Van Meer rose from the ground like a ghost from a tomb. It was not yet dawn, cold and black beneath the trees. Frost was thin this deep in the forest, but there was a snap to the air and Van Meer’s breath condensed on his mustache and beard. He walked among his stacked stones and hunkered down next to the three-day-old fire pit. He had no trouble finding his way. He wrapped his arms about his knees and waited for the dispersal of the dark. He would have preferred to stay in his cozy grave but he felt the pressure, the push at his back, and knew better than to struggle against it. When light began to find its way beneath the trees he stood up and looked about.
They had desecrated his work, taken away his best stones and moved others to make the fire pit and spit. The stones were not ordered or tidy or configured correctly. It made his palms itch and he rubbed them on the worn wool of his pants, to no satisfaction. The campers had scuffled through the patterns Van Meer had made with thumb-size pebbles. They stamped all unknowing over his sand circles and gravel collections, spoiling everything. Van Meer looked about and wept. For three mornings in a row he had looked and wept.
He needed his rock collection to make a cover over his sleeping hole; something big enough to sit up in that could be heated by a banked fire, to keep him from the deadly cold to come. But he could not touch the stones again, dirtied as they were by other hands. He would have to find another place before the first snow.
He thought often about that second option. He longed to sit quietly at the edge of the woods and watch large soft snowflakes cover the world with something new and pure and untouched. To slip away at such a moment seemed as perfect an oblivion as possible and there was comfort in the thought. But the tragedy of his despoiled stones disturbed him deeply and the pressure at his back was unceasing. It was time to leave.
He went to collect his things, mourning quietly for the ruined symmetry of his work. He put the strap of his oilskin bag over his shoulder and checked the contents; his Comfort, his pens, the little cross and chain. He tied the leather pouch of oats to a belt loop on his pants, put the leftover deer meat in his one spare sock, looked about one last time at the discordance of stones and left, weeping.
Walking soothed him. His feet were healed; he wore boots and felt no discomfort. His memory was dotted with holes and soon there would be another. A fragility to the day, a melancholy in the air, said snow was on the way. Van Meer walked slowly, stopping often to record some small beauty on a corner of his dwindling paper supply: branches that shaped the sky, knots of wood with sensuous lines, dry leaves still on trees in dying profusion. In a while he was beyond himself and content.
Van Meer’s bending path brought him to a glade in the woods recently cleared of trees. Stumps stuck out of the mud and trampled grass like shattered bones. Sprays of sawdust and wood chips mixed with churned black earth. Leaves and broken branches littered the ground or humped up in gathered piles like rabbit warrens. Across the wasted field a rough log cabin sat, unchinked and without a door. A stone chimney at one end promised a fireplace within, though the whole building couldn’t be but four strides long. Van Meer watched entranced as snow began to fall and the world turned white. The glade transformed; one moment exhibiting a tragic destruction, the next, a courageous chin-up beauty. Van Meer watched, feeling God’s presence, knowing he could never paint such an ephemeral moment but could only keep such a treasure in memory. Maybe. He crossed the field to the cabin. Inside he found a profound surprise, his own work, a lost page from his Comfort framed and glassed and hanging on the wall.
He was going to explore further, start a fire, and try to understand, but without transition he found himself walking among the trees parallel to a road. Fifteen or twenty minutes without conscious memory might have passed, but such was a frequent experience for Van Meer.
Up ahead he sensed worry and fear. The whole area teemed with frantic people. Apprehensive, he turned to leave but as soon as he lost focus his steps circled back. God’s path was once again taking unexpected turns. Van Meer resigned himself. At least he was wearing pants.
From a roadside ditch, he watched the bright light that was Ella. She stood in the road with her arms folded around her for warmth. Her worried spirit jangled harshly against Van Meer’s nerves but he could not turn from her. Thoughts of her bowman stirred a morass of emotion within him but he could not recall why.
The snow’s texture changed to a drier steady fall that would pile up fast. Ella walked from side to side on the road, looking into the ditches and calling. People near and far were searching. Voices rose in panic. It took very little understanding to grasp the situation. Someone was lost.
Ella spotted Van Meer. She stopped, surprised by the sight of him. She turned to look up and down the road. Van Meer looked too, he did not wish to be taken by his compulsion. But no one was too near. Ella did not approach him. She tried to smile. “Van Meer! You have your coat! Fritz will be pleased.” She rubbed her face in apparent anguish. “There are twenty people searching and I’m still praying for help. Would you? I—we have a situation. A child has wandered off, and the weather’s turned brutal. Time is crucial. Can you help us look? Please? Her name is Leisl.” Her expression firmed. “I know you have at least one God-given talent. Perhaps you have another.” Van Meer wanted to turn away but Ella’s distraught spirit called to him, a simple, wordless help.
She had saved his life. He was grateful for the coat he wore and the boots on his feet, and for paper. A bright slip of intuition told him the tiny cabin with the picture on the wall was also her doing. He nodded assent. Ella nodded back in response and turned to answer someone’s call.
Van Meer backed beneath the trees and wandered about, not knowing how to proceed. He knew only to avoid the other searchers. His undirected legs took the path of least resistance, down slope as might the legs of a lost child. In a short while he fell into a steep gully, erosion hidden by border shrubs and filled with dead brown leaves. Further downhill the gully softened and widened, but here at its source it was a sharp gouge in the land. He jarred his hip in the unexpected fall and lay quietly to recover.
He heard a stirring and saw a dog lift its head. Its tail thrashed the leaves. The dog lay next to a small unmoving body, providing warmth. Van Meer must have picked up some of the emotions of the extant people all about for he was overwhelmed with intense relief and an equal measure of fear. The little body did not move. Van Meer struggled to his feet. The dog’s tail thrashed harder.
Barely breathing, Van Meer bent over the tiny form. She was still alive. A bruise marred her temple. Her lips were blue. Snowmelt on her cheeks glistened, feigning teardrops. She was dressed in a quilted jacket and pants. The dog looked trustingly up at Van Meer. He took off his coat, wrapped the small form in it and picked her up. He worked his way down the gully until it was no longer steep and he could scramble up the side. The dog followed. Snow sifted through the trees. He was nearly back to the roadside when a voice behind him called out. “Hey! Hey you! Do I know you? What’s your name? What have you got? Wait there, ’til I catch up!”
