By John Thomas Tuft

“Why do you suppose most ancient cultures have catastrophic flood stories?” I wondered aloud. She looked up with a sly grin. “You mean like their own version of cancel culture?” I laughed. “Or the best example of why it can be necessary at times.” Then she threw a curve ball at me. “Do you know what gravitational lensing is?” I groaned. “I thought we were just taking a walk in the fields. Is that anything like people who cannot have certain foods touching other foods on their plates?” She bent to pick some buttercups and black-eyed Susans. “No silly, that’s an over-compartmentalized mind.” A pair of cardinals alighted nearby and picked through the remains of the recently cut hay. “I love it when you use big words. So, they have separation issues?”

She punched me on the arm. “Stop. Sometimes talking to you is like watching reruns of a reality show, you know.” I stuck a piece of grass in my mouth. “When you finally realize that the people behind the cameras are pulling the strings to make up a story and make it go the way they want it to? I’d rather fall for Game of Thrones then the Apprentice any day of the week, and twice on Sundays.” She started to weave the flowers into a crown of blooms. “You’re hopeless. But think about it, old stories and astronomy and quantum physics are related.” I chewed hard on the piece of grass. “You’ve been using that there Google machine and them there internet tubes again, ain’t ya?”

She smiled demurely. “And books. Lots of books.” Tapped one finger to her temple. “And what’s in here, Preacher Boy.” Don’t know why, but I kind of like that nickname. But I’ll never admit it. Not to her, not to you, not to anybody. We finally made it to the creek—more of a wide stream with lofty ambitions, and carefully selected some smooth, flat rocks for a stone-skipping competition. After a particularly skillful display, I commented, “So is the pool of water like black matter, or the force of gravity? And the stone is light being drawn downward while it traverses space? Or is the stone time and the water gravity bending time?” She shook her head, you might even say, sadly. “No, Einstein, I was going to say if you snapped your wrist more you might get more skips and more distance.”

I tried not to look too dumb. Until she asked, “You ever heard of ORCs?” “The whales?” I asked as a stone made an inglorious plop. “No. It stands for Odd Radio Circles.” My answer, “Sounds like a bunch of old DJs sitting around drinking too much beer and singing one hit wonders,” didn’t go over too well. “You’re a mess!” she said for the thousandth time. “Lightyears distant from our world. There’s only four of them, so far, that they’ve found in the entire universe, and in just the last couple of years. They think each one could be full of entire undiscovered galaxies.” She sent a stone skipping a dozen times from one bank to the other. “What’s any of that have to do with stories?” I said, thinking I asked the obvious question.

The crown of blooms danced in the breeze atop her fair hair, as she educated me. “We all live in our own circles. We draw one around ourselves, around our family, our tribe. We draw them around our race, our religion, our politics, even our countries. We tell ourselves, and each other, the stories that justify us being inside those circles and those outside as being different. Inside our circles, we always know best. Disagree and you’re kicked out of the circle. But look up, look out,” she exclaimed, arms wide to embrace the sky. “Out there, it just keeps going, on and on. Wide open, learning more and more. Discovery, exploration. Right?”

Risking another, ‘You’re a mess,’ I said, “And…?” “Well, Preacher Boy,” she said, hands on hips, “Do we tell stories that open up our circle, enlarge our world, enrich understanding, increase our joy? Or are we telling stories that hold the circle close, enclose what we fear losing, smother expression of what is outside our circles? Are the stories we live by big enough to cause gravitational lensing? Bending light? Otherwise, it seems to me, that our circles threaten to turn into black holes.” She sighed, picked up a stone and handed it to me. “Thus endeth the physics lesson for the day. Here, try it again. More oomph.”

Words are magic, and writers are wizards. The astrophysics is up to you…