THAT WHICH ACCUMULATES TIME
It was shiny and seductive. And it was no shape that made sense—the edges were inconsistent, all sprouting different lengths, no regularity, spontaneous, random, stochastic, incredulous, undesigned. And for this reason he was convinced that it came from another place and another time, since all things in this time were regular and consistent and contained right angles. At the same time it was precious, in his mind not like a rare metal, not in the way of Platinum, or Iridium, or any established standard of wealth, but in the way of a bizarre thought, an exceptional, odd, novel, impervious, synchronistic idea—an idea that comes once every billion years, perhaps transgressing a universe of space, or an eon of time, or both.
He found it twice in his life before, and now this was the third, and he knew, and does know, much like you, that there is a significance to three's—and for this reason he will not let it go again. The first time he let it go, he was a child. His age was vague at the time, especially to him, but even to others who weaved momentarily into his life, caressing a fleeting and fretting moment in his world. Those who met him could have guessed that he was, say, eight years old. Other's could just as easily, and just as reasonably, have guessed he were a young man in his thirties. Still others, and once again certainly without culpability, believed that he was some hundreds of years old, having watched millions of dusks, and just as many dawns, of human relationships, of generations, and eclipsing societies, and epochs of thought, and philosophical trends and movements, and the breaths of political administrations, and the perspective of the anatomy of all flavors of birth, life, and decay. It was something in the way his arms floated as he spoke, and the depth and pressure in his eyes, or the soft incandescence of the skin of his palms, or the fact that he lacked fingerprints.
He lived in a stark apartment in some city—the city doesn't matter, only that it is, in fact, a city—which was in the midst of all things human and all things impermanent. He lived with a variety of siblings and he was the youngest of them. His father was a thick and recalcitrant man whose description does not matter except to say that he was hardened, and coldened, by all the classical processes in the human realm that make men hard and cold. Words like love and spectacular and onomatopoeia were never spoken by this man, who was the father of this ageless boy. His mother needs no description except to say that she was soft and docile and craved so much more, but never could have dreamed of saying it, or perhaps she dreamed of saying it often, even obsessively, but it was inconceivable that those dreams would spill out into the cold air of her real life (except of course through her glances, posture, movements, the subtleties of her wardrobe selection, the intonations and inflections of her simple voice, the burden in her eyes, the inconsistencies of texture locked in the tissues beneath her skin, her word selection, the luminosity of her skin, her illness schedule, the selection of words through which she might smile, or scowl, or the moments when she would look at one point, as if fixated, but in reality became lost to the world).
It was in this context, in this bath of personalities, that it was served to him. He found it on a plate, served by his mother, earned by his father, immersed and hidden behind sauces and flavors. He very nearly put it in his mouth, but the clinkity clack and ambient hum of metal-on-metal resounding between it and his fork alerted him. He casually separated it from the other contents of his plate, as he continued to respond to the surface-level banter that was being initiated from his mother, and also, but less so, by his father. When he was sure they were both looking the other way we removed it from his plate and put it in his pocket. He dutifully finished his plate, and went to his room, where he polished it clean and inspected it, and for the first time realized that nothing he had seen before could touch this piece of creation. When he looked at it closely he could see scenes from times that he recognized, but the familiarity only came from scenes in his head that weren't memories, but were assembled from the stories of his teachers and parents and peers and organized images from textbooks. Whole dramas were played out inside, and as soon as one finished it faded to black for a moment and a new one would arise from another time entirely and he realized that he was watching the history of the earth unfold, but not as the earth saw it, but as a human mind might remember it in the moments before its death.
At first, it was a source of entertainment, but he sensed, of course, that it was so much more than that. It was a gift. It was an advantage. His self swelled at the thought, and he granted himself a level of importance, a level trust and truth and grace and even thought himself to be a mystic. He thought this for as long as he could, until eventually he could not hide the unusual decay. One by one, bad things began to happen. But not the flavors of misfortune that one might expect. The synchronicity of the universe gave up on him. The spontaneous occurrences of his days that seemed to come straight from nowhere at all, but were so ripe with coincidence, and added so much to his life, as opposed to those coincidences that subtract from life, disappeared. Before he had met people on accident who became deep passionate friends within seconds, well before either one declared the friendship profound, but when both somehow knew. Now this never happened. Before he would see a shape in the clouds and then see the shape in the ordinary moments of his day, and he knew it was leading him somewhere, to something unknown, but something precious. Now this never happened.
