Some writers have a hard time differentiating between the particular and the universal. They commit the error of assuming that everyone has had the same general experiences they’ve had. This can lead them into awkward misunderstandings or even embarrassing revelations. So when I ask you to imagine a man hiking alone in the mountains on a snowy night, is that enough? Is this a universal experience? Have you ever walked in the snowlight?
At the very least you’ve probably seen the snow fall, although I suppose it’s possible that you live somewhere tropical (here I am assuming, perhaps rashly, that you exist. For the purpose of writing this piece I have posited the existence of an eventual reader. Although, like the existence of God, the existence of my reader is improbable when you consider the actual condition of the world). Perhaps your home is a grass hut somewhere close to the equator, someplace so warm that you wear only a loincloth and subsist entirely on the flesh of tropical flowers. But even if that’s the case, you have at least seen snow falling on television, and it’s likely that you imagine that you know what it’s like. You have probably been out at night as well. The experience of night must be near universal. You may have been to the mountains too, or at least to the woods. It’s really the woods that are essential here. And we have all been alone. Some of you, like me, are constantly alone no matter where you are.
But have you experienced all these things at the same time? Probably not.
When I walk through the mountains at night I am almost always alone, in both the physical and the spiritual sense. That’s why I go there. The man with a solitary soul feels chaffed by the physical presence of others, to such a man the shadows under the moonlit pines are a soothing balm.
When the snow falls, a silence grows on nature like mold on soft cheese. I paused often to listen to it the last time I went walking in the snowlight. There were ten miles of falling flakes between me and the closest town, and every shout, every car horn, the entire clanging din that humans make wherever they congregate, was completely absorbed in this blanket. Does the fall of a flake itself make a noise? Sometimes the hard, icy, granular type of snow makes a muffled rattling against the pine needles and the hiker’s hood. But the snowflakes that night were cottony fluffs of white. Airy. Insubstantial. Some scholastic monk from 700 years ago would probably have claimed that each flake was the soul of a separate angel, come down from heaven to kiss God’s creation below. I would have thought this monk an idiot, but I would have understood him.
The darkness on such a night is different from the darkness on any other night. It should be a pure darkness. The city’s streetlights are far away. The clouds are thick and block the moon and stars as effectively as blackout curtains blocked a Londoner’s windows during the Blitz. And yet, there is light. I know that what I’m about to say runs contrary to the laws of nature, but this pale glimmering can only come from the snow itself. Snow that falls at night has a glow that is killed by even a moment’s exposure to daylight. If I had come back to the mountains twenty four hours later, the glow emanating from the snow would have been gone already, ruined by its contact with the sun.
The glow illuminates only the snow itself, and perhaps gives a slight hint of something just short of light to the sky, but it does nothing to trees or rocks or people. These objects remain black and featureless. In such conditions a man becomes invisible if he stands in the trees, but brightly back lighted as he walks across a field. In either location the man is a wraith. He is a shape, a silhouette. He has no individualizing characteristics outside his gait, the general outline of his form, and his voice. He is a shadow that breaks from one dark treeline to briefly cross a field of white before being absorbed by the darkness on the opposite side.
I have a dog named Jasper. He’s a husky, and as a puppy he had been a wildly energetic thing, but now that he’s ten years old he’s mellowed with age. In his youth it had been necessary to keep him on a leash because I feared that he would chase some rabbit or elk and disappear into the wild forever. But now I let him trot along at my side, unbound. He’s a white dog. In contrast to everything else, he becomes invisible against the snow and brightly outlined against the dark trees.
For a man hiking through the mountains on a snowy night the universe is narrowed to the immediate. All disappears except for a few feet of woods around him and the dune of snow immediately before him. It is only in such a time and place that the solitary man can feel truly at peace. He is separated at last from the discomfort imposed on him by the existence of other people, with all their importunities and noise. It is only then that he can finally be free to think and to open his soul to nature. The ambient hush enters him, and maybe some of the darkness does too. Using a flashlight in such circumstances would be a sacrilege. On these nights I am guided only by snowlight.
