Enchanted Me From the Beginning*

by Tammy Ho & Jeff Zroback

 

These days everybody wanted to witness the descending of the big cross which marked the end of the World War V.

But I knew that the sight and sound of the event had already become boring.

Long ago, I had explored the past and been among those guidebook writers who had opened history to the masses.

Then, when the past became conventional and even Jesus' birth was overrun with tourists, I turned my eyes to the future.

At first, the future seemed to offer infinite possibilities, a limitless number of exotic destinations. But soon I became disappointed with the journeys I undertook. The future did not seem to be capable of surprises or excitement.

There were no more global wars. People didn't believe in anything in particular. Vegetarians still controlled major posts in different social groups. Certainly, people felt safe.

The future was shrinking.

But it hadn't fully come to an end, yet. And it could still manufacture surprises.

 

*****

 

On my one hundred and thirtieth voyage, I made a discovery.

In a back alley of a forgotten city in a time no one would remember: two men and one woman — dead.

One man was short, an uncommon occurrence in a time of carefully regulated diets. He also had two dark moles on his face; such impurities were unheard of in this era. I traced his moles with my fingers, memorized the unfamiliar texture.

The other man was tall, similar to every other male whose ancestral traits had already been reduced to shadows.

In the future, the past was being slowly erased.

The girl was tall and beautiful, like all other girls her age. I had seen her a million times before, and if she hadn't been dead, she would have been nearly indistinguishable from the bulk of citizens.

Others began to arrive; none seemed to know what to do with the bodies, or even understood the fact that there were dead people on the street. The scene was mesmerizing. Soon it would become familiar.

I returned to my time, convinced I had a new destination for a jaded industry. A murder was a novelty.

In bed, I told her of my discovery. She responded with a warning look that told me she knew my past. There had been staged events in the past, and on several occasions I had recommended them.

But this was different: it felt genuine.

There were, however, uncertainties. I was puzzled by the man's height. Under the diet system of the Government Union, it was not possible for a man to be shorter than six feet.

And then there were the moles. The beauty scheme had been instituted centuries before my birth. The programs' slow, deliberate selection had slowly dissolved impurities from the faces and memories of the public.

My generation was the last to have shown signs of exterior imperfection. For this man, there was only one possibility.

He was from the past, even deeper in history than my own age.

But his identity, his history, his motives were lost in time.

With the help of the latest Cross-Epoch Language software, I became fluent in the dialect of Cantonese-cum-Mandarin and learned its resimplfied characters. I memorized that 'yan' had been reduced to a single stroke.

Then I returned to the future.

A few weeks before the event, I found a hotel in the historic district of 'Causeway Bay'. My encyclopedia told me that there was a 'Victoria Harbour' in the zone. But I could not find it.

There were only the remains of giant shopping malls and monuments to entrepreneurs and politicians unknown outside of the city: Stanley Ho, Donald Tsang.

I went back to the alley and waited. I let a week run by: nothing. I skipped back two weeks, and started again. It all felt so familiar. But of course it was.

For hours, days, I saw nothing. Slowly, I became consumed with terrible possibilities: I had returned to the wrong coordinates, mistaken the alley, imagined the event. Or worst of all, perhaps I too had finally succumb to Chronophrenia. Delusion overcame even the most experienced time-travelers.

I tried to reassure myself that I had not displayed any of the symptoms: nostalgia, dyslexia, extended time lag. But I was experiencing mild paramnesia. Then again for time-travelers, déjà vu is nothing new.

 

*****

 

Then, I noticed the shorter man. He stood out because of his irregular height.

He followed the couple, both glamorous-looking and oblivious to his presence.

The shorter man wore a worn-out expression, his eyes oozing history, a thousand contradicting biographies.

As he passed, my attention was once again drawn to his moles. Unconsciously, I traced two blemishes on my own face, remembered their familiar location.

Slowly, in his face, a mirror image emerged from history. A reflection, only sharper and coarser than my own. A reflection before centuries of manipulation.

As he passed, he did not recongnise himself. Shadowy imperfections did not distinguish me from the perfect faces in the crowd.

I fell in tightly behind myself.

Finally, he spoke.

His voice was void of electricity, vulnerable in the noisy humming background of the once fragrant city.

Upon hearing the shorter man, the couple reflexively turned. She responded with a warning look that told me she knew his past.

My heart pounded as I realized that two of the three people in front of me shared everything, except time, and the subsequent arbitrariness of bone sizes and skin defects.

The two men were one; we were all one. Each from a different period, far-apart, and each romantically arrested by the one woman who first died in the shorter man's life and then reincarnated, multiple times, to be the taller man's lover.

Detached, yet enthralled, I watched my past and my future. I witnessed their mutual resentment; the ache of this caused further bitterness and fear.

He recited her promise — before even her dark eyelashes became completely still she had said in the next life and the next and the next and many others she would still be his.

He refused to acknowledge her monotonous adherence to her sacred last promise. He did not understand his share of her was ultimately due.

Now a wasted stranger and traveler from a long-gone past, he shuddered with unreciprocated ardor.

Now, any minute, any second, he would break down and draw out the pistol he possessed. Being beaten in love by oneself was immoral, unbearable.

I heard three shots. And I was back to the scene that had enchanted me from the beginning.

 

~END~

 

*This story first appeared in Hong Kong Whodunnits, March 2007, pp. 156-163