a fable about the origins of those helpful counting thingies
Once there weren’t numbers,
and life was cold and sad.
You might say “I’ve got lots of stuff!”
but not how much you had.
You could gather flowers,
but you couldn’t count them up.
You could ask for chocolate milk,
but not a “second” cup.
And though their eyes could see just fine,
the people still were blind.
They held things in their arms and hands,
but never in their minds.
Then a number sprouted up!
No one knows quite how.
It just appeared,
and people cheered,
“We’ve got a number now!”
It glistened in the morning dew,
and sparkled in the sun.
It stood up straight and proud, and cried,
“Hello! I’m number one.”
And after that, the people saw the world a different way.
They might come home and tell their friends,
“I saw one cow today!”
“One sandwich!” they could tell the cook.
“One song!” they’d ask the singer.
“One glass of water,” they’d request,
while holding up one finger.
But if they wanted more to drink,
well, that was not as fun.
They’d say, “One more. One more. One more,”
until the thirst was done.
Finally, one day, One cried out,
“This simply will not do!
I’m not enough! You need my friend!”
And out stepped number two.
The people cheered!
Two waved and grinned,
and said, “Oh, mercy me!
Let’s have my friend come join us now!”
And out stepped number three.
Three just blushed and introduced
its friend, the number four.
Each number brought another friend,
and more, and more, and more!
By the time the sun had set,
the numbers filled the air.
They stretched into the evening sky—
The world had changed that very day:
The people now could count.
Instead of saying, “Look! Some sheep!”
They’d state the right amount.
“Eleven children in the class.”
“Twenty boats at sea.”
“The ants upon the ground below?
There’s seven-hundred three.”
Things were good.
Yes, things were great!
Except one thing was not.
Two friends had baked themselves a cake,
then said, “It seems we’re caught.
We want to share this cake we’ve made.
We want to split it fair.
But what amount should we each get?
We’re simply not aware.”
No one knew just how much cake
to give to both the friends.
They argued till their throats were sore,
and patience hit its end.
Then the numbers happened by,
and broke into a laugh.
“You don’t need us!” the numbers cried.
“You need our friend one-half!”
Indeed, they did—and quickly, they resolved their cake transaction.
“One-half! What are you?” people asked.
And it said, “I’m a fraction!”
And then there sprouted from the ground,
from crannies and crevasses,
fractions by the millions,
fractions by the masses!
“What a world of numbers!” people cried,
They thought their tale had ended with a satisfying bang.
They thought they knew the numbers.
Every uncle, aunt, and kid:
they thought they knew the numbers!
They really thought they did.
For years, they’ve kept on coming, though,
emerging through the mist.
There’s too many to fathom.
There’s too many to list.
They come in different sizes,
and they come in different signs.
Some of them are perfect,
and some of them are square,
and some are just irrational,
like clumps of unbrushed hair.
Some are made of many parts,
and some are elemental.
Some are real,
and some are not,
and some are transcendental.
Some are large as universes,
others small as seeds.
You plant a single number
and the others sprout like weeds.
And even now—yes, even now!—on strange and special days,
numbers help the people see the world in different ways.
Once there weren’t numbers,
but that was long ago.
And now they cover everything,
like freshly fallen snow.