Trace Signature

by Casey Clabough

My two high school dream girls visit me at dawn, arriving not long before I awake, shuffling forward out of a sooty dimness in tandem, glimmering bodies visible only from about the clavicle up. Perhaps they are naked, perhaps not. Side by side they consider me, pale faces devoid of expression, as if mute watchfulness were their sole nature. Bare, slender shoulders almost touch, though an invisible line separates them, as if a vast division—a great span of distance and time—exists between their beings despite their visual proximity. This paradox of intimacy and estrangement affords them a collective impression of mutual unawareness as if each has arrived at this common destination entirely of her own volition and devices.

It is always the same. They watch, they wait. I peer back at them. The place around us is very dark and very silent. The air is cool and dry; a faint odor of cinnamon comes and goes. Sometimes it is a short time, sometimes long, but when at last I grow aware of my waking, they are gone.

On my farm there is a rooster, a descendant of a feral Indonesian line called Sumatras—a bird so black even its bones are black. This dark herald of dawn has come to serve as something of a gatekeeper for us, his initial morning call often signaling simultaneously the girls' departure and the arrival of consciousness for me. Silently, we adjourn to our separate worlds until the next night, one reality giving way to another with the cock's first crow.

* * * * *

Ours was a school within a school, made up of the so-called best minds from all the surrounding counties. Yet these two educational spheres might have existed on different planets, for the students of the Regional Governor's School—the Magnet School, it also was called—were forbade from going out into the old high school section. If an attentive student were to ignore such a directive, however, he would be struck by the stark differences between these space-sharing places of learning.

The long corridors of the city high school were dingy, confused, overcrowded expanses—old flattened gray gum clinging to the undersides of the much older furniture lining the walls and occasional alcoves, while a pervasive mustiness arose from somewhere other than the thoroughly mopped, chemical-soaked floors.

Through a locked door one could enter the Magnet School section to discover a glassed-in entry space with a spiral staircase, an open-area carpeted lounge containing cushioned leather chairs, walls lined with a generous assortment of plaques and certificates, and shiny computer rooms and labs outfitted with all the latest technology, including an electron microscope. Even the lights in the ceiling were brighter—more expensive, better made.

Yet for all these advantages and comforts, a sense of anxious, nervous abstraction pervaded the place like a muted curse—a kind of crouching, bashful academic paranoia. When all was silent—during the voiceless interval of yet another exam, or over the course of the long dark after hours when the place projected the appearance of slumber—the lonely hallways whispered their doubts: We are the best, but are we good enough? Will the data for my project work out? Am I as smart as he is? Will I get the full ride to a top university? Will my parents love me more?

One day in class a teacher, seeking to push us ever upward and grasping for some semblance of creativity, instructed each of us to conceive of a question of startling simplicity which, nonetheless, we believed no one could succeed in answering.

Not used to such open questions, the class struggled mightily with this task of humble conception and, in fact, the first couple of questions from students did not really follow the assignment, merely posing unchallenging math problems, the solutions to which were contingent upon obscure, arcane formulae.

Uneasy feigned laughter echoed about the room, the superstudents attempting to embody an air of nonchalance while all the while their minds labored harder than ever, reasoning furiously, tearing through the prodigious contents of their skulls with a speed resembling wrath.

At last my turn came. "What is the tallest and greatest tree at this school?"

At first a pause and then, again, the strained laughter, as if the question had been posed as a joke. A boy excused himself to the restroom and, when he returned, hazarded, having doubtless peered out a window, that the answer was a particular tree at the edge of the woods below the entrance road.

"Come on," I mocked them. "We're all supposed to be geniuses and we come here every day . . . it's only the biggest freakin' tree on campus."

When the teacher frowned and asked that I reveal the answer, I told them. "It's the sycamore atop the hill to the north. Three grown men would be hard-pressed to join hands round its trunk. The upper branches are as tall as the lights from the football stadium. And if you walk up close to it, you can see long, thick shoots of ivy running up it like a tangle of climbing serpents. On windy days the uppermost limbs seem to clutch at the sky like fingers. I'd bet you anything its hollow, too. And the bark of that tree is really something to look at. It’s an odd bleached white color—like bone."

* * * * *

Let us speak first of the slightly taller dream girl, B—, possessed of brown eyes, soft and warm like wide pools of sorghum molasses. Eyes that might take in the world, might brim and overflow with it, spilling back its secrets in little rivulets of warmth.

It was the secrets of water that interested her most. “The study of water quality in local bodies of water is important for many reasons,” read the prospectus for our research project, written almost entirely by her. “Water surrounds us everywhere. It is one of the most important things we need to stay alive. Humans use water for everything: power, nourishment, agriculture, leisurely activities. Due to the essential role water plays in our lives, it is vital to know what quality of water exists in our surroundings.”

