The Unrhymed Couplets of the Universe
by Sharon Shinn
Henry sipped from his morning coffee, gazing over the rim of the cup at the green
plastic ball in the middle of the kitchen table. It had not been there twenty seconds
previously. He had looked up from buttering his second piece of toast to find it
sitting jauntily on top of the real estate section of the newspaper.
Henry was eighty-two years old, retired since he was seventy, a widower since he
was seventy-six, and nothing much alarmed him or terrified him any more.
Certainly not a child's scuffed green ball, no matter how sudden its appearance. It
didn't do anything interesting for the five minutes he watched it, so he eventually
shrugged, stood up, and cleared the table. By the time he had finished rinsing out
the coffee pot and loading the dishwasher, the ball was gone.
That evening while he watched television, a fat red pillow manifested itself beside
him on the couch. It was edged with gold braid and looked like it belonged in a
living room that was much fancier than anything Henry would find comfortable.
Like the ball, it didn't stick around long. Before the next commercial break, it had
More random objects appeared at a somewhat faster rate the following day. The
first one showed up while Henry was sitting at his desk, checking emails. He
loved email. Never had to speak to a soul if you didn't feel like it, but you still
had the sense of being connected to every person you'd ever met in your entire
life, even the ones you didn't like so much. He was just typing a reply to his sister
in Florida when he glanced over to find a small glass of water sitting at his right
elbow. In the water was a thin paintbrush, and the residue of black paint had
oozed from the bristles into the liquid, turning it a foggy gray. Henry couldn't
think that these were the tools of a true artist; more likely they belonged to an old
woman daubing at a heavy piece of pressed paper or a child experimenting with
They were gone before he'd thought about it too much, but he hadn't even stood
up from the desk before the next apparition of the day arrived. It was a photo
frame, holding a picture of a laughing family of five as they posed before a
waterfall in what looked like a national park. Henry might not even have noticed
it except that it blocked the photo of Ellen that he glanced at on a fairly regular
basis. He pushed it aside carefully, in case his touch might contaminate it in some
way and make it impossible for the frame to return to its rightful place -- the way
he'd always been taught the scent of a human would contaminate a baby bird or a
wild rabbit and make its natural parents shun it forever. But he wanted to gaze at
Ellen a moment before he quit the room for the day.
The photo on his desk was his favorite picture of her, out of what must be several
hundred he had in photo albums and boxes. It showed her at a time when she was
about fifty, and she'd just started coloring her hair to keep away the gray. Her face
retained the laugh lines and character lines that had defined her so strongly, but
the dye job returned the youthful look that the aging process had started to
compromise. She was laughing, as she was laughing in most pictures. She looked
ready to jump straight out of the frame, grab his arm, and tug him down the hall,
out the door and off into some expedition. No one had ever had more energy than
Some days he still missed her so much that it took him a moment to catch up on
The photo of the strangers seemed to amuse her; at any rate, her face remained
radiant as long as that second frame stayed on his desk. She was still smiling
when it disappeared.
A box of Cracker Jacks showed up in the dining room while he was eating lunch.
During the afternoon, Henry almost tripped over a single black shoe lying in the
hallway that led to the back bathroom. The bathroom itself harbored a slim white
candle -- lit -- set in a small crystal holder. That evening, while he watched the
news, a current Time magazine appeared on the coffee table. Henry couldn't resist
picking it up and flipping through it, reading the technology report and the movie
reviews. While he held it in his hands, it vanished, leaving a faint tingle on his
fingertips. He had been in the middle of an article about the upcoming election,
and he was sorry not to get a chance to finish. He wondered if the library might
have a copy. He might walk down this afternoon and find out.
