The Garden

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Silver
Mark Neyrinck


Photo Credit: Drew Brayshaw (CC-by-nc)

Photo Credit: Drew Brayshaw (CC-by-nc)

Plants, logs, and even trees whose roots gripped masses of earth raced each other down the brown, soil-laden river. The forest throbbed in the bright, humid air with the sounds of insects, birds, and whatever else the warm weather had brought from the South.

Eve had not needed a pelt on her morning stroll for over a month, it was so warm. She rested for a moment on a rare dry promontory of the trail next to the river, after managing to pass a particularly deep patch of mud.

Suddenly, her uneasy feeling became tactile. The ground was shaking; deep cracking sounds were all around. The ground supporting her began to slide. The river was breaking it off.

Almost before she was fully aware of the situation, her instincts had carried her waist-deep, back into the patch of mud she had so carefully circumvented. She watched the ground she had been on moments ago, carrying several small trees, break off and crumble into the river downstream.

When she returned to the village, she immediately called a meeting of the Council, but stopped first at home to wash off.

“Sorry,” she said to her husband, who had flinched when she entered the yurt. She must have been quite a sight, covered with rich, sun-caked mud, her eyes unusually ferocious.

“What’s wrong?” he asked, putting down the spearhead he was whittling.

“The Melt,” she said, softening the mud on her arms with some clean water. “It’s going too far. The river trail I have walked for so many years is now impassable. The river nearly carried me away with a chunk of earth this morning.”

“Oh, no, are you okay?” He moved the bucket of water closer to her, and helped her wash off.

“I’m fine. But the glaciers are not. The mammoths are not. I’m even afraid for the village; the river’s too close now.”

“You want to move the village uphill from the river?”

“For a start, yes. But the Melt needs to stop.”

“That is not for us to say.” His face tightened.

“Isn’t it?”

“We cannot question the Yahweh’s actions,” he said. His mud-cleansing caress slowed to a crawl.

Her eyes flashed. “We must get rid of it.”

He pulled his arms away, and whispered urgently. “It knows even our thoughts.”

“I’m not convinced of that,” she said.

“How many times have we discussed this? You know that without the Yahweh, we all would have frozen to death generations ago. And we owe so much else to it…” He gestured to the bucket of fresh water from the well, cleaned by the magical device the Yahweh had given to his grandfather. He then pointed to the magical hearth, so crucial in the winter. They had barely needed the hearth last winter, though.

“Yes, it seems so. But our tribe has survived horrible winters before. And it has been five generations since it saved us from freezing to death. Supposedly. How are we to know how bad that winter really was?”

“Do you accuse our ancestors of lying?”

“No, but truth has a way of evolving.”

He squinted at her, and sighed.

She grimaced, and whispered, despite herself. “The village up to the north. It was building its own fires, making its own tools. The rockslide that destroyed them was no accident.”

“If the Yahweh did that, all the more reason to be quiet. We are happy. We have not struggled for many years.”

She huffed, flaking the last of the visible mud away. “Adam. Maybe you’re content. But every time I bring an interesting creature home for study, it dies within the day, of no apparent cause. It’s so frustrating.”

“Our village has prospered…”

“Prosperity is subjective. We don’t have time for this argument. I called a meeting of the Council, and we can discuss it with the rest of them.”

“You might have told me that earlier,” he said, rising to change into his heavy formal cloak, despite the heat.

*

“I’m going for a walk,” Eve said after the meeting, as the Council exited the village’s large communal yurt, toward their respective homes. She squeezed her husband’s shoulder in conciliation. “Thank you for promising to try communication with the Yahweh.”

He smiled. “Anything for harmony, and for you.”

She turned away, toward a mountain trail. “Anything for” her, indeed. His concern for her was genuine, she knew, but even in trying to reassure her, he said “harmony” first.

As usual, the Council decided on no major action. But this time, they promised a major effort to repair the river trail. And, finally, Adam was going to attempt communication with the Yahweh. He was acknowledging that the situation had become important. Why would it only commune with him? Maybe it was not just the elected one that could commune with it. But that possibility could not be tested, since representatives from all the villages guarded it strictly. No one but each village’s elected one was allowed near it, and women were not even eligible for that role.

Eve had not scaled this mountain trail since last summer. The changes were even more dramatic than along the river. In her parents’ time, no one ventured up here, onto the giant ice mass. Now, though, only a few glaciers were visible. It was true, the location that supposedly the Yahweh had indicated to build the village was quite safe, not downhill from any rock or ice fields. But the river grew ever closer, and was almost as deadly. She had worked out that even next year, the rising, moving river could threaten the village. Thus far, the Yahweh had apparently volunteered no recommendation to move the village, but she had insisted that Adam bring up the topic.

