close
The Storyteller of Ulatphet by Arijit Sen

The Storyteller of Ulatphet by Arijit Sen

 Fiction, Vol. 3.1, March 2009

1.

‘Let me,’ the Storyteller said, ‘let me tell you a story.’

The crowd grew silent. The Storyteller of Ulatphet, the keeper of Ulatphet’s memories, was about to speak, the story was about to begin.

‘This is the story,’ the Storyteller said, ‘of how Bindiya, The Keeper of Secrets, came to be such. Listen carefully, for it is not a story you will hear again.

‘There lived in Ulatphet some years ago a man by the name of Abhimanyu Akhil. As many in the old days, Abhimanyu possessed an incredible memory; what he heard once, he remembered forever. But besides his memory, Abhimanyu Akhil was blessed with a natural feel for chemicals and products. He built, in a corner of his courtyard, a workshop filled with bubbling liquids of all colors and consistencies. Giant copper vats of milky green liquid resided alongside tiny bottles of grayish sludge, pans of sizzling red potions jostled with pots of ethereal blue water.

‘Each contained a stored secret, a secret pried out of its holder, and stored carefully in Abhimanyu’s workshop. For Abhimanyu would take from people their deepest secrets, complicated chants helped by clamps, drills, shiny machines attached to various parts of the body used to extricate from people their innermost feelings of guilt. And to rid themselves of their secrets, to escape from their crushing burden, the people of Ulatphet would pay Abhimanyu a fee.

‘In that workshop Abhimanyu helped people wriggle out of their worst selves, helped philandering husbands insist their fidelity, murderers protest their innocence, politicians their good intentions. But as Abhimanyu helped erase the secrets of the guilty, as their memories disappeared and consequences grew inconsequential, his clients’ actions, past and present, ceased to have any meaning.

‘There were those amongst the residents of Ulatphet to whom this situation seemed heretical. “How can we allow this,” they wailed. “How can one man subvert what it means to be guilty, how can society function without these rules?” But as the elders debated, mischievous elements banded together, talked of ways to end the problem.

‘And in the way of the young throughout history, they decided that no situation could be resolved through debate and dialogue. Instead they came together, and marched toward the house of Abhimanyu Akhil, secret-taker.

‘It was afternoon, and Abhimanyu was in the workshop, bubbling and boiling liquids of so many hues. His wife, hearing the noise, left their daughter Bindiya in the courtyard and rushed to the workshop to warn Abhimanyu of the rowdy mob. But alas, alas, alas, she arrived just as fiery rags were thrown over the fence, bottles of crude country liquor following to set aflame the workshop of Abhimanyu Akhil. Trapped within the four walls of his own construction, Abhimanyu Akhil and his wife, Parvati, perished as their daughter outside watched.

‘And as the screams of her parents wafted through the air toward her, so too did the secrets of the workshop. Boiling, breaking glass let loose their treasures, secrets turned by hot fire to air, their heady scent mixing, matching, and floating toward young Bindiya. And as she stood aghast and crying, they entered her nose, flew into her brain, and there regained themselves. And there they stayed.

‘No more did Abhimanyu Akhil relieve others of their secrets, but those he had taken remained still within the person of his daughter. And to her did the people of Ulatphet go in future years, despite the assertions of village elders and rowdy youngsters, to her they told her their stories, unburdened themselves of their guilt, and Bindiya, orphan child of Abhimanyu and Parvati, came to become the Keeper of Ulatphet’s secrets.’

2.

A murmur escaped the Storyteller’s throat. The crowd, in perfect synchronicity, leaned forward, ready to be enthralled. What magic would the Storyteller conjure? What feats of immense grandeur would be encompassed by his story? What characters of magnificently manifest destiny would proudly populate the arc of his tale? These, a million questions similar, played on the minds of those gathered to hear the latest spun yarn.

