Written by Rachael K. Jones
Highlight to read content warnings:
Death, suicide, self-harm.
Makeisha has always been able to bend the fourth dimension, though no one believes her. She has been a soldier, a sheriff, a pilot, a prophet, a poet, a ninja, a nun, a conductor (of trains and symphonies), a cordwainer, a comedian, a carpetbagger, a troubadour, a queen, and a receptionist. She has shot arrows, guns, and cannons. She speaks an extinct Ethiopian dialect with a perfect accent. She knows a recipe for mead that is measured in aurochs horns, and with a katana, she is deadly.
Her jumps happen intermittently. She will be yanked from the present without warning, and live a whole lifetime in the past. When she dies, she returns right back to where she left, restored to a younger age. It usually happens when she is deep in conversation with her boss, or arguing with her mother-in-law, or during a book club meeting just when it is her turn to speak. One moment, Makeisha is firmly grounded in the timeline of her birth, and the next, she is elsewhere. Elsewhen.
Makeisha has seen the sun rise over prehistoric shores, where the ocean writhed with soft, slimy things that bore the promise of dung beetles, Archeopteryx, and Edgar Allan Poe. She has seen the sun set upon long-forgotten empires. When Makeisha skims a map of the continents, she sees a fractured Pangaea. She never knows where she will jump next, or how long she will stay, but she is never afraid. Makeisha has been doing this all her life.
Makeisha learned long ago to lie about the jumping. When she was nine, she attempted to prove it to her mother by singing in Egyptian, but her mother just laughed and sent her to do the dishes. She received worse when she contradicted her history teachers. It was intolerable, sitting in school in the body of a child but with the memories of innumerable lifetimes, while incomplete truths and half-truths and outright lies were written on the board. The adults called a conference about her attention-seeking behavior, and she learned to keep her mouth shut.
The hardest part is coming back. Once, when she was twelve, she was slouched in the pew at church when she felt the past tug. Makeisha found herself floundering in the roiling ocean of the Mediterranean, only to be saved by Moorish pirates who hauled her aboard in the nick of time. At first the bewildered men and women treasured their catch as a mascot and good-luck charm. Later, after nearly ten years of fine seacraft and fearless warfare, they made her captain of the ship. Makeisha took to piracy like sheet music. She could climb ropes and hold her grog with the best sailors, and even after losing an eye in a gunpowder explosion, she never once wept and wished herself home.
The day came when, at the pasha’s command, she set sail to intercept Spanish invaders in Ottoman waters. It was a hot night when they sighted the lanterns of the enemy shuddering on the waves. Makeisha’s crew pulled their ship astern the enemy’s vessel in the dark and fog after midnight. She gave the order – Charge! – her deep voice booming through the mists, echoed by the shouts of her pirates as they swung on ropes over the sliver of ocean between the ships. And suddenly an explosion, and a pinching sensation in her midriff, and she was twelve again in the church pew, staring at her soft palms through two perfect eyes. That was when she finally wept, so loud and hard the reverend stopped his sermon to scold her. Her father grounded her for a week after that.
People often get angry with Makeisha when she returns. She can’t control her befuddlement, the way the room spins like she is drunk, and how for days and weeks afterward she cannot settle back into who she was, because the truth is, she isn’t the same. Each time she returns from the past, she carries another lifetime nestled within her like the shell of a matryoshka doll.
Once, after the fall of the Roman Empire, she joined a peasant uprising in Bavaria, and charging quickly from fiefdom to fiefdom, their band pushed back the warlords to the foothills of the Alps. Those who survived sued for mercy, begged her not to raze their fields, pledged fealty to her. As a condition of the peace, Makeisha demanded their daughters in marriage to seal the political alliance. The little kings, too afraid of the barbarian-queen to shout their umbrage, conceded. They even attended the weddings, where Makeisha stood with her sword peace-tied at her waist and took the trembling hand of each Bavarian princess into her own.
