The watchmaker’s words hung in the air like an early morning fog. Not moving, not drifting, just existing. An unending moment passed, neither breaking each other’s gaze when suddenly the old man’s blank face changed to a smile, eyebrows rising.
“Sir, you are as astute in your observation as you are skilled in your watchmaking. This book is indeed quite special to me. It was given to me by my father. In my foolishness, I sold it to you without realizing the treasure I was parting with. I only ask that you forgive an old man his mistake and let me buy it back from you.”
A ruse, thought the young watchmaker. The old gypsy is attempting to hide his true interest in this work! But what was it?
The watchmaker played for time, more information. “Your father gave you this book?”
“He did,” responded the old man.
“Then I can understand the sentimental value it must have to you. Have you considered it might be special in other ways? Its provenance, perhaps?”
The old man’s eyes narrowed almost imperceptibly. “To what other ways are you referring? It is but a simple book with only sentimental value to an old and foolish man.”
“I wonder,” began the young watchmaker, “have you noticed the fine orange designs on the inside covers of the book?”
“I have, what of it?” answered the old man.
The young watchmaker continued, “sir, I have noted the curious existence of this fine design work elsewhere, in other works.”
“Other books, then. That seems not unusual…”
The young man cut the gypsy off with a wave of his hand. He pointed to the clock and pocket watch laying on the bench beside him.
“I don’t follow. And?” asked the old man plaintively.
“I have discovered this same design in other works wholly separate from a bookbinder’s purview. It should not exist in these other works, but it does. The clock, the pocket watch and this book all share the same, not similar,the same, orange filigree designs. How, pray you, could this be possible?”
With this, the watchmaker strode over to the where the mantle clock rested, picked it up, turned it ‘round and removed its back cover. He held up and showed the gypsy the back cover with the hidden orange design inside, the young man’s eyes staring at the old man, burning the question into the space between them. The watchmaker then went to the pocket watch, opened it to reveal the orange filigree, also inside the cover, and showed it to the old gypsy as well.
“How is it possible, old man, that the same design appears on three different objects, from three very different time periods by, assumedly, three different artisans?”
The old man hesitated. His pause was brief and barely perceptible, but it told the young watchmaker everything: he knows something.
In a low voice, the old man asked, “what are you suggesting?”
He’s hiding something, the young man thought to himself. “I am suggesting that there is a tie between that clock, that pocket watch and this book. It is undeniable! And I have a feeling you know what it is.”
The old man sighed and now seemed resigned to the young man’s conclusions. “Where is your Master, young man? He is well known and your reputation as a fine apprentice has grown beyond the confines of your hamlet. Perhaps he should be the one you should be asking.”
The gypsy knew of my Master, of me? Thought the watchmaker.
Looking away for a moment, the young man responded, “my Master died some time ago. I am alone now and the Master of this shop.”
As the words landed within the Magician’s mind, the full weight of the young man’s words showed across his face.
Did this gypsy knowmy Master?
“I see,” began the old man. “It falls to me then.”
This conversation has taken a decidedly unexpected turn, thought the young man, the confusion etched across his forehead.
“Perhaps there’s someplace we can speak privately where we won’t be disturbed?” asked the old man.
The old man’s words didn’t penetrate the watchmaker’s confused mind at first. Presently, the watchmaker came out of his reverie, blinked his eyes and watched as the old man walked towards the front door where he closed the lock and flipped the OPEN/CLOSED sign so that any passerby would not be tempted to stumble in.
“There,” began the old man. “We are alone. Shall we go to the back? You can make us some tea and I will crack open the Door to a wider world for you.”
Sitting at the dark wooden table in his modest kitchen, the old man looked into the tea cup the young man had brought him. He stirred the light-colored liquid apparently meditating on how to bring the young man into a new understanding.
“What do you remember about your Master?” began the old man without raising his gaze.