Van Meer sprang away like a startled squirrel. He clutched the child to him, hiked his knees high and sprinted for the road. The arms of the coat flapped out behind him. The man followed, shouting. Van Meer gained the road not far from Ella, his legs churning like a yearling elk and a look of pure terror in his eyes. He braked to a stop in front of Ella, pushed the coat-wrapped bundle at the startled woman, turned sharply left and took off, knees and elbows flapping. His oilskin pouch bounced wildly at his hip. The ragged cuffs of his shirt fluttered. Ella stared after him until he was hidden by falling snow.
Ella felt the child stirring in her arms. She could have made mulligan with the wild mix of her emotions. She was turning back to the house when one of the searchers came puffing by. He was followed by Ella’s dog, Rex. “It’s okay,” Ella said. She was having trouble getting words past her constricted throat. “You don’t have to chase after him! Look! I’ve got little Leisl. She’s found! Call them in, let everybody know. Ring the bell by the gate.”
Through the thickening snow and across the woods and fields the sound of the bell pealed, thanking God for little miracles.
Van Meer’s panicked gallop through the storm left him overheated. He sat in a protected corner of the cabin, cold and wet, positioning himself so he could watch the weather through the open doorway of the shelter. He pulled up his knees and wrapped his arms around them. He had a blanket somewhere. An unlit fire lay ready in the fireplace and he had oatmeal in a small leather bag on his belt loop. He could make gruel if he could start a fire but he lacked the means. It didn’t matter now. Lethargy settled like a sandbag across his shoulders. He reached for his oilskin to draw out his Comfort and stopped short to look up at the picture on the wall. Smiling, he trapped the bag between his knees and wrapped his arms about them. Eventually his head fell to rest on his knees and he slipped into dreams, shivering in the night.
“Time is a property of distance. Observed time is a property of waiting. Every sensible person understands this.”–John Roberts
“Fritz!” Ella banged into the kitchen blowing on her hands and stomping her feet to warm them. She nodded a greeting to Bru, turned back to yell out the door, and squashed her nose on Fritz coming in. She shoved him in mock annoyance. “Found. Baby Leisl’s found and by our broken man, our own lost soul!” Her mood shifted abruptly to worry. “He doesn’t have his coat, Fritz. He left it with the baby.”
Fritz nodded understanding. He tapped his thumb on his chest and made a sweeping motion as if petting a dog, meaning; “I’ll look. Me and Rex.”
“Yes. Rex can help. And you found him once before.” She paused, remembering. “God’s hairy knuckles, be careful!”
Fritz gave her a comic leer and clutched his crotch, saying, “You mean God’s hairy balls.” Ella shoved him again, grinning.
Bru placed an ugly mustard yellow mug on the table. “Drink, Fritz. Tomato soup. Won’t take a minute. If you’re going out in that weather you’ll need something hot in your belly.”
Ella blinked. John’s favorite mug. How often had she seen him sitting there with his big work-scarred hands wrapped around it, holding forth on his favorite subject? No, not just holding forth. Lecturing. Teaching. The one thing John really missed was his students. “The Now is all pervasive, like an ocean to a fish. It’s always the same time; always high noon in the ever-present now, though there’s a growing faction of scientists who claim it’s always five o’clock. Don’t let this concept of an eternal Now confuse you. It does not negate past and future, it encompasses them. However. Given the eternal Now, space/time can be defined as; space is the distance between objects, time is the distance between events. Certainly a subtle distinction, but vital to understand.”
Ella reached for the mug, took a commemorative sip and handed it back, feeling a fragile comfort. If only distance separates us I will come to you when I find the right direction. She knew what John would say: “To leave this timeline you have to be leaving anyway.” She poked surreptitiously at the lump under her breast. You may not have long to wait, love.
John was still in her head. “My theories are just meaningless equations if based on a false premise. I need proof I can point to. But how can I say so-and-so’s from cross-time? A time refugee looks like any other undocumented alien.” He paused to sip from his infamous cup. “Ella, the right conditions for cross-time travel here are temporary. As conditions change there will be a kind of hiccup, a balancing of forces characterized by a bio-mass transfer, a balancing across a cluster of timelines. It falls between different parameters than human refugees, and it will manifest differently. Fish falling from the sky, manna from heaven, swarms of locusts, lemmings falling off a cliff not into the sea but onto some far shore. Something. Maybe it’ll rain toads. Sounds almost biblical, doesn’t it? But whatever it is we must watch for it. It’s my proof, my prediction come true. Or I’m a temporal theorist who’s full of shit.” An idiot smile lit his face.
Sky toads splatting on the road would be the most important moment of John’s life, the culmination and vindication of his work. But Ella needed to get his predictions on record before the event, whatever it was, happened. To that end she was taking John’s work books and journals to his physicist colleagues in the city. She’d also made appointments at the medical center for herself and Fritz. The doctors hoped to give him a tongue. And she had, well, whatever she had.
She desperately wanted to stand in for John, to see his triumph and celebrate for him, but she couldn’t wait for it, she didn’t know when it was. She sighed. Someone would surely notice if it rained snakes or pterodactyls appeared in the sky. She went to help Bru with supper, and together they waited on word from Fritz.
Van Meer felt warm. He curled in fetal position on something soft and itchy, a wool blanket. Another blanket covered him, and his coat on that. He peeked out past eyelids crusted nearly shut. Heat radiated from the fireplace. Sharp blades of light edged around an old horse blanket covering the doorway. He rolled to his knees, every movement dragging out like a bad dream. His muscles resisted, his head pounded, his throat was so dry he could not swallow. Mere exhaustion would be an improvement.
Mint tea steeped in a pan by the fire. Two cups and a honey pot waited alongside. He filled one and added honey, wondering who belonged to the other cup. The ever-present background susurrus of noise in his head was quiescent. He was sitting with his back against the wall and a cup warming his hands when a dog pushed past the hanging blanket like he’d been invited. He lowered his head, gave Van Meer an apologetic look and shook vigorously to remove the snow on his back. Cold wet dollops splattered. Van Meer laughed. The dog cheered him immensely. When it came close he wrapped his arms around it and did not mind the damp smell. It wagged its soggy tail and did its best to return affection. Van Meer looked for the old piece of deer meat in his sock. Maybe he’d eat some himself.