Once, the Storyteller used to tell stories more regularly. Scarcely a week went by without the call going round that a new story would be dispensed. But as time wore on, as the Storyteller grew older, the stories grew less frequent, separated by larger and more irregular gaps, as if the enormous cache the Storyteller was drawing on was slowly, drop by drop, drying. Now, when the call for a story came, the people of Ulatphet would stop whatever they were doing and rush to the field where the Storyteller told his stories.

The Storyteller, shaded by a generous banyan tree, looked out at the crowd in front of him. His face half in shade, half in light, framed by the ruinously black hair that rested on his shoulders. He was tall, and despite his age, broadbacked and ramrod straight, possessed of a flawless skin that glowed a uniform shade of ebony. But his eyes were what caught the attention first, eyes that flashed when reciting an exciting fable, that cried when telling tales of karma lost, of dharma forgotten, eyes that contained within them all that was good and pure about the human race, that welled with tears when talking about war or death; for no sadness as great as that expressed by those eyes could be contained within the breast of one man.

His voice, necessarily filtered by a glorious moustache of such personality that surely entire civilizations must have striven to produce it, achieved a greater, richer texture than any heard before or since, the most minute variations in tone and feeling achieving their greatest effect, never inducing boredom but serving always to draw the listener in, until the voice would encapsulate them, take over their being, till the voice became theirs, till within the story they would place their own heroes and friends, their own villains and heroines, till they were telling yet listening to a story that was foreign to them, yet their very own.

And the Storyteller, most famous resident of the great slum of Ulatphet, beloved of the gods, shaded by the great banyan tree, looked at the mass of people awaiting his story. He saw the residents of Ulatphet, some standing, some squatting, the women with children in their arms, the elderly sitting cross-legged atop parched, dusty ground.

It had not rained in over twenty years—the wells of Ulatphet had gone dry, the crops had long ago perished—but the people still stayed, held together by the commonality of the Storyteller, by his stories—and theirs.

In the sky above a solitary cloud chased imaginary playmates, and the sun let loose afternoon’s fully frenzied fury, and the audience still waited.

The Storyteller smiled a tired smile. He searched within his memories for one more story, one last tale to tell the people of Ulatphet, his people. A hum could be heard on the horizon, growing gradually louder. The people were growing uneasy, their gleeful wait for a story turning to frustration and anger.

A few among them rose, jostled to the village well, hoping that a few drops of water still remained within. But the scorched ground had long ago run out of its underground reservoirs, now stared plaintively at the sky’s one solitary cloud, and there remained nothing to be drawn.

And the crowd waited. The crowd worried. For it was the Storyteller’s stories that held them together, that kept them there, that fed them the courage they needed.

And still the Storyteller stood silent. He turned to his wife, affectionately named Katha, but she too stood silent. And in her eyes the Storyteller could see reflected his own sadness, the very deepest sadness that any person could suffer.

And the Storyteller knew.

3.

Many years ago, when the Storyteller of Ulatphet was still a boy, he had set off in search of his fortune. There was a legend in Ulatphet, long since held, that there lived in Samarkand, the city of fabled riches at the end of the world, a man of unparalleled wisdom and grace. It was said that whoever took this man’s advice would be able to find for themselves whatever fortune they might desire. And in pursuit of that fortune the Storyteller left Ulatphet one night, unbidden, unseen, unheard, slipping into the dark shadows of night, setting off for mythical Samarkand, in search of his unspecified treasure.

4.

The Storyteller, tall and tawny, entering the mature wisdom of middle age, motioned to the audience to sit down. ‘I have for you a story,’ he said. ‘It is short. But be patient.’

‘In Ulatphet there lives a man, aged and stooped. His name is Sabyasachi, perhaps some of you know him. He is known for having a nose so terribly large that it is all people remember of him.’

At this the crowd nodded. They did not know the man, but they knew the nose.

‘And there are some among you,’ the Storyteller continued, ‘some youngsters especially, who choose to make fun of him for it.’ And the crowd nodded, they smiled.

‘But here is something you should know about this nose. It is a great nose. It is a famous nose. Do not be confused, I do not use the word ‘great’ in a flippant manner. I have studied it dispassionately, I have given it my fullest attention, and have been led unerringly to the conclusion that it is a truly great nose.

