Joseph stepped from the faintly swinging gondola onto the polished scale and hesitated. The operator held up his hand silently, intent on the marker which sank, bobbed, and quickly settled on a figure which made no sense to Joseph.
“Boy, you’ve had a tough Turn.” The operator smiled sympathetically. “You’ll get a good rest just as soon as you’ve Washed.” Joseph didn’t move. “Still disoriented? No surprise. You’ve been through a lot. Over there – the bridge. Sit. Rest. Dangle your feet in the stream. You’ll feel better. Afterward, take the left-hand path to the inn. Folks there’ll give you some pointers.” Joseph started to step off; an ethereal chime caught his attention and he looked upward.
The Ferris wheel towered above, fading into brassy clouds which parted to reveal other machinery. “A clock!” Joseph thought, before his tilted head began to spin. He stumbled, and the operator grabbed his elbow.
“Watch it, kiddo!” he warned, then gently urged Joseph toward the bridge further down the path. “Go sit. I got work to do.” His smile was big and cheerful as he looked upward to the next gondola already swooping downward to the scale.
Joseph stumbled toward the bridge, ears ringing in a sudden cacophony of ratcheting gears and whirring springs. The sound faded as he sat on the edge of the rough wooden planks and dropped his tired feet into the creek. It was cold enough to make him flinch. He withdrew, then gently dipped his toes back in. The current curled around his ankles with a faint tickle. Joseph sighed. It had been a long day. Hadn’t it? He tried to remember, but the clockwork noise returned so loudly he collapsed backward to lie across the bridge.
Silence fell again. Joseph heard the creek grumbling along its bed, gurgling at the banks and dashing over a rock somewhere downstream. He was in a grotto. Ferns clung to niches in limestone walls, watered by tiny cascades that converged at the bottom. It was moist and felt cleaner than even the hospital where he’d spent the past weeks. Hospital. Joseph sat up, ignoring the clock sounds that tried to return. He’d been in the hospital. He had hurt. It was new pain on top of old familiar hurts. It had scraped him raw until his eyes leaked, and the morphine offered no respite. The nurses had occasionally graced him with a hand across the forehead, or a squeeze of the shoulder, but everything else was pain.
Joseph felt a pinch at the tip of his big toe. He looked down, half expecting to see a fish nibbling, and instead saw an ash-gray blob floating down the creek. A line of smaller blobs streamed from both feet. He lifted them in alarm. Darkness flowed from his heels into the water. He shook his legs and it shattered, refracting strangely with gold and emerald.
“You gotta put them back in.” A girl cheerfully plopped down next to him and dunked her feet without hesitation. “It’s the rules. You put your feet in, get washed up, then you go get something to eat. I’m gonna have some chicken piccata today. I love chicken piccata. I like saying it, too. Pih-KA-ta!” she pronounced joyfully, the colorful plastic barrettes at the ends of her many braids dancing with each syllable. She swished her feet around, watching as brilliant oranges, yellows, and greens swirled away. “You got a LOT of washing to do,” she observed as a stripe of navy joined the gray from Joseph’s feet. “Must be ‘cause you’re so old.” She cocked her head. “I’m eight.” Dark brown twined with turquoise flowed from her right foot, and she made a face.
“Are you all right?” Joseph asked.
“Yup. That one kinda stings. But it feels better when it’s gone. I did this before. I was old that time, and it took a while. I think I’m almost done now, though.” She giggled and said softly, “I like capers. Nobody expects a kid to like capers but I had them at this one restaurant and I liked ‘em even better than pickles. That’s the real reason I like chicken piccata. CHICKEN PICCATA!” she shouted and kicked her feet into the air as the final streamers tapered away. Joseph clung to his plank as the girl jumped up, bouncing him precariously close to the edge, and exclaimed “I’ll see you at supper!” before racing up the left-hand path.
