A mysterious visitor comes to see three desperate human beings: an astronomer in his prison cell the night before his execution for the ultimate heresy; a paleolinguist with a wasted life behind her who has been forgotten by everybody in her dusty basement office; an old watchmaker with a dark, painful spot in his past that has haunted him for decades. The visitor has a unique but ambiguous time-gift for each one of them. His true identity is only known by an insane artist locked up in her asylum atelier. But who would believe an artist in this world, even if she were not insane?
Runner-up for the 1998 NIN Award, by a World Fantasy Award-winning author
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Read an Excerpt
(Writings from an Unbound Europe)
By Zoran Zivkovic
Translated by Alice Copple-Toic
NORTHWESTERN UNIVERSITY PRESS
Copyright © 1997 Zoran Zivkovic.
Translation copyright © 2000 Northwestern University Press.
All rights reserved.
HE HAD TO ESCAPE FROM THE MONASTERY.
He should not be there at all; he had never wanted to become a monk. He'd said that to his father, but his father had been unrelenting, as usual, and his mother did not have the audacity to oppose him, even though she knew that her son's inclinations and talents lay elsewhere. The monks had treated him badly from the beginning. They had abused and humiliated him, forced him to do the dirtiest jobs, and when their nocturnal visits commenced he could stand it no longer.
He set off in flight, and a whole throng of pudgy, unruly brothers started after him, screaming hideously, torches and mantles raised, certain he could not get away. His legs became heavier and heavier as he attempted to reach the monastery gate, but it seemed to be deliberately withdrawing, becoming more distant at every step.
And then, when they had just about reached him, the monks suddenly stopped in their tracks. Their obscene shouts all at once turned into frightened screams of distress. They began to cross themselves feverishly, pointing to something in front of him, but all he could see there was the wide-open gate and the clear night sky stretching beyond it. The gate no longer retreated before him, and once again he felt light and fast.
He was filled with tremendous relief when he reached the arched vault of the great gate. He knew they could no longer reach him, that he had gotten away He stepped outside to meet the stars, but his foot did not alight on solid ground as it should have. It landed on something soft and squishy, and he started to sink as though he'd stepped in quicksand. He flailed his arms but could find no support.
He realized what he had fallen into by the terrible stench. It was the deep pit at the bottom of the monastery walls; the cooks threw the unusable entrails of slaughtered animals into it every day through a small, decayed wooden door. The cruel priests often threatened the terrified boy that he, too, would end up there if he did not satisfy their aberrant desires. The pit certainly should not have been located at the entrance to the holy edifice, but this utmost sacrilege for some reason seemed neither strange nor unfitting.
He began to sink rapidly into the thick tangle of bloated intestines, and when they almost reached his shoulders he became terror stricken. Just a few more moments and he would sink completely into this slimy morass. Unable to do anything else, he raised his desperate eyes, and there, illuminated by the reflection of the distant torches, he saw the silhouette of a naked, bony creature squatting on the edge of the pit, looking at him maliciously and snickering.
He did not see the horns and tail, but even without these marks he had no trouble understanding who it was; now that it was too late, he realized whom the terrified monks had seen. He instinctively froze at this pernicious stare, suddenly wanting to disappear as soon as possible under the slimy surface and hide there. All at once the blood and stench stopped making him nauseous; now they seemed precious, like the last refuge before the most terrible of all fates.
And truly, when he had plunged completely into that watery substance, it turned out that it was not, after all, the discarded entrails of pigs, sheep, and goats, as it had seemed, but was a mother's womb, soft and warm. He curled up in it, knees under his chin, as endless bliss filled his being. No one could do anything to him here; he was safe, protected.
The illusion of paradise was not allowed to last very long, however. Demonic eyes, like a sharp awl, quickly pierced through the layers of extraneous flesh and reached his tiny crouched being. He tried to withdraw before them, going even deeper into the womb, to the very bottom, but his persecutor did not give up. The thin membrane that surrounded his refuge burst the moment he leaned his back against it, having nowhere else to go, and he fell outinto reality.
And with him, out of his dream, came the eyes that continued their piercing stare.
He could not see them in the almost total darkness, but their immaterial touch was almost palpable. Suddenly awake, he realized that someone else was with him in the cell. He had not heard him come in, even though the door squeaked terribly, since probably no one had thought to oil it in years. How strange for him to fall into such a deep sleep; the night before their execution, only the toughest criminals managed to sleep. They were not burdened by their conscience or the thought of impending death, and he certainly was not one of them.
He raised his head a bit and looked around, confused. Although he felt he was not alone, his heart started racing when he saw the shape of a large man sitting on the bare boards of the empty bed across from him. If not for the light from the weakly burning torch in the hall that slanted into the cell through a narrow slit in the iron-plated door, he would not have been able to see him at all. As it was, all he could make out clearly were the pale hands folded in his lap, while his head was completely in the shadows, as though missing.
