Maps in a mirror, p.44

Maps in a Mirror, page 44

 

Maps in a Mirror
 



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  “I have a better idea. Let’s take ten thousand worlds filled with people who live their lives like animals, always hungry, always quick with their teeth and their claws, and let’s strip away the veneer of civilization to expose to them what they really are. And then, when they see themselves clearly, let’s come back and teach them how to be really human this time, instead of only having bits and flashes of humanity.”

  “All right. Let’s do that.”

  “I knew you’d see it my way.”

  “Just make sure your husband finds out how the trick is done. Then we have all the time in the world to set it up and pull it off.”

  When the index was done, Deet brought Leyel with her to the library when she went to work in the morning. She did not take him to Indexing, but rather installed him in a private research room lined with vids—only instead of giving the illusion of windows looking out onto an outside scene, the screens filled all the walls from floor to ceiling, so it seemed that he was on a pinnacle high above the scene, without walls or even a railing to keep him from falling off. It gave him flashes of vertigo when he looked around—only the door broke the illusion. For a moment he thought of asking for a different room. But then he remembered Indexing, and realized that maybe he’d do better work if he too felt a bit off balance all the time.

  At first the indexing seemed obvious. He brought the first page of his questions to the lector display and began to read. The lector would track his pupils, so that whenever he paused to gaze at a word, other references would begin to pop up in the space beside the page he was reading. Then he’d glance at one of the references. When it was uninteresting or obvious, he’d skip to the next reference, and the first one would slide back on the display, out of the way, but still there if he changed his mind and wanted it.

  If a reference engaged him, then when he reached the last line of the part of it on display, it would expand to full-page size and slide over to stand in front of the main text. Then, if this new material had been indexed, it would trigger new references—and so on, leading him farther and farther away from the original document until he finally decided to go back and pick up where he left off.

  So far, this was what any index could be expected to do. It was only as he moved farther into reading his own questions that he began to realize the quirkiness of this index. Usually, index references were tied to important words, so that if you just wanted to stop and think without bringing up a bunch of references you didn’t want, all you had to do was keep your gaze focused in an area of placeholder words, empty phrases like “If this were all that could be . . .” Anyone who made it a habit to read indexed works soon learned this trick and used it till it became reflex.

  But when Leyel stopped on such empty phrases, references came up anyway. And instead of having a clear relationship to the text, sometimes the references were perverse or comic or argumentative. For instance, he paused in the middle of reading his argument that archaeological searches for “primitiveness” were useless in the search for origins because all “primitive” cultures represented a decline from a star-going culture. He had written the phrase “All this primitivism is useful only because it predicts what we might become if we’re careless and don’t preserve our fragile links with civilization.” By habit his eyes focused on the empty words “what we might become if.” Nobody could index a phrase like that.

  Yet they had. Several references appeared. And so instead of staying within his reverie, he was distracted, drawn to what the indexers had tied to such an absurd phrase.

  One of the references was a nursery rhyme that he had forgotten he knew:

  Wrinkly Grandma Posey

  Rockets all are rosy.

  Lift off, drift off,

  All fall down.

  Why in the world had the indexer put that in? The first thought that came to Leyel’s mind was himself and some of the servants’ children, holding hands and walking in a circle, round and round till they came to the last words, whereupon they threw themselves to the ground and laughed insanely. The sort of game that only little children could possibly think was fun.

  Since his eyes lingered on the poem, it moved to the main document display and new references appeared. One was a scholarly article on the evolution of the poem, speculating that it might have arisen during the early days of starflight on the planet of origin, when rockets may have been used to escape from a planet’s gravity well. Was that why this poem had been indexed to his article? Because it was tied to the planet of origin?

  No, that was too obvious. Another article about the poem was more helpful. It rejected the early-days-of-rockets idea, because the earliest versions of the poem never used the word “rocket.” The oldest extant version went like this:

  Wrinkle down a rosy,

  Pock-a fock-a posy,

  Lash us, dash us,

  All fall down.

  Obviously, said the commentator, these were mostly nonsense words—the later versions had arisen because children had insisted on trying to make sense of them.

  And it occurred to Leyel that perhaps this was why the indexer had linked this poem to his phrase—because the poem had once been nonsense, but we insisted on making sense out of it.

  Was this a comment on Leyel’s whole search for origins? Did the indexer think it was useless?

  No—the poem had been tied to the empty phrase “what we might become if.” Maybe the indexer was saying that human beings are like this poem—our lives make no sense, but we insist on making sense out of them. Didn’t Deet say something like that once, when she was talking about the role of storytelling in community formation? The universe resists causality, she said. But human intelligence demands it. So we tell stories to impose causal relationships among the unconnected events of the world around us.

  That includes ourselves, doesn’t it? Our own lives are nonsense, but we impose a story on them, we sort our memories into cause-and-effect chains, forcing them to make sense even though they don’t. Then we take the sum of our stories and call it our “self.” This poem shows us the process—from randomness to meaning—and then we think our meanings are “true.”

