This selection is paired with The Time Machine by H. G. Wells. Get the full issue of NonBinary Review #21 at www.zoeticpress.com
I am called Grodlik. My name is more a sound that came from my lifegivers when they saw me than an actual title, but I am satisfied with the grunt. That was all we ever did—grunt. For the first two decades of my life, I knew little in the way of communication. But I am not dictating this. I have learned this language called English and I have learned through many painful years of aborted attempts how to tell my own tale.
It is perhaps the most remarkable event that in this most remarkable of surroundings and circumstances, I have become reasonably literate. I am told that my brain, the piece inside my skull that allows me to learn and reason, is most inferior—certainly not suited to tell a tale. But at this point I have read widely, and shall try.
My education was not my own doing. My teacher wanted to enlighten all my people, but soon enough discovered the utter impossibility of attaining this lofty goal. Few of us were inclined to listen. The Time Traveller (for so it will be convenient to speak of him) could not successfully expound even the most commonplace logic to us. I am a Morlock. My race was unalterably set in its ways.
It is my understanding that the Time Traveller visited us twice. The first time he came to our world, we sensed his presence. He was known as the demon who brought violence and fire to brutalize our people. I had just joined our hunting parties, and sometimes caught glimpses of him through the foliage, but always when I was apart from my group, and always when he had fire in his hand. I gave him a wide berth. By the time I reported my sightings, he had always moved on. For most of us, he was a minor annoyance.
Then came the night, as he told me much later, he had fallen asleep next to the protection of his campfire. Our subterranean-bred eyes could not bear the stabbing light, and thus he had felt safe by the flames. To his horror and ours, the fire had spilled into the surrounding woods and ignited the great conflagration that had finished many of us as we tracked Eloi in the darkness.
After that night, I was dispatched to the depths of our caverns and demoted to the maintenance of our machinery. I was bitter, but knew the elders had their own primitive reasons for all they did. I heard no more of the Time Traveller for many years; I did not know he had gone back to his own place—as he called it, his own time. I existed, I labored; I obeyed.
When fully mature physically, a female was offered to me, but no offspring came forth. A type of disdain enfolded me from the sensibilities of the others. I was not exactly ostracized, but I was no longer embraced or included in major rituals. My food was provided from the piles of offal, and my female took up with another. I left the caves by night, and sojourned in the depths of the woods. One midnight I watched stray Eloi nervously faltering back to their compound, and saw in their shining eyes the fear that came with straying too far afield before dusk. They amused me, but I no longer felt the need to gnaw at their throats, chew their insides, or suck upon their bones. I felt a hole in the pit of my gut that our “cattle” would not fill, and I came to understand that I was different than my clan. I had not been different growing up, but something had stirred. I feared I could never understand this painful passion, and was turning to retreat to the underground machines when a match flared in my face.
I shrieked and buried my head in the bushes. In a moment, the light dimmed somewhat, and with pain I saw past it. The Time Traveller stood before me, the flame in one hand and a raised club in the other. I had seen him close up through the trees twice in the far past, and he had not grown a day older. He watched me with interest, and lowered the weapon. “I don’t want to hurt you,” he said.
He sat upon a rock at hand and studied me for a long time. His match went out, and though he knew I could now see him far better than he could see me, he did not light another. I sat on the ground and stared stupidly back at him. Somehow even at this early moment of acquaintance, I felt wisdom in his eyes. After some minutes of quietude, he reached into a bag and produced a slice of dried meat, which he offered to me. I edged forward cautiously, and grabbed and devoured it. Then he reached into a pocket and extracted what I later learned was a slide whistle. As he put it to his lips and blew into it, a strange squeal of noise reached my sensitive ears. I clapped my gray clawlike hands to the sides of my head and groaned. He softened the tone, and slowly I became enamored of the new sensation. Something I can only now describe as a laugh escaped my throat. When the man got up to leave, I followed him at a distance.
