From Time to Time

STORIES that stretch your mind

The Best Metaphysical Fiction of the year from Thresholds Quarterly

From Time to Time
by Larry Braverman


“The doctor says I’m dying.”

“What?”

“He says I have about six months.”

“My God, wasn’t there anything they could do?”

“Apparently not.”

“What are you doing?”

“Packing. I’m leaving.”

“I don’t understand. Where?”

“I don’t know where. I’ll be home in time for the funeral.”

Robert Wagright loads his silver BMW with suitcases, golf clubs and camping equipment while Janet leans against the garage wall. Her normally wide, childlike eyes are red and swollen, her shoulders sag like a tree after a snow storm.

“You can’t leave without me,” she says, her lips quivering. “I’m your wife.”

He hesitates. He had longed to go off alone with himself and his thoughts, quiet, uninterrupted. Just be alone. For a while. Alone. He shudders.

“You’re right, Janet,” he says with a sigh. “Go pack your things. I’ll wait.”

It is early afternoon when they leave their Manhattan brownstone and drive west. A cold sun sits high in the southern sky and silence accompanies them until the blue-gray skyscrapers fade in the distance.

“Does the paper know?” she asks.

“I told them I’m taking a few weeks off.”

“What about your readers? Who’ll do your column?”

“My readers? My readers can go to hell. Nothing but a bunch of empty-headed people who love to hate; they spout the bible in one breath then talk about lynching me in another.”

She stares at the road ahead watching strips of white lines coming at them like slow-motion bullets. He’s right, she thinks. He’s always right, even when he’s not.

The north wind hammers at the car as they pass over the icy waters of the Delaware. He speaks of his work as if he were giving an interview and she is reminded of the countless controversies his views had stirred up over the years. She pictures the mountains of mail, a few kind, some just ignorant, most of it offensive, dropped on them each day. He brings up his novel, an obsession until the day it was published and she can feel the pain he refuses to let go of; an antiwar story set in France during the first World War, it had made the discount pile just two weeks after its release.

Yellow fields of Pennsylvania farmland speed by. Patches of snow and ice dot the frozen soil like islands. The sky is clear and alive. She notices his hair, neatly trimmed with streaks of gray and the wise, stubborn little lines around his eyes and mouth.

She remembers anniversaries and birthdays, her way of marking the passage of time. Each year they had taken advantage of her summers off from teaching to travel: cross-country trips and vacations in Europe. And though they hadn’t spoken of it in years, that tiny yet potent parasite called regret suddenly manages to worm its way into her consciousness: there will be no heir to carry on their name or comfort her in her old age.

She turns away and watches the winter landscape fly silently by. Her eyes well, overflow. “How can you be so calm?” she asks. “Don’t you realize it’ll all be over soon?”

He slows down and pulls off onto the side of the road. His arms encircle her. “I know this is difficult,” he whispers, “but what can I do? There’s nothing that will make any difference but trying to enjoy whatever time I have left.”

“But you don’t even act like there’s anything wrong. You don’t cry. You don’t scream. Aren’t you the least bit afraid? For God’s sake, Bob, there’s a cancer eating away your insides.”

She stops to take a breath.

“Your life’s always been about expressing yourself,” she whispers. “Talk to me, please.”

“There’s nothing to talk about.” His voice grows louder. “I’m dying. Period.”

The road stretches out in front of them as though someone were pulling on it from the other end. The sun falls behind black hills and darkness spreads over the land. They turn off the interstate and soon discover a time-worn structure under a burned out neon sign identifying it as a diner. The floor is scuffed, green and white checkered linoleum and the few patrons inside greet them with stares and whispers.

“I imagine these people aren’t used to seeing very many strangers around here,” Robert says to the young waiter who seats them at a window table.

“Actually, this is a pretty big tourist area. We’re packed with strangers almost all the time in the warm weather.”

“Well that must be it then. We’re just out of season like peaches in January.”

“I guess,” he shrugged. “You ready to order?”

The half moon is a bright yellow-white but does little to assist the headlights as they cut through the potholed, country road, following the waiter’s directions to a motel. The car rolls between leafless trees silhouetted against a blue-black sky. The road curves to the right and the trees part. Through the clearing appears a farmhouse; its windows are shadowy like sunken eyes, its stones worn with age. Robert stops so suddenly their bodies jolt forward.

“What’s the matter?” Janet cries. “What did you stop for?”

“Look at that place. It must be well over a hundred years old.”

“It’s only a deserted house. Nothing to get injured over.”

“He gazes at it as if in a trance, yet the corners of his mouth turn up in just a hint of a smile.

“Bob, what’s wrong? What do you see?

“It’s just...I don’t know. I just feel so odd looking at it. It seemed to appear out of thin air.”

“It is eerie,” she agrees, “but anything would look weird out here in the middle of nowhere. Bob, it’s been a long day. Let’s find the motel and get some sleep.”

“Yeah, I’m pretty tired myself. We’ll come back here tomorrow.”

The motel is small and thirsting for paint. Inside, a white-haired gentleman napping at the front desk awakens with a start and drags himself out of his chair. His yellowish smile disappears, his eyes, heavy-lidded and red-rimmed, snap wide open as he focuses on his guests. He stands there, gawking.

