The Blank Page
It was not a dark and stormy night, because that type of atmosphere may have inspired Richard, and inspiration was something that fled from Richard with an almost instinctual fear. Instead it was the dull end of the evening, between the gradual decline of the sun across the horizon and the start of night, and Richard sat in the small confines of his basement flat and wished he had an idea.
It wasn’t, he was certain, his fault that the ideas were not coming to him. He had lived long enough, in the two and half decades that he had lived. He had experienced enough, and he could certainly imagine enough. But trying to hammer those ideas into some kind of form, structure them and build something out of them? Richard stared at the thing that sat on the desk in front of him. It taunted him. It haunted him, that one little object. That simple, single, damnable thing that left him unable to sleep at night and wracking his brain for some kind of solution. The plain, simple void that was the blank page.
He slumped down into the rigid, uncomfortable desk chair and decided to give it one last try. Richard felt the cold of the chair against his skin, he was naked; it was necessary in order to paint the runes across his skin. If the ritual was to work, his body needed to be marked, sanctified. But perhaps, he thought, the ritual might not be needed at all. Not if he could create just one idea, just one – one that could start the ball rolling, one that could get the creative juices flowing. He placed his fingers against his laptop, and inhaled. No ideas were coming to him – he had a thought, a general impression of writing a mystery story. Maybe a detective story. Like an old film noir story, a private eye and a dame to kill for. Okay, he thought, good – that’s the characters. Lovely. Now he needed a setting. How about Seattle? Perfect, Richard thought, he already lived there, he knows the place like the back of his hand. He decided to make the rest of it up as he went along – perhaps there was a bank robbery, or a stolen thing from a museum. He felt slightly confident; a rush of excitement filled him. Maybe the ritual really wouldn’t be necessary at all. He would get the first few pages down, and then he would wash these stupid markings off his body and order some pizza. It would be a good night. Now all he needed was an opening sentence, something to grab the audience and draw them in. He had it! With that, he began to type.
‘It was a dark night, and it was very stormy’ he wrote.
Richard paused, and read it back. It wasn’t great. He could probably do better. But not to worry, he decided, he’d come back to that part and fix it later. He just had to get the next part down. Okay fingers, he thought, do your thing.
Richard started at the screen. The words stared back at them. ‘It was a dark night, and it was very stormy’. What came next, he asked himself. What the fuck comes next? He placed his hand against his head, rubbing his forehead slightly – and stopped. Shit, he thought, he hoped he hadn’t smudged the markings. He looked at the words again. God, he thought, it looks fucking stupid.
Slamming his fist down against the table, Richard swept his hand and knocked the laptop from the desk. “Fuck!” he screamed, and felt himself about to cry.
The thought came to him of just how long he had struggled with this. The months he had spent attending creative writing classes – stuck in small groups with no-talent hacks and bored housewives who wanted to create small-time erotica to fuel their own smutty desires that their husbands wouldn’t fulfil – all the time having his work criticised by them and by a teacher who simply didn’t have the intellectual capacity to understand his genius! And then there were the authors – those who were already published, and their little cabal to keep the secrets of their success. Richard had, on several occasions, managed to approach a few published authors and asked what their secrets were. The answers were always the same; “There are no secrets, just keep writing”. Lies, Richard had decided, it had to be lies! He was certain, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that each of these authors were people who had formed some kind of secret and were protecting it, something to secretive that even the books that he had purchased (the ones promising to turn him from a budding amateur into a worldwide bestselling author in three easy steps) had conveniently opted not to so much as mention. Perhaps that secret was something he would have the opportunity to unearth tonight, he thought.
The ritual had not been easy to acquire. It had taken him the better part of three years to track down a suitably intact volume of the Book of Eibon, and even with that acquired he had been required to make significant modifications to the structure of the incantations. He had etched out the summoning circle on the bare floorboards of his flat, a single chalk circle surrounding a precisely-drawn eight-pointed star – which he was caused to throw a rug over each time his landlord came to visit. On this evening, Richard had encircled the chalk with a ring of salt, purely to provide an additional barrier of safety. The candles were already in place, and the box of reagents – Richard didn’t want to think about what that little carved wooden box contained. It was sufficient to know that the parts were in place and that he’d soon have the aid he so desperately required.
