Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Time Unraveled


 I sat in the front room of my ground-floor apartment, hands clasped around a mug of hot coffee, staring out the window and thinking thoughts too melancholy to be revealed at a first meeting. I would not have you, the Reader, think too ill of me right away. I did not drink the coffee; I never drank coffee. I made a mug of it every morning, habitually, and then sat huddled round it, occasionally inhaling the fragrant steam, warming my hands till the mug grew cold. A mug of hot water would have done the job as well, but somehow I could never break the habit of making coffee, partly perhaps because Jane had done so. But Jane was one of the melancholy thoughts into which you, the Reader, have no business poking your nose just yet.

There came a single, heavy knock at the door, and I knew Oliver must be there. Oliver could never manage to do things quite like other people. Who else of my acquaintances would pay a visit at seven-forty-five on a Saturday morning? No one. So I knew, from the timing as well as from the knock, that it was Oliver, before I opened the door.

Oliver stands about five foot three, two inches below my own height, with a slight, active physique, like an exuberant gnome. A professor of philosophy, who dabbles in psychology and physics and has a penchant for science fiction of any kind, he is vastly intelligent and must have done an incredible amount of reading in his time, most of it speculative. He can source any reference from Verne, Freud, Goldman, and hundreds of others, and unlike Doyle's detective, certainly knows something about the solar system, though I have wondered whether other information as generally known may have somehow escaped his notice. As, for instance, the time.

“I remembered we had agreed to meet for lunch,” he said, without greeting or preamble, beaming beneath his spiky grey hair. “I hope you won't mind that I am a little early.”

“Not at all,” I said, making way for him to enter the little sitting room. The distraction from my own thoughts was a welcome one, and truth be told, I found Oliver's company less of an imposition than that of most other people, perhaps because I had once shared similar interests. He, for his part, did not seem to mind (or notice) my habitually chilly and pessimistic demeanor, which put most people off; his own enthusiasm more than made up for it. I drew a second chair up to the kitchen table, drained my rapidly-cooling mug of coffee into the sink, and set a kettle to boil for tea. Oliver was a tea-drinker.

“So about time travel,” he began, as I filled the kettle, and I could tell he was bursting with some new topic of conversation, probably a new book in his favorite genre, on which he would bring to bear all the arguments of his trade, in true Oliver style. I was to be the sounding board, the devil's advocate, the non-professional whose flawed arguments he could dismantle, which was fine with me. His next statement, however, took me by surprise, as he leaned forward across the table to give it more emphasis.

“I think it's possible.”

“How so?” I asked, thinking this must be some rearrangement of the usual order of events, in which I would be expected to question his arguments so that he might prove how false they were.

Oliver leaned back in his chair and chuckled.

“The power of the mind, Rebecca. You might say it's all in your head.”

I was puzzled now.

“What do you mean?”

“Ah,” he said. “I used to dream of finding a means by which it might be possible to travel in time. I thought the answer lay in science. Now I see that I was quite wrong. It's not science—at least, not strictly speaking.”

This was sounding odder and odder. However, I played along.

“So, science can't give us a means of traveling in time, but epistemology can?”

“In part,” said Oliver. “And in part what might be called psychology—in the literal, not the common sense, that is: the study of the soul—and in part, simple human nature.”

“I wouldn't call that simple,” I protested. Certainly not explicable. “Do you mean us to meditate our way into the Eternal Now? Shall I get out my yoga mat?”

“Only if you find it helpful,” said Oliver serenely. Probably he did not know what yoga was; few science fiction writers and fewer metaphysicians address it. The solar system.

The kettle whistled. I poured tea into two separate cups and brought them to the table, tea bags curling brown curvescent lines into the hot water, like serpents on a Chinese dragon tapestry. Oliver drew his close, inhaling the steam with absent-minded pleasure; I remembered how he had once called tea “the nectar of imagination”.