“Hello. Are you awake?” Robert asks him. He turns to Janet. “Why the hell do people around here insist on acting like we’ve just stepped off a flying saucer?”

The old man blinks, hesitates. “I’m real sorry,” he says. “Just that you kind of remind me of someone. Can’t recall who, though.” He looks into Robert’s eyes. “Will Kane is my name. Does it sound at all familiar?”

“Mr. Kane, I assure you we’ve never met. Somehow I get the impression that we are of two entirely different worlds. Now, may we please have a room?”

Robert lies in bed staring at the ceiling, his wife beside him. The room is small and cozy with a dresser, TV and a cheap reproduction of van Gogh’s Starry Night hanging over the double bed. They roll onto their sides, facing each other. His features remain in shadow while streams of moonlight filtering through the Venetian blinds illuminate hers, creating sparkling points of light on each teardrop as they slip noiselessly down her cheeks. They embrace, suddenly, simultaneously, clinging for comfort and warmth, terrified of letting go.

Before him is the old farmhouse, he is sure, except the wood trim is shiny white with clusters of blue violets just below the front porch. He opens the door and enters. The clattering of pots and pans and aroma of chicken cooking attract his attention and he follows the hallway into the kitchen.

A woman is stirring something in a pot. She looks up and smiles at him. “Get yourself a bowl, Ian,” she says, “and have some soup.” She turns to him, hands on her hips. “You look so handsome in your uniform. I’ll surely miss my boy when he goes away. I surely will.”

He moves to the cupboard and, in the glass-paneled doors, sees a young soldier staring back at him.
“That’s not me,” he screams. “That’s not me.”

He panics, bolts out of the house and down the dirt road. The road forks and he takes the narrower, rockier path. He is at the edge of a grassy field speckled with daisies and dandelions and surrounded by woods. A short distance in front of him is a school, a small one-room building with a crowd of noisy children milling about the entrance and another group off playing in the field. The fear dissolves as he senses the lilac-scented air on his face and the sun’s warmth on his back; his body lightens and seems to float as if he had sprouted wings, spreading them to catch the mild breeze. He heads towards the trees, past the children.

“Hey, there goes crazy Ian,” one of them shouts, sparking a chorus of jeers and laughter.

They couldn’t be speaking to me, he thinks, and continues into the forest. He finds a place to sit beneath the shady branches of a towering red maple, pulls a sheet of paper from his pocket. After he reads it, he folds the paper, places it into a leather pouch and holds the pouch in his teeth as he starts up the tree. Just above the first bough is a hollow cavity. Standing on the branch, he hides the pouch inside.

He begins his descent but his leather shoes cannot grip the smooth bark. His hands reach out for balance. There is a sensation of rushing air; the ground rises to meet him.

His eyes open. He is sitting in bed, his skin soaked. His wife awakens.

“Bob, what is it? Are you in pain?”

“I might have been if I didn’t wake up when I did,” he says and tells her of the dream.

She laughs. “It’s just that old farmhouse playing tricks with your mind,” she says. The laughter fades. “And everything else. Go back to sleep.”

The dream rewinds itself and plays over and over against the walls of his conscious mind. The hours until daylight are much too long, he thinks. At six, fully dressed, he slips out of the room. The old man at the desk is sipping a cup of coffee.

“Mr. Kane, what can you tell me about that abandoned farmhouse up the road?”

Kane jumps out of this chair almost spilling his coffee. “You know, it’s funny you should mention that place. A peculiar young boy lived in that house when I was growing up, hadn’t thought about him in years. But that’s who you remind me of. Not that you look like him, though.” Kane chuckles, smiles. “Or that you’re peculiar. But when I opened my eyes this morning, his name was just sittin’ there right in my head. I said to my wife—”

“What was his name?”

“Ian Half.”

The red sun rises as he peers out the car window at the old house, his breath fogging up the windshield. A lifetime of beliefs, attitudes and what he thinks of as knowledge march to do battle with the boyish face of Ian Half dancing through his head. He leaves the car, breaking the silence, and follows the stone path, overgrown with weeds, up to the front porch where the door hangs rotting on its hinges. He enters and the damp odor of neglect hits him like a gust of wind. Cobwebs hang from ceilings while countless particles of dust dance in beams of light shining through broken windows. He knows the way to the kitchen, which, like the other rooms, is void of furniture. He trembles; this is the same room he saw last night, while he slept.

The sun, brighter now, adds some warmth to the air. His car, creeping up the road, bears left at the fork. At the edge of a field he sees the schoolhouse, its doors and windows boarded; several worn No Trespassing signs are tacked to the weathered planks. He jogs across the brown grass into the woods, his breath shortening with each step. The tree, he thinks. Where is the tree? They all look alike.

He backtracks to the edge of the woods. Dead leaves crackle beneath his feet and his shirt is soggy with perspiration. He comes to a huge tree towering over the others and stops.

“That’s it,” he says, rushing toward the tall, stately maple. He takes a running leap and grasps the lowest limb. He pulls himself up until he is standing on it. The opening is there. He removes his leather gloves as he looks at the ground, the dream coming back to him. His hand is nearly uncontrollable as it moves inside and explores the interior. Nothing.

