When I was a boy I spent my summers at my grandparents’ house out in the country.
Those times were when I found my living conditions to be most suited to my temperament. I have always been that solitary figure wandering off into the distance with no seeming purpose or direction. The farm suited me well for it was the only man-made structure within sight but for the worn road that lied some ways in front of the property and the small wooden bridge beyond it, which was the means for passing over a small stream that wound its way through the plain and down into the forest. There were smatterings of trees here and there on the plain but it was flat otherwise, though it sloped down in a gentle way until it reached the woods.
I spent my days back then wandering along the side of the stream, following the flow of the water to see where it would take me. I set out each day with the naive and impossible mission of finding the place where the stream ended. I knew little about geology then and didn’t have any notions whatsoever about what I would find at the terminal point. It didn’t matter very much because there was always some distraction along the way that prevented me from going very far. Here or there among the pebbles in the stream would be a shinier or smoother one, or one coloured in a peculiar way, essentially demanding that they be made into a collection. I had no choice but to oblige them.
Grandpa assisted me in the endevour by building me a shelf filled with many compartments arranged into a grid to be used for whatever sorting system I chose to employ. I decided to pick the most average pebble I could find and use it as a basis for my system. It went into the very centre of the grid. Horizontally, I sorted by smoothness. Pebbles that were smoother than my reference pebble would go to the left of it and pebbles that were rougher would to go to the right. The vertical ordering was by shade. Lighter pebbles were up on higher shelves and darker pebbles were down on lower shelves.
And so the days went. Most of them were spent searching among the stream, but at times there were other distractions: trees to climb, rabbits to chase, rocks to flip over in search of treasure.
When the evenings came I would run back to the house in time for dinner. Those meals seemed like feasts to me, with Grandma heaping potatoes and chicken and gravy by the shovelful onto my plate. Grandpa explained that Grandma loved to cook but the two of them didn’t eat as much nowadays so whenever I was around she took that opportunity to make extravagant meals and stuff me full of food. I didn’t mind because the food was delicious.
After dinner Grandpa always went outside for a cigarette. He had been a heavy smoker for decades but eventually had been able to cut down to that single cigarette a day. He remained that way until the end. Grandma never let me go outside with him when he smoked.
My favourite part of the day came after Grandpa had finshed his cigarette. He would come in to the living room and would sit on his favourite chair, an ugly, faded thing the colour of a blueberry, and he’d read to me as I sat on the rug and sorted the day’s treasures. At first the books he read to me had been of various genres but over time Grandpa intuited that I had a preference for fantasies. Looking back now, I suppose he figured this out by observing how often I would stop playing with my pebbles to focus all my attention on an exciting part of the story.
There were nights when Grandpa would not read to me because he had a visitor. The visits did not happen often but when they did there was a great weight about them as if they were vitally important.
The first time that I was there on a night when the visitor came I got scared. Grandpa was outside smoking and I had just dumped my little sack of pebbles onto the rug in the living room when I saw Grandma come rushing through to stand near the front door. I had never seen her like this before so I was taken aback by the way she was standing there looking tense and nervous. She saw me staring and smiled a forced smile at me just as the door opened and Grandpa walked back in. He opened the door all the way and I could see a tall man standing behind him.
The visitor was unlike any man I had ever seen. He was very tall and very thin and had big eyes set deep in a pale face. When he saw me sitting on the rug his thin lips twitched slightly and I became very frightened. All I could do was smile nervously.
“Son,” said Grandpa, “This is Maxwell.”
The tall man crossed the distance between us, walking in a stilted, unsure sort of way, and stood before me with his arm outstretched. I stood up and shook his hand, remembering my manners despite the fear that filled me. His hand felt soft and fragile and smooth, and it squeezed mine very gently. I found I could not look into Maxwell’s eyes for very long.
“You can call me Max,” he said, his voice a droning monotone.
“I’m Jake. Nice to meet you.”
Grandma came up beside me and put her arms around my shoulders pulled me away gently. She leaned down to assure me that Max was a friend and I needn’t be afraid but I didn’t have to stay in the living room if I didn’t want to. I could take my pebbles into the kitchen and sort them out there. I told her I would stay and she smiled and went into the kitchen herself to make coffee.
Taking my usual place on the living room rug, I saw Grandpa unlock an old dresser and take out an antique chessboard. He carried it with extreme care and placed it on the coffee table in front of his chair. I saw that there were chess pieces on it arranged in what was the middle of a game. Max sat on the chair across from Grandpa and studied the board.
“It is your move, Daniel,” he said.
And so it went through the years. The visitor would come two or three times each summer and each time he and Grandpa would sit in the living room and continue the same game of chess. I noticed early on that they hardly ever made any moves, but instead most of the time they only talked and drank their coffee. Eventually I became less afraid of Max, though his eyes never ceased to make me uneasy. Now and then he would turn to me and ask about my pebble collection. I would do my best to describe notable new additions and he would twitch his lips appreciatively and insist that he would have to have a look at the collection one day. It was just a formality though for he never actually did end up seeing it.
The conversations between Max and my Grandpa were on various topics and they were often fascinating to me. Sometimes their conversations were about practical matters: the distribution of wealth around the world, how we take care of our sick, national borders and warfare. Other times they talked about ideas that were of a more philosophical nature, such as whether we existed only inside a simulation. This last idea drove me crazy for years because they ended up agreeing that if a simulation of the universe were possible, then it would be almost certain that we are inside one. I have only recently come to understand why this is so after many a headache.
