Unless and Until had been traveling for what seemed like quite a long time. At the outset, they both had agreed to keep on traveling unless they decided to stop traveling and to never return home until they decided they wanted to. Thus it was clear from the start that their travel would have an endpoint, but that the travel itself was endless so long as it continued. As it turns out, a moment arrived when they both wanted to go home, and upon reaching home, decided to stop traveling.
Home, then, under the sun and encircled by the moon, and neither knew what to do if they were not traveling.
“Now we have nothing to do,” said Until, who was feeling both tired and restless, and who wondered if they would miss traveling, and now they was home, what would home be like after all this time.
“We do have something to do, we just don’t know what it is,” said Unless, who was watching the moon circle and thinking about how the sun was so warm on their red fur.
“What we have to do is figure out what we could do, and then decide on it,” said Until, pricking their ears, and Unless agreed, “Yes, but first we should sleep.” So without even going into the house, they each lay down under bushes and slept all night, they were both so tired from travel and homecoming.
When morning came and they awoke, Unless and Until discussed possible activities, first eliminating impossible activities. One – traveling again. Two – leaving home again. Three – doing anything that wouldn’t last long enough to be interesting. After eliminating the impossible activities they were both stuck again for a while, and frequently had to re-eliminate the impossible. Meanwhile, habits of tidiness and preparation, acquired during the long travel, persisted at home. It was natural to both to begin unpacking their small bags and settling in. As they spoke, they each put their toiletries in the bathroom according to the accustomed division of space. Each stripped their bed for airing, because the sheets were as musty at home, after all this time, as sheets on other beds were in so many other places with less excuse. Each unrolled their pajamas, pale blue flannel and silky crimson with yellow stars, and then hung the pajamas on a window sill until the beds were fresh and the pajamas could go under the pillows where they belonged.
Still talking, still undecided about what to do, together they rinsed the mugs and plates. Until stood at the tap, rinsing each item, and Unless dried them carefully and put them away. Unless and Until swept the floors, wiped the windows, and sorted the mail into piles for “requires reply” and “kindling”. In hopes of coming up with some new ideas on their own, the two split up for a few days. Until worked in the garden, weeding and salvaging the plants that had grown wild. Bargaining with neighbors resulted in a cellar full of sturdy vegetables and a comfortable view of the future. The kitchen rafters were green and savory with herbs hung for drying. Unless went hunting in the woods across the lake, and brought home enough game for stew and jerky to last all winter. Neither came up with any new ideas for what to do now that they had stopped traveling and come home. Unless and Until beat the rugs, repaired a sagging drainpipe, and repainted the fence.
In all, the discussion of what to do took several weeks. They had begun rehashing an old argument:
Unless asserted, “This is just going to go on and on. Winter’s coming and we will just be sitting here discussing what we will do.”
Until, a little testy, “No no no – something will happen. One of us will think of something, we just don’t know yet what it will be.”
And so forth. But this time, Until had the right of it, and something did happen. Until was in the kitchen, rearranging the plates in the cupboard and making more noise than necessary. Unless was clipping dead flowers in the front yard, twitching their tail and brooding. A deliveryman came up the path to the house, pulling a cart behind him. There was a trunk in the cart, and the trunk looked familiar. Unless called out to Until, “Until, Until! A trunk is here! A trunk from our travel!” The brooding feeling was gone; Unless’s tail was no longer twitching. Until nearly dropped the plate they was holding, as a trickle of memory seeped into vision – yes! They had packed trunks and sent them home!
You can’t really travel with lots and lots of stuff; you might as well be moving your home with indecent frequency if you try to travel that way. Unless and Until had packed trunks full of whatever extra they each had accumulated, and periodically stopped to ship them home before traveling on as lightly as always. Now the first trunk had arrived, it was as though all their travels would be home with them for good, without having to go anywhere anymore. Until put the plate away and ran outside to join Unless and meet the deliveryman, calling “How could we have forgotten? No wonder we didn’t know what to do with ourselves!”
The deliveryman put the trunk on the ground and pulled his cart back down the path away from the house. Together they carried the trunk into the front room.
“We’ll open it,” said Until.
“Yes,” said Unless, “and then what?”
“We’ll see what’s inside.”
Unless and Until opened the trunk and saw that it contained an enormous pearl, a length of hemp tied in intricate sailor’s knots, the cracked halves of a large shell, a green iridescent feather, and a quantity of damp red dirt wrapped in a hanky. Both were astonished, and neither had any recollection of acquiring any of these items. Something had to be done with them, regardless, so Unless and Until went to work.
The enormous pearl threatened to roll off of every surface in the house, and eventually went in the punchbowl on the bottom shelf of the china cabinet. The hemp tied in sailor’s knots was hung in the window looking out toward the lake, which was as close as there was to a nautical view. Unless and Until debated crushing the shell halves for use keeping snails away from the garden plants, but neither wanted to destroy a souvenir just because they couldn’t remember why they had kept it; the shell halves were small enough to go on the mantel as a conversation-piece, and the light of the fire scattered reflections in the strangely metallic interiors of the shell. The green iridescent feather was added to Until’s hat, which was for special occasions only and had been in need of brightening up before a special occasion arose.
That left the damp red dirt wrapped in a hanky. Unless and Until could not decide what to do with it.
“Neither of us has any idea what this is or why we sent it home. We can’t do anything with it before remembering something.” Until felt like complaining and felt badly about it.
Unless sympathized, but had an idea, “We could put it back in the trunk and put the trunk in the attic. If we remember, it will be there. In the meantime, it will be out of the way.”
“Wonderful!” said Until, “That is what we will do.”
Now that all the other things were out of the trunk, however, it was obvious there were a few more items – five paintings, face-down in a stack at the bottom of the trunk.
“Now what?” cried Until.
“First things first” replied Unless. “We know what to do with paintings – hang them on the wall. Let’s take them out of the trunk, put the hanky full of dirt in, and put the trunk in the attic.”
The stack of paintings was turned face-up and placed on a side table. Unless and Until saw the bright colors and unidentifiable subject of the top painting and shot each other a worried glance, but wordlessly left the paintings there and proceeded with the plan.
After carrying the trunk up to the attic they both were tired and dusty. Until suggested some supper and then bed. Unless agreed. Both wondered if they would be able to sleep without doing something about the paintings, but they both slept easily and well, and woke up with the same idea.
“Now we know what we will do! We will look at the paintings and figure out what they are paintings of!”
“This will be interesting,” said Unless, “Maybe we will remember places we’ve been to once we see these pictures.”
“And there are five of them,” said Until, “We will look at only one at a time, and only hang it up on the wall when we are done looking at it and figuring it out. Now we have something to do here at home, without traveling, that will take long enough to be interesting.”
Unless and Until built a sturdy easel with a wide lip that would hold all five paintings at once, with only the top one showing.
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Image: Julie Püttgen, Cloudmapping: Unless and Until. Gouache, watercolor, and pencil, 12x16", 2008.
Text: JS van Buskirk