4700 words, short story
A Gift in Time
Though July 9, 1937 was a warm Friday, and all the warmer for events in its early morning, Mouse shivered as he stood before the roaring 2 a.m. blaze in Little Ferry, New Jersey, and considered (not for the first time) that there was no time machine, not really—just the desperate will of his quickly beating heart, which could secure for him all things, it seemed, but that which he most desired.
To the two Little Ferry firefighting companies had been added all six from Ridgefield Park, and two other firemen besides, who had broken from their own teams to help defend—if not the Fox Film plant, for its vaults were now clearly beyond repair—at least the neighboring residences, from whence had just poured trembling, agitated families whose members would all be dead or nearly so by the year to which Mouse now intended to return. He might have stopped the blaze entirely, he knew; might have spared these people their long night’s hardship, and tens of thousands in damages besides—but how much less spectacular his recent work would then become. Some measure of loss, he tried to convince himself, was necessary to make more impressive all that remained.
This small regret still twisting in his gut, Mouse walked stiffly from the cacophony at the corner of Franklin and Main, well into the shadows of a side street, before willing himself over half a dozen decades out. Perhaps this was all a dream, but if not, he had prescience enough for the implications of being seen to disappear, streaking in that wrenching, heartsick way of his across the old century and beyond—nudging himself, too, far from the geography of his starting point as he progressed. Mouse kept one hand tucked under his coat throughout his heart’s strange voyage, fingers clammy on the wide and blunted tin, its package of cellulose nitrate shifting in minute ways within. Even then he was loath to let go when he found himself back in his little stockroom office, with the bulky metal desk he seemed to catch his knee on every time.
Mouse started at the voice wending imperiously down the hall, then swore and stumbled as his desk did its inevitable work upon him, and as the tin slipped past his belt before he caught it up again. “Coming!” he said, while with shaking hands he set his latest treasure on a corner stack with eleven of its kin. For a heartbeat more his hands hovered over the last of his rescues, afraid to touch any of them now that the set stood together in this time, this place—complete. Not yet in the best of storage, their quiet volatility became enough to make him fear (if in a vague, ill-reasoned way) even the heat of his own skin.
“Coming!” he said again, when he had mastered himself anew, and pressed both palms vigorously against his coat until they felt mostly dry. He doubled back only once, to close the door behind him, and again to check that it was locked.
Ezra Levitz’s desk was of a sprawling, rich mahogany that seemed to have surged up one night from the burnished hardwood floor. All about him in the cathedral of a front room to Mr. Hazlitt’s massive study, relics extending well into antiquity—vases, sculptures, tapestries, instruments and armor—stood elevated by aspects of their staging to testaments of mankind’s greatness, yet to Mouse there stood no piece in this whole collection more a triumph of the species than the haughty curl of Ezra’s upper lip.
His hands pressed flat against his trousers, Mouse stopped just short of an invisible line on the floor that, whenever passed, never failed to spark in Ezra’s eyes a deeper disdain than Mouse could bring himself most days to bear. But today that chasm seemed even wider, and as Ezra brandished a sheaf of vellum pages in a long and slender, clenching hand, Mouse stepped quickly from its new precipice.
“Mr. Musset,” said the young, magisterial exhibit, from behind its fulsome showcase. “I am left to wonder sometimes if you think yourself paid by Mr. Hazlitt not only to make a public spectacle of your credulity, but to do so at such risk to your employer’s reputation.”
“Is there . . . ” started Mouse, fearing as he did that he would not find it in himself to go on—and yet, somehow, he did: “Is there something wrong with the manuscript?”
