This story was written for the November Monthly Short Story Writing Challenge held by our writing community at the EA Forums. If you write SimLit, we’d love to have you join us! We have a new challenge each month!
It had been many long years since Liam Dillard had heard the birds sing. It wasn’t that they sang no more–although, for all he knew, they may have stopped completely. It was that he had lost the capacity to hear them.
He heard plenty: his students’ voices when they whispered during algebra tests. The ticking of the clock in the middle of the night when he woke alone in the moon’s blue shadows. The scraping of branches against the bathroom skylight. But birds? He was incapable of hearing their songs.
They had listened to them every morning. She loved mockingbirds. He used to grumble each February, when one eager mockingbird belted out his repertoire at four a.m. every morning, until she said: Listen. First the finch. Then the song sparrow. Now the wren. And wait! Next will come the beeping of the garbage truck as it moves into reverse!
And when he realized that the mockingbird did indeed have a standard set through which he sang each morning, he lay beside her with open eyes, delighting in the repeating patterns.
Mathematically, he understood the variances in the sine waves between the original and the mockingbird’s mimicking tones, yet he knew, too, that in rare cases, such as this, sometimes the derivative could surpass the prime. What was lost when the mockingbird repeated the song in his own cadence? Only the complexity of the jagged. And what was gained? The simplicity of the pure.
In those early years, Liam Dillard’s life revolved around a central point: Meredith.
They’d met at university in a scene worthy of any romantic comedy: racing to his Stochastic calculus class he collided with her as she rushed to Life Drawing, and when she lowered her portfolio, and he looked into her eyes, all became silent. He saw, within her twinned silver galaxies more universes than he ever imagined existed. Neither made it to class that day, and the next day, she began to move some of her things into his flat, and before the term ended, the two of were living together, and his roommates had moved out.
During their university years, they’d made an agreement never to miss another class, yet on many days, they would lose their resolve, and spend long mornings lounging in bed, lost in pleasure or conversation, and after they rose, ravenous, and ate the meals they hastily prepared together–sausage, cheese, sauteed onions, ginger, and kale and balsamic vinegar, baguettes torn into rough chunks, coffee, red wine–they would lose themselves in conversation again until she would pull out her sketchpad and he, his mathematics notebooks, and when they looked up, the sky would be fading into dusk and the daylight hours would be lost and they would find themselves in the kitchen again, making a salad and pasta and a pot of coffee, and then after clearing up the supper dishes they would talk until midnight led them to bed. But they made it to enough classes to earn their degrees, and afterwards, for a handful of years, they taught together at a small private school, and the students’ parents spoke with high regard of the mathematician and his wife, the artist.
And then all of that was lost, and, after her death, the parents began to murmur of “the poor mathematician” in his solitude.
He took her canvases down first. He couldn’t bear to see them. He called her students and asked them to help themselves to her art supplies. Her clothes were donated to a homeless shelter.
He wanted their home to be empty. But it wasn’t. He was empty inside, but all around him, nothing was empty. Every room resonated with memories and ghosts of the sounds of their laughter and conversations. Space, he learned, was not empty.
Space contained all the whispers, all the thoughts, all the feelings, every hushed conversation, every memory that had ever happened within its container.
A single dust mote was more world than this in which he lived, for each mote carried within it the compacted record of all that had been lost, while within his world was simply the reminder of his own emptiness.
Around this time, he discovered that 84.5% of the matter in the universe could not be accounted for. Large chunks were simply lost. Astronomers and physicists had theories, but no one knew for certain.
What happened to lost matter?
How could energy simply fade?
Where did it go?
Eating a meal, he became conscious of the transference of energy and matter into his own body. Calories, vitamins, mineral, carbohydrates, sodium, fiber, every bite he ate, his body broke down into its simplest units to absorb what it could and release what it couldn’t. Yet what was lost?
A carrot did not retain its essential carrotness as it became part of him. Where did it go? What happened to the essence of carrot as it merged with the essence of himself?
What had happened to all that had merged with him? He could not find her there, within his cells, within his memory. It was as if every synapse of every moment they had shared together had been severed, and the emptiness echoed louder than her laughter had ever sounded.
Where did matter go?
Every spare moment, he devoted to his investigation through decades of lost years, until he taught no more and lived out his retirement in his room empty of all art except for the diagrams which he drew to illustrate his principles. Using his mathematical theories, he began to apply statistical analysis to astronomical data, and he discovered that stellar mass incompleteness could be accounted for by the existence of dark matter. To test dark matter, he needed to examine relations.
What if the carrot did not disappear? What if its essential carrotness simply became absorbed within his being?
“Small objects are dense, so they can maintain their integrity during mergers,” he read in an article written by Keeton, a former classmate in Stochastic calculus.
He watched the dust mote as it floated through the room in all its completeness.
What if matter was never lost?
He woke one morning to find that he was no longer empty inside. A mockingbird sang.
He threw open the window, and the spring air rushed inside the room, carrying with it pollen and birdsong.
“I must go to woods!” he cried. He had retired long ago. There was no one to report to, no one to call. He drove his old Volvo station wagon to the mountains, so he could walk beneath pine and find his way to meadow.
Everywhere, birds were singing, not just the mockingbird, but thrushes, wrens, warblers, vireos. He followed a chickadee’s call into a mountain clearing, and there, he found a woman, near his age, standing with her face tilted towards the sky, barely visible beneath the branches.
“I thought I had the forest to myself,” he said.
“It is yours!” she answered. “It belongs to any feet that find themselves here!”
Her eyes–entire galaxies swam within them and little bursts of light sparkled like stochastic star formations.
“I could lose myself,” he said. But she didn’t hear, for she was laughing and her laughter merged with the singing of the wren and he wondered about the sine waves as they joined each other and where could he find the derivative and which was the prime?
They walked together and before he knew where he was, he found they were sitting together at a campfire and she was talking about the seasons.
“I thought I would never see another spring,” Liam said. “But something tells me that thought was premature.”
And nothing was lost. Not stardust nor a dust mote. Not a carrot’s essence nor a birdsong. Not the light from a stochastic star formation, nor laughter, nor the memory of a girl long, long ago, who carried a black portfolio that held within it drawings of shifting patterns of shadow and light. It was all found, and it was all within him.