Monday, February 3, 2020

The Story of Time by Yash Seyedbagheri

Yash Seyedbagheri's character spends the first 25 years of his life confined to an old passenger train, travelling back and forth through time.

People talk about chronology. Tell me about your life from beginning to present. The truth: I spent my life travelling through time. The first twenty-five years that is. A quarter of a century, which is something incredible and sad. Mama invented a time machine out of an old passenger train. This was in the year of my birth, 1887. The device suffered significant mishaps when she took me on the maiden voyage. Mechanical parts were lost, sending us forwards and backwards, at the machine's mercy.

She tried to repair the machine, adjusting dials and levers left, right, left, right. Time spiraled around us. We moved forward and backwards, spending months, days, sometimes hours in time periods, constrained to the train. We couldn't step foot outside, for fear of being left behind in any one period, strangers invading foreign periods. This was the only childhood I knew. I was told we'd lived in a great palatial mansion, with Mansard roofs and graceful arches, that Mama was an heiress. The home held much history. But this was all irrelevant, drifting through time.

We saw good things, but we saw so much horror even from within the walls of the train. Sounds and history rose to our consciousness, a kind of discordant symphony, ideas and events all a sort of blur and yet larger than life. The car, the computer, the Internet all sprung up outside the frosted windows of the train. We spiraled back, saw chariots in ancient Rome. Sprung forward, saw people hypnotized by their cell phones. I was three or four when I saw all that. I think. Measuring time was impossible, even as it held us in its grip. Victorian architecture give way to Art Deco. Deco transformed into glass skyscrapers, and we drifted back to Gothic cathedrals. Forward to Baroque. Empires and borders changed. The British Empire expanded like a giant imperialistic fungus (so Mama called it). They lost. Russia, Germany, Austria-Hungary collapsed, borders dissolving, people's ideas of home changed. You were once a subject of the Austrian emperor, now you were Italian or Hungarian or Czech.

How I felt like that. I was Nick Botkin back home, where I'd been born, but now I was just a time traveler, with Mama as my only connection to my past, my present, my future. The difference was the boundaries changed second by second.

The czar and his family were almost shot, but our train sent Bolsheviks dispersing, shooting left and right, Romanovs scattering. Mama tried to shield me from the sight, even as the bullets ricocheted, fusillades striking the pretty grand duchesses. Almost striking me.

"Leave decency alone, you damned scoundrels," she growled, pressing me to her. She smelled of sweat and perfume, a pungent tenderness. It was one of the few concrete and true things I can still recall. How I hung on to her, pretended in that moment.

But the train invariably started up again.

King Edward VII, among other men, tried to flirt with Mama, looking in through the train window. I felt repulsed and frightened and intrigued by hirsute lechery. We saw Franz Joseph in Vienna and Kennedy before he was shot. Mama and I marveled at the splendor, took pieces of it for ourselves. Grace, culture. From the windows, Mama shouted, commented upon history. She had to have the last word, she said, and she did, to mixed results. She convinced a young painter named Hitler to keep striving for art school. She advised royals to give up their autocratic prerogatives. Hitler rose as an artist in a ruined Germany with brutal depictions of wheelbarrows and burned money. Royals clung to power with more fervency.

How I wished she could hold back. Yet, I envied her energy, confronting the past, the future. I was a reactor. Not an actor.

Tanks and bombs became ubiquitous and we wept together, watching people's homes and lives blown apart. The Romanovs returned to their throne. A Cold War erupted. Unfettered monarchy versus freedom, so the pundits proclaimed. The United States remained democratic, but representative government toppled across Europe. Puppet kings rose. The Romanovs developed dangerous weapons and conquered Constantinople. Orchestras played God Save The Tsar outside Hagia Sophia, reverted to its original Christian origins. Mama later wished she'd let the Bolsheviks shoot them.

"Saving people has ramifications," she said. "As cold as it is. The Ottomans were barbaric. The Romanovs are just as bad."

The Shah held off the Romanovs in Iran, but he fell to the force of ayatollahs. We saw angry ayatollahs in Iran, who tried to arrest Mama for not wearing a veil. She sang arias to me from La Traviata and Carmen, to drown out their guttural cries, her voice aging, yet holding a kind of raspy mystery. We went so many places, but the whole time, we lived out of our machine, stopping wherever it wanted. Sometimes, we got lucky and it stopped in the deepest of woods. Other times, we had to rely on the kindness of strangers, keeping the train in homes and palatial hotels. Not our home, though.

"Someday, darling," she said, so sadly. "You'll have a good home. And you won't take your family time traveling."

Once we saw our own deaths, spiraling wildly. I was 105, it was 1992, and I was a man beneath the white walls of an asylum, speaking of time. A heart attack took me. Mama died, struck down by a train in 1955. I wished the train could have stopped and we could have disrupted it, but Mama said those things were so far off, so far off indeed. I wept for hours, while she tried to calm me, told me Mama wouldn't let the world eat me alive. Called me so many pet names, so many terms of endearment. Precious, sweetheart, treasure. All tender words that now held a kind of emptiness.

Some nights, constrained to uncertain darkness within the train, she sat beside me, telling me stories of her youth. Of her parents, who expected her to be a good wife. A good mother. She'd become an inventor instead, because to invent was to free oneself of the fetters of the past, of rituals repeated ad nauseam. Her parents had valued the precision of the clock and lived their miserable lives around it.

"I guess you'll have to settle for eccentric mother," she said, her laughter dissolving into tears. A tortured sound, something that reeked of the most intense pain.

Mama grew older, flame-colored hair tinged with hints of gray. She laughed it off, attributed it to the torture of time travel. Time wounds all things, she said.

