"What does unadorned beauty look like?" Or something like that.
An abrupt stillness came upon the snowstorm, as if the weather itself had posed the question. Not being able to see five feet in front of me, it didn't seem entirely unlikely. The voice didn't seem to exist in one direction, strewn into the whispery space all around in but a second. The bright and biting snow had left me disoriented, and I was sure I had been walking in entirely the wrong direction since breaking down on the highway a half-mile back. Just keep North, I told myself, because being lost is for people who take too many turns, like that even matters when each slow step is into the exact same nothingness. Suppressing thoughts of the various scenarios of my death out in the cold I turned to where I thought the voice came from and shouted above the again-angry storm, "Hello? Is that you, God? I can't talk now but if you've got any mechanic experience I could use your help!"
The blizzard snarled.
I nodded my head as if I understood.
There's nothing like being lost for the first time, that pit of fear clinging to your guts; it's as unique a feeling as being in love, but very similar to other firsts: feverish thoughts, resurfacing regrets in the familiar forms of shoulda, coulda, woulda. I was more inclined to relive my first day of school, meeting my wife's father for the first time, and my first day away from home all combined then trod on in the maddening white fluff.
Gradually, the outlines of trees formed on the horizon and a road recently plowed angled up from the highway into an inviting path I'm sure led to a house. Ignoring my brief auditory hallucination and any thoughts of death I followed the trail all the way to an inlet of lampposts and a dark brown fence, the lattice entwined with some vine producing a few flowers even in this harsh climate. I entered the gate and made my way to the front porch of a humble cabin home and before I could even clean off my boots and make myself presentable the door opened revealing an old man, and without prompt he said, "Come on in traveler, our Mother Nature is less than welcoming."
I entered the blissfully warm home, still a little wary of the kind gentleman, but happy to think I may in fact survive the night. I stripped down my sodden layers and found refuge on a spacious couch in the living room. Just as I was comfortable the old man had returned from fetching hot cocoa he had prepared; he was tall and lean, graceful for his age, but with hands that were more scarred and beaten than anything--indeed if not for those calloused and aged hands he could have passed for a decade younger.
"You're too kind, sir," I said as I accepted the cup and watched him take a seat on an adjacent sofa, simply smiling at me.
"It's almost as if you were expecting me," I half-laughed nervously.
"Oh? I'm sure it was just luck."
His cryptic reply gave me no solace. After a moment of silence I decided to steer the conversation myself.
"Thank you for taking me in by the way, my name's Rick."
He looked tired, it had to be very late in the night but he still smiled, and I took that as an invitation to continue.
"So do you stay here alone?" I continued.
"Mostly I do. These days anyway."
"This is a hell of a place to hole up by yourself, especially at your age."
"I'm not sure I know what you mean."
"Well, what if something were to happen to you? You fall outside, break something, and no one to call for help. You'd be stiff in the snow in an hour." I tried not to sound too morbid. Perhaps I could have tried harder.
"I'm sure Death isn't all that bad. It's not meant to be."
I wasn't used to the rhythms of the man's voice, it was a strange dance; the emphasis off on a few syllables, the vague wandering away from the end of his sentences as if he was speaking to himself mostly. Conversing was a bit of a struggle but it intrigued me. "Well I hope I can look at it that way one day. I've imagined my own demise too much for one night."
"May I ask you a question, Rick?"
He paused, looked flustered for a second, and then continued, "What does unadorned beauty look like?"
I must have looked dumbfounded for a good minute. Regaining speech eventually I inquired, "Excuse me sir, are you a witch?"
"I'm sure I'm not, but are you?"
More cryptic talk. The old geezer had a knack for annoying the regular flow of speech.
"I heard that exact same question no less than a half hour ago out in the storm. It can't be coincidence."
"I'm sure I'm not the only curious one to want an answer."
I glanced toward a window that did not face the porch. Everything about this place was becoming stranger, and retreating back out into the white-flurry-suicide machine didn't seem like a completely insane thing anymore.
The old man seemed fixated with me now, and his foreign voice no longer had the signs of age his body had, it was lyrical, clear. "Let me ask it another way. If the world were to end, what's worth saving?"
Now certain I was simply passed out in the snowstorm and suffering severe hallucinations brought on by hypothermia, I decided to bite on his question.
"A child's laughter, a sunset over the sea, Bill Nye the science guy," that last bit produced another smile from him.
