Time is best described as the thing that must crawl by before even the most unlikely events finally get around to happening.
A lot of it had passed in the little village we now visit, drifting down its cobblestoned streets like loose papers carried away by the wind, before the most unlikely of all developments had finally occurred.
Samael, the junk collector, had fallen in love.
Nobody had ever expected this, in large part because Samael was as dull and unimaginative a man who had ever lived. Some thought him simple, as no attempts to provide him with an education had ever stuck; some thought him unfriendly, as he greeted any attempt at conversation with grunted monosyllables, hoarding what remained of a voice that years of near-silence had turned to rust. There were places in the village where he was also suspected of being cruel, and where children were warned to return their homes whenever he appeared, dragging his homemade cart from place to place in search of discarded things he could fix and resell for enough coins to feed him so he could do the exact same thing tomorrow. Between that, his hulking size, and the default scowl of a man whose teeth were not pleasant for others to look at, he was considered sinister and, at the bare minimum, unpleasant. No one in the village imagined that there could be the capacity for love anywhere in his soul. But the truth was, he was no monster: just a quiet man with scant need for other people, content with his daily routine and what little comfort that labor earned him . . . until he saw her.
Magda was the watchmaker’s daughter, a girl who had sometime over the course of one harsh winter when most people had stayed indoors and only ventured out reluctantly, and in heavy furs that made everybody look alike, advanced from sweet and appealing child to something taller and rounder in all the right places. In the years that followed she had only blossomed and was still in the process of blossoming the first time the junk collector spotted her. She was unaware of his reverence and had she learned of it, would not have responded to it except with kindness, for she was a sweet and generous soul of precisely the sort who understood that appearance was the least reliable of all the methods human beings use to measure one another.
This story could go on at great length smothering her physical description in superlatives, or in asserting how she brightened every room she entered; how kind she was, how prematurely wise, and so on. It could then become either a story in redemptive love, as she saw in him that which all her friends and neighbors had missed; or, for narrators of a certain bent, a horror story which hinged on Samael’s obsession becoming a dark one, as he was turned deadly by his feelings of rejection. However, it heads in neither of those two directions. Magda herself, who was every bit as wonderful as Samael believed and who was understandably the subject of wistful fantasies by many men other than the junk collector, went on to live a wholly blessed life in which the strange man with the cart was nothing but an occasional presence, noted but never remarked upon in her youth, before he disappeared forever.
But for Samael, still caught in those throes of longing, the dilemma remained a fresh one. He knew that he was not the kind of man who won beautiful young women, not with looks, not with charm, not with sheer animal magnetism, not with security, and not with sparkling repartee. He was also not the kind of man who would consider taking a young lady against her will. He was just profound enough to understand that this included not just the significant power of his arms, but also the potions available to any with the coin to spend, that could induce in those who ingested them the most helpless forms of love for whoever included a lock of their own hair in the mixture, even when they possessed no qualities worth loving. These may have been tempting prospects for those whose concept of love was closer to possession, but had certain side effects so easy to detect that anybody traveling with someone so ensorcelled ran the risk of arrest, while the unfortunate in their possession was forced to guzzle the readily available antidotes: not a factor in Samael’s disinclination, in any event, since what he wanted was for Magda to love him not just unreservedly, but of her own free will, with none of her magnificent spark diminished or set on paths she would not travel herself.
No, what he needed more than anything else was advice, from someone who would neither tell him he pursued an impossible dream, or laugh at him.
So he went to the time traveler.
• • • •
The time traveler had been an intermittent fixture of this region for centuries, first appearing as an old man when the village consisted of no more than a half dozen houses, then disappearing and reappearing every few years, sometimes older, sometimes younger, always bathed in a soft amber glow that made his full aspect comprehensible to those who lived their entire lives in only one age. Whenever he appeared, he was always adamant that he was no supernatural being, but a mere man learned in the ways of his own far-future time, enamored of this particular village for its mountain air, for its scenic vistas, and for the warmth of the people. “Please,” he said, more than once over the centuries, “consider me one of you.” And though this was not quite possible, given the miraculous technology in his possession, he had nevertheless succeeded in rendering himself a figure regarded with more affection than fear.
