from Save Me a Place, a novel ~ Bret Lott

He was closer this time. He knew it.

He stood again in the wheat field, gold beneath the summer sun. From here Annam could see the tallest cypress at the far edge of the field, in the distance the low jumble of mountains violet and gray in the heat.

He turned, looked to the right and the gray boundary wall of the old monastery a half-kilometer away. Last time the wall had been only a hundred meters off, placement calculations, like always with first insertions, only hypotheses. Past the wall stood the asylum itself, a string of pale stone buildings with mottled tile roofs, the stub of a belltower at its center. Oleander and olive trees and more wheat between here and there.

He turned back to the mountains, the wheat. The cypress, towering and dark. The pale blue sky piled high with white summer clouds.

He had fifteen minutes.

The mountain ridge was 2.71 kilometers away, his heading at insertion 131 degrees, on line with the cypress straight ahead. From here the ground sloped gently up at perhaps an eight-degree grade.

He started through the wheat, counting his paces. He had two hundred before he’d reach perimeter. Then he’d have to exit, insert again.

This was the fifth insertion in two days, the maximum allowed per week. Sometimes he’d find the objective the first time in, other sites eventually given up on. But this was a near-certainty, too many correlations in the research—the letters, plats, the calibrated angle of the sun in the painting, the particular pigments the XRF picked out, sourced and dry-dated. Too much data to miss this one.

The objective was here, within perimeter. He knew it in the angle of light, the color of the wheat, the line the ridge made against this sky. And the cypress, the green tower of it. The objective was here. He’d find it.

His job was to survey. He had no instruments; none translated. With each insertion, no matter the objective, there was with him only the knowledge his pace measured .8 meters, and the fact of his initial heading. Once he had a visual—when, if—he would turn to it, estimate the number of degrees off initial heading he faced, then walk to it, count again the number of paces. Two known sides of a triangle, the known degree angle between them: the law of cosines. Simple math.

Time wasn’t a worry. He’d done this long enough to know how long a minute lasted, knew it in his fingertips, in his feet. When he closed his eyes and felt the sun, or the cold, or the rain, the dark. Time was no longer a factor he need take into account when he was on survey. He had fifteen minutes before exit, no matter where he was or what he’d found, or didn’t. But he knew fifteen minutes. Time didn’t matter.

Twenty paces through the waist high wheat and toward the cypress, thirty five, forty two, and then the field gave way to a gravel lane that ran to his right and left. What he’d thought one continuous field was actually two, bisected by the narrow track. Grass grew out from the edges of either field into the lane, here and there the bright red surprise of a poppy, and another, another.

He could still be surprised.

He scanned first to his left: nothing. The lane bled away a few meters down, turned slightly and disappeared into the wheat and back toward Saint-Rémy. Then he looked to his right, up the lane that way.

A man, perhaps thirty paces away and in profile to him, seated on a stool before a wooden easel. He had on a ragged and stained blue jacket, the cuffs turned up, Annam could see from here, and wore a battered straw hat. The easel, scuffed and stained and with its drawer pulled out, stood to the right of the lane, the man—the objective of this survey, the reason for the insertion—with his back against the wheat on this side of the track, as though nestled in as far as he could to get what view he wanted.

The cypress, this wheat. The jumble of mountains gray and violet. These clouds.

All of it what Annam expected, given all the research, given all the images he and the world had known all these years. The letters, the calculations. Given the proof of the painting Van Gogh was working on, now. Here.

He’d found it.

People would feel they’d spent their money well on this one. Travelers liked when they saw what they figured they would see. When their predictions as to how history played out were right, and not a surprise. He could see even from here the way the man—he had a weak red beard, his hair a darker red beneath the brim at his neck—jabbed at the canvas with his left hand, the moves stiff and then soft, slash and then jab, the palette in his right hand a smear of colors. Exactly what travelers would hope to see.

Twelve minutes.

He squared himself to the cypress—he could see from here on the gravel track a smaller cypress beside it now, perhaps half its height—then pivoted back to the right by the width of his foot: 21 degrees off heading. He pivoted the same width again, though now, at 42 degrees off, he’d turned a few degrees past the objective. If he were to walk the line between here and the man, Annam would be behind him by ten or so meters. Approximate heading, he’d report, was 35 degrees south of the initial 131.

He started on the gravel lane toward the man, five paces, ten. Still the man jabbed at the canvas on the easel, his jacket sleeve a shock of movement with each blow to the canvas, and now Annam could see out in front of Van Gogh, halfway across the lane and planted like a wooden sign into the ground, a second easel-like structure.

The perspective frame, what looked like a glassless window frame on two wooden legs driven into the ground to eye level so that the painter could view his subject as though already framed. He’d read in the research how often Van Gogh had used one, even had his own custom-made by a blacksmith and carpenter when he’d lived at The Hague seven years before. Thin wires ran from corner to opposite corner across the field of vision, from mid-frame to opposite mid-frame too, making a grid within the frame to allow the accuracy of perspective, and to allow the painter to work that much faster.

