Huffin the puffin sat on a fence overlooking the sea. Seagull fluttered down next to him.
“I think no two things are the same,” said Huffin, even before Seagull had gotten comfortable.
“Wait a minute,” said Seagull, adjusting his feathers so they lay flat, and setting his feet so that he could balance on the fence. Then he cleared his throat, turned to Huffin, and said, “Now, you think what?”
“I think no two things are the same,” Huffin repeated.
“How about ‘hello,’” said Seagull, trying to teach Huffin some manners. “Or, how about ‘How are you?’”
“Those aren’t the same,” Huffin shook his head.
“No I meant … ,” Seagull started to explain.
“They’re close,” Huffin was still shaking his head. “I mean, ‘hello’ and ‘how are you’ are things you say when you first see someone. That makes them similar. But no, I wouldn’t say they’re the same.”
“I didn’t mean to say they were,” Seagull said.
“Take any two things that are almost the same. If you look closely,” Huffin squinted his eyes, as though looking closely at something. But he was just looking straight ahead, out over the sea. “If you look closely,” he went on, “you’ll see that they’re different.”
“Like what two things?” Seagull didn’t see where this was going.
“Oh, I don’t know,” Huffin began. “Like this fence post here on my left and that one there on the right, next to you.”
“They’re different?” Seagull looked from one post to the other. He looked puzzled. And then, “Well, ok, a little different. The one near you is more brown. Mine is kind of greenish brown.”
“They’re ve-r-r-ry different,” Huffin purred the “very.”
“Ver-r-r-y different?” said Seagull, copying him.
“The height is different. The width is different.”
“Not much different,” Seagull looked from one post to the other, and then back to the first.
“Different is different,” said Huffin. “They’re not the same. Nothing about them is the same. Everything about them is at least a little different.”
“Oh, I’m not so sure,” Seagull tilted his head in a way that you do when you’re not so sure.
“The size, the shape, the color, the depth of the hole that each one is in, the angle at which they’re tilted, …”
“Well, ok,” Seagull cut him off. “I see what you mean. Yes, if you’re going to count all those little differences, then yes, they’re different.”
“I count everything,” said Huffin. “They’re not the same. Every fence post is different from every other fence post. Fence posts vary.”
“Fence posts vary,” Seagull repeated.
“Yes, fence posts vary,” Huffin agreed, agreeing with himself.
There was a silence, while Seagull let the idea of fence posts varying sink in. It wasn’t such a difficult idea. He didn’t have any trouble with it. Not really. It’s not like it was a surprise. It’s not like he’d used to think that fence posts were all the same and now he didn’t. He had never really thought about the sameness of fence posts at all, so the idea that they varied didn’t bother him. What bothered him, or rather, what was about to bother him after a few more moments of silence had passed, was that fence posts probably weren’t special in this way.
“So I guess that means …” he began.
“Yeah, it really does.” Huffin nodded wisely.
“It means …” Seagull voice was weak.
“Yup. That’s exactly what it means.” Huffin continued to nod, his face very serious.
“So, really, that means that everything …,” Seagull’s voice trailed off.
“Everything.” Huffin still had that serious tone.
“Everything varies?” Seagull finally got it out.
“Feathers vary,” said Huffin. “No two are exactly the same.”
“Blades of grass?” Seagull looked worried.
“Blades of grass.” Huffin replied. “And waves in the ocean.”
“Waves in the ocean?”
“All of them are different.” Huffin was whispering, for no good reason.
“Clouds?” Seagull questioned.
“Clouds too.” Huffin agreed.
“Pebbles on the beach?” Seagull suggested.
“Right. Them too.” Huffin stated simply. And then, “And grains of sand on the beach. All different.”
“And …” Seagull breathed in, puffing a bit, as though winding himself up. “And whales, and boats, and fish, and my favorite, sea urchins!” He was rolling now. “And trees. And sunsets. Yes, sunsets!” For some reason, this excited Seagull. “Sunsets! All different!”
“Yup, that’s right. No two of them the same,” Huffin chimed in. “Even gusts of winds,” he added.
“Gusts of wind?” Seagull wasn’t sure for a moment. But then he was. Birds know a lot about wind gusts.
“Gusts of wind,” Huffin said, very sure of himself. “And it’s not just that any two things are different. Every single thing is different from itself at a different time.”
“That fence post is what it is right now. But it’s going to be different later, right?”
“Yeah, I guess.”
“A bit of it is going to rot away. If it stays in the sun, its color is going to change. The way it sits in its hole changes, if only a little, with every gust of wind. And every time we land on this fence. Just landing on the fence must move it a little bit. It’s always changing.”
“So from one time to the next, everything changes. Nothing stays the same. Nothing is the same as itself. Everything varies.”
