Every Friday night we will feature a short story, essay, personal narrative,
poem, spoken word, or short film submission for your enjoyment.
Helen Presents: a short story from Eugene Gryniewicz
Anna is dreaming a dream of hiking … which she does well – the hiking, I mean; after all … who really doesn’t dream well?
Anna is dreaming a dream of hiking across Africa. She is singing in this dream … which she also does well. Sometimes she plays a guitar while she sings; and sometimes she does not. Now is one of those not times.
She is carrying her guitar on her back.
She is singing a song about singing a song while walking. Anna is singing a song about walking with a guitar slung over her shoulder. She is making the song up as she walks along. It is a strong song, and she has been singing it since breakfast.
Now it slows a little.
It is almost noon.
It limps. The song … and Anna limps too. She thinks she has found a pebble in her boot. And as she sits to remove the pebble, she starts to hum; the song has wrapped itself around the pebble and no longer wants to be sung … it wants to be fed.
“Won’t you join us for lunch?” A voice like icy water splashes over Anna and she starts, turning to see three men behind her – two tall and one small. It was the smaller one – a dwarf – who had spoken.
“Who are you?” asks Anna. “Where did you come from?”
One of the tall men says, “And where are we going? There’s the important question.”
The other tall man interrupts, “But, first, lunch. Won’t you join us?” His voice sounds green, Anna thinks.
She answers with a nod of her head.
And the first tall man points to the ground at Anna’s feet, and a fire appears – only smoke, at first. A spindrift snatched from the grass … it bursts fully into flame … the ground at Anna’s feet. Anna says, “Wow!”
The dwarf says, “We’ve been following you for the last three – four miles.” He offers her a gourd filled with fresh water. Anna thinks his voice is colder than the water. “We followed your song.”
“It was beautiful,” the second tall man – the one with the green voice – says.
“It is precisely what we need,” the first tall man addresses the dwarf who bobs his head up and down like a goose. “Don’t you agree?” says the first tall man.
“Yes, yes … I think you are right.” The dwarf agrees.
Anna repeats, “Need … What do you mean by need? Who are you?” she looks at the tall man who had lit the fire. “Where are you going?”
The dwarf answers her. “We are three wise men. And we are going to the Great Emperor’s palace.
The man with the green voice adds, “And you are coming with us.”
“Oh really,” Anna frowns.
Green Voice hurries on. “The Emperor has lost his son –“
Fire-Maker concludes for him. “We are going to bring him back.”
Anna knits her eyebrows together. “And for this you need me.” It is not a question. The dwarf says, “We need your voice –“
“Actually,” Fire-Maker corrects the dwarf, “we need your song.”
“Voice and song,” Anna says, “they are hand and glove.” She continues, “How are
you planning on bringing back the Emperor’s son?”
”By Word, by Name –“ the dwarf begins … as though he has said this a hundred times before.
And Green Voice finishes for him, “By Sacred Breath …” as he has finished for the dwarf a hundred times.
The dwarf continues. “We are men of learning; we are wise well beyond our years. We have studied the world – both what is of this world and what is not.”
“Did you know, for example,” Fire-Maker takes up the thought, “ that the Great
Emperor made the world and all that is in it and of it simply by naming it. If it had a name –“ he smiles – “if it has a name, it is.”
“I have spent three score and a dozen years learning the names of all that is and all
that was and much of what will be.
“I can bring fire into being by the simple act of naming it.”
Anna’s eyebrows raise, and her eyes widen. “So –“ she begins; but Fire-Maker cuts her off.
The tall man shakes his head. “You see the problem, of course.” Anna shrugs, ‘of course.’ And rolls her eyes. “I can call a body into being but I cannot animate so much as a field mouse –“
The other tall man says in his forest green voice, “You need to infuse the shell with the Emperor’s Sacred Breath –
“The Emperor, when he named the animate things – the birds and fish and … panthers – he breathed life into them –
“I followed the winds to their sources – north winds, south winds – east and west; I
drew a breath from each, and each wind in between … and I added them together …” he
holds up a goatskin, “and filled this.
“I can squeeze this mixture into a small bird’s face – a bird –“ he nods toward Fire-Maker – a shell he created … and the bird flies away –“
The dwarf snorts. “And then it drops out of the sky,” he says, “like a badly tied balloon.”
The dwarf explains that the Emperor signed his creations with his own name. “It sealed in the life like wax seals a jar of peaches …”
Anna says, “And you know the Great Emperor’s name.”
The dwarf says, “I know the Emperor’s secret name.” He smiles broadly.
“Only it doesn’t work,” Anna says.
The dwarf frowns.
He shakes his head.
“It doesn’t … stick.” He hurries on. “The Great Emperor’s name is not enough. It is – I have learned – only the seal that is molded in wax; that is the Emperor’s name –“ Fire-Maker snaps, “We need the wax to mold the Emperor’s name in –“
“We need your song,” the dwarf takes up the thought.
“My … song,” says Anna slowly. “You need my voice.”
“I have gone to the beginnings of all things … in my meditations,” the dwarf’s cold voice is … numbing. “I have watched the Great Emperor singing the names of all things, and as he sang their names all things – stone or skin, wing or fin – came into being. They grew out of the ground, out of the water, out of the air we breathe.
“And he signed each thing he made … like an artist signs his canvas.”