Research had said he’d stopped using the frame three to four years before. But here it was yet again: history other than what had been accepted. Fact at objective defying words in a book.

This was a small difference, but a difference still. He wondered for a moment what travelers would think of seeing the frame, an odd contraption that seemed somehow almost like cheating. Of course the paintings were important, relics of all those years ago that still made people go and look at them for hours. There were other surveyors mapping all this week the sites for his works, twelve of them on their fifteen minute shifts scouring the countryside near here, and in Saint-Rémy, The Hague too, and Arles. And of course Auvers-sur-Oise. Travelers would pay well, Marketing had decided, to watch Van Gogh work.

And to die: right now Brin, second behind Annam, was 700 kilometers north and a year away from here, her draw the Auvers-sur-Oise insertion. The room at the Auberge Ravoux, where the objective had smoked a pipe while he lay dying from the gunshot. Of course travelers would want to see that, those moments the real moneymakers. Those moments within the whole survey of time when death lived, and as many as wanted could pay for the privilege to watch.

He thought of Brin, the way post-shift she set about her reports at the console in the blue room as quickly as she could, didn’t let settle in her any deeper impressions than the surface of what she’d seen. Though she, like the whole crew, had drawn some difficult insertions—Gandhi’s assassination, the Battle of Balaclava and the decimation of the Light Brigade, Kurt Cobain at the last in the greenhouse room above his garage—Annam had never seen Brin break, never seen her let show the enormity a moment of history had upon her.

Some came back from insertions weeping before they were even unplugged. Others threw chairs in the blue room, overturned tables. Some drank, or smoked, or spent nights walking alone, or just went home and missed the next shift, disappeared for two days, a week. A month.

All of which Annam had done, back when the company had begun, himself the first surveyor hired. Back when sometimes he’d pull fifteen and twenty insertions a week.

Back before Development had figured some things out, and the five-a-week mandate had begun.

He’d seen more than any of the present crew. Early on he’d mapped some of the big deaths—Kennedy and Lincoln both, Marie Antoinette, Julius Caesar—and had come back from those early insertions carrying in him the notion of truth, of what history meant.

People were involved. That was the truth. Not images of people, or words on people, or academic or religious or political manipulations. Only people. Kennedy’s hand brushing a lock of hair from his forehead, then raising it to wave the instant before. The relief in Lincoln’s laugh there in the box at the theater, him easing back in the rocking chair, Mary’s hand in his. Marie’s apology at stepping on the executioner’s toes, the brittle smile up at him. Caesar silent inside the clustered senators each with a dagger, his eyes open wide, mouth an O so full it had seemed to Annam a miracle there came no sound from him at all.


Surveyors came back to work, even after the worst insertions: Torrez from the heaps at Pickett’s Charge. Caseman from Justinian’s Plague, the Mongols catapulting their own infected corpses over the walls into Constantinople. Rhame from inside a chamber at Auschwitz.

There was extra pay for these duties, mapping the sites the company forecast would be the marquee venues. The demand travelers would make would more than compensate any residual effect surveyors might feel, provided they were paid enough.

 Even Rhame, who’d disappeared for six weeks after the Auschwitz insertion, came back.

Maybe it was the money they were paid. Or because the job was its own drug, being able to map for the first time in history history itself. To be the first, for fifteen minutes up to five times in one week, to see what had happened, and to possess before anyone else that information.

Or maybe because there were weeks like this one, when the company decided to find the making of works of art, and sent the crew into the field to find that beauty.

Sometimes there were good things to see: Salk giving first himself the polio vaccine, then his wife and their three boys there in the laboratory ante-room, smiles for the cameras all around; thin, pale Mozart in a green velvet coat with gold lace at the cuffs, waving down the applause before he lifts the baton to conduct the premiere of Don Giovanni at the National Theater in Prague; Basho seated on the lowland path outside Sarashina, before him his nighttime quest: the harvest moon above, beneath it that same moon reflected in the rice paddies. Enough beauty to last a thousand haiku.

There were good things to see. Like this day, this site a worthy way to have exhausted this week’s insertions.

Eight minutes left.

Fifteen paces, twenty, while still the objective stabbed at the canvas, then withdrew that hand, touched the back of his wrist to his forehead, wiped away sweat.

And now, like always when he entered the realm five meters around objective, that final insertion point he’d map once he’d gotten back to the blue room and entered the coordinates he’d work out, Annam saw them: the travelers.

They appeared as the thinnest sheen of tears in his eyes, these people who would opt as their destination this moment with Van Gogh. Judging from how thick the area swam with the wavelength disturbance every insertion caused—a disturbance so small travelers would not see it, Annam and the rest of the crew trained to note the shimmer and its depth—this was a lucrative site.

Travelers crowded Annam, invisible to one another, and to time. They moved about, transparent glimmers slowly swirling in and through and around Van Gogh, who touched the brush in his hand to the dark yellow pigment on the palette, then held it above the easel a moment.