In a word, he was sure, as sure as anything he had ever seen and touched, that it was destroying his soul—the soul he had never known whether to believe in, though now he did, and the choice was not his. With a subtle sense of regret, he knew he needed to let it go, deeply and irrevocably. In his youth he knew of nothing more irrevocable than the ocean, which had a depth and ferocity and presence that was so much more infinite than him, so infinite that he knew he could not even touch it, much like one could never touch the concept of infinity itself.
He did not live next to the ocean, but he found his way to one. On this particular day the sky was grey and foreboding, and a fine mist hung in the air, which saturated much more deeply than the depth of his skin, and winds swirled around him, thrashing his hair and biting his skin, and waves rose out of nowhere with chalky, foamy crests, spontaneously spraying salty spits of seawater, and crashing unapologetically up onto the wooden causeway. He stepped onto the pier, which looked ancient, but sturdy and indestructible, as ancient things often appear, and slowly walked to the end. He reached into his pocket and looked at it one last time. He watched a new scene begin to assemble as mist collected and obscured. He found himself getting seduced once again. Before he lost his nerve he threw it as far as he could into the apocalyptic waters.
The next time he found it, he was a young man, perhaps in his 30s. Yet those around him could have easily found him to be a child, with rouged cheeks and scuffed knees, a na•ve countenance, and cocky tongue. Still others could have just as easily, and still without culpability, found him to be a grey and withered man, with fierce, sullen eyes and leathered skin. He was accompanied by a companion—a wife—who was doting, but independent; practical, but whimsical. There is nothing else to add of her except to say that she was always present—aloof, but present. At his side was a child, barely reaching his waist in height. His hair was blonde and shaggy and when he looked at his father all things were possible and all things ceased. No more can be said of the child except that he was always present—demanding, but present.
The metallic sheen caught his eye while he and his family were walking through the streets of his city—once again the city does not matter, only that it is extensive and urban, with concrete and grass interwoven geometrically—in the early hours of night, after the sun had set and all was immersed in stillness, and the moon rained misty pearls. For as long as he remembered, and certainly since he first encountered life, he had loved this time, and he knew his son did too, because all things were new at this time and in this light and in this mist of pearls. His son looked up at him and said, "Dad, why can't the lights always be this way?" But instead of responding to the boy, and breathing out all the wisdom that fathers can breathe without consequence, because it does not matter to the child's white mind whether the answer is truth or not, he pursued the shine that appeared at the perfect center of the conical reservoir of light that flowed—since the city was born—from one of the hundreds of street lamps stretching indefinitely for as far as there was city.
He picked it up. And for a moment he forgot everything, like the people he was with, the shades of his skin, his thoughts, his deadlines, and schedules, his role and his identity. The first thing he noticed was its timelessness—years in the ocean did not tarnish the shine, or seep into the translucent surfaces, which were already arranging new scenes, colored by the years of new memories, but the familiarity to the old scenes was undeniable, because the years of new memories were, of course, piled upon layers of old ones. They melted and merged and the history of the earth started to unfold again, but this time the story was slightly different. He saw everything collapse into a single point, which was obliterated and the whole drama started again, with revisions. He closed his palm, looked back at his family—who seemed slightly farther than he imagined—and put it back in his pocket.
That night he cried. He spoke with it, and asked it questions, like, "why did you come back after I abandoned you?" It responded with images, preceding images, and stories, and scenes. A few emerged repetitively, almost obsessively. In one he had found a baby, with an old soul. It was still and non-reactive, but its eyes were more lucid, than anything he'd ever seen before. The infant would dissolve and reform into the shape of a woman—she had caramel skin, which reflected adorning ambient lights, and full tear-drop breasts that swayed subtly, and the smell of spring, and it wasn't long before he realized that she was an archetype, his archetype of temptation, and all that was irresistible. She reached her arms out and pulled his face into her lips, which could not have been described. He kissed them, and couldn't stop himself, despite the assault of his scruples, until she stopped moving her lips, and pushed his face back, as she turned and swam away like a siren, or a mermaid. She left whirling cartoon streams behind her, which turned into a gust of wind, tinted-turquoise, settling beneath a Bodhi tree, crossing its legs in meditation. As it breathed out it spilled itself out into the Earth, and when it breathed in, it pulled itself back inside.