Every Friday during the first two months of spring semester we drove together to a different stretch of Blackwater Creek and proceeded to trace a given section on foot, straying along its floodplain, saplings and dry brittle briars scratching at our jeans—me bearing a cooler and she a canvas pack filled with instruments and equipment. The creek curved, deepened, and took on alternate characteristics; the Fridays were rainy or sunny, fair or cold; but everywhere and every time we measured the same things: dissolved oxygen, conductivity, ph, temperature, coliform bacteria. Yet no one excursion might be afforded the name constant. For all the while spring slowly was unfolding around us, the creek and its surroundings literally coming to life as these two young people clung to the monotony and routine of science, even as their youthful blood began to stir and run like the sap of trees.

One particular Friday morning, weather unseasonably warm—a gray expanse overhead and a breeze so slight in its interruption of the creek-bottom humidity as to be palpable only on my neck and forearms, slightly damp with sweat.

On two great, lichen-covered rocks we had seated ourselves, the creek before and below us, and the bank rising behind, pungent with the odor of damp leaves and rotting wood. The current might have run faster, except that a number of trees leaning over the stream had flung down their branches into the water here and there.

Blackwater Creek murmured and whispered its old tale, so different from the story we sought to set down for it—to prove—with our numbers.

B— leaning forward to nudge me with an empty SCI bottle where I lay sprawled on my rock. “Best get a sample here.”

Laboring to an upright position, I dramatically swipe the bottle from her hand, then lean over the edge of my rock, belly down, to gather the passing waters.

Filled and capped, into the cooler the bottle goes, though the hand that places it there does not proceed to reemerge empty. Arm outstretched, I offer to B— a dripping, frosty can of Milwaukee’s Best Light.

Musical laughter as she takes it, followed by a mocking admonition. "You'd be so busted for that."

Shrug from me as I pop open my own. "Whoopty shit."

Accompanying the beer, as if on cue, there breaks down upon us a sudden flood of sunshine, and as B— drinks an enigmatic smile plays about the corners of her mouth. Freckled, pale-skinned redhead that she is, even half a beer sets her cheeks aglow with a crimson flush. Yet the nature of the beauty that springs forth from her is less of a cosmetic quality and more the simple embodiment of her youth and her being in that place in spring, and a private joy at life in that moment that would always remain a secret of her very own. The sun shines full upon her, turning her hair to fire. She blooms.

But then the introspective spell passes and her levity returns. "You get to take the dissolved oxygen readings next week, since you've come to be so full of hot air."

And me killing my beer and glancing at her sideways, eyes narrowed, mock-threatening. "You're the one doing the fecal coliform. What does that make you full of?"

Quick, back-handed blow to my arm, followed by a giggle from her and an answering laugh from me. Then she sips her beer and peers up at the budding canopy, before allowing her head to roll back towards me. "You know,” she says, “we could live out our whole lives in a wild place and when we died wolves would devour our flesh and gnaw our bones, and birds would build nests with our hair."

I smile at the creek and crush my can against the rock.

“And if the earth has forgotten you,” she says, as if quoting, “tell the still earth: I am flowing. With the moving waters say, ‘I am.’”

"Not very scientific."

"Nothing that's really true is. It’s like the other day in Vector Calculus when we got off on Euler’s Identity. Just kind of there, you know, like a part of nature rather than something a man made up or discovered. There and beautiful: the natural essence of something. Like love."

I cast my crushed beer can up into the air and at the top of its arc it glints in the sun before landing in the creek with a small splash and floating slowly, listlessly, downstream on the current.

“Don’t worry, it's biodegradable.”

* * * * *

A week later. Girlfriend troubles. Alone in a little study room at the Magnet School, sitting quietly before a book-strewn table, staring off into space.

Enters B— carrying a stack of empty petri dishes. A glance at me and a pause. Then she sets down the containers, very carefully, atop an open medical thesaurus, and takes up the chair opposite. She considers me for a moment, face unreadable, then slowly reaches across the table for my hand. Gently she turns my palm upward and then rests her small hand in mine.

"Your girlfriend broke up with you."

“How did you know I had a girlfriend?”

“I didn’t.”

I smile at her, then look down at the table, probably with a frown. Next second—fluid, quick motion of a high school athlete—hand removed from hers and seizing a gray-blue graphing calculator from the cluttered table to send hurtling against the far wall. Sharp crack of breaking plastic, followed by a hard clattering echo as it strikes the vinyl floor tile, parts scattering in all directions

Exasperated laughter from me as I motion at the table. “Look at all this shit.”

And B—, laughing too, eyes as soft as Amherst County sorghum, mirth flushing her face with blood. "I should be your girlfriend."

Which makes me laugh harder, until finally, gasps reigned in at last, I manage my best air of solemnity. "That would be alright, I guess, but I think our relationship would have to be purely Platonic."

