The dry-farmer’s fields rested along the inner curve of a crescent-shaped peninsula that cut far into the ocean. The wind that swooped in from the sea bowed the heather and bilberry shrub, trembled the silver birches, red-berried rowans, and the spindly aspens along the coastline, until the gusts were calmed by the generous oaks and tall beeches farther inland. Here, curling fern fronds veiled the forest floor in green and concealed the paths of foxes, lynxes, and martens.
As opposed to the wet-farmer’s short grains, the dry-farmer’s crops didn’t need to stand in water, thus they required much less irrigation and could be worked by a single person year-round.
A small shack sheltered the dry-farmer from the bottomless nights and the ocean gales. On white winter evenings, he allowed his hen and sow and ox to sleep indoors, despite the prohibition, after the decimating chest-sickness the year before, of sharing living quarters with livestock.
In the spring, the farmer plowed the soft, dark fields with the ox. The sun had just bruised the western sky above the forest, and the freshly turned earth beneath his naked feet was fragrant with life. Words rose in his mind like whispered secrets or clouds forming over a hill on a hot day. He listened, and additional words hummed inside him, so he steered the ox back to his small home, removed the plow, drew lukewarm water from the well, and poured it on the hooves of the animal, as well as over his own feet. Then he went inside and sat down at the square oak table. A stack of flax paper left over from the letters sent at winter solstice lay in the drawer, a bowl of ink remained from the small octopus he had eaten for dinner, the black fluid saved for making dark wheat batter. He lit the zinc lantern on the table with a twig from the hearth. Like a memory of dawn, the warm light gilded the rough pine walls. However, the farmer had no quill; the hen was outside chasing earthworms in the newly turned soil, and he saw no shed feathers on the floor. A red crab had accompanied the octopus as dinner, so the farmer broke off its third leg, dipped it in the ink, and started to write.
The words continued to appear. The farmer wrote them in the same methodical way he picked bilberries and cowberries in the woods by the fields. Slowly, the tale revealed itself, like a stage’s curtain lifting to a scene lit by a single lantern: a man hunched over an oak table, dipping a crab’s claw into octopus ink and scraping the tip of the exoskeletal limb across rough linen rag. The farmer wrote all evening and night, until the sky had gone from black to navy to purple to violet to pink to yellow to the blue of morning. By then, the ox had come inside and lay snoring at the hearth, the sow curled up against his back, and the hen perched atop his broad and warm head, beak under the wing.
Occasionally, the ox lifted his head to look at the farmer. They plowed, seeded, watered, and harvested the fields together. When the soil rested under snow, the ox and the farmer pulled firewood home from the forest on the sun-bleached sled that stood behind the shack. The ox enjoyed the work. The sequence of the fields’ colors as the seasons changed and the crops grew were his words to the earth and the sky.
The sow wrote her stories with the softness and sensitivity of her snout, when the delicious scents from the nuts and mushrooms and tubers hidden in the underbrush reached her, and when she kicked up the soil with her forelegs, pushed it aside, and closed her teeth around the sweet morsels. The sow had been intended as winter solstice dinner two years ago. The farmer had bought her as a piglet in the spring, but as the summer and fall passed, he became so attached to the animal that having a thin meal of winter jellyfish and dried barley seemed a small sacrifice for not taking an axe to her head. As thanks for sparing her life, the sow ate the weeds that peeked between the crops in the fields and the grass that grew around the flagstones and the rim of the well.
The farmer’s hen wrote her stories with her feet and claws, in the dust of the floor and the dirt on the flagstones, turning rows of Y-shaped letters like tally documents from a wedge-script civilization that only developed a single vowel—white, oval eggs left in the wet morning grass.
The farmer wrote, page after page, as sentences streamed into his mind. It was as if the tale wrote itself. All the farmer had to do was jot down the words before they vanished back into the unknown. After three days of constant writing, the ink bowl was empty even though the farmer had diluted the thick, black fluid twice. Red-eyed and dizzy with the need for sleep, he rose and stretched until his joints popped and creaked with relief. Then he took the fish trap down from its spike on the back wall. It was time to catch more ink.
The next day, the farmer returned to the fields with the ox. The rows turned out as wobbly and as uneven as his hand, and his mind was far away. The ox snorted and tried to pull the plow as straight as he could on his own. At night, the farmer wrote until he fell asleep at the table. Several nights like this passed.
Finally, the tale was complete, transformed from whispers to ink-blotched, moisture-buckled paper with a spindly, slanting hand, the stack almost as thick as the gravestones out in the copse, only much lighter in weight. The farmer hadn’t intended to show anyone the story, but on a whim he tied the sheets together with a length of rough twine and addressed it to the region’s daily publication. When the mailman passed the next day, he left with the stack and half a dozen quail eggs which the farmer had collected from nests in the woods.
