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The Story of Evolution, Spring 2005
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A Spring Afternoon

Anjali Vaidya

She fell asleep at her desk one day, and when she woke up time had stopped.

She sat staring bleary eyed at the clock for several minutes before she registered that something was wrong. Time had stopped at 2 minutes and 35 seconds past 1 o'clock in the afternoon. The hands of the clock were frozen. Or else perhaps the battery was just dead.

She climbed up onto her desk to take the clock off the wall and replace the battery, and discovered that it wouldn't move. She could feel or imagine she felt the clock beneath her hands, the smooth hardness of the glass, but her hands didn't seem to be able to connect with it. It was the oddest sensation and she was, needless to say, extremely perplexed.

Huh, she thought.

She climbed down off the desk and sat back down in her chair. She stared at the book she'd been reading before she'd fallen asleep. It was lying open, the words staring blankly at the ceiling. She bent forward and blew at the pages experimentally. Nothing happened, not a flutter, not the barest whisper of movement. No air had reached it, in fact. The breath had left her lungs and died before it crossed the threshold of her lips. She turned and stared at the room about her, at the utter lack of movement, the utter lack of sound. She sensed that air molecules hung about her, frozen, motionless, crystalline.

She stood up carefully and walked out the door down the hallway to the living room, where her mother had been reading the newspaper. Her mother still sat in an armchair, the newspaper held at an angle before her, her eyes absorbed in a single letter of a single word. They did not move. She passed a hand back and forth in front of her mother's face a few times to no effect and then stopped, quickly turning her hand towards herself to look at her palm. It looked odd: bluish and ever so slightly translucent. She had a sudden thought that it might not truly be there, that it might just be an image conjured up by her mind, putting a hand where she expected to see a hand but where there was in fact only empty space.

This is so bizarre, she thought. And then, after a moment, Why am I not panicking? Shouldn't I be panicking about something like this?

But no. She felt calm. Lucid. Tranquil. She looked about the living room, noticed that the long filmy green curtains on the windows had frozen as they billowed out in a passing breeze. She felt as though she'd strayed into a world of dreams and shadows where nothing was real but the thoughts in her mind.

The door of the porch was propped open. Her mother liked to leave it open to let fresh air in. She walked outside into a frozen world. It had rained that morning, and the sky was still overcast. Clouds hung above, pearly white and purple and grey. There was a faint grey mist in the air, and the trees that stood along her street seemed slightly ghostly and not of this world. Their trunks had been stained dark by the rain, and green leaves shone unnaturally bright like tiny jewels strung together into a fine meshwork above her head. The pavement was wet, the street black with rain. She stepped out the gate directly into a puddle which did not reach her bare feet.

This is actually kind of fun, she thought. In a twisted, hallucinogenic Alice in Wonderland kind of way.

The weather looked cold but she did not feel cold. And though the street was wet and rough with dirt and gravel her feet stayed clean and dry. At the end of the street was a bus stop at which a lone woman sat. She stopped as she walked by and moved closer, looking at the woman with curiosity. It was as though she gazed at a superbly detailed wax statue. Every eyelash, every pore stood out in the misty afternoon sunlight. And every moment she expected the woman to look up and then look away with discomfort at being stared at. But the woman stayed frozen. Long dark hair stood out slightly around the woman's head where it had been blowing in the wind. A strand of hair had fallen against her cheek and one hand was half raised to brush it out of the way, her fingers outstretched, poised, elegant. Her other hand lay on her knee, and her eyes seemed to rest on that hand, her eyes half closed and far away.

Normally I would never look at a person like this, she thought to herself. Normally I would think it was rude to stare.

The woman stayed silent, frozen. Not a breath of air stirred. Not a sound could be heard. The woman's face was tired, her eyes sad with an old sadness. She felt an odd desire to know more about the silent woman, to know more about her life.

I wonder why you're sad, she thought. I wonder where you're going and why you're going there. I wonder if you ride the bus every day and sit at this bus stop every day and I've simply never noticed you. I wonder what you had for breakfast this morning and if you'll go home to an empty house tonight. I wonder what your dreams and hopes and thoughts are.

But the woman stayed silent and her still face offered up no answers. It was as though she gazed at a single snapshot in a photo album of the woman's life and could only imagine what the rest of her life had held. A single frozen moment gave no answers, told no stories. It merely bred a multitude of questions.

She walked on, feeling suddenly wistful and sad. Everyone has a story, she mused. Everyone has a million and one stories that they never share with anyone. But this world without time had no stories. A single moment indicated and shared nothing.

