So consider this, please: a pie. I am holding it. It probably isn’t steaming but I’d like you to imagine that it is. I’m standing on a concrete stoop, or let’s call it a cement step because it doesn’t really have any of the dignity of a stoop which is something you should be able to sit on and look out at the world, and if you sat on this step you’d be straining your knees horribly and staring out at the broken window and the peeling paint across the street. It isn’t a nice neighborhood. It’s exactly the kind of neighborhood where the person I’m visiting ought to live.
And he does—at least I remembered that correctly. I find that a lot of the things I told myself it’s important not to forget have faded: the way the light plays under the oak tree that looks too healthy to be here, the devious slant of the driveway that makes pulling out into the street a hazard for at least three months a year, even the way the antique glass ripples almost attractively in the upstairs windows that aren’t broken and look like they might hide either an attic or a cramped though civilized second floor. I wonder whether he sleeps up there, whichever it is, and I’m surprised to realize that I can’t remember, that I couldn’t even hold on to an intimate detail like that. I suppose it has been a while. Anyway I’m not exactly sure what the date is, because the art I’m practicing these days is that art of approximation. It is not an exact science no matter what the scientists try to tell you; it calls for a certain amount of finesse, and there’s plenty that can go wrong even if you follow all the rules completely. It’s a lot like gardening in that respect, or love. Come to think of it, it’s a lot like baking, too, and that makes me smirk even though I know it isn’t exactly an appropriate moment for smirking.
But I’m rambling. There’s me on the stoop. Doorstep. There’s a pie in my left hand, which is still a little weak from the accident, or maybe just from advanced old age—I can’t really tell now that I’m no longer exactly in my prime. By some ways of reckoning, I’m well past my vespers, but the aches and pains are worth it for this withered face, the perfect disguise. And, of course, for the peculiar skill that old age seems to have brought me. I’m better at everything than I used to be. I’m a culinary wizard now, and everything I touch turns to ambrosia and nectar. I could open a restaurant now and make it big as one of those celebrity chefs, if that is still a thing, and retire in a year or two, only I’m well past the age of retirement anyway and I doubt anyone would want to put my face on the television, or whatever they call it now, and anyway I have better things to do with my time, or whoever’s time this is, whatever “this” even means, which I can say with confidence no one really knows because I’m better at other things as well, things I always had a knack for but never truly loved like numbers and truths and the laws of the universe.
I’m rambling again. Or did I already say that?
Pie on my left arm, the weak arm, pie like a spry young suitor. Right hand reaching up toward the doorbell, which I also can’t quite remember, which makes me worry one last time that maybe I have the wrong house.
I ring. I don’t.
Here’s another tableau for you: it’s my body on a gurney or a stretcher or whatever it’s called, wheeling down the hall of the larger of three hospitals in a city whose name you probably don’t remember either, quite possibly because you’ve never heard of it. He—yes, the same he who may or may not sleep up there behind the rippling antique glass, if you’re still with me on the doorstep—he, I want to make sure you know, had nothing to do with the accident. Nothing at all. How could he? He was far away by then, or I was. He was what I was running from, and I was good at that too. Not even in the same state. Out of touch. I doubt he even had my number anymore, because I’d changed it twice so he wouldn’t.
Back then I’d been a baker, at least for a while. Call it a change after my studies. I wasn’t great at it but I wasn’t bad either. I could make a perfect crust nine times out of ten, and the tenth probably lived up to everyone’s standards but my own. Typical me.
The nice thing about that little town—no, not the small city, we’ll get there, but the little town where this whole damn chronicle really begins, the one I was born in, the one I was standing in just now with my finger on a doorbell—the nice thing was that it had everything in the world that I really loved. My mother, until she died from a complaint too ordinary to mention. My friends, until they sloughed away one by one and forgot about Darby’s Dimestore and the Lurking Stone and playing Captain Jack in the field behind the middle school. A few streets that really felt like real streets and not just like strips of asphalt with houses on either side. And peaches that hung on their trees like orange stars in summer, and a low rambling stream that unapologetically powered what must have been one of the continent’s last waterwheel wheat mills, from which the smell of flour drifted like impossibly quiet music for the better part of every afternoon.
