“The Unicorn at the End of Time” by Ronald W. Pies

When everything is told,
Saw I an old man young
Or a young man old?
—W. B. Yeats

Noah Lebensdauer had shown up at the tail end of the book sale, when the library staff had already begun packing away the unsold items. Three days—or was it three weeks?–out of the hospital, he was still regaining his footing, guarding himself against the risk of another fall, gingerly placing one foot ahead of the other in a widely-spaced gait. Wide-track Pontiac:  those words came to mind. “You’re balanced with less lean and sway,” the ads had read. It was 1959, Lebensdauer was sixteen and learning to drive in the family’s new Pontiac Catalina, his father in the passenger seat, anxiously tapping his foot as they careened around a hairpin turn (were these braking maneuvers by proxy?). It was September, 1959, and Eisenhower had just met with Khrushchev, who had a conniption after being barred from Disneyland for “security reasons.” Now, in another September, sixty years later, and five years after his wife had died, Lebensdauer struggled to understand how the distance between the sixteen year-old boy and his ataxic, present-day self had been traversed in what seemed like an eye blink: einen augenblick, as his Austrian-born father would have put it.                                                            

And how, exactly, had he gotten from Beth Israel Hospital back to his apartment in Brookline? A cab ride? An ambulance?  He had a vague recollection of his daughter, Joanie, flying in from California. Had she driven him home? He remembered the doctors saying something about “a blood clot on the brain”—but Lebensdauer had no recollection whatever of having been discharged from the hospital.

All his life, he had cherished books—the heft of them in his lap; the scent of vanilla and almonds that rose up from old books as the cellulose and lignin in their pages broke down. His father, a no-nonsense mathematician, treated books with respect—but his mother, Malkah, revered them. She used to quote an old rabbinic saying: “If a book is shelved upside down, one is to turn the book right side up and kiss it.” His mother had died of a stroke when Noah was only eleven, and his upbringing had been left largely in the hands of assorted nannies and au pairs.

Over the course of his career, Lebensdauer had amassed a library that would have rivaled that of a Renaissance prince: he once had calculated the number of volumes at just under five thousand. “One of these days,” his wife, Hannah, used to warn him (wagging a finger in mock irritation), “your bookshelves are going to go crashing through the floor!” Yet she had always kept her eyes peeled for any used or antique volumes that might be on sale, presenting them lovingly-wrapped for her husband’s birthdays.                                                                   

But in recent years, Lebensdauer’s visits to bookstores and library book sales had acquired a bittersweet taste—the books themselves having become a kind of silent rebuke. After forty-five years as a professor of Celtic mythology, he had managed to author a mere two books—both on the archetype of the unicorn.  Although Lebensdauer was regarded as the “Dean of Celtic Studies” among his academic colleagues, the sales of his books had bottomed out over twenty years ago, and both books were long out of print. It seemed that–aside from a few musty scholars in tattered tweeds—there were very few people vitally interested in the many-layered archetype of the unicorn, especially its connection with the doomed quest for perfection and the ineffable fluidity of time. Tenure had eluded Lebensdauer at Harvard, and, in his later years, he had been relegated to the role of “adjunct associate professor” at various small colleges in the Boston area, most of which were now filing for bankruptcy.

As he wandered among the tables laden with cardboard boxes of used books, Lebensdauer noticed a young man combing through tattered volumes of poetry. Viewed from the side, there was something familiar about the youth, whom Lebensdauer took to be in his early-to-mid twenties. But when the young man suddenly turned to face him, Lebensdauer gasped, pitched backwards and nearly lost his balance. The teal-blue, Harris Tweed jacket; the close-cropped beard and curly, auburn hair; the slightly stooped, quasi-rabbinical posture: they were all of a piece. It was Lebensdauer in the very flesh, some fifty years ago. Noticing the old man’s blanched face and unsteadiness on his feet, the young man quickly approached Ledbensdauer and grasped his elbow as if to support him.

