The Linear Concept of Time by C. S. Lytal
The Linear Concept of Time wakes me up at odd hours—or it might just be the cats, wanting to be fed. I can never tell which it is until I find the perfect ratio of coffee, creamer, and fortitude.
I punch buttons on the coffee maker, staring at the green glowing numbers and letters. 6:21am. This time of year the kitchen is dark and the sky outside is just bleeding into gray around the edges. I flip the switch for the electric lights. The coffee maker old-man grumbles and hot, thick coffee splutters into the pot.
And people say they don’t believe in magic.
But that’s the thing, isn’t it? Any technology sufficiently advanced might as well be magic. And it’s so easy just to believe—to know that someone, somewhere, has a scientific explanation for why it works. So voila. No magic required. That is the small magic by which everyone lives. Only, not. Because that was the whole point. Right?
The Linear Concept of Time scratches at the kitchen door.
I rub a hand over my face and moan into it. “Wmmaaaa. You let yourself in well enough, can’t you just get out the same way?”
From the food dishes in the laundry alcove, Saphron, matronly queen floof, looks up reproachfully.
“Okay, okay,” I concede, fumbling the door open while pouring coffee with my other hand. “I’m not being mean, though, I’m just…saying.” I watch the Linear Concept of Time bound out into the back yard—which is more of an overgrown, derelict orchard—to sniff among the grass.
The light from the kitchen behind me reflects greenly in the backs of its enormous pupils as it pauses to look back at me.
It always does, waiting for me to follow it, echoes of Rachel’s voice falling faintly through space and time. I know better, even if on bad days…I’m tempted.
It chooses to look like a cat around the house. Or at least, it tries. It never can quite get the body and the ears right, and always ends up more resembling a small wild canid.
Not that Saphron or Hazelsnoot seem to mind.
I have no idea what its true form might be, or if anyone other than a chrono-alchemist would be able to fathom it. Rachel could have told me, but if she were still here, the Linear Concept of Time wouldn’t be.
A scalding touch of liquid on my upper lip reminds me I haven’t yet found my ratio of creamer and fortitude to go with my coffee. And I’ll need all the fortitude I can get today. The national weather council is predicting rainfall in my quadrant, but not heavy enough to offset the dry from the weeks before. It’s my job to make sure we get the inches per square mile we need. When the ground gets too dry, our ghosts start to dream.
I wonder if Rachel dreams of me.
Leaving the Linear Concept of Time to do—what? Surely it didn’t need to relieve itself? And if it did, what would that do to the apple trees?—I return to assembling my breakfast.
Little rituals. Little rituals are the key. They set the course of my day and unlock a quiet place in my head that I need to have if my witchery is to take any effect at all.
They were even more important since Rachel’s accident. I’d nearly lost my ability completely, all my inner tranquility draining after her into the time stream, leaving bone-aching solitude in its wake.
The center of my desk is clear as I sit in front of it, although books are piled to one side, and notebooks and pencil cases to the other. It’s that spot in the center that matters. I set the plate with my toasted bagel squarely in the middle and sip my coffee.
Very nearly perfect.
I stretch and yank on the cord to the blinds in a practiced twitch, and the bar swoops upward with a satisfying zig-sound.
The sky, clearing of darkness by this point, looks pretty clear of anything else, too.
A hunting bird passes overhead as I thoughtfully chew my bagel and the little songbirds scatter like misbehaving children.
Saphron and Hazelsnoot try simultaneously to climb onto the top platform of the cat tree that sits next to my desk and shares a corner of my window. Saphron bats the younger cat down with devastating hauteur.
“Hey! Now who’s being mean?” I ask, trying to pick Hazelsnoot up and consolation-cuddle her. She plants her feet against my face and oozes out of my grasp. She never has been affectionate. I guess getting abandoned in an old shopping cart and fending for yourself for the first month of your life can do that to you, even when you’re a cat. Maybe especially when you’re a cat.
