Her glance did not shine like diamonds anymore, but instead, seemed to have the bronze sheen of a rusted trophy. Her summer dress began to hang off her body, and the curves of her hips and breasts were concealed by a haggard but colorful cloth. Her lips seemed to lose more of its fullness with every kiss, every touch, as if with each intimate embrace, more of her light leaked out into the shadows she so wanted to wrap herself around.

The final shadow appeared beside her, and the old woman stiffened. He was the one, the one she had been waiting for. He had lingered, last and alone, as the other men traveled up and down. He even seemed less of a shadow than the rest, for in his glimmering appearance, she seemed to regain some of her enthusiasm. She remembered every bone in his body, every hair on his head. She remembered the muscular grip she had been encased in, and the gentle caress she had shivered underneath. But there was a gnawing pain in her as she gazed at the loving pair in the balcony- a trembling feeling that her younger self had not felt. When they disappeared indoors, the smell of food abruptly disappeared. There were passionate yells, the groaning of beds, the calling out of names, and then there was silence. Hot wind made the still-wet clothes quiver on their lines. She did not reappear until much later.

The woman that now sat on the balcony did not bother to read a book, and no scent wound its way through the streets. The pretty summer dress now hung loosely over the once-pearly white fence. The fence was now rusted and greying. Color bled from the dress onto the pavement, but nobody bothered to clean it up. The stone tiles themselves were creeping away from each other, becoming rough paths to walk on. The dress bled urgently- strands of all colors dripping down. Rivulets of color meshed together, occupying the center of the broken stone path, flowing away from civilization.

The woman, without a book or much else to do, still did not glance down to the path that seemed to be slowly destroying itself. The old woman glared up at herself, until the signs began unfolding. The pretty girl in the balcony had lost it all. The final shadow had unraveled the threads that held her together, until she looked like nothing she had been before. Even with the relentless shadows, she had regained some semblance of her features with her reappearance. And though she had seemed less beautiful at each moment, she was still young, and in a dark, dangerous, broken way, pretty even. Now, the old woman stared up at herself. The daring smile had been replaced by thin, taut lips. The inviting gaze had become stiff and unrelenting. When she stood, there was no grace or enthusiasm, only lackluster and creaking movement. Behind the loose robe, there was no skin, no breast, no hip, just a hanging of brown paper.

The old woman now stared up at her reflection, tears streaming down her face. In her all-powerful desire to be desired, the shadows had taken what little of her had remained. With every shadow, a little more of her disappeared. The final chess piece had stolen too much, and left her…left her with this. The old woman slouching in the balcony was as broken as the path under her.

And suddenly, the entire city burst into flames. The brown houses collapsed in cinders, the balconies dispersed into the wind like dust, but the breaking-apart path with its colorful bleeding river remained. Ghosts, gleaming in horrifying white, raised their lips to her as she gazed in shock at her destroyed home. She saw their jaws work furiously, and she saw herself more frightened with every word.

Flying high above the darkness,

You have come to a standstill.

For eons have we stood still as statues,

Only coming when we are called.

Have you the ability to speak to us, child?

The woman in the balcony did not answer the question. She instead burst into tears that would never end. The salty jewels tumbled down to join the river. The old woman screamed, but the ghosts did not hear her, for she was a watcher, an observer, not actually there.

When questions seem lingering

And answers seem fleeting,

Come to us-

But the woman only cried, the great river below becoming engulfing. She lowered her head, her scrawny fingers hiding her face. The flames sputtered around her, and a waterfall of rain began hurling itself down from the heavens. The smoking remains of the city lay in heaps, but her balcony remained untouched but decaying. As the rain came down, the old woman saw it happen- the lined wrinkles becoming full skin, the sloping, sagging eyes becoming gleaming precious stones. And she was young again.

The city had disappeared. In its place, slowly extracting itself out of the earth, were mountains like black teeth. They rose and hovered above her like the jaws of a monstrosity, and the broken tiles became a path crawling upwards. The balcony lowered itself, becoming a wooden cottage at the top of the path.

Worst of all, the young woman had gone back decades. At first glance, she seemed exactly as she was before the shadows crawled all over her petite body. It seemed as if she would cook her stew, find a book, and glance invitingly down at the pavement once again. But the pavements were not lined with people- not even streetlamps. There was no pavement- only a crushed rocky path with a single stream running through its center like a gleaming snake. And the girl- yes, she was young. And yes, she was beautiful, as beautiful as she had always been. Her body was supple underneath the greying robe, but the old woman could see no pride in the swelling of her chest. She was beautiful, but she had long since forgotten. She was young, but she had lived through centuries. And she refused to move. Beneath, where the shadows lurked on the path, was no safe place. Out from the crevices between the stones they waited, and so she remained in her cottage.

She grew old, older than ever, and at some point, roots had unfurled from her bodice and connected her to the earth. The mountain that rose beneath the balcony began coming alive, not simply a stone tooth any longer. Toxic green foliage began growing like moss, and black-bark trees stuck out from the mountain’s side. Each tree cast long shadows, all looking like dark limbs connected to a monstrous creature. The shadows that extracted themselves were frightfully humanoid at first, before they began curling into all sorts of shapes. Worse, they began emerging from the balcony, dripping down onto the street like blood. Where were they coming from- her heart or her bedroom? It struck fear into her heart, to think of how the shadows of her youth had fallen into further chaos, only to reappear to haunt this abode of hers. She saw the glimmer of a claw, and found that the men-shadows had bent into beast-like forms- was it a bear? But the bear jaws extended into long, powerful snout, with long fangs hanging down. Black saliva, dripping like shadows spreading across sunlit ground, began sizzling. The wolves gamboled almost joyfully before forming a pack of seven. The seven creatures, still gleaming like the galaxies above them, disappeared into the thick forest that had grown in place of the brown city.

Hot tears streaming down her face, the old woman bowed her head in sorrow. The cottage now seemed cold, concrete, and scented with death. Even with another human being sipping his tea in silence, the four walls grew ever closer. The smell of fresh tea began to disgust her. The remaining hints of stew burned her nostrils. Watching herself evolve and devolve before her eyes had been a phenomenon new to her. Had it really gone by like that? Had years and years passed before she grew young, and when she grew young, had it all been repeated? Had she sat in that balcony, decades at a time, growing old? Had she not noticed the brown city come alive, or the great mountain arise? And why had it never occurred to her- why had it never come to her mind that the wolves she so loved had been but ghosts in her scarring youth? The thought of meticulously preparing meals for the pack sent bile to her throat. The names of the wolves, like words on burning paper, dissolved before her. She had dutifully named them, but she had named them wrong. She had known their names at some point, but she had forgotten by now. From the streets to her balcony to her bedroom to her lonely mountain, was the wolf pack everything she hated or everything she had ever loved?

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