by Zachary Ash
Part 2 and Part 3|
appear in this issue.
|part 1 of 3|
A people without history
Is not redeemed from time, for history is a pattern
Of timeless moments...
History is now and England.
—T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets
An hour past midnight in the streets of Wellington she picked her way forward through wreckage and blood, smoke and embers looking for the way home. Fires lit the ruined boulevards. And in the bucking flames, orange and ghoulish, Kyra saw gutted buildings, pyramids of stone and soot, blackened trams, bridges crumbled into matchwood, a tangle of burnt masts in the bay, a smashed bell tower, and everywhere smoke coiling and slithering into the night sky like a den of ravenous cobras. Winds howled and cast into the air, like a wizard’s dark blessing, cinder and ash. A blizzard of dust.
Reeling in confusion, eyes blind with tears, Kyra winced and stumbled uphill through a maze of rubble, dead horses and corpses. Things nameless and charred. Foul relics. The debris of an empire. And all this horror, Kyra knew, she had unleashed somehow with the gift she’d left and the gift she took.
A pocket watch.
How did these things shatter the quantum order? Such trifles. And yet even now Kyra had no regrets. Alone then, lost in a kind of rapture, clutching her valise, seeking the Conservatory on a hill somewhere beyond the flames and smoke, she walked on.
* * *
Another journey five days earlier. On a cloudy day in April, mid-autumn, Kyra rambled the streets of Wellington wondering if sadness lasts. The day’s light fell on gold leaves, on tattered grass, on roses withering as warm days turned to darkness. In this dying season Kyra took comfort; the landscape matched her mood.
Winding down a brick path from the music hall to the sculpture garden to a warren of lanes on the city’s edge, teeming with jugglers and mimes, she kept her eyes down, her mind adrift in the past. Even the street-corner tenor’s grand aria was lost on her.
In time her wandering steps carried her to the harbor and the Institute, a familiar vista, and soon in the distance she glimpsed schooners and clipper-ships resting at anchor. Crossing a thoroughfare bustling with trams, horses, and steam-coughing lorries, Kyra slowed and came at last to a square lined with shops and pubs. Here she heard the clamor of dense, passionate argument.
In fast, intersecting lines — like a hive of bees swarming after scattered petals — scientists and scholars, New Zealand’s best minds, paced a wide granite courtyard and spoke faster still, their arguments spiked with numbers and formulae and conjecture. None of it Kyra knew; all of it she had heard before. This was home. Yet for her, thought was music: wordless, baroque, intricate as architecture. Thought that slid easily into remembrance and sorrow, a requiem for things gone. An elegy.
Was there no way, truly, to redeem the past?
Kyra paused then, one hand on her gray bonnet, one on her parasol set tip-down on the worn flagstones, and peered through the shifting crowd. Lunchtime here was always bedlam. Students raced to lectures, friends loitered in archways, professors scrambled to their offices: the happy chaos of a college town. And where exactly the town ended and the college began no one could say. In Wellington it was all one.
Finally, in a small corner bistro Kyra saw a plump, white-haired man seated alone, his cloak and tri-corner hat tossed on the floor next to a walking stick, scribbling gleefully and nodding as if he’d just solved a long-standing mystery. A rare grin lit Kyra’s face. Quickly, she crossed the courtyard to his table.
“Father,” Kyra said, “your tea’s gone cold. The day’s too wintry to sit here. Let’s move to our table inside by the fire.”
“What’s that? Yes, I’d like another cup. Nothing like a fresh pot to help one think.” The old man stayed in his chair, jotting in his notebook more equations, sketching diamonds, a bed of pearls, a delicate fluted bell, and nodded. At his elbow sat an untouched cup of Earl Gray.
Warm or cold, Kyra thought, inside or out, it’s all the same. She glanced at a menu and saw only black marks. Then sank into a chair.
This mood worried the old professor; she was all he had. His daughter and his research. How to cheer her? The world, he announced, looking up from his calculations, abounds with wonders. In a concert hall, in a laboratory, in this very café, he told her. Wonders.
“I see nothing,” Kyra said. Then shut her eyes. Each Thursday afternoon it was the same: a table at a café, her father engrossed in his numbers, she in her sadness. The monotony numbed her and worried Professor Snow.
He told her this had gone on too long. A year? Two? He tried also to explain how this was an important time in her career, how tenure was up for grabs, how hard work now would safeguard her future. A post at the Conservatory? Dead brilliant! His Kyra was no piker. Seize this opportunity, he told her, take what you want.
Kyra laughed darkly. “How can I seize the past?” she said, then opened her eyes, those lavender eyes, as if searching for something, finding nothing.
The professor set down his quill and studied his daughter’s face. Heart-shaped and pale, swept about by black hair cut too short; a face elegant and etched in sorrow like Michelangelo’s Mary in the Pietà. A sculpture he had seen once in the Empire’s Mediterranean shire. And now Kyra’s sorrow — like a theorem in space-time geometry — was a puzzle he was determined to solve. How to fix coordinates of despair? He imagined an endless loop of mourning, dark matter adrift, icy comets wandering for ages on interstellar rounds. Somewhere in the rigors of science was a solution.