She had reached a main street, now. Turning her steps she threaded her way through cars and bicycles and motorcycles standing motionless in the street, drivers with their hands frozen midway to honk their horns. She looked in one car window at a woman halfway through fixing her hair in the backseat, one hand running a comb through her long hair while the other tried to make her little boy sit down in the seat next to her. He had come free of his seatbelt and was sticking his head out the window, a big grin on his face as he waved at a man walking a dog on the sidewalk. The man was waving back with a smile while his dog, a gigantic German Shepard, had continued on regardless and now tugged impatiently at the leash.

She gazed at the frozen tableau with mild amusement. The man was wearing a black raincoat and sunglasses, and she wondered why he would be wearing sunglasses on a cloudy day. The German Shepard had its nose in something by the side of the road, and the red leash stretched taut, brilliantly red against the damp dark brown fence that stood behind them.

She leaned against the car door, suddenly weary and unsure where to go next. The silence of the world had begun to grow unnerving. It was not a silence made by the mere absence of sound, a silence which one could expect to be broken any minute by the fall of a pebble or a rising wind. Rather, it was a silence so deep and absolute that it difficult for one to believe that sound had ever existed.

Why was the man in the black raincoat wearing sunglasses on a cloudy day? She would never know. She could guess. She had a thousand guesses. But she would never know. Perhaps his eyes were so sensitive that even weak sunlight bothered him. Perhaps he had conjunctivitis and carried the quaint cute belief that he would spread it just by looking at people. Perhaps his eyes were actually laser beams and if he took off his sunglasses it would kill people. Or maybe he was just in the mafia.

A world of wax statues has no meaning, she thought sadly. These people may as well be dead. I'm ready to wake up, now.

And then as if on cue her elbow accidentally brushed the little boy leaning out the window and the world exploded with sound.

Children's laughter from all sides. There is a birthday party in progress. The floor is strewn with wrapping paper and confetti and toys. The children are wearing overly cutesy cheap party hats covered with pictures of clowns and flowers and rabbits. Two little boys are flinging cake at each other. A little girl sits at the window and looks outside and sings to herself while she taps the window with a stick. A couple of the children are bouncing up and down on the couch and blowing into whistles. Another group congregates around a puppy that the little boy has just received. The puppy is a black Labrador with a red ribbon around its neck, and its tail wags furiously as the children fight over who gets to hold it and it tries to lick everyone's faces simultaneously. The children are shrieking with laughter. "Give it! I want to hold him now!" The room seems deafening. A mother stands to the side and watches the proceedings with weary amusement, while the father takes picture after picture with a little black camera.

As suddenly as the vision began it was over. She found herself back where she had been, leaning against the car door with the silent little boy half-hanging out the window, reeling and disoriented from the sudden return to stillness and quiet. Sound still rang in her ears.

She stared at him in wonder. Did that really just happen? How did I do that? She reached out a hesitant hand and touched the boy on the head.

He sits in a classroom, legs swinging and feet idly kicking at the sides of the desk. The teacher is sitting at the front of the class and reading a story out loud while he doodles on a piece of paper. The words of the story wash over him and he pays attention with only half an ear. It's not a very good story. He liked yesterday's much better. He's drawing a dragon with fire coming out of its mouth that sits in the middle of a ruined castle. Screaming stick figures flee across the drawbridge and out across the boundaries of the white page.

And the vision was gone again. She had seen inside his mind! That must have been it. She had seen the little boy's memories. Suddenly animated, she stood up and walked on, her feet bringing her to an open air café sitting by the side of the road. The proprietor sat lounging at a table near the counter, smoking a pipe. She had known him since she was a child eating at the café with her parents, and he had always scared her. He was a big man with a thick black beard and heavy scowling eyebrows. He rarely spoke, and when he did it was in a deep sullen gravelly voice. He intimidated her now as well, seeming to loom even when sitting down. But her treacherous feet took her closer, driven by morbid amused curiosity. He had always been both a figure of fear and an object of amusement to herself and her friends, quiet and sombre and forbidding and strange as he was. She had always suspected he had dark secrets hidden in his past, and now she had the power to find out. The idea of the potential of her new power was exhilarating. She felt omniscient, God-like. And so naturally she reacted by behaving like a child.

She plopped herself down in the chair next to the man. "You're not so scary, really," she whispered to herself. Her whisper made no sound but she did not care. "Let's see what's in there." She reached out a hand and touched his forehead.

