Apr 302012

Once there was an ogre who was like all other ogres except in one respect: he was reasonable. He could see more than one point of view, and he liked to argue and discuss. People seldom realized this, however, since he looked like any other ogre, huge and frightening, and he spent his time doing what every other ogre does: grabbing passersby and stuffing them in his mouth. He lived in a cave by a crossroads, where he slept away most of the day; but if he was awake and heard footsteps, he rushed out with a roar and planted himself in the roadway. No matter how loudly the person screamed (they always screamed), he snatched them up in his great hairy hand and ate them in two or three bites, cleaning his teeth afterward with branches he’d torn off trees. — Mike Barnes, The Reasonable Ogre, Tales for the Sick and Well

Mike Barnes is a prolific and startlingly innovative writer of stories, poems, essays, novellas and memoir. “The Jailed Wizards” is yet again a leap into the wild frontier of the imagination, a beautiful, odd, disturbing, bleak, slyly comical, modern fairy tale (that is also about storytelling), written by an author who has encountered all sorts of darkness in his own life — he has written a a stunning memoir of his own struggle with psychosis The Lily Pond: A Memoir of Madness, Memory, Myth and Metamorphosis. “The Jailed Wizards” is from Mike’s forthcoming book The Reasonable Ogre (Biblioasis, 2012), with amazing illustrations by the Toronto artist Segbingway.

A little background: I met Mike Barnes years ago at The New Quarterly WILD WRITERS WE HAVE KNOWN CONFERENCE (see the famous 400-page double issue Volume XXI, Numbers 2 & 3) in Stratford. He appeared twice in Best Canadian Stories during the decade I was editor (which tells you what I think of his fiction).  He has already contributed some excerpts from a novel in progress and a novella — Ideas of Reference — to Numéro Cinq.


The Jailed Wizards

A wizard caught a rival wizard and locked him in a dungeon beneath his castle. First he stripped the captive of all his magical powers. Then he left him in a small, bare room, cold and damp and almost completely dark except for a bit of grayish light that leaked through a tiny barred window high above the floor. The stone walls were so thick that the imprisoned wizards—who were numerous, for the powerful wizard made war on anyone whose magic he felt threatened his own—could not even hear each other’s screams.

“How long will you keep me here?” the prisoner asked before his captor shut the stone door.

“How long does a wizard live?”

“Forever,” said the prisoner.

“That is how long you will remain,” said the powerful wizard. And he closed the massive door with a crash, and sealed it with an unbreakable spell.

Years passed. Twice a day a slot beside the door clanked open. The first time, a dirty hand pushed through a lump of stale bread and a cup of water; later, another dirty hand took back the cup. Nothing else occurred. Until one day the massive door creaked open on its ancient hinges, and the powerful wizard stood before his former rival, now filthy and wretched and listless with despair. “I have decided forever is the wrong sentence for you,” he announced. “There is a crack in the wall that lengthens a little each year. I am sure you have studied it. When it reaches the floor, I will let you go.”

“I thank you,” mumbled the prisoner.

“Don’t,” said the wizard. “This is not mercy. I want you to suffer as much as possible. Those who lose all hope do not suffer like those who still believe their suffering may one day end. That is all. Goodbye.”

Years passed again, but now they passed with the constant measuring of a tiny crack. Many times a day, the jailed wizard reached up and ran his hand over the break in the stone, wondering if it had lengthened by a hair or if he was only imagining that. It did, in fact, grow longer, but it did so with horrible slowness. Once, he did not allow himself to measure the crack for a hundred days—two hundred openings and closings of the slot—and when he measured it again, he was sure it was a finger’s width closer to the floor. Ten years passed in this way. Then twenty years. Then thirty. Now the crack in the wall had reached the level of his eyes. Now, he thought, I know I will get out one day. But when? In five hundred years? A thousand? I mustn’t think of that. One day I’ll leave.