During the next three days, Henry continued to observe as small items popped into
and out of existence in every room of his house. He was starting to enjoy the
visitations, partially because they were so random that they were beyond his power
to predict. A pink teddy bear wearing an apron and missing an eye. A DVD set of
the complete first season of "Moonlighting." A book on economic theory. A
purple sweater, sized for a small woman. A handsaw. A coffee mug that said
"World's Greatest Dad." A half-eaten bagel. A live turtle, lumbering slowly
across the living room carpet. It hadn't even made it to the tile that formed the
border of the kitchen before it vanished.
"I think my house has shifted into some slippery corner of the universe where
magic is possible," he emailed to his grandson Mark on the sixth day. "It's strange
Mark wrote back that afternoon. "Sounds intriguing! Come spend Saturday with
me and tell me all about it. Carol is taking the girls off on some scouting trip and
the house will be quiet. I'll pick you up at 10:00 if that's OK."
That was always OK. Henry tried not to have favorites, but he preferred Mark out
of all his seven grandchildren. He was dark, like Ellen; like her, he had boundless
energy and inexhaustible reserves of curiosity. No story too dull, no theory too
vast, to catch Mark's full attention.
It was no surprise that the tale of the mysteriously appearing and disappearing
objects was instantly intriguing to Mark. "There's no pattern at all?" he inquired
as they sat on the couch in Mark's living room. "Food in the kitchen, clothes in
the closet, toothpaste in the bathroom?"
Henry shook his head. "None that I've been able to detect."
"Sounds when they appear and disappear? Heat, cold?"
"Don't think so."
"No limits on time of day?"
"Well," said Henry cautiously, "I don't know if any appear in the middle of the
night. They might, and I just don't see them."
Mark nodded and seemed to review something in his head. "Are you familiar with
the tenets of quantum physics?" he asked.
Henry gave him a look from under his brows. "No."
Mark made motions with his hands, as if his fingers could more gracefully explain
concepts that were too intricate for words. "It's difficult to explain, but scientists
are pretty sure that at the subatomic level, molecules and portions of molecules
really can -- well, teleport, essentially. Move from one space to another space
without actually traversing the distance. That's the quantum leap you've heard
"Like the TV show."
"Right. Well -- all right, good enough. So if electrons and protons can make
these leaps over short distances, theoretically there's nothing to stop a whole mass
of them from making the leap all at one time. Ergo, one complete, solid object
could transport itself from one fixed place to another. From my house to yours,
"Would they always go back to your house, then?" Henry said. "I mean, so far
nothing's stayed very long, but I have no way of knowing if the items are
returning to where they came from, or if they're going on to someplace else
"I don't think science tells us that."
"And why would they come to me?" Henry asked.
Mark grinned. "Maybe the universe is sending you a message."
"With turtles and boxes of Cracker Jacks? Pretty obscure message."
"I've never thought of the universe as being particularly easy to decipher," Mark
said with a laugh. His face lit up as a new thought crossed his mind. "Do you
ever get spam email?"
"Constantly," Henry said dryly.
"For a while I was getting emails with these amazingly creative phrases in the
subject line," Mark said. "This is an actual email -- I liked it so much I
memorized it -- 'Congolese crayfish abominate powdery henbane emulsion
conjecture little stuffy velour aviatrix ditto dichotomous abdomen.' Who would
think up something like that? It's the randomly generated poetry of our
technologically enabled society, I thought. The next wave of emails consisted of
words with numbers attached. Like 452 biennium and 455 infest. I decided it was
poetry being delivered one word at a time. The numbers were assembly
Henry just looked at him. "And what does this have to do with me and my strange
Mark waved his expressive hands. "The universe is sending you its own version
of poetry. A crazy kind of sonnet."
"Not enough structure for a sonnet," Henry said.
Mark grinned. "Haiku, then. All about balance."
"Free verse, I think, if it's poetry at all."
Mark leaned forward. "But here's another thought. Are the objects coming to you
or to your house? Has anything materialized around you when you were
Henry shrugged. "I don't know. This is the first time I've left the house for any
length of time since it started to happen."
