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Pietro Patroni's Temporal Binoculars

This is something that started off as an LJ entry, made a detour as a(n unsuccessful) submission to a magazine, and now returns to its earlier purpose: LJ entry.

While her father examined the various antique doors, complete with their door frames, leaning against one of the long walls of the curio shop, Sharon lingered at the front of the shop, attracted by the fanciest pair of binoculars she'd ever seen. They were standing on a tripod--itself quite fancy, decorated with paintings of men in slashed sleeves and striped doublets, holding falcons and mandolins and ornate cups--and facing out the display window. Through the eyepieces, Sharon could see Cold Spring’s town common, and on the far side of the common, an old-fashioned pickup loaded with hay.

“Hey Dad,” she said, knowing his love of old things extended to cars and trucks, “take a look at this truck!” Sharon glanced behind her when her father didn’t respond and saw that he was deep in conversation with the shop proprietor. A quick look out the window showed that the pickup had already moved on, in any case. But something was odd. Sharon bent to look through the binoculars again, then lifted her head and gazed directly out the window, then repeated this.

On the common, near the low spot that the fire department flooded each winter for ice skating, was the broad stump of a sugar maple that had only this summer been cut down. Through the binoculars, however, Sharon saw a tall, slim tree still decades away from the girth of the stump.

“Whoa,” she breathed. Carefully she turned the binoculars on the tripod, so they pointed diagonally across the common at the liquor store and pizza joint inhabiting the old building at the corner. When she peered through the eyepieces, the FedEx drop box beside the building was gone, as were the air conditioning units in the upper windows. Something about the roof of the building’s porch seemed blurred, but by twisting a butterfly-shaped knob in front of the eyepieces, she was able to make a long sign appear there, with peeling paint and faded letters. Another twist of the knob, and the letters appeared clear and crisp: “Bardwell Dry Goods & General Store,” the y of “Dry” and the e of “Store” ending in flourishes. Sharon gasped as a horse-drawn carriage appeared from behind the store. She tipped the binoculars to pull the scene beyond the store into view and saw apple orchards where a Laundromat, gas station, and nail salon ought to be. She turned the knob several times and the apple orchards dissolved into forest.

“Ah-ah-ah, careful with those,” said the proprietor. With a firm hand on Sharon’s shoulder, she moved the girl away from the binoculars. “They’re from the early eighteenth century, made by Pietro Patroni, the Italian pioneer in chrono-optics. They’re temporal binoculars.”

“So what I saw through them was--”

“Scenes of past days in Cold Spring. It was set for fifty years ago, but” the proprietor frowned down at the focus knob “it looks like you’ve put it back some 350 years.” Sharon’s father directed a meaningful glare at her, which Sharon ignored.
“At the end all I could see was trees,” Sharon said.

“Yes, go back 350 years, that’s all there was to see here. But Patroni’s Milanese patrons had centuries and centuries of Italian history to look at. Temporal binoculars were all the rage among the fashionable ladies and gentlemen of his day—they loved watching the pageantry of bygone eras.”

“Temporal binoculars are such wonderful research tools,” Sharon’s father said. Sharon grinned—it was a very her-father sort of thing to say. “I didn’t realize there were any that were so old,” he added.

“Yes, chrono-optics grew up alongside ordinary optics, but it was such an expensive technology that only the very wealthy could afford the instruments. They were treated as pricy playthings. I doubt their original owners ever used them for scholarship.”

“I’d rather go to the past than just look at,” muttered Sharon. “But not Cold Spring’s past. Too boring.”

“Chronodynamics is a whole nother kettle of fish,” said her father with a sigh. “Speaking of expensive technologies and playthings for the rich.”

“Would you like to test them?” the proprietor asked Sharon’s father, nodding toward the doors he had been examining.

