When I was young I asked my father what the highest number was. He said, in that fatherly way: “Twenty is the highest number, my son. Not here, nor in the furthest reaches of the land, is there any number higher.” I was satisfied, I walked proud with my new knowledge and assurance.
Till I came of age, at twenty one.
I went to our village doctor, to tell him I had a Numerical Tumor in my age; that somehow I had grown an additional one on my twenty. He informed me there was no cure. Fortunately, the tumor was benign, although it would continue to grow.
I was fascinated by the knowledge of this learned man of science, and sought anew the answer to my question, ‘What is the highest number?’ The doctor regaled me with a scientific instrument, the abacus, and showed me that it could count as many as a hundred things. “But surely,” I asked, “if one had one hundred abacuses, one could use yet another abacus to count those hundred abacuses, and yet each of these could count a hundred more things. What, indeed, if there are yet more numbers, beyond the reach of this fine tool?”
The Doctor was all a-fluster, and told me in stern terms that any number that had not been counted on the abacus was not worth considering, and indeed could hardly be said to exist at all. He spoke of a man named William of Occam, and of something called the Least Hypothesis. But what use was all this to me, if the highest number was always the last number to which I had counted? Is it useful to know where the end of the earth is only after you have stepped over it?
I asked around the village for answers until they tired of my interrogations and told me to seek out the priest — a well-studied man, possessed, they said, of an answer for everything.
I soon learnt that the priest did have an answer for everything. The reason for this was that he didn’t waste very much time in finding them. He was a meek man, and did not need the fancy expensive answers so beloved of academics: he would make due with older answers, even if they were a tad worn out. The priest would see an old answer lying about, and say to himself, “Ahh, that would fit the question I have perfectly.” Whether or not the answer was right seemed to his mind a somewhat indulgent concern: “Oh no,” he mocked me, “My trousers are not the right trousers; my car is not right the car; and oh, my answers are not the right answers.” And through guffaws he said, “if the answer fits, it does the job.”
He told me that the highest number was Jesus Christ, and sent me on my way.
In desperation, I sought out the village idiot, and asked him what he believed the highest number to be.
“Austria,” said the idiot.
In his small way he had granted me wisdom, for I came to realise that if there was an answer to my question, I would not find it in my little village. So against the protests of my parents, I went out into the world in search of that elusive goal, The Highest Number In The Universe.
Many were the lands to which I travelled, and many were the experts I met. I know, for I counted them all. But not one of them could give me the answer I sought so dearly. Nobody could help me. Till I came upon the Mountain.
The peasants of the lower village told me that at the Mount’s summit lived a hermit, the wisest man living in this world or any other, and that if my answer existed, then surely he must know it.
So I climbed.
And there was a cave.
And in the cave was a hermit.
There was a sign at the entrance: “You don’t have to be enlightened to work here… but it helps!!!” The hermit sat within, heating beans in a rusty pan over a small fire.
I wasted no time, and silhouetted in the cave’s entrance, I asked, “What is the highest number?”
But the hermit only laughed and said, “Kid, you don’t wanna know,” and not a word more.
For three days I sat outside his cave, in blistering cold and through haunted nights. After three days he came out to me. “Look kid, it ain’t what you think… you can still just go home,” he said.
But I would not move, and so the hermit sighed and said, “Very well… The highest number is… gazillionty-seven.”
I looked at he. He looked at me, and grinned impishly. But I would not be bought off so easily, and so out-loud I counted: gazillionty-five, gazillionty-six, gazillionty-seven, gazillionty-ei… and blacked out.
When I awoke some time later, his wrinkled face was staring at me from above: “Told you so kid. You can’t go any higher.” Then his face took on a dark hue, and he whispered, “Here’s the thing, kid: there’s only gazillionty-six things in the whole universe.”
“Even if you count a pair of trousers as two things?” I asked.
“Even so,” he said. And then he just laughed and laughed and laughed, and pointed to the ceiling of his cave, where he had scrawled in red letters three feet wide:
Oh look at me you Wise Men
Sitting on my Mountain
With all the numbers in the world
And nothing to be countin’
I never go anywhere that’s more than twenty feet above sea-level anymore.