Quentin S. Crisp

"The first words were necessarily magic. Odin was lashed to the World Tree, a spear piercing his side, for nine days and nights before the runes came to him in a cataclysmic flash of inspiration. Just to speak was an act of magic, and each sentence was a spell. But words have been used too long for mundane, practical purposes, and we have forgotten their true potency. What are they, these ex nihilo expressions of thought and will, these intangible, self-contained units of meaning?
"Sometimes writing seems like a chore that I must force myself into like a sullen schoolboy. But recently - recently, if I am away from my desk and my writing pad, I only have to think of the unmatched whiteness of a blank page and letters curling from the nib of a pen at the top corner, and I cannot wait to get back and take the pen in my hand again. What can be more inspiring than the waiting page? My pen sails on its white billows as on a sea of infinite possibility. The words it traces bring into existence things that were not there before. I cannot believe the extent of the power at my disposal."
He dashed down his pen as if out of breath and sat back to admire his handiwork. He did not know what it was he was writing. He just felt that he was onto something. Anyway, that was enough grafting for the moment. Now he could afford to reward himself with a little treat. It was time to skin up again. He fished in the desk drawer for the little plastic bank bag. He pulled it out and held it up to find only a tiny blim of resin left. Enough for one spliff, anyway, but he'd have to make another visit to Cody soon. Shrugging he riffled three rizlas from their packet like a card sharp and, licking the gummed lip of thin paper, set about assembling the spliff.

"Ah, come in!"
The door opened on the vista of the double room that Cody shared with another complicitous first year. Nate's eyes roved about the wall and floor, drawn towards the shameless poster of Alicia Silverstone. His gaze returned to Cody, sitting at his desk, leaning back in his chair in an attitude of casual welcome.
"What'll it be?"
"A Henry, I suppose."
"Tell you what, mate, I've got some wicked skunk in, if you're up for it."
"How much?"
"Twenty quid."
"Can I pay you five quid later?"
"Yeah, yeah, no trouble."
Nate fumbled in his pocket, producing a tenner and a fiver so dog-eared it was remarkable it was still in circulation, this latter more crumpled than folded. Cody pulled out his top drawer and secreted the lucre in a tobacco tin. Then he took out a large polythene bag of pungent green buds and a set of scales. Moments later Nate had in his hands a clove of marijuana, wrapped up in cling film.
In deference to toker's etiquette, Nate suggested they sample the goods there and then, to which suggestion Cody was by no means averse. Taking advantage of his prerogative, Nate sparked the spliff. Cody turned up the sound of the TV that had been flickering in the corner and soon both of them were watching with glazed eyes, as if sitting around a campfire.
"Hey, I think it's time for The South Bank Show soon," said Cody, after the joint had gone back and forth a couple of times, "Do you mind if I turn over?"
Nate had no objections. This week the arts magazine featured a successful writer of horror and fantasy, who had recently also made the leap to film director.
"Wicked," said Cody as the camera panned across a black museum of the horrific models that had been made for the auteur's films.
"Your work is full of mutation and metamorphosis, usually manifest in very startling, physical eruptions of energy," came the interviewer's preamble. Two or three minutes into the programme and already Nate was having trouble following it. Sometimes he wondered why he did this to his brain.
"Do you ever get inspiration from drugs?"
The question caught Nate's attention again.
"No, no, I don't. I don't find drugs really helpful to the creative process and I am very suspicious of the kind of people who claim they need drugs for inspiration."
"Well, that's rubbish for a start," put in Cody.
"How can he say that? Just look at his films and his paintings. Drugs and art, man, they go together. They're the same thing. Think about it. Man has always used drugs to attain a higher level of consciousness. The few tribes left who still exist in any sort of unspoilt state use drugs in their rites of passage. It's natural, man, that's why these plants were put here on Earth."
"I don't know."
"What don't you know?"
"Well, obviously I'm not against the use of drugs, but I think he has a point. I mean, it's like all these people who listen to a song with slightly impressionistic lyrics and say, ' They must have been on drugs when they made this', as if that explains everything and there's nothing more to be said. It's totally inane."
"All the best artists took drugs, man, I'm telling you. "
"You would say that. You've got something to sell."
"Nah. I'm not a dealer, man. This is just temporary, to help me pay my fees. I get fuck all help from the state. I'm practically forced to do it. I'm just one more member of the great disenfranchised underclass known as students."
