My mentor sits lotus-style on the biggest chair I’ve ever seen. It’s beet-red velvet, flushed absolutely crimson, and is dangled all over with golden silk tassels. The room is otherwise green, full of leafy plants that hang densely from the high glass ceiling or stand in terracotta pots on the floor. There’s a wet warm smell, somewhere between a greenhouse and a summer afternoon, deep in a mossy forest, after a hard rain.
My mentor is ancient and wrinkled like a root-cellar apple in April. Under his coarse gray hood his blocky head is stubbly with close-cropped hair, and his full beard is smooth and white. He looks a bit like a wizard.
But wizards don’t use guns, and my mentor has a revolver resting in his lap, both his hands laid across it like it’s a sacred text he’s praying on.
“Let’s talk about the elephant in the room,” he says. His voice is low and smooth, a flowing viscous thing, sunned molasses poured from a clear jar.
The elephant comes from behind the chair, primeval, tuskless, furrowed, draped with a frayed scarlet mandala. Its soft lips cradle a huge joint, and smoke pours from the end of its trunk like a firehose repurposed. Delicately, it sidesteps the plants on the floor until it stands in front of me, completely blocking my view of my mentor.
“So what do you make of her?” my mentor says. I can’t see him. It seems like the elephant is the one speaking.
I study the pachyderm and meet her dark eyes. Long curling lashes. They’re beautiful.
“I want to say something different from what I’d say if this were any other animal,” I say, speaking to the elephant and knowing my mentor is listening. “But foremost, I make of her the absolute and complete dedication to life.”
“This elephant has nothing to live for except herself, her offspring, and the good of her herd. Everything she’s ever going to do will be to improve her own station or to do good for her family, right? She’s not busy holding grudges against other animals or wondering how the elephants on the other side of the savannah are doing and how she can get a little of what they have.”
“Good. And not at all as cliché as you might think it.”
The elephant takes a long drag, holds it, and belches a mantle of smoke from her trunk. It hangs hazy in the warm air.
“No. Tell me why.”
I watch the elephant, smoking, watching me, gently curling and uncurling her trunk. Pebbles of sunlight are easing their way down through the masses of hanging green, speckling the flagstone floor.
“Because when you get down to it, every animal except your human is pretty much the same. All about their own well-being and the survival of their kids. Their conflicts aren’t really systematic. I mean, the elephants never held the howler monkeys captive or went to war with them.”
“You’ve mixed up your continents, but yes, that’s about right. Do you think we’re oversimplifying the complexities of animal nature?”
“We’re simplifying, but I don’t think oversimplifying.” I smile just a little. “Otherwise, we’d be here all day.”
The elephant inhales again, deeply, and the plants in the room bow in the wind she makes. The joint flares orange at the tip, burning down the reeking stub until it’s gone. She trumpets out the smoke, and when the cloud clears, she’s gone. My mentor is looking at me from his chair, his eyes bright green and shining under his hood.
“Let’s do geography next,” he says.
He slaps his forehead, and we’re standing in the doorway of a steamy streetside ramen shop.
“Where are we?” he says.
“Of course not.”
“Still in the Green Room.”
There are two chefs, a man and a woman, bustling behind the bar, filling bowls, stirring pots. On the wall behind them there is a colorful woodblock print of a cartoonish elephant slurping ramen noodles with his trunk, and some Japanese characters I can’t identify:
“So what’s going on here?” my mentor asks. I notice that his hands are lost in the folds of his robe, and I wonder whether he is still holding the gun.
Before answering, I observe. The sound of a koto comes from a tinny, unseen transistor radio, and a simple schoolroom clock on one wall shows that it’s nearly half past ten. There are two salarymen at the bar with red faces, loose ties and undone collars, debating something passionately with a trucker in a checked shirt, the three of them slurping and chopsticking their noodles and spilling pale yellow beer on the counter. A few other people—an old woman without a single tooth in her withered mouth, a teenaged girl with a nickel-sized scarlet birthmark under her left eye, a yakuza-looking guy whose irezumi peek out from under his white shirt cuffs—are sitting waiting for their bowls. There’s no door to the shop, just a hanging line of tapestries strung on a rope across the opening. It’s mostly foot traffic outside, a couple bicycles swishing past here and there. There’s a light, misty rain falling, blurring the electric lights of the narrow street into a damp haze.
