Richie put down his notebook and laid back beneath a giant Ash tree on the bank of Urd Creek. It was somewhere on county land, maybe State land. Didn’t matter. Old pickups hauling rusty toolage and tanned workmen swayed down the dirt road, kicking up brown dust and sending gravel into the stubby grass that lined the road. 1..2…..3..4…. he counted the trucks as they passed; saw them in abstract–the trucks and workmen were bumps on a graph. The bumps stretched across time–just the same as the trucks traversed space. A flexible grid spread across the window of his mind, marking time and trucks. Every truck was a bump, a bar on the grid whose height represented the number of workers it carried. Each box had an area, and their areas added together were the total number of workers divided by total time passed.
Elegance like the creek–bluish, greenish, yellowed a bit by mud churning up off the pebbled bottom, kinda like the dust twisting in the air currents above the road. It flowed, gentle and swift. Millions, quintillions…who knows how many fucking illions…of droplets converged into one. Hmmm….were they really converged? Was the creek a smooth, continuous flow, or a jiggling crowd molecules, a parade of desperate quasars clawing over endless pebbles of time? It wasn’t spring for Richie’s 70-year-old ass, but it was spring nonetheless, and Richie had thought about this shit all his life. His eyes drooped slowly shut, images of hadrons and 3D gridded surfaces playing across the backs of his eyelids.
BAAAMMM!!! It hit between his eyebrows with the force of two neutron stars colliding. Richie shot up to a sitting position, his wrinkled fingers rubbing his forehead. Not even a bump. He stopped rubbing, looked at his fingers. Nothing. He looked around. A fresh pinon nut lay on the ground beside him. Pinon nuts were common, but not at this time of year. They tended to drop in late summer; in fact they shouldn’t even have been forming on the branches yet. And they fell from pinon pines, not Ash.
He looked around, confused. A munching sound came from somewhere nearby. Then something like a stifled chuckle. There was a voice from above. “Awake yet, asshole?”
The Ash tree’s nude, barely budding branches drew cragged lines across the blue sky. As he watched, a tiny bead of darkness appeared in the sky directly overhead. It slowly expanded, then paused for a moment, then inflated halfway to the horizon in what seemed like a nanosecond. Nighttime stars twinkled in the darkness, and the sun’s wispy corona danced around a full eclipse.
“What the fu….” Richie murmured. Sudden total eclipses never happened. The moon always ate the sun one bite at a time. Plus, the moon had been nearly full last night, it couldn’t possibly be lined up with the sun this morning.
He knew better than to look directly at it, but if you don’t break a few rules at age 70, well, you’re never gunna. As he examined the corona he realized it was a little too tufty, a little too wiry to be the real deal. The shadow of the moon leaned forward against the dome of the sky, revealing more and more detail. Then it wasn’t the moon at all; it was a head. A human head. The head of an old man, wild haired, with bushy white eyebrows.
“Al?” Richie asked. “What are you doing up there?” It was as good a question as any. The guy had been dead thirty-four years.
“Been under that tree a while, haven’t you?” Al asked, ignoring Richie’s question. His German accent was thick, thicker than Richie remembered it. “Heh. I remember when I first showed you this spot.”
Richie looked around. It had been over forty years since he and Al walked down here together for the first time. The Ash tree had grown since then, but just a little. He gazed at the bark, his mind inkling that the tree might be ageless. He shook his head. Impossible.
Wait…no…not impossible…just improbable. As improbable as old-ass, dead-as-a-doornail Al fucking with him from the sky.
Richie looked back up. Al was cracking open a peanut shell. “I always liked these,” he chuckled. “Never realized how good they were until, well, until I got up here!” He laughed again. Cackled. Cackled like an old man who’s lost his marbles and his last shred of dignity to boot. “Should’ve eaten more of them when I was down there.”
