Authors: Gene Doucette
“Talking. I can suggest a… oh you didn’t ask that. You were going to but then you didn’t, I see it’s gone now.”
I was deeply confused. “What’s gone?” I asked. “I don’t understand. I
going to ask about a recommendation. I saw you reading—”
He said the word at the same time I did, and then we both stopped speaking for a little while.
“I’m sorry,” he said again. He was concentrating so mightily that he was breaking out in a sweat.
“I think you’re a little confused,” I said, which was an understatement. Sixty thousand years ago we knew the basics of conversation involved taking turns uttering things, and we were only grunting and pointing most of the time. He didn’t seem to have even this much down.
“I am trying,” he said, after another longish pause. “I am trying to have the conversation we are supposed to have without interrupting it and turning it into a conversation we almost had but didn’t quite. I have had so many of those, but this one I have to get right.”
“I see,” I said, although I did not. “Well, I am Reginald Bates.”
“Reginald Bates. Reginald Bates.”
“Yes, you have it.”
“I have it. Reginald Bates. Not your only name.”
It was the only name anyone there knew me by, but he wasn’t wrong. “That’s the name I’m giving you,” I said.
“Yes. I have only one. One name. You’re going to kill me.”
“I’m sorry, I went ahead, I’m trying so hard not to, you were going to ask why it was important I got this conversation right, you were going to say it after I introduced myself, but then I went ahead and now we’re out of order, yes we are, we’re… but you are, or if not you… you’ll be there, it might be you it’s hard to see but you will have a sword.”
I was thinking I owed Joanne an apology.
“Why would I kill you?” I asked. “We’ve only just met.”
“Not now, not now you can do it later after and I’m ready not now. Forget I told you that, can you do that? I try and forget the future and it doesn’t work but I can make it so it doesn’t happen and then it’s the future that forgets and not me. Can you forget that or is it too late?”
“It’s too late.”
“It’s too late, I know.”
“And you haven’t introduced yourself yet.”
He took a deep breath and steadied himself on the arm of the leather chair, as if the room were tipping dangerously to the side. “I’m John Corrigan,” he managed to say. “And I look forward to dying.”
* * *
“I told you,” Joanne said the next day, after I described my encounter. I omitted the curious prediction of his death at my hands. “He’s in awful shape. Should be in asylum but papa won’t have it.”
“Why is that?”
“Saved his life, so he says. Mr. Corrigan used to be a soldier, and I guess he did an important thing in an important battle and saved important people like my father. I don’t really understand how. Papa can tell it better. Every time I hear the story it makes less sense.”
From where we were sitting we could see Corrigan on the lawn, in his chair and reading the book he took out of the library the night before. It was possible he could hear us but gave no indication.
“I find that hard to imagine. He doesn’t look like what I would call a great warrior.” As I said this, at the edge of the trees, a goblin named Hsu appeared. He
a great warrior, until I saw him die eight hundred years earlier. I ignored him, and he disappeared again.
“Nor do you, sir, but I’m told it took a dozen men to secure you when the panic struck.”
“Fair point. Although I was told it was no more than five.”
was also not the most flattering description, but I let it go.
“As I said, the story makes less sense each time I hear it, but a summary would be that everyone was going one way, and he convinced some of them to go another way instead, and all who went with him survived.”
“That seems less an act of heroism than prudence.”
“It does, except to hear father explain, the way Mr. Corrigan brought them was tactical lunacy. I have not been to war and so can only pretend to understand that. Perhaps you should ask papa when he returns.”
“I could also ask Mr. Corrigan.”
“You can certainly try.”
* * *
Later that afternoon I did try. I found my way off the veranda and onto the lawn, located a vacant chair, and put it down facing Mr. Corrigan at an angle that still afforded me a view of the woods. In the event they began marching toward me I would still be a witness to it.
I sat and looked at him, and waited. He was reading his book, but also not quite reading, as he was no doubt aware of my presence. Not speaking—and not planning to speak—appeared to be my best recourse given his difficulty with dialogue. Unfortunately, that also made it hard to have a conversation.
I wondered if he was a prophet.
I don’t believe there’s such a thing as psychic powers, much in the same way I firmly believe there is no such thing as magic. I’ve witnessed things that lacked a rational explanation and that were ascribed to magic contemporaneously, but eventually a non-magical explanation was reached. Sometimes it took a dozen generations before that explanation was made plain, and since I’m the only one who can wait that long I could understand the strength of the magical argument, however ultimately misguided. I have likewise found that psychic abilities tend more often than not to be the product of a good series of guesses.
The closest thing to a real psychic I’ve ever come across was an oracle.
oracles, rather. The ones in Delphi. They had a limited ability to see future events, but that ability was tied to a drug-induced altered state that was controllable in the sense that once they recovered from the drug the ability went away. It was very difficult to attain that state and harder still to stay there, and the things they had to say were exceedingly cryptic as a consequence. That said, those cryptic statements
predictions of the future, and they were accurate. They were also unhelpful most of the time because interpreting the predictions correctly was just about impossible.
Oracles are still around, even if Delphi doesn’t have any more of them. I’ve met one or two women—they always seem to be women—who have the ability, and there are probably a lot more than that. But since at minimum one needs to be immoderately stoned to make an oracular prediction, a lot of folks never discover that they have this talent.
