Eternity. That was the word. The boy mouthed the consonants one more time, “T..n..tee,” thinking the syllables silently to himself.
But the mother heard him anyway. “What was that you said?”
“I didn’t say nothing,” he answered.
“Yes, you did. I could hear your mouth moving. Now tell me what you said.”
“Eternity? Where would you hear a word like that? Who’ve you been talking to?”
“Nobody.” Her expression told him that a “nobody” answer would not satisfy the mother, so he elaborated, “I mean Sunday school. They said it in Sunday school.”
“Why would anyone talk like that to a five-year-old?” The mother took his hand as they left the gravel road − a short¬cut through the woods would save them a quarter-mile − but she walked too fast for his short legs to keep up. And so, half running, he was half dragged along in her wake. “These Presbyterians have some strange notions about religion, talking eternity to a kid who’s not old enough to understand tomorrow.”
The mother was wrong, of course. Since he had never broached the subject of time, she assumed he hadn’t yet mastered the concept. But he had. He knew all about tomorrow. He understood that tomorrow never comes, and yet it passes anyway.
But he really wanted to understand eternity, and he wasn’t at all clear on that. He could see how minutes fit together into hours and hours into days, days into weeks and weeks into years. But how did they all fit together into eternity? When it was all said and done, would there be any minutes left over?
All things have edges. He knew that. And no matter how big a thing may be, eventually, you have to come to the edge and move on to something else.
But now the Sunday school teacher tells him that time is so big it doesn’t need any edges − that it had no beginning and will never end. He had no reason to doubt this assertion; liars don’t teach Sunday school, after all. And yet he couldn’t imagine anything so big it wouldn’t have edges. He would have to think about it.
Rumination came as naturally to the boy as running and skipping come to most children. He, himself, seldom ran or skipped. It detracted from his concentration. Sometimes, when he had a really big thought to think, he would just stop wherever he was and sit down, the better to focus. But he did his best thinking lying on his back and lost in the depths of a clear blue sky. If there were clouds to distract him, he would close his eyes, but the endless blue of the summer sky was conducive to deep thinking.
And so, he spent much of that summer lying on his back in a secret glade just inside the woods behind their shack, trying to picture something so big it didn’t need edges. Many times, he came close. He would have it just beyond his grasp. But when he then tried to focus his thoughts more clearly, to extend his understanding just enough to envelop this elusive concept, it would fly away out of reach like a hummingbird in the morning breeze. And he would have to begin again, building his comprehension one concept at a time, coaxing it nearer in fits and starts.
But on the day he finally achieved the full understanding of eternity, he hadn’t even been thinking about it. He had been lying on his back, it’s true − with the brother holding him down, trying to feed him a frog. But he had been concentrating on nothing more profound than keeping his mouth firmly shut, when he happened to look over the brother’s shoulder into the infinity of summer sky.
And suddenly it all became clear.
Time doesn’t flow. It stands still while people move through it. And all time that ever was, all that ever would be, was here right now. It always had been, and it always will be. This sudden insight revealed more than mere knowledge to the boy. He clearly understood why it was so − why it had to be so. He could calculate the implications and see how all the disparate pieces fit together to make up the universe.
So, the Sunday school teacher had been right. Time will never end. Not only that, but time also has directions − not just the one. It has a front and back, depending on where you’re looking, of course, and a left and right, and an up and down. But it has other dimensions as well − dimensions that have no names.
And this revelation released the bonds of ignorance that had held him captive in the present, for − never having learned otherwise − he saw the possibility of controlling the course of his passage through time. Even lying on his back with the brother sitting on him, he could travel forward to tomorrow or back to yesterday. He could go back to see the parents as children, or the grandparents. Traveling forward, he saw things he didn’t want to know. But going farther still, he realized that it all made no difference anyway.
He saw that space, too, has more than the three dimensions with which he was familiar. He, himself, was no longer the small 3-D person he’d always known himself to be. He was enormous; he extended in all directions through several dimensions. That little piece of him that protruded into the third dimension now appeared, to his mega-self, as pitifully fragile and comically insignificant. At the moment, that insignificant little piece was perilously close to eating the brother’s frog, and he withdrew it just in time to avoid spoiling his dinner.
This left the brother sitting alone on the ground still holding the frog but unsure of what to do with it. He looked around for the boy who had somehow slipped his grasp, confident of his immediate recapture. But the boy was gone − not in the tall grass − not hiding behind the tag alders.
The brother couldn’t accommodate this situation with his understanding of the world. People don’t dissolve right out from under a fellow. Perhaps the boy was dead. The brother had never seen death. Is it possible that dead people just disappear? If the boy really was dead, then he must have killed him. The brother released the frog and started home, certain he’d got himself into trouble again.
Even from his enlarged perspective, the boy found the brother’s bafflement amusing. A creature now of a larger universe, he retained many of the attitudes and appetites of his three-dimensional self. And his laughter sent gravitational waves rippling across the light-years of his extended body.
