Javier settled into silence, hoping that on this First Day, he would not become unmoored in time and space. Friends around him shuffled their feet, and the room gradually grew quieter. Javier took a deep breath and listened.
The first time he became unmoored was an otherwise ordinary day. He bicycled to the meetinghouse, eager to be underway after an unpleasant exchange with his housemate, Cynthia. She was frustrated that Javier didn’t prefer to attend a protest on Sunday.
“I’m not sure a protest will change anything,” Javier said.
“Like sitting in silence will,” she’d retorted.
“You don’t understand,” he said. I’m not sure that anything I do matters, he thought. He’d been feeling directionless after graduation.
Bicycling down 45th Street, he narrowly avoided a collision with a motorist, who cursed at him.
After navigating these all-too-ordinary occurrences, he found the cool hush of the meetinghouse a relief.
“Good morning, Javier,” murmured Nina. She was a gentle elderly White woman Javier had to come to love and respect, especially after his grandmother passed away. Nina clasped his hand briefly. A bearded man who worked at Javier’s old school nodded in greeting. Javier made his way to his favorite seat near the window. He closed his eyes and tried to tune out Cynthia’s voice and the angry face of the motorist, to listen for guidance. A latecomer tiptoed into the room to an empty chair. Javier shut his eyes tighter.
After the usual fidgeting, his breath deepened, and his mind settled. He listened hard, and the room faded away.
The sudden scent of smoke startled his eyes open. Javier was astonished to find himself sitting not on a chair in the meetinghouse, but on a broken hulk of rusting metal in an open field of brown, lifeless grass. The sky glared hot and bright overhead. The air was choked with ash and smoke. Cracked remains of gray pavement stretched away into the distance, toward a city on the horizon. The city was in flames. Great gouts of black smoke roiled above the skyline.
“I saw that there was an ocean of darkness and death,” a voice said, sonorous. Javier whirled, but the light around him dimmed. He squinted, and the smoke and open sky were gone. He was back in the meetinghouse.
“But there was also an infinite ocean of light and love,” the voice continued. It was the man from Javier’s school, the librarian, who stood giving testimony out of the silence. “George Fox wrote these words. In his vision, he saw a darkness overwhelmed by light. He had a revelation about evil that lives in all of us, and of the love that also lives there. We ought to nurture one until it flows over the other. That’s what I’m thinking about this morning.”
Javier caught the faintest scent of something burning as he shakily left the meetinghouse.
Javier told no one about his strange experience. He was somehow both reluctant and eager to return to meeting the following week. He passed the time in silence impatiently. To his disappointment and a certain measure of relief, nothing extraordinary occurred. Nina smiled at him, he spoke with the librarian about the more interesting aspects of Fox’s Journal, and a cute young Friend with pink hair named Joy brought homemade scones for refreshments. Javier began to wonder if he’d just fallen asleep in meeting and dreamed of the burning city.
But the next week, almost as Javier closed his eyes, he felt that something was different. A rustling on the edge of his hearing became a wind that buffeted his hair and face, and he opened his eyes. He sat on the edge of a lapping shoreline. The wind brought the scent of fishy brine and something bitter. A seabird cried raggedly overhead. Some distance away, a cargo ship sluggishly moved past.
Objects cluttered the shore and floated in the water, of different shapes and sizes, trash that looked to be mostly plastic. An oily sheen glittered on the surface of the water.
Movement in the distance caught his eye, and Javier leapt to his feet. Three people, two tall and one shorter, trudged away from him barefoot along the shore. The shorter person wore a faded blue hat. They carried fishing poles and a bucket.
“Hello!” Javier cried. He waved his arms over his head.
The people made no indication they’d heard him. He ran after. He caught up with them as one of the tall men spoke to the others in a language Javier didn’t recognize. The trio all burst into laughter at some joke.
“Excuse me, but—” Javier said. He extended a hand to touch the shoulder of the one wearing the hat.
Javier’s hand passed completely through the boy’s shoulder, making no contact. Javier gaped. He tried again with the same result. He ran ahead and stopped in front of the group. They didn’t seem to see him, and walked directly through him. Javier stared at the trail of footprints along the shore where they had passed. Only three sets of footprints, walking in parallel. It was not the trio who were insubstantial. It was Javier.
He was experimenting with trying to touch other things like the sand, water, and stones, when someone spoke, and he was once again in the quiet of the meetinghouse.
After that, Javier “traveled” each time he sat in worship. As he biked home after the rise of meeting, he thought about what he had seen and wondered why he was being shown these visions, if that was indeed what they were. He began to journal about his observations and reflect upon them. On subsequent First Days, he decided to conduct a series of experiments. He couldn’t touch anything, but he could see and hear and experience scents. The people he encountered, and presumably animals, couldn’t see him or hear if he spoke to them. Could he influence any aspect of what he saw, or was it random? Many times, he thought he might be witnessing a bleak future, but it might also be the bleak present, for some places in the world.
Then two even more extraordinary things occurred.
