My father told me a story. The story had one beginning but two endings. It was like a fish with a split in its tail.
Depending on his mood, my father would tell it one way or the other. After a while, he stopped telling it at all. As I grew older, I no longer asked for stories and he ceased to speak them into the darkness as I drifted off to sleep. It wasn't until after he died that all the stories came swimming back to me through the black water of my memory.
The story started something like this:
A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, there was a man made of shadows.
He traveled across cities and plains, to planets brimming with people and to wide, empty tracts of sand or snow but in the end, he was always alone. The shadows kept changing his shape, so that nobody would ever recognize him. They might look at him one afternoon and they'd see a long black line stretching out to the horizon. The next morning they might see a small blur like a stain on the floor.
One day,the shadow man was sneaking through an alley, playing the kind of tricks that shadows do, when he dropped something. It slipped right through his fingers and a woman picked it up.
I don't know what it was that he lost. Maybe it was a deck of cards, maybe it was his toothbrush or maybe it was the little red pebble that he kept in his pocket.
Anyway, this woman picked it up and she kept it sealed tightly in her fist. She took good care of it, she cherished it, she kept it safe and clean, but he wanted it back and she wouldn't let it go.
He followed her as though he was her shadow, out of the city, up hills and down them again, over rivers, to the tops of mountains and to the bottom of valleys. He didn't know why he needed the thing he dropped, but he knew it was very, very important and that he had to get it back!
Sometimes when she was asleep, he would try to pry her hand open and steal it back, but she was very strong and very stubborn. She held on tight.
You see, the woman was different, just like the shadow man. As he followed her, he realized that there was a hole inside of her, an empty space about the same shape as the thing he had dropped. Somebody had made a little cut inside her a long time ago and each day it became bigger and bigger like a hungry never spoke about it, but inside her, the wound was screaming. If you listened very carefully, you could hear it
right through her body. The man could hear it and it scared him, but it also made him feel a little less alone. There was someone else like him.
One day,she was walking across a wide stretch of grass, like the one outside our house. He was following behind her, because he was a shadow and that's what shadows do. He couldn't see her face, but he thought he could hear her crying.
She turned around and she had her hand open. He could see the little red pebble in her palm.
She told him to take it. When he hesitated, she put it in his hand and then she closed each of his fingers around it.
She walked away and left him standing in the middle of the field under the terrible sun. He thought that was the end of his troubles, but as he wandered back over the hills and valleys, back to the city he haunted, he realized that it wasn't the pebble he wanted. It was her and she had gone away. He didn't know why he needed her, but he knew she was very, very important and that he had to get her back.
And so he did what he did best. He followed her footsteps. When they disappeared into the darkness, he followed the sound of the emptiness inside her. Across the galaxy, it was just a whisper, but when he was very quiet, he could hear it. He traveled for many weeks and months until he was far away from anything he had ever seen before.
There were monsters in the places he traveled. Sometimes they were very ugly and sometimes they were very beautiful. Sometimes they didn't look like anything special and you had to squint really hard to make out what they were.
(At this point, my father would usually tell me about one of the monsters that the shadow man met. He changed the monster every time. Sometimes they were silly, sometimes they were scary and sometimes they seemed sad and I would say that I didn't want them to die. My favorite one was a monster with one big staring eye and ten powerful arms like branches on a tree. The shadow man tricked him and made his arms tangle up and the monster literally ripped himself apart, limb by limb until he was just a column of flesh and a single staring eye.)
Finally, after all he'd seen and done, the man made it to the very edge of everything. He looked out and there were only stars left to fence the rest of the universe in.
He found her there.
She was sitting on the last rock in the universe and she was looking out at the stars. The wound inside of her had grown very large,
bigger than a door,
bigger than your room,
bigger than our house or this entire town.
If he didn't help her, she would die.
He sat beside her and opened his hand. Inside was the little red pebble.
When she didn't reach out and take it, he took her hand and buried it inside, folding each of her fingers around it like he was closing a flower. She looked at him and she smiled.
The first time he tried to end the story here.
"You must be getting pretty tired now. I'm getting tired too," he said, rising to his feet with loud yawn. "Good night."
He walked over to switch out the lights, shooing my pet gizka out of the room with his foot.
"What happened after?" I asked. "You didn't finish."
"Nothing happened. That's the end of the story. It's your cue to go to sleep now. Force knows, I tried to make it boring."
"Stories don't just stop like that," I said. "You have to tell me what happened after. Was the girl okay? Did the guy marry her or what? You can't just leave them floating on a rock. It's not fair."
"Sometimes life isn't fair, kid," my father said. "I'll tell you some other time. Now stop pestering me about it and get to sleep."
Even I was little, I was pretty persistent. I pestered my father about it for a couple days until he finally said that he'd tell me. I should have known there'd be a catch to the deal. That was how he operated.
You see, my dad was good at telling stories but he always had to tell them his way. I'll give you an example. I went through a phase where I really liked princesses. Every story needed to have at least one princess. The more she looked like me the better I would like it. I think I saw Queen Talia's daughters in a holo-vid once and that's what started it off. Anyway, my mother would play along with it but my father never would.