The sky remains stubbornly clear as my bagel disappears and I refresh my cooling mug. I wonder if I should vid-link with Shawn, who handles the nearest quadrant to mine. The weather system I’ve been advised about is supposed to originate there. But human contact so early in the day, before I’ve even begun witching, would ruin my concentration.
I decide to give it another cup of coffee before I upend my quiet brain by talking to someone capable of talking back, and by the time I’m picking grounds out of my teeth the sky is graying up nicely.
Carefully boxing up any wistful thoughts about the kind of bright-brittle winter day I might have enjoyed, I watch quietly as the weather system, which can’t seem to decide for itself whether it’s rain or fog, sets in. Barely breathing, I reach for my notebook and pull the pen free of its elastic loop. Smooth black ink sinks into the weight of the page.
I watch the rain
and note its passing.
For if left unremarked,
it may not come again.
I’ve always loved the poetry method of weather-witching. Every weather-witch is different, of course, which would make you think it’s a hard art to learn, but the theory is simple enough. Observe, record, and just ever so slightly embellish what you want to happen, and underplay the rest. If your headspace and creativity are strong enough, that’s enough to push your slightly fudged perception out into reality. It’s sort of like the principle of a tree falling in the forest making no sound unless someone is there to hear it. We observed it, so it must be real. Right?
The misty fog resolves itself into a more definite raindrop pattern. I smile. Rain can be tricky but it likes to be appreciated.
I file my poetry into the national council’s database and answer e-memos after I let the rain move onto the next quadrant in the late morning.
The database is still pretty controversial among weather-witches. Some of us feel sure that revealing our secrets will just further convince the government we’re charlatans, not highly skilled magic workers. We’re required to post something of our activities, but a lot of witches do the bare minimum. I usually just post my poetry, not my entire process. It’s hard work on top of the witchery, and there’s no guarantee anyone will read and appreciate it anyway.
A vid-link request pops up on my e-space work channel.
It’s Shawn. “Man, I’m looking at the radar, and I forget how good you are—you gotta pass some of that mojo on this way!” He grins to show there’s no hard feelings, but I see the too-old tiredness lining his too-young eyes.
“Sorry man, maybe next time the wind’ll be blowing your way.”
He laughs. “Got to get lucky sometime, right?” His expression shifts as he looks at something behind me, and I turn to see the Linear Concept of Time moon-walking across the opposite wall of my office. It twists its head up and around to stare at us with eyes that just aren’t feline enough.
“Is that the uh, is that uh,” he struggles.
“Yeah. It’s what’s left of Rachel’s last time experiment.”
“When she…shit man,” he murmurs.
When Rachel’s chrono-alchemy thesis project went horribly, tragically wrong and she unmoored herself from time and space. And left me the Linear Concept of Time as an unintentional parting gift. Despite the reminder, I smile. I’m pretty sure Shawn calls everyone “man,” but I feel like his usage of it to me doubled after I switched from feminine to singular-they pronouns a few years ago. Rachel always bristles…bristled at the masculine slang–‘they’ isn’t ‘he,’ but it was a good faith effort as far as I’m concerned.
Obviously anxious to change the subject, Shawn clears his throat. “Hey, uh, you hear about the grand committee they’re convening next month in the Big City?” All cities are big cities to weather-witches—we tend to be country beasts. But there’s only one Big City where the grand committee would be holding hearings.
“About…?” I prompt, although I already know.
“Us, man. About whether we get any of the funding and support we’ve only been asking for over the last decade or so.”
I let my sour facial expression answer for me.
“Shit—I mean, heck, man,” he says. “You’re one of the best we got. You know the council’s gonna ask you to speak.”
The Linear Concept of Time twines around my ankles, crosses under my chair. It makes a not-quite-right purr.
“It’s fine,” I assure Saphron, who flicks the end of her tail. “I needed to go to the Big City anyway. Professor Riverton hasn’t been doing well, and I promised I’d visit him soon.”
She eyes the quarter can of soft food perched on the tines of a fork I’m holding over her dish. Hazelsnoot circles both of us, chittering avidly. She never has grasped the concept that she’ll never go hungry again. I scrape the soft food into their bowls and pick my last bag up off the bed.
