Still Mountain . . . where all stories begin

I had some good news that a short story of mine is to be published in a twin cities publication on fairy tales.  It inspired me to want to go back to storytelling, so here is the beginning of a novel I’ve been working on.  In this story, there is a sacred place called Still Mountain that is the birthplace of all stories.  At its based is a special and very secret camp where children prone to telling stories are taken to be specially nurtured in thier art.  The fear of the elders at Still Moutain is that if the ancient art of telling and recieving stories were to die–it would have dire consequences for the world.

The Still Mountain Storyboard Game is actually an ancient game that stretches back thousands of years to the time when man first learned to speak in stories.   It has been carefully preserved and handed down to the keepers of story.   Milt and I have actually worked on a prototype for the game–very cool.  Hope you enjoy the first two chapters and be sure to let me know if you are dying to read on.  And of course–it could use a publisher in case you know one.  And if you want to get my weekly post, be sure to subscribe in the upper right box.

 Still Mountain

Still Mountain

Chapter One

Marcus in the darkus.

The young boy wrote the words down on a pad of paper while hiding his light beneath the blanket. The words made him laugh, but there was no one there to laugh with him. Marcus alone in the darkus. He amended the words but the sadness came like an inky black thing and joined him under the covers. There was, he knew, only one way to chase the inky creature away, and so he scratched the lines he had written, turned the page, and traveled instead into a story world where the sun was always shining . . .
The girl sat in the sunny glade, her eight-year-old legs tucked beneath her. In the grass she had flattened a space to use for her show. She took out the five leaves she had picked from the old oak tree, careful to preserve their stem ends. She laid them side-by-side until the wide section of each leaf seemed to join hands with the next one. She breathed over them and whispered, “Dance for me.” She began humming a pretty tune and, one-by-one; the pretty green leaves rose up on their single stems and began to dance in small twists and turns, swirling together in perfect rhythm.

Marcus signed and closed his notebook. Instantly the pretty scene blinked out and he was again Marcus alone in the darkus. He didn’t understand the odd feeling he had of spying on others. Several times he had written this very scene, and always it felt as if he had actually been hiding behind a tree watching the pretty girl with long, brown braids and a dress that covered her knees like a tablecloth that could make magic happen. The truth was, Marcus wanted more than anything to actually be in that glen with that girl and not here in this big, chilly house always listening for the sound of his father’s footsteps. If he was caught, the punishment would be severe. Father did not allow him to write. Or to read, or laugh, or play. On his tenth birthday, Father had told him it was time to set aside all foolish fancy. Father believed that stories and play would lead Marcus straight to the devil—that was how he said it. Straight to the devil.

Marcus had three older brothers and three younger sisters and all of them turned themselves inside out in order not to incur their father’s wrath. However, Marcus couldn’t resist the lure of words. It always got him in trouble. He opened the pad again and wrote,

Marcus in the middle,
Inside out,
Marcus in the darkus

No, he would not let the inky thing take him. He returned to the more pleasant images and wrote . . .
When the girl hummed the final verse, the leaves twirled a final spin and then laid down again side-by-side. She stretched out on her back and touched her forefinger to one leaf tip. They sky above was so blue the girl thought she had drowned in a great salt sea and a mermaid would come at any moment to guide her to their shining city under the sea. She thought she heard waves thundering . . .

Footsteps. Heavy. Thump. Thump. Marcus shoved the notebook under his covers and clicked the light out just as the door opened and his father walked in. “You asleep, boy?”
Silence. Say nothing. Be still, as still as Still Mountain.
The door closed again and he was safe. Alone, but safe.

Chapter Two

Elsinor rose from her bed in the small cabin she shared with four other girls her age. Her feet touched the chilly wood floor and she shivered with excitement. Already she was repeating the dream lines she’d caught just before she awakened. Hastily, she smoothed her covers over her pillow and tucked the edges in neatly the way Suny had taught them. Suny, their cabin mother, was actually one of the master storytellers, a Level Four, but Elsinor loved her nearly as much as she loved her real mother. Suny had once confided to her that Elsinor’s little bed had been Suny’s when she was just six. This confidence had made her feel special.
Each of the children’s cabins at Still Mountain Village had a “parent”—a man for the boys and a woman for the girls. The parent of each cabin had a tiny room that jutted off the main cabin so the children would never be alone or learn to fear the dark. Elsinor had loved everything about the camp since coming here. It had only been four years ago when her real mummy and daddy had explained to her that the Elders had recognized in Elsinor a special gift for reciting and receiving stories and had invited her to enter training at Still Mountain. She had been five-years-old—she would be nine next month, on June 18. She thought back to the day her parents had brought her here. Her mummy had cried a bit and kissed her at least four dozen times, but her smile when she said, “This magical place is just right for you, my baby,” was stronger than her tears. Elsinor believed her mother’s smile and her words more than the tears. And mummy had been right. Here, all things were possible.

