“Where are we?” the old man said.
“In a dark wood.”
“Who are you?” said the old man.
“Just … a brother,” said the young man.
“Stop,” the old man said. “Let me look at you.”
“It is dark.”
“And I am blind. For me it is always dark. I can see with my hands, if you will allow me.”
The old man felt first the young man’s wavy hair.
“Please, describe the color of your hair.”
“Have you seen colors?”
“I have never had sight.”
“Then how can I describe colors?”
“I know the cold on my skin of the black, moonless night,” the blind, old man said. “I know the cool, damp of the brown earth. I know the warmth of golden bright sunshine. I know the searing heat of red fire. Which of these is it?”
“My hair is the color of golden bright sunshine.”
The old man ran his fingers over the young man’s face.
“You look like a god, the god Apollo, god of archers, music and dance.”
“My twin brother was compared to a statue of the god Apollo,” the young man said. “My twin brother’s hair was the color of golden sunlight, like mine, but he dyed it the color of cold, black night.”
A woman screamed.
The young man pulled the arm of the old man, and together they made it through the dark wood, in the direction of the scream, to a small log cabin at the shore of a black lake.
The door to the cabin was open, warm yellow light streaming out. Two young women were in the doorway, a blonde standing just inside the cabin, a dark-haired one with both feet outside, leaning forward, straining, but being held back by the blonde woman’s grip around her waist.
Other than the hair color, the two looked so similar that the young man thought they must be sisters.
“What’s the use,” the dark-haired sister said. “I can’t take this anymore.”
With that, she managed to break free from her sister’s grip and ran directly toward the black lake behind the cabin.
When she got to the shore of the lake, without hesitation she threw herself forward into the water, and the lake swallowed her up without even a ripple marring the still, black surface.
The remaining sister’s shoulders slumped.
“I knew it,” she said, speaking to the young man and the old man, apparently unsurprised at seeing strangers. “I knew she would do it. I couldn’t stop her.”
“I’m sorry,” the old blind man. “I have no sight. What did she do?”
“She went into the Lake of the Forgotten,” the blonde woman said. “She couldn’t resist its pull anymore. I don’t know how much longer I can.”
“Was she your sister?” the young man asked, although he felt he already knew the answer.
“Yes, she was my sister.”
“Then I am sorry for your loss,” the young man said.
“And I wish I had come sooner,” the old man said.
“What could you have done?” the remaining sister said, then turned her back on them and went inside the little log cabin, leaving the door open, with the warm, yellow light streaming out into the cold, dark night.
As they entered and closed the door behind them, the old man said: “Describe it to me.”
“It is a very large room,” the young man said, “much, much, larger than should fit inside the small cabin we entered. It is the size of a great hall in a castle. There are people, so many people, hundreds of people, sitting in chairs upholstered in leather the color of red hot fire, and the color of brown earth, and the color of black moonless night. They are seated around small tables in groups of four and three and two and some by themselves. Some are dining, others are playing board games or cards or dice. There are no windows, but I see dozens of closed doors all around the great hall, and the walls are lined with shelves full of leather-bound books. There is a large, empty stone floor with a fire pit in the center of the hall, and next to it is an empty chair upholstered in yellow leather, the color of warm golden sunlight.”
“Thank you,” said the old man. “That was a very clear description. I can see it all in my mind’s eye. Please bring me one of the leather-bound books.”
“Any one will do. I will just stand right here and wait for you.”
The young man went to the nearest bookshelf, which was still fifty paces from where they had entered, picked a book at random, and opened it. The pages were all blank. He opened another, and another, all the same, every page blank.
This is strange, he thought, but so is everything else about this place. And I suppose it doesn’t matter to a blind man.
So he brought one of the blank books back to the blind man.
“Thank you.” The old man accepted the book. “Now, lead me to the chair by the fire pit.”
When the old man sat down in the yellow chair, the people, who had all been silent until this moment, began to moan and grumble and cry out.
“Don’t sit there!” one shouted.
The old man just smiled.
“Nobody sits there!” yelled another.
“Well, I am,” said the old man, “sitting here.”
One man was by himself at the table nearest the fire pit and the yellow chair. He now arose and approached the old man.
“No one has ever sat there before,” the man said. “And I do not know why this is so. I only know that the chair is not for us who have no stories of our own.”
“Describe this man to me,” the old man said.
