Literary Fiction

The Poet and the Mathematician

By Mary Anne Mohanraj · Nov 16, 2018
3,213 words · 12-minute reading time



In a far away land under the coconut palms, there was a quiet little house by the sea. It had old boards that creaked when the wind whistled through them. It had small rooms that filled with sunshine on sunny days and moonlight on cloudless nights. Sometimes the roof leaked a little rain. And it had a young poet.

I cannot tell you if she was a good poet or a bad poet — she wasn’t sure of that herself. But I do know that she was a real poet. She had been on a journey. She had visited crows and dragons, unicorns and hazel trees. She had found good paper, and a good pencil, and a good house at journey’s end. Somewhere along the way, she had become a poet.

This is not that story. This is another story altogether.

For many months, the poet had been quite content in her little house by the sea. She hadn’t bitten her lips or chewed her nails, and her pencil had skimmed lightly over the dragon-scale paper. She had filled thick books with poetry, and filled bookshelves with the books. Sometimes she had sent a poem off to her kindly aunt, or to her bright young nephew, because it pleased them to be remembered.

They rather liked her poems — but then, one’s relatives generally do like one’s poetry. They had bragged to their friends about their niece (their aunt) who was a poet. It made the poet a little uncomfortable, truth be told, when the waves carried back to her the whispers of her relatives, of their friends. Truth be told — that was the problem. Was she telling the truth?

It was an odd question. What is truth, to a poem? She wasn’t sure, but it made the poet queasy, to think that maybe her poems didn’t tell the truth. Maybe they told small white lies, out of kindness and a soft heart. Maybe they told giant whoppers, the kind that are just incredible enough to be believed. Maybe they avoided the embarrassing truth altogether, and focused on other matters entirely, so you wouldn’t notice. When the poet thought about that possibility, her breakfast kelp did somersaults in her stomach.

It really couldn’t be borne. Not for long.

She knew what to do. A small bag with a few necessities, her paper, her pencil. She had not forgotten how to travel light. She walked out the door, closed it behind her. The poet walked down the road, not looking back. She had gone out and come back once before. She knew the house would be there when she returned.

The poet walked and walked and walked and walked. She was stronger now than she had been before. She was not yet tired when she reached the crossroads, the signpost, the two crows perched atop it. She slung her bag to the ground, took a deep breath, and then another. The poet smiled up at the crows.

“Hello, Stephan. Hello, Nathan. It’s good to see you.”

The crows flew down and landed on the poet, one on each shoulder. They were heavy, but not too heavy. They were careful not to dig in with their sharp claws. They rubbed their beaks against her hair, just for a moment.

Stephan said, “What can we do for you, young poet?” His voice was loud in the poet’s ear, but not too loud.

Nathan said, “Have you lost your poetry?”

The poet shook her head, just a little. She couldn’t shake it too much, or she would dislodge her friends. “I have it safe. I have my good paper, my good pencil. I can still write poetry. That is not why I am here.”

And the crows cawed together, “Why, why?”

The poet’s smile slipped away. She looked very serious, standing there, her head tilted back and her long black hair rustling gently in the breeze. “I am looking for truth — not for me, but for my poetry. It’s quite important.”

The crows were silent for a while.

Nathan said, tentatively, “Well, the unicorn knows some truths. They are small and straightforward, but they are certainly true.”

Stephan added, “The dragon knows some truths. They are large and complex and hard to swallow. They might suit you.”

The poet shook her head. “I do not want to waste time; there are many poems inside me, and my fingers are itching to get them out. Who has the most truth? The biggest, deepest, largest number of truths?”

And the crows said, “Ah.” They rubbed their beaks against her hair one last time, then took off, flying back up to the top of the crossroads sign.

Nathan looked at Stephan. Stephan looked at Nathan. It doesn’t really matter which one said what they were both thinking. “You want the mathematician. He knows the most truths, for certain. The biggest truths, the deepest truths. Not an easy journey, though. Uphill, all the way, until you can’t go any further. That’s where you’ll find him. Better hurry — he’s learning new truths all the time, and if you don’t get there soon, you might not be able to catch up.”

The poet thanked them politely, picked up her bag, and then headed uphill. Not along the left road, not along the right road, not back downhill behind her, to where the road made its slow way to the gentle sea. Up, up, uphill. She didn’t look back. If she had, the poet might have seen a very strange sight, one that few have ever seen. A sight perhaps worth a poem in itself.

The crows were laughing, silently.

Oddly enough, the hardest part was at the beginning. The road very quickly grew steeper, rockier. Before long, it wasn’t a road at all — just rocks to clamber over, rocks that grew closer and closer together, until they weren’t really separate rocks at all. The poet was climbing a cliff.

She kicked off her shoes, so that her toes could find a better purchase in the rocks. She used a rock to chisel handholds into the cliff face, and then closed her eyes and hoped that they would hold her. Once, she had to gather her strength, her balance, and then leap up and across, holding her breath until her fingers jammed into the next crevice, until her toes dug in. The poet hung there a long time, just breathing.