These nights include certain dangers. There are, of course, the purely physical hazards. You might get lost in the darkness, or slip and break your leg, stranding yourself in freezing temperatures miles from help and with no cell service. But such risks can be managed. The deeper danger can be found in your own mind. On these nights nature becomes a sort of sensory deprivation tank, and a man’s thoughts and feelings come back to him amplified and twisted to a hallucinatory degree by his surroundings. With no distractions a man can only think of himself, and of his place in the universe. This is good, generally; this is why I go out into nature in the first place. But sometimes the thoughts take a dark turn. Sometimes I think about the wrongs I have suffered, about the people who are against me, and even, I have to admit, about the mistakes I have made. Or mistake. I have really only made one mistake but it annihilated me and I have endured the crushing weight of it for the past nine years. At all costs I had to avoid thinking of that one thing.
The footprints I had made an hour earlier were already filled with an inch of snow as I hiked back towards the trailhead after a successful evening of introspection. I entered a broad meadow that in spring was covered with green grass, in summer with yellow grass, and now with a blanket of white. I soon realized I was not alone; there was another person walking into the meadow from an uphill path that joined my own. Jasper ran over to investigate and I felt compelled to shout, “Don’t worry! He’s a nice dog!”
The man shouted back through the muffling effects of the falling snow, “Mine is pretty nice too, but sometimes he’ll get into a fight when he meets a new dog.”
I hadn’t realized that the man was also hiking with a dog, his animal was as white as my own, and I jogged with heavy legs through the deepening snow so that I could be present if the two got into a spat. But when I arrived at the spot where the man had paused, I saw that both dogs were wagging their tails as they circled each other in amicable inspection.
The other man had his dog on a leash. “You should let your dog loose,” I suggested, “let him get a good run in. I have a husky too and they love to run.”
He laughed, “That’s exactly what I’m afraid of. He may run off and I’ll never see him again.”
“You don’t need to worry about that tonight, I think. They’ve become friends. Your dog will stay close to mine, and my dog will stay close to me.”
The man seemed unsure, but then he said, “Well, I do love to watch him run.” He unclipped the leash and his dog bolted away, immediately disappearing against the white of the snow. My own animal seemed to become a puppy again and bounded after him. The two ran in circles around us, invisible but audible. I envied their easy and exuberant friendship.
“You’re on your way back to the trailhead?” he asked.
“Yes. The snow is falling so thick that I thought I’d better turn back a little earlier than I would have liked. I should have probably brought my snowshoes.”
“I thought the same thing. I have to say that I’m surprised to see anybody out here.”
“Me too. I usually have these nights to myself.”
I could sense him smiling in the darkness, “We’re just a couple of loners aren’t we? Spoiling each other’s solitary wandering.”
I smiled back, warmed at having found a man who shared my feelings, “I think we’ll survive each other’s company.”
We began walking down the gentle slope to the trailhead, and neither one of us spoke for a moment. I thought it strange that I had found a sort of kindred spirit in this remote place, in these strange conditions, but then I realized that I couldn’t possibly find a kindred spirit anywhere else or in any other way.
He broke the silence, “The next time I come up here there will be enough snow for skis.”
“I wouldn’t ski here,” I offered, “I’d keep going up the highway a bit to where they close it off with a gate every winter. They groom the road all the way up to Aspen Falls Park. It’s a great place to do some cross country.”
“Thanks,” he said, “I’m new around here, and don’t have all that sort of local knowledge yet.”
“You can also ski the road up the east fork of Shannon’s Valley. You might see moose or elk if you go up there. That’s my favorite place.”
“You seem to know all the best spots; you must be a local.”
“Almost. I’ve been here for ten years. It feels like home now.”
As we talked I began to get an eerie feeling. It began as a sense of déjà vu. I felt, vaguely at first but with increasing sharpness, like I had gone through all this before. I had walked through the snow in the darkness with this man on this night in a parallel universe, or in some previous existence, or in a forgotten dream. The feeling grew as we walked.