A voice called from outside, “Van Meer? It’s me, Ella Roberts. Remember me?
Slow minutes followed. “Yes,” Van Meer finally managed, peeking past the blanket. Ella stood there, looking sodden and determined. “Baby Leisl is fine. A bad bruise on her head, exposure and hypothermia, but she’s fine. We have you to thank. You saved her life.”
“The dog kept her warm.” Heavy snow still fell through a grey dawn. Ella’s bowman in coat and hat lounged in a camp chair, his hands behind his head like he was basking in the bright rays of summer. Van Meer’s fingers began to itch and clutch.
“This is Fritz. He wants to thank you for saving his life. He’s the one who found you last night. No wait, it was Rex who found you. He’s a good old dog. But anyway, he won’t hurt you. Fritz, I mean. No one will. Do you understand? You’re safe here; no one will drive you off or try to take you away. No one will bother you. This cabin is yours.”
“I saved Fritz’s life?” He wasn’t going to think about that. The rest of what Ella said slowly penetrated. “I didn’t build this, did I?”
“No. I had a couple of local boys do it. Clever lads. Van Meer, can you tell me how you found Leisl?”
“I followed my feet. I walk God’s path. Sometimes without pants.” He looked down, just to check.
“We brought you some things. Food and clothes and a soldier’s cot. They’re homecoming gifts. Welcome home.” She stepped up to the entrance of the shelter. Van Meer found his Comfort, sat down in a corner and did not look up again. Ella stepped inside.
Winter settled over the forest. In a dirt floor cabin on a snow-lost meadow Van Meer embraced isolation. Nights when the cold was a viscous thing seeping through the walls he sat by the fire in constant attendance. On milder nights he edged back and forth between the too-cold wall and the too-warm fire. Life became routine, but memories seared from his waking mind found their way back in dreams. Van Meer would wake panicked and screaming, clutching his Comfort and backed into a corner. Once he woke shouting obscenities and found himself barefoot in two feet of snow. He hobbled inside to a dying fire. Blood circulation returning to his feet was brought by thousands of fire needles.
When he got snowed in it did not matter. His only real chore was gathering wood and melting snow for tea. He sat by the fire hidden from the world, a fox in a hole, a bear in a den, a tree in a thicket. He drew Ella’s bowman often, standing over a corpse with a stick in its eye, warding off a slashing blow or viciously stabbing with a knife. He drew him baptized in blood and in every drawing the bowman’s spirit was a vengeful shout. Van Meer fed each drawing to the fire, watching in fascination as ink and paper, blood and vengeance, turned to flame.
By the road an arrow’s flight away sat a large box with a lid and latch; a post with a bell hung by it. Twice a week someone would leave supplies and ring the bell and Van Meer would bundle up to force his way out to the road, trying desperately to get the number of steps to come out to exactly six hundred and eleven, the same as the first time he’d counted.
One brittle ache-tooth morning after a deep snow he reached six hundred and eleven well before he reached the road and was forced to stop, frozen not by the marrow-sucking cold but by compulsive insistence. He stood unmoving, distraught and undecided, until the sun topped the trees and his face went numb. He returned to the cabin without reaching the road, feeling nameless unease. His cheeks and the tip of his nose turned black. Dead skin sloughed from his face and the pain stayed with him for days, but Van Meer’s urgent need to count steps went away. He counted it a fair trade.
In return for food; butter, eggs, bread, tea and tins and casserole dishes he could reheat, Van Meer left drawings given in gratitude and guilt; gratitude that they fed him, guilt that they asked nothing in return. He left geese paddling in circles to keep water free of ice. He left cranes hunting fish among cattails, startled deer in the moment before they flee, climbing vines, flowers in shadow cut by sunshine when leaves first start to fall.
Early one morning when the day was won from the night but still catching its breath, Van Meer walked bareheaded in the meadow and felt the regard of his Maker upon him, as any pious man in a quiet moment might. He feared to look up and fell to his knees where he remained until the feeling passed. The wind picked up, and hard pellets of ice punished the trees. But a pleasing negative space between ice-covered branches caught his eye and he sought pen and paper from his Comfort. Only later did he realize his old travelling companions, the constant pressures in his head and at his back, were gone.
He sketched, painted with watercolors and wished for oils. He grew strong. He began to fret.
“Time is not an arrow. Space and time curve. Time stretches, compresses, bends. It’ll likely come full circle and bite us in the ass.”–John Roberts
“Ella! Ella Roberts! Come in, come in! What an unexpected pleasure, haven’t seen you since–well, since the funeral.”
The warmth and brightness of the room was a welcome contrast to a cold overcast day.
“Hello, Charles. It’s been three years and a bit.”
“Yes. John’s passing was a great loss to us all, a great loss to science.”
“Not that science much noticed,” grumped Charles’ partner and colleague Alex Gillens.
“We lost him earlier than that, when he tossed everything away and moved to the farm.” Despite his words, he came over to give Ella a warm hug, nearly lifting her off her feet.
Charles glared at Alex for his lack of tact. “We dearly miss John’s insight, although I can’t blame him. The University’s treatment of him was appalling.”
Ella looked around the office suite, better described as a physics lab, sporting a dozen monitors and several computer stacks. A piled-up mix of books, notebooks, stapled-paper piles, mechanical gadgets, measuring devices, tools, tubes and space-age toys covered every horizontal surface. “They’re not toys,” she could hear John say with his distinctive inflection, “they’re interactive constructs illustrating convolutions in time and space.” The only window framed a pallid sky. The only chalkboard was mounted high on the wall, encased in glass. She recognized the scrawling hand, if not the meaning of the equations “Is that—?”
“Our little memento. I wish he’d stayed in touch. John refused to put anything in the ether, he never did trust computer security. But he could have trusted us. Should have.”
“As to that . . .” Ella’s throat constricted. She swallowed back tears and tried again. “As to that, I’ve brought you something.” She placed her valise on the floor—there was not two square feet of clear space anywhere else–and popped it open. “I’ve brought all of John’s work: his notebooks, his journals, and these.” She held up a handful of computer disks. “This one in particular, his latest–I mean last–they’re three years old now.” She hadn’t expected this to be difficult. “John’s last mathematical proofs and his predictions. I want them on record as soon as possible, before the occurrence of a predicted event. In short, publish or perish. Put it in the ether, gentlemen, and the science journals.” Charles’ eyes grew large with voracious delight. Alex took the disks, handling them like holy relics.