  But somehow all the children had come to agree on the new version of the poem. By the year 2000 G.E., only the final and current version existed in all the worlds, and it had remained constant ever since. How was it that all the children on every world came to agree on the same version? How did the change spread? Did ten thousand kids on ten thousand worlds happen to make up the same changes?

  It had to be word of mouth. Some kid somewhere made a few changes, and his version spread. A few years, and all the children in his neighborhood use the new version, and then all the kids in his city, on his planet. It could happen very quickly, in fact, because each generation of children lasts only a few years—seven-year-olds might take the new version as a joke, but repeat it often enough that five-year-olds think it’s the true version of the poem, and within a few years there’s nobody left among the children who remembers the old way.

  A thousand years is long enough for the new version of the poem to spread. Or for five or a dozen new versions to collide and get absorbed into each other and then spread back, changed, to worlds that had revised the poem once or twice already.

  And as Leyel sat there, thinking these thoughts, he conjured up an image in his mind of a network of children, bound to each other by the threads of this poem, extending from planet to planet throughout the Empire, and then back through time, from one generation of children to the previous one, a three-dimensional fabric that bound all children together from the beginning.

  And yet as each child grew up, he cut himself free from the fabric of that poem. No longer would he hear the words “Wrinkly Grandma Posey” and immediately join hands with the child next to him. He wasn’t part of the song any more.

  But his own children were. And then his grandchildren. All joining hands with each other, changing from circle to circle, in a never-ending human chain reaching back to
some long-forgotten ritual on one of the worlds of mankind—maybe, maybe on the planet of origin itself.

  The vision was so clear, so overpowering, that when he finally noticed the lector display it was as sudden and startling as waking up. He had to sit there, breathing shallowly, until he calmed himself, until his heart stopped beating so fast.

  He had found some part of his answer, though he didn’t understand it yet. That fabric connecting all the children, that was part of what made us human, though he didn’t know why. This strange and perverse indexing of a meaningless phrase had brought him a new way of looking at the problem. Not that the universal culture of children was a new idea. Just that he had never thought of it as having anything to do with the origin question.

  Was this what the indexer meant by including this poem? Had the indexer also seen this vision?

  Maybe, but probably not. It might have been nothing more than the idea of becoming something that made the indexer think of transformation—becoming old, like wrinkly Grandma Posey? Or it might have been a general thought about the spread of humanity through the stars, away from the planet of origin, that made the indexer remember how the poem seemed to tell of rockets that rise up from a planet, drift for a while, then come down to settle on a planet. Who knows what the poem meant to the indexer? Who knows why it occurred to her to link it with his document on that particular phrase?

  Then Leyel realized that in his imagination, he was thinking of Deet making that particular connection. There was no reason to think it was her work, except that in his mind she was all the indexers. She had joined them, become one of them, and so when indexing work was being done, she was part of it. That’s what it meant to be part of a community—all its works became, to a degree, your works. All that the indexers did, Deet was a part of it, and therefore Deet had done it.

  Again the image of a fabric came to mind, only this time it was a topologically impossible fabric, twisted into itself so that no matter what part of the edge of it you held, you held the entire edge, and the middle, too. It was all one thing, and each part held the whole within it.

  But if that was true, then when Deet came to join the library, so did Leyel, because she contained Leyel within her. So in coming here, she had not left him at all. Instead, she had woven him into a new fabric, so that instead of losing something he was gaining. He was part of all this, because she was, and so if he lost her it would only be because he rejected her.

  Leyel covered his eyes with his hands. How did his meandering thoughts about the origin question lead him to thinking about his marriage? Here he thought he was on the verge of profound understanding, and then he fell back into self-absorption.

  He cleared away all the references to “Wrinkly Grandma Posey” or “Wrinkle Down a Rosy” or whatever it was, then returned to reading his original document, trying to confine his thoughts to the subject at hand.

  Yet it was a losing battle. He could not escape from the seductive distraction of the index. He’d be reading about tool use and technology, and how it could not be the dividing line between human and animal because there were animals that made tools and taught their use to others.

  Then, suddenly, the index would have him reading an ancient terror tale about a man who wanted to be the greatest genius of all time, and he believed that the only thing preventing him from achieving greatness was the hours he lost in sleep. So he invented a machine to sleep for him, and it worked very well until he realized that the machine was having all his dreams. Then he demanded that his machine tell him what it was dreaming.

  The machine poured forth the most astonishing, brilliant thoughts ever imagined by any man—far wiser than anything this man had ever written during his waking hours. The man took a hammer and smashed the machine, so that he could have his dreams back. But even when he started sleeping again, he was never able to come close to the clarity of thought that the machine had had.

  Of course he could never publish what the machine had written—it would be unthinkable to put forth the product of a machine as if it were the work of a man. After the man died—in despair—people found the printed text of what the machine had written, and thought the man had written it and hidden it away. They published it, and he was widely acclaimed as the greatest genius who had ever lived.

