The Collector

It was stories Carlita Mano was after--cuentos, storias, verhalen, histoires, geschichten--any and all manner of narrative. She wanted to place them in neat boxes, organized by color, then gesture to them and say, "I have every story in the world within reach." Yellow boxes for youthful memories, black for mourning, pink boxes for love, brown for shitty realism, lavender for coming of age, red for passion, green for success, blue for fantasies, and grey for anything that defied categorical distinction.

It was with this grand scheme in mind that she went to the shop of Jules Joslin, a man known throughout the civilized world as an exceptional sign maker. She commissioned Joslin to craft a sign in every language saying, "Story Depository. Record Your Stories Here for Cash!"

Carlita Mano set up a booth in the city with an ancient shorthand typewriter and set to work. Stories came, she diligently recorded each one, then gave the story's handler $1.50 at the end. Old men and children with dreams of candy lined up all the way around the block to sell their words to Carlita Mano. Many stories were created collaboratively in the expansive lines around the booth, and fights over ownership were common. Nonetheless, by the time a story reached Carlita, it was guaranteed to be many generations old.

Carlita Mano did not sleep more than three hours a night for an entire year and her energy as a collector seemed inexhaustible. The money, however, was exhaustible. When the last quarters were placed in the palm of a thankful child, Carlita Mano laid down and slept for six full days and nights, and ancient stories wandered into her dreams begging to be remembered. On the morning of the seventh day, she pulled stories from their boxes, and copied them on bits of paper, then cloth, then clumps of dry wall until her father's house was reduced to the shell of its outer walls and support beams.

When she went to Jules Joslin for new signs, his compliance resulted from a sense of piety that rose from deep in his soul, and that piety compensated for her lack of funds. Such dedication was often confused with more religious notions, and all to the benefit of Carlita Mano. The new signs read, "Story Exchange. Leave a Story, Take a Story."

The line quickly grew to its previous length out of pure curiosity and a soiled brand of curiosity known as gossip. The old men, to whom the $1.50 had always been irrelevant, gathered for the same old hopes of immortality, but now women gathered as well with packs of children, each with a well rehearsed story to share. Every child was like a raffle ticket that provided an extra chance at plucking a bit of titillating scandal from the junk heap of words. Each bit of curtain or wall was a treasure that offered a glimpse into the secret lives of neighbors.

In that way, the recording continued. When the last ink ribbon dried up, Carlita Mano mashed a paste of charcoal and saliva and wrote each word with the feathers of birds. When the last sheet of paper was used, Carlita Mano went through every sheet again, recording in the margins and then in the tiniest print between the lines of other stories. By this time, Carlita's household copies had long since been handed away as souvenirs, but words had traveled throughout the world regarding Carlita Mano and people came from great distances to share their stories with her. She became a sacred figure and confessing a story to her was incorporated into the religious life of the community.

When every sheet of paper was covered beyond its capacity, Carlita Mano began to tattoo the stories into her flesh with a script so careful and minuscule that it was tricky to decipher even before the characters began bleeding into one another. For a time, the community leaders debated over the appropriateness of her nudity, and it was swiftly decided, perhaps for nostalgia's sake, that Carlita Mano was indeed clothed in words and too sacred to be contested. Restaurant owners ensured their own success by being witnessed as they spoon fed Carlita rich deserts to create future space on the canvas of her body.

In three years, Carlita Mano was 345 lbs, and there was only one bit of blank flesh left, hidden deep under a fold of her tremendous belly. She lifted her stomach to comfortably access it, and when she looked up there was only one man in line. He wore a grey hat with a brim that reached out three feet from his head. His eyes were the sad color of ash and the skin of his jowls hung low and wiggled when he spoke, lending him the appearance of a Thanksgiving turkey.

He said, "There was once a woman who greedily collected the words of others. She recorded them all on paper and when there was no paper she took them into her own flesh with knives and needles. She grew fat over the years because she was lost in a fever and the shell of her father's home began to crack and weeds came through the floorboards. When the flesh ran out, it was clear she could stretch her body no further and she was forced to pause and look at herself. She was alone, alone with the words of many, but she was not satisfied. Her beauty was lost under the lull of sloth, her home was gone under the force of nature, and all she had were distant words to comfort her. She wept with consternation."

Carlita carved the last sentence into her skin, and though she had no room for another sentence she asked, "How does it end?"

The man looked at her as though she were an idiot. "She died, of course. There was nothing left for her."

Carlita Mano carefully rose from her reinforced chair and made the painful steps to her father's home. True to the man's word, her father's home had been consumed by nature. She edged her tremendous body through the open doorway, crawled into the grey box, and promptly died.

Three weeks later, two old men searched for her in the shell of her father's home, but she could not be found. They decided to sift through the boxes and reclaim their stories before vandals took off with their memories. In each box they found bits of leathery hide and bones printed with dark ink in Carlita's careful hand. They collected these bits and reconstructed the body of Carlita Mano on the earthen floor.

Immediately the community leaders constructed a shrine above her with a funnel that reached deep into the earth. People came to the site and they whispered their secrets to Carlita Mano, whose bones rattled beneath them.

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