The days left the blushing dusks of spring, the blue nights of summer, and the gray mornings of fall, and sailed into winter, when the land slept in white, and red fire roared in the farmer’s hearth. Then spring returned and the world again became warm and soft.
On one of those days, a bright-white carriage pulled by eight horses came rushing to the farm along the weed-choked road that coursed past the fields. The vehicle was trailed by a long serpent of dust which dulled the carriage’s gilded-leaf carvings, slim finials, and elegant molding with a layer of fine grit. Even the shining brass door handles and the white silk drapes that were collected in elegant curves behind the windows were taupe with dust. Four guardsmen, their crested morion helmets, puffed-out cuirasses, and spiked halberds so polished that they stung the eye, jumped from the platforms at the front and back of the vehicle, and lined up before it. Then they pulled the door open, while a series of mechanical brass stairs folded out from beneath the carriage with plaintive creaks.
The farmer swayed and blinked. The night before, he had celebrated the completion of the sowing with a bottle of dark plum wine. Three men exited the carriage by bowing deeply to avoid pushing their wide, feather-adorned hats and their tall, powdered wigs off their heads and into the dust. They each had the same slender body and bony face as the farmer, but their skin was white from lead paste and their eyes dark from excess. The trio smelled of lily of the valley perfume, talcum powder, and sweat. As opposed to the farmer’s gray wool attire, their clothing glittered in the sun.
“I am the king’s third sycophant,” the first man said, and bowed almost as deeply as he had when he exited the carriage. His jacket and breeches were sky blue, with darker silk woven into flourishes and arabesques that gleamed and glistened when he moved. His white shirt was adorned with a short lace cravat and cuffs of the same delicate material. His socks and shoes were white. Both his middle fingers boasted rings, a band of gold and a band of silver.
“I am the second sycophant,” said the next man. His jacket and breeches were clear yellow, like the summer sun that dances on the ocean, with a pattern of orange ash leaves and ferns shining in the silk. Silver rings with smooth ovals of green jade and white jade and yellow amber and orange amber gleamed on his index and ring fingers.
“And I am the first sycophant,” the last man said, enunciating each word carefully. His jacket and breeches were dawn pink, with darker roses and stems flashing in the fabric. His shirt and socks and shoes were snow white. He wore rings on his thumbs, middle, and ring fingers, large orbs of indigo lapis lazuli, black obsidian, pink quartz, purple sugilite, red carnelian, and a burning tiger’s-eye set in gold.
“This? This is the writer?” the first sycophant said in a low voice.
“How should I know?” the second sycophant said. “Is there ink on his fingers?”
“Hold out your hands,” the third sycophant said.
It was a year since the farmer had finished the tale, nevertheless his hands were still dark from the octopus fluid. He had washed many times, not always with soap, because soap took a long time to make, but the dark blotches on his palms and fingers seemed imprinted on his skin, like tattoos.
“His hands are stained!” the third sycophant intoned, as if the farmer’s hands had been mottled with blood instead of ink.
“This is the writer!” said the second sycophant.
“Come with us,” the first sycophant said.
They took him to a spiral of mother-of-pearl that circled itself while reaching for the sky like the highest of humankind’s ambitions. The walls of the nacreous tunnels had been eaten away by the sun and the rain and the wind, until only the inner structure, plateaus supported by tendon-like buttresses in a cat’s cradle of bone, remained. The disc-shaped elevations carried streets and alleys and houses and shops and fortresses and cathedrals and castles in smaller and tighter, yet ever-loftier heights. At the tip of the vertical spiral burned a bright and hot flame.
For the people of the mother-of-pearl city, this fire proved that the stars followed the Earth in the Heavens, and not the other way around, as some scholars claimed. The constant flame made winters kinder, springs calmer, summers longer, and autumns more generous. At night, like a warm moon, it illuminated the city and the surrounding farmland with a golden light. The edge of the luminance marked the city’s boundaries, and sailors and coach drivers used it to find their way home.
The farmer assumed the journey would end at a shop or a house in the lowest tier, where only those born and raised within the light of the city were permitted. This stratum housed the majority of the city’s children, women, and men in slanting, half-timbered houses along both sides of the main road, or by the crooked streets and alleys that branched off and ended abruptly at the edge of the plateau. Farther up, only the clergy, the justicars, the nobility, and the royal family were permitted, in higher and less populated tiers. Maids, valets, cooks, waiters and guards were selected exclusively from the houses on each level. At the top, even the servants were royal.
But the carriage rattled through the bone arch to the clergical tier, then to the judicial section, the noble plateau, and finally, through the slim, bird-thin gate to the royal elevation. The horses, harnessed two by two, leapt through the last and narrowest portal, and the carriage’s roof scraped against the lustrous mother-of-pearl.
