He had spent too much time recently thinking about dark matter. How long had it been since he had done something strange, something creative that would twist and turn and blossom and grow? If he carried on like this, he’d burn himself out and disappear. A flash of light, a burst of heat, and then nothing. Like a spark rising from a bonfire.
As a student he had crackled with energy. He had spent his days bouncing off the walls and reading everything he could get his hands on. Hardly an hour went by without him learning something new. He had written down everything - facts, ideas, equations that ran for pages without ever condensing into elegant simplicity. But they had to be solved because somewhere in there was the answer, the beautiful truth that would explain the universe. He had scribbled furiously in notebooks when he could find them and on the backs of old envelopes when he could not.
There were still reams of notes in his apartment, piled like snowdrift in the corners. He kept them because they reminded him of his younger self, someone who wanted to stride into the unknown and wrest answers from the stars. Over time he had mellowed. Or perhaps time itself had gradually dimmed his intensity, until he was no longer progressing but just continuing. He still read, but there never seemed to be much time anymore for thinking. He thought every day about how minute tweaks in his variables might impact his algorithms, but that was normal thinking, not real thinking. Real thinking was the kind that soared up through the atmosphere, danced around the stars and indulged in strange dreams about quantum tunnelling through black holes.
If he died tomorrow, the universe might remember him for a while. He wasn’t a nobody. But his calculations, despite all their cleverness, had barely dented the borders of physics. In the end everything he was and had ever been would fade away into nothingness and be swallowed up by cosmic background radiation. Everything he had ever done, all his knowledge, would be reduced to a flicker of static.
On the first of January, he sat down at his desk and pushed his physics books to one side. From now on, it would be different. He would give himself one year to create something. He found an empty notebook and a pencil and doodled. On that first day, all he drew were simple lines, but as the month wore on they took on life and shape. In the daytime he lectured on gravity and in the evenings he drew asteroids and apples, cross-hatching them to create the illusion of depth.
In February he trawled through the rain-streaked streets in search of art supplies. He found a tiny shop tucked away in an alley. The owner was a woman with flyaway grey hair who chatted eagerly as she led him around the shop. He came away with his arms full of paints and brushes, felt and wool, charcoal and clay. Later that month he visited a giant hardware store in the suburbs, where he stocked up on glue and nails and bought a set of tools for the first time in his life. The staff wore identical smiles and yellow shirts. He thought about symmetry, and how it could be broken.
The snowdrops pushed up through the soil in early March. He called one of his old friends, who had a workshop and knew how to work metal. If she was surprised to hear from him after so long, she didn’t say so. He dropped by for a visit and she helped him create a mold into which he poured molten iron. It was fierce and red and it shone and bubbled like primordial soup.
He had never worked with clay before. He spent the first week of April kneading little lumps of it and rolling it between his fingers, until it dried in great flakes. Once he thought he had a feel for the material, he began to apply it to the iron. Sometimes in narrow strips, other times in thin sheets that he tapped into place with his fingertips. Gently, gently.
May was warm and sunny and he took long walks along the beach, searching for interesting pebbles. Some were smooth and shiny while others, that had not been in the sea, were jagged and crumbled when he touched them. His work hummed quietly in the background. He would have to start preparing the exam questions soon.
His students were always nervous in June, no matter how often he told them that exams were just a formality to see what you knew. Most of them did well enough. Some would fail, and some of those who passed would forget everything they had ever learnt about the composition of subatomic particles. But that was just the way it was. He hummed to himself as he ran his fingers over his collection of pebbles. He had sorted them by colour and shape. It didn’t take long to glue them into place and smooth over the rough edges with more clay.
In July, the bright green of early summer deepened into brilliant shades of emerald and jade. He took three weeks off from work and spent them in his garden, where he painstakingly mixed paints. He used broad strokes of blue, green, and ochre as a base and then took his smallest brushes to paint the details. Colour was such a strange thing, really. It was nothing more than light kicking electrons around, but it was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen. What would the world look like if his eyes could see beyond the visible spectrum? What new colours would he see?
The plants in his garden became dry and dusty in August. He created little copies out of wool and felt. Slivers of wood and thin copper wire became stems and trunks. He took care to make his creations as lush and verdant as he could. At work, he prepared for the beginning of term, which was rapidly approaching. Soon he would have new students to lecture about black holes and neutrinos. What stories could a neutrino tell, if he managed to stop one for long enough to ask? He smiled to himself as he put the finishing touches on a tiny pine tree.
His first lecture was in the second week of September. He told his students what they would need to create stars and they listened in wonder. They looked younger every year. Bright eyes. Bright minds. Eager and clever. The whole universe was in front of them and he would teach them to explore it by asking questions. They grew in confidence as his lecture series progressed. At home, his creation progressed steadily as he covered it in the vegetation he had created.
He had never liked autumn. The trees turned orange and red, but this beauty was nothing more than a reminder of the summer that had been lost. The riot of colour and the life that hummed through the forest would soon be lost. October was the worst. He didn’t want to go out to see how the light faded away into winter, so he stayed inside and carved tiny figures out of wood that he had found in his garden.
November brought sleet and darkness. The little wooden figures looked at home amid the felt trees and woollen bushes, and the mountains made of pebbles and clay. There was still some wood left on his desk. Not much, just a few fragments of ash and spruce. He carved them too. The new figures were slightly different from the old. They were upright and slender. He imagined them looking up to think about the universe and dream about swirling galaxies.
On the thirty-first of December, he stepped back to admire his work.
Something was missing.
He gathered a cloud of hydrogen atoms so dense and heavy that his world would spin around it. There was only one thing he needed to do to flood the world with heat and light, so the seeds could sprout, the leaves could unfurl, the winds could blow and the wooden figures would stir and wake from their slumber. He leaned close to the ball of hydrogen and set nuclear fusion in motion with a whisper.
“Let there be light.”