He lit the candles, being sure to place a dab of that very peculiar oil that he had purchased from that incredibly suspicious gentleman on each one as he did so, and trying not to think of the oil salesman’s most disturbing tongue. The stuff stank of seaweed, but that was nothing compared to the stench that erupted when Richard opened the wooden box of reagents. He stumbled around the flat, looking for a small bowl in which to ignite the contents of the box, and before long he had found one that he was fairly certain wasn’t made of any type of plastic. Stuffing the bottom of the bowl with newspaper, he set a small fire and tipped the contents of the wooden box into the flames. They landed with a dull, wet plop. The nastier of the contents began to sizzle.
The chant itself was something that Richard had been dreading. He knelt down, careful not to smudge any of the markings that he had so carefully drawn over his entire body (a difficult enough feat in and of itself, and requiring a substantially convoluted positioning of mirrors in order to see clearly enough to draw on the back of his thighs), and read the notes that he had taken. The phonetic pronunciations that he had prepared for himself definitely seemed somewhat more accessible than the original terminology had demanded, and the addition of vowels (which the original language that the chants had been written in had comprehensively lacked) made the entire chanting significantly less strenuous.
“Ay,” he began, “Ay shosh – shosh, ay ay. Shosh tal-shosh, ay. Shoob Nick-goo-roth” he continued, with all the natural flair of an Englishman visiting the southern regions of Italy and attempting to ask for directions. “Kat-choo-loo far thag-gon…”
“Please,” interrupted a cold and very detached voice, “Stop. Seriously, just stop. You sound bloody stupid, mate.”
Richard stopped in his chanting, turning around to see the figure that was addressing him. The man who had spoken to him was not, as Richard had expected, been dressed in a finely-cut and well-tailored business suit, instead he wore a light grey sports jumper and dusty blue jeans. Richard felt somewhat unimpressed. “Who are you?” he asked.
The figure gave him a weary glance. “Who am I? Who am I?” he asked, indignantly. “You’ve just dragged me out of a very important business deal, and you’re asking me who I am? Who do you think I am? Hm? I’ll give you a clue – you summoned me. Or do you just make a habit of picking names out of old, dusty books and inviting people around for dinner and drinks without any type of forewarning, maybe?”
Richard blinked a few times, and felt the urge to rub his eyes, but he reminded himself not to do this (smudging the ritual markings on his eyes could result in being subjected to all kind of illusions, he reminded himself) and instead took a deep breath. “You’re the devil?” he asked.
The stranger seemed to deflate like a punctured balloon. “Wrong, wrong, wrong, and wrong again” he moaned. “Seriously, did you call me here just to waste my time?”
Richard shook his head, “No, sorry, of course, my mistake. Not the devil. But a devil. A primal spirit. One of the ancient things, is that right?”
The creature, wearing his sports jumper and jeans, wheeled the wooden desk chair to his side and slumped down into it. “Bingo. Correct, fifty points to you, you can be my phone-a-friend from now on. Now what do you want? Seriously kid, I’m not in the mood for this type of shit.”
Letting his excitement simmer for a few moments, Richard took a second to look over the creature in front of him. It had the pristine skin that seemed just a little too pale, and soft wrinkles etched its brow. But it didn’t have horns, or pointed ears, or any of the things that Richard had anticipated. Then he realised that the creature was sitting on his desk chair, and with a sudden jolt of fear he leapt to his feet, pointing his hand at the ritual circle of chalk and salt. “How did you…?” he sputtered.
The creature seemed to roll his eyes. “Oh fucking hell, I’m really dealing with an amateur here, aren’t I? Okay kid, just so you know, I’m feeling generous here so I’m going to give you this little tit-bit of information for free – the circle is meant to be for you. You hide in it, and it protects you from anything I might want to do to you. Like turning you inside out for wasting what little free time I have. Capiche?”
Richard almost knocked the salt astray as he ran into the circle, scrambling in an almost blind panic to get to safety. The creature watched him, propping his head up with one hand, resting his elbow on the desk, in a bored and unimpressed manner. Catching his breath, Richard checked that the salt was forming a full and unbroken seal between himself and the demon.
“Quite finished?” asked the creature. “Can I go now?”
Having taken a deep breath, Richard rose to his full height. He glanced around, and noticed that the small scrap of paper upon which he had scribbled his script of proper words to intone had fallen to the floor on the outside of the circle. He resolved himself instead to speak from what he considered to be the most dramatic that he could remember. “Creature of darkness and prince of deception!” he stated, boldly, “I stand before you, shielded by the power of the wards upon my flesh and baring the light of my immortal soul ready to strike you down should your trickery…”
“How did you manage to draw those marks so correctly on your own dick?” asked the creature. “And your backside, in fact. Did you have help with that?”