He sits in a dimly lit kitchen and peels an orange. The orange is large yet still dwarfed by his huge hands, huge hands with large fingers which are still oddly nimble and delicate as they deftly tear off strips of peel. The orange gives off a sweet, strong, pungent aroma that fills the room. Pieces of its smooth bright waxy peel already form a neat pile on the wooden surface of the table before him. Somewhere in the distance a clock chimes. It is very late at night.

As he peels his eyes are hooded and distant; dark circles around his eyes show he has not slept well for many days. Memories swim before his vision as he peels the orange.

He is thinking of his mother's face. He hears her loud echoing laugh and voice and sees her broad smile. He remembers her gentle work-roughened hands as they peeled an orange for him as a small child. He remembers how juice would dribble over his hands and down his chin as he savoured the taste, the sweetness, the texture and aroma of the fruit.

He remembers his wife's hands and her delicate fingers as he had watched them peel an orange at a picnic years before. He had been mesmerized by her hands. They had moved so swiftly and gracefully it was as though they danced, taking off the peel in one long strip. And he had grown so caught up in the sight of her fingers and hands that she had leaned over and stuffed a slice of the orange into his mouth.

"What are you dreaming about?" she had laughed. But he had only smiled and said nothing.

Both gone, now. Both women long dead and gone. He realizes that he has been holding the now peeled orange in his hands, staring without seeing it. The sweet fragile fruit is cool against his hands. Somewhere in the distance the clock ticks. The sound seems to echo in his empty house.

Time has no meaning in solitude. The people he had loved and who had loved him had died or left years before, and at some point after that time had stopped. Every day drifted past, no different from the one before. Every day drifted past, trivial and meaningless and at the same time lasting an eternity.

He tears off a piece of the orange and bites into it, then makes a face as he finds that it is dry and bitter in his mouth. Placing it down with a muttered curse, he rises and leaves the room, switching off the light behind him.

And the vision was gone. The big man sat frozen and silent beside her once more. She rose quickly and backed away, feeling guilty and embarrassed. A deep sadness had spread across her spirit. She had intruded where she had not been wanted and berated herself for it. She let her feet take her out of the café, feeling dazed and sad, angry with herself and lost in thought. As she stared at the street of frozen people once more she felt that she could see what the man had meant. Solitude and timelessness went hand in hand. Time had frozen for the entire world but not herself, and yet for her it still had no meaning. It was contact with other human beings, with other minds that made time meaningful, that made life meaningful... In the absence of stories and human conversation and a sharing of souls there was nothing but the eternal, ever changing present. In the solitude of her mind time did not exist.

She walked, not knowing where she went or to what purpose. The sidewalks were crowded here and in her aimless wandering she brushed against countless people as she passed by. Images and visions continuously flickered about her, disconnected and disorienting.

A rose petal falls. A woman sits alone, playing a sad haunting melody on a piano, fingers flying across the keys. A teardrop rolls down a cheek. A baby laughs. An old woman dies in a dark room, while a young man holds her hand. A girl and a boy sit holding hands on a hilltop. The sun sets in a sky filled with dust and smoke. An eagle flies. Cars rush by on a highway. The cold white moon looks down on a campfire. A girl in a white dress sits in a tree and reads a book on a lazy sun-kissed summer's day. A gunshot is heard followed by the sound of running feet and screaming. A warm wind blows dust over an empty road. A cheek stings from a slap in the face. Two people hug at a train station. A heavy suitcase is lugged down a long flight of stairs. A whistle blows. A lone bird sings.

The stories blurred together and began to overwhelm her.

A flower carefully kept in a vase slowly wilts. A child listens late at night in bed to the sound of his parents fighting upstairs. A cat sleeps in a pool of sunshine. A girl stands in an empty room and twirls slowly to imagined music. Days pass swiftly. Days pass slowly. Time and death and love and hate and anger and forgiveness and beauty and darkness roll into one. Chaos and quiet and music and laughter and joy and sadness interweave so intricately that one can no longer tell where one begins and the other ends.

So many stories like strings of pearls woven together in a delicate pattern, like an endless cacophonous beautiful tapestry. She felt omniscient. She felt filled with a limitless sweet liquid joy and a limitless dark heavy sorrow. She felt as though she were drowning. Is this what it would be like to be God, she wondered? To know every story, to know every mundane tiny beautiful or shameful detail of every being on the planet? For as time went on she felt other beings whom she did not see intruding upon her consciousness. She felt she could catch glimpses of other minds without having to touch them anymore. It seemed to her as though she was losing herself entirely, that she was becoming a bodiless selfless wraith floating upon the tide of the cacophonous memories and images and ideas that engulfed her. The idea of losing herself sent a sudden wash of terror through her and she fled, stepping blindly off the sidewalk and into the cool safety of an open doorway.