Ella snapped her valise shut, feeling satisfied. John Roberts would get recognition for his accomplishments. She could not doubt his theories were correct; she lived daily with the proof. But she had to wonder what he meant by “hiccup.” John had a genius for understatement that made Ella uneasy. “I have a friend, Fritz, taking treatment at the University Med Center. We’ll be here for a few days.” She did not mention the important paper-signing legalities she and Fritz would face in a few hours.
“Perhaps you could join us for dinner?” Charles offered, “Alex is a very fine chef. I only married him for his cooking.”
“I thought you married me for my money?” Alex grumbled.
“Yes, and what a disappointment!” They traded smiles, and Ella smiled, too. Because of her grief, she’d limited communication with John’s fellow physicists, but her heart warmed to them anew. “Thank you, but it’ll have to wait. I’m staying at the Med Center, in fact I need to get right back.” She let them think it was for Fritz’s sake.
Fritz was amazing. The little farming retro-community of Haven still had roots in Amish history, where passive technology was appreciated but cars and the frenzied pace of city life were frowned upon. It seemed hectic and crowded to Fritz when he first arrived. Ella thought his initial city visit would be overwhelming, alienating, and the tense environment of a teaching/research hospital especially so. Fritz, damn his hide after all her worrying, took it all in with unfazed delight. He asked endless questions, examined everything, and stared slack-jawed and helpless at nurses, interns, and coeds until Ella rapped his head with her thimble. She’d brought it for that very purpose; it was in her pocket now. She slipped it onto her thumb. “I’ll drop by again before we leave.”
Ella and Fritz held on to each other down a treacherous sidewalk of refrozen slush, half-melted footprints, and slick puddles of ice. A cold wind blew, stinging exposed skin, making balance tricky and progress slow toward the science building just off the quad. They were both in a state of glassy-eyed crogglement. Never had Ella been more certain of the word.
She’d met John here more than forty-seven years ago. She’d laughed out loud when a long-haired geek hurrying head down across campus surprised himself by walking into a tree. She had to introduce herself so she could apologize for laughing. He should have been the embarrassed one. The memory washed over her. Sweet and wonderful as it was, she did not want to be here. She belonged elsewhere now.
The last time she’d entered the lab, it exuded a sense of cluttered purpose. Now it reeked of disarray. Ella stopped and stared. It looked like the aftermath of a science geek frat-house party.
Reference books were scattered about. Neon post-it notes were stuck in the damnedest places. Abandoned coffee cups, fast food containers, and several empty beer bottles littered the place. Alex slept precariously in an office chair, his hands behind his head and his shoeless feet crossed on the desk. His toes twitched. A discarded pizza box poked out of a nearby trash can. All the monitors were scrolling numbers or displaying charts. One showed animation of a stretched rope of colored strands turning hypnotically like a barber’s pole, a visual aid Ella had seen before. Broken strands of the rope would unravel and spin out like spokes of a wheel until they stopped unraveling and twirled back up again.
From a speaker, a calm voice murmured a soft countdown, an audio counterweight to the visual chaos. Charles was standing with his back to Ella bending to speak quietly in the ear of a woman sitting at a keyboard and monitor. “Charles?”
Charles turned blood-shot eyes to her. His tie was missing, his unruly hair needed taming, his shirt hung half out. “Ella. Yes, just the person,” he rubbed his eyes like someone had just shaken him awake. “Em, what was the last thing John said to you?”
Ella’s lips tightened. “I’m not going to share that.” She gave it more force than she’d intended. Charles had the good taste to redden until she added contritely, “I’m sorry. I’m afraid I’m a bit out of sorts. I’ve had a difficult day. I’m sure you meant John’s work.”
Charles nodded dumbly. The normally fastidious man looked completely frazzled. “Yes. We have a situation.”
Alex stumbled to his feet. “We’re all a little concerned.” He massaged his neck, grimacing. “John’s got us all stirred up. Lucky it’s spring break around here. Bette!” The girl in the chair punched a key and turned from her monitor. “Bette, meet Mrs. John Roberts. Ella, meet our resident temporal specialist and the Latest Big Thing in physics theory. Her public endorsement of John’s work got it immediate attention.” He waggled a thumb to indicate himself and Alex. “We’re both physicists, but I’m a cosmologist and Alex specializes in geometry. So we called Bette back from vacation.”
“I was on a beach chasing blonde surfer boys twice my age. But this is way better.” Bette looked to be about nineteen, if she stretched a bit. Her hair, which Ella first thought was black, had a deep purple shimmer. When she rose to shake hands, she was shorter than Ella. “Honored to meet you. I am your husband’s biggest fan. Pun intended.” She shook hands enthusiastically, until Ella pulled away.
“He has fans?”
Alex interrupted. “John was the bad boy of physics for years. Of course he had fans. But right now, we need to know about his hiccup. Bette’s been running projections for the past—what time is it?” He turned in a slow circle, looking a bit bewildered. “Your lovely husband had the luxury of four years to consider the matter. You gave us three days.” He added after a moment’s reflection, “Well, no. I guess he didn’t.”
Charles gave him an exasperated look. “We think the event or events are imminent. As in any minute. And we think they might be dangerous, even fatal.”
“Several projections suggest disaster on a massive scale.”
“Quantum time flux makes it uncertain by definition.”
“It’s a saturated state.”
“Like superstate electrons.”
“Newtonian physics, quantum mechanics, and now this.”
“Toss ‘em in the air and–”
“Down comes–” They both reached for pen and paper.
“Boys!” Bette interrupted, “Do I have to knock your heads together again?” That seemed improbable in the extreme since Charles was tall and Alex was large, muscular, and well-padded. But the two physicists stopped in mid-track. Bette folded her arms. “Thank you. We have a guest! Two guests,” she added, noticing Fritz for the first time. He was still standing by the door. Ella introduced him. “Fritz doesn’t say much, but he’s a dear boy.”
