The blind man sits on his stoop listening to the jets whining over the river and the gurgling of water as it filters through oyster-laden rocks. He lights his pipe and he listens to the distant drone of ships returning or going out to kill people and animals and oceans, to the slow turning of brass propellers and the sound of nets being cast and reeled in through an oil slick harbor. He can tell how far away a ship is by the space between wake breakers as they slap his shore.
When he was a young man with eyes that processed light, he would stand on that shore, his balance easy, his toes squeezing the algae varnish, his fingers brushing the brittle reeds, and he would look around at his piece of the world between the silent, slow death of the Shinano delta and the overturned hull of a whaling ship, and he would call to his wife, “Come, look! See what a paradise we’ve made for ourselves!”
He calls to her now for the first time in a decade, knowing she will not answer, knowing she was the piece that mattered most. It seems right to cry, but he cannot.
In the juncture between blinks, the lifespan of a falling tear, he holds an image in his mind, in the place where eyes close and shadows fall and suns go down on the horizon. It is a girl standing barefoot on the river, dressed like a fisherwoman, balancing on a slab of buoyant wood. She rows slowly toward him, and as she does, the world behind her is erased, disappears.
“What are you doing?” asks the blind man to the goddess.
“Be quiet,” she tells him, wiping stray stars like salt from her skin. “I’m putting you to sleep.”
“But I’ve only just woken up.”
“I made a mistake,” she says, sounding frantic and tired. “I made the world out of abundance, of things I had too much of. But I was alone when I did it. I made the universe out of my emptiness.”
“But how can emptiness make?” he asks.
“I don’t know. I wanted it so badly, to make. I felt so full of ideas that I overflowed. But even in that plenitude there was a lack. And that’s why I have to start over.”
“But I’m here now,” says the man, trembling before the girl. “My life stretches across nine decades and six continents. I’ve survived two atom bombs, saved forty species of animals from extinction, and loved one woman. And I have only just awoken. I do not want to die.”
The goddess seems to falter, looking more like a little girl. Her paddle brushes the reeds and does not erase them. “But it’s wrong,” she says. “The most abundant ingredient in life is loneliness. It was a slip of the hand, a mislabeled bottle of cosmic magic. It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Let me start over.”
“You can’t start over,” says the man. “What’s made is made.”
“It can be unmade.”
“No. To see you unmake these things that hurt me and healed me and gave me life—it is too much. It is better that it is, that it continues to be.”
“You’ve lived so long in my world,” she says, perceiving every instant of his life. “I’ve only lived outside it. What is it like?”
“I can tell you this—” The old man struggles from his chair and walks out across the rust-stained beach to the water. His feet make small ripples. “I have lived and suffered like the rest. And I have loved. And I have felt enough of joy and passion to fear their loss, and enough of sorrow to dread its coming again. But I have lived, and that one thing is mine, and I have shared a life, and that too is mine. And no one will ever walk quite the same path on this earth.”
As he speaks, the goddess withdraws, the current strengthens under his feet, and he feels her pulse in a handful of silt. He follows her downriver, splashing through the shallows, and when his feet fail him, swimming with the current. He is moving impossibly fast, and still she grows faint, always keeping a gap between them, the distance between thoughts. And at last he comes to where the river meets the sea and he stands for a moment on an oyster reef.
The world is far behind him. And ahead, he sees without seeing, something new and unknown and drenched in light. He feels a hand brush his cheek, as soft as a bird’s wing, and hears the sound of a paddle slipping into the water. “Come,” says the goddess, and her voice trembles with unutterable love. “See what a paradise you have made for yourself.”