Adjustments

The woman was persistent. She arrived at the apartment every day in mid-afternoon. Jacob no longer tried to be out of the apartment since she simply waited, seated on the top metal step of the flight to his floor. She would be there when Jacob returned from the market or the park, head propped in hands.

He would let her in without complaining. For all he looked twenty-five, he was far too old to object to her age or singleness or femaleness. Besides, he'd never inclined to the Gnostic fear of matter.

Today, he was unloading groceries when she arrived. She took a seat at the kitchen table, looking around the tan-tiled room with its avocado-green wallpaper and two large, barred windows opposite orange-tinted cupboards. Through an open, nearly square archway, she could see the bedroom with its two upright bureaus and quilt-covered bed.

Jacob unpacked tomatoes and placed them in the lemon-colored refrigerator.

"You know," she said, "there are areas in town that are less . . . 70s."

"I'm comfortable here."

She nodded, stretching her arms across the tabletop and leaning her head against her shoulder.

"I'm not leaving," Jacob said. Again.

"Changing apartments is not the same as leaving town."

He shrugged.

"You wouldn't be conceding anything."

He'd already conceded so much—some of which didn't matter. He wore all black now—black jeans and black t-shirt rather than his black cloak and white habit. He'd left behind his academic accomplishments, his fraternity. But some things could not be given up.

She said, "You never liked Kramer."

"Sensationalist. Malleus Maleficarum was an ill-conceived project. I didn't support the end result. The man was a crank. Is—was—I can't imagine he's changed—"

"You might be surprised."

"You know that he's changed? For a fact?"

"He's not my concern."

"Just me."

"Yes."

Jacob shook his head at the cool pleasure of her admission and slid several bottles of milk into the frig. He loved "70s" milk—loved the taste and texture. Some things time had definitely improved.

She said, "Is it so important to identify witches?"

Very persistent.

"You asked loaded questions, did you know that?" he said.

She laughed; one of the nicer things about her was her appreciation of irony. Jacob poured out two glasses of milk and carried them to the table. He held one out rather than setting it on the striped, vinyl tablecloth. It was a mild temptation that he allowed himself.

"I held fair trials," he said.

"I know." She took the glass, her fingers bumping his. He stepped back to sit across from her.

He said, "I know trials aren't necessary here."

Here, this town, was part of heaven—Jacob had accepted that idea nearly ninety years before when he took a random train away from more recognizable surroundings in another part of heaven. The train deposited him here, his new home.

This town was a place of mixed eras that the locals labeled Roaring Twenties, Ult-2000s, and "70s," all of them at least 400 years beyond Jacob's birth.

None of the eras had witches. Jacob admitted it. But she insisted that the place Jacob came from—where he'd spent nearly 500 years of his death since it most resembled his life on earth—also had no witches.

He said, "You believe in the devil?"

"Yes."

"Then why not demons who can persuade humans to the devil's path? Our Lord believed in demons."

"To exorcise and banish, so He could restore men and women to their faculties."

"If demons can possess, they can interact: they can sway humans to the devil's service. "

"Those humans can still be saved—Mather preferred that approach."

Jacob grimaced. "The Mathers," he said, "are—what would you call them?—talk-show hosts."

She drank milk to hide her grin. Jacob smiled to himself.

He sent down his glass. "Humans who make devilish contracts—who place themselves against other humans in the service of uncompromising destruction—they must be punished."

Her brow furled—as he'd known it would. This was an old argument.

She said abruptly, "Do you remember a woman named Margret Meyr?"

He remembered a clean court of stone—in the town hall, not the church—though he couldn't remember the name of the township. The trial took place a week after Jacob's arrival. Margret Meyr, a proud woman of riotous gray hair, faced witnesses of white-faced resolve. Jacob had called the witnesses, combed their testimony, spoken to the parish priest—

He said, "You think she was innocent?"

"I think she never made a contract with the devil."

"She was hardly free of sin and malice."

Margret raged at Jacob when he questioned the local priest, when he questioned anyone other than herself. She spat at those who got close, laughed when they flinched. She'd trodden a rare path of pure deviltry, been far gone in demonic passions when Jacob arrived in her community.

"She was bitter," Jacob's guest said. "Unstable. Even dangerous. I don't deny that."

"She—"

"She didn't cause her neighbors' crops to die. She didn't cause their homes to burn."

"Her neighbors believed in her evil intent," Jacob said. "They absolutely believed. Are you going to judge me by your 'modernism'?"

He couldn't say the word caustically enough. She had always been fair in her appraisal of his past, the beliefs and background that led him to the priestly career he'd made for himself in life. When they'd first met--an unexpected encounter near the train station--she'd ignored the hygienic and lingual barriers that plagued him. He adored hot showers in any case. And words like "alms" hadn't greatly changed their meaning.

Others in this town demonstrated less understanding. They lived in the neighborhoods of their lifes. They never visited the train station—never imagined a train could take them anywhere else. The sun ceased to move around the earth, but their tiny plots of earth and time remained the center of heavenly space.

He said, "Are you one of those who thinks witches are misunderstood? Margret was some kind of kindly herbalist? A sweet-tempered mid-wife?"

"No."

"You know what she did?"
* * *
The witness was a contemporary of Margret's. She stood before Jacob's bench, shaking her head; every time she glanced at Margret, she shook her head more and more as if she could shake Margret's deeds out of existence.

