Call me Gottlob. And just to make sure we don’t get off on the wrong foot, my name is indeed Gottlob. But what is the actual meaning of names? I know, I know, that’s a tough one. I wonder about it, too. I wonder, as I sit on the deck looking at the brightest star in the sky during the day – Phosphorus. The drops of sweat trickling down my face are as salty as the sea. Have I been out in open waters for too long? I remain so lost in thoughts about the meaning of proper names that I get startled when a young man from the crew exclaims by my side.
“Ah, what a night! Look at Hesperus, sir! Isn’t she a beauty!”
I’m tempted to engage him in a debate about the name of that star – is it Hesperus, Phosphorus, or the same old Venus? Tempted as I am, giving in to such an itch would be a waste of energy. Not that I want to underestimate the lad, of course. In any case, the ship docks, and I must interrupt my musings.
“Captain, where are we?” I inquire.
“The town is called Ulpia. We’ll spend the night here. Tomorrow we set sail around noon, so you’ll have time to take a stroll and explore,” the captain replies.
Despite the late hour, we find accommodation in a guesthouse in the center of the town. The hostess is friendly and treats us to some local delicacies. While we’re enjoying the warm meal, she tells us stories and myths about the town.
“Around here, instead of numbers, houses have names,” she begins.
Ah, talk to me about names, I think to myself while savoring the stew.
“Word on the street is that the man who proclaimed himself as what you may consider the first mayor of Ulpia had a peculiar attitude towards numbers,” the lady of the house continues. “He didn’t believe in their sequence, so he prohibited house numbers from following that suspicious logic. Every person’s effort to convince him that one plus one is always equal to two was in vain. Not always, he would reply. Sometimes, when a man gets together with a woman, things may be equal to three, or even four should they end up having twins. If we draw one straight line with a black marker on white paper and then another one parallel to it, how many straight lines do we have? You’d be mistaken if you said two. What about the negative white space between them? Is it not another, third straight line? Such were his arguments. And so, the buildings around here have had names since, well, pretty much forever.”
I almost choke on my morsel. Thankfully, I have it soaked in stew, so I somehow swallow it without causing a scene. What kind of logic is that? I wish I could express my objections on the matter, but that morsel is still sliding down my throat. I’m speechless.
“That’s why, usually, instead of saying, ‘I’m going to visit whoever they’re visiting,’ people around here would say, ‘I’m going to the name-of-the-building,'” the woman continues her story.
By the time I swallow, I realize I’ve missed my chance to object against the logic of that mayor. I’m left with no other choice but to continue listening.
“The architectural value of the buildings in Ulpia is undeniable. I highly recommend you all go for a stroll, if you have the time tomorrow!”
“We most definitely will,” the young lad admiring the star from earlier that day responds with a mouthful.
“But what of the values of their inhabitants,” the woman continues while ignoring him. “One could quickly grasp the hidden effort and deficit behind names like Courage or Generosity. Don’t you think?”
I’m about to express my opinion, but the housekeeper continues her story bluntly.
“Of course, one cannot deny the difference between someone who names their building after elevated principles to ensure a daily reminder of the moral goals they strive for, and one who does it for appearance. Anyway, there are also buildings with logical, even trivial, names that directly describe their function. For example, the one housing the court is called Justice.”
Every time this woman says the word logic or its derivatives, something in me twitches. But not in that pleasantly exciting way. Rather, the tremor is horrifying.
“However, the most interesting stories, related to the names of the buildings in Ulpia, are about houses with their own opinion,” she whispers.
Here we go, I think to myself, for another round of utter nonsense.
“We’ve had more than a few cases of owners who’d proudly place a sign with the name they chose for their house, only to discover later that the letters on the sign had changed. Initially, people thought it was some kind of childish prank. But, as it turned out, that wasn’t the case. The houses had their own opinion about what they would be called. Some hinted their names to their owners via whispers, carried by the wind. Others communicated through Morse code at night. Scary stuff, I tell you!”
“It sure sounds creepy!” someone interjects. And although it’s not clear who it is, I bet it’s that same lad.
“Once upon a time, a newcomer gathered the entire town in her garden, where, while she slept, the house had woven its name from the shrubs and flowers in the yard – Entrance. Well, at least that’s what the building wanted to be called from that day forward. Rumor has it the newcomer was quite stubborn and refused to name her house Entrance, insisting the name was dull and didn’t fit the vibe. But strange things kept happening in that house, as the word Entrance reappeared over and over again. The newcomer wandered around town with bloodshot eyes, insisting that the meaning of Entrance was not that of an entry but of being bewitched. Some say she became possessed by the house. They say she was in a trance. Entranced! If you know what I mean… Anyway, overnight, in and around the place where the house of that no-longer-newcomer was supposed to be, there was a maze of hedges. At the entry of the maze, also made of plants is the name Entrance, which remains there to this day. They say no daredevil entered the maze. Thus, the house and the woman remained at its heart, turning into a legend.”
Although no reasonable person would buy this story, I can’t help but note that had the newcomer given a different, more positive meaning to the name Entrance, she might’ve had a happier ending. After all, the meaning we attribute to proper names varies. For example, the meaning the crew of the ship gives to my name – Gottlob, could be the person who never stops gazing at the sky. The meaning which my mother gives to the same name is my son. That newcomer could have… The housekeeper’s excited voice interrupts my thoughts.