“My Master? The one who taught me the skills of my trade? I don’t under…” Realizing it would likely be better to simply let the old gypsy lead the conversation as he will, the watchmaker began again, “He was a quiet man, old. He was not ostentatious about his obvious skill.” His curiosity and impatience betrayed the watchmaker. “Why? What does my old Master have anyth…”
The old gypsy interrupted, “now is not the time for questions, young man. Now is the time for listening.”
The young man went silent. He couldn’t help but wonder why he was deferring to this obviously penniless vagabond in his own home.
“Old and quiet? Is that allyou can say about the man who took you in as an orphan and gave you a livelihood?” The gypsy’s tone played between scorn and sarcasm. As the old man’s words landed on the watchmaker’s mind and took root, he immediately felt a small shame. The old man was right, but, how could he have possibly known how I came to be with his Master?
“No, of course not,” began the watchmaker slightly indignant with his shame showing through. “I remember a great deal about my old Master. But my memories are my own and feel no compunction in sharing the intimiate details of our time together with you. I hardly know you, you’re but a gypsy who sold me a book once.”
“Indeed,” began the Old Man. “That much is true. Fine, I’ll stop dancing around the subject. I suppose if your Master trusted you, I shall too. He would have turned you out into the street had he not trusted your good judgment. Your presence here now is proof of his affection for you.”
The old man leaned back in the old, rough wooden chair and breathed out.
He began, “In spite of his affection, it is obvious he ran out of time before he could tell you of the Network. It is the great irony of the task before us that our last breath is unknown to us.”
“Task? Network? What are you talking about?” the young man interjected.
“I asked you what you remembered of your Master and you revealed to me that you, in essence, could remember nothing notable about him. This is understandable, you only knew one side of him.” The old man leaned in, “Young Watchmaker, your Master, and men like him such as myself, live two lives.”
“Shhh. Do not interrupt,” scolded the old man. He began again, “two lives. One life is open and obvious. In your Master’s case, he was an expert watchmaker in this very town. In my case, I am a traveling magician.” The old man paused and assessed the young man’s comprehension.
“That life, in the scheme of things, has no impact and very little importance…in the grand scheme of things, of course… But it is our otheraspect that I wish to teach you about.”
The watchmaker’s brow furrowed, “ok,” the young man said, captivated now.
“Your previous Master and myself, along with several others, are part of a Brotherhood of sorts; a Network.”
“Brotherhood? Do you mean like a guild? What sort of guild?” the young man asked.
“Yes, I suppose ‘guild’ would also be an apt description. But this guild is unlike anything you have any experience with.”
“What is the guild’s purpose? It’s specialty? Does it have anything to do with the stylized designs I have noted in the works such as the clock, pocket watch and book?”
“Yes,” began the old man. “The orange filigree is one connection. There are many others, but we need not go into all that now. Our task, the task of The Network” continued the old man, “is to assist and support those who chart thefuturehistory of human events.” The old man’s words floated towards the watchmaker’s mind but found no purchase. Of all the things the Old Man could have used to describe his guild’s specialty, ‘guiding future history’ was definitely not one of them.
The young man’s mouth and mind closed as they both shut to the possibility of what the Old Man was offering. “You must be referring to politicians and kings. Is that it? You offer guidance to leaders?”
“Leaders?!” exclaimed the Old Man. “They are no such thing. At least not on the stage that the Network operates…”
The Gypsy continued, “I see you don’t quite understand; let me explain.” The Old Man leaned forward crossing his arms on the table in front of him. He was comfortable and seemed resigned to a long night.
“Imagine, if you might, the full skein of human history. All of it, from the Romans to the Merovingians. From the primal Garden to Bach. From Lao Tzu to Washington. All of it, every moment, every event, every person, in all of humanity, ever.”
“I, I…” the young watchmaker stammered. “OK. Everything.”
“Imagine that that history of everything, all of it, is as the water of a great river. Each event but a drop in an endless flow of human action. Every choice, every possibility, every consequence are the drops of water that make up the river. Infinitely divisible and incomprehensibly connected.” The Old Man paused. Was the Watchmaker able to follow? From his face, it appeared so. At the very least, he was keeping quiet and simply listening.
