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Rated: ASR · Short Story · Scientific · #2270286
A small town becomes mired in a strange, mathematical obsession.
My granddaughter laughed in disbelief at first. But as I continued explaining the Count, her expression turned to concern. Finally, she leaned in and declared, tone hushed, “Grandma, you were in a cult.”

Now it was my turn to laugh in disbelief. But later, as I considered my childhood, I began to wonder if there was some truth to her words.

There are few left who remember the Count. Some townspeople may recall their grandparents muttering numbers in their sleep, but largely speaking, the obsession that gripped my ancestors for over a century has faded into insignificance. Seeing as the great saving grace to my hearing loss is that I no longer hear the creaking of my joints, I suspect the number of Counters may soon fall by one more. So I write this history.

------------------------- Part I -------------------------

To my knowledge, the story of the Count begins with John O’Riordan – an early Irish immigrant to the Americas and the cobbler for the town of Westmont, Massachusetts – and the 1791 outbreak of influenza that took his wife and their only child.

Westmont lay nestled among the northern hardwoods and oaks of Hampshire County. It was always a sleepy town, and at the close of the eighteenth century, it must have been in a deep slumber. In those times, its some two hundred inhabitants’ main concerns were the size of the newborn cattle, the quality of lumber, and preparations for heavy snowfalls.

During the winter of 1791, the whole O’Riordan family fell violently ill. While John recovered, Martha O’Riordan passed away and their four-year-old son, Alexander, was left bedridden for months. The town’s doctor gave the child slim chances of recovery, but John cared for the boy until the very end nonetheless.

Alexander was at the age when he was learning his numbers, and he still felt some delight counting from one to ten on his fingers even as he burned with fever. John must have heard his son recite the digits hundreds of times as his condition worsened. Even ill, Alexander was a curious child. In his final hours, he asked his father a simple question: What number was the largest?

John, a cobbler, had little knowledge of the integers, scales, scientific notation or the concept of infinity beyond a vague, theological sense. But his answer in that moment, made from terminology he barely remembered, was straightforward and inaccurate: “One billion.”

Alexander, voice trembling from fever, requested his father to count to such a sum. And John dutifully began to count. “One, two, three...”

Life is cruel, and Alexander passed hours later, listening to the sound of his father list off numbers to the last. John O’Riordan was left with nothing – except for one thought that shone through the oceanic grief flooding his mind: he had to finish counting to one billion. And according to local Westmont history, John spent the remainder of his life doing just that.

------------------------- Part II -------------------------

Of course, a man cannot speak continuously day and night; it was the people of the town who enabled the Count. John would spend around eight hours each day counting, “holding the Count” as it came to be known, but he would pass off the task for volunteers to continue outside of these times. The night watchmen in particular assisted by counting throughout the darkness while the rest of the town slept.

Many volunteers were required – perhaps thirty to start with – but John O’Riordan was beloved. The watchmen knew that the cobbler's shoes protected their feet from frostbite each night. The field workers knew their boots seldom became mired even after heavy rainfall. The town’s merchants knew that their footwear always impressed outside traders with its polish and refinement. And everyone knew of John and Martha’s generosity.

As the Count became part of day-to-day life, the citizens of Westmont developed a methodology to make the task bearable. The first innovation was the construction of tally boards by the town’s carpenter. John O’Riordan knew that the tedium of listing numbers might lull him into an unexpected sleep or cause him to forget key digits. The solution: to build a device to visually represent the Count’s current number and rapidly update to display its successor. The tally boards functioned similarly to today’s mechanical counters, although I have been told the idea dates back to the odometers of ancient Rome and Han China:

The carpenter would insert nine identical wheels onto an axle, each displaying the digits from zero to nine inscribed in order around its circumference, and use pins to engage once with the teeth of a carry-gear each revolution. The carry-gear of each wheel would rotate the wheel to its left by one-tenth of a rotation. Therefore, to count, all one needed to do was turn the rightmost wheel, which corresponded to the ones digits, and the carry gears would automatically increment the wheels representing the tens through millions.

The second development was a bureaucracy to manage the Count. John O’Riordan and his neighbors led the task initially, but over time the Delegation formed to become the official supervisors, selecting and training new Counters from among Westmont's youth, resolving disputes, and ensuring the Count continued even after John O’Riordan’s death. As word of the peculiar Count spread, Westmont began to attract attention from nearby towns and even curious visitors from Boston. The advent of tourism elevated the position of Counter to a prestigious role, and membership on the Delegation became an honor that rivaled election to the town’s government.

