A v ~A by James Tadd Adcox

One of two things must happen: Either they will reach the lighthouse or they will not reach the lighthouse. If ~a, then not a; if a, then not ~a.

What an amazing thing to claim, as her father did, in the non-existence of God. What a peak of human progress and self-assurance to have reached! And yet her father spent all day asking himself “What is a table,” and considering the table, and going back to look at the table afresh, and wondering whether a table were any sort of thing at all, and coming in the end to doubt the table while being skittish of his own doubt. How much clearer God was for her father than a table!

But in order for them to reach the lighthouse so many other things must be the case. Her sister must bring the sandwiches and her father must find the fisherman and his son and the wind must pick up and her brother must catch the wind in the sail and the wind must continue. They must not have storms or else heroically sail through the storm; they must cling to the mast or else swim heroically towards the lighthouse and drag themselves heroically ashore. And how many other things must happen or not happen for them to reach the lighthouse! How many things must happen or not happen for them to fail to reach the lighthouse! Either possibility seemed to open a thousand spiraling universes in her mind. Meanwhile here she was, her body, her arm lazing over the side of the boat, trailing through the water. Her father reading. Her brother manning the sail. The fisherman spitting, the fisherman’s son fishing. And all around them a thousand universes, spiraling, unresolved.

And yet how long have they been out here on the water in this state between reaching the lighthouse and not reaching the lighthouse? Is it possible that it’s only been a single morning? Her father asked her earlier whether she knew her cardinal directions, and now she asks herself: Is the sun in the west or the east? Was it previously on this side of the boat or this side?

It’s impossible that they stay out here forever in this in-between state. Either they reach the lighthouse or they give up, turn back. It’s late now; the trip is taking longer than expected. The wind—the wind hasn’t been in their favor. It would be far easier to turn around, and yet each time she starts to think this is the case, a moment of luck: the sail fills, the fisherman nods approvingly, her father’s face (still looking down at his book) brightens.

The fisherman’s son: browned, lines already forming around his sun-slit eyes, though he was young, clearly young, perhaps her age, perhaps a year or two younger. Long hard muscles prowling underneath his arm like clever animals. Long hard muscles looking friendly and dangerous, both. He wears them unselfconsciously, as though he could shrug out of them. He pulls a fish from the water, cuts a slice from it for bait, throws it back, gasping. Looks at her.

“They don’t feel anything, do they?” she says. He smiles at her. His smile says, who cares if they do.

She is imagining the story to herself: the storm, clinging to the mast, the fisherman’s son… The two of them making it, alone, to some previously unknown island… The only survivors. Except then the story bifurcates, it is only her; now it is her and the old fisherman; her and her father; her and the ghost of her mother, pleasant, wise, guiding her in her new life on the island, eat this, do not eat this, you will be safe if you sleep here… She has tried writing it before, the story of their trip to the lighthouse, but each time she does the details begin to multiply, the story becomes confused. She never wants to write a single story; she wants to write every version of the story, all the ways it might twist and fork… Just as she has never yet been able to quite believe that she only gets this one life, that she cannot follow a particular decision down a ways to see where it goes and then follow the other decision for a little while. Her father and her mother were both agreed that she was willful and artistic. These were the words they used for her, this was the destiny they saw before her.

Just as she never quite believes that she will not be able, at some point, to live this same life through as a man, as a nun, as a mathematician. (“You have no head for numbers,” her father tells her; but is that true? She loves them, or loves the idea of them, the beauty of an equation, the purity and airiness that numbers represent. She has not applied herself, that is certainly the case—but because she cannot quite believe there will not come a time when she will apply herself as fully to maths as to reading, she will see what that life is, she will live it in its fullness as she wants to live every life in its fullness.)

The wind has risen; the sail is full; they are making good time.

The air is still; they remain near shore, her father reading his book, the fisherman’s son fishing, her brother frantic with despair.

The fisherman’s son makes eyes at her, slicing the flesh from the fish.

The fisherman’s son studiously avoids her eyes.

The weather is getting rougher. The wind is blowing, first this way, then that; her brother hardly has time to correct the sails.

Each life a labyrinth; one never knows when one is coming to the center of it. And if this were the center of hers? This outing with her aging father, her surly brother, the fisherman’s son who may or may not be making eyes at her?

The voice of her mother: “The smallest things add up to the largest.”

Somehow she cannot remember how her mother died. All she remembers when she tries to picture her mother’s death is her father wandering through the darkened house the next night, his arms outstretched. The image terrified her. If he should happen to catch her in his arms as he walked insensate through the house, what would occur? Would she become like her mother? Would she die too? (A morbid joke: each of us becomes like our parents—dust.) She was very young then, of course; but already she had some idea that her father was not to be trusted.

Now a sudden change in the winds and the boom swings wide. Her brother is in the water. A violent commotion: the fisherman and his son scanning the waters, looking for the boy’s body, throwing out lines. The sky has darkened around them, rain pocks the water on all sides. She finds herself screaming. Her father, steadying himself with one hand, looks up from his book as though he has not yet processed what has occurred.


James Tadd Adcox's work has appeared in Granta, Passages North, and previously in X-R-A-Y, among other places. He is a coeditor at Always Crashing Magazine.

Art by Bob Schofield @anothertower

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