Of all the books to be reading right this now, “Doomsday Book” by Connie Willis, which I was about two thirds of the way through already, might not have been the best choice of bedtime reading matter this evening. The story is set at Oxford University a century or two in the future; the History Department has a working time machine, and the head of Medieval History, your typically shortsighted, microfocused university department head, takes advantage of the fact that it is Christmas vacation and he is acting head of the whole History Department to steal a march on Twentieth Century History and send one of his university students back to the year 1320, to a small nearby village which is currently being excavated, to see what it was really like. The student is more than willing to go and she (yes, it’s a woman, going back in time to Medieval England — what’s wrong with that picture?!) is exceptionally well prepared (all things considered). Of course, never mind that Middle English is actually pronounced nothing like the Middle English Expert has taught her it was, that she can read and speak Latin when the village priest can’t (he’s memorized the mass by rote), and never mind that the coordinates got set wrong because the Medieval Head has less of a notion of what time travel is about than your average random person on the street and used an intern to set the coordinates and parameters of the time machine rather than somebody who actually knew what they were doing, and never mind that instead of arriving at her target little village near Oxford a couple weeks prior to Christmas 1320, she arrives a couple weeks prior to Christmas 1348, at the exact time when the Black Death came to that little village, what could possibly go wrong?
It’s an incredible story, and you aren’t 10 pages into it before you’re thinking, Duh!, how could this book not be nominated for and then not win both the Hugo, and Nebula awards. It’s that good. (It’s one of those books where opening the cover and starting the first page is like getting into a roller coaster car, and by the third page, the chain drive has engaged and you’re heading up the incline to the first big drop and the story is not going to turn loose of you until the ride’s over.) But, it’s about the Black Death, for crying out loud, and about a young woman from our future being dumped into the ignorance, superstition, brutality and squalor of Medieval England at the time of Chaucer (and in the meantime, unbeknownst to her, in her present, they’re having an influenza epidemic and key people are getting very sick), and when she finally realizes what year it actually is, she realizes they’re going to open the time portal 28 years too early, and she’s going to be trapped, and all these people she has come to know personally — men, women and children — are dying horribly and inevitably around her of a really nasty disease and there is literally nothing she can do to stop it.
The book has fully-realized, eminently believable characters, a rock solid plot, and a writer who has all kinds of chops, but people die in it of a brutally hellish disease, and the people around them are totally helpless to do anything about it. Not the kind of thing to take one’s mind off what happened 10 hours ago. I was too wired to sleep before I finished reading the book and put it on the bedside table, and I’m still too wired to go to sleep, despite have had little in the way of sleep except 2-3 hour naps for the past couple of days because I knew what I was going to have to do and when I was going to have to do it. I know it is the best, most humane decision I could make under the circumstances, but I am right in the middle of having to live through that decision and the emotional train wreck of its consequences. Again.
I have this very fat black cat lying beside me on the bed, and the motion of me putting the book aside suggests to him that since I now have nothing to do, I obviously need to give him scritches for at least an hour or two. So I beach this whale on my chest and scritch the top of his head and his cheeks and under his chin, and he’s blissing out big time.
And then I say to him, “It’s just you and me, now, fat boy. Just you and me.” And the dam breaks, and I’m just sobbing and sobbing, because all I can think of is the visual memory of this big male tech who’s got my little baby girl kitty by the scruff to hold her still so the vet can fit the syringe into the IV port in her foreleg and slowly press the plunger, and I have this tactile memory of having her in my lap helping to hold her, and her thin little body struggling in my hands, and then all of a sudden, she’s just limp weight, and I’m cradling her little body in my hands while the vet listens for a heartbeat that isn’t there any more.
There’s this breathless, suspended, slowmo instant between the realization that you’re going to crash into something, and actually crashing into it. I’d been in that moment ever since I walked out of the vet’s office until I was lying in bed scritching the black one and said that, and then — trainwreck, And I’m thinking if I hadn’t been in Petsmart that night buying cat food . . . if that little 8- or 9-year-old girl had not walked right up to me as I’m standing in the checkout lane and just handed me this little black kitten with a white tip on his tail, I would be alone right now. I already had three cats. I didn’t need four. I could have said, “Thanks, but no thanks.” Instead, I put him against my chest, got out of line, went back and got a bag of kitten kibble, wrote the check for the $40 adoption fee, and got the ferret cage out of the storage building.
During those agonizing moments in the vet’s office after we were shown back to the conference room and left to wait, when I was petting the grey kitty through the top of the carrier, talking to her and trying to calm her (with that damn yappy little dog yapping incessantly a wall away), I was talking at her (and to myself), about how she was going to be going to where the white one was, and where the black stripey one was, and that they would all three be together again, like they were for over three years before I brought that obnoxious little black boy home with me that night in September of 2007. Well, he’s an obnoxious big fat black boy now (who’s going on a diet as soon as the last of the hairball formula kibble gets eaten up), and he’s it. I’ve never had just one cat. I started out with two mackerel tabbies, littermates, which I had for two years, then got the white one and had three for about eight years, then four for a couple of years, but I’ve never had just one. And he’s never been the only one. We’re both in for a period of adjustment.