She pulled the papery dragon insect from her nose. It’s hyper-compressed form exploded instantly into an airy, delicate pattern of scales and space, and it flew around the room before perching on top of the bookshelf. She had been a sick child, and until she figured out that these dragons grew in her nose, life had been confusing and hard. It made it harder that no one, not even her parents, believed in the existence of her dragons, and she had no way to show them. They would emerge in her solitary living space, and fly out the window to hide in the trees to live a shady, verdant life. Did they know something that she did not? It was back in that window when she spent a lot of time wandering around the city. In the reflections of her face in the shop windows she was reminded of being in the present. But her mind mirrored the setting sun and the reflections on the puddles of the water that had not yet come to be. This was her present. She was constantly thinking of her future, and ruminating about her past.
On a cold December morning, she skipped her flying lessons to pay a visit to the old man that counted things. He lived three paces left of the best smelling bakery in the city, and just underneath one’s nose when the smell of strawberry and dough reached a nutty sweetness that indicates done-ness. If you counted one half a step too far, you would surely miss him. If the pastries burnt, you had already gone too far.
Nobody knew where he came from, how he persisted, or even how old he was. When the city governor miscalculated the earnings to expenditures of the city, a visit to the old man cleared the digital slate. When a distracted goose misplaced her goslings, the old man was just a waddle away to account for them properly. The girl imagined that he sustained on the gears turning in his head, the infinite space of numbers that gave him beauty and meaning, and the leftover croissants from the bakery.
On that afternoon, even the drones were not flying, and the girl was stuck in a while loop unable to let go of her conditions of the past. Thus, her desire to visit the counting man wasn’t to actually perform addition and subtraction of objects, but because she might count on having his company during this time of loneliness. His space was in perfect logical order, and in parallel, in complete unaccounted-for chaos. Today he had arranged a surface of glass shapes, and had removed the ground under them so you might fall to smithereens if you slipped into a margin of error. A wave of chill crashed over the small of her lower back. it was a situation of danger. But when you have a mindset like the girl, a risk that might topple some internal barrier presents itself only as exciting opportunity. And so she stepped forward onto the surface.
Her moves were cautious at first, pressing gently on the glossy shapes to estimate how well they liked her. But soon, she felt her heart relax, her mind release into the rhythm, and she gave in to allowing the stones to capture the memory of her feet. She did this until exhaustion, and then stepped off of the glass back onto the crisp, well-defined apple earth. Her eyes moved from her exposed toes to the feet, knees, and finally face, of the old counting man.
“Can you tell me how many?” she asked. Although she had lost track of time, she was confident that she had done it so quickly - and imagined her dance as a well-scoped problem to tackle to ensure that her strategy was robust. She had hit the smaller states of the glass continent by brushing her feet over them in a horizontal motion, and having reassurance of her influence when they glowed and smiled.
The old man also smiled. “You danced over great depths, and gave the glass much memory today. Perhaps you should come back tomorrow, and I might count then.”
This practice continued, day after day, and the girl learned to dance genuinely. The shapes would dance with her sometimes too, and change their locations, as shapes often like to do. She approached the same task with a clean pair of feet each day, and a new trick in her mind for how to make sure she covered all the space. It wasn’t until the following December that the old man added note to the end of their daily routine.
“You know,” added the old man. Today you’ve visited me 365 times. I think to make the calculation easier, I’ll call that “1.” Maybe we should do this again sometime?”
As the girl opened her lungs to release enough air to respond with “Yes, we should!” for the first time in the presence of another, a tiny dragon emerged from her nose. It’s tiny body, painted with red and gold, flew to perch on the old counting man’s right ear. A beat of uncertainty punched her in the stomach, and she was both surprised and terrified of exposing her deepest vulnerability. “Such a small spirit,” he responded calmly. “but within it is accrued such vibrancy and hope.” It was then that the girl again found control over the air to expel the message curled in her neck.
“Yes, I’ve never seen one like that before. And I of course will continue to visit. But I do not wish to count, because I will be dancing.”
Neither needed to say more. The old man stretched out his pinky, an offering to the tiny dragon to sit on, and he streamed the dragon from his ear toward a tree where he might enjoy watching the leaves grow. Both he and she knew that it wasn’t about the counting at all. The girl first went to visit the old man in hopes that it might alleviate her loneliness, a hidden desire behind searching for the secrets of the bakery. She visited him again because the dancing gave her a parcel of meaning. She continued to visit because she had found herself in the movements of her feet.
“My dear friend,” the girl said to the counting man one day. “The sun rises and falls, and someone, somewhere, is apologizing to their selves of the past, feeling loss for the dances not done, and destroying the present with rumination about a future that is never truly reached.” She paused, anticipating some sign that he knew that this insight could only come from personal experience. “Is this an optimal way to live one’s life?”
“It might be, for some,” he responded. “But for you, you just keep dancing.”
It is only when the girl stopped counting did she realize that she could count on the things that gave her meaning, and old man time would manage the rest. And little did she know, he had come to count on her too.