When they took away her sight she found she could hear everything. When they took away her ears she learned to operate entirely by touch. Once her five primary senses were stripped away she began to digest and regurgitate time, gradually mastering the messy art of moving through it at will. She found she no longer had an appetite and was stripped of all desire, floating viscously from era to era as an emaciated heap, littering pockets of history sometimes vulgarly, sometimes nearly imperceptible. For a long time this was her restless existence. She traveled far.
The ancients reverse-engineered language from scrawlings on her clothes. The future folk deduced the fall of our civilization from the grime under her nails. She never took down roots long enough to be studied properly, blinking in and out of existence flippantly without any seeming logic or reason. If her mere existence was celebrated by a civilization, it was good; if her atrophied body was ignored or mistaken for a corpse, it was equally good. Conclusions were drawn in every time by every society, generally incongruous and of little merit, but it was enough to effect events and change our course significantly. Whether she was asleep or conscious no one ever ascertained, though they always spoke to her at length regardless.
The ripples became dangerous when she carried things inadvertently. It began with dust and dirt and leaves, thorns and sap, saltwater hair, stains. Insects from time to time traveled with her and were deposited far before or after their species’ existence, though these blinked out faster than she in most instances. On one occasion a snake fat with litter was delivered to an uninhabited Earth, nearly kickstarting life eons before the first proteins. But always her great weapon was disease and infection, and her brief visits decimated civilizations and nearly brought about the great extinction on more than one occasion.
Documentation of her visits predate our species, though none were ever connected until very recently, when multiple photographs shot decades apart were matched. I dedicated years to uncovering the mystery behind her unsettling mass of joints, limbs at seemingly impossible angles. Eventually, realizing the tenor of the threat, I set about finding a way to coincide with her in space and time. Enlisting the help of mathematicians and physicists, we met late at night in the basement of their college’s archives, scribbling diagrams across maps and history texts for months.
When she materialized on the Solomon Islands four days after the vernal equinox, I was waiting. Her wilted body arrived crumpled on the ground, spine cast at an angle at which it should’ve been broken, the rest of her tangled around it, putrescent. Her shallow breathing was immediately noticeable but there were no other signs of life. I tested each of her senses and she made no motion – she was in fact sealed from our world in every capacity. But it was her stench that was like nothing I had experienced. There was the foundational human miasma, but the odors that lingered at its fringes were completely alien. There was a deep terror to the sterile smell that seemed to contain the rest of them – something from long before or far after. It would never cease to haunt me.
I stared again at her mass. Murder had never been an option, capturing her was impossible and restoring her senses too involved. I’d known from the start the only option was learning her language – no easy task and one that would take months if not years. I attached myself to her as the scientists had taught me, with thin filaments connecting each of my appendages to hers. Then there was the long anxiety of existing beside her in stillness for what must have been days.
We blinked in and out together at last, from the apparent pleistocene to a future I could not digest, to the inside of some gargantuan creature that I could not place. Times and locations flitted by quickly in an inhuman rhythm that nauseated, each trip a sharp pizzicato I found gradually torturous. Eventually I was able to isolate and ignore the stutter, focusing instead on the gastric mechanism that fueled her travels. In time I learned to replicate it myself.
After eighty-one days I was no closer to understanding her language, and was not even confident that she was sentient. But just as the scientists had predicted, I was deposited a mere hundred years before my time on the edge of a near-endless savannah. Taking what I had learned of her process, I nudged her off of her temporal axis and onto another, sending her moving not through time but potentialities. It might not have been a perfectly safe alternative, but the planet was no longer at risk.
I digested seasons until I’d arrived at my own time, no wiser but riddled with a chronic anxiety.
Illustration by James Sheridan