I am drawn, like alcoholic to bottle, to these creatures.
She sees a witty man, when there is but a heartless creature who cloaks his unkind ways in cold humor.
by E. Catherine Tobler
|I have witnessed life-forms on countless planets, and the one constant is idiocy. There are glimmers in the dank pool of life, but, the universe over, these are rare, like rainbows on a world without rain. I don't seek these glimmers yet find myself drawn to them. Amid the scuttle, they are fresh air.
I am not supposed to come in contact with sentient life-forms but have not managed to keep that portion of my resume clean. I am drawn, like alcoholic to bottle, to these creatures. Perhaps primitive and plain at hasty first glance, but I cannot ignore the diversity I have found within them.
One subject especiallyMiss Alice Oxbridgehas captured my attentions. It is more than the sweet and alien flowers that surround her home, more than the honeycomb she offers me with bare fingers.
She is forbidden to me. I cannot visit her, and yet I do, I have, I will continue to do so. Her life threads through my own much as a vein through a body. I cannot truly enter her life until my time upon this world is near its end, for that was our beginning, so I remain on the outskirts, witnessing her terrible birth, her flowering youth, her quiet death.
And in between, all the marvelous days we have shared and will yet share. All are one and the same to me, until I slow them down and press a thumb against a day, making a print against glass, pausing for one second the eternal rise and fall of time.
· · · · ·
I can shape time to my will but cannot express what Alice Oxbridge makes me feel. Certainly I have read, at great length, human poetry and have become acquainted with the human definition of love. It is not a foreign thing upon my own world, for my parents showed me great affection and indeed cared for one another, though there are different facets to the notion on either world.
To leave my feelings for Alice at "love" is to simplify the feeling, as one might simplify an explanation of space travel. To say that one climbs into a vehicle capable of carrying them beyond a planet tells you nothing of what truly happens.
Alice is no longer a subject of study, though at first she was just that. She and her flowers, of which we have neither on my home world. Both alien and multilayered, possessing scent and color like none I have known elsewhere. I have crumpled flowers to release those scents and colors, until my fingers were sticky with them.
Like a flower, Alice Oxbridge is a singular bloom within a season of my life, and I could crumple her with a thought.
· · · · ·
Alice is born for the thousandth time and for the thousandth I watch, captivated as ever.
Alice is alone with her mother in the gardens, and a spring rain is the first touch Alice knows. Her mother lies bleeding upon the grass. Flesh to flesh, scents of salt and blood, they rest under the rain and Alice does not cry when I reach a hand out and touch her smooth skull. Her eyes blink; I feel the tender beat of her new heart as if in my own chest and listen for the coming of the maid.
Here she comes now. One might mistake her footsteps for those of a running rhinoceros, so do her heavy shoes whisk at the wet grass. Fortunately, rhinoceros are not native to this island called England.
I cannot change what happens, cannot breathe life back into Alice's mother or appear before the birth to assist the woman. Should I do so, Alice's life will be forever changed. Not even Alice knows the truth of this moment, and I cannot tell her: born to one woman, raised by another. I cannot tell her, and I cannot change it.
It is forbidden me. It is the one tenet I will not break.
· · · · ·
And yet I do break it. Idiocy, remember. I have no doubt I am a fine example of the very thing I despise.
Ronald Granger enters Alice's life when she is twelve, and she loves him without condition. She sees a witty man, when there is but a heartless creature who cloaks his unkind ways in cold humor.
Mr. Granger will remain oblivious to Alice's affection throughout their ten year acquaintance, and when at last he weds Penelope Washington, Alice returns home with half her heart. She douses the rest of it in laudanum until the world is forever blurry and distant. The color fades from her cheeks until she is gray.
I flick the stained pages of time backward and erase Ronald Granger and the laudanum haze from Alice's history. Warm color floods her cheeks anew.
· · · · ·
There are far too many eventstoo many galaxies, worlds, starsfor my supervisors to yet know what I have done, and when they discover it, the remedy is simple enough. How do they stop a man who is capable of navigating time like an ocean?
How can I even ask? I have looked into that distant future and know precisely how they mean to stop me. They move as easily, if not more so, than I. When that time comes, I know I will not stop them. Despite the delight I take in my travels, I often wish to discover their end.
· · · · ·
My mission was always observation. I am allowed to slow time, to even freeze it, for closer observation of items and events. A moth suspended in flight, a rain of papers halted in the sky, lightning poised to strike. Even people, though we aren't supposed to contact them directly. How many couples have I held on the brink of a kiss? How many look back and think the hesitation their own?
