Bad enough is that day in Spring when an hour is taken clean away from your life, and you can start a sneeze at 3 of the clock and finish it at 4, but worse, I've always felt, is that day in Fall when they purport to give it back. I don't know what sort of system is used, or how the hours are stored between times, but it's a right muddle. Not once have I gotten the right hour back. Nothing has helped; I've tried writing letters and burning them by the light of a quarter moon when the wind was towards the West; I've carefully written my name and address in indelible ink on the edge of the poor hour (which wept when it was taken). For all the good it's done I might as well have been trying to store light in a leaky barrel.
Not many are so tidy with time as I am, and I resent having to live through a strange hour filled with the crumbs and detritus of some one else's life. Still, there's a sort of fascination in sorting through each year and inventorying the contents of a stranger's hour.
The hour is both taken and returned at night in the hope, perhaps, that the transaction will pass unnoticed. Accordingly, it's common to find a dream or two, disconsolately kicking its heels at having been left like a bug in amber for half a year. I once spent nearly the whole of the stranger's hour vainly trying to comfort a prophetic dream which now found itself without purpose; the event which it was to foretell in brilliantly illusive and ambiguous terms had taken place during the late Summer. Worse, it was mostly in a language with which I am only vaguely acquainted, so many of the most poetic thoughts and references shot right past me.
Then there was the nightmare which, released from long imprisonment leaped at me with a gleeful roar, only to pull back in horror when it saw I wasn't it's intended victim and - even worse - that I am rather fond than otherwise of poisonous spiders. It took three shots of absinthe before it stopped shuddering.
Perhaps worse than the misplaced dreams are the sudden insights which find themselves in the wrong head. Some place in the world, I know, there is a person longing to understand the meaning of creation, and another who desperately wishes to know what Kathy sees in Jake. If I had their addresses I might write them; I would be more than glad to let the mystery writer know how it is possible that Lord Clutterbock was murdered while alone in the locked space station.
Most of my experiences with these stray hours have been interesting, though not without their distressing aspects. The hour passes, taking it's fading dreams or hopes or despairs with it, and I'm back in my own time, with which I have always maintained a relationship of formal politeness. The real problem comes when the hour that was taken holds someone's Death in it. A man's death doesn't fade wistfully away, or melt like a witch in soapy water. The hour goes and I'm left with an unemployed Death sitting there.
Sheer courtesy forbids me to shoo it out into the hallway. What would it do there at 4 in the morning? The three times I've confronted this situation, which is more common, I suspect, than the authorities let on, I've wound up with some stranger's Death sleeping in the spare bed. To be fair, they fold the sheets and clean up the next day.
You'd be surprised at how limited their job skills are. Sure, they can appear dramatically and extract a soul from it's mortal container and then lead it past innumerable hazards (the bridge made of knife-blades, the caverns of fire, the big sheep, and the like) to a realm of inutterable bliss or eternal woe, or a dimly-lit arcade where the soul plays a sort of skittles until its karma calls for it to be reborn, but none of these are much called for in the modern world. At least a passing acquaintance with word-processing would do them all a world of good.
I'll give them that they're a resilient lot. Once they're over the initial shock of having missed their intended target they're not afraid of a little hard work, and, with some advice from me and perhaps a loan (scrupulously paid back), they soon become hospital orderlies or prison guards or lunch room aides. I see them on the street sometimes - they've settled in the neighborhood - and they're always pleasant. I only hope if my death (which seems long overdue, though I'm not one to complain about such things) has met the same fate that someone has done the right thing by it. I hate to think of my poor death sitting somewhere, lost and cold, with no friend to give it a kind word or a good meal.