On a rain-cooled night in northern Laos, two writers met by accident. They had been walking towards one another along an unlit road on the outskirts of a small village, where they had been living, separately, for several months. The Fates had grown impatient with the pair who until that point had avoided one another with determination. They were both unpublished and poor and had no desire to explain the reasons behind this lack of success to one another. The moon, which had been due to rise over an hour earlier, was defiantly and supernaturally late. The animals in the surrounding rice paddies and distant farms were more vocal that night than ever before, drowning out the sound of the wind’s gentle caresses of the palms. The very laws of nature were being bent to facilitate a meeting.
Vision was minimal because of the limited light and the vocal commotions of the animals drowned out the sound of approaching footsteps. The two writers were utterly absorbed in thought and thus, aided by fate, they met in a manner generally reserved for fiction or the cinema. Blinded, deafened and unaware of any universal conspiracy, they collided. Their crash silenced the animals, permitted the moon to rise to its pre-appointed place and sent a flurry of pages onto the rain soaked pavement.
The pages represented the life’s work of each writer. Since they were both young and unaccomplished, this did not amount to much. For a few moments, they stood staring at one another. Carol was petite and her wild, black hair made her small face appear even smaller. Her dark eyes shone in the rising moonlight and her mouth was a thin, tense line drawn across her face. She often frowned without meaning to. She took little care with her appearance, but the affect was a graceful one. Karl, on the other hand, looked like a scarecrow. This look was accentuated by his straw-coloured hair, which aimed itself in every possible direction. Only his pale green eyes stood sober from the disorder. Naturally, he was unshaven.
The two writers took in all these details about one another. They had prepared themselves for this meeting, each rehearsing dialogue, witticisms, non-chalance. But now that the unwanted moment had arrived they were both incapable of performance. Neither was able to repeat any of the intellectual openings they had practised and concentrated on hiding their surprise and contempt. Karl tried to smile, but it didn’t come out right. Carol shuddered and looked at the mess at her feet. Pages were lying in all directions, some breathing with the light wind but most dormant and soaked through with water. A thought was itching at the back of her mind; something about this meeting made her uneasier than it should, went beyond meeting her rival. She wondered if he was thinking the same. Karl seemed unaffected, but he was often unemotional.
The two writers started to collect their stories.
“We must shop at the same stationery store.”
Karl was first in attempting to break the silence. Carol only nodded to this indirect question. She had noticed that they both used the same paper for writing, but she couldn’t speak as her earlier apprehension resurfaced. She connected this feeling of unease to the recent bout of deja vu’s she’d been experiencing. This has all happened before was a phrase she had lately come across circulating in her head and one she found herself repeating in an anxious whisper. She stood up with a pile of pages, thickened and heavy with water. Karl stood before her with an identical stack. This small task completed, they were left with nothing to do but face one another in silence.
Carol cleared her throat.
Karl coughed. Loudly. Too loudly.
Carol laughed, easing some of the tension.
Without exchanging words, they began to walk east. They continued to practice not speaking, but strangely, the silence now was the comfortable one of lovers and not the strained one of newly met strangers. As they travelled without destination, the thoughts of each wandered to the other. There was no way they could unmeet and the confusion of their papers prevented them from simply walking in opposite directions and pretending that they had never met. Like the infinite number of meetings that don’t take place each and every moment they both would have preferred that this one had never happened.
Carol felt it was her turn to initiate a conversation; Karl had already tried, failed and was unlikely to do so again. She practised questions and statements, tried to say them out loud, but was unable to. She frowned as her attempts were set askew by another wave of deja vu. Then she said it without meaning to,
“This has all happened before,” she uttered and was shocked to find how little control she had to prevent the words from coming out. Karl looked at her, puzzled, but perhaps not as puzzled as one would expect. Something in that seemingly abstract statement made sense. There was a truth embedded in that collection of words, all five of them. He didn’t reply because there was no available reply. The statement hung in the air, silent and invisible, yet making its presence known like a ghost.
Carol was frowning when they came to a guest house along the road. It was low season for backpackers so it was empty. The bored proprietor stood at the entrance of the open air restaurant staring at the moon, confused at its earlier misbehaviour. He was a wide, tattooed man with the sporadic remains of a beard on his wrinkled face. With a friendly smile, he waved them to a table and shouted at his wife who only peeped a large moon shaped face from behind the kitchen door. He brought them menus. It was late so he offered them a room. They blushed in unison and shook their heads. Then he noticed the pile of pages lying on the table between them. He gently peeled one of the pages from its siblings and took turns waving it and blowing on it. After a brief, sputtering conversation in several languages, English, Laotian, broken English, broken Laotian, they reached an understanding.
The guest house owner disappeared into the kitchen. Karl and Carol, alone once again, only smiled at one another, all attempts at conversation having been abandoned. They had reached a mutual understanding that words could only distort. Karl pulled out his pen and started to play with it. It was pale blue and rather thick since it contained four colours. He pushed out one cartridge and then another, over and over again. He’d been musing over some small detail about one of his characters when he looked up and saw Carol’s eye wide with amazement.