“A river as humanity…” the young man murmured.
“Understand, young Watchmaker, it is not just the people I describe. I am describing all of it.The lives, the actions, the choices, the repercussions of those choices. Great wars, great sorrows, great loves. Everything and every thing make up the water of this Great River.”
“OK, but I still don’t…”
“But the river requires a channel, a direction, a purpose.Imagine now that the Network is that riverbed, the channel by which the river of human events twists, turns and flows towards its ultimate destination.”
It was at this point that the young man was fully dumbfounded now. A mixed expression of confusion, disbelief and exasperation betrayed his attempted-calm demeanor and was expressed with a quick breath outward, almost scoffing. He leaned forward then leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms on his chest.
“Relax, young man. Let the idea permeate your mind. You rush to judge too quickly.”
“How can a network of men be a riverbed? You’ve wholly lost me,” the young man said.
“Well, think, boy. What role does a river bed play in a river’s path?”
“Sir, I am in no mood for your Socratic method. Speak plainly!” The young man’s exasperation hid his intense interest in what the Old Man was saying. But interest did not bestow comprehension. The young watchmaker’s impatience shone through. And then the Old Man laughed.
“I see it now,” the Old Man interjected. “I see why you were dear to him. You are a gem, aren’t you? Though I am afraid your impatience will devour you, just as time does to all things.”
The Old Man continued, “A river without a riverbed has no current. A river without a current is not a river, it isaimless.” The Old Man continued, “a river without a riverbank does not flow towards its ultimate reward. It merely spreads out, aimlessly…a river that does not flow is not a river, it is a pond, a puddle. And knowing humanity as we do, a pond that is quite wontto stagnate and putrefy!” The Old Man laughed at his own small joke. “No, a river needs a channel; Something that gives it a course, a current, a purpose. The Network, of which I am but a small part, provides that direction.”
“Yes,” the Old Man answered simply.
“But how? How is it possible that a few people could direct all of humanity through the ages?”
“Well, a lot of mathematics, for one,” the Old Man’s lips curled up to a wry, subtle smile. The young watchmaker’s mouth dropped unsure what to make of the gypsy’s smirk; was this Old Man making sport of me?
“Listen,” began the Old Man, his tone and demeanor changing from the wizened old man the young watchmaker had grown accustomed to hearing. “The Network merely facilitatesthe decisions made elsewhere by our bettors for how humanity should, might, ought to progress. All we can do is provide nudges in the direction desired by those Directors. The river will always flow towards the sea. It is irrefutable and useless to fight it, and who would want to? The sea is the river’s destiny. But will the river flow to the sea in the most advantageous and auspicious manner? Or will it rend its way by the most difficult and least instructive manner? Must the river cut new channels needlessly? Must it double back on itself?”
The watchmaker responded, “I understand that all rivers flow to the sea, and I understand that you use this euphemism to describe (such hubris!) Humanity’s destiny to join with the Sea. But if what you say is true and if I entertain the possibility for a moment that you are not an escaped lunatic, how, in all of God’s graces, could this ‘Network’ possibly do what you describe? Do you live forever? Do you claim to be,” he paused for a second almost afraid to utter the blasphemy, “immortal?”
The Old Man smiled a slight, understanding smile. The smile was not condescension. Rather the smile was that of a teacher who saw that his student was endeavoring to learn the lesson, but struggled.
“No, we are not immortal in the normal sense of the word. We are as much flesh, bone and spirit as anyone else. This, as you might imagine is a great hinderance to our work. Which,” he continued, “seems unending. It is a happy burden though.”
“You see, while it is the river’s destiny to reach the sea, that river has the blessing of Free Will. This blessing is inviolate and cannot be usurped. And it is this constraint that makes the Network’s job that much more difficult. Imagine attempting to corral a river that wishes to flow contrary to the channel’s wishes!” The gypsy laughed again, obviously remembering some specific experience.