“Normal evening in Tokyo?” I say.
“Try again.” He fiddles with something in his robe, and my heart jumps.
I turn back into the shop. The other customers have been served, and the two chefs have stopped work to hold each other’s hips. They smile into each others’ eyes, and the woman unties her apron and lets it drop to the floor. The man smiles at her sweetly, and unbuttons her blouse. He nudges it off her shoulders, and kisses her lips delicately, as though they are ribbed pink porcelain and may shatter at a touch too forceful. She wraps her arms around his neck, and their clothes continue to fall—his shirt, her bra, his belt and trousers—until they are naked behind the noodle pots.
None of the other customers seems to notice. They carry on eating and talking and slurping as the man cups the woman’s small breasts with his hand, the woman kneads his muscled brown back, and softly, slowly, with a gentleness fragile like lace, they begin making love against the counter.
“What do you think?” my mentor says.
“I think that, despite everything that’s going on, this is the least erotic thing I’ve ever seen.”
I watch them for a moment, the wrinkled brows and small smiles, the look of love between them.
“Each of them is focussed completely on the pleasure of the other, and the wholeness of a shared moment. Nobody else enters into the equation—it’s an absolutely closed system. The customers aren’t even bothering to watch, because it’s not about them at all. It’s about the two of them together.”
With small sounds the man bows his head and the woman throws hers back. When their climaxes are complete they begin to shimmer, as though I’m seeing them through the haze of rain outside. I blink a few times, thinking perhaps, just perhaps, I’m crying from the beauty of witnessed love, the desperation of an unarticulated and ignored loneliness, or the roaring confluence of the two. But when I open my eyes they are two squat green frogs wearing white aprons and hachimaki, sitting on their haunches and stirring the noodles.
“And so we all revert to animalism,” my mentor says sagely. I nod, before shaking my head.
“Wait, no,” I say. “That doesn’t make any sense at all.”
“Could there be a worse comparison for intimacy between humans than frogs? They mate for like five minutes, and all the male does is spray his sperm into the water, hoping it hits some of the female’s eggs. That’s not even really animalistic. It’s just, I don’t know. Business as usual for your frog.”
“You’re right—don’t pay too much attention to me! But I couldn’t resist.”
“Couldn’t resist what?”
He shakes his head in a never mind! type way, and takes a seat. I sit next to him, and he orders two bowls of ramen in rapid Japanese. The frogs nod and ladle them out for us.
“You said we were going to talk geography,” I said.
“Yes, and aren’t we?”
“No. I don’t get it.”
“You were wondering—I do still have the gun.”
The hot broth scalds my throat, and I think hard.
“More tricks,” I say. My mentor smiles. “It doesn’t matter where you are. At the root, where every other root and stem and leaf and branch ultimately grows from, we want food and camaraderie and love. Japan, Bhutan, Croatia. The odds of being from anywhere are astronomically small and your whole life springs from that single point in space. But you can be absolutely unique, and exactly the same as everyone else.”
“How do you feel about holding two exactly opposite views in your head?” My mentor takes my chopsticks, plucks the slivers of narutomaki from our bowls and holds them in front of his eyes. “A little crazy?”
“If you can let go of the idea that everything needs to be one or the other, that a binary system is simply how the world operates, it’s not so bad. But getting to that point isn’t easy.”
“How far along are you? Rough idea.”
“I feel like I’ve picked up ‘and,’ but I still haven’t quite dropped ‘or.’”
“Well, it’s a start. Eat up, you’re going to need your strength.”