“Is there! Is there!” The ha! that followed this mocking echo might have ended civilizations, for all that it shook the pillars of Mouse’s heart. “I would ask you to consider the extreme implausibility that there should come to your notice first—yours, Mr. Musset!—the existence of a work so monumental, so potentially transformative, as a second version of Beowulf itself. An uncharred account, at that—every page spared from moth larvae, tankard print, water-logging; even the greed of ancient cobblers! A story so fully told that the hoard-thief’s part now reads entirely without question, and with names so clear throughout that even the most incompetent historian can see all the lineages for what they truly are. A version with certain parts even told at better length than our extant text, especially when it comes to all the petty politics in the last third! Oh, they’re all nice touches, Mr. Musset—I’ll give you that—but it’s a fraud. An utter forgery just the same.”
Mouse stood a quivering, breathless entity from across the chasm of the burnished floor—his lips parted, slack, as Ezra pulled out a metal waste bin and set it on the desk. For all the cruelty of the lecture, Mouse did not fail to notice that it had also been perfectly rehearsed, and his heart could not help but rally at the passion he had produced. To think of all the time Ezra must have spent thinking on him (him!) so as to frame this fiery rebuke! And oh—to press his advantage! To make that upper lip curl his way just a little longer!
“Oh no, Mr. Levitz,” said Mouse quickly, his hands and ears growing hot. “There must be some mistake. This text is a fair copy of Beowulf; of that I can assure you if only—”
“Assure me?” Young Adonis snorted, tossing the manuscript whole within the bin. “I have had quite enough assurance, Mr. Musset, from the carbon dating Mr. Hazlitt had performed. Granted, the calligraphy is clever, and the materials all true to form—but how old would you say Beowulf is? Tenth century? Maybe eighth?” (Mouse found he could only nod now, and miserably at that, for a lump pitched itself high in his throat as his fool error dawned on him, long before dear Ezra gave it voice.) “Or late twentieth, Mr. Musset?” Ezra rattled the bin. “Because this copy most certainly did not sit in someone’s collection for over a thousand years, just waiting to be discovered. It might have been penned a year ago—a month!—for all the vellum’s aged. And I would be curious to learn about the forger and his methods—indeed, I imagine Mr. Hazlitt would be, too—if we weren’t both so sick with disappointment at the whole miserable affair. You know, Mr. Musset; you know how much we adore the culture and history surrounding the original text.”
“I do,” said Mouse, quite softly, watching with a stab of something like remorse as Ezra lit a match and cast it in the bin.
“Good. Then I trust—I hope, at least—that we’ll see an end to such lapses in the future. Mr. Hazlitt, as you well know, has more than earned the right not to be trifled with by any among his staff. Fair warning, Mr. Musset.”
“I will do my best, Mr. Levitz.” Mouse inclined his head. “Is there anything else?”
“Oh, yes—take this.” Ezra’s expression twisted with a revulsion not directed at Mouse, for once, but rather the stench now blooming alongside flames within the bin, which he thrust over the desk. Eagerly Mouse breached the usual divide—just long enough to take the offending object up into his arms, and maybe then to . . .
But before Mouse could graze so much as one exquisite finger, the young secretary turned away—poised, it seemed, to retire into the recesses of Mr. Hazlitt’s study the moment his subordinate scurried out. Mouse had almost made it back to his little office before remembering what delicate prizes still lay within, prepared at even the slightest provocation to spark in turn, and realized that the air about him was already thickening with fetid smoke. The metal bin was hot at all sides now, so gingerly he set it down outside the little room, between two shelving units of sturdy pottery, and opened the nearest, narrow windows before crouching to watch the old-new vellum—snatched just weeks prior from some early medieval Christian with long, flaxen hair and weather-beaten countenance, while the latter answered his wife’s gruff call to a joint of lamb and prayer—give in its gradual way to ash.
At least in this, Mouse conceded with some envy, the full first manuscript of Beowulf had earned a proper Anglo-Saxon burial. His own heart still burned to a far less final end.
In the wake of this crowning failure, Mouse also realized that he could neither present his latest treasures in short order—not at least until Ezra’s affected fury had died down—nor expect them to escape Beowulf’s fate in their current form. The ensuing weeks passed slowly, then, and wretchedly, as Mouse turned over this new puzzle and in fits of agony convinced himself to keep out of Ezra’s way and sight until the longing in his heart ceased to hurt as much—resolutions that lasted hours, at best, apiece.
