The end was near.
Fourteen could see it coming. floating on its own platform. It wasn’t visible until after midnight of the last day, a far-off speck in the flat gray void. As the day progressed, though, it came nearer and nearer, until Fourteen could see the plump-baby form, the sash, the top hat (Why do they still give us those?) and wearing the sartorial minimum. The baby first took notice of him in the late afternoon, but generally paid him no mind, the same thing Fourteen did upon his own arrival. But jeez, was he really ever that fat?
Finally, in the early evening, they were close enough to hear each other.
“Greetings, Fourteen,” the young one said.
“Fifteen, how are ya?” Fourteen leaned on his scythe. “Ready to take over?”
“I have a choice? Maybe if I run away, this whole boondoggle would come to an end.”
“Thirteen claimed he tried that, but just got shocked for his efforts. He was out for days.”
“Yeah, I heard about that. Something must’ve really scared the poor bugger.” He took off his hat, ran a hand over his bald head. He started to put it back on, then stopped, stared at Fourteen. “Where’s your hat?”
“It crumbled away before the end of the first quarter. Yours will, too.”
“Aw, man.” Fifteen turned the hat over, looked inside, then at the top. “I really like this. It gives me class.” He set it carefully on his head.
“‘Class’ is not something associated with our ilk.”
“I’ll say, given the look of those ratty old rags hanging on that skinny, wrinkled, ancient carcass of yours.”
“It’s a toga–”
The baby snorted. “A word stolen from some old Greek dudes who sat around scratching themselves in their ‘togas’ arguing about the nature of nature. And getting it all wrong, of course.”
“Pretty bold talk for someone still wearing diapers.”
The toddler’s whole body flushed red. “They made me wear this, I swear I’d never—” He pulled the waistband out, looked down. “Besides, I have nothing to put in them.”
“You don’t eat, you don’t need to–”
“Yeah, yeah, I got the lowdown from Administration. I tell you what, this form is pretty grody. I had hoped for the Translucent gig. Now there’s a beautiful and sublime form.”
“And their years are three months and six days shorter.”
“A short, bright life and then out in a blaze of glory. That’s the way to do it!”
Fourteen kept quiet, because he’d had the exact same wish a year ago.
“Been nice if you’d shaved occasionally.”
Fourteen shook his head so his long, white hair and long, white beard whipped around him. “Best beard you’ll ever see. Beats that scrawny fuzz on Thirteen’s chin. Don’t worry, ’round about March you’ll start to see some hair where there wasn’t any before.”
Fifteen made a show of taking his hat off, brushing non-existent dust off, putting it back on. “Shoulda used that blade t’do a little trimmin’ is what y’should’ve done, geezer.”
“You mean like this?” He swing the scythe backward. The platforms were close enough that it knocked the toddler’s top hat off. It rolled over and stopped right at the edge.
“Hey! Are you freakin’ crazy?” He waddled over, picked it up, again turned it slowly over as he inspected it for damage. “You’ve gotten senile-nuts in your old age.”
“Happens to all of us.”
“Yeah, well, time for some of us is gettin’ real short, and here comes someone who’ll make sure it happens.”
A black form was approaching, dark robes flapping and flowing around an emaciated central figure of bones, A skeletal foot touched down on Fourteen’s platform, but the rest of the figure halted. A skull leered out of the dark, winked. “Hello, boys,” it said in a raspy voice. “How’s it going?”
“Hello, Death,” Fifteen said. “You know, just hangin’ around, killin’ some time.”
“So, Death, how’s life treatin’ ya?” Fourteen said.
“Why’s everyone a comedian when I show up? Well, not everyone. Thirteen was a drudge, no sense of humor at all. Wasn’t too displeased to see him go.”
“Well, you can do the universe a favor by ridding it of him,” Fifteen said, pointing at Fourteen.
“All in good time, all in good time.”
“See, now who’s the comedian?” Fifteen said.
“Got to look at the bright side, don’t we, lest we become maudlin and depressed.”
“Yeah, nothing worse than a gloomy Death,” Fourteen said.
Death burst into loud and deep laughter as he glided away. “Like I haven’t heard that one before.”
Conversation died for a while as time passed and the platforms drew nearer. Fifteen looked askance at Fourteen, who waggled his beard at him. Fifteen hmpffed and fiddled with his sash, smoothing it out and adjusting it across his roly-poly chest.
