He sat in the hospital chapel. He had allowed it to happen, in spite of all he knew. It was his fault. He could have said no. He could have insisted on the single most effective countermeasure. But she knew what the countermeasure was and wouldn’t consent to its use. She insisted on time unfolding as it would; she demanded her fate unfurl on schedule. He could not dissuade her. And so it happened. Her death and the death of the child. In the delivery room. While all of those who might have saved her, had circumstances been only slightly different, looked on powerlessly.
When the doctor and the priest came to him, he could only curse. They were still stunned at the horrible outcome. He was not.
June 27th, 1946
He drove through the city to the park before dawn. He drove there to recite the incantation. It was the fifth time. The sun would rise behind him in the east as he faced the west and said the words.
Before he left home, he’d kissed his young wife, Fabia, on her sleepy cheek. Then he stood over her for a moment thinking of what would happen if he failed to complete this mission. Could it still be true, after all of this time? Might things happen differently now? The knot in his stomach was a familiar one. After lingering for a moment, he left her and she continued to dream in their warm bed.
As he moved through the house toward the backdoor, he checked the kitchen calendar. It had been four years since his return from the war, though he remained only twenty-eight years old. He and Fabia remained safe in an atom of time, thanks to the words he’d learned to say. They might live safely forever within that three hundred and sixty-five day envelope, between the two twenty-sevenths of June, 1945 and 1946. They could remain young and in love indefinitely. Fabia would never die. But Fabia could never know.
He was demobilised early and on returning from the war, he’d chosen June 27th as the annual day of the spell’s renewal. He’d chosen it because of the way the sun had set that evening behind the roses on the trellis. He could spend eternity reliving that vision. It had been warm and he sat reading poetry to her as they lounged in the backyard of their east end home. They went to bed early and made love for hours. The savage love, the love of a soldier and his wife after his return from a long absence, had occurred during the few nights before. Now it was a young and playful love. The sort that fades over time, but that would never fade for them.
Before midnight, according to instruction, that night four years before, he’d stepped out into their backyard beneath the full moon and recited the words for the first time. And the spell was cast. Then he went back into the house and read a newspaper until early in the morning. It was the newspaper he would reread again and again as the same day, and all of the three hundred and sixty-five days ahead of them, repeated themselves. Perhaps for evermore.
Stefano had learned the words to say from a wise woman in the Italian village of Vortona. It was 1943. He was an army translator for the Canadian 1st Division. His company was one that always arrived after a village was liberated from the Nazis, to glean intelligence. He’d known going in that Vortona was the village of his mother and father, but he’d kept it to himself. It would be too late by the time the higher-ups realised it. If they’d known up front, he feared, they might not have let him go there.
He first saw the old woman in her small house after a platoon of soldiers he was following kicked her door down. They might have knocked but didn’t. She sat at a table laying down tarot cards, unmoved by the noise. She wore a dark long sleeved frock. There was a shawl round her neck.
“Any Germans?” the sergeant shouted, though the Germans were known to be in full retreat. Stefano translated calmly in his inadequate east end Vancouver Italian.
“None,” she said and placed the Justice card on the table.
“In your basement or your attic?” he translated again and felt the fool for doing so.
She looked up at the open beams above her head and said, “No attic, no basement.”
“You men,” the sergeant said pointing. “Search for trapdoors.” Then less stridently, he said to the old woman, “Have you a well?”
Stefano translated again.
“Some of your men have already found it,” she said. “The ones you sent round to the back. Help yourself but leave some for me.” She laid down an Ace of Cups.
“All of you,” the sergeant said to the platoon after he was sure the house was safe. “The well’s out there. Go out and draw the water we need. Let’s move.”
The men filed out through the back of the house. But Stefano did not. He took a chair instead and sat across from the woman. “Our people have asked around,” he told her. “It’s said that the Nazis killed the mayor a year ago and that you’ve been in charge ever since. Is that true?”
“The Germans were in charge,” she said. She had put the deck of cards down to attend to the conversation. “Some of the people come to me for guidance, in love and in life. That is all.”
“Are you a witch?” he said, half joking, looking at the tarot cards on the table, ignorant of what they were in his new world way.
“No,” she said. “But I know who you are.”
“That’s impossible,” he said dismissively.
“You are Stefano Marini,” the woman said, “son of Antonio and Clariss. Clariss was a Conte before she took your father’s family name. They were children here. They were deeply in love when they married. A rare thing. They moved to Canada soon after the wedding. Theirs is a peaceful home. They worry about you, but you know that.”
“You’re a spy,” he said. “How else could you know this?”
“I know,” she said, “because you are connected to this village, and to me, through your parents. That is all. It isn’t spying or even magic. I see things in an old way, reserved for old women.”
“What else do you see?” he said leaning forward. He was interested now. There’d been whispers of this sort of thing among the women back home.
“I do not need to be a witch to know what you want,” she said. “You want to know if you will survive the war. All soldiers want to know this. But some are sensible enough not to ask.”
“It’s true,” he said, “but if you cannot tell me, then that’s all right. I only ask because there is someone back home, someone I love very much. We were wed the night before I was shipped out.”
“Fabia,” said the old woman nodding her head. “You want to return to her.”
“Yes, of course,” he said in astonishment. “Of course I want to return to her. You can tell fortunes. Tell me mine. Will I return to her?”
She stared across the table and saw calamity in his future. She saw anguish and devastation ahead of him. Many would fall around him but he would not. No bomb, bullet or blade would find him. “You will return home,” she said.
“Will I be whole?”
“Physically, yes,” she said. “And since you want to know all, I will tell you more.” She rose from her seat, walked round the table and stood next to him. “I tell you this because you come from a good family from this village. It is up to you whether you act on it.
