The following piece is an excerpt from Everything + All At Once, a zine by Toronto-based author and illustrator Markus “Star” Harwood-Jones. The zine is a preview of their upcoming novel. We loved the way The Story Swallowers warmly and kindly advises queer storytellers on how to protect their work.
The Story Swallowers
My dear baby queer, my training-wheel trans. You, born of secrets, of seasons, of hidden trembling hands. I have a secret for you.
A lesson I’ve learned a thousand times, one you likely already know. Curl ‘round, huddle close for warmth, as, even now, beyond the reflection of our windowpane, there are eyes that glint in our firelight. They sniff us out, size us up, deciding who might best fulfill their appetite. My secret for you, oh you, born of cold dew after springtime showers, you with will steadfast and tender desires, know this: there are those in this world who wish to swallow your stories.
On the prowl, sniffing out your innocence, and your tragedy, they will come for you first and, then, your chosen families. They will come famished, sharp smiles laced with promises and sometimes treats. It’s all for your benefit, a swallower might whisper, just unload your heavy stories between my teeth. If they’ve got you cornered, listen closely, hear the notes in between. If you dare come closer, ask a question, make an offer, see what you can glean. But be warned, oh young one, burst forth in the song of summer sunbeams, of long grass melodies, know that once they have your scent, they’ll come again, ever hungry.
Among those who do the living, who make the stories that satiate, most of us try to avoid the swallowers, but some learn to negotiate. Sometimes, our stories just escape, other times we might think it necessary to cough up our knowledge and educate. Oh babe, born of warm coats and rolling auburn leaves, how rare and sweet this trade can seem can seem when we’ve been famished, parched to the point that we’ll accept anything.
Perhaps you’ve have done this dance before, gotten used to feeding the wolves with scraps of your flesh to keep the other carnivores at bay. Trading bits of your spirit so you might see a better day. Oh child, of winter’s coldest night, born of darkness and shadow, one who learned to breathe in the snow, you know which parts you can sacrifice long enough to make your way home. You born of bargains, borders, and bureaucracy, you will learn to sell your scars, to give nothing for free.
They will ask about your loved ones, the names you thought were dead, the secrets of your nudity, the worries in your head. They will slip upon your shoulder, voices like the sound of many wings. Like a mosquito slurping up their crimson soup, they will suck up every drop you sing. Like a roast over a fire, humming like a hive, once your story’s been digested they excrete the remains, birthing something not quite alive. Sold as a feast, to the critters and famished foragers, anxious for a piece. In that pit, of wiggling worms and pecking birds, muddled, messy, meshed together in a paste, the smell gets caught up in your mouth so even you can get a taste.
You may grow tired and deign to slumber, dreaming of times before, when our stories were just for each other. Let yourself lie down, in a field under a half moon; bathe in the reflections of our ancestors. Know that they will ask for our stories but never for our lessons. They ask for our tragedies but never our solutions. They will barter for your trust, only to break it. The story swallowers feed themselves first, of this you can’t forget. And you, if you’re anything like me, and I’m not sure that you are, you will learn to ask for the money up front. You will bargain and battle and breathe long enough to tell your own stories, in the end.