Kate LaDew lives in Graham, North Carolina, with her cat, Charlie Chaplin. She spends most of the day watching silent movies and formulating a way to speak only in pantomime. She would love to work solely as a writer, but also loves to eat on a regular basis. She’ll figure it out soon.
Isaac Newton Was a Terrible Farmer
Isaac Newton was not growing an alfalfa crop. He was attempting, he was trying, he was endeavoring, but he was not growing an alfalfa crop. He was not growing an alfalfa crop because he was terrible at farming. He was so bad, the local simpleton, Thurston Phillipi, would wait beside the sickly, brown alfalfa sprouts and watch for Isaac Newton to make his daily depressing inspection, then spring upon him unawares, shouting, “Newton, Newton, so highfalutin, he planted alfalfa and out came gluten!”
This troubled Isaac Newton. He did not enjoy it in the least because he was smart. He was so smart it was stupid. He was so ridiculously smart, if you even talked to him for a second you would fall all over yourself because Good Golly Moses, how could anyone be so smart? He was smart, but there he was, staring down at dying alfalfa, being rhymed at by an idiot. And it was all Isaac Newton’s mother’s fault.
He had been happy at school, or at least reasonably so, and that was about all anyone could ask from school. And then his mother, his up until then reasonable, discerning mother had collected Isaac Newton and all his belongings and thrown him out into the fields to do work he had never done before and expected something out of the whole sad, sorry trip. It made him resentful. His mother knew best of course—she was a mother and all mothers knew best—but come on. The whole idea of him farming was absurd anyway. One needed to eat and one needed water and one needed materials for clothes and goods and all sorts of things like that, all sorts of things he needed but didn’t know how to make. He was fairly certain he could discover the meaning of life and unlock all the secrets of the universe, and wasn’t that enough? Did he have to milk cows too? Did he have to grow alfalfa too? Did he have to fatten hogs and fetch pails of water from wells? Wasn’t all the knowledge that could ever be enough?
But his mother said, every day, “Isaac Newton, please push the plow. It will not push itself.” And Isaac Newton thought about it for awhile and realized it was true, so he pushed the plow.
And his mother also said, every day, “Isaac Newton, now that you are pushing the plow, please keep pushing the plow, or it will stop.” And Isaac Newton thought about it for awhile and realized this, too, was true, so he kept pushing the plow.
And his mother also, also said, every day, “Isaac Newton, you are no longer pushing the plow. The plow is for mornings. You are pushing a sheep. A sheep is lighter than a plow. Push more lightly.” And Isaac Newton thought about it for awhile and realized it was true, so he pushed the sheep more lightly than he pushed the plow.
And his mother also, also, also said, every day, “Isaac Newton, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.” And Isaac Newton thought about it for awhile and would become tired and go to sleep under an apple tree.
His favorite part of the day was sleeping under the apple tree. He would think about school and how he was reasonably happy there and think about his mother and how she was always right, but also how she was always on about the plow. It was tiring. Looking at dying crops and being rhymed at by Thurston Phillipi was tiring. Thurston Phillipi was an idiot and Isaac Newton was not and it was all so very tiring. It made him resentful.
One day, after pushing the plow with great force and continuing to push the plow with great force and pushing the sheep with not-as-great force, Isaac Newton sat under the apple tree and was hit in the head by an apple, which made sense, as he was under an apple tree and sometimes these things happened. But today he was feeling particularly resentful and did not think, but became angry. He picked up the apple and threw it back at the tree, only to watch it bounce off the trunk and hit him again. Right in the neck. He fell to the ground, had a coughing fit, and was in bad shape for a while. After recovering his breath, he looked up from his prone position at the tiny nick the apple had made in the bark of the tree. He looked sideways at the apple. He looked back at the tree. He looked up at the sky and the dozens of apples that hung on the branches of the tree. A gust of wind shimmied the leaves and another apple fell, hitting him right in the nose.
And suddenly, it all made sense. After rearranging his nose on his face and knocking his addled brain back into his head, Isaac Newton sat up. He looked out at the plow in the field. He looked at the sheep grazing. He looked again at the tree, the dimpled bark, and the second fallen apple. Holding it up, he looked at its deep red skin, shining in the sun with an indention just the size of his nose scarring the middle. Everything made sense. The world came into focus and he said very quietly to himself, “My mother is terrible at ideas. That’s what all this trouble is about.” After all, who was he to be not growing alfalfa and pushing plows and sheep and being bombarded with apples all the time? His smile beamed bright as he tossed the apple up into the blue, blue sky, watching it fall back into his hand again and again. “I will go back to school. I will go back to school and become the man of science I was always meant to be. And my first hypothesis will be, Do mothers always know best? But first,” he said. “I’ll have to go to the source. I’ll have to let my mother know about her trouble with ideas,” he nodded. “Also gravity. I’ll tell her about that, too.”
