One Soul, Parchment Thin

One Soul, Parchment Thin

by Calder Hutchinson

Slowly, I fold the paper. A forty-two degree offset from the right side, continuing to a point on the far edge. Satisfied, I press down, make the crease deeper, stronger. I work with more than my usual caution. This is an important work, and mistakes are costly. Already my fingers bleed from a dozen cuts, and the ivory-coloured sheet I am working with is stained red. I grip the stinging edge once more, try to fold without allowing my fingers to shift even slightly. I fail, a spasm runs through my hand, and I feel the paper whisper quietly into my skin, parting layer after layer, slipping down to what must be close to the bone. I hiss in a breath, but finish the motion. The drug is taking hold, and I don’t have much time. Gritting my teeth, I continue to work.

I joined the Folders guild when I was six, but had been practicing long before that. My earliest memory is of clumsily forming a frog from a thin piece of scrap cardboard, my father patiently showing me the steps. It did not exactly hop as it was meant to when you pushed on its back, but to me, it was perfect. I could not believe what I had done: created a solid, moving thing from a flat, lifeless page. I played with the frog all day, until its creases lost strength and it no longer jumped, and then I reverently put its limp form into the fireplace as my father had instructed. As I watched its soul – the soul I had given it – climb the chimney, I made up my mind to become a Folder.

My parents smilingly encouraged me, presumably imagining my decision to be similar to that of all four-year-olds when they decide upon future vocations: whimsical, half-thought, impermanent. But after a year and a half of watching me form first an army of hopping frogs, then cranes, elephants, giraffes, and eventually a whole menagerie of paper animals, they began to take it more seriously. And so, after presenting my then-finest work – a scaled crocodile formed from a single large sheet of vellum – to a group of unsmiling masters, I gained entry to the guild which would shape my life, and is now shaping my death.

It is difficult to explain the beauty of the Folder’s guildhall to those who have never been inside. Paper surrounds you. Though there are pillars of wood for support, most walls are made of a sturdy papyrus, painted and creased into pleasing shapes. These walls can be slid along runners set into the floor, giving the place a shifting, transient quality. Paper lanterns provide illumination. The finest examples of the art are on display throughout the grounds: one never knows when one may round a corner to be faced with some new wonder, an inspiration to greater feats. Above the dining hall, an enormous paper whale hangs, frozen mid-jump. Just inside the main door, two fearsome-looking paper demons stand watch. In the Grandmaster’s receiving chamber, rows of paper soldiers provide an honour guard. The wonders go on, and on.

My favourite area of the hall was always the grove of Paperbark trees in the center courtyard. A playground for the younger members, and a place of meditation and practice for the older, the graceful white trees fill in an area nearly equal in space to the entire guildhall surrounding them. The bark of these trees grows swiftly, and old layers may be carefully peeled away without danger to the plant, providing a ready source of coarse practice material for learners. I spent countless hours there as an apprentice, first perfecting my technique with animals, and then moving on to flowers, people, structures, and finally concepts, ideas, abstract thoughts. I folded birds, I folded palaces, I folded anger and sadness and joy. Under a succession of masters, I learned hundreds of different creases, curls, tears: all the skills required to give limp, mute paper a shape, movement, a soul. By my twelfth birthday, it was a fact tacitly recognized that I was the finest apprentice ever to study with the guild.

I attained the rank of master at seventeen; I believe I was the youngest to have ever done so. This was when my work began in earnest. Even during my apprenticeship, I had not imagined how much demand there was for the art. Rich patrons demanded any number of shapes, tableaus, occasionally portraits, crafted for them from all different kinds of paper – some common, some imported from far-off lands, others custom-made in the guildhall. I once spent a month creating a single sheet of tissue-fine and painted glassine to use as a pair of wings for a tiny griffin. Common folk, too, would place orders for large shipments of our paper lanterns, or occasionally for folded kites or minor trinkets. Philosophers would ask for visual representations of knowledge, memory, even consciousness, and would contemplate the different interpretations we devised. The guild would sometimes get requests from students of numbers, who found our visual representations of complicated forms enlightening, and found meaning in the forms we coaxed from flatness.

So frequent were the requests for pieces – particularly for me, as I was often called upon for the more difficult commissions – that I had little time to pursue my own interests, to hone my own skills. I began to grow restless, feeling that, even with the most complicated jobs, my talents were being wasted. Even tremendously demanding works require no particular imagination for one with the necessary skills: only time. I languished in my activity, growing more and more discontent. And then, one day, I got the task I had been waiting for.

It was from an eccentric noble from the North Quarter, who wanted a portrait accomplished. Though time consuming, these sorts of foldings had been achieved many times before, but he quickly made clear that a simple representation of his face in paper was not what he wanted. No, this client wanted a true portrait (as he put it), a representation of all that he was, a creased and crinkled depiction of his soul. Such a thing had never been tried before, and my fellow masters cast worried glances at one another. Of course, I stood immediately from my chair, and took the challenge.

