Fractal Myth

Paperbag Stories 1-5.

Number 1

[Michelle Chapman, ©August 2001]

SETTING: 'a rented, furnished room'
PROPS: 'a suitcase tied up with string'
CHARACTERS: 'a man with bruised, hollow eyes and a woman with scarecrow hair'
QUOTE: John Keats from Ode to Psyche (1820) stanza 2

"'Mid hushed, cool-rooted flowers, fragrant-eyed,
Blue, silver-white, and budded Tyrian..."

The beautiful words of Keats' Ode to Psyche came floating out of the dilapidated third-floor window. They wound their way around the fire-escapes and lamp posts cluttering the sidewalk, and slowly came to rest in a coloured oil slick trickling along the dusty gutter. There was nothing hushed or cool about the scene, and the only flowers visible were the garish orange hibiscus splashed over the dress of a woman with scarecrow hair. Her partner, a man whose bruised, hollow eyes seemed to look at everything but see nothing, stooped under the lopsided weight of the suitcase he carried. The bag was roughly tied together with a tangled net of string, as though it had been attacked by a drunken spider, the contents still struggling desperately to escape at every opportunity. As the man put the bag down in front of a graffiti-covered door and fumbled for the key, a piece of intimate, lacy apparel seized its opportunity and made a run for it. Without the slightest sign of embarrassment, the woman scooped up her errant underwear, following the man into the fully-furnished room they had rented. A bare bulb threw a shaft of light through the dim shadows, revealing a table standing tiptoe on tortured legs, and a mismatched pair of overstuffed armchairs, groaning in separate corners...

Number 2

[Michelle Chapman, ©September 2001]

SETTING: 'the ruins of a city with rusted cars, broken bricks and tumble-down structures'
PROPS: 'a green hat with a fan of feathers'
CHARACTERS: 'a pretty girl and a handsome boy holding hands'
QUOTE: Baron Kenneth Clark: "Medieval marriages were entirely a matter of property, and, as everyone knows, marriage without love means love without marriage." Civilisation (1969) ch.3

The pair stood, hand in hand, gazing deeply into the painting as though it encompassed all the mysteries of their future, captured in coloured oils. It was a surrealistic scene of a dilapidated city, balanced on the verge of being a ruin. From the edges of the gilt frame, leafy green vines stretched searching fingers through the rubble, cracking concrete and scattering bricks across the grass. Here and there, the vine displayed large trumpet-flared blossoms, blatantly baring their stigmata to the world.

The girl turned, self-consciously running her fingers across the little fan of feathers in her green beret.

"It won't work," she said.

"I don't care."

He defiantly dared the decaying buildings to contradict him, then turned quickly away, just in case they did.

"We don't really have any choice."

"No. We don't."

Her feathers trembled, and drooped a little more.

"They'll be here soon."

'They' were her parents, and they had left specific instructions for her to meet them in the new wing of the Art Gallery - the new wing which they had donated in celebration of their only daughter's imminent engagement to number three on the list of the world's most eligible bachelors. Numbers one or two would have been a greater coup, but unfortunately they had no interest in being anything but single. Number three had the advantage that he was rapidly passing his prime, and after all, he had been number two, and even number one in his time.

Just the thought of the life they had planned for her made the girl's flesh crawl. She clung tightly to the boy's hand.

"Let's go."

They turned slowly and walked away from the painting. When they reached the opposite wall, they stopped and turned again to face the decaying landscape. Then, moving as one, they began to run faster and faster, crossing the room and diving seamlessly through the canvas before the security guard even realised they were moving.

By the time he reached the spot, there was nothing to show that the pair had ever existed, except for a small brown and white spotted feather, curled on the cold tile floor...

Number 3

[Michelle Chapman, ©October 2001]

SETTING: 'a seat on a bus travelling at speed along a highway'
PROPS: 'a wreath of faded cornflowers'
CHARACTERS: 'a man in a long white coat with tiny round spectacles'
QUOTE: Alexander Pope from Imitations of Horace, Epilogue to the Satires (1738) Dialogue 2, l.208

A man wearing a long white coat stood with his back to the room, staring out the window through the double glazing of his tiny, round spectacles. He chuckled quietly to himself, listening to the constant click of his secretary's keyboard as she typed the final letter.

