THE CHIMNEY SWEEP’S APPRENTICE
Chornaya River, the Crimean Peninsula.
16 August 1855.
I am lost in a raincloud. Now a mist. Now a rainbow. Now nothing.
I am a refraction of light, bending around the matter in my path. I am seen but never felt.
Amiss the ruin, rich and chaotic, strewn before my boots I search for a corpse. A needle hiding among other needles, each sharp to the touch. The air is wet, and everything before me is a sea. The waves of life, death, and everything hidden between, rush over me in currents of cold air.
I feel the death of the atmosphere in the way the wind shutters through my hair.
I tread carefully, the Russians have retreated, the smoke cleared, and all the world is gray.
Even the blood, dried and caked. Gray.
Arms, legs; sprawling limbs, and between these spaces cutting through the masses empty faces I found La Blanc’s. His boyish round features familiar. I have studied them for weeks, laughing at his jokes, sharing in his misery, whether on the battlefield or in the tinned cans of rationed food. We were comrades these last three weeks, though I had known it would invariably end here.
I kneel in the mud.
I don’t have the gift of sight, I am not a fortune teller. But it always invariable ends here.
I let the mist, the dew, the damp damnation swallow me as I run my hands over his face, closing his eyes. I wish it had been a nicer day, that he’d have seen a blue sky when he left this earth, and not a grey raincloud.
All the world is grey.
There was a crackle of gunfire in the distance, snipers mostly.
I dig around in La Blanc’s pockets, retrieve a letter, never sent, never even sealed. I pocket it.
This is it. This was my mission. Retrieve the last letter of Private La Blanc.
I rise. I leave La Blanc behind. I return to my raincloud.
How did I get here? How did I end up fighting in a war that happened sixty years before my birth?
How did I become this?
I don’t know how much time has passed since I stood on that crossroads. I can’t make tallies in a wall, the walls keep changing. Has it been a year? A century?
If time isn’t linear how can you measure it?
It started with Penelope.
In 1846. However, as that time is a destination, it feels more accurate to say it began at 1846, as if it was a station. A steam engine rolling in and out, as my employer permits. I arrived at the year, a visitor, a ghost lingering only for a month before boarding my express to a new station, a new a haunt.
It wasn’t that I woke up somewhere. Jolted out of a heavy slumber to find myself somewhere brand new and strange.
The fact, that it had happened somewhat mundanely was enough to make a man sick.
I had gone to the crossroads. I heard that was what you were supposed to do. I couldn’t tell you where I had that. I just heard it. So, I went to where Gardner Street and West Jackson Road met. I had been drunk, desperate. Around me was dust. Around me was always dust. My wife couldn’t join the dust that I had let bury her for years.
It was there that I had put my soul up for sale, and watched a greedy tradesman feel its course, raw fabric through his meaty hands, judging its value, contemplating its potential worth. The markets were in my favor I guess, for he made me a deal.
I watched him saunter down the left lane of Gardner Street, whistling dixy idly, the melody thrown carelessly over his shoulder. I heard a bell somewhere behind me. There were no bells down Gardner street. But when I turned I found it was no longer Gardner Street behind me, but a thriving metropolis.
Sprawling out from my boots were cobblestoned streets, brick sidewalks and great big buildings, taller than anything I’d ever seen in the prairies. The walls were dirty, caked in a black soot, and the air was thick with a yellowish fog. The chiming once again reverberated in the midst, and I found the source of the distress. Poking out over the rooftops was a majestic tower featuring a funny clock.
I’d seen photos of this clock before.
Ben, they called it, like it was a person, a family friend.
Good Ole Ben told me it was noon.
But noon when?
I was sick. I ain’t too proud to admit I was sick.
“Oy, Drunkard, go be ill someplace else!” Called a woman above me.
I looked up, and her round pink face was poking out of window. I was standing on her stoop.
She was shaking a rag at me, and looked ready to chuck something if I didn’t move off.
I moved off, and shoved my hands in the pockets of my greatcoat. The air was still, but there was a distinct chill biting in its touch. It had been December when I last saw a calendar, I didn’t know what a calendar would say now.
“Hallo, mister!” Cried a boy running over to me. “You wanna have yah boots shined.”
“N-no.” His face, his attire, his entire being was covered in black ash or soot. I could hardly make out his bright green eyes blinking hopefully up at me.
“Come on, gov’ner you’ll impress yah lady folk, I’m sure of it.”
“No…no,” I shook my head again. I had no money.
“Olly, stop talking to that man, he ain’t no gentleman. Look at his boots. They ain’t gentleman boots. He’s probably a sweep.”
With those words the child’s face turned white, and he took off running.
I watched him go, dazed. I felt catatonic. That was a word I knew from experience. I had an aunt who used to go catatonic. My mother said she couldn’t help it. Her body would just turn stiff like a board.
“There you are. Gracious you are late. Though I suppose in this instance it is not your doing.”
