Aphelion Issue 265, Volume 25
September 2021
 
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The Keeper of the Plains

by Allison Wall





The spring my mom had cancer, I started working at a coffee shop called Meade's Corner. That's in downtown Wichita, Kansas, a mile from the convergence of the Big and Little Arkansas Rivers. That's Ar-kan-sas. Across the state line where Kansas turns into Arkansas, it's Ar-kan-saw, but on the Kansas side, the river is pronounced like the state.

The rivers aren't much to look at. Most times the one along McLean Boulevard is so dry it's all puddles and sandbars. Canada geese camp on them, stepping their black webbed feet in and out of the shallow water.

I saw the Keeper of the Plains for the first time at Meade's. I opened at Meade's on a Sunday morning. Frost sparkled on car tops and shingles, but it would melt before noon. Jamie had called in late; she'd missed Daylight Savings, classic Jamie, so I was pulling double duty. We weren't busy early on Sundays, so I noticed when he came in. He was thin, maybe a little taller than six feet, with lank brown hair to his shoulders. He wore loose jeans with unlaced high tops, no socks, and a red flannel shirt rolled up at the elbows. He didn't have a jacket.

Because Meade's is downtown, a lot of homeless people come in and out for a free glass of water and a controlled climate. I assumed he was one of those, and ignored him.

Then he was at the register. "Skim cappuccino with an extra shot." His voice was raw, as if he hadn't used it yet today, hadn't slept enough the night before, and was working up to a cold.

"Three sixty-seven," I said, skeptical that he'd actually produce payment.

He reached around to his back pocket. Out of a tattered leather wallet, he pulled four ones.

I dealt with the register and handed back his change. "It'll be out in a minute."

"Thanks," he said.

I glanced up at his face.

His dark eyes were red-rimmed, but sparked, like they caught up the light around them, and glowed.

While the steamer frothed, the man hung around the newspaper stand, picking at this one and that.

"Skim cappuccino, extra shot," I called, and he took it to a high table across from the counter with two stools. He stared into that cup like he needed that cappuccino worse than I had ever needed anything in my life.

Jamie came in the back door. "How's it going?" she asked, tying on an apron.

I shrugged. "Not too bad."

She grabbed my arm and ducked behind the espresso machine. "You didn't tell me the Keeper of the Plains was here," she hissed.

"What? Who?"

"The guy in the red shirt."

"That's the Keeper of the Plains?" I whispered. "I thought he was homeless."

Jamie's eyebrows shot up. "What did you do?"

"I didn't do anything! He ordered and paid and I took his money and made his coffee." I ran my fingers through my hair. "Wow. I made coffee for a wizard."

"He prefers sorcerer." She bobbed up to peek at him. "God, what did he order?"

"Skim cappuccino with a shot."

Jamie sighed. "I could have made the Keeper of the Plains a cappuccino."

I stared at the tile.

Jamie nudged me. "What?"

"He looked strung out." Like Mom after a round of chemo. I pushed the thought from my mind.

"Maybe sorcery requires long hours," Jamie said. Customers approached the register. She straightened her apron, and said, "Hi, what can I get you?"

Everyone glanced at the Keeper of the Plains as they passed. I thought about the way his eyes had been full of light and wondered if that's what was attracting their attention. I meant to walk past his table to get another look, but when I had a free minute, he was gone. I cleared his cup and saucer, wiped the table. Invisible traces of him hung around. Customers glanced at that table the rest of the day. No one sat at it.


* * *

I had to tackle Monday rush hour alone. Jamie had not remembered to actually change her alarm clock and was late again. The busyness kept me from thinking about Mom, so I didn't mind. Somewhere in the middle of the morning, I looked up with a harried, pasted-on smile, and made eye contact with the Keeper of the Plains.

"Oh, you're back," I said, like an idiot. "I mean, good morning."

His eyes were red-rimmed as before, but puffy. No light sparked in them at all. "Skim--"

"Cappuccino, extra shot?"

"Yeah." He reached for his wallet.

"On me," I said.

"Sure?"

"Sure."

The coals in his eyes glowed, as if someone had blown them to life. "I appreciate it."

I got lost in an infinite row of orders. Jamie finally showed, and I ran to bus tables. At one, there was a napkin scrawled with ink in strange symbols, and at the bottom, "To the barista: one medium-sized blessing of her choosing to be granted at the tearing of this paper."

I stuck it in my apron pocket and showed it to Jamie later that afternoon.

She held it in her fingertips. "You got an I-O-U from the Keeper of the Plains! How did you do that?"

"He looked out of it, so I paid for his drink."

"He gave you a blessing, Olivia. Whatever you want, all you have to do is wish for it and rip the napkin."

I frowned. "Just like that?"

"Just like that."