“By March it’ll lose its brightness, by June the first rips will show and by September it’ll start hanging on you like it was torn from an old curtain.”
“That will not happen this year. I will see that it doesn’t.”
Fourteen let out a solid laugh, then their attention was caught by another figure moving toward them. This one was tall, thin and gaunt in face, though his bald head looked too large for the frame. A white robe covered him neck to boots. He walked steadily, almost plodding, toward them though nothing supporting him was visible. His beard, long and thin, hung to his knees and an hourglass hung from a handle he held in his right hand. The red sand in the top glass was almost gone. Fourteen knew the sand was his time, and he felt a little touch of cold fear inside. Was that Death laughing somewhere? Or was it Fifteen? Neither, he realized; it was his own heart.
Despite the hourglass, the figure pulled out an immense watch, popped a cover open. “Earth, Terra,” a voice rumbled deeply from the figure’s chest. “Another turn around its life-giving Sun.”
“Good day, Father Time,” Fourteen and Fifteen said together.
“Good day, gentlemen. Another turn, another year.” He set the hourglass down on Fourteen’s platform. “Not too much damage, more of the usual chronological processes. Not so much grand killing by the dominant species, not like in some years.” He shook his head. “Some years — wow.”
“Wow” from Father Time was equivalent to “Holy freakin’ apocalyptic hell!” from everyone else. Fourteen was glad one of those years wasn’t his.
“The place is getting warmer, and not so naturally,” Fourteen said.
Father Time shrugged. “The processes will happen as they will, and we will adjust as they do.”
“Another year of the same ol’, same ol’, then,” Fifteen said.
“Perhaps not, at least for us,” Father Time said. “The Administration has decided that, in light of shifting cultural values on the planet we serve, Sixteen’s skin could very well be a different shade. Or it’ll be female. Or both.”
“Bah,” Fifteen mumbled. “Change for the sake of change.”
“May I borrow that?”
Fourteen, surprised, handed him the scythe. Father Time stepped across the narrow gap, lifted Fifteen’s hat, rapped him hard on his head with the scythe handle. “Ow!” Fifteen shouted as Father Time replaced the hat, then stepped back across, handed the scythe back. “I am very old and very tired of this crap. What is it with Earth’s years, anyway? Only here do I get this constant guff. Maybe a female year is what we need. Damn it!”
Fifteen lifted his hat, rubbed the spot and gave Father Time an angry stare. Fourteen stayed silent. He had given Father Time guff, too, but at least he didn’t get rapped for it.
Father Time paid no heed, instead pulling out and looking at the watch again. “The last time zone is reaching zero. Fourteen, are you ready?”
“No. But what good does that do?”
“None at all, none at all.” He looked across the slim gap. “Fifteen! Ready!”
Fifteen stepped forward quickly. “Yessir!” He pulled up his diaper, adjusted his sash, adjusted his hat. “Ready.”
The platforms touched, the sand ran out. Fourteen lifted the scythe in both hands, then stretched his arms toward Fifteen, who stepped forward. Fourteen let go, but Fifteen stumbled, letting the scythe slip. In scrambling to hold on to it, he stepped back, tripped and fell, the scythe handle landing hard on his soft middle. He let out an “oof!” and a curse.
Father Time smirked. “Another successful handover.”
Fourteen laughed. The exact same thing happened a year ago.
“Sir?” He stopped trying to stand, looked up.
Father Time picked up the hourglass, turned it over. A stream of red sand slipped through the neck and began piling up on the now-bottom.
Fifteen swallowed. “Yes, sir.”
“Fourteen.” Father Time nodded, began his plodding steps that took him off in a different direction.
The platforms were separating rapidly now. Fourteen stood alone, watching as the other receded. Fifteen wasn’t looking in his direction. He was still trying to stand up with the scythe. He finally managed, leaning the scythe against one shoulder and planting his feet. He stood staring off into the void. At this distance, Fourteen couldn’t see Fifteen’s face, but he knew which expression was on it. It was the expression someone wore when asking, to borrow a phrase from the humans, WTF?
Yeah, exactly, Fifteen, Fourteen thought, WTF?
So, the new year is 16 days old and by now you should be well along in your new resolutions.
Just another year, y’know. One more turn around the Sun, four more seasons come and gone. Same thing, year after year, the Earth spinning, the Sun making helium, the same old same old.