Bette held his hand a bit too long, looking up through her eyelashes at him, but she turned briskly back to business. “Prevailing accepted theory is, time is divergent. But Dr. Roberts claims time is convergent. Seems obvious now. Divergent time lines could only be similar if they had constant interaction and adjustment. That’s key! Divergent lines spin off but fall back to be re-absorbed by the core timeline. That’s huge! Totally radical! He’ll make the cover of Physics Quarterly again. He’s got me running in circles, given me so much to explore. I’ve already got a handle on the next–”
“Not now Bette,” Charles interrupted. “Ella, we need to know about John’s time refugees. Have any turned up? Did they survive? Have you met any? Do you know where they are? We need to warn them.”
“And anyone around them.”
“They’re a target.”
“A lightning rod.”
“The tip of the spear.”
“The rent in the fabric.”
“The first drop, with a deluge to follow.”
“Aaaargh!” Bette put her hands over her ears. “I’ve been putting up with this for more than a year! The event, when it occurs, will occur in the vicinity of these time refugees. That’s the point. If you’re standing next to a surviving refugee you are standing on a target.”
Ella’s head rocked back. “What?’ She had no idea there was a danger, or she would have delivered John’s work much sooner. She exchanged a glance with Fritz and started to speak.
There was no transition. No moment between then and now. A boiling frothing maelstrom, a screeching thundering chaos, a discordant tortured storm of panicked birds packed the room. Furious wings pummeled her head. Before she could draw breath to scream Alex pulled her against his chest, wrapped his big arms about her head and leaned protectively over her. The crash of falling computers and the sound of breaking glass cut through the basso thrumming. She could hear shouting. The event was upon them.
The bedlam of birds lessened and she dared to push away from Alex. A snowstorm of flashing gray and white dwindled to a few birds as they escaped out the broken window or into the hallway. Feathers, guano, blood, fluttering papers, torn books, damaged equipment, and broken toys littered the room. Dead birds lay inert on the floor. Injured birds flopped about. Dazed birds perched here and there, catatonically still. Pigeons! They were all big, long-necked pigeons! Bette and Fritz were standing by the broken window shooing them out and grinning at each other like adrenaline junkies. They were both battered, scratched, and bleeding.
“Passenger pigeons!” Charles exclaimed. He stood by the shattered door which he’d apparently kicked open. His face was undamaged where he’d covered it with his hands, but his arms and the back of his neck sported dozens of minor scratches. Grey and white guano decorated the tip of his ear. “They’re extinct! Or they were! I conclude that your dear boy Fritz is a time refugee.” He looked about at his destroyed lab and grinned maniacally. “Now that was an event!”
Ella began to cry.
Fritz broke jagged glass remnants from the window’s edge so he could lean out and look directly up. Bette leaned out too, pressing against him to get room and putting one arm across his back for balance. They looked out at thousands of passenger pigeons wheeling beneath the slate grey sky or settling into the leafless trees. People were spilling out of buildings pointing in amazement. Bette turned to Fritz, her large dark eyes intent. “What’s it like where you’re from? What was the transition like? Sudden, instant, like the birds? Please! Tell me everything!”
Fritz shook his head. He withdrew from the window and from her touch.
Ella snuffled back her tears and slapped Alex’s hand away as he reached to poke at a nasty rip at the corner of his eye. “Don’t touch that! You’ll make it worse!” He’d received the injury protecting her. “Where’s the first aid kit?”
Charles already had it. “Sit, Alex. Let me see. You okay, Ella?”
“I’m fine, just reflexive tears. But my newly adopted son Fritz Roberts and I are going home. Now. Please do not mention Fritz. Life is crazy enough without the attention of–” She left the sentence dangling, hugged both men, shook hands again with Bette, and left. To hell with the aftermath they left behind and the questions that chased them out the door.
They argued all the way home. That is, Fritz argued. Ella held her tongue, and wasn’t that an ironic turn of phrase. But she was deathly tired. The work, persistence, finagling, money, bullshit interviews, and hoop jumping necessary to adopt Fritz had taken its toll, but had been necessary to get him admitted for treatment.
Growing a new tongue, they had learned, is done by initializing the dormant DNA sequences responsible for growing the original tongue then supporting the process with enzymes, hormones, and tailored drugs. They drained Fritz of blood, tailored it to fit and pumped it back in. “You’ll be surprised at how fast it’ll happen,” The doctor told them. The rest could be done at home, “but irritability, irrational feelings, and heat flashes are likely.”
Ella had given her share of blood, too, and listened to more than her share of advice, options, and optimistic lectures. Removal of the malignant tumor under her breast and follow-up treatment could extend her life.
“I refuse to believe everything is possible; it screws up the physicists. But everything possible is probable. In an infinite universe it’s a statistical certainty. The Hubble discoveries made this understanding a punch in the gut.”–John Roberts
Bru sucked exasperation through her teeth. Twice she’d gone down to ring the bell but Van Meer never showed. Of course not. Only Ella ever saw him. Or Fritz. “Lot of nonsense the way they coddle him,” she murmured, removing her apron. “Needs a proper talking to, he does.” And what business of hers to walk out on a day like this? But here she was for the third time since Ella and Fritz had left, trying to deliver painting supplies to Van Meer. “An investment,” Ella called them: tube paints, linseed oil, gesso, pen nibs, and a little glass bottle of ink. Bru couldn’t leave the supplies to the mercy of the brutal cold. She had to hand them directly to Van Meer. Night arrived suddenly this time of year, but she still had time if she hurried.
Bru hardened her heart to life long ago. She’d raised three strong sons, kissed them goodbye, and lost them to war. At the news, her husband Henri withered up and died like season’s end. The war reached the farm, destroying everything, and Bru became a refugee ranting and railing against man and God, but she soon stopped. Survival demanded all her attention. Her heart crusted over, and she became resigned to the brutal truth: God is uncaring, life is what it is, keep moving till it’s over. Life got even harder.
At death’s door she somehow took a left turn, and Ella Roberts found her and nursed her back to health. Now she had a safe berth as Missus Ella’s cook and took her satisfaction in keeping a well-run kitchen. She did not end her day till all was impeccable, went to bed tired every night, and never dared to dream.
When she reached the head of the path she rang the bell and sat impatiently upon the box to wait, fidgeting in the cold. She rang again and soon after started down the trail. In her annoyance, she did not notice the gathering dark.
