Aphelion Issue 235, Volume 22
December 2018
 
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All Paths Lead Home

by Stephen Faulkner




In the morning, I begin my day. Nothing unusual in that, all is right as it should be. The day will go on and I shall follow one of the paths, roadways or trails and travel maybe some ten, twelve or even fifteen miles on my trek depending on my pace and the severity of the terrain. Then I shall sleep, as befits the end of any normal day. Food, travel, sleep and there is the end of normality for, no matter how far I will have gone from the starting point during those ten or more daylight hours, through the night while I sleep, through some magical spell or some other great power of which nothing is known or, at least, not intimated to ordinary folk, I am whisked back to the place I had vacated so many hours before, only to wake here, under these same blankets that always seem to tuck and fold themselves about my shoulders like a mother’s caress, always in that same, straw mattress bed, on those same soiled smelling sheets.

I have tried so many times to leave here but it is always the same, no matter how much distance I put between myself and this rambler’s forgotten storefront home. Always the same morning the following day with the same sun shining heavy and morose above me, beating down like a boiled cloth. So far it has been a month of running, getting away with so many roads to choose from, a new direction each day. All the hopeful routes to take me elsewhere, to another feeding ground seemed, in the beginning, endless possibilities, ever present and tantalizing in all their promise but no matter the distance, the number of mountains and hills and valleys crossed there was always that invisible nighttime hand, silent and forceful, dragging me through wakeless, fitfully poised slumber back, back, back across all those stretches of land and water that I had traversed at such a cost of time and energy spent, wasted in getting to that secluded forest glade or that burbling streamside encampment or the homestead of that family of so many caring, generous folk; another time it was that farm where I was allowed the use of dry hay piled in the barn for my bed for the night or wherever I had managed to get to at the end of my day. To sleep…. And then I would be back “home.” And it was that, when I think of it – home. I know by its insistence, its untenable hold and force over me. Home: it holds, it keeps, it feeds on me, I am drained almost as soon as I awaken in this tumble-in-upon-itself shack, this old crossroads storefront with planking covering its window frames out of whose boundaries glass and sealings had been shattered, forced inward over the flagstone floor by hurled stones and clods of dried, flaking earth.

The first day, yes and perhaps the second, too, I was needed there to clean the place up, to repair the shingles that had loosened and slid from the roof, to replace the rotting walls with new planking, the tools and nails and lumber already at hand in the lot nearby but now – what? The place is as decent as I can make it. Glass for the blown out windows? Is that what it asks of me? There is no glass to be had for such a project and, even if it were, I am no glazier. Home, this place, must realize that. Does it—and I speak of it as if it were a mindful, thought producing entity but how else should this place, my forced home, be regarded? Does it expect me to till the land, the fields that surround the place on two sides? To grow food enough for myself and more, perhaps to sell? Really, though, to what purpose? There are no other homes, no neighbors within carting distance with whom I might barter my goods and, as for myself, it, that unseen hand, is my provider. Every morning, waking as always, I find a meal, variegated in the many, tasty forms that they take, awaiting me at the wobbly table in the center of that single back room. I have searched for the invisible chef intermittently for the first few mornings, though I was always in a rush to leave. It was a nice place to visit but…. Always a meal, a breakfast prepared from a vast, secreted plenitude. There is no need of farming here.

Then, what? The interminable, unanswerable query. What? Tell me. But as always there is no answer in any form. But that all can wait. Day begins. I will leave here, be on my way again – a new hill to climb, river to cross, night to spend where I will find myself. I shall leave this notebook on the table for any person who might come and find it, spirit it away. No matter. That person will probably be – and all logic points in that direction – me, placing pen to familiar paper once again as I eat tomorrow’s sumptuous morning meal.

Tomorrow morning, breakfast at “home.” Home, tomorrow – getting up, getting ready for my next long walk. Yes. But how can I get around it?


*****



Daybreak again and I say, “Hello, old shack, my unwanted home.” Sitting on my stool, blowing on and slurping my soupy breakfast stew of eggs, bacon, chicken stock and cheese, I write.

Yesterday I took a new trail, one of the last in what a month or so ago seemed an endless array of possibilities of travel and stopping, sojourning and moving on; now there are only a few left to take in order to get me away from this hub, this broken down relic of some past or other. But let me give an account of yesterday’s journey. It was enjoyable, as they all have been, each in its own way. I have a few hours before the feeling will descend on me to rise up and start out again.

