Benjamin Zadik's delicate flash fiction piece muses on a time when people used to be connected by strings. Illustration by Darren Hopes.

As people have drifted further apart from one another, fear has crept in between them. These days, it seems that fear is all that’s left holding the world together. But it stands to reason that, long ago, the world was held together more gently, maybe even with strings. Imagine strings of every colour and expression, tying together every little thing in the world. They would tie tinted loops around every tree and spire, between every rock and blade of grass. And the strings would hang down from the clouds, gently hugging the birds (who would be less willing to stray), and hold tightly to the ground.

Even more beautiful than this — than the strings that held up the world — must have been the strings between people. Tightly wound and followed, there were strings that connected one head to another. Between every man and woman there must have been strings to keep hearts from floating apart. As long as there were strings to keep people together, they could wander without fear. Because how could you feel lonely if you were only a length away from your other?

It’s hard to remember now, but fear was once so scarce a commodity that it was considered rather precious. With their strings intact, people used to be much closer to one another, and there simply wasn’t room for fear to grow. At some point, however, as with any rare thing, people began to collect it. They kept it in bottles like perfume, and used it only on special occasions. Fear was quietly traded in handshakes and kisses, its only use for occasional amusement or thrills.

Soon enough, everyone was wearing fear. Like any modern fashion, fear was mass-produced. Yet, as more and more people started to use it, it began to feel different. Fear invaded the air like a new pollution and as the air became more and more fearful, people moved further and further apart. They would flee secretly to some corner and open their bottle for the momentary thrill, alone and away from everyone. To get further away, people were forced to untie their strings.

Today, the world has lost its strings entirely. People try instead to connect to one another with wires and cords and cables. But these are not true strings; they are not beautiful, and they can’t keep away fear.

All of this I am sure of because it is the only way to explain what people have always believed is a mistake in creation. The lack of strings explains so much. This is why I hurt when anxious strangers bump into me on the street. This is why their eyes prick me, even as they turn away. This is why hearts bleed. All this happens because strings tied between people no longer exist. Only the sharp hooks that used to hold them. And when we tug at one another, we become blistered by the cold edges.

The most painful hooks surely remain in the eyes. In every gaze there is the scratch of freshly cut strings. This must be why people rarely look at each other, and why they meet eyes in fear. The unfortunate consequence is that people end up believing it is best to keep others far away. They are sure that this way, they can never be hurt. But people forget how easily you can throw screams and hate, and how you’ll never feel kisses or hugs or whispers if you don’t let anyone close enough to touch you.

Reader, if I should ever turn away from your stare, if my body should involuntarily move away from yours, please do not be angry with me. You can tell me that I hold fear — I do, I know — but don’t withdraw from me. I promise I will happily share my fear with you, no strings attached.

'String Theory' was published in our 8th issue, The Birth Issue, which has now sold out. To ensure that you never miss a future issue of the print magazine, subscribe from just £10 a year.