In April 2010, writer and blogger J.M. Tohline embarked on a creative experiment. Tohline’s website, a self-described forum for “thoughts on literature, life, and being awesome” displayed a new kind of post that reached out to his online community of readers. It read:
“This is a story called ‘The Storyteller.’ We’re all writing this story together. In case you are wondering: Yes, you are included in ‘We’re all.’”
Providing only the title, a three sentence-per-entry limit and the story’s beginning, Tohline left the fate of the story wide open to the guidance of any reader or writer lucky enough to stumble upon the project. Within just three days, the exercise took off, attracting more than 25 contributors and snowballing into an eclectic, provocative narrative. It’s surprisingly coherent with a hint of darkness, too.
As Tohline reflected on his site, “The best part about a project such as this one is: Three sentences gives each of us enough room to influence the direction of the story, but it does not give any of us enough room to dictate the direction of the story.”
Without further ado, “The Storyteller.”
The storyteller squatted, picked up dirt from the ground and kept walking, letting it trickle down through his fingers, the wind catching it. The young boy walked alongside the storyteller.
“Be careful of where you march your feet,” the storyteller said, and the young boy quit walking.
“Why?” he asked. The storyteller pointed at the dirt still swirling about him.
“It lives,” he said. The boy took a step back, eyes widening.
“Don’t go back,” the storyteller said. “Just stand still and listen and I’ll tell a tale to take us away. In ages past and days drifted by, a teller sinned; he told the story wrong. The sages cried and cast him from the tale.”
“Cast him from the tale?”
“Please,” said the storyteller. “Please, do not interrupt. Only listen and let me tell this story. Let me tell it right.” The young boy was quiet, the storyteller spoke, and the world melted around them. The ground shifted and groaned. The boy clung to the storyteller’s leg.
“Watch your feet,” the storyteller whispered. But it was too late. Amid the dry, red dirt, a crack opened, widened, and down the boy fell. He was now on this adventure on his own. The storyteller had hoped to impart more wisdom before the boy left to experience the world below. After all, the world below is where the tale takes place.
The storyteller, cast from the tale many years before, watched as the boy spiraled to this world. A world of dread and fear spun from a heart of darkness. The cursed Teller knew this boy was central to the tale. He was the one who could set it right. The young boy opened his eyes and his feet landed. The world around him was bright and loud and lively. A marketplace.
“Watch where you’re going, kid!” The boy turned towards the voice. Two bushy eyebrows glared back at him but the eyes beneath twinkled with mischief. Their owner threw back his shaggy head and roared with laughter that would shake the pillars of heaven.
“And where did you come from?” asked the stranger. “You do not look like you are from here.” The boy wasn’t from there, didn’t know where he was, but was drawn to the mysterious stranger. The boy attempted to answer, but his words were garbled. He furrowed his brow in frustration and pointed. Up. The stranger with bushy eyebrows tilted his head to the side, and a snaggletooth smile stretched across his face.
“Ah, my boy, it’s a dangerous land you’ve come to. Wouldn’t want to wander here by your lonesome.” A knot tied in the boy’s throat. He felt a pointed nail stroke the underside of his chin as he tried to gulp down the visible signs of his fear. His childish hands began to sweat and slime as he realized this strange creature was no friend.
“There are no children in the marketplace. You see?” The stranger growled and spat. “Run, child.” The boy’s legs carried him double time through the throngs of buyers until he knew he was safe.
The boy looked around. Nothing was familiar. He closed his eyes, hoping that he would open them and find himself back with the storyteller. The opening of his eyes revealed the fulfillment of his wish.
“What was that just now?” he asked the storyteller, who snorted in response to his question.
“It’s not the ‘what’ that’s important, boy. It’s the ‘where’,” said the storyteller. He waved his hand and the whole world shattered, revealing another world behind it. This new world bustled with energy like waves, irritated and tossed by a raging storm. Something odd tickled the boy’s imagination. He looked at the storyteller, who smiled.
“Now you begin to understand what I haven’t yet begun to tell you,” he said. “The way of the world is not true, yet there is truth in its lies.”
“I have traveled a great distance, from here back to here,” the boy agreed.
“Ah,” the storyteller leaned in toward the boy and looked into his wide eyes, “but is here here or is here there?”