The beginning was an asphalt roadway that soon gave way to gravel, then to packed earth. It meandered like an ancient riverbed over the land, past darkened homes and a farm alive with cattle and cows, fowl and goats and barking mongrel dogs and lazing pigs, all with their young or else heavy with the promise of those soon-to-be-born, then away from this, these scenes of observed animal conjugality, empty of any human habitation but thriving nonetheless; alive with the threats and promises inherent in good, hard living for the he or she who might deign to stop here and settle in.

But I kept on, following the wide, unpaved way toward what seemed to be its dead end, petering out, narrowing to a cow path through lush meadows bordered by waist brushing weeds and grass. I had seen this eventuality coming from as far away as the farm that, though several miles behind me, was at a high enough elevation for me to see what lay ahead, even to the point where the trickling trail finally ended at the base of a large hill with a small copse of maple trees at its crown. I was left wondering if I should turn back, perhaps find shelter in the abandoned farmhouse.

Wondering what other recourse might be open to me I noticed that, further into the hills’ sparse cover of wood, ten yards or so in stood an oak tree among the maples, wider in girth than its neighbors and with a trunk that was mottled and knobby with age. This was only the first of a variety of trees of many different species – birch, alder, ash, pine, beech, even a hearty magnolia with podlike blooms that perfumed the air – leading me in a wavering line, blazing an invisible but easily manageable trail through the thickening wood, down the steep obverse side of the hill and then out of its leafy depths to a final tree: another massive oak, twin brother, it seemed, to the first one that had seemed to bid me enter and follow the line of multi-specied trees to this spot.

The meadow on the other side of that hill was sparser and less wide than the one a few miles behind me and led quickly to a graveled road, passing straight through an expansive grove of fruit trees. Apples, pears, oranges and lemons were in the majority here with smudge pots blackening the clean air among the citrus, yellow jackets and wasps vying for dominion over the fallen, rotting fruit in all quarters, near and far; their buzzing was insistent and frightening in its sheer volume and I hurried my pace, leaning in the direction set by the narrow road.

Soon, I came upon an area of trees whose bounty had not quite ripened, green provender still hanging listlessly from the low branches, waiting to thicken with juice and fall. Insects here were lazy, floating among the trees in vagrant search for nectar. Here I was not bothered or threatened by the winged creatures and so allowed my pace to slacken and slow and then, slow even further for I sighted, not too far off, lazing in a chair by a fancy little table under one of the greener fruit trees, a man.

I hastened into a slow trot, keeping the languidly seated figure ever in sight lest he prove to be a wishful mirage or hallucination. But he was not; he was there, a heavy set man, leisurely clad in dungarees, sandals and a much repaired, plaid flannel shirt. He seemed oblivious to my approach.

As I slowed down, coming under the umbrella-like protection of the spreading limbs of his tree, he looked up from smoking his pipe and turned his face toward me, focusing all or as much malice as his expression and physical demeanor could muster in my direction.

“What is the meaning of this?” he demanded. “Get out of here! This is my home and you are trespassing.”

“Home?” I was stymied but held my puzzlement in check. Who was I to question a man’s definition of home and property? Still, though, I pursued the notion which he brought up. “But isn’t a home more permanent than… than this?”

“Home is where you make it, Bub. Where you wish it and feel it to be,” he said, his gaze and body language losing its alert stiffness that had been so apparent upon his first noticing me. “Home is in the eye of the individual. And you, I would guess, have not had the luck to find such a luxury for yourself.”

“I suppose that I have,” I said, considering in my mind the old storefront at the center of so many converging paths and byways. “But I’m a wanderer by nature and always on the lookout for something more to my taste.”

“Good for you,” said the man as he drew a small cheroot from the depths of a plaid shirt pocket. He offered it to me as he reached back into the pocket with his other hand for a second little stogie. I politely declined. “You’re young yet,” he said as he lit up and took a few puffs, coughed until his eyes watered, then he caught his breath. “You still have to find what is right and best for you. I applaud you – you’re doing well, not settling too quickly. But there will come a time….”

And there he let it rest while he enjoyed his smelly smoke and said no more. His face was calm, friendly, wreathed in harsh vapors so it was difficult to see him through the billowing fog. I did notice what seemed to be several days’ worth of stubble showing in dark and light patches over his chin and cheeks and under his bulbous nose. I asked how he lived, how he faired the weather, what he ate. It was a pleasant, though odorous, way to pass a waning afternoon.