People stared at our garb, laughed at our accents, pointed. We made up homes, stories about where we were from. Mama taught me the art of "dissembling," so she said, because she hated the word "lie." It was necessary, she told me. We had so many backstories. We were from Canada, we were attending science-fiction conferences and peace conferences, and we were meeting my long-lost father (a man I never knew incidentally).

We took on titles and prestige that weren't ours to own. Through the windows, we sought to take pieces of the past. We offered great sums for palatial homes time wouldn't allow us. Mama made up stories with great aplomb, but I couldn't do it.

I just wanted absolutes. Truth. Love. Tenderness. I wanted a yard to roam around, like a conqueror, wanted Mama to scold me for ordinary things and to tuck me into bed at night. Sometimes I thought of staying behind, getting off the machine. Grounding myself in one particular time period. But there were so many periods to choose from. I didn't know which one fit me, no matter how I dwelled on the things unfolding, the implications. Above all, I didn't want to leave Mama alone.

We kept traveling. I grew taller, quieter. I kept trying to figure out what home was, beyond a machine that moved forward and backwards. It had no hearth, no comfort, no bedrooms with soft sheets and the smell of lavender and other fragrance. Our home was full of dials and devices, it was cold, it was merciless. There was nothing for me except for Mama, who assured me she'd solve all this. I loved her but didn't believe her. We went back to the future. I saw homes replaced by apartments and condominiums, home measured by prestige and space and ostentatiousness, instead of love, small comforts. History. History became mawkish treacle, people made up their histories to impress others.

I found home in the English language. My language. I learned foreign languages, saw my own English tongue evolve, turn ugly, even as I matured. Words like fuck and cocksucker entered the lexicon of ordinary parlance. Language, once a small semblance of home, was yanked out. Graceful language was banished. I didn't know the right way to dress because each day brought new cultures, customs, countries, boundaries whizzing past my consciousness. I wore newsboy caps. I wore baseball caps backwards and blasted rap music. I wore bowler hats.

Time went on. My voice deepened, I grew a mustache. Childhood, which was never existent, became full-fledged adulthood. Mama grew older, gray covering her flame-covered hair day by day. The circumstances of our deaths hung over my consciousness, danced like a twisted ballerina. I tried to drown out the future, tried to stop it. I tried to help Mama solve the mystery of the broken machine. And on we went through time. I didn't know what it meant to love, to go steady with a young woman, to leave one's mark on the world. I only knew the world and knew that we would inevitably die. Die in the most pathetic circumstances, honored and loved by no one.

Nixon was not a crook until he was, Mother's voice captured on his recording devices. Tchaikovsky jumped in a river and never got out. I almost joined him. Jimmy Carter spoke of crises of confidence until the train wrecked the Oval Office. People in gas lines almost beat me to death because they were angry and anxious and people had no compassion. I declared myself Emperor of America, just to have a piece of the action, because I deserved some small power from all this. I was Emperor for about half a minute. Bill Clinton talked about stained blue dresses, an orange man boasted of grabbing women by their privates. Trump, whose grandfather, Herr Drumpf had tried to flirt with Mama a century before. I was exhilarated, but frightened, with no time, no sense of being to call my own. I tried to conceal so much from Mama, but she read my fright.

By the time we got back, 1887 had disappeared for good. It was 1912. Mama tried to change the machine, the parameters of time travel even. She tried to capture 1887 again, so I could be young. She tried to conjure up our old home, even. She wept when it failed, when it turned out the old house had been consumed by conflagration.

I told her I loved her. I could accept that the future was now the present. But the truth was a cold one, one that made me yearn for childhood games and made-up worlds, things other children still possessed. I was not a youth, not a child. I was an adult. Mama was an older woman, time demanding of her. I'd seen her die in the future. Seen myself too. I knew the weight of the decades to come, the horrors, the evolution and devolution of thought. This was my childhood. I had to keep these secrets. Mama tried to erase them from my memories, but magic and science can't vanquish some things. I was twenty-five when we finally got a home. A gracious townhouse that overlooked a park and a majestic cathedral. Teddy Roosevelt was shot the day we moved in. Of course, he spoke for forty minutes while he bled, displaying more resolve than I could over centuries. A fine way to come home.

7 comments:

  1. History flashes past! I wondered where this was going, but as the story developed I felt mc's longing for normality, which Mama had escaped. A mixture of SciFi and human interest. Good stuff.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Imaginative. Mom certainly had influence with her time machine. A different kind of boy and his Mom story, they were the only inseparable ones.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Quite the flurry of emotions, thoughts, and events. Interesting to think how chaotic existence becomes without a well-sequenced flow of time. I enjoyed the tone and voice of the narrator.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Writing a time traveling short story is very hard. But you did it. This is excellent. I couldn’t wait to see where it would end. There could even be a sequel it’s so good.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Hi Yash: I really think you should write history books, that way people would be interested in reading them. It was very engaging, enjoyed the the presentation and using the train as a vehicle to convey time-travel is brilliant.
    (Not wanting to rain on this, but a bit of housekeeping like backwards vs backward,etc would really make this shine.) Love the word hirsute. Overall I'd rate this as excellent. Looking forward to reading more of your work. Cheers

    ReplyDelete
  6. Very impressive story. To be honest, after a while I sort of ignored the time and location travel and concentrated just on the change and evolution of Nick which was beautifully presented. Thank you so much for sharing your work.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Great historical context, like a train running past. The movement through time was great, but I had questions. If they couldn't get off the train, how did they see all of this? And how did they move through space to all those different places? Might have been good to include some sort of explanation for that, even if fanciful.

    ReplyDelete