by Jonathan Howard Sonnenberg
It’s impossible to say how long I’ve been living on the Rift. This is what I call it, though only to myself. No one else seems to notice it, to notice that anything has changed. None speak of how the streets collide in coarse seams like scars, the fresh cobbles unable to level with the ones shaken from their mortar by uncountable seasons. They ignore as well the staggered tides, high in one place and low in another. The waves crawl up the legs of the pier while only a couple hundred feet down the strand, they cower and recede towards the horizon, leaving the tidal zone bare so children can pick the clay for clams. Even the old fishermen ignore the way the sea ebbs and floods along stark faults, rising into sheer walls of calm, clear water. They are as heedless as the townspeople, who go about their business as they always have. They stride in and out of an arcade whose walls have yielded to the push of ancient tenements. They deliver checks to a bank bisected by a patch of prehistoric jungle. They chat at a bar torn apart by an airplane which fell empty from the sky. They sip coffee before a mound of bricks where a café has utterly imploded, crushed by another structure which appeared in its place—a structure which, judging by the fragments of its strange architecture, stands in the light of some day I will never see.
The teenagers, who carry their gazes as though they find fault with everything, merely skate around the rubble, practicing tricks on the uprooted lampposts and the railings of unevenly accreted staircases where steps have grown like tumors, at all angles. The street cleaners whistle distractedly as they sweep dust from around the fallen balconies and stray stones which litter the roads. I only wonder what poor souls tend the church bells, for at least one steeple is ringing at all times. I have learned to sleep through them, but they haunt me nevertheless. When I pass one as it rings, I want to turn my face up and cry “Can’t you hear them—all the others—ringing? Can’t you let it go? Come down and let the bells be silent!” I do not call out, however. I go about my day like all the rest, pretending that like them, I do not notice that when I round a certain corner, my hair changes color, or that when a stiff breeze blows, a single flag can be seen blowing in two directions at once, or that when it rains, one has only to step across the street, into a Sunnier day, and find that he is dry.
I was lucky to find that in the future, I keep my house. It is not perfectly familiar: The rooms are furnished with items I have not yet purchased, the walls are adorned with pictures of myself which I have not yet taken—and there is an urn on the mantle which I dare not examine. Still, I savor my solitude. Some of my neighbors must have been destined to live elsewhere, a horrible misfortune evident in the way multiple families will fill a small house, crowding sometimes dozens of people around an ordinary kitchen table at which they all should have been able to eat years apart—and all this while so many houses sit empty, their owners dead or not yet born, their deeds lost. But what can anyone do? We each have only one key.
Most days, I work at the library, which is still as it was when I am a young man, before I would start to work at the university. Most of the university, on the other side of town, is years later, in the days when I am a professor. No one complains that I come and go as I please, sometimes teaching my classes on one side of town, when the library is staffed with people much younger than me, and sometimes working at the library, when the university is still run by dinosaurs.
I am careful about how I cross town, aware that the market at its center is divided somewhere between my parents’ childhood and my death. Once, I was wary to cross to the latter side, where the baker tends his shop under a sign bearing the name of his infant granddaughter. I’ve grown accustomed to it, however. Surely, nothing worse can happen there than at the deli, which has not yet burned down during the riots my mother remembered from her teens.
Recently, I began teaching myself cartography from the books at the library and the university. Sometimes, selfishly, I even discussed cartography in class so that my students could help me work through the ideas with which I struggled. My hope (or my fantasy, perhaps) was that I could learn to rechart the city along its faults, that I could map the shape of the Rift. Already, I knew from my own daily routes where certain shifts lied, but I wanted to know everything. I was almost feeling ready to begin this project in earnest when I discovered, with the help of a university archivist, that the college of Anthropology possessed a nearly five-hundred-year-old map of the city, a monastic manuscript erased and redrawn every few decades until a hundred or so years ago. The palimpsest was a mere curiosity, at first, but I found that when I carried it from the college archives to my office, it changed; the town hall had been redrawn. I knew then that this was the document I needed, but I was not allowed to remove it from the university grounds.
Of course, I stole it. With great care, I carried the palimpsest all around the city, watching its illustrations change, fade, or disappear as I moved from one neighborhood to the next. As I did this, I noted which of the map’s sections were common between different times. In this way, I finally accomplished my goal. I had drawn a rough map of the city, partitioned into its times, and I had discovered that there was no center or symmetry to the Rift—at least not within the range of this chart. And it occurred to me that I did not know how to measure finer borders; that if my bed and my refrigerator, for example, were several days or even several minutes apart, I had no way of knowing or measuring it. I did not bother trying a watch because they all report the same time, and I had already learned that no amount of force can reset or stop one. It is the same way with the cars, whose engines are always running, even just left to idle overnight, as it is with the ever-luminous streetlights and the insomniac machines of the factory. It seems an almost perverse contradiction that such things should remain immortal while the palimpsest breathes as though alive, and while I continue to water my plants and require sleep—but I have no theories to offer explanation.
In my mind, only one course of action remains, and this is to leave. I have bought a car because of course, no trains anymore accord their fragmented schedules. (And where would they go, on those ruined tracks?) Tomorrow, I leave with my maps and my notebooks, though I have returned the old palimpsest. I apologize for its brief disappearance, but I am grateful for its help. If there is a perception that I have gone missing, too, I hope this letter will shed light on the subject. And I hope that, should my account be discovered after I write it or in some other distant time, it may serve to acknowledge what nothing else will.