“Eat?” he asked as he took the final few drags on his little cigar, hacked up a greenish loogie before continuing. “Whatever the insects and small animals ‘round here don’t get. That’s my usual meal. As for shelter…. Well, this here is really just my yard, you see. Not far from the base of this tree is a door to my underground digs.” He chortled at his silly pun. “Digs, you get it?” he said. When I smiled and nodded he let out one more little yuck and then said that he would invite me in but he wasn’t expecting company and the place was rather a mess. He said that he hoped that I understood.

We talked a bit more about sundry things that sated our shared need just to talk and get to know one another’s opinions on a variety of inconsequential topics. While we chatted he offered me a candy that he had taken from a covered jar on the table next to his comfy chair. I took one thankfully and, not looking at it, only feeling its crusty weight in my hand, popped it into my mouth and bit down hard, assuming my teeth would break it into more easily digestible bits and not, as it happened, the other way around. A flash of pain shot through my teeth and gums and then into and through my jaw until I thought that my jawbone had either cracked or been broken in two. Taking the item from my slackening mouth, I was about to ask what sort of joke this was when I chanced to gaze down at the thing in my hand. It was a diamond, five karats or more, slimy with saliva and traces of my blood.

“Oh, I am sorry,” sympathized the man. “I am forever forgetting that, though these are my favorite confections, only I am able to ingest them effectively without any harm to my person.” So saying he plucked the diamond from my loose grasp and, after cleaning it and shining it roughly on the cuff of his shabby shirt, tossed into his mouth like an oyster and chewed it thoroughly. I saw his jaw working and grinding busily as he crunched the gem to dust with serrated teeth. He then swallowed it with the bemused and satisfied expression of a child who had just been rewarded for completing some hard menial task.

When he was done, the “confection” was gone from his mouth, washed down with a swig from a flask that he kept concealed in his hip pocket. He offered me some of the stuff in the bottle but I declined, having quickly become wary of the objects of his strange tastes. When the curved little container had been replaced back snugly in its pocket the man gave precedence to amenities and told me his name – Oscar – asked me mine and inquired as to my destination and where had been the last place that I had taken rest and food.

He seemed a pleasant enough fellow, open to even the most unlikely story and so, having no one else to talk to, I related the set of events which had brought me his way. “So, you have come through the Hill Forest, have you?” he observed, seeming to ascribe no real importance to all the strange adventures that I had just related to him. “You must have for there is nothing else in that direction and I don’t suppose you would want to go back that way. No, surely not and, as for the way you are headed, there are quite a few miles between here and the next home, the nearest inhabited tree root. So, might I offer you a bed for the night?”

His incomprehension of my singular situation astounded me. He picked up on this immediately. “New to all this, aren’t you?” he asked. “I had to go through the same thing myself, once. All of us wandering types do. First there is that home – the first bearer, I call it – the wakening, the want to get away from it, the trying but always waking up in the same bed, the same place every morning. Everyone has got to go through it, I think. Mine was a three story warehouse out in the middle of what I was sure was just nowhere at all. Took me the better part of a year to be free of it. The leaving, the coming back by force, the cleaning, repairing and then the leaving again and coming back again of its will…. A year or thereabouts. Took so long because of the gargantuan size of the place but I got used to it, its needs and wants, the whole mammoth structure growing on me like a bad song until it became a part of me and, finally, I just stayed.”

“But this is your home now,” I said, stamping my foot on the ground over his underground dwelling. “Not some monstrous warehouse somewhere out in the boondocks.”

“That’s right,” he said. There was nothing more than that, no explanations, only the affirmative reply.

His silence forced me to ask more if I wanted to know what had happened. “Then how is this your home and not the warehouse where you began your – um – shall I say, your search?”

“It was on my last foray,” he said. “The very last time that I would try, I told myself. And I found this place and I just knew it was what I needed, what I wanted, what I had to have. And so it is mine now because I chose it, instinctively and willingly chose it as my own. Not so with that hell bred warehouse. I fought with that place always, and always trying to get away. But it finally won the fight and I resigned myself to it, gave up my will to its choice of me and not my choice of it.”

He got up from his sear, lifted his table and walked with it around to the other side of the greening tree where he put down his load and bent over to grasp a brass ring that jutted up from the grassy ground. Giving way to his pulling, the earth opened up a wide rectangular hole to what seemed to be a basement, the gaping ingress to his subterranean home. “One last walk I told myself,” he said, finishing his tale. “Then I would have been in the clutches of that demonish place for the rest of my life. But now I have this.” He gestured to the hole in the ground, its interior glowing with an amber hue that welcomed one inside, and he smiled. “You are my guest for the night if you wish,” he said and lifted his table by its single stanchion. “Please.”

