Confounding Mr. Newton
By James Allison
24 June 2002
A nurse took me to my brother's room, led me through a white labyrinth, she the white rabbit, I the ingénue. The squares of sunlight that checkered our path were coldly white. One would think a place of healing should have more color.
We found Thomas perched upon his bunk, face serene and empty, a surrogate moon. His hair was neatly swept.
He smiled when he saw me. "Hello, sister."
"And where are you today?" I asked him.
"The Andes. Yesterday, I tracked the flow of the Nile. Tomorrow, I'll circle the Dead Sea."
"Do you understand?"
"Yes. How's Dad?"
"He's all right. I've come to take you home."
Isaac Newton's father was taken from him before he was born. His mother pushed him away when he was a child. God was always beyond reach.
"Every particle of matter attracts every other particle."
--Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica
Isaac, it is commonly held, suffered from depression all of his life.
I took my brother to the train station. He had only one brown suitcase, and he held onto it for dear life. I imagined him in a black tie.
"Are you all right?" I asked. "How are you feeling?"
"Weightless," he replied.
We boarded our train and sat opposite two old women. Doubtless they meant well, but both were unconscionably rude.
"Is your friend ill? He looks rather unwell to me."
At war with the physical world, that's a better way to put it.
I was three years old when my brother was born. My father took me to sit on a cliff top overlooking the North Wales coast, and we watched the surf waltz with gravity while Mom was in labor. We could have been a postcard in monochrome, wild grass, wild hair.
You're going to have a baby brother, Dad told me. Don't worry, it'll be wonderful, just wait and see.
Thomas cried too much as an infant. Hardly slept at all. We knew something was wrong, but the doctors couldn't tell us what. The corridors of the hospital became as familiar to me as our own garden path. When my weak sibling took his first steps at the age of three, Dad cheered while Mom wept. (Because Dad was always the optimist.)
The train passed through a tunnel. Thomas tipped a pile of fruit candies onto the carriage table, carefully arranging them into a concentric array, provoking the curiosity of one of the harpies.
"And what is this, might I ask?"
"The solar system. As represented by appropriately colored jelly beans. Pluto. Neptune. Mars. Saturn. And so on, as you see."
"Ah!" The fissures in her face were quite alarming. "But this one. . . ." She nudged the central candy. "The sun should be yellow, perhaps? Not black."
"That's not the sun," explained my brother. "It's me. I'm in mourning, you see."
The woman frowned and withdrew her claw.
"In the Universe," elaborated Thomas, "there's no movement without consequence. No loss without gain. Everything is different now. Can't you feel it?"
Both the oldsters looked at me, but I had nothing for them.
My brother smiled, and consumed the moon.
"I do not know what I may appear to the world; but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me."
The funeral was to be on Wednesday afternoon. We arrived in Colwyn Bay early on Tuesday.
I watched my brother as he stepped from the carriage. Observed the acceleration of his foot towards the platform. He barely seemed to care, and I felt suddenly and desperately sad. That a careless footfall should be the surest, saddest proof of a man's estrangement from sanity.
The sky was a heavy tarpaulin threatening to fall, spots of rain stuttering onto the platform.
Thomas studied the elevation of the clouds. Clearly, not without envy. "Is it very different now?" he asked me. "The town? I expect it is."
I walked him from the platform. "I don't come here much. They put up a new sports hall at Rydal Penrhos, new flats on Sea View Road. Haven't demolished the pier yet. Peulwys estate is still a pusher's paradise."
Insane druggies, insane gulls, insane retirees. And I'm bringing home my insane brother.
"There's still Nant-y-Glyn, though?"
"Yes. There's still the valley."
A brace of speeding skateboarders rattled past us as we strolled down Station Road. We wandered into the Prem Amusement Arcade, where we'd squandered so much of our childhood currency. It was a school day, yet the place was rife with Nike, hair gel, and dope. A pugnacious teen solicited my attentions for a "shag," and Thomas laughed out loud. I hadn't heard him laugh like that for years. Venlafaxine, they say, prevents extremes of feeling. Flattens the emotional curve.
