Building a Taller Chair

—Leah Bobet—

[first published in Fortean Bureau #30 March, 2005]

Morning opens with a blaze of trumpets and the subtle hint of a timpani. Rene pours his coffee, sits in his chipped-green-paint kitchen chair at his chipped-white-paint kitchen table, and starts to doubt.

He long ago decided that everything he cannot doubt must be true, for it is beyond reproach. And from that, he can extrapolate the universe.

He cannot be sure that the coffee is hot; that could be a misfiring of nerves in his mouth, but that was the fodder of his first day doubting. He cannot be sure that the chair is green and the table white—the second and third day—for he could be colour-blind, and what is green or white anyways (the fiftieth, and a productive one at that)? Day after day he has peeled down the core of what is possible to a paper-thin wisp of its former self: the translucent leaves of his past efforts litter the floor (which may or may not be a grubby white tile—day seventy-three). All he knows is that he is thinking, he is doubting, and that must be true.

Cogito ergo sum. I think, therefore I am.

And yet, we live in the age of machines. He thinks: he could be some collection of gears and smoky oil, constructed merely to doubt and cranked by hand every night. He could be a dream of some restless schoolchild, or an industrial sewing machine's unfortunate byproduct: he tries to recall needle and thread, the hands of a peasant woman from the sunny south shores, the slickness of a brushed-iron body. He could be the echo of a star's dying thoughts, beamed like light to a distant planet while the reality has died out millennia past.

What is it to think? What is it to be?

Rene puts down his could-be-mug and massages his could-be-temples. There is always room for human error. Just because he cannot doubt something, it does not mean it is not doubtable.

He could be missing something. And that, of course, means he really cannot be sure of anything, can he?

There is a sound not unlike a pop as Rene is neatly erased from existence. The morning continues, birds singing in the bulrushes and warm wind blowing into the slightly open window.

A cooling cup of coffee sits on the chipped-white-paint table, and the lip marks on its china rim evaporate into the spring air.

And something . . . shifts.

Forces are always equal and opposite. Isaac knows this: science and religion, the New World and the Old, progressive and conservative, left and right, war and peace. To every action there is a reaction. Sometimes it occurs to him that he is a reaction to some trauma in the fabric of history: a burning on a bright Italian summer day, or some monograph sprinkled with fatal printer's errors. Isaac does not like to entertain such thoughts. He prefers to think that someday, something shall be a reaction to him.

Equal and opposite forces: his principle of conservation of momentum applies to each of them. This is considered a paradox in scientific circles; after all, objects only fall one way. But when the apple impacted on his crown, split, and poured its sticky-sweet ideas into his mind, he felt himself lift from the earth for just a moment. Just as the apple is attracted to Isaac, he is attracted to the apple. Just as the dropped rock is attracted to the earth, the earth is attracted to the rock. Matter attracts other matter; it wishes to be one.

He has not yet expounded on these theories to any of his peers. He fears they may find him mad. They already find him eccentric, with his obsessive coffee-drinking, his black moods on bright spring days, his occasional gut feelings that something is very, very wrong here. Nobody has ever felt the earth jump to meet their feet, despite the fact that the mass of the earth is so large that the motion it requires is negligible. Empirical evidence is the order of the day, and he cannot back up this theory.

So Isaac waits. Sometimes he dreams. Often, he busies his hands with cabinetry.

It is among the things he cannot discuss: not with Mary, not with the letter-writers, not with the philosophers or award-granters or publishers. One morning, 11,236 and a quarter days ago, the sun did not rise.

But in between his fifteenth and sixteenth summer-green chair, things change. A telegram arrives from London: war has come to Isaac's doorstep. The Japanese shogun is sweeping through the tiny states of Europe with an army of Chinamen, of Moors, of Africans that grows every day, burning good Christians and spreading their Godless religions behind them. The colony in Shimbara has been crushed after almost seventy proud years of defiance against the backwards ways of the Japanese. There are rumbles from Egypt, from Palestine, from the African farmsteads left untended as servants and slaves take up arms against masters. The Royal House of Orange is concerned for the stability of the Empire. And so their Majesties have asked for machines of war to hold back the foreign-born night. Isaac is a scientist, Cambridge-educated and renowned in his field. Can he help?

He thinks. He sketches. Flashes of memory, of birds singing in the breeze, of burning in his mouth, of horrible impending emptiness drive him on. He decides to take a risk.

Construction begins on a series of massive chairs, each large enough to hold the population of a city. When the fateful hour arrives the entire population of the still-loyal Americas will jump from them; the mass of so many falling bodies on one side of the world will displace the very planet. Millions will die and the colonies will be sacrificed, but the Empire will be saved. They will live on in the face of the yellow hordes, the brown-skinned fatwa, the vengeance of the unenlightened world.

Of course, there are more men in the Asiatic lands, in the Indian subcontinent, in the Middle Eastern deserts and the African jungles than could ever hope to live in the West. Isaac is guarded night and day by a platoon of government men, bodyguards to King William and Queen Mary themselves, who ensure that no knowledge of his discovery is leaked to enemy agents. There is no way, however, to keep track of all the workers, the contractors, the drafting assistants for the structure: eventually some sly agent will puzzle out their purpose and Britain will be doomed.

It may have happened already.

The King's Men assure Isaac that it will not matter. Their program is years ahead of anything the enemy can muster. Even if the foreigners work like the demons they are, the Empire can always increase their momentum, increase the devastation.

They will simply have to build a taller chair.

