Digger waved the receiver around the garden, cursing it between clenched teeth. The damn thing just didn’t want to recalibrate. The line on the screen stubbornly danced and trembled, refusing to settle down into to the straight blue of neutral.
He pointed the receiver up past the lacy umbrella of giant gum tree leaves and towards the sky. The line still trembled and wiggled, taunting him like a belly dancer. He moved towards the fence, the grass sluggish under his feet after three days of rain. He tried pointing it downwards into the soggy lawn. Still nothing. He pointed it up into the naked boughs of a magnolia tree and the line slowed into gentle waves. Then there it was… a stillness pausing to be gathered, as though time had suddenly caught its breath. He pressed the hold button. The untangler was ready.
He realized that he was being watched. A pair of eyes peered at him through a gap in the fence, one of the new neighbors. A little boy of about seven popped his head over the top of the fence, bright black eyes sparking with curiosity.
“It’s a receiver,” said Digger, trying to think of an excuse to slip quickly back inside without seeming rude.
“It looks like a porcupine.” Said the little boy, casting his eyes over the semicircle of antennae that sprouted from the body of the receiver. “What does it receive?”
Hadn’t this boy’s mother told him not to talk to strangers?
“Messages,” Digger told him.
Digger tightened his lips. He didn’t have time for idle chit chat. He had to get back inside.If he left it too long, the receiver would lose calibration and he’d have to go through this all over again.
“Shouldn’t you be in school?” He put on his best stern fatherly voice.
“Nope. It’s a religious holiday. Mum said I could stay home.”
Digger looked down at the receiver. The line had become unstuck. It looped and twisted across the screen again like a wild animal freed from a zoo.
“Bugger,” Digger muttered.
The little boy paused briefly at Digger’s expletive then heaved himself up on to the next fence rung.
“My name’s Jamal,” he said, smiling and showing a tidy row of baby teeth. “I’m your new neighbor.”
The little boy had the beginnings of a strong aquiline nose, shadow black hair, olive skin and obsidian eyes that seemed to mirror the colour of his hair. Digger smiled back at the boy. Religious neighbors. Well, at least they wouldn’t be stealing his newspapers, getting drunk and hurling abuse at him like their predecessor, Mr. Wilson.
“Where are you from?” Digger readjusted all the switches on the receiver.
“My parents are from Iran, but I was born in America.” The boy said. “We live here now because America makes my mum sad.”
“Oh,” said Digger. He was only half listening. The line on the receiver was subsiding back into a stillness that meant it had found another fleeting pocket of frozen time. Perhaps he could catch it again. If he were quick.
“Are you reading the messages?” the boy asked. He had one leg swung over the fence now, wanting a closer look.
“No, I’m interpreting the harmonics of nature.”
The little boy paused on the fence. “You mean, like listening for God?”
“No. This is a scientific instrument based on an event cluster theory I have been working on. It’s sort of like a seismograph. That’s a thing that interprets disturbances in the earth’s crust to predict earthquakes. This one interprets movements and fluctuations in space-time to predict future events.”
“Oh,” said the little boy. His bright black eyes were flicking between the machine and the sky. “You mean it works like a time map?”
“Yes.” Said Digger, surprised at the little boy’s insight. “A fuzzy map.”
“Is that your job – predicting the future?”
The little boy looked thoughtful. He gazed up at the sky, where a high wind had teased and flicked the clouds into ostentatious whorls and long wispy strings. He was straddling the fence now, one leg bouncing on the branches of a hibernating maple tree. “My father was killed in the World Trade Centre. Would your machine have been able to warn him?”
Digger paused and looked up from his receiver. The boy regarded him with wide and earnest eyes. Digger didn’t know what to say. Jamal could have been no more than a baby when it happened. Or perhaps not even born. He thought hard about what might have happened had the machine already been built. If he’d been nearby just beforehand, the untangler would have given him a 48-hour warning. He imagined the line of equilibrium on the translation graph plunging into a deep and shadowy crevasse – not telling him exactly what was to happen, but detecting a strong negative event.