  This was universally regarded as an obscenely horrifying tale because it had a machine stealing part of a man’s mind and using it to destroy him, a common theme. But why did the indexer refer to it in the midst of a discussion of tool-making?

  Wondering about that led Leyel to think that this story itself was a kind of tool. Just like the machine the man in the story had made. The storyteller gave his dreams to the story, and then when people heard it or read it, his dreams—his nightmares—came out to live in their memories. Clear and sharp and terrible and true, those dreams they received. And yet if he tried to tell them the same truths, directly, not in the form of a story, people would think his ideas were silly and small.

  And then Leyel remembered what Deet had said about how people absorb stories from their communities and take them into themselves and use these stories to form their own spiritual autobiography. They remember doing what the heroes of the stories did, and so they continue to act out each hero’s character in their own lives, or, failing that, they measure themselves against the standard the story set for them. Stories become the human conscience, the human mirror.

  Again, as so many other times, he ended these ruminations with his hands pressed over his eyes, trying to shut out—or lock in?—images of fabrics and mirrors, worlds and atoms, until finally, finally, he opened his eyes and saw Deet and Zay sitting in front of him.

  No, leaning over him. He was on a low bed, and they knelt beside him.

  “Am I ill?” he asked.

  “I hope not,” said Deet. “We found you on the floor. You’re exhausted, Leyel. I’ve been telling you—you have to eat, you have to get a normal amount of sleep. You’re not young enough to keep up this work schedule.”

  “I’ve barely started.”

  Zay laughed lightly. “Listen to him, Deet. I told you he was so caught up in this that he didn’t even know what day it was.”

  “You’ve been doing this for three weeks, Leyel. For the last week you haven’t even come home. I bring you food, and you won’t eat. People talk to you, and you forget that you’re in a conversation, you just drift off into some sort of—trance. Leyel, I wish I’d never brought you here, I wish I’d never suggested indexing—”

  “No!” Leyel cried. He struggled to sit up.

  At first Deet tried to push him back down, insisting he should rest. It was Zay who helped him sit. “Let the man talk,” she said. “Just because you’re his wife doesn’t mean you can stop him from talking.”

  “The index is wonderful,” said Leyel. “Like a tunnel opened up into my own mind. I keep seeing light just that far out of reach, and then I wake up and it’s just me alone on a pinnacle except for the pages up on the lector. I keep losing it—”

  “No, Leyel, we keep losing you. The index is poisoning you, it’s taking over your mind—”

  “Don’t be absurd, Deet. You’re the one who suggested this, and you’re right. The index keeps surprising me, making me think in new ways. There are some answers already.”

  “Answers?” asked Zay.

  “I don’t know how well I can explain it. What makes us human. It has to do with communities and stories and tools and—it has to do with you and me, Deet.”

  “I should hope we’re human,” she said. Teasing him, but also urging him on.

  “We lived together all those years, and we formed a community—with our children, till they left, and then just us. But we were like animals.”

  “Only sometimes,” she said.

  “I mean like herding animals, or primate tribes, or any community that’s bound together only by the rituals and patterns of the present moment. We had our customs, our habits. Our private language of words and gestur
es, our dances, all the things that flocks of geese and hives of bees can do.”

  “Very primitive.”

  “Yes, that’s right, don’t you see? That’s a community that dies with each generation. When we die, Deet, it will all be gone with us. Other people will marry, but none of them will know our dances and songs and language and—”

  “Our children will.”

  “No, that’s my point. They knew us, they even think they know us, but they were never part of the community of our marriage. Nobody is. Nobody can be. That’s why, when I thought you were leaving me for this—”

  “When did you think that I—”

  “Hush, Deet,” said Zay. “Let the man babble.”

  “When I thought you were leaving me, I felt like I was dead, like I was losing everything, because if you weren’t part of our marriage, then there was nothing left. You see?”

  “I don’t see what that has to do with human origins, Leyel. I only know that I would never leave you, and I can’t believe that you could think—”

  “Don’t distract him, Deet.”

  “It’s the children. All the children. They play Wrinkly Grandma Posey, and then they grow up and don’t play anymore, so the actual community of these particular five or six children doesn’t exist any more—but other kids are still doing the dance. Chanting the poem. For ten thousand years!”

  “This makes us human? Nursery rhymes?”

  “They’re all part of the same community! Across all the empty space between the stars, there are still connections, they’re still somehow the same kids. Ten thousand years, ten thousand worlds, quintillions of children, and they all knew the poem, they all did the dance. Story and ritual—it doesn’t die with the tribe, it doesn’t stop at the border. Children who never met face-to-face, who lived so far apart that the light from one star still hasn’t reached the other, they belonged to the same community. We’re human because we conquered time and space. We conquered the barrier of perpetual ignorance between one person and another. We found a way to slip my memories into your head, and yours into mine.”

 
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