This story has its origins in the work of physicist and philosopher, Carlos Rovelli, who has sought to explain the nature of reality and of time in language, for people like me who lack the math. We experience time but its nature is an enigma, a riddle. Thinking of riddles brought to mind Bilbo Baggins, underground, staking his life on out-guessing Gollum. By a fluke, he reaches the right answer, “time”, to the last true riddle. I used elements of that well-known chapter, morphing them, in an attempt to think through Rovelli’s explanations. In my story, the traveller has a weapon that illuminates the cave far better than the faint glimmer of an Elven sword. At the climax is the riddle of time, but one which I hope describes Covelli’s insights, not those of Tolkien or Gollum.
The creature lived in a cave deep beneath the mountain. They had crawled there after a death (I will not call it murder) and a taking (I do not call it theft). The sun had wheeled across the sky, the moon turned through its phases and the seasons moved through their cycle many thousands of times since the creature had first sought refuge from brightness and company. Time passed more slowly deep underground than on the surface, and not simply because the cave was so much closer to the planet’s massive core. The creature metabolised slowly, their temperature the same as the rock, pool and slowly changing air. They dwelt in complete darkness, where almost nothing marked change except it was the occasional padding of their feet over the rocks, or the slow ripples on the water spreading from where they lapped, or the rare passing of stool, or the desiccation of the tiny fragments of flesh that clung to the scattered, unremembered bones.
A traveller came to the cave. Often, as measured in surface time, travellers hazarded the shallow tunnels as a quick way through the mountains, avoiding the high snowy passes or the long trips north or south past the ends of the range. In the tunnels, time ran slower near their feet than by their heads and so sometimes they tripped and stumbled, always falling forward and down deeper until lost, bewildered and alone they found themselves in the very depths. They carried a small cargo of entropy to the cave, but it spent itself in their deaths, consumption and desiccation. Then time’s mirage expired once more.
Anyway, this particular traveller did come to the cave. The creature heard its footfall, its breath, it feeling for and sitting on a rock worn smooth with its past brief incumbents, it swearing softly. It hefted a sack from its back, then drank from a bottle that sounded near empty.
Something slammed into the creature with sudden violence, a solid wall of harmony and dissonance. Then this resolved into the familiar illusion of melody, tones heard in each fragment of now, understood by the memory of notes past and in the anticipation of future sounds, whether realised or confounded. Chaos became syncopation became a beat. The traveler was playing an instrument, a thing of reed, metal and breath. The music lit up that cavern, waves echoing off rock and water, giving that dark place depth and space and shape. The creature remembered the saxophone, the smoke and lights of bars, the taste of burned barley and hops, the thrill of risking high stakes on the chance of a king, the glory of pissing after a long night drinking. There was the vision of ephemeral beauty: the perfect face still imprinted with the remnants of childhood and bearing its first lines; the ancient ornate building reaching to heaven, its roof on fire, coloured glass exploding, bells crashing down, towers collapsing; green light and dripping water, bark and hanging vines, chatter and hooting, rustles and fluttering, sudden death and slow strangulation, birth and germination, flying sawdust, diesel fumes and bright blue sky over desert.
The music fell to silence but hung in the darkness as memory. The creature had not spoken in a thousand years. Their mouth and tongue were atrophied and dry. They croaked:
“Often sold but rarely bought,
In stone and glass and metal wrought,
Shapely youth or comely maiden
Or captured in perfect equation
Forever grasped, passes through fingers as dust,
Radiance within, or no deeper than the crust.”
The traveller answered without shock at hearing a voice in the dark. Its voice was high and clear:
“Really? “Maiden”? “Equation”? The answer is easy though. You speak of beauty, and I am honoured my playing brought you that thought.”
The silence closed in. After a pause, the traveller spoke again.
“I have become separated from my companions and am altogether lost. It is likely I will die here. But music gives hope. Will you guide me out of this place to sunshine and laughter?”
The creature thought of sunshine and laughter, of birds hanging on the wind and plummeting for fish, of meat roasting on a spit, of flattery, teasing and sex. They felt hunger for the first time in millennia. Their mouth now was wet with saliva.