There was, of course, plenty else to do, for Mouse’s steady industry lay in receiving lots for Mr. Hazlitt, classifying them by quality and type, then adding them to the general catalogue, from which Mr. Hazlitt would from time to time select his favorites for private collections and reallocate the rest. Whole happy hours might be spent this way, documenting and detailing and otherwise lifting ancient objects from the anonymity of years-long storage, until Ezra’s voice trilled in passing down the hall—the sweet, honeyed aspects of his speech always blossoming for Mr. Hazlitt, whose voice would always soften in its turn.
Mouse had no vague notions, either, of what transpired beyond Mr. Hazlitt’s study doors whenever their employer called for Ezra at lunch or late in the afternoon. Rather, Mouse had played out these scenarios with great detail and even greater ambivalence as the months turned to years at his post: some days resenting that Mr. Hazlitt should exploit his secretary in this most time-worn way; the rest, with his own office door securely locked, moaning to whatever gods would listen that he could not do likewise on a whim.
He had tried, long before his first flight to millennia past, to secure for himself a decades-old bank account with interest that might make him rich in his own time, but three failed attempts had been enough to dispel him of the notion that money would ever be enough to elevate himself in Ezra’s eyes. The first time, Mouse had neglected key aspects of identity required to open a new account, and almost found himself arrested in the late ’40s before his quickly beating heart whisked him desperately away (hitting his head, on his return, both on the desk and a cabinet door he had neglected to close that morning). The second time, the correct papers in hand, he had failed instead in his calculations, and the sum awaiting him on his return was not nearly enough for the grandiosity of his dreaming. The third time—calculations squared, investments made, papers all secure—he returned to what seemed an impossible sum . . . and then stood rigid with fear. Now what?
That was the day he followed Ezra’s laughter to a scene with Mr. Hazlitt looming behind the desk, behind Ezra, the pair inspecting rude clerical marginalia in a collection of twelfth-century songs. Mr. Hazlitt straightened at leisure as Mouse approached, and with a squeeze of Ezra’s shoulder bid him to step into the study later, when he was through.
“Mr. Musset,” said Mr. Hazlitt, with a nod.
“Mr. Hazlitt,” said Mouse, with a deeper one.
“Well, what is it?” said Ezra, his voice one long exhalation of breath when the doors slid shut behind their employer. He withdrew a comb and took to preening at his desk.
Mouse faltered at this brilliantly arrogant sight, then stumbled through his explanation of the great deal of money he had just come into—the great house he expected to buy; the collections he would surely maintain, if only . . .
“If only what?” said Ezra, sharply. “Out with it, Mr. Musset. I haven’t got all day.”
But the words to follow from Mouse’s lips were hardly uttered in full before Ezra’s laughter subsumed all else.
“Why you dirty old man,” said fair Adonis—at which Mouse could not help but bristle, for Mr. Hazlitt was surely older—“Do you think me so easily bought as that? Oh, go away, will you? If you’re so rich why haven’t you left your job yet? Or maybe you’ve fallen in love with those dusty shelves, and that cage of an office that smells even worse than you?”
Mouse realized then that he wouldn’t quit—he couldn’t. Not all the money in the world could get him to leave the singular post in which he might five-days-weekly come to bask, to tremble, to utterly abase himself before that one radiant creature who had come to stand in his heart for everything worth anything in this whole, long, middling life. Mouse could have thrown his newfound riches at lesser beauties and lesser tempers; he might have spent his remaining years indulging duller passions that might have brought their own warmth and tenderness in time—but how could it be anything but death to do so? To give up on the most animated, the most brightly gleaming object ever to grace his sky?