Also, the one thing I did not want to think about somehow began to obtrude on my mind. Memories of my mistake began to tunnel into my consciousness, and at first I didn’t realize why talking with this man was giving rise to these thoughts. We were two strangers exchanging the sorts of banalities that form the substance of most conversations between people who are meeting for the first time. There was nothing there to turn my mind into its darkest pathway. If anything, the conversation should have distracted me from myself.
If it wasn’t the subject matter of our conversation that was bringing up my most painful memories, it had to be something else. The man was younger than me. Probably a decade younger. He was much too young to have yet made a mistake like mine. Much too young. Although, as I thought about it I realized that I had been pretty close to his age when I made my mistake. Maybe his freshness reminded me of myself in those brighter days.
I have always been a man alone. I told you that already, but I think it’s worth repeating because you need to understand this fact about me if you are to understand how I made my mistake.I hope you can understand me, but I worry that I may be different from the rest of mankind in some fundamental way that makes me incomprehensible to everybody else. Or almost everybody. One person, at least, has understood me.
I fell in love once. It’s probably hard for you to believe that a man like me, a man with such obvious misanthropic tendencies, could possibly have a heart. But I do have a heart.
I fell in love, and that was surprising enough, but even more surprising was the fact that she fell in love with me too. In fact, this may sound like a kind of boast, but she fell for me first. Her name was Natalie. She was smart, amusing, and lovely. Her curly brown hair was always a wreck and she wore clothes that were years out of fashion. She liked all movies, no matter how bad. She read too many books. Natalie was kind to everyone and she had a laugh that made me happy. I am not a funny person, but I managed to make her laugh all the time. To be honest, when she laughed she was invariably laughing at me. She was laughing at my odd habits and ideas, but she did it in a way that somehow made being laughed at the best possible thing in the world. It was, I hope you can understand this, it was a laugh of acceptance and love. I’m worried that when I say she laughed at me you will somehow think it was a cruelty, and it wasn’t. It was the opposite.
Imagine being in my place. A lonely man. A man who had always been by himself. A man who had never had friends because he eschewed friendship as a time wasting thing. Other people were merely the instruments of intrusion. Imagine such a man suddenly finding himself loved, his emptiness replaced with fullness, his darkness with light. Even now, all these years later, I can still feel the peculiar pain of a lonely man in love as I write this.
Natalie fell in love with me, as I said. I don’t want to belabor this, but she fell in love with me. This is the essential fact of my life. We were married. We had a daughter and we named her Tullia. I loved my Romans and I said, “Let’s name her Tullia, that was the name of Cicero’s daughter.” My wife laughed and shook her head, but she agreed. When Tullia was born, you’ll think me a monster for admitting this, but when my daughter was born I looked at her, this wriggling bit of pink dressed in pink, as bald, skinny, and incontinent as an old man, and I wondered if I could really love her. What was there to love? She had no personality. We couldn’t exchange ideas. And loving didn’t come easy for me in the first place. I was wrong to worry, of course, I soon loved her every bit as much as I loved Natalie.
After five years of marriage I found my old solitary self trying to assert himself again. “I need my space.” This is the sort of thing one character says to another in the most cliche riddled movie or television show. “I need my space.” The words make me cringe, but I said them. I’m repeating them now to flagellate myself with them. “I need my space.” Those are the words that I said to the woman I loved. I told Natalie that I wasn’t sure I wanted to live with her anymore. It would be good for her too, I insisted, because I couldn’t be an easy man to live with. I was too inward by nature. I was not good company. I needed my space.
She didn’t want to, but she gave it to me. She said, “I don’t know what your problem is, but I’m going to give you a taste of this space you think you want. You’re going to see that you’re wrong. You only think you want space; what you really want is me. I’ve rented a house for a month, that’s all the time it will take for you to realize that you have made a mistake.” She moved out that week. She moved out while the first snow of the season was falling. On the way to the little home she had rented, her Honda Accord slid into an intersection and was hit by a dump truck. She was killed; Tullia was killed, and I didn’t have to wait a whole month to realize I’d made my life’s great mistake.
