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The Last Caricature of Jean Moulin

Andrea Kriz writes from Cambridge, MA. Her stories have also appeared in Clarkesworld and Lightspeed, among others. Find her at andreakriz.wordpress.com or on Twitter @theworldshesaw.

Back when we thought we'd use the time machine for bringing back lost art, Mathilde wanted to find the last caricature of Jean Moulin. In the hot darkness of the workshop, she played me a speech--a poet bellowing over the wind. Single words came out to me. Visage. Cortege. Des ombres. Resistance. We listened to it while we hammered, cut, plied. When I collapsed, soot-covered, she crouched over me.
"We can't possibly know what all those people tortured, tortured to death by the Gestapo thought in their last moments," Mathilde said. "But for Jean Moulin we do. Because he went through it once before. He was an artist."
Not everyone can build a time machine. But when we started, no one knew that. People were willing to overlook our outlandish ideas because they thought there'd be plenty of other time machines to bring back scientific breakthroughs, lottery numbers, weaponry, vaccines. But the years passed and there was only ours and not that much else.
"In 1940, he didn't even hesitate," Mathilde said. "Isn't that insane? He was a prefect. Rather than give in to the Nazis, rather than put his signature on a document that would dishonor his country, he picked up a piece of glass and cut his throat."
We don't need any more art in the world, they said when they took our time machine. Certainly not lost art from the past. Everyone wants to make art these days and no one wants to do the hard work. We've got plenty of art and people screaming out and no resources. We don't need more art; we need a solution. So we'll find solutions and you and your dumb friend can make your own art. But not everybody can use a time machine.
"In 1943, Jean Moulin was all of France," Mathilde said. "He was the head of the Resistance. The heart and brain. All beat up and bloody and not saying a word. Anonymous ashes they could never positively identify."
"Look, where did you get all this from?" I ask her. "Isn't it kind of morbid?"
"He wrote about what happened to him in 1940. He couldn't show the manuscript to anyone back then, so he had his sister bury it under a tree."
Mathilde walked for three days brought back a seashell. It sounded like a fan being opened, a curtain being pulled aside. An action, once decided, simply being done.
"Maybe he lied," I said. "About how brave he was."
"I don't think so."
We built the time machine out of twisted bicycle parts and coat hangers and a microwave and when they took us in, in different interrogation rooms, trying to figure out how, they asked me why. I tried to explain about the radiation scarring and the drowned but they didn't get it. That's why not everyone can build a time machine. When they left me alone, I leaned my head against the bars and thought of all those times Mathilde and I used to go walking. We lived in a town with no name. We walked across the roofs because there was nothing else left. Only pelicans and frozen waves. She'd asked so many questions.
"What do you do when you survive the last day of your life?"
"How do you go on doing your job after that?"
"How you decide to keep fighting? Knowing, from personal experience, what comes at the end of the line. How do you risk that, knowing, without going insane?"
"And how do you hold it together when the Gestapo actually gets you a second time?"
"I wonder. Did he believe in God?"
"Was he more or less afraid than the first time?"
"What was he afraid of?"
"Was he more or less brave?"
When Jean Moulin couldn't speak anymore, his torturer gave him a pencil and a piece of paper. Five minutes to write down some names. His torturer must've felt triumphant when his prisoner began scribbling furiously. Then it started taking too long. He tore the paper out of Jean Moulin's hands. He'd drawn a caricature of his torturer.
"Do you think that really happened?"
"Was it a legend?"
"Was it all made up or partially?"
The time machine brought back: a text message. A handful of dried limes. A clothing line. When Mathilde died, they wouldn't tell me how, the time machine stopped working. When they put me in, it wouldn't turn on anymore. So why are you even here, they said.
"What do you think it looked like?" Mathilde asked. "The caricature."
"Probably not too good," I said. "If he'd been tortured to the point where he couldn't speak, he probably couldn't draw too good. It could've been a stick figure with eyes."
But the more she spoke about it, the more I wanted to see it too. The gloomy climes of 1940s France. It was a miracle anyone lived back then. That anybody could've gone about their days, behind rain-washed walls still standing hundreds of years later.
"It's a miracle that Jean Moulin's writing exists," Mathilde used to say, "or we'd have to travel back to get it too. No one would've known about the world he saw. Why did he write, why did his sister dig it up after the war?. Did he write it for her? Did he write it for you and me?"
"Maybe he just wanted to get it off his chest."
Mathilde frowned. She must've been thinking--there's no way someone writes something unless they want someone to read it. Even a bit of graffiti on a Gestapo cell wall. Even if they only see it after you're gone. Even if it's the only thing you've got to look at while you're waiting for the sun to rise, for the pain and silence to start again.
"Was he constantly thinking of ways to die?"
"Did he try to kill himself by banging his head against the walls?"
"What do you think both of them thought when they saw each other?"
"The Gestapo chief and the resistant."
"The torturer and the artist."
"The murderer--"
We can't possibly know what someone thinks when they build a time machine. But I do because I already went through it once before.
"Do you think he was insane?"
"Do you think he was a coward?"
"Do you think he was a martyr?"
When I rebuilt the time machine, I thought about Jean Moulin. Only the idea of him. I drew a finger across my neck. I thought of a scar. The weight of a scarf to hide it all the time. I rebuilt the time machine out of suitcases, of syringes, and scrapped airplane parts. I built it out of scraps of paper, scraps of burned paper and stubbed pencils shoved into the hands of people who couldn't speak anymore. I built it out of (love). Then they couldn't hold me in a cell anymore. I flew across primordial oceans. I perched on a whale skeleton, risen out of frozen waves. I traveled to the Pantheon and laid white roses on the cenotaph of Jean Moulin.
"We can't travel back for art we're not even sure exists," I told Mathilde back then. I regret it now. But that was before I knew how to build a time machine.
Now I can rewrite the conversation:
"Look," I tell Mathilde. And I walk through fields of sunflowers. I walk through an overgrown hillside, to a house someone bought before the war, because when the war's over, I don't know what I'll do, because I want to turn it into an artist's workshop, because when the war's over I'll just go there and relax. "Some art exists because it only exists a moment and only exists for one or two people's eyes. Some art exists because it never existed at all. Just the possibility. They're afraid of us, people like us, the kind of people who can build time machines, because we can erase them. They can erase the past but only we can erase the future. Because they're going to die. Because they don't understand what time is. That's what time is. The possibility--that something exists like the last caricature of Jean Moulin."
The End
This story was first published on Friday, December 31st, 2021
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