To be given paid-up leisure and find yourself unable to create is unpleasant for any artist. To be stranded in a cluster of desert cabins with a dozen lonely people in the same predicament only makes it worse. So Tom Dorset was understandably irked with himself and the Tosker-Brown Vacation Fellowships as he climbed with the sun into the valley of red stones. He accepted the chafing of his camera strap against his shoulder as the nagging of conscience. He agreed with the disparaging hisses of the grains of sand rutched by his sneakers, and he wished that the occasional breezes, which faintly echoed the same criticisms, could blow him into a friendlier, less jealous age.
He had no way of knowing that just as there are winds that blow through space, so there are winds that blow through time. Such winds may be strong or weak. The strong ones are rare and seldom blow for short distances, or more of us would know about them. What they pick up is almost always whirled far into the future or past.
This has happened to people. There was Ambrose Bierce, who walked out of America and existence, and there are thousands of others who have disappeared without a trace, though many of these may not have been caught up by time tornadoes and I do not know if a time gale blew across the deck of the Marie Celeste.
Sometimes a time wind is playful, snatching up an object, sporting with it for a season and then returning it unharmed to its original place. Sometimes we may be blown about by whimsical time winds without realizing it. Memory, for example, is a tiny time breeze, so weak that it can ripple only the mind.
A very few time winds are like the monsoon, blowing at fixed intervals, first in one direction, then the other. Such a time wind blows near a balancing rock in a valley of red stones in the American Southwest. Every morning at ten o’clock, it blows a hundred years into the future; every afternoon at two, it blows a hundred years into the past.
Quite a number of people have unwittingly seen time winds in operation. There are misty spots on the sea’s horizon and wavery patches over desert sands. There are mirages and will o’ the wisps and ice blinks. And there are dust devils, such as Tom Dorset walked into near the balancing rock.
It seemed to him no more than a spiteful upgust of sand, against which he closed his eyes until the warm granules stopped peppering the lids. He opened them to see the balancing rock had silently fallen and lay a quarter buried--no, that couldn’t be, he told himself instantly. He had been preoccupied; he must have passed the balancing rock and held its image in his mind.
Despite this rationalization he was quite shaken. The strap of his camera slipped slowly down his arm without his feeling it. And just then there stepped around the giant bobbin of the rock an extraordinarily pretty girl with hair the same pinkish copper color.
She was barefoot and wearing a pale blue playsuit rather like a Grecian tunic. But most important, as she stood there toeing his rough shadow in the sand, there was a complete naturalness about her, an absence of sharp edges, as if her personality had weathered without aging, just as the valley seemed to have taken another step toward eternity in the space of an instant.
She must have assumed something of the same gentleness in him, for her faint surprise faded and she asked him, as easily as if he were a friend of five years’ standing, “Tell now, do you think a woman can love just one man? All her life? And a man just one woman?”
Tom Dorset made a dazed sound.
His mind searched wildly.
“I do,” she said, looking at him as calmly as at a mountain. “I think a man and woman can be each other’s world, like Tristan and Isolde or Frederic and Catherine. Those old authors were wise. I don’t see why on earth a girl has to spread her love around, no matter how enriching the experiences may be.”
“You know, I agree with you,” Tom said, thinking he’d caught her idea--it was impossible not to catch her casualness. “I think there’s something cheap about the way everybody’s supposed to run after sex these days.”
“I don’t mean that exactly. Tenderness is beautiful, but--” She pouted. “A big family can be vastly crushing. I wanted to declare today a holiday, but they outvoted me. Jock said it didn’t chime with our mood cycles. But I was angry with them, so I put on my clothes--”
“To make it a holiday,” she explained bafflingly. “And I walked here for a tantrum.” She stepped out of Tom’s shadow and hopped back. “Ow, the sand’s getting hot,” she said, rubbing the grains from the pale and uncramped toes.
“You go barefoot a lot?” Tom guessed.
“No, mostly digitals,” she replied and took something shimmering from a pocket at her hip and drew it on her foot. It was a high-ankled, transparent moccasin with five separate toes. She zipped it shut with the speed of a card trick, then similarly gloved the other foot. Again the metal-edged slit down the front seemed to close itself.
“I’m behind on the fashions,” Tom said, curious. They were walking side by side now, the way she’d come and he’d been going. “How does that zipper work?”
“Magnetic. They’re on all my clothes. Very simple.” She parted her tunic to the waist, then let it zip together.