He'd start making up a story and I'd interrupt him and ask, "Where's the princess?"
"Alright, here's your princess," he'd say and add in a princess, but he'd make sure to give her preposterously big ears or crossed-eyes or tell me that she was really poor and smelled like a bantha.
If I made a demand, he'd always find a way to turn it around on its head. When I begged for an ending, a definitive conclusion, a final truth, I should have known he'd give me two conflicting ones, stand up and turn out the light. It was a game we played my whole life.
This is the first ending he told me:
The woman smiled at the shadow man and he held her in his arms very tight. The pebble he gave her was little, and even though it was very precious to her, it wasn't big enough to fill up the hole someone had dug out of her skin.
As he held her, he could feel the life bleeding out of her, but she just smiled at him. She was happy in spite of everything.
And then she just faded away and he was alone again.
But in his travels, he'd met someone who knew many other man had two names and two faces. Both of them were masks.
The shadow man knew that this man could help him, and he did.
He told him about a haunted planet. It was where the ghosts lived. If you were searching for someone who had died, you could go there and if you wanted to find them badly enough, if you knew the right way to look, they would appear to you.
And so the shadow man traveled again, back across the galaxy, passing through all the places that had once seemed so strange, but now they were very familiar and almost wasn't worried anymore about living or about dying.
At last, after traveling past all the planets, nebulas and asteroid fields, he found the planet where the ghosts lived.
He walked out on its surface. It was very cold and there was fog swirling everywhere. When you walked on that planet, sometimes the mud would suck at your boots and you'd feel as though it was going to swallow you up.
He walked and walked, and then he saw her standing out in the distance, standing very still as though she was waiting for him.
He went to her and he stayed with her.
Each day he stayed there, the pebble he'd placed in her hand became larger and larger, heavier and heavier, and he became thinner and thinner.
You see, there was nothing there to eat. The ghosts didn't need food and the shadow man wasn't hungry anymore. He became so thin and so gaunt that he weighed less than a real shadow. Finally his body just disappeared and he became a ghost like her.
They haunted each other and the shadows danced around them until all the stars turned out forever.
And they were happy, in spite of everything.
When I heard this, it didn't appease my sense of fairytale justice. "Why do you always have make things unhappy?"
"I just told you that they were happy. Haven't you been listening?"
"Dead people aren't happy, Dad. They're dead. That's just weird."
"I'm alright with being weird. Just remember it's in your genes, too, you smart-mouthed tach," he said. "Anyway, there's a second ending to the story."
The next night, he told me the second ending:
The woman smiled at the shadow man and he held her in his arms very tight. The pebble was little, even though it was very precious to her. It didn't seem big enough to fill up the hole someone had dug out of her skin.
But there was something large and powerful at the end of all things, a force that shone out of the stars that kept the universe together.
The red pebble grew and grew until it was
larger than your room,
larger than our house,
larger than this entire city,
the exact same size and shape as the wound inside of the woman. It filled up the hole inside of her body and stopped the life from bleeding out.
The shadow man smiled at her because he was no longer a shadow. He had become real and when she reached out her hand to touch him, he didn't waver anymore.
She held onto him and she was very strong and very stubborn. She wouldn't let go.
They loved each other until all the stars turned out and even in a galaxy where forever doesn't exist, they kept promising each other "forever and forever", forever and ever.
Oh yeah, and before you start objecting, they got married too. They had a kid who was almost as cute and obnoxious as you, but not quite, because I need to keep this story realistic. They lived for a very long time and had many adventures, but they never changed too much and nothing really horrible ever happened so there wasn't much suspense.
In the end, they became very old and they began forgetting things.
The man would ask his wife, "Where did my datapad go?" and she wouldn't know.
He'd sit down and hear a crunch beneath him. That's how he'd find out where things were.
After a while, they forgot more important things, like what happened last Welona or that a friend of theirs wasn't around anymore.
Finally, after having worn out their lives and forgotten everything but the best stuff, the stuff that didn't hurt to remember, one of them died.
I'm not sure who went first. I'm sure it was the shadow man, because he didn't eat enough vegetables and he didn't take very good care of himself.
After he died, the woman was very sad for a long time, but she kept living the best she could because she promised him she would.
She held on to that little pebble tight until it was her turn to go.
She was frightened, but she knew it would be alright because he'd gone ahead. He used to follow her and now it was her turn to follow him.
So she did.
And that was the end, because there were no words left to be said.
"I don't get it. How can you have two endings? Which one is true?"
My dad looked at me. I'll never forget his face at that moment. When he died last year, it was the first image of him that flashed into my mind.
He smiled into the fuzzy darkness of my room, but it wasn't at me.
There was something behind that smile that I've been searching for ever since. It's like groping around in the house late night with all the lights off. I brushed up against something with my elbow, a piece of his furniture, the outline of one of the secrets he kept so well. I felt it was there, but I don't know if I'll ever figure out what it was.
"Which one is true, Dad?"
My father said, "Which one do you want to be true?"
"The happy one."
"Then that's the true one."
He stood up from his chair and walked to the door with his familiar slow, shambling gait.
"Good night, kid," he said.
He turned out the lights.
Outside my window, I could see faint specks of stars scattered across the sky.