“He is tall and thin with fine features,” the young man said. “His hair is the color of red hot fire. His eyes are the blue-green color of cool water as you let your hand trail outside the boat on a warm summer day. He is dressed in the livery of a servant.”
“What is your name?”
“Heinrich,” said the red-haired man dressed in livery. “They call me Iron Heinrich.”
“You said you cannot sit in this chair because you have no story of your own.”
“None of us here have stories of our own,” said Iron Heinrich. “We only have parts of stories.”
“Then tell me your part.”
And so Iron Heinrich told the story of a prince who was turned into a frog, and how a princess kissed the frog, and he became a prince again.
“My part of the story,” Iron Heinrich, “feels like an afterthought. I was the servant of the prince, and I was known then as Faithful Heinrich. When the prince was changed into a frog, I had my heart bound in three iron bands to keep it from bursting with grief, for iron is stronger than grief. Then, on the day of the prince’s wedding to the princess, the three iron bands broke away and fell off, one by one, making a loud crack as each broke away from my heart, for love is stronger than iron. And so I was renamed to Iron Heinrich. That is it, my little part in the story. I appear at the very end, and there is so little connection to the story of the frog prince that mostly my part is forgotten when the tale is told.”
The young man said: “At least you have a part in the story.”
“Yes, I do,” said the Iron Heinrich, “but then what? Is that all there is for me, a part in someone else’s story?”
“You want your own story,” the old man stated.
“Yes,” said Iron Heinrich. “Is that so much to ask?”
“All you need to do is ask. And it just so happens,” the old man said, as he opened the leather-bound book to one of the blank pages, “that I have your story right here.”
Then the old man began telling Iron Heinrich’s story, and as he did, the young man saw words appear on the pages, along with fine illustrations in bright colors.
In the story, Iron Heinrich was walking through a meadow and there he found a suit of armor bound to a rock with heavy iron chains. The armor was that of the future king who was to rule that country. A witch had chained the armor to the rock and enchanted it so that no-one had been able to even come near it. So the country had no king, and the witches and faeries and imps ran free and tipped cows and turned milk sour and transformed people into toads and did all sorts of mischief since there was no king to set things straight. But Iron Heinrich, whose heart was pure and good, walked right up to the suit of armor and put his hand on the iron heart in the center of the breastplate, and then the iron chains broke, and the magical suit of armor was freed from the spell. Then Iron Heinrich put on the suit of armor, and then …
“… and then?” Iron Heinrich’s blue-green eyes were wide. “What happens to me then?”
The old man closed the book.
“That is for you to find out.” He patted the book. ''It’s all in here. Your story is told. But you must go live it. And as you live it, you can’t know what will happen next. You will only know what it was all about when you look back. But I promise you, it’s a good story, full of heroic deeds, laughter, great food and drink, some romance, and friendships too, even though there are dark times and trouble and sorrow, but in the end you will … well, I am not permitted to tell you what will happen in the end. Do you see a door with an iron heart on it in this room?"
Iron Heinrich looked around. “Yes,” he said, “I see it”.
And the young man saw it too, one of the doors had an iron heart in the middle of it. The heart hadn’t been there before, but now it was.
“When you go out that door,” the old man said, “you will find yourself in a meadow with a magical suit of armor chained to a rock. And then your story begins.”
Iron Heinrich thanked the old man and then walked straight over to the door with the iron heart. When Iron Heinrich opened the door, outside was a green meadow with a bright, blue, cloudless sky. Iron Heinrich walked through the door and shut it behind him. The iron heart on the door glowed red for a moment, then vanished.
Next up was the young, blonde woman whose sister had gone into the Lake of the Forgotten.
“My name is Javotte,” she said. “My poor sister and I had the same part in a story. You couldn’t really separate us one from the other. So in a way I didn’t even have my own part of the story.”
“I know how that feels,” said the young man.
“But it gets worse,” Javotte said. “Our shared part was a bad one. We were the mean, arrogant stepsisters.”
“You mean, like in Cinderella?” the young man said, since those were the stepsisters that came to mind first.
“Not ‘like’ in Cinderella. Precisely the story of Cinderella. That was her story, our stepsister, Ella, who we called Cinderella, because she sat in the cinders of the fireplace to keep warm. See, you immediately thought of us, didn’t you, my sister and I, when I said ‘mean, arrogant stepsisters’? That’s all we are, mean and arrogant. That’s why my sister went into the Lake of the Forgotten. How would you like it if all you were known for was being mean and arrogant?”