The Linear Concept of Time is nowhere to be seen.
That doesn’t mean it’s not here, though. It already seems suspiciously later than I had intended to leave.
Learning to peacefully cohabitate with a semi-sentient embodiment of an abstract concept of physics isn’t as easy as it sounds, and I know it doesn’t sound easy. It’s especially hard because I’m still dealing with the more obvious consequences of the accident.
Both weather-witchery and chrono-alchemy are difficult branches of magic to study, but for different reasons. Weather-witchery is looked at as little more than palm reading, a low-level psych power at best. There are a few grant programs left, designed to funnel candidates from lower-middle-class backgrounds like mine through trade colleges and directly into a gray lifetime of civil service that still accepts weather-witchery, but the national council won’t be able to keep those alive for long. Good luck getting financial aid without them. But chrono-alchemy is expensive, high-stakes, and dangerous.
The night I met Rachel, in a bar in the City, Percy, another of Professor Riverton’s protégées, watched me watching her, and sneered. “She’s out of your league. See those stains on her fingers? From grinding pigments—lapis lazuli and saffron and Tyrian sea snails—the real shit, I’d stake my witchery on it. Alchemists don’t date outside their stratosphere.”
It was true.
But I watched her anyway, until she looked up and caught me. I tried to let the crowd swallow me, but later, when she found me again, the dust of those precious ingredients clinging to her fingers had smeared my face as she held it to be kissed.
“Now you’ve done it,” Percy said, striving for grim, but unable to smother the avid gleam in the backs of his eyes. I hadn’t known what he meant until Professor Riverton found out. Like Percy, he’d tried contempt and derision at first, then anger and threats, and, finally, the truth.
“They are living ghosts, my dear,” Riverton said, looking over the rim of his glasses at me sadly, as if he knew nothing he said was going to make a difference. It was already too late. “Time is like gravity, and chrono-alchemists are like thrill-seekers who jump into the void with imprecise parachutes. They’ll be here one day, muttering arcane equations under their breath, and the next they may not even have been born.” He bowed his head as his thumb worked up and down the gold wedding band on his ring finger.
Rachel and I moved in together as soon as I received my quadrant posting and left the test-farm where Professor Riverton lived with his most talented protégés. Rachel set up a workroom in the farmhouse’s dry, musty parlor, and continued working on her thesis.
I don’t know what went wrong, exactly, with her experiment, just that it left circles of saffron burned in circles on the floor, like sun dogs cast from a lapis lazuli star, and that Rachel was gone. That was bad enough, and then the clocks started going weird. I kept getting stuck in small time loops, small enough that I wondered if I was going mad.
I thought it was Rachel’s ghost for a while.
It was just the Linear Concept of Time. When I went looking for it, it wasn’t hard to find, casting a shadow that was the mouth of a tunnel of darkness and stars. It wanted me to follow it in, but I couldn’t end up like Rachel, adrift in time, lost.
Instead, I told it in a firm, no-nonsense tone of voice to knock it off.
I offered to feed it. I didn’t really know what else to do. After observing me, the cats, and the dish of random oddments—what was one supposed to feed an abstract concept of physics?—it apparently decided that being a house pet was more interesting than haunting broodily around an auto port.
Some part of it has to have a residue of Rachel because it always manages to find my old clothes and suckle on them, no matter how well I pack them away. Rachel always did that with my T-shirts, and not just when we were apart on the rare occasions I traveled for witchery or when she got dragged in to speak with her thesis advisor. She’d lay on her side next to me, fast asleep, fabric wrapped around her fists and a corner of the sleeve in her mouth.
I glance at the clock and swear. I’ll be late if I don’t get my auto packed and get moving.
Care homes are sad places. They keep saying they’re going to fully automate everything, as if that makes it any better. Professor Riverton’s room at least has a window out over the garden. Even though the garden really isn’t more than a tiny circle of lawn with a birdbath in the middle and some sad hostas around the edges. They aren’t even the variegated variety. He’s made his own garden inside, on the windowsill, which is crowded with orchids and mosses and a lone amaryllis.
