Thursday 18 August 2011

Footprints: Stripes of the Strange

Continuing with this series of reprints from my town's illustrious glossy quarterly magazine, Footprints (warning: bloated link), and its regular offerings of Diet Cheeseburger Brown, here is a tale that ties in with The Secret Mathematic.

Let's see how:

Stripes of the Strange

Our town has wonders. There are those we all know about and those that are forgotten. My job is to find them, to locate and showcase the little glorious corners that make Innisfil special, those we might miss in all the rush and change.

Honestly, I thought I'd be writing about ambitious flower gardens and antique waterwheels or moments of the morning when the sun's not quite up. Instead, the truth is much more weird.

I received a hot tip from my wife's hairdresser that there's an old Indian living in Lefroy who knows these lands better than anyone. I decided to meet him. Despite the cold he was waiting for me on his porch when I pulled up in my very masculine butter-yellow sub-compact car. His expression was inscrutable, his face burnished, his features weathered and hard. "Are you from Footprints?" he called.

I nodded.

"Come on in."

After fighting my way out of my parka I followed him through a beaded doorway into a modest sitting room with cushions on the floor surrounding a round table. The far wall was dominated by a floor-to-ceiling mural of an elephant-headed Hindu deity. He caught me staring. "You don't like Ganesh?"

"Ganesh is super. I guess I've just been working under a misapprehension."

He squints. "Beneath a what?"

"I had just assumed, stupidly, that you were the other kind of Indian. You know?"

"A Pakistani?"

"Um. Listen, do you mind if we start the interview?"

Dr. Vedesh Prajapati of Lefroy does indeed know the Innisfil lands better than anyone: he's a geologist with a sub-specialty working as a stratigraphy consultant for the ROM's archaeology wing. He cut his teeth up in Sudbury working for Inco, but for the past decade he's been focused on Innisfil, both professionally and personally. He’s currently the principal investigator on the excavation of a set of pre-Confederation aboriginal sites along the Cook's Bay shoreline.

He served me Indian chai tea. I asked him if he knew something special about Innisfil. At this his eyes lit up, and he wagged his index finger in my face as he grinned. "This is what you’ve been burning to ask me all along. Admit it!"

"I said that on the phone, when I called. Yes."

"I knew it!" he said, gesturing at me to follow him into his home office. We stopped in front of a large, detailed map of Simcoe with the various kinds of soil marked in colours: sandy loam, gravel loam, marly clay, marly silty clay loam…

I told him it was pretty.

He smacked his hand into his face and then dragged it down slowly. He asked after my geological qualifications, which I admitted begin and end with mostly forgetting some trivia about glaciers. "An education is very, very important, young Mr. Brown," he admonished me. I hung my head.

The point, he explained, is the splatter of soil irregularities he'd marked in green highlighter. An irregularity he defined as a zone of soil he couldn't explain via the local geologic history. "Why do we find an isolated stripe of grey non-calcareous gravel outwash here in southern Stroud?" he asked. "Does it make any kind of sense at all?"


"Of course not!" he exclaimed, slamming his fist on the desk and making a statuette of Hanuman the monkey-god fall over. He began to lecture me about kinds of moraine deposits left behind by retreating glaciers but stopped when he saw my eyelids flutter. "You're clearly an uncomplicated man," he decided, "so I'll make this very, very simple."

"Okay," I agreed, pen poised over my notebook.

He switched off the light. The green highlighter markings on his map glowed in the dark. The old Indian's voice was a rasp in the shadows: "When the rest of the map is removed, the arrangement is plain. What does it look like to you?"

I squinted. "One of those Rorschach ink-blot tests?"

He sighed. "Fine. What does the ink-blot look like?"

"It looks like waves in a when ripples meet ripples."

The light snapped back on. I found myself only inches away from Dr. Prajapati's wide, excited eyes. "Exactly!" he cried dramatically. "It's an interference pattern."

I blinked. "Interference in what?"

"Probability," he said heavily.

He went on to tell me how he believes there is a fault in the world that runs through our town, and it manifests itself as imperfections in the distribution of likelihood. In other words, a fissure in reality in which the strange is common.

