Seven billion. That was the number. Among the oddly stable vortex of hylozoic energy were seven billion points of conscious sensitivity, grown out of the tiniest dots of matter. Each an embryo in their time, each taking shape into larger and larger more complex patterns according to a delicate narrative: chemical triggers initiating this-and-this change, in this-and-this sequence, to achieve this-and-that development. To think a child would eventually come from so much genetic chaos and would one day open its eyes and stare back at its parents…that was humbling enough. But that it could as well think, "there's Mom", "there's Dad", in a language that hadn't been native to it before birth—that was frightening, that was miraculous.
And so here I am, writing this, sifting words from a system of abridgements, arranging them in order, one after the other. What's this but a reenactment of my prior birth ex nihilio? The infant boy born underweight and malformed (undeveloped hip joints) has grown into an adult male (whose hips still hurt him). He sits in a room in presence of ample sunlight. It's a winter afternoon. He switches on a desk lamp. He opens his laptop. Into the monitor's light he begins typing. What's he writing about?
The statistical results of multi-census research. The population of the earth is currently upwards of seven billion people. In thirty to thirty-five years, the number has been projected to reach eleven billion. He imagines them as firefly flicks playing across backyard darkness. Signaling to each other. Millions in unison. Millions in scattered, off-pattern pulses. Some go out, darken for good, drop to the grass as husks. Others wink bright for the first time, answering some instinct they were born from. How can the sum total of them be counted, if they're out of step with one another, marking their own local square inch of night with occasional bleats of bioluminescence? Appearing, vanishing, though technically always there. Rate and frequency of appearance and disappearance predictable by probabilistic measurement? In the abstract, with closed eyes, thinking of them, perhaps. But eyes wide, limited as one person in one point of space and time, impossible. It's the impossibility which provides ample evidence of their elegance: that they could exist and signal their existence with something so subtle as cognitive light.
Yes, something from nothing. As cosmologists have theorized. Proof of such theories having been derived, supposedly, from mathematics and observation of cosmic radiation. But what calculation for the yes, the yes and then quick quiet no of one consciousness, then another? As a son of subtle light, I would like to know. As one of seven billion, am bound to fear and wonder.
What do they add up to, if they can't be fixed and counted? What is subtracted, when eyes close and mind falls out? Thinking now of people who don't exist, inventing them (but why?), adding to the larger living number. Angelo Garca. Pamela Ellis Greene. Jeeyoung Sparkman…
Kyle Coma-Thompson is author of The Lucky Body.