Thursday, 31 January 2008


It was on a gloomy day in December that I first heard the Story. We were celebrating Santa Lucia and had just eaten slightly more than you would at the average Christmas dinner. In other words, we were stuffed, with little extra energy to do much more than sit ourselves around our wood burner and talk. It was blowing cold outside, whistling through our poorly-fitted windows and occasionally causing the fire to roar and flare suddenly. Our chairs were threadbare and uneven, but we made ourselves as comfortable as we could.
But all this is background detail. How the Story came to be told began something like this.

“Well, I must say, that food was marvellous!”
The company all agreed this was the case, although one looked slightly pensive. There was a lull and then she broke from her reverie and began thus.
“Santa Lucia.”
The company gazed over at her with polite enquiry.
“Saint Lucy, Patron Saint of the Blind. December 13th.”
Continued politeness. Slight bewilderment.
“For a long time it was considered the longest, therefore the darkest, night.”
As above.
“It was the same day last year that I was told the Story. I later considered this appropriate.”
One of us replied, “Well, it’s the perfect time for a story. We are full, warm and comfortable.”
The company all paused to consider this and mentally amended the last with the adverb ‘reasonably.’
“I will tell you the Story. But I warn you that a story can never be untold. Are you ready to listen?”
She fixed her eyes upon the company, lit as if by some unearthly gleam. We sat transfixed and drawn inwards, watching, waiting for the Story to begin.
“Amongst an Unknown People, in an Unknown Place, there is the Temple of Chance. It was said amongst those people that the Temple contains all the power of the Universe, but that it is locked, hidden, secret. One day there will come a person who will unlock, expose and learn all that the Temple can teach. Many people entered the Temple and were never seen or heard from again. This did not deter more people from going.
“A young woman once decided to enter the Temple. She went to try and find her brother, who had gone to the Temple some years ago. She learnt that you can only know the Temple if you agree to join in the Game of Chance. A soul-binding contract that needs nothing more than the willingness to listen to fix its seal.”
“Are you ready to listen?”
The stone door stood before her, requiring nothing more than her presence to open. She hovered on the brink, momentarily suspended between Being and Not Being. She stepped forward. The door immediately dissolved into smoke, which curled outwards from a dense and unrevealing blackness. She entered the Temple.
Her footsteps made nothing more than the slightest patter in the absolute silence. The undefined space felt both bewilderingly large and repressively tiny. The floor felt strange, almost rubbery under her feet, but she dared not touch it with her bare-skinned fingers. She felt also that this was not a place to linger, but to go on and to keep going until she finds a place to which she can go.
After a measureless time, she sees a light, dim and red and far away. She begins to run, her feet springing lightly off the floor. She thinks nothing, sees nothing except for the light.
As she gets closer she begins to see other shapes moving amongst the light. She slows her pace and adjusts her eyes to absorb the scene before her.
There are hundreds of people here and they are all drifting amongst the light. There seems nothing more than random patterning in the way that they clump together and then break apart again. The light seems ambient, but there is no discernable source. She looks to the floor and sees many small red dots in the middle of many black squares, outlined by edges of an emptier, truer darkness. There seem to be walls here too and these are also covered in black squares with red dots, glowing dimly in the centre.
“What is this place?” she wonders.
“This is the Game of Chance,” one of the figures replies, its dull, grey eyes fixed shrewdly on her. “Are you playing?”
“How…?” she begins to think, when the speaker suddenly leaps onto one of the black squares and disappears through it, as though there was nothing but air.
There is a rush of commotion as all the people begin to move at once, passing through the squares and on to the other side. She could not be alone again. She jumped onto one of the squares and passed through.
When she emerged again she found on her wrist a bright, red light, like a brilliant, blazing jewel. A red line, like a bracelet, was traced all round her wrist, joining at the central point of the light. She regarded her wrist momentarily, but her mind seemed in a terrible confusion. She could not remember what had happened on the other side, but that something in the back of her mind was screaming for her attention. All other thoughts were driven out by the one over-riding, all-consuming knowledge that she must play another round of Chance.

