I. The Time Traveler Embarks
I love the way you step back in time
without a backward glance,
as easy as stepping on a plane,
bags all packed, travel guides memorized, this foreign land
mapped out in your mind, familiar.
Cross the line, and you’re
not a twenty-first-century man at all,
but something quite different:
knowing how they thought and lived then
becomes simply thinking and living, these “props”
your rightful clothes and food.
For the duration, you believe
your wife actually stitched these homespun clothes,
baked your bread from scratch in a stone oven.
Saying farewell to me, you speak the truth:
“I’m off to the wars to strike a blow for freedom.”
I’ve seen your souvenirs–coins blackened with age and use,
the tattered flag you nearly died defending,
the scar from the stomach wound you would have died from,
had you stayed in that colonial age.
Instead, in my present, I rush you to the emergency room,
still in your colonial clothes. From your coat pocket
you press a letter into my hand, stained with your own blood,
smeared by the dirt of centuries.
The doctors stitch you up, neat as you strike your tent.
You’re well, at home, except
for the frost still biting a corner of your heart
from all the friends you lost at Valley Forge.
II. The Time Traveler Returns
You don’t kick back on weekends: you kick off,
trading sneakers for straight-last shoes,
strapping on bedroll, rifle, cooking pan,
grabbing your tent and poles to vault into the past.
It’s not that things were easier. You’re glad to come home,
cheerfully praising pure water, vaccines, toilets–
at least for the first twenty-four hours.
You swear you wouldn’t want to live there.
Things were terrible for slaves, the first nations, women, the poor.
Even the rich died “old” at half our span. Women were sacrificed
on the altar of birthing beds, worn down after seventeen trials,
the proliferation of babies essential because so few survived.
Maybe the air was cleaner high above, but here below
the cities reeked of coal, wood fires, excrement;
and swamp air bred yellow fever in close, stifled rooms.
Geography killed: those colorful, hand-drawn maps don’t show
crushing winters and too-short springs, scant harvests,
treks across trackless forests and snowy mountains,
parched, lost, eating our own kind.
Yet present life wearies you: lawyers, FBI, layoffs, recession,
pollution, extinction, starvation, epidemics, global warming.
You drag through the week, worrying
that there’s no future for anyone here, at the end of our planet.
We don’t know what’s next, but most of it looks bad. At best,
we might return to backyard gardens and bicycles, walk to our jobs,
build things with our own hands–while the luxuries you return for vanish
under the crush of surviving babies.
Whatever the hardships, the endless toil, the suffering,
the future was better there–because we had one.
We had the luxury of belief in our own immortality–
that inheritors would guard the human story;
that the human race would carry on.
So you grow restless when the intervals stretch between trips, elongating
till they snap you back. You salute goodbye in one ecstatic wave.
Your absence lengthens. You come back for work Mondays,
then Tuesdays. I call in for you when I wake up alone.
You can return at any time you want, and yet
you’re skipping days, weeks. You spend your vacation there,
then work out a flex plan, avoiding the present by working
straight through to the moment you’ll leave again.
Soon it will be leave without pay, months, whole years.
There’s more gray at your temples each time I see you.
Will you be kind and scatter days through my life like a blessing?
When you’re here, you’re like a ghost already.
I know each time you return might be the last.
You might decide to stay in the past.
In the future, I might be dead.
But I clutch hope like the presents you bring home,
praying with all my might that I don’t know the future:
that humans will smarten up in time to salvage something–
that the next time you come back,
you’ll take me with you.
BIO: Adele Gardner lives with a closet TARDIS, five cats, five birds, a harpsichord, and two friendly guitars. As Lyn C. A. Gardner, she’s had 218 poems and stories in Strange Horizons, Daily Science Fiction, and Penumbra, among others. She chaired The 2012 Rhysling Anthology. Sam’s Dot published her poetry collection, Dreaming of Days in Astophel.