“You speak in riddles,” laughed the boy. “But I like this game. Where are we going next?” The storyteller touched the boy on the shoulder. His eyes grew big, like a cat’s.
“You ask where we are going, but this is your story; you are learning what you must learn to someday become an immortal storyteller, and so we are going to whatever world your mind takes us next.”
The boy awoke abruptly, gasping and panicked. Still fearful, he focused on the model airplane suspended above his head, slightly askew.
“I made that!” he whispered. From the darkness, the storyteller’s voice echoed in the room.
“This is where you take us, boy? What makes you think you’re safe here?” Of course, he was not safe in that room with the security blanket, the teddy bear, and the soft-voiced assurances of his doting parents. But in a moment of terrifying clarity, he knew that he was not safe with the storyteller, either. A storyteller who’s been cast from the tale has nothing left to lose.
Heat filled the room. Then screams of terror seized him as the earth shifted. He was falling again. As the boy descended, he heard a noise. A familiar sound that became louder and louder. It was children playing, children laughing. And not just any children. It was his brother, his two sisters and… how could that be… it was him! The boy hesitated to go near them as he listened to their laughs. However, he did not recall this scene in his memory. One of his sisters was born dead. The three were gathered around a small object that lay on the ground; the boy could not make it out. As he approached the group, he realized they were still oblivious to his presence. Close enough to smell them, he leaned over the object and immediately felt sick.
“It can’t be!” he gasped. The body of his cat, Frederich, lay in the dirt near their feet. The children were laughing and poking the poor animal with a stick. The boy began to scream.
“You can’t bring that animal with you, boy,” the storyteller interjected. “Bad enough you brought all these children! Do I look like a babysitter to you? Come, I have more to tell you!” Tears welled in the boy’s eyes. He barely heard the storyteller or felt him tugging at his shirt collar. The boy stared at Frederich, then at the children, and at the other “him.” How he wished he could make the world change again.
“Is that what you wish, boy?” asked the storyteller. “To make the world change again?”
“I didn’t say anything,” stammered the boy.
“Oh, but you did, you see?” said the storyteller. The boy shook his head, feeling confused and helpless.
“Stop it,” he said, closing his eyes. “I want to go back to the beginning!” The boy opened his eyes, wiggling between his toes sand that was not the same as the sand he had felt just a moment ago.
“It’s all a product of your imagination,” continued the storyteller. “From your mind, the world around you is created; think it and it is; dream it and it will be; the sand is not the same sand because you thought it so.”
Looking at the Teller, with confusion fogging his mind, the boy replied, “Do you read minds?”
“No. I can read your eyes, boy. You want to go back and change things to where they were, before the cat died.”
The boy threw his arms around the storyteller’s shoulders and began stroking his hair. A dimly remembered lullaby hissed under the breath that blew through the gap in the storyteller’s front teeth. The boy felt his eyes go sleepy and his mind relax when it struck him.
“You have a gap just like mine!”
“We are the storytellers, boy. You and I. Yesterday, today, and forevermore. The future may bring our story full circle or spiral it out into the unknown.”
“How will we know which way it is to go?”
The storyteller chuckled, a deep timbre of mirth tainted by retrospection.
“Whichever way we go is the right way, boy. You see, there are stories to be told everywhere, and stories to be gathered from everywhere. In our power lies just that; to tell stories where they need to be told, to change the stories that are not as they should be.”
“There’s that cursed storyteller again,” Rueben said, looking up from stirring his potion. “And this time he’s got a kid with him.”
“Who but a boy would listen to him and his endless drivel,” Myrna said. “I’m surprised the idiot didn’t die from chronic logorrhea years ago.” She thought a moment, and then grinned. “But if that didn’t kill him, maybe we should. What say you?” Myrna frowned at Reuben’s silence. “Hey, are you listening?” Reuben pulled his head back, his face drenched with blue liquid.
“Huh, what?” he said. Suddenly, he heard a new sound. He turned.
“What was that?” he thought. Something was stirring in the depths of the potion. Something was bubbling and coming alive. “No, Reuben thought. No, it can’t be…” Backing away in a rush, Reuben toppled over his own legs. Myrna stepped near him and, shrieking, he told her to get away, get the hell away.
Myrna hesitated, it was too late. Fire erupted from the potion container. Myrna screamed as she was consumed by the flames. The storyteller seemed unconcerned as he watched the flames rise and slowly disappear.