‘Sabyasachi is an old man. His body is decayed, his face gruesome. He has spent a life amidst wine and voluptuous women, and it has taken its toll on his body. Once, Sabyasachi spent nearly three weeks in the company of a woman, pausing sometimes to drink, but never to sleep or even rest.

‘But amidst his face, so grossly overstuffed, a balance has been achieved. For at the center of his face of disproportion there is a nose of truly gargantuan proportion; it was given to him by the gods, it is a blessing not a curse.

‘Great things have happened because of that nose. It is a scimitar of a nose, capable of cutting through the hardiest armors, yet still possessing a frail fragility—a massive instrument capable of the most delicate of work.

‘And he has used this nose well, people. He has worked as a spy, as an interrogator, sniffing fear through those cavernous nostrils, dissecting feeling and emotion, smelling guilt and duplicity. Thirteen hundred spies have been caught by that nose, thirteen hundred enemies baffled.

‘But he has also worked for a perfumer, and no nose has smelled more beauty than he has. No customer left the perfumer’s without Sabyasachi’s express approval, no beautiful woman would buy a scent without being reassured by him. With his nose he smelled their deepest fears, the cracks in their souls that demanded healing, the structures too weak to continue, and on many a sweaty, passionate night he would render their souls whole again, repairing the fractures in their delicate beings. And each of them stayed on in his memory, leaving behind a trace of their scent by which he could remember and treasure them.

‘Once, a thrill-seeking band of adventurers in search of long lost treasure journeyed into the vastness of that nose, were swallowed up whole. They live there still, awaiting release from their eternal punishment.

‘The greatest passions and exploits have been his because of his nose, he has lived and loved and seen people and understood them. He has been popular and happy, and now he is old and happy. He is not as beloved as once he was, but those among you who are old enough to remember him when he was younger, know that once he was the happiest man the world had ever seen.

‘He is made fun of today, but you must remember him not for how you see him, but for how you once saw him as well. He is of today, but also yesterday, and also tomorrow. Remember his story, people of Ulatphet. Remember his story, and you will remember yours. ‘

5.

For three years and three months the Storyteller walked, in search of Samarkand and its famous wise man. He paused only for nightly rest, eating what he found by the road, evading thugs and brigands, border patrols and con-men, three years and three months of constant hardship and danger, over mountains and under rivers, through baking plains and windswept hills, braving rain, sun, snow, and hail. For three years and three months the Storyteller walked, and as he walked he thought about what treasure he would ask to be directed to.

In the city of Nastik, where people had forgotten the gods, he asked men if they knew of Samarkand. ‘Have any among you been to Samarkand?’ he asked them.

‘No,’ they all replied. ‘We are not sure if it even exists.’

‘But there is a wise man there, who can tell us how to achieve our great fortune,’ the Storyteller told them.

‘You are young,’ they replied. ‘Go home. There are great treasures awaiting you there. You do not need a wise man to direct you to treasure.’

But still the Storyteller walked. He walked till he stopped crossing cities, till he stopped meeting people, till he traversed only through wilderness, through forests so thick that he lost his own nose amidst the dense growth, through deserts so very lonely that a single seen scrub was his only sign that life still existed upon the earth. Alone he walked, walked till after three years and three months he could see, in the distance, the fabulous walls of famed Samarkand, gleaming against an azure sky. He walked for three days more, till the city was reached, as the sun was setting beyond it, beyond the greatest city in the world, the city at the end of the world.

The Storyteller stood outside the city, the emeralds and rubies beyond count studding the solid golden gates that beckoned to him, the vast walls reaching the very skies calling his name, and the Storyteller sat down to wait, wait for the morning when Samarkand’s gates would open to admit him.

6.

The Storyteller married Katha in a ceremony befitting a king. Huge plates heaped with delicious food, drinks made of ambrosia, all of Ulatphet partaking in the ceremony, a winsome bride, a handsome husband. The old women in the crowd marveled at the match, they declared it made in heaven.

