I don’t know about you but when I find myself somewhere I am not supposed to be, my first impulse is to not be. To run. To get the hell out of there. In this instance, however, where would that be, exactly? And where was I going to go? Based on the way the stranger in the crowd was staring at me, I needed to figure that out because I was definitely in the wrong place at the wrong time. And I was not invisible.
We want rules and laws; we seek them out, demand them, would make them up even if they did not exist. A child bangs a cup on the table to determine the rules of engagement in this world, the laws of solidity, throws food to develop theories of aerodynamics, axioms of weight and mass, grabs and bites toys to test the way the world works, tastes, bends, reacts. She reaches for your nose and although flexible, it does not come off; she sucks your finger and no milk issues forth. These are things worth remembering. This I can move and has potential; that resists my effort and is of lesser importance. Reality thus achieves dimension, value, certainty. So what then, if suddenly and without warning, the cup you’re banging so satisfactorily and loudly sinks through the tabletop like a spoon into pudding? What do you do if the Cheerios tossed in the air remain there obstinate, suspended, defying gravity? How do you react when the plush lamb thrown from on high stands up and walks away?
I had not been falling all that frequently, you understand; I was a child testing the system, seeking out the limits, searching for the parameters governing the process. As I’ve said, the trick was falling in the first place; coming back had never been a problem. Coming to was more like it, not unlike starting awake from the edge of nodding off. Or like catching your breath, shaking off a daydream. In truth, mostly what I had experienced, up to this point, was more akin to watching a movie playing on someone else’s laptop, about as vivid as glimpsing an episode of a show you’ve seen before but now on the iPad of the stranger in the seat next to you. As substantial as that, at an inconvenient angle perhaps, distorted yet familiar and real but without depth or substance except for the memory and then you catch yourself and look away.
Except I could not look away, and now the stranger’s hat was not a black bowler but a variation of the cowboy hat the Canadian Mounted Police wear, and his eyes were hidden by the reflecting mirrors of aviator sunglasses and I did the only thing I could think of doing. I ran.
I don’t recommend it. If you ever fall, don’t run. It’s probably one of the most important rules of the process I was to regret not discovering sooner, and yet one more time common sense dictated I do precisely the opposite. I can hardly be blamed; it is not an unnatural desire to deny: ask me if I did something wrong and my first inclination will be to say no. Likewise, tell me to stop and I’m almost certain to keep right on going. Hence police pursuits that end badly.
What happens when you take action in an alternate time and place, however, as I would come to understand, is that you mimic the movement of the stream or current you find yourself in; you provoke a comparable energy. So I broke into a panicked run in Cairo Illinois in February of 1904 and consequently the Time continuum rose up to match that action, or complement it, you might say, and the tabletop turned to pudding, Time became fluid, history rippled, events fell off at my touch.
I had never seen a Civil War gun boat before, but I saw them then: half submerged tanks, menacing metal alligators floating in the muddy brown confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. And then Time shifted again like a blow to the head and I heard and smelled an angry mob headed my way, sweat and rage like kerosene and burning rubber: this was the crowd of men and women who pursued and lynched Will James, a black man accused of murder in Cairo in 1909, tearing his body apart, setting fire to his remains and leaving his severed head on a pole in the town square for days afterward. One of the worst lynchings in the history of America. And I could tell you Cairo is a terrible place that fell into a decline as a result after that, because of the vicious hate-filled stagnant air of the place, or because of the decline of river traffic and years of flooding and the relocation of business and commerce but none of this meant anything to me in the moment, nothing mattered except the fear in my lungs, propelling me away across space and years, heaving, stumbling terrified into the jumbled darkness of the past.
I can tell you this because I survived. But I can’t tell you how, or how long I was gone because no time elapsed on this side, in this reality. Perhaps you have dreamed you needed to escape some terrible danger and your legs would not cooperate, you felt like you were trapped in mud up to your waist. Or you were drowning which seemed to take your breath away and seemed to last forever, and then you woke gasping in the thin light before dawn.
It was like that.