From the author: Tsantau is sent to retrieve a relic said to continue its own story. To understand it, he must break the relic apart.
Tsantau swiped at the vine dancing about his face and wondered what he was doing. How could a square hold stories, even a single story, much less a thousand? And how could it be here in this jungle? He hopped from a fallen log to the rich soil beyond, watching for predators and poisonous toads.
The priestess had told Tsantau to search for the relic here among the vines and twisting tree trunks, guarded within a hidden monastery. Stare down the leopard if it appears. Mount a forest elephant to rest weary legs. Use the python as rope to cross deep chasms. Those were her instructions. He was only a temple worker, a guard if necessary (though it never was, not at their minor temple far from the roads of the wealthy), a groundskeeper already past his prime. At times he had dreamed of being more, of being used by the gods for something glorious, something that would set his name in the minds of people even a dozen villages away. Everyone raised in the temples had such dreams. He’d thought they were left behind him, along with his youth.
But fine. Tsantau could do all that the priestess asked, had already done things as seemingly impossible on his way through the jungle. But where was the monastery?
Tsantau could hear the steady drip of the temple’s water clocks in a shadowed corner of his mind, urging him to hurry. The emissary from the east would be to the temple soon, would expect to see the ancient relic. The priestess would need the square to tell him its stories, to earn his approval and protection. But the monastery didn’t appear, not even for a need as urgent as his.
He swung a sap-covered machete at a weed grown to the size of a sapling, and the woody stem crushed beneath the blow instead of being sliced in two. He knew he should stop and sharpen the blade, clean off the sticky sap, but the priestess’s voice remained urgent even hours later. The irony was that if he’d stopped when he first thought of it to take care of the machete, he’d be farther ahead already, the blade slicing any obstacle much more quickly. But he kept telling himself that he was so close now, it made no sense to stop. He could clean it as he sat in comfort within the monastery.
A monkey called from somewhere nearby, but Tsantau couldn’t see it. He closed his eyes and tried to imagine where it had come from. He took a step in the direction, and then a second, and when he opened his eyes, he saw the green walls of the monastery.
Tsantau clutched the amulet the priestess had given him and circled the walls, looking for an opening. He kept his battered machete in the other hand. No doorways appeared. He was sure he’d circled the entire building, though certain sections seemed different the second time around.
The jungle rang with the cry of a leopard, and Tsantau swore. It sounded far too close. He looked up at the wall and decided to climb. With the machete returned to its sheath on his back, he grabbed a handful of vines that looked disturbingly like snakes. He thought of the priestess’s words, but these were true vines and not pythons. At the top of the wall he looked behind him, straight into the eyes of a leopard. It blinked twice, and Tsantau was the one to look away as he scrambled over the lip of the wall.
Inside a monk stood to greet him.
“It is an auspicious visitor who is ushered in by hidden monkeys and cats on the prowl. Be welcome.”
How did he...it didn’t matter. Tsantau bowed and held out the amulet of the priestess. It was a black rock that matched the skin of his arms but stood out against his palm. A strange figure had been carved into the rock, like the letters the priestesses used except twisted on its end and then stretched.
The monk nodded. “Yes, I know this one. You may put it away.”
“She sent me to retrieve an object from you, a sacred relic.”
“And you’re thinking this is a strange place to keep something sacred.” The monk did not wait for Tsantau to agree but walked away among the unfamiliar plants of the courtyard, toward the small building within. It did not seem a place to welcome those who would wish to venerate the relic. How could they bring it offerings? Or even come to see it, to honor it and its guardians? Or guardian rather, in this case.
Tsantau hesitated a moment before realizing he was meant to accompany the monk. When he reached the leaf-made awning at the entrance to the building, he said, “I did wonder at that, holy one. Forgive me for arrogance.”
“Nothing to forgive.” They entered the building, made of the same green stone as the wall, through a low door. The floor inside was hard-packed dirt, and the air smelled of mildew. “It has hid here for many years, maybe as many months as the stories it hides. But the gods choose when to bring it out again.” With a mysterious look he added, “And who will do that.”
The monk reached into a shadowed recess and withdrew an object wrapped in oil-cloth. It gave off a strong scent of palm oil as they stepped outside into the sunlight.