The mother was complaining about the neighbors again. The boy hadn’t been listening, so he didn’t know which neighbors, or the nature of their offense. But, from the escalating volume of the mother’s discourse, he judged that the time had come to withdraw into his multi-dimensional realm. It was quiet there. And a boy could explore. At home, parental restrictions limited the range of his investigations. Here he could project himself out across the universe to survey distant galaxies, or through time to visit dinosaurs.
But he preferred the exploration of ideas. He spent countless happy hours probing the multidimensional labyrinth of space and time, ferreting out the answers to all his questions. And each answer posed new questions that hadn’t occurred to him − questions no one had ever thought to ask. He learned that unanswered questions are keys to set the spirit free, unquestioned answers are prison bars. The wonders of the universe lie beyond the reach of those unfortunate people who will brook no challenge to their convictions. They have fallen prisoner to their certainties.
Eventually, of course, he had to go home.
“Don’t tell me you didn’t go anywhere.” the mother scolded. “I can’t turn my back and you’re out the door. Now tell me where you went.”
“Honest, I was here all the time.”
That was all perfectly true, in a manner of speaking. Of course, he meant a different “here” from the “here” the mother understood. Already, he had adjusted so completely to his new knowledge that he couldn’t relate to people like the mother who remained stuck in the more mundane reality. He tried to explain but, with his limited vocabulary, he couldn’t make her understand.
“What other directions are you babbling about? There’re only four ways you could have gone: toward the road, toward town, to the woods or the sawmill.” The mother turned, jabbing with the willow switch, as she recited the four directions that defined her world. “Now tell me again where you went. Point if you can’t explain it.”
“I went the other way,” he said again, pointing a magenta crayon straight up toward the ridgepole.
“No, you didn’t go up.”
So, he pointed in one of the many other directions that are perpendicular to all the rest. And, as he did so, the mother watched the crayon disappear.
“How did you do that?”
The mother had always wondered about this boy − the one who seldom spoke and preferred to play alone. Though she was not superstitious by nature, still she harbored suspicions of nefarious influences. And she entertained thoughts of necromancy before her common sense convinced her it was only sleight-of-hand. She thought it possible that the boy had taught himself a magic trick. And so, she invited the neighbors to come see what the boy could do. But rather than suffer unwelcome scrutiny, the boy pointed himself perpendicularly and disappeared.
When the mother died not long after, people marveled at the boy’s stoic acceptance of the loss; others condemned him for his cold indifference. But he thought the fuss they made was unnecessary. Only that very little piece was gone, after all − hardly a greater loss of tissue than a haircut − certainly of no more concern. Since most of her continued as it always had, why should anyone mourn such a small sacrifice?
Spending much of his life in the greater world, the boy in time became the man. Still, carnal pleasures beckoned to his earthly appetites. And so, in their proper time, he wooed, and he wed, and he fathered.
And he told the woman about space and time, and how events are interrelated. He told her that individual events are knots in the fabric of the universe. He explained how each event was both cause and effect, father and son to every other event. He told her that, just as events in the past influence the future, so do events in the future influence the past. He explained that a change anywhere in space and time would reverberate across the entire universe, transforming everything all the way back to the big bang and forward to the farthest periphery and that undoing any knot would cause the entire fabric to ravel.
She smiled sweetly as he spoke, so he thought that she listened. But, in all their years together, she didn’t contribute a single notion to their conversations − never posed a provocative question. Carnal pleasures eventually palled for him. The woman grew quarrelsome, lashing out with her tongue, lacerating the air around her.
But she wouldn’t notice when he’d slip off into another dimension.
The children provided his only sustained local pleasure. He couldn’t teach them to throw a football or climb a tree − things he’d never done himself. But he told them about eternity, and he told them about another Sunday school concept that had confused him long ago. He told them, in the vernacular he believed they would most likely understand, that heaven was just perpendicularity gone crazy. He described its countless avenues and corridors waiting to be explored. He explained that continuing exploration is, not only the road to heaven, but heaven itself. Those road maps, available at any spiritual filling station, point the way to perdition and mediocrity.
But the children didn’t understand, and he didn’t press. He knew that eventually, they would discover heaven for themselves.
Those who cannot lead and will not follow must be content to walk alone. He had blazed a trail no one could read, nor could he retrace his steps. At the very moment of his revelation, a chasm had opened between him and the rest of his species − a chasm that widened with each passing year − rendering his increasingly rare attempts at communication increasingly frustrating, increasingly futile.
One day he realized that the children had grown up and were gone. The woman too had disappeared while he was off tending to other worlds. Things had changed without his knowledge or consent. He had failed to notice as the world had been sold and subdivided, dismantled, and reassembled, electrified and plumbed, curbed and guttered, paved and sodded, and sold again.
And so, life passed. In his forty-fifth year, a runaway garbage truck jumped the curb, as he’d always known it would, and struck that little piece of him with sufficient force to tear the fragile tissues joining it to his larger self. As he lay broken and bleeding on the sidewalk, he mouthed the word one final time, “T..n..tee,” thinking the syllables silently to himself.