The Mitchell Theorem

Dutch painting[This story is a riff on “The Clock That Went Backward” by Edward Page Mitchell]

During my early teens, I was sent, for a week each summer, along with my step-mother’s son Henry, to stay with our Aunt Eva on Mount Desert Island. Every June, after the school year was over, my dad would drive us up from Boston. We would pass over the bridge to the island and stop to eat in the town. Afterwards, we headed out of town along the single lane road that drifted up into the hills in the center of the island. Eventually, we would turn down a rutted dirt path, not much wider than the car into the heart of the national park.

The house, made of local stone and wood, seemed to be as old as the surrounding forest. In fact, if you did not know it was there, you could drive by it without even seeing it, so well did it blend into its surroundings. It was a small, low building with a sharply sloping roof. Four small windows faced the road along with a short, but wide wooden door. The only other man-made structure that could be seen from the road was a flagstone path that ran from the road to the door.

Aunt Eva was as old as the house and the trees, at least that was what Henry and I told ourselves. We never knew exactly how old she was. I asked my dad once about her. He shrugged and laughed. “She’s probably 200 years old. I remember when I used to go visit her in the summer when I was your age. She looked exactly the same as she does now. Grandpa told me he remembered visiting her when he was young also.” The only thing that we knew for certain about Aunt Eva’s past was that she had a Dutch ancestor who came to America from Leiden with the Pilgrims. It was this ancestor who had brought the big clock that stood in the hallway near the living room.

The clock was a masterpiece of craftsmanship. Its wooden case was solid, yet delicately carved. The wood was stained a rich mahogany and covered with a veneer that, even several hundred years later, still reflected our faces when the afternoon sun slanted across the hallway. The glass case revealed brass weights that also seemed untarnished by the years. On its face, just above the ‘VI’, the maker’s name, ‘Master Pieter’ was written in spidery black lettering.

The most striking thing about the clock was that, despite the fact that is seemed in perfect working order, it never moved. Every year we went to visit, the hands were always on quarter past three and the moon always showed new. Aunt Eva said the clock had not worked since it had fallen over in one of the rare tremors that shake the island. We did not believe her. There was something in the way she said it, almost too quickly, that made us distrustful. There was also the sharpness with which she ended conversation whenever we suggested that she get someone in to take a look at it.

When we were sixteen, she caught Henry standing on a chair trying to insert the key we had discovered into the winding mechanism. She moved with a speed that I would never have expected from anyone her age. Before either of us had time to react, she was behind us. The hook of her cane caught Henry’s outstretched arm and jerked it back abruptly, causing him nearly to fall off the chair.

“Don’t you boys realize how dangerous that is?” she snapped.

Startled, we both looked at her blankly.

With a great effort, she returned to her normal tone of voice. “Please get off the chair Henry. It is very old and not stable. It could easily break and collapse.”

After that, the key disappeared and Aunt Eva kept a more watchful eye on us.

On the night before we were leaving, I woke up suddenly. “Henry, Henry,” I whispered as loudly as I dared to my cousin, sleeping in the bed next to me. “You awake? There’s someone in the house.” I heard him stir and sit up. There it was, again, the unmistakable sound of someone opening a door and the periodic squeak of a floorboard in the hallway.

“It can’t be Aunt Eva,” Henry whispered. “She never gets up at night.”

I fumbled for the flashlight under my pillow. Covering it with my hand, I turned it on and in the minimal light that leaked out around my palm, we got out of bed and made our way to the door. Carefully, Henry lifted the latch and pulled the door open a few inches. Our bedroom was at the back of the house. A short hallway led from it and the bathroom to main hallway. Silently, we crept down the hallway and peaked around the corner. One of the living room lamps was on and in its light we could see Aunt Eva standing on the same chair Henry had used earlier in the week. She reached into the pocket of her house robe and pulled out the key. We could hear the short, rapid gasps of her breath as she stuck the key in the mechanism and wound it up. She let go of the key and embraced the clock with both arms momentarily. We could hear her saying something in a low voice, but couldn’t make out the words. Then she stepped down off the chair, opened the glass and pulled one of the weights to set it in motion.

The clock shuttered and the mechanism began to move. Closing the glass, Aunt Eva stroked the carved pillars on either side of the door. She was singing to herself and laughing. In that moment, I had the distinct impression that she was much younger than I had ever seen her. Henry grabbed my arm so hard I almost shouted. I turned toward him, but suddenly turned back because his other hand was pointing at the clock.