So maybe it was fate. Place is fate—isn’t that what one of the ancients said? My place decided long before I did that I was to be a baker, and so I came back when the others had left, and I won a red ribbon or two but mostly I rose before the sun and learned to sing the quiet music of stone fruits and pastry flour, butter and salt, water and ice and fire and time. It was everything I loved and everything I needed, until he leaned over the counter one day, a stranger from someplace that mattered more, and asked me questions, and told me he’d stay if I wanted him to. It was nice at first. I think he was running from something. It would have been just like him: the surrogate drama, the utter lack of any fresh notion. Only I never found out, not even when we’d married for a year or two. I ran instead.
After that, I lay awake at night in the city and told myself that everything I loved was back there in that town because it was the simplest way to dodge the sort of question that could make me lose an hour or a day here and there. I wasn’t ready to sift through my memories like that. I even hated the metaphor, which seemed to reach back and taint every pure black solitary morning I’d begun with a fall of flour like snow on my dark marble counters deep in the basement of someone else’s shop. If those were my memories, tumbling from their clumps, each one too small to imagine as anything more substantive than a mote of air, then somewhere amid all that indiscernible substance there lurked the rotten seeds of thoughts too dark to have twice, even though the feeling of them never left me, not even when I lay awake at night in the city and tried to think of anything other than the things he did, the sounds and the dull sensations, the locked doors and the sting of antiseptics, the cold tile floor and finally, always, his tears—never mine—which I almost never stopped believing.
A bottle of hydrogen peroxide will kill almost anything it touches, though it’s really nothing more than the marriage of water and air. On the other hand, they say alcohol is poison, but isn’t it an excess of chemical pageantry, the very stuff of life itself, that turns ripe grain to strong drink?
A sprinkle of vodka will turn a good piecrust into a great one. A sprinkle of hydrogen peroxide will kill a million bacteria and the flesh around them. I know which I prefer. Still I wonder how many times the killer saved me. Or did we use rubbing alcohol back there in the old house? My memory is blurry. I suppose I’m old now, or then. Am I still there while I’m here? I’m standing on a doorstep and ringing a bell, my white hair loose in the wind like a portrait of madness. I’m twenty-three, crouched on the bathroom floor and hoping the door never opens.
I’m not sure I understand the difference.
What was I trying to tell you? Oh—the accident. He had nothing to do with it. I slipped into the coma because I crashed the car. I crashed the car because I took the pills. I took the pills because I lay awake at night. I lay awake at night because I couldn’t not remember. I couldn’t not remember because it all really happened. It all really happened because he really did it to me. He really did it to me because he was a monster dressed as a man. A man who had nothing to do with my accident. Because it happened months after I left him. Because it happened in a city in the next state over. Because I’d changed my number twice and he couldn’t find me even if he wanted to.
This is the house that Jack built, but Jack didn’t build the house. Dame get up and bake your pies, bake your pies, dame didn’t. The world keeps turning until, many ages later, we realize that it doesn’t.
I’m standing on a doorstep ringing a bell. Suddenly it occurs to me that I might be inside. I consider panicking, but what’s the use? I probably wouldn’t even recognize myself, and anyway I think I’ve aimed fairly well, and this should be a year or so after I left. Which should mean I’ve already smashed my Corolla, which should mean that I’m lying in a hospital bed somewhere in the next state over, friendless and anonymous after changing my phone number twice.
A few seconds pass. It’s just enough time for me to realize that this is the closest I’ve ever come to myself, at least in this year which I missed entirely the first time around. It’s just enough time for me to have one really incisive thought, which is that I missed the peach harvest this year. Every year they’re a little bit different and that year—this year—I forever lost my chance to bite into even one, let alone to slice up a bushel and watch them slowly turn golden in an oven like the sun itself.
Only I haven’t really missed the chance, because I am here, after all. Forever changes, and sometimes now comes around again. For a moment I consider running away from the doorstep, finding the nearest orchard, and filling myself with the warm juice of summer peaches until I’m happy enough to die quietly, which is something I’ll likely have to do sometime in the next few years anyway.