"Do you want to visit the old school?" I asked.
He nodded, and we caught a cab out to Eirias High, my brother's face pressed to the glass throughout the journey. His expression betrayed no nostalgia. When we arrived, he scanned the building's topography, slowly reacquainting himself with its pale stone confines.
I'd watched him play ball games amongst other children here, listened to the spiteful ridicule from his juvenile peers.
Useless. No skill. Too slow. Waste of time.
At the time, I'd lowered my head in shame. Now I think of that small boy as Hercules, striving not to lift the globe, but to lift himself from it.
"We should go and see Dad, now," I told him.
"Yes," he said. "We should."
But there'll be nothing of substance when you hold him. Just gray smoke.
Isaac formulated his principles of gravitational theory before the age of twenty-five. His hair was white before he was thirty. He never slept much.
In 1678, he suffered the first of several nervous breakdowns. His mother died the following year.
Lagrange thought Isaac was the most fortunate genius who ever lived. Because he alone had been given the gift of interpreting the laws of the Universe.
I think it was when my brother was about six that we met Dr. Robert Latimer. He's dead now -- died of throat cancer at the age of sixty-two, I heard. But he's still alive to me. I don't believe in his grave, haven't visited it. He's the man who saved my brother's life.
We'd brought Thomas from North Wales to Robert's private London consultancy, where the Doctor had sat my brother on his knee and peered over seemingly redundant spectacles.
"I hear you're not well, young sir, but I'm going to make it my job to fix you. And I'll have you know I'm the best quack in the street."
And from that pre-malignant throat, the sound of a duck. My parents weren't thrilled. Thomas loved him to bits.
"And so we must ask ourselves," posed our new healer: "Why does the child feel ill and sickly with movement, why does he feel faint and dizzy when he leaves the ground, why does he feel weighted down, encumbered by a force which leaves him breathless and weak with the effort of even standing to his feet?"
Dr. Robert was only the latest in a weary travelogue of doctors and pediatricians that my parents had endured, a catalogue of furrowed brows and resigned expressions their only reward for all those forlorn miles. Nobody knew what was wrong with my brother. Neurologists, chiropractors, allergists, endocrinologists, kinesiologists, ophthalmologists, acupuncturists; all threw up their hands up in bewilderment. Thomas was simply the classic sickly child, the weakling of Sparta, the fledgling destined not to take wing.
It made us love him all the more. Naturally.
On the way back from Eirias, our cab passed a group of surfers disembarking from their minibus. Four floral splashes in a landscape of lead; it made my brother grin.
"Be good to see the ocean again," he said.
I nodded. Maybe later.
When the cab pulled up at the house, Dad was sitting out on the porch. He smiled when he saw us and ambled down the garden path.
Thomas leaned over to me. "Does he know I can fly now?" he whispered.
"He's always believed in you, Thomas."
A merciful untruth.
Dad was all over my brother as soon as he got out of the car. Not quite the prodigal son, but near as. We both put our arms around him. The much-longed-for family reunion. Matriarch in absentia.
Dad took Thomas's suitcase as we entered the house. A ghost carrying a madman's baggage: it was only a question of who would falter first.
"I'll make a pot of tea," I announced. "Tea good for both of you?"
Lovely said Dad, fine said my brother.
I walked into the kitchen as Dad and Thomas seated themselves on opposing armchairs in the living room.
The kettle boiled while my brother circled the Dead Sea.
"Comme géomètre et comme expérimentateur Newton est sans égal; par la réunion de ces deux genres de génies à leur plus haut degré, il est sans exemple."
And all those who came before you, Mr. Newton, all those bright and brave thinkers: Descartes, Gassendi, Hobbes, Boyle, Oughtred, Wallis, van Schooten -- was it really they who opened the Universe for you?