The shell opened up a little. Al fished out a peanut and held it up between his thumb and index finger. He admired it for a second. “This one’s Special,” he said, popping it into his mouth. Richie shook his head. The old man was always on the edge to begin with, but at long last, Al had finally lost it. In death. In death? Wait, what the hell was going on?
“Here, you can have the other. I’ve named it General,” Al said as he tossed the shell with the remaining peanut toward Richie. The barely opened shell turned as it descended, its rotation illuminated by the starry sky behind Al’s head. As it fell, it grew then shrank then grew, it’s color turning from beige to orange to blue to violet, a shimmering menagerie of shifting colors and shapes.
BOOOOMMM! It smacked the ground, hard. The earth shook, forcing Richie to grab one of the Ash’s lower branches to remain standing. No peanut could cause this. He looked down. Where the peanut shell landed a second pinon nut was now laying on the ground. Richie was feeling dizzy and a little nauseous. He sat down next to the pinon nuts. “I’ve been drinking out of this damn creek for way too long,” he mumbled to himself.
“I said the same thing when I was your age,” Al remarked from above.
“You weren’t supposed to hear that,” Richie shouted back. “And you didn’t say it–that’s another one of your lies. You’re always stealing credit for my ideas,” he added. Al chuckled again.
Richie and Al both got quiet after that. Everything got quiet, in fact. It must have been least an hour since the last truck passed down the road. Richie looked out at Urd Creek. Water lapped the edges, rippled as is flowed down the middle, but the sounds were gone. He listened to the air. No wind. Even the birds were silent. It was downright eerie.
He looked looked at the nuts resting between the gnarled roots, then back up at the sky. “Hey! What did you throw at me?”
Al was staring off into space. “What? Oh, right. A peanut…Heh, heh, heh…Just some peanuts…” His voice trailed off into quiet giggles.
Richie looked back at the pinon nuts. “Those are NOT peanuts,” he thought to himself. But as he watched they seemed to morph, to change, only not really change, more like reveal what they always were…they were pinon nuts, peanuts, walnuts, pecans…a universe of nuts, all of them all at once, and somehow also only one of them at a time. Quantum Nuts. The Nuts of the World Tree.
“How to solve this…” he muttered, again under his breath.
From up in the sky, but closer now, Al cleared his throat. “I’d say, hit it with a hammer.”
Richie looked up, confused. “A hammer?”
“Yea,” said Al, pointing to the base of the tree. “Like that one. I mean, it worked on spacetime. And Hrungnir.”
Richie looked over, more confused than ever, and quickly running out of patience. Who the hell was Hrungnir anyway? His notebook and pencil were gone from their spot next to the tree, and in their place was a hammer. Not just any hammer–a shining war hammer with a short, ornate handle. It looked like it belonged in a museum, and was bound to be way too heavy for him to lift. But his curiosity was piqued, and Richie could never resist his own curiosity. He walked over, and to his surprise, picked it up easily.
On the hammer’s head was an engraving of a tree, a tree that looked an awful like the one he was standing beneath. And the moment he took hold of it the handle seemed to fit itself to his hand. “I guess it’s worth a try,” he thought as he wearily carried the hammer back to the nuts. Despite his fatigue the hammer lifted easily over his head. Lightning danced through the hammer, then along his arms. He brought it down hard, striking the pinon nuts with all his might.
Thunder cracked loud and violent, echoed across the rippling creek, reverberated over the nearby mountain range. From the two pinion nuts thousands of pairs of nuts–walnuts, pinons, macadamias, pistachios–jumped into the air, black and white, magenta and green, purple and yellow. The Quantum Nuts, now airborne, jostled violently around Richie, weaved between the hanging tree branches, ricocheted off the surface of the flowing creek. They struck each other at an immeasurable rate, sometimes bouncing off each other, sometimes merging and bursting into white-hot flames of annihilation.
Richie struck again and again, the landscape echoing with the sound of thunder as thousands of pairs of nuts danced around him with every blow. It was the most mesmerizing thing he’d ever seen. His senses burst with arousal each time he held the hammer erect above his head, and with satisfaction when he swung it mercilessly into his target.