My heart beat upward, in the direction of hope. "Could it heal someone?"

Jamie peered at the napkin. "It does say medium-sized, so probably nothing crazy."

"Right." Of course not. Ripping a napkin couldn't erase cancer. I took the napkin back and shoved it into my jeans pocket.

"Careful!" Jamie said. "Don't rip it before you're ready. You'll end up with something awful like endless Thai food or a world without men."

"You really think a napkin could do all of that."

She looked at me. "The Keeper's napkin could."

I thought about the Keeper, eyes bloodshot and dim, hair greasy, stumbling through the front door. He wasn't in any position to be handing out blessings. Especially those that weren't wanted.


* * *

I watched for him the next day, but he didn't come in. Nor did he come in the day after that.

During a late-morning lull, I asked Jamie where the Keeper of the Plains lived.

"He usually hangs out around that big island monument at the river, about a mile that way." Jamie pointed. "Why?"

"He hasn't come in for two days."

Jamie smiled. "Olivia, he's a sorcerer. He can take care of himself."


* * *

When I got off for lunch, I walked to the river. The day was warm. White blossoms unfolding themselves at the tips of bare tree branches promised spring. I crossed the footbridge to the man-made island between the Little and Big Arkansas rivers. We hadn't had rain in a while, and the sound of running water beneath was faint and far away.

Long-legged herons stood motionless in the current, watching the island's shallows for fish. The city rose across the water, a modest collection of old stone and new concrete, glass office windows catching the sun.

The footpath wound around the island, away from downtown. The Keeper sat on the wrong side of the guardrail. He dangled his legs over the water. Bud light bottles and McDonald's wrappers lay near him in the rocks. A cigarette smoked between his fingers.

"Excuse me," I called.

He flicked cigarette ash into the water below.

"Keeper of the Plains?"

"Yo."

I hopped the rail and clambered down the rocks. I crouched a little way from him.

He stared out into the distance. "You shouldn't be down here. Not safe."

"You're down here."

He took a drink from one of the bottles at his side.

"I'm the barista," I said. "From Meade's. Olivia."

He looked at me sideways.

I watched the water, splashing against the rocks. "I don't know your name," I said.

"Sorcerers don't have names."

"Your mother didn't name you Keeper did she?"

He laughed once through his nose. "She did not."

Water plished against the concrete foundation beneath the Keeper's feet. I started to get the feeling I had pushed my luck too far. I stood to go.

He extended his hand up to me. It was brown, but clean. "Rich," he said, and blew cigarette smoke away from me.

"Olivia," I said, and took his hand. I almost expected to feel a shock of electricity, shaking hands with a sorcerer, but nothing happened. I took his napkin from my pocket. "I came to ask about this."

He smirked into his cigarette. "Don't want it?"

"No, it's not that. I just..."

"You don't believe in it. Don't blame you." He drank from his bottle, paused, and then offered it to me.

"It's a little early." And sharing bottles of God-knows-what with strange sorcerers wasn't really my thing, but I didn't say that.

The Keeper squinted up at the sun. "It is early. Must be a bad day." He drank again. "Or a bad month," he mumbled.

I squatted down again. "What do you mean?"

He gestured down at the river. "Not enough disparate energies to untangle."

"Disparate energies?"

He hit me with an intense stare. His gaze was pointed at my face, but went in and out of focus, like he was looking at me, then through me, at me, through me. Finally, he sighed and rubbed his forehead.

"You find 'em where two things meet. Where the wind meets the clouds. Where the rain meets the earth." He kicked a loose rock down into the water. "Where one river meets another. Hot, cold. Earth, sky. Wind, rain, but you can pull them apart, run 'em through you, use their energies. Harvest, harness."

His voice had an accent, not Texan or Oklahoman, but that lazy Kansan drawl that brightens A vowels, slackens the ends of words, and pushes Rs back in the throat.

He flicked his cigarette into the river. "That look like a source of power to you?" He laughed, and his words began to slur together. "It's so low you could walk across it. How the hell am I supposed to keep anything with the river like that? Time was I could have built the biggest thunderstorm this side of the Mississippi. Watered the prairie, pulled wildflowers into the sunshine, but today?" He jerked the napkin from my hand. "I couldn't have granted this puny goddamn blessing. Why do I even bother?"

He took the bottle by the neck and threw it. It smashed to pieces on the concrete.

I scrambled back from the broken glass.

The Keeper stared out across the water, motionless.

"I have to go," I said. I hopped the guardrail and power walked the mile and a half to my car. The whole way, all I could think of was Jamie, a condescending smile on her face, telling me that sorcerers could take care of themselves. It seemed that if anything, sorcerers needed extra taking care of.

