Home > The Time Traveler's Wife(9)

The Time Traveler's Wife(9)
Audrey Niffenegger

"Yeah, it does. I bet I can guess your favorite bird."

He shakes his head and smiles.

"What'll you bet?"

He looks down at himself in the T-Rex T-shirt and shrugs. I know the feeling.

"How about this: if I guess you get to eat a cookie, and if I can't guess you get to eat a cookie?"

He thinks it over and decides this would be a safe bet. I open the book to Flamingo. Henry laughs.

"Am I right?" "Yes!"

It's easy to be omniscient when you've done it all before. "Okay, here's your cookie. And I get one for being right. But we have to save them 'til we're done looking at the book; we wouldn't want to get crumbs all over the bluebirds, right?"

"Right!" He sets the Oreo on the arm of the chair and we begin again at the beginning and page slowly through the birds, so much more alive than the real thing in glass tubes down the hall.

"Here's a Great Blue Heron. He's really big, bigger than a flamingo. Have you ever seen a hummingbird? I saw some today!"

"Here in the museum?"

"Uh-huh."

"Wait 'til you see one outside—they're like tiny helicopters, their wings go so fast you just see a blur...." Turning each page is like making a bed, an enormous expanse of paper slowly rises up and over. Henry stands attentively, waits each time for the new wonder, emits small noises of pleasure for each Sandhill Crane, American Coot, Great Auk, Pileated Woodpecker. When we come to the last plate, Snow Bunting, he leans down and touches the page, delicately stroking the engraving. I look at him, look at the book, remember, this book, this moment, the first book I loved, remember wanting to crawl into it and sleep.

"You tired?"

"Uh-huh."

"Should we go?" Okay. I close Birds of America, return it to its glass home, open it to Flamingo, shut the case, lock it. Henry jumps off the chair and eats his Oreo. I return the felt to the desk and push the chair in. Henry turns out the light, and we leave the library. We wander, chattering amiably of things that fly and things that slither, and eating our Oreos. Henry tells me about Mom and Dad and Mrs. Kim, who is teaching him to make lasagna, and Brenda, whom I had forgotten about, my best pal when I was little until her family moved to Tampa, Florida, about three months from now. We are standing in front of Bushman, the legendary silverback gorilla, whose stuffed magnificence glowers at us from his little marble stand in a first floor hallway, when Henry cries out, and staggers forward, reaching urgently for me, and I grab him, and he's gone. The T-shirt is warm empty cloth in my hands. I sigh, and walk upstairs to ponder the mummies for a while by myself. My young self will be home now, climbing into bed. I remember, I remember. I woke up in the morning and it was all a wonderful dream. Mom laughed and said that time travel sounded fun, and she wanted to try it, too. That was the first time.

FIRST DATE, TWO

Friday, September 23, 1977 (Henry is 36, Clare is 6)

Henry: I'm in the Meadow, waiting. I wait slightly outside the clearing, naked, because the clothes Clare keeps for me in a box under a stone are not there; the box isn't there either, so I am thankful that the afternoon is fine, early September, perhaps, in some unidentified year. I hunker down in the tall grass. I consider. The fact that there is no box full of clothes means that I have arrived in a time before Clare and I have met. Perhaps Clare isn't even born yet. This has happened before, and it's a pain; I miss Clare and I spend the time hiding naked in the Meadow, not daring to show myself in the neighborhood of Clare's family. I think longingly of the apple trees at the western edge of the Meadow. At this time of year there ought to be apples, small and sour and munched by deer, but edible. I hear the screen door slam and I peer above the grass. A child is running, pell mell, and as it comes down the path through the waving grass my heart twists and Clare bursts into the clearing. She is very young. She is oblivious; she is alone. She is still wearing her school uniform, a hunter green jumper with a white blouse and knee socks with penny loafers, and she is carrying a Marshall Field's shopping bag and a beach towel. Clare spreads the towel on the ground and dumps out the contents of the bag: every imaginable kind of writing implement. Old ballpoint pens, little stubby pencils from the library, crayons, smelly Magic Markers, a fountain pen. She also has a bunch of her dad's office stationery. She arranges the implements and gives the stack of paper a smart shake, and then proceeds to try each pen and pencil in turn, making careful lines and swirls, humming to herself. After listening carefully for a while I identify her humming as the theme song of "The Dick Van Dyke Show."

I hesitate. Clare is content, absorbed. She must be about six; if it's September she has probably just entered first grade. She's obviously not waiting for me, I'm a stranger, and I'm sure that the first thing you learn in first grade is not to have any truck with strangers who show up naked in your favorite secret spot and know your name and tell you not to tell your mom and dad. I wonder if today is the day we are supposed to meet for the first time or if it's some other day. Maybe I should be very silent and either Clare will go away and I can go munch up those apples and steal some laundry or I will revert to my regularly scheduled programming, I snap from my reverie to find Clare staring straight at me. I realize, too late, that I have been humming along with her.

"Who's there?" Clare hisses. She looks like a really pissed off goose, all neck and legs. I am thinking fast,

"Greetings, Earthling," I intone, kindly.

"Mark! You nimrod!" Clare is casting around for something to throw, and decides on her shoes, which have heavy, sharp heels. She whips them off and does throw them. I don't think she can see me very well, but she lucks out and one of them catches me in the mouth. My lip starts to bleed.

"Please don't do that." I don't have anything to staunch the blood, so I press my hand to my mouth and my voice comes out muffled. My jaw hurts.

"Who is it?" Now Clare is frightened, and so am I.

"Henry. It's Henry, Clare. I won't hurt you, and I wish you wouldn't throw anything else at me." "Give me back my shoes. I don't know you. Why are you hiding?" Clare is glowering at me. I toss her shoes back into the clearing. She picks them up and stands holding them like pistols. "I'm hiding because I lost my clothes and I'm embarrassed. I came a long way and I'm hungry and I don't know anybody and now I'm bleeding."

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