Beginning again, the old man asked, “do you have any questions?”
Questions!? What the old man had presented was so far beyond what the young watchmaker anticipated that he simply could not organize his understanding enough to formulate a question regarding all this new information. If what this gypsy was saying was true, he had an incredible opportunity in front of him. Incredibly, his mind was blank. All his life he had mused on the deeper questions and even had formulated some opinions. But now, when faced with the possibility of actually receiving an answer…he was struck dumb.
Then he remembered where this conversation began. Stuttering a little, he began, “Yes. I have a question: What does the Network’s existence and its purpose have anything to do with the orange filigree I have discovered in such a wide variety of disparate works?”
“Ahh,” began the old man. “We now move from the big picture and settle down to the nuts and bolts of the Work, our own “MagnaInstauratio.”
The Young Man’s confused look was interrupted by the Gypsy’s quick talking. “The filigree you noticed that was common to the pocket watch, the clock and the book was not a coincidence. It comprises part of a method by which The Network communicates with each other and with the Directors, and they with us. I should also add that it is not the only method by which this communication takes place, it is but one example. You will learn others.”
Continuing, the gypsy said, “Try to understand the constraints that limit our work: we are human with human a life span, but the Great Work transcends such limitations. Because of this, a method must exist for information to be stored and retrieved when appropriate and necessary; a method that transcends one simple human lifetime.”
“Stored?” began the Watchmaker. “I don’t understand. What information? Why would you need to store information? How…?”
“All good questions,” replied the Gypsy. “First you must understand that the Directors, those who direct, are indeed, timeless. They exist outside of our direct perception. And, unlike the Directors, we, the Brethren, are most assuredly human with human frailties, human life spans, human limits. How then might we be able to communicate to futuremembers of The Network if not through a means that is also unaffected by time? How might the Directors, who are timeless, communicate with the Brethren who are shackled to time?”
The Young Man interjected, “but a watch is not unaffected by time? It changes every minute!”
“No, you miss my point. It is not the time on the watch face that is timeless, it is the piece itself. That particular watch was crafted,” the Old Man quickly glancing at the watch setting on the bench, “about 150 years ago by a member of The Network.”
The Young Man’s eyebrows went up in surprise, “how do you know this?”
“Because,” retorted the Old Gypsy, “I speak the secret language of The Network that is embedded in the fine filigree work that you noticed. I can see the message where you cannot, presently. Of course, I do not yet know the contents themselves of the information placed within the curves of the filigree, but that is only because I do not yet have its mate.”
“Apologies, Master, but I have lost your meaning,” said the Young Man, acknowledging the Old Man’s obvious position. “A watch has a mate?”
“Not the watch, boy. The filigree.”
The Gypsy continued, “The filigree of one piece, such as this watch or that book, is but one half of the method utilized. This is for security’s sake. Rather, both pieces must be read together in order to understand this ‘message in a bottle,’ as it were.” The Old Man chuckled to himself.
“I see,” said the Young Man. “But what sort of information is contained in such a code?”
The Gypsy chuckled again and responded, “Not as Earth-shattering as you might imagine. Merely some facts that the encoder observed at the time that might be of interest to a future Brother or the Directors themselves. Whatever might be of interest or importance to the recipient of a future epoch. That recipient may live tens if not hundreds of years in the future. We never know who might read our dispatches. But we do know they ARE read.” Looking again over at the book the Gypsy continued, “What you have there in my book is also but one-half of a message I received some time ago. I am in search of its mate now. I do not know when or where it will turn up, but as you might imagine, I require the return of my half of the code in anticipation of its mate’s arrival.”
“Wait,” interjected the Young Man. “ Do you mean to tell me that you don’t have the other half of the code and you don’t know where it is? I find this most unlikely! How reliable can a mode of communication be if one never knows when a message will arrive or in what form?”