He asked himself in wonder whom it could be. A priest, by all judgments. They were the only ones allowed to visit prisoners before they were taken to be executed. Had the hour struck already? He quickly looked up at the high window with its rusty bars, but there was no sign of daybreak. The night was pitch black, without moonlight, so the opening was shown only as a slightly paler rectangle of darkness compared to the interior of the cell.
He knew they would not take him to the stake before dawn, and so he stared at the immobile figure uncertainly. Why had he come already? Would they be burning him earlier, perhaps, before the rabble gathered? But that made no sense. It was for this senseless multitude that they organized the public execution of heretics, to show in the most impressive manner what awaited those who dared come into conflict with catechism. The sight of the condemned, his body tied or nailed to the stake, writhing in terrible agony while around him darted the fiery tongues of flame, had a truly discouraging effect on even the boldest and most rebellious souls.
Or maybe this was a final effort to try to get him to renounce his discovery. That would be the best outcome for the church, of course, but he did not have the slightest intention of helping it; on the contrary, had he come this far just to give up now? If that was what was going on, their efforts were in vain.
"You had a bad dream," said the unseen head.
The voice was unfamiliar. It was not someone he had already met during the investigation and trial. It sounded gentle, but this might easily be a trick. He was well acquainted with the hypocrisy of priests. His worst problems had been with those who seemed understanding and helpful and then suddenly showed their pitiless faces.
"Why do you think that?" asked the prisoner, stretching numbly on the dirty, worn blanket that was his only bedding.
"I watched you twitch restlessly in your sleep."
"You watched me in the total darkness?"
"Eyes get accustomed to the dark if they are in it long enough and can see quite well there."
"There are eyes and eyes. Some get accustomed to it, others don't. I got here because I refused to get accustomed to the dark."
The fingers in the lap slowly interlaced, and the prisoner suddenly realized that they looked ghostly pale because he was wearing white gloves. They were part of the church dignitaries' vestments, which meant that the man in the cell with him was not an ordinary priest who had been sent to escort him to the stake. So, it was not time yet.
"Do you think that you will dispel the darkness with the brilliance of your fiery stake?" His tone was not cynical; it sounded more compassionate.
"I don't know. I couldn't think of any other way."
"It is also the most painful way. You have had the opportunity to witness death by burning at the stake, isn't that right?"
"Yes, of course. While I was at the monastery they took us several times to watch the execution of poor women accused of being witches. It is a compulsory part of the training of young monks, as you know. There is nothing like fear to inspire blind loyalty to the faith."
"Yes, fear is a powerful tool in the work of the church. But you, it seems, have remained unaffected by its influence?"
The prisoner rubbed his stiff neck. He could still somehow put up with the swill they fed him, the stale air and the humidity that surrounded him, and the constant squealing and scratching of hungry rodents that he'd been told were able to bite the ears and noses of heedless prisoners. But nothing had been so hard in this moldy prison as the fact that he did not have a pillow.
"What do you expect me to answer? That I'm not afraid of being burned? That I'm indifferent to the pain I'll soon be feeling at the stake? Only an imbecile would not be afraid."
"But you are not an imbecile. So why didn't you prevent such an end?"
"I had no choice."
"Of course you did. The only thing you were asked was to publicly renounce your conviction and repent, which is the most reasonable request of the court of the Inquisition when serious heretical sins are involved. If you had done that, you would have kept your title of royal astronomer and been allowed to continue teaching students."
"Who would attend the lectures of a royal astronomer who had renounced his discovery out of fear?"
"There is a question that comes before that. Why did you have to announce it in the first place? What did you want to achieve by that?"
"What should I have donekept it a secret, all for myself?"
"You were aware that it goes counter to the teachings of Mother Church. You should have expected her to take all measures to protect herself."
"Of course I expected that. But I was relying on her hands being rather tied."
"It doesn't look like that, judging by the sentence you were given."
"Oh, you know perfectly well that the stake is not what the church wanted. It was a forced move after all attempts to talk me into cooperating failed."
"Based on your condition, I would not say that they tried all possible means. You do not look like someone who has been given the Inquisition's full treatment."
"Well, I'm not a witch. They didn't have to force me to agree to some meaningless accusation. I did not deny my guilt. That is why the whole investigation proceeded like some kind of friendly persuasion, even though, probably just to impress me, in the background stood the power of all the devices to mutilate, quarter, cut, break, and crush. But I was not even threatened with one of them, let alone put into any device. You do not torture someone who is valuable to you only as an ally. What good would it be if the royal astronomer were lame or blind?"
"Not even after the alliance has been irrevocably called off? The Inquisition can hardly boast of the virtues of forgiveness and compassion."