Once the wedding guests left, Makeisha gathered her wives together in the throne room. “Please,” she said to them, “help me. I need good women I can trust to run this kingdom right.”
With their help, she established a stable state in those war-torn days. In time, all her wives made excellent deputies, ambassadors, sheriffs, and knights in her court.
Makeisha had been especially broken up when her time in Bavaria was cut short by a bout of pneumonia. Many of her wives had grown to be dear friends of hers, and she wondered for months and months what had become of them and their children, and whether her fiefdom had lasted beyond her passing.
She wanted to talk with her best friend Philippa, to cry about it, but her phone calls went unanswered, and so did her emails. Makeisha could not remember when she had last spent time with Philippa or her other friends here in the present. It was so hard to remember when her weeks and months were interspersed with whole lifetimes of friends and lovers and enemies. The present was a stop-motion film, a book interrupted mid-page and abandoned for years at a time. And when she did return, she always carried with her another death.
Makeisha does not fear death anymore. She has died so many times, always awakening in the present, whole and alive as before the jump. She does not know what would happen if she died in the present. Perhaps she would awaken in the future. She has never tried to find out.
She cannot remember her first death. She probably died hundreds of times in her infancy, before she was old enough to walk. Her jumps left her in the wilderness or ocean more often than not, and when she did arrive near civilization, few took pity on a strange, abandoned child who could not explain her presence. Makeisha’s mother often joked about her appetite, how from the time she was a baby, she ate like a person on the verge of starvation. Her mother does not know how close this is to the truth. These days, Makeisha wears her extra pounds with pride, knowing how often they have been her salvation.
When Philippa finally returns her calls, she reams Makeisha for slighting her all year, for the forgotten birthday, for the missed housewarming party. Makeisha apologizes like she always does. They meet up in person for a catch-up over coffee, and Makeisha resolves that this time she will be present for her friend. They are deep in conversation when she feels the tug, just as Philippa is admitting that she is afraid of what the future may bring. No, thinks Makeisha when she finds herself blinking on the edge of a sluggish river under the midday sun. Two white bulls have lifted their heads to stare at her, water dripping from their jowls.
Makeisha struggles to keep the conversation fresh in her head as she casts around for a quick way home. She chooses the river. It is hard, that first time, to make herself inhale, to still her windmilling arms, to let death take this matryoshka life so she can hasten back to the present.
She has lost the thread of the conversation anyway when she snaps back to Philippa’s kitchen. “Migraine,” she explains, rubbing away the memory of pain from her dizzy head, and Philippa feeds her two aspirin and some hot mint tea.
Makeisha resolves to do better next time, and eventually, she does. On her first date with Carl, she strangles herself with strings from the lute of a Hittite bard. On their wedding day, she detours to a vast desert that she cannot place, which she escapes by crawling into a scorpion nest. That death was painful. The next time she jumps (two days later, on their honeymoon), she takes the time to learn the proper way to open her wrists with a sharp-edged rock.
Her husband believes her when she says it’s migraines.
All of it – the self-imposed silence, the suicides, the banishing of her fantastic past to the basement of her brain – these are the price of a normal life, of friendships and a marriage and a steady job. Mundane though it is, Makeisha reminds herself that this life is different from the other ones. Irreplaceable. Real.
Still, she misses the past, where she has lived most of her life. She reads history books with a black marker and strikes out the bits that make her scoff. Then, with a red pen, she writes in the margins all the names she can recall, all the forgotten people who mattered just as much as George Washington and Louis XIV. When Carl asks, she explains how the world has always belonged to more than just the great men who were kings and Presidents and generals, but for some reason, no one wrote it down.
“I think you’re trying too hard,” he says, and she hates the pity in his eyes when he holds up his hands and adds, “but if it makes you feel happy, keep on with it.”