When the ceremony was over, the Storyteller came out with Katha, to tell the people of Ulatphet a story.

He beckoned them to be quiet.

‘When I was younger,’ he began, ‘when my grandfather still was alive, I met at his house an old woman named Bhakti. She was stooped and bent over, her skin was pale and drawn, her body frail, eating itself from within. I asked her who she was, why she was at my grandfather’s house.

‘She told me her story, and it was a sad one. When still young she had been spurned in love, her lover choosing a richer woman. But he did not tell her himself, but rather asked a friend to tell her on his behalf. This friend, a rogue in his own right, asked a friend of his to do the dirty deed. In succession seven people were informed of this poor woman’s plight, and when the news finally arrived at her doorstep it had been stripped away to a nothingness, a mere shadow or echo of what it once was, only the skeletal remains of her erstwhile lover’s words still remained.

‘Heartbroken, she retreated from society, refusing to come out to receive guests, turning down marriage proposals brought to her door. Her father, loving man as he was, could not bear the insult she was causing him, and in a fit of anger one night, he threw her out of the house, refusing anymore to feed and clothe her.

‘Since then this woman has wandered from town to town, from city to city, village to village, unable to mend her heart, remembering only what she heard from her lover’s surrogate. “It was a pale imitation,” she cried to me, “but it is all I heard, the echoes of his deceit.”

‘And since that day she has heard only the echoes of what she has heard, remembered only a little of what she has overheard. What was uttered once would remain with her, a shell of itself, haunting in its brevity, a shadow of what once was, much like herself. The world remained in her pockets, but it was not the world as it should have been saved; it lacked color and vitality, hues and shades, completeness and entirety.

‘This is the story of Bhakti that I have told you. The woman who saved echoes.’

‘Where is she now,’ someone asked. ‘Did she leave Ulatphet, or does she now live here?’

‘She is gone,’ the Storyteller replied. ‘But perhaps one day she shall return.’

7.

No one could remember when the drought had first hit Ulatphet. One day it had rained, then never again, yet none could remember when it had actually happened. ‘Remember the rain,’ the Storyteller had once said, but unmoored by the fact of a definite place in time, the memories of rain had begun to dissolve, wisps of smoke eaten up by the winds. There were children in Ulatphet who could not remember the cool fingers of summer rain, had never experienced, tasted or touched it. Even those older had no idea how long it had been, each day turning into another, each season into another, each year into another, and without rain, with crops dead, none could tell anymore how much time had passed, and their memories began to fail them as time continued, moved on, and their memories stayed the same. And without the changing seasons, without the rains and the winter, stuck in their perpetual summer, the people of Ulatphet wilted. Time had begun slowly to conquer them, to take over their memories and their thoughts, and the people of Ulatphet had left to them no defense. Whereas once they could quantify time, could judge a certain amount to have passed when it came harvest time, or monsoons, now they could no longer tell as the sun blazed above them daily, weekly, monthly, yearly. And only the Storyteller’s stories, now irregularly spaced, could keep them still in Ulatphet, the land now without time.

Only the Storyteller could remember, had the power of strict memory, but time had begun to extract its utmost wicked revenge even on him. The vicissitudes of time had caught up with Ulatphet, time ever present, ever crushing, time moving like a juggernaut, unstoppable, unvanquishable, ever onward. Only the Storyteller’s memory remained, the only defense against time, but cracks had appeared in memory, people had begun to forget, facts no longer retained against dreary, never-changing time. The Storyteller remained Ulatphet’s only defense against these marching armies of time, only he through his marvelous machinations of innumerable tales could give time pause, convince time that it had not yet totally succeeded in obscuring memory through its dull, thudding repetition. Only the Storyteller remained as Ulatphet’s sole salvation, its one lonely hope.

And the Storyteller had run out of stories.

8.

