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10^80 Pieces: A new short story from Madeleine Thien

‘Set alight in the world of the living and burned down to finest ash, they collected on the desk of Hafith al Bareed, intact, bright and new.’ From Giller Prize and Governor-General’s Literary Award winner Madeleine Thien, an exclusive new short story

The burning of paper offerings is a 2,500 year old tradition, built on the hope that if one burns paper money and gifts to one’s loved ones, they will receive them in the afterlife and put them to use. Modern paper offerings range from the latest iPhone to electric heaters, tea sets, armchairs and helicopters.

All century it snowed. Hafith al Bareed walked the hallways of past, present and future mail, the shelves as reassuring to him as the echo of his footsteps. Despite the infinite spacetime of the hallways, no item was unfamiliar to him; he was the sole employee of the Poste Restante Centrale, and had catalogued every single letter. The quantity of mail-pieces he had handled was upwards of 10^80, equal to the approximate number of atoms in the universe.

In all the years of Hafith al Bareed’s service, no one had ever come to pick up their mail.

Yet, what treasures the hallways contained. Paper models of everything a person might need in the afterlife: houses, suits of clothes, automobiles, slippers, furniture, sweets. Vessels engraved with messages (“Behold, I am the one you loved on earth.”) On feast days and anniversaries, birthdays and celebrations, the living remembered the dead. They made or bought these paper offerings; from cemeteries, temples or homes, they mailed them to their loved ones via the only accepted method, by setting them on fire.

Only smoke could pass between the worlds.

Epoch after epoch, these packages for the dead arrived: musical instruments, books, cognac, and ever smaller devices. Set alight in the world of the living and burned down to finest ash, they collected on the desk of Hafith al Bareed, intact, bright and new. Children’s toys. An expensive brand of cigarettes. All made of paper.

Houses, clothing, banknotes, cars: were these things that people made, or did they slowly make a person? How did the living accept the routine of dying? Why didn’t they pick up their mail?

In a grave breach of protocol, Hafith al Bareed, guardian of the post, opened all the letters that arrived. He told himself he was only doing his job, trying to understand why the Poste Restante Centrale was so little frequented.

The letters, some brief, others the heft of novels, described lives that mystified and enthralled him: journeys across oceans and deserts, undying love, dreams in which a lost father or a child appeared. A number were addressed to work animals (an elegy for a dead donkey) or pets (an apology to a bird); others, to emperors, scientists, singers. The dead appeared to have a large listening ear, like a pillow into which one weeps, or the cupped hand into which one shouts.

It was not entirely true that no one had ever come.

Once, a little girl had picked up a stack of banknotes and a toy train, but this had been during Hafith al Bareed’s internship, when his filing system was still imperfect.

Another time, a young woman had appeared.

He had been reading a letter. The soft scrape of a shoe alerted him to her presence. He had looked up to find her standing before him, in a thin, green dress, holding a large manila envelope.

“Good evening,” she said. “Is this the Poste Restante Centrale?”

“Indeed it is.”

“Oh,” she said, tears coming to her eyes. “Thank goodness. The office is so hard to find. I had to retrace my steps for several years.” She shook the envelope. Snow fell lightly on the surface of the desk, which was cluttered with recent deliveries: an ostentatious flower wheel, a novel called Invisible Cities, a jar of coffee.

The young woman stepped nearer. “I didn’t mean to take this letter with me. I was on my way to mail it.” She looked back to the door, as if expecting someone just behind her.

He caught a glimpse of the writing on the envelope. A form of Sanskrit, but he could not tell, looking so quickly, if it was Brahmi script or a later permutation, Burmese. Perhaps Khmer.

“It was very chaotic,” she said quietly. “Fire, a terrible, painful fire, it was everywhere. Everywhere. But then the water overcame us. So much water.”

There were infinite questions Hafith al Bareed wished to ask. What was water? From whom did chaos originate? Where did people wait before they were born? Instead he told her, “You may leave the envelope here, of course.”

She shook her head violently. “No, not here. It has to go back.”

A chill came over him. He was surprised to find that when he looked at her, he could see her own hallways of the present, past and future. Unfolded, they extended infinitely in all their beauty, desire and brutality. He saw the water and the war; he saw her children. He wanted to wrap them around her, like a coat or a blanket, to refold and hinge the living back together. But her life was detaching and spilling away from her, like pages coming loose from a binding.

The things she needed from him were not in his filing system, could never be retrieved, and were distant from them both, in another existence, unreachable.

