Fiction: Stories We Can Never Tell

by flaunt

Written by Justin Lee

Part 3 of 4 from a summer short fiction collection as seen in The Repercussions Issue

A lone monk stands in the library of a medieval monastery, holding a candle whose flame sputters beneath his quiet breath. He pulls from the stacks an ancient manuscript, the only one of its kind, setting it alight with his small flame. He smiles as the pages curl and their sacred letters transmute to smoke. A story passes from the world.

Is his sin greater for not having read the story?

We never learned the island’s name. The small port village was called le Galo, but the fisherman who named it to us might have been lying. What we knew for sure was that the winds had died six days prior to our arrival and we had been drifting in our sloop, tired and sunbaked, somewhere in the pleasant stasis of French Polynesia. We had a radio and could have requested help, but when certain items are concealed in your ship’s hull, “help” is better avoided. Some stories are better left untold. We were sure a breath of wind would come at last. It didn’t. And so when the island rose into view, green and hazy like a mirage, our decision was easy.

Enough English was spoken in the little village that we could make ourselves understood. At the time, it didn’t seem strange that such an out-of-the-way place should have an inn. The small man who led us there was both deferential and distrustful, as if we represented to him something familiar and fearful. He stopped just short of the property—which was perhaps a quarter mile outside of the village along the shore—and pointed us down a dirt path toward a cluster of well-kept but humble cottages.

We tipped him and he looked at the money as if it were an alien thing. I brought my wallet back out and tried to offer him a different currency, but he shook his head. He pocketed the money and flashed an enigmatic smile before turning back toward the village.

We proceeded to the smallest cottage, which we assumed must be the office. Inside we found a small counter that doubled as a front desk and dry bar. On the wall behind the counter were shelved a collection of fine liquors. A glass, half-filled with lime-green liquid and beaded with condensation, sat on the countertop. We searched for a bell, but there was none.

We set our small bags on the floor and waited for about ten minutes before we heard the sound of a toilet flushing. A large Polynesian man emerged from the door opposite the counter and started when he saw us. He wore a short-sleeved white dress shirt, brown slacks, and horn-rimmed glasses. He looked rather like a Samoan wrestler stuffed inside an accountant costume. Vitiligo riddled his arms and neck in patterns so precise it was as if they’d been designed.

“You must be Mr. and Mrs. Mortens,” he said, having regained his composure. “You’ll have to forgive my surprise. When you failed to arrive two nights ago, we assumed you wouldn’t be coming at all.”

We were not Mr. and Mrs. Mortens, but we decided to play along. “What do you require?” We asked.

“Oh, everything is already in order,” he said. “I’ll show you to your lodgings.”

He led us out of the office, past a few of the cottages before mounting the steps of the last and unlocking the door.

“I’m curious,” he said. “I didn’t hear the chopper this afternoon. Did you arrive by other means?”

“We made our own arrangements,” we said, “Hence our tardiness.”

“Well, no worries on that count,” he said. “You’ve arrived just in time. Even a day later and you’d have had to forgo the entertainment. Rules are rules, after all.”

Rules are rules, we agreed.

A delightful communal dinner was held that evening. We followed the other guests’ lead and offered no personal details, bearing all with refined dignity and poise. They were middle aged and jovial, these guests. Mostly other couples. Anticipation hung in the air about them, sharp as discharged electricity.

It was a quiet, drunken night. We cuddled in the porch-hung canvas swing and brooded over the brooding ocean.

We spent most of the following afternoon playing in the surf, wrinkling pleasantly under the white sun, conversing with the other guests, enjoying their thrumming communal anticipation—an unspoken, guilty joy.

Sunset came and with it the distant sound of motors over the water. The towering Polynesian man built a lovely bonfire on the beach. The blushing violets of dusk passed into the star-spattered indigo of night as the sound of motors grew louder.

A wide skiff idled into the shallows and cut its motor as it landed on the beach. Dark men disembarked, brandishing matte black automatic weapons, and began unloading the cargo. They spoke very little.

The cargo were stories, twelve of them, some long—epics—filled with the tired weight of loves won and battles lost, some short, sweet, bursting with the sort of nervous energy that drives well beyond the last page; most fell somewhere in between. All were bound at the wrists with plastic cord.

The other guests received their stories eagerly. Some dispatched them quickly, feeding their black ink to the night-cool sand. Others savored their stories with the grace of long-practiced sensualists—delaying the climax until the rising action could no longer be sustained, then collapsing in languid, satisfied denouement.

The men with the guns watched us watching the others. We feared they would read us the way we were meant to be reading the two stories kneeling before us.

So, that our own story might be prolonged, we inhabited fully the story of the other guests. Our smiles were strained, but they were smiles nonetheless. Perhaps they appeared brighter in the glow of those burning pages. Those stories lost to the world, lost by our hands.

Such strange, unwanted empathies, when we wear the mask too well.