I lean across the bed to set my clay pot offering with the rest of his collection.
“Gesnariad,” he says, sounding surprised but pleased. “Most people bring orchids.”
“I can’t keep orchids. The cats won’t let them be, think they’re toys.”
He nods gravely. “Long stalk, pretty baubles at the end, I can see the resemblance. How are you, dear?”
“I’m getting along,” I say vaguely. His sympathy is coated in a nihilistic gloom, and carries a whiff of I-told-you-so.
“The remnant still present in the house?” He doesn’t want to let it go.
“Yeah. Yes, yes it’s still around.”
He eyes me for a long minute. “It hasn’t asked you to…”
“It doesn’t talk,” I say.
“Sit down, I’m sorry, I should have offered before,” he says on a long, tired sigh.
I pull the blocky, unflatteringly upholstered visitor’s chair over to the bedside.
His hands are clasped, turning the golden band of his wedding ring around and around his withered finger.
That care home smell that sits in the front of your nose hangs in the air as I wait for the lecture I’m about to receive. I’ve heard it plenty of times before. He loses track sometimes, of what’s been said and what’s been done, and what should maybe stay in the boundary land beyond the points where our lives intersect.
“It’s called a remnant for good reason, my dear. When my wife vanished, it was as if she’d never been born. I was tempted by her remnant, of course—all we who have the misfortune to love and lose a chrono-alchemist are. But how foolish and selfish would it be to give in to that temptation, when they never bothered not to? When they continued their studies, knowing what peril lay in it? They are living ghosts, nothing but living ghosts…” He trails off, lost in the sorrow that he has nursed up around himself, like a statue in an overgrown garden, marble arms uplifting shackling vines to the sky.
“But she—her remnant, I mean—it gave you back your ring.” It had to mean something, didn’t it?
He turns back to me, a little angry now, as if my continued hope—or denial—offends him. “An echo only. Do you not think that if there was the slightest chance my wife was still alive, still in existence in any meaningful way, that I would have shirked the opportunity to be reunited? To bring her back to me?”
“But maybe they can’t come back to us. Maybe we have to go to them,” I say, thinking of the tunnel of darkness and stars.
He scoffs. “Madness. Pure sentimentality. And deeply, profoundly selfish. Let’s have no more of this nonsense. They’ve asked you to speak at the grand committee, haven’t they?”
I duck my head in a makeshift nod.
“There. You see? My most talented student. My legacy. You’ll make them see. You have important work to do here and now; let the elsewhen be.”
On my way out some time later, the nurse calls me over to the desk. The attendant looks at me sadly. “This is likely the last time you’ll see him,” she says. “We wanted to let you know.”
“Right, right. Um, I’d better go.”
“The grand committee, is it? For the…‘weather-witch’ hearings?” Her expression shifts infinitesimally out of professional caregiver offering sympathy and into human being with a political opinion that differs from yours.
Maybe total automation wouldn’t be such a bad thing after all.
Shawn greets me as I step down from the podium and it is good to see a friendly face. “I didn’t know you were coming,” I whisper, even though we’ve gone into recess and no one is bothering to stifle the hum, shuffle, murmur around us.
“I kinda wish I hadn’t, man. I’m not staying for the rest of this bullshit.”
I glance around as a few hostile faces turn our way. “Let’s go talk outside. I’m not sure I’m staying either.”
We find an isolated corner that smells like pipe smoke around the side of a plinth outside of the grand committee hall.
“They’re gonna shut us down, man,” Shawn sticks his hands deep in his pockets and sighs the weariness of years out of his lungs. “They’re just going to let the whole national weather council die out from underfunding. Don’t they remember what it was like before? Doesn’t anybody study history?”
I loosen the coat I’d thrown on before stepping out. The Big City seems to generate its own heat internally, brass vents like gills expressing soft, noisome steam from every alley and gutter. It must be miserable in summer. “They have the databases now. If things get really bad they can teach new witches off of that.”