I told myself that it wasn't my responsibility. That Rich wasn't my responsibility, but the fact that I knew his name, that he had told it to me and shaken my hand made me unsure. Did he tell everyone he met about disparate energies? Show everyone his wild frustration? In Meade's he kept to himself.

He had been drunk. His confiding in me was nothing more than drunken ramblings. He would have talked to anyone that walked by. I wasn't going to get involved. I had enough problems without taking on any of his.


* * *

When the Keeper of the Plains stepped up to the cash register on Friday, his eyes were sunk in dark circles, but his clothes were neat and his hair was combed and tucked behind his ears.

I played it stiff and formal. "What can I get you?" I said. He might not remember our interaction yesterday.

"I think I owe you an apology," he said. "The day wasn't good, and I took it out on you. You didn't deserve that. I'm sorry."

Behind me, Jamie's movements slowed and stopped. I picked at the edge of the counter with my thumbnail. "It's all right."

"It's not." He glanced at the clock. "You ever get breaks?"

"Sure." I was due for one soon. I had been there since six.

He smiled outright. "Let me buy you a coffee then."

"You don't have to--"

"I insist." He shifted his feet. "It seems I'm indebted to you on several counts and sorcerers don't like to be indebted. Coffee won't make us even, but it's a start."

I turned to Jamie, who was staring at me, open-mouthed. "I'm taking my break," I said. I sat down at a corner table across from the Keeper of the Plains.

"I hope I didn't scare you yesterday," he said.

I turned my cup by the handle.

He squinted. "Are you scared of me now?"

"Well, breaking glass isn't exactly reassuring," I said. "I don't know anything about you. I don't know what you're going to do or say."

"You're honest."

"Didn't think I should lie to a sorcerer."

His lips twisted into a smile. "I wouldn't know if you did. My skills have more to do with the grass and the earth, and those things are disappearing." His smile turned wry. "Used to be ten of us in Kansas. I'm the last one."

"Why? Where'd they go?"

"The prairie's being eaten alive by oil drills and pesticides. It's hard to watch. They couldn't, so they left."

I frowned. "Why don't you?"

Rich sighed. "I wonder that myself, sometimes, but then the sun sets in lavender light and the moon rises and the whole universe goes still. The grass whispers in a breeze. I'll stay and watch until the last blade of it is paved over into a parking lot. Even if it breaks my heart."

I drank my coffee.

"So, Olivia," he said, settling lower into his chair, "what do you want?"

I thought about Mom, home throwing up alone, and chewed the insides of my lips. "I don't want anything."

He clicked his tongue. "Not true. Everyone wants something."

"I guess I mean the things I want aren't things. Money, cars, diamonds, any of that." I paused. "I want it to be four o'clock on a Saturday, in autumn, leaves just starting to turn, birds singing, wind chimes blowing, and for it never to end."

Rich's head tilted to one side, his eyebrows drew together. "What is ending, Olivia?"

I pushed my hair back and looked away. "Nothing."

"Who then?"

I didn't think about it. I just told him. "My mom. Diagnosed with stage four lymphoma six months ago. She has another six with chemo." I smiled down at my lap. "A medium-sized I-O-U on a napkin wouldn't quite cover it."

"No." His voice was quiet.

"I think about all those beautiful days I wasted, staying in because I had more important things to do. Days I let go without appreciating them."

On the other side of the window, a monarch glided by, casting its shadow on the sidewalk below.

Rich folded his hands and leaned his forearms on the table. "I can't cure your mother," he said, his voice concentrated and dense.

I blinked. "I didn't ask you to."

He smiled. "Not yet."

The knowingness in his voice irritated me. "I should get back to work."

"Sure, sure." He pushed his back and stood.

"I didn't mean to tell you all of that," I said, and glanced up into his face.

"Then we really are even," he said. "Though you unburdened yourself with much more grace, and sober, which is admirable."

I smiled. "Thanks, I think."

Rich bussed my cup to the counter and left, waving over his shoulder. The door closed behind him. Jamie grabbed me by the arm and steered me into the back.

"What is going on?" she hissed in my face.

I leaned away. "With what?"

"He's too old for you. Not to mention a sorcerer. Guys like that are dangerous, Liv. Unpredictable."

"We're not dating!"

Jamie narrowed her eyes.

"Why would that even cross your mind?"

She folded her arms. "You two, talking like you'd been in a fight. You two, sitting in the corner, in deep conversation."

"So we're obviously lovers. That's ridiculous, Jamie! I bought him a coffee, and he wanted to return the favor, that's all. I haven't seen him in days."

"Then what was he talking about when he came in? What was he apologizing for?"

Jamie didn't need to know I'd seen him drunk, or that he'd freaked me out. That'd just be fuel for her over-protective sermon. "I spilled his coffee the other day and he was rude about it."

"When?"