“The main principle of the thing,” he began, “is the power of human memory—and emotion. Suppose that you had a powerful emotional attachment to something in the past, as it was in the past. We all have them: one never wants the house one grew up in to change or be destroyed. Or it could be something smaller: a favorite childhood toy, an heirloom, even a lost limb.”

“Could it be a person?” I found myself asking.

“Definitely,” said Oliver, giving me an approving nod. The student had thought of something the master had overlooked. “That might be even better: emotion and memory would tend to be stronger where human relationships are involved. The key is that the attachment, the memory, must be very strong, and the thing must no longer be as it was in the cherished past—if it were still the same, or equally beloved in its current state, there would be no need on the subject's part to use it as a link to the past.”

He took a sip of tea.

“Wait,” I said, still feeling that I must be missing something, expecting that at some point the conversation would turn around and Oliver would begin arguing against what one must presume to be impossible. But he was already discoursing again.

“With the help of hypnosis, or meditation perhaps”—here another nod, presumably to acknowledge my previous reference to yoga; he must have known what it was after all—“the subject may be able to enter a state in which he relives vividly former experiences to which he has a strong emotional attachment. Such things have been known to happen, for example, in dreams: soldiers returned from war often relive traumatic experiences vividly in sleep, and sometimes waking. Since these experiences were traumatic, they naturally have no desire to revisit them. The experience has been lodged irrevocably in the physical and psychological structure of the mind, which causes the subject to relive it when certain physical or psychological conditions are present.”

“You are saying that there would have to be a strong positive emotional attachment to some event in the past?” I said, struggling to grasp what exactly Oliver was getting at. So far, this was by far the strangest of our many strange conversations.

“Not exactly. A bride, for example, might desire to relive her wedding day. No, an event is too ephemeral, too immaterial. That is why I say the attachment must be to some object in the past, and preferably mingled with some revulsion, or negative attachment, to that object as it exists in the present.”

I shuddered a little. No need to mention what physical entity had come to my mind.

“To relive the past,” I said, “in one's own mind and in reality are two somewhat different things.”

“But are they really?” asked Oliver, hunching forward over his cup of tea, bright eyes glinting between its curls of steam so that he really did look like a gnome or goblin, an uncanny creature. “Remember that a memory is a physical thing—a pattern of connections in the brain. The stronger the connections, the more vivid the memory. The recreation of a memory is the reconnection or recreation of those patterns. Over time some memories can be erased for lack of use: the connections disappear. By the same token, every time a memory is consciously revisited, its connections become stronger, more real.”

“Only within the brain doing the remembering,” I said.

“Ah, but how do we know?” asked Oliver. “If the physical world inside the brain is affected, why not the physical world outside the brain? The trouble with traumatic memories unintentionally relived,” he went on, sipping meditatively, “such as those of war heroes, is that the subject, or victim, is incapable of altering the memories. The negative emotion caused by the remembered events is too strong. And with positive memories, the emotion is usually not strong enough; the memory-imprint on the brain is less clear. In either case, the ability to change past remembered events is impaired. And of course, the only way we can know that a subject has truly traveled back in time is if events in the past are altered.”

“Time travel,” I said mechanically, for my thoughts were madly circling as he spoke, swirling in ever tighter spirals round a single point which was yet too tremendous to be defined.

“To the past only, of course,” said Oliver lightly, as if he had said “on Wednesdays only, of course.”

I sat up straight, shaking my head to clear the thoughts away. “I'm afraid I'm still missing your main principle. I don't see how it is possible.”

“A student gave me the idea,” said Oliver. “Several years ago, I think it was. To begin from the beginning: I posit that human memory is the strongest physical force in the world.”

I opened my mouth to contradict this and closed it again, realizing that in the context of my own life, at least, it was very nearly true.

“Next, that as with any physical force, the stronger can affect the weaker more certainly than the other way around. Finally, that just as only diamonds can cut a diamond, so the only thing that can change human memory is itself.”

“But human memory is formed by past events,” I said.

“As diamond is formed by pressure,” said Oliver patiently, “and from coal, that is to say, from the physical substance of our brains.”