“But what happens? What is the Game of Chance?” one of the company interrupted at this point.
Our storyteller paused.
“Once you are playing the Game, you will know. When you see such a doorway, try stepping through it.”
“I don’t think I’m likely to, do you?” the interrupter replied anxiously.
The Storyteller looked distant for a moment and softly murmured beneath her breath, “To sleep, perchance to dream.”
At which point, the Story continued.
She had been playing Chance a long time. Her arms were covered in glistening red circles, but she knew she needed more.
“Where have they all gone?” she thought irritably, almost aggressively inside her mind.
The many squares were no longer lit by red dots, but had taken on a smooth, glassy surface.
“Where are they?” she demanded of herself.
She was so consumed by searching for the red lights that it took her much longer to notice that she was now alone.
“Where?” she said aloud, approaching one of the walls, which had once been chequered by the red orbs. She looked on the wall and saw a person there, through the glassy surface.
“Are you all there, on the other side?” she asked, realising, without much regret, that she was the only one left.
She looked closer at the surface, the deceiving brightness of them.
“Mirrors!” she exclaimed, with as much irritation as surprise, “They are all mirrors!”
She swung at them wildly, shattering the glass, but leaving the fragments suspended, reflecting thousands of images of her angry face.
“But I need another round of Chance!” she screamed at the faces, before turning to stalk amongst the walls and floors, searching for more Games.
She came to a corner between two walls, whose mirrored surface reflected not herself, but an unknown figure. It was a tall, grey-bearded man, who beckoned for her to approach.
“You have completed the Game of Chance,” the man intoned heavily, “But there is one more stage before the end.”
She approached the glass and it seemed the most natural thing in the world to pass through it and join him on the other side.
“Now the testing begins,” he said, before leading her into a small, circular room. There were two chairs at a small, stone table. They sat opposed.
“There are three questions.”
She felt restless. It had been a long time since her last round of Chance.
“First: Which of these is safe to eat?”
The man presented her with a tray of oddly assorted shapes. She didn’t have time for this. She needed more Chance. She picked one at random.
“Second: Which one of these is safe to drink?”
Another tray; this time with different coloured fluids. She picked the red one.
“Third: Draw me what you are thinking.”
She was passed a pen and paper. She knew she must draw Chance. Automatically, her hand began to trace line after line across the paper, like a manic scribble, but with incisive precision. She handed it back.
“Scars,” the man murmured as if to himself. He withdrew another piece of paper and compared them. The image depicted was the same, but whilst one paper still glistened with wet ink, the other was pocked with the marks of extreme age.
“You may now pass through the Temple of Chance.”
And so she did. And she saw the Temple’s secret. She saw the Game of Chance and the other side.
She remembered and she was in agony. The great open blackness, the overwhelming pressure of despair. She could see every person as a glowing red light that flutters and is then extinguished, leaving nothing but a mark like a circle. She remembered why she had come to the Temple and that she had found her brother in the very first round of Chance. She knew now why she must keep playing, because that way she would not have to be in a world where she had the capacity to remember that first round and the spirit of her brother burning, scarring into her flesh. And with a low-pitched moan, she used the power she had gained and used it to forget.
But guilt must be accounted for somehow and the Furies must have their blood. On the darkest night of the year she must remember and disperse her guilt afresh amongst any who agree to
listen. For any who would agree to take her place and join in the Game of Chance.


And thus the story ended and the whole company began to move again, as if suddenly released. There was a sort of communal bemusement about the group, as we looked amongst each other and seemed not to know what had passed. I was first to notice the absence of the Storyteller.
“Where did she go?”
“Who go?” one of the company asked me, looking slightly puzzled.
“The girl, the one who was sitting right there,” I replied, indicating an empty seat.
“There’s no-one been sat there,” I heard the reply, “you must have been dozing. It does happen after so wonderful a meal!”
And thus the company did not want to hear anymore of Storytellers or Storytelling. But I got cautiously from my seat and walked to the chair, from which I had learnt the Story. And I touched the seat with my fingers. And I can honestly say that never before or since has the sensation of warmth left me with such a sense of chill.