Firemaker by Jonny Eberle

The Traveler was the last to arrive at the tavern. He climbed the narrow staircase to the upstairs room, where five men were sitting at a round table. The Traveler sat down in the empty seat, where a glass was waiting for him. He never knew who ordered the drinks, but there was always one waiting for him.

The Traveler was the oldest one at the table. He remembered sitting in each of their chairs in each of his five previous visits. Each man played his part as if reading from a prepared script. The first and the fifth man didn’t share a common language, so the men in the middle translated. The second was recovering from cholera and was ready to eat again, which was why he kept calling down to the kitchen for more food. The fourth said little. He’d come from the sacking of Byzantium and seen bloodshed that would always stalk his nightmares. The fifth man knocked over his glass at the appointed time, spilling his drink and making the entire surface of the table sticky.

They chatted for an hour, swapping stories of their exploits, but the Traveler was silent. There was nothing left for him to say. He had said all of this before and it was growing tedious. The scene around him unfolded as predictably as a favorite film. His role, he knew, was that of the old man who always watched and always said nothing. The others ignored him, forever locked in an eternal performance of free will. Several times, the Traveler wished to comment, but in his memory, the old man never spoke. He bit his tongue.

As he descended the stairs and paid the bartender for the drinks, he wished he’d made the attempt anyway, if only to see if it was possible. He would never get another chance.

The machine sat in several inches of water in the middle of a rice paddy outside of the village. The waning crescent moon was almost perfectly reflected on the surface of the silver sphere. His cane sunk into the soft mud as he waded out to it. Sensing his approach, a circular hatch slid open to allow the Traveler to wriggle inside. He laid on the floor for a long while to catch his breath. The interior of the sphere was packed with machinery: pipes and valves and fuel rods and reactors. The Traveler climbed up into the chair. The worn, cracked leather sunk under his weight. The wooden armrests were smooth under his calloused palms, the finish worn away where his hands came to rest. A string of tiny digits was carved into one of the armrests, numbers he had traced a thousand times with his fingertips. They were small and imprecise, as if carved by a shaking hand. He couldn’t recall how long they’d been there. He entered the sequence into the computer and flicked a row of switches. Then, as he had done so many times, he pulled the lever and plunged into oblivion.

When he awoke, the lever was back in its original position. He must’ve pushed it back, but he didn’t remember doing it.

***

He climbed down from the hatch. It was daytime in a grove of ancient, gnarled pistachio trees. Their bare branches formed an arch over the machine. A light snow began to fall. As the door closed behind him, the Traveler started down the hill toward the plumes of smoke that curled into the colorless sky.

The village was alive. It was a small community of about fifty adults and children. A few people nodded to him and called him kwes, which he was fairly sure meant brother. The village was, after all, an extended family. Here, the Traveler was more than a spectator. Here, there was no history to tiptoe around.

He stood in the doorway of the main hut, a large structure with a thatched roof built low into the ground. A hunting party had returned from an expedition to the south. The men were cutting strips of meat from carcasses. The women were stoking the fire in the middle of the hut with care and precision. That’s where he finally spotted Immaru, directing the placement of split logs to deliver the right mix of smoke and heat. He waited, not wanting to interrupt her work. Once the fire was roaring and the whole hut was filled with the smell of cooking meat and the laughter of families reunited, she walked over to him.

“I thought you weren’t coming back this time,” she said.

“How long was I away?” he asked. It had only been a few days.

“Two months.”

“I’m sorry.”

“One of these days, you’re going to leave forever,” she said, shaking her head. “I won’t know if you’re alive or dead. How long am I supposed to wait for you? Two months? A year? The rest of my life?”

“I said I was sorry, Immaru.”

“I don’t want you to be sorry. I want you to understand how it feels when you leave.” She leaned her head on his shoulder and together they watched the smoke rise through the hole in the roof and into the wintery sky.

That night, after they had eaten, Immaru helped the Traveler back to her hut. She wrapped him in a deerskin blanket and built him a crackling fire. He felt like dry twigs about to ignite. It was a tiredness deep in his bones: an exhaustion in every labored beat of his heart.

“That should help keep you warm,” she said as she rearranged the pile of firewood against the packed dirt wall. He smiled at her. Fire was her gift.

“This reminds me of the night we met,” he said. “It was snowing then, too. I was hurt and you took me in.” 