A woman was speaking. She was older and wrapped up in layers and layers of rich fabric, culminating in big, billowing sleeves and a skirt that seemed wide enough to encompass six or seven pairs of feet, instead of just the one.
I stared at her plainly, assuming she was speaking to someone behind me.
“Well, are you coming?”
She was speaking to me. It was clear now.
“I beg your pardon ma’am, but I believe you’ve got the wrong person.” My joints were loosening, and I decided to walk out of this section of street, and try to discover the year and perhaps my purpose here.
“No. I don’t. I never have the wrong person. It’s imprudent for you to think me capable of such a blunder. Are you Thomas Carson?” She snipped, and I turned back around.
She eyed my contemptuously, “I thought so. Come along. I have one of the boys here hailing us a hackney, though I asked for no growler’s I’m sure that’ll be all he could find.”
I followed after her. Why not. What else could I do?
I didn’t know the difference between a hackney and growler, but I was led to a street with a hansom carriage waiting with two horses holstered to the front. The massive compartment was bolstered on four metal wheels. Those great cylinders rising nearly to my hip in height.
The lady waited for the driver to hop down and help her aboard. I, too, was assisted in entering the dark grim box on wheels.
“Well,” she said satisfied when the door had closed. “Not bad. The trip will feel somewhat like a wagon ride to you I suppose. You’re from Oklahoma, am I correct? Don’t bother answering,” she cut me off as I opened my mouth to speak. “I know it. I only asked out of politeness.”
She didn’t look like a demon. Instead she looked somewhat like a woman on a holiday card, or someone on one of those Christmas cookie tins that my wife’s mother would send us.
“Your first mission, will be simple. He understands the importance of training. The blunders of the new are so often catastrophic that really the time taken to train a person is no minor necessity. Furthermore, when that person is immortal and a time traveler, it’s hardly an inconvenience.”
“Who are you?” I asked, I felt like a real jerk just blurting out a question like that to a lady, but she didn’t seem much inclined to tell me.
“I am Lady Penelope Grim. I am to be your tutor, and for the foreseeable future your companion.”
“Oh.” I was relieved. I had never had a tutor. But I had made it all the way to the eighth grade without any problems, and never thought I needed one. “You said, there are others. Like me?”
“Yes. A small group. It is hardly an institution, but yes, there have been others, and the success rate is high enough that I understand he is recruiting again.”
“What will you be tutoring me on?”
“Time is fickle. The ages are often strange and cumbersome to the outsider. There is nomenclature, there is the issue of dialect, which is always shifting and changing its mind depending on the region, decade, and social class. I primarily help you blend it to whatever social group you are currently penetrating. For instance, do you know the difference between a lady and a duchess.”
“I didn’t think so. Americans seldom do anyhow, no matter the decade.”
“When is this?” I asked, peering out the small window, the street unraveling around us were growing tidier and tidier, the bricks getting wider and whiter.
“February 09, 1846. London.” She eyed me contemptuously. “Are you alright.”
“Why wouldn’t I be?”
“How long ago did you make this deal?”
“Um, what time is it?”
She withdrew a pocket watch from one of the layers of fabric draped around her lap. “Eleven past twelve.”
“Then eleven minutes ago.”
The carriage rattled over of an uneven street and we stared at each other in the din.
How was I supposed to react?
I had stepped into the raincloud. I had become a rainbow, refracting, bending and slipping in and out of view.
I had never been to a city. I had never seen anything but prairies. The towers of Manhattan in 1934 would have been as much of strangers to me as those standing erect, brash and grim in the London 1846.
She had a little apartment uptown. It was small, but lavish. Books were crammed so tightly into the shelves it became a solid wall of spines. Photos, tapestry, needlepoints, vases, mosaics, relics from every known century were featured in the long narrow hallway encompassing a staircase and several doors. It was filled with marvels. But I saw nothing, but the absence.
The absence of dust.
Of life and love.
My room was small, and filled with oddities and knick-knacks. There was a toy train set that Callum would have loved. I smiled at it, as if by conjuring the image of his joy I, too could find joy.
It had a gleaming red paint, and iron wrought wheels, misshapen, as if carved by hand in a pit of fire.
I frowned. I knew that train set. I recognized it. It was the one from a shop window. Years ago. I had seen it when Dottie first told me she was pregnant. I had meant to buy it. I had meant to walk into the little shop, ask for it to be placed in a box, wrapped in brown paper, to one day give to my child.
But the dairy cow got sick, and Dottie needed milk.
I sat on the bed. The springs groaned beneath me. The quilt was a white and blue thing; it’s patterns neat, it’s edges free of tatters. Nothing like the ones my mother had given Dottie and I. Those were aged. Passed down for generations, tears, rips, stains, and even smells were imbedded into their thin fabric.
The luxury of a new quilt. The luxury of a new mattress.
The price of an empty bed.
I laid back and starred up at the ceiling. Red, tiles, octagons lining, clean patterns lulling me into the oblivion, sinking me into my raincloud.