A Steep Hill

The old man bent slowly. He set a heavy black garbage bag down on the sidewalk. He stood on the hill and rested. The five block climb to the church seemed more steep than ever.

I can’t do this forever, he told himself.

The shrugging shadows from a crowd of downtown buildings were very cold. The old man zipped his jacket all the way up. He gazed down at the sidewalk and the garbage bag.

He lifted the bag and resumed his way up the hill. One careful step after another. He waited on a corner for a traffic light, even though there were almost no cars about on a Sunday morning. Litter blown by the November wind had collected in the gutter. On the opposite sidewalk several people were sleeping among discarded bottles.

The apples in his bag felt like stones.

He wondered why he carried them.

His parents had built their modest house a long, long time ago, decades before the city swarmed around it. When he was three years old, his mother had planted an apple tree in the backyard. Now, suffocated by high-rises, it was a miracle that tree grew at all. It was a miracle the harvest remained bountiful. No sunlight now reached the tiny house.

For a painful instant the old man barely recalled the radiant face of his mother: her shining eyes and bright fiery curls. The apple tree was just as generous as her unpent heart. Pies, cakes, muffins, cobblers, jelly, sauce, cider, enough for a large happy family. But those years were long dead. The only hands that remained were his own.

He now despised apples.

A smiling man in a sideways baseball cap hurried rapidly down the steep sidewalk. The smiling man stopped a few feet above the old man and stared down at him.

“What you got there buddy?”

“A garbage bag.”

“Find anything good?”

“No, just garbage.”

“Too bad. Look what I got. The idiots at City Church give them away for nothing.” The smiling man pulled a red apple out of a pocket. “They don’t even care who you are. You can take as many as you want.” The smiling man suddenly pitched the red apple across the street. It struck the side of a cold building and exploded. He laughed loudly.

The smiling man pulled out another apple, tossed it onto the street, watched it roll down into the gutter.

The old man shrugged, continued up the hill with his garbage bag.

. . .

The tree was unrelenting. Those beautiful apples seemed infinite.

The old man ascended the hill to church Sunday after Sunday, transporting a terribly heavy bag, one careful step following another. He often wondered why he did it.

It was fate, probably.

The Bone Artists

Every day, in gardens throughout the city, new blossoms opened to their most beautiful, most glorious potential, and in bright clinics the elderly who refused to undergo youth treatments were euthanized.

Pietro was going on one hundred and fourteen and felt it. He had ceased his treatments. To avoid detection, he’d removed his master chip with a sharp scissors and whenever he ventured into the city he was careful to melt into darkness.

Pietro walked slowly at night with bent shoulders. He moved painfully, silently, face hidden in a scarf. He found his nourishment in the moonlight and trashcans. He gathered a few precious things that the extremely old need. Then, at the dawn of each day, he slipped through a secret door that welcomed vanishing souls to a black place beneath the city.

The underground refuge was the last free place that remained. It was a retreat where age was not shunned. The tug of time had drawn many into the ancient catacombs.

Pietro moved slowly down one long passage in the maze of candlelit catacombs and entered a chapel of bones. In the very dim light he could see dozens of leg bones and arm bones fastened to rock walls, forming crooked crosses. Skulls whose eye sockets flickered with small flames had been stacked high, almost to the roots of trees. It was a chapel without windows. Only fading eyes.

He entered a large stone chamber. The workplace of the bone artists.

The bone artists moved creakingly in that hollow of Earth, assembling dry bones that were sorted into piles. They didn’t see Pietro enter. The very old people hunched over their work, reaching with their meager fingers for raw material.

Half-formed in that obscure space was their vast Creation.

In that immense vault, where time was still sacred, bones had been assembled like unearthed fossils into visions that were sculpted from secret knowledge. Thousands of bones were fitted together into brittle, ponderous truths. The bones formed a subterranean world of gaunt trees, pale towers and skeletal fields . . . a world of bone horses, bone eagles, bone houses and a bleached city . . . a world beneath the world.

The bone artists worked silently, tying bone to bone, heads bowed. Their eyes were nearly shut. None saw Pietro enter.

“Look what I’ve brought!”

Cradled in the arms of Pietro were flowers that he had stolen in broad daylight.

The artists looked up. Eyes suddenly widened.

A few more candles were lit, and a crop of new flowers was soon sprinkled throughout Creation.

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 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.

What the Giant Saw

According to ancient legend, a giant had piled rocks on the east bank of the river, forming the dark mountain. The imposing mountain was said to be a towering cairn, intentionally placed by the giant so that he could find his way back from the frozen North, where he’d been driven by the knights of old.

The pleasant tour guide told the story from the Virtual River Observation Node.

One morning the returning giant suddenly appeared over the mountain. He placed his hairy hand atop the rocky peak and sat down, dangling his dirty feet in the trickle of river.

“What’s this?” he asked with a voice like thunder.

Across the river there had been an strange change. The castle had vanished. No knights in bright armor charged out to meet him.

Before him lay a postpostmodern city. Ant-size automated cars traversed a network of geometric streets, moving in straight lines from one point to another, then to another, then to another, then to another. The self-driving cars moved with perfect regularity between rows of inoffensive, windowless edifices. The cars were identical and colorless, designed to deflect dangerous sunlight and conserve precious energy. They transported their minuscule cargoes with perfected efficiency.

The giant stared for a few minutes at the silent scene. None of it seemed real.

He soon lost interest.

As he stood up to return north, the clumsy giant accidentally knocked down a stone from the top of his useless cairn.

And that, said the virtual tour guide with the pleasant voice, explains the earthquake of 2043, and the resulting flood that claimed so many helpless lives.

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.