Then she started climbing again. She wasn’t the sort to give up.

Eventually, the cliff gave way to rocks again, and the rocks to pebbles on a dirt road. It was easy to walk, and there were grasses that one could nibble on, if one were hungry. The poet was quite hungry. At least she wasn’t thirsty — little streams criss-crossed the hillside, always travelling down, down, down to the ravenous sea.

Once, the poet knelt for a long drink from a slightly larger stream, and when she rose again, she was almost tempted to turn around, to look back downhill, down to her little house by the sea. She had gotten rather thin — she almost felt that she could turn and launch herself out, out over the cliff. Almost believed that a soft breeze would catch her, would bear her safely home again.

She shook her head, pinched her arm, hard, and walked forward. Uphill.

It was easier to walk, but colder too. Before long, the cold was whipping through her, was turning her poor ears red and her face dry and her lips cracked. With every step, the poet shivered a little more, and she wished the crows had thought to mention that a nice wool cloak might be handy when visiting a mathematician. She wished the mathematician had the sense to live someplace warmer. She started running, running to keep the blood pumping through her. Then she tired, and slowed to a walk again. She missed the layer of fat that had been eaten away on the endless climb. She wondered if the mathematician were fat, were a great big ball of blubber, to live up on this mountaintop and not suffer. She was beginning to believe any truths he held must be thin, and cold, and not at all nourishing. She wondered, and she walked, and sometimes, she ran. It couldn’t be much further.

When she reached the very tip top of the mountaintop, she found a house. It was not a neat and sturdy house. It was a rickety shack of a house — barely big enough for a single room, with large cracks in the walls and no chimney to funnel smoke. It was the kind of house that had been clearly abandoned long ago, left to nature to tear apart, bit by bit, with wind and rain and snow and sleet. Even the sun had assisted in the house’s slow destruction, fading away any traces of what might once have been paint on the walls, leaving it all a dingy, depressing grey.

The sole window had long ago lost its glass, and the poet would have turned and walked away right then, seeing that house — if she hadn’t also seen a dark shadow of a body inside, walking back and forth, back and forth, past the open window.

She walked up to the door and knocked. There was no answer. She knocked again. No response. She knocked a third time, very loudly. The door was flung open, and a young man started shouting at her. He shouted and shouted and shouted.

She couldn’t understand a word he said.

The poet did not enjoy being shouted at. She put her hands over her ears and closed her eyes. This muffled the shouting, but didn’t stop it. She turned and took a few steps away — the man just shouted louder. She was tempted to leave entirely, to run away down the cold mountain, back to where the sun was warm and the breeze blew gently through the coconut palms. But she had not yet found the truth for which she had come searching.

The poet opened her eyes, took her hands off her ears, and walked back to the young man. She reached out and put her hand over his mouth. She said, “Be quiet.”

He stopped shouting.

She slowly removed her hand from his mouth. He didn’t shout again. He didn’t look angry — just confused. His forehead had little worry lines in it. He opened his mouth, and the poet braced for another blast of sound. But instead, what came out was almost a whisper. It didn’t hurt her ears, but she still couldn’t understand a word of it.

“I’m hungry,” the poet said. The young man still looked confused. He didn’t seem to understand the poet’s words. She felt quite worried when she realized that; without her words, what good was she? All she had were words.

But she really was quite hungry, and she could smell something food-like from inside the house. Her stomach was growling. She put her hands on it, to still the noise. At that, the young man smiled. He stepped into his dark house and beckoned for her to join him.

The poet stepped inside.

The house was utterly different inside. Oh, it was still a shack. Nothing could change that. But the rickety walls had been polished until they were utterly smooth — they gleamed. And they were covered in marks — chalk marks, the poet realized, when she reached out, compulsively, to touch one. It smeared across her fingers.

The mathematician made a small sound of distress. He reached out as if to fix the mark, or at least stop her hand for ruining more of the writing. But then he caught himself, and instead turned to a small stone hearth laid in the center of the room, to the fire crackling merrily, and the pot bubbling atop it. He ladled out a bowl and handed it to the poet. Vegetable soup — with potatoes, and beans, and onions.

The poet didn’t know what to do first. Eat the soup? Read the walls? Ask her questions? It was a difficult choice.

Her stomach settled the argument. She took a cautious spoonful of the hot soup. It was very good. Once she’d started, she couldn’t stop — she ate and ate soup, burning her mouth. The mathematician kept ladling more soup into her bowl. He watched her eat, smiling out of the corner of his mouth.

The poet ate until the chill had left her bones, until she no longer minded the odd gusts of wind that shivered through the cracks. She ate until all the soup was gone.

The poet put down her bowl and walked over to a wall. She couldn’t read the writing. Oh, there were words on it, but the words were interspersed with numbers and symbols, and some of the words seemed to be in other languages. Sometimes she wrote in another language — it crept into her poetry. But she didn’t do it very well, and she could make no sense of the words on the wall.