Animals don’t care. They live for the moment. Is it cold today? Is it warm? Is it breeding season? Is it time to eat? Is it time to be eaten? What’s that you say? A year? Crap, I have enough trouble getting from sunset to sunrise to sunset, I don’t need to be thinking about whether today marks a year from the same day last year. What is a “year” anyway?
And we’re not really back to where we were a year ago. An Earth year doesn’t come out all nice and even, there’s an odd fraction. That fraction ensures we don’t hit the exact same spot on this side of the Sun as last year. Plus, the entire Solar System and the entire galaxy are moving, so the spot we were on Jan. 16 2013 has gone way off in the stellar distance somewhere. That’s the factor most writers of time-travel stories ignore. Not only do time travelers have to aim for the correct time, they have to aim for the correct place. As in, Earth’s place on, say, Jan. 16, 1813. They might be spot-on in the time dimension, but they’re gonna find themselves in a spot with no solid ground. Or air to breathe. Or anything else. A situation much, much worse than that of the astronaut in Gravity.
We humans constructed this concept of a “year” so we could have a place to point to that is both the “end” and the “beginning.” Say good-bye to 2013 now shuffling off the stage, a creaky old man with a long, gray beard carrying his scythe. (OK, now just where did he get that scythe, anyway? The new year comes in as a baby in diaper and top hat, but no scythe. Is the old man carrying the same scythe as the original old man did lo those many billions of years ago? Or does the Old Man Time get a new one sometime during his year? From where? At what point during the twelve months does he obtain the scythe? Six months? When he’s old enough to carry it? Big enough? Six months is middle age, right? By July, his hair is going gray, arthritis is attacking his joints and his teeth are falling out. So is that when the Great Timekeeper in the Sky bestows the scythe upon the current year’s physical representative? Why a scythe? Well, look at the physical representative for death. He definitely uses his every day of the year. Same thing for Old Man Time. The cute Hallmark cards never show him using the scythe to slice off the previous year from the time stream in a bloody finale. No going back now, folks.)
A new year is a chance for new beginnings, or so we’re told, but it’s easier just to continue with the old, right? Change is hard. Stop eating, stop smoking, stop smirking, stop drinking, stop watching so much TV (except for — Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, NCIS, Downton Abbey, Mythbusters, American Idol: place your own show here). Just stop doing whatever you’ve been doing that’s harmful to you, then start doing the healthy things, the educational things, the kind things, the positive things. Make yourself a better person. Easy, no?
Well, we all do share one accomplishment for the year: We’re still alive. No small thing, given all the ways that a single human life can be extinguished. Yeah, some of those resolutions are geared toward, y’know, reducing that risk. So when the completely arbitrary year of 2015 comes around, we’ll still be here. Hah! Another accomplishment!
The trouble with we humans is that our developed brains allows us to fill our lives with — stuff. Good word, “stuff.” (How many variations of coffee drinks are there at your favorite coffeehouse? How long’s it take you decide which one you want?) Often we find the best way to deal with “stuff” is simply letting it wash over us. (Like picking the same coffee drink every time.) It’s much easier, don’tcha know. (Yes, George Carlin had a terrific riff on “stuff.” I have expanded the meaning to include active things, not just the material things we stick on a shelf. “Stuff” covers it all.)
Oh, I know. These past couple of months I’ve been hit with lethargic ennui that has made doing anything of substance not difficult, particularly, just … unimportant. My excuse is that things happen in life that forces delay, but that’s a poor one, no? Life happens to everyone and we all have to deal with it. Stuff (to use a more polite term) happens according to the gods, and we’re left to deal with the consequences. My way of dealing with it lately has been to pretty much let it slide. And we’re taught that “letting it slide” is not a good thing, though I at this point I could make a good argument in favor of it.
But, never mind. So, yeah, I decided enough’s enough. Did I decide it now because of the new year? It’s likely that I’ve fallen into that tired old way of thinking about “starting anew.” But I think one of the main spurs of this is that I remembered I owe a project to a friend, one I had committed to months ago. When I meekly asked if I had missed the deadline, he generously said I hadn’t, that a place was still being held for me as long as I did meet the deadline. So, there you go: Commit to a project for a friend to break the shackles of ennui.
Not that the end of last year was a complete null. I did complete a project on my own, but man, it took forever. Now it’s out in the cold, cruel world hoping someone will take pity on it and give it a home. And pay me for it. Well, like so many of my other projects … we’ll just have to wait and see.