I was no longer quite sure what to say. A terrible thing was forming in my mind; I was half-afraid that anything further he might say would render it pressingly possible.

“Theories of time travel relying strictly on physical forces—time machines and the like—are doomed to failure,” Oliver continued, lapsing into the usual style of his lectures. His face was sharp, keen, absorbed; genius was clear on it as on a page of Aristotle or a portrait of Einstein. He was in his element; I was the spectator. “No physical force is capable of breaking or reversing the forward flow of time, because, in the physical world, the only time that ever exists is what we call the present. All physical forces are therefore limited to the present. Not so with the mind of man. I am skeptical of those who claim to be able to see the future, but there is no doubt about our ability to see the past, in varying degrees of accuracy, and even, under the right conditions, to relive it. I see no reason why the reality of a memory consciously altered should be limited or confined, so to speak, within the mind of the one remembering.”

“So memory can change the past,” I said.

“According to my theory, yes. Of course, it had yet to be tested.”

“I'll do it,” I said.

Any suspicion that my offering to act as his test subject was what Oliver had intended in coming here was immediately removed by the expression of surprise and of something else—worry?—that replaced the intent, detached one on his face. He did not answer at once. Presently he pushed his teacup aside and reached across the table to cover my hand with his. It was an unprecedented gesture.

“Rebecca,” he said, his face crinkled in concern, “God knows—if there is a God—I would trust you with this experiment of this nature more—perhaps more than myself. You have experience and intellectual gifts suited to such an attempt that I will never have: I admit it freely.”

Hearing myself praised by this man of genius somehow made me feel more hollow and stupid than usual.

“As I said before, we cannot envision the future in the way we can the past, and so cannot travel to it. This would also hold true of the future of any past time to which one travels, since it would of course differ from this current present—unless one made every action and every choice precisely the same as they were the first time.”

Something in the words or the way he said them made me think, uncomfortably, that he knew more about my personal history than I had supposed, or had permitted myself to fancy.

“Which would be difficult if not impossible,” Oliver went on, “since no memory is completely perfect and since acting with foreknowledge of what may happen can bring about quite different results. So to travel back and alter past time would necessarily mean reliving all the intervening time between the point at which the first change occurs and now; I mean the now that will be.”

He smiled a little at his own joke. I had the feeling that he was trying to warn me, but all I could think of was that it was a chance.

* * *

I walked to the graveyard alone. Oliver had said it would be best to go alone, since only one person at a time could travel by memory anyway, and another's presence would only be a distraction. And he had said I should get as near the object past affection and present revulsion as possible. Mercifully, he had been careful to give no hint as to what he thought that object might be. So I knelt on Jane's grave, shoulders hunched under my hood. It was drizzling, and the tree beneath which her grave was placed dripped, heavy, swollen drops that fell with a tangible splat on the top of my head and shoulders. I had not been to the graveyard in years; I had avoided the whole area, even though the act of avoidance itself served to etch the painful memories more deeply in my mind. Well, memory would serve its purpose now. I bent my head, shutting out all exterior senses: the sound of the rain, the damp chill and smell of wet last-autumn's leaves, the growl of passing traffic and the faint, bitter taste in my mouth (can thought literally taste sweet or bitter? Mine does, or did...), focusing only on the internal ones, bringing to mind that day in all its unbearably vividity....

* * *

It was the seventeenth of April, a Monday. It was sunny: the first real day of sun we had had that spring, watery and faintly warm on my cheek as I walked past the graveyard on my way home from a class in Aristotelian logic. I distinctly remember thinking that perhaps the light and warmth would help Jane as I had not been able to, thinking what a miracle that would be, and quickly dismissing the thought from my mind before hope could grow too strong. I no longer trusted the pretty spirit very much; it had disappointed me too often in recent months.