Images faded. Cacophany receded. She could still feel it flickering at the edges of her mind but she had peace and quiet again. She sank to the ground and for a while merely sat there, collecting herself and reassuring herself that she was still there. Her mind was not large enough to carry the stories of everyone who lived and dreamed, she reflected. Yet the experience of being able to touch so many lives had still been phenomenal.

After a time she began to look about her and realized that she sat in the doorway of a small bookstore. Curious, she stood with some effort and peered inside. It was a bookstore she had never noticed before. The store was tiny and crammed so tightly with books that they rose from the floor to the ceiling. There were actual bookshelves within the bookstore, she surmised, but the quantity of books had long ago surpassed the capacity of the bookshelves and books stood in stacks several layers deep that all but obscured the shelves they nominally stood upon. Fascinated, she ventured inside. She walked down a narrow corridor, books towering precariously above her to either side. The farther she went away from the open front door the darker it grew. At the end of the corridor was a tiny lit enclave, in which a woman sat upon a stool reading in a pool of lamplight. She ventured closer. Careful not to touch the woman and unleash a flood of memories, she peered over her shoulder at the book that she read. She read the page once and then again, and furrowed her brow in thought. It both fascinated her with its implications and made absolutely no sense. A conversation was occurring between two characters, apparently named Teddy and Nicholson.

"Okay," Teddy said. He was sitting back in his chair, but his head was turned toward Nicholson. "You know that apple Adam ate in the Garden of Eden, referred to in the Bible?" he asked. "You know what was in that apple? Logic. Logic and intellectual stuff. That was all that was in it. So – this is my point – what you have to do is vomit it up if you want to see things as they really are. I mean if you vomit it up, then you won't have any more trouble with blocks of wood and stuff. You won't see everything stopping off all the time. And you'll know what your arm really is, if you're interested. Do you know what I mean? Do you follow me?"

"I follow you," Nicholson said, rather shortly.

"The trouble is," Teddy said, "most people don't want to see things the way they are. They don't even want to stop getting born and dying all the time. They just want new bodies all the time, instead of stopping and staying with God, where it's really nice." He reflected. "I never saw such a bunch of apple-eaters," he said. He shook his head. (1)

The woman's hand obscured the rest of the page. See things as they really are, she mused. But who decides what reality is, anyway? And then, And what's an apple-eater? What on earth is this conversation about? She looked thoughtfully at the woman engrossed in the book. I'll bet you know, she thought. I'll bet you could explain it to me. I wonder... She had had a sudden idea, and reached out a cautious hand towards the woman's head to test it. Rather than touching her head, though, she let her hand continue on through beneath the surface. And there, there it was: she could see the woman's mind. Thoughts hung frozen like the silky strands of a spider web strewn with frozen dewdrops, like luminescent threads hung with tiny jewels. She closed her eyes and breathed and the mind surrounded her.

What is this story about? she whispered, sending out the thought delicately, gently, like a breath of air that barely stirred the frozen strands of jewels that hung about her.

And at first there was nothing, but then a faint answering thought echoed back: It is about a little boy who achieves Enlightenment.

You've read it before?

Many many times.

What's an apple eater?

A pause that may have lasted an eternity, or perhaps merely a fraction of a second before the thought returned. Someone who uses too much logic, who puts too much store in what they have learned and seen and felt.

But what do apples have to do with it?

The apple in the Garden of Eden. The fruit of knowledge. The boy in the story likens Enlightenment to a return to innocence, discarding all preconceived notions about the world. He purges himself of the apple.

Oh, I see. So that's what he means when he says the apple contained logic and intellectualism. But wait, how can one live without preconceived notions? How can one live without logic and without drawing off of what one has learnt and seen and felt?

You don't. You've achieved Enlightenment and you join God. It's like he says in the story. You leave your body and go to a nicer place.

She paused and thought for a long time. Or perhaps she only thought for a fraction of a second. She could not say. And then, But that would be the end of stories, she mused.


I don't like that. I would not want that. I like stories. And I like drawing from things I've learned and seen and felt and building new stories. I like knowing about the world and puzzling out its messiness and beauty and complexity. I like learning about other people's lives and seeing their quirks and strengths and darkness and light. And how is any of that not real? Who gets to decide what reality is, anyway? Isn't my reality as good as anyone else's?

I really couldn't answer that.

But haven't you read this story a bunch of times and thought about it a lot?

I'm currently frozen in time and unconscious, remember?