Alice's was not the first birth I witnessed, nor even the most unusual. The first time I saw Alice's birth, I bypassed the event, skimming ahead to the advent of the automobile. Gears fascinated me more. But on reflection, something drew me back to Alice in the garden, newborn on the rain-wet grass. The world seemed to move beneath her.
Albert spoke of time as a bridge, but I have found it more threadlike, connective and flexible. Nothing so steady as a bridge.
· · · · ·
Alice leads a quiet life, unlike her sister, Anne. I do not care for the sister, and, truth told, they share no blood, only a common upbringing.
I watch them together for the first time again near the river and contemplate cutting the time-thread of the sister. Anne thrusts Alice into the water, a great explosion of wetness. Alice's cry is silenced. She thrashes beneath the river, unable to breathe the liquid.
I stop the moment, and water freezes crystalline on Anne's cheeks. Water hangs suspended in the air, globules I brush out of my way as I approach the girls. One of Alice's legs points up and out of the water, skirts soaked and raked back to her knee. Her foot is bare, toes splayed.
I close my hand around her foot. I feel the life within Alice ebbing. Anne stands above, seeming to absorb Alice's own life; Anne is strong, and angrier than I have ever seen.
I give Alice a little push and free them as I step into the safety of distance. Anne loses her hold on Alice. Alice, like a fish, twists away and flops to the opposite bank.
"He was mine," Anne snarls.
Alice holds a hand to her neck. She draws her fingers across her cheek. Her fingers are bloodied. Metallic and yet sweet; how many times have I kissed those fingers clean? This time I abstain.
· · · · ·
Near the end of her life, Alice seeks the golden dust of African plains. She goes for the lions, but also the heat. I can feel the stiffness in her joints. While others in her party complain, she relaxes in the heat. Hikes up her skirts and shames everyone.
She sends them away. She is old, hair of spun silver and hands of crumpled dreams, and no one questions her. She wishes to be alone, and so they leave her in the small cottage with her drawings. Her observations.
She began making them shortly after she and I met, but long after I'd begun watching her. I watch her now as she withdraws her gloves from her trunk. She strokes the length of fabric and pulls at the loose threads until the gloves are in pieces at her feet. Her bare feet.
Sleep is a constant companion. It isn't the heat that makes her sleep, but a desire to flee this place. Her eyes move behind her lids as she dreams, and I envy her this time. It is the one place I cannot follow. I can only watch and wonder.
Sleep is not maintained easily. It comes and goes much as I do. Her days seem longer than normal, as slow as a day touched by my own hand. Can she now slow time? Capture it and observe it bit by bit?
She observes everything and sees, perhaps, my long shadow upon her wall, though she flicks past it the way I once did her birth. She adds another image to her sketchbook and then returns to sleep.
I turn the pages of her book as she sleeps. Charcoal images of lions, birds, and spiders are trapped on paper. It never occurs to me to slow time, to lengthen this moment, for with Alice's thick breathing across the room, time is already unhurried. There are no clocks in this room.
"You therewhat do you want?"
Her voice. It is not the voice I knew this morning when she was born, nor the one this afternoon when she was breathless in the church garden as I gifted her with a bracelet. Her voice is filled with years, hard and often lonely, yet underneath that tarnish, I hear her eternal curiosity.
I turn to look upon her. She has lifted herself onto an elbow; her silver hair spreads loose across her shoulder. Her cheeks are creased now, but her eyes spark with recognition. Breath catches in her throat.
It isn't a question, nor is it my name, but it is the only name Alice has known me by. My given name would be a jumble upon her tongue, yet part of me longs to hear her try to speak it. And she would try.
I come to her bedside, and she reaches for me, taking hands into hands. Where once she would have drawn away at the idea of bare skin to skin, she now embraces the opportunity. She has not seen me for a lifetime. Palms slide together, hers softer than anything I have known. She wore gloves in her youth, every day and everywhere. To know another's touch seemed forbidden to young women then.
"Time dictates that I am here, now, with you."
Alice smiles. She squeezes my hand; her strength surprises me. "I had hoped you would come." Her eyes slide past me, flit over her sketchbook, then come back to meet mine. "Have you seen the places I have been?"
Alice in Switzerland with the snow flying up her nose as she laughs. Alice in the jungle of Brazil up to her knees in water as she studies a river flower. Alice riding a camel that spits and growls in Egypt. And now here in the heart of Africa with the lions.