The hands were running backwards. At first slowly, then faster and faster, they moved. Aunt Eva gave one last laugh and shouted, “Henrik, mijn liefde” before a bright flash of light suddenly blinded both of us, followed by bang that sounded like thunder.

When my eyes had readjusted, the clock had stopped. The hands showed quarter past three, just as they always had. Aunt Eva lay on her back, unmoving. We didn’t stop to think. Both of us ran into the kitchen and, trembling, I dialed 911.


Aunt Eva’s will left me a surprisingly large trust fund. Henry inherited the clock and a much smaller fund. My dad and his brother got the house on Mt. Desert Island. The clock stayed in the house on Mt. Desert Island, there being no reason to move it down to our house. After Aunt Eva’s death, we did not go back to the island and, to be honest, I pretty much forgot about the clock.

When we were both in our third year of college, we both decided to study abroad. There was an excellent science program at Leiden University, so I went to take courses in quantum physics and Henry, always the more practical and grounded one, studied chemistry.

After one year, we had both so taken to Holland and to the university there that we transferred completely. Much to my surprise, Henry insisted on shipping the clock over once we had rented an apartment. Despite everything that our parents or I said, he just said, “It seems right that the clock come home. I think Aunt Eva would have wanted it.” In the end, he took money from his fund to ship it over himself.

During my first year at the university, one of my professors, Pieter von Cronenburgh took an interest in me and my studies. He was in perpetual motion, engaged a constant dialogue with anyone who around about almost anything. One topic that he returned to regularly was time. Since I had become interested in how time is perceived, we often ended up in discussions after class. Once I had decided to stay in Leiden, he hired me to help program some of models for research he was doing in emergent properties of chaotic systems.

One night, just before the end of the first term, I invited Professor von Cronenburgh, or Pieter as he preferred to be called, to our apartment for dinner. After we had eaten, Henry came home with bottle of homemade limoncello from his Italian lab partner. We sat drinking this early Christmas gift in relative silence for a while. Suddenly Pieter got up and walked over to the clock. After studying it carefully for a few minutes, he turned to Henry. “Do you have the key?” he asked.

“No,” Henry said. “It disappeared when our Aunt died.”

Pieter turned back to the clock. “How much do you know about the history of Leiden?”

“Not much,” I said, a bit nonplussed at the sudden shift in conversation. “Certain university professors do not allow their students enough time for anything other than work,” I joked.

The professor did not respond. He tapped the glass of clock lightly with the tip of his finger. “In 1574, the Spanish laid siege to the city. The town very nearly surrendered, but finally, the Prince of Orange was able to lift the siege by destroying the dikes in the surrounding countryside and sailing a relief fleet over the flooded countryside. The night that the Prince’s fleet arrived, a part of the defensive wall gave way. The Spanish would have entered the city and started slaughtering the residents if one man had not sounded the alarm and rallied the citizens to defend the breech until the Prince’s troops arrived. That man saved the city.”

After that strange interlude, he returned to the table, poured more limoncello for everyone and the conversation drifted on to other topics. We had finished the bottle and started on Henry’s whiskey when Pieter turned to me.

“Do you know Mitchell’s Theorem?”

I shook my head.

Pieter sighed and muttered something about ignorant undergraduates.

“Well, Professor, are you going to tell me?” I asked.

“Mitchell’s Theorem proves how time can run both forwards and backwards. In its simplest form, it says that if we were to look at the four dimensions of our existence from outside, we could see that time is a relationship and the relationship is bi-directional. The past shapes the present, which shapes the future and the future shapes the present, which influences the past.” He pulled out his tablet and sketched a few graphs and formulas then passed it over to me. I did not understand most of it, but I knew enough to see that it was at least plausible and did not break any fundamental laws.

“Why have I never heard of this theorem?” I asked.

Pieter chuckled dryly to himself. “It is a bit too mystical for most people. It implies that we can transcend our plain of existence and become something else.” He paused dramatically, “Perhaps even God.” He finished his drink. “Besides, there is supposedly no way to prove it,” he said, getting to his feet. I had to admire his steadiness after all the alcohol we had consumed. He walked over to the table by the door where he had set his bag. After rummaging around in it for a few moments, he grunted in satisfaction and held up the key to the clock. “Let’s wind the clock back up,” he said. Henry and I sat dumbfounded as Pieter pulled his chair over in front of the clock, climbed up and wound it up. He stepped down and opened the glass. Turning to us, he said, “Come here. It’s time.” When we were standing next to him, he pulled the weight and started the mechanism.

