Measuring Infinity with a Ruler
Ilgin Yildiz (Deakin University, Australia)
As if the world gave up
The secret of its skeleton,
Stiff and white.
— Rhapsody on a Windy Night, T.S. Eliot
The Kax telescope had taken some new images.
It was a quiet autumn evening and he was sitting on the verandah alone. Nights were getting colder and the mountains beyond, with their forlorn ice caps, were silently present.
“They’ve announced it,” she said, stepping from a still shadow. “They will hold a press conference tomorrow evening.”
He would never find the right words to explain. There were moments. There were moments made up of strings, and this was one of them. If he said this, his words would be devoid of any meaning, they would be isolated sound bits, and she would become alienated, questions invading her face. Trapping words inside, he took refuge in an uneasy smile that left him feeling like a robot.
The Kax telescope was five times smaller than the Hubble and had a lens called Doxa699. This he remembered, though he didn’t know why. This lens, along with the other parts of the optical system, functioned like an intricate eye. The ultimate eye—traveling in space and taking photos. It was designed to show you, if you dared to look.
This eye had been traveling in space for thirteen years, right there, above and beyond, collecting sights and getting ready to tell our story, of us to us. It had been establishing a presence in a foreign region, and this was something he could not overcome, mentally or physically.
The idea of an organ without a body gave way to an unsettling chain of images in his mind. He fended them off and tried to picture Kax’s loneliness. Separate from a whole, designed to stand on its own, representing an untamed wish to connect with a complete and monolithic outer world.
Living with her, he had to feel a certain bond, a human bond, something peculiar to human beings. A bond that comes with being born at the end of an umbilical cord, and having lost it, devoting all time and energy to an unending reconnaissance on earth.
With her, he couldn’t feel that familiarity unique to human interaction, the sense of speaking the same language, as two creatures belonging to the same species—the safe dome of language sheltering meaning.
What did they share then?
They shared numb kisses and a couple of books. When they were in bed, they looked like the couple in Toulouse-Lautrec’s In Bed. Their conversations revolved around mirror making, extinct birds, and character progression in MMORPGs. They watched parrot videos on YouTube. She would study random variables and discreet probability distributions, even though she had completed all her statistics units and graduated six years ago. She would complain and say that she was struggling with math—she would call it “the essential language.” “Wish we could communicate with formulas,” she would say. She usually wore a yellow cardigan and black jackboots.
Unlike the Hubble, Kax hadn’t been able to produce mesmerising art, not yet anyway. It didn’t come up with something like The Pillars of Creation or Stellar Tumult. But the way Kax recorded light was more sophisticated and its detectors more intricate, and the image processing of the photos was executed with a brand new device called Mo-Al. The visuals would be more detailed and informative.
Upon seeing Hubble’s art years and years ago, he had thought that it did a good job. He had thought that being an independent organ in space wasn’t such a bad thing. Producing art to console desperate people wasn’t the worst job on earth.
“An oasis of horror in a desert of boredom!”
She used to love that poem. But this was a long time ago, when she had a garden full of moonflowers. She used to have several editions of that book and had read each of them over and over again. For some time they had accompanied her math and science books in her daily reading ritual.
“I wish all flowers bloomed at night,” she had said to him one evening.
This sentence had functioned as a trigger. He could remember now, following those words, she had given him a particular look, one that he was still able to picture vividly.
Consent and fear had arisen simultaneously in her eyes. And after roaming independently for the briefest instance, they had crossed paths, bending time with this unexpected encounter. They trembled and were illuminated when they became aware of each other as two incompatible emotions—one was born from civilisation, the other from evolution. And then, they had gone their separate ways, never to meet again.
He, on the other hand, hadn’t been able to part that easily from them. He had become immersed in that unsettling instance of their conjoining.
