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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.