PAPER, ROCK, SCISSORS
By Bulent Akman
What folly a species made of paper makes in burning cigarettes in mouths which can all too easily catch alight and burn?--Excerpt from the journals of William Fasting, Librarian.
In the secret reading room of the oldest library in the city, a man made of paper sat reading a book under the only window and puffing on a hand rolled cigar. His armchair was upholstered in dark green leather; it was a brass-bossed antiquity with legs so old they had carved animal claws for feet. The others who used this room thought it remarkable that a species made entirely of paper would choose to have anything at all to do with fire. Certainly, they wouldn’t smoke.
This one not only smoked but let the ashes grow longer and longer until they fell upon his smoking jacket and from there on down to the ground in a mute artificial snow fall of grey and black. There, in the stained hand-woven rug set under the armchair they formed never-swept drifts which nearly obscured what must have once been a very beautiful rug.
Beside the armchair, a small circular wooden table supported a pile of books that easily overshadowed a cup of hot coffee perched as close to peril on the table’s edge as gravity would permit.
The light in this secret room came from only one window because other windows looked into the public part of the library. This one window and it's narrow reading room had been built into the original plans and from without it was impossible to pick it out from its many identical cousins on the facade. Each was high set and arched in stone quarried from across the world and each looked in on more or less identical scenes of people at long reading tables surrounded by books.
Light also came from single-bulb reading lamps with tinted-green glass shades standing proudly in its polished brass armatures at even intervals like guards at court. Additional light also came from overheard sodium bulbs which cast a bright sallow light on the bookshelves and readers below at their long tables arranged in the central space between the shelves in rows of two. A roman legion of readers. As the man made of paper continued to smoke and read and drink and stain, all manner of men read at the long reading tables arrayed before him.
At a false section of library shelves, which was the entrance to the secret room, a muffled voice passed the secret passwords, in reply across the carpet rolled the false shelf on its heavy wide steel wheels.
Two men entered and walked silently as only heavy carpet permits to the far side of the library where the smoking man of paper sat and smoked and stained and read.
The man of paper did not let their presence interrupt his reading. The two men in their turn kept a respectful distance and waited. They waited easily because movement to them was as yet unnatural, they preferred to stand and wait. One had to look carefully at their plain faces to notice the marks the sculptors’ chisel had made in their stony flesh. These men were also men but men of stone, not paper. Standing was the most comfortable state they knew.
The light spilled from the window as the sun plunged under the overcast clouds outside and the room quickly filled with gold light. The paper man closed his book, a fresh lit cigar was in his hand.
“You’ve brought my new man?” said the paper man.
“I have,” said the shorter of the men.
“Good, thank you Gordon, please feel free to join the others,” the paper man said, handing the man called Gordon the book the paper man had just been holding.
The man called Gordon moved away to the reading tables with the book held tenderly in his hands and had barely sat down before beginning to read. Some of the others looked up from their books in welcoming approval and then returned to their own reading.
The man of paper returned his attention to the man of stone who still stood before him. He fixed him with his gaze so long that the man, if anything, grew more still, surrendered to his transfixed state. The man of paper unlocked his gaze and stood up and walked to the entrance with the man of stone falling in behind him automatically. Together, they walked to the secret entrance and just at the threshold, the man made of paper said one thing more as the secret door began its slow turning.
“You’ll protect me now, won’t you?”
“Yes,” said the man of stone.
“A new man of few words, I thank you,” said the man of paper.
The secret door completed its arc and together, they passed through the door into darkness, the public library had closed hours before, time had somersaulted, it was not late afternoon but exactly midnight. The man of stone looked back and caught the faint rays of the dying sun through the one window for a moment but then his eyes swam and he grew disoriented.
“It helps not to look back,” said the man of paper.
The man of stone looked at the man of paper suddenly, that voice so frail, fragile, could not have come from him. The paper man had diminished, looked apt to fall over and break a hip. He lowered his face quickly but the look had not escaped the bent old man’s notice.
“Do I look so old to young eyes?”
“It is the mystery,” said the man of stone by rote.
“Piffle! None of that now! We are out of the library, we must now get home, no easy matter in these times.”
The man of stone looked about, eyes wide, they were outside the library! The library itself had changed, aged, grown derelict with time and abuse, the windows smashed, coarse vandalism stained its walls, he thought he heard a scream in the distance.
