Wild By Numbers

Posted on: July 14, 2008


Marcy wiped her dusty palms on dusty pants, rubbed her eyes, and blinked, looked again. There they were, still, those numbers, replacing the leaves on all the bushes on the hillside along the hot, dry trail. Hanging in clumps, rustling softly in the hot breeze, just like leaves, but not leaves. 5, 97, 981, 53. These were definitely numbers, all in the same, plain, nondescript sans-serif type, black characters on familiar, dull grey-green backgrounds in leaf-like shapes. She kept walking, not wanting to confess that she was hallucinating something so odd to her hiking buddies, most of whom had been chatting lightly at the start of the hike but since had fallen silent and contemplative. The scrabble of their boots on the caked clay and pebbles was the only sound, but not enough to distract her from this bizarre vision. It was wondrous and terrifying to her all at the same time. Looking down, not thinking, not even trying to make it happen or not happen, it did—in the river-rock sedimentary conglomerate that was showing in bare spots along the trail and underfoot, all she saw was numbers, numbers, numbers. Each stone, its own special number. 17, 23, 9, 105.

Marcy had always avoided math. It was a religion she didn't believe in. She used calculators to handle anything bigger than 3 digits. That she was seeing numbers was contrary to everything she new, it was as odd as a fish walking into a bowling alley. She wouldn't balance her checkbook, or add up the numbers on her cell phone bill, or estimate her taxes without a calculator. Numbers were usually dull and meaningless to her, an annoyance she barely tolerated because she had to. But these numbers, these were easy and natural for her. Stone-shaped, leaf-shaped, tree-shaped numbers, numbers clumping in tall copses in the far distance where there used to be a simple stand of trees, numbers towering high to the left a few hundred yards away where there used to be rocky cliffs. These were the real thing, these numbers meant something to her, they were physical and real and everywhere. 1095, 3, 807, 11. Long and tall, these numbers made sense to her, the way flowers and streams and clouds made sense, prime and clearly calculated from the immutable core of the earth. The mystery of math was laid plain, a hard science became soft and alive and real in front of her. A tree made of 11s and 6s wavered in the breeze; of course they were 11s and 6s, how could they be anything else? That is simply what that tree was, beneath all the color and softness, that is what the tree added up to, was reduced to, that was the hard and soft science of it. There was no question in her mind now, that these numbers, dancing alive before her, spattering the real world like paint on a fence, these numbers made all those unpleasant college courses in calculus and statistics seem even more ridiculously pointless and shallow. This was the heart of the matter, where it all came together, boiled down, added up.

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For the rest of the blazing day, 7.6 miles of stiff-legged, mostly uphill walking, Marcy walked in numberland. When her friends stopped, talking, pointing at peaks to climb the following day, at fine green swales of undergrowth, lush with flowers, at glaciers hung in high swaths above treeline, at jagged passes beckoning on the horizon, she would nod, smile "uh-huh," but she was calculating and counting, adding and subtracting, multiplying and dividing, quietly. Square roots rippled from every footfall, constants streamed from her brow, and Marcy felt like she was seeing, really seeing, the world as it really was for the first time. The earth was more alive than her most vivid memory, thrumming and humming and seizing with integers, performing elegant, complex equations at blinding speed, sending out number after number and swallowing them back in as quickly, as if everything were coated in a simple, perfect logic that had always been there. A spray of columbines on a talus slope burst out in lolling zeros and ones; she saw 9s and 6s in nodding strands of larkspur that crowded a meadow, and small yellow flowers carpeted a hill in squat, smiling little 5s. Geometric patterns sizzled and eddied along rock faces and riverbeds, roiling into quadratics and polynomials like storms rising from an infinite sea, mountains piling high in rifts and drifts of ever-simplifying variables, solving and re-solving for X and Y. Oddly, it was all making perfect mathematical sense. Aside from the fact that she was seeing things.

That night Marcy was quiet in camp, withdrawing into herself as her tired compatriots cooked their meals and softly mumbled about the next day's plan to climb some crack system to the summit, hardly noticing her silence, assuming she was tired. After what must have been hours of stargazing (2, 44, 36, 84, 2292), Marcy forced herself to get some rest. The Numbering was so new and exciting and entirely unsettling, she couldn't bring herself to explain what she was experiencing. Maybe it would pass by morning, some wild reaction she was having to altitude, it had to be. Besides, she was exhausted from the hike. She slept at the edge of rational numbers, drifting madly in and out of expressions like a coefficient in the midst of being solved for pi.

.01, .34, .2368, 2.2035, 54

The next morning, however, the Numbering was still there, on everything, a nerdy numeric coating on every rock and tree limb and patch of heather. It followed her throughout the day, up a canyon and through a ravine to a chute under a towering pinnacle. She concentrated furiously on tying into the rope that would protect her from falling during the day's climb, as the rope curved and rolled into slithering 3s and 2s and a knot of 753. Concentrating on each move, Marcy took a breath and set about climbing, calling out the usual commands to the other climbers just as always, moving from one granitic 458 to another slab of 235123 carefully and steadily, saving her energy. As the climb increased in difficulty, the math slowed down, moving one equation at a time now. Over the steady clink and tinkle of numbers solving and unsolving for Y, she heard herself breathing deeply, steadily in the thin air, focused now more than ever before in her life. Then she knew, suddenly, and in a panic, what she had to do: she had to run herself all the way to zero.

So Marcy pushed herself to the limit. She suddenly began to climb as hard and as fast as she could, shouting at her belayer to manage, take her off belay if he had to, whatever! She clawed up the 1123s and 324s, the land falling away below her, thousands of feet, all numbers, she pushed and clawed, leaped and cried out at the pain. Her friends far below watched in horror as she dragged the loose rope up behind her, ascending pitch after pitch of steep, loose rock, sometimes losing her holds and footing and scrabbling somehow higher, sometimes barely hanging on with a hand or a finger. A tiny figure on the towering massif above them, she lunged and convulsed her way up the steely grey monolith. There was something dreadful and operatic about the whole scene, like something staged or special effects or CGI. Her heart raced, her breath ragged now, she hitched and sobbed with rage and elation and the strangest sadness all together, beaded in sweat that now felt almost cold to her exhausted body, numb to the blinding pain wracking her body. Her fingers bled, nails cracked, skin torn on elbows and knees, shins scraped and lumped with thudding flesh and bone against hard rock. She had never been so tired, so scared, or so altogether sure of something in her life. Her mind raced madly as the numbers wiggled and frayed, blurred together, then re-sorted, like figures on a spreadsheet, the columns reordering and calculating at dizzying speed under her hands. She could see the summit block now, just a few hundred feet above her. Normally, this climb would have taken her all day. She would have been among the last in her team to reach it, methodically, safely picking her way through the route, clipping into every anchor to rest and regroup, carefully managing her rope, belaying her companions, taking her turns on the ascent, calling out the commands like a rock-climbing robot in perfect sequence. But not today. Today she had to do what she had to do. This was different. This was an emergency. Her forearms and calves ached and burned and spasmed, cramps shuddered through her thighs and back, and she knew she was almost finished. She pulled herself up on a ledge of 7s and 2345s, hooked a near-dead hand into a crack the color of a coalmine, and realized, hovering over the sweeping chasm, her companions just colorful specks far below, that she had made the countdown to zero, and at last the spell was broken.

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