When I was very young, I would watch the children’s tv slot at midday. Fifteen minutes of wonder from an old fifteen-inch monochrome CRT television. On Fridays, invariably at my Grandmothers, they showed the Woodentops, a family of crudely fashioned string puppets who owned a farm. Their children had enjoyed their weekly misadventure, usually with a spotty dog, whose stiff legs would bounce him around the farmyard with an ineptitude that wouldn’t pass muster with the kids of today.
The stories were simple, we were five years old, for Heaven’s sake, and there was none of the moralising or life lessons that you would be fed these days, just fun and some small peril. I, however, can’t remember the stories, because they were of secondary interest. I would be staring past the characters at the painted background. Faraway hills and tall summer trees against a wide horizon. What was there? Who was there? Where were their houses, and what were they about in this mysterious hinterland? I longed for the tale to leave the farmyard and venture far afield. You’ve got a Dog, right? Doesn’t he ever run away? He never did, budgetary and puppetry constraints kept the action front and centre. Nevertheless, I would stare - longing to be there in the bland acrylic sunshine, lost in imagined adventure.
In the forty years since I’ve found that horizon. From continent to continent, sometimes walking with a stick and pack, sometimes on wheels. Sometimes accompanied, sometimes solitary. The adventure finding resolution or not, but always a precursor to the next one. I love this world. It’s not too small, not too big. It can be kind, and it can be mindlessly cruel and petty. You can be hugged, and you can be raped, shown hospitality, or conned out of everything. You need an agile mind that can be open or cynical as the situation requires. You need to be prepared to love where you’re going, or who you’re going to, or to bid it farewell smartly if it’s not right.
Along the way, I accumulated a master’s degree in Anthropology and a degree in Journalism. At least I stood still that long. I didn’t think either would help with the wandering gene, but they kind of fit, right? I met the love of my life on the way, and Alice loved me dearly until she died two years later. I began to travel again, it was like a drug, and the miles that passed under my feet were the only solace in my lonely and increasingly desperate world. I didn’t know where my endless journey would take me…
I never thought it would be here.
The ‘Roue Magique’ appeared six months ago, flashing into existence in a moment. M’sieu Bertillon, the farmer in whose barn it had chosen to manifest, had been awakened by the yard dogs after midnight on 7th August. There were lights in the old barn, flashing violet and yellow and accompanied by a faint hum, they cast their weird sparkle through the many gaps in the ancient oak. He had thrown the doors wide and levelled a rusty shotgun, ready to confront whichever Gypsy or vagrant had initiated this light show. His dogs had paced, growling, ready for a fight. They never got it. They had run, yelping, as had he.
At that moment, if he had dutifully called the Gendarmes and waited at home alone, the world may never have known. The Government or whatever dark department had been ready for something like this would have descended, the farm appropriated, and M’sieu Bertillon encouraged to silence in whatever way was considered appropriate - I think you know what I mean. But he hadn’t called the Gendarmes, no sir, he had run, shotgun still cocked, and not stopped until the village bar, which had been full of his mates and the late-night crowd. By the time the authorities had been called, there were some hundred people clustered at a safe distance from the open barn doors. Someone had thrown a rock. Someone had tentatively approached and quickly retreated. Still, the lights were flashing. Still, the hum throbbed, almost subliminal. Officer Benoist and colleagues had moved the crowd aside and walked to the barn slowly, edging, out of their depth, with weapons drawn. They had become among the first on earth to witness an Einstein Rosen bridge.
Then the circus came to town. To be fair, once it was out and the media were feasting, the French sought international involvement. Scientific and security tents became portable buildings, which soon became structural and permanent. The barn stayed intact, albeit encased in a concrete hangar some metre thick. Amazingly M’sieu Bertillion continued to farm, having refused to move. Public support for this stoic Francais was immense, and the authorities had no choice.
‘Shoot me,’ he famously said on TV, ‘I am 85 years old. The fucking Nazis couldn’t move me, and no space hole is going to either’.
Each morning he would head to the fields on an old tractor that his bitterly remembered Nazis had probably seen shiny and new, dogs in tow and cigarette hanging from lips. He would invariably share a wave with the otherwise gruff military around the hangar.
As for the ‘Space hole’, Magic wheel, Einstein Rosen bridge, or, let’s call it what it was generally supposed to be - a Wormhole. Well, for a while, the world went mad. Wars, social problems, and the economy were forgotten by the media. This was first contact. This was proof we were not alone. This was the great hope for the future. Except it wasn’t. The thing just sat there, fizzing, humming, a cosmic light show that manifested no proof that it had been ‘sent’ at all. Natural phenomena, some learned ones said. Einstein and Nathan Rosen had predicted their existence as far back as 1935. General relativity allowed for it they had said. Thousands showed up in those first few weeks, bustling, pressing, demanding. None got through, security was savage, and we all had to be content with semi-educated speculation in the press. Would you believe that conspiracy theories were ripe from the get-go? Of course, you would. It was the precursor to an invasion, they said, although whether by Russia or some alien force, they couldn’t agree. God also got on board. Most major, minor religions, and some you’ve never heard of, ranted ‘sign’ or portent and tried to claim the event. All the time, the thing just sat there, shining, implacably waiting for us to decide what to do. A three-metre wide circle of deepest jet, surrounded by a writhing, flashing organic ring of yellow and purple fire. Entirely two-dimensional and invisible from behind. The deepest mystery the world had thrown at us since we squirmed from the oceans and probably the most boring.