The man of stone became a blur of motion, too fast for eyes to follow, charting every avenue, assessing every possible threat, through the whirlwind he raised up the man of paper stood very still and waited, it was often like this. The first journey home was always the most difficult for a new man. As suddenly as the man of stone had started he stopped. Threats imminent: none, threats found: many.
“Ready?” said the man of paper.
“I will attend with greater precision, sir,” said the man of stone, chastened by the lack of rebuke from his charge.
“You will have many opportunities, no fear of that,” said the old man, growing ever more fragile with each step. He produced a telescoping cane from out of the pocket of his smoking jacket, the man of stone noticed the jacket was now a nicotine-brown three-piece tweed suit. A glimmer of gold chain in the waistcoat but no tell-tale bulge of a pocket watch. The man of stone was not prying, it was the nature of his kind of man to notice things with certainty. A cloud broke overhead and the man of stone produced a black umbrella from seemingly nowhere. The old man nodded once in approval at the little trick, the petit mal. Then, as swift as the old man’s thin legs would allow, they walked down the cracked library steps, past an artillery crater of shattered stone covered in a moist moss blue in the skittering darkness and down into the ruined street towards an impossible scene of electric illumination, manic crowds and buffeting noise.
At the corner, the old man turned to his guard and spoke once more.
“Deep breath,” he said. The stone man inhaled. The old man stepped around the corner and they were assaulted by drunk revelers and working electric lights and car radios blaring in suddenly jammed streets and scents of cooking meat and the stone man had all he could do to keep the people from bumping and shoving the old man. He stepped on toes, bent fingers, pinched nerves, anyone who got too close got an answer from him. They didn’t seem to see them, just plowed blindly on. The man of stone kept his discipline about him as they crossed the street to the relative quiet on the other side but he was sure that if he had turned around, the library would have been whole again, young and open, lights blazing.
He noted with satisfaction that the old man was whole, not a single part of him had been bent or creased by their journey so far.
“Do not be too satisfied my young guardian, we have far to go tonight,” said the old man. But he was grinning as he said so.
The man of stone beamed inside at the acknowledgement.
They walked on in the warm summer air, the umbrella had been banished, secreted away, not needed for now. The street ahead worried the stone man, it was dark, darker than the night outside the ruined library.
“You are wise to be cautious,” said the old man, growing more humanly frail with every passing moment.
The stone man stretched his intuition into its keenest edge. Something was…wrong. It hinged on some slippery detail, like looking for the corner of a corner. Ahead, in that darkness to perfect to be natural outside of a cave, things moved, though never where he looked.
“Is there another way?”
“Do you see them?”
“I do not, I know they are there.”
“Look out of the corner of your eyes, they have trouble hiding there, just be aware of your periphery young guardian, they can’t catch every angle, only most,” said the old man, his voice reed-thin now.
The man of stone knew there were other ways, many many ways, most likely more infested than this one, his charge had chosen this way for a reason, he would see his charge through. He let his eyes unfocus and rest on a green dumpster lit purple by a yellow street light in the middle ground. He thought of the library. Then, he saw them. Resisting the temptation to look directly at them he kept his eyes resting on the dumpster and watched the glittering sharpness snik-snip towards them. There were pairs, they always hunted in pairs. The stone man made ready as one scissored left in preparation to flank him and his charge.
The stone man struck the nearest without warning or mercy. Palm to the central nerve axis. It made a sound like a knife on a blackboard and shattered.