The grotto echoed with the girl’s laughter for a long time. Joseph stared at his feet. Loops of gray and forest green and navy blue continued to wash downstream. Occasional flashes of crimson showed up, or cobalt. Time passed. Joseph surprised himself by not becoming impatient, or bored. He was content to watch the ferns bob as water fell on them, and to listen to the chatter of the busy little creek. Color drained from his feet. He remembered pieces of his life. He understood that it was over, and was grateful. The last weeks he had suffered alone, pain amplified and echoing in his solitude. The creek, the bridge, the laughter of the child, were soothing. He wanted nothing else.
Joseph closed his eyes and kicked his feet like the girl had done. The feeling was so delightful he laughed; that was so surprising he laughed again. He hadn’t laughed with joy in years. He kicked his feet again and the water caught rainbows in the sunlight. Joseph stared, realizing that the rainbows were coming from him. Like the girl, he had whorls of yellows and reds and bright blues swirling from his feet, upstream and down, spreading across the width of the stream in sheets of brilliant color. He stilled, mesmerized, and stared until the colors tapered away and all that was left was clear water.
It was time. He was hungry for spaghetti with meatballs and buttered garlic bread and a huge salad. He wanted to see the girl enjoying her chicken piccata. “PICCATA!” he shouted, and laughed at his own silliness. Joseph turned to rise, bracing himself for the betrayal of age ravaged joints, but he stood easily, more graceful than ever in life. He hopped, twice, then sprinted up the left-hand path. The grotto echoed with his laughter for a long time.
The inn shivered and blurred at the edges of his vision as Joseph approached. The door was open and he could hear laughter and silverware clinking and a wall clock chiming the hour. He counted, but lost track when the little girl flung herself out the door. “Finally! I was waiting and waiting for you! Come on!” she tugged him past the lounge into the dining room, shoving him toward an empty chair as she thumped into the one next to it. “Oh, I almost forgot!” She lowered her head and mumbled some sort of a prayer over her meal, then tucked in even before Joseph could get his napkin spread. Joseph looked for guidance from his fellow diners, but they were all engaged elsewhere. His plate was full of noodles in fragrant red sauce, topped with five or six perfect meatballs. He didn’t hesitate.
Half a plate later, Joseph slowed enough to look up. The girl was bright and shiny next to him, loudly telling a story about riding her scooter to the park and getting a cupcake at the bakery. Across the table an elderly couple were sitting back and holding hands, plates still nearly full. They smiled at him and for a moment they – and the inn behind them -- multiplied into the distance like a reflection of mirrors. His young friend grabbed his chin and yanked his head around. “Are you even listening to me?!” she exclaimed, and then rushed onward with her story. He smiled and patted her shoulder in time to the ticking of the clock.
“You finished, kiddo?” A woman leaned in from the right, reaching for his empty plate.
“Me? Yes, ma’am, I am. It was very good. Thank you,” he replied, staring. She looked just like the operator at the Ferris wheel.
“Good. Let’s get this cleared away, and then we can have some tea and catch up. It’s been a long while since I saw you.” She stacked his dishes on her arm, deftly balancing everything as she turned. “I’ll meet you in the lounge. Won’t be long. I’ll make the kids do the washing up for once.”
Joseph rose. The girl was telling another story, this time to the woman on her right. She grabbed his wrist, holding him while she finished saying, “car was spinning – hold on a second, I have to tell my friend something.” She stood on her chair so her dark eyes were level with his. “I’ll see you again. I know it. We’re friends now.” Then her thin arms were around his neck, squeezing uncomfortably tight. He’d forgotten how children hugged with their whole bodies, generous with affection. He lightly patted her back. She leaned away, arms still around his neck, and gave him an impatient look. “Really? What was that? Gimme a real hug. We’re friends.” This time he gave in, holding her with desperation and gratitude until something eased inside. “Now that’s what I’m talking about. See ya!” The girl dropped abruptly back into her chair and continued telling the exciting, catastrophic, story of her death.
Joseph wiped a tear from his cheek as he sought the lounge. Big comfortable leather chairs were pulled close to the fireplace, the occupants resting their feet on the fender. In the corner a man curled in the corner of a couch, a book resting on a pillow in his lap. A pool of light from a table lamp encircled the man, his book, and a cup of tea steaming on the table. Joseph stood quietly, watching the man, watching the feet, waiting.