Many long years later, the jailed wizard was standing next to the wall where he spent his days, examining the crack with his eyes and fingers to see if it had changed, when he was startled by a tiny movement just above him. Something very small and dark was moving within the crack. As the wizard watched, an ant stuck its head out of the crack, its tiny antennae moving in the stale air. Tears filled the wizard’s eyes to find his absolute loneliness broken by a visit from another creature, even an ant. Tears of joy and misery ran down his wrinkled face and into his long, dirty beard. Despite his extreme hunger, in the coming days he put little pellets of bread in the crack, and soon he had a line of ants he could watch, coming to get his crumbs and carrying them along the crack and out the window back to their nest. The sight brought joy and endless interest, and it stirred guilty memories.

Long ago, in one of the endless wars that are a wizard’s life, he had defeated a very minor wizard. The defeated wizard had been a storyteller, which is one of the lowest and most common grades of magic. Cruelly, out of sheer contempt, the victorious wizard had taken the defeated wizard’s strength and long life, though he had left him, as a power not worth stealing, his storytelling art. Now the jailed wizard struggled to remember what he had once known of this lesser magic. A story was at least a way of reaching other ears. This, after freedom, was what he longed for most.

Tiny animals, he remembered, were often used to gather stories and return them to the storyteller. Since the animals couldn’t speak our language, people told them things they would tell no other person, secure in the knowledge they could not repeat it. He couldn’t remember exactly how it was done, but even without a wizard’s magic he still had a wizard’s cunning, and he invented a way. He placed a tiny pellet of bread inside his ear and stood with his ear against the crack. Soon he felt the tickle of an ant entering his ear. He turned from the wall and plugged his ear with his finger. He felt the ant touch his finger and then, finding no way out, turn the other way and explore the inner chambers of his ear, walking around the words of the story in his head. When he judged that enough time had passed, he unplugged his ear and stood with his ear against the crack and let the ant find its way out. He watched it carry the pellet of bread and his story away up the crack toward the window high above. Would it carry it to someone who could understand? Would it be crushed under a careless foot? Perhaps he would need to tell a thousand stories to a thousand ants before one would find a listening ear. He could do that. Before his imprisonment he had lived a long, eventful life, each day of which had teemed with stories. Sitting with his back against the stone wall, he began to prepare the next one.

Some weeks later, in the village near the powerful wizard’s castle, an old, sick storyteller was sitting, as he always did, by the window of his hut. A line of bread crumbs and sugar led from his window to a stone covered with black ink, and beyond that to a sheet of clean white paper. The storyteller no longer had the strength to make up stories on his own, and he lived in the shrinking hope that one would come to him by itself. Day by day, ants walked over his trail of sugar crumbs and over his ink and paper. But the marks they made with their tiny inky feet spelled chaos, spelled nonsense—spelled nothing. Still, he had always done all he could do, and all he could do now was wait.

On this day, an ant came in across the window sill, walked down over his ink stone, and across his paper. Around it went in a circle—O—and then down, and up, and across a short curve, and down again—n. O . . . n . . . c . . . e—“Once,” the storyteller murmured with excitement, “once . . . and then?” Gently he sprinkled more sugar crumbs on the page, and waited, while the ant waved its antennae, and continued tracing letters with its feet.

I knew, I knew, I knew, whispered the storyteller. I knew there was no better place to wait than near a castle filled with jailed wizards, souls with endless tales to tell and no one but the ants to tell them to.

—Mike Barnes


Mike Barnes is the author of Calm Jazz Sea, shortlisted for the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award, Aquarium, winner of the 1999 Danuta Gleed Award for best first book of stories by a Canadian, The Syllabus, a novel, and the short fiction collection Contrary Angel. His stories have appeared twice in Best Canadian Stories, three times in The Journey Prize Anthology, and won the Silver Medal for Fiction at the National Magazine Awards. He lives in Toronto.
Segbingway is an artist who lives in Toronto.

  3 Responses to “The Jailed Wizards: A Tale — Mike Barnes”

  1. This is such a powerful tale!! I’m so glad I was able to attend the book launch last week!

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