"No!" she exclaims, striking the table with an open palm, blood deepening her face almost purple. "No! No! No! No! No! No!" she sings, stamping her foot in time.

And me laughing, heart turned to slush, leaning across the table to cup her hot freckles in the palms of my hands and kiss her on the mouth.

* * * * *

A smile fades with the vanishing of this memory, but even as it does let us turn our attention to the other dream girl. For though she was not known to me as intimately as B—, she has been neglected long enough and, as I have related, it has become my custom of late to afford them equal time and attention, arriving, as they do, without fail, in tandem.

Despite her alert eyes and constant air of nervous, physical motion, A— somehow managed to appear more or less oblivious to her surroundings much of the time—looking without seeing, as if meditating powerfully upon an entity not present. A fierce worker, alternately flitting or striding from room to room on some new spectral errand, a perpetual sense of process fueled by a smoldering passionate purpose almost volcanic in nature—that might tempt her to seek conquering the air itself should it challenge her in the form of a hypothesis. Rarely could she be found at rest, but at odd moments an unconscious smile curved just so slightly the far ends of her lips, though hardly ever in conjunction with any of the talk or events unfolding around her. Reason and reaction remained all hers—the smile was entirely her own

Violent thunderclaps and heavy spring rain. The entire school cast into darkness, save for the intermittent glow of the sporadic weak emergency lights inhabiting the rooms and lining the walls—nature's electricity triumphant despite all the city's organization, contingencies, and best laid plans. And the Magnet faculty herding the superstudents to the glassed-in entry area, where they can see each other, and their books—some already flopped back open, studies resumed—and the hard rain and periodic flashes of lightning cutting jaggedly about the tops of the stadium lights—and the swaying upper branches of the school's tallest tree, which clutch at the sky like fingers.

The darkened hallways and inner chambers of the Magnet School lie deserted, forlorn, except for . . . me—who has never minded roaming dark places—and, as I eventually discover, A—, seated in a lab at a lifeless computer terminal beneath a flickering, half-functioning emergency light, scribbling furiously into a notebook.

I call to her from the door and she speaks though her writing does not cease. Then me, walking toward her, uneven lighting—vaguely strobe-like in effect—playing a game with her form, causing it to appear distant and close at the same time. The silence and darkness of the room magnify my motions to myself. Each forward step resounds in my heart.

As I reach her the writing stops and the notebook casually closes, fevered focus having resolved suddenly into a calm lassitude. A— leans back in her chair, looks at me.

"I see you managed to avoid being evacuated."

Slight nod but no reply, hints of a secret smile at the corners of her mouth, shadows of dimples deepening in the dimness.

"Robotics, right? Lose any data?"

Then a triumphant smile, a superior smile. "That's been done for a while. A monkey could program that robot with a loop to move objects."

Silence and then, "How is your project going?"

Me, looking away, peering toward a dark corner. "I haven't made it out to Blackwater Creek lately."

And her, smile fading, eyes focusing, as if coming back from somewhere. "I'm sorry. I liked her."

"I liked her, too."

Hesitation, as if weighing something, and then the shadow of a nod as she decides. A— flips open the notebook and looks at me. "I've been exploring the notion that the physical state on a surface prior to a temporal region might be unconstrained."

"Time travel."

Eyes suddenly hard, narrowing, as if challenging me to doubt her. "It hasn't been proven to be impossible."

Me, as noncommittal as I might, "Not my area at all, but if it's true that space is curved and time is relative, then why couldn't it be possible?"

Relaxing of the eyes and subtle loosening of the mouth. "Precisely, and it's not so far-fetched if you ignore the stupid books and movies and think about it as physics. It is true one cannot change the past to be different from what it was, since it only occurs once. But it is physical possibility, not logical possibility, that is of interest to me. And insofar as that is concerned, time-travel is consistent with the universal validity of certain fundamental physical laws and with the idea that the physical state on a surface prior to the time travel region be unconstrained. It is perfectly possible that the physical laws obey this condition."

I offer what I can. "Seems to me the real problem then is the demonstration part of its actuality. But, from what I've read, to really give it a shot you'd need to harness a couple supernovas and some negative matter. Not exactly easy lab material to come by."

Her look does not answer my smile and instead she beckons me closer as she flips through her notebook. When I take up the chair next to her I notice her breath possesses a slight intimation of onions and when our hands inadvertently brush, hers is like a summer hailstone, burning with cold.

On a page littered with red-ink equations she points to a figure containing two spheres on a grid. "It may well turn out there are solutions to the Einstein field equations for the exterior and interior gravitational fields of the light cylinder, and that the exterior gravitational field contains closed timelike lines. The presence of these may indicate the possibility of time travel into the past."