Van Meer’s axe had twisted on a hidden knot, bounced off, and met up with his foot, slicing neatly through the toe of his boot. He removed the axe with shaking hands and hobbled into the cabin. The shock of the blow numbed the pain but it blossomed when he took off his boot. The blade had cleaved into the meat between the ring toe and his little toe, breaking the little toe. A massive purpling bruise was already forming. Van Meer pursed his lips and made no sound. Blood still flowed. He stoppered it with the sock.
He piled his blankets on the end of his cot and put a frying pan filled with snow on top, hopped back to the door for another double handful and finally stretched out on the cot with his foot in the frying pan, elevated and numbing in snow. When the bell pealed, he did not respond. It was hardly a wonder he did not sense someone approach. “Hello the hut!” a voice called from just beyond the door. “Van Meer! Are you in there?”
He bounded to his feet in reflexive action, exactly the wrong thing to do. His foot was inspired to new and greater excruciation. He mewed and fell back on the cot, which collapsed. He slammed to the ground. The pan doused him with melt water cold as a salamander’s heart. Van Meer yelped like a kicked puppy. A rapid knocking shook the door. “Van Meer? You okay? Are you alright? I work for Missus Ella. I’ve got your ink and paint stuff.”
Ella. Ella had been a frequent visitor, at first. She brought books, and together they sat reading and drawing, quiet companions. Van Meer soon knew she was ill. It made the hours and days dreary for him until he realized there are miracles everywhere. He wondered if she, too, walked a bent path. The voice at the door called again. “Hello? I’ve got your painting supplies. I can’t just leave them in the snow.” The door creaked open. With his current concern Van Meer had failed to latch it.
Bru poked her head cautiously into the gloom. When her eyes adjusted, she saw Van Meer on the dirt floor, bleeding, wet, and tangled with blanket and cot. He had a frying pan in his lap. She pushed the door fully open, took a breath to gather her courage and stepped inside to help. Van Meer rather meekly let her and it was a measure of how far he had come and how much he had healed. Together they got him untangled, righted the campaign cot and ensconced him properly upon it, leg elevated, with fresh snow to help the swelling and the frying pan to catch the melt. The mix of blood and snow made for a lovely delicate pink that did not disturb either of them much. The only conflict was momentary when she started to remove his soaked pants. He declined the offer and wore them wet.
When all was finally settled, they looked at each other. Van Meer looked quickly away and reached for his Comfort, his oilskin collection of overdrawn pages. In his current predicament, it was a bit beyond his stretch. Bru reached to help. Van Meer nearly panicked. “No!” he said, the first word he’d spoken in days. It seemed very loud in the tiny space of the cabin.
Bru retreated, and remembering Ella’s instructions, turned her face to the wall. “I’ve got things for you. Paint and ink.” She felt stupid showing a jar of ink to the wall so she turned again to face Van Meer. He was struggling to his feet, overturning the cot again. Bru felt a rush of fear. Her knees weakened, and she plunked down upon a debarked stump, Van Meer’s stool. She looked at her trembling hands, still holding the bottle out for inspection.
Van Meer lurched past Bru, ignoring the jumble behind him and the blood and pain that trailed him. He busied himself at a rickety shelf while Bru sat, entirely unsure about the situation. But Van Meer finished his preparations, picked up paper, and reached for the ink bottle Bru still held out. Only then did he remember his injured foot. A heavy grunt forced its way out of him. He looked at Bru as if he’d been caught with his hands in his pants. His face went gray and drained to white. More blood seeped onto the floor. Van Meer’s eyes rolled back and he slumped to the ground.
Bru helped him back to the cot. They repeated their earlier exercise, including the remove-the-wet-pants one. Again, Van Meer declined. Bru held her tongue and helped position him so he could draw with his foot elevated. Only then did she tend to the wound.
She brought wood in, stoked the fire, and prepared to leave. “I’ll be back in the morning. You stay abed and off that foot. You’ll not give me trouble and do what you’re told.” Her fear of Van Meer had ebbed, replaced by a fear for him. “You’ll come up to the house. You can’t be left alone like this.”
But Van Meer was busy drawing and never heard a word. When she opened the door to leave he did not look up but said, “Wait. For the moon.”
Bru considered, closed the door, and sat by the fire. She looked about for something to straighten up, but knew from Ella what a bad idea that was. She was gazing at the fire in one of those timeless moments that open flames inspire when Van Meer said, “Now.” Bru shook herself and stood to re-button her coat. Van Meer removed a page from the drawing pad. “Peek out the door.” She looked frankly at him, puzzled, but Van Meer offered no clue. He still did not look up.
Bru opened the door. A glorious full moon was well up, tree shadows on the snow sharp and strong. The air, smelling as if just arrived from paradise, cleared her clouded mind. The shadows were a deep inviting purple and the snow on the meadow a translucent blue, as luminescent as nothing else but moonlit snow can be. The world’s breath was caught by the moon, her own breath caught in her throat. Everything was perfectly still. A moment later all across the meadow, darting from shadow to light out into the middle of the clearing where the moon’s mistress could clearly see, rabbits hopped. They leaped in abandon and aimless, helpless joy. Everywhere across the meadow, rabbits danced.
Bru watched, still as a sane rabbit, as mad ones in multitude threw themselves at the moon with unreasoning passion. Rabbits flooded the meadow with a tide of tumbling, twisting inspired celebration. Then it was over. It was impossible to say which rabbit left first and which was the last, leaving only trampled snow as testament. They were gone. Bru, the meadow, the moon and the night all once more began to breathe.
Bru slipped the paper Van Meer gave her beneath her coat. She did not think to look at it and did not want to look at him. She left with admonitions to Van Meer about keeping his foot up and walked home alone in the surreal, ephemeral moonlight. As she moved through the trees light and shadow made a flickering strobe that confused her senses and haunted her waking mind even more than the sight of rabbits worshipping the moon.
Back in the kitchen Bru placed the drawing on the table and turned to hang up her coat but turned back to stare at the picture. She saw herself peering out Van Meer’s cabin door, the reflection of magic in her eyes. About her feet rabbits danced. It was a wondrous illustration, illustrating wonder. She left the picture on the kitchen table and hurried away to bed. That night she slept the deep sleep of a child and her dreams were all enchanted. She could not recall, in the glow of a brand-new morning, if there were rabbits involved.