When the gates of Samarkand opened in the morning the Storyteller rose from the hard earth upon which he had slept the previous night, and walked to the city gates. The gatekeeper, old and wizened, stooped over nearly double, hair whiter than newly born snow, his eyes unblinking, liquid eyes of youth and hope, awaited him. The Storyteller approached him, and prostrated himself before him, not knowing why it seemed correct, only that it was what he must do.

‘Why do you come to Samarkand, my son,’ the gatekeeper asked gently.

‘I have come in search of Samarkand’s famed wise man, sir,’ the Storyteller replied.

‘Come in,’ the gatekeeper replied. ‘Let us walk.’

And the Storyteller followed the gatekeeper into Samarkand. Within its walls it was more beautiful even than outside, something almost divine, something ageless and formless. Beauty beyond belief stretched in front of his eyes, minarets of carved jade, lattice-work windows of pure sandstone, lapis lazuli on every wall, every hovel a palace, every person blessed with godly beauty. Through this the Storyteller walked, always a pace or two behind the shuffling gatekeeper, attempting to drink in all he saw, to store it in his heart, to remember it all forever.

The gatekeeper led him to the center of the city, the heart from which sixteen arterial roads radiated to the outskirts of the city, balance achieved through simple geometry.

‘What have you seen today?’ the gatekeeper asked.

‘I have seen great beauty,’ the Storyteller replied. ‘I have seen beautiful buildings of exemplary architecture. I have seen men and women of unsurpassable beauty. I have seen a horse as high as a house, and roads so straight that one can see their ends twenty miles away. I have seen fountains of pure gold, and diamonds as big as my head.’

‘And that is all,’ the gatekeeper asked.

‘I have seen carvings of gods and goddesses, I have seen statues so life-like they seem to be breathing, I have seen…’ the Storyteller replied.

‘You have seen what? Can you describe all that you have seen?’ the gatekeeper asked again.

‘I don’t understand,’ the Storyteller said.

‘You cannot describe all that you have seen today. You cannot describe the looks on the faces of each god, the ankles of every pretty woman. You cannot clearly explain how many bricks make up each road, or how many hairs the horse has on its tail. But you have seen them all. So, I ask you again, what have you seen today?’

And slowly understanding dawned on the Storyteller. ‘I have seen everything,’ he said. ‘Everything, but I remember only nothing.’

The gatekeeper smiled at him. ‘And what will you say of it when people ask you what you have seen?’

‘That I have seen everything and I remember only nothing. But I will speak of what I remember, I will speak of nothing, for the nothing that I remember is what I saw, and what I saw is who I am.’

‘Then you may go, O traveller. You know of your fortune now. Your treasure is that of memory. Of what you remember you will speak, and people will remember it with you. The people of Ulatphet will never see Samarkand, but your memory will show it to them. Because, my son, what you remember is all that exists. If you choose to encapsulate your memory of this in just one word, ‘ Samarkand,’ it is all that Samarkand is. It disappears but for that one word. And if you wish to tell a story, or compose a poem, that is what Samarkand will be. And when the memory of that fades, Samarkand too will cease to exist. My existence depends on your memory, traveller. There is your treasure. Now return to Ulatphet with it.’

And the Storyteller, head bowed, heart joyful, turned from Samarkand and began the long walk back to Ulatphet.

9.

How strange it is that time does not stop, yet we can only study it in its isolated unmoving moments. To tame its movement we define it as such: second, minute, hour, day, week, month, year, century, millennium, and these are our only ways by which to control it. But time does not move as such, it is out of our control, a singularity that is universal, knowing no bounds. It has existed before the beginning of time—for how else to explain when existence began?—and it will continue beyond its own death, for how else to explain how existence ended? Time is incomprehensible, it is unknowable, it is cosmic, a product of nothing and the sum of everything. And when it wishes it will claim every person, every idea, every concept, every thing. It may be stalled by stories and memories, by remembrances and love and magic, but eventually everything will be swallowed by it.

10.

As the Storyteller grew older, and he started running out of the stories of his memories, he told the story of a thinker.