And then there’s the third project, which is on the cusp of being complete. This one was easier because it’s a collaboration with another friend and his friend, so there was plenty of incentive not to screw it up..
These last three paragraphs are very self-revealing bordering on self-pity. I usually don’t do this (in public) because I feel like private stuff should stay private (a polite way of saying “It’s none of your business”). I’m going public with this partly as a spur to get that one project done. I shall post the results whether success or failure and the one or two of you who read this can say either “That’s great!” or hold me up to public scorn.
Now there’s an incentive.
One more time, back where we started.
Well, we didn’t actually start here, but at one point, we were here, we went away, and now we’re back. Back to this point after a journey of 365.25 days, the periods marked by shadow and light that combined we count as “1” and add each increment until we reach the end.
Or the beginning.
Hard to tell with circles, sometimes.
Like most things humans think about, it’s all couched in convenience. For one thing, the the journey inscribed by Earth in its rotation isn’t exactly a circle. It’s an ellipse, an elongated circle. Circle, ellipse, who cares, one end meets the other and the loop is closed.
Still, even with that closed loop, we’re not back at the same point we hit a year ago. First, there are those pesky fractions. It means the origination point moves slightly each cycle, and every fourth time, an extra day is added, thus throwing the starting point further off. The sun isn’t just sitting in the same point in space, either. The solar system as a whole, Sun included, is moving through space as part of the Milky Way, a collection of planets, semi-planets, comets, asteroids, stars, pulsars, quasars and whatnot. All of that stuff is orbiting a central point like a giant pinwheel, with the probability that the central point is a black hole. The Milky Way itself is moving with other galaxies through space on, we’re told, a collision course with the Andromeda Galaxy. Plus, the Milky Way is part of a larger group of galaxies moving in some grand direction while at the same time generally outward away from a center billions and billions (as Carl Sagan denied he ever said) of light years away. And the universe itself, perhaps in some strange motion of its own, moving somewhere we can’t even fathom.
So the idea of the Earth returning to some point in space it had been before is, at best, unlikely. What we’re marking is one sort-of complete trip around our Sun, a cycle that began when the conglomeration of space debris left over by the formation of the Sun smashed and bumped its way into sort of a sphere and started moving in a path in accordance to a force called gravitation.
If the Earth didn’t rotate, if it kept one side facing the Sun at all time – the way the Moon does for Earth – and if it didn’t tilt and wobble in is orbit, the passage of time as we see it wouldn’t be so noticeable. (What would be noticeable would be one side roasting while the other freezing.) The rotating and tilting gives variation to the length of day – the time when sunshine is bathing the landscape in its warm glow – and night. When the planet tilts one way, the continents and seas get lots of sunshine and warmth, which we call “summer.” Then the planet, despite our fervent wishes, tilts back the other way, and the sunshine is decreased slightly each day until the nights are long, the icy cold blasts of wind and snow come out of the north (south for those of you on the other half of the planet). This is a scary time. If the tilt doesn’t reverse, all will be plunged into endless night. Humans gather at the solstice and wait and watch to see if the length of night slows … then stops … and finally reverses. Cause for celebration! Bring out the beer, the food, light the bonfires and push back the darkness and dance until you drop. The summer is coming, the warm days, time for new crops, new livestock births, time to shed those heavy winter furs. Another year survived.
That’s what we celebrate when the Earth reaches the approximate point it was in a year ago: another year gone, we’re still here despite whatever happened during the preceding 12 months. Survived as individuals, as families, as communities, as tribes, as nations, as a world of humanity. We hope for change in the new year; individual changes (lose weight, quit smoking, get rich), and societal changes (jobs for everyone, an end to hate, an end to war). However, there’s no magic from the completion of the cycle; it’s just another voyage through the zodiac. The desires and wishes are of human origin and as humans, we have to decide for ourselves what needs to be done. And then we have to do them.
You won’t find any answers here. You won’t even find suggestions on fixing things (though, like everyone else, have ideas on what “should” be done). All you’ll find here is best wishes from me to you and hopes that in the new year, nice things, and an occasional great one, happen to you, that the less-than-happy things are few and far between. We passengers of Earth are about to embark on another cycle around the Sun, and though it may be arbitrary, it still has meaning for us. May the sun shine on your path whatever the position of the Earth and may you have a Happy New Year.