So Mouse returned to his work instead, this fresh rejection no more a hardship on him than any of the rest: all those daily rebukes in look and gesture that nonetheless confirmed that there was feeling—genuine feeling!—for him in Ezra’s breast. Just not the right kind of feeling. At least not yet.
When the opportunity arose, then, to answer the soft sighs and wistful declarations that Ezra and Mr. Hazlitt sometimes shared during business in the front room—O, for a version of this story that wasn’t burned!—Mouse’s heart flew at once after ancient Beowulf, the sheer desperation of his need, his longing, a kind of zipline through the centuries that the rest of him careened along. The next trek, to 1937, was almost an afterthought, a moment’s indulgence after the fleeting hope that had sprung from placing his first prize in Ezra’s hands—or at least, on Ezra’s massive desk, sliding it across for the younger man to acknowledge in his own time, and initially to marvel at when he did. But now Mouse had only the movie tins to go on—Ezra sighing one day over old film photos as Mr. Hazlitt looked on, and as Mouse made adjustments to a showcase elsewhere in the room; Ezra saying then, Now that was an age for beauty, wasn’t it? Just look at her—such a pity this one was lost, and going on to note Mr. Hazlitt’s likeness to the director, Murnau—something in the nose, and the forehead, and maybe, from the look of those sturdy hands . . .
So it did not matter that the two fell silent at this last, glancing significantly Mouse’s way; Mouse simply brought his work to a convenient halt and left them to each other, his heart lightened by the promise of a new adventure. How much Janet Gaynor’s character had ached for her fickle circus partner in 4 Devils! And how much Ezra might, if brought to watch the reclaimed film in full, come to ache for Mouse’s plight at least as much as hers.
Mouse’s indecision lasted just over two weeks, after which he resolved to carry his precious cargo to a suburban town outside Washington, DC. Rockville in 1972 still seemed to be struggling towards self-sufficiency: its brand-new mall established in a mostly overlooked location, relying on interstate traffic more than downtown clientele; surrounding commercial buildings progressing at uneven rates towards completion; and nearer the edge of town, a little business standing just in its first year, helmed by a bright-eyed owner keen on telecine processing and other forms of filmic preservation. Mouse’s hands shook as he offered up his twelve tins of 35mm negatives—the names scored from half the cases before it had occurred to him that the title cards in the first reel would still reveal their heritage.
Discovery could not be helped, then, inasmuch as the director’s name would surely be recognized by the professional cinephile. Mouse had thought of doing the exacting work of film transfer and restoration himself to avoid it—even perused a guide or two in his fortnight’s anguish—but ultimately he feared the fragile reels too much, and even more his clumsy hands, which seemed inflamed enough these days all on their own. He only hoped his story would hold—the private collection; the eccentric heiress to a Hollywood fortune with the Library of Congress written into her will; his own covert attempt, as day-to-day manager of this estate, to ensure that there would be something worth donating when she was gone. But Mouse need not have worried; though the employee he met was friendly and curious, professionalism did not trespass further than a moment’s delight at the opportunity to work with such an old and unique piece. Most of the day-to-day work, the frontman explained, consisted of government and media reels for immediate release.
“Fiction of a different kind,” he added with a wink, while Mouse carefully counted out a stack of bills procured years prior with gold converted from the cash in his future bank portfolio. The friendly fellow then gave him an estimated completion date and Mouse could hardly get himself into a remote area before the sharp ache in his heart drew him forward—almost running into a telephone pole as he first adjusted to the change of day.
With his negatives transplanted to the far more stable Plus-X panchromatic film stock, and the two versions secure in separate canisters, Mouse next acquired a security box at his old bank, with payment in advance for the next fifty years, in which he placed the latter. If there was curiosity this time among the staff, their professionalism kept it in check as well, leaving only the matter of the originals, which Mouse was loath to part with, but even less inclined to keep in so volatile a form. His heart thus answered for him, reeling him back to just past midnight on July 9, 1937, where he waited out of sight for his earlier self to rob the vault before stealing in to make things right.