“Of course I believe in God. The evidence is everywhere. I’m a physicist, I study miracles. Inconsequential miracles are rampant. Don’t you play golf?”–John Roberts
It was impossible for Van Meer to keep his foot above his head in a frying pan. There were biological imperatives for one thing and he needed to empty the melt water and refill the pan. And there were the paint supplies. So some time after Bru’s departure Van Meer got up, slowly, carefully, with a hand and eye on the frying pan. Blood rushed to his foot but did not leak out. The pain was bearable for a short time. He set his teeth and hobbled outside to do what was necessary with heroic determination, until he was once more supine, his foot elevated and the little bottle of oil in his hand. With curious pleasure, he unscrewed the top and raised it to his nose. The scent of linseed oil went directly to his memory lobes.
He was a toddler crawling on a cool tile floor. Someone yelled, anger and concern in his voice, but Van Meer could not make out the words. He was immersed in a world of smell and color. Across the black and white squares of the floor ran ocher and umber, yellow and blue mixing into green, spreading into red and becoming rich brown and purple, a source of circus wonder. The smells mixed; oil paint, gum Arabic, pine tree turpentine and linseed oil. He lifted sticky wet hands to his face to breath deep of this wonder too. A large dark mass rushed towards him.
Someone washed his face with a rough wet cloth. He struggled against it, still a toddler until life in the present came stuttering back. Rex the dog licked his face. Van Meer pushed him away.
Daylight speared his eyes. He was crawling up the road to the farmhouse, his bare hands and wrists swollen and red and burning with cold. He punched them down through snow to firm footing, and the pun made him laugh as he crawled. Or he would have laughed, but his teeth were shaking in his jaw. Behind him trailed the spotted crimson evidence of his passing.
The last thing Van Meer remembered before God took him was the little bottle of linseed oil. He could still smell it; the front of his shirt was stiff with oil though he could not remember spilling it or crawling out to the road. He dropped flat, face first into a bed of soft, thick, enveloping white. In a bit, he began to feel warmer and pain receded. He grinned through chattering teeth into the snow and a light in his skull grew brilliant. The wonder of his existence struck deeply and profoundly at every part of him. God’s path is full of glory, he had heard them say. But they had no idea, no idea at all. Rex began to bark.
The south wall of Ella’s sun room sported glass from end to end, knee-high to ceiling. The wan light of a grey day struggled through the windows to pattern the floor. The room had the comfortable aspect of an old pair of jeans. A faded couch did its part to strengthen that impression. Four red bricks elevated one end. The low end had a deep concavity formed over time by a number of dogs in serial possession of the best bed anywhere.
Van Meer slept. Several blankets and a quilt covered him; hot bottles of water warmed his arm pits. Bru waited on a wooden chair next to the couch, her back as firm and rigid as the chair. A puddle on the floor beneath her boots went unnoticed. An open letter perched on her lap. Bru could not read but she knew its contents.
Rex curled on the couch with his big block head resting on Van Meer’s shins. Every now and again he lifted his head and blew a long slow sigh through his nose. Homely described Rex well but he had large intelligent eyes that could charm the beans off an old man’s plate and the crust from around his heart. It made him a great therapy dog. He, too, was waiting.
Draped across a jury-rigged drying rack Van Meer’s clothes dripped water to the floor. Steam rose. Van Meer stirred, drew in a sharp breath and opened his eyes. Bru pursed her lips. “About time. You’d think I had not another thing to do.”
Van Meer blinked. He felt the heat beneath his arms and the weight of blankets upon him. He looked at the sunlight streaming through the big windows. He spotted his pants drying on the rack, looked sideways at Bru and lifted the covers to look beneath. He wore something soft and seamless and dark blue, with a drawstring. His upper body was covered too, in soft, buttonless blue. He dropped the covers.
“I–my Comfort, my bag.” His toes stung. His fingers itched. “My bag.”
“You’ll be fine,” Bru said, “No white dead patches, no frostbite. Rex found you in time. Again,” she added, with evident disapproval of Van Meer’s penchant for predicament. Rex flicked his ears and rolled his eyes in her direction but did not lift his head from Van Meer’s legs.
“You crawled nearly all the way here. What were you thinking? I cleaned that nasty gash again but it’s going to be bad for a while. Your knees, you’ll lose some skin. I’ve got hot tea with honey, just the thing, and you’ll drink it. Soup’s simmering, when you’re ready.”
Van Meer struggled to get up, frustrated by weakness and the weight of the dog.
“Now don’t you get to fussing ’till I’ve had my say. Your shirt was stiff with that linseed, it needs cleaning. There’s that. You won’t be going anywhere for a while, so there’s that. I’ve sent someone for your things. There’s people about the house, but they won’t bother you. I said you’re a dangerous man, and it might be true.” She stood up, the letter in her fist, looked down and noticed the water at her feet. “The Missus wrote to me. To me.” She brandished the letter, sounding a little awed. “I’m not to give you the little bottle. But I already did and you spilled it on your shirt.”
The letter said; “There is a bottle of linseed oil with the paint supplies, used for thinning paint. Do not give the bottle to Van Meer. Smell is linked to memory. Linseed oil is distinct and must be familiar to him. I don’t want Van Meer hurt by bad memories and my stupidity. Don’t give Van Meer the linseed until I get home. Please.”
Bru leaned toward Van Meer and whispered, “Can I have the little bottle back?” She looked worried and a little ashamed. Van Meer did not try to pull away. He had only a vague recollection, but he nodded assent. Bru looked relieved. “I’ll bring your things in when they get here.” She sat back down and smiled, something she might not have done in years. “You ready for tea?”
The door eased open and a little voice whispered “Rex? Are you here?” Rex stirred and lifted his head to look over the end of the couch. Van Meer also looked, dreading. He had no paper. Frosty entered, whispering theatrically. “Rex? Oh. There you are!” Frosty won her new name when Rex saved her from death by exposure. She wiggled her fingers at Van Meer. “Hi. Rex likes you.” Van Meer lifted a handful of pins and needles fingers and waggled back. Here was a soul undented by life’s hard knocks. Relief blurred his vision. Perhaps he could paint portraits again, starting with one, untroubled by God’s agenda.
