The time travelers wife, p.4
Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font       Night Mode Off   Night Mode

       The Time Traveler's Wife, p.4

           Audrey Niffenegger
 

  Nothing. Good boy, wary and silent. I try again. "It's okay, Henry. I'm your guide, I'm here to show you around. It's a special tour. Don't be afraid, Henry."

  I hear a slight, oh-so-faint noise. "I brought you a T-shirt, Henry. So you won't get cold while we look at the exhibits." I can make him out now, standing at the edge of the darkness. "Here. Catch." I throw it to him, and the shirt disappears, and then he steps into the light. The T-shirt comes down to his knees. Me at five, dark spiky hair, moon pale with brown almost Slavic eyes, wiry, coltish. At five I am happy, cushioned in normality and the arms of my parents. Everything changed, starting now.

  I walk forward slowly, bend toward him, speak softly. "Hello. I'm glad to see you, Henry. Thank you for coming tonight."

  "Where am I? Who are you?" His voice is small and high, and echoes a little off the cold stone.

  "You're in the Field Museum. I have been sent here to show you some things you can't see during the day. My name is also Henry. Isn't that funny?"

  He nods.

  "Would you like some cookies? I always like to eat cookies while I look around museums. It makes it more multi-sensory." I offer him the package of Oreos. He hesitates, unsure if it's all right, hungry but unsure how many he can take without being rude. "Take as many as you want. I've already eaten ten, so you have some catching up to do." He takes three. "Is there anything you'd like to see first?" He shakes his head. "Tell you what. Let's go up to the third floor; that's where they keep all the stuff that isn't on display. Okay?"

  "Okay."

  We walk through darkness, up the stairs. He isn't moving very fast, so I climb slowly with him.

  "Where's Mom?"

  "She's at home, sleeping. This is a special tour, only for you, because it's your birthday. Besides, grown-ups don't do this sort of thing."

  "Aren't you a grown-up?"

  "I'm an extremely unusual grown-up. My job is to have adventures. So naturally when I heard that you wanted to come back to the Field Museum right away, I jumped at the chance to show you around."

  "But how did I get here?" He stops at the top of the stairs and looks at me with total confusion.

  "Well, that's a secret. If I tell you, you have to swear not to say anything to anyone."

  "Why?"

  "Because they wouldn't believe you. You can tell Mom, or Kimy if you want, but that's it. Okay?"

  "Okay..."

  I kneel in front of him, my innocent self, look him in the eyes. "Cross your heart and hope to die?"

  "Uh-huh..."

  "Okay. Here's how it is: you time traveled. You were in your bedroom, and all of a sudden, poof! you are here, and it's a little earlier in the evening, so we have plenty of time to look at everything before you have to go home." He is silent and quizzical. "Does that make sense?"

  "But...why?"

  "Well, I haven't figured that out yet. I'll let you know when I do. In the meantime, we should be moving along. Cookie?"

  He takes one and we walk slowly down the corridor. I decide to experiment. "Let's try this one." I slide the bookmark along a door marked 306 and open it. When I flick on the lights there are pumpkin-sized rocks all over the floor, whole and halved, craggy on the outside and streaked with veins of metal inside. "Ooh, look, Henry. Meteorites."

  "What's meterites?"

  "Rocks that fall from outer space." He looks at me as though I'm from outer space. "Shall we try another door?" He nods. I close the meteorite room and try the door across the corridor. This room is full of birds. Birds in simulated flight, birds perched eternally on branches, bird heads, bird skins. I open one of the hundreds of drawers; it contains a dozen glass tubes, each holding a tiny gold and black bird with its name wrapped around a foot. Henry's eyes are the size of saucers. "Do you want to touch one?"

  "Uh-huh."

  I remove the cotton wadding from the mouth of a tube and shake a goldfinch onto my palm. It remains tube-shaped. Henry strokes its small head, lovingly. "It's sleeping?"

  "More or less." He looks at me sharply, distrusting my equivocation. I insert the finch gently back into the tube, replace the cotton, replace the tube, shut the drawer. I am so tired. Even the word sleep is a lure, a seduction. I lead the way out into the hall, and suddenly I recollect what it was I loved about this night when I was little.