But then I imagine the embarrassing scene when the policeman arrives—I wonder if I remember his name?—to ask the mad old stranger in the orchard to move along because it’s private property, after all, and is there someone we can call to take you home? And what would I tell him—no, officer, there’s no one you can call, I’m not a vagrant, I have nothing in this world or any, once I was a baker, now I’m a—
The door opens. He’s there. He’s still him. What does that make me? Now I really want to run but his look says nothing at all. I’m a mad old stranger with a pie in one hand, a neighbor who’s made too much of a good thing and feels an urge to pass it around to those who’d rather go without.
No, officer, I was just passing through. Just a humble baker passing the time. Just a traveler come back through the years to offer you a little taste of the future.
“Hello,” I say, wondering if I remember how to smile. “I’ve brought you something.”
The world keeps turning until, many ages later, we realized that it doesn’t.
Or maybe they’d known that much all along. I still don’t exactly understand all the science, but some weeks before I took the big leap I began to realize that no one did. It was just too much for any one of our minds to handle. A lot of us played little parts, a lot of people whom previous ages might have called geniuses. There were no geniuses any more. We all felt too small for that sort of thing.
The breakthrough came not long before I woke up. Or maybe I was the breakthrough. Honestly I’m not sure how much they worked out while I was sleeping and how much I worked out on my own in my strange days of bed rest and correspondence, slowly adjusting to my ancient face in the mirror, asking the people who came to see me what year it was exactly, and realizing I was cleverer than I’d ever been.
No one should have come to see me. I’d slept for seventy years, the doctors said, and there wasn’t a soul still living who knew me from a fish in the sea. So I stayed a while and I read. A lot, it seemed, had changed. The climate had gotten hotter and then gone cold again, which puzzled everyone. A shy screenwriter had brought Europe back together after the revolutions. Central Africa was quietly industrious and hadn’t admitted tourists since the Forties. The great whales had returned but they didn’t seem to trust us anymore. And last year’s Global Physics Consortium in Gaborone had collectively stumbled upon most of the secrets of time travel.
I read the article three times before I suspected it wasn’t a dumb joke. The hospital staff exchanged looks I didn’t appreciate when I asked for access to the actual conference papers, but it turns out there isn’t much a team of nurses isn’t willing to do for a patient who wakes up compos mentis after seventy years in an apparent vegetative state. The math was hard—I’ll admit that much. But the longer I looked, the more sense it made. Then my mind started seeing the cracks in the wall and working out how to fill in some and pry others wide enough to step through. I started writing letters. It was hard at first. My credentials were a Masters in physics, seventy years in a coma, and two years of pie-making. I didn’t expect any answers, but something about my terse prose style and my clean equations “attracted some attention,” as the committee chair put it when she paid a visit to my hospital bed.
We had the whole thing worked out less than a year later, which came as a relief to me, a fading nonagenarian who had done little in life and expected to do far less. Our theory rested on two principles: first, that everything goes round and round and nothing ever changes, and second, that the world is in a constant state of flux and yet entirely stationary.
Wheels within wheels. Loops bisected, spheres pinched together along finite boundaries, entropy applied to an ordered system to soften an invisible and ultimately unknowable interior. At night I dreamed of pies in ovens, whole universes cooking to perfection while eternally both fresh as spring leaves and also boiling away into oblivion. I thought about the old days of watching the stars fall all along my black marble countertop and couldn’t help but wonder whether I’d somehow understood this all along. They were a part of me, these secrets. If I’d never met him—if he’d never touched me—if I’d put half my fear of him into the old wonder I used to feel on winter nights when the town lights went black—if I hadn’t lost seventy years to sleep—
Impossible questions to answer. I tried not to lose more time. Somehow they decided I could be the first through. O pioneers. It was quite possibly a one-way trip so I wondered how much of an honor that really was. The device itself was relatively simple and would take a month or so to construct. After that, I was free to hurl myself into any abyss I pleased, provided that I could learn to walk again.
It took time. The hospital corridors were long and the food was bad. I found myself weeping one night over a cup of some orange gel the nurse called peaches. I would get away. I would. I went from shuffling to dragging my feet to lifting them, and before long I was the fury of the ward, the mad sage with the white hair who, they whispered, would be going away soon.
