On Monday mornings, I send out a story via email: ultra-brief tales of 1,000 words or more, usually in genres including science fiction, horror, and the supernatural. Those stories collectively are called Once Upon A Time. I’ve also published four ebooks and one paperback anthology of those stories so far.
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Every once in a while, I’ll be sent a cheque for something (that’s a “check” if you’re in the US, meaning the financial instrument). It used to be a huge hassle to pay those antiquated things into the bank, because you had to physically go to a branch. Thankfully that’s all in the past, and the bank apps on our phones can scan the cheques and deposit them electronically.
It’s also very rare now. Only the most backwards of institutions — like those of government — or companies who deliberately want to hold onto your money for as long as possible while the payment version of a handwritten letter is cleared by a bank, still bother to use them. Where I live, there’s a plan to phase them out entirely, since usage is declining every year.
Whenever I see a cheque, I have the same feeling as when I see a contract, or anything else that bears a signature: this is all just arbitrary. It’s necessary, certainly, but the idea that the act of scribbling your name (which most of us can no longer do with any consistency) onto a document makes it legally binding is bizarre. The more you think about it, the stranger it is.
Then you start to consider all the other ways in which we assign grave importance to something just by virtue of it being inscribed, and then, well, you get this story.
Faine looked around the room at the unlikely group of wary-looking people who would be his students today.
And perhaps tomorrow, he thought. If they get through the day.
There were five of them, and the classroom was brand new in the sense that until a few minutes ago, it had not existed at all. Faine was vaguely aware of the backgrounds of these people — an accountant, a chemical laboratory technician, a salesman of industrial machines, a schoolteacher of young children, and a man involved in the very blackest of arts: stock trading. Not that any of these details really mattered, except as things to be unlearned as quickly as possible, but they were illuminating nonetheless.
These people were refugees, of a sort, and it was his duty to whip them into shape so they could be useful to themselves and to the world. The process was inevitably traumatic in terms of how they had been raised to believe the world worked. But there was nothing to be done about that.
“Have you ever thought about paper?” he said, drawing five pairs of eyes towards him immediately. His students each sat at an individual desk, and on those desks — now, at least — there was a sheet of entirely blank paper.
“With it,” he continued, “we join people in the noble institution of matrimony, or dissolve the same. We bestow a name upon a child, and record its birth for all time to come — and eventually, we also memorialise its death.”
He paused, allowing the image to sink in and have its effect, before continuing. “We grant titles and positions. We exchange money and property. We confer educational degrees. We validate rights of residency, employment, and ownership. We bind each other to conditions of all kinds, upon penalty of loss, fine, and imprisonment.”
There was a sheet of paper in his hand now, which he held up for them all to see. First one side, and then another, sometimes with markings upon it, but never quite the same from one moment to the next.
“Such is the power of paper, one of the most potent substances in the world — but only because we collectively believe that it has these capabilities.”
There was a pen in his other hand now. Not the antique and raven-black fountain pen that his surroundings might predict, but an ordinary ball point, unremarkable in every way. Its ink was black, and its barrel was of cheap plastic. It had no lid. Faine shook the sheet of paper he held, and it immediately became rigid as if made from a thin sheet of metal. He took the pen, and with a flourish he wrote his own name.
The signature appeared on each of the sheets of paper on the five desks also, making the students gasp variously in surprise or delight. The ink was blacker than any they’d known, reflecting no light at all. The letterforms were like cracks in the paper’s surface, exposing a chasm beneath.
“The consensual imbuing of power within inscription is a magical act,” he said. Then he waved the end of the pen in the air, as if conducting an invisible orchestra.
The five sheets of paper lifted up from the desks, climbing languidly into the air. They moved with a disturbingly organic quality, as if they had an innate if inscrutable intelligence governing each undulation. Slowly, they began to circle the room above the heads of the students.
“It is the committed form of a concept which makes it real,” Faine said. “A university degree is both an award and a document, but the reality of the former is assigned to and validated by the latter. The same is true for marriage as a status, or a mortgage as a financial agreement, and so on. In this way an entire civilisation is given structure.”
He suddenly flicked the pen into the air, where it tumbled end over end until it reached the centre point of the orbit of the sheets of paper. All six objects vanished, leaving only a few coloured sparks, falling and fading like motes of dust in a sunbeam. Faine held up his own single sheet of paper, the only one that remained.
“Our world, and indeed everything beyond, owes its existence not to physical things, but to those created by the consensus of belief. The world as you know it is the most settled, agreed-upon, robustly accepted and self-perpetuating interpretation of what you might call reality. But it is not the only interpretation.”
Faine brought night to all the windows behind him, and candlelight to each of the five desks. The students were so captivated as to barely notice.
“There is a unifying principle,” Faine said quietly, watching with satisfaction as his pupils leaned forward in their chairs, “and you are here because there is no longer a place for you outside of it.”
He looked at their rapt faces, and he no longer saw an accountant, or a schoolteacher, or anything else. He saw the potential that he always managed to draw out; the prelude to an empty canvas that he could work with. Or a blank sheet of paper.
“You are ready now, I think, to learn the first and only absolute truth of your lives,” Faine said. “And since all things without exception must have names in order to be real, you ought to learn its name well.”
The looked at each of them in turn, his solemnity contagious. When he could feel the tension and anticipation filling every corner of the room, he spoke again.
“In the beginning, as now and always, there was only the Fabric.”
That’s all for today. I hope you enjoyed this brief tale. If you have any thoughts or questions; I’d love to hear from you; you can find me on Twitter.
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Have a wonderful week, and thanks for reading.