  "Hey, Henry. Let's go to the library." He shrugs. I walk, quickly now, and he runs to keep up. The library is on the third floor, at the east end of the building. When we get there, I stand for a minute, contemplating the locks. Henry looks at me, as though to say, Well, that's that. I feel in my pockets, and find the letter opener. I wiggle the wooden handle off, and lo, there's a nice long thin metal prong in there. I stick one half of it into the lock and feel around. I can hear the tumblers springing, and when I'm all the way back I stick in the other half, use my bookmark on the other lock and presto, Open Sesame!

  At last, my companion is suitably impressed. "How'd you do that?"

  "It's not that hard. I'll teach you another time. Entrez!" I hold open the door and he walks in. I flip on the lights and the Reading Room springs into being; heavy wooden tables and chairs, maroon carpet, forbidding enormous Reference Desk. The Field Museum's Library is not designed to appeal to five-year-olds. It's a closed-stacks library, used by scientists and scholars. There are bookcases lining the room, but they hold mostly leather-bound Victorian science periodicals. The book I'm after is in a huge glass and oak case by itself in the center of the room. I spring the lock with my bobby pin and open the glass door. Really, the Field ought to get more serious about security. I don't feel too terrible about doing this; after all, I'm a bona fide librarian, I do Show and Tells at the Newberry all the time. I walk behind the Reference Desk and find a piece of felt and some support pads, and lay them out on the nearest table. Then I close and carefully lift the book out of its case and onto the felt. I pull out a chair. "Here, stand on this so you can see better." He climbs up, and I open the book.

  It's Audubon's Birds of America, the deluxe, wonderful double-elephant folio that's almost as tall as my young self. This copy is the finest in existence, and I have spent many rainy afternoons admiring it. I open it to the first plate, and Henry smiles, and looks at me. "'Common Loon'" he reads. "It looks like a duck."

  "Yeah, it does. I bet I can guess your favorite bird."

  He shakes his head and smiles.

  "What'll you bet?"

  He looks down at himself in the T-rex T-shirt and shrugs. I know the feeling.

  "How about this: if I guess you get to eat a cookie, and if I can't guess you get to eat a cookie?"

  He thinks it over and decides this would be a safe bet. I open the book to Flamingo. Henry laughs.

  "Am I right?"

  "Yes!"

  It's easy to be omniscient when you've done it all before. "Okay, here's your cookie. And I get one for being right. But we have to save them 'til we're done looking at the book; we wouldn't want to get crumbs all over the bluebirds, right?"

  "Right!" He sets the Oreo on the arm of the chair and we begin again at the beginning and page slowly through the birds, so much more alive than the real thing in glass tubes down the hall.

  "Here's a Great Blue Heron. He's really big, bigger than a flamingo. Have you ever seen a hummingbird?"

  "I saw some today!"

  "Here in the museum?"

  "Uh-huh."

  "Wait 'til you see one outside--they're like tiny helicopters, their wings go so fast you just see a blur..." Turning each page is like making a bed, an enormous expanse of paper slowly rises up and over. Henry stands attentively, waits each time for the new wonder, emits small noises of pleasure for each sandhill crane, American Coot, great auk, pileated woodpecker. When we come to the last plate, Snow Bunting, he leans down and touches the page, delicately stroking the engraving. I look at him, look at the book, remember, this book, this moment, the first book I loved, remember wanting to crawl into it and sleep.

  "You tired?"

&nb
sp; "Uh-huh."

  "Should we go?"

  "Okay."

  I close Birds of America, return it to its glass home, open it to Flamingo, shut the case, lock it. Henry jumps off the chair and eats his Oreo. I return the felt to the desk and push the chair in. Henry turns out the light, and we leave the library.