Rather than the Universe itself?
Dr. Robert telephoned us one day. "I want to try something," he said, "to see if it would help your son. I want to take him up in an aeroplane."
But where will you take him?
"No place in particular. It's just an idea I have, a theory. It might help."
My mother accepted, though she insisted on being a spectator for the occasion. That she acquiesced at all was a measure both of her desperation and of Dr. Robert's quiet charm.
And so, at the age of six and a half years, my brother discovered flying.
I remember pointing out the sleek and shiny fuselages to him as we drove into the Gloucestershire airfield. "You'll be up in the clouds," I whispered. "Don't forget to wave."
Dr. Robert prised Thomas from my mother's grasp and sat him in the body of a glider. He gave us a cheery salute as he joined him inside. Thomas's small face almost filled one of the portals. Mom was in floods of tears. When the aircraft was towed down the runway, it felt as though my brother was being forever lifted from us.
I often wonder if he ever really came down.
It seemed like an eternity but they were probably airborne no more than twenty minutes. I passed the time by strolling around the parked planes, smelling their grease, their soot, stroking the smoothness of their glossed coachwork. Mom came to fetch me just as the glider landed. Her eyes were red-raw, and she clasped my hand so hard I thought she might crush it.
Thomas looked a little pale, but he was smiling all the same. Dr. Robert spoke calmly, but he wore the expression of a man who had gazed upon some terrible and mysterious necrosis. He told us that Thomas had enjoyed the flight and that he would call us later. That was all he would say.
We bought a miniature Boeing 737 for Thomas, and began the drive back to North Wales. My brother hummed turbine noises, but the drone of thunder muted him.
The call came the same evening, while we were sitting at the dinner table. Mom and Dad hurried to the hallway, leaving my brother and me to engage in covert anarchy, spoons engaged as shiny ballistae. Through the door, I could see Dad supporting a hundredweight receiver, Mom alabaster pale. Custard sailed the length of the dinner table. Perhaps I didn't need to hear the explanation.
He's sensitive to the force of gravity. He can feel the Earth pulling him down, feel the spinning of the globe, sense acutely the passing of celestial bodies, experience with brutal veracity the physics of acceleration and deceleration. Every physical force that acts upon this earth is magnified a hundredfold for him. There's no reason for it, no science that makes the phenomenon of his sickness explicable. It is simply -- so far as we may determine -- nature's arbitrary decree.
And there's nothing you can do to help him. Is there, Doctor?
"We can sedate him. Diffuse the physical sensation. That's all we can do. I'm very sorry."
To Mom and Dad, it was a bereavement. The final, dreaded, expiration of hope.
Dad cradled the receiver just as the glob I flicked from my spoon landed directly on my brother's nose.
His eyes watered.
"Don't cry," I soothed. "You'll fly again one day."
Young Isaac showed little academic promise. "Idle," said his school reports. "Inattentive." His progress at Cambridge was unremarkable.
In 1665, he developed the principles of his theory of gravitation, worked out fluxional calculus, devised instruments for grinding lenses to aspherical shapes, decomposed solar light into its component colors.
He was working from home at the time. The University was closed due to the plague.
It felt strange to reintroduce my brother to the room he'd spent his childhood in. He was deathly quiet at first, as if reacquainting himself with all the joys and despairs the room had captured over the years.
"Who picked the wallpaper?" he asked, eventually.
"You don't approve?"
"Army green, touch of shit brown. Could get used to it. Probably help to be a marine, though."
I had to laugh. Dad's preferences in décor had never driven along the highway of good taste. The walls had been pale blue when Thomas had lived here. It was only after he'd been institutionalized that our parents had finally changed it. As a signal of change, one might surmise -- or as an admission of defeat.
"Still got all your old exercise books," I told him, opening the top drawer of the same old mahogany-veneered desk. "All the notes we made."