Richard flushed, and pursed his lips. “Stop trying to distract me! I have summoned you here for a purpose, foul thing of the otherworldly realms.”
Stifling a yawn, the creature crossed one of his legs over the others. “Look, Richard. Rick. Dick. Dicky. Whatever you prefer – I don’t know, and I really don’t care. I don’t have all evening to sit around watching you make a complete tit of yourself, as much as I would really love to do that – and rest assured, I really would love to do that, normally. But I’ve been working flat out this week. It’s a really difficult time, we’ve been struggling to meet quotas, and I’ve been having to pull a lot of unpaid overtime in order to get the projects we need for the whole ‘war on heaven’ thing green-lit. You’re going to have to forgive me if I’m a little bit less, shall we say, patient and gracious than I should normally be. So how about we just cut all of this business” – and here he mimed with his fingers the cutting of a pair of scissors – “and just pencil in another meeting some other time.”
Richard seemed to bristle with agitation at the very suggestion. “Hey, you’re bound here, remember! The ritual seals you to this area, so you can’t leave until I give you the say so!”
The creature seemed to inhale for a moment, as if calculating his reply. “Yes, that’s all well and good enough. But as I’m sure you will understand, I have better things to do. This isn’t a good time, and I’m booked up with meetings with people who actually matter. So how about you take down the binding, and I’ll pop back over and see you in a few months? Or maybe I can arrange you to talk with one of my work colleagues, instead. I’m sure Shaun over in soul management would love to talk to you about… about whatever stupid little wish it is that you want granted, alright?” The creature slipped off the wooden chair, and paced quite deliberately a few steps across the room.
Richard shook his head, a growing sense of anger filling him. “No!” he snapped, “I summoned you. I worked out the ritual, I brought all the items to sacrifice, I calculated the correct days. I’ve done everything that I’m supposed to do – so you have to grant my wish. You have to!”
Turning on his heel, the creature strode across the floor towards Richard, crossing the space between them in three enraged steps. He jammed his finger violently into the air, stopping his motion only an inch before the space above the ritual circle. He roared, flecks of spit flicking from his lips, “Don’t you even dare to try giving me orders, you worthless, insignificant curdle of pig-shit! I am not some fucking little magic genie you can conjure up and demand three wishes from – I was striding across this wretched planet while your forefathers were still spending their days trying to figure out how to hunt animals for food! You are nothing – nothing – but the specks of mud and dirt that your species were carved from, and don’t you ever forget it!”
Gritting his teeth, Richard felt the urge to run; his heart was pounding in his chest, thumping with almost enough force to cause him to drop to his knees, but he refused. He pursed his lips, balling his hands into fists, drawing up his deepest reserves of courage. “I summoned you,” he said, quieter this time, graciously, “I beg your forgiveness, great one.” He liked that, it sounded good. Polite. “I beg you,” he repeated, throwing it in for good measure a second time, “Grant me the boon that is surely within your infinite power to give.”
The creature took a step back, as his face visibly started to calm. The anger retreated from his face, leaving him once again with only that sense of vague annoyance which he had worn since he had arrived. He clicked his tongue against his teeth a few times, before he announced “no.”
The reply puzzled Richard. The ritual hadn’t explained that this was even an option; the demon would be bound to accept. It was simply a matter of trade. Richard sputtered, “But, I offer you my soul in return.”
Giving a derisive snort, the creature looked Richard over. “I’ll pass. Thanks, not interested.”
Richard slumped down, sitting roughly into the middle of his protective chalk circle. “I don’t understand,” he stated, “I thought your kind thirsted after the souls of humanity.”
With a dismissive wave of his hand, the creature retorted. “The great souls of humanity, yes. The wisest of the teachers, the greatest of the leaders, the bravest of the soldiers, the humblest of the humanitarians, the most creative of your artists. What am I supposed to describe you as? How would I explain you to my line manager? ‘Oh hey boss, I got the soul of this mortal; he hasn’t washed in three days and he drew over his whole body in felt tip pen, isn’t he fantastic?’ Seriously Ricky – do you mind if I call you Ricky? Take it from me, it’s the nicest thing I could call you – you’re not a valuable soul. Frankly, there are especially creative and more inspirational meal worms whose souls I could spend my time trying to acquire.”
Jabbing his thumb angrily against his chest, Richard insisted, “I am a great artist!”
With a weary sigh, the creature shook his head. “Kid, look, seriously. You’re not. You’re not one now, and you’re not going to be one. You’re not a great artist or a particularly great anything. Have you thought about getting a real job? Maybe something in a nice little call centre somewhere, or maybe as a cashier. And think of the money you could save on all those paint and brushes and all that rubbish. Seriously kid, it’s for the best.”