Sometimes, as in this century, he slowed himself down and lived as a nearly-frozen figure, sitting at a table in the inn that was reserved for his use, and taking years to complete a single eye-blink; speeding up and providing response only to those who asked him direct questions, which happened only rarely because this was a village that respected the privacy of others and only a few people presumed themselves burdened by issues that required the input of a time traveler. Once a decade or so, he would call for a refill on his drink, paying with a coin forged out of a metal so rare that just one was enough to leave the various generations of the innkeeper’s family among the wealthiest in the mountains.
He was thus available for Samael, who sat opposite, received the great man’s attention and explained the attendant problem.
The figure behind the amber glow spent a few minutes determining to his satisfaction what we have already established, that what Samael sought was not some handbook for obtaining the maiden against her will, and said, “You could try poetry.”
Samael regarded the prospect with something like horror. “I am no poet.”
“Understand, sir: It does not have to be a good poem, only a sincere one. Over the years, many ardent admirers launched dynasties with rhymes of painful scansion, using naught but the three most belabored eternals, June, moon, and spoon. In many cases, the object of affection recognized her aspirant’s pitiful writing skill and repressed her incredulous laughter out of reciprocated feeling. Others would not have recognized great poetry even if a thick volume of it were dropped on their heads from a fifth-story window. They responded only to the sentiment, however poorly described. Just offer the truth, and she will respond as her heart bids her.”
Following this advice with substantial difficulty, Samael could only protest, “But I am no good with words, at all. Maybe you can help me?”
“You seem to think that just because I possess technology grander than your own that I am capable of performing as indulgent Cyrano. Forgive me, my dear man: On paper, I am a dreadful clod. And you do not want a third party to write your love letters, in any event.
“Let me tell you something. Many years ago, as I reckon time, I was an idiot not much more advanced in matters of the heart than your own unpracticed self, and I fell helplessly, head-over-heels in love with a beautiful and charming young lady, a poet herself, in whose presence I could emit only incoherent stammers. She must have thought I was some kind of idiot, and she was not wrong in this, because it was what I became whenever she was near. Not burdened with my current experience, I traveled to 1599 and commissioned the greatest poet of all time, William Shakespeare himself, to produce a sonnet to her glory. I paid him a fortune in the coin of his realm, described the object of my adoration as best I could, and traveled to one evening a fortnight hence to collect what I’d commissioned. I assure you it looked great to me. And then I leaped forward four hundred years and handed it to her. Can you guess what happened?”
Samael had never in his life perceived anything involving sexual politics with perspicacity sufficient to guess what would happen next, in any proposed collection of variables. His shrug was as eloquent as he ever got.
“She read it,” the time traveler said, “and she hated me.”
“I had reckoned without the voice of the writer. Shakespeare was bawdy, sir. As a dramatist he delighted in finding ways to insert dirty jokes, naughty puns, and out-and-out pornography, wherever he could, to wake up those theatregoers whose attention spans were not quite up to multiple hours of free verse. He also enjoyed finding ways for his characters to subtly insult each other, when they were otherwise obliged to treat one another with deference and respect. So imagine if you will a man of those inclinations engaged by a wealthy patron, one who confessed himself incapable of sculpting the metaphors capable of winning a young lady’s heart. Imagine that he despised the very enterprise and wanted to warn the fair maiden off, and you will understand that he deeply amused himself producing lines that to this dullard’s eyes appeared complimentary but to her educated understanding of metaphor and Elizabethan slang portrayed her as a perfumed harlot who spent her days by the waterfront giving repeat-customer discounts to sailors. So she slapped me, called me disgusting, and flounced off, while I was left rubbing my jaw and saying, ‘Ow.’”
Samael required long minutes of cogitation to decode that speech, but eventually he said, “Maybe not poetry, then.”