Whether to attempt to engage or to leave alone quickly became a polarised debate. Scientists were divided between the ‘Throw something at it’ camp and the ‘Put your fingers in your ears and go la la la’, just wait’ brigade. Then, one cold February morning, security present as usual and cameras on, it threw something at us.
The crystal ‘wand’, as it came to be known, appeared from the centre of the black void, not floating, not falling, just descending from the black abyssal circle as though some invisible hand had placed it on the ground a metre or so from the entrance. There was chaos for some minutes and much frenzied discussion. Weapons were trained, an approach was made. The thing was scanned and appeared to be completely inert. No radioactivity, no emissions of any sort. It was picked up with surgical tongues, placed on a portable table, and whisked away for analysis.
Measuring just over 25 centimeters, with a circular profile and crystalline in look and texture, the term’ glass rod’ was quickly abandoned, and ‘crystal wand’ adopted as a suitable, and let’s face it, more sexy nomenclature. It had no markings of any sort, and its transparency was absolute. You could stare through its width or length without any distortion of the image whatsoever. ‘It’s almost as if it’s not there,’ said someone. But it was there and weighed in at 250 grams, perhaps a little lighter than you would expect. It did nothing, it gave nothing. If it was a gift of some sort, then its value was inexplicable. If it was a means of communication, it had failed. Someone then stated something that should have been obvious before. ‘If whoever made the portal appear here did it deliberately, how could they know it would manifest in an inhabited area? I mean, how could they know it’s even been discovered?’ Fair point, well made. Eventually, a decision was made to send something back and to send it with the wand as evidence we had received it. The rationale was that this may begin a more comprehensible dialogue.
But what to send? Suggestions were many and mostly inappropriate. A bible - not representative. An olive branch - bizarre. A bottle of single malt - bonkers. A photograph album - less so, but not right. Eventually, one technician came up with a solution that had literally been staring her in the face all morning—a laptop. A computer loaded with all aspects of our wonderful, mad, bad world. Technology, art, and language, written and audible. A naked summary of all we were and had been. This would give the ones on the other side an opportunity to swipe right or left on us as they thought fit. Genius.
The laptop and crystal wand were delivered through on the 1st of March. Tossed through, actually, although as gently as possible. The laptop disappeared momentarily, swallowed by the dark centre, and then reappeared, dropping to the padded mat that had been placed at the base of the circle.
The crystal wand likewise returned...
Once again, much discussion went on in scientific circles. The content contained within the laptop was intact. Had it been examined in the blink of an eye and then given back as some sort of gesture? Had our offering been refused and some offence taken? Was there even an intelligence behind this at all, and was everything we were seeing just a hiccough in the cosmos playing out its nature? There was really only one way to find out, and it was a course nobody really wanted to voice, let alone pursue…
My involvement with all this came in late Spring by way of a phone call as I sat musing on yet another lonely sunrise across a calm Aegean sea. Professor Hanratty had been a senior Anthropology lecturer during my studies. We had shared a love of travel, as anthropologists must, and a deep friendship had arisen. He had been among the first people I had introduced Alice to, and the only one to offer any true comfort after she died. He had endorsed my instinct to travel again. ‘Go’ he had said, ‘find a new horizon.’
I listened to what he had to say now, astonished that he was on the ‘event’ management team in the first place, and then a little horrified and intrigued by what followed. There had been deep discussion following the refusal of the wheel to re-swallow the crystal and its apparent disregard for our laptop. A possible expedition party had been sidelined as a result of this. Nobody wanted a one-way trip away from all things familiar to possible weird death in some impossibly distant place. Then someone suggested a compromise. One person would go through. Someone with little to hold them to this world. Someone who would return if they found a way, if not….
One early, and in hindsight, ridiculous inspiration was to put out a call for volunteers. Lifers, people on death row with nothing to lose. It was quickly considered an insane idea to send an axe murderer as our first ambassador to the land of wherever.
Then it was going to be military. Special forces. An astronaut. Better suggestions - and there were volunteers, plenty, but Professor Hanratty, who I discovered was a very senior member of the team, said wait…. Let me make a phone call.
I held the phone to my ear, watching a lone seagull peck the hell out of a dead jellyfish, feeling the sand between my toes, absorbing what had been offered.
‘So, you want me to go?’
‘No, I don’t. I’m giving you the opportunity. You’re one of the cleverest people I’ve ever known. We need an anthropologist more than we need a Navy Seal. You’re smart, and if there’s a way back, you can find it.’
I assumed my best Dustin Hoffman.