Thirdly, the Delegation made an effort to calculate the duration of the Count. In practice, it takes longer than a single second to say a large number aloud, and as the Count grew to greater magnitudes, the length on average would only increase. To account for this, the Delegation attempted to calculate the sum of spoken syllables in all the numbers between one and a billion. Here the Delegation passed several pronouncements about the proper way to speak a number’s name, such as a canonical ruling that large numbers must be connected to single and double figures with the word and.

The final estimation suggested two hundred years of continuous counting.

------------------------- Part III -------------------------

Perhaps you are wondering how much history there really can be to the Count. After all, counting is a simple procedure. But the truth is, I have heard too many stories to include them all.

For example, there was the mathematics professor from Harvard who relocated to Westmont in 1813. He held that unlike natural philosophy, which was of divine origin, man had created mathematics to study other phenomena. And while man had designed a system to describe the integers, it was only an abstract blueprint. This led him to the peculiar belief that until an integer was individually considered in the mind of man, it did not truly exist, or at least was less authentic, a concept without implementation.

Therefore, the Count in Westmont would bring millions of previously untouched numbers from abstraction to actuality. Eighty-three million, two hundred, twenty five thousand, nine hundred and sixteen. With all probability, that number had never been considered before, and now the Count would unite it in an audible sequence.

The professor barraged the Delegation with questions. Had the Count begun with one or zero? How did the act of counting persist during the pauses between numbers? Why use ten as a basis? He watched the Counters like they were sailors in uncharted waters, as if there was a real possibility that some unexpected island might emerge at any moment from the monotony of the sea. He stayed in Westmont for the remainder of his life and never made another publishable contribution to mathematics.

Which reminds me of the story of the inventor Ján Breznitz, a traveler from Eastern Europe and a disciple of Wolfgang von Kempelen in his youth. Breznitz visited Westmont in March, 1829, in a covered wagon with a bugle to announce his arrival. He called for the town to assemble to witness his marvelous invention, which he swore would change the Count irrevocably. Once a crowd had gathered, unsure what to make of the excessive foreigner, he wheeled out a bulky contraption from the confines of his wagon.

A mishmash of bellows, gears, and snaking tubes, the apparatus loomed over the heads of the villagers. With great flourish, Breznitz swung a crank jutting out of the machinery in a wide circle, and as the bellows gasped, the gears shouted, and the tubes cried, the cacophony converged into a warbling, solitary voice. “And One. And Two. And Three. And Four,” the machine pronounced.

The onlookers’ hushed discussions turned to dead silence. They looked away, backed up, slipped out of the assembly. Breznitz, either unaware or unperturbed, explained, between the pulses of artificial noise, that his counting machine could relieve the Counters of their responsibility. It was enough to turn the crank periodically and the automated Count would continue. Within hours, the Delegation convened to discuss the creation, and after a frenzied discussion, they came to unanimous consensus that only human speech could contribute to the Count. They insisted that Beznitz and his machine leave Westmont at once or else he would be escorted away.

Outsiders weren’t the only ones to cause commotion about the Count though. Let me tell you about the Anti-Count. That was back in the 1880s, but it shook Westmont with such ferocity that it became a cautionary tale repeated to all Counters during their training.

It started as a simple clerical error on the part of the Delegation. The schedule was for Gladys Aufbau to give the Count to Andrew Belfore at noon, who would then give it an hour later to William Shire. But an innocent confusion of messages led both Belfore and Shire into believing they were the one meant to take over from Aufbau. What the Delegation did not know, however, was that Belfore and Shire were also competing for Aufbau’s hand in marriage, and that a bitter hatred had cemented itself between the two suitors.

When the three met to hand off the Count, now near five hundred million, chaos naturally followed. Belfore and Shire took off counting at the same time, both convinced that the other was attempting some wretched form of sabotage. Aufbau ran to notify the Delegation, but by the time they arrived to settle the matter, Belfore and Shire were engaged in a vicious contest. You see, both of their recitations were valid candidates to be the Count, but since there could only be one true Count, whichever sequence reached a higher value first was the logical continuation.

Hence, whoever was in the lead was continuing the Count, the honored tradition of Westmont, and whoever trailed behind was chanting a meaningless sequence of large numbers, the ramblings of a lunatic. Rather than the precise, steady speech taught by their training, the two men raced ahead, rattling off digits between scant gasps for air.