He taps his nose with his forefinger, and we’re back in the glade of the Green Room. I’m sitting, barefoot, on an embroidered purple floor cushion, and my mentor is back in his chair, wiping miso broth from his beard with a lacy napkin. The light has changed. It’s nearing the golden hour, and drops of mist hang in the air, flaring orange and red and gold. There is the buzzing of bees, the smell of honey and black pepper.
My mentor closes his eyes. I do the same. He hasn’t volunteered any information, and I don’t want to ask for any. My breathing deepens, my mind stills. The sound of bees and the warm smells fade.
“Open your eyes, please.”
When I do, we’re in a new room. A long, narrow room, which stretches up and away to blackness. I’m on my cushion still, my mentor on his chair, and we are surrounded by clocks. They stand and hang against the infinite walls, grandfather clocks, carved cuckoo clocks, water clocks, ancient sundials, tiny pocket watches. The dim blue tiles of the floor are only inches wide, each showing a round white face and thin hands, a million moons running away into the darkness. Between my mentor and me, a plain hourglass stands on an arabesque cast iron dais.
“Are you going to ask me what’s going on?” my mentor says.
“No. I’m going to figure it out.”
He nods serenely and closes his eyes again.
The room is silent, the clocks all still. The hourglass is half full, half empty, and the creamy sand is stationary, un-flowing between its two bulbs.
This is where time has stopped, I think, but don’t say. Much too easy.
I stand from my cushion and step to one wall. Taking an old-fashioned alarm clock off a shelf, I wind it, but nothing happens. I replace it and walk towards the receding blackness behind my cushion. More clocks appear along the walls as I go forward. I turn around, and I am the same distance away as when I started. I try walking backwards while looking at my mentor breathing smoothly in his chair, but everything wobbles like I’m seeing it through a simmering heat wave. Nothing moves.
I sit on my cushion again.
“Time hasn’t stopped,” I say. “We’re still here, existing, and if we don’t exist for a duration we don’t exist at all.”
My mentor’s eyes open, oceanic blue. “Correct.”
“And there’s no chance that we’re visiting a place outside of time, because we’re duration-based beings. Fish out of water scenario.”
“I know the answer.”
“Oho! Still approaching things in terms of right and wrong? Reverting to binary thinking, the quest for the Ultimate Truth?”
“In this case yes, because it’s very simple. The clocks are broken. Time is functionally immutable, and at the level of trying to do anything about it, it’s just not worth thinking about.”
“I knew we would have fun together. I’ll only say that time is universally immutable, but not inter-universally immutable. What else?”
“Well, linearly, regarding our own timeline, we were discussing geography, and now we’re here. More of the same—geography fixes you, but so does time. Exceptional mundanity. Do you have a pen and paper?”
“No, but you do.”
I pull them both out of my pockets, happy to see that the paper is graph paper, and draw a simple x- and y-axis. “So, x is time, clearly, and y is varying values of geography—places, in other words. If I had enough paper and time, and really good census records, I could plot out every single person who has ever lived, because at every point in their lives, they have been existing somewhere.”
I put one dot on the graph and draw a straight line along the x-axis to the right. I mark another dot above the first, and move the line down until it hits line number one. Over on the y-axis I write Ramen Shop and Home above it, and I divide the x-axis into six or eight half-hour intervals.
“Here’s our couple from the ramen shop. Let’s say the man is on the bottom, the woman on top. Maybe he was at the shop early preparing the broth, and the woman left home and joined him a little later.”
“Good. But if you carry this very far in either direction, you’ll notice something.”
Up and down, in and out, push and pull.
“Well, if you try to simplify the y-axis, everyone’s geography becomes really reductive. Ramen Shop becomes Arakawa, Arakawa becomes Tokyo, then Kantō, and so on. Eventually you would just have Universe, and that doesn’t tell you anything. You’d just have billions of dots along the same line. And if you simplify the y axis, you’d end up with All Time, and just a bunch of dots on top of each other.”
“And that doesn’t tell you anything?”