 “Are you alright, sir?” the young man asked, in a voice that once belonged to Lebensdauer. “You look like you, well—to traffic in cliché—just saw a ghost!”  

Lebensdauer, recovering from his shock, felt a twinge of amused recognition: the youth’s slightly pedantic self-editing was vintage Lebensdauer. He turned away from the young man momentarily to collect his thoughts. Even in his childhood, the au pairs used to call their young charge, “The Little Professor.” Yet he had not always seen himself as a pedagogue, much less as a pedant. In his twenties, Lebensdauer had applied himself to the reading and writing of poetry, gravitating to the lyric poetry of Yeats and Rilke. He even imagined himself living out that hoariest of artistic clichés: the starving poet living in some Parisian garret, writing feverish, mantic verse in the small hours of the night.  A series of rejected manuscripts had laid that self-deluding claptrap to rest. His father–a well-respected scientist with a faculty position at MIT–had pressed his son to “do somesing useful and practical vit your life. Somesing that vill pay the rent!” The elder Lebensdauer had pushed his son to go into one of the sciences, but had come around to the view that teaching Celtic mythology was at least marginally better than rotting in poverty as a poet.

After a few moments of reflection, Lebensdauer turned to address the young man. Of course, there would have to be a rational explanation for the youth’s appearance. Yes, the resemblance to Lebensdauer’s younger self was remarkable, even astonishing—but surely, given the gene pool, it was merely a coincidental phenomenon. Still, Lebensdauer would have liked to ask this alter ego many questions. What sort of life was he leading? Was he happy? Was he merely a reader of poetry, or a poet himself? If the latter, was he able to “pay the rent”?  But whoever or whatever had grasped his elbow was nowhere to be seen. Instead, Lebensdauer’s gaze fell upon the library workers who, upon his arrival, had been packing up the unsold books. Now, inexplicably, they were unpacking the very same boxes and restoring the books to their places on the tables.

Disoriented and perplexed, Lebensdauer reached into his vest pocket, only to find that his watch was missing—the vintage Swiss watch his father had bequeathed to him, over twenty years ago. Lebensdauer cursed silently, figuring he must have left the watch at the hospital.  A fragment of memory suddenly floated up: something about a “subdural” and the flickering image of a giant, white donut with a narrow table in the middle. Lebensdauer scanned the crowd for someone in authority, and approached an attractive young woman wearing an identification tag that read, “Library Volunteer.” She looked to be in her early twenties, and seemed vaguely familiar to Lebensdauer. She smiled as Lebensdauer drew closer, and asked how she might be of help. The scent of her perfume—jasmine and orange blossom—struck a chord of remembrance in him.

“Excuse me, Miss, but I’m a bit confused,” Lebensdauer said anxiously. “I thought your sale was about to end when I arrived, but now I see people unpacking the books they had packed up. Also, I can’t seem to find my watch, and I wonder…?”

The young woman chuckled pleasantly, and said, in a melodic voice that Lebensdauer seemed to recognize, “Oh, don’t worry, Professor. Many people are confused when they first get here.”

Lebensdauer was surprised to be addressed as “Professor”, though he supposed he looked the part, dressed, as he was, in a fusty, three-piece, woolen suit, faintly redolent of Prince Albert pipe tobacco. (He had read recently that the Prince Albert brand was about to be discontinued, and had purchased ten 14-ounce cans as a hedge).

“Well, Miss,” he replied, “I’m not sure I understand. What time, exactly, does the book sale end?”

The young woman smiled patiently, and replied with just a trace of—of what, precisely? Lebensdauer was not sure if it was sorrow or pity–or perhaps the vaguely patronizing tone a native speaker might use when addressing a bumbling, foreign tourist.

“You see, Professor, we don’t adhere very strictly to schedules here. You might say that time here is, well, very fluid.”

Lebensdauer became flustered and felt a surge of anger. What sort of game was this young woman playing? Time “very fluid,” indeed!

