When people talk, listen completely. Most people never listen.
- Ernest Hemingway
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He wrote into the first blank page of his half filled book — “I wonder what it would be like to have a new thought.”
Just as he dotted his sentence, the blue lines printed on the page formed dark spaces between, all along the pink margin that ran beside the fold. And through each of these spaces, little faceless men peeked out onto the book. Seeing no mammoths outside, they ran out in to the paper in exuberance, until funny sounds from below confused them on what was now a piano. The smarter ones placed the surface quickly, and started to jump across its keys, playing tuneless notes to amuse themselves.
Laughing, he turned the page, and the little men screamed and ran towards the rising edge before plunging into the fluid paralysis of the previous page.
He wrote into the next — “I wonder what a–”
But before he could write another word, all the ink from his fat fountain pen leaked onto the page, rushed to its bottom, and spread carefully out, to keep the paper from weakening too soon. The black ink slid upwards across the lines and formed a silhouette of a leafless tree, its branches stretching slowly towards the edges of the page. Upon the thickest branch, the writer saw, was a cuckoo’s nest, and beside it, a mother nudging her child off of the branch. He frowned and then smiled, as the child faltered a few steps, before turning, slipping past the mother, and sprinting towards and climbing in to the nest.
Along the bottom of the page now came a silhouette of a man, who took his hat into one hand and scratched his chin with the other, as he looked from the nest on the branch above him, into the writer’s dusty spectacles. A speech bubble formed on the paper over the little man’s right shoulder, and inside it appeared the words: “What are you afraid of?”
The writer sighed, and remembered that he must be going mad — a thought he almost had a few minutes earlier, when he'd watched little stick figures play cacophonous notes and tones between the lines in his book. ‘Notes’ and ‘Tones’. A single alphabet switch, he thought now and chuckled. The suited man, his hat still in his hand, stared at him from the paper, tapping his right foot near the foot of the leafless tree, on the line that formed the ground to hold them both. At the end of line, near the bottom-right edge of the page were now the words: “Answer Here” followed by a colon and a space.
The writer dragged the tip of his pen and dropped it in the blank, and paused to think. All that travelled from his head through his arm into the pen and on to the paper, was a slightly disfigured question mark. He left it there, in the space following the colon, and quickly looked back to the bubble, to see if the strange little man would respond to it.
“Ha ha!” the bubble said, and then the little man turned to walk towards the edge of the paper. And even as the writer watched, the silhouette disappeared into the edge.
Quickly, the writer turned the page to see if he’d find the little fellow in the next. But it only showed him pale blue lines on empty white and a dull pink margin by the left-side edge. So did the next page. And the next seven. All empty, and either yawning or shrugging; not really craving ink, but not repulsive to the idea of it either.
So he turned back to the first blank page in his book, and began to sketch the man that had disappeared. The silhouette of a buttoned suit, long legged pants, sharp cut shoes, and a dark fedora hat.
The moment he’d rounded the final curve of the sketch at the top of the hat, the little man found gravity and fell towards the bottom of the page, screaming without a bubble. But before he reached the edge, the writer drew a hasty line near the bottom, and the little man plunged into it, and up again, and bounced many little bounces until the line steadied to a halt. He picked his hat and stood up, and a bubble popped into the paper above him, to exclaim “WHAT?!” in capitals, as if he were still screaming.
The writer smirked, and scribbled into one corner of the page, “What am I afraid of?”
“You?” read the bubble, after about eight seconds.
“Yes. What?” the writer wrote into the same corner, where his previous question had now all but faded from.
“You!” the question mark straightened into another exclamation in the little man’s response.
The writer frowned at his faceless head, as behind it now formed haphazard lines, curling into themselves, and blurring and sharpening meaninglessly. Holding the writer’s gaze, they twisted and convulsed, teasing vivid shapes from his memory in flashes, before restoring the randomness every few moments.
A bicycle without a stand. Curves that were really failed circles. A football on poorly mowed grass. Rectangles of infinite shapes. Books stolen from under the nose of an unkind librarian. A worn-out FM Radio. Shapes of silence and shapes of melodies. A guitar in the backseat of an old Fiat. ‘X’s and ‘O’s and grid lines all over them. A blue letter-box by a wooden gate. And bewitching eyes, that hurt to look into.
Agitated, the writer scratched over it all, but the tip of his pen refused to let any more ink out. He put his fat pen aside, and held the book down to rip the page out. But all the shapes had sunk through the paper into the next page. And they resumed their throb and dance, blithely smiling at his hurting head. In the forefront of it all, the little man now had his arms outstretched, and in his little bubble formed the word- “This” which disappeared as the writer read it, fading-in the words- “Is you.”
Cold hands and warm ears, the writer slammed his book shut, and turned in his chair to the window in the east wall of his room. Four rectangles of light, he saw, and a segment of a semi-circle above them. Droplets of different sizes, from tiny to small, appeared and disappeared on the panes of glass. He clenched his eyes shut, and saw foggy mirrors on his eyelids, showing him displeasing parts of his own face at different lengths till the end of his sight.
“Why does art have to be so fucking personal?” he thought to himself, and wondered immediately, if the little man would have an answer.
His fingers drumming on the table, he stared at the book in the spiteful knowledge that he would open it again in a moment. He did, and turned to the page where he’d left the little hatted man. The lines and shapes were all fading, and the man was now sat on a wheelchair he must’ve conjured for himself, puffing on what appeared to be a little cigar. The smoke from his cigar was a mist of ink, rising feebly and diffusing into the top of the page.
“Okay,” said the little man’s bubble. “It’s because everything not you has been said before.”
“What does that –” the writer began to think out loud.
“You can only tell your own stories. The rest is all paint-dust.” said the bubble.
The writer thought about his own stories. That he had none left, is what he thought, to be exact. He had no real melancholia to draw from. No tragedy. No heartaches. He knew little about homosexuality, womanhood, or immigration. He found he had no memories of adrenaline to inspire either. He’d never been on top of Mount Everest or inside the ISS. He’d left the town once in the past year, when the Toulside SuperMart had run out of beer.
He then either thought about, or saw in the shapes behind the little man –he couldn’t tell anymore– his father’s pained face from decades ago, making him an unsolicited promise to never drink again. Why, that’s a memory, he thought to himself.
“Everything is,” said the bubble, the little man now shaking his head. “There are no new thoughts. Just jigsaws and water-colours.”
A line appeared immediately after, under the word ‘are’. The writer thought about the shapes in the book and the mirrors in his eyes. He pictured the little man slipping out of the page, climbing down the drawers in the table, strolling across the wooden floor, heaving the front door open with both hands, and walking out into a giant world. Then he pictured a stream of rain-water by the side of the street catching the little man unaware, and carrying him through wide gutters into homes of mighty rodents.
Shaking the picture out of his head, he turned the page, not noticing the message “Wait. WAIT!” appear in the bubble, and placed the tip of his pen on the first line of the next. He closed his eyes again, and saw two-dimensional butterflies on one eyelid, and tiny nails and hammers on the other. He opened them, blinked four times, and began to write.