I spent months with the man, learning all of his hobbies, his likes and dislikes, his thoughts. Like a physician, I heard his innermost secrets, his vices, his habits. And each night, after he had gone to bed, I would retreat to the chamber he had prepared for me in his home, and I would transfer all I had learned that day to the soul taking delicate shape on the table. I worked tirelessly, sleeping little, sometimes staying up all night by his bedside to learn what sort of dreams gripped him. I became his best friend, his confidante – once, his lover – exploring him to his depths and pouring everything I learned into the work. My fingers ached each morning from their labours the night before, but I was happy, radiantly so, for at last I had found a challenge worthy of me.

And then, one day, it was ready. It was unveiled with ceremony to the man himself as well as to my fellow masters, and to a few distinguished journeymen of the guild. It was perfect, of course. The man wept with joy to see himself so completely represented (as, naturally, I knew he would). The masters gazed at me and my work with wonder and envy. Even the inscrutable Grandmaster himself gazed down from his high seat with wide eyes and the ghost of a smile upon his lips. It was acknowledged by all as a masterpiece, and the client tearfully and almost fawningly handed over nearly twice the agreed-upon fee, so pleased was he with my work.

He went away, and I enjoyed my new celebrity for a while. I was given time specifically to pursue my own ideas, and I dare say that I produced my share of wonders. Then, almost a year later, the man came calling again, distraught. A servant had been dusting around the piece, and had clumsily caused a minor tear on one of the edges. Considering what the work represented, it was not surprising that the man felt this minor defect acutely. He asked that I come as soon as possible to repair it, and I assented. Indeed, I told him, it was likely that some minor revisions were necessary in any case, as he had surely changed in his ways at least a little in the intervening time: these changes, I told him, should be transferred to his likeness in paper. He was delighted with the idea, and so I spent a few days with him as before, seeing what sort of man he had become in the intervening time.

And I found that he had not changed at all. He had positively stagnated, thinking the same thoughts, doing the same activities day after day: in all aspects, he was precisely as I had left him ten months earlier. I was baffled, but only for a moment. Of course: my work was to blame. I imagined him gazing at it each night, tracing its curves and sharp edges, memorizing its folds, imprinting on himself ever more deeply the sort of man he was, the way I might press again and again on a fold, making it permanent. So perfect was the model that he could not break away from it, however slightly. Any budding changes the course of a day might visit upon him were erased by his contemplation of the paper image at the end of it. I was staggered. I had done a hideous thing, petrifying a man like this, lashing him to himself, freezing him in time, and I knew I had to do something to fix it.

The next day, I announced that I had seen enough, and was prepared to make the necessary alterations. And I repaired the tear, and re-curled a few sagging curves, and tightened a few folds…and added something. A small thing, just a minor tweak, an extra fold in his emotions. I considered carefully which addition I could make, something noticeable but minor, a departure from his usual character, but nothing too severe. At the end, I decided upon a mere suggestion of temper. My client was a peaceful man – almost to a fault – and so a sliver of rage in his soul would be a noticeable departure from his usual placid demeanour. I folded it, and waited to see the results.

Would there be no change? Would, as I hoped, the spell be broken, and make him his own man again? Or – I shuddered to think of it – would it have the opposite effect, would his paper soul quietly encourage him to lash out a bit more often, to scold servants where before he would have forgiven, to grow angry with minor inconveniences? I made excuses to visit him over the coming months, to watch his behaviour, to see if the change I had made in the paper would be borne out in the flesh.

And it was.

It was slight, but for one who knew him as well as I did, his new impatience was readily noticeable. It was visible in the twitch of the muscles around his mouth, the tone of his voice when he spoke with his subordinates, the slight chill which had crept into his eyes. I was astonished, of course, and bewildered, and a bit frightened.

But mostly, I was thrilled by possibilities. I wondered what could be wrought with a change in angle here, a bit of crumpling there. I had mastered folding paper: now I had a chance to fold a human being.

I visited his home as often as I dared, each time adding something, removing something. Each time, the change would take effect within a few months, the crease in his soul deepening each time he looked at the crease in paper, his vanity pressing it more firmly than I ever could. A new fold gave my subject more determination, a series of jagged curls made him more ambitious. I folded him ruthlessness, I folded him guile, I folded him cruelty, and I reveled in the man I was creating. He did not seem to notice the changes even as they crept through his life. Already a powerful man, he became more powerful yet, and he brought me with him. He achieved aims he had not thought himself capable of, had not even considered. Had not even wanted. One night, I folded him into a murderer. Another, I folded him into a prince. I plied my trade on others, offering his enemies their likenesses in paper. Those naïve enough to accept, I gradually folded into ruin and disgrace. With my guiding hand, my erstwhile patron became a tyrant, and as his trusted companion, I ascended with him to the heights. Once, I mentioned that I was tired of living in the guildhall, and he had a sumptuous palace constructed for my use. Once, I mentioned that a fine parchment could be made from human skin, and found a sealed case being delivered to my quarters within the week. Once, I mentioned that I had always wanted to be Grandmaster.