Closing the notebook, she suddenly seems very tired and gently brings a hand up to her head. When she speaks again it is as one who has attempted to keep hold of an idea that somehow has eluded her. She looks about the room abstractly. "It is hard sometimes to keep it all in mind. I wonder if these ideas are really mine, or are they only a dream? Maybe even someone else's dream. You've heard people say that life is a dream. Where did the dream come from?"

Suddenly it seemed to me as though I had lived my entire life very close to her and when I speak it is very softly. "Sagan believed that time is profoundly resistant to any single definition. It may be that time is like a dream and the unfolding of it that we know is only the dream of our lives."

She glances down at her notebook, then brings back the hand to run a wayward strand of hair behind her ear. "It's alright now. What I told you is true."

"Do you remember Euler's Identity?"

She considers this for a moment and then a smile slowly forms on her face, until suddenly it breaks open into an abrupt laugh. "Yes, I understand. We do not really know what it means, yet have proved it theoretically. Therefore, we know that it must be the truth."

Just then the lights come on: blinding, stabbing, fluorescent light.

Her squinting at me. "That's precisely why I don't tell people about what I'm really working on."

"You told me."

"That's because you're not like the other people in this place."

Me smiling, rising to go. "I'm not like anybody."

* * * * *

B— died alone one spring mid-morning in a single vehicle highway wreck two weeks after I kissed her, running off the road without any cause or reason anyone could determine. Several months later, A— dove head first through an upper floor dormitory window, was withdrawn from school by her parents, and sent away, circumstances equally unfathomable, causes unknown.

* * * * *

Sitting at my writing desk, morning sun on the back of my neck, dwelling upon those occasions in my life when events have occurred that seemed already familiar—that I already somehow knew. Thinking too that my way of writing is not unlike those occasions: that I am only discovering what I already know. And that I was meant to know it all before. I am a time traveler: my past becomes my destiny in the symbols I set now to paper.

Yet another morning, at my desk, sun on my neck, forming characters slowly, gently, as a calligrapher might, with a black felt-tip pen, careful to afford them their slight leans and rounded curves, attempting to infuse them with warmth:

e + 1 = 0

Euler's Identity, the most beautiful equation in math.

Leonhard Euler enrolled at the University of Basel at the age of thirteen and had earned his Master's degree by sixteen. In 1727, Catherine I of Russia invited him to join the faculty of the Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg. In 1735, he lost sight in one eye while working three days straight to establish the answer to a mathematical problem that had taken his colleagues months to solve. He published ninety articles while in Russia, as well as the two-volume book Mechanica. In 1741, at the urging of Frederick the Great, Euler moved to the Berlin Academy of Sciences. Over the next quarter century he prepared nearly four hundred papers for publication. In 1766, he returned to St. Petersburg, almost completely blind, yet still working—possessed now of the ability to solve complex calculations entirely in his head.

For all his dedication and accomplishments, he doubted his endeavors. Possessed of the wisdom to remain skeptical of his knowledge, he felt acutely the inevitability and terror of his own fallibility. Writing to a German princess in a letter now lost, he remarked, “We are so liable to suffer ourselves to be dazzled by the senses, and mistake in our reasonings, that the very sources laid open by the Creator for the discovery of truth, very frequently plunge us into error.”

* * * * *

“None of the acceleration options has been shown to do psychosocial damage to gifted students as a group; when effects are noted, they are usually (but not invariably) in a positive direction.”
– Nancy Robinson

* * * * *

In my waking mind, I hold their images to me.
Then I set them down in grass, push away the clouds, and summon the wind to curve round their brows like kisses.
If I were a better writer, I would breathe life into these girls.
They would play out their lost lives with my words.
If I were a better writer, I would summon them from their oblivion and give them to the world.

* * * * *

Poem given to me by B— (Spring 1992)

For all her learning, the meaning of this eludes her.
Oak leaves blown across endless fields.
The succession of lovers who have held her,
possessed of hands as soft as hers,
watching as she sleeps with eyes grown weak
from endless paper trails.

In dream she wanders empty, lonely places,
A wayward blizzard of unstable molecules,
Until a shadow being arrives to gather her,
Felt more than seen: rough, dirt-stained hands,
As gentle and as warm as the upturned ground in May.

* * * * *

A + B + C
Dusty, old unsolved formula housed now solely within the mind of the lattermost variable: a poor mathematician but an avid dreamer. And perhaps something of a sorcerer or a madman, depending on who happens to work the equation.

* * * * *

These two forever young girls, always as they were, watchful and waiting, long gone from the lives of everyone who knew them then, save the one to whom they present themselves at the tail-end of every night. To what purpose, he does not know, sleeping mind considering them in the instant before it awakens to itself. With the arrival of dawn—with a black rooster's crow—their dim watching forms melt into an awareness of morning, yet leave behind in their wake the trace signature of something beyond the world that is also strangely comforting: something like the half-life of a blessing.

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