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back to town

Out of paper

By Diomedes | Robert O'Reilly | 11 Mar 2023



          It was a calm mid-afternoon when Jonathan set down his pen.  He was a little surprised, now that he thought about it, that the pen was still working.  It was the only one he had.  He tried to take it apart to find out how much ink was left, but he couldn’t see into the casing.  It was his paper supply that had just failed him.  In three weeks of daily writing he’d filled up all the pages of the notebook that had been lying on the desk.  When that supply was gone he began ripping out the blank leaves from the fronts and backs of the books in his library.  Most of these sheets were small and made up a sloppy collection for a book, but it was all he could do.

          Now even this supply ran out, and he ended his story before stooping to filling up half-pages, or pasting together strips of margins, to make a few more ragged sheets.  One problem was that he had no proper glue.  He tried to use some droplets of sap from a tree as an experiment, but it stained the paper and never really dried.

          Yet he had no desire to quit his newfound and only hobby for adventitious exigencies.  He was in a white heat of literary parturition.  After a long day of miserable experiments with sap he paced the floor, cursing his fate for being out of blank sheets, in a world so full of them.  This was an irony too ridiculous to stomach.  He resolved then and there to do something about it, whatever the danger, whatever the trouble it might cost him.

          But before he could storm off into town, a cool evening air descended and restored to him a bit of sanity.  He decided he would wait till dawn and make an inventory of all his supplies in case there was anything else he might need to pick up on this trip.  He counted his cans of food and figured they could last another three months.  The spring still provided a cool, delicious trickle of water, even though the dry season was here, and it ran as a little brook through the length of the narrow valley, supporting a strip of trees and grasses, so the burro also was abundantly provided for.

          In his walk along the edge of the brook that day Jonathan noticed in the grass a few stalks of what looked like wheat.  They were not yet mature, and his knowledge too vague to tell.  But it gave him the idea of getting some seeds and planting a garden here and having a perennial supply of food.  Now he had a double purpose for heading into town again, and with this thought he retired to his cabin to rest up for the journey, quite content at the providence he was showing.

          While he was lying there by his campfire, after a good meal and several cups of tea, he reflected on how happy he had been lately.  "Strange," he thought, "after all my hard trials I can find such happiness writing them down, for no one to read.  Now I'm even going to risk my peace so I can continue to write them down.  There must be some purpose to this, or I'm a great fool."

          It made him think long and hard on whether there was a God, twisting his steps.  He decided that it would have to be one with a distinct mind and character all its own, to weave such a strange plot, not the faceless thing of light that others served.  His would have to be a dark God that liked ink.  And he would honor it in ink, he decided, and dedicate his work to this unknown being if it brought him back safely to his sanctuary with a ream of paper.

          The next morning, with better sandals on his feet, a better knowledge of the way, and certainly a better purpose than the last time, he set out across the hills with his staff and a small satchel at his side.  The burro he left behind.  He had no use for it, and it had nowhere to go, as the hills around the valley were now as dry as a desert.  He made good time and by late afternoon reached the sea and the fisherman's cabin that he’d visited before.

          When he came up he found the place deserted.  This made him a little uneasy.  The boat was gone but it was not the size to be out longer than a day.  So he waited, hoping the two men would be back soon to cook him another fish dinner.

          While he waited he searched the walls of the cabin for the sacred box and leaf of white paper.  There was none and he thought of taking these poor people to task, in his duty as a holy man, until it occurred to him that he was only going to rob them of it if they had one.  But they didn’t return until late into the night, and he only found this out when he woke up from the cot the next morning and tripped over the old man sleeping soundly at his feet.

          This roused them both and friendly greetings were exchanged.  A fire was built and a proper breakfast prepared for the foggy day.  Jonathan was in great spirits.  Whether it was the project he had in hand, or simply the good breakfast, it made him chatty.  He told the old man and his son many times how glad he was to see them again and asked them all sorts of questions about their daily lives.  They answered back with smiles and brief replies, the shy son even speaking up a few times.  Apparently the sea had been bountiful lately and they were able to trade good catches in town for new lamps and ropes and sacks of grain.

          They were both, no doubt, a little in fear or awe of this strange traveler of such high rank.  But the good cheer of a superior is a catchy thing, and they both at least pretended to share it.  Jonathan lingered several hours in this happy glow.  He helped them clear the table and told them not to mind him but go about their chores.  Then he’d follow one or the other, getting in the way, and reminding them again not to mind him.  To the old man he talked almost intimately, telling him that there were great tidings from the East, and that the town would hear of it this very day.

          He said these words without reflection, without distinct meaning.  He’d just let the words escape, to somehow justify his state of excitement.  Of course, he knew it meant next to nothing to the old man as he smiled back meekly, without inquiring what the nature of this good news might be.  For an old fisherman on a deserted coast, the world was a different place, that didn't include "the East."

          As Jonathan realized this he sobered a little and came right to another point.  "Have you any white paper in this house?" he asked.

          The old man looked at him a bit puzzled and then shook his head.

          "Well then, I won't trouble you anymore.  Your hospitality has been most gracious and I hope to see you again, perhaps soon."

          With this, Jonathan shook his hand, bid goodbye to the son, and set out on his way.  But with his first steps out the door, the thought struck him that this wasn’t the goodbye he’d left them with on his previous visit.  "No matter," he thought, "things are always changing and perhaps I’ll never see them again.  Fate seems to like making me eat my words."  Still, he decided, none of this mattered much at all.

          "When one has a purpose," he thought, as he walked along the strand, "like I did the last time I was here, fate plays the vilest tricks upon a fellow.  She won't change the laws of nature per se, to foil us, but if there’s other people involved, that's where she enters in and dashes our plans to pieces.  Yes, that seems to be the weak link, human agency, a thing to be avoided at all costs.  So now I’ve another purpose at hand, walking the same shore to the same place.  Well, I won't ask this time, I'll just take.  And if they try to stop me, they'll have my staff to deal with."

          With these thoughts and redoubled speed he walked on, striking his heels hard into the wet sand, right along the margin where the water lapped the shore, where it was easiest to tread, and where the ceaseless ripples of waves drew patterns that were pleasing to behold.

          The fog lifted, and the same horizon imperceptibly recalled to his mind the meditation that he’d had the last time he was there.  He was thinking about history and historians.  When he realized that he was dredging up their names again, he began in a sort of mock repetition of himself calling out the names as loud as he could: "Herodotus," "Sallust," "Livy," "Froissart," "Gibbon," and many others, this time ending with: "Jonathan," "Jonathan," "Jonathan."

          Only a few hovering seagulls were there to react to this speech.  They fluttered about a short distance away and watched him suspiciously as he passed.

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B.A. in Latin and Greek from U.C. Berkley. Writer, Blogger and retired Electrician.

Robert O'Reilly
Robert O'Reilly

I am educated in the Western Classical Tradition, B.A. from U.C. Berkeley in Latin and Greek, English major, one year at U. of Toronto, studied under Alain Renoir and Northrop Frye, read most classics full time for many years after university in French, English, Latin and Greek to the modern day. I am interested in the near future of technology, what changes it imposes upon our heritage and character as humans. Short stories and Essays are my medium.

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