I followed him for years. It was easy for him to teach me to listen. It was far more difficult for him to teach me to speak. It was grueling for him to teach me to read—and to understand. But he did all this, and much more. I became a sort of assistant to him, and he said I was invaluable to making inroads with others of my kind. We were going to succeed or fail together. We failed far more than we succeeded. Because I was at his side, no hunting parties would molest us, but the only Morlocks who ever received anything in the way of instruction were the few stragglers we might catch alone on a path before dawn.
I came to comprehend my Teacher’s motives. He wanted more than to save the half-witted Eloi from our carnivorous regimen, he hoped to prod a sort of further evolution in the Morlocks themselves. In the later days, he frequently opined that I seemed the only specimen with an interest in self-improvement, and though my desire to learn was prodigious, he saw little long-term advantage to ennobling a being without offspring. He would ask about the female I once knew but we never came across her in our excursions; indeed, we would find few females without descending into the caverns, something we were now both loathe to do.
The Teacher resigned himself to doing his best with me, and eventually led me far afield to a secluded overhang halfway up a hillside. Inside, hidden by brambles, was the most glorious thing I ever beheld. He explained that it was a machine, in some ways like the things I had maintained, but nothing in our caverns ever glittered and shone in ways that burned our eyes. It was all crystal and something like bone, and it had a seat and a stack of levers, and he explained over and over that it allowed him to go far forward or backward across the centuries. I never fully understood, but he assured me he had been to the end of things, and he wished desperately to avoid such a finality. Inside the machine were many books, and over the decades I read them all.
We transported the volumes to the place of the Eloi, which he called the Palace of Green Porcelain. Of course, they were terrified of me at first, and apparently no one remembered the Time Traveller either, but over time they accepted the presence of both of us. Needless to say, no amount of bathing or grooming helped me resemble them, but we set up a library and living quarters of sorts in a corner of the compound, and soon they saw I was no threat and ignored us.
I studied in a dark sort of closet by day, and followed the Time Traveller’s trail by night. I began to call him “Teacher”, as I have noted, and he made no objection. Always, he seemed to be meditating on a fashion for spreading his success with me to the other Morlocks. I felt a throbbing pain within me always because I was unwilling to rejoin my clan and thrust a type of moral lucidity upon them.
One dark evening I stood too close as he struck a match for the lamp. I winced and tossed myself into my niche. “I am terribly sorry, my friend,” he apologized as I reappeared. “You have learned so much I sometimes forget the differences in our physiognomy. You have removed so much of the shaggy pale hair and adapted an excellent style of dress—and advanced mentally beyond my dreams. You are quite human. I forget the damage fire does.
“Fire damages all beings,” I replied quietly. “How did you escape the great fire many years back?”
My question startled him. He looked at me for a long time. “You remembered the night I left my campfire unattended when I drifted to sleep?” he asked at last.
“I do. I was with others in the surrounding woods. They wanted to surprise you. Ha! You inadvertently surprised them.” My words were rather slurred; my tongue had difficulty with certain letters, but he knew what I had said.
“Many of them died in the fire before morning.”
“Yes,” I nodded. “I was the only one remaining.”
The Teacher (the Time Traveller) did not speak for many minutes. The lamp grew low. I heard thunder far off. At length he said, “I had an Eloi girl with me. Her name was Weena. She died in the fire too.”
The thunder came closer. I moved to my closet. I don’t know why I answered; it just seemed I must. “No, she did not,” I said.
When I awoke the next evening, the Time Traveller was gone. I scaled the far hill but there was no trace of his machine. He had, however, left me his books. Whatever may come, I shall carry them below with me. I owe him that.
John Kiste is an organ donation ambassador, a McKinley Museum planetarian and an Edgar Allan Poe impersonator who has been published in such works as A Shadow of Autumn, Modern Grimoire, Dark Fire Fiction, Theme of Absence, and whose work was recently included in the Unnerving Press release Haunted Are These Houses, and the Camden Press anthology Quoth the Raven.