 “Well, excuse me, young lady, but really–this is quite absurd! You say, “here”. Where is “here,” if not Brookline, Massachusetts!?  I’m just asking how much time I have to browse, and whether…”

Now the young woman was frowning and broke into Lebensdauer’s speech. “Sir, with all due respect, perhaps the gentleman over there, in the “Science” section, would be better at explaining the situation to you. Now, if you’ll excuse me…”

Lebensdauer glanced quickly in the direction the young woman had indicated. He saw an old man bending over a book, vigorously thumbing through the pages. When Lebensdauer turned his head back toward where the young woman had been standing, she was gone. Shaking his head in frustration and anger, he decided he had nothing to lose by approaching the old man, whose face was now buried in a book. When Lebensdauer got closer, the old man slowly raised his head. He appeared to be roughly in his mid-70s, sporting a mop of unruly white hair, and wearing the cramped and furrowed expression of someone bent on proving the Collatz Conjecture, or some such mathematical conundrum. He squinted at Lebensdauer behind a pair of wire-rim glasses, and, in voice and accent all too familiar, said, “Do I know you, sir?

Lebensdauer felt as if the blood in his veins had congealed. A sick queasiness in his bowels made him fear a bout of incontinence, and he stood frozen in stupefied incomprehension. What he was seeing was patently impossible: the figure standing before him was his father, dead now more than twenty years. Before Lebensdauer could find his voice, the man spoke.

 “So, it is you, after all! Vell, vell, you have aged a bit, haven’t you? And are you still wasting your time vit that history nonsense, or have you finally become a productive and worthwhile citizen?”

It seemed as if hours had passed before Lebensdauer could bring himself to speak. Finally, all he could manage was a barely audible, “But how is this possible?”

The old man snickered and his nostrils flared ominously. “How is it possible?  Dummkopf! If you had studied mathematical physics, as I had advised, you might be able to answer that yourself!  So: vhat is the mathematics of time travel? Read Tippet and Tsang! It is all a matter of Traversable Acausal Retrograde Domains in Space-time! TARDIS!”

By now, Lebensdauer’s head felt like it had been stuffed with alcohol-soaked cotton. He noticed, as well, a sort of shimmering–a translucence, really– in his hands. Suddenly, he felt a finger lightly tapping his shoulder. When he turned his head, he saw before him, smiling broadly, the young woman he had encountered earlier–though her appearance had changed in a subtle but astonishing way. Whereas earlier, Lebensdauer had found something vaguely familiar in the woman’s voice and appearance, and in the scent of her perfume, he now recognized her fully, and with the force of a lightning strike. There was no question: this was his wife, Hannah, as she had appeared in her late 20s, when the couple married.

“Now, now, don’t look so surprised, Noah!” she said brightly. “I knew you would find me.”

Lebensdauer gazed in grief, longing and amazement at this incarnation of his fondest memories. And, for the first time, he began seriously to doubt his sanity.  

“But, Hannah, my love—how can…? Am I going insane, or am I…Are we…? He could not bring himself to utter the question. 

“Stop fretting, Noah! The important thing is, you are here and we are together. And I have something to show you that I think you will remember.”

She held out a book that Lebensdauer instantly recognized: the first (and only) edition of his magnum opus: The Structure and Function of the Unicorn Archetype in Celtic Myth. Lebensdauer took the book from her and opened it to the inscription he had penned more than 40 years ago: From Noah to Hannah, the love of my life, now and forever.

She drew close to him and took his hand in hers. “I was so proud of you, darling, and I still am. Your first book, and such a lovely inscription. And I have missed you so! But now, finally, we have all the time in the world.”

Ronald W. Pies, MD is a physician, poet and fiction writer. He is the author of the novel, The Director of Minor Tragedies; and the sequel, The Shepherd of Lost Children. He has published short stories in The Bellevue Literary Review, the Rockhurst Review and other journals. Dr. Pies is also the author of several works in the areas of philosophy and comparative religion. He lives near Boston with his wife, Nancy.

Image: “Unicorn Market” by Matthew Klein

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