At that juncture Nate took a deep lungful of smoke and passed the joint to Cody. Cody sat back and smiled, looking for an instant like Groucho Marx with a fat cigar. The discussion ended there. However, Nate continued to ponder their conversation. He could not help thinking that Cody was getting things the wrong way round. It was a case of mistaking the symbol for the Thing Itself. If drugs truly were a means of attaining higher consciousness then surely it was best to place the emphasis on the consciousness and not the means by which it was attained. As long as art contained insights who cared whether they were drug-induced or not?
They sat in monged silence for some time watching the TV until Nate noticed the time and decided to excuse himself. Just as he was about to leave, Cody seemed to recall something.
"Yeah, mate, you're always on the lookout for weird shit, aren't you?"
"Yeah, I suppose so. "
"I met this guy recently, he says he can supply me with very rare herbs, you know, real trippy stuff. I'll introduce you if you like. He'll be round some time, and it might be easier if you talk to him directly. I'm not into that stuff at the moment. Anyway, I'll tell him you're sound. I'm sure he'll be happy to supply your needs."

Nate had been writing again and was making headway. The piece he was working on seemed to be a cross between a discursive alchemical theory and what Poe might have called an arabesque work of fiction. It was something else, too, something transcending both of these things. He looked back over his last paragraph.
"Apropos the relation between art and drugs: whenever I take an hallucinogen and read a book, it ceases to become reading. It becomes viewing or experiencing. Not just the book, but the words themselves, are revealed in all their physicality. The text pulsates with criss-crossed veins. There is an energy on the page, like lightning.
"All one has to do is put the right words together in the right order. Then the words themselves become invisible. They become a portal through which something else may be viewed. More than that, they become the thing itself. What that thing is depends on the writer, of course. But just as that thing may seem to be trapped, like a genie, on the page, so it may equally rise from the page like smoke.
"Now that I have taken up my pen and a written such things I feel compelled, driven. I must open The Gateway. I must invoke The Genie. I must create The Thing Itself. I must attain Beauty."
But however many times he scrawled imperatives to himself it would make no difference. Time for another break. Nate recalled vaguely a lesson of long ago in which the basic needs fulfilled by religion were enumerated succinctly. One of them was ritual. Man needs ritual.
"Yes, yes, I need a bit of ritual," he said to himself and glanced about for his stash. It lay nestled between the open leaves of his Japanese-English dictionary on the floor. He had left it there because its presence was comforting. But now there was fascination too. He picked up the dictionary as if it was the most exquisite thing he had ever seen. There was something about the way the creamy leaves of paper, made orderly with the rank and file of print, cradled the little cling film pouch of hashish. It seemed a shame to smoke the weed. Yet it was obvious that part of the beauty of the hash came from the fact it was a supply that must be diminished by use. Speaking of which dot dot dot. Nate thoughtfully rolled a joint. During its construction and its consumption his attention was still held by the weed and the dictionary. What was it that absorbed him so? He felt that he was beginning to understand the two-dimensional sensuality of the printed word. Just because it was two-dimensional it didn't mean it wasn't physical. Just look at the shapes of those letters, their curves and lines, all indelibly identified with their own particular sounds! And that was just the English! The Japanese was something else again! Nate caressed the paper and breathed in the subtle scent of the pages.
He needed another joint. He plucked out three more rizlas and was about to stick them together when suddenly an idea occurred to him. He began to stroke the pages of the dictionary again. He took one leaf between his fingers and rubbed it. Something was coming back to him. He was not sure whether it was a real memory or the product of a mind burnt-out by too many drugs, but was there someone once, an uncle or a teacher or someone, who told him a story about dictionaries? Some dictionaries, they had said with an air of appreciation, had very fine leaves. It wasn't just the wonderful thinness of the pages that made them such superior quality, it was the colour too, and the creamy texture. The makers of cigarette papers were not so concerned with quality as the makers of dictionaries, it seemed, and consequently, in his youth, during the war, whenever it was, whoever it was, this obscure raconteur had smoked his way through many a pocket dictionary, marvelling at the exquisite, almost velvety smoothness of the paper. Who was it, now? Nate couldn't quite remember.