A week before the test run I saw his chart, carelessly left outside his room. He was old—older than I was. Had he followed me here? No—that was seventy years ago. More likely he’d forgotten me, found others, done to them what he did to me, moved on again and again. Life tossed him up here, in a city you haven’t heard of. Cancer had eaten him from the inside out. I tried to look in but the room was dark and I didn’t want to see a face I wouldn’t know. I didn’t want to think that whatever he used to be had somehow escaped, had duped some withered carcass into stepping in while he stayed twenty-nine and evil in the heart of some eternal summer.
I glared into the darkness. I thought of our equations, our beautiful machine, and I realized that that is exactly what he had done—that somewhere in the never-quite-departed spheres of the past world, he lurked and laughed and loved and killed, and stayed forever ripe as summer fruit. So did we all, maybe, but I couldn’t let him. I wouldn’t.
The next day he died. The day after that, the morgue lost track of his body. A week later the time machine was ready, and I stepped through into the warm orchard I’d never really left, an unsought gift on my weak left arm like an old lover.
I want to see fear behind his eyes but I don’t know what that would look like. I see him as though it’s for the first time, or as I should have seen him the first time: a cold schemer, a brutal slave to all the wrong impulses. There are words for people like him but I haven’t had much time to think about them. I remembered his smile when he leaned across the counter of the bakery for the first time as though that wall was his to breach, a stale smile like stubborn dough that won’t rise.
Back then I mistook his face for something charming, charmed, a little wry. Now I realize what it really is: antiseptic. The smile that killed off all my worries away for just a little while, then started in on me.
Now is the time when I say something, isn’t it? I realize that I haven’t really rehearsed this part. I’ve been busy. Sleeping through my middle age, learning to walk all over again, honing the details of time theory and, of course, baking pies. What do you say to the man who stole your life?
“Hello,” I say, and I flash him a smile that I hope is as lifeless as his, that I hope will wash over him and burn like hydrogen peroxide, though I know he won’t feel it because he’s already dead—he was always already dead, even when he killed me—“I’ve brought you something.”
I already told you that, didn’t I. This is what it means to be old, I think, the gears of the mind spinning freely. Or maybe the big leap through the decades has left me a little unglued. Our travel theory strongly suggests that jumps of a century or so should have no harmful effect on the human body, but we were far less certain about the human mind.
I know that’s why they chose me to go. No one had to say it. Nothing would have kept me from accepting.
He’s looking at me with a hint of puzzlement and for a moment I worry that he might recognize me from the color of my eyes or the slant of my nose. In fact it’s the opposite: he’s wondering who I am. “New to the neighborhood,” I say, and I don’t give him the chance to correct me: “I mean, I am.”
He says something conventional and too welcoming, as though he wants to sell me a car, and now I remember what it used to feel like always to be talked into or out of everything, never to feel in control even of the passing time. I’m suddenly very, very tired. I don’t feel like wasting this second chance and I know he’s not used to people who don’t listen. “I bought the old house down the other end of the road,” I say, and the details come back to me vividly even though it’s a mile or more from here. “The one with the old green shutters. A real fixer-upper, they said,” and I hope I’m right because for all I know it’s not even for sale at this particular point in history, maybe a family of four lives there, in which case maybe he’d take me for a dotty grandparent with a penchant for baking, “but I still feel up to the task, I mean, what’s a little home repair even at my age, the wiring’s good in spite of everything else, and what really drew me there,” and I realize I’m rambling again but that’s all right because I’ve remembered something, the old house down the other end of the road, the great stretch of yard behind it, the wild, untended orchard where peaches as big as globes and as warm as the core of the sun hung from stout branches that even in the worst of storms swayed as though there really was something so enduring in this world that nothing could break it, “what really drew me there was the old orchard,” and as I say these words I know my task is over.
He asks if it’s peaches, still good at feigning interest in anything, and he nods toward the pie in my hand, ready to demand what he doesn’t even want.
I glance at the upper crust, afraid for a moment that he’ll recognize some telltale way I always had of pinching it together, or cutting slits that waver like trees through the dough, but of course he would never notice anything like that, or the first crocuses in April, or the eye of a frightened sparrow.
“Something like that,” I say. “Actually more of a breakfast sort of thing. Old family recipe. All right for supper too. A pretty hearty meal any way you take it,” and I smile. I give it to him and I turn and I walk away from that stoop or doorstep and I know now that he was never really the reason I wanted to come back here, not even for the thrill of impossible payback.