This feeling, this awareness of the swarm of travelers, was always unsettling. Annam was the surveyor, the first OS to arrive at each demarked point in place and time. But because a point in place and time was fixed, here they were. Whether one day or a hundred years after he reported these coordinates, this moment with the objective, and this sky, these clouds, that towering cypress before him and the surprise of a poppy and another and another, would become—became—the convergence point for anyone who paid. Though any number of these glimmers could be people alive in his time, most of them were people yet to be born, people alive generations from now, all having ridden this wavelength strand to its end in a wheat field in 1889.

Unsettling, because the discovery was never a discovery, but the joining in of an invisible and silent excursion fully in progress.

Van Gogh touched the brush to the canvas then, quickly layered in the color on the bright white at the bottom of the canvas, the sky and its clouds—“Scottish plaid” he had written to Theo to describe the play of white and blue—already painted. The heat of a Provençal July beat down. A breeze moved the wheat in small waves.

What Annam knew of the truth of history was that people were involved. Van Gogh, when he painted this first Wheat Field with Cypresses—there will be three—sat alone on a gravel track and used the perspective frame to square up the composition. He wiped sweat from his brow. He paused above the gessoed canvas before filling in with crabbed and jerky motions the first dark yellow moments of the wheat field before him.

And what Annam knew of his own small role in history as its surveyor was this: Each time he discovered an objective, he was long dead, forgotten when the travelers he encountered there with him had, only moments before and in some future he could not know, handed over their credits, settled into a transport. Even though he was the one to have led them here. Even though he stood beside them right now.

Unsettling, because each time he arrived in the past, he was already dead to the future.

He closed his eyes, felt the sun in its path, sensed time in his fingertips. He felt his heartbeat, the track of a bead of sweat at his lower back.

Four minutes to survey end.

He opened his eyes, then moved into the painter himself, knelt into the objective to gain his line of sight, make certain this was the moment of creation. Marketing had its demands, no matter it seemed to Annam miracle enough to show up in time to watch the man paint. But if travelers were to pay, verification was paramount.

And of course there, in the perspective frame, was the reality of what would become the painting: the low mountains to the right, those two cypresses, an olive tree in the middle distance too. The wheat. The single poppies. And here at the canvas was Van Gogh’s hand at work, the wheat filling in. No mountains yet. But the sky, those white clouds piled high, and the cypress.

Objective verified.   

Then Annam stood, stepped away to get a more certain look at the swarm. There was no definite way to gather a headcount, the moving shimmers more a matter of depth than number. But Marketing needed a grade scale, and though it had always seemed to Annam more a matter of depth, and perhaps too of viscosity, of the apparent thickness of the air, the scale was only a number from one to one hundred. Salk, with its now and again shimmer while the cameras flashed, had been given a 3; the space inside final insertion point for the Kennedy assassination had been nearly gelid for the thousands already there on the curb in Dealey Plaza: ninety-five.

From where Annam stood beside the man he could see this was a middling swarm. A forty-five.

Survey finished. Perhaps a minute left. As planned.

He moved out of final insertion then, the quivering air disappearing as though it had never arrived, and stood again on a gravel track outside Saint-Rémy, beside him on either side wheat fields, a man painting at an easel before him.

He looked at the man’s eyes, focused, blue-green, sharp and purposed. His jaw was clenched, his eyebrows in a tight furrow.

He was alone. He was poor. He had a year to live. And he painted, making in this moment something that would change the world.

Annam looked to the cypresses again, the mountains. The wheat, gold in the summer heat.

Then he turned, started away down the track. He’d hit perimeter about the time survey was over. And as with each insertion, it was at this point he allowed in what he kept at bay in his waking life, the one in the blue room back at the company. What he kept away from the life he lived in his empty house, and the life he walked in the grocery aisles, the life he drove through on the tidal marshes and forests beyond the city once the research for the next insertion became the grind it so often seemed to become.

It was now that he allowed in his own piece of history, the part of him he kept as hidden as a treasure, one he’d buried to keep safe but that he resurrected in the last moments he set aside at the end of each trip into history, when he knew himself to be closest to his own death, swarmed with people alive after he was himself dead.

He thought of his wife, Mia, and of their daughter, Callie. Mia’s hand in his, the soft skin, the delicate bones. Callie in his arms, no weight at all and settled on his hip.

Both dead, as of this day, four years, three months and six days.

Why time wasn’t a worry. Why time didn’t matter. Let me pull fifteen insertions a week, he thought. Let me pull twenty. Thirty, or fifty.

Before him lay the sloping land of 150 years ago, down toward Saint-Rémy with its sharp steeple two kilometers away visible even here. Far beyond lay a low line of green hills, farmhouses here and there, hedgerows to separate fields.

He walked.

“Callie,” he whispered. Then, “Mia.”

Seconds now, only seconds left before—

But there, in the lane, there: something: a shimmer.

A traveler, outside final perimeter. He saw it, in the lane and twenty meters ahead.  A swirl, passing before him fast, crossing the road, the gravel ahead and steeple and hedgerow and far hills a momentary tremor.


He stopped, felt his heart go fast, his hands tremble for what this meant for the whole construct, the entire array.

He breathed in, and in.