“Trust me, Samael: You cannot get what you want from the woman without engaging with her on some level, and that is precisely what renders success in this enterprise, through any intermediary, unlikely. Your problem is your profound personality deficit. You possess nothing capable of fascinating her.”
“My looks, then,” Samael said. “You can do something about my looks.”
“Samael, I could take you to eras where flesh is whim and where anyone can have the form that best suits them, where a man who wants to fly can grow wings in an afternoon, flit about like an eagle, and then discard them in order to fit into his tuxedo at night. I can surely arrange to make you an Adonis, of any shade from infrared to ultra-violet; even transparency is a possibility. But you will still be yourself. Even if you dazzle her so completely that she invites you to share your bed, she will sooner or later realize that you possess the conversational skills of an oaf and that you lack the personality to inspire her heart and mind. And then there is the aging factor. In ten years, fifteen, however beautiful your altered appearance at the onset, the bloom will still be off your rose. She will look elsewhere, or wish she could.”
This all bore the ring of truth. Samael could only feel what all men feel whenever all the light goes out of their respective worlds: a terrible heaviness that he would no doubt carry for the rest of his life. And yet, persistent to the end, he managed to insist on his life’s sole dream.
“I will take those fifteen years if it means I can let her know I love her, can be loved by her in return, can make her happy and sleep by her side. It is all I want on this Earth.”
The time traveler regarded Samael in a silence that persisted for so very long that the junk collector wondered if he’d returned to dilated immobility, and ultimately said, “I can give you fifteen years.”
• • • •
Samael never would understand a single damn thing that happened to him during the subjective experience of time travel. There was a vehicle, of course, but aside from enclosing the time traveler and himself, it so completely failed his entire understanding of objecthood that he was left squinting at all the oddly intersecting lines that made the inside of his skull itch. There was a direction traveled, but it was not forward or backward, up or down, north or south or east or west, or even from a recognizable here to a definable there. There was some sensation of movement, but it seemed to affect different parts of his body at different speeds, and left him with the impression that he’d spent at least part of the time with his head pickled in a broth of his own liver. It involved an understanding of the universe that would have cured madmen and shattered the sanity of savants. He was wholly unprepared for it and he survived the experience with his soul intact only because
(not the actual person he had yet to win, but the idea of her)
remained painted on his heart’s tremulous canvas.
He was thoroughly infected with the disease that had made an uncounted battalion of ardent swains, over too many millennia to count, write poems to the glory of her, march off to pointless wars for the glory of her, carve masterpieces out of clay or granite or coral rock for the glory of her, trudge across deserts and cut off ears and shoot at Presidents and arrange for demeaning tattoos, all for the glory of her.
He endured his torso being spaghettified and whirled around his skull in fractal spirals that would have sent Euclid screaming into the night, without complaint, all for love of her.
Then the time traveler said, “Most first-timers are most uncomfortable during this next part,” and it got so much worse that everything that had come before was like a gentle ride on a haywagon during the harvest festival. And still Samael hung on, adamant, Magda’s glorious features glowing before him in sharpest candlelight, for this and ten times more would have been well worth the price, for the mere possibility of the glorious Magda looking upon him with adoration.
“We’re here,” the time traveler said.
Samael felt his ribcage regain a third dimension. It nevertheless took several seconds longer for him to persuade his eyelids to flutter, and so it was in absolute darkness that he managed a forlorn, “Where’s here?”
“This is a time some fourteen thousand years after the era you know, when Mankind has completely mastered the art of bodily modification. Here, every man and woman and every human being in the seven hundred genders now understood to occupy those two traditional extremes can daily modify their forms, to suit whatever their needs may be. This is an era where the philtrum and the uvula are recognized as the untapped reproductive organs that they have always been, an era where some human beings arrange to exist at the size of prions and others, individuals, exist on the map as snow-capped mountain ranges; an era with the capacity to transform you into the fully representative and truthful version of yourself capable of not just winning Magda, but also keeping her for your lifetime, while remaining fair to her own desires. What you see when you open your eyes, dear Samael, will be like nothing else you’ve ever known, but it will also be the place that realizes your most extravagant dreams.”
