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The Paper Man

by Kaci Skiles Laws

“What am I?” the figure asks again.

“That isn’t such a simple question to answer,” the artist explains, perplexed by the sudden inquiry rising up from an incidental mark he made.

“Why not?”

“Because you come from simple things, but you are complex in composition. I didn’t make you that way purposely. The idea of you started as a creative inspiration. The stroke of paint that became your shape was an accident. You happened out of chance. And if I were to describe you, it would be from my perspective alone; I might miss something crucial.”

“I see.” The figure pauses. “But your words are too vague. They are filled with holes, and they do not satisfy my curiosities. Why don’t you have any concrete answers? I cannot grasp my abstract nature any better than you can explain it to me.”

“Because some things don’t make sense. You do not make sense. You are what you are. There are no words sometimes or explanations for the things we can’t see. We just feel them. There are mysteries layered into all things. Why must you know every piece of yourself all at once? It would not be possible to know anyway. The way any one thing is defined at a given moment will change indefinitely.”

“I’m afraid to be anything. I thought you would have the answers so that I wouldn’t have to. Why don’t you have answers to my questions if you are my creator?”

“I do, but not the ones you want to hear. There is only one answer for all of the questions I cannot answer and that is, ‘I don’t know.’ The rest is speculation and, again, feeling. We have to answer our own questions sometimes. I do not know everything. No one does. I just create things. I am a painter. You are not mine, and you do not belong to me or anyone. Do you question so much about your existence because you’re afraid to live with unknown factors?”

“Yes, I feel small. I can’t get a good sense of me. Tell me now, what am I?”

“Well, I guess from my perspective” — the artist rubs his chin — “you’re a paper man spilled out of paint splatter.”

“Paper plus paint equals me?” the figure asks with eagerness.

“Yeah, you could say that.”

“I am a paper man?” It is pleased to give itself an official title.

“Yes, you are,” the artist says with finality and confidence as he wipes his brush across his apron. He begins to focus, detailing a portion of his work above the paper man’s head.

The paper man is silent for a moment, digesting the concept of itself before it asks, “Are you a paper man too?”

The artist laughs, and then his face is solemn again. “We are alike in many ways. Physically we are different, but in mind we seem to be the same.” He rattles his brush’s handle against the edge of a cup and swirls the bristles through the water.

The paper man looks into the cup and says, “One thing I do know for certain about you is that you are obscure if nothing else.” Unable to see, he asks, “What are you making now, and what is inside that cup? I thought I was only paint and paper. You never mentioned a third element in your design.”

“I don’t know what I am making.” The artist tilts his head in concentration before turning and lifting the cup. “And this contains the essential ingredient for washing out old paint. It helps me to make new ideas. The liquid inside it cleanses my brush. It is water.”

The figure nods and continues, “So if I am only one part paint, one part paper and a dash of water, when all three separate, what is left of me? Is there anything? What becomes of me?”

The artist stops, and his brow furrows as he stares at the paper man. “That is the most difficult question of them all to answer. I didn’t know you would ask, or I might have never placed my brush to a page. It is all for fun anyway, but it seems you’re not having any fun at all existing as you are.

“I never would have thought to stop and think about an insignificant stray mark I made, because I make so many. Now I stand in question before you, a creative idea that furled out from the end of a stroke of paint. You are a mere dot on a page in the grand scheme, among many I have made.

“I see you look simple, but you are not. You are complex both inside and outside of the broader perspective. You have such a mind of your own, full of wonder, just as I do. You will have to wait for the experiences to know the answers, and I must wait, too. I am sorry I don’t have the right words.”

“A mistake?” the paper man cries out. “I am just one of many mistakes? What good is a name then? It seems pointless to be called anything if I am a mistake with no meaning.”

“You need patience, paper man. Mistakes are the miracles. Each one serves a purpose. Everything has meaning. You have to find yours. I cannot find it for you.”

“Is patience like painting?”

“In a lot of ways, it is. You must have patience to produce art. The best art comes from passion, practice, and patience. Patience is listening paired with trust. I am an artist. You must trust my process and mold yourself with my techniques. There is intelligence in creativity. If you listen long enough, you will hear the wisdom inside of everything, including you.”

The paper man is too distraught to hear the artist. “What do I become when you are done with me? Do I exist outside of your perspective and my own? Or do I fade away to before, before I was the paper man?”

The artist sighs. “I don’t know, but I do know that you can never cease to be. You will never be less than what you already are right now. I can’t take you back off of the page even if I try.”

“I see.” The paper man becomes quiet.

The artist waits for more questioning, but none comes. He continues to work alongside the hum of an electric fan, occasionally passing glances at the paper man sitting on the page. Torn and bothered, they both sit still despite the forced air swirling around them.

The artist thinks for a long time and decides to give his work one last mark. “Your death is a creative statement, your metamorphosis awaits!” He flicks his wrist across his work. Water droplets rain over the paper man, who runs all the way down and off the surface in a colorful stream, his acrylic body drying and his soul expiring. “Show me something I haven’t seen, paper man.”

Copyright © 2018 by Kaci Skiles Laws

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