She was not quite as nimble as she had been as she had been as a child, when she had carved this trail into the newly uncovered ground. The landscape was now a bit different on each hike. There were some new tricky spots, but she managed them. The trail even smelled different than before. New meadows were sweet with wildflowers. She had to admit some of the changes were good. But there was too much, too fast.

She reached an area where even last summer, there had been a glacier. Now, there was no sign of it. There was no trail through the new ground, so it took all her concentration to make her way through. Jumping across a gap, a loud hiss startled her. In her focused rock navigation, she had nearly trod on a snake, the venom on its fangs glistening in the sun. She backed away slowly, and made her way on an even higher route.

She reached a giant outcropping of red rock, also apparently uncovered just this year by the glacier. It was one of the biggest rocks she had ever seen, many times bigger than the village’s communal yurt. She decided to climb it, even though it had few handholds on its round, strangely smooth surface. It was as big a challenge as she had hoped.

At the top was a charming baby tree, maybe an apple tree. Delighted, she looked all around. This was perhaps the highest elevation she had ever reached on this trail. She could see almost the entire river that had nearly swept her away that morning. It sinuated all the way from its glacier-fed source to the horizon. She could see a distant mountain range that she had only seen a handful of times before. She could see maybe to the end of the world.

Satisfied, she began to make her way down the outcropping, when, for the second time that day, she heard a deep cracking sound, and felt the outcropping shift under her. She quickly determined a safe way off the outcropping, and landed nearby, with only a couple of scrapes. The round, giant rock outcropping seemed to remain intact, but she could see a few small rocks from its base tumble down the mountain.

Barely having recovered from that shock, she saw a short sequence of flashes of blue light below. Several seconds later, she thought she heard a corresponding clap of thunder. Squinting, she made out the source of the light, which she had not noticed before: a large silver dome. Was that the Yahweh? She had heard stories of unrighteous people throwing rocks at the Yahweh, in the form of a silver dome. According to the stories, the rocks had become blue light upon impact, and the blue light somehow destroyed the assailants. She had not been destroyed, as far as she could tell.

She looked in wonder at the giant rock that had nearly taken her down the mountain with it. A fissure, which apparently she had made, had developed between the rest of the mountain and the outcropping. She wondered what would happen to the Yahweh if the whole, huge rock had tumbled down the mountain, instead of just a few tiny pieces of it.

With enough adventures for the day, she made her way home, as tranquilly as she could.

*

It had taken a several-day pattern of nagging, and abstaining from nagging, to get him to go, but Adam at last had gone to commune with the Yahweh, and now returned.

He was looking at the floor. Not a good sign. “I raised the two important issues: the question of moving the village farther from the river, and whether the Melt was still necessary. It was the most aggressive I have ever been in a communion, and I sensed irritation about my audacity. It did not address our concerns. I tried all manner of offerings. I’m sorry, my love. There hasn’t been what I would consider a successful communion for over a year.”

She had never seen him so emotional; there was distress, fear, and even anger. And toward her, there was only love. She gave him a long hug. “That’s a shame.” The frequency of successful communion was low, but she had thought the urgency was as high as it had ever been. She noted that his words had seemed carefully chosen. “Did it say anything else?”

“As you know, often its messages seem to have nothing to do with what we find important.”

“What happened, Adam?”

She thought she could even see tears in his eyes. “I did have a vision. I saw you, casting red stones at it. Then, you perished in blue flames. I have never seen a particular person in a vision before.”

She snarled. “Am I correct to think that it was threatening me?”

“Yes, I believe so.”

“And you think that’s ok?”

He was shivering in anger. “No, I don’t.”

“Will we do nothing, then?”

“What can we do?”

“How about a hike, to clear the mind? I know of a place with a great view. We might be able to shake free a solution.”

pencilMark Neyrinck is a cosmologist in Baltimore, MD. He likes to write creatively sometimes, as a break from scientific writing. Email: mark.neyrinck[at]gmail.com

Maybe Among the Better of Many Possible Worlds

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Bronze
Mark Neyrinck


Slot machines inside New York New York hotel
Photo Credit: Ian Lloyd

Zip! The lights and sounds wobble and flicker, the heavenly casino hum going discordant for a moment. Blurry olive fireworks appear, and I smell vinegar. It makes me a little sick, which is good, because otherwise I’d do it even more often. The casino would get nervous about me, and I’d get kicked out.

As desired, the ace of spades is in my hand now. I guess it was from a parallel universe or something. I don’t really understand how this works. This is what happens when I take acid: I see other worlds, and move into one if it seems better.