“I appreciate the offer,” I said. “But the answer will have to be no for, you see, if your home is in any degree of disarray as you have said then I would find myself giving way to my habit for criticism and that would put us both in a rather embarrassing position. Thank you, though, for the kind offer.”

“It would only be for the one night,” he said in way of persuasion, sounding a little disappointed. “But, if you feel that strongly about it….”

“Thank you but, again, I feel I must decline.”

“Very well, then. But – uh – when I get down inside here would you be so kind as to pass the table and chair down to me?”

I obliged him thus by handing the ornate pedestal table down to him and then went and got the chair, feeling the weight of the padded, bulky seat as I hefted it and brought it around to his earthen doorway and lowered it into his hole to his waiting hands. In recompense for this minor service he rewarded me with one of his large bauble “confections.” “As a token,” he said and then handed me a blanket against the night air, mentioning something about the weather being ideal for sleeping out of doors. Then he bade me a pleasant “Good night” and, pulling a rope that was suspended from the trapdoor opening to his home, shut himself inside with the loud click of a lock that announced that he was securely in for the night.

I found a spot near the trunk of the tree where a slight curve of the ground, presumably from the burgeoning of a root below, made for an excellent pillow. I placed the diamond gift in one of my deep trouser pockets, a place where it wouldn’t bother me should I roll and turn in my dozings. The blanket was thick and warm and quite sufficient and it was not long before I was muttering away through my thoughts and rehashings of my conversation with Oscar about his own bout with his former home before I fell into a fitfully deep slumber.


*****



A new start, another morning. Hey, I have to be positive; I really don’t have anything else to fall back on.

But for now, the hurrying present. To make it all worthwhile I will try to keep in mind the diamond eating Oscar’s words and adhere to them as well as I can. Every hole in the ground, every cleared plot of land and beach on the shores of even the minutest lake or stream is a possibility for a new home. But I know that as soon as I lay myself open to whatever place I view as possible, I am sure to find a flurry of negative reasons against it stirring up within me (too flat, too hilly, too dark, too light, not enough water, too lonely, etc.) and I’ll just move on.

About midday, as I sat eating what I had brought along with me from my enforced home, I looked around and enjoyed the surroundings as I thought that it would be a nice place to build a house and make it my home. This time there was only one argument against it: no people. And there was a realization, an epiphany of sorts, a starting point. I was not a loner; I needed to be around others of my own kind. Maybe a small community all working together, living together as integral parts of each other’s existence. That would be my ideal home, the place I wanted to find.

Finishing my meal quickly, now imbued with a definite sense of purpose, stuffing the bags and wrappings that had held my food into my pockets, I set out at a brisk jaunt. An hour’s walk through that gently rolling wood and I found myself approaching from on high what I assumed to be an answer to my new resolution – Valhalla! A town, though small, only a half dozen or so handsome little buildings at whose center a church rose, its steeple bells chiming out of unison in the whipping wind. I rushed down from my high vantage point, still on the road and was crossing the settlement’s perimeter in less than twenty minutes. I took the steeps to the railed in front porch of the nearest house and knocked on the door. It opened with a jerk and I was met by a frail, wizened old woman, unsmiling and quizzical in her stance and stare.

“Yea? Wat’cha want?” she snarled.

I inquired about the availability of suitable buildings that might be for sale for homemaking in the vicinity.

“One’r two,” she replied, taking careful stock of me as she spoke. “Up in the hills, mostly. Yonder a ways.” She gestured with a nod of her small head toward the west of the town. “You ain’t settled, then, areya?”

“No. That’s why I’m asking about what might be up for sale around here. Seems like the kind of place I’d like to settle down in.”

She considered me suspiciously at first, aiming a stream of tobacco spittle over the porch railing to her left. She looked at me again and her face mellowed to a softness that I would not have believed her capable of. She shook her head.

“You’ve got yerself a grabber home, ain’tcha?” she asked. “One o’ them places that pulls you back like a yo-yo ever’time you get to leavin’.”

“Yes,” I admitted. “Every blessed morning, the same thing.”

“And somebody toldja that you gotta choose yer home,” she observed. “Am I right?”

I nodded. She had hit it perfectly.