While his eyes stared blankly at the pigeon-covered monument in the middle of the square, his attention was firmly fixed on events happening elsewhere in the country. He concentrated until he could feel the speed of the bus hurtling along rough rural roads, could feel the nervous exhaustion and apprehension of the passenger in seat 13b, could feel the custom made jacket with its inner lining of tiny vials, vials which he himself had filled in the privacy of his research laboratory. Everything was working exactly as he had planned.

At 6:30 pm, just as the sky began to darken, the bus would reach the highly populated outskirts of the city. Then the anonymous passenger (whose name and even gender he very carefully did not know) would quietly and carefully slip the first of the tiny glass vials through the window. It would smash on the bitumen, releasing a cloud of deadly toxins which would spread rapidly on the evening breeze. The bus, meanwhile, would continue on its way, weaving through the suburbs and into the city's center, completely oblivious to the destruction left behind in its wake.

"Terrorist", he whispered under his breath, feeling a sadistic pleasure in the label. In the square far below him, a girl suddenly shivered and looked up. Finding nothing to alarm her, she returned to her task, slowly gathering up the wreaths of wilted lilies, drooping roses and faded cornflowers which had been placed around the base of the monument. On the other side of the square a gang emerged from an alley, obviously pleased with themselves. From the height of his sixty-eighth floor office, the man was able to see the cause of their excitement.

In the street behind the square, a crowd was gathering around a body, slumped in the door of a Military Surplus Disposal store. The man had been in that store himself, many times, and he quickly recognised the khakhi jacket worn by the owner, now darkened by an ugly stain. He looked again for the gang, and found them several streets away, laughing at each other as they tried on the gas masks they had stolen. The man chuckled with them, as a quote he had learned in college came floating to the surface of his memory:

"Yes I am proud; I must be proud to see
Men not afraid of God, afraid of me."

"Were you talking to me, Sir?" his secretary asked.

"No, Janice. Just quoting Pope," he answered, relishing the irony of the poet's name. "How are you going?"

"I've finished the last letter, Sir. Would you like me to post them on my way home?"

"I'll take care of that. You head on home to your kids."

He was tempted to add, 'they're going to need you', but he bit back the impulse. He would have to watch himself. Now that everything was coming to completion he didn't need any last minute mistakes disturbing his plans. Janice left, and he followed soon after, carrying the pile of letters down to the mailbox on the corner, nodding and smiling at the people he passed along the way.

Mission accomplished, he returned to his office on the sixty-eighth floor, the quote from Pope echoing in his mind like a mantra. He stood, looking out the window at the glare of the sunset. "Oh well," he finally said to himself as the colours dimmed and grayed. "Pride comes before a fall."

Taking the fire axe from its station on the wall, he smashed the glass. Then, before anyone had time to investigate, he calmly stepped over the window's threshold and began the long descent to the square below.

Number 4

[Michelle Chapman, ©November 2001]

SETTING: 'a dirty, busy train-station with a high glass roof giving a cathedral feel'
PROPS: 'a handheld computer game'
CHARACTERS: 'a very short man with his hair spiked to make him look taller'
QUOTE: Pierre Balmain, French couturier from Observer 25 December 1955:
"The trick of wearing mink is to look as though you were wearing a cloth coat. The trick of wearing a cloth coat is to look as though you are wearing mink."