I handed him the yellowed notebooks, coffee-scarred and creased. It was hard to interpret the expression on his face when he took them into his hands and turned the pages, each volume a compendium of learning: circles, tangents, axes, vertices, geometric expressions, exponents, squares, roots, a bewildering encyclopedia of scientific notation.
For myself, I felt only an enormous swell of pride. That my gifted and cursed sibling had managed to haul his impossibly heavy frame through school, that he had concentrated his sedated senses on the discipline of learning, that he had, through some miracle, stood straight where others would have folded.
"You remember the first book we found on gravity?" I asked him.
He smiled, suddenly back in that musty Eirias library. We'd discovered Mr. Newton together, reposing quietly amongst astronomical tomes, resplendent in dust and chewing-gum stains.
Isaac seemed to be the only one who understood what my brother felt. Not only understood, but explained it. For Thomas, the discovery of him had been a divine revelation, and he had proceeded to avidly read everything Isaac had written, had tried to grasp everything he explained.
"Gravity can be beaten!" he had told me once, with feverish excitement. "Gravitational acceleration can be canceled out! By an opposing and equal mass!"
Perhaps, in hindsight, it was this tiny measure of hope that sustained him. Though it quickly became clear that his obsession was to the detriment of all other scholarly industry. Thomas failed just about every high school exam paper placed in front of him.
All except physics.
He closed the books. "How about walking down to the pier?"
"Okay. I'll let Dad know."
It was late afternoon when we strolled down from the cottage to the promenade. A chill breeze followed us down the hillside. Rain still threatened, the odd droplet forewarning of a deluge.
"So, you still hear from Jim?" he asked.
"He's engaged again. To some girl in Cardiff. She's a receptionist." I made sure the last word carried the appropriate disdain. My ex-husband rarely called any more; most of what I knew came via calls to his parents.
Not that my brother caught the inflection; what were still unhealed wounds to me were irrelevant episodes to him. At the time I'd met my husband, Thomas had progressed from prescribed medications to narcotics of his own choice: dope, coke, Es, anything his day job as a security guard would fund. Anything that might drag him clear of the Earth for a while.
"You remember the Rhos rave?" he grinned.
How could I forget it? Three hundred drug-crazed hedonists packed into a barn, my brother king of the coop, swinging from the rafters, whooping his victory over Universal Law. The LSD might have gifted him with new consciousness, but it failed to give him wings. The roadie who had taken him to the hospital had introduced himself as Tim. I still think of that day as one on which the earth had slightly shifted.
We walked down to the end of the pier, the timber growling beneath us. It was hard to tell what Thomas was thinking. The waves were high and fierce; as a child, he would have been physically sick at them. But the endless cocktails of narcotics had long since dulled his senses. He simply crouched down and stared at the ocean.
"Do you still feel it the same way?" I asked, squatting beside him. "Is it still as strong?"
"I don't inhabit that plane of consciousness any more." He turned to me and smiled. "Sorry. Therapy bullshit." He picked up a half-empty Coke bottle and hurled it into the waves. "You want to know how it feels?" he said, as the bottle dived and bobbed. "Watch."
The analogy was both apt and chilling. Tim and I had been honeymooning on Gran Canaria when the news of my brother's "accident" had come through. He had already stopped breathing when the coast guard had pulled him from the waves. After the wedding, I spent three days with my husband, and two weeks at my brother's bedside. The marriage never even began.
"You wouldn't ever do that again, would you?"
"Difference now is that I have no mass," he said. "There's nothing to pull me down."
It was hardly reassuring.
The rain began to fall in earnest, and we turned back to the house. It occurred to me that neither of us had yet discussed Mom. And tomorrow, we would be burying her.
When we got back, we heard Dad in the bathroom. He was crying. The door was closed; I thought it best to leave him.
"Goodnight, Sis," whispered my brother, outside my bedroom door. "Good to be home again."
Aging was kind to Isaac. To his death, he remained youthful in appearance, with a full head of thick silver hair and sparkling brown eyes. He died on the 31st of March, 1727, at the impressive age of 84.