“Well, whoever toldja that was on’y part right. You can walk f’rever an’ choose by yer own mind any an’ ev’ry place you take a fancy to and yer grabber’ll keep pullin’ you back and haulin’ you back ‘til you don’ know yer right side from yer feet. Thing is, you gotta choose the grabber or it ain’t worth anything to ya.”

“But what if I don’t want to choose the ‘grabber,’ as you call it?”

She let fly with another long wad of reddish juice into a bush in front of her cozy home. “I can’t tellya that,”” she allowed. “’Sup to you to figger it fer yerself. All I kin do is offerya a bed fer the night, some chat and chow. Might’s well be here as anyplace else, young feller. This road don’ lead nowhere ‘cept further inter th’wood. Anybody in town here’ll giveye the same horsepertal’ty, so why not here with me? An’ fin’n it’s someone closer t’yer own age that yer hopin’ t’find a place with – well, ain’t no one here ‘cept us ol’ dodies who took too long in settlin’ down t’choosin’….”

She smiled and motioned for me to come inside. “Smart young’un like you shun’t take too long in figgerin’ it all out but, now, that ain’t the hard part of it. That comes with the findin’ and the choosin’. That’s what all the hop-skippin’ around’s all about. Findin’ li’l pieces of what it is you really want ‘til you can put ‘tall t’gether and know yer mind for sure what you need and want. Unnerstan’ what I’m sayin’?”

I said that I did and yes, I did – though only partly. As for the rest, that which still waited to be sorted out, that was all still pretty vague in my mind. It was obvious that I needed more time; just trying was simply not enough.

And, too, I knew so very little of what it was that I truly sought.


*****



Again, again, again, again, again, again, again….

Still home, and so I shall continue, for now, to call it that: home. And so Oscar; so old woman…. I take heed of your words, your hard won wisdom.

I leapt from my rancid sack of a bed this morning and out the door of the old shop into its front yard. I stood on the rain rutted, barren ground and looking directly at the place as if into the eye of a deaf old uncle, I shouted, “HOME! I am here, I am yours and I shall take care of you!” And so, this one tiny day among a sea of tiny, meaningless days was now, for me, dthe very start.

I checked the roof and found it to be in sound repair and then I caulked the walls, plowed and hoed the dried fields that have lain fallow for so long. There, I thought, is where the greatest possibilities lie. New life to be sown, cared for, reaped and all used to its fullest, as was meant to happen, to be done from time immemorial.

I am the primal man, the lone being, tilling and taking his needs from the soil, Mother Earth. The feeling is a marvelous one but, still, there is work – tedious, arduous, laborious – and I am very up to it, eager for it to continue.

Tomorrow, I shall posy the roads leading away from here: that one leads nowhere, this one to Oscar’s underground home and the absent-of-people farm, this one to the homesteaders, there to the generous farmer, that to the village of the elderly whose curmudgeonly sweetheart resident helped teach me the way of things in this strange and magically maddening land. Then, the day after, I shall set out on each to bring back those things with which I have been left without. I shall barter with the farmer and his kind family for seed with the foodstuffs that still lay on the store’s shelves and to Oscar for coal for the winter shall be upon me shortly and, on my way back, I shall help myself to the stores of the uninhabited farm and to the old lady for advice, if not the product itself, on where I might go to obtain good quality sheet glass for, as I have said, I am no glazier, but there is nothing that a man can’t learn, given the time and the patience of trying. Another day I shall tackle the shutters; they are fine but with glass in the windows through which to gaze out on all that I will have done with my own two hands in the warmth of my own, self-created, self-designed environs, then I shall feel that all of this is really mine, that its constant drawing me back and dragging me back to its bosom, this source, has not been in vain.

But now, to my newly laundered bedding to sleep. Tomorrow begins anew – and I am looking forward to it as never before.


*****



Before I had fully wakened and opened my eyes I had the distinct feeling that there was something wrong. I listened for the creak and groan of the still settling old building and found no such sounds. Also, my keen sense of smell detected the absence of the place’s usual mix of cooking and residual body odors. In their place was a mild fragrance, a sweetness assailing my nostrils that, with eyes closed, I found that I could not define its sources. A new sense of subtle movement was added and was then augmented by a lurching motion of my bed and then accompanied by a sound that came to me that I only could describe to myself as a sigh. This was then followed by a contented groan of pleasure and the slumberous shifting of a human body at rest.

The conclusion that this evidence pointed to was incontestable: I was not alone.