It was peak hour, Christmas eve, and the humid crush of people at the train station was at its thickest. Dean kept his back firmly pressed against a marble pillar to prevent himself being swept aside by the fast-flowing crowds. It gave him a feeling of power to see the stream of people part and pass around him, as though he were an unmoveable boulder in a world of flux and change. He felt himself to be one with the monolithic train station, carved from granite and marble, a glass roof arching overhead like a cathedral. He subconsciously ran his fingers through his dark spiky hair. He wore it like that because he thought it made him look taller. He wore thick-soled shoes for the same reason. He hated being short and obsessed endlessly about his lack of height, and its effect on people's perceptions of him. Gina, his girlfriend, laughed and dismissed his concerns. "You're just being ridiculous," she would say. "How other people see you comes from how you see yourself. Think tall, and others will see you as tall. Think small, and that's all you'll ever be." Dean only ever grunted in response to such comments. What would Gina know? She was slim and gorgeous, and even she was not above wearing the occasional pair of high heels or a padded bra to enhance her image.

A young boy, deeply immersed in a small computer game, stopped suddenly in front of Dean, his proximity sensors alerting him that he was about to walk into someone. He looked up, blinking owlishly. "Gee, sorry, man!" he said. "Guess I should watch where I'm going." Dean instantly felt his sense of inferiority increase. Even with his thick-soled shoes, he barely reached the boy's shoulder. 'Freak', Dean muttered to himself, but it didn't make him feel any better. The boy couldn't be more than fifteen, and he was already well over six feet. Smiling sheepishly, the boy shrugged and returned to his game, stepping around Dean's pillar and continuing into the crowd on autopilot once again. Dean watched him go, his bent head bobbing above the chaos even though he was slouching in concentration.

Suddenly, the tune that had been humming around in the back of Dean's mind identified itself to his conscious mind. "All I want for Christmas is a few more feet," he carolled to himself, and started laughing aloud. A few eyes flickered nervously in his direction and flickered away again just as quickly. "Go on, ignore me," he dared them, relishing the exhilarating sense of freedom that came from no longer caring what they thought. Shedding his self-consciousness like an outgrown skin, he did something he had often longed to do. First, he took off his thick-soled shoes and left them neatly beside the pillar, then he clambered up a nearby garbage bin and stepped across to the massive base of the pillar against which he had been leaning. Now his bare feet were level with the shoulders of the people moving past him, and he didn't care if every one of them knew he was there simply because he was too short to see over them any other way.

In the distance, caught in the crush exiting a recently arrived train, he could see the bright yellow of Gina's raincoat. Wanting to surprise her, Dean scraped at his gelled hair with his fingernails, flattening it down as much as he could. He knew she would use the pillar as a landmark as she made her way through the mass of people to meet him, so he played hide-and-seek, keeping the pillar between them. As she came closer, he could see her searching for him, a worried look on her face when she saw he wasn't in his usual place. He could hardly contain his excitement as she reached the pillar and found his discarded boots. It never occurred to her to look up to find him. Marvelling at his good fortune in having such a beautiful girl in love with him despite all his faults, Dean leapt down to land lightly beside her. "What ..." she began, but he silenced her with a kiss. "But ..." He silenced her again. Luckily she had worn flat-soled shoes to work that day, and in his bare feet he was almost exactly the same height as she was. He slid his arm around her waist, absent-mindedly noticing the admiring smiles that greeted their exuberance, a sudden bright spot in the rushing sea of humanity. Suddenly, he realised it was happiness which made him feel like he was towering over everyone else. 'I guess we are a good-looking couple', he admitted to himself, as they strolled towards the door. He had never stopped worrying about his shortcomings long enough to notice before.

"OK. Spill." Gina demanded. "Have you been born again?" Dean laughed at her suspicious tone. Under the towering cathedral ceiling, he told her about the tall boy who had narrowly avoided colliding with him, and how little being tall seemed to matter to him. Then he told her about the scrap of Christmas carol, buzzing around in his head, and last of all, he shared with her his vision of himself ~ with 'a few more feet' ~ the human centipede! In gales of laughter Gina and Dean emerged from the station. They walked home together through the misty rain, pretending they couldn't afford the bus fare because of the hundreds of thick-soled shoes they would need when Dean woke up on Christmas morning to find that his wish had been granted ...

