The Inconceivable Shape
by Simon Smith

The shape was uncovered by a fuller named Spengler;

He was a Beghard lay-preacher and a reader of Mechthild.

He made his deduction in the Bavarian forest,

With a weaver from Freiburg; and an apprentice named Hans.


Herr Spengler was fated a grisly end;

He was found in the year of thirteen fifty-two;

On the dusty stone floor of a textile workshop,

Enswathed with white linen turned carmine with blood.


The flesh had been flayed from his entire body;

His death had been bought with unthinkable pain.

His skin was stretched out on the whiteworker's table,

Embroidered with numbers and magical signs.


There was no sign of Hans, nor explanation from the weaver,

Who was said to have turned completely insane.


* * *


Hans made his way North to the city of Munster;

Riding the back of an unsaddled pony;

With his worldly belongings in a brown leather satchel;

With a slice of ripe turnip; and a lump of black bread.


Among his possessions were a number of papers,

Which Hans had removed from Herr Spengler's estate.

They detailed plans for the shape's reproduction;

A task Hans now swore he would never repeat.


Hans had been party to the initial discovery.

In a small wood-built annex to Herr Spengler's cottage,

They had sat at a table and worked through the night.

With quill pen and dividers, they scribed on grey parchment,

Plotted angles and vectors from arcane formulations,

And eventually produced that pernicious design.


The initial reaction was of utter bemusement.


"What is this?" Spengler muttered. "This cannot be correct."


As they beheld the unfathomable shape,

Their surprise soon mutated to confusion and fear.

The form was so ghastly; so unnaturally terrible;

It seemed to refute geometrical laws.


For these disciples of Euclid it was too much to contend with;

They had unwittingly perpetrated an irredeemable sin.

As the deviant nature of their doings became apparent,

A hysterical fever took control of their minds.

They frantically raved as if beset by some madness;

As if gripped by a terror so unhinged and deranging

As to banish them forever from rational thought.


The unfolding horror, too lurid for retelling,

Became a source of contention within the Beghard commune.

The truth of the occurrence was forever the secret

Of a Black Forest lunatic and the absentee Hans.


* * *


On arrival in Munster, Hans sought absolution.

He visited the cathedral and made his confession.

The priest was indulgent, although uncomprehending;

And sent Hans on his way with some consoling words.


Hans would always remember that Bavarian aberration,

But nevertheless pursued a conventional life.

In time he was married and went on to have children;

He took work from a draper and was a well-thought-of man.

The brown leather satchel, with its unspeakable secrets,

Was stored in the attic of his half-timbered house.


When Hans reached his dotage, at the ripe age of sixty,

His thoughts turned again to the unthinkable shape.

One winter's evening, he gathered his family,

And proceeded to tell the events of his youth.

He opened the satchel and removed Spengler's papers.

He spread one flat on the table for his family to see.


"The numbers writ here are a set of co-ordinates."

He produced some more pages and furrowed his brow.

"When plotted against the scale here outlined,

They can be used in conjunction with a new type of maths.

The notes for the system are in the second appendix,

The first being comprised of geometric proofs."


He looked around at his family and was suddenly serious.

"I must severely forewarn you that the maths must be abstract.

This is specialised knowledge and is not meant for games.

Under no circumstances should it ever be attempted

To manifest these equations in the sublunary world.

I can sadly attest with my bitter experience

They harbour latent potential to unharness one's mind."


Hans' son was named Otto and took the man's words with reverence.

He studied the numbers but did not dare draw the design.

A back room was given entirely to his inquiry;

It was duly denominated the Room of the Shape.


* * *


The family lived in that house for several generations.

Otto begat Arthur; Arthur begat Jonas;

Jonas begat Wolfgang in fifteen hundred and five.

Herr Spengler's theorem was passed down with the genome;

Always with the injunction that it must not be made real.


By the time Jonas taught it to the fifteen year old Wolfgang,

The idea had expanded to a system of thought.

But understanding a principle will diminish its sanctity,

And Wolfgang paid no heed to the ancestral command.


Wolfgang grew to be a headstrong young man.

He had little respect for traditional values.

Upon learning the theory of the ineffable pattern

He immediately knew he would attempt reproduction.