I blink at my own slowness. “Togetherness. It seems reductive, but from a wide enough angle, everyone’s together.”
“How about the other way?”
“If you try and expand, x carried to infinity turns into instants, flashes of time so small they’re way past any possibility of conscious human experience. Every line would go forever. And if y gets more and more detailed—like, say, where in the ramen shop? Behind the bar or sitting down with friends on the other side? Which seat?—eventually you’d get to…” I falter, my train of thought derailing. I sit down. My mentor pulls the gun from his robes and lays it across his lap.
“You’re doing well,” he says. “Don’t give up. I would hate to have to use this now.”
“Okay, let me think.”
“You don’t need my permission.”
Sweat breaks on my forehead, and a drop rolls down my nose. I close my eyes to try to ignore the gun but I hear the ruffling of his sleeves and can see in my mind’s eye that he’s raising it, pointing it at my head and I hear the click of the cocking hammer.
“A person,” I say. I look up and we’re only feet apart now, and I am staring at forever or never in the revolver’s black barrel.
“If you keep getting more detailed, eventually you can’t say where a person is anymore in relation to three-dimensional space. Once you’ve reached the geometric point that’s the center of their physical mass, the only way you can go further is to say that they occupy the space of themselves. No lines would ever cross. A person irreducibly occupies a person.”
He lowers the gun.
I fold the graph up and tuck it into my pocket.
“Meaning that togetherness is, ultimately, an illusion.”
He opens his mouth and flicks his cheek. There is the sound of a water drop, and we’re in the Green Room again. The air is thick with green hummingbirds and blue butterflies, plunging beaks and proboscises into bright flowers in search of nectar.
“Which leaves us where?” my mentor says. I’m relieved to see the gun has vanished.
“With another contradiction,” I say, and unconsciously I’ve started to smile. “While we’re alive, we’re together all the time. It’s also impossible for us to really be together, when you get down to it.”
“And how do you reconcile this?”
“That’s not the right word. You don’t need to reconcile anything—they’re just two opposite truths.”
“You’re letting go of ‘or.’”
“I think I am.”
“This should be easy, then.”
In a flash, he whips out the gun, cocks it, and there is a hot eradicating blast of fire.
I’m conscious of the bullet piercing my forehead, of my hair blowing back from my face in its wake. Although I recently established that time is universally immutable, it seems just now as though it’s slowed down enough for me to feel the slug passing through my brain, one wrinkle of pink stuff after another. It’s impossible to describe how it feels to think around a bullet. Eventually, sometime between immediately and forever after, it tears through the back of my skull.
There’s lightness, freedom in my mind, cleared now of this lead extrusion. I find that my eyes are closed, and the visions I’m having are vivid. An elephant emerges from a lush green forest. Its face dissolves into multicolored geometric fractals, and the sound of its trumpet is reduced to grainy notes of brass.
Two scarlet parrots, wheeling together above an endless plane of shallow, still, blue ocean. The bones of ancient ships poke from the sand and out of the water, starfish crawl among curled pink coral, shoals of tiny fish dart and ripple the surface.
And an old pond, nighttime, surrounded by reeds tipping in the wind. A small frog swimming silently in the reflection of the white full moon.
I open my eyes.
The moon fades into my mentor’s face. He’s tucking the smoking gun back into his robes. The Green Room is lit with the early blue of morning, and there’s a pleasant chill in the air. From outside, I hear the song of waking birds.
“Tell me what you did,” he says.
“I stopped thinking that I had to be either alive or dead.”
“Which, of course, leaves us with a question—what are you?”
“I don’t think that’s a question that needs to be answered.”
“Because once you’ve answered, there’s an answer.”
My mentor smiles. “I’m impressed. Very good.”
He grabs the leathery lobe of his left ear, and tugs.
Noah Codega is a writer, musician, and gardener from downeast Maine. When not busy with the three previous things, he also enjoys messing about in boats. This is his first publication. In the event he ever figures out how Twitter works, you can find him at @noahcodega