‘Listen, and I will tell you a story,’ he said.

And the crowd listened.

‘A lady of no considerable repute lived peacefully once, largely unknown by the many others who lived in the bustling, busy city she called her home. She was in all ways unremarkable. When young she had a few friends, but no one she could call her soul mate in the charmingly childish ways young girls do. She had a brother but he was much older, too old to do anything but love her from afar. Her parents loved her, neither too much nor too little, but in the way that parents must. She had no great education though she liked to read. She was not ugly by any means, but no ravenous beauty. She had drifted through adolescence unnoticed by the ardor exhibited by young men, and seemed in all ways to be relegated to a life unsurpassed in its ordinariness. Her parents pushed and prodded her—if you do not get married you must find a job, do something you love, they told her. But she could not find anything to do, nor anything she loved.

‘Think about it,’ they said. And so she did. Daily she would complete her morning ablutions and conduct the household errands that she must, following which she would retire to her room and, closing the door, think undisturbed for the better part of the day. She followed this routine strictly, and even on holidays and festivals could be found in her room thinking.

‘At first her parents whispered of it to their friends (for they did not want to disturb her); in tiny tinny voices they would say, our daughter is thinking. She is a Thinker. And their chests would swell with pride at having sired such a remarkable progeny. And their friends would nod and make a mental note of it. They would mention it the next day to their grocers and butchers, and they in turn would tell other customers, and shortly it came to pass that through the inter-connectivity of a human society, the town as a whole knew of the existence of the Thinker.

‘With the spreading of the information came the invariable attention generated by the pronouncement of such a personage. Immediately the Thinker was inundated with offers of marriage. “But she is not pretty,’ her parents would say. “It does not matter,’ they would reply. “We value her solely for her great mind.”

‘The scholars heard of her, as did the nobleman. Rich men came to see the Thinker, to ask for a few moments in her company, so that they may be enriched by her eternal wisdom. Surely she is special for whom in this day and age of crass commerce can afford just to think; surely she is marked out by God, they thought. But when they came to visit her, her parents would turn them away at the door. She is busy, they would say to the ardent admirers, she is thinking. And they would glow when they said that for truly they were very proud of her. She was thinking. As thinkers do. And the crowd would return home, each wondering if they were capable of thinking as she was, wondering if they were good enough .

‘ And that is when I arrived at their door. I arrived and told them stories of Ulatphet, told them stories of Bindiya the Keeper of Secrets, of Sabyasachi’s great nose, stories of Bhakti, the saver of echoes, and they listened. To everyone else they had closed their doors, but to me they opened them so they might hear of my stories.

‘That is how I met Katha, people of Ulatphet. Through stories I met my love and my life. She is still a Thinker. Those of you who have met her have never heard her speak, for she speaks ever so rarely. And now she is my story, and from Katha flow my stories. How strange and beautiful this world of ours.’

‘But what is she thinking of?’ the people asked themselves. ‘When will we know?’

11.

Afternoon had quietly turned to evening. The evening sun, not fierce like the afternoon’s, had nevertheless failed to cool the audience’s fevered brows. The low hum had turned to an insistent whisper. The crowd had grown restless, made unhappy through the long day, unsure of how they had spent so long waiting for a story that had not yet come.

Children had begun to cry, mothers grown weary, young men angry. But the Storyteller had nothing to tell Ulatphet, and Katha nothing left to tell him. Memory had finally deserted the Storyteller; Samarkand was just another city, his stories slipping away from his grasp. No longer could he generate the stories needed for Ulatphet, no longer could he remember for those who had forgotten, no longer could he bear the memory of all Ulatphet.

The Storyteller stood silent.

He stood without stories. And without the sound of his memory, with the silence of Ulatphet’s memory, the Storyteller could hear the march of time, hacking its way toward Ulatphet. Time the conqueror, time the vanquisher.

He looked at the people of Ulatphet, willed them to remember from before time had caused them to forget, but all the people of Ulatphet knew was that it had not rained in many years, there had been no crops for a very long time, that they did not remember when it had stopped raining, that they had begun to forget when what had happened, when their children had been born, when their wives had married them, when winter had forced away summer.