“What?” he asked. Then following her gaze to the pen in his hand he said,
“It’s a bad habit; can’t help it.”
“Do you use that pen to write?” Carol asked, rather urgently.
“Yup,” Karl replied.
“Always?” she asked, even more urgently.
“Always,” he replied.
Karl continued to play and fidget with the pen. He thought about their stunted exchanges and decided that it was much easier to write dialogue than to have to participate in one. Suddenly, he was struck by the peculiarity of Carol’s questions and recalling the hasty tone with which she spoke, he asked.
“Why the concern over the pen?”
In reply, Carol reached into her bag and pulled out an identical one and placed it silently, solemnly in the table. Their thoughts ran concurrent; same paper, same pen, same isolated village. A striking coincidence. Too striking. The idea of two aspiring writers living in the same place, using identical materials and mutually avoiding one another seemed fictional. And now they were forced to sit across from one another and work out the mathematical probability. It didn’t take either long to realise it was quite small. They were equally confused, yet equally resolved to ignore the feeling.
The tattooed man returned from the kitchen carrying a thick spool of string. His wife holding a box of plastic clothing pins followed him. Karl helped him to tie the string from one end of the restaurant to the other, until an awkward looking cobweb enveloped the place. The older couple left the younger to the painstaking work of separating the pages and hanging them out to dry. The work was challenging since it took great effort not to rip the pages that had become pasted together. They were hung out, side by side, like freshly laundered clothing. The restaurant started to look festive and both Karl and Carol were more comfortable having this task to complete. They no longer resented one another and a sense of camaraderie was nourished in the silent progress.
Karl had hung about a dozen pages when he became confused. The pages had appeared to be thoroughly mixed yet he seemed to be only hanging his own. He saw no unfamiliar handwriting to indicate the pages that belonged to Carol. He kept this observation to himself and avoided reading the words. By the time he was nearly finished, he had yet to see any pages that were not in appearance his. Every page had the same scrawling script, the writing in blue or black, the underlines in green and the corrections in red.
“You don’t capitalise your “I’s”, do you?” Carol asked timidly from the other side of the restaurant.
“No. And you probably don’t pay attention to punctuation or spelling,” he replied.
They were avoiding the obvious. They started a closer inspection of the pages, seeking differences with desperation. There were none to be found. The pages were identical no only in shape and size, ink and handwriting, but also in style. Furthermore, it turned out, both writers had been writing the same stories from opposite ends. Carol was talented at starting stories without endings and Karl was brilliant at ending stories with no proper beginnings. Each had been plagued and tormented by this inability to write a complete story and this had been another reason why one had avoided the other.
They sat down and an interrogation began.
“How did you finish the story about the man who lives his whole life wanting and trying to die without committing suicide?” Carol asked.
“He lives and learns to value life,” Karl replied
“What about the one about the woman who takes connecting flights around the world and never sets foot out of an airport?” Carol inquired.
“She forgets her past, where she comes from, who she is. But what compelled her to start in the first place?” he asked.
“She was attempting to make a statement,” she said.
It was resolved that they had indeed written the same stories and in the joy of finding the missing pieces of their work, they forgot to question the absurdity of the situation. Or rather, it was so bizarre, so impossible, there was no point in questioning it. The pages dried and they set about compiling them into complete stories. The woman who leant how to fly at the beginning of one of Carol’s stories found herself incapable of descent in the conclusion written for her by Karl. The man who dedicated his life to his dog in a story written by Karl, found the source of his obsession in the same story written by Carol. All the beginnings found their endings, all the conclusions were complemented by their rightful introductions. Characters were made whole and plots were made sensible. The pages of the writers, once united, formed a collection of perfect stories, which breathed with the combined efforts of the two star crossed authors.
The Fates laughed with joy. The stars in the sky winked at the moon, co-conspirators. Out of the corner of his eye, Karl noticed a lone page hanging in the corner. He thought it strange that neither had noticed it before and pointed it out to Carol. They approached it together with inexplicable caution. It was eerie since all the other pages had already found their place in various stories. It looked menacing and even in the breeze, did not move, but hung sturdy and straight, as if held by an invisible hand. On it was written only one cryptic line and neither could admit to having authored it.
They were engulfed by a new silence. All the sounds of the guest house and the surrounding world stopped. The stars in the sky were extinguished and the moon fell rapidly out of sight. The piles of completed stories disappeared from around the bewildered couple. Then the guest house disappeared, the nearby hills, everything, started to vanish. This has all happened before. This had all happened before. The words raced through Carol’s head until she yelled them out to Karl, who nodded in agreement. Then she screamed as she watched Karl turn translucent and likewise disappear. Karl was powerless as he watched Carol’s outline grow fainter against the rapidly encroaching darkness. Then there was nothing left except black lines against a backdrop of white and the single, solitary phrase:
And only I shall make you disappear…..