The news arrived in chunks.
Lull in solar wind proves baffling. Child ages years in seconds. Desert turned into jungle. Tropical snows.
There was a rupture in the skin of chronology and objects transformed without meaning. Time had become ostensible and was described as amphibious.
Scientists seen watching from the past, looking forward through chronometric telescopes. Coin observed hanging in the air, flipping for days. Cities crumble into dust.
Nobody could pinpoint when the disturbance began. Then one morning we were awakened by extremely loud beeping. The earth had come to a halt. It had begun to move backwards in its orbit.
Irish epidemic confirmed. Dogs produced every second by lightning.
Have you ever tried to jump your own shadow? They found a way.
In the past:
Father told us a childhood story, an important lesson. In the story he and a friend were jumping on the hood of a car, hoping it would launch them to where the sun was not as bright. He said he jumped his own shadow that day. The shadow fled beyond the row of cars, clinging to a wire fence. It had attacked his best friend that morning. The friend had been riding his bike through a red light, shouting, "Look! No hands!" and the shadow had used a broomstick to spoke the boy. Father had also been yelling "Look! No hands!" but he was on rollerskates and meant it literally, as the year before he had had an unpleasant encounter trying to ring the neck of an industrial fan. He explained that his hands were reluctant growers and it took years for them to regenerate. The stumps were barely big enough to catch my older brother when our Mother gave birth.
In amphibious time:
We were older. We were younger. Everything changed and then reverted. Grandmother was still alive, as always trying to find a way to kill herself, and in those days our house was windy, and you could barely keep your balance for a while. Sister was the girl in the mirror, an old woman in actual appearance, and I saw an indication of myself behind the sofa, a figure dressed in a faded suit. Shredded newspapers filled our socks, explaining that the galaxy was now spiraling backwards, turning away from its inner core and regurgitating blasts of radiation, armies of renegade dwarf stars, reverse gravitons. It had started years ago. It would begin next week.
Years 1, 0, -21, 13
As children our parents used the crying stick, The Martinet. When we wept, our sobs did not emerge from our faces, but from the bulbous end of the stick. It could be hidden or submerged in water, so our crying produced nothing but bubbles. "A little peace," our parents would swoon. When we were beaten with it, that is, with the sound of our own anguish, as well as its moisture, we knew not to complain.
I remember that I had just turned three, or so I thought. I wasn't sure because my abacus was in the shop that week, and Mother and Father were eating cake, and they explained that I did not have a birthday, "So no cake for you."
I had a moment in the tub that night. I moved forward and the water moved with me. Apart from the bathroom, my favorite room was the hall. In the hallway you could look forward and see both sides at once.
Whenever my brother Sheriff nodded yes, he used his whole body, hopping around the room like a toad.
In the future:
We found an alien artifact in a clearing and gradually broke it down to its essence. It kept reforming, its hinged components reforming until we scattered them, leaving behind an immutable knife that could impart solidity to anything it touched, tempting me to try it on a breakaway door through which the mill boy down the street liked to throw himself, having recently become an old man. Sure enough, later that afternoon, after a series of thuds followed by deepening silence, we opened the door and there was Hench, lying outside in the bushes with his blood-stained wimple in a twist. Thereafter, I went around reinforcing all kinds of things with the alien knife, which was addictive, everything from underwear to hats. My enemies chipped their teeth on ice cream and bruised their faces on granite pillows, cursing me with tongues of stone. I created a room that was impervious to time. I was hoping to bring my family into the room to escape the fluctuations, and even considered touching the knife to the sun, but there was a side effect. The more I used it, the more I was becoming invisible. I looked at my hand in the mirror and my arm was invisible, the alien knife gripped in a disembodied fist. I fell tumbling into the present.
"At the department store they were having a special on stones. On a pedestal was a giant rock that I walked around for hours. I finally approached it, saying it was very special, and just then two men with eyes of quartz appeared. 'You have seen enough!' they said. They sprang on the rock and removed it, and the rest of that week happened like clockwork. You could synchronize your watch to the wind. I went back to the department store and bought a small stone."
In school they taught us: A spider climbs so many feet each day and slips back a fixed number each night. How many days does it take him to climb the wall? A hound whose speed increases arithmetically chases a hare whose speed also increases arithmetically. How far do they travel before the hound catches the hare? And they taught us: Calculate the amount of money people have after a certain amount of money changes hands.
In amphibious time:
We found ourselves living in a barren landscape at the bottom of the ocean. During the fluctuations, the oceans had dried, or perhaps been repulsed into space. Maybe they had been flushed into the earth. Some thought flushed. People lived at the bottom of ravines in the remains of sunken ships, or in planes that had smashed upon water. Our home consisted of shells and fishbones, my bedroom the ribcage of a whale. I slept in an old lifeboat. Our ages shifted.
Shadow play: Years 0, 233, -4181, 6765, -5
My family became part of a great shadow play unfolding in several corners of time. Three corners had been folded until they touched. In act one, the last act, I wrote a letter to the past, but my eraser stood outside of time, in a different dimension from its tip, and didn't work. Or rather it worked fine, but in the past, where another version of myself was writing a letter to the future in the form of my life story, a story that arrived full of holes.
The fourth wall:
Behind the shadow screen, which is a window onto another world, the audience watches from what they think is the real world. But in fact, the world of the audience is only a pale shadow of the reality beyond the screen, where puppets perform as timeless characters as much within us as without. We live on both sides of the shadow screen, both within and outside our bodies. As the audience holds their breath in the grips of the observatory present, unaware of their role in the play, behind the illuminated paper, or fourth wall, insists a treble of simultaneous events, all of which are singular.