The farmer blinked and craned his neck at the sudden sound.
“Do not worry,” the third sycophant said.
“The carriage fits perfectly within the gate,” the second sycophant said.
“Like the king’s most noble parts inside his favorite courtesan, or courtier,” concluded the first sycophant. The three men tittered and squeezed their eyes closed so their faces were only pasty cheeks and blackened eyebrows.
The royal tier was a circular meadow with a dark hill at its center, an island rising from an ocean of whispering grass. A single path of cobbles led toward the isle. Many stones were cracked or missing, so the carriage jumped and jolted. Up close, the hill resolved into a growth of sagging roofs, slanting walls, wind-buckled towers, moss-filled moats, and gardens that bristled with weeds. It was as if the buildings had tried to consume one another, each larger and more imposing than the next, but had bitten off more than they could chew and were now decomposing with their opponent still in their jaws. The farmer could make out castles and cathedrals, fortresses and mausolea, yet it was impossible to see where one structure ended and the next began.
The lump of buildings clung to the spine of the plateau as it reached for the sky and forced the eye up, up, up, to the tip, where a titanic flame burned yellow and white. The light was so intense that when the farmer looked directly at it, the colors of the world fell away and everything glowed as golden and significant as the fire itself.
However, the room they brought the farmer to was silent and dark, lit only by a single green-shaded brass lamp atop a massive mahogany desk. For as far as the farmer could see into the gloom, the walls were covered with bookshelves in carved and gilded wood, interspersed with slim columns that blossomed into arches high in the darkness. However, the shelves contained only shade and dust and the air was dry and still and cool, as in a tomb. The eastern wall held windows between the shelves, but all the curtains were drawn and from only one place did a sliver of sunlight scythe into the room. The farmer could just make out the crystal tinkle and glint from an unlit chandelier above him.
“Wait here,” the third sycophant said.
“Do not dare touch a thing,” said the second sycophant.
“The king wishes to see you,” the first sycophant said. The trio disappeared into the darkness. The farmer took in the heavy desk and the empty shelves that stretched before him. The desk had a leather pad in the middle, soft enough to write on, yet not so giving that the nib of a quill would pierce it; a stack of bleached wood pulp paper; an inkwell cut from a single crystal; and a long, white quill. A chair made from blond cherry wood, with a wine-red velvet cushion and a single rail across its back, a simple dining chair, accompanied the desk. The farmer stood on the other side, like a schoolboy in his headmaster’s office.
The king looked just like the sycophants and the farmer himself, the same meager body and narrow face, but he was dressed in the royal colors, bright white and gold. His silk jacket and breeches were white, with a pattern of sparrows and sun discs in lustrous strands, the lace sleeves and collar embroidered with thick gold thread. The king’s shirt, socks, and shoes were also white, the lace of his cuffs so long it concealed his hands. Nevertheless, it was easy to detect on each finger a ring with a large, translucent gem cut in smooth, tight angles that refracted the light in sparks sharp enough to kindle wood: a white diamond, a yellow diamond, a black diamond, a red ruby, a purple amethyst, a green emerald, a blue sapphire, a pink opal, a white pearl, and a black pearl, all set in broad bands of pale platinum. The king pulled back the dining chair with a thunder and sat down.
“Tell me of your tale,” the king said, his voice hard against the cold surfaces and listless air.
“Have you not read the story?” the farmer said.
“I have too much to do,” the king said. “You may tell me what happens in it.”
“All right,” said the farmer. “The tale is about a dry-farmer who lives on the inner edge of a crescent-shaped peninsula by a mother-of-pearl city that spirals to the sky and has a white-and-golden flame at its tip; he writes a story wherein everything he includes becomes true. When the king hears of this tale, he sends his guards to fetch the writer to the royal castle.”
The king blinked for a moment. “Why does everything in the story become true?”
“Because everything is part of the tale.”
“Many other stories have been written and they did not come true.”
“How do you know that?” said the farmer. “Have you read all tales?”
“No,” said the king. “And this story is written by the farmer?”
“Yes,” said the farmer.
“How did this simple man obtain such power?” the king said with a flick of his intricately woven lace cuff.
“It’s not the farmer’s power,” the farmer said. “He just ztook down the words that came to him.”
“Other men would have made themselves ruler or emperor in the tale,” said the king.
“Why did the farmer not do so?”
“He did not write the story to increase anyone’s gain,” the farmer said. “He simply wished to write.” For a moment the farmer wondered if the king would send him to the gallows, even though the possibility was not in the tale.
“Will whatever the farmer writes come true?”
“Only if it is in the story.”
“So the farmer knows what the king will ask him to write?”
