Traveler From an Antique Land

by Tenshi

"...Can anyone explain how Shelly's use of layered narrators enhances the sense of irony present in the poem?"

A sense of numb indifference pervaded the classroom, and the question was met with silence and blank stares. Bakura would have answered, had he been there, but he was out with a cold. The class as a whole relied on him to take the burden off the ignorant majority, and his empty desk could not protect them.

The text on the page blurred in front of Yugi's eyes as he tried to focus on the lines. He was a good student when not pulled away from his studies by shadowy duels in back alleys, but lately sleep had been hard to come by. Joey saw him nodding over his textbook and elbowed him awake, a move that yanked Yugi back to consciousness for a moment but also pulled the teacher's attention in their direction.

"Joseph," she said, in crisp tones, and Yugi could hear his best friend cringe, "perhaps you can answer the question for us."

"Ehhhgh," Joey said, paling. "I uh, I dunno. Do um, do they make it more ironic cos there's more of 'em?" He drummed his fingers on the back of his book as the silence in the classroom became titters of stifled schadenfreude. Joey's face slowly tinged with pink instead of white. "Yes? No? Throw me a bone, here."

Their English teacher sighed, clearly overworked and underpaid. "All right. Let's try an easier question, Joseph. How many narrators are there in the poem?"

"Ah, that's easy!" Joey said, brightening. "There's two, see, cos there's the guy telling the story, and the guy who's telling it to us, am I right?" The response was another sigh from the teacher, and Joey slid down in his desk, trying to cram six feet of awkward teenage height underneath the tiny formica tabletop. "...I guess not."

"Maybe Yugi is the one person in the class who's bothered to read the assignment," the teacher said, turning her steely gaze on Yugi. Yugi jerked upright at the sound of his name, caught the edge of his Millennium puzzle on the lip of his desk, and wrenched his neck on the cord. Sometimes he wondered what possessed him to wear the thing all the time. It was always sticking out or getting in the way, but he felt bereft without the burden of its considerable weight.

"Yes!" he said, rubbing his sore neck, and forcing his eyes to stay open. "Yes, I read the poem last night." It was under a stack of cards and I think my Swords of Revealing Light is still somewhere in the index, but yes, I read it.

"Good!" The teacher's smile was grim. "Then maybe you can tell us about the narrators. How many are there?"

"Um," Yugi said, looking again at the poem. It looked back at him, the words a jumble that made no sense, as muddled as a two-thousand piece puzzle scattered in the desert sand. A puzzle made of stone, shattered by time, once the colossus of a mighty king. Yugi shook himself. The image came to his mind unexpectedly, as vivid as memory. The lack of sleep must be making him dream, he thought, with his eyes open. "Yes, well, like Joey said, there's the poet, and the man telling the poet about the statue, and um--"

Do not forget the Pharaoh.

"...And the Pharaoh," Yugi said, with inexplicable clarity. "His narration is the most important, because without the other two narrators, it's not ironic at all. It has to be seen through what they see in relation to the statue's narrative."

The teacher's stunned expression was a mirror of the way Yugi himself felt, but he tried to keep his face blank, as though he had known all along what he would say.

"Well," the teacher said at last, looking pleased. "I'm glad to know someone here is paying attention. Maybe you can loan some of your brain to Joseph, Yugi, since he seems so determined not to use his own."

Another squeak of sneakers, and now nothing of Joey was visible above his desk save for his eyebrows, a furiously crimson forehead, and a mop of dirty blonde hair.

"So we see that by employing various narrators in the poem, Shelly has made a complex point in the space of only a few lines..."

The teacher's voice trailed off into a drone, and Yugi sank down behind his book, absolved from further interrogation and able to close his eyes at last.

"How do you even do that?" Joey wanted to know, on the walk home from school. A poet's imagined desert was a thousand miles from the frigid street, where the only dunes were filthy heaps of snow shoved up along the curb, but Joey was still stuck on lone and level sands far away. "You had no idea what the hell that poem was about, and yet you come up with this business like it's the gospel. I don't even get it. One minute you're in a hot fuss like any normal kid, and the next minute butter wouldn't melt in your mouth."

