"Gauging Moonlight" by E. Catherine Tobler: An Appreciation by Patrick Samphire
Sometimes, someone comes along and proves just how wrong you were.
E. Catherine Tobler's time-travel story is a fine example of one of those times. The narrator of the story is an immensely powerful time-traveler whose job is to observe sentient life but never to interfere. Although possessing the immense power to change history, to wipe people from history's stream, he is forbidden to do so.
Yet when he encounters an English woman, Alice Oxbridge, he cannot help himself, and he violates these rules to remove from her history the man who would break her heart and ruin her life. Over and over, the time-traveler visits the same parts of Alice's life, her birth and her death, and so her life becomes entwined with his. The time-traveler who looks down at the stupidity of the time-locked life-forms discovers himself to be as fallible and as human as they are.
"Gauging Moonlight" is both a tragedy and a love story. Again and again the time-traveler touches on Alice's life, revisiting the key events but unable to stay. Their relationship is a series of poignant and brief encounters, spread across Alice’s lifetime, each one experienced again and again by the time-traveler but not remembered by Alice. Now he returns to her at the end of her life, not for the first time for him, but certainly for the last.
When this moment passes, I can follow the thread backward to her beginning, to our beginning. But I won't.
"How many times have you been here, in this room at the end with me? How many times have you come to my garden? I fed you honey years ago, but it was not truly your first time, was it? You came to observe, Edward."
Alice draws the sleeve of her nightgown up to expose her arm. I look at the drawn and gray flesh, withered nearly to the bone. Her wrist seems the width of a bird's leg. I don't wish to observe this. Though I try to look away, Alice claims my chin in her hand and draws my gaze back to her. She forces me to observe the changes time has wrought upon her body. She is gray and growing hollow.
"This is what happens to us, Edward. Never you, though. How many times can you travel back? Did we talk in my garden just this morning?"
"I offered you a bracelet at noon." My voice cracks, uncertain. I have never sounded so afraid.
Alice lifts her opposite wrist. The slip of marcasite I gifted her with years ago and only this noon hangs loose upon her arm.
It would be very easy to do a story like this badly. It is as delicate as the connection between the two lovers. A single wrong step could tear it apart. The great triumph of Tobler's story is that she does not take that wrong step. Her writing is subtle and clever, and the story is full of beautiful images: "the golden dust of African plains", or the lilac branch the time-traveler carries from the garden where Alice is being born to her deathbed. It is an example of form perfectly fitting function. As the narrator skims across the surface of Alice's life, touching only lightly, never staying long, so Tobler passes over the story, touching lightly in turn and never lingering too long. In this, the story's form perfectly matches its function. The reader is left to imagine deeper and thereby understand the full tragedy of their lives, and the way their love transcends.
This is a beautiful, fragile story that remains long with the reader.
Link to story.