“Yes,” said the farmer. “The king will ask him to write an endless life for the king, glory to the monarchy, success for the city in business and on the battlefield, content and happy subjects, death to insurgents, and misfortune for all enemies.”
“A ruler has a hundred wishes,” the king sighed. “The insignificant person only one. Does the farmer write what his king requests?”
“No, he does not.”
“And why is that?”
“Because it is not in the tale.”
“What if the king makes the farmer write it, so it becomes a part of the story?”
“That does not happen.”
“What does the king do about the farmer’s unsettling lack of loyalty?” said the king.
“He accepts it,” said the farmer.
“What if he does not want to accept it?” the king said and frowned.
“In the tale he has already done so,” the farmer replied.
The king exhaled. “So, if the king were to succeed in making the farmer write what is best for the kingdom, what he wishes, then it is not his merit, but the farmer’s? And vice versa. If the king fails in making the farmer write what he wishes him to write, then it is not the king’s fault, but the farmer’s?” the king said.
“No,” said the farmer.
“Why is that?”
“The farmer wrote the story as it came to him. He did not plan it.”
“Yet he wrote it.”
“Can you decide what to think and when?” the farmer said, and looked directly at the king.
“Of course I can,” the king said. “I can think of whatever I wish, whenever I wish.”
“Can you decide how the thoughts make you feel?”
“Yes, of course,” the king was about to say, but then he realized that he was less certain than he desired. “No,” the king finally said. “Sometimes the thoughts make me happy, other times sad, often when it is the least convenient, and I would have liked to feel differently. The moods appear when they choose.”
“That’s how it was with the tale,” the farmer said. “The tale came to the farmer like the wind and the rain and the seasons. The farmer did not select the words—they found him.”
For a moment the king was quiet. Above them, the unseen prisms spun their thin song in the silence.
“I see,” the king said. “So if the king were to succeed in making the farmer write what is best for the kingdom, what the king wishes, then it is not his merit, but the story’s? And vice versa. If the king fails to make the farmer write what the king wishes him to write, what is best for the kingdom, then it’s not the king’s fault, but the story’s?”
“Indeed,” the farmer said.
The king puckered his lips like he had sampled a spoiled hundred-sheets cake while his eyes moved back and forth in intense thought. “But this means, this means . . .” The king stood so abruptly that his chair tilted backwards and fell to the floor in a cannonade of noise.
“Yes,” said the farmer and smiled.
“Do you know what this means? Do you know what this means?” yelled the king, his eyes shining.
“Yes, I know what this means,” the farmer said, but the king heard only himself.
“This means that none of the successes or the failures are the king’s or the farmer’s—they belong to the tale!”
The farmer nodded.
“Just the tale!” cried the king and began to pace back and forth by the desk, like a hunting dog yearning to be released. “Success or failure, progress or loss, adoration or condemnation, it is just the tale! Just the tale!” His white make-up was smeared, skin visible beneath, like spring soil under melting snow. A piece of paper flitted from the desk and adhered to the sole of the regent’s right white-and-gold-buckled shoe, yet he was too elated to notice. Finally the king let himself go. He ran into the empty repository, shouting and leaping, his voice and steps sounding like blunderbuss volleys against the glistening parquet and gaping shelves. He rushed over to the curtains and tugged until they fell, until the summer dusk’s blue light blazed through the windows. Explosions of dust whirled up, and the sky overhead the decaying castle-cathedrals, gardens and moats was soft and unending. The king pulled down the curtains from two more windows before he danced out of the library.
The farmer picked up the chair, sat down at the desk, and studied the quill in front of him. There was no color or stain on the vane. The short, wide nib was translucent, like milk in sunlight. It had never been submerged in ink. He picked up the quill. It was taken from the tip of a bird’s wing and broader and heavier on one side. Thus, it lay well in the hand, yet not so heavy as to make it strenuous to move across paper. The vane was long enough to assist the dipping motion of writing, but not so heavy that the nib would seesaw up from the hand. The quill was perfectly balanced, like the finest épée. The farmer pulled a sheet of paper toward him, its skin smooth and bright. He flipped the lid of the crystal inkwell open, dipped the nib in black, and began to write.
Berit Ellingsen’s novel Not Dark Yet was published by Two Dollar Radio in November 2015. Berit is the author of the short story collection Beneath the Liquid Skin (firthFORTH Books) and the novel Une Ville Vide (PublieMonde), with work in W.W. Norton’s Flash Fiction International, SmokeLong Quarterly, Unstuck, Litro, and other places, and nominated for the Pushcart Prize, Best of the Net, and the British Science Fiction Association Award. Berit divides time between Norway and Svalbard in the Arctic, and is a member of the Norwegian Authors’ Union.