Green Voice sighs. “We need your voice to sing the song we’ll use to set the seal that the Great Emperor’s name is … to hold in the breath that will animate the shell we’ll make of the Emperor’s son.”
The dwarf announces, “Your voice will be the wax we will make the Emperor’s mark in.”
“Why can’t the Emperor make his own mark?” Anna asks.
Anna sighs. She sits up straight, composing herself. “Why are you doing this?” she asks, slowly.
Fire-Maker sounds like he is talking to a child. “The Great Emperor has lost his son. We are going to return him to him.”
Anna wonders aloud, “Why can’t the Emperor return his own son?”
The three wise men stare at each other.
They don’t speak.
Anna continues. “I mean … you’re only doing what the Emperor has already done and can do again, and again … only better.”
Green Voice raises a finger.
“Why do this at all?” Anna finishes.
The dwarf answers, “It’s a test!” And the others nod eagerly.
“What do you gain if you succeed?”
Three pairs of shoulders shrug.
Anna repeats, “Why do this at all?”
“Because we … can?” says Green Voice.
The dwarf repeats, “It’s a test.”
Fire-Maker snarls. “Of whether we are worthy to be the Emperor’s advisors.
Anna asks, “Are you?”
“If we succeed,” says the dwarf, “yes.”
“Will you succeed?”
“If you will help us.”
Anna admits she doesn’t want to be an advisor … but she agrees to walk with them.
For a while. And she does, setting her pace to theirs. Matching their direction. She makes up a song that she hums only about walking with three old men across Africa. She un-shoulders her guitar and begins to play –
Fire-Maker raises his hand – they stop; and he points into the tall grass … toward the base of a burnt out tree trunk. “Lightning-struck,” he murmurs.
Green Voice draws a deep breath. “Burnt flesh,” he whispers.
The dwarf runs ahead to part the grasses. He reveals sun-bleached bones … and claws … and teeth. “The hyenas have picked it clean.” He reaches down for a large black slow-moving beetle. Smiles. “And these have picked it cleaner.”
The dwarf extends his arms in a welcoming gesture. His smile widens. “This is our opportunity to see if we can succeed.”
Anna shoulders her guitar. She says, “Uh … m, guys … I don’t think this is a good idea.”
Fire-Maker barks, “Just give up some background noise about a lion hunting on the savannah –“
“I think it’s a cheetah,” Green Voice observes, but his companion is already on his knees beside the bones. He is whispering to them. Naming them. Calling them into being. Anna backs away from the bones, carefully … slowly; she is humming a song she is making up as she hums it. The song is about cheetahs running.
Veins and arteries push through the bones and wrap themselves around the bones.
They interweave with muscle and tendon. Fire-Maker names them and they worm their way toward him.
And Anna backs into a tree. She feels around behind her; the trunk is fair-sized. She looks up; the branches are low enough to climb into, and high enough to climb high into. She begins to fit words to the song she is humming.
She begins to climb …
She begins to sing.
Fire-Maker moves his hands along the cheetah’s increasing remains; flesh grows beneath his fingers; fur blooms; it follows his hands.
Anna perches on the highest branch she can climb to. She sings a song of cheetahs not climbing trees –
Green Voice uncorks the goatskin. He puts it under the cheetah’s nose … and blows gently …
She is still singing … as a tremour – she sees the neck of the cheetah tremble … its
Its’ paws – the fingers of its’ paws – stretch. The cheetah’s claws … seem to … grow. Anna’s song turns its head.
She stops singing and calls from her perch, “That’s good enough … I think –”
Three faces snap toward her.
Three voices cry out. “Sing!”
And Anna sings of a cheetah crouching low to the ground. Its muscles ripple. It sniffs the air.
The dwarf bends to the cheetah’s ear.
His lips brush the cheetah’s fur. The fur tickles … as he whispers into the ear the
secret name of the Great … Emperor …
Anna’s gazelle bolts.
Fear runs before hunger!
Hunger roars through Anna’s song –
And she closes her eyes.
Anna opens them.
Her eyes …
Her dream is still hiking across Africa. Her song?
She looks at her husband asleep beside her. She listens … to his breathing … beside
her. She can hear her old house breathing, too. Anna can hear its heart – houses have hearts – beating. She thinks. She hears a squirrel climbing among the rafters, scurrying across the crossbeams.
There is a raccoon in her garden. She knows this. She doesn’t have to hear it.
The raccoon is singing an impatient song as it tugs at a carrot – the raccoon digs with its song.
Pulls the carrot free.
And Anna takes the raccoon’s song – this satisfied song … as the raccoon lumbers away among the shadows – and wraps it in the cheetah’s song … that she is beginning to forget – and sings it, in the quiet of her bedroom, for three wise men in Africa who are learning quickly how quickly they have to run to outrun a hungry cheetah –
Anna sings them to the end of her song and out from it.
Anna dreams she is dreaming … of having tea with the Emperor. He pours – first filling Anna’s cup, and then his own. He offers her a cookie.
A little bit about Eugene Gryniewicz :
“I wrote poems in college … some forty years ago. And some of them were published … though not enough to make an impression on anyone. I also illustrated a variety of small press publications; that I got over, over time. Then I stopped writing and drawing for no particular reason until I was diagnosed with Early Onset Parkinson’s; I’ve been relearning writing and trying to draw ever since.. I’ve got a lot of lost time to make up for.”