Fifty years after the Rebirth, the woods in what had been Maine were quiet. The morning sunlight shone through the soft green leaves and melted the cobwebs. The silver scales of River-Wardens glittered through the water as they sank into sleep, and the misty, feather-haired Tree-Wraiths faded into the tree bark.
On a pond next to a certain clearing, lilies floated among green lily pads, mist rising around them. Bubbles rose from the snores of a sleeping Greatsnake below.
In the middle of the clearing, wind stirred dead leaves across a fissured concrete foundation. The walls of the building were cracked and broken by tree roots.
Two men walked out of the wood and bounded up the steps of the building. They approached a circular platform in the middle of the foundation.
The shorter man, who had copper-brown hair and a wolf’s somber gaze, looked questioningly at his companion. The taller man, who had leonine, amber eyes and dark skin, looked at the rising sun. He held up three fingers, then two, then one, and closed his fist.
The air above the platform clouded and concentrated into a third man wearing a backpack. The man’s shape solidified, and he fell. The shorter man caught him by the shoulders and eased him down gently.
“What – ” the third man said. He was young and painfully thin, with skin as pale as paper. His buzz cut of dark hair receded from his high forehead like a wave too shy to approach the shore, and his blue eyes were mild as bathwater behind his wire-rimmed glasses.
“Sh,” said the shorter man in a low voice. “When are you from?”
“Uh . . . 2150,” said the arrival. He blinked and sat up, staring at the lush tree canopy.
“And what’s your name?”
“Matt,” said the arrival. “Matt Cummings.”
“Ah,” said the other man. He smiled, more with his eyes than his mouth. “Hello, Grandpa. Welcome to 2200.”
Matt stared at him. “I’m childless,” he said. “My wife died in the Northern Flood.”
“She survived the ruin of Boston long enough to have my dad,” said the other. “It’s alright. We’ve been waiting for you. I’m Ben. This is Eli.” He held out his right hand.
Matt took it, staring as Ben pulled him to his feet: lean like him, but shorter and sturdier, with lighter hair and a dark tan. Next to Ben, Matt looked like a paper cutout, more prey than predator. “Your dad . . .”
“Enough,” said the leader, Eli. “We need to initiate you. Governor’s orders,” he explained. “Come over here.”
Matt and Ben followed Eli to the edge of the foundation. On this side was a well-shaped hole about five feet in diameter, with steps leading down inside.
“This was a church,” said Matt, so quietly that Ben barely heard it. “And that was the baptismal fount.” He leaned over the edge of the hole to see metal, plastic, wires, rotting paper, cardboard, and styrofoam through dark water.
“The Governor wants all time travelers to see this before you get to the village,” said Eli. “Purge all the Science and Technology you brought with you here. Nothing wired. No books.”
Matt frowned. “No books?”
“Yep,” said Eli. “We worship Gaia now. Science and Technology brought war and suffering. Once we stopped worshipping Techne, the metal-maker, she left us alone.”
“Gaia?” asked Matt. “Mother Earth? And Techne? Are you saying these are gods?”
“Spirits of power,” said Eli. “You had to jump 50 years in the future to escape Techne’s Annihilation. Now we live in peace with Gaia.”
Matt glanced at Ben, who nodded. Matt sighed, lowered his backpack, and unzipped it.
He pulled a shimmering space blanket, a knife, a notebook, a box of matches, a hand-held radio, a rope, a black laser pointer, a pack of dried nuts, and fruit. Eli tossed the laser pointer and the radio into the well with a splash.
“Oh, please let me keep that,” Matt said as Eli picked up the notebook.
“Sorry, traveler,” said Eli, tossing it into the water. “Book-learning brought us nothing but trouble.”
Matt watched the notebook soak and sink. Ben squeezed his shoulder.
Eli shook a cloth bag on the ground. Something like a handkerchief fell at Ben’s feet. Ben picked it up and examined the silver cross at the top.
Eli was throwing more objects into the well. Ben looked at Matt, who mouthed the word “please.” With a nod, Ben tucked the cloth into his pocket.
“Alright, that’s it,” said Eli. Ben helped Matt repack the approved objects.
“One more thing,” said Eli. He took a flint knife from his belt. “We have to appease Gaia for leaving your Science and Technology here,” he said. “Hold out your right hand.”
Matt’s eyes narrowed. Eli rolled his eyes and pointed upwards. “If you refuse, Gaia punishes all of us,” he said. “Those are the last three time travelers who disobeyed.”
Ten feet above their heads hung three skeletons dressed in rags. Matt gasped and stepped back.
“You want to join them?” Eli asked.
Matt sighed and held out his hand. Eli drew a line of scarlet in his pale skin. “Hold it over the well,” he said.
Matt obeyed, slowly. His blood dripped into the water.