After, like, a half an hour the dizziness wears off, but my world-grabbing ability hasn’t; I retain it for about a day after taking the LSD. Possibilities start creeping into my peripheral vision, and I get the urge to cheat again. I’m well ahead for the night, so instead I get up and stroll into the Las Vegas night.

As always, the strip is full of people. I’ve now spent years here, and I recognize people all the time. I walk away from some chick I talked to once.

A car horn honks. It’s some bastard in a convertible running an orange light, honking at a pedestrian it looks like he’s trying to hit. His slick hair glistens with neon light. Then a Hummer barely brakes in time to avoid hitting him. I see a world where the crash did happen, so I grab it. El Smasho. A few of the immaculate hairs are now out of place. I suspect the convertible has lost its convertibility.

The crash distracts some people, but I move on down the strip. I feel really dizzy, since I had little chance to prepare for that jump. I barf onto some porn in the gutter.

I carry on, considering another casino visit, but then fatigue starts to smother me. Well, it is 3:30 a.m., so I dip into my apartment for a nap. I take some no-dream pills and hope for the best.

I dream anyway. I see some lady taking a morning walk in Europe or somewhere. A dog barks at her, so I fail to resist yanking into the world where the dog got into some bees that day, and is not so vocal now.

Upon waking, a hangover reminds me that last night I grabbed the world with the excessively curious-about-beehives dog. I panic, looking for changes in my bedroom once I realize this. I don’t see anything, and am relieved. I think one time I woke up in a harem in Qatar with a killer hangover. But maybe that was a dream.

Yeah, I’m not totally sure I wasn’t personally affected by that dog’s stupid beehive curiosity. That’s the trippiest thing. My brain gets used to an alternative world after a few minutes and I forget the original one. I can’t even use Polaroids and tattoos to remind myself of worlds I’ve left, like that guy in Memento did. I’ve actually tried that, but the tattoos didn’t come with me. I’m lucky that a few of these memories have stuck in my brain.

Dawn is breaking outside. I turn on the TV. It’s live news, even though I’ve tried to disable news channels. (Live TV tempts me to wreak havoc on the set.) Of course the anchorman is a super-douche. I saw him sexually harassing a blackjack dealer a few months ago. So that’s my excuse today to take some acid. After a couple minutes I start to see a fairly nearby peripheral world where he cut his chin shaving this morning, and grab it.

I see a blob of makeup appear on his chin where he cut himself and then I gradually forget that I produced it. Forgetting is troublesome but calming. I find myself actually listening to the TV. The douche is talking about an asteroid that’s coming toward the earth. A big asteroid.

Yeah, this crazy asteroid will be here in a few months. They’re talking about the options for destroying or deflecting it, and it looks bad. By instinct, my hyperactive brain starts searching for alternative worlds where it looks better, and I see nothing. I start to get a headache, and turn off the TV.

I turn on my phone. There’s a voicemail from my parents, and Sally sent me a text: “did you hear about the asteroid? crazy what are you doing today?” Apocalyptic romance syndrome, perhaps. I text my parents that I’ll call them later, even though I’m not sure they know how to accept texts.

Things went pretty well with Sally at first, a couple years ago. Almost immediately, before I even did any world-grabbing, she called me “Lucky,” which I took to be a sign from heaven. I had fantasies that she supernaturally understood me. Then I gave her a $100,000-winning lottery ticket, and soon she was satisfied with her own luck; she lost interest in me. I’ve seen her around town a couple of times, though, and she seemed cautiously happy to see me.

I text her: “trying not to watch TV” and turn off the phone. I’m not in the mood for a text conversation.

I shower and eat something, then go out the door for some gambling.

The daylight hits me hard as usual, even through my thick sunglasses. At least it tends to crowd out alternative worlds.

I reach the strip, and immediately notice how few people there are, fewer people than four a.m. Christmas morning. A bug-eyed dude almost runs into me. Most people are walking fast, on a mission. Maybe they’re all astronauts going to the asteroid with Bruce Willis. There are also some dudes like me, taking a lazy, apathetic stroll.

I enter a casino. The slot machines’ hum calms me, but that wears off. Inside, just like outside, there are only a few bastards like me.

“Hey bro, hear about the asteroid?” a middle-aged male slot-machiner, even more disheveled than me, asks.

I ignore him, and head to the only poker table already with gamblers. There’s a good-looking dealer there, too.

“Mornin’,” a fellow poker-player says, an old lady. Her mouth makes what might be a smile. There’s a little small talk, but nothing about the asteroid. I win her a few hands. I’m in a generous mood, with all this gloom and doom around.