"That is why it is renowned for its patience and acumen. The sentence was made, but I have not been burned yet. There is still time. Attempts to win me over to the church's side will continue to the very end. In any case, that is why you are here, isn't it?"
There was an indistinct commotion from the end of the hall, followed by the sharp sound of a key unlocking a door and someone groaning painfully as he was thrown into the cell like a bag of potatoes. The Inquisition's investigators did their work primarily at night. The main room for the investigation was in the basement; in spite of the thick walls, horrible screams could be heard periodically, weakening the last remains of will and resistance in the other prisoners waiting for their turn to be taken down there. As they moved off after closing the door with a bang, one of the guards muttered something to the other, making him laugh raucously. For a long time his burst of laughter echoed like thunder through the stone hallway.
"But you, of course, will not relent?" asked the voice from the darkness after the echo finally died out.
"What is the real reason for that?"
"What do you mean?"
"You certainly are not a simpleminded idealist who has gotten involved in all this because you don't understand how the world works, what forces set it in motion. On the contrary, everything you have done from the beginning seems to have been carefully planned. You have lit a fire that only you can put out. It takes great resourcefulness to turn the tables on such an experienced service as the Inquisition, to tie its hands, as you say. And it takes the courage of a fanatic that is always lacking in idealists at the crucial moment, the readiness to go all the way, no matter what the cost. You, naturally, shy away from the pain that awaits you at the stake, but you will go to your execution nonetheless just because that will harm the church the most. What is it that she has done to you?"
The prisoner started to get up into a sitting position on the hard bed, feeling a stab of pain go all the way down his stiff back. As he did so, a scene from his dream suddenly rose to the surface of his memory. It was very vivid, although fixed, like some sort of ugly picture, the twisted faces of the monks lustfully reaching for his tiny, helpless body.
"Isn't it still early for my last confession?"
"I'm not here to listen to your confession."
"Oh, yes, it almost slipped my mind. You are here to prevail upon me to change my mind. But if you truly believe what you just said, it must be clear to you that it's impossible."
"It is clear to me."
"Then why are you wasting your time?"
There was no immediate reply from the other side of the cell. A hand rose from his lap and reached for something that was lying unseen on the wooden bench. A moment later it returned to the flickering shaft of light from the torch in the hall. It was now holding a slender black cane with a carved white figure on the top.
"I have more than enough time." The voice seemed to become muffled, more distant.
"But I don't. My hours are numbered."
"That's right. Soon they will come to take you to the stake, but before that you will be given one last chance to accept the church's offer. But, as we know, you will refuse. Although it makes no difference, really."
"It does make a difference. If I accept, everything I did will have been in vain."
"No, it won't. The damage was done the moment you announced your discovery, and it cannot be undone. The fluttering of the butterfly's wings should have been prevented before it initiated the storm. Even if the church made a sincere ally out of you, it would only slow down the harmful effects."
"Do you really think that this is sufficient to make me change my mind? I expected you to think of something more convincing."
"I have no intention of dissuading you. But that is the way things stand nonetheless. Heresy has been sown on fertile ground. Neither the stake nor repentance will turn your students away. They will start to spread forbidden knowledge, to add to it. Once set in motion, this course cannot be stopped, even though the Inquisition will undertake everything to obstruct it. You have let the genie out of the bottle, and he can no longer return to it. The church will finally realize this inexorability, but it will be too late then."
The prisoner strained to make out the hidden face in the impenetrable obscurity, but without success, even though his pupils were completely dilated.
"Isn't it unbecoming for a man of God to have so little faith in the future of the church?"
"Why do you think I am a man of God?"
A shroud of silence suddenly descended on the cell. Several long moments passed before the prisoner realized what was wrong. He had spent many nights alone in this place, and he could always hear some sort of noise: moaning from one of the neighboring cells, the screeching of rusty hinges, the murmur of the guards, muffled cries from the basement, the rustling of mice and rats, the creaking boards on which he lay, distant sounds of the outside world. Now all of that had mysteriously disappeared.
"Who are you?" he said, finally mustering the courage to break this silence of the tomb. The darkness did not answer; suddenly, once again the prisoner felt the stab of the piercing eyes that had followed him out of his dream. "The tempter?" The words were almost inaudible, so that he didn't know whether he said them or only thought them.
"Why should that bother you?" The voice remained just as gentle. "If I am the tempter, then we are on the same side. We have the same opponent."
"Why ... why are you here? What do you want from me?" He had a strong urge to cross himself but at the last moment thought it somehow inappropriate.
"I don't want anything from you. On the contrary, I have a gift for you. Sort of a token of our alliance. A trip."
"Don't worry, you won't leave this cell, and you will get back on time, before they come for you."
"What kind of a trip will it be if I stay here?"
"The only one possible under the circumstances: through time."