The Delegation ruled that Belfore’s count followed the planned schedule of Counters, but Shire, fueled by jealousy and passion, refused to desist. His friends rallied to his cause and held his count when he collapsed from exhaustion. For many months, there were two counts in Westmont. The greater was always the Count and the lesser the Anti-Count ‒ the two swapping roles several times during their race. The feud divided Westmont and the town’s residents soon formed opposing militias to protect each count from violent interruption.

The Delegation only reasserted authority when, after Gladys Aufbau married a traveling actor passing through town, Belfore and Shire became open to discussing a compromise. Under the Delegation’s guidance, the Count carefully slowed to allow the Anti-Count to catch up, and as soon as the two sequences converged to the same value and pace, they were simultaneously escrowed to a third Counter, whose numbers merged the two branches back into a single stream.

At this point, you may be skeptical about the Count’s accuracy. Was the Count really continuous and complete for over a hundred years? Speaking from my experience as a Counter, I will say a certain amount of self-deception was involved. On one hand, every Counter knew that at some point during their time holding the Count, they had erred. Either they had spoken the wrong digit, lapsed into an extended silence, or skipped a number while handing off the Count to another. Try it yourself, and you will see. On the other hand, every Counter believed that if the Count was in some way invalid, then they would know. They would feel the difference in the movements of their vocal tract, hear the disharmony in their words, or witness the imperfection manifest itself in the natural world. I know some who suspected that the Delegation had branched off a second, secret Count from the original at the time of John O’Riordan’s death. They suspected that while the public tradition maintained by the Counters was allowed to continue, the true, ineffable Count persisted in dim candlelight, behind concealed doors.

------------------------- Part IV -------------------------

I should draw my musings to a close. The Count outlived Westmont. While the town had grown over the years, its community was still rural and close-knit. Westmont’s insular nature ensured the survival of traditions like the Count, but it also precluded its citizens from carrying much influence at the level of the state legislature. The Massachusetts General Court ruled to disincorporate Westmont, alongside the neighboring towns of Dana, Enfield, Greenwich, and Prescott to clear land for the soon-to-be-constructed Quabbin Reservoir, designed to provide additional clean water to Boston. The Count, the Counters, and the Delegation all left their homes in 1938, and the lands where John O’Riordan spoke the ancestral “One” soon sunk beneath the waves of a man-made flood. I was first learning my numbers then, and I still remember the cackling of dead leaves underfoot as my mother carried me for a final time through the empty town square.

The United States, re-emerging from the final years of the Great Depression, still held few open jobs. Families took whatever offers of steady living they could find, bid farewell to their neighbors, and set off for distant promises. Quietly, our community fractured and dissipated into the country’s cracks. But the Count persisted in our diaspora. The entire Delegation held a final meeting and arranged for select representatives to travel with trusted clusters of devotees. They devised a schedule for each cell to maintain the Count for a year before transporting it afar to the next micro-society of Counters. My family was among one of those cells.

Although Westmont’s separation tested us, the remaining Counters became even more staunch adherents to the cause. Rather than play with our new neighbors after school, the other Westmont children and I gathered to practice counting and memorize the rulings of the Delegation. When it was our cell’s year to hold the Count, my parents volunteered to work night hours so that they could count during the day. And when my father slept through his shift, lost his job, and could not put food on the table, the rumblings of our empty stomachs accompanied our murmured recitations. But this is the story of the Count, not of me.

At last, in November, 1967, the Count reached one billion. I will spare you the politics and bureaucracy involved ‒ who would have the honor of speaking the number, how would the Counters convene for the momentous occasion, where should it take place, etcetera. In the end, we converged from around the country to a site by the shore of the Quabbin Reservoir, near to where Westmont waited expectantly in subaquatic gloom. The head of the Delegation held the Count, and we hid the trembling of our legs with solemn faces as we watched. She spoke crisply.

Nine hundred, ninety-nine million, nine hundred, ninety-nine thousand, nine-hundred, and ninety-eight.

A collective drawing of breath.

Nine hundred, ninety-nine million, nine hundred, ninety-nine thousand, nine-hundred, and ninety-nine.

Then at last…

One billion.

A moment of silence, and then she did what all humans have ever done when faced with immensity and emptiness.

One billion and one. One billion and two…

I left the society of Counters soon afterwards, and the majority of others did likewise. I do not know if the Count still exists.
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