In the beginning there was. Was what? Just was.
There was and there was and there was, all sorts of was, all kinds and colours and kins of was.
So much was there was, that the whole was was terribly confused.
(This was before wasn't, you understand, and every possible thing was).
There was so much was, that something had to be done about it, and so it came to pass that ninety-nine was out of every hundred decided, all at once and forever, to become a wasn't.
Things were much more comfortable after this, but there was still too much was, far too much.
So again, ninety-nine was out of every hundred remaining was flipped over inside itself and became a wasn't.
I don't know where they went. Maybe they started being wasn'ts here the moment they became wases somewhere else. In any case, it wasn't our problem anymore, and that's the important thing.
Now. If you can imagine, we're still at the beginning, just a little bit further in, and now there's enough space to make sense of what there actually was there, without things getting too crowded.
In the almost-beginning, there was a flatness, and on the flatness lived The People.
I don't know where they came from. I suppose they were just one type of was that didn't become a wasn't. Just chance, I suppose. If the whole thing was run again, maybe it would be different.
The People were alone in the darkness. The nights were cold and vast. Their bodies were small and delicate and finite. The rest of everything was endless.
How do you think they coped? They told one another stories.
“We are the seeds of a giant egg,” they told one another.
“This great flatness is the back of a huge turtle,” they said (turtles were one of the things that had stayed being a was).
“We are the imagination of the Universe,” they whispered, as they sat around their flickering fires, and fought to keep the darkness at bay.
Did they believe their own stories? Maybe not at first. But the more they told them, the more likely they seemed. Before very long, it was obvious that the Sun was the amorous Flaming Man who chased the chaste Pale Lady endlessly around the Egg of the World. It was obvious that the oceans were the great mass of amniotic fluid that sprawled out when the Earth was delivered. It was obvious that the mountains were the facial stubble of the great Father who slept under the earth.
So many things were simply obvious. They must be true. Everybody said so.
Now it came to pass that one day there was a boy who simply did not find the stories good enough. His name was Sate.
“Yes, but how do you know the sun is actually a flaming man?” he would ask. “Why do you think the oceans are the birthing fluids?”
“They just are!” sniffed the elders. “Now stop worrying, and get on with things!”
But things would not be got on with, at least as far as Sate was concerned.
In fact, they got worse.
“How do I know that I'm really real, even?” Sate asked himself. “Maybe I'm not really anything at all. I only think I'm real because people have told me I'm real, because people treat me as if I'm real. Maybe I'm nothing. Maybe I'm just a story too, a story being told by an old woman to pass the time and help make sense of it all.”
As soon as this thought occurred to him, Sate began to doubt everything. When he thought something, he couldn't tell if he had really thought it, or if he had just thought he'd thought it, because that was the way someone had told his tale.
Before long, Sate realised he didn't know anything.
He didn't know where the world came from, or what had been there before.
He didn't know if he was real, or for that matter, if anyone else was, either.
He didn't know if it was actually worth getting up in the morning, or saying hello to anyone, or eating, drinking, or feeling sad or happy or anything at all.
He wondered about killing himself, but then he wasn't at all sure that death was real, either, and anyway, he doubted that would solve his problems even if it was.
One day, he found he could not go on.
He collapsed in a heap in a field just outside the flatness where The People lived, and he broke apart.
He didn't cry, because he wasn't sad.
What he did instead was gibber.
He gibbered and jabbered and yammered and yowled. He shrieked every word of every truth he thought he had ever known, and none of it made sense anymore.
The sun and moon and the stars wheeled overhead, but to Sate they were no longer these things; instead, they were a chaos of unknowable light and darkness, a broken dappling of other that was awful in its intensity and unbearable in its strangeness. That's what happens when all the stories come apart.
That was how the monk and his friend found him.
“Now, now, my boy,” the monk said kindly. “What ever is the problem with you?”
Sate sniffed and took some deep breaths.
“I'm lost,” he said at last. “I don't know my ups from my downs, my ins from my outs, my gods from my dogs. I don't know where the world ends and I begin, and even if I did know these things, I wouldn't believe a word of it.”
The monk nodded. He stroked his beard ponderously.
“Would you like,” he said at length, “to have some pie?”
Sate rolled his eyes.
“I don't know!” he moaned in exasperation. “That's what I'm trying to tell you!”
The monk nodded, and pulled out of his pack a most delicious, crumbly, and altogether flavoursome pie. I think it had blackcurrants in it.
He tore a piece off. As the crust broke, a wave of steam poured out.
“Here,” he said, and handed the chunk of pie to Sate.
“I told you, I don't know if I want a...ow! Ow!” Sate yelped as the hot blackcurrants slithered out of the pie and burnt the back of his hand.
“Oh, so you agree the pie is real, then,” said the monk amicably. He shared a meaningful glance with his friend, a gaunt, bright-eyed man.