  We wander, chattering amiably of things that fly and things that slither, and eating our Oreos. Henry tells me about Mom and Dad and Mrs. Kim, who is teaching him to make lasagna, and Brenda, whom I had forgotten about, my best pal when I was little until her family moved to Tampa, Florida, about three months from now. We are standing in front of Bushman, the legendary silverback gorilla, whose stuffed magnificence glowers at us from his little marble stand in a first floor hallway, when Henry cries out, and staggers forward, reaching urgently for me, and I grab him, and he's gone. The T-shirt is warm empty cloth in my hands. I sigh, and walk upstairs to ponder the mummies for a while by myself. My young self will be home now, climbing into bed. I remember, I remember. I woke up in the morning and it was all a wonderful dream. Mom laughed and said that time travel sounded fun, and she wanted to try it, too.

  That was the first time.

  FIRST DATE, TWO

  Friday, September 23, 1977 (Henry is 36, Clare is 6)

  HENRY: I'm in the Meadow, waiting. I wait slightly outside the clearing, naked, because the clothes Clare keeps for me in a box under a stone are not there; the box isn't there either, so I am thankful that the afternoon is fine, early September, perhaps, in some unidentified year. I hunker down in the tall grass. I consider. The fact that there is no box full of clothes means that I have arrived in a time before Clare and I have met. Perhaps Clare isn't even born yet. This has happened before, and it's a pain; I miss Clare and I spend the time hiding naked in the Meadow, not daring to show myself in the neighborhood of Clare's family. I think longingly of the apple trees at the western edge of the Meadow. At this time of year there ought to be apples, small and sour and munched by deer, but edible. I hear the screen door slam and I peer above the grass. A child is running, pell mell, and as it comes down the path through the waving grass my heart twists and Clare bursts into the clearing.

  She is very young. She is oblivious; she is alone. She is still wearing her school uniform, a hunter green jumper with a white blouse and knee socks with penny loafers, and she is carrying a Marshall Field's shopping bag and a beach towel. Clare spreads the towel on the ground and dumps out the contents of the bag: every imaginable kind of writing implement. Old ballpoint pens, little stubby pencils from the library, crayons, smelly Magic Markers, a fountain pen. She also has a bunch of her dad's office stationery. She arranges the implements and gives the stack of paper a smart shake, and then proceeds to try each pen and pencil in turn, making careful lines and swirls, humming to herself. After listening carefully for a while I identify her humming as the theme song of "The Dick Van Dyke Show."

  I hesitate. Clare is content, absorbed. She must be about six; if it's September she has probably just entered first grade. She's obviously not waiting for me, I'm a stranger, and I'm sure that the first thing you learn in first grade is not to have any truck with strangers who show up naked in your favorite secret spot and know your name and tell you not to tell your mom and dad. I wonder if today is the day we are supposed to meet for the first time or if it's some other day. Maybe I should be very silent and either Clare will go away and I can go munch up those apples and steal some laundry or I will revert to my regularly scheduled programming, I snap from my reverie to find Clare staring straight at me. I realize, too late, that I have been humming along with her.

  "Who's there?" Clare hisses. She looks like a really pissed off goose, all neck and legs. I am thinking fast,

  "Greetings, Earthling," I intone, kindly.

  "Mark! You nimrod!" Clare is casting around for something to throw, and decides on her shoes, which have heavy, sharp heels. She whips them off and does throw them. I don't think she can see me very well, but she lucks out and one of them catches me in the mouth. My lip starts to bleed.

  "Please don't do that." I don't have anything to staunch the blood, so I press my hand to my mouth and my voice comes out muffled. My jaw hurts.

  "Who is it?" Now Clare is frightened, and so am I.

  "Henry. It's Henry, Clare. I won't hurt you, and I wish you wouldn't throw anything else at me."

  "Give me back my shoes. I don't know you. Why are you hiding?" Clare is glowering at me.

  I toss her shoes back into the clearing. She picks them up and stands holding them like pistols. "I'm hiding because I lost my clothes and I'm embarrassed. I came a long way and I'm hungry and I don't know anybody and now I'm bleeding."

  "Where did you come from? Why do you know my name?"

  The whole truth and nothing but the truth. "I came from the future. I am a time traveler. In the future we are friends."

  "People only time travel in movies."

  "That's what we want you to believe."

  "Why?"

  "If everybody time traveled it would get too crowded. Like when you went to see your Grandma Abshire last Christmas and you had to go through O'Hare Airport and it was very, very crowded? We time travelers don't want to mess things up for ourselves, so we keep it quiet."