“More good questions,” responded the Old Man. “If I were you, I might consider the thought that some of those messages don’t necessarily come from The Network’s members but the Directors themselves. As such, they know where I will find myself at any given moment or any given day of any given year. For beings such as these who reside outside of our reality, how difficult might you think it to be for them to placea message at a time and place of their choosing and for a recipient of their choosing? And in the interim until I find its mate, I merely live my life, but with eyes open looking for the subtle indicators that a message is to had nearby. All in all, I would say the system works quite well.”
“So you live your life waiting to subtlyreceive an indication that a message is available?” The Young Man asked incredulously. Continuing he said, “which then must be decoded according to some secret method?”
“No,” the Gypsy began patiently. “I live my life as I wish where I have interests, work, chores. But among those interests is an observant nature whose mind is open to other things. And it is in in that observant nature and those observations that I obtain the messages intended for me.”
The young watchmaker blinked, shook his head slightly and attempted to regain his composure. “May I ask another question?”
“You may ask as many questions as there are hours left in our lives,” responded to gypsy.
Quickly, the young man continued, “So that I understand you correctly, you receive messages from the past?”
Laughing a little, the Old Man responded, “don’t you? Don’t you receive messages from the past every time you open a book? Any book represents a message passed along by its author, no? I might add also that not all the messages I receive are from some dark, distant past. Some arrive from a bright and distant tomorrow”
The blank (but with a slow acceptance showing) expression on the Young Man’s face urged the Gypsy onward: The Old Man continued, “Yes, we receive all manner of messages. Some are from the past, some are from the future. Some are from our Brethren, some are from the Directors themselves.”
This was the first time he had heard this, “Wait,” the young man interjected, “you receive messages from the future? How is that possible? The future has not yet occurred, the future doesn’t exist; it is but a notion.”
Laughing again, the Old Man said, “you lecture me on the existence of a future time?”
Arguing now, finally realizing the weakness in the Old Man’s crazy story, the Young Man was certain, “if you receive messages from the future then you surely know the future. Predict for me something that you might prove your claim!”
“Prove?” questioned the Old Man. “Who are you to require me to dance to a tune that you call? I am no trained monkey, boy.”
Pausing for a moment, the Old Man continued, “That being said, and in the interest of teaching you of the Great Question, I will tell you that the things I know of the future would not impress you. I am as much a prisoner of current events as you are. The only difference between your experience and my experience is that I am secure in the knowledge that everything will work out just fine. I am not caught up in the daily tempest of current events; my mind remains, if not my body, …apart.”
Mildly stunned for a moment, the Young Man said, “I apologize. I did not intend offense. If you cannot answer questions about our future then what else can you tell me?”
“I did not say I could not answer questions about our future, I merely said that what I know would not be of interest to you. True and specific knowledge of the future is jealously guarded. The future is not for us to know.”
“But why?” questioned the Young Man. “Why must the future be obscured? Surely your position requires it!”
“Nonsense,” the Old Man said. “While knowledge of the future might be beneficial, it would, in the end, be harmful, but not for the reason you might think.”
“I don’t understand,” the Young Man said softly.
“Of course you don’t understand. You are a neophyte to my experience; an experience about which I am attempting to instruct you.” The Old Man paused and then restarted.
“You believe we are not allowed to know the future because we might misuse this information. You believe we might misuse this knowledge to improve our financial situation, to avoid harm or even avoid death.” The Old Man paused and began again slowly.
“Your assumption is likely correct. Even with the best of intentions, human nature will always impose itself on our decisions. So, in a sense, you would be correct in assuming this. But this is not the true reason the future is hidden from us.”
The Young Man’s eyebrows raised at this. If some altruistic reason was not why the Brethren were forbidden from knowledge of the future, then what possible reason could there be?
“The reason, young man,” began the Gypsy, “is the issue of Free Will.”
“Free Will?” Now the Young Watchmaker was truly confused. How could choicebe a reason to prohibit knowledge of the future? This was an unexpected turn in a series of unexpected turns.