‘Are you trying to seduce me, Mrs. Robinson?’ We’d laughed and talked about something else for a while. All the time, some part of me was considering, weighing up. We discussed the possibility of me emerging into deep open space. We joked about the whole thing being new Chinese technology after all, and me flying first class back from Beijing in my space suit. Would I even be wearing a space suit? I’d said I’d call him back in a day.
I spent that day with Alice. Feeling her ghost alongside me as I drank beer and ate feta salad, walking the rock pools and beaches. Maybe the wheel went to heaven, and we’d be together again? I actually considered that for about a second…. Then she narrowed her eyes and shook her head, a remembered and familiar gesture. It became clear to me in a moment. Thank you, my girl. You see, here we are in this world, bouncing from drama to drama, personal or global, on our thin puppet strings. There are weekly episodes of peril, happiness, and sometimes hope. Through the wheel was the unknown, the longed-for, the hidden horizon, the distant trees. If there were strange fields to wander, then I would wander there. If there were a new beginning or an instant end, then I would meet it head-on. I would hold Alices’ hand as I went, and we might be happy…
So here I stand at the cusp of things. On the brink. Yes, I have a space suit with twelve hours of oxygen. It has a tube through which I can nourish myself, and it has a radio linked to control, although absolutely nobody thinks it will work. There’s also a helmet camera. My brief is to go through and to return if possible while I still have breathable air. Most people think I’ll get thrown back like the laptop and the wand, but just maybe I’ll catch a glimpse of something before I do. There are also those folk who said goodbye as though it were for the final time.
I’m very scared, more so than I thought I would be. I feel no pressure to perform, and I don’t care particularly for any knowledge to be gained. I did, but not now. What I do feel intensely is something other than grief for the first time in years. It’s like electricity, and I’m buzzing.
‘Sir, are you ready?’ It’s a small clear voice in my head. There’s a platform for me to step from level with the bottom of the wheel, and I’m so close to it that I see nothing but black. I feel for a moment that it’s not black at all, just the colour of infinite distance. I take a long intake of breath through the nose - thanks for the yoga Alice - and reply.
‘I’m going now’. I lift one foot towards the dark distance and push hard with the other…
…and then I’m falling back from the platform, tumbling awkwardly onto the barn floor. I’m hurriedly manhandled away from the wheel, and a circle of anxious faces fills my field of vision. I’m looking past them, though, into the forever. It seems I’m on the edge of a cliff, standing steady and looking out at an impossible expanse of blue mist that swirls almost to the top. Next to me, upside down, is a laptop, and next to it a crystal wand, although what’s there is not physical anymore, it’s simply the ‘spirit’ of the things. I’m not here physically either. No suit, no radio, no camera, and no body. I too, have become a spirit. I don’t have to wonder what’s happening - that’s been anticipated - because already I know. As soon as I stepped through, I became the sum of all their’/its knowledge.
You see, what bounces back from the wheel is what went through, but some part of it has remained on the other side and has become non-material. The same but so very different. My space suited, sitting on the barn floor self knows this, and my ‘through’ side knows this.
And we are forever entangled, wrapped around each other’s heads, yet galaxies apart.
The crystal wand wasn’t inert. All they/it needed was for someone to touch it, and instantaneously it had transmitted all they needed to know about all of us. A technology that I can’t explain. There are many things I can’t explain to you or to the seemingly endless queue of experts that bustle and beg for my time. They don’t and won’t know I’m still through there. That’s the deal. I’m not going to tell them I could solve the energy crisis, or stop war, bring the world together in a way that has never ever happened before. I could, but you see, that’s something every civilisation has to work out for itself, or not…
There are countless civilisations and races represented here from many ages and millennia. All of us are a part of some group intelligence now - the sum of what the universe has achieved. Forget your faster-than-light drive, forget your first contact on the white house lawn. Forget nuts and bolt spaceships - the asteroids are about as far as you’ll ever get, my friend. You don’t need to go further because you’re already there. The other reason I can’t pass on what I’m seeing and what I know is simply that no one would understand it. You may think that sounds patronising, but that’s not it. You don’t believe me? Surely you could understand all the knowledge we’ve gained in eight thousand years of civilisation was gained progressively through revelation and research? The stars were signs from the Gods and then they were balls of nuclear fire eh, and we understood their nature? Now we know, so go on try us with your new otherworldly knowledge. Well, then go and fetch your dog from the yard and teach it how to use your computer. Discuss Freudian psychology with your daughters’ goldfish, see how that works out. I simply can’t explain. So I won’t.
You may come across part of me here on earth. We may cross paths on some lonely beach or hillside. We may share a beer and some travelling tales in a backstreet bar. I’ll still talk to you, and I’ll still laugh or cry. I’m free now that the suits and the Professor have finished with me. We’ll walk the world on our puppet strings and play out what time we have as we choose.
But there’s another me, he’s met the folk who live in those distant hills and summer trees beyond the farmyard, and spoken to them of many things, vast things. There are no days and nights here, just endless time for discovery. There’s a kind of love too, but it’s a love you will never understand - so much bigger than you can know, and it lasts forever.