It wasn't important. He knew what he had to do. This dictionary was one of his most prized possessions. What's more, it was expensive and difficult to replace. But such was the lure of his new idea that he did not hesitate to take up a ruler and rip out a sheet from the centre of the dictionary. He scrutinised its contents, tucking the words, their definitions and the example sentences away in his temperamental memory, and then he set to work. First he had to tear the page into strips of the appropriate size. But once this was accomplished he found the paper admirably suited to his needs. Now the paper and the words wrapped up the buds of weed completely. It was a simple matter to lick the gummed edges of a couple of rizlas and use these to stick down the edges of this dictionary joint. Finally, Nate twisted the end into a papery fuse. He was satisfied with the results. It was tight, yes, but not too tight. The buds of grass bulged here and there creating a pleasing suggestion of crumpledness. Nate had created such a sense of anticipation with his one-man ritual that he hesitated to apply a spark to the fuse. Inevitably, however, his hesitation gave way.
As to what happened next, later he would write it into his story and account it evidence that he had already half succeeded in summoning a genie. He was hard pressed then for an explanation of this success; was it a loosening up of reality into a form of free association? Was it a kind of synchronicity? How could he know there was a first time for everything and he had simply - inevitably - been chosen? All he could do was be incredulous when he lit up the joint in a flourish of smoke and flame and drew deeply on it to see sparks leap from the glowing tip as if released from the page as that page was consumed by the cindery line of orange. The first sparks spelled out two glyphs on the air: Hibana: It was the Japanese for spark. Nate drew on the spliff again and there came a fresh shower of ideograms, so many that he was afraid he would blim his shirt with falling Japanese characters. What's more, he noticed, they were all in dictionary order.
With stoned logic Nate came up with a theory as to what had happened. He noticed that none of the English words had turned into sparks. This was partly, he decided, due to their curvilinear nature. The Japanese characters were made up of lightning jagged strokes which made them easier to translate into sparks. But more than this, the English or Roman alphabet is a phonetic writing system. The letters on their own have no intrinsic meaning. But the Japanese ideograms known as Kanji were imbued with meaning unrelated to their phonetic readings. They each represented the essence of something.

Saturday. The previous evening Cody had met him in the student bar and, taking him to one side, told him that he must come round tomorrow afternoon. It was Thomas, his new acquaintance. He'd just come back from Amsterdam. Nate was a little nervous about that afternoon's meeting and was trying to work the feeling off by writing some more of his 'project', as he had come to call it.
"What object is more inspiring than a dictionary? When I look at the alphabetically ordered words in bold type and the serried lines of their definitions, it is like looking at creation's outward form and inner workings all at once. The invisible universe of thought is described here plainly and concisely. Ideas are put away in thousands of drawers. Looking at the text I am suddenly lifted by visions that have nothing to do with the words themselves, and by feelings which are as yet formless, waiting to be expressed as word or vision. I look about the room, and see the words everywhere, in the carpet and furniture. I see the interconnectedness of all things, how the word 'nepotism', for instance, may be associated with the leg of a chair. The only other thing on this earth to have quite such an effect is a record. Watch the needle in a shiny groove of black vinyl and a million pictures and feelings come to mind, all charged with this soaring quality of inspiration and intellectual exhilaration."
Nate felt himself peaking on the word 'exhilaration', and with nowhere to go from there he was suddenly frustrated, suspended inarticulate in mid-air. Seized by a strange, sudden instinct, he knew what he must do to burst this bubble of frustration and breathe again. It wasn't enough to write on the paper. It was too separate. He had to write on his own flash. Jabbing at the back of his left hand with the nib of his pen, at last he punctured his suffocating suspense. He didn't even have to think about the words.
"Art made flesh," he scrawled.
Yes, how satisfying! He had opened up a little ventilation in himself to let in the air of the world. He felt his outline begin to lose its strict, confining definition. Still, it was a little unbalanced. He really needed something on the other hand too. He thought, in a single flash, of the sensuality of words which he had recently started to explore, of the feeling of opening himself to the world he had just experienced, and putting the two together came up with a single word worthy of a true graffiti:
It struck him at once how exquisitely pretentious he was being, but that only made him feel more vulnerable and 'open'. Surely this was art, and anyone who saw it must understand that. The thought quite excited him.
Well, it was time to be off and meet this Thomas bloke, and expose his art to more air along the way.
This time they weren't meeting in Cody's room, but at Razza's flat, which meant walking all the way into town. He slid down the dank little alley which housed the flat entrance and rang the doorbell. In a moment Razza's flat mate, Badger, so called because he looked like a badger, opened the window and threw down a bunch of keys. Nate caught them squarely, shook his stinging fingers, and entered the flat. The smell of grass hit him as he walked up the stairs. When he walked into the sitting room, Cody, Razza and Badger were all present, plus a large and somewhat surreal figure on the armchair in front of the window. The head of this latter was completely bald, no doubt shaved, and a bright feathery earring dangled from his ear. He was wearing a tight white T-shirt which revealed a muscular abdomen.
