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IN THE GRAVEYARD
Then it rained for a month. I started smoking again. Noise/ Information ... I was outside with a hat on.
Wednesday afternoon, I walked up Center Street to the graveyard on Temple Hill. The rain was keeping the others away, and it was peaceful. I stood under a big twisting tree, a beech with smooth gray hide made smoother by the rain running down it, tucks and puckers in the flesh, doughy on its own time-scale.
In the rain, under the tree in the graveyard, I was thinking about the Continuum Problem. Georg Cantor, father of our country, unearthed it in 1873 and lost his mind trying to solve it.
The light flickered and I could believe that spirits were pressing up to me. Would I sell my soul to solve the Continuum Problem, they wanted to know. Let's see the solution. Let's see the soul.
It was hard at first to tell if the deal actually came off. Four years before, I'd had a chance to ask the White Light about the Continuum Problem. It was on Memorial Day during the 'Nam war and there were guys with skinny necks and flags ... whew! "And what about the continuum?" I'd asked, serious, pincering up a pencil with triple-jointed fingers. "Relax, you're not ready," was the answer or more the feeling that the Answer was not going to be something I could write down in symbolic logic.
But I'd kept working at it, sharpening my inner eye so I could catch and name most of those bright glimpses ... code the idea up in an elegant formulation, a magic spell which could bring theflashback. I was ready in the rain, in the graveyard, hoping to cheat the shades.
There was one stone on Temple Hill I liked particularly. Emily Wadsworth, 1793, epitaph: "Remember that you must die." I found it refreshing ... this welling up of human intelligence, of the reality of existence. I'd first seen the stone a few months earlier, read it, felt happy, but then! A black flyspeck become fly spiralled up from the stone and headed for me, If I land on you, you will die ... I ran.
But I was back, there by the beech tree's flowing trunk, watching the chutes and ladders, the midway of my mind; believing (why not) that the spirits were offering the solution of the Continuum Problem to me. The patterns grew more fantastic, and I hung on, naming them quickly and without sinking, afloat on the rising flood ...
The rain has picked up, I realize after a time. I look about for better shelter and pick a small mausoleum near the Wadsworth plot. I hurry over and try the door. Double doors, glass with iron grillwork. One opens, and I go in. There is an ordinary wooden door set into the floor. I tear it off the hinges and run down the staircase. More doors, I throw them behind me. Stairs, doors, black light ... I run faster, catching up. Soon I hear the coffin, bumping and groaning down the stairs only a few steps ahead of me, I leap! And land in it, red satin, you understand, a clotted ejaculation ...
"But this is not mathematics, Mr ...?"
"Rayman. Felix Rayman," I reply. They are wearing dark suits with vests. Gold watch chains and wingtip shoes. The International Congress of Mathematicians, Paris, 1900.
David Hilbert takes the podium. He's talking about mathematical problems in general, leading up to his personal list of the top 23 unsolved problems.
He's little, with a pointed beard and a good speaking style. The first problem on his list is the Continuum Problem, but what catches my attention is the preliminary remark: "If we do not succeed in solving a mathematical problem, the reason frequently consists in our failure to recognize the more general standpoint from which the problem before us appears only as a single link in a chain of related problems."
I search the crowd for the faces of Klein or Minkowski ... I'm sure they're here. But the faces are indistinct and Hilbert's German is suddenly incomprehensible. A clod of earth falls on me from the ceiling. I get up and leave.
The exit door gives into a shadowy tunnel. The catacombs of Paris. I walk on, holding a candle, and every twenty paces or so the tunnel branches. I go left, left, right, left, right, right, right, left ... My only desire is to avoid falling into a pattern.
Occasionally I pass through small chambers where bones are stored. The monks have built walls out of the thighbones, cords of greasy fuel for the eternal fires; and behind these walls they have thrown the smaller bones. The walls of femurs are decorated with skulls, set into stacks to form patterns checkerboards, maps, crosses, Latin words. I see my name several times.
Some two thousand branchings into the labyrinth my mind is clear and I can remember every turn I have made. At each branching I am careful to break yet another possible rule for how I am choosing my path. If I continue forever, perhaps I can travel a path for which there is no finite description. And where will I be then? The skulls know.
I blow out my candle and sit in one of Death's chambers to listen. There is a faint, unpleasant smell and a quiet sifting of dust from the bones' imperceptible crumbling. In the labyrinth, the city of Death, it is only quiet. "We are sleeping."
Perhaps I sleep too. It is hard to tell here, but it seems that I did complete that infinite journey through the tunnels; that they drew narrower and I more flexible; and that I traveled a path which cannot be described.
As the trip ended I was an electron moving along a nerve fiber, up the spinal cord and into the brain, my brain. It was raining on my face and I tried to sit up. But my body wouldn't move. It just lay there, cooling in the October rain.