"I don't know," Yugi admitted, sheepish. "I guess, because you'd already proved that two narrators was the wrong answer, and since there couldn't be less there had to be more, so logically--"

"Don't go givin' me that logic bullshit," Joey said, whirling on him. "Admit it, you had no idea what you were going to say until you said it. You do the same thing when you're playin' cards. You could be pulling this all outta your ass, but because you say it like you know what you're talkin' about, everybody believes you. I used to think you made up half the rules in Duel Monsters but when I go look 'em up, you're always right. You always know. And now it's school, too! How's a guy supposed to keep up, huh? You make me look like a moron!"

"I--I don't know," Yugi said again, his consternation so apparent that Joey let his arms fall to his sides, tirade abandoned.

"Sorry, Yug. It's just that--"

"I mean, I really don't know!" Yugi took two fistfuls of Joey's jacket, but due to their relative heights, his grip was somewhere around the other boy's waist. His backpack jostled off his shoulder, falling to the ground and scattering books. "It just comes to me and I just know. It's not like I'm doing it myself. I mean, I know all the crazy rules to the game because up to a few years ago I didn't have any friends, but that doesn't explain why I don't get ruffled when I'm playing, or why somehow someone tells me not to forget about the Pharaoh, or--or--"

"Hey hey, easy," Joey said, pushing gently on Yugi's head, Yugi's two-toned hair crunching with gel under his hand. "Relax, kid, I ain't tryin' to call you on the carpet or nothing. So you're cool under pressure. I'm just jealous, that's all I'm sayin'." He knelt down and started to pick up Yugi's scattered papers, giving his friend a moment to get under control again. Yugi wanted to hear the voice, and yet did not want to hear it at the same time, longing for its quiet reassurance and uneasy as to its meaning. Somewhere, between his eyebrows or low in his belly, there was he weight of a courtly apology, and while it made Yugi feel better, it made him feel worse at the same time.

It's not that I'm not grateful, he thought. But sometimes it really scares me. You really scare me. I really scare me. The crisp edges of his puzzle bit through his glove as he clenched his hand around it, letting the eye press down into his palm.

...its sculptor well those passions read which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things.

Yugi did not know which of one of himselfs had thought it, but he suspected he knew.

"Hey, I didn't know you kept these."

Joey's voice brought Yugi back to the real world, and to Joey himself, kneeling on the salt-crusted sidewalk with two of Exodia's five cards in his hand. "Not much use, I guess, now."

"I still might find the rest of him," Yugi said, taking the cards. "And you went through so much to get them back... they're not much use in my dueling deck, but they mean a lot, Joey."

"Aw," Joey said, with a pleased little smile. "Still, I would think they only reminded you of how awesome Exodia was when he was all together."

Yugi's thoughts came to a halt. "Joey," he said, looking down at the remains of the monster, "do you know what you just said?"

"Only that it sucks to have had a really powerful set of cards and for some little shrimp to come along an'--"

"No," Yugi said. "The poem in class today. You just figured it out. It's all about how awesome someone was a long time ago, and how the broken bits are a sad reminder. That's the irony."

"Hey, really?" Joey brightened. "Man, if he'd talked about cards instead of some kinda antique land mumbo-jumbo that woulda made more sense."

"I don't think they had cards back in ancient Egypt," Yugi said, tucking his ruined colossus in his back pocket. There was a heavy, thoughtful silence from the voice inside him, and Yugi rushed on before it could form words, adding, "Anyway. Grandpa should be getting a new shipment of cards in today, want to pick up a few packs and see if there's anything good in them?"

"You mean like the rest of Exodia?" Joey said, his step already quicker.

"You never know," Yugi said. "After all, they put that statue back together eventually, a few years back."

Poets don't know everything.

The voice was so quiet that Yugi wasn't even sure it was there, but he kept it, like an unconnected puzzle piece, like an incomplete set of cards, like a riddle in a poem, until he could put it all together and find out what it meant.


b i s h o n e n i n k