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"There are eddies in the slipstream of time and refugees among us, borne on desperate currents." –John Roberts
Van Meer stood still, staring at a strand of wire stretched hip-high across his path. He stared intently for a long while. Morning dew settled on his shirt and chilled his shoulders, gathered in his beard and sparkled like jewels in the sun's first rays. He stared, as thoroughly unmoving as a yam. There was something about that wire.
His thin shirt gave little protection; he couldn't remember the last time he'd taken it off. His woolen pants were stiff with filth and old blood. He'd taken them from a corpse weeks ago. He could have taken more; there had been several corpses. But his mind shied away from the carnage; he lost conscious awareness, and when next he found himself he was fishing, stretched by a stream where water ran clear and shallow across a sand bar. His hand and forearm were numb with cold but a fish investigated his slow-moving fingers. When its fins touched his palm he scooped it out with a practiced flip. He had a knife, but he'd lost flint and tinder, so he ate the fish raw. God provides.
Now, his last meal was so long forgotten, hunger ceased to concern him. His belly was flat against his spine. His bare feet were purple, swollen with bruises and cold. Raw scratches festered on his arms. He had a stout stick and carried a large oilskin pouch on a strap across his shoulder. He was shivering but knew the day would warm. It would be winter soon. He would not survive another winter.
None of these petty concerns tarnished the exalted miracle of existence for Van Meer. He was weightless as a breeze, bright as polished bronze. He floated, he beamed, he glowed. He stared, motionless, stretched as taut as the wire. Morning dew made it precious. He reached out to touch it. A shock of pain and surprise jolted him all the way to his shoulder and completely out of his transcendent state. He was again just a man dying from starvation and exposure. His feet were agony, his knees cracked when he bent them, his teeth began to chatter. Was it the wire or some trick of his mind? He reached out again to touch.
The electric jolt was immediate and relentless. How it was possible he had no idea. But then, how anything was possible he had no idea. There were impossible miracles everywhere. His mind turned abruptly clear. Around him the world bared itself in sharp precise detail, distinct and guileless. Every truth and secret of nature seemed revealed in an apogee of wonder. He ascended once more to the state of grace brought on by privation. Starvation was a saint’s gambit, but Van Meer was not a saint. He was an angel. He folded to the ground to wait patiently for the sun, for warmth, for death.
He reached into his oilskin pouch and pulled out his Comfort, a tattered collection of papers that had once made a drawing pad. He shuffled complacently through them. They were nearly all black with ink sketches done on top of ink sketches. Later he’d used berry juice; raspberry and currant and some kind of red berry that birds could eat but people couldn't. He used little split sticks or sometimes crows' quills. The layers of drawings filled in every notch and corner and left no sign of paper white. They overlapped and ran together, threaded through each other in a wild profuse tangle that made it impossible to separate one image from another but it didn't matter, he could see them all, separate and perfect. He touched them lovingly with his fingertips one by one and was content. His shivering eased.
He must have dozed. The sun was striking bright bold lances through shadowed trees when a woman found him. He opened his eyes, uncurled slowly, and sat up. Yes, there was an old woman on the other side of the shocking wire, saying something. It had been a long time since he'd heard a voice. The responding words in his head were thick and slow. He looked away, glanced sidewise at her, and looked determinedly away again. She was too painfully bright, shining with the white light of purpose stronger by far than any he’d seen. It swelled and pulsed around her head and shoulders. Angry flashes of red intermittently occluded the white around her hips and knees. He could sense too, hiding beneath the light, a deep and abiding sorrow.
He did not wish to see but it was too late. His fingers twitched and trembled and he mourned for one small scrap of virgin paper. He did not look at her again.
"Are you all right?" the woman asked. The words approached him slowly then sped up and fled on by. "Can I help you? Can you get up? I can call for help."
Van Meer tried to duck into himself. He understood the words; he just wasn't sure what to do with them. The solid sure presence of the woman pressed against him. It was like standing with his hand on the dikes feeling the pressure of the sea beyond. He swayed back. He squeezed his eyes, blocked his face with his forearm. "Please. Not so close. Please."
