A Time Machine

U.S. National Archives

A local professor has invented a time machine. He invites you to come see it. He is a professor of science; you took classes with him once, he was the one with the unruly hair, which seemed to spill over his collar in a suggestion of great wisdom. You took classes with him a million years ago, it seems, back when you a student. Now you have a regular job, and a wife. How were you ever so bold as to be a student? To have confidence like that; to waste your time studying arts, science, philosophy? You cannot remember how you did it all now, but you remember the professor, with the wild hair.

Anyhow, he has invented a time machine. He invites you to come look at it. You arrive at his house, which is more of a dilapidated farm, located on the outskirts of town. There is a small windmill, some chickens. The entire house looks as though it is about to slide into the earth and collapse into the ground. “Welcome,” he says. He takes you beside the house to look at the time machine. You had expected something different. It looks like nothing more than a shack made of wood. It is a small building; it looks, in its smallness, its woodenness — how awful to say! — it looks like nothing more than an outhouse; a place where in olden times people came to take care of their bowel movements, their private business.

“I had expected something different,” you say. Which is putting things mildly, you think.

“Well,” he says.

You open the door. Inside are valves, gauges, iron gears and iron levers. Like something out of the last century.

“Well,” you say to him.

“No one has ever used this time machine before,” he says. “I have asked you here because I wish for you to test it.”

You peer around a little more. The building itself is not even solid. Sunlight peeks through the cracks in the wooden boards. This? This is a time machine? What a joke!

He sits you down in a wooden chair. He shows you how to work the various gears and levers. “Why have you not used it yet?” you ask, with an undercurrent of sarcasm in your voice. “If it works so well.”

“No one can understand the effects of time travel,” he says. “I have invented it, but I am afraid to use it myself. To use a thing that you do not understand is a very rare and curious process.”

“Fine,” you say, humoring him, since the ramshackle thing will clearly not work in the first place. “I will use it.”

“I wish you the best of luck,” he says.

You cannot think of anything to add to this. The professor absents himself and walks out the door. You turn the wheels in the correct sequence. You use the machine. It works. Of course it works. As you turn the wheels, time flutters by in the window, speeds up through the cracks in the slats and the boards. But where shall you go? In the end, you decide to travel back to medieval times, because you studied those once. You open the door. You are in medieval times. How odd. “…Bon après-midi?” a curious voice says. You peer outside; it seems that you are in France. You step out the door. A crowd has already gathered in front of the building. “…Bonjour, mesdames et messieurs,” you say, using what little French that you remember. You bow. The people, surprised, bow back. The people are wearing strange medieval outfits; tights and scarves and headgear that covers almost their entire heads. But it still, it worked. You are here.

You stay for a while, there in the past, then you go. First, you travel to future times, then to more past times, then more future times — spaceships and donkeys, castles and airships, knights and skyscrapers. The more you move around in the time machine, the more it all becomes a blur. And so, you start to take an interest in your own life, for that alone begins to seem solid in the flux of time.

And so, you travel through your own life. You see your wife when she is young, then your wife when she is older. Your parents when they are young, then your parents when they are older, etc. All of this is very absorbing; completely absorbing, really.

Then, quite suddenly, in the midst of your travels, you chance to look down at you hands. They are weathered and grey, the veins popping out somewhat. My goodness! How many years have you spent traveling around in this time machine?

There in the outhouse is a small piece of glass, fixed to the wooden wall with several nails. This serves as a mirror. You rake back your hair and you stand in front of the mirror. Goodness; how you have turned haggard and grey! Your hair is limp and colorless, your face is a cavalcade of pockmarks and furrows. In the excitement of using the time machine, it seems that you have forgotten about anything else.

You ease down on the wheels, the levers. You step out of the machine. You are back where you started. The same farm, with the windmill, and the chickens. No professor though. He is not to be seen. How odd. Somehow you had thought that no matter how long you traveled, he would be there to greet you when you returned.

How strange the world looks outside the machine. You have not paused in your movements for so long, and now you are there, back, a still point on the ever-turning world. You step away from the machine. You think, perhaps, that you should call your wife. But who knows where she is now, if she still even lives in the same place now? Yes, you have seen her in your travels, but you have lost track of her. There is a river. You go and sit down on an old log stump, next to the river.

You put your head in your hands and you think. Then you look up and you stare at the sky with the setting sun. You look around. In all the time that you have traveled, the world has remained the same. The trees, the rocks, the sky, the mountains; these have remained the same. You can travel as far as you want, but these things stay the same: they remain evergreen. This should give you a feeling of comfort — but somehow, sitting there on the tree stump, looking out at the world, you feel an incredible and unsustainable sensation of sadness, of restlessness. You stand up from the stump. Where, after all, is the professor? Where is your wife? TC mark

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