(With thanks and apologies to Percival Everett)
SCHOLAR: What are the rules that govern the writing of a story?
NOVICE: You must have conflict.
N: A beginning, middle, and end.
N: You keep saying “maybe” with a drawn-out, lilting inflection that usually means “no.”
S: Well, consider this. You have a line between point A and point B.
N: Does it have to be A and B? Can’t it be point J and point Q? Point Rho and point Yellow?
S: Potentially. But consider that there are an infinite number of points between A and B—
N: Or even better, point Ocelot and point Vacuum Cleaner. Point Nobility and point Hair Removal Cream. Point Steve Jobs and point Hamster with One Eye and a Deformed Left Nostril Caused by a Genetic Abnormality That Scientists Think May Hold the Key to Eradicating Elephantiasis.
S: Ah, but why is the ocelot stalking a cleaning device? Why should nobility progress to a depilatory agent when the concept itself is so white and thick and hairless? You see, you have to pay attention to how you shape your material. Search out that kernel of meaning. Think motivations, circumstances, something familiar in the yoking or de-yoking or de-re-yoking of two disparate elements.
S: Point Ocelot and point Sawed-off Shotgun would have more dramatic resonance. Why would an animal choose to inch ever closer to its own destruction?
N: Because curiosity kills cats?
S: Yes. Very trite.
N: It was only a suggestion.
S: Of course. So given the line between A and B—
N: I still prefer point Oc—
S: —that we can divide into an infinite number of fragments, such that a marble rolling from A across the fractional ties made by our divisions might skid along an asymptote, never reaching B—
N: Never reach the vacuum cleaner? I don’t know. Ocelots are hunters. Small ones, but I imagine they can cover a lot of ground in a healthy sprint.
S: —then we have an infinite amount of positions where we can embed the essence of our story. Content, form, language, style: all choices we make in an unlimited narrative domain. Think of the line as a furrow left by a plow, and your story as a burlap seed bag slung over your shoulder. You can cast seed in any quantity—
N: I’m not sure the ocelot would be too keen on seeds. Does he have to stick to the furrow? What if he’s hungry and spots a plump pygmy marmoset or blue-crowned parakeet ten degrees to the east? Can he hang a left and go off-course for a minute so he can grab a bite?
N: He won’t be gone long. Ocelots are precise, efficient hunters.
S: Well…for the sake of argument, this is a one-dimensional universe. Nothing exists outside the line.
N: So, you’re saying the ocelot should starve to death.
S: I’m saying that the whole world of the narrative is contained within the line from A to B. You need a plane—two dimensions—to have area, a left, an east, a horizon.
N: What about rest? Will he be able to find a tree to sleep in? Because ocelots are nocturnal and like to stretch out on tree branches during the day. Very shady and fragrant, I would imagine. All that damp green. The sweet, loamy rot of palm fronds and overripe papaya…
S: For that, you’d need a third dimension. We only have one.
N: Ah. Yes, I remember.
S: So now that we’ve explored the infinite possibilities within the story, as within the line—
N: How could an ocelot be squeezed down to one dimension? Their coats, you know, are stunning. Interlocking patches of brown fur rimmed with black, like a map from when Europeans first went mad for Asian spices. Vasco de Gama, or one of his ilk, would stumble on a clutch of South Pacific islands, teeming with alien flora—what we would now consider tropical—and his cartographer would dutifully check his compass, measure the sun’s position, trace the curves that define each land mass and the oceanic distances between. How do you compress all that newly discovered terrain to a dot the size of a pinprick?
S: —so now we turn it inside out—
N: Excuse me??
S: The line, I mean. Turn the line inside out, removing points A and B, and you have a thread stretching to infinity in either direction.
N: A straight line.
S: Yes. Now consider that wherever we divide that thread—
N: Couldn’t we have a butterfly coil? A Mobius strip? A clover-leaf highway exit ramp?
S: Those structures are a bit…complicated for our purposes. But I like the image of the highway. Think of a road that stretches out forever. Place an orange cone on the divider. No matter where you drop that cone, the length of the road is still infinite on either side.
N: Ah. I see now.
S: This is precisely the nature of the story. Each narrative exists along its own temporal continuum. No beginning, middle, and end. The story has a past that recedes beyond the recorded history of humankind and an afterlife, if you will, that drives past the final letters on the page toward the ever-elongating thoroughfare to the future.
N: So tragic.
S: What is?
N: The highway system. It decimates whole populations of ocelots. Males have ferocious wills, you know. Extremely territorial. Often, they’ll fight to the death over a piece of disputed land.
S: And how does this—
N: Each male needs 500 acres of territory to feel secure. A young one, once he comes of age, has to sniff out a new region for himself, one that’s entirely his own. A tall order for a newbie, considering how many males before him have sprayed and re-sprayed every last twig and pebble for miles. But to find new ground, the young males often have to cross busy highways, where cars plow right over them. Imagine, finding one of these beautiful, broken animals by the road. Blood scarring the patterns of black and brown. Most motorists don’t even know what they’re looking at…
S: An ocelot is not a story.
N: Not a dead one, no.
Melissa Frederick is a writer and blogger from suburban Philadelphia. Her poetry and prose have appeared in numerous publications, including the Crab Orchard Review, DIAGRAM, Strange Horizons, Mythic Delirium, Goblin Fruit, Frogpond, Mid-American Review, Helen: A Literary Magazine, Hippocampus Magazine, and Moon City Review. Her poetry chapbook, She, was published by Finishing Line Press in 2008. Follow her on Twitter at @msficklereader.