Of course, the database seemed to be the major reason the grand committee wasn’t inclined to listen to the weather council’s demands. Oh, so you’ve been collecting data, have you? Not very magical then, is it? Are you sure what you’re doing has any effect at all? Aren’t you just taking credit for things that are happening naturally on their own?
Shawn stares at me. “Yeah, but like, the databases aren’t the most important part!”
I spread my hands. “I know, I know. But it could be. And you heard them in there.”
“Yeah. Man, I’m really glad we still got you. Maybe in a few more years when the quadrants with assigned witches are still livable and everywhere else is a ghost town they’ll snap out of it.”
I twitch my shoulders in what I hope comes off as a shrug, feeling his words and the words of Professor Riverton draping themselves over me like chains.
Neither of us go back in to hear the rest of the committee’s proceedings.
When I get home, the evening is resting uneasily among the trees, and the cats greet me with dire protestations about their empty food bowls. I look around my clean, neatly ordered, quiet farm kitchen in my clean, neatly ordered, quiet house. My empty house.
The Linear Concept of Time winds around my ankles, imitating the cats.
Professor Riverton’s words are still in my mind, overlaying themselves over all the times we’ve had the same conversation before. And suddenly all the pieces are rearranged, giving me a completely different picture than before. He did believe it was possible his wife was waiting for him on the other side of the event horizon that was time, but he was afraid. And he wanted me to be afraid, too.
I’d never seriously considered walking into that tunnel before, but what if Rachel really was on the other end of it? I look down and meet the smug yellow eyes of the Linear Concept of Time. “Do you know where Rachel is?”
“Maaaw,” it says, rumbling a not-quite-accurate purr under the syllable.
“I can’t. It would be selfish.” But I’m already leafing thoughtfully through my stack of journals, written over countless days, outlining my little rituals that bring the weather to me, all the details of my little world coded into truth. It would be all anyone needed to teach themselves weather-witchery. Still looking down at the journals, I say, “I can’t leave Saphron and Hazelsnoot.”
“Maaaaw,” comes the reply, and I turn to see all three “cats” in the mouth of the tunnel of darkness and stars.
Saphron looks over her shoulder at me, her tail straight up in the air like a feather duster, as if to say, “What are you waiting for?”
“Just a minute!” I gather my journals and hastily boot up the database, begin copy-scanning the pages. From the very beginning entry of my first morning at the house, looking out over the orchard, to that morning last month and the whole entry about the rain—waking up to feed the cats, letting out the Linear Concept of Time, my coffee, opening the clear, quiet space in my head and inviting in the rain—to the slight dip in temperature I encouraged that very morning before I left, it all goes into the digital-information maw.
If they can’t learn from this when they need it, there’s no hope for the Big City anyway.
As a next-to-final thought, I shoot off a quick e-memo to the National weather council with my resignation enclosed. The final thought is to send Shawn an e-memo too, a goodbye, an apology—not even I know.
“All right,” I say, and step into the darkness full of blazing stars. The ground is smooth but rippled, and shiny, like a stream frozen mid-brook in the heart of winter. Above us, impressionist swirls of purple and indigo stream around us into the distance beyond, illuminated here and there by golden stars seen as if through the reflection of water.
The cats follow along, sometimes ahead, sometimes behind, Hazelsnoot batting at Saphron’s ears and then running away before the older, heavier cat can smack her.
I lose track of the Linear Concept of Time, but soon or maybe much, much later, it doesn’t matter, because I hear Rachel’s voice calling my name.
“What took you so long? I’ve been waiting forever!”
I start to cry.
Time is only a concept, after all, a reflection of the human perception of the world, and if there’s anything in the world that’s flexible enough for a happy ending, it’s perception. Right?
C. S. Lytal has been making up stories since before they could write and went on to graduate from Seton Hill University’s Writing Popular Fiction MFA program in 2017. They spend most of their time recommending books at the library where they work, and in their spare