Following a Tortoise

Fascinating creatures can be observed on ordinary sidewalks: a green parrot riding atop a baseball cap, a spiny iguana clinging to human shoulders, a poodle with a purple mohawk.

But the morning I caught sight of a young man in a bathrobe and sandals inching down the sidewalk behind an enormous tortoise, I had to chuckle.

Both were moving very slowly.

I sat at a table outside Starbucks and downed my espresso and had a whole twelve minutes to kill before work. There was nothing else interesting to watch, so I watched.

The young man took one tiny footstep every eternity. In eight minutes he had moved perhaps three feet.

For the life of me, I couldn’t figure out where he and his tortoise were going.

I had to jump up.

“He’s really big,” I said, stopping beside the young man.

She is.”

“Does she have a name?”

“Betsy,” replied the young man. As if my question were impertinent, he stared at me squarely in the eye. “What’s it to you?”

I almost flinched. “Nothing. I’m just curious, that’s all. I saw you both coming down the sidewalk. One doesn’t expect to see a huge tortoise in the middle of a city.”

“Why not?”

“I don’t know. It just strikes me as something that’s funny. At least you don’t need a leash! Don’t you get tired of moving so slowly?”

“Why would I?”

Now I was becoming annoyed. This unaccountable person was trying my patience. I managed to find polite words. “It seems like you would get really bored after awhile, staying in one spot, without much change of scenery.”

“Do you get bored?” asked the young man.

“Sometimes.”

The young man stared at me for a long while, his unblinking eyes peering directly into my own. “Maybe you get bored because you’re moving too fast.”

As an excuse to flee, I glanced at my watch.

The Silver of Ice

Leslie’s open eyes were vulnerable. With one mittened hand she tugged the wool cap down over her eyebrows. With the other she held up the scarf, to smother her nose.

The bitter New Year’s wind drained the heat of every living thing.

Leslie could feel her eyes freezing. It was a peculiar feeling. She blinked rapidly, trying to summon warm tears.

Fragments of ice torn from the frozen world blew past her eyes. She flinched. The flakes seemed white ash from a dead fire.

Leslie hurried down the sidewalk–as fast as she could without slipping. The convenience store was only two blocks away.

The entire town had vanished in colorless snow. Nobody in their right mind would venture outside in such inhuman cold. Just a Ford pickup equipped with a scraping snow plow, and a few creeping cars behind it.

With relief she exploded through the store’s door.

“Cold enough for you?” asked Freddie. He was sitting on a stool gazing out the frosted window.

“I’m out of cough syrup. Jack can’t stop coughing, so I have to hurry back. I’m so tired. They said on the news it’s almost a record. Thirty five below, or something.”

“Yeah, everything’s dead. The cold has stopped everything.”

“Happy New Year,” he added as she departed.

Leslie rushed back into the white world, determined to be home and out of the wind’s teeth.

She almost slipped on the sidewalk, but miraculously regained her balance. She crossed the empty street, avoiding hard slush. Someone was scraping thick ice off a windshield. She didn’t turn her head to see who.

Leslie ran as best as she could against the cold.

She could feel her eyes beginning to freeze.

The mailbox.

It was frozen shut. With an icy rock from the ground she broke ice off.

She pulled out a letter.

She stood in the piercing cold, and with clumsy mittened hands opened the envelope.

A New Year’s card.

She paused, looked for a long minute upon a scene of carefree skaters on a silver lake, lost in a forest of bright silver trees. They skated under silver stars, in a world that was shining like unearthly heaven. Around the lake hovered a few snowflakes–perfectly formed snowflakes like silver dreams.

It was so beautiful.

A flake of snow landed on the card, melted.

Leslie despaired that the beautiful card would be ruined. She quickly opened her jacket and put the silver next to her heart. Shivering deeply, she turned about, hurried for the door.

A Long, Deep Drink

A painter stepped carefully across tumbled rocks to the very end of the jetty. She placed her easel on a flat table of rock.

She opened the menu:

Sea-splashed rocks stretching back to the shore. Glistening cubes of jello.

Blue ripples of water on the sheltered side of the jetty. Spatula-dabbed blueberry frosting.

The mast-filled marina. Toothpicks in marshmallows on a bright silver tray.

The lighthouse at the end of Moondown Point. A peppermint stick.