Thomas Edison’s Blue Bird
Thomas Edison wanted people to live in concrete houses with concrete furniture (including pianos) and decided to get the ball rolling himself, along with pocket-watch magnate Charles Ingersoll. 12 houses were constructed. No one much liked them.
Thomas Edison looked up at the scaffolding, air heavy with ill-spent time. The whole world was gray and it made Edison’s head hurt. He was thankful, as he was every day, for his damaged ears. The boxing they took in his twelfth year of life allowed only the deepest of sounds to invade his brain now. It had enough in it already, Edison thought. His eyes jumped to the house before him, boomeranging from the roof, to the windows, to the front door and back again. It was a glorious sight, and no one knew it but him.
It had been such a wonderful idea. A way to ease his mind of the guilt he always felt when he passed those grimy little tenement buildings, trash coating the streets like dirty snow, washing crisscrossing as if vulgar spiders were setting up traps. Edison was going to change all that, revolutionize modern-housing with affordable, fire-proof, insect-proof and dirt-proof dwellings. A single pour concrete house any color one could desire, a gift to the world. But Edison had been repaid with silence upon silence. He only wanted something beautiful. Now he had twelve beautiful things, and not a soul living in them. He looked down at the ground and sighed.
A tiny blue bird alighted on the tree branch over his head and Edison didn’t realize. It had been fifty-two years since he’d heard a bird sing. The light shifted, making shadows in the dirt, one hopping back and forth, back and forth. He turned his eyes up, blinking at the bird. He saw its deep, pure color and imagined what blue sounded like. Was it a flute, whistling in the air like school children playing? Or a melancholy violin, a trembling, drawn out note, some dark fish moving through water? Edison allowed himself these musings when he was outdoors. Something had to make up for the chaotic silence, that flutter of sound always in his ears, amounting to nothing. The bird looked back at the man, head tilted. The man’s head tilted. He smiled. School children playing. He was sure of it.
“I am sorry about all this, Tom. I didn’t know.”
Edison turned towards the blur of words. “Sorry?”
Edison shook his head at Charles Ingersoll. “I meant I didn’t catch—” He shook his head again. “You’re sorry?”
Ingersoll moved closer, chin nearly touching Edison’s ear. “It was such a beautiful idea. I thought the world would believe it, too.”
Edison nodded, looking up. “Where did the bird go?”
Ingersoll held his hand against the pale glow of the sky. “A particular one, Thomas?”
“Oh, yes. Not just any bird would do.”
They watched the clouds. Ingersoll clapped Edison on the shoulder. “Might as well go inside, old man. It’s all set up.”
“The piano as well?”
“Of course. I could play something—well,” he laughed, embarrassed. “We’ll take a look around.”
The cool, concrete walls of the parlor were a rich burgundy, spaces for pictures built in, and dark, empty rectangles awaiting fireplaces. Ingersoll left him for the upstairs and Edison slowly moved his feet toward the piano.
He sat on the cool, smooth bench, staring down at the keys. Raising a blue veined hand, he picked out that jumble of letters, the tune his mother always played, the one he never knew he’d miss. Had he any inkling, those notes would have been imprinted on his brain before any formula or equation. His brain located the memory and set the song ringing in his ears, but Edison couldn’t be sure what he remembered was ever what he had really heard. Some things just got lost.
He pressed the keys down again, but felt no familiar vibration, the one he waited for as a child, sitting cross-legged on the floor, his beautiful mother’s beautiful fingers singing and smiling at him. The music was trapped up inside the concrete, Edison knew. The cold, impersonal rock that never breathed. Edison’s mouth set in a line and he collided his foot with the base of the piano, once, twice, relishing the shock of pain coursing through his legs, his chest, his heart.
“To be fair, a wooden piano would have stubbed your toe as well.” Ingersoll crossed his arms, head suddenly next to Edison’s. “To be fair.”
“That is fair,” Edison nodded, holding his foot in the palm of his hand. His elbow brushed a key and, leaning forward, he put his dead ear against the concrete. His mother was always blue in his mind, a trembling, dark note moving through water. “It is fair indeed, Charles.” Edison depressed the key again, fallible memories flooding through him and his silent brain, his silent world. “So little is.”