And the Storyteller could feel happiness and hope ebbing away from him as memory forsook him, as darkness overwhelmed him, and all he knew was that he was hungry, that he was thirsty, and he could not remember when it had last rained, all he knew was that it had been hot forever.

And the Storyteller had no stories left to tell.

He could feel the iron grip of time choking him, but still no words would come out, no memories would manifest itself as stories for Ulatphet to feed upon.

A single tear rolled down his cheek, a tear of such molten sorrow that all the way till the horizon, every body’s every thought could see it, feel it, hear it.

And they knew.

All through Ulatphet, in ever nook, every cranny, every path and every bylane, the fear spread, tentacles open, appetite awakened, hungry, all-consuming fear. The people of Ulatphet, inured against time by the memories of the Storyteller could feel the fear now coursing through their veins, as memories of happiness abandoned them, and now fear was claiming yet another victim, then flying to find its next, insatiable, in constant motion.

Without the Storyteller’s stories the people of Ulatphet had nothing left to bind them, nothing to hold them together. And all they knew was that it was hot, that it had always been so, that they couldn’t remember when last it had rained, when last they had eaten, when last they had laughed or played.

In a million hearts, fear’s fire raged unquenched, giving birth to its demon child, anger. And as anger was birthed, Ulatphet arose, not united but separated, anger working its wicked, winding poison, awakening distinctions and differences, cutting across loyalties that now lay forgotten, till the very roofs of Ulatphet were aflame by it.

And the Storyteller remained mute, stories gone, his memories unable to generate anew.

He could hear the insults, man against woman, father against son, brother against brother, and equally he could hear the approach of time, now speeding, its pace quickening, its hunger unabated as fear and anger played their part. For without stories, without memory, none could remember their togetherness, could not understand and fathom it, knew only that they did not know another, that they must hate.

Violence had broken out among the people. Cruel words of immeasurable sharpness gave way to bricks, stones, sticks, whatever was handy. Years of drought, frustration, shortage and want, kept at bay by the stories of the Storyteller, now emerged, enormous pus wounds on the parched, dry ground. The ground began shaking, the very earth imploring her children to stop. But the violence continued unabated, each blow leading to two, each kick to four, one birthing the other, then another, the wheel of life and death turning faster, ever faster, ever faster, and time came running at Ulatphet, unstoppable, unbeatable.

And the wall of memory the Storyteller had constructed was now breached, and as the blood of Ulatphet, drop by gushing drop, fell upon the hard dry eath, a bouquet of poppies, time arrived. Arrived to claim Ulatphet. And the Storyteller, alone, unable to share, stood alone, separating time from the newly warring factions, unable anymore to guard Ulatphet.

And as he faced oncoming time, behind him Ulatphet fought, Ulatphet bled. The Storyteller cried. Tears streaming down his face, now in unending rivulets, wet the ground. Tears seeped through the cracks into waiting eager soil, they mixed with Ulatphet’s blood, Ulatphet—that gigantic, sprawling slum of such varied emotions, its wounds now open, and bright red blood mixed with salty tears, mixed below the earth.

And time paused.

And the earth drank of the blood of Ulatphet and the tears of the Storyteller. Katha came to stand by him, and she too cried. The Thinker thought, she thought of love and goodness, of magic and clouds, of water and rivers, and she cried the Storyteller’s sorrow, the sorrow of longing and loss.

And as blood mixed with the tears of memory and story, the earth grew replenished, and the well regained water, as blood flowed behind the Storyteller, as the people of Ulatphet wrought their own destruction, the village well, its tendrils spreading everywhere, began receiving water.

The solitary cloud paused in the sky, and his imaginary playmates, emboldened by the well beneath them formed new friends, the well providing them their being, turning their imagination into fact, and the skies too were replenished.

