Monday, August 26, 2013

The Distant Ones (A Parable)

When the Traveler returned from his journey to the future, he staggered into the room, unshaven, exhausted. His clothing was rumpled and his skin was pale. My first instinct was to somehow discern, by the twitching in the corners of his mouth or from the removed look in his eyes or from the slight quivering of his hand as he filled his glass with port wine, what it might have been that he had endured.

His expression was not one of frantic horror, but of a frozen kind of terror; better still, it was one born of a draining fear that had depleted him of the ability to scream out. He was an emptied vessel. He was a ship under shredded sails.

I let him sit back in his chair and drain his glass and then another. It wouldn't do to force him to talk. He would need to come to it on his own. What idea could I have as to the trials he had endured on his journey into the distant future? What monsters had he seen? What horrors of human evolution had he witnessed? Maniacal genocides? Rampant oppression?

We sat, without speaking, amidst the clicking din of the numerous clocks in his parlour. As he sat, his forehead balanced on his right hand, a third glass of port dangled from his left, tilted to the brink of spilling. I tried to let my gaze fall on anything other than him, so as not to pressure him into speech. I surveyed the handsomely bound books that lined the room; the guttering oil lamps that sent delicate ribbons of black smoke into the shadows on the ceiling and set the red wood of the desk aglow; the clutter of notes, drawings and papers thereon; the arabesque Indian patterns in the carpet below my shoes; the fine Havana between my fingers...

"I've been gone..."

I jumped, hating myself for it. "About an hour."

"Three months," he said. "Three months on the other side. I lived with them for three months. The Distant Ones."

"What happened, man? Were they violent...these 'Distant Ones'?"

He looked at me, his black hair disheveled. His face seemed more lined than it had been before he left. "No. If only they had been. If only they had beaten me -- enslaved me; tortured me; threatened me... If only they had touched or spoken directly to me, either in kindness or with evil intent. Anything..."

I set my cup on the side table and moved across the room to him. I crouched next to his chair. He placed a hand on my shoulder. I gripped it. "What happened, my friend? To what were you subjected?"

He smiled grimly at me. "This," he said placing his other hand over mine. "It doesn't exist the future." He stood up and began pacing around the room. "Or, this conversation we are having. It is no longer done in their time." He picked up a book, flipped the pages, smelled them. "Nor do these. They no longer hold things in their hands. Everything floats before their faces in patterns of light. Everything is smooth and metallic. There is glass; there are substances I have never seen, but they are all smooth and cold. There is no wood grain over which to run one's hands. Everything is theirs, immediately at the running of a hand over glass, but they actually possess nothing. There are no libraries. There are no gatherings -- not in person. They gather together from great distances in those same patterns of light. They talk through mechanical devices."

His eyes were wet, now. I guided him to sit and then to lie down on the divan. I poured him another glass. He took a deep draught, let the liquid fill his mouth. He swallowed and sighed. It was as if the mere taste had caused him to weep. Through tears, he said: "Nothing there is real. Nothing in the future is real. Not books; not friendship; not procreation -- it is engineered to the liking of whomever wills it; not anything. There is nothing to touch...there is nothing to touch...and no one touches another."

He sat up and grabbed my arm, his eyes suddenly wild: "This. Human flesh, Carter. This is forbidden. Children are never to be touched; hands are not shaken for fear of sickness; it is a crime to kiss a woman's hand in greeting, for fear of offending her...

"And nothing has texture under the fingers. Even...even..." he said, standing and crossing the room to the piano, "Even a piano's keys don't depress when you play. They are projections of light on a flat piece of material..." He closed his eyes and began a Beethoven sonata, fading away, speaking barely above a whisper, "And the sounds...they are not gut or string or any result of true vibration...they are all...synthetic..."

He played the piece through and dropped his head to the piano, resting his forehead there. "I would have welcomed torture...just to have felt contact with something...anything real..." He looked up with the same grim smile as before. "Tomorrow, Carter. Come back tomorrow and help me take the time machine apart."

I patted him on the shoulder, got my coat and stepped out into the snowfall. It was dark; it was late, but one could hear the sounds of ragamuffin children riding sleds down the side gutters of the city. London was muffled by a cold blanket that my shoes made crackle and crunch. I pulled on my gloves, feeling the scratch of wool against my finger and turned up the collar of my coat against the wind. As I moved toward home, in concert with the snowflakes ticking against windows and stone, I heard the Traveler's piano fading away, and I envisioned finger, to key, to spring, to hammer, to string...and I wondered at the miracle that transformed it all into Chopin's Prelude in C# Minor. Flesh and mechanics made into miracle.

The great clock tolled midnight, brass and wood.


  1. I enjoyed the large focus on sensory details, especially in the last paragraph. It seems that with the constant progression towards "the future", we're no longer focusing on what should be done, but only what can be done. I hope we never come into contact with what the Traveler did: a world without feel.

    Good to see nothing's changed Mr. Matt. Stay classy, stay classical, and stay in touch.

    1. Thanks, Nick. I fear we already might be on the doorstep to the future the Traveler saw... But at least I'll be dead before it totally kicks in. You, on the other hand, might be looking at a ratcage hat in the future. Not to be grim or anything...

      Haha. Have a good school year!