If you travel on a certain road through the Central River Valley, you may come across a cornfield lying in the shadow of a traprock ridge shaped like a sleeping man. The field itself is unremarkable at first- and indeed, many thousands have passed it by without a second glance. But those who pause to look around may spot the tiny huts formed of clay tablets tucked into the ravine beside the field or nestled under the shading sumacs and pin oaks. They may also notice a shimmering in the air like a heat mirage or some of those transparent floaters that sometimes dance before one’s vision. For those who wonder about these curiosities, here is the story.
As I’ve mentioned before, many scarecrows acquire a simple hobby to keep them occupied during their long daily watch. Some study birds. Others gaze at the stars. Many develop a fondness for counting. Gowpen is one such scarecrow. His favorite things to count are the ears of corn and the leaves on the weeds that grow between the rows. Though he is not unusual in his interest in lower mathematics, what makes Gowpen notable is the constantly changing methods he has devised for counting.
He begins his census at the earliest sprouting of the ears, counting on the twigs of the branches that form his arms just as a human would count on their fingers. Since the numbers quickly get too high for him to easily remember, he long ago took to recording them in a “ledger” made out of slabs of dried clay taken from the ditch surrounding the cornfield (when asked about the gradual enlargement of the ditch, the farmer who owns the field chalks it all up to erosion and vows to fill it in “in a couple days” once he takes care of some more pressing matters).
Unlike the branch-arms of many scarecrows, Gowpen’s are still alive. They continue to grow throughout the year and occasionally sprout new twigs. And, of course, the wear and tear of the year break a few twigs off. As a result, Gowpen rarely begins or ends a season with the same number of twig-fingers. Though one would think this might interfere with Gowpen’s counting, he has devised a unique system that actually utilizes his annually changing phalanges.
In years when he has ten twig fingers, he counts using the ten numbers that humans are familiar with: 0, 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9. But in a year where he has, say, only 8 fingers, he can only count eight numbers, or 0,1,2,3,4,5,6,7. When he reaches eight, he returns to the first number, 1, and adds a 0, recording it as 10 on his clay ledger. 9 becomes 11, 10 becomes 12, 18 becomes 20, and so on.
In a year when he has but 5 twigs, he will count with only five symbols: 0,1,2,3,4, then 10 for five, 11 for six and so on. It all makes perfect sense to him, though any traveler who stops to ask about it usually departs more confused than before.
Gowpen may go through hundreds of clay tablets in a growing season as he fills them with numbers and then discards them in a midden at the edge of the field. This heap is not the end for the slabs, though. A tribe of Pukwudgee- the little, unseen people of the forest- incorporated these slabs into their buildings years ago. Once fired in their kilns hidden deep inside a nearby glacial kettle, the tablets make strong walls and waterproof ceilings that can stand strong against the fickle elements.
And what of the strange shimmers in the air? Just as the patterns and colors on a flower attract bees, all these clay ledgers with all their numbers attract their own unique form of “pollinators” in the form of math spirits. Beings made of and embodying the underlying formulae that shape the world of mortal senses. Living “code”, to use a term employed by the designers of the Difference Engines that have sprung up recently in the biggest cities. Normally the math spirits have no actual form. They are detectable, rather, as a localized change in the foundational code. A tiny pocket where physical properties alter for a split second as these living equations insert themselves into the longer formula that creates our reality. Usually, these changes are almost invisible, but on rare occasions, they can lead to bizarre extremes of transformation. Travelers have reported tiny suns flickering into existence for the blink of an eye, flashing in colors outside the known spectrum. Others have seen the space before them fold into geometric shapes and tumble through a sea of lightning. Many have left the field knowing they saw “something”, but unable to articulate precisely what they glimpsed, other than that it was “wrong”.
The pukwudgees, being entities from Beyond the Door themselves, have adapted to and even welcome the math spirits into their communities. The living equations are treated as honored ancestors and invited to sit amongst the coals of the hearth fire or perch among the rafters. Whether the spirits are even aware of the honors being paid them is unknown.
Gowpen himself seems entirely oblivious to the little people using his discarded ledgers and to the math spirits flitting all about the cornfield.