The clouds grew fatter, they grew grayer, and still the Storyteller cried, still Katha cried, still Ulatphet bled, and still time advanced, intent on filling its hunger, intent on wiping aside Ulatphet, intent of ridding Ulatphet of memory.

And the clouds began to gather above Ulatphet, and the warring masses, not knowing why they were fighting, turned to look, so too did the Storyteller, the elderly and the young, the fathers and the mothers, but most importantly the children.

‘There are clouds in the sky,’ one child said. And he was short in years but wise in experience, and like people before him he chose to name. ‘It is going to rain,’ he said. ‘It is going to rain.’

And again time paused.

New memories were formed, as the people of Ulatphet began slowly remembering the last time it has rained, and time paused.

‘Rain,’ an old man said, ‘it has been so long.’

‘Fifteen years,’ another said. ‘Fifteen years since it rained.’

And the Storyteller found his voice. ‘No. It has been eighteen years.’

And Ulatphet remembered.

And with the return of memory, there now awoke the memories of the Storyteller. Separating Ulatphet from advancing time, there now arose the stories of the Storyteller, there to protect their own from time, summoned by their brethren’s remembrances, there to once again revel in their own existence. There was Bindiya, her secrets being told, from her mouth they issued—small, large, every size in between, aimed straight at the heart of time, and faced with memories that were secret. Time slowed. And Sabyasachi now awoke, and from the memory of that great nose he sent toward time the memories and scents of the women he had worked with, he remembered and he issued forth. And there arrived at Ulatphet, coming back once again, the old woman Bhakti. And she spoke her echoes, the memories of memories. And as she spoke her partial memories, those memories birthed new ones. And Sabyasachi’s memories remembered their memories of the women, Bindiya’s secrets remembered other secrets, and together they arose, together they flew at time. And time slowed.

But time could not be stopped. Onward still it struggled as the Storyteller and his stories fought them. And Bindiya, secrets spilled, a mere shell of herself, fell. Bhakti, her echoes escaped, lay down; Katha, unable any longer to cry, grew dry, and the Storyteller waited still for his words to all return, for Samarkand to grow from anecdote to epic, and the well still gave of itself.

‘Tell us your story,’ the young boy cried. ‘Tell us the story of rain, Storyteller. Help us remember.’

‘Eighteen years,’ the Storyteller said. ‘Eighteen years to the day.’

And Katha, Katha the Silent One, Katha the Thinker, Katha the Story, spoke to Ulatphet.

‘Eighteen years to the day, people of Ulatphet. It rained on our wedding day last. Rained for three days, and the well overflowed, and the river to the west flowed over its banks. Rice grew in the fields, and children jumped in puddles. Remember, remember Ulatphet.

‘I remember,’ someone cried.

‘I remember too,’ another said.

And one by one they remembered the rain. And time slowed. Memories flowed toward time, and time could not hurry, time could not feast.

And the Storyteller, inspired by his Story, harvesting the memories of Ulatphet, stood up to speak, regained his voice.

‘Let me tell you a story,’ he said. ‘Let me tell you the story of Ulatphet.

And as he spoke the people remembered more, his voice became theirs, his stories theirs, they exchanged his memories with their own, each providing their own stories to his, and a multitude of stories grew, memories old and new, mixing, mixing like blood and tears, and Ulatphet listened, they listened as the Storyteller told the story of Ulatphet, the story of forgotten rain and forgotten crops, but it was the story of when it finally rained, a story of longing and loss, but of hope and faith. He told the story of Samarkand, of the old gatekeeper and his treasure, of Bindiya and Katha, of Sabyasachi and Bhakti. And each listener created their own story, the Storyteller’s voice giving them their own access to the great gift of remembrance, and the profusion of memories, the story with no end, the story of Ulatphet, began collectively to be recited.

A light drizzle, now heavier rain, a downpour, and still the Storyteller spun his story, an immortal web of memories and hope. And the web kept the audience dry, it kept them warm and safe, and outside, outside the web, there time waited.

Physiological Drought by Matthew Salesses

The Rules by John Walker

Leave a Response