“At least you’re known for something,” the young man said.
The old man opened the book, flipped past the pages with Iron Heinrich’s story, until he came to the next blank page.
The young man saw words and illustrations forming on the page. Then suddenly the old man closed the book.
“Some songs,” he said, “end in a minor key.”
“You mean,” Javotte said, “a tragedy?”
“A brave tale of sacrifice. You would be remembered as a heroine. But, yes, this story, if you should choose to accept it, is a tragedy.”
“Will I love and be loved?”
The old man opened the book again. A single tear formed in one of his milky white eyes, ran down his cheek, and fell onto the page.
“Yes,” he said. “You will love and be loved.”
“Then,” Javotte said. “I want that story.” She straightened her shoulders that had been slumped since her sister dove into the Lake of the Forgotten, and looking around she saw that a large teardrop had formed on one of the doors.
She thanked the old man and took her leave through the door.
After Javotte had exited and shut the door behind her, the teardrop glowed blue for a moment, then disappeared.
And so it went on and on, as one by one the people left their chairs and stood before the old, blind man to each receive their very own story.
The young man noticed that as time went by, the old man was asking him for his thoughts and ideas, and the old man would use the young man’s ideas to weave the stories, until toward the end it was the young man telling the stories with just a prompt from the old man and eventually the old, blind man sat back in his yellow leather chair and just smiled and nodded as the young man told the stories.
After the last of them had left out the door to live their own story, the old, blind man said:
“Now, young man, it is time for you to tell me your story.”
“What do you mean?” the young man said. “I don’t have a story. I’m just a brother.”
“So you say, but you have a name?”
“I have a name, but I had no life.”
“Let us start with your name.”
The young man was quiet for a long time. Then he sighed from deep within his chest and spoke:
“My name is Jesse Garon Presley. I was born dead. After I was born dead, my twin brother, Elvis Aaron Presley, was born alive, and he grew up to be a famous man, a great singer. All throughout his life, Elvis grieved for me. But that’s all there is to me, the lost twin brother who never lived. Until I found myself in the dark wood, holding your arm, I never even was.”
“Let me tell you my story,” the old, blind man said. “My name is Demodocus. A famous storyteller — maybe the most famous storyteller who ever lived — was named Homer. He told a story about a hero named Odysseus. In that story — the Odyssey — I have a small part, where I tell stories to Odysseus, stories that are so powerful that they make the great hero break down in tears, and through that catharsis his tongue is freed to tell his own story. Homer made me blind because Homer himself was blind. In a sense, Homer made me an image of himself, as if he, himself, was inside the story he told. But that’s all I am, a storyteller. I can tell stories for others, but I have no story for myself.”
Jesse, the young blond man, said: “Demodocus, now that you’ve taught me to tell stories, I will tell you your story. You, Demodocus, walk through the worlds to find people who feel that their life stories are yet untold. No matter who they are, no matter what they have done before, no matter their age, you help them and inspire them to live their own stories.”
“Thank you,” said Demodocus, the old, blind storyteller. “Yes, I accept. That will be my story.”
The old man stood up and took the young man’s hand, then guided him into the yellow chair. When Jesse was seated in the yellow chair by the fire pit, the old man bowed to the young man, then looked straight at him with his milky white eyes.
“Now let me tell you your own story,” the old, blind man said, and his voice made an echo in the great, empty hall. “Just as I, Demodocus, help the real people in the real worlds live their stories, you, Jesse Garon Presley, who never lived, is the teller of the untold stories of those who come to this hall, the story-people who never existed outside of fairy tales, myths, poems, and fiction of all kinds, and who only have parts in other people’s stories. Do you accept this as your own story?”
“I do,” said Jesse, “and I’m grateful, but surprised. I thought that my part in the story would be to serve as your guide. I was resigned to simply being a part of your story. That would be so much better than someone who never even had a story. But now you have set me free to live my own story, for as long as there are stories told and story-people who only have small parts, which is to say … forever. Thank you, Demodocus. But tell me this, how can you, blind as you are, make your way through the worlds without someone to guide you?”
“I am guided,” Demodocus said, “by the beacons of hope, shining like candles across the worlds. I see hope in the darkness. I walk through darkness towards hope. All I need from those whose stories are yet untold, is their faintest glow of hope.”