Watching himself thereafter at a distance, shivering with weeks-old guilt on the corner of Franklin and Main, Mouse faltered for just one desperate beat in his convictions—a whisper of futility coursing through him as he observed the myriad faults in his character, his form, upon that firelit main road. How would anyone— How could Ezra ever— These were only whispers, though, and then the familiar ache took hold, flinging him decades out again. Upon his return, with the concreteness of his efforts finally setting in, Mouse found himself so excited he didn’t even notice the desk corner assail his knee in that little cluttered office. A good night’s sleep first, he decided, albeit with great difficulty—for though no more than a lunch hour had passed in this timeline, Mouse’s recent travels had left him with the conviction that he could sleep for days—and so he did, in a bed-and-breakfast in rural 1958.
Ezra seemed in high spirits when a well-rested Mouse at last approached with a restored copy of that old, lost film in hand, the former merely notching an immaculate brow as Mouse passed the invisible border by a whole step or two.
“Hold on, Alan,” said merciful Adonis, seated in a modernized Classical pose—black phone cord coiled about his sculpted fingers, which he held aloft from the pedestal of his padded office throne; his other hand poised over a touchpad just as the ancient subject of a Renaissance painting might lord over some natural element in the surrounding pastoral idyll. “I’ve got company. Yes, exactly. Five minutes, all right?—Yes, Mr. Musset?”
Mouse meant to choose his words with care as he held out the canisters, mindful of the agonies his body underwent whenever proximate to Ezra’s light, but even then the words tumbled into one another, and occasionally lost their place. From the last shipment, he started—these—I thought you might—you seemed to like—remember?—Janet Gaynor. At last he could say no more, so he simply set them on the desk.
Ezra’s noble forehead creased as he drew the items close enough to read their labels, but when he had he merely laughed and pushed the lot aside.
“And why on earth should I care about this sentimental junk? Because I looked over a movie still or two with Mr. Hazlitt? Incredible, Mr. Musset. Don’t you realize I was only using those dumb old things as far as they would flatter him? Do you honestly think you can guess what I want from what I say when I’m with him?”
Mouse felt his heart wrench first towards the usual despair—then confusion. Had Ezra’s voice not softened, even wavered in that last thought? Was there not a thread of fragility, of loneliness trapped beneath his haughty words? To always echo another’s interest; to always be precisely what another wants him to be—Mouse could not help but thrill at this shadow of a defect in Ezra’s gleaming marble, though the rest of Mouse’s body still shook with disappointment at the failure of his weeks-long work.
“Tell me, then,” said Mouse, with upthrust chin. “What do you want, Mr. Levitz?”
And Ezra laughed—a short, curt thing. “What do I want?” His sneer faltered only slightly, then held firm. He stood and turned away, taut knuckles rapping at the desk. “All right, Mr. Musset. If you really want to prove yourself—”
“Yes!” cried Mouse. “Yes, I do.”
Ezra paused, then dismissed this sad outcry with a flick of his wrist and a moody scowl. “Well, find my ring, then. It’s eighth-century goldcraft, studded with garnet—you’ll find the listing in a collection Mr. Hazlitt put together five years ago, when I first started working here.” Ezra faced Mouse directly again, his eyes now lit in triumph. “It was his first gift to me. He saw how much I loved the damned thing, and just like that—it was mine.”
And you his, Mouse realized, though he dared not speak aloud. Before Ezra had even begun explaining the vague details of his ensuing loss, Mouse’s mind’s eye had already seized upon the exact scene, and all the minutiae Ezra had since forgotten—the warm spring night; a society function in the atrium and garden of an estate house by the coast; rich piano music drifting up the stairwell to where Mr. Hazlitt had secured his young aide for a moment alone in his colleague’s study; the reckless energy and rumpled clothes; the gold ring slipping into the gold-flecked earth about a potted fern. It would be so easy to steal in just after this breathless moment, to snatch the treasure back—but Mouse’s jealous heart refused to draw him there. Why should I not present it first? Before Mr. Hazlitt muscles in?