The man of stone spun round with heartache, the leader had lain in ambush behind them. He saw his charge cut, falling. The stone man stepped down his senses until he moved in the underspace beneath time, this was not a little trick. This was a grand mal. A single misstep here would kill him. The moment went black, he had only his memory of each position. Fixing that image firmly in his mind, he set his mind down deep in the nearly immovable blackness and began to push. Nothing moved in the underspace, nothing could, nearly nothing, tectonic plates moved, mountains rose, valleys formed, however slowly. These things happened because there is time and there is Time. At certain scales the only things which could move were those things which told time what It was. Down there unable to see but trusting the memory carved by his failure and shame, the man of stone began to move, he estimated that to cross the 4 meters that separated him from his attackers would take approximately 250,000 years of geologic motion. The man of stone hardened his mind, hardened it to the point that it was coming at softness from the other direction. There was a part of him that was glad to be pushing for so long, he thought it would be just enough time to get over his shame and come to terms with his mistakes which had let his charge come to be harmed, He settled in to wait, his self awareness integrating with the spirit of the world and his ancestors, the mountains that had raised him up. He had stood a watch of ten thousand years in training, he knew he had the technique to get down into the bedrock, he could only hope that he would have the energy and memory to remember to start again, and starting, to remember what he next would do, once he returned to himself. He pushed, he strained, he let the minutes go by until he used hours for measure instead, his hours gave way to days, days to years, then centuries, finally eons. Still he pushed, raising first one leg like the rising sea bed of a great plate lifting above another, He pushed through millennia, through tens of millennia, he had time to fill his imagination with every grain of detail of the scene his mind had captured, he pushed and strained, a faint smile curling his lips, as the hundreds of thousands of years of subjective time brought him within reach of the cutthroat attackers, he noted with pleasure the softness of their mettle against his fists, down in the underspace he was so massive he could have dented them with his breath. He took great care to avoid any contact with his charge, No so much as a molecule of air around the old man's body was nudged out of place, the man of stone moved so low in the underspace that he left soft prints of his shoes in the hard asphalt and even bent the street itself towards him almost imperceptibly. Even by the standards of his people it was a long time down in the heart of the world, the man of stone spent the last 30,000 years in a slow spiralling preparation of acceptance for his fault, he’d had a long time to think over his choices, and to prepare himself for the rise up into overspace. So long in the darkness had changed him, he had accepted the errors of his folly so many centuries ago. He accepted his arrogance in coming forward to attack when he should have protected his charge at all times.
When his mind was at wakeful peace and his heart was at attendant rest, he rose out of the underspace with vibrations that shook him from head to toe, so much he thought he might shake apart.
Then he was back in the moment, vision returned with noise, in a shattering gunshot crack of a steel bar frozen in liquid nitrogen and smashed against rocks.
The man of paper was kneeling, his arm was cut, of the assailants, nothing but glittering dust remained, mixing and crushing into the asphalt, the man of stone produced an actual bandage of gauze from his pocket and bound the wound.
“How long?” said the man weakly.
“250,000 years,” said the man of stone.
“You should not have done it, now they have seen your abilities."
"They can anticipate you now,”
“They can anticipate who I was,”
“Perhaps,” said the man of paper, “they have torn my arm,”
“I was arrogant and you have suffered for it, I am ashamed.”
“After a quarter of a million years?” said the man of paper, “few of my kind have ever reached ten thousand!” leave your shame behind, ah, I see you have, you spoke for my sake and you did not acquit yourself too badly, my guardian, I live as yet, Gordon can still be proud.”
The man of stone said nothing very pointedly.
“Come, there will be other opportunities to rescue me yet, we go to the path through the world now,” he put real warmth into his voice, such warmth as he had left since leaving the library.
The man of paper felt his hands, cold, too cold, and dry, too dry. He needed to get home and turn the humidity up and rest and repair his coverings and his stitches, he privately thought there was a lot of potential in his guardian, Gordon had been right, this young one did possess the spark, it was not time to admit some things, even to himself, but the man of paper could not resist noting that such a grand mal as had been done here tonight had been seen only a few times in recent centuries, there was hope here yet, in these strange times. The thought of time brought the man of paper out of his reverie, he led the man of stone to the end of the now deserted residential side street in the direction of a great deep thumping noise, they were heading towards the noise, the man of stone thought he recognized a familiar tune under a distortion of music and beyond that, an almost familiar screaming-yet-whispering vocalist, in the distance, under a jagged night sky ripped open with stars he’d never charted, a line of revellers stood, waiting to enter a dance club, he took his charges arm and the old frail man did not reject the support, they walked closer, the noise grew louder, this charge wanted them to go down there. Was it possible? At the door, the old frail man did not stop but kept right on walking to the front of the line. The man at the door was a giant slab of upright obsidian in the darkness, at sight of the old man he barred their way.
“Paper covers rock,” said the old man. The man at the door stood aside. The man of stone, his arm still supporting the man of paper walked with him past the door man. As he passed the door man spoke for his ears alone. The man of stone nodded and whispered back. The door man raised his eyebrows and nodded twice before turning his massive back to them.
The noise began to rise as they rounded the corner and descended the stairs, the crowd of people in the narrow passageway almost provoked the man of stone to enter the underspace again but he did not, these were mostly people mostly soft fleshy bits, not true men nor women, they were for the most part mostly harmless, the snickkety snickers would not come down here, the heat and humidity and salt in the atmosphere kept their kind out fairly well, there was also a large sign on the door to the club with read ‘no sharps admitted, no exceptions, if you think this applies to you, it does!’