“Yes, Free Will. This is a great insight, young man and not easily grasped by those on the outside. Listen closely: Consider for a moment if I were to tell you that there was a high likelihood that you would die in the street from a runaway carriage. How might you react? How might you respond?”
Thinking for a moment, the Young Watchmaker responded, “well, for starters, I would avoid carriages! I wouldn’t climb into a carriage, I wouldn’t walk near a carriage. I wouldn’t step foot onto the street!”
“Precisely,” responded the Old Man. “You would modify your life so as to avoid the possibility of dying in a carriage accident. Because I didn’t tell you when this fictional carriage accident was to occur, your whole life would be spent in deathly fear of allcarriages. I might even go so far as to say that you would spend countless sleepless nights dissecting my ill-given prophecy, wondering what I “really meant”by it.”
“Of course I would, but I don’t…” the Old Man cut him off.
“Now consider that a highly lucrative job offer was proffered, but this offer was 100 miles away. You want to take it, you would have taken the commission, but because of the information I provided to you, in all good intention, you do not take the position, paralyzed by fear of dying in the carriage accident I predicted for you.”
“I don’t understand,” the Young Man stated. He was trying to see the point the Old Gypsy was making, but he was missing it.
“Don’t you see?” Started the Old Man. “Your fear and my good-intentioned prophecy have paralyzed you into inaction forcing you to spend the rest of your days closeted in your small shop, never stepping foot onto the street again. By my stupidity and carelessness, I have provided you information that took away your Free Will! You are now a slave to my prediction. Do you see how one might control another this way? As I said at the beginning: Free Will is inviolate; it cannot…must not, be stolen. No man may have dominion over another.”
“But I will die otherwise! You do me a great service in telling me!” The Young Watchmaker was certain of his position; how could this Old Man be so mistaken?
“Are you sure of that? Have you ever lived in slavery? In constant and persistent fear? I can think of no worse fate than to live my life in such unending desperation. And, as you might surmise, the Directors agree. No,” the Gypsy continued, “the greatest service I could provide is to allow a person to live a life according to his owndecisions.”
“But you sentence me to die otherwise through your silence!” Exclaimed the Watchmaker.
“Yes, this is true, but we all die, boy. Who am I to dictate the time and manner of your death? Who am I to impose my own willupon you? As I said, Free Will is paramount; it is the only thing that matters. And for that reason, predictions of the future are avoided at all costs. And, as an extra safeguard, we Brethren are only given information necessary to our task. You must understand this key tenet, Young Man. Free Will is all, it is the only thing that matters, ever.”
“If that’s the case,” the Young Man started, “then what use is it to be a Brother in the first place?”
This question surprised The Old Man. “You find no value in participating in charting the future course of Humanity itself? You see no value in living a life with impact, purpose, relevance?”
It was with these words that the larger point was made in the mind of the Young Man. The idea was slowly taking root in his mind that a larger context existed beyond his day-to-day life and that it was possible to interact with this larger context on some level. The Young Watchmaker also realized that there was real danger, real relevance to this larger context with real consequences. What the Gypsy was saying was finally beginning to take root.
Quietly and looking down at his hands, the Young Man said, “I see.”
A quiet moment hung between the Gypsy and the Watchmaker. The true impact of what he had been told was slowly and subtly reverberating in his mind. The ripples extended into the dark recesses of his mind slowly filling it up with a superficial realization, understanding. What he was hearing was…truth.
The Young Man could feel his thoughts lose focus, grow fuzzy. He was absorbing the seriousness of his evening discussion with this stranger when, suddenly, his thoughts grew sharp; an aspect of their discussion had gone unexplored. It was this gap, this hole in the Old Man’s story that drew into its own relief in his mind. It took a moment to verbalize this hole, but the Young Watchmaker finally wrested the words into being, “Who are the Directors?”
And the Old Gypsy smiled.