The woman stepped back two paces and did something unexpected. Nothing. She did nothing. She even tamped down her aura and the considerable force of her personality. She was still too bright but she waited. Always before, people were impatient with him. They became louder, closer, more insistent. "Listen to me! Look at me! Answer me!" And the wounds in their souls would torture him. He longed to curl up again but it was too late, and his compulsion was upon him. He heard a strange voice, his own shaky voice say, "Please, could you find me a bit of paper? I seem to have run out."
Ella Roberts recognized the signs right away; the unwillingness to look directly at her, the precise, meticulous, somehow loving way he gathered up and arranged his pile of blackened papers, the oblique timeless way he had of speaking and responding. Of course starvation might do that to any rational man so she couldn't be sure. But it was plain he could be easily spooked.
He may be autistic. He might have post-traumatic stress disorder, PTSD. He might have some kind of physical trauma or be mentally ill, but he may not be stupid. None of that means he's stupid. Ella lowered her aching hips to the ground and spoke gently. "I can bring you paper. But if you come with me you can get warm, get something to eat. You can get clean. Can you stand up? What are you doing here? Oh! My name is Ella." She let the unasked question hang between them for a time and finally he responded.
"Van Meer. My name is Van Meer. I’m an angel." I walk the straight and narrow on God’s bent path, he thought but did not say. He pulled his knees up and hugged them and his Comfort tightly to his chest. "I like to draw." He began to rock just a tiny bit. "There are people up there, I can feel them." He jerked his chin in the direction of the house. "They're all damaged. I'll have to draw them all. Could I please have paper?"
The cool fall morning became bright clear and brisk, the kind of day that swells your heart with delight, the kind of day that no mere memory can fully contain. Children unable to prevent themselves did cartwheels in celebration. Cooks and housewives stepped to the back door to breathe sweet air. Carpenters and masons downed their tools and lifted their heads. Men strolled on their way to work, swinging lunch pails and whistling. Farmers in the fields laughed and sang. Ella hurried across the yard as fast as her old bones would let her. Both the fine fall day and the pain in her joints were eclipsed by her need to make a difference. "God’s hairy knuckles," she grumbled to herself and snorted back a laugh. She’d adopted the expression from one of her boarders.
Ella was a widow. The death of her husband John Roberts marked a pivotal moment in her life. She still carried his memory like a cactus plant on a saucer. The wasted tread-water years of her life without John seemed a pale thing, a purposeless time, but she had a new life now and a new job rehabilitating time refugees because John had been right! John Roberts, her heart, her gentleman farmer, her extraordinary temporal theorist, had been absolutely right! Together they had bought the property where he’d calculated his ‘time refugees’ would wash up.
Ella remembered asking, "Why do you call them refugees?"
"Because," John had answered, "The only way you can leave your timeline is if you’re leaving anyway."
"Leaving. About to die unremarked and unremembered, having no more influence or effect in the world. If the right rare circumstances occur they may fall cross-time, into another timeline. Ours, hopefully, where historians and scientists ought to find them fascinating." He smiled the idiot lopsided grin that had first attracted Ella so many years ago. John’s theories were scorned as nonsense by all but a few theoretical physicists. Lord, how she missed that grin. The memory singed her heart, and she shoved it away.
Ella had adoptive family and friends now—and resources, skills, and uppity notions. She was a force of nature is what she was. John had told her so. She’d simply forgotten for a while. She had work and purpose but especially purpose. The time refugees had changed her; changed everything. She intended that change for the better if she had to do it one refugee at a time. But first she had to save them, if she did that one at a time. And now there was another kitten on her doorstep. Okay. Ragged old tom. She hurried.
She burst into the kitchen at a near-gallop. Bru stood by the stove spicing a large pot of ham and beans. Fritz sat at the kitchen table with a cup of hot tea, the dust of the day's labor already upon him. They both stared in surprise.
Bru was the first refugee Ella had taken into her home and she’d become an integral part of the family. Life had been difficult for Bru. She knew what survival took. "Trouble, Missus?" The large cast-iron spoon in her hand was suddenly a weapon.