Oh. That's true. But, still. I happen to like apples, you know.

As you wish. Many do. Suit yourself.

She briefly nodded her thanks, then, and withdrew from the woman's mind, finding herself back in the tiny bookstore crammed with books. But as she withdrew her translucent hand from the woman's mind, she noticed that something had come with it. It looked like a tiny bright mote or jewel, like a miniature firefly hovering in mid air. It floated and seemed to gravitate towards her even as she moved her hand away, glowing with a steady light that shone from within.

She stared at it, curious and perplexed, and then it came to her. Of course - it's an idea. That's what an idea looks like. That's what a meme looks like. She opened her hand and let it float onto her palm, and cupping it carefully held it up to her face. I wonder if I can find out what idea it is, she thought. She gently touched it with an index finger, nudging the minute bit of light. It felt warm to the touch and tingled just a bit, and sent a rush of blurry nonsensical impressions through her mind. The colour blue. A breeze, rapid movement, heaviness, darkness... She withdrew her finger and blinked, perplexed. That was odd. And yet as she sat and mused about it she understood.

I suppose there's no reason why ideas should make sense disconnected from the mind they were created in, she reflected. They are not really independent entities. And I guess that although an idea can be spread through words or images, the words and images will be interpreted differently by every person who encounters them.

She leaned back against a stack of books behind her, lost in thought. So the word spread is kind of misleading, she mused. Ideas don't spread in the sense that they pass from one being to the next as independent entities, but in the sense that every being remakes the idea anew, and always with their own slight differences... Interesting.

She carefully placed the idea back where it had come from, and then stood up and walked out of the bookstore. As she walked she saw more of the tiny motes trapped within the pages of the books that she passed, as though someone had sprinkled glitter all over the store. Millions of ideas.... Merely potential ideas, though. Potential ideas to be interpreted differently by everyone who encountered them...

She paused in the doorway, looking out at a frozen busy main street still bathed in cloudy early afternoon sunshine. This has been fun, she thought. But I think I'm ready to go home now. And so she threaded her way through frozen pedestrians and frozen traffic, and after walking at a leisurely pace she ultimately found herself standing outside her house once more. She stood for a while, pondering, and then looked up at the great old trees lining her street and a smile spread across her face. I wonder... she thought. She walked up to the tree that stood outside her gate and reached out a hesitant hand, spreading her palm against its trunk. The images that poured into her mind were slow and grand and quiet.

There was above all the sense of endless time. What the tree knew was great age and great patience and time continuously passing like sand pouring through a funnel. Season cycled after season, and the tree grew, slowly, branches reaching out to the sun and spreading to form a canopy. Leaves unfurled and spread and grew and then slowly died and fell to carpet the ground, and the next year the cycle repeated itself. Sunlight shone through leaves sending dappled shadows onto the ground. The sun went down and the moon came out, spreading its cold white light over the world. The moon disappeared and sunlight warmed the tree's branches again. Little lives grew within the wood, grew and died within a heartbeat. Birds nested in the branches and flew away in a sudden confusion of wings and colour. Squirrels crouched motionless upon its branches for a moment, all senses alert, then disappeared up the tree with a swish of a bushy tail. Time passed like sweet honey oozing from a honeycomb, golden honey illuminated by sunlight as it falls slowly to pool upon the ground.

The vision slowly receded and she closed her eyes for a moment as it did, savouring the retreating impressions. She smiled and slowly opened her eyes once more. "Thank you," she whispered voicelessly up at the tree. And then she walked back inside her house and once inside back to her room, in which she saw that she was still asleep at her desk. Somehow she had known that that would be the case.

She paused and pondered the image of her sleeping figure, for a moment. It was an odd sensation to be looking at herself from the outside. She tilted her head and gazed at her own still features, serene and at peace in repose. She could almost believe that she were dead. But then, she thought, isn't sleep like the little death? Every time we sleep perhaps we've died for a tiny space of time. And perhaps when we die this is what happens permanently: we step outside of our bodies and outside of reality and become omniscient...

Then she slipped back into her body and woke up. She raised her head and looked up at her clock. It was 1:03 in the afternoon. Time had started again. She grinned, rubbed the sleep from her eyes, jumped up and ran into the living room to where her mother sat reading the newspaper. Coming up to her mother from behind she gave her a big bear hug around the neck.

"I just had the strangest dream," she informed her mother. "And do we have any oranges? I'm starved."


1) Salinger, J.D. (1953) "Teddy", from Nine Stories. Boston: Little, Brown and Company (pp.200-201)

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