Number 5

[Michelle Chapman, ©December 2001]

SETTING: 'a rose garden with arches and little stone seats hidden by heavy, drooping flowers'
PROPS: 'a dog-eared book with torn pages'
CHARACTERS: 'a man in a black suit with a psychedelic tie'
QUOTE: Richard Steele, Irish-born essayist and playwright from The Spectator no. 79 (31 May 1711):
"The insupportable labour of doing nothing."

A gentle, scented breeze ruffled the torn pages of the dog-eared book. Jenny carefully brushed a fragile petal from her paragraph and tucked a stray strand of hair behind her ear. She sighed softly and checked her watch. Five minutes had passed since the last time she looked. The second hand seemed barely able to drag itself along, reluctantly limping from tick to tick. There was no relief there. She looked drearily at her surroundings ~ surroundings which in other circumstances would have filled her with delight. She was waiting in an old-fashioned arbour walled in by a thick hedge. Heavy rose blooms drooped all around her, filling the warm air with perfume. She sighed again, depressed by her lack of activity. If this had been her own garden she would have been down on her knees in an instant, deft fingers brushing the dark soil, twining around weeds and removing them roots and all, gently patting the soil back into place. There were weeds aplenty here, but it wasn't her place to judge them. She remembered the vase which perched on her grandmother's piano ~ 'A weed is simply a flower in disguise'. It was not a sentiment she felt like agreeing with very often but today seemed to be an exception. Everyone around her was either ancient or wearing a white lab coat. In this fragrant bower where people whispered softly to each other or strolled silently along the twisting paths, she was the odd one out, the interloper ~ the dandelion in the close-cropped lawn.

She shook herself, trying to throw off her unwonted melancholy. Everything was going to be all right. It had to be. Even if it wasn't, there was nothing she could do. They had made that abundantly clear, dismissing her desperate pleas for something useful to do. "Wait". That was all the dark-suited young doctor would say. "Wait. Everything that can be done is being done." She wasn't sure she believed him but she couldn't break through his officious manner long enough to sow the seeds of doubt that she felt. Every time she tried, she found herself staring in hypnotised fascination at the psychedelic swirl of colour in his tie. It was impossible to concentrate, and all her arguments were useless against the wall of professionalism they had erected around her unconscious grandmother. She was going to have to trust them, no matter how much it went against her nature. It was the hardest thing she had ever had to do. She tried again to read the book in her lap but her eyes refused to focus. When she forced them, she found that the words made no sense, trickling through her mind like sand through an hourglass. The old-world atmosphere of the garden was disorienting, and when she looked at her watch she was surprised to see it was still moving. She had almost convinced herself that time had stopped. Still, the second-hand ticked on relentlessly at its dawdling pace. The strong scent of roses was overpowering now the breeze had stopped. All the other inhabitants of the garden had drifted away, leaving her alone, and not even an insect moved in the shadows.

Waiting was becoming unbearable. She stood and began pacing the gravel paths, feeling the sun's heat like a hammer beating down on her head. The numerous arches provided welcome shade, but when she tried to take advantage of the little stone bench seats she discovered once again that she was far too tense to sit still. As she passed the bench on which she had left her book, she stopped once more. A small sheet of notepaper had fallen from between the pages. As she bent to retrieve it, she saw that it was closely covered with fine, spidery handwriting. The ink had faded and the writing was so ornate it would have been difficult enough to read on the day it was written. Now it was almost undecipherable. Having nothing better to do, she slowly began to tease out its contents. It was a letter, and though the date and address had been torn from the top corner, the rest was relatively intact.

'Dearest Jenny,' she read, momentarily confused by the sight of her own name. She had grabbed the book from her grandmother's room without caring what it was. It had proved to be an old copy of 'Gone with the Wind', dog-eared and bent from years of handling. Not really her taste in literature, but better than nothing. She returned to the letter, realising that it was addressed to her grandmother, after whom she had been named. It was a love letter, sent by her grandfather early in their romance. Reading the tender emotions written so long ago, Jenny allowed herself to drift dreamily into the past, imagining herself in her grandmother's place, the recipient of such devoted admiration, with a tragic destiny ahead of her. Jenny had never met her grandfather. He had been killed in a mining accident ten months after his wedding, leaving his young wife a widow, three months pregnant with Jenny's mother. Twenty-two years of hard work and heartache later, the car in which Jenny's parents were travelling had been run off the road killing both occupants, and Jenny's grandmother had once again found herself grief-stricken, raising an infant by herself.

