Howard Hinton and his family are living in Japan, escaping from a scandal. Hinton’s obsession is his work, his voyages into mathematical pure space, into the fourth dimension, but also his wife and sons, each of whom are entangled in the strange and unknown landscapes of Hinton’s science fictions.
Never was a man so deep in thought. So limitless a field lay before him, so indistinct from the terra incognita beyond. He needed orientation. He needed to return to first principles. He needed simply to mark a point in the sand: let this be point a. By marking such points, so might a man draw fresh lines. By marking such points, so might a man construct foundations, axioms upon which to act anew. Let the commencement of this journey be point a.
Hinton stood so thinking upon the harbour’s edge. Viewed from quayside, he cut a keen silhouette against the sheet- white sky, tailored Tweedside blocked against Yokohama cloud. A native artist would have drawn the rain that was falling as rods on the diagonal, with variations in angle; would have rendered the Western man’s face as elongated, his nose as two sides of an obtuse triangle, his brows straight over narrowed eyes, paralleled by the brush moustache atop his upper lip. His hair would have been closely attended to, its swept wave and natural curl a particular interest for the artist accustomed to jet hair.
All would be flat behind him, and before, all on the surface of the plane, the colours soft but cleanly described in blocks of white, brown, blue and ochre. The schooner in the bay would be given equal weighting despite the foregrounding of the man, its three proud masts as significant to the scene as his hand thrust into his hip pocket. The more modern of the native artists, such as might sell his work to the newspapers or study at the Art School in Tokyo, would shift his perspective to bring into the background the steamer upon which the figure attended, making his picture emblematic of Tadayasu’s wakon- yōsai – “Japanese spirit and Western techniques”. Such an artist would – in a short passage of text adorning his image – record the man’s noble work in education, his collaboration with Japanese mathematicians and philosophers, his journey of cultural exchange: the idea subtending the beautiful representation.
A European artist would give detail and perspective. In an already established tradition, the man would be framed against the immensity of the ocean, the terror inherent in its power dwarfing while elevating him, his status as heroic aesthete secured by his facing down the sublime force of nature from this stony crag. His forehead would be glimpsed in oblique profile, set against the elements, his shoulders set back in the broad tailoring of the great coat, his chin a jutting banner to the wind. In a newer tradition he would begin to merge with the haar, the confidence of his form deliquescing as sprays of light from an entropic sun fought through the haze, his very boundaries dissolved into his natural surroundings: a suggestion of a figure, dematerialised. In the very newest, he might appear as the Japanese version of himself, transposed and abstracted by a hemisphere.
This character carried documents in the inside pocket of his coat representing his entire family. His full name: Charles Howard Hinton. He was known to intimates by his middle name, Howard; had always been Howard to his parents, Margaret and James. James, even now, occupying his thoughts as he pondered distances travelled. He had been in Japan five years; his father dead some seventeen. How lives played out over their course. How might he redraw his own. He had suffered a fall, but rebirth was a possibility afforded him twice now, a possibility not afforded his progenitor.
His father, a philosopher highly regarded by society and academy alike for his thoughts on issues as distinct as domestic eh, life; the relations between science and religion; the physiological functioning of pleasure and pain; the need for self- sacrifice. Self-sacrifice above all. His father, James Hinton, a surgeon to educate and to feed his sons and daughters; a philosopher to nourish himself: great metaphysician, subject of biographers and obituarists. Howard was the inheritor of a once- illustrious name – how past that was – and the reputation attached to it.
In his youth Howard had burnished this reputation, conscious of its worth; had edited collections of his father’s work and written prefaces for appreciations. He had published his own work on mathematics and its higher applications; had begun to enjoy a certain amount of success, to make a name for himself; had secured notices in Mind and other journals, winning praise from certain of his father’s peers and appointment to a teaching post at Uppingham College. If he had not yet, by the time of his exile, piqued the interest of biographers, his life had been on that trajectory.
A jinrikisha came rattling along the harbour wall, pulled by a burly Japanese in straw rain coat in the custom of the rural workers in the surrounds of old Edo. In the trap, Howard’s oldest son, George, was seated alongside a black, lacquered chest. George sat upright and alert, his fine blond hair slick to his scalp in the rain, his eye- glasses circles of opaque steam against his rosy face. Howard noted with pride the manner in which the boy had taken to responsibility. George was the least physically able of Howard’s four sons but faced the world with a determined efficiency. Where he sensed disadvantage, he prepared methods for overcoming it. George had insisted upon travelling guard with the box, knowing its value to his father. He dismounted; Howard paid the shafu and together the three unloaded the box, placing it carefully on the harbourside.
The arc had been bisected: his career interrupted. He had been exiled. He had written to his publisher at the time of the shame that had befallen him since his trial, shame such as he would wish on no man, and had communicated his departure for work in distant lands: to a mission. He had not corresponded further with his publisher in the intervening years but had continued to write. While he now believed the direction of his earlier thought catastrophic, he was able to consider that he had found ways to think anew these difficulties by dramatizing them, making of them stories. Such stories had been the focus of his endeavours in Japan. Such stories might take flight in America.