Burning virility coursed through his veins, soaking his shirt with sweat. He tore the shirt from his torso, revealing not the body of an old man, but the lithe musculature of a young one. As he pounded he observed the nuts, noticing that the members of each pair were opposite colors and danced in opposite directions. Once the hammer shook them loose they bounced freely through the air. But whenever a nut collided with a nut of the opposite color and spin, that was when annihilation happened.
Gradually, the number of nuts breaking loose began to decline. Just a little at first, but then it fell precipitously, until just a few orbited Richie’s sweaty, swarthy body. His hammer blows slowed, until finally no more nuts popped into the air, and those remaining vanished in bursts of quantum flame, one pair at a time. Richie stood up straight, arching his back as he dropped the hammer next to him. Glistening on the ground was a large, round walnut.
He picked it up. The shell was a rich, deep brown, that glistened as if it were imbued with strands of golden thread. Looking closely, he noticed a spot where the shell had chipped completely away, creating a pinhole. Smoldering red light was barely visible through it. He brought it close to his face, closed one eye, turned the walnut left and right, all in an attempt to see what was creating the light. “I need to crack this thing open,” he said, reaching for the hammer.
As he bent to pick up the hammer, pains of arthritis and old age twinged through his back and knees. He looked down and saw that the young, strong body that swung the hammer had succumbed again to old age, only much faster this time. He grabbed the hammer anyway, but instead of lifting it over his head, he could barely even lift it to his waist. He sighed and looked back up.
The darkness of the eclipse filled almost the entire sky now, leaving a narrow layer of blue around the horizon. The stars were…brilliant…vibrant…and danced with chaotic life he’d never imagined. Al was no longer in the sky.
“Looks like your time’s up,” Al’s voice said from behind him.
Richie slowly turned. For the first time in his life he felt defeated.
“It happened to me, too,” Al continued, as he stepped closer. His voice was sober. The chuckling was gone. “Happens to everyone.”
“What now then? Huh?” Richie was frustrated, angry at the work left undone, the worlds left unexplored. “Just lay down and die?”
“No laying down needed,” Al said, pointing to the creek. “Take a look at that.”
Richie looked at the water near the bank. He saw something in it…no, something below it. It was a scene. The same Ash tree, the same Urd Creek, only someone else sitting under it. He leaned over the water, tried to focus his old eyes through the ripples. “What the…..Steve….he gets my spot???” Richie looked over at Al. “You’ve got to be kidding me. This is the stupidest, boringest joke ever!”
Al looked back at Richie, raising his eyebrows quizzically. “Everything’s relative,” he said, shrugging his shoulders beneath a brown cardigan.
“Well, fuck,” Richie sighed. He clasped the walnut longingly in his hand, looked at it one last time, and tossed it into the creek. Slowly it drifted into the water, landing perfectly in Steve’s lap. He moved the hammer over the water and dropped it, aiming as best he could for the man’s head. The hammer dropped toward Steve, then merged with the computer attached to his wheelchair. “Hey! Asshole!” Richie shouted down at him.
Steve’s eyes turned up and he typed at his keyboard. “Is someone there?” the robot voice asked.
Richie felt Al’s hand on his shoulder. “Shhhh,” Al said, putting his finger up to his lips. “Not yet.”
Then Richie looked around. The horizon was as black as the rest of the sky. Billions of arrays of billions of galaxies filled it, and even the ones that should have been unviewable with a telescope were clear to his eyes. Under each star he thought he glimpsed an Ash tree, a Creek, heard the crack of Mjolnir pounding at the toughest nuts. His eyes filled with wonder.
Al put his arm over Richie’s shoulder, walking slowly with him toward the horizon. “It looks like it goes on forever,” Richie whispered.
The Andromeda galaxy was rising before them, blue and bright and beautiful. Al pointed his finger toward it. “That’s what she said,” he replied, chuckling again.