One of the conversations that stands out in my mind had to do with euthanasia. It had been raining all day so I’d remained indoors reading a book. When evening came and with it the visitor, I was near the end of the story. It would have been the first book that I’d finish in a single sitting if it hadn’t been for the fact that I kept peeking over the pages to watch Max and Grandpa as I listened in on the conversation.
“A horse is put down when it is injured beyond repair,” Max said.
Grandpa took off his glasses and rubbed his hand over his forehead and his thin, white hair. He thought about this for a long time while staring at the chess pieces in front of him. He frowned for a moment then moved a black piece before sitting back in his chair.
“There are several problems with that statement, Max,” he said. “First, it isn’t clear how we can decide what is ‘beyond repair’ or who has the right to make that judgement.”
Max nodded. “But one of your philosophers made the statement ‘Do to others as you would have them do to you.’ You kill horses to end their suffering without ever asking if you have that right, and so you would have the same done to you.”
It was clear to me that they weren’t really talking about horses.
Once I asked Grandma who Maxwell really was. I was sitting at the kitchen table in the middle of a sunny morning eating a slice of pie while she moved about wiping counters and putting dishes away.
“He is a very important visitor,” Grandma said. “He’s come from a long way away to find out more about us. Not about us out here but about the whole world.”
I thought about this for a while and wondered why Max came to Grandpa instead of going to the library. That is what I was always told to do back then when I needed to figure something out for school or just for plain curiousity. I asked Grandma about this and she laughed as she told me the reason.
“This is where he landed,” she said. “Right out in that plain out front and he came straight to the house in the middle of the night. Daniel went right out to him and said hello and they’ve been friends ever since. Well, as much as you can be friends with someone who can decide the fate of the entire world.”
When I asked Grandpa about this he told me not to worry about it too much. That it was a game they were playing, really, and he was sure he was winning. The next time Max visited, I paid close attention to the pieces on the chessboard and found that I disagreed. It was clear that Max was on the offensive and Grandpa was doing his best to just hang on. I was sure that he had told me he was winning only so that I wouldn’t worry.
The second to last time I saw the visitor he made me cry.
I was in my usual place sorting pebbles and listening to the conversation when I heard something I had never heard before. Max’s voice had a quiet anger in it. Grandpa had just finished saying that despite all the evils in the world there was still a lot of good in it.
“What comfort does all that good mean to a creature, human or otherwise, who is suffering?” Max said. He then proceeded to describe in great detail the life of a single human being who, from his birth, came to know nothing but misery. Born into war, he had been well acquainted with hunger and death and illness by the time he was old enough to be kidnapped and forced to take arms as a child soldier. And so the story went, with evil after evil befalling the child until he knew murder and, in time, his own death.
“That is just one story, Daniel,” said Max. “One person who suffered all his life and your world is full of them. Would you like to hear more?”
Without waiting for an answer, he continued with miserable story after miserable story. I sat there staring in horror as I listened, and as he went on tears streamed out from my eyes and my heart felt like a giant gaping hole that was threatening to swallow me up. A sharp pain started on my side and great sobs built up until they wracked my entire body. I stood and ran out of the living room to my own and threw myself into my bed and lied there for a long time crying for all the suffering in the world.
Eventually both my grandparents came into my bedroom and Grandma held onto me while Grandpa stroked my hand. They did not say anything for a long while until finally my Grandpa spoke to me softly.
“Thank you, Jake,” he said.
I did not see Maxwell again until after Grandpa died. I was back at the old house some time after the funeral visiting Grandma. I was older then, studying economics in university. Grandma had gone to her room for a nap and I was wandering the old house remembering the old man. My old pebble collection that was still where I had left it under the bed in my old bedroom. As I felt through the collection I found that I was able to remember a special pebble here or there like it was an old friend. The reference pebble in the middle was the most familiar of all as I had looked at it and touched it every time I sorted the newcomers.
I picked up the reference pebble and put it in my pocket.
I went to the living room. Grandma had given me the key that opened the dresser where Grandpa had kept his chessboard and the pieces. I unlocked it and slid the drawer out slowly and carefully. The black king was lying on its side.
“Daniel played a good game,” a voice said behind me. I turned and saw Maxwell standing there. I had not heard him come in. He looked exactly the same as he always had but his voice was subtly different now. It was not as monotone as it had been.
“He lost,” I said. “Does that mean the world ends?”
Maxwell’s lips twitched. His eyes still made me uneasy so I found my hands finding their way into my pockets. My right hand wrapped itself around the reference pebble.
“Chess wasn’t the game we were playing, Jake,” he said. “Daniel won the real game the night you ran away crying. I’m sorry about that, Jake. I did not mean to upset you.”
“It’s okay, Max,” I said. “That was a long time ago…”
“Yes,” he said. “Jake, do you want to know his final move?”
I nodded. I noticed that Grandma had come out of her room and was watching us. She saw me looking at her and smiled a warm, comforting smile.
Max said, “When you left the room that night Daniel turned to me and said this: ‘The world can be an evil place, it’s true, yet a boy may still gather its pebbles.'”