In the observatory, the children lined up to have their turn at the telescope. The astronomer patiently explained the different terms–galaxy, black hole, comet, planet, light years, red shift, gravitational pull, orbit, parallax, luminosity, relativity, and many other words that quite literally sounded as if they were from other worlds. Most of the children had no idea what they were looking; some asked inane questions about unidentified flying objects, and still others rubbed their eyes in utter boredom. A teacher finally said it was time for refreshments in another room, and the children began to shuffle towards the main exit. One boy lingered by the telescope. The astronomer looked down and gently asked if he still had any questions. The boy nodded and asked why his wishes never came true. He always wished on the first star he saw every night, and yet it was starting to seem pointless. The astronomer lit a cigar, for it was long ago in the days when men were allowed to smoke cigars, and thought about the problem. At last he asked the boy if he knew anything about mathematics and probability. The boy said he had done the experiment with coins once. The astronomer puffed out a large cloud of smoke and nodded with approval. Now then, said the astronomer, the brightest things tend to catch our eyes first. It is highly probable that you are always wishing on the same stars–Arcturus, Vega, Deneb, Altair, one of the stars in Ursa Major, or one of the stars in Cassiopeia. And everyone else is also wishing on those same stars because they’re very bright and they catch our eyes at twilight, when the stars first come out. Maybe your wishes get lost amongst all those other wishes. There is another possibility. At night, some of the brightest lights we take for stars are not stars at all–they are planets! Mars, Venus, Jupiter and Saturn–all bright and visible to the naked eye. I don’t know if wishing on a planet has any effect at all! He puffed some more on his cigar as he watched a smile grow on the child’s face. My advice, the astronomer continued, is to look at a star map and make sure that you look in an area of the night sky where there are no bright stars, only dim ones. And be careful not to look up until you are sure you are going to gaze in the right direction. Then the first star you see will likely be a dim star, a star nobody else makes a wish on. And it will be your star alone!
The arthritic sat calmly, like a statue, on the indigo swivel chair. The doctor felt his wrists, palm and fingers, mumbling what sounded like the names of the bones and joints. “Are you a typist?” he asked, puffing on his cigar. “Nobody types anymore,” said the arthritic. “True enough,” the doctor agreed, swiveling his own indigo chair to face his manual typewriter with its fresh new form. He punched some keys to make notes, and then turned to the arthritic to ask about his profession. It was not one the doctor recognized. He prescribed some ointments and aspirin and sent the man on his way. At the end of the day, as the doctor walked down a broad avenue of chestnuts, he saw the arthritic, standing in the shade to the side, counting on his fingers, pausing, and then counting again. What was he counting? Motorists? Transients? Lost friends? Syllables? Autumn leaves? “Nobody counts anymore!” the doctor exclaimed out loud, and shuffled off to the station.
The asterism mazes across the night sky in cold, bright stars. The shadow, an old man or child, gazing up from a field of tawny grass, does not know the light years of its breadth, the orbit of its galaxy, its right ascension or declination, its quadrant, the parallax, velocity or magnitude of its brightest stars. It does not know the formula for gravity or relativity, nor the atomic weights of hydrogen and helium. It does not know the mysteries of its galaxy that the astronomers do not know. And yet it knows the faithful pattern, the changless appearance and itinerary, and a handful of magical stories. Night after night, the shadow looks upward to the stars that lived long before him and will live long after him, sometimes wishful but always thankful for the endless sign and its brilliant silence shining back down on him.
The Orange Crate
There was no sky. And a light rain fell. In the black woods, the pilgrim walked through impenetrable darkness. The strange sounds of twigs, owls, foxen and just the wind and rain in the leaves surrounded him and made him fearful. The stones and ferns were cold and wet. Suddenly, he stumbled upon something. It was a cache–a lantern and a box of matches. There was one match left. One strike of the match was luckily enough to light the lantern, but the lantern was too dim. Even the little match had been brighter, but its light had only lasted for one flashing moment. Training the lantern on his surroundings, the pilgrim searched for landmarks or signs. He seemed to be in a glen surrounded by the black boles, leaves and needles of dark and formless trees. On the far side was an orange box, perhaps another cache. Close to him, in the opposite direction, was something resembling a path of pebbles and pine needles leading deeper into the mountains. Crossing the clearing, he found that the lantern began to flicker and grow dimmer. He could no longer discern the orange box in the darkness. Perhaps he had imagined it. Recrossing the clearing, he started on the path, and suddenly the lantern light grew brighter with every footstep. Stopping, he turned back toward the clearing. A small amber flicker, like Arcturus in the night sky, glowed in the distance amongst the black trees. It must be the orange crate, he thought. With the stronger lantern, he headed back toward the clearing, but the closer he got, the dimmer the light grew, and it was next to impossible to see. Only a dark glow barely illuminated his hand holding the lantern, some oak leaves and gravel underfoot, and nothing more. Once again he headed back to the path, and continued to walk. The further he walked, the brighter the lantern glowed. It is likely that he had gone further and higher than before. Now, when he stopped and trained the light in the direction begind him, he could read the contours of the path, the textures of the pines, oaks, larch and yew, and he even noted the fact that the orange crate was still there and seemed to be stamped with large text of some sort, but he could not read the letters clearly. A wolf howled nearby. It was absurd. What was even more absurd was the fact that he had traveled safely for hours before finding the lamp and the path, and now he felt only the madness of the whispering forest.