“My book? My sonata?” Kyra said. “I haven’t written a word or a note in months. I’ve lost my way. I’ll lose my job too, I fear, if this keeps up.” She stared at the mahogany table.
“Kyra, enough. This is selfishness! It’s time to get on with things. You’re a splendid teacher, a gifted musician. Don’t let it all go to rot.”
Her pallor alarmed him. It was worse than his grad students’ ghostly complexions; theirs at least was earned from unending hours in the lab working on a breakthrough in quantum physics. Hers came only from sadness.
“I don’t want to get on with things, Father,” Kyra said. “I don’t want any of that.” She touched the bonnet she had set on an empty chair beside her, as if to comfort a ghost, and then Kyra’s voice took on a dreamy faraway tone. “All I want is to sit alone and think. To think about the past.” She hesitated. “About Ian.”
“Ian’s dead.” He didn’t mean to say it so sharply, but once he did, he was glad. The truth, perhaps, would jolt her. Bring her back.
“I know he’s dead, Father. I watched him die.” Kyra looked out at the boulevard and tried to imagine what it felt like to hurry along like all those busy people. What it was like to feel joy. To feel anything. A watch run-down and gathering dust was how she saw herself.
“Your pain, Kyra, has it no end?” He paused, pushing back his bifocals and feeling, for a moment, infinitely weary. “It’s beyond all reason.”
“Reason? Reason has nothing to do with it. Pain has its own logic.” Kyra brushed her lace cuffs, left, then right. “You and mother. How long did you have? Forty years?”
“Winter,” Kyra said. “Ian and I had one winter.” Then she balled a dainty fist, let it open, reluctantly, and plucked a tea cup, inspecting it as if it were a thing she’d never seen before, trying to make sense of it. “My life, it seems, began in June and ended on a day in late August. As I stood on a field in the Royal Gardens and looked up at the sky. I’m still there, I think, looking.”
Kyra held the cup suspended in air. “It was the day after he asked me to marry him. So in a sense, we had less than one winter. We had one day. And yet our time together was like a minuet — crisp, perfect, brief.”
Now she brought the cup down — smashing it — and glared. “But damn it all! What I want is a symphony — loud, vivid, extravagant — one that goes on and on, movement after movement. Music enough to last a lifetime.”
Her voice fell to a murmur; she looked in consternation at the Wedgwood shards. “I can’t live with the silence.”
“No more, Kyra!” he said “You think only of yourself.”
Then the professor told her, finally, what he’d been unable to say for weeks. They wanted him gone. Too old, they said. His work? No one understood. Already he’d lost his graduate students. The lectures, the laboratory, the research — all of it, then, the Institute wanted him to shut down. Before winter.
“Father, you said nothing.”
“Would you have listened?”
Kyra stiffened. “Your research,” she said, as her fingers caressed broken china, “that folderol in the lab. Discoveries or whatnot? You mentioned something last time.” Kyra stifled a yawn. “How wretched.”
“I’m on the verge of something remarkable, Kyra,” he said, “something altogether new.” Leaning forward, the professor chose his words with care, as if mixing rare compounds, chiseling diamond.
Twenty years, he explained, he had run the Institute’s Quantum Space lab and now he’d lose it in a fortnight. His work — he needed to finish! Then Professor Snow tapped a finger on his notebook filled with numbers and bells. It will be, he assured her, the most astonishing leap forward in a hundred years in all Her Majesty’s Realm.
“Truly?” Kyra looked bored. “No doubt this will win you the Hawking Prize — and, who knows, even a knighthood.” Then Kyra’s eyes, gemlike and fiery, gleamed. “Is there a chance we’ll have tea with the queen? To see London once more...”
It was then that a waitress shuffled to their table clutching in thick hands a wobbly tray. Before the tray fell, the waitress dropped it with a thud next to the tea things, stood back and quietly simpered. Vacant eyes rested on the professor.
“Damnation!” said Kyra, startled by the server’s clumsiness. “They’re here too? I hate these things. So graceless and stupid.”
“Kyra, that’s unkind. She has feelings.”
“Indeed. It’s dumb as a donkey. They all are, these damn bots.”
“I think they’re ingenious. A marvel of the age.” Professor Snow pointed to the waitress, describing the thing’s features, as if conducting an anatomy lesson. “Their gyroscopes, you know, were built by a fellow at the Institute. And their skin — some kind of organic vellum — was cooked up by the lads in Chemistry. And their vacuum tubes — state of the art. Really, a marvel.”
“Donkeys. They’ll follow anyone with a carrot. No fidelity.” Kyra sneered at the machine, pushed forward a wet shattered mess. “You simply can’t count on them.”
At a nod from the professor, the waitress, still smiling, took the tray laden with saucers, spoons and Kyra’s broken things, its wrists creaking, and lumbered inside to the kitchen, clanking with each step. From its collar rose a wisp of steam.