“No, not at all,” whined Sate, sucking his hand and trying not to look at the pie, which he suddenly realised did smell rather delicious, even if it was too hot. He looked from the monk to his friend and back again. “Maybe you've just tricked me into thinking there's a hot pie there. Maybe you used magic or you hypnotised me. Then again, maybe you're not real. Maybe I'm just dreaming you or imagining you. Or maybe you're real, but I'm not, and you're just imagining me.”
The monk shrugged, and his friend shook his head.
“Maybe,” he said, and took a bite of his pie. “However, I believe this to be a delicious slice of pie, nevertheless.”
Sate found that he was eyeing his own slice hungrily. His mouth was watering (or at least, he thought it was).
“I'll eat it,” he said at last, “but that doesn't mean it's real.”
“Of course not,” agreed the monk amiably. “Personally, I tend not to worry about that sort of thing.”
“Wa' sora thin?” asked Sate.
“Don't speak with you mouth full,” said the monk.
“Sorry,” said Sate, swallowing. “What sort of thing don't you worry about?”
“Why, about what's real and what's not. About what gods to believe in or where the world came from or why we're here. I don't tend to worry about any of that.”
Sate snorted disdainfully, but he reached for the pie, and broke himself off another chunk.
“Well, then we're not so different, are we?” he said, “Neither of us believe in anything. We're both lost.”
The monk's friend snorted at that, and shifted restlessly.
“We don’t have time for this,” said the bright-eyed man. “Where have we come, anyway? This doesn't feel like the right direction.”
The monk gave Sate an apologetic smile, and turned to his friend.
“If we are where I think, Tobias, then time is not a problem; at least, not here” said the monk. “You remember what the others said? Something’s gone funny with time. It’s broken, somehow. I think we’ve wandered into somewhere very early on. Or somewhen. No, I think we can spare the time to help this poor young man.”
The man called Tobias looked intently at Sate, as if he could measure every ounce of his soul at a glance. Sate wondered if he might catch fire from the sheer force of the man’s glare.
But Tobias seemed satisfied with whatever he found there, for after a moment he relented, and said, “I’m sorry, boy. This cruel world can make monsters of us all.”
Sate shrugged, though he felt himself warming to the two strangers (even if they turned out not to really exist).
“I was saying we’re not really so different,” said Sate again.
“Not at all,” said the monk. He bit, chewed, swallowed. “You don't believe in anything. I, on the other hand, am perfectly happy to believe in everything. For example, I know that I was born and that one day I will die. After that, I'm going to live for ever. Also, I'm going to be in absolute darkness and absolute nothing, for all eternity. I'm also going to spend some time – well, forever, too, actually – feasting and fighting in a big hall with all my ancestors. Then again, in all probability I'll be reborn, as a worm or a king or both. Or I might just live this life again. I know all this with absolute certainty, by the way.”
There was silence for a moment.
“But...but, those are just stories,” spluttered Sate at last. “They're not real. No one knows what really happens! No one knows why we're really here!”
“Stories are important,” said the monk, quietly. “Don't you see? Stories are all we have.”
By his side, Tobias closed his eyes and bowed his head.
The monk hesitated.
“Well, stories and pie,” he allowed grudgingly, and broke the remainder in three. Tobias waved his piece away, so the monk ate it, too.
Sate took his third. He stayed silent, but looked thoughtful.
The sun began to sink behind the mountains.
It did look a little, just a little, like a fiery man bedding down behind a spiny protrusion of facial hair.
Sate smiled. The pie was good.
“Take myself and my friend, here,” said the monk. “We would be lost without our stories. They seem to have run together somewhat. Now we share it; and it is a dark story. Dark as dark gets. And yet, I wouldn’t trade being a part of it for every pie there ever was. And that’s saying something.”
“I’m sick of stories,” said Sate. “And I’ve no time for dark ones.”
“Me too,” whispered Tobias. “Sick to death.” But the monk ignored him.
“Oh, the dark ones are the most important,” said the monk. “It’s the dark ones that tell us most about the world; and about ourselves, of course. No, I’m thankful for this dark story I find myself in. Without it, what meaning would I have? And with it…well, we might just save the Universe.”
He smiled, as if he had made a good joke; but Tobias looked up, and there was no hope left in his eyes.
“What?” said the monk. “We might just, at that.”
“We should get on,” said Tobias. “We won’t find what we look for here. Time is short, whatever part of it we’ve wandered into. Bad things are in motion.”
The monk gave Tobias a bland look, but Sate caught something sharp deep in those eyes, and he thought suddenly that the man might be much more clever than he looked.
“Oh, I know, I know,” said the monk. “But we have time for a little story, surely? Besides,” he added quietly, “I’ve always thought we chance upon people for a reason. Perhaps this young man can help.”
“I’ve told you, I don’t want to hear any dark stories,” said Sate, though halfheartedly. The pie had been very good. A story might be just the thing to wash it down.
The monk pondered this information for a while,
“Do you want to hear about how we got this pie?” asked the monk, at length. “It's quite an interesting story. And not too dark at all. At least, not to start with.”
Sate shrugged, then nodded.
“Very well,” said the monk. He darted a sly look at Tobias. “I'll tell you the story then. It's called...