The clouds above a shoulder of mountain. Whipped cream.

The contours of Earth. Spooned chocolate pudding.

Nearby cottages. Gumdrops.

The beach. Gently rolled, sugary white fudge, with a mouthwatering variety of tasty sprinkles.

Umbrellas along the sand. Tempting lollipops.

Her eyes turned.

A rimless bowl of water. Only water . . . and formless light.

A long, deep, quenching drink of simple water.

She drank.

The Pistachio Rocket

High arches shaped like human bones had been erected in the city plaza. According to a sign it was a temporary installation. At night hundreds of suspended lights illuminated the space beneath the bones. The effect was fantastic. The bones vanished and the colored lights became a galaxy of stars.

During lunchtime many in the plaza paused to read the sign. It included the word: Earthbound. Finding the proper entrance, people proceeded to pass through unelectrified bones. When they exited they walked on as though nothing had happened.

I watched people move through the bones from a bench as I gobbled my sandwich.

People walked steadily through. I’m not sure what they expected to see.

A tiny girl with an ice cream cone came flying across the plaza. She darted straight into the bones. She sprinted wildly to the opposite end, twirled around, ran back out into the open. She jumped up and down excitedly, laughed, yammered something I didn’t understand, then dashed once again into the bones. Stopping halfway through, she began leaping up and down with abandon, swinging her arms with glee, sending the pistachio ice cream on her cone up through the air like a green rocket. I don’t believe she read the sign.

The Perfect Snowflake

Sanji was aware that he was dreaming.

He was walking through a silent white forest. Pine trees blanketed with snow rose on every side.

When Sanji was a young child, the lucid dreams had been frequent. That was a lifetime ago, when he spent his waking hours pretending to streak past a billion billion stars as he traveled in a spaceship to the far end of the universe.

As a middle-aged man he slept without dreams.

Until this night.

Sanji moved through the white forest deliberately and searched the snow with devouring eyes. He turned his feet in every direction, crushing fresh powder with every step, and at last halted on the bank of a frozen river. He could hear running water bubbling beneath the emerald ice.

Sanji had searched the unknown his entire adult life. Somehow, after many dreamless nights, he had become a leading theoretical physicist. He lived in a small world of unending numbers, odd symbols. Penning equations, scratching them out. Now he gazed down at the frozen river and knew for certain that he was asleep and dreaming, and that what he saw before him was absolutely real.

Looking up, he saw white particles floating from the trees. One drifted down, landed on his fingertip.

He held the snowflake next to one eye.

He stared at its shape.

The tiny snowflake was an infinity of jigsaw pieces fitted together into one seamless whole. Pieces of infinitesimal essence.

He caught his breath in the airless cold.

He had found something that he had never seen before. A perfect snowflake. The most simple of all possible truths.

The crystal snowflake was an unbidden, elegant revelation, like inspired strokes of chalk on a newly-cleaned chalkboard: a brilliant equation of white: a mathematical certainty that explained all things.

All Sanji’s life he’d grappled to unravel the truth. He had fought to weld together that desperate mathematical Theory of Everything.

Now it was on his finger.

In the perfect snowflake he saw the precise truth that was written at the beginning of all things. He saw the origin, the movement, the destiny of the universe. The final equation shimmered before him. He saw each finite number distinctly. It was simple. He’d found it.

Sanji heard a patter of rain.

He listened to the rain and was aware that it was dark. And that he was warm in bed.

Outside his bedroom window streaked dark ghostly rain.

Suddenly he remembered his dream.

Despair.

He had to write it down. That equation.

He knew there was a notepad on the desk by the window–and on top of the notepad a ballpoint pen. He jumped up.

The ghostly rain outside his room drew his eyes to the window. Softly glowing raindrops were coursing separately down the pane, like pulsing atoms or universes, flowing, colliding, combining, accelerating, vanishing. The raindrops followed defined courses, courses easily formulated, with destinies known. And yet each was a mystery. Each drop was birthed out of darkness–each was a vision beyond his reach.

Sanji blinked. He’d forgotten his dream.

Waving at a Distance

Joey liked to talk to himself about deep mysteries.

He often talked about religion, and sacred texts, and sleeping outside in moonlight, and the little-known teachings of prophets, and the cruelty of rich people, and the innumerable conspiracies of the Masons and the Illuminati.