Then there are prophets. Prophets are a lot like oracles in that they can also see the future, but they don’t need to be in an altered state for it. That sounds great except for the most part they
seeing that future, and this makes them mostly insane and largely ignored by the people who should be listening to them. Prophets tend to die young, because they’re really hard to be around and don’t have a problem telling important people when they’re being assholes.
Prophets can be either gender. The lucky ones end up attached to an organization that values them—religious groups, mainly—and the very lucky ones get a scribe to follow them around and write everything they say. A few parts of the Bible were written like this.
have been a prophet, but if so he was unlike any I’d ever met before. They don’t tend to be lucid for long enough to be soldiers, for starters. Also, most prophets can’t shut up for even a minute, which was the opposite of his problem. Finally, and most importantly, I had never heard an oracle or a prophet even attempt to predict his or her own future. They were very good at seeing everyone else’s, but their own tended to be opaque.
But if he wasn’t a prophet, I didn’t know what the other options were. Aside from madman.
* * *
He was the one to finally break the silence. He did so by closing his book, giving me his full attention, and sitting still for another five or six seconds, as he had the night before.
“I’m sorry I startled you last evening,” he said. “I get confused. It’s worse at the end of the day.”
“That’s all right,” I said. He was reacting to my words before they came out of my mouth, nodding affirmation. I decided to stick to simple declarative sentences for the moment. “Confused how? You see the future?”
He shifted in his chair. “I
That was different. “Whose future? You can predict? Like a prophet?”
“All futures within my senses. I see it all at once, and I can’t stop it. Your words, my words, they echo forward. Everything happens and will happen and is happening.”
I waited for a while before responding, not so much because I wasn’t sure what to say but because he seemed to need to hold conversations at this kind of pace.
“How far?” I asked.
“When I’m awake, as much as ten seconds. But it’s worse when I sleep. It can be days when I sleep.”
I’d heard of people having these, but never met one whose dreams were in any way accurate. They
them as accurate, sure, but that wasn’t very reliable.
If someone says, “I dreamed that would happen”
the fact, I didn’t put much stock into it. It’s the ones who tell you before something happens that you want to pay attention to. But not once had I encountered a person who could make an accurate, sensible prediction based on a dream they’d had. Or, nothing more impressive than “I dreamed it was going to rain today and it is raining” which is about as useful as a sailor with a trick knee that can make the same prediction.
“Not dreams,” he said, oddly. “I don’t dream. I travel ahead.”
Another pause. I wondered if I was the only one he’d ever really explained this to. I didn’t know what made me think this, but it seemed right somehow. I was the person who could pick out the vampire or goblin or demon in a crowd; for whatever reason, the world’s hidden circus had always been drawn to me. Why would John Corrigan be an exception?
“Why are you telling me this?” I asked.
“Because you believe me. You are seeing bugaboos and cockatrices in the shadows, and you are older than the world, and I know this because in one of our futures you tell me. That future is gone now, because my words have killed it.”
“You believe a self-professed lunatic who claims he is older than the world?”
“Even if it is an invention of your psychosis, it is
invention, and not one I would have guessed on my own initiative. I choose to believe it, though. Madness, in my personal experience, is mostly the acceptance of a reality that is not commonly agreed-upon. Who are we to say which reality is valid?”
I am probably the world’s first pragmatist, so in that sense I couldn’t bring myself to agree completely on this point, but I could see where his perspective might bring him to such a conclusion. And as it related to me, his reasoning did deliver him to the right place.
“I see things that aren’t there, and you live through futures that haven’t happened. We are quite a pair, Mr. Corrigan.”
“Indeed, Mr. Bates. But it is neither the futures that do not happen, nor the things not there, which should concern us. It’s the future that does and the things which are.”
* * *
John and I spent a lot of time together after that second conversation. It seemed my presence helped him cope with his apparently incurable malady, and I found his condition so fascinating I briefly forgot about my own. The shadows still lurked at the edge of vision, but I was getting better at ignoring them. It didn’t make them go away, but I wasn’t preparing to defend myself against phantasms quite so often.
“What is it you find so terrible in the dark corners,” he asked me once, one evening when we both ended up back in the cavernous library.
I explained to him how it is for a man as old as I am to try and train himself not to react to his instinct. Prehistoric man—and it’s worthwhile to keep in mind that I am really just a semi-civilized caveman—was much further down the food chain than the modern iteration, so a shadow representing a predator was a real concern. I had thought that this would be a difficult thing for a nineteenth century Englishman to understand. John proved me wrong.
“You’ve been to war?” he asked.
“Many times, yes.” Usually by accident, almost never by choice. Again, excluding the caveman portion of my existence.
“No, not to this point.”
Guns—I tended to call them
long after everyone else stopped calling them that—had been around for a little while by then, but it wasn’t until recently that they had become common enough and reliable enough for use in warfare. The word
is relative, of course. These guns had to be loaded one shot at a time, were terribly inaccurate, obscenely loud, and could blow up in one’s face just as easily as not. It wasn’t until the repeating rifle came along some fifty or sixty years after this conversation with John that guns even made sense outside of light infantry. In other words, a hundred men with breech-loaded single shot rifles was a force to be reckoned with, but if you were one person with one gun you’d be better off getting a sword and learning how to use it.