"Thomas this is Nate. Nate, Thomas."
Razza introduced them, then slumped down on the sofa and took a fag from a box on the arm. He looked across at Nate, then, extending one of the tabs like an aerial, pointed it in Nate's direction.
"Want one?"
"Ta. Nice T-shirt!"
Razza was wearing a T-shirt bearing the legend,' Watch more porn'. The letters were made up of a grainy collage of pornographic stills.
Nate could not help noticing a large selection of paper bags and re-sealable plastic bags arranged on the low coffee table around which they were gathered. He eyed them as he lit the tab and the conversation he had presumably interrupted was resumed. Thomas and his wares were the undoubted focus of that conversation.
"So what was that one again?" asked Razza.
"This one?"
Thomas picked up a crumpled paper bag.
"This is a newly discovered herb which is yet to be legislated against in any country. The effects are very interesting. The best way to take it is to boil it up in milk. You'll probably vomit, anyway. The effects last for 15 to 20 minutes in real time, but that doesn't matter. It allows the experience of time paradoxes. Real-time stops. The user often sees himself from outside his body and is able to visit past experiences as an outside observer. There are other similar effects. Not to be taken lightly. Also, there are certain things you mustn't eat for a few days afterwards."
"What happens if you do?"
"You die."
"No shit?"
"Yeah, yeah. Seriously. I've got a whole list in the bag of what you mustn't eat."
"Like I said, not to be taken lightly. I don't recommend it if you're just after a thrill."
"I'd actually be quite interested in doing that with you some time."
Razza continued to question Thomas on the contents of the various bags. Thomas reeled off Latin names of fungi and herbs, which Nate knew he could not hope to remember, and enumerated their respective attributes, desirable and undesirable.
"Thomas," Badger put in suddenly, "didn't you feel nervous bringing all this stuff back?"
"No. It's easy. You just have to follow a few simple rules."
"How did you get it all through customs then?"
"In my girlfriend."
Something like a cross between a laugh, a hiccup and a swear word passed Razza's lips, almost dislodging his cigarette.
"I'll just borrow your toilet, if that's all right, boys."
"Yeah, go for it!" said Razza.
When Thomas left the room Razza looked around, his eyes meeting those of the assembled. Another casual obscenity hiccuped past his fag.
"Fuck! If I suggested anything like that to my girlfriend I'd get a slap round the face. ''ere you are darlin', get these up yer!'"
"How did it all fit? And what about the paper bags?" Nate wondered aloud, but no one took up this line of inquiry, and he felt vaguely that he was taking the question too far.
When Thomas returned Cody caught his attention.
"Thomas, man, Nate here might be interested in buying something off you."
Thomas turned his gaze on Nate, who felt he had suddenly come into existence for Thomas at that moment.
"What are you looking for?"
"I don't know, really. Some sort of hallucinogen."
Thomas sat back down in his chair.
"To tell the truth, I don't sell just anything to anyone. I have to know the person a bit before I know what they can take and what will suit them. I'm a specialist, see."
"Okay. Well, it doesn't matter, really."
Thomas's eyes fell on something near Nate's knees. Nate was a little disconcerted, wondering what could have caught his attention.
"What’s that?"
"On your hands."
Nate had forgotten about the writing on his hands.
"Let me see."
Thomas took Nate's hands in his. Thomas had large, strong hands. Nate felt for a moment what he supposed a girl might feel touched by those hands. They were the hands of a stranger, obviously quite capable of crushing his own, but gentle, and controlled by some inscrutable intelligence.
"What does this mean?" asked Thomas, now holding Nate's hands palm downward in his own palms like some sort of quizzical fortune teller. Even though he had written his slogans brazenly for anyone to see, now that someone had actually noticed them and questioned him Nate was embarrassed.
"I don't know."
"Interesting." said Thomas, releasing Nate and nodding his head as he sank back into his chair again.
"I'll tell you what, I'll come round to visit you and we can work out exactly what kind of merchandise will suit you."

Thomas stepped through the door.