Was it their parting that locked him outside—of her? She had chosen to become another person and lead an easier life that night. She had abandoned inspiration and poetry for the sake of artificial explanations that promised some earthly solace. She had also stopped looking after the moonflowers. They had gradually died and dried, falling apart, leaving their bodies to connect with an outer world.
He couldn’t sleep.
He wore her yellow cardigan and went outside.
The smell of damp grass.
He raised his head and looked.
A sky full of ancestral lights welcomed him with an innocent violence.
He knew, deep inside, the fragility of it all.
“What boundary or disposition separates us from the stars?” he thought. “My perception, what does it do?”
This dark canvas with waves of language and sound—it screamed yet couldn’t be heard. Looking at the star-language was destructive, the action of the eye made it lose meaning. It slipped away when it was perceived.
“We connect when we stay apart,” he thought.
“Were you here all night?” she asked. A weak smile on her lips, threatening to disappear. “I can’t wait.”
Her excitement spread in waves, he could almost see them. This made him uncomfortable, her ease with life. Angst suspended effortlessly. If she had the chance, she would leave everything behind and travel to the moon without thinking twice. She would become one of the first settlers of Mars and colonisers of Enceladus. She was entitled to the universe.
“That’s amazing,” she would say, watching a documentary about particle physics. “Imagine working in CERN.” She had two parrots named ‘Quark’ and ‘Tau’. Her favorite song was Measuring Infinity with a Ruler by The Dark Universe Orchestra.
So, it was Mo-Al that shaped the visuals and determined what we were to see. It was the shaper of the narrative, our perception, and eventually, the universe—hierarchically superior to the Kax. Who would have thought a translator would be superior to a writer one day? In this case, the translator was the ultimate writer. Without it there would be no book to speak of, and the officials wouldn’t be able to announce that they had striking news to share. Their news source was Mo-Al, not Kax.
What Kax delivered through Mo-Al, and what Mo-Al rewrote as a masterpiece, had to be something unique. Something more than gas, dust, colour, and shape. More than visual echoes and foggy specters of once alive stars. More than spiraling celestial pathways leading to layers and layers of nothingness.
How could he tell? How could he explain that being here in time terrified him, and he didn’t have the strength to see the “mesmerizing”, “magnetic”, “profoundly informative” visuals Kax had shot?
How could he tell that he was scared, of the cheap generic adjectives employed to describe this thing above us, of the way people made their pacts with it, their ignorant curiosity, their absurd attempts to celebrate tiny bits of ‘information’ collected from a plane of life that resisted futile explanation? How could they enjoy being a part of this massive scheme of being here in time? He didn’t, he didn’t enjoy it one bit.
“Une oasis d’horreur dans un désert d’ennui!”
He still remembered the original verse. He had to because she had made him memorise it one evening on the verandah, under the silky lights of the setting sun.
He also remembered that ‘ennui’ wasn’t supposed to be translated as ‘boredom’ and yet, she had said, translators continued doing it, thus “castrating the word.” So it had lost its true meaning, which was made up of several meanings functioning as separate organs. ‘Boredom’ was just one of them. He couldn’t remember the others now.
“How should they translate it then?” he had asked.
“They should just leave it as it is,” had been her answer.
Would Kax initiate a paradigm shift? It was hard to guess.
At home, lying in bed, he was already feeling foreign to his surroundings. He gazed at the oyster white walls, the cracks that resembled tired branches heavy with snow. His eyes followed the fragile trails leading up to the ceiling, and there, they suddenly disappeared, as if they had never been there. The trails, having no beginning, no end, were suspended in a frozen motion.
He realised with a rush of panic that if Kax was to shift the paradigm, he had no place to take shelter. He took a deep breath.
This house—he didn’t feel he belonged in it. No part of his identity accounted for what he was or what he felt under this roof. He didn’t feel like an inhabitant of this place. It was a breeding place of incomplete, unexplained, enigmatic emotions. It was like a place he had intended to visit only briefly but was then held captive by eye-catching and divertive sights. He was unable to recall the old feeling of it, way back when it represented a place of warmth and security for him.