“There will be a happy time after your return to Canada, to your Fabia. It will be a time of great joy, love and reunion. But, sadly, it will only last slightly more than a year. Soon after, she will become pregnant and she and your baby will die together in a hospital. Canada has no midwives, no wise women. The doctors won’t know how to save either of them. After their deaths, you will feel enormous sorrow. You will stop being human. A man cannot suffer such a loss and remain human. But I can offer you a preventative. I can help you avoid this grief. It is magic and the words must be whispered into your ear to preserve their power. Will you allow me to whisper these words to you?”
He was shocked by what the old woman said. “This is awful,” he said standing. “I won’t believe it. Your enmity is obvious. You say this to anger and confuse me.”
“No,” she said holding up her right hand. “Do not doubt me. I can show you.” She placed her left hand on his. And when she did, he saw the blood in the delivery room. He heard his Fabia’s terrible screams. He knew her pain; the doctor transformed in a moment from calm proficiency into wide-eyed panic; nurses running; a priest summoned; Fabia in seizures, death throes; a sheet drawn over the cold dead body of a newborn; Fabia breathing her last; the reticent priest with his hollow words and gestures.
“No!” he said and pulled his hand away. He knew from the vision that the old woman’s prediction was exact. “Can’t anything be done? Surely the doctors can save her now that I know. I can tell them; I can pray to the Virgin.”
“You can pray.”
“Will my prayers be enough?”
“No,” she said.
“But why,” he cried and pounded his fists.
“I do not know why,” she answered gently. “I only know when, what and how.”
He wept at the horrible vision.
“You are sorry you asked now,” she said. “You were wrong to believe that harm could only come to you.”
“Yes.” He hated admitting it.
Then she came closer and whispered the words into his ear. And as she did, he saw a home full of their lives, Fabia’s and his. He was filled with joy. How could he not want this? But he knew at once that he would have to say the words of the spell again and again to save Fabia from death and himself from complete ruin. The spell would require continuous renewal.
“Go,” she said when she was finished. “There is no obligation. You have no debt or duty.”
“But how long can it continue?” he said. “How often can a spell be renewed? Can it go on forever?”
“Do not ask,” she said. “Forever is an unknowable place.”
June 27th, 1946
He stood in the park, on a promontory called Ferguson Point, looking out onto the Straight of Georgia. The sky brightened and he delivered the words. When he was done, nothing had perceivably changed. It was like all the times before. Then he got back into his car and drove home. When he arrived, he checked the kitchen calendar. It was June 27, 1945 all over again. Another yearlong cocoon of safety.
He sat with Fabia at the breakfast table. “You were out early,” she said.
“Yes,” he said checking his wristwatch. “And I’ll be late for the office.”
“But it’s only once a year, isn’t it?” she said.
“What? What does that mean?”
“It means that I know.”
“Please, Stefano,” she said. “It’s June 27th. And every June 27th, it’s the same thing. You leave mysteriously early in the morning and come back and say, ‘I’ll be late for the office’. You think I don’t notice? Stefano, I know you came back from the war with some knowledge you won’t share. And also some trick you play with time. You somehow make the same three hundred and sixty-five days repeat over and over. The days all unfold the same way, Stefano. The same mail. The same phone calls. The same stories on the radio. And you think I don’t know it. But I do and it is driving me mad. It’s been four years in a row and now it will be five. What are you doing to us?”
How could she know? he thought. And then, How could she not? He’d miscalculated and assumed that the spell would compensate some how, that it would enchant Fabia and leave her happily ignorant of the obvious. But it had not.
“We cannot move on,” he said, cutting his bacon. “Not past the time I have calculated for us.”
“I have seen our future. There are dangers you don’t understand.”
“I understand that we must grow together,” she said, “and face what comes like everyone else.”
“If you knew what I know, you wouldn’t say that.”
“How do you know?” she said. “What is it that you know that I do not? How dare you keep secrets from me, about me?”
“It’s just too dangerous.”
“Life is dangerous,” she said slamming her knife and fork down onto the table. “Why should we be immune? What right have you to defend me from my own fate?”
“Your fate is an awful one,” he said looking at her with his teary eyes. “And so is mine as a result.”
“Tell me,” she said taking his hand. “Do not shoulder this alone. It will only drive you mad. Then we’ll both be insane. And how can that be good enough for the two of us?”
Of course it wasn’t good enough. Not for the two of them. Now she was the wise woman. Perhaps she always had been. He spent an hour telling her what he’d learned from the old woman in Vortona. He thought it would take longer.
Fabia spent the days that followed alone. Then one evening she sat at the dinner table with Stefano. “Maybe the old woman’s wrong,” she said. “Maybe the war had made her bitter and full of bitter stories.”
“Maybe,” he said.
“Either way,” she said with an odd imploring smile, “we have the next two years together.”
“But if you become pregnant,” he said, “the way she predicted, how could you carry the child you know will kill you, a child you know will be stillborn? We can never lie together again if I do not renew the spell. Not if there’s a chance this will happen.”
“No,” she said, hushing him. “We are husband and wife. We are lovers. We will love one another fully. I am still not convinced this old woman told you the whole truth.”
“But the spell works,” he said. “She was honest about that.”
“And maybe,” she said, “the old woman told you how to use it so it would drive us both crazy. If her prophecy is true, then I’d rather face it. I have no fear of death. I have lived a good life.”
“But I fear losing you,” he wept. “It will ruin me.”
“Only if you let it,” she said. Then, “Please Stefano, no more spell.”
He left the hospital chapel and walked out onto the street. He was leaving Fabia behind forever now. But this wasn’t the forever he’d anticipated. The old woman had called it an unknowable place. But she’d lied, or had guessed wrong. He knew Forever intimately now. He knew its geography and its place on the map of things. It was a wasteland. And in it, he was the lone man standing.