“Easy it says. It guesses easy? It will play a game with us. It will say a riddle and we will guess, we say and it must guess. It must hazard silence and darkness uninterrupted against sunshine and laughter. Yes? It will play? It must ask”
Turn and turn about, they asked their riddles. These were the answers to the traveller’s rhymes: teeth, sunshine, egg, woman-measures-distance-to-farthest-star, pocketknife. These were the answers to the creature’s challenges: mountain, wind, quark, pterodactyl.
But the music’s echoes were very faint now and had dropped in pitch almost below hearing. The brightness of thought and memory had faded. The creature no longer hungered but felt old and weary. It had an idea how to end this game that had become tiresome.
This creature had but one possession, a ring, a precious thing. It was wrought subtly so that it could be lifted and held, yet it was forged from the vast mass of the dark heart of a collapsed star, caught forever on the rebound between compression and explosion. If worn on the finger, it expanded its dark horizon round the wearer, so photons would not escape and the bearer might not be seen. Even without being worn, the thing captured reality around it, slowing time and twisting space into strange contortions like a hideous monstrous mollusc shell.
The creature slid onto the rock next to the traveller, felt the unaccustomed warmth on their skin. They carefully slipped the ring into the traveller’s open pocket, then asked their final riddle:
“This thing all life does make
Microbe to human, tree, snake
Pushes up mountains from rocky crust
But beats all these things to dust
To the warrior it brings the crown
Stirs rebellion and pulls him down
From our clouded vision this thing emerges
Reaches back, and forward surges
The dealer cuts and shuffles the pack
The suits are mixed, cannot go back
On the turn of a card you risk your all
But existence is indifferent
To how the cards fall”
The traveller twisted and shuffled, pinched and slapped itself, mouthed words, the names of gods or mythical heroes or wyrms that might do these things or gamble with mortal lives. But none of these seemed right and it dared not say them aloud. The darkness closed in, and the stillness surrounded them. The ring contorted existence into a howling yawning vertiginous spiral of spacetime, pulling the traveller into its terrible heart. Then the traveller lost all thought and became a bubble of fear and sweat and piss and agitation. It would not answer, could not say the name of that thing, “time”, for time itself had dissolved in the foam of probabilistic reality in which there is complete clarity but no particular viewpoint, no observation of heart or ace or club or king separate from every quantum value of every card, no entropy, no present moment, no past nor future, no particles, no mass nor matter, just interacting fields of energy, a network of kisses, and of curses.
As the creature stripped flesh from the traveller’s bones, they tasted quantum entanglement, like bubbles breaking on their tongue. “Tricksy”, they whispered. So this had been a snare, a plot to lead the creature back into surface time, lured by the prospect of birds, beasts, trees, flowers, sunshine on the daisies. And there, what then? There is a sentience of sorts in the universe, not powerful. It wants to nudge events, leading the ring through successive owners until at length one might cast the accursed thing into a hot star to be unmade.
The rings’s creator had sought to rule all existence but had been overthrown, the ring cut from his hand, all power native to him now captured in that one object that was lost to him. But in making the ring, he had bound all other powers to its fate. With its destruction, so too would go time and life and thought and beauty.
So the creature had rebelled. In taking the ring from its last finder (I will not call it theft), at the price of that person’s life (I will not call this act murder), in hiding in the deepest place in dark and stillness, as far as possible from the illusion of time, local time or entropic time or false-time, they set out to preserve that very illusion. They dwelt in that cave almost without time, beauty’s protector, the guardian of the ring.
Carlo Rovelli “The Order of Time” published 2019, Penguin.
JRR Tolkien “The Hobbit” first published 1937, George Allen & Unwin Ltd; “The Lord of the Rings” first published 1954-55, George Allen & Unwin Ltd (now published by Harper Collins)
John Harle “Terror and Magnificence” 1997 studio album on the Argo label featuring John Harle (saxophone) and Elvis Costello (vocals).