One day, as a surprise, her husband drove her four hours to a museum hosting an exhibit on medieval history. Makeisha screeched and grabbed Carl’s arm when she saw the posters at the entrance: eighth-century Bavaria! It had been five years and dozens of self-murdered lives since she was torn from her thriving kingdom, from her deputy-wives and her warband, but the memories were still so fresh. Her face was composed as she purchased tickets, but she bounced on the balls of her feet all the way to the front of the line.
It was the first time she had encountered any proof of a previous life. Euphoria flared in her breast when she peered into glass cases that held familiar objects, old and worn but recognizable all the same, the proof of her long years of warfare and wisdom and canny leadership. A lead comb, most of its bristles missing, its colored enamel long ago worn to gray. It had belonged to Jutte, perhaps – she had such fine long hair, although she had kept it bound tightly for her work as a doctor. A thin gold ring she had given to dark-eyed Berchte in commemoration of her knighthood. And the best of all: a silver coin stamped with her own stylized profile, her broad nose jutting past her Bavarian war helm.
There was a placard on the glass. Makeisha read it thrice, each time a little slower, thinking perhaps she’d missed something. But no. Early medieval objects from the court of a foreign king. He reigned in Bavaria for about thirty years.
He? He? Makeisha stormed back to the entrance, demanded to speak with a manager, her vision swimming a violent red, her hand groping for a pommel she did not wear anymore. It was wrong. It was all wrong, wrong, wrong. Her wives, assigned a husband and stripped of their deputyship! Their legacy, handed to a manufactured person! Carl begged her to tell him what was wrong. Makeisha realized she was shouting oaths in ancient German, and that was when she felt the familiar tug in her navel, and found herself spinning back, back, further back than she had gone last time, until she arrived on an empty beach beneath a moon with a smooth, craterless face.
Her practiced eye spotted three ways to die on its first sweep (drowning, impaling, crushing), but there was Jutte’s comb to consider, and that placard. When she gave up time travel, she never thought she had surrendered her legacy, too.
Makeisha turned her back on the ocean and walked into the woods, busying herself with building a fire and assembling the tools she would need for her stay, however long it might be. She had learned to be resourceful and unafraid of the unfamiliar creaks and groans in the ferny green of the prehistoric underbrush.
She chipped a cascade of sparks into her kindling, and that is when Makeisha formed her plan.
She is done with the present, with the endless self-murder, with the repression and suffocation and low stakes.
A woman unafraid to die can do anything she wants. A woman who can endure starvation and pain and deprivation can be her own boss, set her own agenda. The one thing she cannot do is to make them remember she did it.
Makeisha is going to change that.
No more suicides, then. Makeisha embraces the jumps again. She is a boulder thrown into the waters of time. In eighth century Norway, she joins a band of Viking women. They are callous but good-humored, and they take her rage in stride, as though she has nothing to explain. They give her a sword taller than she is, but she learns to swing it anyway, and to sing loudly into the wind when one of the slain is buried with her hoard, sword folded on her breast.
When she returns to the present, Makeisha has work to do. She will stop mid-sentence, spin on her heel, and head for the books, leaving an astonished coworker, or friend, or her husband calling after her.
She pours everything into the search for her own past. One of her contacts sends her an email about a Moorish pirate, a woman, making a name for herself among the Ottomans. A Spanish monk wrote about her last voyage, the way she leapt upon her prey like a gale in the night, how her battle-cry chilled the blood. Makeisha’s grin holds until the part where the monk called her a whore.
This is accepted without question as factual by the man writing the book.
She is obsessed. Makeisha almost loses her job because of her frequent forgetfulness, her accidental rudeness. Her desk is drowned in ancient maps. Her purse is crammed with reams of genealogies.
In her living room, which has been lined from wall-to-wall with history books ever since Carl moved out, Makeisha tries to count the lives stacked inside her. There are so many of them. They are crowding to get out. She once tried to calculate how many years she had been alive. It was more than a thousand. And what did they amount to? Makeisha is smeared across the timeline, but no one ever gets her quite right. Those who found the cairn of her Viking band assumed the swords and armor meant the graves of men. A folio of her sonnets, anonymous after much copying, are attributed to her assistant Giorgio.