“Yes, please. Let’s start with that one.” Her father pointed to a door made of three long, vertical boards, each at least a foot across, with lean triangular hinges and a type of latch her father told her was called “Suffolk.” The proprietor brought the binoculars over and set the tripod up before the door. She then opened the door, revealing—unsurprisingly—the wall of the curio shop against which it leaned.
“This door comes from a farmhouse overlooking the North Bridge on Concord River,” Sharon’s father told her. “If we adjust the focus to 1775, we should be able to see . . .” he twisted the knob “ . . . the moment when the Minutemen routed the British soldiers in the Battle of Concord.”

“But Dad, you’re pointing it at the wall. All you’re going to see is--”

“There! There! Look!” Sharon’s father was half-beckoning, half flailing with his left hand while pointing with his right at the pale yellow wall of the curio shop. He stood up to let Sharon look through.

She saw a high-arched wooden bridge, bare-branched trees, puffs of smoke, figures running, and the unmistakable scarlet coats of the British regulars, so familiar from school textbooks. There was no sound of muskets firing or men crying out, no scent of gunpowder or spring mud, and yet the scene seemed completely present. Sharon pulled back so her father could look through again. Her heart was racing.

“The door and frame are chronotreated,” the proprietor explained. “My own formula. The treatment means that if you focus the binoculars through the door, you can look in on the past seen from it.”

“That’s just, that’s . . . that’s amazing,” Sharon said.

“See, not all local history is boring,” her father said.

“Concord is the other side of the state. That’s not local. Cold Spring is still boring. Are all these doors from New England?”

The proprietor laughed. “Pretty much, yes. But you’re wrong about Cold Spring’s history. Did you know one of the first American missionaries to China was from this town?”

“Missionaries.” Sharon couldn’t help making a face. Her father gave her a mind-your-manners look.

“This particular missionary had a cousin who was fascinated by Chinese boats. The missionary had a Chinese hong boat taken apart and shipped back to his cousin. The cousin put it back together and sailed it for many years on the Connecticut River. It was passed down in the family and survived into the twentieth century, but was almost completely destroyed in the Hurricane of 1938. However--” At this point the proprietor strode to the very back of the shop and opened a door to a storeroom.

“The . . . door to . . . ” (panting a little as she carefully maneuvered something large and wrapped in burlap through the door) “the boat’s cabin . . . survived!” The proprietor unwrapped it triumphantly. The smooth, dark wood had a tiny, slatted window at Sharon’s eye height, with thin, translucent bits of shell set between the slats.

“It was made in Shanghai,” the proprietor said. “If we set the focus of the binoculars to, let’s see . . . oh, about 170 years ago, you should get a lovely view of the Huangpu River.

Sharon twisted the knob, and looked through the binoculars. She saw wide, tranquil river waters, rolling orange-and-yellow autumn hills, and red-brick factory buildings.

“I don’t think this is China,” she said, without looking up.

“Then you haven’t turned back far enough. Remember, this boat spent most of its life on the Connecticut.” Sharon fiddled with the focus, looked again, and caught her breath.

The moon was full, and moonlight glinted on river ripples, the masts of anchored ships, and the roof tiles of thickly clustered houses. But the scene was gradually changing—the boat was moving. A stone bridge loomed ahead, and on it Sharon saw a boy, wrapped up against what must have been a cold night, staring down at the river. He had a large, heavy-looking stone in his hand.

“He’s going to throw it! He’s going to throw it at the boat,” Sharon exclaimed, though neither her father nor the proprietor could see what she was seeing.
Then the boy’s eyes met hers. Not possible, Sharon told herself, but it was impossible to shake the impression. His eyes widened. He looked incredulous, confused. He leaned forward. And all the while, Sharon had the impression that his eyes and hers were locked. Then he was lost to view and the scene grew dark as the boat sailed under the bridge. The rock never left the boy’s hand.

“Who was he? Who was the boy on the bridge?” Sharon demanded, straightening up.
The proprietor shrugged. “Impossible to say. Impossible to know exactly what hour and day you were seeing, and many, many boys will have crossed whatever bridge you happened to be focusing on,” she replied.

“Could he see me? From the bridge, could he see me at the cabin door, looking at him?”