The Universe, it has been suggested, was unwilling to readily relinquish its interpreter.
Do insane people, by losing their reality, lose their dreams? I lay in bed, the rain pounding on the bedroom skylight, wondering where my brother's wayward imagination led him during sleep. Perhaps to a different life. To a different world, where gravity exerted no force.
I realized that, since we'd met at the nursing home, my brother and I had not embraced.
Perhaps it was an issue of guilt. None of us had thought it a bad idea for Thomas to undergo hypnotherapy after his suicide attempt, but it had proved the last barrage on his senses. The Universe was calling my brother and we simply fought too hard for him. His flight led to a place forever beyond our reach. Beyond even Mr. Newton. One could say it was nobody's fault. But it didn't feel that way.
From downstairs, I heard the clack of the front door.
I got up from my bed and left the room, treading softly along the landing. His door was open, his bed empty.
I scrambled back to my room, wrestled on a sweater, tugged on a pair of jeans, grabbed a windbreaker.
He wouldn't do it, would he? They'd warned me he might try.
The night air was a stinging slap when I bolted from the house and hurried down the garden path. He couldn't be too far ahead.
Descending the hill at speed was a trial, my chest fluttering, calves hot with impact, temple so heavy with blood that I wanted to pitch forward and sink into the earth. Through the curtain of rainfall, I could see a figure. My brother or a ghost, one of the two. He was heading for the pier.
"Thomas!" My voice barely pierced the rain.
He looked back, then continued walking.
"Thomas! What are you doing?"
He didn't stop, continuing down onto the narrow promenade. He seemed so slender in the rain, as if a single gust of wind might fling him into the ocean.
By the time I caught up to him, he was at one side of the pier, teetering like a tower without foundation. The surf below was thick and black, the pier's lamps casting a thin slick on the waves.
I didn't dare get too close. "Thomas, please. Come back to the house. You're soaking!"
The raindrops ran like melted wax on his white cheeks.
"It's okay," he soothed. "It's just an experiment. You have to test theory with practical experiment."
"But what are you proving?"
"Disproving Newtonian Law. He says that if I jump, the Earth will pull me down. But I don't agree. Not any more. We've changed, you see. All of us. A body doesn't necessarily maintain its mass."
"Thomas, please don't do it." I wanted to edge closer but I didn't dare. "If not for me, then for Dad. He needs us now. You have to help him."
"Mom's gone. Dad will go too. So will you. The Universe changes." He looked down at the waves. "Nobody thinks I can beat Newton. But I've done it many times."
There wasn't anything I could think of to counter his skewed reason. For one awful instant, I contemplated watching him topple. Let the sun fall from the sky. The galaxy collapse.
"You're right!" I blurted. "Gravitational acceleration can be canceled out! By an opposing and equal mass! You told me that!"
For a fraction, there was only the tirade of the rain.
Then my brother laughed, a spiraling chuckle that encouraged the knot between my shoulders to slowly unwind. "Are you telling me, I'm weightless because you're pulling me back?" He guffawed. "That you exert the same gravitational pull as the Earth?"
He looked up at the sky, allowing the water to stream over his face. "All the same," he mused. "It's an unfactored variable."
I suddenly wanted to sit down.
Thomas smoothed a hand through his soaking hair. "It's going to be hard tomorrow, isn't it. For Dad."
"Yes," I said. "He needs us."
He looked me directly in the eye. "Every night, I still feel her. Sense her. I'm sure she's still in the Universe."
I couldn't stop myself from crying.
He came over to me and put his arm around my shoulders. "Hey, Sis. You're cold," he said. "We should go back to the house. Get you a coffee, maybe."
I nodded, and we walked away from the pier, heading back along the promenade. Me under my brother's wing, a bewildered fledgling, sheltering from the storm.
I'd once told him that he'd fly again. But I'd never really believed it.
