I remember Uncle Zarn. He wasn't really my uncle, just a friend of my mother's, but he was the most important man in my life.
I never knew my father. He left us before I was born.
Uncle Zarn was like a father, brother and best friend all rolled into one, but I never really knew him either. I asked him about his name, but he just smiled and said that it was a gift from a grandmother in the old country. He never mentioned which "old country."
If my mother knew more about him than I did, she kept it to herself. For some reason, she trusted him. She never explained why.
He was an unusual man, who hardly ever talked about himself. He always seemed more interested in what had happened to me since he had seen me last.
On the nights he came to visit, we would nibble cheese and soda crackers. He would brush his hair out of his soft, dark eyes, but it would tumble back again, unwilling to conform. He would look at me and ask me what had been happening in my life. I would tell him and he would listen as though my life were the most important life in the world. I always felt like he knew what I had to say before I said it, but he wanted to hear me tell my tales with my own tongue.
He always had stories of his own to tell... wonderful, amazing stories of fantastic places and things that seemed so real when they came from his lips that I was sure that they were the truth. When he told his stories, I was sure that the real world I knew was just a curtain that hid away the places and things in his stories. Or perhaps a curtain we used to hide from them.
We would sit on the fire escape outside the apartment window and look out across the city lights in the darkness and he would tell me stories.
I always thought the city look better at night. When I said that to Uncle Zarn, he just smiled.
He smiled like that the night I asked him where he got all his great stories. He sipped the tea my mother kept around the apartment for him—and in later years for me—then pointed into the darkness, at the lights.
"Do you see that window?"
"Follow my finger."
I looked down along his arm at a building several blocks away.
"You mean the building next to the theatre?"
"Yes. Count four down the windows from the top and two over from the left side. See it?"
"Can you see what's happening inside?"
"No. The shades are pulled down."
He leaned forward and tilted his head a little, still staring at the window.
"They've had a fight."
"The young couple there. She's sitting in the bedroom with the door closed, crying. He's sitting at the kitchen table staring at the glass in his hand. I think he wants to cry too."
I listened to him describe the scene, more surprised that a man would want to cry than that they had had a fight. In our neighbourhood I heard people fighting every night.
"Will they make up?"
He continued to stare at the window.
"I see him getting up. He's going to the door. There's no lock on it, but he's knocking. He's speaking to her through it. She's listening."
He stopped talking. I looked to the window, staring hard, but I couldn’t see anything through the shades.
"How can you see that?"
"Not with these." he said, indicating his eyes with his fingers. He then lightly touched his index finger to his forehead.
"You made that up." I accused him.
His smile faded as he looked over my head, toward downtown. Some of the taller buildings were visible from our fire escape. He pointed over my head, and I swung about to see what had caught his eye.
"Do you see those three buildings, almost the same height, and almost in a row?"
"They belong to a very powerful, very old man. Few people know it, but he's lived for over three hundred years."
I spun back around to challenge him, but there was no deceit in his eyes. I found myself questioning what I knew. Perhaps there was some way a man could live three hundred years.
"He knows a secret and for over three hundred years he has kept it, building his fortunes and preparing himself for a battle he can't win. He is the world's richest man, though few even know of him. When he is gone, the world will not even know."
What secret? What battle? I waited for him to tell me, but instead he turned slightly and pointed to a set of buildings only blocks away. I knew the area, although my mother forbid me to go there. Many of the businesses and shops there attracted people "on the fringe" as she called them. I think they frightened her just because they were different.
I was sure Uncle Zarn had been there.
"Next to the neon sign with half the swirl burnt out, do you see the row of shops?"
"Above each there are apartments. Do you see the fifth and sixth windows where the lights are out?"
"That is the dwelling of the planet's most powerful sorcerer, one sworn to defend us all from evil. He isn't there right now. He's in another dimension searching for an evil so great, it would destroy all of us if it came here. He's gone there to try to stop it before it can open the Gate of The Ways and enter our world."
I stared at him, waiting for more but the horn of a cab sounded below. He looked down at it. It honked once more, then left without any passenger. Uncle Zarn lifted his hand to it, as if waving to an old friend. As if the cabbie had been honking to him, and could see us so many floors above.
"That's Antonio. He's one of the Nightpeople."
"You mean vampires?" I asked, preparing myself for a good scare.