“Clever,” Tom remarked with a gulp. There seemed no limits to this girl’s naturalness.
“I see you’re a button man,” she said. “You actually believe it’s possible for a man and woman to love just each other?”
His chuckle was bitter. He was thinking of Elinore Murphy at Tosker-Brown and a bit about cold-faced Miss Tosker herself. “I sometimes wonder if it’s possible for anyone to love anyone.”
“You haven’t met the right girls,” she said.
“Girl,” he corrected.
She grinned at him. “You’ll make me think you really are a monogamist. What group do you come from?”
“Let’s not talk about that,” he requested. He was willing to forego knowing how she’d guessed he was from an art group, if he could be spared talking about the Vacation Fellowships and those nervous little cabins.
“My group’s very nice on the whole,” the girl said, “but at times they can be nefandously exasperating. Jock’s the worst, quietly guiding the rest of us like an analyst. How I loathe that man! But Larry’s almost as bad, with his shame-faced bumptiousness, as if we’d all sneaked off on a joyride to Venus. And there’s Jokichi at the opposite extreme, forever scared he won’t distribute his affection equally, dividing it up into mean little packets like candy for jealous children who would scream if they got one chewy less. And then there’s Sasha and Ernest--”
“Who are you talking about?” Tom asked.
“My husbands.” She shook her head dolefully. “To find five more difficult men would be positively Martian.”
Tom’s mind backtracked frantically, searching all conversations at Tosker-Brown for gossip about cultists in the neighborhood. It found nothing and embarked on a wider search. There were the Mormons (was that the word that had sounded like Martian?) but it wasn’t the Mormon husbands who were plural. And then there was Oneida (weren’t husbands and wives both plural there?) but that was 19th century New England.
“Five husbands?” he repeated. She nodded. He went on, “Do you mean to say five men have got you alone somewhere up here?”
“To be sure not,” she replied. “There are my kwives.”
“Co-wives,” she said more slowly. “They can be fascinerously exasperating, too.”
Tom’s mind did some more searching. “And yet you believe in monogamy?”
She smiled. “Only when I’m having tantrums. It was civilized of you to agree with me.”
“But I actually do believe in monogamy,” he protested.
She gave his hand a little squeeze. “You are nice, but let’s rush now. I’ve finished my tantrum and I want you to meet my group. You can fresh yourself with us.”
As they hurried across the heated sands, Tom Dorset felt for the first time a twinge of uneasiness. There was something about this girl, more than her strange clothes and the odd words she used now and then, something almost--though ghosts don’t wear digitals--spectral.
They scrambled up a little rise, digging their footgear into the sand, until they stood on a long flat. And there, serpentining around two great clumps of rock, was a many-windowed adobe ranch house with a roof like fresh soot.
“Oh, they’ve put on their clothes,” his companion exclaimed with pleasure. “They’ve decided to make it a holiday after all.”
Tom spotted a beard in the group swarming out to meet them. Its cultish look gave him a momentary feeling of superiority, followed by an equally momentary apprehension--the five husbands were certainly husky. Then both feelings were swallowed up in the swirl of introduction.
He told his own name, found that his companion’s was Lois Wolver, then smiling faces began to bob toward his, his hands were shaken, his cheeks were kissed, he was even spun around like blind man’s bluff, so that he lost track of the husbands and failed to attach Mary, Rachel, Simone and Joyce to the right owners.
He did notice that Jokichi was an Oriental with a skin as tight as enameled china, and that Rachel was a tall slim Negro girl. Also someone said, “Joyce isn’t a Wolver, she’s just visiting.”
He got a much clearer impression of the clothes than the names. They were colorful, costly-looking, and mostly Egyptian and Cretan in inspiration. Some of them would have been quite immodest, even compared to Miss Tosker’s famous playsuits, except that the wearers didn’t seem to feel so.
“There goes the middle-morning rocket!” one of them eagerly cried.
Tom looked up with the rest, but his eyes caught the dazzling sun. However, he heard a faint roaring that quickly sank in volume and pitch, and it reminded him that the Army had a rocket testing range in this area. He had little interest in science, but he hadn’t known they were on a daily schedule.
“Do you suppose it’s off the track?” he asked anxiously.
“Not a chance,” someone told him--the beard, he thought. The assurance of the tones gave him a possible solution. Scientists came from all over the world these days and might have all sorts of advanced ideas. This could be a group working at a nearby atomic project and leading its peculiar private life on the side.