"Make yourself at home." Nate gestured towards the bed, seating himself in the chair by his desk. Thomas, however, did not sit down, but continued to look about the room curiously. Thomas was undoubtedly the strangest guest ever to step over the threshold of this room. Nate couldn't quite put his finger on what it was. Was it just because he was the first guest who was neither affiliated to the university nor any sort of relation? He just did not seem to belong here. There was something else, as well. Although Thomas had hardly seemed to notice Nate at Razza's until Cody had mentioned the purchase of drugs, now Thomas looked at him almost as if their acquaintance was of longer standing than that with any of the gang who had introduced them.
"What you're like says a lot about the kind of person you are. " said Nate, all of the sudden.
"No. I'm just quoting Viz comic. I just wondered what you can tell by looking at my room."
"Sorry, I don't mean to be rude."
"That's OK. I mean, that's why you came here, isn't it?"
"Well, you're a language student, anyway."
"Yeah." Nate felt defeated by the whole redundancy of the conversation. He could think of nothing either witty or pertinent. Suddenly, he had an idea.
"Shall I skin up?"
"Go ahead. Don't let me stop you."
Without thinking Nate hefted the Japanese-English dictionary in his hand and set about cannibalising another half-page for the joint. It was as if he had forgotten that rizlas alone might suffice. He put the dictionary down again just as Thomas finished his inspection of the room and sat himself on the bed. His eye falling squarely on the dictionary just as Nate plonked it on the table, Thomas seemed suddenly to be deeply intrigued and reached out for the tome. For some reason Nate was unduly alarmed when he began to leaf through it. Thomas stopped at the missing pages and looked up at Nate significantly.
"Words." he said, "Of course, it's all becoming clear to me. ' In the beginning was the Word,' and all that."
"Do you write, by any chance?"
"Well, I scribble down nonsense, you know."
"Perfect! Can I see?"
"Erm. Would you like to share this with me first? It might make more sense if you read it after a little puff."
"Not at the moment, thank you. Can I read some of your writing?"
"Er. Okay. Just a moment."
Nate took his writing pad from the desk and handed it to Thomas.
"Like I say, it's just scribbling really." said Nate diffidently.
Thomas clutched the handwritten text in both hands and, hunched over in concentration, seemed to devour it with his eyes.
"Uncanny!" he said, laying it down on the bed without reading it all. "It almost restores your faith in destiny!"
Nate applied a Promethean spark to his spliff with a jittery hand. He drew on it, and with the rush of devouring orange there came a shower of sparks, all in the shape of Kanji. Nate's eyes opened wide.
"I didn't think that would happen with someone else here."
"If something happens in the presence of one person it can happen in the presence of two."
"You don't seem surprised."
"Seeing is believing, as they say. Nothing surprises me."
"You don't find it at all odd?"
"Look, it's the ink, isn't it? The rest of the page is just eaten away, and the parts impregnated with ink flare up."
"I don't think so."
"Anyway, that's nothing. I have far more unusual things to tell you. Listen, I know exactly what you want, exactly what you've always wanted, the drug to fulfil your every desire."
"Yes. It's a nifty little medicine I call 'Literal Thinking'."
"'Literal Thinking'? That's the name of a drug?"
"Yes. It's to do with the turning of figures of speech and metaphor into literal reality. It is the very ingredient that's missing from this formula you're writing."
Nate had already gulped a few lungfuls of the joint between sentences. The paper gave the smoke the rich, silky feeling of real potency, and he was sure that the sparks of Kanji were multiplying in his brain. Perhaps it wasn't the best time to be smoking such a weird spliff. The conversation was done-in enough as it was and he was having difficulty getting his head around it
"Er. Great! What do I do with it?"
"You roll it up in a spliff very much like the one you're toking on now. You want to get published, right?"
"I don't know..."
"Of course you do! And that's just the start. Literal Thinking! It's the way forward!"
"So I smoke this shit... And I get published?"
"Yeah! Well, you won't understand till you try it. Mind you, take note - I am by no means recommending this drug to you. I'm merely informing you of its existence. 0h - and the fact it's what you've always been looking for. The actual decision is yours alone. I'll leave a little sample behind for you to ponder over, if you like."

Nate did not have to ponder for long. Before the effects of the last joint had worn off he was feeling restless and itching for some fresh tonic to combat his eternal ennui. It was there, on his desk. He had it in his possession. He had not even had to part with any money. A new drug was waiting to be experimented with and he was on his own in his own room, the door was fitted with a lock, he had nothing important planned for the rest of his life and no regard for his own mental health. Literal Thinking. It was just there, like an unignorable hard-on. Fuck it! Nate set about assembling another joint. This one was going to be a monster.