“Did you hear something?” the boy asked, looking at the storyteller.
“No,” said the storyteller, grinning victorious. The boy looked toward the horizon, watching the glorious orange glow of the sun disappear behind the veil of purple and black.
Just as Myrna was consumed by the fire, so too was Rueben consumed by his grief—and a creeping desire for revenge. Myrna was a miserable, nasty hag; true. But she had been his hag. Justice would be violent, but slow rather than swift. Rueben swept the ashes of his hag into a pile. Slowly, with purpose, he began to sing.
In the world where the storyteller and the young boy walked (What world? Who knew? The young boy certainly had no clue anymore), rain began to fall. The young boy held out his hand to catch a droplet. The droplet of rain was red. The storyteller cursed. The boy was gone. Cackles of laughter echoed with every splatter of rain. His mind too went red. Fear shook him like a violent wind. As his eyes swept up, he saw a shape coming slowly into focus—a shape like a man with short, wicked horns at the sides of his skull.
“You know me, Teller. They have told you what happens to little boys who tell tales—LIARS.”
Images flashed in his mind of the boy, bound by barbed wire, gagged, and unconscious. Streams of dried blood clung to the boy’s face like old wounded tears. He lost sight of the boy as the horned man thumped him in the chest. The impact on his chest caused him to awaken.
Startled, he looked around, and then sighed in relief. The little boy lay sleeping next to him, his cat curled up in his arms. Frederich was warm against his flesh, purring quietly and steadily. The boy opened his eyes for a moment, remembering Frederich as he had last seen him; the macabre scene still vivid and living in his mind. It was in that moment that he was suddenly brought back.
He was again on the road with the storyteller. The dirt from the man’s hand was still swirling in the wind.
“I’ll be careful where I march my feet,” the boy said quietly.
ABOUT THE ORCHESTRATOR
J.M. Tohline loves words the way you love finding money in that pair of jeans you haven’t worn for a year. His mind is full of stories, and these stories frequently tumble out of his mind and land on pieces of paper. When he’s not spilling stories onto paper, you can usually find him reading in public places and watching people interact. He might be a closet superhero, but he cannot say for certain. He shares thoughts regarding writing and other aspects of life at his website, and he writes miniature stories on Twitter @JMTohline.
ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTORS
A successful and early internet entrepreneur and pioneer, Steven Bustin has been published in Clickz.com, San Francisco Chronicle, San Francisco Examiner and HumanTimes.com. The author of the non-fiction book, How The USS Nashville CL43 Fought WWII, his book blog can be found here.
Dorothy Distefano is a Word Mercenary from western New York. It makes her happy to beat words into submission on a daily basis in the freelance writing world. You can find her blog here.
Michael Goodell was born on the East Coast, raised on the West Coast and currently resides in Michigan, what he likes to call America’s Third Coast. His first novel, Zenith Rising, was published last year, and he has recently finished his second novel, Rebound. You can find his website here.
Jordan Guthmann: “He is Legend” was all she wrote.
Susana Mai eats stories with a side of minced dictionary and whole wheat plot-lines. She blogs here.
Dreamer turned novelist, Karen McGrath balances editing and coffee-table teaching while dancing on the edges of imaginary places. Her writings can be found here and her tweets here.
Kelly R. Morgan can be found playing in worlds of her own creation, where the mundane doesn’t stay that way for very long. She blogs about her writing here.
Gary Munn, Ph.D. is a retired educator of English Literature. He says it was a lot of fun joining in on the writing of this story and that it has whet his appetite for more writing. He thinks the storytellers should try an even bigger undertaking in the future.
James Rush is a graphic designer, photographer and surfer in a northern English coastal resort. Currently sipping a strong espresso, lightly wind caressed, door open, he stares through an expansive office window. Never has he seen such petite lapses of glistening energy flopping onto the sand below. He percolates his short biography, pours another coffee, and hits send… His blog can be found here.
E.C. Sheedy lives in the Pacific Northwest, where she writes romantic suspense and some very nasty villains. You can find her website here or on Twitter @EC_Sheedy.
Simon Staffans is a developer and designer of cross and transmedia formats. He finds his work interesting, entertaining and fulfilling. It also helps pay the mortgage.
Mark Westmoreland lives in a world where words are magical, and dragons are real. Visit his world here or follow him on Twitter @MarkAW00.