"You're not trying hard enough," he said wryly. "It's important that I know."
"I'm not sure what you're asking though, sir," images of shadowy lizards danced along the walls, the living room was lit by a gentle fire; the flickering light almost taking on a supernatural aura, but I was simply passed out. In the cold. Dying. Somewhere else. I thought.
After a silence I offer "What about love?"
"That's the wrong word."
"Sanskrit has 96 words for love. Choose one of those."
He seemed to be remembering something someone had told him, "No, there's more to it, Love, I mean - we haven't gotten it figured out completely. Don't know how to create it. Keeps showing up."
"You've lost me."
This goes on for hours. I get up to take a leak, come back, he's still just sitting there patient as a lamb. I was not so patient, this seemed like an oddly long hallucination and I just hoped death would come for me soon. After another long pause of thinking I feign a sleepy yawn, and then an exaggerated stretch "Man, I dunno. What day is it?"
"What do you mean?"
"You know, like, Monday? Tuesday?"
"I don't follow you."
"You don't know what days are?" I am seriously in need of therapy at this point. "Come on, you can't be that senile."
He smiles again, "Enlighten me."
Beginning to think this is a spiritual test before dying that everybody goes through, I continue to play along.
"Okay, well a long time ago people decided to give this repetitious, sublunary life an added monotony by masking it in fancy wrapping; candy-coated illusions."
"To put it very simply, everything we know or have known falls on a day, everything."
"Mmm hmm. What exactly is a day?"
"24 hours, approximately how long it takes the little blue ball we call Earth to spin around completely." Now I am making sweeping hand gestures the more I hear myself talk. No doubt channeling my former life as a kindergarten teacher for the old and decrepit, re-teaching them the basics of humanity.
"So why is that important?"
"Because of the dichotomy. A day holds light and darkness, it's like a symbol of life's duality I guess."
"How do you keep track? Is there a point?"
I begin to really think about our conversation and it seems sadder and sadder. Maybe the grand joke of life is that just before we die we have to hold conversations about the pointlessness of everything, really hammer out every detail of our failed ideas and beliefs. It's more than kind of cruel.
I am thinking all of this when I say, "There's only 7 of them."
"Only 7 days?"
"Yeah, and they just sort of repeat themselves until nobody notices anymore. Rather, until we just don't care."
"Isn't it ironic that so much diversity, so much intricate life can be spun on the same seven threads for so long? Isn't that what you'd call irony?"
"Hm. How poetic."
"So how do we find out what day it is?"
"Um, well, is there a calendar here somewhere?"
"I barely know what's here sometimes." A second passes where I really think I am just talking to a senile old man, and god damnit it's a comforting feeling.
"Oh actually, wait a sec," I fetch my watch from my jacket pocket I left by the door, "it was Tuesday, but it recently changed, now it's Wednesday."
"I hadn't noticed."
"You never can."
His luminous gray-eyed stare passed over everything in the room, but I could tell his thoughts were elsewhere.
"It's also 3am. Do great-grandparents have a bedtime?"
He looked puzzled. I was beginning to enjoy the tint that gave to his face.
"My bad, um, aside from days our lives are split into hours, minutes, and seconds and even smaller seconds. On the larger scale there are weeks, months, years, decades, centuries, millenia."
"And the point?"
Around this time I've wandered over by the fireplace, talking more to myself than to the old geezer, "We record our history on these concepts, our present is given a pace, our future has a vague shape because of them. But it's kind of flawed. I mean, how long can you keep going forward without really ever moving? It's the great con of the human condition."
"What do you call it?"
"Time. We call it 'time'."
"Well," he stands up to meet my eyes, "I think we found it."
"Found what?" I rub my eyes from lack of sleep and produce another vacant yawn.
"That's what we're going to save when everything here is done. That's the one beautiful aspect humans have left on this universe."
He motions towards the snowstorm outside the living room windows, "Everything in its right place. Time is an imitation of nature, repetitive, cerebral; but one of the only real things of existence unmarred, unadorned."
"If you say one more poetic thing I will be forced to end my own life." I was kidding, kind of.
"Have you ever been beyond the Border, Rick?" He was smiling again, and I thought his frail lips would crack from the effort.
"Like, Canada? I was actually just heading there but my car broke down. You can come if you got any tools I could--"
"I wasn't asking for a ride. Where we're going is much further."