Sky explores the role of physics and mathematics in seeking to describe the way things are and whether it is possible for things to be any other way.
It is a story that grapples with causes as preceding their effects. A universe that is non-contingent (one that must be) versus one that exists because of something outside of itself. A universe that can be explained by fixed mathematical laws versus one that is subject to randomness…or a stochastic universe that attempts to accommodate both.
Is the universe perfectly whole (where the sun will die in order for matter and energy to be redispersed and for new life to begin), or is it one that is breaking?
And who are we within this universe? Minds that operate within a system that allows minds to operate within the system.
Sky is an expression of the anthropic self-referential paradox—the human being that operates within, and is a product of, the system that it observes and seeks to comprehend.
And in doing so, is a creative force—a story teller and a dreamer of dreams. Someone who breaks things in order to know what it means to be broken, to be conscious of and to experience the system in which things break.
Why does a body fall?
Because there is a gravitational field.
Why? Because space-time is curved. And so on.
You are replacing one description with another deeper description,
the sole purpose of which is to explain the thing you started with, namely,
falling bodies—Paul Davies.
It was a New York city of ash.
There was grey-ness in our mouths and in our ears. A soft and acrid grey on our tongues. It fell around us and filled the spaces between us. It weighed like winter, but it was not. The city was a remnant of itself, suffocating beneath, and coughing up, its own grey.
That colour followed me, shedding itself like cells and dust at my feet. It followed me cautiously down the stairs at the corner of West 110th and Broadway, with the occasional fragment of Blue Celeste punctuating each foot fall—tiny pieces of those no-longer-windows from that no-longer Cathedral of Saint John the Divine.
The aeolian debris would hesitate noticeably toward the fifth step and I was able to rid myself of it almost completely by the time I reached the turnstyles-that-did-not-turn.
Here the place assumed a clean-ness that belied its neglect.
A group of small ceramic squares had learned to spell ‘Cathedral Parkway’ under the expert tutelage of some long-forgotten bricklayer-slash-scribe. I passed the tessellation to a place where the wall bent back toward itself—only a little, like a greenstick fracture that was never re-set—and found what could almost be called a corner.
This almost-corner was my place of air. An almost secure angle within the hollow place—the tunnel that I could fill with the sounds that could say, without words, the things that I remembered:
Petals. Grapefruit. Aventurine. Essence.
It was my career in music, and in Gagaku, that brought me to New York. In the time before we fell, I was a musician. I would perform these non-speaking sounds to audiences who did not yet know that they would one day need to remember.
Post-fall, I avoid cadences. The world no longer needs them.
Now I am quite accustomed to a world where for hours at a time, I know nothing. I cannot explain it. And then the world returns to me along with that hour or more of no-longer-the-world which adds itself to my memories and frequently returns in my dreams.
This tunnel, I decided, was a proper place to take my dragon flute and to send its chromatics horizontally into the dark places, where once they may have ascended vertically to the stars.
But there are no more stars, I am reminded. We can no longer see the stars.
The air-through-bamboo was lighter than the dust, and its voice could never be held by it. I wondered how far through the subway tunnels the flute’s voice would sing.
There is a girl I have not met who sits in not-quite-a-corner of the Chambers Street station. I have heard that she sits with a pair of tweezers and pulls out her hair, filament by filament, head to ankle, and then over again.
She is so absorbed in this irrelevant and ineffectual undertaking that she forgets to eat. The malnutrition causes unpigmented down to emerge from her forehead, jaw and back. It is very difficult to reach and to self-remove, perpetuating her nonsensical vigil.
On the Tuesday and Wednesday evenings before we fell, I would give piano lessons to residents at the Metro North Plaza Housing Development, a musical outreach program of East Harlem.
Yasmina Rashidi, a woman of ninety, would answer the door with cobweb hair fanning the shoulders of her viscose night gown. Her spider-leg fingers would grasp my hand in a fragile embrace. They trembled a little, as they did when she hovered them above the piano keys.
At least five of the keys were soft spruce with no covering. And each time she depressed the B flat closest to Middle C it sounded like brown.
I had offered to try to repair the melancholy hammer but Yasmina insisted that the music should know humility and experience the limits of its Isaac-Bullard-imposed universe. It was Isaac Bullard from Hyde Park, Massachusetts (I had told her this at our first lesson) who had patented a most ‘new and useful Improvement in actions for upright pianos’, upon which her instrument was based. I explained that the Bullard universe of pianos included agents of repair. To no avail.
Yasmina’s apartment was, upon first glance, tidy and predictable. But with each visit I became more aware of subtle eccentricities, they showed themselves to me when they were ready to been seen but I doubt that they were ready to be understood:
A photo frame with a faded magazine cut-out face. Dresden porcelain figurines, their pastel petticoats floating, impermeable, responding to some invisible breeze. A small jar of dead iridescent green fig beetles, a fossilised sea star, a map of the moon.
At odd intervals between Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing or La Partida Yasmina would stand up unexpectedly and excuse herself from the piano, presumably to check the stove or turn off a dripping tap. She would perambulate the small room, reseat herself, check her hair with soft, patting palms and start the music again exactly where she left off, saying quietly:
‘من آن نوشته را به پایین’
‘Yasmina, I don’t understand,’ I would say to her, ‘English please.’
