The storyteller remained silent.
His refusal to speak silenced the bazaar. The noise of commerce died. Only whispers fluttered from stall to stall, tent to tent, beggar to beggar, wondering what could have happened. The hammers of smiths lay idle, the calls of hawkers dwindled to murmurs, and even the street preachers stopped their sermons as everyone crowded to see.
The storyteller had appeared years before, nothing more than another grime-smeared vagrant drifting into the capital. He brushed the dust from a little corner of the main square and sat cross-legged, back stiff with a dignity not often seen in street dwellers. No one paid him any heed until he began to speak. Since that day, a throng always attended him. They waited every morning for him to assume his customary place. They didn’t disperse until the afternoon when, gathering the coins they’d tossed at his feet, he took his leave.
When he told his stories, street urchins rubbed shoulders with aristocrats, leaning in to catch every word. Every story was different. He coaxed tears from his audience with love lost. He roused them with adventure in faraway places. He amazed them with magic and wonder.
In days, the entire city knew of the storyteller. Within a year, his fame spread throughout the empire. The market, previously known as “The Grand Bazaar,” became “The Bazaar of the Storyteller.” He was counted among the empire’s greatest treasures. Kings and caliphs traveled to hear him.
Today the new emperor had come, yet the storyteller did not speak.
In the emperor’s palanquin, the only noise was the buzzing of flies, until an attendant chased them away. Slaves waved ostrich-plumed fans, moving the hot air in pointless circles. Behind the palanquin, a row of dignitaries muttered into their beards and wiped the sweat dripping from under their turbans. The imperial elephants, festooned with sequins, shifted their weight from foot to foot. One relieved itself, but when the noise of the steaming pile plopping to the earth died away, the uneasy silence settled back onto the bazaar, heavier than the heat.
The emperor summoned his grand vizier. “Do something,” he commanded.
The old man bowed, long beard brushing the ground. He stepped forward, facing the silent storyteller.
The morning before, the vizier had dispatched a messenger to summon the storyteller to the alabaster palace on the hill overlooking the city. The messenger returned empty-handed. The storyteller would not come until he was done telling stories for the day. The vizier seethed at the impudence, but resisted the urge to order guards to drag the storyteller to him. The emperor valued genius and artistry more than his vizier thought advisable. Reluctantly, the vizier indulged the delay.
The storyteller appeared that evening, as dusk breezes blew away the day’s heat. He knelt before the imperial throne, forehead to the ground in a proper show of deference.
At the emperor’s right hand, the vizier told him to rise. “Since His Majesty has lately ascended to the throne of his father …” he began, pausing to let the storyteller show his reverence for the late emperor.
“Peace be upon such a great man,” the storyteller said.
The emperor smiled.
“His Majesty has resolved,” the vizier continued, “to assemble in his court the greatest artists and scholars from every corner of the world. This palace shall become the highest pinnacle of learning and arts ever seen under the canopy of heaven.”
There was a silence. Every courtier’s eyes stayed on the storyteller, who did not respond. Clearly, he didn’t realize the emperor expected an answer. The vizier prompted him by clearing his throat.
“An excellent goal, Your Majesty. Your court shall dazzle the world. You will make a great emperor.”
Again, silence fell. The storyteller had nothing more to say. Perhaps he had not understood the invitation implicit in the vizier’s words. “You, of course, will be among them,” he added. “From this day forth, you will tell your stories here, in His Majesty’s palace.”
“Oh, no,” the storyteller said. “I am not worthy to be included among such luminaries. I shall remain in my humble corner of the bazaar.”
“You are too modest. You are a treasure of the empire, and deserve a place in its highest palace.”
The storyteller pulled his sparse, gray beard and sucked his teeth. “Your Majesty,” he said, “Poems written in calligraphy benefit only those who are literate. Miniature paintings benefit only those who can afford to commission them. But stories are for everyone — beggars as well as royalty. If I left the market, those who need my stories most would never hear them.”
The emperor spoke. “You are a wise man, and we will accede to your wishes. But our court would be incomplete without your stories. They must be here in some form.”
The court held its breath. It was unheard of for the emperor to speak for himself to a commoner.
Before the vizier could speak, the storyteller answered. “Your Majesty could send scribes to the bazaar to write them down as I tell them,” he said, as casually as a man haggling over the cost of a plate of rice.