Samael opened his eyes, and yes, what he saw, through the time machine’s equivalent of a front window, was a metropolis that made no sense to him: a skyline of towering glass extending as far as his eyes could see, beneath a sky the color of orange marmalade. Through the transparent walls of all those towers he could see little black dots he understood to be the descendants of human beings going about their daily business, perhaps even working at their jobs; and yet of those who were closer, some had a wholly horrifying number of limbs or heads and some seemed to be, for lack of a better phrase, on fire. Those with angel wings flitted through the air and those who had elected to be liquid simply rolled across the landscape like living tsunami. And behind them all were figures who towered over the tallest buildings, their heads fuzzy in the distance at the altitudes where their crania scraped the limits of the atmosphere. The music behind it all sounded like all the violins in all the world playing different concertos all at once, and yet they melded, in ways that made the junk collector’s heart ache in most of the mere handful of ways it hadn’t ached before. But time travel had not destroyed him, because of his adoration of Magda, and the sight of this landscape—a vision that an educated man might have compared for sheer madness to a happier version of the landscapes of hell captured by Hieronymus Bosch—did not destroy him either, because Magda remained both overlay and underlay, anchoring him in what amounted to a sandwich of sanity. He gulped and said, “What do we do?”
The time traveler said, “I will take you to a certain clinic I know about, where more exotic requests can be accommodated. You will be improved, and rendered capable of winning Magda’s devotion. I will bring you back, and you will live happily ever after. I guarantee you this, Samael, and I want you to know that I am wholly sincere about this, because I have divined your soul and I do believe, to the depths of my own, that you are a good man, utterly deserving of these ambitions.”
The junk collector said, “Umm, thanks,” and then he wept, because he had never really known kindness or even the possibility that dreams could be realized by one such as him. After a moment, before allowing the time traveler to escort him into the streets he could not understand, he succumbed to the fear-impulse. “Will it hurt?”
“It’s love, Samael. Of course it will hurt. That’s much of the reason people want it.”
And Samael smiled, because even a shambling clod like himself could see the truth in this, and with no further hesitation, he let the time traveler lead him to his destiny, all for the love of her.
• • • •
And of the resolution to this story I can you that the time traveler brought him back to Magda, who fell in love with him in mere seconds; and that she took him to her bed and cherished him to the end of his days. His life was short, only the fifteen years that had been promised, but it was fifteen years of pure bliss. To most people of the town, the junk dealer Samael never returned, and was never missed, remarked upon only by those incapable of letting things like an unsolved disappearance just be.
• • • •
But before that:
The time traveler left the tavern that generations of villagers had come to know as his home, for the first time since some of the oldest people in town first blinked at the phenomenon known as light while squalling outside the wombs that had incubated them.
His stride, known so rarely in the past decades, was jovial. He was a good man, this time traveler. He had a genuine affection for people in general and in specific for the inhabitants of this one small village, whose village he had kept safe from the churning of world politics, from economic busts, from the tramp of conquering armies, and from all the other ills that beset less protected men. A more judgmental observer would say that he kept them as pets. In truth, he valued them as neighbors. He knew they were provincial but he found their conservative ways a fine curative to the surfeit that’s the lot of the traveler. He would have done anything for them, anything reasonable: and what he had done for Samael was not just reasonable, but wise.
He made his way to the home of the watchmaker and he knocked on the door: three short raps, neither angry nor threatening. And in a couple of seconds, the door was opened by a vision of extraordinary beauty, fresh-faced and sweet and with a smile capable of illuminating the world. The time traveler was far too old for her, millennia too old for her, but he felt as instantly in love with her, in that moment, as Samael had been: and he thought: This, at last, is a reason to love Mankind.
“Hello?” Magda said.
“Hello,” the time traveler said. “An admirer of yours has asked me to bring you a gift.”
He reached into his coat, which had many big and expansive pockets, and handed her a sleepy, eight-week-old beagle.