"You weren't here. You were late."

"There's nothing going on between you and the Keeper."

"No!"

She held up her hands. "I had to ask."

"Did you?" I glared.

Jamie swept out of the pantry and called, "I love you!"


* * *

I had the weekend off, but spent it in the hospital. When I went back to work, the chaos of rush hour was pleasant. I used it to distract myself from Mom's new prognosis, that the next time she came home, it would be because she was beyond human help.

An hour before the end of my shift, wind began to roar. A thunderclap shook the building. Jamie came in, soaking wet and carrying a broken umbrella. "I almost didn't make it," she said, shaking her hair. "That wind is crazy. The back roads are already flooding."

"Do you mind if I go early?" I asked her.

"Get out while you still can. There's nobody here anyway."


* * *

Wind drove the rain sideways in sheets. In the west, a low, thick bank of black cloud threatened the gray sky. The light had a sick, green cast. All the symptoms of tornado: hot and cold air, disparate energies if I understood the concept, twisting together. One of the most powerful forces of nature. This might be the best chance I was going to have.

I left my car and followed the water pouring down the street. The rivers were high, closer to the footbridge than I'd ever seen them, and roaring. I sprinted across the bridge. Rich stood at the guardrail, staring west. His hair clung to his jaw and forehead.

"Rich!" I yelled over the storm.

He spun around. His eyes surged with electricity.

I shouted, "My mom is dying. I wasn't asking before, but I am now. Save her. No one else can." I think I was crying, but the pelting rain and wind hid my tears, even from me.

The Keeper didn't move. Wind whipped and pulled at the edges of his unbuttoned shirt.

I pointed at the wall cloud. "Isn't that enough power?"

The wind gusted, twenty miles an hour faster. Hail rattled on the pavement. Somewhere, a tornado siren began to howl.

Rich caught my hands and pulled me to the ground in the slight lee of landscaping and railing. He shook his hair out of his face. "Stay down."

Through the wind and rain, Rich stood, the Big Arkansas River on his right, the Little on his left. Slowly, he raised his arms, one at a time, right then left. He planted his feet, and pushed.

The wall cloud thinned. The Keeper pushed twice more, and the wall cloud dissipated. The unhealthy green dissolved, and the wind settled into a steady gale. Rain pattered softly into the river. Rich slid next to me on the ground, leaning against the rail. His eyes glowed.

"What did you do?" I said.

He panted. "Stopped it forming a funnel. Winds could have taken it either way. Just needed a little push."

I scooted back. "But you could have used it. The disparate energies?"

He watched the clouds blow across the sky. "That kind of power is wild. Untamable. It would be like trying to light a candle with a torch blower. The whole candle goes up in flame."

"How do you know?"

He looked at me. "I know."

"You didn't even try."

He held out his hand. "Olivia, it would have wiped out the city. People could have died."

"My mom will, thanks to you." I didn't care if he saw me crying now.

"That's not fair."

"No," I said, "what's not fair is busting into my life with blessings and power and disparate energies, asking me what I want, when you can't do squat about it."

I ran, the twisting pain in the center of my chest forcing sobs through my throat, and when I found my car, I had to wait ten minutes before I could see enough to drive.


* * *

Jamie tossed a folded piece of paper at me when I came in. "Your boyfriend knocked on the door fifteen minutes before open. Left you a note."

The paper was wrinkled and the ink smeared. I picked it up, unfolded it.

Olivia,

This dying time is part of life. Don't waste it. She needs you as much as you need her. Embrace the disparate energy around you.

Won't be by for a while, which maybe is best. I am sorry.

Rich


* * *

I told everyone at Meade's about Mom, and turned in my two-weeks notice. I needed to be at home with her. Everyone was shocked and very understanding. Jamie was mad I hadn't told her, but she didn't say anything about it.


* * *

A month or so after the funeral I came in to Meade's for coffee. Jamie hugged me, and jerked her head toward the back of the shop. I glanced in that direction, and saw Rich. He wore a puffy green vest and black stocking cap to guard against the winter wind. I took my coffee to go.

I still see him around sometimes, but it doesn't feel right to approach him. Maybe someday, I'll head down to the river to watch the sunset. I'll tell him I'm the one indebted to him. That I would have missed the last moments of my mom's life because I was too scared to watch her die, and that he gave me the courage to sit by her. He'll smile, and say that if I stick around long enough, our roles will be reversed.

But not yet. There are some things you can't force. They just happen.


THE END


© 2016 Allison Wall

Bio: Ms. Wall is a science-fiction and fantasy writer finishing an MFA in Creative Writing at Hamline University.  Her story "Flann Brónach and the King’s Champion" will be coming out in Metaphorosis in September. You can follow her on Twitter.

E-mail: Allison Wall

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