"We thought it God's will," she said. "We thought it God's will her children died—all at eighteen months, so quiet in their passings. Their souls vanished. And she discussed their deaths over and over—"

"Surely that's natural?"

"No. Not this way. It was as if she couldn't bear us, her neighbors, to talk of other things. The deaths were for our benefit, our sympathy."

Nine children suddenly taken. All at the same age. All apparently healthy only the day before their dark releases. And then Margret offered to watch her neighbors' children, children of the same age as her dead little ones. And the neighbors refused. And she cursed them for being bad Christians, for not comforting her in her pain.

"It happens," another witness, another mother, said. "We know that children leave us, that they die. But these children were all past the crisis point. And so many—all the same: frozen into babyhood."
* * *
"I used a useful institution to stop an evil woman. I don't regret her execution. The community finally had peace."

"But she wasn't a witch. There were other ways to address her crimes."

"What does it matter?" Jacob found he'd stood; he was pacing. He pressed the heels of his hands to his eyes.

He never got agitated. Even during those long investigatory summers—moving from village to town to city, hauling with him the magisterial weight of a distant pontiff—he'd never lost his temper, had always followed procedure, never skimped over testimony.

"Margret was possibly insane. But you made the same accusation of less obvious malefactors. You promoted the use of invisible evidence."

"Things in secret can destroy; 'invisible' does not mean 'unreal."

"Do you believe in magic?" she said curiously.

Her curiosity had claimed his attention from the first—her wonder at the intricacies of his mind (while he wondered at hers).

He said, "I believe people agree to do the devil's will, to do evil."

"People can create evil—"

"Absent outside influence? I thought you didn't believe in tainted humanity."

"I believe in humans as active beings, not so fragile that passing trends or theories carry the full weight of culpability."

"Unless humans let it—"

She didn't disagree. In fact, "We're not so far apart," but still, she was standing—to go, to catch her train. As she did at the end of every one of these ageless days.

"Wait!" he said.

She shuttered her eyes, released a breath. He knew that expression; he wore it every time she left and this time, "I'll walk you to the station," he said.

He didn't usually because of what the walk implied, promised. He hated to disappoint her. He watched her face now for any flare of hope, but she only nodded gravely.

They went out on the landing and down the iron staircase to the sidewalk. The area Jacob lived in was full of brick apartment buildings. The residents here were decent, well-meaning if sometimes tactless, obtuse. Good people. They left their windows open for sun and breeze and gossip. Some waved to Jacob from their front stoops; the women smiled to see his companion. They had their own theories about that relationship.

The street curved past newer buildings of glass filled with lights that operated even at night: not candles but energy stabilized and made manageable by later generations.

The trains were older—younger than Jacob but older than the 70s. Nineteenth century, his companion had explained the first she visited, the last time Jacob walked her to the station. The trains were a compromise—humans of all times found them less intimidating than other forms of transportation.

"I can't abandon everything," he told her, watching steam belched from the nearest engine's chimney. "I'm not the man I was in life, but I can't abandon all my beliefs."

"Abandon your regret, your clutch on the past. Forgive the woman you couldn't forgive then."

"Her crimes were not against me—"

"Not the crimes. Forgive her for being part of that world, a world that could fear witches."

"That world made me."

"Cares of the world choke us."

He snorted. "Look around." He waved a hand at the nearest engine's coupling (Jacob liked steam engines), the iron railing between them and the station platform, the cherry trees against the station's low wall. "This heaven is comprised of worldly things, material objects that delight us with their reality."

No, he'd never have made a good Gnostic.

Neither would she.

"God praised the made world. But the states of mind that lock us to times and places are not always enriching. You moved to this town. You would not go back."

No—not even when he felt isolated from these so-called moderns, when he struggled to comprehend their motives or mindsets. Not even when he missed sweet almond soup or the feel of vellum. Not even during the long nights when he craved the order of his former life.

She said, "But you didn't leave that place entirely—you still carry its constructs with you."

He looked down into her sane, questioning eyes, asked a question he'd never asked before: "Did you remove yourself from the time and place of your life?"

"I did. I was born much later than you. Into a world that I enjoyed. But I took a train—like you did. And then I stopped." She blushed faintly.

Because she'd met him. The stations were like honeycombs; any new move connected you to more possibilities. It was easier to transition between touching-stations, harder to jump across multiple ones.

"What is your name?" He held her lightly now by the wrist. The train would leave soon. She would be leave. Not far. But far enough. And who knew when the desire to take a train further would overtake her.

She threaded her fingers through his, looked down at the folded hill their hands formed.

"I hope to reveal my name to you—" She paused, closed her mouth. "Someday," she finished carefully.

"I can't come with you. Not yet."

"We could take the train so much further."

"I know. I need time to adjust."

That won him a smile. And he'd meant what he said, so, "I'll walk you to the train station every time you come," he promised.

She bent close. "Things remain," she said against his cheek. "Everywhere you go, the things that matter—that make us merry—remain."

And then she was sprinting to leap onto the running board of her moving train. It huffed away, gaining more and more sped until it was lost in the fog-covered horizon, heading towards whatever world she currently claimed. Jacob gazed along the stone-lined road, seeing and not seeing, imagining impossibilities—a sea of glass, a throne of emerald, wild winged beasts full of eyes—almost ready for paradise.