“Anyway, I won’t delve further into the details of this story, which is but one among many about houses, names, and their owners. What’s important is that the initial fear and disapproval among the residents of Ulpia gave way to a new belief. Rather than cursed, these properties were, in fact, special. That newly gained belief triggered speculations about the market prices of the properties, but I won’t bother you with that either.”
Thank goodness! For a second there I thought I’ll have to endure a story about market prices that have their own opinion. A quick assessment of the situation tells me that if I want to save myself, I’d better act now. And so, I thank the housekeeper for the delightful dinner, excuse myself, and retreat to my room.
The morning is fresh. I skip breakfast at the guesthouse out of fear I might have to listen to a new story. My stomach may be empty, but I’m full of energy. As I wander through town, admiring the architecture and pondering over the names of the buildings, I stumble upon an open shop. I find it odd since it’s early in the day for business hours. Still, my curiosity gets the best of me, so go in. As I enter, the sight that unfolds before my eyes is just incredible. This artisan shop for timepieces is as if taken out of a fairy tale or someone’s imagination. Hourglasses. Sundials. Wall clocks. Pocket watches. Clocks with various mechanisms and designs. It appears one may find anything they can imagine here. And perhaps even the unimaginable, too.
“Good day, sir! How may I help you?” asks a man with a white beard.
“I’m not sure!” I answer.
“Tell me what’s the meaning of measuring that thing called time, and what significance do you grant to knowing what time it is?”
Meaning. Significance. I’m all ears!
“Those are two excellent questions!” I hear myself exclaim.
“Well, depending on your answers, I’m certain I’ll be able to offer you something to your liking and needs. But, of course, these are not simple questions to answer!”
The man heads towards a display case, where he stops, puts on white gloves, and makes a gesture, inviting me to come closer. Then he takes out a watch that, instead of the traditional dial, has a solar system on it.
“Come! Look! This design, for example, doesn’t have the typical 12-hour dial but the movement of the planets. I reckon it’s the ideal accessory for those who don’t attribute meaning to the micro-cyclical nature of time but focus on its deeper essence. We measure Earth’s 24 hours based on its rotation around its axis. This extravagant timepiece marks our fragile lives on the scale of a galactic year.”
“Incredible!” I exclaim, yet again.
I look around to see what else there is in the display case and come across a clock with its hands rotating backwards. The watchmaker notices the object of my attention and takes out the timepiece.
“Ah, this one? I designed this for the rebels, for those who enjoy being different and who appreciate creativity.”
“Very interesting. It’s like nothing I’ve seen before. I have a friend who’s fascinated by the phenomenology of time, and I’m sure he’d love to come here.”
“Ah, ha-ha, the phenomenology of time, you say! Let him come. Your friend is always welcome here!”
“Tell me, sir, what is the most unusual clock you’ve ever made and perhaps sold?” I inquire, not so much for the design but for the meaning it would reveal.
“Hmm, it’s difficult to label one particular timepiece as the most unusual. But, recently, a man who paid a visit to the Bureau for Lost and Found Everything came to my shop. He had lost his sense of purpose in life, his desire to live, and as he put it himself – he had wasted too much time. I gave him what one might call an unusual timepiece. The kind that wouldn’t be to everyone’s liking. However, my timepiece was a perfect fit for the man’s needs.”
“And what did this timepiece measure?”
“Ah, he-he,” the bearded man gives me a sly smile and says, “It measured the number of breaths left until his last one.”
For a second there, I flinch, then force myself to laugh because it’s obviously a joke. My interlocutor also laughs. He seems like a positive person. I thank him for his time and attention, as well as for the thought-provoking questions. I give my word I’ll ponder over them. As I walk the streets of this peculiar little town, I remember something that the watchmaker mentioned which I didn’t understand. The Bureau for Lost and Found Everything, was it? I should have asked what he meant by that.
Back on the streets of Ulpia, I feel the warm sun on my skin and the sound of birds chirping. My visit to the clock shop feels as if from a dream. The scent of freshly cut grass turns my attention to the high hedge fence in front of me. I walk around it, looking for the entrance of what seems to be a park. The sign Entrance woven with shrubs and flowers greets me. The housekeeper was right about everything – the architecture, the names of the buildings, and even the maze. I wonder if she’s also right about the house and the woman at the heart of it. I hesitate, tempted to see for myself. My watch reassures me there’s plenty of time before our departure at noon. What’s the worst that could happen? Get lost in this maze? I suppose it’s best I leave traces behind to avoid such an inconvenience.
◊ ◊ ◊
The morning star shines bright in the clear blue sky and winks at all the sailors setting sails. At noon, after some fuzz among the crew, the ship that docked the previous night sails away. There’s no one sitting on its deck. Everyone is busy with their duties. The sun melts into the horizon with the promise it will come back soon. A young sailor now stands on the deck, admiring the evening star. He turns towards the big wooden box, where another admirer of Hesperus used to sit, and wonders where did the person who never stopped gazing at the sky disappear.
◊ ◊ ◊
Lina Ignatova is a content and creative writer. Curiosity is the backbone of her character, questioning —the doorkeeper of her mind, and she has a healthy disrespect for the impossible. When she’s not wondering and writing, Lina’s wandering and climbing. She did her Master’s degree in Philosophy at the University of St. Andrews. Her philosophical interests are a fascinating blend of Aesthetics, Time, Buddhism, Daoism, and Moral Psychology.
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Cover image: Midjourney.