“You were looking at the past from the future,” her father said. “You could see him, but he couldn’t see you. It’s like opening a door a crack and peeking at what’s going on in the room on the other side—you can see everything, but if anyone looks at you, all they see is a slightly ajar door. Only in this case, you’ve got the time difference added in, so you’re even more obscured. He could see the cabin door, but certainly not you.”

“Not to mention that without chronodynamic manipulation, time only flows in one direction. You can see the light and images from centuries past because the lens collects and focuses it, but the boy in Shanghai has nothing on his end to pull in light from the future,” the proprietor added.

“I feel like he could see me,” Sharon insisted. A thought occurred to her. “If you’ve chronotreated the doors, can we go through?” she asked the proprietor. Her father and the proprietor exchanged glances over Sharon’s head, and her father smiled.

“Yes, it’s possible to go through them, but the person going through has to get chronotreated as well, and everything has to be calibrated very precisely. It’s quite expensive. The further away the location in time and space, the more expensive it gets,” her father said.

“Oh.” Crestfallen.

“I’m looking into a wedding anniversary present for your mother. Something much nearer in time and space, but even that may be beyond my budget,” he continued.
“I do offer financing,” the proprietor said. She took a brochure from a desk in the rear corner of the shop and handed it to Sharon’s father. “You can look this over in slow time and let me know.”

Sharon had lifted the collar of her t-shirt to her lips and was chewing on it, lost in thought.

“There’s no way I can get a trip through the cabin door?” she asked at last.

“Not on what your mother and I earn. Maybe you’ll make pots of money when you’re older. Go into chronodynamics—that’s a hot field. That would earn you the money—or maybe you’ll invent a cheaper way of making the journey.”

“You can come use the binoculars for as long as I have the door,” the proprietor offered, which, rather than reassuring Sharon, only made her panic. The door was for sale. Someone, someday, might buy it.

“Don’t worry,” the proprietor said, perhaps reading Sharon’s thoughts from her expression. “No one who stops by a curio shop in a ‘boring’ place like Cold Spring is likely to be able to afford that door. I make my money from people taking the sorts of trips your father is planning. In the meantime . . .” She was back at the desk, rummaging. “. . . why don’t you try this. Limited print run, never digitized.” She held out a small, clothbound book with Shanghai Sketches stamped on the cover. “It’s by Mrs. Eliza Brookman, the missionary’s wife. Perhaps you’ll be able to find out something about the boy on the bridge if you read though it.”

Sharon turned beseeching eyes on her father, who nodded.

“And so a scholar is born?” suggested the proprietor.

“We’ll see,” Sharon’s father said, tousling his daughter’s hair. Sharon took no notice. Having scanned the table of contents, she was turning now to page 35, “A Boating Excursion.”

An actual pair of binoculars by Pietro Patroni


( 37 comments — Leave a comment )
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Sep. 13th, 2015 02:42 am (UTC)
I very enjoyed that very much; thank you for sharing it!
Sep. 13th, 2015 03:01 am (UTC)
My pleasure--thank you for reading!
Sep. 13th, 2015 04:11 am (UTC)
What a delightful premise! I could see it making for a wonderful story.
Sep. 13th, 2015 11:06 am (UTC)
I think it could be used to great effect in a story. I like what heliopausa suggests, below. (I, alas, don't have a story to put it in--really I just wanted to describe the device and what it could do. I dreamed it! So this came from a dream.)
Sep. 13th, 2015 05:02 am (UTC)
What a wonderful story! Thank you for sharing.
Sep. 13th, 2015 11:04 am (UTC)
You're welcome--this is the thing I mentioned the other day. As I had suspected/feared, not quite right for the place I sent it too, but since I'd originally intended it for LJ, that's all right.
Sep. 13th, 2015 06:41 am (UTC)
I really do like all of this, but the last line is wonderful.
Sep. 13th, 2015 11:02 am (UTC)
Thank you! That makes me very happy.
Sep. 13th, 2015 08:51 am (UTC)
Thanks for sharing! The thought of looking back at the past and seeing someone look back at you gives me chills...
Sep. 13th, 2015 10:54 am (UTC)
Oh but I like it! A very personal connection across the chasm of time.
Sep. 13th, 2015 09:33 am (UTC)
The boy on the bridge! More to be unfolded, I take it.
The thin, translucent bits of shell in the windows are lovely - from a real window?

