“Can I stay?”
He leaned against the jam of the door. Tweed against timber. Behind him darkness. Despite all my thoughts, now was the moment of choosing. My heart was beating loudly in my chest. I looked back at the room, the artifacts of my domesticity. In that second, somebody else in me said yes. The barrel of the gun over his shoulder, kissed the doorway as he slipped inside. The door closed and locked.
We sat in the darkness, by the fire. His face wrapped in shadow. Periodically the embers, finding some fresh unconsumed part of the log, would momentarily cast a greater light that tried in vain to penetrate the shroud. I searched how to make conversation without questions. The silence grew uncomfortable. I reached to the table for the knife, and some bread.
The wind was picking up outside. I searched the trees, darker shades of black set against the navy sky, for unfamiliar patterns. I knew that he had not found my door by accident, that he had been brought here by desperation and opportunity, that there would be others. The walls blinkered my view. I thought to get to a vantage point, from the windows upstairs, but I could not leave him.
He ate the bread without butter. Dirt trapped under his fingernails.
“Are you healthy?”
My grandfather’s clock marked the hour, unconscious of the need for silence. Staring into the fire, each avoiding the gaze of the other. Time passing. He sat hunched over in the darkness.
I remember kneeling beside my mother in the church as a boy, sitting vigil at midnight mass as Christ waited in the garden for them to take him. So unusual, to a boy, seeing all those villagers there, kneeling in the darkness. A single candle, a black cloth draping the cross. Even the priest is silent. All I can hear is breathing, I cannot tell whether it is mine or that of others around me. Two-hundred of us. My mother’s fingers pass quietly across each rosary bead. Her lips moving slightly as she prays in her mind. She seems to begin each prayer with my inhalation. I could feel him among us. Fingers through beads. Waiting through time. I must be slipping in and out of consciousness, perhaps I am sleeping and awakening.
I became aware again of where I was. I got up quietly and went to the kitchen to fill the teapot. I realized too late that there was now nothing between him and the stairs. The familiar sound of water filling a teapot. I returned. He had not moved. The flames reoriented as I nestled the vessel among the embers. I could see a white bandage peer from beneath his over-sized coat.
“Let me see that.”
It began to rain outside. I untied his rags.
“It was just some barbed wire on the hills.”
In that moment I knew the path he had taken to my door. I knew the way he had come, why and who he was.
“Were you followed?”
“I don’t think so.”
There was no moon outside. The water in the teapot began to boil. I reached for the old tea-caddy and stirred in two spoons and lifted the pot off the fire.
“It’s fresh, but I should scald it.”
I poured the boiling tea over his hand. The blood and dirt mixed with it and poured among the ashes. He bit into his bearded lower lip and said nothing. I reached into the closet for old rags lost among knitting needles and fairytale books. One of the needles fell to the floor. He stared at me briefly and then looked into the fire as I wrapped his hand in a fresh rag. He tilted his head wistfully as if studying how the flames consumed the remaining wood. Surrendering. I tied the knot. He looked at me, thanked me, and motioned to get up and leave.
It didn’t rain for three months in the summer of nineteen eighty four.
“This is how the Romans built drains,” he said.
His hands were leathery and he smelled like history. I smelled it again in the Cathedral at Rouen. They too were our people. He handled a large rectangular cuboid shaped stone. An igneous rock, with crystals glistening in the sunlight. His biceps flexed as he held it. Sinews. It made a sound as it hit the side wall of the long drain that stretched across the landscape like a scar. Schtumpf! The Romans never reached here. Then we came.
“One like that on either side, and then a flagstone across the top. Before the cement pipes, that’s how they did it. And it’s still useful when you come to a bend, a rock that can’t be destroyed or a whitethorn tree.”
You can’t cut a whitethorn tree. They are protected by legend, the love of the local people. Hunched heads over warm jars of hot sweet tea whispered stories about those that had cut them. It was how the people of the Goddess Dana got home at night. That’s what they used to say. The light bark caught the moonlight.
He moved forward two or three feet and repeated the process. Schtumpf! Gradually, under the golden sunlight, a secret underground waterway snaked through the heather.
“Layer pebbles, then small rocks and then bigger rocks and then topsoil. Then seed it and where once there was wilderness, you’ll have rich blue grass. Then milk. Then beef.
There was not a single cloud in the sky. A curlew flew over head. He bent back to look up at the small shadow cross in blue.
“She’s free. I’ve never seen a pair. I suppose there has to be another.”
Rain. Several cars were lined up at the traffic light. I sat in the passenger seat and stared vacantly at the glowing hue of their brake-lights. I would need a new grey pants for my uniform. School was starting again in a week. The last two years. Time to get serious. A large concrete block of apartments, some 13 stories tall. Entire families lived in each of those, supposedly. Why? A Citroen pulled-in to the side of road to get out of the way of traffic.
“They had great engineering, ahead of their time, but it meant no one could fix them.”
Airport. Just like Columbus. Ferdie and Isob. I was surprised that the yellow taxi-cabs looked just like the ones in the movies.
“What number on Madison?”
“1376. Thank you.”
Everything smells different. I might be inside a television. That strange feeling of knowing something you don’t, and how to talk to people you’ve never met before. You couldn’t get lost here if you tried. Everything is sign-posted. Highway. Faucet. Garbage.
“And you have a beautiful view of the city from here.”
The tea was weak. Have I ever been this high?
When the wind blows through blue grass it turns silver in the moonlight.