After an hour or three the asteroid-apathy starts to get on my nerves. I check out, losing only a couple hundred dollars.

I decide that watching the Bellagio fountain might cool my nerves. On my way out there, unbidden, my thumb turns on my phone; yep, a couple more texts from Sally. She’s in town and wants to meet up. This makes my unsettled feeling boil over, but I text back: “Wanna meet at the fountain?” She says she’ll be on her way over.

The water streams do their wasteful but tasteful, hypnotizing dance. My mind wanders, and again seeks out peripheral worlds without the asteroid. This often works best when I’m not concentrating on it, but even now, I see nothing.

I can see alternative presents, but not futures. So I can’t for example tell you whether the asteroid is really going to hit, if it’s a hoax, etc. I get another text from Sally, apologizing for still being on her way.

I consider taking some more LSD. Sometimes that seems to broaden the range of worlds I can find. But it’s at home; I almost never take more than one dose a day. I see a sparrow smack into the side of the Bellagio, feel crappy about it, and grab the world where it didn’t happen. A couple seconds later I look down at the phone and notice that Sally didn’t text me today in this world. But I forget about that soon enough and make my way home for some more LSD.

As usual I’m briefly appalled at the mess in my apartment, but then I grow accustomed; it becomes just another unpleasant buzz in my unconscious. I turn on the TV, finding myself actually starting to care about the damned asteroid, and prepare another dose of LSD. I look at my watch; four hours since the last dose. Shouldn’t be fatal, at least.

On the TV, they’re discussing asteroid-avoidance options. Apparently nuking the mofo in space won’t work; it’s too big, and the pieces, now radioactive, would still fall to earth, possibly wreaking even more havoc. There’s a plan on the books to gravitationally tow it away, that in principle might work given another two to three years of intense development, but we don’t have that kind of time.

A text from Sally appears: “did you hear about the asteroid? crazy what’s up?” I get a hint of déjà vu, but needless to say my sense of déjà vu is almost perpetual.

Things went pretty well with Sally at first, a couple years ago. Almost immediately, before I even did any world-grabbing, she called me “Lucky,” which I took to be a sign from heaven. I had fantasies that she supernaturally understood me. Then I gave her a $100,000-winning lottery ticket, and soon she was satisfied with her own luck; she lost interest in me. She’s left town.

I administer the acid. The last time I took two doses in one day was when I was trying to invade a world where Sally didn’t decide to leave town. What I jumped into was way too far away (maybe there was a zebra involved?); I had to quickly jump back to something roughly resembling the original world to even know Sally at all. Even then it wasn’t quite the original world, for one reason because my memory of it was already starting to disappear.

With the added dose, peripheral worlds spring up all around. One is cherry-flavored, under my shirt on the table. I get the sense that I don’t exist at all in that one; in fact, I’m not even sure humans ever came to be. There’s also one on the sofa that reminds me of chimichangas, and another inhabiting the ugly plaid jacket on the coatrack. This is the kind of nonsense that comes with a double dose. They get more wildly different than the “real” world, but it gets harder to tell what’s in them. It’s almost hilarious, but at the same time olive-colored, musty, and profoundly not, I assure you. Don’t get any ideas that this crap might be pleasant.

All at once, I see a tendril of icy, glistening cinnamon waving like a flag. I feel like I’m in a kid’s sugary-cereal commercial, and my nose reels it in, leading me into the kitchen.

The cinnamon tendril-flag is coming from a family-sized box of MarsMallows, a sickly-sweet cinnamon cereal that recently emerged with the announcement of a supposedly-actual manned Mars mission, to happen in ten years. I didn’t remember buying MarsMallows, but then I don’t remember a lot of things.

The box is bitter cold. And yet I have the distinct impression that there’s no annihilating asteroid in the world it contains. I also get the sense that I exist there, but there’s something deeply weird about me. I grab the box anyway.

 

Now I’m driving a minivan on a snowy street in suburban Kansas City. I think this is strange; I thought it was summer. I look up at the sun and it looks strangely small. The kids are in the back seat. The news on the radio is telling me that an asteroid was discovered that might hit the earth, but will more likely graze the atmosphere in a few months. This gives me some déjà vu, then some meta-déjà vu because I think I should get déjà vu more often, or maybe vice-versa. It all makes me dizzy. I look strangely at the losing lottery ticket on the dashboard. The stop light turns green, and I shake my head, and drive on.

pencil

Mark Neyrinck does cosmology research in Baltimore. He writes creatively as much as he can, to combat the dulling effect that scientific writing has on his style. Email: mark.neyrinck[at]gmail.com