Frosty grinned like the sun and the moon, and two smiles answered. Bru’s heart, which thought itself immune, melted under the radiance of that smile though she gave no outward sign. The clouds parted, brushed by God’s hand. Sunbeams speared through the windows. The room turned golden.
“Life is short. Dame Evolution is brutal,”–John Roberts
They arrived home after dark a day later than intended, delayed by fussy medical technicians and doctors. Fritz felt the welcoming shores of home keenly. An iceberg of emotion drew him floundering in its wake; bittersweet torture barely touched the tip of it. To gain a mother and lose her so soon wasn’t fair! He wanted to stamp his foot like a five-year-old. “You’ve got to go back!” They’d whittled the argument down to a few words.
“I’ve had my life. I refuse to die in a hospital.”
Fritz bit his lip. Maybe the concoction of drugs and hormones were having an undue early influence. Ella stopped at the kitchen door and turned to face him. “I’ll have no talk of this around others. I don’t want to spend my last few months saying good-bye.” Before Fritz could marshal a response, she added with considerable aggravation, “Do like I tell you! I know what’s best! I’m your mother!” Trite and true and ridiculously cliché. “I’ve always wanted to say that!” Ella put a hand to her mouth to hide an embarrassed smile. But the remark shattered Fritz’s iceberg, chunks calved off to float away in every direction, leaving him buoyant, freeing him from overwhelming inertia. He snickered. So did Ella.
They embraced fiercely, laughing and crying together, awash in raw emotion. But such a moment cannot be sustained. It peaked and settled, and the argument settled with them, seemingly resolved. They pulled apart, pulled themselves together, and by unvoiced consent turned to their other great worry, the one the argument distracted them from. Did Bru and Van Meer get pigeoned, or did something else happen? Were they safe and unharmed? Fritz opened the door.
Bette sat at the kitchen table. Ella’s lips thinned in anger. “What are you doing here?”
“I got here yesterday, just in time to help haul Van Meer inside.”
“Van Meer? Here? Is he alright?”
“An accident with an axe. Bru says, “He’ll do if he minds.” She mimicked Bru’s matter-of-fact speech perfectly. “He’s in the sunroom with Bru. A very capable woman. Charming. And such a lovely smile.”
“Bru? Smiling? Our Bru?” Ella exchanged an amazed glance with Fritz.
“I’ve become acquainted with Frosty and Rex too. Mrs. Roberts, you surround yourself with the most remarkable people.” She looked at Fritz again who stood there lamely, clearly poleaxed.
“Frosty? Little Leisl? She’s here, too?” Ella sat down, absorbing the fact that Rex was included as people. It eased her anger at Bette’s intrusion. “What’s Frosty doing here?”
“She’s probably peeking through the door at Van Meer. An incurably curious child. Bru is babysitting. Her parents have a crisis at home. Toads, I’m told. Lots and lots of toads.”
Sky toads. Ella’s thought’s jinked sideways. She gathered them up again. “Why are you here?” she pressed.
“I came looking for clues, and to help. To forewarn. I think passenger pigeons are a precursor. The main biomass transfer event is yet to come.”
“Oh.” Ella settled heavily onto a chair.
“Have you seen these?” Bette pushed a collection of Van Meer’s drawings across the table to Ella. Fritz looked over her shoulder. There was Bru, surrounded by rabbits. The second portrayed two passenger pigeons. The third showed a flight of pigeons much like Fritz and Bette had seen from the window of the lab. Ella swallowed back tears when she saw the next; a double portrait, herself holding hands with John, and him with that idiot smile on his face. “Impossible. By what miracle does he know John’s likeness?”
“Miracles are by definition impossible, something beyond the laws of physics,” Bette answered softly, “I’m a scientist, but I have the heart of a little girl. I believe God sends angels to guide us, especially in times of crisis. Your Van Meer is evidentially such a one. An avatar. An angel.”
A map of an island, with illuminated letters and fanciful drawings, decorated the last piece of paper. Ella did not recognize the island and could not place the language.
“I know two things,” Bette spoke with an intensity that made both Ella and Fritz lean in. ” You need me to help with the timing of Van Meer’s predictions. And—” She sent Fritz a look that wobbled his knees. “—I believe in love at first sight.”
Oh hell, Ella thought, studying the two. Moon-eyed love-struck puppies. Looks like I’m going back to the hospital. Ella was terrified of surgery, mortally terrified; she’d rather die than go under the knife. But she’d return to the hospital. These two youngsters were going to need her. And who knows? She always wanted grandchildren. She took off her coat and asked for tea.
Bru entered the kitchen trailed by Frosty and Rex. Ella’s weariness, the result of her illness and probably the source of her fatalism, was overcome by inexpressible happiness. She spoke the words she had been unwilling to share with Charles, John’s epilogue, said out loud for the pleasure of hearing it, for the wisdom of the next generation, and to create new memories from old. After the words of endearment, after the final words of hope and regret, John said; “Life is short. Dame evolution is ruthless. Hazard the pain, my heart. In other words, get your thumb out your butt and get happy!” Ella smiled, saying it, and was surrounded by smiles. She glanced at the map. “Oh, no. Oh dear God.” She pushed the drawing across to Bette. “That is not an island. That is the supercontinent Pangaea. What do you think the words in that blank area say?”
“Traditionally an unexplored region would be marked with the expression of—oh, no. Surely not. They’re mythological!”
“So I always thought. Fantasy.”
Every pair of eyes turned to Ella. “So far, Van Meer’s predictions have been perfect. His portraits too, and nature sketches, I’d have to call miraculous in every sense of the word. Now he’s given us a map. And right there,” she said, stabbing a finger at the paper, “It says, ‘Here there be dragons.’ ”
Ella looked about the warm cozy kitchen at the people she loved, thinking of John’s wisdom. “Memories are all you ever make.” Bru and Fritz, Bette, who Ella barely knew and already loved, and Frosty and Rex and Van Meer. They represented all the people through all the years that made up Ella’s life, condensed in memory and crammed into this little kitchen. Ella’s eyes welled with what her heart could not contain. Whatever happened next, they were in it together. Here there be dragons indeed.
Ella stood up. “I think,” she said, “It’s time to take Van Meer some paper.”