“No,” he said. “I’m sorry. The machine doesn’t work like that.”
“Then what’s the point of it?”
Digger twisted his mouth into a frustrated grimace. The machine was still rough. It needed fine tuning. “It predicts tendencies and possibilities. It can’t tell you specifics like lottery numbers or definite events. That contravenes the quantum laws of probability.”
The little boy looked puzzled, which wasn’t all that surprising. “So what does it predict?’
“Positive and negative clusters in time.”
“Like good and evil?”
“Have you tested it on people yet?”
Digger paused. Yes, he felt like saying. I tested it on myself and it didn’t respond. The machine remained completely blank. Nothing there. No peaks or troughs, just a straight, non-eventful line. As though he had no future. As though he didn’t exist.
“No,” Digger said. “It isn’t quite finished.”
The boy’s questions were beginning to prod at Digger’s sore spot. He was nine months into a year off from University – a break between his Masters and a PhD program. He had stolen this slice of time to build the untangler. He had completed all the paperwork and calculations for his theory of cosmic untangling and he knew the machine worked. It had predicted the energy trough associated with the car crash outside his house last Tuesday. It had predicted the disturbed air that led to yesterday’s hail storm. Three months ago, it had predicted the neighborhood’s collective joy at the departure of cantankerous and foul-mouthed Mr. Wilson. But he was still no closer to finding a practical commercial application for it.
It was as though the boy had read his thoughts.
“If you can’t predict exact events, then what’s the point of it?”
Digger forced a smile. This kid was bright beyond his years. Cute too. He began to wonder what his mother looked like.
“It’ll just be a matter of finding the right market,” he said. “It can predict increased chances of positive or negative events, based on quantum fluctuations in time pockets. Farmers might change their crops or business people could find the information helpful in planning. Politicians or military strategists may postpone key decisions or move them forward, based on the predictions of the machine.”
The little boy looked up into the sky again and bit his lip thoughtfully.
“Perhaps predicting the future changes the future,” he said.
Digger heard a screen door squeak and clunk on the other side of the fence. The noise disturbed a flock of sulphur- crested cockatoos resting in the magnolia tree. They screamed in unison and flew upwards like a winged white sheet. A sudden light breeze threaded through his hair and Digger looked down at the receiver’s screen. It briefly fell into a still, straight line and then burst into a flurry of wild calligraphic activity.
“Jamal!” a woman called. “Where are you?” Her voice had a melodic lilt – the sound of a foreign tongue carefully curling itself around unfamiliar words.
The boy looked around and scrambled back to his side of the fence. “It’s snack time!”
Jamal raised his voice. “I’m here, mum! I’m talking to our new neighbor!”
What Digger saw next came as a complete surprise.
When he thought about it several years later, he realized he had expected to see a shrouded figure in a chador, or at least a shy woman with downcast eyes in a headscarf.
But what he remembered most about that moment was how he felt. The axis of the world had shifted. The very air had changed form. Everything was the same, yet utterly different. It was a moment in which every tiny detail was thrown into sharp relief. A moment of frozen time. Jamal’s mother came over to the fence and smiled at him. A grown-up adult toothed version of her son’s smile. She had the same strong nose. Her hair was thicker and curlier than her son’s and, if possible, it looked even blacker. It was roughly tied back in a tangled knot and a single strand danced across her cheek, between restraint and rebellion.
Her eyes were a light and mischievous green. When she looked at Digger, they seemed to be simultaneously reflecting the blue of the sky and the deep green of the lawn. Digger felt as though he had blissfully plunged into their depths and willingly drowned.
“I’m so pleased to meet you,” she said. “I’m Salma.” She held a plate full of dried fruits and nuts and, as she spoke, the plate tilted and a cascade of almonds spilled onto the lawn.
“Digby,” said Digger, suddenly self-conscious. His gaze fell to his worn shoes and his corduroy trousers threadbare and bagging at the knees. He wished the soggy grass would swallow him up.