It took a hard rap on the desk to call him back. “Well, Mr. Musset?”
Even then, Mouse was so raw with renewed optimism that he could hardly do more than smile and nod—and certainly could no longer control himself as his desperate, aching heart seized upon a different scene, an ancient scene, and pulled him swiftly back.
“I promise you—I swear to you—” Ezra would later think he’d heard as Mr. Musset’s body blurred before him. Eventually those trumped up words would come to haunt him even more than that this strange, despairing man then winked abruptly out.
Mouse came to a halt in another era, another country, only to trip and tumble down the side of a steep, stone barrow on a cold, late autumn’s night. When he looked about him at the Swedish heathlands of yesteryear, he wondered at first if there had been some mistake, but no—as he took unsteadily to his feet he spied a narrow opening in a nearby mound, the lick of some idle fire within illuminating a heap of goldcraft beneath banners bearing a dragon in their heraldry. His heart ever driving him on, he wriggled through and made his careless way about the pile, kicking shields and cups and belts into chamber recesses until his fingers seized upon their target—finding his prize just in time to register a violent rumbling elsewhere in the low, lit room, and then to whip away through time and space.
Hurtling back to the present with prize in hand, Mouse gave himself over to laughter at long and precious last—a manic, joyous sound that struggled to give voice to all the slings and arrows of a years-long campaign nearing its triumphant end. How could Ezra refuse him now, with this—his self-admitted heart’s desire? But Mouse’s palms were so clammy with anticipation that the little gold piece began to slip, and when with a frantic cry he twisted to catch it up again his flightpath slowed in turn. The loss of momentum was enough then—just enough—to catch him in Lower Saxony one wet and miserable morning in August 1626, where cannon fire and the storm of cavalry barely had time to register in his ringing ears before a ball of lead found the center of his ribs.
The sky above him was an endless, mottled gray as his eyes rolled up. Speechless in the ensuing pain, Mouse sank to his knees, where he found just breath enough to marvel that he had not seen this coming all along: the hard collisions that inevitably followed any moment, in any era, through which he had always been able to fling himself when the present just would not do. But the present had simply never done, thought Mouse in the last, tired throes of consciousness, so what other end had there ever been for him to find?
The ring had already fallen from Mouse’s hand into the cold, thick mud—not to be discovered right at the battle’s close, when Tilly’s army picked through the remnants of both Protestant and Catholic dead, but by a farmer in the years thereafter, who passed it down his family line before at last it stood appraised and hocked, slipping from private collection to collection until one year, early in the twenty-first century, when Mr. Hazlitt would receive it with great curiosity—a piece of eighth-century design, but also of most uncertain lineage.
A bauble among baubles all the same, Mr. Hazlitt would soon enough observe with far greater amusement how his new secretary attended to the little piece every time he entered the massive study on some trumped up errand—and O, how those proud, fiery eyes glittered when the ring was at last made into an offering.
“Do you know what a man called the giver-of-rings in those days?” said Mr. Hazlitt.
“His king, of course,” said Ezra in one low, soft breath.
And sure enough, a sense of that ancient wyrd had come upon Ezra as he held up the ring, for he could almost feel an inner warmth to the old, dead thing—as if someone’s destiny were still writ upon it; as if that little bit of metal, so useless unto itself, had somehow traveled through the centuries for just this purpose: to be here now; to be claimed by him. Mr. Hazlitt basked awhile in Ezra’s changed and glowing countenance before moving in.
M. L. Clark, Canadian by birth, is based in Medellín, Colombia. Along with stories in Clarkesworld, Clark is the published author of speculative and science fiction in magazines including Analog, F&SF, and Lightspeed, and the occasional year’s best anthology. Clark also writes global humanist articles twice-weekly at OnlySky.