"It's subtle," he claimed, "but cumulative. Like the patterns of iron-filings in sand shown with a magnet, patterns of probability show up in the distribution of different topsoils. From West Gwillimbury to Barrie, there are stripes of unusual composition. Centred here."

I paused, mulling it over. "Do you think it’s a public safety issue?" I asked. "I mean, like quicksand or something?"

He shook his head. "Let me put this into terms even you can understand, Mr. Brown." He reached into his pocket and extracted a quarter. "If I flip this coin, what are the odds it will land heads or tails?"

"I can never remember -- is heads the moose or the Queen?"

The odds, Dr. Prajapati explained slowly, are exactly fifty-fifty: a fair flip is just as likely to come up heads as tails. Simple math shows that the odds of getting heads twice in a row is one in four; the odds of three in a row is one in eight, and so on. It's a regular pattern. When chance itself is disrupted, however, the pattern changes.

"Changes how?" I asked.

He pointed to the soil irregularities highlighted on the map. "Go to one of these places. They shift over time, but quite gradually. You'll know when you’ve found one, because coins flipped there during the day always come up heads, and coins flipped during the night always come up tails."

I frowned. "Any coin?"

He nodded. "Any coin. Try it. You'll see. The world is bent in those places, and likelihood is skewed. You wanted something special about Innisfil -- there you have it, Mr. Brown."

I took a shuddering breath. "I was thinking more along the lines of quaint picnic spots, not unholy slashes through spacetime." I paused nervously. "Is this going to affect my property value?"

Dr. Prajapati tossed me the coin. "Just try it," he urged.

Are there zones of improbability in Innisfil, or is Dr. Parajapati crazy? I intend to find out. Armed with a photocopy of his map and a pocketful of quarters, I'm going surveying for the strange.


Nick said...

I must say, CBB, that you play a most delightful "uncomplicated man".

SaintPeter said...

"I had just assumed, stupidly, that you were the other kind of Indian. You know?"

"A Pakistani?"

I laughed out loud. Way to subvert expectations.

Is this indeed continued in a future chapter? It does seem like something straight out of The Secret Mathematic. I kept expecting for an Indian with prosthetic limbs to show up.

Anonymous said...

It's amusing to make your "self" seem dumb in the story while using decidedly more sophisticated language to report the whole thing... Plus it's the right length for the seeming-dumb thing, which usually wears when done for a long time.

Tolomea said...

I'm immediately given to wonder if the effect could be exploited for personal gain somehow.

Sheik Yerbouti said...

By, say, an Idiot? Perchance wearing a mask of some sort?

That was a fun excursion.

Cheeseburger Brown said...

Anonymous and Sheik and Nick and so on,

In Idiot's Mask I think the conceit worked because there was, in the end, a reasonable explanation for the uneven vocabulary levels demonstrated in different parts of the narrative (partly because Idiot was educated, but mostly because he was simulated).

In this case we have less of a narrative conceit and more of a straight up fact that just because I can fling a word or two around doesn't mean I'm not basically a moron.

Because, really, I am.

Cheeseburger Brown

Cheeseburger Brown said...


It's a bit more pointed in context. While the white folk around here have successfully driven off most of the aboriginal people (Indians comma feather), there has been a recent influx in our small town of brown people from south-east Asia (Indians comma dot), leading to no small amount of culture shock on both sides of the divide.

Cheeseburger Brown

Cheeseburger Brown said...


Wanna bet?


Tolomea said...

> Wanna Bet?

That's no going to work for long before some aggravated victim beats you to a pulp.

I was thinking more honest stuff, maybe some sort of mechanical process that can exploit the effect. For example the second law of thermodynamics is firmly rooted in probability, if you subvert probability perpetual motion might become possible.

There's a similar question around the mental powers often featured in fiction. If you could have any one power what would you go with? For my part I'd want something I could exploit for personal gain with minimal risk of ending up a tenant of a cell or lab. My current bet is something that enables mineral prospecting.

Big t said...

As I Native American Aboriginal(Indians comma feather) I immediately thought 'oh boy, here we go again', I should have know that some kind of trickery would have been involved with you.

Sheik Yerbouti said...

Tolomea: Self-healing... or adamantium claws?

Mark said...

Liked this one a lot. I hope the local readers realize how fortunate they are.