I’m not sure if he realized at the time the part I was playing in his development, but I am certain that he realized at the end. One rainy night I answered a summons, travelling across town in my Grandmaster’s carriage to his palace, wondering what he could want. I found him sitting alone in his chamber, his eyes black and hate-filled above the tears, a painted picture of himself from twenty years earlier clenched in his hand. The illustrated image looked innocent, fresh. Happy. The opposite, in other words, of the grim figure transfixing me with his gaze, baring his white teeth in outraged fury, the torn scraps of the soul I had folded for him stirring slightly around his feet.

He did not simply have me killed, as he could have. He turned me over instead to the judgement of my guild: a shrewd move politically, considering our positions. Of course it was – I had folded him shrewdness years ago. In any case, it was obvious what the verdict would be: the Last Folding was a foregone conclusion. It is the form of execution traditional within the guild, used to punish those who have transgressed particularly severely. By crushing leaves from the beautiful Paperbark trees, a deadly poison can be concocted, one which kills slowly but certainly, gradually gripping the body in more and more severe convulsions until the life expires. The condemned must drink a draught of this poison, and is then locked in the execution chamber, along with an enormous supply of very special paper. This paper, known as razorleaf, is sturdy, with edges carefully tapered to a knife-like edge, such that the slightest friction against them will split the skin.  

The torturous aspect of this mode of dying is clear, I think. The condemned is faced with a choice: he can either refuse the paper, and die twitching and unscarred in a corner, or he can make a last statement, a last expression of his art, though his spasming digits are certain to wound themselves on the cruel paper as he does so. Despite what some might imagine, very few choose the former option. The urge to be remembered, to leave a final message, overcomes most, not to mention the simple pragmatism of having something to occupy your mind other than the thought of the poison creeping slowly through your limbs. When the masters come to collect the body, most are found next to half- or fully-formed works, the flesh of their fingers hanging in tatters.

There was never any doubt as to what I would choose. I am not one of those who crouch defiantly in the corner until they feel the drug taking hold, then experience a sudden change of heart and rush at the paper, clumsily folding their hands into a bloody mess. I began my sculpture over an hour ago, as soon as the key was turned in the lock, and before the faintest twinge had struck my muscles. I am almost finished now, and am still not shaking too badly. I shall soon make the final fold, set down my last work respectfully, and die with grace.

I have no fear of death. I am an old man, and have seen and done all I should want to. Besides, several foldings of my own complicated soul are already concealed throughout the guildhall, to be found by future artists: I shall be remembered as I was, for better or for worse.

I chuckle to myself. If there are any future artists. That all depends on how the masters who come to retrieve my body deal with what they find pleated and crimped and bent and grooved at my feet. Long ago, I heard tales of a creature so terrible that even to gaze upon it was to die. I am not sure if such a thing exists in the flesh, but when I am finished here it shall certainly exist in paper. One does not spend a lifetime sculpting souls without learning something of their workings. The sight of the fearsome shape taking form beneath my trembling fingers will, I think, be quite unendurable to mortal gaze. Its curves will trap the eye, its folds will stop the brain, its points will pierce the workings of the heart. I conceptualized it years ago, bit by bit, and always intended it to be my last piece, execution or no. The fact that it shall now avenge me against my murderers just makes it all the more satisfying.  I shall be its first victim, of course, but it is a better death by far than the slow convulsions of the Paperbark venom. How many will come to retrieve me and not return before the others realize? How many noble masters will catch a glimpse of what I have wrought here, and collapse into the stacks of razorleaf left for me to flay myself with? Ten? A dozen? All? It is impossible to say, nor do I particularly care. I shall have my last statement, and it shall not be forgotten.

There, the final fold. I close my eyes as I make it, to prevent myself from seeing the finished product before I am ready. I place my work upon the stone floor as gently as possible, given the writhing of my hands. I lean back against the wall, and breathe a last, sweet breath. I think of my old frog, disappearing up the chimney, and smile. Then I open my eyes, to gaze upon my final, glorious piece.  

It is perfect. 

_______________


Calder Hutchinson is a writer of speculative fiction living in Toronto. His stories have also appeared in On Spec, various Tdocspec anthologies, and on his blog at thatveryslith.blogspot.ca.

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