The Secret Number of Trees
A traveler came to a city by the desert. Outside the city gate he found a man lost in thought. “What are you thinking about?” the traveler asked. “I have questions about heaven and god. I wonder what it is.” The traveler shook his head and muttered: “What a foolish waste of time! Instead you should ask how many trees there are, how many leaves they have, what the tavernas are like, and follow your questions to the end!” The traveler walked off and entered the city. Some years passed and a great earthquake struck, cracking the streets and crumbling the towers. The traveler lay in a heap of stones, bleeding from his wounds. He tried to count his wounds. He wondered how many stones he lay upon. A thoughtful man was going from one injured person to another, bandaging wounds and giving them water to drink from a kettle he had found. It was the idiot from the city gate–the first person the traveler had met when arriving. “Are there many dead?” he asked, after drinking a cool stream of water from the kettle. “It would seem so,” said the man, who still seemed youthful despite his crow’s feet and scattered strands of gray hair. “How many are injured? What kinds of doctors and engineers live here? Am I going to die? Did you ever find an answer to your useless questions?” The thoughtful man sighed, smiled, and started to bandage the old traveller’s wounds.
The Clergyman’s Dilemma
Maybe it was not a real paradox, but it was enigmatic all the same. The clergyman noticed, as many will, that nobody sat in the front pews. He called the maintenance workers and had them remove the first row. This gave more space for his assistants, ushers and weekday visitors. It was an inviting space; it would amplify the sacred. The second row became the first row, and fell to the same fate. Nobody would sit there. The clergyman wondered why this would be. Perhaps some were too humble and thought it presumptuous to sit too close to the altar. Perhaps others resisted the front out of shame, coming from traditions in which the front rows were reserved for penitents who wanted prayers at the end of the service. There were likely those who just avoided being close to the pulpit and altar because they deeply feared what they represented. The second row was removed, and the third row of pews became the first row. Season by season, the pews and the pulpit would drift further and further apart from each other, but still nobody would sit in the first row. The clergyman greatly envied those heretics who sat in circles or stood during their services. They had eliminated the dilemma centuries ago.
The Great Sea
The river began to speak. It spoke to the poor dry land. It spoke to the acacias. And it whispered to the dried out grass . Then it called to the man who sat on its shore. Come and let me draw you to the sea, it said. And what is in the sea? asked the man. Great things, said the river. And years passed. The river drew silt; it hauled driftwood; it carried off scraps of paper and golden leaves and straw; it ferried swimmers and boatmen. And the old man wondered why he could not get to the sea, and why the river called to him, and why the acacias eventually died and cast their branches and trunks into the stream, but he would not set a raft upon the waters nor wade into the streams, though the river ran forever, beautiful, blue-green and deep to the sea of great things.
The hills looked very much like rope.
A roof caught fire, and the wind bore an ember far down the street until it landed in a lane right next to an old match that some passerby had thrown away after lighting a cigar. “You look burnt-out,” said the ember. “And you have flown off course,” said the dark match stick. “It’s all right, though. Our purpose has been served.” The ember glowed a little less brightly. “I fear I am running out of time. I wonder if I burned enough.” The match seemed to almost curl, perhaps in a gesture or bow to express something. “To be fire, even just once, is magic.” “Will it be awful when I am extinguished?” “No,” the match said. “The sound of my burning was beautiful. And yet, the silence is also beautiful.” They sat in silence for a bit, the ember losing its heat and glow. Its annihilation was only seconds away. “Don’t worry,” said the match. “One can burn again. In the right circumstances, everything can burn. Everything is fire. A fire waiting to happen.”
“I’m on fire! I’m on fire!” yelled the flaxen-haired youth holding the string of a large box kite that had burst into flames. The kite slowly dove earthward like a ruined aeroplane in an old war film. “I’m on fire! I’m burning up!” the youth screamed. A man who had been gathering rare herbs, and who owned the field, walked over and struck him in the jaw. Tears streamed down the pale face. “You are not burning,” said the landlord. “The field is on fire.”