“Good,” said Eli. “Now we go to the village.”
Eli walked ahead, knife in hand. Matt and Ben walked side by side behind him. Matt took deep breaths, staring at the dark robes of pines and the shining leaves of maples. A chipping sparrow sang softly nearby.
“It’s a lot to take in,” said Ben in a low voice. “All time travelers are overwhelmed at first.”
“My realm reels back to the beast,” said Matt, dreamily. He glanced at Ben. “Poetry. Tennyson. I used to teach it.”
Ben nodded. They jumped as a shriek and a chorus of barking echoed through the woods. “A pack of Glass-claws,” said Ben, pulling out his knife. “Sounds like they caught a deer. They probably won’t bother us.”
They walked on. Matt sighed. “Ben, my son?”
“Gaia took him,” said Ben. “The northeastern Leviathan returns from the sea every year. I’m sorry.”
Matt looked at the ground. “I abandoned them,” he said.
“No,” said Ben quietly. “I told you, they knew you didn’t.”
They walked in silence for a time. “Are the cities all gone, Ben?” asked Matt.
“As far as we know,” said Ben. “Leviathans attacked the coasts. Giant bears and bison destroyed the inland cities. Stone-breakers and Ironwings finished off the mountain havens.”
“And now there’s peace?” Matt asked.
Ben’s gaze was as serious as a wolf’s. “There’s silence,” he said.
“Don’t look too long,” said Ben as they passed through the village gates. Matt glanced at the bodies hanging on the wall, shuddered, and looked away.
“Whenever a baby is born, they leave an elder of the village out for the Darkwings at night,” said Ben. “To keep the balance.”
“They keep down the population by murder?” Matt whispered back.
“The Governor says it’s better than the whole village being punished for growing too much,” Ben whispered.
Most of the village’s houses were huts made of sticks, each guarded by a paper birch tree and a shrine. The Governor’s house was made of stone. A huge wooden statue of a woman stood before the porch. She stretched out her arms at right angles so that her cloak, which was filled with carvings of trees, Leviathans, rivers, birds, Greatsnakes, and other creatures, rounded her figure into a globe. Matt looked up at the woman’s face and shuddered.
“Here are the rules, Time Traveler,” said Eli as they passed the woman. “The Governor is also the Oracle and Mediator between us and Gaia. Call him ‘Your Greatness.’ Got it?”
“Understood,” said Matt. Ben squeezed his shoulder.
They walked through the house into an open-air stone courtyard in the middle where the Governor sat, carving a miniature wooden Leviathan. He was a mountain in human form: tall and heavy, with steel-gray hair. The wrinkles on his face were deep creases like sand worn away by the tide. His pale blue eyes were underlined with shadows.
“You’re the first Time Traveler in three years,” the Governor told Matt. His voice was low, quiet, and hoarse. “Is that right?” he asked Ben.
“Three, Your Greatness,” said Ben. “I married the last one,” he told Matt.
“You gave up your Science and Technology?” the Governor asked Matt.
“He did, Your Greatness,” said Eli.
“Good,” said the Governor. “Time Traveler, you’re wondering why we allow no tools, no books.”
“Yes, your Greatness,” said Matt.
“Twenty years ago, my brother tried to return to the worship of Techne,” said the Governor. He laid his flint knife aside and examined his carving. “He cut down trees to dam the river. He built a blacksmith’s forge for plows and swords.”
He picked up the knife again to reshape the creature’s head. “Hill-Stalkers mauled him before he could make anything. The Tree-Wraiths and River-Wardens destroyed his work. For a while, I tried to appease all the gods — Oros of the hills, Xulon of the woods, Thalassa of the seas. But Gaia is jealous. So now, we sacrifice only to her. Tomorrow, we’ll go to the High Place and sacrifice a deer for you under the Green Tree. Refuse, and you will be the sacrifice.”
Matt looked at Ben, whose face was stiff as wood.
“Understood,” said Matt. “I will do . . . whatever is right.”
That night in Ben’s house, the golden firelight played with the shadows on the hearth. Naomi, Ben’s wife, took Matt’s empty bowl from him and set it with the other dirty dishes. The firelight called out the blond highlights in her brown hair. She sat beside Ben and leaned her head against his shoulder.
“Thank you,” said Matt. He glanced at Naomi’s stomach. “Are you . . .?”
“Yes. The baby comes in autumn,” said Naomi, smiling back. Her green eyes were like windows into a walled garden, a secret abundance. Ben put his arm around her.
“Good,” said Matt. He sighed and gazed at the fire.
“This morning, you were a widower,” said Naomi. “Now, you’ll be a great-grandfather.”
“I abandoned Eileen there,” said Matt. He took off his glasses and held them.