She laughed at him. “No, it wasn’t. It was a warm day in late summer. A thunderstorm had just come through and I was out gathering downed branches when you appeared.”

“You’re probably right,” he said. He remembered the way the air smelled warm and sweet after the rain that day. But he also remembered clutching his bleeding leg and leaving a trail of red in the fresh snow. “Sometimes, I get mixed up about the order of things.”

“I worry about you when you’re away,” she said. She stroked his silver hair. “Sometimes you come back looking so much older.”

“I’ll try to be younger next time,” he replied with a grin. She leaned her head on his shoulder and he put his arm around her. She held the amber pendant he wore on a chain around his neck up to the firelight to see the fly trapped inside.

“Tell me about the Pyramids again,” she said.

“When did I tell you about that?”

“Just tell me the story.”

“All right,” he said, wracking his brain to remember the details. “The Pyramids were tombs built to satisfy the pharaoh’s desire to live forever. It took thousands of people decades to build them. I watched them move stones the size of this hut—one stone every minute.”

“Tell me about the river.”

“Well, in the summer, the river would swell and overflow its banks. When the pharaoh died, they had to wait for the river to flood so that they could sail his body down the river to be buried, because the ship was so heavy. It was filled with treasures to sustain him in the afterlife and the sides of the ship were painted with a layer of gold. And when it sailed by, it shone brighter than the rising sun.”

“I’d like to see that,” she said.

He wished he could take her with him, but there was only room in the machine for one. She was trapped here, like the fly in the amber pendant. Even if he could find a way to balance the equation, he couldn’t take her away. The village needed her.

“I can’t stay long,” he said. “I have to go in the morning. If I get this right, I’ll be back—to stay this time. But in case something goes wrong, I wanted to see you.”

She studied him for several moments, decoding the lines and wrinkles of his face the way she would analyze a sputtering fire to determine where to rake the coals.

“I will never understand you,” she said at last. “If you want to stay with me, stay.”

A lump formed in his throat. It was probable that he would never see her again. Though every fiber of his soul yearned to spend his dying days here by Immaru’s side, she deserved more than that.

“You’ll never even know I was gone.” 

She accepted this grudgingly and he drifted off to sleep as she hummed and gently stroked his hair.

His dreams were growing more vivid all the time. It was a side effect of the strain of time travel on the human mind. He dreamed of standing on a scorched lakebed in the last moments before the boiling Sun consumed the Earth; of punching a teenaged Hitler square in the jaw; of rescuing Surya Sen from the executioner’s noose. The dreams were confusing. He couldn’t tell if these things had actually happened.

When he woke in the morning, Immaru was already gone. An inch of snow had fallen overnight and the sun glistened on the fresh powder and on the glacier cliffs to the north and east of the valley. The crack of flintknapping and the smell of cooking animal fat filled the air.

It was midday by the time the Traveler reached the machine. An old ache in his left shin was acting up again. With great effort, he pulled himself through the hatch and into the chair. He flipped the switches and felt the machine hum to life. This was the moment. He could go right now to the reading rooms at the Library of Alexandria or to the glass-domed Himalayan cities or to the royal court of the Great Zimbabwe. Or, he could attempt to subvert the universe. He took a deep breath and pulled the lever.

***

The world in which he emerged was alien. The machine had appeared in a park in the middle of a sprawling city. He tasted sour hydrocarbons in the air. He’d been gone so long, nothing looked familiar. He started walking. Here and there, he recognized the color of a door or the smell of a restaurant.

But the familiarity faded. He was sure he was walking in circles. Unable to remember the language to ask for directions or bear the burning pain in his leg, he sat down on a curb. Maybe memory loss was time’s way of enforcing its law.

Soon, a young man walked by, too absorbed in his own thoughts to notice a frail old man sitting in the gutter. It was the Traveler, before he started traveling. This was a young man whose mind was full of half-finished formulas and unproven theories and wild, selfish ambition. He had just completed his first successful test—a one week jump into the future—and now he was putting his affairs in order so he could disappear forever. He lied to his family about a job overseas. He sold everything he owned and exchanged the useless paper currency for gold. He stockpiled penicillin and shelf-stable food. He bought a gun and learned to shoot. The people of the past would fear him as a god; the people of the future would praise him as a visionary. He knew nothing of the barbarism the future held or the forgotten wisdom of the ancients. Blinded by a belief in his own superiority, he had no idea how ill-prepared he was for a life untethered in time.