The apartment I shared with my sister was two or three blocks on past the graveyard, just out of sight of the spire of the little community church to which it belonged. It was unnecessary—a bother, really—to walk all the way home after my morning class when I would have to return to the university a few hours later for a meeting with one of my professors; I could have studied much more effectively there; but I did not like to leave Jane alone for so long. A premonition, perhaps? All I know is that the thought was as vivid again as it had been all those years ago, somehow existing by itself alongside my newer knowledge of what was to come—or, if I could help it, would not come.

I caught my breath for a moment as I felt my hand reach in my pocket for the key to the apartment building, and my feet lift one by one to climb its concrete steps, realizing that Oliver's mad genius had been proved right: past was living again, and I was living in it. Immediately thereafter followed a sudden fear that I might fail to reproduce some action perfectly as I remembered it, for I had no intention of changing anything but the one thing which I had come to change, which ought, needed, to be changed. But it was not hard; after all, I was remembering myself as a healthy, happy, nineteen-year-old student, and so did what she would do. It occurred to me that I probably would continue to do as she would do—as she did do—unless I specifically willed otherwise: I, the self remembering, who floated now somewhere between living past and living present, outside the bounds of the real but by no means detached from it, or lacking power over it. As my past self unlocked the apartment door, this other self took a moment to revel in the godlike power of the human mind, the recreative potential it had now unleashed. If anyone could travel back, knowing what ill had been wrought and with the power to change, what wrongs since the world began might now be undone...?

The apartment was unlit, the blinds drawn, the room chill and empty-feeling as the day outside had been light and warm. The furniture, the clock ticking on the wall, the bare spot in front of the door where the carpet had worn away, were just as I had known them so long ago. Nineteen-year-old Rebecca stepped across the room, switched on the lamp, and instantly winced. Clothes, books, and a half-finished research project lay in guilty mounds on floor and couch and coffee table, the remains of at least two meals on the dining table, and from what I could see of the kitchen, similar piles of cooking- and cleaning-related untidiness there. I had not cleaned in several days. There had been too much to do to prepare for my classes, I thought by way of excuse—there was still too much—Jane might have tidied, but of course Jane would not, I reminded myself, batting the thought away before I could become aware of the resentment it harbored. With a sigh, I bent to drop my satchel on the floor, opened the blinds—the sunlight would do at least one of us good—and began straightening the room. Studies would wait; meanwhile I took a brief pleasure in the physical action of cleaning. More than half the mess was Jane's. My books and papers lay in at least relatively neat piles, out of the way of our traffic, but her clothes and mugs and whatnot had been dropped anywhere, carelessly.

“You shouldn't bother,” said Jane's voice, and I looked up. She had come silently into the room while my back was turned, my pretty, tidy, much-adored older sister. Her hair was dirty and unbrushed, her clothes had evidently been slept in, and there were purple shadows under her eyes.

“It needs to be cleaned,” I said.

She crossed the room, drew the blinds again, and slumped down on the couch. “That's a change.”

I made no answer, knowing too well the route such conversations were wont to take.

“You should have stayed at the school.”

“I didn't want you to be here alone all day,” I said without thinking.

“Why? Because I'm sick and can't take care of myself? Because I'm crazy and might murder somebody while you're gone?”

“Don't talk like that, Jane,” said nineteen-year-old Rebecca, struggling to keep her voice calm as she replaced a stack of Jane's detective stories on the bookshelf.

“Why not? Isn't it true? Isn't that what you thought?” Her voice was jeering now, provoking. She wanted a reason to rage at me.

“No, that's not what I thought. I didn't like to think of you sitting here in the dark by yourself. I wanted to make sure you got some light and food and human conversation today.”

I reached for the blind-string again and began slowly to raise them.

“Because I can't do those things for myself,” said Jane bitterly.

“You haven't been,” I said.

“I don't need you to do them for me.”