He spent hours alone with compass and straightedge,

Trying his utmost to give the numbers a form.


One day he emerged from the Room of the Shape;

His eyes wide and staring and his face drained of blood.

He had finally accomplished his ill-reckoned object:

He had drafted the shape and perceived it in full.

His jaw now hung slackly and was drooling saliva;

His head twitched at random in involuntary spasms.

He came down the staircase with unrepeatable language;

He walked straight past his father and stepped out the front door.


He would never return to that nurturing town-house,

But instead walked the streets as a half-witted vagrant;

Sleeping in doorways and begging from strangers;

Mumbling incoherently in the opaquest of language

About unknown dimensions and recondite maths.


One day he encountered a transient Dutchman;

A tailor's apprentice from the city of Leiden.

The man was named Jan and seemed searching for guidance;

Wolfgang, it seemed, had found a sympathetic friend.

The two men shared lodgings, and Wolfgang shared his wisdom;

Eventually revealing that terrible shape.


When a secret is shared then the burden is lessened;

As Jan's sanity wavered, Wolfgang's own was restored.

In fifteen thirty-three he left the city of Munster.

In want of some purpose, and lacking direction,

He headed West in the wake of the sinking red sun.


* * *


After many adventures he arrived fourteen years later

At a Mennonite meeting in the city of Amsterdam.

The people he met were of similar mindsets;

They were radical thinkers and invited ideas.

He found conversation with two young men from Merindol;

They were fugitive Huguenots and acolytes of Erasmus;

They went by the names of Michel and Piers.


One night, whilst discussing the teachings of Waldo,

Conversation had turned to esoteric beliefs.

Wolfgang was vehement in his long-held opinion

That unmediated reality was inaccessible to minds.


"There is a thing I have seen which defies explanation.

There are parts to this life of which you could not conceive."


His companions were sceptics and demanded elaboration.

They said they could not credit his unverified claims.


"Very well then," said Wolfgang. "I can give a demonstration.

Bring me some parchment and a writing device."


Wolfgang still carried the mathematical instruments

Which would be required to produce the strange shape.

His companions soon brought him an old roll of paper,

A lamp with a handle, and a goose-feather pen.


Wolfgang set about his heretical enterprise.

When the task was completed his eyes seemed to shine.

He stood back from the drawing and held the lamp up above it.

The shape was imperfect, but conveyed the impression,

Of that mind-twisting structure of impossible thought.


Michel was dumbfounded, he held his hands up in horror.

"I cannot believe it. How could this be real?"


Piers was a pragmatist, and somewhat lacked imagination.

"This is a clever illusion, but hardly convincing."


The pair's nerves were shaken, but their wits were intact.

And yet, many weeks later they had still not recovered;

They could not relinquish that thing they had witnessed.

Their perceptual fabric let in light at the seams.


They had seen intimations of the foot on the treadle

Spinning colourful marvels for their mental amazement;

The paradoxical form dominated conversation;

It was woven through every part of their lives.


Wolfgang soon departed with an Ottoman trader.

They had plans to import exotic plants from the East.

He took with him the knowledge for the shape's reproduction,

But left behind the design for the Frenchmen to use.


They revealed the drawing to numerous Amsterdammers.

They formed a society called the Fellowship of the Shape.

They held clandestine meetings in a derelict windmill,

Where they tried to ascertain the shape's hidden truths;

They believed they could use it as a means to unravel

The thread of order and logic from the loom of the world.


Michel wrote a treatise on the shape's derivation:

Inquiry into the Origin of Non-Euclidean Form.

It was burned by a Spaniard when he learned of the topic.

He said the work was satanic; they were bound for perdition.

Piers knocked the man unconscious and threw him in a canal.


The society disbanded after twenty-one years.

They had made little progress in understanding the shape.


* * *


Michel travelled East with a seamstress named Gretel.

They lived in Cologne and had a child named Brecht.

In fifteen eighty-three, when Brecht reached adulthood,

Michel thought he should see the inconceivable shape.


The young man turned wild, as you might have predicted;

He went to the cathedral with a piece of white chalk.

On the paving outside, with a maniac cackle,

He reproduced the design for a public display.