“And how long would it take to write them all?” the vizier demanded, outraged by this intimacy. “You have never repeated a story in all your years in the bazaar.”
The storyteller smiled. “This is true. I have a source that provides me with endless stories.”
“Then the rumors that have reached this court are true? You have a magical artifact that generates unending tales? The legendary Source of Infinite Stories?”
The storyteller’s smile showed the gaps in his brown teeth. “It is true.”
A broad smile spread across the emperor’s face.
“Then you will bring it here,” the vizier commanded. “It will reside in His Majesty’s court, and you may come here nightly to get stories for the following day.”
The storyteller threw back his head and laughed. Every courtier in the room stiffened at such impudence.
“That is impossible,” he said.
The emperor was no longer smiling.
“His Majesty has suffered you,” the vizier said, enunciating carefully to control his growing anger, “to refuse him twice. A third time would be insufferable.”
The storyteller, apparently oblivious to the danger he was in, shrugged his bony shoulders. “There is nothing I can do,” he said.
“Because you are of such value to His Majesty’s empire,” the vizier hissed, “He will allow you to reconsider your choice. Tomorrow, he shall come to the bazaar. You will present to him the Source of Infinite Stories.”
Guards hustled the storyteller out of the court.
The storyteller sat quietly on the ground.
The eyes of the multitude settled upon the grand vizier.
“His Majesty has graced this market with his presence so that he may hear you speak,” he said, “How dare you refuse?”
The storyteller did not respond.
A murmur ran through the crowd.
The grand vizier could feel the emperor’s impatience building within the palanquin. Raising his voice, he demanded imperiously, “The emperor bids you tell him a story. Speak!”
The storyteller’s mouth stayed closed.
Beneath his turban, the grand vizier’s face turned red. He was not a man accustomed to being refused. “You dog,” he shouted, “Have you been struck dumb?”
“He must have been,” a voice called from the crowd.
The throng parted, revealing a fat merchant. His eyes shifted nervously, as though he had not meant to speak aloud and only just now realized his folly. He bowed. “The storyteller has never failed us,” he stammered, “If he does not speak now, it must be that he cannot.”
The crowd gasped with shock.
“He is cursed,” cried a woman. “A sorcerer, jealous of his stories, hexed him. My father fell victim to a curse, and never spoke again in his life.”
“It was a genie,” a crippled beggar child said, “I saw a black cloud pass across the moon last night, flying against the wind. It must be an evil spirit, who has stolen his voice for itself.”
The crowd muttered their approval of these fine theories. But then a scholar, gesturing with ink-stained fingers, said, “There is no need for superstition. A great sadness can silence a man as well as any magic.”
“Someone he loved died last night,” called a blacksmith from behind his anvil. “Probably his son. There is no worse sadness.” He sighed and leaned on his anvil, eyes cast to the ground.
“No, it is a woman,” a traveler said. “The woman he loves has been married to another.” He glanced out the open city gate, down the caravan road, into the distance.
The vizier called for order, but he was too late. Emboldened, the crowd shouted out their own ideas from all around the square.
“He bet a fortune that he can remain silent all day.”
“He had a religious epiphany and took a vow of silence.”
“He’s possessed by a ghost that dares not speak because it cannot imitate his voice.”
“He ate a kebab so delicious that he accidentally bit off and swallowed his own tongue without noticing.”
“He told so many stories yesterday that his tongue got sunburned.”
The shouts crashed into the vizier’s ears, first one at a time, then layered on top of one another until they could not be distinguished amid the general clamor.
He raised his hand. The crowd did not notice. “Silence!” he shouted.
The shouting faded to murmuring, then whispering, then silence.
“Where,” the vizier said, “do you rabble get all of these crazy ideas?”
From within the imperial palanquin, a laugh interrupted the quiet. The crowd fell to its knees as the emperor emerged.
The storyteller did not move. A smile warmed his face. “May I present to Your Majesty,” he said, “the Source of Infinite Stories?”
The emperor bowed to him. He dismissed the vizier and the rest of his retinue back to the palace. Then he took a seat amid the crowd, and listened as the storyteller began a new tale.
(This story was part of “The Space Between Words,” the summer 2015 exhibit at Floriopolis Arts and Culture Metropolis, in Panama City, FL. I read this as part of a multi-author reading at Floriopolis. It will be included in the upcoming Space Between Words Anthology.)
(The image of the mahout on an elephant is in the public domain.)