The prisoner blinked. This was not really happening. He was still asleep. However, there was no awakening that necessarily followed such a realization. He brought his hand to his face and pinched his cheek hard. The pain was real. Even too real.
"I don't want ... to go ... anywhere."
"But you'll like it there. I'm quite sure. The future has pleasant surprises for you."
"Yes. Almost three hundred years from now."
"Why would I want to go ... to the future?"
"Out of curiosity, above all. Aren't you interested in checking whether you really succeeded in outwitting the church? Even though you certainly appear self-confident, there must still be a shadow of doubt inside. What if your sacrifice is in vain?"
"But you said it isn't. That my students ..."
"A moment ago that did not sound convincing to you. In any case, can you believe in the word of the tempter, even when you're on the same side as he is?"
"What would the future corroborate? What would I see there?" As he asked these questions, he felt completely foolish. He had easily let himself be drawn into a crazy, impossible conversation. Where was the common sense he was so proud of? Had he gone out of his mind? He had heard that this sometimes happened to people waiting to be burned at the stake. Fear twisted their minds.
"A better question would be what you won't see. First of all, you won't see a monastery on the top of this hill. Its walls will still be there, but it will no longer contain dark, humid cells, corridors all sooty from torches, or a torture chamber in the basement."
"The monastery will fall to ruin?"
"No, it will be remodeled."
"What can you remodel a monastery into?"
The answer was preceded by brief silence that seemed to indicate a certain hesitation, indecision. "I suppose that in the end you would recognize it without my help, although it will certainly look ... strange. But I would do well to prepare you. You will not have much time, and the future can have a stunning effect. At the time of your visit, instead of a monastery this will be an astronomical observatory."
He knew that he should say something in return, that it was expected of him, but he could not utter a word. His vocal cords were vibrating, forming confused questions, but his throat had closed completely at the top and no sound came out. He stared straight ahead blankly, his mouth empty.
In the infinite silence that reigned once again, a white-gloved hand put the cane between the knees, then disappeared in the folds of the black robe. The hand took a moment to find something there, then appeared with a round, flat object on the open palm. Golden reflections shone from its engraved curves. The dark figure's thumb moved along the edge of the object, and the lid popped open.
The hand extended toward the prisoner, but he remained stock-still. It was not indecision; the spasm that had closed his throat had now spread to his entire body. He wanted to move, do something, anything, he couldn't stay there motionless forever, but his muscles completely refused to obey.
"Yes, before you leave, there is one more thing you should know. It will please you, I believe. The observatory will be named after you."
The movement with which he accepted the watch had nothing to do with his will. It seemed to him that someone else received the tempter's gift, that he was just an observer who should indeed warn the incautious sinner not to do it, that it was insane. He wouldn't have listened, anyway, his soul was already lost, so it made no difference; actually, nothing could help him anymore.
The watch face radiated with a bright whiteness. In the dark cell it was a lighthouse summoning sailors, the flame of a candle attracting buzzing insects, a star luring the glass eye of the telescope. And over it were two ornate hands at a right angle, forming a large letter L.
Staring at the shiny surface, he failed to notice the changes that had started to take place. Something sparkled in the cell, apparitions passed through it more transparent than ghosts, and the specter from the other bed instantly dissolved into nothingness.
His attention was attracted only by the sudden daylight in the high barred window.
Isn't it still early? he asked himself, raising his eyes in bewilderment.
But the time of miracles had just begun. His eyes barely had time to twinkle before it was dark in the window again. The astronomer in him opened his mouth to contest the obvious, but he was silenced by the stronger voice of the child who cares not at all whether something is possible or not, as long as it is fascinating.
Excerpted from TIME GIFTS by Zoran Zivkovic. Copyright © 1997 by Zoran Zivkovic. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This is another wonderful, short collection from ¿ivkovi¿. The stories are about three people offered the titular time gifts - that is, the chance to see the past or future and to even influence it; and as seems to be the way with ¿ivkovi¿ there is a fourth story that draws together aspects of the three tales that have just preceded.Although only his second piece of fiction Time Gifts demonstrates that ¿ivkovi¿ has been an able writer of prose from the start. His writing here is easily on a par with The Bridge (the most recent piece of ¿ivkovi¿'s I've read) that was written nine years later. The stories themselves are wonderful little gems and with his sparse prose ¿ivkovi¿ creates simple but very real situations and characters. So whilst no one should ever read ¿ivkovi¿ expecting the depth and magisterial sweep of War and Peace, that doesn't mean that ¿ivkovi¿ doesn't hit his smaller, more precise targets.I'd give this four stars if it weren't for the final story, which somewhat obscures the picture, in my opinion. Even if I believe the supposedly "crazy" woman's words I'm not sure I accept the explanation. But overall this is another fine book from ¿ivkovi¿. His ideas and ability to write subtly mysterious moods are not bettered by many.