She dressed quickly, her body humming with excitement. They were to play the game this morning first thing, even before breakfast. The Elders said it was most important to do storytime as close to dreamtime as possible. Today, for the first time, she actually remembered her dream and couldn’t wait for the story board to flop open and the game to begin. “His name is Marcus.” She rehearsed her opening sentence silently to herself. “His name is Marcus. He lives in a large, dark, house with inky black ghosts. Marcus is alone in the darkus.”

She knew ‘darkus’ was not a real word, but that was what was so wonderful about her lessons. Words didn’t have to be real—or places, or people, or anything. She could make a story from anything to go anywhere.

Suny had taught them that there were three kinds of story people; story tellers, story receivers and story generators. Since her and her cabin sisters were still at level one; they had not yet been typed. That would come later, Suny had said.

Elsinor loved how close her cabin mother’s name was to the sun. Add a single ‘n’ and she would be “Sunny.” That was how Elsinor thought of Suny—as sunny as the day is bright. Suny smiling from the clear blue sky. Suny skipping east to west and tucking herself into Still Mountain each night.

Elsinor smiled at her own word play. She just couldn’t seem to help herself. Words wanted to play in her head like music wanted to play in her mummy’s head. Better not let the words play now, she thought, lest she lose track of her dream.
Marcus in the darkus.

Elsinor finished slipping into the plain calico dresses that all the girls wore. Suny called them her “rainbow” because, when they lined up to greet her each morning, their individual dresses were all the colors of the rainbow—blue and green and yellow and red. Elsinor’s was blue, her favorite color. Suny said the rainbow was caused by light fractionating through miniscule drops of water. Fractionating. What a wonderful word. The day she had learned it, she had spun through the morning repeating the word to herself until it lifted off her tongue. Suny liked introducing her girls to new words. She also said the rainbow had many lessons to teach about how stories come to us.

My mind is having a busy morning, thought Elsinor with a smile. My mind is always busy. Focus. Socks, shoes, apron, hair braided—I am ready for the game.

“Girls. Assemble now.” Suny called to them. “It is time.”

Six girls lined up in front of Suny and she smiled, giving each one a hug of approval and a pat on the head. “Perfect,” she said. “My rainbow is most brilliant this morning. Let’s go.”

They left the cabin and followed the path past the dozen other small cabins clustered in the meadow. The spring sun was warm and friendly and Elsinor couldn’t resist leading the girls into formation. During one of their play times they had spent two hours devising the walking dance that included short skips and shuffles, a single hop and turn, and then back to the start of the pattern. Suny laughed as their little skirts puffed out in time to the rhythm of their toes.

They went to the main cabin, the dining hall where the game was to be played. Once each week, on Saturdays, the whole camp gathered this way. It was like a test, but not a test. Elsinor knew it was merely a chance for all the students to practice what they had learned during the previous week.

The main cabin was her favorite place in the whole world besides the woods, and her own little bed. It was a long log building all wide-open except for the small round tables scattered about. She liked the friendly old logs—Suny called them old gentlemen in service to stories. Elsinor most liked the game—and she liked to eat.

Her group gathered around their table. The board game was closed and waiting for them. She shivered with excitement again and repeated her opening sentence silently to herself. My character’s name is Marcus. He lives in a large, dark . . .

Each game began with the whole group, hands extended, palms up, doing what the Elders called “Holding the Silence” for ten minutes. Elsinor looked down at her hands and saw her fingers were actually trembling. It always seemed, as the minutes passed, that she was actually holding something and that the something seemed to get heavier and heavier, but it was not an unpleasant feeling. In fact, it made her feel older, bigger somehow, as if she was holding something very important.

This morning there were only six tables of six, half boys and half girls up to age fourteen, the first level students. The Master Storyteller for each table usually placed his or her chair just to the outside of the circle.

Master Simon was the eldest Elder of the whole camp. Elsinor thought he must be at least two thousand years old, but Suny had laughed and said no, she thought he was only about seventy-five. Master Simon ended the silence by smiling and saying, “Begin the game.”

