The Real Atlas
In the hinge of the world lives the real Atlas. He carries nothing on his shoulders; he's just there. Yet he is the joint that secures the hinge, and were he to leave his post, the world would slip, subduct, and collapse. So he stays, even though he'd rather not.
The real Atlas suffers no physical pain, so he can't complain. He wears his beard long because he can't think of one good reason to shave it. From his window he watches horses come and go in a big field, and he wishes he could ride away on one, how he wishes he could ride away. But he knows he can't leave his post.
Unless. Unless he could find a replacement. And what are the qualifications for a real Atlas? He pours himself a cup of coffee and tries to remember how he got here. How did it happen to him?
An ad in the paper. He'd answered an ad and knocked on a door and someone had handed him a key. They'd welcomed him in and, like an idiot, he'd stepped in.
"Now you are the real Atlas!" the person said, and slipped out.
In the kitchen was a manual which the new Atlas sat down to read. The manual explained what was demanded of an Atlas. Not a lot: you just had to be there. It wasn't asking so much. Just be there.
So he'd gone ahead and been there. The days passed, the weeks, the months and the years and then the even bigger hunks of time, hunks that only a titan would reckon, hunks you measured in mountains. For the real Atlas, time might as well go backward as forward, the mountains might as well grow down for all the difference it would make to him. When time is just something to pass, the direction of flow hardly matters. The real Atlas closes his eyes and pictures an hourglass, and the hourglass is a grain of sand in a bigger hourglass, and that hourglass is a grain of sand in an even bigger hourglass. There's not much to do in the hinge of the world, just a manual to peruse, and a handful of corners to learn, and a kitchen table to sit at with a coffee cup to drink from, and a pot of coffee that never runs empty.
And a window — thank goodness for the window.
The real Atlas watches horses and names them. In the far, far distance, he can see an apple tree. The tree sheds its leaves in the winter, blooms in the spring, and ripens in the summer. The horses eat the apples when they drop off in the fall. The real Atlas wishes he could eat an apple.
Then one day, as he's sipping coffee at the kitchen table, staring out the window with his cheek propped up on the heel of his hand, he sees the outline of a person.
She wears a long dress and a sunhat, and she carries a basket for apples. She stands on her tiptoes to pick them. The horses passing by stop and nuzzle her, and she feeds each one a crisp tart apple.
The real Atlas leans out his window. "Hello!" he shouts.
The woman shades her eyes with her palm. She sees him.
"I would love an apple!" he shouts.
Cheerily she skips toward him. And now the real Atlas sees that there's more in this than apples. There's an opportunity here. If he can persuade the woman to willingly enter his kitchen and then slip out while her back is turned, she will be trapped, and he will be free.
Her happy face comes into view. Her cheeks are round and bright like the apples in her basket, and her hair is golden like late sunlight. She stops at the window. She holds out an apple.
"Ah, but look at your bounty," says the real Atlas. "What will you do with so many apples?"
"I will bake a pie," says the woman.
"And who will eat your pie?" says the real Atlas.
"I will eat it myself," says the woman.
"But wouldn't you like to share?" he says.
"I would like to," she says, "but I have no one to share with. Horses don't eat pies."
"Do they not?"
"They do not."
"That is because they have no brains. I would eat pie. What if we baked a pie and ate it together?"
"I would very much enjoy that. May I come in?"
She comes round to the door and he opens it. Now what will our Atlas do?
He'll take the basket and carry it in. He'll go to the cellar for sugar and lard. He'll sing to the woman and roll out the pastry. She'll chop the apples and sing along. Together they'll bake a beautiful pie and they'll eat it together while naming the horses.
"Let's call that one Carl."
"Let's call that one Fred."
"It's a lovely view," she'll say.
"It is, it is. I'm afraid I take it for granted sometimes. Coffee?"
"Oh, yes please."
He stands and walks to the stovetop, where the coffee simmers eternally. And the door is just a step away. Just one more step. Here's his moment. Now what will our Atlas do?
He'll take out another mug for her, and pour her a cup, and one for himself, and carry them back to the table. The woman will sip her coffee and smile, and the two of them will while the day away together. When the light is low outside and the horses are settling down, the woman will stand to leave. He'll walk her to the door. And here's his last chance! It's really now or never! He opens the door!
"I've had such a lovely time," she says.
"As have I. Will you come back?"
"Only if you let me go." Then she gives him the slyest look that ever a titan did see. "I know who you are. I took a risk for pie and company. And you've been so good to me. Don't spoil it now."
Though he wasn't about to, was he? No, not likely. Not the real Atlas. He bows and steps aside and lets her go.
"You'll come back?" he says.
"Yes," she says, "when the apples are ripe again."
Now the real Atlas has something to wait for, and that makes all the difference. That makes being so much easier. That gives the mountains direction. And so the world is safe for now, safe from slipping and safe from spinning and safe from crashing into the sun. Yes, have another slice of pie: we're safe for the time being.
Trevor Shikaze's short fiction has appeared in The Golden Key, Lackington's, Bibliotheca Fantastica, and elsewhere. He lives in Canada. Find him online at www.trevorshikaze.com.