Wrapt in her thoughts, Jenny hardly noticed the crunch of gravel that warned of someone approaching. "Jenny?" The voice was anxiously eager, and Jenny looked up to meet a pair of eyes dark with disappointment. "You're not my Jenny," the young man said. "I thought ... They said she'd be here. They said she was waiting for me to come and get her. Where is she?" Jenny stared in amazement, sure that she must be day-dreaming. She had recognised the stranger immediately from her grandmother's wedding photo. He was even wearing the same clothes ~ right down to the embroidered braces. How many times had she sat patiently beside her grandmother, watching the gnarled arthritic fingers stroke the carved frame, hearing how they had chosen the silks and pattern for the braces together, and how worried her grandmother had been that they wouldn't be ready in time. But ... how was this possible? "Please take me to my Jenny?" The young man sounded confused. "You look so much like her. Do you know where she is?" Jenny stood up, smiled, and took his arm. 'Ours is not to reason why', she said to herself. It was her grandmother's favourite saying. Together she and her grandfather (who paradoxically seemed even younger than her twenty-four years) walked quietly towards the nursing home. As they walked down the silent corridor towards her grandmother's room, Jenny began to wonder which one of them was the ghost. Her grandfather's hand was strong and warm compared to her own, which was cold and clammy despite the heat outside.

Just as the unlikely pair reached the room where her grandmother had spent the last seven years, the door opened abruptly and a handsome young man wearing a crumpled white coat over his black suit came out. His eyes were clouded with tears, and he was almost unrecognisable as the calm, cool doctor who had briskly ordered Jenny to wait outside less than forty-five minutes ago. Only the garish colours of his psychedelic tie remained the same. The rest of him seemed greyed by exhaustion and sadness. The moment he saw Jenny standing in the corridor, however, his professional mask seamlessly smoothed any hint of emotion from his face. His voice was matter-of-fact, but he seemed genuinely affected by the news he brought.

"How are you?" he asked. "I was just coming to find you. I'm afraid we can't offer you any hope. Your grandmother hasn't regained consciousness and she is fading fast. She just doesn't seem to want to fight anymore. You should still have time to say goodbye." He opened the door quietly, and motioned to the nurse who sat watching Jenny's grandmother. She rose silently and joined them at the door. "We'll give you some privacy if you like," the doctor said, and Jenny nodded. They didn't seem surprised by her sudden inability to speak. Nor did they seem to see or hear the figure leaning over the old woman in the bed.

"Is that you, Jenny? Come on, wake up. It's time to go, love." Jenny closed the door and turned to see her grandmother's eyes flutter open.

"Robert? You certainly took your time."

"I had no choice, my love. You had work to do here, and it looks like you've done a wonderful job." He turned to smile at Jenny, and her grandmother held out her hand to her.

"It's okay, Grandma," Jenny said. "I understand. You've given me everything I need and I can look after myself now. You go and have some fun. You deserve it." She leant over and kissed her grandmother's cheek. "Besides," she continued, "don't you think grandfather's been waiting long enough?"

At this reminder of her long-lost husband's presence, the old woman's eyes lit up like a young girl in the first flush of love. "I've been waiting for so long," she said plaintively, and he put his arms around her.

"I know, my love, I know. But your waiting is over and I will never leave you again."


"I promise."

A broad smile spread over the old woman's face and she closed her eyes. A few seconds later the hand which Jenny held went limp, and when she looked up, both her grandparents had gone. "Goodbye and good luck," she whispered, giving her grandmother a final kiss. Then she knelt by the side of the bed and waited peacefully for the handsome young doctor to return.

~ Paper Bag Stories: 1-5
Paper Bag Stories: 6-10
Paper Bag Stories: 11-12

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