The trails on the walls—he couldn’t follow them to their source. Last winter when the roof started leaking, he couldn’t find its source either.
He appreciated her timely and apt silences, the stillness she placed in between harsh words when they argued. Her solemn, quiet posture, her resentful, somber, dark eyes.
Those silences were tracks in a vast desert. When they felt like going back home, they just had to notice them, follow them, and let go.
Words were her weak spot. And she didn’t know how to handle and take control of them. When words began taking shape on her lips, and were translated into a language made for speaking, they would solidify, dilate, and then burst into pieces.
Together, they would live under the debris of her exploded words for days. Then these word pieces would quietly begin evolving into tiny organisms under layers and layers of dust. They would take shelter and breed under the furniture. Inside the cabinets and behind doors. They would leak into the cracks on the walls and silently make their way to a source unknown.
When he thought about it, he realised that Mo-Al wasn’t really superior to Kax. It was true that its duties were more important—after all, writing the narrative was nothing compared to rewriting it. But in the future no one would remember Mo-Al the translator. People would only talk and write about the Kax telescope, that organ floating in space, writing stories. They would publish news articles about it. These articles would have titles like “Redefining Space: Findings of the Kax telescope” or “Kax Rewrites the History of Our Earth.”
Only a small number of people would remember that Mo-Al made everything happen. That it allowed them to unlock another dimension, pass levels, and be upgraded as characters in the game story of existence. Mo-Al would be buried into the dusty pages of history books, covered with insect bites and roach feces.
He was staring at the black fly on the TV screen. It was moving ever so slowly on tiny electric currents, its thin legs making a whizzing sound. Or maybe he was imagining it.
He was supposed to wait, just like her, for the commercials to end and the press conference to start, but he wasn’t waiting for anything. He was just sitting beside her on the sofa, unresponsive to lights flashing and flickering on the screen. He had managed to reach a place deep in himself and stay there, for now at least, and wasn’t planning to come out.
He could hear the sound of TV from the adjacent house. The neighbours were watching the same channel, everyone was watching the same thing, and the reverberating tunes of their TV sets were intermingling to form a cacophony.
He felt a tingling in his right foot. It slowly gained momentum and stealthily began moving up, all the way to his head. He took a deep breath and leaned forward.
“I need to get out,” he said.
“Get out? Why?” Her voice was made up of vibrating strings. “It’s about to start,” she said, her voice now had a robotic quality; it was a vocoder voice, an effect created by someone he didn’t know.
He got up from the sofa without answering. Walking towards the door, he could hear the outside calling him, inviting him. He yearned for the earth under his feet. He wanted to be surrounded by the cool air, to feel its indifferent embrace.
Outside was the one thing neither Kax nor she could permeate. Outside was a safe inside.
Her coded language was buried in the house when he closed the door behind him.
He started walking into the night.
Away from the universe and her, towards the mountains beyond.
Leaves crackled under his feet like fragile skeletons of long lost creatures. Their sound was a soothing hum, displacing memory and anxiety with presence and belonging. He walked, forgetting with every step.
The sounds emanating from the TV sets gradually dissolved and disappeared. The story of Kax was behind him. It would remain an unopened book. For now, at least.
He could feel the sweet sense of oblivion, growing with each step. But it was evasive, and bits of memory appeared unexpectedly.
He remembered a particular time in history when he felt like he belonged somewhere. Motion was omnidirectional there, and leaving that place made you lose the unnamed combination of consent and fear.
He remembered that philosophy was really homesickness.
And that ‘homo sapiens’ meant ‘wise man.
Ilgin Yildiz was born in Ankara, Turkey. She is a short story writer and book translator. Her short stories collection Yaygaraci Ruhlar was published in 2010 in Istanbul, Turkey. She has recently completed Graduate Diploma of Writing and Literature at Deakin University. She is living in Melbourne, Australia.