As they reached the underground inner entrance the noise cleared up in fidelity, heat and sweaty bodies, red lights predominated and on the dance floor an impossible spectacle, on every wall, on every ceiling, video feeds of other nightclubs north and south of them were being broadcast in hi-def real-time, the effect was of people dancing on every surface, regardless of the laws of physics, gyrating bodies at every possible angle, all the cameras had been secreted between the screens so it appeared as if one could just reach across the bars of the widescreen monitors and dance somewhere else, somewhen else.
At the edge of the club, even larger screens than those mounted above and around the dance floor, showed full scale real time videos as well, except these were oriented to appear contiguous with the floor, in the crowd it was sometimes impossible to tell at a glance, which side of the monitors someone was standing on, the bar on the video was four times longer than the actual bar of the club. The man in stone began to suspect what his charge was planning, a grand mal was not a grand mal if no one noticed. He might perform bilocation here and no one could expose him.
The man of stone smiled. This might cut their journey home considerably.
There was a long lateral snaking through the crowd, the man of paper walking slowly in the protective cocoon of his guardians’ outstretched arms, The man of stone was reluctant to pinch and push and prod here, too many people in a closed space spelled the possibility of panic, here he just made himself very present, parting the crowd as much with the force of his presence as with his outstretched arms. They were near the far wall now, the scene it broadcast was of another club in another place, it could even have been another time, the fashions were somewhat different but the man of stone while he had time for many things, had never found time to keep up with club fashions.
They had reached the wall. The noise was doubly loud here, the loudspeakers around the screens were pumping the music from the other club as well, the music was the same but the roar of the crowd was also present, the noise was threatening to the man of stone, the bass notes drew his attention, his attention could not be drawn, yet still the deep heartbeat of the earth was in them. It had been easier to push through the ages out on the street than to keep his attention on the present moment.
Meanwhile, the man of paper had produced a poster from apparently nowhere and was taping it one of the screens. He worked swiftly, taping the top edges, making certain they were affixed firmly, then rolling the poster down to its end and affixing the bottom corners as well.
Then he poked a hole in the poster with his finger. The man of stone watched as the man of paper widened the hole he had made until he could and did step halfway through but then drew back.
“Just testing, after you my guardian,” said the man of paper, pleased at his own trick.
“Take my arm please, sir, I will step through backwards and protect you at the same time.”
“Yes fine but hurry, that tape can’t stick long in this humidity, it’s just book tape after all. You don’t want to be halfway through when it gives way.”
The man of stone showed he understood by stepping back through the poster immediately with the man of paper supported by his forearm just as he’d described. As soon as they were both through the man of paper reached back and drew first one bottom corner through the hole, then the second, the tear was nearly to the edge of the poster now which made it easier in some respects, the third edge was pulled through, the final edge remained.
“Now is the real trick, many can pass themselves through a poster but…” with that he unfastened the final corner with a flurry and a flourish with even the man of stone could not track and there in his hands, was the poster, untorn, the video screen they had just stepped through was unblemished. The old man, though he continued to favour his good arm and was breathing a bit heavily, gave him a smile filled with good natured pride.
“…few can keep the poster,” finished the man of paper.
“Come, it is not too much further now,” he added a moment later. They climbed the stairs out in the mundane way, there was some strange solidification of the man of paper as they did so.
It was also light outside. The music and noise were cut off as by a pair of scissors. The man of stone flashed round, assessed avenues of escape, threats imminent: none, threats nearby: few and minor.
They were outside, the club was closed, shut for many hours, another disjoint in time, it was spring, and daylight, the asphalt on which they stood did not go very far and soon they were on cobblestones, there was a scent the man of stone had never smelled before, the buildings in this part of the city were marble and he felt strangely at home although he had never been here before. The change had also worked upon the man of paper, he seemed more substantial but not as he was in his seat of power, the library, but a fleshy sort of substantiality. The man of stone noticed his own body, it had softened, he still heard the tectonic rumblings of his core but they might be mistaken for a rumble from a fleshy stomach now. Truly this was wondrous strange, he thought to himself. The man of stone noticed other delights in his new state, there was a texture to everything he had never known before.
“Come, my home is at the corner of five roads which meet in a way no other five roads meet, it is just around this corner."