“Are you married?” I asked the man walking by my side.
“Yes.” He answered. “I got married in August. We already have a baby on the way. It’s going to be a girl.”
“Congratulations,” I said, forcing a tone of happiness into my voice.
“Thanks. I’m sort of amazed by it all. I kind of thought I’d be alone my whole life, and now I’ve got a woman who loves me and I’m surprised to find that I’m excited to have a baby coming too. Life is strange, but it can be great.”
“Ah, yes. It can be strange and wonderful.”
It was at this point that I first began to suspect the truth of what was happening, although I didn’t dare to let the thought form itself into something solid yet. I wouldn’t let it form something that could be considered in a serious way. I couldn’t let it take a shape that would require action on my part. I struggled against the thought. I pushed back against the intruding knowledge.
“How about you?” He asked. “Are you married?”
“No,” I said. And the conversation died there for a time.
I am worried that you will doubt some details of the next part of my story, so I want to lay out the scientific basis for the actions that I would take over the next few minutes. It is important to me that you understand that these were not the actions of a crazy person.
Time travel is a fact. That’s the first thing you need to understand. Although the phenomenon is dismissed in the popular imagination as nothing but one of the more outlandish sub-genres of science fiction, time travel is a well established fact. You will notice that I am not hedging this claim in a tempering phrase like, “the possibility of time travel is a fact,” because we are not discussing a mere “possibility” here, we are discussing a phenomenon that has been observed and well documented in nature.
In his theory of general relativity, Einstein stated that time speeds up or slows down depending on how fast you’re moving relative to another object. Every child has his mind blown when he’s taught for the first time that if he zoomed away from the Earth on a spaceship going the speed of light, he could fly into space for fifty years, and then turn around and come home at the same speed, and when he got back to Earth 100 years would have passed here and everybody he had ever known would be dead from old age, but he would still be young, and would feel like very little time had passed. This isn’t just a theory, experience shows that the companies that operate the world’s GPS satellites have to consider general relativity in building their systems because GPS satellites are moving so fast that there is a significant difference between their time and ours.
The time travel I’m about to suggest isn’t exactly the same kind posited by Einstein. I will admit that. But I just wanted to establish that time travel is real, and that believing in it doesn’t make a person crazy. I traveled in time on that snowy night. What exactly was the mechanism that caused me to travel in time? I don’t know. String theory may suggest an explanation, or at least the beginning of one. Under string theory it is thought that cosmic strings, narrow shafts of energy that stretch across the universe and that have persisted in the aftermath of the Big Bang, could contain a huge amount of mass, enough to bend spacetime and permit time travel events.
I am not a scientist, and I do not understand exactly how it happened, but as I spoke to that young man, it became clear to me that we were the same person. We were the same height, we had the same dog, he had recently been married and had a daughter who was on the way, he was a loner who had been surprised by love. All these things added together with my profound sense of déjà vu, and suddenly I realized that I had experienced this night before. The reason this all seemed somehow so strangely familiar was that I had lived it, but from the perspective of the other man, who was also me. Somehow spacetime had bent in on itself and blended a night from ten years ago with the present.
Memory is a labyrinth. You can walk away from an event, and then, after years of wandering, suddenly take a wrong turn and find yourself staring it in the face again. That’s what happened. I had completely forgotten about my strange meeting in the snowlight with a man and his white dog, but now my brain reassembled the event in my consciousness. It became real to me again.
When I began to shiver it had nothing to do with the cold. It was incredible, but I knew it had to be true. I had traveled backwards in time, or he had traveled forward. It amounted to the same thing. The truth of the situation suddenly became the most obvious fact in the world. As I remembered that walk in the woods I’d had a decade earlier, when I had been in the shoes of the other man, I realized that the version of me from the future had tried to warn me about the mistake. He had tried to tell me that I must not ever leave Natalie, that if I attempted to put space between us that space would be infinite. Yes. I had said these things to myself. I suddenly remembered them.
