The Word Problem

Golden oak leaves blew across the sidewalk when the man stepped out of the bookstore. Near the bus stop, a beggar sat on the pavement, asking for coins. The commuter truthfully said that he did not have any and gazed down the street, waiting for the bus to appear. The beggar continued to mutter and argue with himself, and the other began to regret that he had not given him anything. When he glanced back, he saw the poor man struggling with the wind, a rolling paper and a bag of loose tobacco. The commuter reached for his pack of cigarettes, and offered the man a few. The beggar was about to accept them, but seemed ashamed and confused, and said that maybe he should not. The commuter insisted, and the beggar accepted two and lit one. Only moments later, the other unlit cigarette came flying through the air and landed at the base of the oak tree. Whether or not it had been the wind, one could not say. The poor man smoked intently and quietly, his stormy blue eyes gazing beyond matter and time. The bus arrived, and when the commuter boarded, he noticed that the passengers were arguing passionately in sign language.

The Explosives

They met on the beach in the early morning, as the dark blue sky still hovered over the waters and the wind whipped at the dry grass on the dunes. After building a fire, the older youth drew circles in the packed, wet sand, filled them with triangles, and began to explain the angles, the measurements, the laws that ruled the division of space. The younger boy, shaved liked his companion, watched in awe. They recalled the old man in another seaside city far away who had taught them about machines, space, and the stars whenever they brought him olives, squid, ink, or wine. I wonder where it all comes from, the younger one asked. The elder looked up into the dark sky where the stars were beginning to fade. Then he gathered some sand into his palm, letting the wind carry most of it away until only a few grains were left. It began with something smaller than one of these grains of sand. What happened? There was an explosion, said the older one, his gray eyes staring through the sand, through his own palm, through the very fabric of the universe. And out of that explosion came everything—time, matter, heat, the workings of the planets and stars. The younger boy opened his mouth and then closed it as he stared intently at the sand grains by the light of the fire. One of these grains of sand could be an explosive, then. Maybe, the older one sighed, dusting off his hands. I don’t know. What are stars? the younger one asked. They are part of the explosion. It happened thousands and thousands of years ago, maybe millions of years ago, and we are still seeing it. The moon, sun, and stars are all part of the great explosion. Then they are explosives, as well! the younger one shouted with joy. Perhaps, the older one sighed. Explosives like our old city. The smoke must have risen for days. The younger one filled his hands with dry sand, throwing the grains at the sea. Then he turned to his friend and asked how many grains of sand there were in the universe. The older boy began to speak of myriads, and myriads of myriads, and myriads of myriads of myriads, writing letters on the sand to explain as he went. The young one felt as if his own head were suddenly hollow and filled with distant stars. When his friend had finished he asked him how large one star might be, and how many grains of sand it might contain. The older one ventured a guess. The younger one walked back to the surfline and stared into the paling sky. Everything is explosive, he whispered, almost breathless.

The Lampposts 

On a street of copenhagen and prussian blue, a lawyer walked briskly, followed by a doctor, coroner, judge, pastor, chemist, philosopher, landlord, coachman, and numerous other shadows and trades. Some were carrying crosses, some not. What is that—a pilgrimage? asked a foreign visitor. No, said the lamplighter, that’s a man. The lamplighter thought about it for a moment, and added that with the current inflation and depression, it was actually one third of a man, possibly even a fourth or fifth. The foreigner shook his head sadly. After some moments, the street was empty and quiet for a while until a soft glow emerged from behind a tall, narrow building. It was a tall man in a black coat with a head and face resembling a round of camembert and the eyes of a byzantine icon. Now who is that? asked the foreigner. Having lit his last lamp, the lamplighter looked back at the street and laughed gently. That’s the moon in the man, he said. They watched the moon pass down the street and take the same left turn the first procession had taken. The lampposts were beautiful. 

The Questions

The man who was tired stopped before her threshold. Once again, he could not enter, for again he had arrived with all the wrong questions. The ciphers she would strip from her dark hair were a down-splashing rain through a voice like a sieve. Many cigarettes later, he then realized and determined not to venture back into her five-cornered street, not to get lost and wander her seven bridges. The formulas she had folded and those she had torn were thrown a great distance beyond shadows and unknowns. And his shadow was sleeping, regardless of time, blurring into a whisper of sickness and death. An obsolete silence struck his analog head. Then one night, he went out, shaved and dressed for a wake. And to the darkness he whispered. My cold fingers twine an abacus without beads and hold a cheap cigarette lighter with one single flame.

The Mound

The mound of sand rose pale and smoky in the blue night of great stars as a light breeze constantly added and subtracted grains of sand to and from its mass. The lost assassin thus perceived the merciless impossibility of death, the momentous eternity, the shattering and reassembling of numbers and words, and the distance of distance.

The Blackboards

They looked at their blackboards, machine consoles, charts and notes covered with formulas. They had come further than ever before to mapping the edges of things, times, planets, and atoms. Words and numbers had been sliced as thin as potato chips and were ready for crunching. The blackboards sparkled. One of the youngest physicists, a prodigy that even the older ones respected, a humble youth who feared his own electric fingers, said that it was all nothing more than a bottle of vinegar. What one needed now was a bottle of red cabbage water, which he did not possess.

The Mathematician

Nobody knew where he came from, if that was even the right way of wording it. One day they noticed him, living in an abandoned park on the outskirts of the city. The wonderful park had hillocks, widely spaced trees of silver and golden leaves, abstract and natural sculptures, shallow streams of crystal, and an assortment of gates, blackboards and machinery. The mathematician wandered around, opening and closing gates, writing with chalk on the blackboards and building, mending and rebuilding his machinery. The mathematician loved to speak of the chalk, its powdery white atoms, the way chalk adhered to the board one minute or would blow off into the wind the next, the way the chalk held together to make each integer and formula, or how it fused into a thin film when brushed. On certain days, they came to see him write on a great blackboard. Whenever he wrote on it, fireworks and magic lanterns revolved around him, words and numbers burned in the air and diffused into their faces with an affectionate warmth, and everyone went home afterwards, filled, peaceful and whole. For years, the mathematician taught the children, especially the poor ones, how to add, subtract, divide, multiply, how to factor, use decimals and find roots. Through logic, arithmetic, algebra, geometry, calculus, trigonometry, statistics and even physics, they wandered on a magic journey with him, through the known and unknown that only grew in both distance, wholeness, and intimacy. Engineers, carpenters, cobblers and blacksmiths came to him for advice. Even scholars, philosophers and doctors from the city and other cities learned some of his secrets, although most were too vast to take in. The mathematician helped them keep their books, maintain records, draw plans for building walls or bridges, and charted stars and maps for them. The city grew wealthy. One day, the mathematician vanished. Some say he was murdered; some say he escaped; some say he was exiled. Many accused him of all manner of crimes, while stripping the park of his blackboards and machinery. Those machines that were too mysterious or too great to haul were robbed of parts or vandalized. Most of what they took home they did not know how to use. They were able to reproduce some fireworks and build other kinds of machinery, but after a while the blackboards and machines were returned to the abandoned park, where they began to rust. A legend grew up that the mathematician was only a dream sent by some diabolical magic or plague. The citizens concocted various theories to rationalize the leftover machinery. Some even tried to burn blackboards or melt down gears to destroy the relics. Time passed. The children would go to the abandoned park to play. They built their own machines from scraps and tried to learn from the machines that were more or less intact. They whispered and wrote on blackboards, and some even claimed to have seen magic lanterns, fireworks and the ghost of the mathematician return, walking from blackboard to blackboard, opening and closing gates, blowing enchanted chalk dust from his hands into the north wind.