They walked around the corner and into warm spring sunshine.
"Gordon told me you love books,” added the man of paper.
"They are my passion, I read as many as ten an evening," said the man of stone.
"Yes, a talent of your species I envy from time to time," said the man of paper. "Not too many writers among your kind, though, are there?"
"We find it, hard," said the man of stone as he walked beside his charge who appeared to have no need for his physical support any longer, he walked under his own power, the cut on the old man's arm had scabbed over (the man of stone would forever be sorry for his previous arrogance) but the instabilities and dangers of the way here seemed to melt away from him with every step. The man of paper led him to a door to a low-rise block of apartments which the man of stone estimated had been built over a century ago of good stone and been kept in good repair although blackened in some places by diesel deposits. Beside the door was a small cafe with an open patio ringed neatly behind low black iron fence.
“Drink a coffee with me, I want a cigar.” Said the man of paper.
“Yes, sir, gladly.”
“You can drop the sir when we’re in private,” said the man of paper.
“How shall I refer to you?” asked the man of stone.
“Oh, just like that will do, it’s the world you see, too hung up on words, I like to keep myself as free of their entanglements as my nature allows,” he said as they chose a booth in the back with the man of stone facing the door and the man of paper facing the wall.
“To a long night and a safe journey,” said the man of paper when their coffee arrived without being ordered. The man of stone grew attentive, this had happened before. The trial was not over.
They drank their coffees and the man of paper smoked a cigar. He was the only one in the café who did. The other occupants either did not notice or did not mind.
“Making cigar smoke undetectable is a very petit mal,” said the man of paper.
The man of stone chose to simply nod in agreement, men of paper could do so very many things. Men of stone could do one thing extremely well, there had to be a reason for the others in the scheme of things too, though he did not see it at present. They continued to drink their coffees in silent contemplation. When the man of stone had put his empty cup down the man of paper held up his left hand.
“Turn the cup over on the saucer and spin the grounds within three times and put it down again. When it cools I will read your fortune” said the man of paper.
The man of stone turned his cup upside down on the saucer and turned the grounds around three times and put the cup and saucer down.
The time passed, the man of paper smoked his cigar, let the ashes fall, the day brightened towards the late morning, birds chirruped in the trees, and everywhere was that mysterious perfume of unknown blossoms.
The man of paper too the man of stone’s cup and looked deep within.
“You will go on a long journey and receive a gift,” said the man of paper, showing the man of stone a perfectly clean and empty cup.
It wasn’t a funny joke, so they laughed harder.
“Come,” said the old man.
They left without paying and walked out the door, back towards the apartment around the corner, through the entranceway into the apartment block and into an elevator just barely able to fit one frail old man of paper and one strong young man of stone.
The elevator took them to the top floor and from there it was only a matter of a single staircase to get to the attic apartment of the man of paper. At the threshold, the man of paper produced a key which looked perfectly ordinary because it was and stepped forward into his home, the man of stone followed.
"Gordon told me of your fascination," said the man of paper. There was kindness in his voice but also a hardness.
There was not a single book to be found anywhere.
Every room, every surface, was dedicated to the art of living without books. Not even a magazine or a newspaper ruined the scene.
The man of paper looked firmer, surer, here than anywhere else since they had left the library. The man of stone looked softer. It had been a long night but the man of stone knew the journey here was only half the journey, less than half. He would have to train many years in the presence of his master in order to learn the way of coming back, one way was hard, the other way was harder, this was the art, this was the path, He thought he was close, now he knew his journey for what it truly was: A beginning.
He would have a long wait to go before he would be named. 'Only a named man can hold true responsibility,' was a saying among his people. Long ways and long waits were in his veins. He stood easy, at the ready, surrendered to the moment, as the scope of his trial began to sink in. Not a single thing to read was visible anywhere.
“Yes, Gordon spoke glowingly of you, especially of your dedication to books,” said the man of paper.
The man of stone felt the weight of his trial only beginning in earnest now. No books, how long without? In the underspace it was different, he was different in a place before books, with no memory of books, how would he last a day in the overspace without books?
The man of paper felt the dog-eared edges of panic fluttering in his new man.
“Now, my apprentice, for your first lesson, I will teach you a children’s game played with hand gestures. It has an ancient name unpronounceable in any tongues yet spoken but you may call it by its modern name,” said the man of paper as the door swung itself shut.