And indeed it was. A couple of puffs and Nate was feeling very strange indeed, almost insubstantial. Then came the revelations. He could see the words everywhere, part of the very fabric of existence. He had thought he was toying with some metaphor about the power of words. Not a bit of it! He trod on them, breathed them in, wore them. They were literally - and words, of course are always literal - the stuff of which the universe was woven.
Now, just as the urge to smoke had seized him, so he realised he had to write, to finish what he had started. What better way was there to spend the moment than to tune into creation? Only when he was writing was he truly being, like a bird in flight rather than earthbound, wings folded.
Joint in one hand, pen in the other, he hunched over his pad. His nib raced towards its inevitable conclusion.
"And so I finally understand that I have been searching for the meaning of my own words in the wrong place. I thought they were a means of capturing some separate, objective reality, or evoking some separate entity. These things, too, may be possible. But the real formula being written is that which shall serve as a blueprint for my own soul. Now I know where The Gateway leads. It is The Gateway to Immortality. I intend to step through it."
Nate inhaled deeply one last time.
"Now." he wrote.
He exhaled, and it seemed that he was exhaling himself, for he began to vanish from the feet upwards till there was only a pair of blowing lips. Then there was only smoke hitting the page in rolling waves. The half-smoked joint fell to the floor.

It was a unique story; unique because it merged with reality. The mystery of Nate's disappearance was very much part of it, was its final twist. Everyone who read it felt a strange tingling sensation they could not account for. They did not realise the irony that this tingling hinted at. Nate's family desperately tried to track down his whereabouts with this last testament as a guide. Everyone who read it speculated on where Nate might have gone, not able even to conceive that he was literally right under their noses, in the words of the story. It was the perfect escape act.
Thinking the publicity might help them to trace Nate, his family allowed the story to be printed in magazines and anthologised in books. The story took on a life of its own.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the page, Nate sprawled in the grandiose ease of curling letters. This was what it meant to have made it. He was reclining on the literary couch of Eternity, saying no more and no less than was necessary to express the enigma of his existence, explaining nothing, being everything. From time to time that existence was illuminated by the lightning flash of another's consciousness when the eye of a reader fell upon the page. One flash was enough to secure Nate's Immortality, but he was blessed with a superfluity of such flashes. The mind impregnated in the page mirrored the mind of the reader, each reflecting and multiplying the other to create an instantaneous and self-contained eternity. The readers, as if by some trick of this sudden flash of cerebral light, would also seem to see things between the lines of the story, things apparently without relation to the meanings of the words themselves. There were great vistas of dream or reality imbued with a gasping speechlessness. There were, as well, more specific landscapes, stretching vastly before the mind's eye, or else tiny details of scenes which yet suggested an ungraspable infinity.
For, in affecting this eloquent metamorphosis, Nate had not confined himself with the horizontal bars of sentences to this one story. Rather, he threw out tentacles from this story to other words, gloriously at random. At one instant he might be a Latin epigram, standing out boldly on the open page of a book in a library, lofty as marble, astonishing some ephemeral mind with the time-honoured and irreducible pithinesses of its expression. At another moment he might be a few lines of graffiti scrawled in marker on the outside of a public lavatory. (It is summer and fresh breezes sigh against the wall, mixing with the smell of urine. In this dank corner of the gardens much time passes when no eye meets the obscure, seedy, but ultimately exquisite nostalgia of these words.) The epigram steeped in the pleasant austerities of learning, the graffiti speaking the poetry of the rough and obscene, the names signed on a plaster cast, the looping hand of a hand-written letter, all were alike in that they gave a breath of the invisible vista of Forever.

Nate opened his eyes to utter confusion. It was not the confusion of clutter or movement. In fact there was very little to see. As if a chair had just been pulled away at the moment he was about to sit on it, he was sprawled upon the floor, leaning on his palms. The room was box-like, blue-grey and windowless. In front of him was an imposing desk, and behind it sat a man wearing a suit jacket over a T-shirt. The man's head was shaved and he wore a feathery earring. It was Thomas. Nate rifled desperately through his memories, but though they seemed in themselves intact, there was no bridge between them and this room.
"How did I get here? Where is this?"
"You have been lifted out of time. This is zero time."
