art by Seth Alan Bareiss
Grief In The Strange Loop
by Rhonda Eikamp
I lost my father when I was ten. His fault, everyone said. Shouldn't have left a boy of ten in charge of a machine like that. I'd lost my kid sister once already, a child's prank, the first day Pop ever allowed me near the dials, his hands that seemed too large for science guiding mine while Sis hovered in the background. When he'd left the room for a moment Sis dared me to send her somewhere. We found her again, none the worse for her day in an 11th-century Britain that had more to do with mud and skin diseases than it did with the princesses in pointy hats she'd imagined. Pop's settings were more complex. Comparative linguistics meant Jumping between continents and eras. "Track and field for the geeks," he told me before he crawled into the chamber that last time. "Never went out for the team in high school. Now I put the broad in broad jump." He winked. "If they could only see me now."
All I had to do was watch a chronometer. Push a button. I was ten. One wrong move, one moment of inattention, and I'd erased the basic settings. We only knew Pop was somewhere in 9th-century Bulgaria. His Jumper colleagues searched for months.
Mom never forgave me.
Always watching me with those viciously sad eyes. Five months after Pop was lost, she gave birth to our little brother. I was a worm for years, pinned and squirming under Mom's gaze whenever the grief hit her. Drawn by longing, I followed in my father's academic footsteps. History, linguistics. Researching the old-fashioned way, a refusenik, terrified of Jumping. I excelled in the proto-Slavics. Some of Pop's colleagues had hateful looks for me--one memorably throwing his drink in my face at my dissertation party--but none of their accusing looks could ever rival my mother's.
One winter day, as snow seeped in through the cracked university pane, a refusenik scholar of Old Ruthenian whose articles I had criticized, a young French woman with honey-brown eyes and a scar across her cheek from an archeological accident, stepped into my office. Her name was Adele Michaud and she showed me the birch-bark fragment she'd unearthed during her last dig at Pliska.
"This is you," she said.
The bark still reeked of the clay soil that had preserved it. The inscription was from the anonymous poem every Slavic linguist knew--the dead king begs his son to carry his body from the battlefield, bewailing the numbers of the dead fallen with him--yet as I perused it I realized it was in a form older than any known. Here were words, entire lines, that had apparently been dropped in later versions. She pointed to the last word, babii, a meaningless word in the language, and which I was sure appeared in no other version, stuck on the end of the famous refrain that translated as Bring me home.
Bring me home, Bobby.
The numbers of the fallen.
Doors opened in my skull. I was shaking as I stood, staring at her, then I was in my car, Adele beside me, up onto the highway. Mom still lived in the annex across town, a gray stick-figure now who frowned at me as though she didn't know me as I rushed past her. Past Sis who'd never married, remaining the caretaker daughter, gray in spirit. Adele and I threw open the lab locked all those years, tore dustcovers off the machine. It won't work! my mind screamed. Neurosis, my guilt, oedipal and overwhelming, had pushed me over the edge, making me read meaning into nothing, and yet... If anyone could pull off a thousand-year message, it was Pop. He'd know a simple message wouldn't survive, it had to be embedded in the thoughts and culture around it, composed in the language of the time. It had to reproduce. And that's what he'd done. The setting numbers had always been there, buried in a poem so beautiful--so moving--it had been passed down for generations in writing and orally, finding its way into hearts and manuscripts, ensuring it would last forever. Yet without that one word later chroniclers had left out as some incomprehensible error--my Slavicized name--I'd never grasped it.
Mom and Sis had come in behind us. I could feel Mom's eyes on me, their longing.
I spun the dials. Light flared in the chamber.
In seconds, Pop stood before us. Smelly in a fustian monk robe, with a beard he hadn't had before and a smile that said his little adventure had been fun. The youthful face so familiar-strange it might have just stepped out of the thirty-year-old photo Mom was forever crying over. He held a stylus in his hand. He extended his other hand to me to shake, to thank the stranger who had decoded his message and rescued him, and when I didn't respond, still in shock at my success, he turned to Adele. Then he saw Mom.
They say there are no happy endings. He'd been gone only four months of his own time. Long enough to join the Pliska monastery, write a stunning poem in the local language about a father longing for home, incorporating the coordinates we'd need to find him. He'd just written the word babii when the machine cast its ozone stench over his cell and snatched him back.
Back to a present that was thirty years in his future.
He tried. Over the next few weeks Mom blossomed into something resembling her younger self, lingering around Pop like a beautiful scent gone bad, trapped and fermenting behind the gray veneer. Whenever she'd press her veined hand to his arm I could see his skin tighten. The son he'd never known was called home to meet him. Ned had become a kick-ass stockbroker who had a penchant for diamond watches and who had never read a book in his life. Sis withdrew further, walling herself up behind a father complex we'd never known about. One night, after Mom showed up at dinner squeezed into a tiny dress Pop had once loved on her and cried when he recoiled from her, I found him in the lab, one large gentle finger stroking a dial.
"Did you think before you did this, Bobby?"
I knew he didn't mean the accident. Think before you leap, he would say as he scooted in for a hop, never applying it to himself. He meant bringing his body back from the battlefield, to a world where it didn't belong. "Why didn't you join the Jumpers when you came of age, go looking for me? Saved me at least some of those lost years?" He broke off with a moan that had been thirty years in coming. "A simple act of courage...."
"I was traumatized."
His fist banged the console and I winced. "You're a coward!" he shouted. "My son--a refusenik! All of you--just look at you. Why bring me back at all? Did you really think I would want to come back to this, this..."
I was damned for losing him and damned for bringing him back. His forty-year-old son, two years older than he was, and I was nothing but a disappointment.
I might have stopped him then, with a word, a hand on his shoulder, could have kept him there with us, but it wouldn't have made things right. I turned and left the room.
In the morning Pop was gone. The dials had been set to the day after his original disappearance. His note lay beside the machine:
You are not you. None of you are the you I would have wanted. Maybe that's my fault because I was the absent father, but I don't have to be.
Sometimes I'm jealous of that other me branching away into a better universe, growing up with a father who never vanished, then I remember we're both me. Silly to envy myself. I have Adele to comfort me. We married in the fall. Mom's back to her bitter, grieving self. We're all back to ourselves. A family without a father. He's still extant out there, just a word that got dropped in this later version.
No, there are no happy endings, not for us here at the sad end of things, but I believe there are happy middles.
I hope Pop found his.
This story was first published on Tuesday, April 23rd, 2013