"Oh, yes." I smile. "I have seen you." In winter sun and summer rain. My hand tightens around hers, feeling the bones frail beneath her papery skin. "Alice"
"You can end this. I know you can."
I could crumple her. As she knows this, I know the way her breath rattles in her chest every winter. I know the hesitation when she is faced with a staircase. She has come to Africa but does not have the strength to return to England.
"All things end, don't they, Edward?"
"I have hope that is so."
Have I ever witnessed a genuine ending? Even destruction echoes deep into the future, breeding new life. This moment is but one amid thousands I have had with Alice. When this moment passes, I can follow the thread backward to her beginning, to our beginning. But I won't. My people won't let me.
How many times have I already gone? Careful not to dislodge any threadsjust the one named Ronald Granger, rasps my memoryyet it is likely that the more I go, the more I will dislodge. Sometimes an insect's footsteps remain in sand; sometimes there is no wind to erase its passing. I have observed this.
Alice is no stranger to these thoughts. "How many times have you been here, in this room at the end with me? How many times have you come to my garden? I fed you honey years ago, but it was not truly your first time, was it? You came to observe, Edward."
Alice draws the sleeve of her nightgown up to expose her arm. I look at the drawn and gray flesh, withered nearly to the bone. Her wrist seems the width of a bird's leg. I don't wish to observe this. Though I try to look away, Alice claims my chin in her hand and draws my gaze back to her. She forces me to observe the changes time has wrought upon her body. She is gray and growing hollow.
"This is what happens to us, Edward. Never you, though. How many times can you travel back? Did we talk in my garden just this morning?"
"I offered you a bracelet at noon." My voice cracks, uncertain. I have never sounded so afraid.
Alice lifts her opposite wrist. The slip of marcasite I gifted her with years ago and only this noon hangs loose upon her arm. She smiles faintly at me as she reclines into the white bed linens. "Lie with me, Edward."
She draws my head to her breast, and we lie in a tangle, my mind flashing to her birth and the face of her dead mother. Death, I think, and hear the slowing of Alice's heart.
Not like this, I silently plead, but I have been here before. I have felt the room grow cool as the night lengthens, have watched the path of moonlight over the floor. When it touches Alice's silver hair, I have known the loss of her. The silence and utter stillness of her.
The moonlight rests at the foot of the bed.
Time has never seemed so flexible and rigid in the same instant. These seconds in Alice's bed tiptoe down my spine while they also ruffle my hair in their haste. I have always been time's master, but now there is no choice. This time will slip past me and I will not go back to Alice's beginning.
And, I think as the moonlight slides up to touch my legs, it is perhaps the worst observation I have made in my lifetime of travel.
"There are no lilacs here," she whispers, "yet I smell them."
From my pocket, I draw a limp lilac branch, and her eyes brighten. She snatches it, a bit of her younger self coming to the fore. She presses the dark purple blooms beneath her nose and silent tears brighten her cheeks.
I took the branch from her great-grandmother, from the bush still in Alice's yard, on the morning of its first bloom. It remains fragrant enough, for having traveled so many years to this moment in this African room. It should seem out of place, but in Alice's hand it is just right.
I have killed men and women in my time; I would lie and tell you I made the mistake of killing them, but no, these acts were intentional. Difficult at the time, but necessary, yet this moment dwarfs them all. I cannot bear to let Alice go, and yet I must. I can feel my people coming, insistent tugs along my thread of time. I gauge the moonlight and draw Alice closer.
"Edward, thank you for"
My finger across her mouth momentarily silences her, but she brushes at the finger as she might a fly. "Alice, don't"
"You aren't going back again, are you?" She stirs in my arms, raises herself to look me straight in the eye. I can see the reflection of moonlight in her own eyes. Vapor eyes, she once called my own. Her weathered fingers touch my smooth cheek. I ease her back into the pillows, curl her into my arms as a bird into a nest. I shelter her from the climbing moonlight.
Her traveling companions will find Alice in the morning, and they will ponder the limp lilac in her hand. I smile as I think on it, for she would love their confusion. She would laugh because two alone know the truth.
"There are so many things to see," she says, and with those words my shoulders slump. The moonlight slips over me to coat her hair in silver.
She is somehow lighter in my arms while the air around us presses heavily. I leave Alice there in the silvered light, longing to take her sketchbook with me, or perhaps a strand of her hair. But Alice is within me as time is within me, a vein that runs near to my core.
Outside the wind has picked up and five figures await me across the moonlit savannah. I could run, but I know I will not. This is only right; my observations here have come to an end, for with the final passing of Alice, I have seen all there is to see.