She turned to the mathematician, not expecting an explanation.

He said, “So you liked the soup?”

“You can talk!” The poet was startled. Of course, she had known that he could talk — she just hadn’t been able to understand him. “I can understand you!” Then she remembered her manners. “I liked the soup very much. It was delicious. Thank you.”

The mathematician smiled. “The wind is so loud here, and I mostly talk to myself. I forgot how other people talk.”

The poet realized that if she could talk to him, then she could find the answers she was looking for. She had come so far, and now they were in her reach. She was so excited that she reached out and grabbed his hands.

“Oh, please. I’m looking for truths. Do you know any?”

The mathematician looked confused. He sat down on a small rock. “What kind of truths?”

The poet sat down too. She said, “Deep truths. Big truths. Really important truths. Tell me the deepest truths you know.”

The mathematician frowned. Not in an angry way. In a thinking way. He said, hesitantly, “Well, all elliptic curves over the rationals are modular.”

The poet frowned back. “That’s a deep truth?”

The mathematician said, “It’s one of the most exciting deep truths I know. I only learned it recently.”

The poet said, “Tell me another.”

He said, “The square root of two is irrational.”

She said, “This is an important truth?”

The mathematician said, “Somebody died because of that truth. So they say.”

The poet said, “Are these hard truths?”

The mathematician said, “Very hard.”

The poet said, “Tell me an easier one.”

The mathematician said, “The geodesic flow on a compact, negatively curved manifold is ergodic.”

The poet considered for a moment. “There are some beautiful words in that truth. They would make good poetry. But it isn’t an easy enough truth for me.”

The mathematician looked frustrated. “This may take a while.”

“Can I stay?” the poet asked. “Stay for a while and try to learn some truths?”

The mathematician nodded. Then he looked concerned. “The food is a bit dull. Nothing grows here; once a month, someone comes up from the lowlands and brings me onions and potatoes and beans and milk.”

“Do you like it here?” she asked. She didn’t understand why anyone would stay where it was so cold.

“It’s quiet. I need it to be quiet,” the mathematician said. “So I can think properly.”

The poet nodded. She could understand that. “It’s fine about the food.”

The poet ate soup, and stared at the walls. She cooked sometimes, but the mathematician cooked more often. He was better at it. She mended her clothes that had gotten battered in the journey — and then mended some of his, while she was at it. She thought about math, and when she couldn’t think about math any more, she thought about poetry.

The mathematician mostly ignored her — he was busy writing new math on the walls. But occasionally he would give her a truth to ponder, such as:

The mapping class group of a surface is automatic.

Or,

The only bounded entire functions are constant.

Or,

There are infinitely many prime numbers.

The poet considered these for a long time, but they didn’t seem to be doing her much good.

The poet said to the mathematician, “I do not think these truths will help me to write true poetry, even if I do someday understand them, which doesn’t seem so likely.”

“Will you look elsewhere for truths?” the mathematician asked. He seemed a little sad at the prospect.

The poet shook her head. “I think this was a foolish quest. I think if I am to find any truth in my poetry, I can only find it by writing more of it, and thinking hard about what I write.”

The mathematician nodded. He understood. That was exactly the way it worked with mathematics.

The poet had one last bowl of soup, then picked up her bag. She looked around the walls of the shack; the wind rattled them, and poked through at them both. She looked at the mathematician, and thought he looked a little thin, despite all the potatoes and beans. Sometimes, in the wind, he shivered.

“There is one truth I have learned here,” she said. “Which is that I enjoy your company, even here in this bitterly cold shack. I think I would like it even better in the warmth, by the murmuring ocean, under the coconut palms. Will you come with me?”

“But my walls…” he said.

She said, “We can build you another shack. We can build you something bigger, with more walls.”

“And my quiet…” he said.

She said, “No one will bother you, down by the water.”

“And my potatoes and beans…” he said.

She said, “They can bring them down as well as up, can’t they? And we have fish…”

“I hate fish,” the mathematician said.

“Oh,” the poet said.

“But I like you,” he said. “Maybe I’ll give it a try.”

She smiled.

The poet and the mathematician packed their bags and walked away from the falling-down shack. They walked a very long way, until at last they were passing the crossroads. Stephan and Nathan greeted them as they walked by, “Young poet! Did you learn some truths?”

The poet grinned. “I learned that I like mathematicians. Or at least I like this one.”

The crows cawed delightedly. “We thought you might!”

The poet waved good bye, as she led the mathematician down the path, down down down to the coconut palms, to the little house by the sea, where her good desk was waiting. Her fingers were itching for pencil and paper. Later, they would eat soup, and watch the sunset, and tomorrow they would start building a house for the mathematician. Later, they would do all of these things. But right now — right now, she felt a poem inside her, slowly opening, finding its way out. She urged the mathematician to hurry. And he did.

The End.

*****

This story originally appeared in Self-publication.