“Here is the square the hides a thousand stories. It is what she sent you for, I presume?”
“Yes, holy one.” Tsantau took the object as the monk unwrapped it. It was undeniably a square. At first glance it appeared to be made of wood, but as he looked more closely he saw that it more closely resembled palm or papyrus leaves, tightly bound and sealed. He picked at it a bit, but he could see that the leaves were not meant to be pried apart. How then did it hide its stories? He peered more closely, looking for tiny letters seared into the leaves or painted on them, but he could distinguish nothing but natural lines.
He looked at the monk, who smiled back as if enjoying his confusion. “They are hidden within, entertain no doubt. But I will leave it to the priestess to explain how.”
Tsantau frowned, turning the perfect square over and over in his hands.
“I will tell you one of the stories before you go, however, one that is truly hidden within that square.”
“Please do, holy one. I wish to believe.”
The monk seated himself in the shade of a banana plant. Tsantau held out the square to him, but the monk waved it away. “I will leave it to your priestess to show you how it works. The stories are hidden here as well.” He pointed at his forehead, crossed by two lines of pale paint.
Tsantau sat opposite him, the shade of the plant too little to fully shelter him from the hot sun.
“In the long-time-ago, the wildebeest and the zebra decided to race across the savanna.” While he spoke, the monk’s fingers moved as if arranging puppets to help him tell his tale.
“The ostrich lay out the course, and the python measured it, and the rest of the animals gathered to observe. The great acacia trees lowered their mats of thorny leaves to see better. Mudfish, which wait for the rains to wake up, arose early and crawled across dry ground to watch.
Tsantau held the square in his fingers, turning it over. How was the story contained within this square? Did the lines of the leaves somehow represent the animals, the path of the race?
“The trail would take them past lions and hyenas, through treacherous pits and fields of baked mud. At last they raced, and one of them beat the other.” Here the monk paused for a moment, his fingers stilled. Why didn’t he say which had won? The silence seemed to echo that lack. “But that winner is lost to history. In fact, a year later both the wildebeest and the zebra claimed victory, and some animals were sure the zebra had won while others were certain the wildebeest had.
“Animals argued but could not agree. Finally it was a wise old monkey, his back an even curve from tail to neck, who suggested a way to remember stories from year to year, and binding the leaves of a banana tree into the exact shape, he presented the animals with the square that hides a thousand stories.”
Tsantau looked up from the square to the monk, hints of the animals in the story playing in the background of his vision. “It contains its own story? But you must be missing something. That story should tell how to read the square as well. The monkey must have taught the other animals, or it would be worthless.”
The monk smiled. “You sensed that missing part. That is good, to have a mind that notices absence. But I will leave it to your priestess to tell you the rest.”
There was something strange about the square and that story too, something almost frightening the more he looked at it, that seemed to open up a hole in the world. Tsantau twisted it, but his eyes didn’t see it. “Which came first, though? The story or the square? How can the square tell its own story, yet how could the story exist without the square?”
“Did the sun exist before it was named?” The monk’s smile this time was harder somehow, more mysterious. A secret hid in the depths of his eyes, not a secret knowledge so much as a secret question, a mystery that had power simply by being something to ponder and not by being solved. “Return now. Carry that square, and ask what questions you will at the temple.”
Tsantau bowed his head and shoulders. “Thank you, holy one.” He tried to make his voice sound content, but inside he was screaming to learn more. What did it mean? And what was the rest of the story that explained its key?
The jungle played its usual tricks as he returned to the temple. When a jaguar showed its face among the leaves, Tsantau mistakenly waved the square in its direction before he caught himself and pulled out his machete instead. His heart beat like a temple drum, but the cat slunk away.
Hanging tendrils tickled his neck or tried to spin him until he lost his sense of direction. Tsantau had experienced this before, and he kept his bearings, kept himself heading for the temple while the square clamored for his attention.
At last the green opened onto the stone of the complex, and Tsantau ran to find the priestess. He held the square up to make sure it hadn’t been damaged. Its edges looked the same as they had when the monk gave it to him, still the varnished look of ancient leaves pressed together. Ivy-twined columns stood beside the doorway, and inside was more of the jungle, reaching into the structures made by human hands as if to remind them always where they lived, that they were at the jungle’s mercy. Ceremonial weapons leaned against one wall, telling him the emissary had arrived. Another reminder of whose mercy dangled them over ruin.