‘Ahh,’ she patted my hand, ‘I wrote it down. من آن نوشته را به پایین. I cannot find it but I wrote it down.’
And then we would return our collective attention to the monologue heart of the metronome.
Yasmina died before we fell. I came to her fifth-floor apartment at 7 pm as usual and was told by her neighbour, Ursula Sosa, that she had been taken away that morning by two paramedics in navy blue who hadn’t tried to revive her.
Ursula stood in the doorway, a composition of television, baked beans and play tumbled through the part-opening.
‘Are you Sora?’ the neighbour asked. ‘The music teacher?’
‘She asked me to give this to you. She left it with me last week.’
The neighbour gave me a sheet of white paper from her pocket. It was folded in two and then in half again.
It read: من آن نوشته را به پایین.
It had no meaning for me, but it was elegant and I would have someone translate it. I thanked her.
‘She was a very smart lady, you know?’ said the neighbour. ‘She gave me one of her books. I’ll show you.’
She went back inside for a moment and returned with a book.
She handed it to me: The intelligible universe—toward a unifying theory of all things.
‘She wrote this,’ Ursula said.
‘Did you read it?’
‘Hell no,’ she laughed. ‘I couldn’t get past the first page! Read the back cover, you’ll see what I mean.’
There was a photo of a younger Rashidi. Her spider-web hair strong like beetle skin.
Did the universe and time begin? And if so, must they end of necessity? Or are we in a perpetual cycle—with the concepts ‘beginning’ and ‘end’ of no real use? Rashidi continues her quest to find a single mathematical formula for a rational cosmos, pushing the boundaries of mathematics and physics in an attempt to compress the order and system of things into a single, knowable schema. She concludes that the is no beginning or end—but ‘inevitable becoming’ as our consciousness and free will move through a stochastic system. We are the radical free agents that impact on an otherwise rational system of organisation and predication.
‘Yeah I know,’ said Ursula, reading my expression. ‘She tried to explain it to me once. She was talking about gravity, you know, and how it was predictable and stuff. If you throw something up,’ she spoke with her hands, ‘it comes down.’
‘And she said you can write that shit down as a formula. And then you can build other formulas from it until you have one beautiful formula that can predict or explain everything.’
She paused to call backward: ‘Talisha—put him down, lo digo en serio, I don’t want to come in there!’ And then back to me without another breath: ‘I said to her, lady, the only thing I know is that when I throw something up in the air, it usually breaks. You know, I have too many balls in the air already to be able to catch another one! That’s life, amigo.’
She concluded: ‘You can take it if you like—the book.’
‘Thanks, I’d be interested in reading it.’
And I left.
That was before the fall. When two strangers could still meet in a stairwell and talk about things that were not grey or covered with the lightless-ness and ultimate misuse.
As I was thinking about these things, I noticed a giant of a man walking down the track. All over his body there was something like scars or words or ephelides.
‘Hey!’ I called. ‘Are you lost?’
‘I am looking for my beginning,’ he said.
There is a family I have not met who live at the base of the Manhattan-side tower of the no-longer Brooklyn Bridge. They have no sense of smell. And the grandfather has no eyes. The post-fall world was a world of absence and not. But it is now so normal that it is something and all.
This man had no memory of things before we fell. He was a sphere—no beginning.
He had a tattoo on his left wrist, written over the patterned skin: من هستم
‘What does this mean?’ I asked, recognising again the contours of this language that spoke but not to me.
‘This is Persian. I know this because there is a man at Grand Central – 42nd Street who can read such things. He has a Harlequin hound with one blue eye and one brown. The dog has no teeth and can only walk in ellipses,’ he said. ‘It says: I am. I think it is my name.’
‘I am Sora. This is my name,’ I said, tracing the Kanji onto his palm.
I gestured toward his skin: ‘Read yourself to me, friend.’
‘None of my words can say these sounds. They are like the voice of your bamboo,’ he nodded toward my flute.
He permitted me to take his left arm and to examine the words, the scars, the freckles. The marks, so small—almost indecipherable—were mathematical symbols. They started in lines of code that curved when necessary to make best use of his skin canvas. I could not detect an obvious beginning or end—it was a continuum.
I remembered a paragraph from Yasmina’s book: Why is there something rather than nothing? Do we require ‘beginning’ and will we know it’s end? I believe there is a mathematical framework that can describe this life-permitting universe—all of its laws and parameters.
‘Hey, I know you.’ I said.
How could she have predicted that he would live beyond the fall and then find his way to me, who remembered her, the author? Of course, she could not. This was the free radical, the random, the human operating in a mathematical system that allowed it to be.
‘She wrote it down,’ I said running my finger over his braille. ‘She found her formula for everything and she wrote it down.’
He looked at me without comprehension.
‘I don’t really know what it is,’ I admitted. ‘But it was about explaining everything.’
‘I should find someone who knows what this means?’ he asked.
‘I do not believe there is anyone left who could know what this means. Our minds are broken, friend. We fell.’
But he did not remember it.
He did not remember that we became so great that we broke the sky. He did not remember that we created a chasm and that the universe fell through.
And that we were drowned by the weight of it. And that it burned our minds to dust.
No Theory of Everything can ever provide total insight.
For, to see through everything would leave us seeing nothing at all’