Mark leaned back. "That might be your message, then."
"That you should leave the house more often. If you don't get out and stroll
around the world, the world will find a way to stroll around you."
Henry thought that over. He tried to walk a half mile or more every day. There
was a Walgreens on the corner where he could fill his prescriptions and buy a few
necessary items, and the local library was right across the street from the store.
Who needed more than books and the occasional quart of milk on a daily basis?
He generally had groceries delivered, and one of his daughters would come pick
him up any time he needed to get to a doctor or do some serious shopping. It was
true he had let the parameters of his world shrink down more than he should have.
Ellen would never have permitted such a thing to happen.
"Our little neighborhood runs a bus that'll take you down to Seaton Square,"
Henry said slowly. Seaton Square was about five miles from his house, a
pretentious but pretty shopping mall built around a central green space alive with
fountains. "Anybody can ride it, but it's mostly seniors and a few young mothers
with their babies. If you call before ten in the morning, they'll come right to your
door to pick you up."
"Maybe you ought to do that every once in a while," Mark said. "But you know
you can call me any time you need a ride. And Mom and Aunt Kelly are only
twenty minutes away."
Henry nodded. "Yeah. But I'm gonna try the bus first. That's a good idea,
Mark opened his mouth to answer, but he was interrupted by the tinny sound of a
small synthesizer playing Pachelbel's Canon. Mark grinned. "Nice ringtone," he
Henry glanced around. Sure enough, there was a small black cell phone lying on
the bookcase across the room. Henry was reasonably certain it hadn't been there
before. "Not mine," he said.
Mark's eyes lit up. "Quantum leap!" he cried, and he jumped up to run over and
get a closer look. But he was only two steps from the bookcase when the cell
phone vanished. The Canon was still playing.
Monday morning, Henry phoned the folks at the START bus (Seniors Traveling
Around "R" Town, which made him chuckle every time he saw the logo). An
hour later, he was waiting in front of his house when the perky blue and white van
pulled up in front, the logo festooned on almost every available surface. It was a
gorgeous day for October, in the low 60s and saturated with sun, and Henry was
smiling when he climbed on board.
There was only one other passenger, and he happened to know her: Amanda
Borden, who lived three blocks over. She had been in Ellen's gardening group
and book club, but she was also a loud voice in local politics, almost always
supporting the liberal causes that were unpopular in this conservative district.
Amanda was a good ten years younger than Ellen had been and possessed a similar
sort of restless energy. She had curly, shoulder-length red hair just now shading
over to gray, and a freckled face creased by years of laughter. The instant she saw
him, she waved him over.
"Henry Cline! I haven't seen you in months!" she exclaimed as he dropped into
the seat across the narrow aisle from her. "How've you been? Feeling all right?"
Ellen had always despised the fact that anyone over the age of sixty started every
conversation with a health check, but Henry was actually glad to have someone
inquire. Maybe because he liked his answer. "Good. A little trouble with my
eyes, so I don't really drive any more, but not too many aches. How about you?"
Amanda gestured down at her foot, which was wrapped in what looked like a
walking cast. Henry noticed a sporty black cane resting against her seat. "Oh, I
had bunion surgery on my right foot, so I'm not supposed to walk much or drive
with it, but I can't stand sitting in the house all day. So I've been taking the bus to
the Square every day, having a cup of coffee, and coming home again. Makes me
cheerful enough to keep from setting the neighbor's cat on fire."
That made him snort with laughter. "I'm just out for a little variety myself," he
said. "Hadn't thought about what I'd do once I got there."
"Well, come have a coffee with me. One of those frappuccinos. You just know
they've got to be horrible for you, but I'm seventy. I've been good all my life. I
think I'll get it with the extra shot of cholesterol, thank you very much."
"I don't know that you've been good all your life," he observed. "Unless you're
talking strictly diet."
That elicited a sharp crack of laughter. "I think my ex-husband would say you're
right," she agreed.
