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“Tell it Slant” by Joanna Hoyt

Take it easy, sir. I’m not resisting arrest. I’m unarmed. I’m not stupid enough to try anything with all these guardsmen glaring at me. Anyway, I’m not the one you want. I’m not Alija. Surely you can see that; I’m old enough to be her mother…

Someone told you I was the storyteller? I wish I was. I’m just a storyteller. It was Alija who stirred things up with her stories that reminded people of the old uprising that your lot don’t want us to mention in case people should take it into their heads to try it again.

Yes, they do seem to be trying it again. Don’t blame me. This isn’t my story.

No, I’m not squealing on Alija. She’s dead. Not arrested, just shot. Didn’t you know? Maybe they didn’t realize who they were shooting. Or maybe they didn’t tell you… do you ever wonder about that?

Sorry, I wasn’t insulting you, just thinking out loud. For all I know you’re their right-hand man. No need to shove me.

Look, why don’t we finish this conversation here, outside? I can tell you more that way. Who’s going to interfere? Everyone else left when you arrived. Anyway, if you took me off to the dungeons I wouldn’t say anything useful.

No, that’s not defiance. Alija would have called on the memory of… the people we aren’t to mention…and refused to tell you anything. Me, I’m just explaining. Apart from the stories that get around about your lock-ups – and yes, I know how stories can get exaggerated – I can’t stand being shut away from air and light. I’d lose whatever reason I still have. I’d be no use to anybody. Could be I never was. I’m not Alija; I’m not Avall come again…

Sorry, sorry! But you’ve heard his name before, and now I’m not talking to a crowd that could get the wrong ideas. You know how they say Avall started the last uprising with his stories. I’m just trying to tell you I don’t have it in me to be the Avall of this age.

What do I have it in me to be? Well, I could be a bit like Nadi, maybe.

Never heard of Nadi? Ah well, your great-grandchildren won’t have heard of me. After they took Avall away, made him into a story, Nadi was still loose, being too unimportant to arrest. He was a storyteller too, but of another breed. Avall was all light and fire. They say when he told the old tale of the Bright Rising against the Ilid kings, the people who listened to him could see Sirin’s ship burning on the sea, feel the cold air in the mountain passes where the fugitives went to live free, hear the brave servant-girl’s dying cry in the royal courtyard and the hoarse singing of the servants and peasants and workmen who laid their tools down and kept vigil about the castle after she died…

All right, all right, I know I’m not supposed to tell that story either. I’m just trying to explain about Avall. The thing is, people remembered his stories and started to think how close their times were to the Ilid days, so next time a few people disappeared together and no one had seen the guardsmen come everyone thought of the mountains, and next time someone was found dead everyone thought of the servant-girl.

Now Nadi, he didn’t tell stories like that. Didn’t want to be arrested, maybe. Didn’t want to creak out on a one-stringed fiddle what Avall had done with a full orchestra, more likely. Do you know what that’s like? To have someone reach into the back of your mind and the strings of your guts and speak the things you know and want and fear that you don’t even admit to yourself, and then to have that person taken away to be a hero, and yourself left standing there with your brain and your guts unstrung, and then to have someone ask you for a story?

No, I guess you don’t know. I do, and Nadi did. So Nadi told little stories. Glow-worms. Hot-water bottles to keep your feet warm of a winter’s night. He’d tell about the tricks a young girl played on her older sister who was a palace servant, how she resented her and loved her. He’d have you laughing a little, wincing a little, as the girl went through the palace by night to spy on her sister, thinking she was meeting a lover; and then you’d hear heavy feet run by and see the young girl in the shadows, watching the moonlight on the courtyard and hearing her

sister’s dying cry. About the time the guardsmen on duty realized he’d come out to the ending of one of Avall’s stories, Nadi would be gone, vanished into the crowd.

Next day he’d appear in another square, telling about the jealousies of a pair of sheep in a poor man’s farm on the coast, putting in jokes I won’t repeat in front of your upstanding men; and just as the ewe was laughing at the ram with his horns stuck through the hole in the fence, she’d smell smoke and turn her head, and there would be a ship out on the sea, burning to the waterline; and the guards would perk their ears up, and Nadi would be gone.

Folk remembered the stories, remembered what he didn’t say more than what he said, and it kept something alive in them. Avall’s memory, yes, and something more. You know how that story ended.

No, I haven’t made a very good case for my own harmlessness, have I? Well, I wouldn’t be in a hurry to act on that if I were you. There are people behind you. They won’t like it if you hurt me. Since they can’t save Alija, I’m the next best thing.

That’s right. Put your sword up. Turn around.

No, your eyes aren’t playing tricks on you. The prison gate is open, and there’s a new flag flying.

Don’t blame me. This isn’t my story. My job was just to remind those people of something, and to distract you while they worked the main story out behind your back.

They don’t need me now. They’ve gotten to the end of the chapter. Maybe they think it’s the happy ending of the story, the same as they thought after the Bright Rising, the same as they thought in Nadi’s day. I know better than that, but I don’t know what happens next. Alija might have been able to guess. She might have been able to shape it into something better worth telling. I wish we had her here to try.

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About the Author

Joanna Hoyt lives with her family on a Catholic Worker farm in upstate New York where she spends her days tending gardens, goats and guests and her evenings reading and writing odd stories. Some of those stories have appeared in magazines including Scheherezade’s Bequest, Forge and Daily Science Fiction. She is alternately dismayed and delighted by the ways in which the stories we tell change our lives.

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