One First Day, after he settled expectantly into silence, Javier opened his eyes to find he was standing near a busy street corner. The storefronts appeared unusual somehow, and then he placed what was odd: they looked dated, as did the cars moving on the avenue. He scrutinized the attire of a man who was passing by, and then another’s. Their ties and lapels were wider, old-fashioned shapes and patterns. A woman’s floral scarf and flared pant legs supported his theory. He navigated the crowded sidewalk until he came to a newsstand and was able to confirm what he suspected. He was seeing, or perhaps even visiting, the past.
As he stood musing over this realization, he saw a shimmer on the other side of the street. On the sidewalk opposite where he stood, a young woman in a yellow dress was making her way, and she was…flickering. It was as though she were out of sync with the world.
As Javier watched, the woman’s head turned. She looked right at Javier. Her face also looked forward. Flicker-flick-flicker. It was like watching a film strip skip. She kept walking. She was facing forward and looking back at the same time. She could see him.
“Hey!” Javier called. “Hello?”
The figure of the woman trembled, and then unfolded into two halves. She walked on in her brilliant yellow dress, leaving behind a glimmering echo of herself standing on the sidewalk. The echo wore an older face and was dressed in gray sweats. She gave Javier a feeble smile and a tiny, reluctant wave.
The woman’s name was Edith.
“You can see me!” Javier said, breathless from his dash across the street. “How can you see me? Other people can’t even tell I’m here.”
“You aren’t here,” said Edith, smiling. “And neither am I.”
They walked together, and Javier noticed that Edith allowed passersby to walk through her, rather than engaging in the erratic side-stepping and dodging that Javier did. She’d been doing this a while.
“Who is the woman you’re following?” he asked.
Edith looked sad, but only for a moment. “She’s me, of course. This is my past. Well, this one perfect day, anyway. I like to pretend I’m still that young woman.”
Javier paused. He’d been so surprised and excited to encounter someone who could understand his experience that he rushed headlong into questions. He realized he hadn’t really been listening to her answers.
“I didn’t know we could choose where or when to visit,” he said, carefully.
“Is that what you do?” Edith said, raising an eyebrow. “I didn’t. This is where I ended up.”
She stopped in front of a brownstone with a green door. They arrived just as Edith’s younger self was stepping inside.
“There I go. When I was still beautiful, and the world seemed less terrible. Well, I guess it was terrible, then, too. For different reasons.”
“You’re still beautiful, Edith.”
The lines around her eyes crinkled. “What a flatterer.”
A friendly clatter, one Javier associated with kitchens, came from the open windows, along with a savory aroma.
“What’s for dinner?” he asked, half-joking.
Edith beamed. “Lasagna. I had lasagna with my sister and my little niece. Our husbands both died in the war, and we took turns cooking. Want to see?”
“Sure—” Javier started to say. At that moment, he heard someone clearing their throat, and his eyes opened in the meetinghouse.
Nina cleared her throat again and rose to her feet to speak.
Javier tried to find Edith on subsequent Sundays, but his travels seemed random. After a time, he stopped traveling altogether. He could no longer settle into the silence as before. He listened to the soft breathing of other Friends and felt alone.
He set out to locate the brownstone where he’d walked with Edith. Perhaps he could find a clue that would lead him to her in the here and now. They’d have so much to talk about!
The search for Edith drove Javier’s sense of purpose for more than six months and led him to an address in Brooklyn. When he found the house, it appeared much as it had before. The door was painted a deep shade of blue, and neat rows of petunias bloomed in the window boxes. He knocked, his heart beating fast. The property search listed an “Edith Jones” as the current owner.
In answer to his knock, the blue door opened. Javier’s heart leapt. The person at the door looked a lot like Edith.
“Yes, can I help you?”
“Hi, Edith!” he exclaimed. “It’s me, Javier.” His excitement cooled as he took in the occupant’s alto voice, short-cropped hair, and button-up shirt. On the lapel of the shirt was a colorful pin that read “my pronouns are they/them.”
“Maybe you’re looking for my aunt Edith?”
Javier nodded. “I’m sorry, You kinda look like her.”
“I’ve definitely been told that! I’m Eddie.” They extended a hand, and Javier shook it,
“Is Edith here? I was really hoping to talk to her.”
“I’m sorry to tell you, but she’s passed away.”
“When did this happen?” Javier cried.
Eddie showed Javier to a quiet sitting room with a fireplace and mantel. The walls were painted lilac.
“This is Aunt Edith and my mom,” Eddie said. They gestured to a framed photo on the mantel. In the photo, a youthful Edith posed with her sister on the steps of the house, a small child cradled in arms. “She died three years ago. Cancer.” Eddie glanced at Javier. He was surprised by his own confused tears. “How did you know her?”
“I just met her briefly,” he said. “She seemed kind.”
“She was,” Eddie said. “We meditated together when she was sick. Well, I meditated. I think she prayed. Did you know she was a Quaker?”
Javier stood up and put his hands in his pockets. He cleared his throat once and began to speak.
“A few months ago, I met a woman named Edith, and I learned something valuable. The past cannot be changed, only treasured or reflected upon.”
Someone shuffled in their seat, and the chair creaked.
“But we can’t live in the past. The future needs us now, and I had a vision of what might happen if we do not act.”