"So how are your boys? Any news?"
She opened her mouth to answer, but the words were suspended when an orange
baseball cap suddenly materialized on Henry's lap. Amanda stared at it a moment,
then lifted her eyes to his face. She seemed as intrigued as she was astounded.
"Have you been practicing sleight of hand?" she ask. "Because that trick is very
Henry felt a faint smile come to his mouth. He lifted up the hat and fitted it on his
head. "I'd tell you, but you wouldn't believe me."
"Tell me anyway."
"Things have just started appearing. Hanging around for a few minutes, then
disappearing again. I don't know where they come from. I don't know where they
go. It's the damnedest thing." He peered at her from under the bill of the cap. "I
kind of like it, though."
"I love it," she replied breathlessly. "But -- these items are real? You can touch
them? I could touch them?"
For an answer, he handed over the cap and she put it on her own jaunty curls. "It
sure feels real," she said, digging in her purse and coming out with a mirror. "Ew
-- bad color for me, though. Now, if I had a green hat, I --"
Before she could finish her sentence, the hat had disappeared. Her eyes were huge
as they stared back at her reflection, and then over at Henry.
"Told you," he said.
Her face was bright as an Easter sunrise. She exclaimed, "This is the most
charming thing that's happened to me for weeks!"
Henry had no other plans for Seaton Square, so he paced slowly alongside
Amanda as she hobbled around, leaning on her cane. They looked in shop
windows, exclaimed at the prices of the merchandise, shook their heads over what
passed for fashion nowadays, and talked, by Henry's strict count, to four thousand
strangers who responded happily to Amanda's blinding smile.
"I think I finally understand what people mean when they say things like, 'Oh,
Amanda, she's never met a stranger,'" he told her as they sat at the window table
of a Starbucks and watched the crowd saunter past.
Amanda laughed. "Well, you know, you can be friendly or you can be grouchy,
and it always seems to take less effort to be friendly. Too much work to be mean-spirited."
Henry sipped at the vanilla frappuccino Amanda had insisted he order. He had
thought it was too sweet until she told him to think of it as ice cream, and then he
liked it a lot. "I don't think of myself as grouchy, exactly, but I find it easier not to
be drawn into casual interactions with people I've never met and am unlikely to
"I get a little kick every time anyone smiles at me, even a stranger. Sometimes
especially a stranger. Especially a stranger with a dour look on his face. Yes, like
that one!" she said. "I like to see if I can win him over."
"How often do you fail?"
She actually stuck her tongue out at him and tossed her red hair. "Not as often as
you'd like to think."
They were there long enough to decide that second cups of coffee were in order.
Henry fetched them, since Amanda's foot was aching. "Our barista is named
Tiffany," he told her as he sat down again. He just wanted to say the word barista,
which he had seen on a sign over the counter. "She seems too young for a name
like that. Shouldn't she be a Haley or an Emma instead?"
"And what about all those girls named Tiffany?" Amanda demanded. "What
happens to them when they're eighty-five? Amanda was a pretty name when I was
a teenager, and it's a classic name now that I'm a grandmother. But what happens
to all these Tiffanys and Crystals when they get old?"
"Maybe they'll never get old," Henry said.
"Everybody gets old."
He shrugged and gave her a lurking smile. "Lotta magic at work in the universe,"
he said. "Maybe these girls will be suspended in time. Get the right name when
you're born, you never have to age."
Amanda rolled her eyes, but then she seemed to think it over. She sat forward in
her chair, her face animated. "Wouldn't that be something," she said. "There's a
phrase people use, when they're trying to be sarcastic, when they're trying to
belittle something someone else has done. They say, 'Wonders never cease.' But
I love that phrase. Think about it! The Grand Canyon. Heart surgery. Land
rovers on Mars. They're all amazing. They're all wonders. And there are new
wonders being dreamed up every day. So I don't know, maybe you're right.