“Just call me Digger,” he added, looking away towards his washing line, where two old tee shirts and four pairs of dismal grayish-white Y-fronts teased him in the breeze.
Jamal gave his mother an excited smile. “Mr Digger is a scientist,” he said. “He has invented a machine that predicts the future.”
Salma looked at Digger and laughed. It wasn’t a mocking laugh, but a laugh that felt as though a thousand suns had lit up the garden. She offered him the plate and Digger helped himself to a strange looking red and wrinkled fruit.
“So,” she said. “Have you found a way to dissect the poetry of the universe?”
“Not exactly,” said Digger. “But I am working on untangling the language of nature.”
She smiled at him again and Digger plucked up the courage to take another good look at her. She had skin the colour of maple syrup and wore a green lacy floral shirt that showed just a modest peep of cleavage. He found himself wondering what her legs were like, but he suspected that, judging by her fine cheekbones, they would be long and shapely with slim ankles, like a fine race-horse.
“My husband was a scientist too,” she said. Her eyes took on a milky, far-away look and suddenly she looked fathomlessly sad.
“I’m sorry,” said Digger.
That afternoon, the line on the receiver behaved. There were pockets of frozen time all over the garden. The receiver slipped into neutral for long enough for Digger to recalibrate it and take a reading. He went inside, sat as his computer, and analyzed the receiver’s data.
The software showed the future as an arc of lines radiating out from the receiver like ripples forming on a pond. When he fine-tuned the readings, that uneventful line remained – the lifeless zone around him – mocking him, like the shadow of the grim reaper.
Digger didn’t believe in epiphanies. But as he stared at the results, he saw that the obvious had been hidden behind a cloud of logic. How could this machine, his creation, understand him, its creator? Recursion, an infinite maze of self-reflecting mirrors. It would need to look back inside itself and reflect on its own existence. The machine had been unable to read his future because he was its creator. It had been frozen in a web of contradictions.
Digger re-programmed the translator. He instructed it to register his presence as a tangible non-entity and to manifest these attributes as a void – a white space on the screen.
Late in the afternoon, as the sun settled into a bedding of orange clouds, Digger took another reading. This time, the future looked different. A gray mist formed on the screen as though his presence had diluted the readings. Slowly, the future took shape. The grayness became scattered with fine white lines, like veins on a leaf. The veins were him. He was the white paper on which the future unfolding in front of him was written.
Digger’s heart skipped a beat as the scattering of lines clumped and twirled into a single direction – a positive trajectory pointing east. His heart quivered. Salma and Jamal.
Suddenly the beguiling future dissolved and the white veins were swallowed back into the mist. Something was wrong. A dark slash below the line of equilibrium was charging onto the screen from the west. A negative event. The interloper was making the screen flicker as though the untangler was trying to decide between several possible futures. Digger gazed in horror at a row of jagged troughs dribbling below the line of equilibrium like inverted stumps of burnt trees.
“Shit,” he muttered.
Whatever this miserable event was, it was about to happen.
He heard a car slow down outside Salma and Jamal’s home. On the screen, the negative event bumped up against the white space that was Digger. He was the junction that would direct the outcome of the future now unfolding outside his house.
He opened his front door as an elderly, agitated man clambered out of a taxi. It was Mr. Wilson.
Digger hurtled out his gate, his heart somewhere near his throat. He planted himself in front of Salma and Jamal’s house, forcing such a cheesy grin that his cheeks ached.
“Mr. Wilson!” How nice to see you!”
Mr. Wilson paused and looked at Digger through hooded eyes.
“Before you visit your tenants, who are, incidentally, very nice people, why don’t you come inside for a drink?”
Digger tried to sound conspiratorial. “I have something I think might interest you…”
The negative event that was Mr. Wilson grunted. He was never one to turn down a whiff of conspiracy. He gave Digger a mute nod, turned and limped towards his house.
“Your hip replacement seems to have taken well,” jabbered Digger as he ushered Mr. Wilson through his gate.
“Are you enjoying your new home at the retirement village?”
Digger’s hallway filled with the reek of old fish, mothballs and stale booze as he guided Mr. Wilson into his office.