There was quiet for a bit. And then Seagull spoke, “So everything varies.”
“Everything,” Huffin confirmed.
“Absolutely everything,” Seagull spread his wings as though he could wrap them around everything.
“No exceptions,” Huffin said.
“That’s so cool,” Seagull was singing too now.
“Everything in the universe,” And now Huffin was laughing.
“Amazing!” Seagull yelled. “Everything varies!”
“Everything!” Huffin sang out. “Except,” he added carelessly, “except for some things.”
A heavy silence fell over them. Seagull’s wings, which had been out away from his body, taking in and wrapping around the whole world of things, sank sadly back to his sides. He turned his head to look at Huffin. His face said, “What?” And then his voice said it too, “What?”
Huffin cleared his throat. “Well,” he began. “When I said everything, I didn’t mean everything.”
“What did you mean?” Seagull’s voice didn’t hide his annoyance.
“I meant most things. I meant practically everything,” said Huffin.
“Except what?” Seagull sounded down. He’d thought he’d understood something important. Something true. Something true of everything. Something that would always be true of everything. Real truth. “Except what?” he repeated.
“Well,” Huffin cleared his throat. “Obviously, we didn’t mean to include numbers. They don’t vary.”
“We didn’t?” Seagull wondered.
“No, we didn’t, of course not,” Huffin said. “I mean the number 3 is the same as all other number 3’s.”
“Doesn’t that depend on how you write it?”
“No, I don’t mean a written 3. I mean the idea of 3. You remember the 3 from the other day? That 3. My idea of 3 is the same as your idea of 3. Everybody’s idea of 3 is the same. The threeness of all threes is the same.”
“Yeah, ok,” said Seagull. “So everything varies except numbers.”
“Right,” said Huffin. “Except numbers.” A short pause. And then, “And of course everything that numbers measure.”
“Like size,” said Huffin. “The size of every exactly-2-inch circle is exactly the same as every other exactly-2-inch circle.”
“Oh no,” Seagull shook his head miserably.
“And I guess words, the spellings of words, can be the same. The word “word” is spelled w-o-r-d every time. I mean, when you spell the word word w-o-r-d,” he spelled it out, one letter at a time, “it’s exactly the same spelling as every other time you spell the word word.”
“Ok, but that’s all, right?” Seagull was not happy. “Just numbers and sizes and words?”
“Well, no, actually” Huffin admitted.
“There are a few more things that don’t vary?” Seagull voice sank.
“Well, yeah. Quite of a lot of them, really. There are principles that don’t change. Like the opposite of positive is negative. And the opposite of the opposite of positive is positive again. And some people say that the way the world works doesn’t change – the rules about how light and heat and motion work. Some people say that the little particles inside of atoms, like electrons, don’t change. Me, I don’t know, but people say that.”
“Ohhhhhh!” Seagull let some air out.
“Don’t worry. It’s still true. We were right at the beginning.”
“I thought that before, at the beginning,” said Seagull, “but I don’t think I think that now. Some things don’t vary. You said that yourself.”
“Well, I was speaking loosely,” Huffin turned his head and eyed Seagull, grinning. Then he spread his wings to catch the breeze, maybe to dry them. Seagull wasn’t sure.
“What do mean, “loosely?” Seagull demanded to know. “Either everything varies or not everything varies. How can you be “loose” about something like that?”
“What I meant,” Huffin began to explain, “is not quite that everything varies, just that every thing varies.”
“Huh? Everything? Every thing?” Seagull repeated it, saying it in the drawn out way that Huffin had. “Every thing?”
“That’s it,” said Huffin, spreading his wings even wider, perhaps to catch more of the sun. Or maybe for the warmth? It would have been hard to say. “That’s it,” he repeated. “Every thing varies, but not everything.”
“Some everythings are not things?” Seagull said it, almost – but not quite – knowing what he meant by it.
“Right. Some things are not things.”
“Like circles and word spellings, you mean?”
“Yes that’s right. Those aren’t things.”
“Are you sure?” Seagull ….
“No, I’m hardly ever sure,” said Huffin. Although there was after all, one thing he was sure of, namely that he was hardly ever sure.
“Well, I’m pretty sure,” Huffin replied. His wings were still spread, and now Seagull saw why. He was getting ready to lift off. “I’m pretty sure that every thing varies.”
“Right,” said Seagull, speaking a bit louder so that he could be heard above the rush of an especially strong gust of wind that sprang up out of nowhere. “All things vary.”
“Yes, probably. Except for … “ Huffin trailed off, rising a bit higher as the gust strengthened.
“Except for what?!” Seagull was yelling now, as the rush grew louder.
“Except for the things that don’t,” Huffin said. And off he flew.