Most days he sat on a bench halfway down the pier waving at people. He really liked to wave at people passing at a distance on the big harbor tour ships. They were the nicest.

When those people saw him they all waved back. Leaning on the ship’s rail, or sitting in rows on white plastic seats facing the water, the people upon seeing him would all wave at him with happy faces and genuine smiles. They’d wave and wave and wave, as if they couldn’t wave enough, and Joey waved happily back.

Even at a distance he could clearly see their faces. He could see how the free wind moved in their hair and he could see the strange way that passing sailboats tugged at their eyes. In their eyes he saw a deep love for the gentle, rippling water and the floating clouds in blue sky. He loved those things, too.

He easily saw their joy. As he waved, he could feel an electric love and yearning passing between them, like radio waves across the water.

Even at a distance, Joey could see the light in their eyes.

When Joey waved at people who were walking past his bench on the pier, they ignored him.

A Ship Without Ghosts

Simon had felt curious about the century-old ferryboat. That’s why he sat for a few minutes in the center of the elegant passenger deck. Nobody else was present. Even on an early Saturday afternoon, the museum ship was dead.

As he rested on one of the many varnished wooden benches, Simon was touched with wonder. The eternal sun was beaming through the wide, open windows on the port side; it shined through panels of stained glass that crowned every window. Rays of bright colors made small rainbows in floating dust. Obviously, ordinary people had once traveled in high style. Light reflecting off the water outside twinkled on carved rosettes in the ivory-like ceiling. The spacious passenger deck seemed almost holy: perfect, light-filled, quiet.

Empty and quiet.

Simon tried to imagine passengers sitting all around him on those rows and rows of elegant benches. He tried to imagine what they might talk about, crumpled newspapers in hand. He tried to imagine what they wore, their facial expressions, their innumerable stories, their hardships and destinations.

He struggled to see it.

Simon did observe in a shadowed corner near the ceiling a place where the wood was rotted. He noted dust under the benches, mildew along window sills, missing tiles on the dirty turquoise and gold checkered floor.

“Do you have any questions?” a voice startled him.

He turned about to see a white-bearded museum docent. The gentleman in a ratty sea captain’s cap stood with a small smile, patiently awaiting a question.

To his own surprise, Simon’s mind was blank. So many vague questions–he really didn’t know what to say. None of it seemed to matter.

“Why does nobody come here?” Simon finally asked, ending an uncomfortable silence.

“People no longer care about ships,” came the smiling reply. “Ships are old news.”

“Old news?”

“Passengers don’t travel by ship anymore. Not the way they once did. People nowadays just see them in television or movies. Pirate ships, mostly.”

“But aren’t people even curious to see what it was like to ride on a vintage ferryboat? When I was a very young child I rode on an amazing old ferryboat. I still remember the shining ornamental brasswork. I remember that feeling of floating on the water, and gazing out a window at the sparkling bay. I remember my sister buying me a Hershey’s candy bar from a man in a uniform behind a polished counter. It wasn’t that long ago.”

“Look around at this big crowd. How curious do you think people are?”

“I see what you mean.”

The docent smiled. “Any more questions?”

“Yes. Wait–” Simon searched his mind. “I don’t get it. There are people who drive down the highway past this old ship almost every single day, going to and from work, or going somewhere else, but nobody even wants to stop and take a look inside? Do you think that’s because people are too busy?”

“Yes, everybody’s busy. But there’s no need to stop. See this?” The man pulled from his pocket a brand new smartphone. “Today every one of us carries a tiny universe in the palm of our hand. Everyone can see a nice picture of everything.”

“But it isn’t real!”

“Oh, yes it is.”

“But what about the sea breeze coming through the windows . . . and the ship’s roll . . . and the salty smell . . . and the wood’s shine? What about the piercing cries of gulls above . . . and the sparkling water below . . . and sunlight through stained glass? What about the faint echoes of those who lived . . . words spoken stranger to stranger over crumpled newspapers? The infinite stories that speak from the dust?”

“Only this ship’s ghosts can remember those things,” replied the white-bearded docent.

The old man waved his smartphone, jammed it back into his pocket. “And ghosts, as you know, don’t exist.”

“But you– And me–”

The man turned away.