The question was why I hadn’t acted on them when I had the chance in the first place. Knowing what I had known, why had I left her anyway? Obviously it was because I hadn’t believed it. I had thought it was the story of a madman and had dismissed it from my mind before I even got home that night. I had forgotten it for ten years and it was only now that the truth was flooding back into me. The details of that night began to click back into place. All the solemn warnings from that strange shadow of myself. These memories formed in my mind and glowed like righteous ghosts.
There was only one thing to do. I had to try again. I had to give this younger version of myself the message in a way that he would not forget. We were now only a half mile from the trailhead where our cars waited (each in its own timeline), and I had to think fast. I could try to tell him details about himself to prove my identity, but I well knew my own suspicious mind. He would think it was a parlor trick, or perhaps a scam. Instead of opening his mind, such an approach would only close it down for good. I could simply try to reason with him, just tell him the truth. But no. He wouldn’t be open to it. His rational mind would not accept the truth. I could only accept it because I had now lived through both ends of this particular reality, and I could no longer deny it. For him, denying the truth was the rational reaction.
Luckily, I always carried a knife with me when I went hiking. As a boy my grandfather had taught me that when you venture into the wilderness you should always bring two things: a canteen and a knife. My right hand closed around the knife in my jacket pocket. It was heavy and cold in my hand. As I held it I realized that the best way to make my words memorable would be to accompany them with violence. If I delivered my message immediately before or immediately after stabbing him he would doubtless remember it. He would know that I was no charlatan working some kind of con. He would give my message the weight that it deserved.
My heart began to pump great gushes of blood into my skull as I contemplated my plan. Just the idea of flicking my knife open and driving it into another human being made me shake. It was a terrifying thought for a man like myself who had never indulged in anger or practiced violence. But I could see no other way. It had to be done to save Natalie and Tullia. To refuse the impulse to stab this man, who was myself after all, would be an act of unparalleled cowardice.
I pulled my fist from the pocket of my jacket, the knife held snugly in my tense hand. I could feel the flakes of snow landing on my hot skin and immediately melting. It was a cold tickling feeling. I flicked the blade out and the click it made as it locked open seemed unbearably loud in my ears, but only because I knew what the sound was. The snow must have also muffled the noise from my other self. I hoped that it would muffle his screams.
I was glad that the snowlight reduced him (reduced me) to a silhouette. I could just barely bring myself to stab a mere shape, but I knew I would not have been able to stab a human being who was visible as such.
He had been talking for a while and seemed suddenly to notice that I had become non-responsive to his chatter. He paused and the silence of snowflakes fell over us. Then I said, “Don’t leave Natalie. Ever.”
“What?” He sounded confused. No doubt his mind was scrambling, trying to figure out who I was and how I knew Natalie’s name.
“Don’t let Natalie go.”
He started to say something but his words were cut off by his scream as my knife entered his shoulder. I thrust my blade into him a second time as he tried to get away. He was stumbling and screaming and after a few paces he fell face-forward into the snow, his black shape starkly outlined against the white. “Don’t let Natalie go!” I yelled, my voice heavy with fury and self-hatred.
I ran then, and I noticed that my dog was with me. The dog of ten years ago had vanished, no doubt returning to his own timeline as time bent back into shape and returned the me of ten years ago to the place where he started.
The trail was a thin, glowing thread of white at my feet, and the trees were a pair of vast, impenetrably black walls on either side. I felt like I was running across that brief crack of light that separates Nabokov’s two eternities of darkness.
When I stumbled into the trailhead parking lot my Jeep Cherokee was right where I had left it. It was a relief to see it there; I had been worried about the possibility of returning to the wrong timeline. I was also relieved to see that the Volvo I’d been driving a decade ago was nowhere to be seen, proving that the timelines really had straightened themselves out. There was only one other vehicle in the parking lot. It was a truck but I couldn’t determine its make and model under the snow that covered it.
I drove home as fast as I dared under the weather conditions. I was nervous but eager to see my girls again.