Richard was feeling indignant now, his anger bubbling up inside him. “I’m not a painter” he hissed through gritted teeth, and thrust his finger towards the overturned laptop that lay on the floor, “I’m a writer.”
Turning his head to look at the laptop which lay discarded on the floor, the creature ran a hand through his tangles of brown hair. “Oh,” he mumbled, “Oh Jesus – excuse me. Holy shit, man. That’s even worse. Yeah, you’re totally fucked if that’s what you want to do. Seriously, count me out. Not a chance, nope, nu-uh.”
Narrowing his brows in frustration, Richard gave a contemptuous snort, “You’re just trying to get a reaction from me, demon. I won’t play into your games. I’m simply struggling to find my muse. Once I have found it – with your help – my name will live on throughout eternity.”
Taking a long, deep sigh, the creature sidled closer to the chalk circle. “No, it won’t. Really. I could give you all the skill to make a full-length novel, and the means to distribute it worldwide, and it would still be considered by critics to be an utter failure. I’m not saying this to be cruel, Ricky, really I’m not. Please don’t think I’m being intentionally hurtful. Look, my kind has the ability to see inside your minds and read what is etched on your souls. Would you like my honest, entirely truthful and sincere thoughts on why you’re struggling with becoming an author? No lies, no half-truths, the full and honest reasons. Then, you dismiss the bindings and let me get back to my other, more important, business. Okay?”
The demon began. “You struggle to think in an original manner, you find your ideas for plotlines by mining other people’s works and not infusing it with any personal spin. Your characters are shallow, dull and superficial, and they have this horrible habit of saying what they are thinking rather than simply thinking it. You don’t understand pacing or structure and try to throw too much at your reader at once, so your stories lack any sense of escalation or narrative focus. You introduce characters who serve no function in the story, only to kill them off for no reason when you grow bored of them. You give your characters special powers or abilities rather than a developed personality. Your prose is the worst kind of purple, your similes don’t work, your dialogue feels unnatural and you have no idea about how and when to use a comma. Perhaps worst of all, you have no actual interest in sharing a story with the reader – you are motivated purely by your own ego and desire only to be congratulated for your own self-appointed genius. Because of that, you constantly talk down to your readers, making them feel patronised and insulted. So there you go, kid. You don’t have what it takes to be an author, and never will. Your soul is of no value to me, I have no interest in this deal now or ever. Now will you kindly break this binding so that I can politely fuck right off and never have to see you and your drooping penis ever again?”
Richard fell silent. He let his head hang slightly, considering what the creature had just said to him. He was quiet for a long time, processing the information. It wasn’t new to him, they were words he had been told several times before, but never from a creature who could be so categorically defined as empirically not of the human species. With hesitation, he said “You can tell all of that, just based on the stories I’ve already written?”
The demon snapped his fingers, “All that you will ever write, Ricky. Past, present and future – and not just this future, but all possible futures, including any future in which I might suddenly decide to lose what little remains of my sanity and grant you immediate artistic success, if you can consider the term ‘success’ to apply in this instance.”
“So…” replied Richard, considering his position carefully, “What are my options here?”
Snapping the palm of his head against his forehead, the demon grumbled. “Well, I suppose that you could try to simply pay someone to write your ideas down for you.”
“Would that work?” asked Richard.
“No” said the demon. “Not with your ideas. Best thing to do would be to consider maybe moving into a field of literature that didn’t involve actually creating anything of significant value or worth at all. Have you thought of getting a job as a publisher?”
Shaking his head violently, Richard rose to his feet. “No! I don’t believe you. You’re just trying to push for a higher deal – maybe my soul as well as someone else’s? What is it you want? A human sacrifice?”
With a condemning glare to his eyes, the demon scowled at Richard. “Don’t waste my time. There isn’t a single thing you can offer me, except for the promise never to bother me again for the rest of my life- no, for the rest of your life. That’s shorter.”
With a distinct shrug, Richard said “Okay, we have a deal then.”
With a jerk of his head, the creature faced Richard face-on. “What?” he asked, confusion and a sense of panic crossing his voice.
“You made an offer” said Richard, calmly. “You give me what I want, and I never bother you for the rest of my entire life.”
Clenching his teeth, the demon strode towards Richard once more. “That is not what I meant,” he rasped, “and you damn well know it, mortal.”