There was a lull again. I felt a slow rage boiling inside me, familiar because I had felt it before, twenty years ago, which was also now. I struggled to quench it, as I had struggled twenty years ago, as nineteen-year-old Rebecca had struggled for the last six months and more, and as she still struggled. I loved Jane. I loved Jane. She was my sister. I tried to call to mind the image of her a year ago, or two or three, but the memory of the friendship we had shared then burned like a black hole, swallowing its own tears and adding to the bitterness. For the first time I wished that I had chosen to go further back in time than this day, so that I might see those times again, but another part of me still insisted, as it had insisted all along, that I could bring them back, and better than before.

“Come to the school with me this afternoon,” I said finally, setting down a now-folded afghan. Jane unfolded it and wrapped it around her feet, curled up on the couch. “We can get dinner at the cafe and get Jeeves from the library to watch on my laptop when we get back.”

“Looking like this?” said Jane with a laugh. “No, thanks.”

“You can change and shower first. I can be a few minutes late for my appointment. Dr. Knott won't notice.”

Jane got up, letting the afghan slide to the floor.

“Stop pretending you care,” she said, and turned to go into the kitchen.

Something snapped in me, and I sprang across the room, seized her by the shoulder, and spun her round to face me.

“How can you say that?” I hissed, anger boiling and seething over at last. “How can you say that? When have I ever stopped trying? You've stopped—you've given up—you don't care if you have a sister any more, maybe. You used to and you don't any more,” I choked for a moment and went on, “you've changed, it's like I don't know you. I don't know what I've done wrong.”

“Don't pretend,” said Jane dully. “If I dropped out of existence right now, or died, it would be better for you. And Mum. And Dad. Everyone who knows me.”

“Don't talk like that,” I said, my voice shaking in real rage, but also in fear. “You're talking like a crazy person.”

Jane's head jerked up. The dullness in her eyes vanished, replaced with something I did not recognize, and she lunged at me. The action was so unexpected, so unprecedented—never, even when we were children, had she ever laid a finger on me in violence—that I was shocked. My arm flew out in instinctive self-defense, and without my consciously intending it, struck her full in the face. She froze, staring at me for a shocked instant, and then turned and ran away to her room without a word. I would wonder for years afterward whether my blow had really been unintentional, or some of my long restrained anger at the stranger my sister had become had in that moment broken through....

But no. That was my memory of the event, the thing I had come here to change. With a tremendous effort I, the older self who knew what was to come, chose to remain still and turn my cheek. Jane's hand, not mine, struck her sister's face forcefully enough to leave a bruise. Relief flooded through me as I watched her turn and vanish into her room. I picked up my wallet and key and left the apartment for my appointment with Dr. Knott, each breath a sigh of gratitude. All would be well now. Jane would come back. She would. She must.

I was so distracted during my meeting that I hardly knew what I or my professor said, but I do recall at one point consciously altering something. Dr. Knott asked me, in an aside from our discussion of Aristotelian logic, what I thought the most powerful force was in the world.

“Human memory,” said my remembered self, distracted by the memory of the incident that had just passed.

“Human will,” said my remembering self, full of the godlike power of averted catastrophe.

I bought chow mein and sweet-and-sour pork dyed that impossible, artificial red, at a little Chinese take-out place on the way home from the school. I climbed the steps lightly, still feeling like a god, fumbling for my key; opened the green-painted front door; opened the door to our apartment.

Jane was hanging from something tied to a hook in the cracked, water-stained ceiling. Her body was limp and her face was black.

My nineteen-year-old self rose from her knees where she had fallen on the carpet, shaking, got up on the stool that had been kicked from beneath Jane's feet, and fumbled with the leather belt to undo it. The corpse fell unbreathing to the floor. I did not know how to do CPR, but I bent to feel for a pulse and to breathe into her lungs, twice. Her face was cold. Tears now streaking my face, I reached for the phone. I should have seen this coming.

I should have seen this coming. I should have known that undoing one small sin would not be enough. I had failed Jane in some fundamental way, else she would never have become a stranger to me. I must go back again and fix it. I must go back. I must go back. I knew already from my memory that Jane was dead, that the paramedics came too late, that horror that would follow on their pronouncement would never be undone. I must go back quickly, before they came again. I knelt by Jane—no, it was not Jane any longer, it did not even look like her, those horrible black, swollen features—I knelt by the corpse, and bent my head, straining to remember....