“Here you are!” the woman rolled a tea cart between them as she collapsed dramatically onto the other end of the couch. “Sit! Sit.” Joseph took the armchair opposite her. “Sorry that took so long. I spoil the kids so much, doing the dishes myself. Then when I need them to help out, I have to show them what to do.” She poured tea into a mug and handed it to him, then grabbed a cookie for herself. “Chocolate chip. So many kinds of cookie and I always choose chocolate chip. They’re just the best.” She took a bite and smiled as she chewed. “So. How are you? It’s been a good long while this Turn.”
Joseph blew on his tea and reached for a cookie. “I’m not sure. I really don’t know what’s going on.” He took a big bite and chewed for a moment. “I’m glad not to hurt anymore.” Joseph stared as he took a sip. “I have to ask, though. Where am I? What’s going on?” He bit again.
“Oh, my. You had a very difficult Turn, didn’t you!?” She sat forward. “I’ll give you the short version. I think that will be enough to remind you.” She sipped her tea. The whirring of a clock was loud in Joseph’s mind. “You hear the ticking?” He nodded. “That’s the music of the spheres. Have you ever seen one of those models that moves the planets around the sun, and the moons around the planets?”
“An orrery. Yes. I had one as a child.” She grimaced without comment. “I was fascinated by it.”
“That’s the one. I can never remember the word. I’m sure you were drawn to it because some part of it resonated in your memory. So.” She took a deep breath. “We are, right now, in the middle of the Universal Orrery. The mechanism that makes the universe spin.”
Joseph raised an eyebrow. “That’s not possible.”
The woman laughed. “Why not?”
“Because it’s impossible. The universe can’t run on clockwork. It would run down eventually.”
“Oh, Joseph. We do this every single time you come back.” She sighed. “Let’s see,” she stared down into her mug. “Ah, yes. Entropy! That helped you understand last time. Of course it will run down eventually – that’s entropy. In the meantime, we wind it back up the best we can.”
He stood, suddenly impatient. “Wind it up? With what? A giant key? And who turns the key? This is nonsense.”
She nibbled her cookie. A glob of chocolate was stuck in the corner of her mouth. Joseph relished how foolish she looked. “Sit down, please.” More tea, more cookie. “Humans are not the only beings, you know. What you see now? You’re constructing your own reality. You can see it. The shivering of things? The blurring around the edges? That’s other people’s reality brushing up against yours. Each of you is applying your perceptions because you’re unable to accept the greater reality around you.” She waved her arm in a wide circle. “At the Ferris wheel? When you got dizzy? What did you see?”
“I saw the Ferris wheel. It was very tall. And there were clouds. Well, mist. And,” his brow furrowed in remembrance, “mechanisms of some sort. I thought I saw the workings of a giant clock.” He stared accusingly at her. “How did you know that? What I saw?” He rocked impatiently on his feet. The tea cart blocked his urge to pace.
“My sibling shared the moment with me.” She put her mug on the tea cart and stood to face him. To look down on him. She was taller. He hadn’t noticed. “We are . . . connected.” She gestured at him to sit again. “We are all parts of the machine in one way or another.”
Joseph shoved the tea cart aside. “That’s your answer? That we’re part of a toy? And how does everything else fit in? Why were my feet leaking rainbows in a stream, and why did that little girl give me a hug and why did I have to spend the last five weeks dying in a hospital bed? Why have I been so damned lonely all these years? What does ANY of that have to do with a fucking children’s TOY?!” He wanted to storm off, but the man on the couch was staring. Joseph collapsed back into his chair in embarrassment.
“Oh, sweetie. Damn. I hate this part!” The woman shrank back into her seat. “You saw it. Looking up you saw that there are millions of wheels. You’re right. It’s a giant clockwork mechanism. And all the Wheels must Turn for the Orrery to work.” She stood and spun around, arms wide. “We, I mean every soul in the universe, souls from all the systems and all the planets and every void between, are needed for that work. It’s the weight of the souls that makes the wheels Turn. Fresh souls get on, grow heavier with experience, and gravity pulls them down. Their Wheel Turns. That’s why you had to Wash. You were Washing away that weight. Don’t you feel better?”