“You’re building a fake identity,” Philippa tells her one day, daring the towers of books and dried-out markers to bring Makeisha some soup. “There weren’t any black women in ancient Athens. There weren’t any in China. You need to come to grips with reality, my friend.”
“There were too,” says Makeisha fiercely, proudly. “I know there were. They were just erased. Forgotten.”
“I’m sure there were a few exceptions. But women just didn’t do the kind of things you’re interested in.”
Makeisha says, “It doesn’t matter what I do, if people refuse to believe it.”
Her jumps are subdued after that. She turns to the written word for immortality. Makeisha leaves love poetry on the walls of Aztec tombs in carefully colored Nahuatl pictograms. She presses cuneiform into soft clay, documenting the exploits of the proud women whose names are written in red in the margins of her history books. She records the names of her lovers in careful hanzi strokes with horsehair bristles in bamboo books.
Even these, the records she makes herself, do not survive intact. Sometimes the names are replaced by others deemed more remarkable, more credible, by the scribes who came after. Sometimes they are erased entirely. Mostly, the books just fade into dust with time. She takes comfort knowing that she is not unique, that the chorus of lost voices is thundering.
She is fading from the present. She forgets to eat between jumps, loses weight. Sometimes she starves to death when she lands in an isolated spot.
Carl catches her one day at the mailbox. “Sorry for just showing up. You haven’t returned my calls,” he explains, offering her a sheaf of papers.
Makeisha accepts them and examines the red-stamped first page of their divorce papers.
“You need to sign here,” Carl says, pointing upside down at the bottom of the sheet. “Also on the next page. Please?”
The last word carries a pleading note. Makeisha notes his puffy eyes and a single white hair standing out in the black nest of his beard. “How long has it been?” she asks. She has lived at least three lifetimes since he left, but she isn’t sure.
“Too long,” he says. “Please, I just need your signature so we can move on.”
She pats her pockets and finds a red pen. Makeisha wonders how many decades or centuries until this signature is also altered or lost or purposely erased, but she touches pen to paper anyway.
Halfway through her signature, she spends twenty-six years sleeping under the stars with the Aborigines, and when she comes back, the rest of her name trails aimlessly down the sheet. Carl doesn’t seem to notice.
After he leaves, she escapes to India for a lifetime, where she ponders whether her time travel is a punishment or purgatory.
When she returns to the present again, Makeisha weeps like she did when she was twelve, and her heart was breaking for her days as a pirate. Perhaps it is not the past that is yanking her away. Perhaps the present is crowding her out. And perhaps she has finally come to agree with the sentiment.
In her living room, among the towers of blacked-out books, Makeisha sees six ways to die from where she stands. Perhaps the way out is forward. Break through the last matryoshka shell like a hatchling into daylight.
But no. No. The self-murders were never for herself. Not once. Makeisha is resilient. She is resourceful, and she has been bending the fourth dimension all her life, whether anyone recognizes it or not.
A woman who has been pushed her whole life will eventually learn to push back.
Makeisha reaches forward into the air. With skillful fingers that have killed and healed and mastered the cello, she pulls the future toward her.
She has not returned.
© Rachael K. Jones
Originally published in Crossed Genres, August 2014.
Rachael K. Jones grew up in various cities across Europe and North America, picked up (and mostly forgot) six languages, and acquired several degrees in the arts and sciences. Now she writes speculative fiction in Portland, Oregon. Her debut novella, Every River Runs to Salt, is available from Fireside Fiction. Contrary to the rumors, she is probably not a secret android. Rachael is a World Fantasy Award nominee and Tiptree Award honoree. Her fiction has appeared in dozens of venues worldwide, including Lightspeed, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Strange Horizons, and all four Escape Artists podcasts. Follow her on Twitter @RachaelKJones.