“There was so much water,” she repeated. “No, no, it was fire. We tried to get away. I couldn’t breathe. But we arrived and then … In this envelope, I have all the documents. The children need these papers. Do you understand?”

“Yes,” he said, because, astonishingly, he did. But he could not tell her that he had no idea how to send a letter backward. All the residue eventually arrived here. All the atoms in the universe, 10^80 parcels, would pass through his hands.

“Hafith al Bareed,” she said.

“Yes?”

“Hafith al Bareed,” she whispered. “They are everything to me. I need to know, will my children be safe? My parents. My beloved.”

“Yes.”

But she had gone. There was only the envelope. There was a line of snow, where the door had been left ajar. He picked up the letter and filed it.

Had she heard him?

Sometimes the letters wept: “Why don’t you answer?” And other times, “Thank you for answering.” Parents wrote to their lost children. (“If you are okay, then tell me.”) Daughters wrote to mothers. Lovers spilled confessions. Siblings wanted to save one another.

When moved to tears, he concentrated on how paper could so bewilder. Folded, it could be made small. Opened, it was boundless. Paper was entrusted with ideas, poetry, currency, a kind word, a picture, a declaration of love. How strange an entity! How eternal a creation.

Had he misunderstood everything about letters and words and living? Were they a prison, were they a road? Had his task all along been one of disposal? The job application he filled out, millennia ago, had consisted of a single line: What is the great question on which you must labour? To which he had answered, Life.

All century, it had been snowing. Hafith al Bareed returned from the corridors of past, present and future and sat down at the desk.

He continued with his cataloguing, thinking of a dream from childhood, in which he came to realize that he, too, was made only of paper. He recalled the swinging of the front door, the chime of the doorbell in an empty apartment, the line of mourners waiting to bid farewell. The banknotes, so crucial to existence, rustling in too few pockets. Time would crumble Hafith al Bareed, but in the interval, which was a way station, letters accumulated, sent and received, neither departing nor arriving. He re-read every sentence (“Behold, I am the one you loved on earth,”) and kept watch. The past, present and future stretched out behind and beside him, with every word followed or preceded by another, turning endlessly like doors, breaching the sky as snow.

Hallway of the present

Dec. 1: “I feel the need to randomly write to you. If it’s disturbing please do let me know.”

Dec. 2: “Humans: loving, intelligent creatures or destructive monkey assholes?”

Dec. 4: “You looked very worried this morning. One day it will all pass. I love you.”

Dec. 5: “You can bring me a tiny Elora. and you could get Trudeau to make me Minister of Environment and Climate Change. Or Health. Nothing else beyond this required at this time.”

Dec. 6: “I am off to deliver the book and to pick up my code maker and helmets.”

Dec. 7: “Sorry you won’t get to see our performance. We have the intention to shine on stage, defeat a few tin soldiers to liberate whoever, not sure of the exact mission yet.”

Dec. 9: “Thank you for the hamburger last night.”

Dec. 10: “We could meet in the arrivals hall where VIA trains arrive, though it’s a sort of desolate place.”

Dec. 11: “And I jumped for joy on the train between Koln and Hamburg when the news came. My advice is wear something wonderful.”

Dec. 13: “We’ll dig open a rubble-filled passage which takes in an awful lot of water. Or we could plan an easier trip for you.”

Dec. 14: “There is also Hafith al Bareed and this one has the double meaning of someone who memorizes, so it would be memorizer of the mail.”

Dec. 15: “Finally, they published a book of Tomás González in English. It’s his first novel, he wrote it 30 years ago.”

Dec. 16: “You also told me something I didn’t know before, though I lived in this country more than thirty years. Isn’t it strange? Because we only know what the Party let us know.”

Dec. 17: “We need to embrace our critics because they want the same thing as us.”

Dec. 18: “Do you have a phone? Or a Skype account? Then we could send our voices to dance with each other’s.”

Dec. 19: “Some day, someone will write the non fiction version of this story. It could never be fictionalized because no one would believe it.”

Dec. 21: “Unfortunately, today one box Bad Liebenwerda naturell is missing. Whoever has taken it accidentally return it promptly.”

Dec. 23: “I was worried I liked it so much because it was the first place I was ever madly in love, a yet-to-be-surpassed love.”

Dec. 24: “Skunks: a nice scent misunderstood?”

Dec. 25: “Oh yes, I’m fine. I woke up, shook a little, and went back to sleep.”

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