Easing himself back to earth, he leans against the tree, catching his breath. His body slides to rest on the hard ground. “I’m making a complete idiot of myself,” he says aloud. Picking up a small twig, he absently watches it roll between his thumb and index finger. He surveys the area, moist eyes jumping from tree to tree. “It has to be the wrong tree, damn it.”

He jumps to his feet, returns to the edge of the field and starts back into the forest. He stays to his right this time and finds himself standing in front of the ancient maple, its branches reaching out like thousands of praying hands. His arms are tired and his breath comes short and fast as he tries again for the first branch. He spies the hole and his hand extends inside, feeling for the leather pouch.

It is frozen and heavy with dried sap and ice. He lowers himself to the ground and brushes himself off. With deadened fingers, he unties the leather thong, opens the pouch and removes a piece of brittle, yellowed paper. Carefully, he unfolds it. The writing is faded. It is dated June 20, 1917.

“Dear Robert,” it says. A chill surrounds him as icy winds weave through the trees; his teeth chatter.

“I feel somehow compelled to write this letter. The words seem to flow from my pen without my even thinking them. Nobody will believe what I am about to tell you. I don’t often believe it myself. Not long ago, my father, while traveling in England, came across an old mahogany desk which he shipped here to me. The same night I received the desk, I dreamed of a woman with gray hair. She had placed a slip of paper into a hidden compartment in a desk identical to mine. When I awoke, I found the compartment and a note that began ‘Dear Ian’. You can imagine my shock. I sent off some queries about this woman to friends of my family in Amsterdam and was informed that the woman who had written the letter lived in England one hundred and fifty years before my birth. How she knew my name and how I know yours, I do not know. It just seemed to appear on the page. I do not understand any of it. Tomorrow I shall be leaving for Europe to fight the Kaiser. I know I won’t be returning and I am, strangely enough, not afraid.

Ian Half”

Robert refolds the letter and trudges to his car. He sits behind the steering wheel, staring at the schoolhouse, watching faded, watery images playing and singing happy schoolyard songs.

At the motel, Janet reads the letter several times. She attempts a few words but her voice fails her.

“I just spoke to Old Man Kane,” Robert says. “Ian Half seemed to have caused quite an uproar back then, what with his rantings about the letter and the dream. His parents gave him a choice: the army or the nut house. He took the army; joined up just as we entered the First World War.

“What happened to him?”

“He died in France the following year...a hero.” Robert takes a deep breath, stares at her shaking his head.

“What?”

“Kane also showed me the Half’s family portrait. It’s hanging up in the town hall.”

She raises her head. Her eyes ask the question.

He nods. “It was the boy in the dream.”

She gazes out the window and manages a whisper. “How...? Do you really believe all this?”

“I’ve seen old farmhouses before and I suppose it can be argued that the letter is either a coincidence or a hoax. But the dream... .”

No other words pass between them for a while. The room grows darker with sunset.

“What now?” Janet asks. “What do we do?”

“We stay here; we find out more about Ian.”

“Why? What more do we need to know? Whatever we find won’t bring you immortality if that’s what you’re looking for.”

“I’m looking for answers.”

Winter passes into green leaves, flowers and warm breezes. Robert and Janet are in the bedroom of the old farmhouse which Robert had insisted on purchasing and renovating. He is at a small table working on his autobiography, his typewriter click-clacking words onto a page while Janet sits in bed reading. Every few sentences she lifts her head to watch him as if to soak up his image, his mannerisms, his expressions as he concentrates. His clothes are a few sizes too large, his cheekbones sharp and pronounced.

“I’m going to make some tea,” she says putting the book down. “Is there anything I can get you?”

“No, thanks,” he says pulling a sheet of paper from his typewriter. “Oh, Janet, I can’t forget to leave a letter.”

“For who?”

“I guess I’ll know when I write it.”

The night is cool, smelling of freshly cut grass; wind rustles the treetops. She leans against the kitchen sink, sipping the hot tea and allowing the sweet air slipping through the window to caress her. She hears a thud. The cup crashes to the floor as she flies to the bedroom. Robert is on the floor, writhing in pain, moaning her name.

The guests have gone and the kind words embed themselves in her memory. She lies in bed watching the full moon steal in, its whitest beams covering her like a second blanket. Where is he right now? she wonders. She gasps suddenly, raising her hand to her mouth. He never wrote the letter. Her arm falls across his side of the bed and her hand touches the cool sheet. Everything she had suppressed for six months erupts and fills the room.

She is in a kitchen, her kitchen. Wooden beams run across the low ceiling and she is placing silverware and a white linen napkin on the oak table. Something is cooking in a large pot on an old coal burning stove; she removes the lid, picks up a ladle and begins to stir. A young man walks in; she looks up and smiles. “Get yourself a bowl, Ian,” she says, “and have some soup.”•

Larry Braverman writes articles and book reviews for Inner Realm, an holistic health magazine based in New Jersey where he lives.

©1998 Thresholds Quarterly Vol. 16 No. 5


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