"This self, that is to say the soul, through which I am what I am, is entirely separate from the body, and is even more easily known than the latter, so that even if I did not have a body, my soul would continue to be all that it is."
It took over a hundred years before Newton's ideas thoroughly supplanted the theory of Cartesian vortices. Many failed to understand how distant and invisible gravity could possibly exert more influence than those things that could be observed close at hand.
The morning was bright and clean, a good efficient climate for the burying of one's kin. We rose early, and sat in silence at the breakfast table, spoons wielded with stately decorum.
At lunchtime, I dressed my brother in a black jacket and tie belonging to my father. Neither of us spoke of the night before. When the hearse and cars arrived, I squeezed Thomas's hand before we embarked. Dad was a man alone, a mannequin of straw, bound in black velvet.
It was a modest cortege. I sat next to Thomas in the back of one of the cars. He seemed distracted, as if listening to somebody's advice. Mother's, perhaps.
Never be afraid to take the shortest route. Life is too short.
The brain hemorrhage had cut hers short at the age of fifty-eight. Sometimes, I still think of her as just flinging down her greasy apron and snapping, "Well, that's it, then. Told you. Never enough time!"
We drove over the brow of the valley, under roadside elms that dappled my brother's pale face. I was still unsure how he would react. Especially after the pier.
The church was as pretty as I remembered it from childhood. Grandma was in the garden. Granddad too. I'd placed wreaths here before. I could do the routine.
We filed into the church with gentle greetings to friends and neighbors. Thomas remained silent, face downcast. I could see the curious glances that he was receiving, the little barbs of enquiry stinging me too. At least the sobriety of the occasion prevented conversation.
The vicar was a taut, emaciated man, with a deeper bass than the black speakers on either side of the sanctuary, a man born to intone within a vault. He spoke a short testimonial, describing a person that sounded a little like my mother, and we mouthed a hymn. Then he invited my father to the pulpit.
It was the moment I was dreading. I patted Dad's arm as he eased past me, but I feared the worst from such an ordeal. He clambered up the steps to the pulpit, took hold of the Bible desk, as if to calm himself, and gazed out at his inquisitors.
How could you have let yourself outlive her? they would demand of him.
Thomas watched intently.
"I still remember when we moved to this part of the world," began Dad, "and Lucy was so worried that we might not make any friends here. . . ."
I tried to be strong, but there was no holding the dam. It wasn't the halting words my father spoke, but the way he held so desperately to the sides of the desk. A flimsy tower still standing in a collapsed world.
"Of course, we never should have worried," he continued. "The first time . . . we ever met you all, she said to me: 'I think we're going to know these people for the rest of our lives.'"
He came to a sudden halt, his hands shaking like leaves. I saw his tears shining under the lamplight. For an awful moment there was total silence. A child's feet shuffled. A woman coughed. I wanted to rescue my father, carry him away, but cowardice prevented me. I just lowered my head in shame.
It was my brother who rose to his feet. My doomed, disgraced brother. Standing, when I couldn't. He walked down the aisle to a fusillade of stares, mounted the pulpit, and placed a steadying arm on our crumbling father's shoulder.
He met the congregation with a steady, unswerving gaze. "She was my mother," he explained, quietly. "And she did everything she could to save me." He gripped my father's hand. "She and my dad. And my sis, there. They all did their best. But, I just want to say, Mom, that it's okay. Everything will be all right without you. There are forces at work; forces and counterforces. We exist in the spaces between them. It's nature. The Universe is strange without you, Mom. And we miss you forever. That's all there is."
He turned away, and helped my father down from the pulpit, supporting his weak frame. My cursed black sheep of a sibling, failed prodigy, failed brother.
I cried and cried, and there was no stopping it.
"It's okay," he whispered to me when he returned to his seat. "I meant it. Everything will be all right."
When the cremation service was over, it was my brother who deflected all well-meant commiserations, who guided us from the church back outside into the afternoon sunlight.