There’s somewhere I have to go.
The week before the test run, the week before we powered up the squat steel box that we didn’t dare call a time machine? I spent it as anyone else might. I practiced my walking. I brushed my hair. I stayed up late into the night worrying about whether I’d be torn apart like a bird flung into a wormhole. I baked my first pie in seven decades, blueberry with a sort of meringue, an homage to the future. It was perfect; the long sleep had honed more than my math skills. I gathered strawberries, apples, fresh lemons, white wheat and barley. I contemplated the immortality of the human soul. I learned from an archive that peaches had been wiped out by blight almost thirty years ago. I sharpened knives, borrowed a bone saw when no one was looking, shut off the security cameras in the hospital ward for the better part of a night so I could dismember the stolen corpse of a man I used to know, grind the bones to flour, chop the muscles into passable cuts of meat, and throw the rest into the biohazard incinerator without having to explain myself to anyone. I read some of a book, just to see how novels had changed. I went out into the fresh air to make sure I wasn’t just imagining it, that the air really was cleaner than it was in my youth, that somehow the world had gotten better rather than worse, that we’d staved off the worst of the great crisis and learned to be something other than poison. I played with a dog. I learned how coffee had changed.
I baked one last pie.
The world goes on turning until it doesn’t. I walk down the street I used to know, the street I know again now that I’m finally ready to forget it, and when I know I’m out of his sight I start running. I haven’t run in seventy years and I feel like my bones might break apart like the scattered shell of an old star ready to make new worlds.
I’m running toward the old orchard, which I tell myself I haven’t thought about since I went to sleep but then I realize it’s been longer than that. Everything I’d ever really loved was—is—right here, in this town, which is the shell I should have carried on my back all these years but didn’t because the fear was always too strong and too loud. The orchard, half wild with thistles and coarse grasses, was a world, my world. It had always seemed a little older than time itself and I hadn’t thought of it, really thought of it, since the day I met him. I’d traded my world for the one they always told me might be better, and the time since I’d crawled through those dark tunnels of weeds and crept up against a tree trunk and slithered up it like a quiet snake to grab sweet peaches by the fistful felt like more than centuries. I’d lost it, or he’d taken it, or it had passed me by—one or the other, or all of the above, or I didn’t care because there it was, the old house, still empty because no one, maybe, would want to live there ever again, they will say it’s haunted and it will be, soon, but not so soon that I don’t have time to summon one more thought just so I can cast it away: the thought of him, alone in his own evil home, prodding at the crust with a knife and thinking that a mincemeat pie isn’t something you come across very often outside of novels, and maybe he’ll try a slice but more likely he won’t and that is even better: the thought of him carelessly tossing the whole thing into the garbage can without pausing even for a second to think of what sort of animal gave its life to end up in that glass dish. He wouldn’t even save the glass dish, and later that week a small truck would come by the curb to carry the desecrated remnants of his future corpse to lie in the town dump where growing things would feast on them and rise again from the lifeless ruin he tried to sow in earth that was never his and never will be.
It’s the last time I ever think of him. I can see the orchard now, just around the corner. A different sun shines here, and I feel for a moment as though I’m pressing my face against the universe.
There’s no way back. That’s also why they chose me—why they let me go. The only way they’d know I’d gone anywhere is that I wouldn’t be in the box anymore when they opened it. Our primitive sort of time travel is a one-way street. I’m okay with that. I think I always have been.
We must start somewhere.
I have pinched together the two sides of my life and left them joined forever. There is no top or bottom to the universe. That was our great breakthrough, the one that made this all possible: time does not resemble an arrow or a spiral or even a sphere. It’s more like a pie, we suppose, a constant opposition of past and future separated by some infinitely enticing present and yet joined around the edges so subtly that if it’s done just right, you can’t tell where the top ends and the bottom begins. A world that doesn’t need to turn. A world that is the turning.
The peaches hang like ripe stars ready to scatter. I stumble through the grasses and I reach for one. It’s already inside me, it’s already sprung from the ground I’ll lie in after this last shimmer of blinding pain passes through my used-up body and leaves it quiet. Both of my arms are weak now. The grasses are tall enough to cover me if I kneel, and all around me the bright spheres grow slowly dim as all stars will.