Suny arranged the small stacks of story cards and said, “As you know, girls, each card is like an opening, a cave opening. It will take you more and more deeply into your story if you will let it. Choose and name your character piece now.

On the table were a dozen small characters created from old, colorful beads. The little people had heads and torsos, arms and necks, some even had little caps made from silver or gold. All had been fitted into small lumps of clay so they could stand and be moved. Elsinor called them “the bead people” and, in the past, she had simply made up her stories based on the bead person she chose. Today, she had a different story ready. She chose a small, plain bead person made of all black beads except for a flat, wooden cap. The little figure reminded her of Marcus in the darkus. When she picked him up and silently gave him his name—Marcus—an inky sadness suddenly overwhelmed her. She fought the urge to cry.

Suny was watching and said, “Elsinor, are you okay?”

She gulped and said quietly, “Yes. I’m fine.”

“All right then. Will you begin?”

Elsinor looked around at her cabin sisters; Sarah, Toni, Jessica, Rachel and Laura—they were all staring back at her kindly, waiting for her to begin the game. Her throat felt tight, like a frog had jumped into it, and she feared if she opened her mouth all that would come out would be a little ‘croak.’

She swallowed hard and began. “My character’s name is Marcus. He lives in a large, dark house with inky black ghosts. Marcus . . . is alone in the darkus.” The words came out easily enough but, to her great embarrassment, when she repeated the last phrase, she burst into tears.

Suny rushed to her side and said, “Elsinor, baby, what is the matter?”

But she couldn’t stop crying long enough to explain. Suny called Master Simon over. He came instantly and she said, “Will you please begin our game? Elsinor needs a walk in the sunshine.” Simon nodded and took the chair beside the table and waved them away without a word. Suny took Elsinor’s arm, led her past the others, and out the door of the main dining hall.
Once outside, Elsinor drank in the morning air in great gulps and the tears began to abate. “Okay, my girl,” Suny said. “Tell me what just happened.”

“I feel ashamed, Suny.”

“No honey. No need for that feeling here. Some stories just make us cry. It is a story, isn’t it? That made you cry? You aren’t hurt or sick . . . .?”

“No, I’m not sick. It was a story. Well, not a story, yet, but my dream. I dreamed about a boy, Suny. I woke up feeling him, hearing his words. Marcus alone in the darkus.” When she said those words, the tears began to fill her eyes again. “Master Simon tells us to turn dream into story, but I don’t want to with Marcus.”

“Tell me about him, sweetheart.”

“He is a very nice boy, but so sad. He feels like he is all alone in the world.”

“Where do you place him?” Suny was following the game pattern even though they had left the dining hall. They were nearing the edge of the woods, and Suny went to a large, flat granite boulder, sat down and pointed to the space beside her. “Sit down, baby. And remember, follow your intuition. You can trust that. Where do you place the boy?”

Elsinor let her mind wander back into the sleep world, the world where dreams come alive. She began slowly. “Marcus lives in a village in Still Mountain Valley with his parents and family in a big old house.”

“How old is he?” Suny prompted.

“Marcus is . . . eleven. He has three older brothers and three younger sisters. Marcus in the middle.” She heard the words in her mind and had caught them just the way Master Simon had encouraged them to do. Dreams are like birds aloft, Simon had said. You must capture the bits and pieces straight out of the air. Elsinor ventured on, following the story in her mind now. “Marcus lives in a huge, dark house at the edge of a village. It sits apart from the rest of the village and the local children call it haunted even though a whole family lives there. They call it haunted not because of ghosts living there but because something else—something dark and inky lives there.” She stopped and turned her head to look into Suny’s face. She saw there were tears in her cabin mother’s eyes.

“Go on, honey. You are following the thread just as we have taught you. Trust that.”

Elsinor nodded and went on. “Marcus would like to chase away or kill the dark thing but he can’t.” Following the thread, as Suny called it, felt so strange, as if she were peering through a waterfall. The images were all there, the many lives moving around the dark house, but veiled and murky.

“And why can’t he, Ellie? Marcus can’t chase our or kill the dark thing living in his house because . . . .”

And. Because.

Suny had taught them the magic of those words. She put her palms out to hold the silence for a moment. The watery veil thinned and suddenly she knew why. Tears filled her eyes again.

Suny leaned closer. “Because . . . ?”

“Because the dark thing that lives in Marcus’ house . . . is his father.”

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