"Well, I thought that went quite well," I said, eyes like a panda's nightmare. "You okay, Dad?"
"Yes, I think so," he told us. "Maybe I'll just go for a short walk. Stick around for a while. Say goodbye in my own way."
I smiled and squeezed his arm.
"Thanks for being here," he said. "Both of you."
Something unspoken passed between Dad and Thomas, and they hugged each other tight, as though the two had rediscovered one another in the wilderness. The look on my brother's face seemed almost incredulous, as if to say Did you ever really think I wouldn't come through?
I took Thomas's hand, as we left Dad with his thoughts.
"That was brave of you," I said. "In the pulpit."
"Diminished responsibility," he reminded me.
We walked beneath the canopy of an ancient oak, its branches casting rippled light across the short grass.
"This is how I remember the trees in the valley," he observed. "Everything bigger than me. Lasting longer. Everything with a story to tell."
"We can still walk there? Before you go back?"
"I'd like that," he said. "Are you going to travel back with me?"
"Of course." I squeezed his hand.
"I hope you'll come and see me more often this time. I miss you. I don't think you realize."
I was too upset to answer, so I just nodded.
"He was wrong, you know. Isaac." He drifted his fingers through the oak's low branches. "He thought gravity was easy, fluid; that we fall and rise smoothly from one plane to the next, without trauma." He leaned against the broad trunk, his face pale and tight. "I can't believe he couldn't feel it: that we're thrust from one state to the next, always holding to our positions, resisting change, fearing acceleration. Terrified it might tear us apart."
"Tell me what you're feeling," I whispered. "Share it with me."
He paused, peering up through the tree's branches. "Something gigantic, unimaginable. The Universe is in agony, Sis; it's growing and dying at the same time. Stars, planets, moons, space itself -- all caught in an endless fury. Some deaths are so terrible that they try to pull us in, try to suffocate us. We're living in cataclysm, Sis; I can feel it. Every hour of every day I can feel it."
All of your life, I wanted to say to him, you must have been so afraid.
But seeing my own fear, he simply smiled, as if to say:
But never when you're with me.
And we embraced each other in the oak's tall shadow.
Thomas's train journey back to the hospital was two days later. This time, he let me carry his suitcase for him. We sat in silence in the carriage, each in our own thoughts. We had walked through Nant-y-Glyn the day before, strolled through the long grass beneath a setting sun, revisited the very oldest promises.
I knew he was still in that place.
When we reached the nursing home, we hugged each other in the lobby.
"I'll be okay," he assured me. "Don't worry about me. I'll be fine."
And perhaps for the first time, I believed he truly would be. The moment of realization shook me; I had always thought my brother the weakling. Yet somehow, we all had revolved around him; he had been the elemental force that had bound us together. The burden that he had borne with such brutal endurance had sublimated our own sufferings, made of them inconsequential satellites.
"I'll come and see you," I told him. "Soon."
He watched me leave, waved to me as my taxi carried me away from him. Just as I'd watched the glider on the runway.
At least, when I think of him now, I see him smiling, happy to be once more in Nant-y-Glyn. In the valley of boyhood.
Come on! he shouts, playfully, pulling me down the grassy slope.
And he takes my hand and we waltz through the tall grass together, circle beneath the treetops. Plato, Dr. Robert, Aristotle, Euclid, Descartes, and I. We dance until the Universe folds in on itself, and we are left orbiting my brother. He of no weight, of no mass.
And he says:
Don't worry, love grows stronger with distance.
Reminding me once more that we're living while torn apart. Pulling one another together again.
Doing our best to confound Mr. Newton.
Copyright © 2002 James Allison
James Allison resides in the ever-eroding greenbelt of North London, England, from where he occasionally writes short fiction, having previously masqueraded as a theatre company director and music magazine reviewer. One of his previous appearances in Strange Horizons, "A Private Unbinding of Time," was nominated for the Pushcart Prize. For more information about him and his work, see his Web site.