My shoulders slumped in disappointment.
"The Nightpeople are much stranger—and more deadly to those who cross them—than any vampire."
He told me stories of the Nightpeople and I listened, enraptured and terrified.
Later, he slipped his old coat over his strongly-muscled shoulders. The buttons always seemed strained to bursting across his chest, but remained loyal to their calling, and to him. He tussled my hair and wished me goodnight, then kissed my mother on the cheek as he always did and thanked her for the cheese and tea. Then, with one of his special smiles, he was out the door.
It closed behind him with a click, and my mother locked it. I never heard his footsteps start down the hall until after he heard her lock it. Like always, I went to the window and watched him walk down the road until he disappeared into the darkness.
I remember the last night he came.
He asked me what I had done since he had last seen me, and he seemed to hang on every word. The more I said, the more desperate I grew to find something to say... as though I somehow knew this was our last night together
With our tea, we stepped out onto the fire escape.
He had to go, he said, his eyes looking somewhere far beyond the city. He didn't want to, but it was time, he said. There were no stories in the darkness that night.
Back inside, my mother cried as he kissed her cheek. Looking to me one last time, he reached to tussle my hair, but instead brushed it out of my eyes. It fell back again, refusing to conform.
He smiled at that then turned and opened the door.
I tried to speak, but my throat had swollen to twice its normal size and wouldn't be swallowed away.
The door clicked. My mother stood for several seconds with her hand on the lock.
No! Open it again! my mind begged her. He's still there!
She locked it. His footsteps began down the hall. They faded to nothing.
I ran to the fire escape and waited to see him on the street below. When he emerged, I called to him.
He turned and lifted his hand.
I waved numbly in return. Sooner than ever before, the darkness swallowed him.
Through the years, I have learned many lessons from many people... but none like those I learned from Uncle Zarn. Often, I sit on the balcony of my apartment, sipping tea and staring out into the darkness at the lights in the city, seeing their stories.
Perhaps one day I will find his story, the story of the Storyteller.
Some time ago, I received an e-mail from a purported high school student who asserted that what was said was more important than the way it was expressed, thus learning the rules of good writing would be an impediment to creativity.
On behalf of teachers, editors, and readers everywhere, I’d like to say, “Nice try!”
Let’s talk shop.
If good writing – the art of clearly written communication – is something of a religion to its practitioners, its Holy Trinity is spelling, punctuation and grammar. They’re so important that writers and editors have turned them into the acronym SPAG. To be told your writing is full of SPAG is not a good thing.
Spelling encompasses everything to do with vocabulary—using exactly the right word in the right way, spelled correctly. “Easy,” you say? One writer recently confided to me that he checks as many as five thesaurus entries for each descriptive word he uses. The prose that results from this attention to detail is rich, lively and remarkably original. He communicates his vision exactly as he envisions it, often using double meanings, metaphor, and even nonsequiturs to facilitate the reader’s understanding or to inject humor. But he couldn’t attain this remarkable achievement if he didn’t begin with a strong vocabulary and the ability to spell at least well enough to look those words up.
In my opinion, grammar is our second most effective writing tool (vocabulary is the first). The style of grammar we use defines our characters. It brings our settings into focus. It gives us our Voice. As such, I don’t believe there is any such thing as “good” or “bad” grammar. Grammar should be appropriate to the character, time, place and effect we’re trying to create. Getting it right requires knowledge, research, and a well-tuned ear.
What about punctuation? Do we really have to memorize all those rules? Well, we’ve all read jokes in which statements mean outrageously different things depending upon how they’re punctuated. Writers love to make readers laugh. But it’s better when they laugh with us, not at us, right? Those dots and dashes and squiggles we call punctuation are the traffic cops of language. What you use, and where, really does matter if you want to make your meaning clear.
So there it is. Yes, creative writers really do have to learn the rules. They’re our tools. With practice, we learn how to use them effectively and don’t have to think about them so quite so much. At that point, we can let our creativity flow, reasonably confident that we won't have to spend quite so much time editing later.
Realizing his own mortality, Darrel Duckworth stopped making excuses and returned to his first love, writing where he hopes to make the sort of lasting impression on others that his favourite writers have made on him. His stories can be found in magazines such as LORE, Bards and Sages, and Plasma Frequency and in anthologies such as “Coven” and “Wild Things.”