“She knew you thought she was dead,” said Ben. “It’s alright. She told my dad all about you.”
“You’ll heal,” said Naomi. “Like I did.” Matt looked at her, and she nodded. “I’m from 2150, too. My family drowned in Boston.”
“I’m sorry,” said Matt. They were silent for a time.
“Oh, I almost forgot,” said Ben. He pulled the cloth from Matt’s backpack out of his pocket. “Is this what I think it is?”
Naomi gasped, taking it from him. “A Bible?” She draped the cloth over the lamp, and the room filled with words written with light. The words danced across their faces: “Sing aloud” across Ben’s forehead, “secret place of thunder” across Naomi’s nose, “for such a time” across Matt’s mouth.
“Yeah,” said Matt. “So are you . . . ?” Naomi and Ben exchanged looks, smiling.
“No, we don’t worship Gaia,” said Ben. “Well, not since I met Naomi. We’re Christians.”
“So there is still a remnant,” said Matt. “Thank God. But you keep it a secret?”
“Worship of Gaia is the law,” said Ben. “Those who don’t are publicly executed.”
“So you sacrifice, like they do?” Matt asked.
“We cheat when we can,” said Naomi. “And I pray to the true God through every ritual.” She placed a hand over her stomach. Matt and Ben studied each other for a moment, and then Ben looked away.
Matt got up. “I need some fresh air,” he said.
“Stay under the birch tree,” said Ben. “It keeps the Darkwings away.”
Outside, a cool wind touched Matt’s face. The sky overwhelmed him: its darkest-blue vastness, the galaxy sprinkled across like silver dust. The almost-full moon hung heavy with brightness.
Words swam to the surface of his mind: Oh, Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth.
He took a deep breath. You like coming to us at night, he thought. Abraham. Rebekah. Jacob. Samuel. Solomon. Joseph. Daniel. The Lord Jesus.
He looked from the sky to the dark fields. Firelight gleamed from a few huts.
You took Eileen, he thought. You took our son before I even knew him. And now these people worship false gods. Have you abandoned us?
In the silence, a river of stories rushed over him: the floodgates of heaven opening, Sodom and Gomorrah burning, Egypt in darkness, Sinai covered in smoke. Kingdoms rose and fell; gardens flourished and then burned and were buried in desert sand. A figure in white appeared on the horizon, walking through darkness, war, famine, and destruction.
The figure approached until Matt could see his white hair, bright face, and the scarred indentations in his hands.
Matt couldn’t think or speak. Something as vast, bright, and deep as the starry sky filled him to overflowing.
“Grandpa.” Matt was on the ground, and Ben knelt beside him. “What’s wrong?”
Matt sat up, dizzy. “I’m fine,” he said.
Ben pulled him up, and they went back inside. Naomi was making a bed of blankets for Matt by the fire.
“Forgive me,” Matt said, standing in the doorway. Naomi and Ben looked at him, frowning. “I’ve been a coward long enough.”
“You won’t do the sacrifice?” asked Ben.
“I can’t,” said Matt. “How much longer will this go on, Ben? What other evils will happen if we don’t say something?”
“When we married, we decided to be survivors,” said Ben. “Sow the seeds, teach our children the truth.”
“I’m a survivor too, Ben,” said Matt gently. “I thought I could escape death by jumping time. But what are we surviving for?”
“A half-life,” said Naomi. She looked at her husband. “Ben, he’s right.”
“Will this put you in danger?” Matt asked.
Ben and Naomi looked at each other. “Probably,” said Naomi.
“Not if we run,” said Ben. “We don’t know what lies farther north,” he explained to Matt. “We could all go.”
Matt sighed. “I was desperate to escape death this morning — 50 years ago,” he said. “But can I really leave them like this? In silence?”
Alicia Pollard grew up in New England and earned a B.A. in English from Grove City College. She works as a technical writer for software. Through her blog, aliciapollard.com, she explores “yearning” (related to C.S. Lewis’s idea of Joy) and storytelling as a medium of worship and witness.
Alicia Pollard. “Light.” An Unexpected Journal 2, no. 3. (Fall 2019): 187-200.
Direct Link: https://anunexpectedjournal.com/light/
Hours later, Matt listened to the Tree-Wraiths’ haunting song as he approached the Governor’s house. At the foot of Gaia’s statue, he poured out the vial of oil Naomi had given him. Starlight and moonlight glimmered in the puddle.
He looked up as a huge, charcoal-colored creature landed noiselessly beside him. It had bat like wings as wide as he was tall, a catlike head, and golden eyes.
The Darkwing exhaled a long, slow breath at the puddle of oil. Matt backed away from the heat as the oil burst into flames.
The Darkwing flew away. Cries erupted from the village as Matt watched the statue burn and waited to be found.
A pale glow appeared at the tree line.