The Traveler staggered to his feet and followed the young man to his lab. He watched him turn the key in the lock and felt the weight of those same keys, rusted with age, in his pocket. He waited until dark.

The old key slipped into the new lock as if they’d never been parted. The Traveler descended the steps into the basement. He flicked on a light. The machine was there, propped up on a scaffold, its mirror surface free of scratches and blemishes. The hatch slid open.

He had forgotten how clean it once was, free from the clutter of knickknacks collected across the span of human history. He used the teeth of the key to scratch a series of numbers into the chair’s freshly lacquered armrest. He worked slowly to make sure the numbers were easy to read. When he was finished, he brushed away the dust and his heart sank to see that the digits were crooked and imprecise, exactly like the ones that mysteriously appeared so long ago. It would take the young man a long time to notice them and longer still before desperation would lead him to travel to those coordinates. A month or a year would make no difference. The past wasn’t static any more than the future was waiting to come into being—it was all happening now. Even if he failed here, he thought, he would never truly die. He would always be out there, somewhere. The pharaohs would be jealous.

Dawn was breaking by the time the Traveler limped back to the park. While he was gone, someone had tagged the sphere with graffiti. He climbed inside and clutched the amber pendant around his neck. As he reached for the lever, he wondered if another version of himself was outside, watching from the shadows and laughing at his performance of free will, his arrogance.

***

Moments or millennia later, he opened his eyes. He wasn’t in the machine. Instead, he was lying in a pile of bedding under a thatched roof. Immaru leaned over him.

“How did I get here?” he asked. It hurt to speak, and his vision swam. There appeared to be four or five of her, shrouded in smoke.

“One of the gathering parties found you unconscious at the base of the glacier.”

“My machine?”

“Half buried under a wall of ice.”

“Good. I need to go. I must get there early. The drinks.”

“You’re feverish,” she said as she handed him a cup of broth. “Drink this. I’ll be back to check on you.” She kissed him on the forehead and went out to teach the young firemakers in her charge which varieties of wood produce the most smoke and which burn slowly to sustain the village for the winter. They would need this knowledge if they were to survive what was coming. Sleep overtook him.

For four days, the Traveler was delirious. Immaru summoned the village healer. She suggested a tincture of a root that grew in the hills, so Immaru charged out into the snowstorm to find it. Wind whipped the falling snow. She could barely see, but she needed to make it to a grove of pistachio trees. She used to hide there as a child, and she knew the medicinal plant grew in the shade of the trees. In the blizzard, she almost didn’t see the machine until she caught her own reflection in its surface only an arm’s length away. She brushed the snow from its silver skin and wondered how it could be there. The glacier was two hours’ journey in the opposite direction.

The hatch slid open and a man emerged. He was clutching his leg with one hand to stem the bleeding from a deep gash. He froze when he saw her and brandished a bronze dagger. She recognized his eyes, the curve of his brow.

“I’ve never seen you so young,” she said.

He stared at her with frightened eyes, like a cornered animal in the last moments of the hunt.

“This is a safe place,” she told him. He did not understand, but she was beginning to.

She led him back to her hut, where she expected to find the Traveler, but he had vanished into the storm. Beside the fire, he had left her the amber pendant. The young man examined it, comparing it to his own, as she bandaged his wound.

In the morning, at the young man’s insistence, Immaru took him back to the grove, but the machine was gone. She placed an arm around his shoulders to comfort him and after a while, managed to convince him to give up the search and return to the village. Reluctantly, he helped her move firewood, but he kept stopping to look up into the surrounding hills, searching for a glint of silver.

That night, she had him sit by the fire and started to teach him words in her own language. One by one, he repeated them. Kwes, brother. Irru, flame. It would take a long time, but they had time now.

Someday, when he understood more, she would tell him how his machine had vanished. She would tell him about the strange, lonely man who had taken it. She would tell him the truth about time and the secret to building a fire that stayed hot for hours. And she would tell him about the river and how it flooded its banks to carry the body of the pharaoh to rest.


Jonny Eberle lives in Tacoma, WA with his wife, three typewriters, and a puppy. His fiction has been featured or is forthcoming in Creative Colloquy and Grit City Magazine. Learn more at his website or sign up for his monthly newsletter.