Maybe some magic will come down and touch some people and they'll never get
old. That would be pretty awe-inspiring." She gestured with her right hand, as if
trying to conjure words out of the air.
Instead, a vase of yellow roses materialized in the middle of the table. There were
twelve of them, and they exuded a subtle but insistent scent. Amanda laughed in
delight, and then made a great show of leaning forward, closing her eyes, and
inhaling deeply. Henry's attention was caught by Tiffany and her fellow baristas,
who stood slack-jawed behind the serving counter, staring in their direction.
But his gaze went right back to Amanda when she opened her eyes and smiled at
him. "As I was saying," she said. "Wonders never cease."
Tuesday, Henry took the START bus to Seaton Square again, accompanied once
more by Amanda. This time they ate hot fudge sundaes at a local sweet shop and
argued about who should run for mayor. He skipped Wednesday so he could have
lunch with Kelly, and Thursday, so he could putter in the yard on an unexpectedly
warm day. But on Friday he called for another pickup, and Amanda was on the
bus when it arrived.
"When's that foot going to be healed?" he asked as he helped her down the steps
at Seaton Square. "Is it getting better?"
She grimaced, less from pain than irritation, he thought. "Better, but slowly," she
said. "Can't wait till I can drive again. I'll take you on a road trip. Maybe we'll
go all the way downtown someday."
It was too cool to walk around for long, so soon they were back in Starbucks,
nibbling on biscotti, which Henry didn't like, and drinking latte, which he did.
"Good thing my pension check arrived today," he said as he fetched their second
lattes. "Man could go broke drinking this stuff."
Amanda took her first sip as she took every first sip, her eyes closed in a sensual
swoon. "Oh, but that's good stuff." She took another swallow, then asked, "Any
new manifestations at your house since I've seen you last?"
He nodded. "Couple of books. An electric bill. A glass of wine, half-full. A
razor, covered with shaving cream. That must have been an interesting morning, I
thought. Man's half through shaving his face and he sets the razor down for a
second -- and it's gone. Where'd it go? Did he knock if off the sink? He goes
out into the bedroom and asks his wife, 'Did you take my razor?'"
"Why would I take your stupid razor?" Amanda chimed in. "You're always
blaming me when you lose anything."
Henry grinned. "And he goes back to the bathroom, and there it is, just where he
left it. He's probably still confused, two days later."
"Well, there was a spider in the kitchen yesterday. I squashed it with a paper
towel, but when I threw the paper towel away, it was clean. So, I don't know, did
the smashed body teleport back to somebody else's house? That would be pretty
weird, I think."
"Who killed this bug and didn't wipe it off the wall?" Amanda said, once more
slipping into the part of the annoyed woman of the house. "Honestly, don't you
kids know how to keep anything clean?"
"What do you think --" she started to say, and then stopped with a gasp, staring
down at the table. A woman's ring was lying right next to her coffee cup. It was
white gold or silver, and its ornate filigree setting held a diamond that looked to be
half a carat or more. "Henry," she breathed.
"Somebody's going to be missing that awfully fast," he said.
She snatched it up. "It's mine. Henry, it's my mother's wedding ring. I lost it
more than ten years ago. Henry, where did you find it?"
He was both pleased and troubled, because of course he had had no knowledge of
the ring's existence and no way to direct the magic to fetch it. "Don't ask me," he
said. "I don't have a clue. Look, Amanda, this stuff never stays around for long.
Don't get too attached to it."
"I know, I know," she said. She slipped the ring onto her right hand and began
rummaging in her purse with her left hand. All the while she kept staring at the
diamond, turning her fingers this way and that. "But just to see it again -- after all
these years -- oh, I can't tell you how happy this makes me."