Brecht never returned to his family residence;

He roamed across Europe, in those volatile years.

In each place he arrived, he would find a bare wall or pavement,

And would recklessly render that accursed shape.


* * *


Piers in the meantime took a different direction;

He travelled to Paris with a performing troupe.

He wore costumes and make up, and danced like a jester;

He learned to walk the high wire and fly the trapeze.

But these tricks did not serve for his entire income.

When the show was completed, for a handful of livre,

Folk would be admitted to his small tented home.

In the candlelit gloom, with theatrical gestures,

He would give them full sight of the impossible shape.


Word spread across Paris of this dubious honour.

There were whispers in churches, in brothels, at the scaffold:

"The shape has the power to bestow election!"

"There is a man from the circus who can open your mind!"

"One look at his shape will change you forever!"

Piers was reputed an emissary of God.


In fifteen seventy-two he had a particular visitor.

He was named Edmond Auger and was a famous orator.

He was a Jesuit man from the township of Troyes.

He paid his admittance and entered Piers' shelter,

Whereupon he bore witness to the terrible sight.


He took the paper from Piers and examined it closely.

With a trembling finger he tried to trace the design.


"I do not understand," said the Jesuit. "The lines are straight, yet they bend."

The man's eye began to flicker. A vein throbbed in his head.

"The circumference seems bounded...yet the thing has no edge!"


The drawing fell from his hands and he started to shudder

His face had turned pale and he spoke in a whisper.

"What fiendish thing is this you have conjured?

But that I could unsee the abomination. My God."


Piers picked up the drawing and laughed like a demon.

"You've seen what you came for. Now go tell your friends."

"I certainly shall," replied Edmond, coldly.

"I will denounce you for sorcery, you heretical brute."


* * *


Those were difficult times for Parisian freethinkers.

Piers soon left the city for a more welcoming place.

In Cherbourg he boarded a boat bound for Portsmouth.

He decided that England was to be his new home.


In Portsmouth he encountered a maiden named Eliza.

Within a year of their meeting, she gave birth to a son.

Piers was willing to take his responsibilities seriously.

He made Eliza his wife and found work at the docks.


When Piers returned home from a hard day of labour

He was chiefly concerned with his child's tutelage.

The boy's name was Luke, and before he reached manhood,

He was fully acquainted with that anomalous shape.


Piers taught that the shape was a way to earn money.

They took specie from sailors in return for a look.

Reputation soon spread all the way up to Scotland.

They became known through the land as the Men of the Shape.


* * *


Luke reached the age of thirty at the turn of the century.

In that year he married a needleworker named Bess.

She bore him a son and they christened him Amos.

[Enter yet one more player in our long-winded yarn.]


He was mad from the outset; discontented and seething.

At the baptismal font he roared with unholy fury,

As if heralding news of the destruction to come.


Luke passed on what was now a family tradition.

At the age of sixteen, although already unstable,

Amos was initiated into the sect of the shape.


His reaction to the image was shockingly violent.

His eyes became wide and he howled like a dog.

He flailed his arms as if fighting with phantoms.

He gurned, spat and snorted as if poisoned or rabid;

He stamped around like a bedlamite set loose from his chains.


His fragile mind had been fatally fractured;

Permanently warped by those recursive lines.

The braid of his life would be hopelessly tangled

With the infinite pattern of that nefarious design.


He sat day and night reading King James' Bible

And could see the shape's stitching through every verse.

He raved about Ahab, Ahaziah and Jehoram.

He claimed to have visions of Jonah and Judith,

And long conversations with David and Saul.


He took to the road as a mechanick preacher.

He wandered the country and begged strangers for food.

He stood alone at signposts to recite St John's Apocalypse.

He sat on farmyard fences and preached gospel to pigs.

He slept in fields and hedgerows;

He kept company with sheep.


He fell in with a crew of scribbling dissenters.

They were educated men and had access to money.

They owned an underground print-shop in Grub Street of London,

And printed pamphlets proclaiming the coming of Christ.


Amos gave them instruction on the shape's strange dimensions;

He said the shape was a prophecy of the millennium at hand.