(I can't help thinking that the immediate use of the binocs in Milan would have been not looking at charming medieval pageantry, but to see what really happened (politically? personally?) in people's own social circles, just the night before - or thirty minutes before - or just before someone walked in the room!)
Sep. 13th, 2015 10:54 am (UTC)
I love your on-target imagination! I think you're right--though the binoculars, like ordinary, non-temporal binoculars, need to focus on something slightly distant in space, so you'd have to, for instance, focus them on the contessa's ballroom from a vantage point across the piazza. They wouldn't work so well with distances of under ten feet.
(no subject) - heliopausa - Sep. 13th, 2015 11:46 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - asakiyume - Sep. 13th, 2015 11:01 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - heliopausa - Sep. 13th, 2015 11:48 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - asakiyume - Sep. 13th, 2015 01:33 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - mnfaure - Sep. 15th, 2015 08:42 am (UTC) - Expand
Sep. 13th, 2015 12:40 pm (UTC)
What a fun story! Thank you for sharing it.
Sep. 13th, 2015 01:31 pm (UTC)
Thank *you* for coming to read.
Sep. 13th, 2015 02:19 pm (UTC)
Sep. 13th, 2015 05:19 pm (UTC)
Thanks for reading!
Sep. 13th, 2015 03:53 pm (UTC)
Thank you
Sep. 13th, 2015 05:19 pm (UTC)
Thank you--for reading
Sep. 13th, 2015 05:00 pm (UTC)
Sounds suspiciously like Elijah Coleman Bridgman.
The approach of the Chinese boats, and a sight of the people among whom he was to have his future home, interested him greatly, and occupied not only his waking but his sleeping hours.

Cool story. Makes me wonder if in fact you own a pair of these binoculars.
Sep. 13th, 2015 05:18 pm (UTC)
Ding-ding-ding! You got it right ^_^

Sep. 13th, 2015 09:24 pm (UTC)
What a beautiful pair of binoculars! No wonder you can see such visions through them...
Sep. 13th, 2015 09:43 pm (UTC)
They really are the creation of Pietro Patroni--but they're quite pricy. Probably a curio shop in Cold Spring could not afford them: http://www.christies.com/lotfinder/lot/an-early-italian-binocular-telescope-pietro-patroni-5723228-details.aspx
Sep. 13th, 2015 10:25 pm (UTC)
Mmm, what a lovely premise, and gorgeous descriptions! It does feel a bit drafty, I admit, but you've got the pieces there to develop into something quite unique and beautiful.
Sep. 13th, 2015 10:31 pm (UTC)
Maybe one day! At least I'll have the premise to go back to.
Sep. 14th, 2015 06:53 pm (UTC)
Might it turn into a novel?
Sep. 14th, 2015 06:59 pm (UTC)
Probably not, because while I liked the idea of the binoculars, I'm not (at this point) committed enough to pursue where the story would want to go--plus I have other novel ideas waiting in the wings that I *would* like to get to.

On the other hand, you never know!
Sep. 15th, 2015 08:41 am (UTC)
I love that you wrote this from a dream. :D I kept reading it too fast because I wanted to find out what else she was going to see.

And I love how the Sharon's own curiosity is launching her to learn something else, rather than being taught because other people think she needs to know it.
Sep. 15th, 2015 12:21 pm (UTC)
Yeah, in my dream, I realized that the farther back in the scene I looked, the farther back in time I was looking (which isn't how it works in this story, but...)

When I woke up I started thinking about telescopes, and how they let you look in the past--not because of any property of their own, but because the light they're capturing has been traveling so long. But still, it's looking at the past.

Thanks for reading!
Sep. 15th, 2015 11:56 am (UTC)
Sep. 15th, 2015 12:21 pm (UTC)
Thank you for reading <3
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