“Nevertheless, that’s what you said” explained Richard, calmly. His heart was pounding, oh yes, it was pounding, but he was close. So close to getting just what he wanted. “You said it yourself, whether you meant it or not. And now you’ve put the offer out there, and I’ve accepted. We have a deal.”
Silence reigned for a moment. The demon swayed lightly, shifting his weight from one foot to the other. He glanced down to the floorboards, and up to the ceiling. His pupils shuddered around, skirting back and forth in desperation as he thought, calculated, planned, all the while his calm demeanour began to crack and fall apart, piece by piece. His movements became quicker, jerking as he turned left and right, as if physically trying to worm and slide his way out of the pinch that he had found himself hemmed into.
Finally, he turned back towards Richard, and he opened his mouth. Within the fine lines of his lips, thick rows of teeth sat, pristine and glistening, row upon row upon row. His skin was cracked, etched with thin little spider-web fractures, between which glimmered a hefty red light, like a bulb casting its light beneath the edge of a door. Where once sat eyes of sombre, refined blue now swirled a churning, black mass of twisting abyss, seeming to bleed darkness from the very sockets themselves. The creature roared, with a voice that shook the very room and caused the wooden timbers to creak in protest.
“Very well, mortal” bellowed the thing, “you will have precisely what you desire.”
* * *
Richard stumbled to the table, throwing another sheet of paper onto its surface. He grabbed another pencil and continued to write. It was his sixth pencil today, and it was already running short.
The pens had been exhausted almost a week ago, three days after he had filled his laptop with document files. The process of filling his laptop had taken the better half of a month and a half, but still he pushed on. He would wait until the external hard drive that he had purchased arrived in the mail, which would take maybe another day at the most. Until then, the pencils would do.
They would have to do, because Richard had given up on going outside. The stories didn’t leave him when he went outside, and he couldn’t carry enough paper to be able to record them. A few days ago, he had dared to make a quick run to the shop on the corner of the road to purchase more pens, but the stories hadn’t ended. They had kept coming to him, one piled upon another, like a rushing torrent, and he had needed to jot the ideas down as they came. But he had only so few scraps of paper; so few, and when he had tried to note them down on his arm, people had stared. When he had tried to say them aloud to himself to prevent them being lost, people had moved away from him. He had lost so many ideas. He couldn’t risk losing more – no, couldn’t risk any more.
His wrist would not stop aching. The bones had begun to protrude, pressing out at unnatural angles from the skin, and when he wrote he was sure that he could hear the dull, muffled crackling as they ground together. Yesterday, he had felt the skin of his wrist, and noticed that one of the bones felt sharp – it hurt when he pressed it, almost unbearably, and he was sure that some small part of his body was breaking apart. The thought came to him of a story in which a man suffers an injury and has to regain his trust in his family and friends; it was a good story, Richard thought, so he hurried to write it down, doing his best to ignore the pain it brought him to do so.
The paper filled, Richard turned to grab another sheet. He paused. Shit, he thought, that was his last. He looked around, hurriedly. He had to be fast, move before the next story came to him. His small basement flat had become a temple to paper; sheets were stacked and strewn on every surface. Crumpled and pristine sheets, evenly folded and torn, they coated the room to almost ankle height. But they were full; all full, each and every last one! Richard screamed silently, inwardly. The stories were coming. He needed something to write them down on, or else they would be lost. In a rush of inspired thought, he threw himself at the walls, scrawling along them with what remained of the pencil. Soon the pencil would be gone, he knew – but then that thought was gone, replaced with an idea for a story about a man who had lost a pencil, and had to journey around the city to find it, noticing people he had never noticed before, learning more about himself and the world around him as he did so. Richard liked that story; he etched it frantically into the corner of the room, just above the skirting board. It would be safe there.
It wasn’t long before that pencil was gone, only to be quickly followed by another, and another, until the last was gone too. Richard stared at the last pencil he held. Would he be able to get to the shop in time to grab another set? Maybe some paper as well? No, he might lose too many stories in that time. What would he run out of first – pencils, or wall space? Maybe there was something else that he could write on. He looked down at his own body, his bare arms, and his skin. But he needed something that would last longer than the pencil would; something more permanent.
Breaking the last remaining pencil in two, he dug the cracked edge of it against his arm. He gritted his teeth as the blood started to trickle along his arm, feeling wet and hot. It would do, he thought. It’d work on the walls, and on the living canvas of his body, if he cut shallow enough. It wasn’t as good as ink, but it’d do. He looked at his body, his skin, and felt that it was all a blank page that he simply had to fill.