  Clare chews on this for a minute. "Come out."

  "Loan me your beach towel." She picks it up and all the pens and pencils and papers go flying. She throws it at me, overhand, and I grab it and turn my back as I stand and wrap it around my waist. It is bright pink and orange with a loud geometric pattern. Exactly the sort of thing you'd want to be wearing when you meet your future wife for the first time. I turn around and walk into the clearing; I sit on the rock with as much dignity as possible. Clare stands as far away from me as she can get and remain in the clearing. She is still clutching her shoes.

  "You're bleeding."

  "Well, yeah. You threw a shoe at me."

  "Oh."

  Silence. I am trying to look harmless, and nice. Nice looms large in Clare's childhood, because so many people aren't.

  "You're making fun of me."

  "I would never make fun of you. Why do you think I'm making fun of you?"

  Clare is nothing if not stubborn. "Nobody time travels. You're lying."

  "Santa time travels."

  "What?"

  "Sure. How do you think he gets all those presents delivered in one night? He just keeps turning back the clock a few hours until he gets down every one of those chimneys."

  "Santa is magic. You're not Santa."

  "Meaning I'm not magic? Geez, Louise, you're a tough customer."

  "I'm not Louise."

  "I know. You're Clare. Clare Anne Abshire, born May 24, 1971. Your parents are Philip and Lucille Abshire, and you live with them and your grandma and your brother, Mark, and your sister, Alicia, in that big house up there."

  "Just because you know things doesn't mean you're from the future."

  "If you hang around a while you can watch me disappear" I feel I can count on this because Clare once told me it was the thing she found most impressive about our first meeting.

  Silence. Clare shifts her weight from foot to foot and waves away a mosquito. "Do you know Santa?"

  "Personally? Um, no." I have stopped bleeding, but I must look awful. "Hey, Clare, do you happen to have a Band-Aid? Or some food? Time traveling makes me pretty hungry."

  She thinks about this. She digs into her jumper pocket and produces a Hershey bar with one bite out of it. She throws it at me.

  "Thank you. I love these." I eat it neatly but very quickly. My blood sugar is low. I put the wrapper in her shopping bag. Clare is delighted.

  "You eat like a dog."

  "I do not!" I am deeply offended. "I have opposable thumbs, thank you very much."

  "What are posable thumbs?"

  "Do this." I make the "okay" sign. Clare makes the "okay" sign. "Opposable thumbs means you can do that. It means you can open jars and tie y
our shoes and other things animals can't do."

  Clare is not happy with this. "Sister Carmelita says animals don't have souls."

  "Of course animals have souls. Where did she get that idea?"

  "She said the Pope says."

  "The Pope's an old meanie. Animals have much nicer souls than we do. They never tell lies or blow anybody up."

  "They eat each other."

  "Well, they have to eat each other; they can't go to Dairy Queen and get a large vanilla cone with sprinkles, can they?" This is Clare's favorite thing to eat in the whole wide world (as a child. As an adult Clare's favorite food is sushi, particularly sushi from Katsu on Peterson Avenue).

  "They could eat grass."

  "So could we, but we don't. We eat hamburgers."

  Clare sits down at the edge of the clearing. "Etta says I shouldn't talk to strangers."

  "That's good advice."

  Silence.

  "When are you going to disappear?"

  "When I'm good and ready to. Are you bored with me?" Clare rolls her eyes. "What are you working on?"

  "Penmanship."

  "May I see?"

  Clare gets up carefully and collects a few pieces of stationery while fixing me with her baleful stare. I lean forward slowly and extend my hand as though she is a Rottweiler, and she quickly shoves the papers at me and retreats. I look at them intently, as though she has just handed me a bunch of Bruce Rogers' original drawings for Centaur or the Book of Kells or something. She has printed, over and over, large and larger, "Clare Anne Abshire." All the ascenders and descenders have swirling curlicues and all the counters have smiley faces in them. It's quite beautiful.

 
Turn Navi Off
Turn Navi On
Scroll Up
Scroll
  • 11 749
  • 0
Add comment

Add comment