No one knows anything. It’s all guesses and suppositions. This is a truth we learn as children. Strangers come to our city to study this truth, which they call our philosophy, or cultural ethos, or belief system, depending on the academic discipline they follow. They bring money, and spend it in our markets, so we try not to laugh when we spot one, so young and earnest (they are all young and earnest), on the street.
What can they study?
There was a woman who knotted string, and each knot she tied brought one of the sugar-and-kitchen-scrapings candies she boiled in her old rusty pot to shape itself into a perfect roundness. The bigger the knot, the larger the candy, but they were all uniformly round, as if they’d cooled in a mold. So she said. The string-knotting didn’t do anything to improve how the sweets tasted, but they looked very nice.
There was another woman, who cut out circles of cardboard and soaked them in vinegar, then placed them between metal discs, and treated many people with the magic of acid and copper and zinc. Folks admitted the procedure was painful, but she had an ocean of loyal clients.
There was a man who picked up plastic forks in the street – only forks – and washed them very carefully. This made the birds happy, he said. What purpose it served to make the birds happy, he would never discuss. He’d shake his head, very slightly, if he was asked; his eyes wore a sad expression.
Then there was my cousin Ugo. He wasn’t truly my cousin – his mother’s brother had married my father’s sister, so the only kin connection between us was a handful of first cousins in common. But none of them could stand him, and a couple of times I’d bailed him out of jail, so even after he stopped talking to people to concentrate on the duty of saving the world, he’d say hello to me, sometimes.
The thing about Ugo was that he smelled. He smelled even before he started arranging pebbles in order to maintain the balance of reality. It wasn’t sweat, or urine, exactly, that he stank of. More like mold, a dank, mushroomy sort of odor. Once smelled, never forgotten. You could tell Ugo had been in a room hours after he’d left.
When he was young, his parents went to an old woman who cupped water. Cup water for our son, they asked, so that he smells like a good boy. The old woman did, and for a while Ugo smelled like nothing at all, but after she died, his parents couldn’t find anyone else who cupped water the way she did. My mother said it was nothing to do with cupping water at all, unless you were talking about bathtub water, and that Ugo was just one of those people who needed to wash two or three times a day.
“Hello,” Ugo said to me one day, on Hinson Street, a block down from Consolation Boulevard. He was crouching on the sidewalk, playing with little bits of rock. Even in the open air, his stink was impressive. I’d seen him as I’d crossed the street, and had been hoping he’d be too engrossed in his stone play to notice me.
“Hi, how’s it going,” I said, slowing down as a courtesy, but edging past him. “Got an appointment–”
“I’m saving the world.”
“Yeah. Heard about that.” Half the city had, this new thing, the odiferous man with his little stones. It was difficult to take a man who stank seriously, but the people of the city had long practice at living with maybes.
He looked up, and grinned. “See this, and this?” He pointed at two small rocks that seemed pretty much the same to me. Roundish, grayish, about the size of a kiddie’s marble. He’d probably dug them out of a stranger’s garden, or excavated them from one of the more secluded areas of Adams Park. There were still bits of dirt clinging to them. And the ones he pointed at were two out of maybe twenty or more he’d arranged on the sidewalk.
“Um, cool,” I said.
“The world is safe today,” he told me, not with pride, but with a quiet satisfaction.
“Tomorrow, though, I don’t know.”
“Well, we never do know about tomorrow, do we?” I didn’t really have an appointment. I was just taking a walk, because a doctor told me to walk one hour every day to keep my blood pressure in check. The hand-rubber who kept a stall at the Friday market told me that was nonsense, all I needed to do was light a match every night and let it burn down until it touched my fingertips, but I’d thought I’d give the doctor’s guess a shot first.
“Tomorrow’s going to be a bad day.”
“You know this.” Of course he didn’t know. No one knows anything. He supposed, and went forward on that supposition.
“Oh, yes.” Ugo nodded firmly. “Could be the end day, if we don’t make the pattern big enough.”
I should have caught on to that we. I really should have.
“And on top of that,” he went on, “it’s going to rain.”
“Can’t stop the rain.”
“Sure you can. Not that I’m going to, naturally. That’s not my charge.”
“Probably you should bring an umbrella, then.”
“No time.” He stood up and brushed off his knees. He gazed down at his arrangement of pebbles, which looked random to me, just the same as if he’d thrown a big handful of rocks down on the sidewalk and let them bounce and skip wherever they would. He nodded. “This’ll do. Now we need to get started for tomorrow.”
