No Enemy But Time - Michael Bishop Page 0,1

I happened to be. I was trying to learn more about them, though, primarily by going to the library and poring over magazines devoted to either travel or natural history. With Hugo absent, in fact, the three of us still in Cheyenne seemed to be riding a dozen centrifugal interests outward from the nuclear heart of the family.

My joke? Well, right before Christmas that year I went to the closet where we kept our slide equipment and removed the boxes containing the trays. Back in my room I spent a good thirty minutes randomly rearranging slides, leaving gaps in the sequence and slotting several transparencies sideways or upside-down. “John-John Bundled for October Walk” ended up following a topsy-turvy “Jeannette Enjoying Beach at Cádiz,” while “Anna Watching Semana Santa Procession in Seville” gave way to a sideways-slotted “Grandfather Rivenbark Checking Out Customers at Old Van Luna Grocery.” Then I returned the trays to their boxes and the boxes to their closet shelves.

On Christmas Eve Jeannette told Anna to fetch the slides and set up for another trip into the Monegal Family Past. Anna, now fourteen, obeyed, and we gathered in the dining room. I turned off the lights, Anna clicked her magic changer, and a kind of wacky chaos ensued.

Jeannette’s reaction to my vandalism was not what I had expected. After muttering “What the hell” into her cupped hand, she gave me an appraising look, put her fingers into my wiry hair, and pulled my head into the pit of her arm. Although she would not let go, I could tell she was not angry, merely amused by the form my defiance had taken. Anna was the one who got angry. She railed about the time it would take to restore the slides to their sacrosanct order, and she refused to continue the show.

“Damn you, Johnny-boy!” she exclaimed. “You’re going to straighten this out yourself. Don’t expect any help from me.”

“Oh, Anna, it’s all right,” our mother replied. “Go on to the next one.”

“But, Mamma, he’s mixed them all up.”

Jeannette laughed. “But we know what’s what, don’t we? Let’s just run through the lot and enjoy them as they come up.”

“You can’t enjoy them. Somebody who’d never seen them before wouldn’t know what was going on. They don’t tell a story anymore, they’re just bits and pieces of . . . of one big mess.”

“But, Anna, the story’s in our heads. It won’t hurt to show them out of sequence. Let’s not worry about some hypothetical somebody who doesn’t even know who we are.”

“Mamma, I’m not going to put them back the way they belong.”

“I don’t want you to. I’ll do it. It won’t be hard. They’re all numbered, anyway. So let’s just go ahead, all right?”

Sullenly, then, Anna showed the slides in all their helter-skelter, heels-over-head, gap-ridden glory, and I was not scolded. And Jeannette had spoken truthfully: The story was in our heads. Each slide evoked its own context. I paid attention to the program—the immutable program implicit even in this crazy shuffling—as I had not paid attention to any of our slides in a very long time. The Monegal Family Experience had taken on new life. My shuffling of images managed to convey nuances that linear sequence could not really communicate. Each click of the changer was a revision and a gloss.

I put my head on my mother’s breast believing that she had finally given in to the randomness of “reality.” But then I recalled her saying, “They’re all numbered, anyway,” and I saw in the corner of each cardboard mounting the numerals she had scrupulously, minutely, inked there. These were a hedge against forgetfulness, entropy, chaos—but they seriously undercut my appreciation of my mother’s surprising tolerance of my prank. It was easy to be generous of spirit when you could instantly (or at least quickly) reorder the world to your liking. An uncharitable insight on a chilly Christmas Eve in Wyoming.

Later, when I was a teenager, I rebelled in a more vehement way against another of Jeannette’s ill-advised attempts to impose order on my random experience. And both of us suffered.

Chapter One

Lolitabu National Park, Zarakal

July 1986 to February 1987

FOR NEARLY EIGHT MONTHS JOSHUA LIVED in a remote portion of Zarakal’s Lolitabu National Park, where an old man of the Wanderobo tribe taught him how to survive without tap water, telephones, or cans of imported tuna. Although hunting was illegal in the country’s national parks, President Tharaka granted a special dispensation, for the success of the White Sphinx