“Because we’re here.”
The words, which had not been casually proffered, hovered in the space between them for a moment; from the mind of one and into the ears and heart and soul of the other.
The Questioner took the answer completely seriously. On the surface, it might have seemed like a flippant, even careless answer to what had been an honest, earnest question. But the Questioner knew better. The answer, although simple, contained a lifetime’s worth of wisdom, succinctly and simply presented in its most basic building blocks by the Answerer.
Overhead, a seagull cawed its melancholic love song to the ocean waves. The Questioner observed as it flapped its wings and the glided on an updraft of warm air, travelling in a manner that humans would never experience. The pair watched the bird, lonely and alive, as it flew across the Heavens. They tracked its movement, not noting as the creature began to slow down as it soared above them.
The bird was not slowing itself down, however. It was neither coming down to land nor meeting resistance in the form of an opposing headwind. No, this was something else entirely. Something completely unprecedented. Neither the Questioner nor the Answerer noticed the bird’s decreasing pace, for they were subject to the same anomalous blip in the otherwise steady (well, steadyish) course of time and space.
Slowly, gradually, everything around the two persons sitting by the ocean’s edge began to grind to a halt, as if the very rotation of the Earth itself were being decelerated by friction, spinning on its axis within a pool of treacle, its inner gears trundling, grumbling, clunk-clunk-clunking at a lesser and lesser pace, until…
Time stopped with a mechanical thud, which echoed through the very core of existence itself, resounding in every living thing.
Overhead, the solitary seagull hung motionless, its white-feathered wings mid-flap, its cries temporarily silenced by time’s lack of passage. Beyond the two individuals, the ocean’s waves were paused mid-break, specks of white foam suspended in the air. The Questioner and the Answerer sat in the sand, side by side, seemingly content in each other’s presence. A frozen sea breeze was ruffling their hair and clothes — strands of blonde and brunette pointed away from their heads at odd angles, this way and that, as if gelled there as a result of some bizarre new fashion trend. Their clothes — their shirts, their jackets, their trouser legs — appeared to have been starched in an extremely odd manner, caught mid-flutter.
Not a sound was to be heard, for the very air molecules themselves necessary for the conduction of auditory vibrations were locked in place, equally as frozen as the Earth’s more visible elements. The fact that light remained present was truly a curiosity within a curiosity, an anomaly within an anomaly — our understanding of the physical world tells us that surely the spectrum of light cannot exist without time, can it? And yet, here we are.
The sight was something eerie — if there had been anything able to see it. Everything was too still. It was stiller than still, stiller than death. To say that the scene looked like a photograph would be half right. Yes, all was motionless, and yes, the picture looked nice; a sandy beach, a grandparent and a grandchild sat by the water’s edge, moody waves crashing in front of them, a bird flying above through the grey and cloudy sky. And yet… something was lacking that would have been detectable in a photograph. The aliveness that still images capture was absent.
It’s hard to say for how long, exactly, the scene remained paused, for time itself was no longer in motion. Perhaps it was for a second or two, perhaps it was closer to eternity. Maybe it was the length of time it takes for a kettle to boil or a pot of tea to steep, or perhaps it was the length of a movie. Maybe it never even paused at all, and only appeared to have been halted — as an illusion, of sorts — due to the perturbation of its own inner workings. Regardless, the slowing down of time and the perceived pause in time were not the end of that day’s oddities.
Something curious began to happen.
Or, rather, something curious continued to happen.
Knulc-knulc-knulc. The Earth began to spin again, its inner cogs once more groaning with their grinding workload. Knulc-knulc-knulc. The internal sound — more of a feeling than an actual noise — however, was not the same as before.
It was going in the other direction, distorted and wobbling like a cassette tape being rewound.
Knulc-knulc-knulc, knulc-knulc-knulc. The backtracking sped up, the scene now visibly rewinding, the figures and the world moving once more — a mirror image of the actions they’d taken not too long ago.
The seagull cried its alien, backwards cry and it flap-flap-flapped its wings, moving in reverse, retracing the course it had taken across the sky mere moments earlier. The ocean’s waves spun away from the shore, seemingly ejected out by the dark, damp sand. The swirling waters and flecks of foam retreated and rose, joining the rewinding rollers that sank into swellings, fading away from the beach. The wind was sucked rearward, as if from a vacuum, stroking and sweeping hair and cloth and sand in much the same fashion as it had done when travelling forwards.
“.ereh er’ew esuaceB” unsaid the Answerer. Not unsaid as in it wasn’t spoken, unsaid as in the spoken words were reversed, slurping back up into the mouth of the Answerer like a noodle of spaghetti. A second after, their mouth closed, the words travelling back down their throat and into that place that speech originates from.
Next came the pause that had preceded the answer — it wasn’t very long, but it was thoughtful, and this was reflected in the Answerer’s face. The wizened countenance exhibited all the notions of intense thought, but in the opposite direction; from the arrival of the answer, to the pondering and contemplation, to the initial reaction, and finally, arriving at the moment at which the Answerer listened intently to the Questioner posing their oh so important thought.
The question was then sucked back up into the mouth of the Questioner, retaining the childlike honesty and awe in those wobbling, distorted syllables, in spite of how jumbled they sounded.
Unlike the reversal of time, which had been a gradual process of slowing, stopping, and then rewinding, the resuming of time was immediate — like a paused video being unpaused for playback once more. The tension that had built up throughout the universe was released, like an elastic band that’s been pulled backwards.
The question, in all its pleading urgency and honest, unshielded not knowing was loosed upon the world, from grandchild to grandparent; that age-old pondering about life and existence asked by every human once they reach a certain understanding of themselves and demand to know the universe around them.
“Why are we here?”
22nd May 2020
Written for Reedsy’s weekly Short Story Contest