He said the truth of the world was a numerical tapestry;

And taught them ways to bind numbers to produce solid forms.

They took him for an expert in the mysteries of nature;

They named him Meister Amos, Adept of the Shape.


They were visited by a certain Thomas of Malmesbury,

A timid translator of classical texts.

Thomas considered himself a mathematical thinker,

He hoped to master the method of constructing the shape.

But the full explication left poor Thomas shaken;

That weird wayward logic had unbalanced his mind.

The implicit suggestion pressed his faint-hearted theories,

And troubled the scholar to the end of his life.


A pamphlet was produced to present that vile pattern.

It was extensively annotated with Biblical lore.

It advocated violent political action;

It portrayed ecclesiastics as devotees of the Worm.


Often seen in the print-shop was a surly physician,

Sometimes in the company of a long-haired young man.

They spent hours with Amos in complex discussion,

Perplexed by the properties of the impenetrable shape.

One day they departed with a case full of pamphlets.

They promised to distribute them wherever they could.


The pamphlets passed through the hands of a diversity of people;

The shape was seen by Naylor, Winstanley, and Coppe.

Of the thousand pamphlets printed there is but one still surviving,

And not a living person knows or suspects it exists.

(Secreted as it is in a leather-bound edition of Twining's translation of Aristotle's Poetics;

Second shelf down in a locked glass cabinet, room forty-seven of the British Museum.)


In sixteen forty-two the land was riven by warfare.

A number of Amos' friends took up arms.

Amos himself had no such inclinations

He had acquired quiescence with the passing of years.

He packed his meagre possessions and took the road North from London,

In search of a quieter life somewhere else.


Amos wandered for years in that war-ravaged country,

Taking refuge and charity wherever he could.

He discoursed on the shape to those who would listen;

Whilst evading impressment by Fairfax's mob.


In sixteen fifty-one he was seized in an ale-house;

He was branded a vagrant and left in a cell.

He was put on a ship filled with malnourished Scotsmen.

It was bound for the colony at Massachusetts Bay.


* * *


Word of the shape had now crossed the Atlantic.

It was soon known from Kentucky to the Prussian frontier.

John Adams offered land to the man who could draw one;

Rousseau had the pattern tattooed on his chest.


By the end of that century the whole of France was in uproar;

Speculation on the nature of the shape was now rife.

But the knowledge and technical skills to produce one

Seemed to have vanished with the turning of time.


Many was the dreamer who undertook the commission;

Shapes were forthcoming from every city and town.

They worked from memories, rumours, and informed speculation.

They worked with drafting machines; and at easels with magnifiers.

They used protractor and set square; beam compass and French curve.


But whilst many of the myriad productions could inspire,

They lacked the maddening purity first evoked by Herr Spengler;

They were substandard copies of the original form.


Indeed, each iteration of the shape had degraded.

First by Wolfgang, then Michel; Brecht, Piers, Luke and Amos;

None of their attempts had so perfectly rendered

The sheer flawless insanity as that of Spengler and Hans.


These ersatz imitations replicated like a virus.

They were displayed and debated in drawing-rooms and lectures,

In every decade across the eighteen-hundreds and beyond.


They were witnessed by people of all kinds of persuasions,

From a Corsican braggart to a British-born Jew;

By a destitute German and a Russian named Nechayev;

By tale-spinning fantasists and pretenders to truth.


They were seen in the cities of Moscow and Petersburg;

In the riotous ferment of Munich and Rome;

And in frostbitten places built with iron and clapboard,

Where laws had no meaning, and bears walked the streets.


Shapes spread over mountains, and through the steppes of the Tartars,

To the sun-whitened places in which Mani had taught;

And at last infiltrated the great land of China;

Infecting every province with improbable thoughts.


In these quickening times, and with quantum computers,

It is certain the shape will be discovered again.

The infernal design lies malignant and silent,

And determines the course of our rush to the end.

Alchemist. Thomas Wijck (Beverwijck 1616–1677 Haarlem), Holland, 17th Century, Oil on panel.                    

Simon Smith is an electronics engineer from Southern England. Having long since lost interest in his chosen profession he now lives in a fantasy world of books and ideas. He has previously been published in Bewildering Stories.