Joseph stared between his knees and clenched his hands over and over again, marveling at how easy it was. They were cool, but his knuckles moved easily. He remembered trying to grasp a pencil only to have it drop from stiff fingers that wouldn’t close. He remembered the grinding ache of arthritis pulsing down his bones until he was afraid to move, knowing that every step until eternity would flare with pain. That nothing he did would ever not hurt. He clenched his fists and looked at her.
“Yes.” He glanced at his knees, no longer swollen straight. “Yes, I feel better. But I am not a cog in a machine!”
She sighed. “We all are.” She reached for yet another cookie. “Joseph, you are an old soul. You’ve made many Turns on many Wheels.” The chocolate crumb fell from her face to her lap. Joseph was relieved. “Sorrow is the burden of an old soul,” she said. “It sticks to you, somehow. We can Wash you clean a dozen times, but the next trip around the Wheel is just as bad, if not worse. You,” she glanced up, “are a very, very old soul.”
They filled the silence with sips of tea, and more cookies. The man reading a book turned the pages. Joseph closed his eyes and listened to the rasp of paper on paper. The fire crackled and a log fell.
“Do you know why?” He stared at the fire, afraid to look at the woman.
“No. Everyone asks that. You’d be surprised how universal the theories are. Ancient Earth philosophers had the same answers as the Jovians, and they said the same thing as the beings of the Horsehead Nebula.” She laughed. “Not at the same time, of course. So many beings have come and gone.” Her voice faltered. “I sometimes wonder if you,” she looked straight at him, holding his gaze, “came from an even earlier time and place.” She took a deep, wobbly breath. “You are a very old soul.”
He felt it, then. The weight of billions of years. The sorrow he had collected and Washed away, and collected again. He was crushed under the memory of untold Turns. The papery softness of her hand sliding into his brought him back.
“I’m sorry.” She leaned her head on his shoulder. He felt a tear splat on his shoulder and dampen his shirt.
“Does anyone ever escape?” he rasped.
“No. But, if they’re lucky, they have you.” She nodded toward the dining room. “She has you. Your young friend.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Sorrow is drawn to old souls. The pain, the loneliness. It’s awful for you. But she’ll be on the Wheel next to you, and it will miss her. She will live a long and charmed life. Good things will come to her.”
The reading man watched Joseph for a moment, face full of pity. He closed his book and left the room.
“I have to go back, don’t I?” his whisper was just louder than the flames in the fire.
“You can rest. I have a room for you, special. I have your favorite meals, and good books and all the movies you missed. You don’t have to go right away. You can rest.” She squeezed his hand.
“But I can’t stay, can I?” He took a deep breath. “That girl, if I don’t go. What happens to her?” he stared at the empty dining room, listening for an echo of her laughter.
“It falls on her. And others. The longer you wait, the more they collect.” She rifled through her pocket and brought out a wrinkled kerchief. She fussed at it, folding it just so before wiping her eyes. “It’s not all bad. You have great joy as a child, and deep love later. You saw that, in the stream. That is part of why you hurt so very, very much.”
Joseph closed his eyes and remembered iridescent rainbows on top of the oily darkness in the stream. He saw again the brilliance of the last few moments as they Washed away. The woman stood. She leaned over, smoothed his hair back from his forehead and gently kissed him there. “I’m sorry.” Her shoulders slumped as she moved to the doorway and, with a glance over her shoulder, left the room.
Joseph sat until the fire died. He watched each ember fade. He remembered losing everyone he loved. He remembered being beaten on the playground and crying into the gravel. He remembered all the awful things that had weighed him down senselessly, and hating others for their effortless joy. And he remembered the girl on the bridge, laughing as her rainbow slipped into the stream.
“Chicken piccata!” he said, softly, to himself. Then he walked slowly away from the cottage, headed for the right-hand path. The one that led back to the Wheel.