Given the duel nature of amphibious time, sometimes water puppets are thrown from the land. A smiling country bumpkin introduces them to the river. Made from cluster figs and jackfruit, these are the machine puppets controlled remotely by rope machine and rod machine. Gongs, crackers, and horns sound out across the mutable water as the artists soak their bodies behind the game curtain. A common plot device is decapitation. A luckless character might lose his head while chopping down a nano tree. As his head drifts away, he gives chase. Ducks dive underwater and implode.
In the past:
In the village that afternoon, it started off calmly enough, but almost immediately they were going into trances. Then, possessed by the spirits of the celestial horses they rode, they were soon eating horse fodder with apparent relish. The village became a city and then a pasture, everyone's ages changing. Father galloped out of a deep coma and suddenly he was no longer a horse, but a monkey. He rubbed himself with burning coals. The boy called Sheriff was there, and he said yes with a hop while his sister plugged her ears and drank coffee. Grandma stitched a noose of yarn.
Father, with no hands: If you're excited you're on the seat of your chair. If you get up you are back on your feet again.
Sheriff, graphing his hops in a notebook: Yes.
Father: This horse fodder is pretty good. Don't you think?
Sheriff: Yes. Yes.
Sister, wearing a straw hat: Quiet please!
Note, wear a straw hat:
If you can manage a hat that has a wide brim, then wear it and sit with your back to the sun, undoubtedly a fun thing for girls to do. As evening comes, the sun will flash through the weaving and confuse the ground, destroying its shadow.
In the future:
Mother, sitting on a pile of sand. "Have you ever thought about a dog-eared page in the middle of folding it down? The crispness of the gesture? Usually this is considered ill-treatment, but consider the concept of amplified hearing. Dogs have very good ears. How well do you suppose those ears would function if you folded them down? I would have to say that such folding is an ugly habit, however satisfying. Still, I suppose there is always a earmark to be found in silence."
Narrator's shadow dream:
Showering with several puppets on the evening of a future millennium, nobody seems much older, which is odd, almost as odd as the fact that we have faces. Outside little has changed. The trees are still about the same height. Someone is calling the radio station to ask about changes in the speed limit. Depending on what the speed limit has become, we might be able to tell how many years have passed.
The disappearance of the oceans reminds me of my grandmother. I went to visit her one summer and my lungs seized up. Right away she wanted to know if I would live in her apartment when she died. Most of her furniture had rotted and her walls were full of whistling holes. Her slow ceiling fan grabbed dust from the air with each swipe. She had made herself a homemade guillotine.
After my brain was blown out by the fluctuations, I tried to rebuild it. One of my sons had been executed in Switzertown for stabbing a man to death in a convenience store, but all I remembered were my travels to the East, and making fruit-covered hats during the war. I remembered water, which I could bob in like a cork, standing in deep water without sinking, without moving my limbs to stay afloat. How long would it take if I put a plastic bag over my head? I tried but the bag had a hole in it.
Father, rubbing himself with burning coals: These coals are hot, boy!
Sister, looking under a tree: As a child we didn't have beaches, so we had to build dirt castles. Does this dirt look any good to you?
Note, look under a tree:
If you have a tree with lots of leaves or something similar, try finding images of the sun all over the ground. Thousands of crescents will appear as if sunlight has come through the gaps. On a piece of cardboard, paint an image of a happy sun or moon, depending on whichever you prefer. Cut the cardboard and make holes for the eyes, the nose, the smiling mouth. Now you have a playful solar viewer that will begin to get you identified as an eclipse fan, possibly on your way to eclipse chasing.
In the past:
Narrator: I built a dirt castle. We wore caps adorned with stages of the moon. They were made of onion peels.
Mother: Take that hat off.
Narrator: It's a cap, I think.
Grandmother: My hats exploded! You could blow your head to smithereens.
Dream, part two:
Suitably clean, we emerged from the shower, arriving in a cave that led damply uphill to a living room in which they were having a cave party. My first thought was to plunge my head into a pool of stagnant water, but too many were waiting in line for that, so I stepped outside among frosted trees still asleep on the hillside. They looked like overgrown cauliflower and represented my youth. They were not to be disturbed, but a puppet began to throttle one anyway, threatening to destroy my childhood, so I had to switch its face off. Soon daylight would arrive and I would need to put on my goggles. I paused for a final check of what I had packed for the journey, but the only thing in my bag was a pillowcase, within which was folded a journey bag.
In the past:
An old man is pulled forward by his head, wrinkles forming on his face like runoff from the last great storm. Characters and their doubles give chase into a fake tree factory where fighting ensues on the conveyor belt. The old man ducks into an unfinished tree as Father, Mother, Sister, Brother, and Grandmother wait at the end of the line, unable to apprehend which tree he has chosen. He makes a break for the artificial forest.
Grandmother: He's moving too slow to escape.
Old man: Keep your distance.
Sister: "Keep your distance," he says.
Father: Let me ask a point-blunt query that entails a certain scripture of events. Take buildings and rooms. Are they not simply exteriors wrapped around the meat? For various and assundry reasons, I think yes. Sometime I would like to name them out.
Mother: When the book is closed, its pages stack up and become solid. It begins to matter.
Old man, calling from inside a fake tree: Close the book!
Father: Our old man has gone in for a wheel change. I say this because I can't see it. I might be flying this one out by ear, but with half the race gone over, there is still half a race to still go.
Sheriff, hopping: Yes.
End Shadow Play. . .