I was suddenly aware of a noise like distant thunder. It was getting louder and louder. There were flashes of light all around and the shouts of people in a dialect of Dutch I had never heard before. There was one particularly loud explosion nearby. I felt the ground shake under me. Pieter grabbed my arm and pulled me after him. My shocked senses only dimly registered the fact that we were not in our apartment any more. We were outside, at night and the explosions that I had heard were a mixture of thunder and cannon fire. Pieter lead us through a maze of narrow, dark passageways until we came to one of the canals. Over a rickety wooden bridge and we were in by Pieterskerk. Here a group of burghers were gathered with someone who looked like a military officer. All of them were gaunt and sickly looking.

One of them looked up and saw the professor. “Pieter von Cronenburgh. Where have you come from?”

“From over there,” he said gesturing vaguely in the direction of where my apartment would be in a few hundred years.

The man did not say anything more but turned back to the group. I could not understand all of what they were saying, but I could pick up enough to know that they were arguing about whether to surrender or not.

The man who had spoken to Pieter was obviously in charge. He listened for a few minutes and then reminded everyone of what would happen if they surrendered. The Spanish were not likely to have any mercy and, as far as he was concerned, starvation was preferable to what the Spanish had in store for him.

While this was going on, Henry had been looking around. He suddenly grabbed my arm, “My God, It’s Aunt Eva!”

I followed his gaze and, sure enough, coming out of one of the streets leading into the square where we stood was a young woman whose face and bearing were exactly like Aunt Eva’s. She came up to Henry without hesitation and bowed her head in greeting to him. Henry returned the bow. Everything seemed to stop as I watched the two of them. It was the oddest sensation, I felt like I was watching a movie or looking at a painting. Then it came to me. It was a painting! I had seen it one day in one of the museums. It was a painting of a couple seated next to each other in front of a table laden with food. I had not really paid attention to it at the time, being more interested in the woman who had convinced me to go there. Now I realized that the people in the painting were Henry and Eva.

A loud explosion brought me back to what passed for reality at the moment. Something hit my arm hard, nearly knocking me over. Regaining my balance, I looked down to see a roof tile at my feet. It wasn’t until a minute later that I realized it had come from a nearby building that had been hit by a particularly energetic cannon ball. Suddenly, everyone was running. I took off after Pieter down one of the streets that ran north from the church. I had lost Henry and Eva. Shortly after, I lost Pieter.

For what seemed like hours, I wandered around the city. The winds had shifted direction, bringing with them the smell of the sea. At one point, I stopped to rest on a low wall. I was tired and I suddenly realized that my arm hurt. Looking at it carefully, I could see a nasty bruise where the tile had hit it. When I flexed my bicep, I nearly screamed. I just hoped nothing was broken. As I was trying to decide what to do, I heard voices and running feet. A group of men, armed with pikes and swords ran up the street near me. Following them, I came to a field. Up ahead, were the city walls, part of which had collapsed. There was fierce fighting going on between the citizens and what I could only guess were Spanish soldiers.

I watched the soldiers try repeatedly to get through the breach. Each time they were beaten back. More and more men were arriving from the city. Soon it was not just burghers, but soldiers, Dutch soldiers. The Spanish were pushed back.

When the sun finally rose, the siege had lifted. I found my way back in the square in front of Pieterskerk. Barrels of fish and bread were lined up and people were eating for the first time in months. On the church steps a cluster of people had gathered. I saw Henry standing there with his arm around the woman who looked like Eva. Next to him was Pieter and the man who I thought was the mayor. I turned to someone standing next to me and asked in my best Dutch who that person was. He looked where I was pointing and said, “That’s Master Pieter, the clock maker.”

A cheer went up from the crowd as everyone turned toward Henry. My companion cheered also and suddenly hugged me. “He saved Leiden. The Englishman sounded the alarm when the wall was breached.”

“Englishman? But Henry is American,” I started to say, but the words never got out. My head started to spin. At first I thought it was the pain of having my arm grabbed, but there no pain. Everything started to become indistinct. I tried to reach out toward Henry, but he was too far away. Suddenly there was darkness and silence.


I am sitting alone in the apartment, watching a video of Edward Mitchell lecturing.

“We always talk about the influence of the Sixteenth Century on today. What we never discuss is the influence of the Twenty-first Century on the Sixteenth. Does cause and effect always run in one direction only? Does it not seem reasonable to believe that the past, present and future are in relation with one another, and that these relationships are reciprocal?”

I look up from my notebook and stare at the silent clock, my only companion in Leiden now.

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