He had inherited more than a reputation. For one thing, a gaze of considerable intensity. When he recalled his father, he recalled his father’s eyes, beacons of a soulful mind, beaming, projecting the will for communion; active eyes, essaying a form of looking that wished to encompass all, to allow the object agency in the act of being seen. Despite the narrowness of his own gaze, such eyes glinted from within the creases. They had been noted, frequently, by the Japanese amongst whom he had been living these past five years and to whom their cobalt pigmentation was alien. His eyes had caused such comment that this sojourn had made him conscious of the organs as objects that were seen and contemplated by others, a dizzying inversion that produced a sensation of deep strangeness as he reflected upon it.
As Howard, George and the shafu worked, the second jinrikisha arrived, transporting Howard’s wife Mary. Howard looked up and felt the sorrow and frequent frustration that had accompanied his relations with his wife since England. Mary, her hair tied back, a seriousness of expression squaring her jaw, was cradling their youngest son, Sebastian. Howard had much cause to rue the impossibility of knowing Mary’s mind. He wished repeatedly to inquire after her thoughts. On occasions when he had acted upon such a wish, he had been disappointed. What was communicated eh, was not thought, but something so attenuated that he became despondent of the hope of two minds ever achieving understanding. It was not that Mary did not have the words, simply that words themselves, however ordered, once external to her mind, were insufficient – woefully so – for the purpose he hoped they might achieve.
Sebastian had known nowhere but Japan and now would know nowhere but the new world to which they were set to chart course. Sebastian was English only on the documents Howard sheltered in his deep pocket: Sebastian Theodore Hinton. Howard conceded to the emergent narrative that Sebastian was cherubic, insisted upon by Mary. He brought God, she said, in keeping with his middle name, God and truth. He had more of his mother’s features and frame and Mary allowed the boy’s hair to grow, so that his soft face was cushioned in a blond mane. The boy was gentle of nature, thoughtful in his dealings with others far beyond what one would expect of a five- year- old. With no idea of their theory, Sebastian was the epitome of his grandfather’s notions of self- sacrifice. That very morning, Sebastian had gifted to his mother the collection of pressed flowers he had lovingly assembled in Japan under the tutelage of his governess as a lasting memento of the Japanese nature Mary so loved. Howard noted how close to being overcome was his wife. A gift had not occurred to him.
A horse- drawn cart followed, bearing chests. These Howard directed towards the steamer, the Tacoma, moored further along the harbour. Already anticipating Mary’s inquiry – where are William and Eric? – Howard contemplated retaining the second jinrikisha in order to commence a search. In the planning, all three traps had been due to leave the residence simultaneously and the two middle boys, despite their youth, seven and eight years apiece, were to travel together because the possibility of any interruption in the brief journey had seemed so remote. No longer.
Somewhere, somehow, between the home and the harbour, William and Eric had become delayed. Howard imagined the set of possible circumstances: an altercation of some description between the shafu and a passing pedestrian? It seemed impossible that the shafu should have become lost. The terrible thoughts to which the parent’s mind is apt to fly in such moments loomed at the edge of his imagination, thrusting and parrying into consciousness: the mere forming of the word “accident” accompanied by a sickening sense of how vulnerable was childish flesh in the hardness of the world. No sooner had Howard begun to sound out the depth of his panic, felt as a falling away in the lower stomach, than the third jinrikisha rounded the houses at the harbourside and made its way along the quay, the two boys filling his lungs with relief by their grinning from the bench seat. That such extremes of emotion could be occasioned without external expression and within the span of a minute was the syrup torture of his quotidian experience.
“Papa, Papa, Eric nearly fell out!”
Eric, an almost perfect physical replica of his mother, robustly built, set jaw, closely cropped hair: always dressed in childish clothes against which his form chafed. Of spirit, something loose. In his more doubtful moments, Howard worried that the boy’s senses had been altered forever by a head injury; that the boy was different since, that something in the matter of his mind had been shocked free of its moorings. There were questions of speech: his was more fluid, accruing recently heard words and phrases too readily and repeating them. There were matters of temperament. There was a troubling disregard for others in the child’s actions, an antithesis to Sebastian’s temper, against which Howard wondered if it mightn’t be some form of reaction. In eh, times of more ascendant thinking Howard could glimpse in the boy a speed of mind, an impatience with the mismatch between his capacity for curiosity and its satisfaction. Frequently that void was bridged by self- styled entertainments involving the provocation of his brother William, as near as not his twin in appearance – slightly heavier, if the two were to continue to grow into adulthood on parallel paths – and in temperament direct and stubborn to the point of insolence. Willy appeared stuffed into his clothes; was, indeed, stuffed into those worn by Eric but twelve months previously. William had been named for Howard’s beloved younger brother, a promising student and gentle soul, overcome by pulmonary paroxysm in his fifteenth year.
Six Hintons, gathered on the quayside, their chests and bags piled beside them. The Hinton family, detailed in documentary form on the papers inside Howard’s pocket: a bill of passage and letters of introduction. Soon to be transferred in name and number, age and status, into the ship’s log of the SS Tacoma by the man walking towards them.