I heard that we the second time. Damn it, I thought. “Nice to see you, Ugo, and you’re doing great work here, really, but I have to get going now.”
“Tomorrow will be a very bad day. If you don’t help me, I’m afraid I won’t be able to do it alone.”
Light a bonfire on the highest hill, and the sun will return from its winter withdrawal.
Put coins in a vending machine and push a lever, and you get a can of soda.
Who knows. The sun might return anyway. The can of pop might clatter out of the machine in any case. We make our best guesses, and try to get through the day.
“Ugo, this isn’t my charge. I don’t have a charge. Never had one.” And had been glad of that, all my life.
“I know,” he said. “But if you don’t help me, who will?” He pushed his hair back, and gazed at me steadily.
He was right about that. He had no friends, and no family who would have anything to do with him. I didn’t know where he lived, but I knew how he ate: the people of the city dropped sandwiches and candy bars and wrapped fruit and such behind him while he was engaged on his enterprise. There was a bag of roasted nuts on the pavement a couple of inches from his left foot at that very moment. The people of the city are tolerant. I wondered if the foreign students took note of that, how uncertainty nurtures tolerance, forbearance.
But tolerance travels only so far.
Ugo kept looking at me.
“Just this one time,” I said. “Right? You’re not going to be calling me every day to come help you find rocks. Right?”
“I promise,” he said.
So we hunted stones. All afternoon, all night. I’d been correct – he raided gardens. A number of homeowners saw us, but said nothing. I smiled and shrugged at them, and they turned away. Forbearance, again. Ugo never spoke, except to me. I’d been right about the park, too. We headed there, after gathering a couple of sackfuls of stones, sometime after moonrise.
“You know this isn’t the safest place to be at night.”
“There is risk,” he said. “But the task outweighs it.”
We spent hours in the park. It was like Ugo could see in the dark, or could sniff out the particular pebble he needed. The sacks grew fuller, grew heavier, grew larger than they had been when we had started to fill them. That the sacks grew larger did not disturb me, though it did disturb me, slightly, that I was not disturbed. But caught up in his charge, it seemed a trivial matter. In any case, the sacks might have become larger even without the loads of stones we placed inside them.
Midnight passed, and it was tomorrow. I thought he would stop then, and begin on the placing of the stones, but he didn’t. We kept hunting the park.
I wasn’t hungry. I should have been. I wasn’t thirsty. I should have been. I wasn’t tired. Now this did begin to worry me.
“Ugo, shouldn’t we be tired by now?”
He didn’t answer.
Something else bothered me. It hadn’t rained, and it wasn’t raining, not even a sprinkle. So Ugo had been wrong about that.
But if a person’s wrong about one thing, it does not follow that he or she is wrong about everything.
And simply because someone smells like decaying mushrooms, it does not follow that his charge is ridiculous.
Of course, it does not follow that it isn’t, either.
Finally, as the sky was just starting to gray, we left the park. Ugo led the way to Consolation Boulevard. I carried the sacks. They were heavy, and still I wasn’t tired.
We set the stones, in patterns only Ugo could perceive, over an entire city block. Covered it completely. People who wanted to walk there had to cross to the other side, but no one complained. The placing of the pebbles took hours, as well. Ugo handed me stones and pointed to where he wanted them set, but he did most of the precise arrangements and adjustments himself. The sun was high when Ugo placed the last stone, leaned back on his haunches, and sighed.
And I still wasn’t tired, or thirsty, or hungry.
“Is it done?”
He didn’t reply.
“Ugo, I wish you would say something.”
“How could you give up this delight?” he murmured, and then stood up, and stretched, and smiled at me. And then he walked away.
That was several weeks ago. I haven’t seen him since. But the world continues. I do not know if it is because of Ugo. I do not know if it isn’t.
I do not know what I will do if Ugo breaks his promise and calls on me to help him again.
I go to work, I do my laundry, I buy groceries, and occasionally have dinner with friends. I get through each day, as we all do, knowing nothing for sure, trying not to laugh at the students of philosophy with their field trials and conferences, notepads and research projects, or at least not to do so in front of them. It’s true that there is no certainty in this, our six-sided world, but there’s no need to hurt people’s feelings. My mother taught me that, and I have always believed it. And if I am wrong, there is no harm in erring on the side of kindness. That is my guess, and I go forward with it.
Some of Patricia Russo’s stories can be found online at Fantasy, Chizine, Daily SF, and Dog vs. Sandwich. Her first collection, Shiny Thing, is forthcoming from Papaveria Press.