Every morning the sun rises. Every evening it sets. Yet, David argues, this does not mean it will do the same thing tomorrow. For this he is feted in the halls of philosophy. He receives letters from the great men of science: Newton, Halley, Liebniz, Bernoulli: all write him with a suppressed curiosity, with strange excitement in their cultivated hands. Politicians write him, asking if he thinks aiding the Shimbara peasant rebels so many years ago was a mistake, if the Empire's foreign policy of enlightenment, of conversion and liberation should be abandoned. He merely repeats the words like a mantra: regularity experienced in the past cannot predict regularity persisting in the future. How can one be sure that Nature might not begin to behave differently one day?

There was nothing they could have done about it.

In these times of unsettled conflict, his philosophy is spreading quicker than the plague of foreigners. Nothing is predictable, nothing is preventable, and the terrorized populace of London takes strange peace in that realization. The lines inch closer to the shores of the motherland and colony after country falls. David is not affected by the rationing, the exhortations to support the home front, the protests and labour shortage and political strain: he is a valued national resource, and Parliament cares for him accordingly. So he sits in his townhouse and answers letters from anxious souls seeking redemption, seeking answers, always the same way: Nature is inherently unpredictable. The patterns of the past are not the patterns of the future. Have faith.

David's mail sits stacked on a white-painted table, and every morning he settles into a bright green chair to sort it. Mary used to do this for him, but Mary rarely comes home anymore. When she does, she weeps: why don't you trust me? What have I ever done to you? I've been faithful, she says.

David knows. David nods. Just because she is today, one cannot presume she will be tomorrow.

The logic of his position, peculiarly enough, does not seem to comfort her.

It is among the things he cannot discuss: not with Mary, not with the letter-writers, not with the philosophers or award-granters or publishers. One morning, 11,236 and a quarter days ago, the sun did not rise. His nine-year-old eyes were checked as he clutched his mother's skirts, frantic in the noontime twilight. He has searched for reports of eclipses, of phenomena, of anything that could explain that terrifying day. Sometimes, he does wonder if it was a dream as they all said, white-faced and fidgeting with their handkerchiefs as if he were the last person they wanted to convince. It is half-remembered now, unreal. Nobody claims anymore that for one day in the English countryside, the sun did not rise in the morning and a winter day smelled like spring, like birdsong, like what he now knows is freshly roasted coffee.

Nature is unpredictable, David tells himself fiercely every morning when he rises. One day he will prove it.

Isaac dreams of a chipped-green-paint chair in a rented cottage half a world away; it grows taller and taller until it reaches to the stars and is struck down in fire and lightning. He flees from it, running along a unique vector, away from every other squinty-eyed dreamer who has spent his life in observation rather than action. They do not bother to regroup, to salvage their burning notes and shattered experiments. They know that the bolt has fallen at last, and they will henceforth each speak a different Physics.

He wakes, calms himself with a cup of coffee, and orders the attack.

The earth rumbles under David's feet, and he swallows anticipation, delight, vindication, terror. Today will be the day, he shouts as the Earth drops just ever so slightly from the legs of his green-painted kitchen chair.

Cities are uprooted from the bedrock. Ancient palaces of mud brick and domed brass crumble. Civilizations tumble from the cliffs, from the meadows, and humanity is culled by the millions upon millions.

After that things get a little quantum.

Isaac is congratulated: governments woo him to design weaponry for them, even if the only governments left were in agreement anyways. The Western World is now the entire world. Colony ships are sent out into the ruins, carrying bright-eyed converts who preach the unpredictable gospel of David's teachings. Nothing is predictable, they beam at the stinking corpses of foreigners as they distribute Christian burial and rebuild ancient homes.

Isaac designs chairs for the remaining powers anyways; he fears he has no other option. There must be a balance of power. No sole nation must hold the kind of power the chairs can unleash.

David is asked to speak at Canterbury the next year on the phenomenon: the lecture is titled, almost to his irritation, The Gospel of Hume. Chairs or not, scientific proof or not, it has made believers out of the men and women of England. His mail doubles, triples, quadruples. Mary comes back to handle it for him, still teary-eyed but no longer argumentative. Nothing is certain in these times, and she finally understands that.

Both men wonder sometimes if it could have been different. There is a man-shaped hole in their dreams, a missingness which they are unsure how to fill. David's day of darkness haunts him: because of it he has painted his chairs green, his tables white, has gravitated to the countryside with its warm wind and sweet birdsong because all those things tease at his memory, bring him closer and closer to the edge of the sunless hole in his life.

Isaac retires to the countryside and builds chairs and regrets. He paints them all green, and then he chips the paint from them, makes them look worn and homey. He rationalizes this, of course: perhaps the leaders of the world, the easily-swayed populace will think twice about their destructive power if the chairs evoke Nature and the home and safety and comfort. Instinctively, he knows this is not the answer, but he does not examine his motives too closely, for they might not bear up under scientific inspection. He has done the right thing. He will believe that. He must.

For in this new, strange world, there is precious little room for that kind of doubt.

Leah Bobet lives in Toronto, where she studies Linguistics and works in Canada's oldest science fiction bookstore. Her work has appeared recently in Science Fiction: The Best of the Year 2006, Chiaroscuro, Strange Horizons and Realms of Fantasy. Anything else she's not plausibly denying can be found at www.leahbobet.com.

content Copyright 2006, Leah Bobet—All Rights Reserved

image (original), "The Body Politic" or "The March of the Intellect" by T.Mclean, 1836.
image (edit) 2006, Darin C. Bradley—All Rights Reserved