She pulled a cell phone out of her bag, flipped it open one-handed, and held it in
front of her as if it were a magnifying glass. "Is that a camera phone?" Henry
She nodded. "I'm taking a picture of my hand with the ring on it. I didn't even
have that much when I lost it." There was a tiny flare of light, and then Amanda
looked up with a smile. She used his name for the fourth time in about thirty
seconds. He thought she must like saying it. "Henry, thank you so much. Even
just for this glimpse."
He was a little uncomfortable, but he also felt a certain satisfaction at the thought
that he had been able to give Amanda such a gift. "Anything to oblige a lady."
She put the phone away and kept studying her hand. "I wanted to use it as my
wedding band, but Carter had already bought me a diamond, and I couldn't tell
him I didn't like it. I wore my mother's ring on my right hand for years. After I
got divorced, for a few years I was too depressed to wear any rings. They just felt
wrong on my hands. But then when I finally got over that stupid feeling, this ring
was missing. I looked for it everywhere. I even called Carter and accused him of
stealing it. Of course he denied it." She shrugged. "Not one of our more civilized
"Maybe he did steal it," Henry said. "And the magic has stolen it from him. At
least for a while."
She wriggled her fingers again. "But it's mine for a moment."
In fact, the ring stayed on Amanda's hand for the rest of the day. They left
Starbucks about half an hour later, the ring still in place, and it didn't vanish as
they meandered through a gift shop or waited for the START bus to arrive. She
was still admiring it during the whole ride home.
"I wonder what the statute of limitations is," Amanda said. "You know, 'If it
doesn't disappear within twenty-four hours, it has now solidly made its place in a
new reality.' I wonder when I can be sure it's mine to keep."
"I don't know if it works that way," Henry said. He shrugged. "Even life doesn't
work that way. You can never count on keeping anything, or anyone, one
heartbeat past the present moment."
Amanda sighed, and then, as the bus jolted to a halt in front of Henry's house, she
smiled. "A lesson we've all had to learn over and over again," she said. "But
thanks for teaching it to me again in such a pretty way."
She waved as he climbed down the steps, waved again as he glanced back from
the front door. Once inside the house, he didn't know what to do with himself,
and for the rest of the afternoon he proved too restless to settle. So he worked out
in the garden for a while, despite the chill, then spent some time cleaning out
boxes in the basement. Right before it got dark, he walked down to the library to
check out a couple new books, but after he got home, he didn't feel like sitting still
and reading them.
The START bus didn't run on weekends, so he wouldn't have a chance to see
Amanda again until Monday. He could call her, he supposed, and ask if the ring
had disappeared yet, but he didn't know her number. He wondered how long it
would stay on her hand before the magic reclaimed it. Or maybe this was the end
result of magic; maybe the universe had transported her ring somewhere else for
ten long years and only today remembered to return it. He would have to ask
Mark if such a thing were possible.
He was sitting over dinner that night, trying to get interested in one of the library
books, when a photograph appeared next to his glass of water. He picked it up
and studied it for a long time. It was the last picture he'd ever taken of Ellen, two
weeks before she had the aneurysm that killed her without warning. She was
heading out the door, maybe to meet one of their daughters at the mall, and she
was dressed in a bright red sweater. She had paused at the door to wave as she
left, and he had snapped the shot to use up the last of a roll of film. Naturally, she
was smiling. She looked healthy, she looked cheerful, she looked like she would
live for another twenty years.
He had always hated this picture, because it was so obvious that she was saying
goodbye. I'm on my way now. You can't come with me. But don't worry about
me -- I'm happy. I'm always happy. He had placed the picture in the bottom of a
bag of Ellen's clothes that he donated to some charity, because he couldn't bear to
throw it away and he couldn't bear to keep it.
He wondered where it had been all these years, waiting for the right moment to
come back to him.
Goodbye, Henry. I'm on my way now. Be happy.
He was pretty sure he finally understood what the universe was trying to tell him.
A poem, indeed, sprawling and messy though it was. He laid down the photo and
went searching for the phone book.