Possibly the shortest short stories ever written,
most just a single page,
the shortest a single sentence.
"This book is entitled 'The Captive Bride'. At different times I have thought of calling it 'Myths & Parables', 'Riddles & Enigmas', 'Puzzles & Paradoxes', 'Homages to Rabbi Nachman', 'Mazes & Mysteries', 'The Wisdom of the Datsmay', and even, though very briefly, 'The Book of Conundrums'. A title is no more than a direction-marker; in the end 'The Captive Bride' will do.
"I have been writing these 'minimal' tales for more than thirty years, and they appear more or less in the order in which they were written; only the last four have been deliberately placed, to make a proper ending, or at least a satisfactory conclusion; and of course the 'addenda' are addenda. Reading the later ones again, it seems appropriate that the themes of the first have begun to recur, for eternal recurrence is itself a leitmotif that echoes through the book, and after all there's a strict limit to the number of dreams a man may dream.
"'Minimal' should not be misunderstood as 'minimalist', which is a literary genre; these are minimal tales in that they have been compressed for optimum density into minimum space, the way cargo is in a ship's hold; in one case hermetically sealed, in another restrained not just to a single paragraph but a single sentence.
"Originally I intended only to write a single story, one that would accommodate the universe and thereby suffice for a life's oeuvre (I shan't say which tale it was). Having done so, and found it satisfying despite my failure to achieve what was anyway a vain and foolish goal, I decided to write more. At a certain stage I swore to stop at fifty, but by the time I reached that arbitrary figure I had quite forgotten my resolve, and so went on. Then I swore to stop at ninety-nine, for reasons as much mystical as superstitious, but mostly from the recognition that so many tales can numb a reader after one too many. That resolve too achieved its nemesis (I say 'achieved', because a true nemesis is a form of the Immaculate Failure). Then I set my sights on a hundred and one, because 101, when not a torture-chamber, is a numerical palindrome, which for a book like this is a better pretext for discontinuing than any mere round number. The final tally of the tales in this book is actually incalculable – several times there are stories which share the same title, or are sub-tales, or merely alternative permutations of the same basic anagram. So perhaps there is only One Tale, after all, as there is only One God, despite the illusion of multiplicity.
"It is the custom among authors to dole out acknowledgements in their frontispieces, in the manner of Oscar winners and academic scholars, both of whom they desire to emulate. For myself I wish to pay tribute to two great masters of the minimal tale and the literary riddle; and to do so in a manner appropriate to this book; not mentioning them by name, but indirectly, by allusion: expressing my esteem for Max Brod, who rescued from the fire what might otherwise have become a proof of Heinrich Heine, and for Adolfo Bioy Casares, whose companionship at lunch was more significant than all the mirrors and all the tigers and all the libraries of eternity."
The three excerpts which follow were chosen purely randomly, at least insofar as chance, like chaos, may simply be a form of order that we are not yet capable of understanding.
That night, Simcha Hurlitz dreamed that he had killed a man. He saw the man's face in close detail, as if through a magnifying glass or the zoom lens of a camera; the eyes dilated by fear, the lips turned redder than their own redness by the blood that was mingling with his saliva. He saw the man's body, prone and prostrate on what could have been a mound of earth and flowers. He saw the trickle of blood issuing from beneath the man's clothing, though whether caused by knife or bullet or by some other weapon was unclear. He saw his own shadow, looming in the moonlight above the corpse, and though he didn't see the deed performed, he knew that it was he himself who was the murderer.
When he awoke, hours before dawn and in a feverish sweat, Simcha could remember every detail of the dream with gruesome vividness; but who the victim was - this he didn't know. Yet he supposed the dream to have been authentic, the murder to have been genuine, the victim to have been, not a phantasm, but a previously real, a once flesh-and-blood, an erstwhile living man. For dreams are not films or fictions, but the truths of the unconscious mind in its torpid state erupting into fleeting and fragmented yet still veracious images. So Simcha knew that he was guilty of the crime of murder; for though he'd killed only in dream, still the unconscious is as much a part of a man as are his eye and mouth and heart, and what a man is capable of in sleep, surely he's no less capable of perpetrating when he's wide awake? How hard it is to accept such truths about oneself! Simcha felt in his heart a weight of guilt for his dream-crime that was almost too intense to bear. Yet what could he do?
That afternoon Simcha Hurlitz was found dead in the kitchen of his home, the veins of his wrists slashed with a razor-blade. A suicide note beside the body spoke of guilt, and retribution, and of justice.
THE LIBRARY AT BABEL
We did not intend to build this library. Our aim was greater than that. Our aim was to construct the Tower of Babel. But God intervened. He confused our language, so we couldn't communicate the plans for the Tower. A meeting was convened, to discuss what should be done, but none of us could understand the proposals, and so, by the tacit agreement of silence, the Tower was abandoned.
Unaware that I was not alone in this endeavour, I set out to create a perfect language (this isn't it), one with which God could not interfere, one which would restore our powers of communication and thus enable us to resume the project. It has taken many years, but already there are several of us who have understood the basic problems. Between us we've gathered copies of all the books that exist, and written countless more ourselves. That's why we built this library, which, as you can see, is so vast that it will soon reach the very gates of Heaven.
From the travel journals of R.P.Narayan (Tibet 1874)
We came at last upon a land beyond those mountains, a land so far cut off from humankind it can only have been by chance we did not miss it. The land was poorer than any we had yet encountered; the earth a fine sand in which it hardly seemed that anything could grow. Half-naked men toiled in the fields, themselves strapped to the ploughs in teams of four, dragging the heavy chains across their shoulders while the women, embalmed while still alive in layers of tribal clothing, marched along in front upon their knees, removing stones too large and jagged for the plough to cut through.
Then it was we found the proof of which we’d come in search, a single-antlered deer of immense beauty, standing idly under a tree and chewing grass as though for all the world this land were Paradise and grass a substance very much in surfeit.
"The unicorn!" I cried out, and might have rushed to put my arms around the beast and hug it, only one of the natives heard my cry, and in response to it he turned and fixed his gaze in what could only be interpreted as fury on the beast. His look brought me up with a start, and I stood still in horror as I watched him take his rifle from his shoulder, and shoot the creature dead.
"You've shot the unicorn!" I exclaimed, something in the tone of voice his fellow sailors must have used towards the Ancient Mariner.
The man spat on the ground, and I was stammering incoherently:
"Shot the unicorn. How can? Unique? We travel years. Whole world in search. The unicorn. The unicorn."
He was looking at me as though I'd gone mad. Later another of the natives explained to me that the unicorn was pandemic in the land; they bred without cease, usually twins or triplets; they lived to a phenomenal old age; the natives had tried to drive them over the mountain, but they seemed only to want to live in this one place. The unicorn was responsible for the state of the land, for the condition of servitude to nature in which all men and women lived and died. It had become an unspoken law amongst these people that to see a unicorn was already to have shot it, and in the winter whole armies of hunters went into the forests to undertake organised massacres of these rodent beasts.