Tsantau tightened his grip as if the square were a talisman to bless him, and he approached the priestess.
“You brought it. Excellent work, Tsantau. It’s an ancient gift from a temple far to the east of here.”
Tsantau thought of the animals in the monk’s story. Did they live far to the east, beyond the jungle, beyond the savanna? “But...”
The priestess smiled. “I see you know one of its stories already, and I can guess which one he told you. That also is true, as is each of the thousand kept within. The gods will be pleased with you for bringing it, as will the city’s emissary.” She reached out and grasped the square, but he didn’t let go.
“What is it? Explain to me how it works.”
The priestess’s smile was kind but firm. “I don’t know if you’re ready, Tsantau. And the emissary awaits.”
“I’ve stared down leopards, ridden elephants, tied pythons into rope. I discovered a monastery without a path, returned with a rare treasure. All this, and I am no acolyte, merely an aging groundskeeper. What more must I do to prove myself?”
“Yet the gods choose you as something more than a groundskeeper.” She gave Tsantau no chance to wonder what she meant. “One thing more you must do.” She pulled on the square, and this time Tsantau let her take it. Movement at the edge of his vision told him that the emissary had come to the doorway and watched them, but Tsantau only had eyes for the priestess.
She held the square high above her head. He expected something dramatic, a flash of light striking the square through a window, a swell of hidden music. Instead, the priestess spoke a single word and threw the square to the floor.
It shattered. Tsantau cried out, a cry that was echoed from that other doorway, and he dropped to his knees to gather the pieces. Above him he heard a laugh, and the priestess said, “Your final task is to put it together.”
The edges of the pieces were surprisingly even. Tsantau scrambled to bring them together, afraid that waiting longer would cause the pieces to break even smaller, but now he saw that the breaks were deliberate. They had been invisible before--he was sure of that--but now it was just as clear that the seven pieces before him had been separated before.
He twisted and flipped the pieces, lining them against each other to recreate the square he’d carried. Someone stood behind him. A shadow too large to be the priestess fell across his hands. He moved the pieces into better light, but the shadow came with him. Did this go here? Did that go there? What remained of the day passed, and the evening candles burned low, and his shadow, the emissary, said nothing from over his shoulder.
The pieces didn’t attach in any way he could find, and there seemed an endless number of ways to lay them beside each other. He was failing. If he couldn’t solve it before sleep came, he felt sure the emissary would leave angry. Their temple would get no money from the city, their pilgrims no guards on the road. And if a rival village attacked, then no soldiers would come to their aid.
More than once he pushed the pieces away in disgust and thought of the plants that needed trimming, the walkways that needed sweeping. Let the gods choose another to solve such a riddle. Let the priestess herself tell the stories for the emissary. Tsantau had no need for anything beyond the ability to clean and prune.
But always his hands reached out again to feel the smooth pieces, to move them into new patterns.
As he moved the pieces, an image appeared in his mind--the monk’s fingers. He looked at his own fingers, moving now without thought, and focused only on the movement itself. The monk’s fingers had moved much like this as they told the story.
Tsantau tried to watch both fingers and pieces, but instead of trying to force them into a square, he tried to make a zebra, a wildebeest. The pieces raced across the savanna or simply were the savanna, the acacia trees, the baobob. They bragged and lied and imagined a square that would store history in itself for future generations, a square that could tell a thousand stories.
He didn’t need the priestess to tell him that he’d passed the final test. He had no need of the emissary’s satisfied sigh. With the story moving inside his head, he easily rearranged the pieces into a square, a rectangle, and then again the square. He didn’t even need the priestess to speak the sacred word that would bind the pieces together into an apparently indivisible square, didn’t need to learn that word’s opposite to shatter the pieces again and tell another story, because the words spoke themselves to him. He already knew that the emissary would return to the city with grand promises, that the number of pilgrims coming would increase in the years ahead, pilgrims to hear Tsantau tell the square’s stories.
And a thousand stories poured into his mind.
This story originally appeared in Penumbra.