“Let me explain my discovery. Here, I’ll sketch the outline — do you know quantum geometry? My work, Kyra, unites quark dynamics and relativity, a step beyond even, I dare say, the maze-like computations of Borges. You know? The blind logician in the Patagonian shire.” Then the eminent scientist began to lecture. “First, take space-time, add the universal wave-function...”
“Father, I never passed algebra,” Kyra said. “I’m a musician.” And looking away, she took from a fold in her sweeping, gray dress a pocket-watch, heavy and silver, something a man might own. Gently, she opened it. And for a long moment Kyra gazed at the inscription etched on the lid. Tears welled in her eyes, as always, and then she closed the timepiece, pressing it against her bosom, mournful and still.
“Besides,” she said, her voice low, rasping, “there’s a recital in an hour. Then a staff portrait — how I hate those flash boxes! I’ll be lucky to get through the day as it is with my mind so adrift.” Kyra tried to smile. “I don’t need quantum confusion.”
“Very well. I just thought you might like to hear my ideas.” The professor stared glumly at his notebook, shut it and reached into his waistcoat, counting out the afternoon’s fare: a half-crown, quid, three farthing. Always he’s been too generous. “But the department’s right. My work is a dead end.”
“It’s not. And I do want to hear about it. Tomorrow? In the morning we’ll walk by the bay and you can regale with me with all your wonderful calculations. Perhaps then I can think.” Kyra at last put away the pocket watch. “Today I’m simply lost.”
* * *
On a world that is and is not Kyra’s, on a day when Kyra rambles Wellington’s cobbled streets and says her true love’s memory has faded, on a continent that lies to the north — unknowably far — a red storm threatens. And here Ian looks skyward. In the clouds overhead two hawks dance. Around one still point, wings outstretched and touching, they spin in rapture like prancing horses on a carousel, fall swiftly together in a spiral, then sail away, one toward the sun, one toward darkness. In a moment they are gone.
* * *
“More than one world?”
“More than one universe,” said the Professor. “There’s no doubt! The experiments done in the quantum lab and the calculations run through the Babbage Engine prove it.”
Kyra and her father walked along the harbor, sunlight dancing on waves gliding shoreward. They passed a pier lined with merchant ships, sloops, and windjammers; on the far end on a pyramid of rocks stood a lighthouse. And beyond the lighthouse was the sea, rolling on to the vanishing point, endless and dark.
Their world, he told her, was one of many. Worlds within worlds beyond number. And each one a universe.
“And each one different?” asked Kyra.
A shade different, he explained. Like colors in a rainbow. Then for a time the professor watched tall ships sail into the sun on the way to unknown ports. “Alternate worlds,” he said.
“One world is too much,” said Kyra, closing her eyes on the maritime vista. Her voice fell flat. “Thousands are more than I wish to know.”
Not thousands, he told her. Not even millions. Exultation lit his eyes. “An infinity of worlds,” he said. “One for every outcome of every choice. More wonders than can be imagined!”
They turned onto a path now that led away from the harbor and on to high rolling parkland. To the right, a Ferris wheel and the din of children’s laughter filled the landscape.
Kyra veered left. She guided her father, still expounding happily, to a gate at the entrance of the Royal Gardens. In the distance on a hill the Conservatory loomed. Here, stepping past a timeworn gate, the professor gazed a while at the labyrinth crisscrossing the garden.
“It’s the law of quantum chance,” he said.
“Indeed?” said Kyra abstractly, her words falling slow as her steps, drifting to the shelter of pines in the distance. One path crossed another. “In one of these worlds perhaps I’m someone else. Not a music teacher in a seaside town, but a...”
“A poet, a dancer, a packet ship’s captain sailing to the Americas, to New Spain, perhaps,” said her father, laughing at the dizzying prospect. “Who knows? In one world, Kyra, you may be a physicist.”
“Dodgy, I say.”
And yet that’s the point, he explained. For every possibility, there’s a world, a universe. No matter how unlikely. “Kyra, look at the twisting paths in this garden branching in all directions. We choose one,” he said. “It’s our world.”
And whilst they rambled, taking one path among many, Kyra looked out on the maze — and began to listen. In her mind an idea stirred, a cello’s lonely note sang.
“And if we had taken another?” her father asked, lifting his tricorn and gesturing to a path lost in willows and forget-me-nots. “A world exists in which we did.” Then he told her that if they’d stayed by the harbor or gone this morning instead to a bistro, then a world exists too for those choices. For every choice, a world. “All real,” he said, “unfolding in time — parallel and infinite in number.”
Kyra stopped short, her parasol touching the earth like a diviner’s rod. Together now — a cello, a guitar. And then she thought of yesterday’s staff portrait, how a flash box preserved forever a moment of time, how a tincture of silver nitrate fixes things that otherwise are lost to remembrance. Again Kyra looked skyward.
“Is there a world,” she asked, at last, “in which the dead live?”
Copyright © 2007 by Zachary Ash