Mr. Wilson sneered. “I was doing very well until I got this.”
He waved the crumpled document he was carrying at Digger.
“You can’t trust anyone these days!”
He shoved it under Digger’s nose. A tenancy agreement.
“While I was in hospital, some scheming estate agent rented my house out to some damn towel heads!”
He spat out the last words and prodded at Salma and Jamal’s elaborate compound surname. His tongue struggled round the exotic foreign syllables.
“Hairyfan Mouldypyjamas!’ he said, his face contorting as though he was biting into a lime. “What kind of people have names like that?”
Digger forced a quivering smile and gestured for Mr. Wilson to sit in front of the untangler. The chair squeaked and groaned as though it was about to collapse under the weight of Mr. Wilson’s bigotry. Mr. Wilson flicked at the lease as though he was trying to squash a bug.
“I’ve come to tell those foreign troublemakers that they’re not welcome in my house!”
Digger slipped to the lounge and came back with a whisky bottle and a glass. He poured Mr. Wilson a drink and pointed to the untangler’s screen.
“I think this machine will solve all your problems,” he said. “It’s called an untangler. It can predict negative events before they happen.”
Digger’s teeth chattered as he spoke. He pointed to the line of equilibrium and the grey mist and faint white lines that had tentatively returned, trembling on the screen. “If your tenants are planning anything er… disruptive, it will show on this screen.”
Mr. Wilson’s eyes lit up like a pair of bloodshot flashlights.
“You mean it can tell us if they are planning to invite all their Middle Eastern friends over to build bombs in the basement?”
Digger gave a faint nod.
Mr. Wilson slapped his thighs, threw his head back and laughed so violently that some whisky from his glass slopped onto the carpet.
“Marvelous!” he said. “A terrorist tracker!”
He took a gulp of whisky and swallowed loudly.
“You could plant these machines all over the city! Sell them to the defense department!”
Digger watched Mr. Wilson pour himself another whisky. Then, his eyes slithered back to the machine.
“What’s that?” he said, pointing to the negative event that was he.
“That’s you.” Digger took a trembling breath. Mr. Wilson really didn’t have a clue what he was looking at.
“Oho!” he said. “I seem to have made quite an impression on your machine!”
Mr. Wilson sat back and rubbed his stomach with satisfaction, his eyelids drooping like half open garage doors.
“What’s it telling you about me?”
Digger looked at the screen. The negative event was bouncing back from the void, returning to its point of origin.
“It’s telling me it’s time to call you a taxi,” he said.
“Orright,” Mr. Wilson slurred. “I’m too damned tired now to throw out those Ayrabs. Keep your eye on them, will you, Digby?”
Digger watched Mr. Wilson’s taxi speed into the darkness. A slice of light from Jamal and Salma’s house briefly burst onto the pavement as someone opened and then closed a curtain. A fragrance of warm spices escaped from inside. It wafted past Digger’s nostrils, making his stomach purr.
Digger looked up into the sky, which was still tinted with faint remnants of daylight. A glow of satisfaction washed through his limbs as he remembered Jamal’s words:
“Perhaps predicting the future changes the future.”
Yes, he thought. He had glimpsed the future and changed it. The untangler was like a sculptor’s tool and he was the artist, shaping the future from the clay of life.
He turned back inside and looked at the translator’s screen. There it all was. His future erupted in front of him – a lively tangle of twisting curls and spirals, like the vapor trails left by particles in a tracking chamber, decaying and reforming as he looked at them.
His life was now woven into the tapestry of Salma and Jamal’s future.
There was a knock at his door.
It was Jamal, his smile lighting up the darkness that swallowed the street. “Mum wants to know if you’d like to come over and have some dinner with us.”
Digger grinned back. “I’d love to.”
Salma was waiting on her doorstep and the light from the open door threw a pattern of leafy shadows across the footpath. Jamal took Digger’s hand and the silhouettes danced across their feet as they walked through the gate, towards the effervescent light of emotional entanglement.