He understood every word, every image, and he wrote it all into an ancient book, with a dusty leather cover, adorned with several esoteric symbols, which, even he, did not understand. When he was done scribbling the words in a hand that he knew he'd only barely be able to read when he returned to it, he closed the book and hid it in a dark corner of the closet he shared with his doting wife. When he remembered his son he opened the door to his room and kissed him goodnight. The boy, already tucked deep inside of his covers, rolled over, as the shaggy streaks of blonde fell into his face, and closed his eyes, without having asked his father a single question about the universe, like "what happens if you step into the space directly beyond the edge where space grows at the speed of light?" and "what makes space want to keep growing?" Nor did he ask for a single story, which the father would always just create as he went along, staying just a single word behind the leading edge of the tale his mind was creating. He only closed his eyes and fell asleep. When he remembered his wife, he slipped back into her bed and formed his body around her to meet her shape. Her body was a few degrees colder than he had remembered and it didn't react involuntarily to the sliding friction between their skin as it had every night before.
The next morning he awoke in the very same position, though his wife had churned and squirmed out of the pressure of his arms, and appeared somewhere else, which was not there, though the rippling outline of her body on the bed ignited gently. He reached for the book with the words he had just written the night before, and just as he suspected he could not read a single word, as each one was cloaked in the space of his mind the night before, which was not the space of his mind in the morning. He reached into his pocket, and took it out, and looked deeply into it for something he might understand, because at that moment he was as alone as he could ever remember being, and he knew he felt least alone when he understood. But it was dead, and blank, and for the first time there were no scenes, and no visions, and history refused to unfold. And for the second time he knew he needed to let it go.
He did not live next to a desert but he found his way to one, which he found to be the tearful and stark and unapologetic place where death lives most vividly. When he found his way to the center he could smell the latticework of salts, interwoven with the oblivious sand, which had only hitched a ride with all of history. On his hands and knees he dug feverishly into the sand, as a plumes of particles fluttered up and around him and drifted off, some in the kinetic shape of dust demons. He kept clawing, without a single thought fluttering through his empty mind or out through his pinched brow. He kept clawing until the hole was deeper than himself. He didn't stop until he could feel the heat of the mantle warming his fingertips. He tossed it in, his mind still unable to produce a single word, and poured the heaps of sand over the edge until the hole was not a hole at all.
The last time that he found it he was an old man, precisely 80-years-old, with a complex array of crevices stretching over the skin of his face and grey fibers spurting from his ears and nostrils. And yet, you could have easily, and without judgment, have guessed he was a child, with soft and nascent eyes, fully unaware of the weight of the life ahead of him. Others would quite reasonably assume that he was a virile young man, with a sturdy back and a virtually unlimited list of things to prove. The doting wife, and needy child who accompanied him for most of his life were now long gone, evaporated by time the way that all things are eventually. He was laying on a warm bed, in a small room, it's location perfectly unimportant, except to say that it could have existed anywhere. A faceless stream of men, whose names he did not know, nor did he desire to, cared and waited on him. He was close to death, and he knew it. He wore his skin like a loose robe, with folds flowing and bunching randomly over the contour of his body, where cracked sores grew fastidiously. Next to his bed, on a modern metallic stand was a complex array of orange pill bottles with white caps, designed to solve the innumerable puzzles of his illness. It was in one of them, labeled Cyclophosphamide, as he clumsily opened the white top to administer his daily dose, that his eye once again, and for the last time, caught the suspicious sheen. His dying body, foreign to the sensation of excitement for the last decade, became flooded with all the apparent symptoms of excitement. And it was not at all long before he was able to admit that they struck deeper than this word. He felt an unimaginable love. A raw, and eternal, almost painful love. The love that when felt needs no explanation or words. His hands felt no choice as he poured the entire contents of the bottle over the sheets that covered his body. His clumsy hands maneuvered over the pile until he held it in his hand again. It was more alive than it had ever been. The universe was born again, but this time he saw all of the details, minuscule moments that he had never seen before, and he was certain no one else had seen them either. After the first few nanoseconds he understood—he was seeing the birth of the universe from the perspective of God. He saw winds of consciousness begin to crystallize into particles, obtaining their dream and purpose, and then those particles condensing into stars, perpetually winding and withering and reconfiguring, until that consciousness became aware of itself, capable of all varieties of love, and aversion. He was enamored, and hypnotized by it, so much so that he could not have noticed the sores receding into his body, or the ancient folds of his droopy skin pulling together taught and youthful, or the grey in his eyes melting into a timeless white, or the disease once winding through his body, now retreating out through his shiny skin. He knew the significance of threes, so he knew he would never let it go again. And never again would his age be mistaken.
Scott Stambach holds degrees in philosophy, physics and education, teaches at a charter school in San Diego, and also performs in a band, produces music and surfs. His work is forthcoming in The Writing Disorder and Wild Violet.