* * *

This is the point at which you, the Reader, lose all respect for your narrator. You may continue to read her—nay, most likely will, because of the human taste for the dark and sordid if for no other reason. Misery loves company. Hence my recording of this tale.

To my dismay, I found that I could go no further back in time than the morning of the day Jane died. The events of that day had overshadowed earlier memories too much for me to recreate them. I forget how many times I returned to the sidewalk by the graveyard, reconstructed the events of the day in an attempt to see that Jane's life was not ended. Once I called my mother. She would not believe me. My father, who had not seen Jane in several months before her suicide and did not know how she had changed, merely laughed. The emergency line I tried to call advised me to take her to a hospital, but how could I? I dared not plead with her not to take her life for fear I should then have caused her to, indirectly, by suggesting the idea. I tried staying with her constantly, ignoring her tart remarks and her pleas to be left alone, but always eventually I would have to go to the bathroom or fetch a drink, and when I returned she would be swinging from the ceiling. Or slitting her wrists. I watched her kill herself four different ways. Always the paramedics were too late. Always I was left kneeling by her limp body, racking my brain for a way to change it all so that I would not be at fault. But there was none. Finally I had to admit it. There would always be pain, there would always be guilt and regret. I could only choose to go on despite it, or not.

* * *

I moved to a different apartment, finished my B. A., earned my Masters and eventually my Ph.D. The school at which I had studied had a sort of satellite campus in a different part of town and, offered a teaching position there, I accepted gladly, grateful to be out of sight of the things that reminded me of Jane while still in easy distance of both my divorced parents. Dr. Oliver Knott was teaching on the satellite campus now, and we became reacquainted, as fellow professionals this time rather than as teacher and student. I was aware—perhaps because I had missed it before—that he cultivated my friendship on purpose, sensing but choosing to ignore the barriers I put up against the most of the world; for besides himself I had few friends. Perhaps it was the inevitable effect of so great a loss at a young age; perhaps the madness which had stolen my sister from me took a longer, slower form in the branching neurons of my own brain.

Twenty years passed, slowly.

* * *

I sat in the front room of my apartment, staring out the window and sipping from a mug of hot coffee. I drank coffee now, partly for enjoyment's sake and partly because the mild stimulant acted as a sort of tonic, easing the cloud of gloom that lay habitually over me, making the day bearable. Perhaps that was why Jane used to drink it too.

A single, heavy knock came at the door, and I started, realizing that this was the day. I had grown so used to my relived life by now that I had almost forgotten. A sudden cold fear passed over me that perhaps my choice to go back in time, like Jane's death, was an irreversible event for me, and a strangling horror at the thought that I might have to relive the whole episode again, and again and again, for eternity. But superseding this came a fierce and fragile determination to see that that did not happen, and more, to beg Oliver never to tell anyone about his discovery, never to tempt anyone else with that terrible choice. I got up and opened the door, still feeling strangled, but struggling to find my voice. Oliver said something which I did not hear, but only nodded a vague assent, as I automatically filled the kettle, set it to boil, and took my place at the table across from him.

“So about time travel,” he began, leaning forward across the table.

This was the moment.

“I've been reading a very interesting fictional piece on the subject,” he said. “A physical impossibility, of course, but nevertheless a most fascinating topic to ponder.”

I blinked.

“Don't you believe in it?”

Oliver looked at me curiously.

“No, of course not. A physical impossibility, as I said—and those are by no means as common as most people seem to think.”

“The power of the mind,” I fumbled, “The power of human emotion. Human memory as the strongest physical force in the universe. Don't you believe that?”

“Human memory?” repeated Oliver. “An interesting thought, but problematic. Decidedly problematic. I should rather posit the human will as the strongest force in the universe. One may contest that the will is not physical, but still...”

The kettle whistled. I got up to pour us both tea.  

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