Nate looked around the room. There was a door in the wall to the left and one in the wall to the right. For some reason these two doors failed to dispel a terrible, claustrophobic conviction in Nate that there was no outside, that this room simply existed without relation to anything else, not in a void as such, because even a void was something and might have boundaries, but in perfect isolation. Also, perhaps because of the lack of windows and ventilation, it was insufferably hot and stuffy, and Nate was streaming with sweat.
"We both know what you have to ask next. It is inevitable. So I shall save you the trouble and explain what has happened. Immortality has a price. Did you consider that before you stepped over the threshold? What you have done is to clone your soul with your words, to photocopy it, if you like, and the original, by force of displacement, has ended up here, where I have been expecting you."
"Is this the afterlife?"
"More like the outside-life."
"And my photocopies - are they all conscious, too?"
"Ah yes, very quick of you. Still very conscious, very you, and totally independent. I expect you want to know what happens now?"
"Look. This is nothing personal. We start out with vague ideals, but we come down to practicalities. It's like this: In the midst of impermanence we must still have something permanent. We need a permanent resident in Hell as a sort of cornerstone. You were a prime candidate. You see, running the universe is a business like any other and we must make compromises."
"I'll be damned if I'm going to spend eternity in Hell."
"Ah yes. Who are you anyway? I thought you were just some dodgy dealer."
"Questions, questions! Studied Japanese, didn't you? You must be interested in the Orient. See if you recognise this: ''He who takes wine and gives it to another to drink is born for five hundred births without hands', is the teaching of the Buddha.'"
"So Buddhism is correct?"
"Buddhism schmuddhism! It's just a load of pious bollocks like everything else. I'm simply trying to explain in terms you might understand. Listen, everything we do has consequences. Even the tiniest mistake might mean Hell. If there's one thing that all religions teach it is that you are nothing, zilch, a mere cypher. Either you're a miserable sinner or you're just an illusion. Now, if you try to defy this dictum, you can incur terrible penalties. You have committed the ultimate sin; you have tried to be 'something' forever. Not only that, you have tried to seduce others into the same attachments with your words. Words are like a drug. For as long as this attachment remains, there must also be an equal and opposite punishment."
"You're the one who should be punished. You tricked me. You tempted me into taking your drug."
"Now, now. If you remember, I didn't try to persuade you, at all."
"You know, if you forget all the preachy stuff, Buddhism is quite close to how things really are. Karma, cause and effect, having to account for every action and reaction, the endless cycle, the endless fucking paperwork! 'Our words must seem to be inevitable.' Who said that? Running the universe is really a study of inevitability. I think I'm getting the hang of it. It's all coming together. You say I've tricked you, but I'll wangle my way out of it, just you see. This business is like constantly taking out one loan to pay off another. But I think you'll cancel a few debts altogether. In fact, I think I'll have your signature now."
Thomas took up a scroll and came out from behind his desk.
"What is it?"
"It is a declaration that I in no way influenced your decision to take the drug Literal Thinking."
"What if I don't sign it?"
"This is zero time, remember? From here I can plonk you back down to before you ever attained immortality. But now you know what else is waiting for you - at best, nothingness. It's your choice."
Nate considered a moment, but as with his decision to take Literal Thinking in the first place, the outcome was already decided.
"Okay! But listen to me! If I live for ever, here in Hell and somewhere else in the words I have written, I will defy you in spirit forever, and since perhaps you don't care about that, I will find some way, some way to escape, and then you'd better fucking watch out."
"It's all been accounted for, my friend." and with that Thomas handed Nate the scroll and a quill. "With blood, if you don't mind. Sorry, but we must observe the formalities. Thank you!"
Thomas took the scroll and quill back and bundled them into a drawer in the desk.
"I've got another scroll for you, here."
Thomas took a parchment from the same drawer and let it unroll in a flourish. This one was much longer than the other. It rolled all the way to the floor, something in the extravagance of the script and the age and texture of the scroll itself suggesting a flayed human skin covered in tattoos.
"The purpose of this one is two-fold. I'm sure you'll appreciate the irony of this. Since you love words so much we'll have you repeating them for eternity. This is a mantra. While you recite it, it will give the universe the substance that we require. And as long as you recite it and do not pause it will also keep you from feeling the worst of the flames. It's fireproof, of course. Well, shall I show you your room?"
The door in the left wall swung open. The heat in the room grew suddenly more intense.

© Quentin S. Crisp
Courtesy by Quentin S. Crisp
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