As they eddied toward the house he heard Lois remind someone, “But you finally did declare it a holiday,” and a husband who looked like a gay pharaoh respond, “I had another see at the mood charts and I found a subtle surge I’d missed.”
Meanwhile the beard (a black one) had taken Tom in charge. Tom wasn’t sure of his name, but he had a tan skin, a green sarong, and a fiercely jovial expression. “The swimming pool’s around there, the landing spot’s on the other side,” he began, then noticed Tom gazing at the sooty roof. “Sun power cells,” he explained proudly. “They store all the current we need.”
Tom felt his idea confirmed. “Wonder you don’t use atomic power,” he observed lightly.
The beard nodded. “We’ve been asked that. Matter of esthetics. Why waste sunlight or use hard radiations needlessly? Of course, you might feel differently. What’s your group, did you say?”
“Tosker-Brown,” Tom told him, adding when the beard frowned, “the Fellowship people, you know.”
“I don’t,” the beard confessed. “Where are you located?”
Tom briefly described the ranch house and cabins at the other end of the valley.
“Comic, I can’t place it.” The beard shrugged. “Here come the children.”
A dozen naked youngsters raced around the ranch house, followed by a woman in a vaguely African dress open down the sides.
“Yours?” Tom asked.
“Ours,” the beard answered.
“C’est un homme!”
“Regardez des vêtements!”
“No need to practice, kids; this is a holiday,” the beard told them. “Tom, Helen,” he said, introducing the woman with the air-conditioned garment. “Her turn today to companion die Kinder.”
One of the latter rapped on the beard’s knee. “May we show the stranger our things?” Instantly the others joined in pleading. The beard shot an inquiring glance at Tom, who nodded. A moment later the small troupe was hurrying him toward a spacious lean-to at the end of the ranch house. It was chuckful of strange toys, rocks and plants, small animals in cages and out, and the oddest model airplanes, or submarines. But Tom was given no time to look at any one thing for long.
“See my crystals? I grew them.”
“Smell my mutated gardenias. Tell now, isn’t there a difference?” There didn’t seem to be, but he nodded.
“Look at my squabbits.” This referred to some long-eared white squirrels nibbling carrots and nuts.
“Here’s my newest model spaceship, a DS-57-B. Notice the detail.” The oldest boy shoved one of the submarine affairs in his face.
Tom felt like a figure that is being tugged about in a rococo painting by wide pink ribbons in the chubby hands of naked cherubs. Except that these cherubs were slim and tanned, fantastically energetic, and apparently of depressingly high IQ. (What these scientists did to children!) He missed Lois and was grateful for the single little girl solemnly skipping rope in a corner and paying no attention to him.
The odd lingo she repeated stuck in his mind: “Gik-lo, I-o, Rik-o, Gis-so. Gik-lo, I-o...”
Suddenly the air was filled with soft chimes. “Lunch,” the children shouted and ran away.
Tom followed at a soberer pace along the wall of the ranch house. He glanced in the huge windows, curious about the living and sleeping arrangements of the Wolvers, but the panes were strangely darkened. Then he entered the wide doorway through which the children had scampered and his curiosity turned to wonder.
A resilient green floor that wasn’t flat, but sloped up toward the white of the far wall like a breaking wave. Chairs like giants’ hands tenderly cupped. Little tables growing like mushrooms and broad-leafed plants out of the green floor. A vast picture window showing the red rocks.
Yet it was the wood-paneled walls that electrified his artistic interest. They blossomed with fruits and flowers, deep and poignantly carved in several styles. He had never seen such work.
He became aware of a silence and realized that his hosts and hostesses were smiling at him from around a long table. Moved by a sudden humility, he knelt and unlaced his sneakers and added them to the pile of sandals and digitals by the door. As he rose, a soft and comic piping started and he realized that beyond the table the children were lined up, solemnly puffing at little wooden flutes and recorders. He saw the empty chair at the table and went toward it, conscious for the moment of nothing but his dusty feet.
He was disappointed that Lois wasn’t sitting next to him, but the food reminded him that he was hungry. There was a charming little steak, striped black and brown with perfection, and all sorts of vegetables and fruits, one or two of which he didn’t recognize.
“Flown from Africa,” someone explained to him.
These sly scientists, he thought, living behind their security curtain in the most improbable world!