I opened my eyes, taking in my surroundings: a squarish room with chest high walls above which were situated, on three of four sides, plate glass windows, all filmily curtained from the ceiling. In one corner of the room was a counter on which rested a hot-plate next to which were the ingredients for a farmer’s breakfast of eggs, sausage, hotcakes, bread for toast, butter and milk. There were enough of the individual items to feed at least two persons. Indeed, a table nearby was set for two, neatly arranged, presumably, by the invisible hand that had prepared all of my breakfasts in the rear quarters of the antiquated general store that I apparently had vacated, and so it seemed here. Though now the meal was for two and there were two notebooks on the table, one laid at either setting, mine and, I assumed, that of my new companion who was still rolling and turning under the covers in a fitful doze. Yes, it was a woman and she was young and very attractive. Across from the meal table was another, larger stand with drawers overlaid with a wide tabletop that was covered with maps and devices for figuring distance and for bringing faraway disasters closer to view; a pair of binoculars and telescopes of several different focal powers. The place was built of logs and appeared to once have been a lookout post from which a ranger had departed and left the care and habitation of the place to my then waking companion and myself.

When she saw me through a thin mist of yet dissipating sleep, she rose and began to undo the buttons down the front of the simple dress she had worn as she slept I stayed her hands from going any further and said that, though her gesture was flattering, it left me rather puzzled.

“Aren’t you here because…?” she started to ask and then stopped, eying me inquiringly.

“I don’t know any reason for my being here,” I said. “Nor by what magical purpose we have been thrown together and brought to this place.”

The word “here” seemed to waken her fully as she looked around her for the first time. She, too, had wakened in a new situation, she told me then, a new place to which she was just studying, realizing she would need to become familiar with its every aspect and need. Then she looked at me in much the same manner. She would have to become accustomed to me, too, and my various aspects and needs, just as I would have to rethink my life now that she had come into it. As such, she and I were quite in the same position

When she had redone the opened buttons of her dress I began, being somewhat more awake than she, to assess our predicament and to inquire as to her last “home.”

“A bordello,” she said without inflection. “A large, empty building with lots of small bedrooms. From that and its décor and the general seediness of the place and the fact of several rooms fitted out for more – shall we say more individual tastes in carnal pleasures? Well, it wasn’t too hard to figure out what kind of place it was meant to be.”

“Then, you’re a prostitute?” I asked, assuming that to be the reason for her propensity to disrobe. The question, the assumption offended her, I saw from the look on her tender face, her lowered eyes.

“Not by choice,” she said. “But, after countless attempts at breaking free of the place and always waking up in the same atrociously furnished room, I had to assume that that was what was meant for me and, finally, I resigned myself to that inevitability.”

“And you thought that I was a customer.”

“You would have been my first. The place was empty. No one ever came there. It was so lonely I wanted to cry. I just wanted company, to be with someone – but not a new person every night as such an occupation demands.”

“But you had to take it for granted that that was what was intended for you, after such a long time, just like me.” I gave her a cursory rundown of what my former home had been like and how I, too, finally resigned myself to the idea of living there for perhaps the rest of my life as a shopkeeper for whoever might come by and need any of my wares. When I was done and we were well enough acquainted we walked over to the breakfast table and began preparing our first meal together. When we had it all ready and on the table, we resumed our conversation. “Still,” I said as I chewed. “Even though you are here – and I must admit that I also was lonely and craved company – I don’t see this place as being my notion of an ideal home.”

“Nor do I,” she agreed after taking a long quaff of milk which left her with the thin white line of a milk mustache. “Maybe even a Quonset hut but not…” a motion with her fork to take in the entirety of our surroundings. “This.”

I pointed out of the windows in a sweeping gesture and noted that there were far less paths leading away from this place than from my own last abode.

“Yes,” said my pretty companion. “All roads seemed to lead to my front door, too – but no one but me seemed to use them.”

“And now we’re here together because we found something about ourselves and the kind of home that we want. I suppose that we’ll find out more here as we travel those trails and paths. Then, at the next place, there will be even fewer and still less after that….”

“Until there will be only one road to follow,” she concluded for me.

“Could be a very long time before that.”

“Well, at least we won’t be lonely like before.”

She smiled at me, her mouth now working around a bite of buttered toast. I wanted to give her something as a token of our new acquaintance and growing friendship. I reached into my pocket for the diamond, Oscar’s “confection.” I shuffled a hand in my shirt pocket where I had it last but it was gone. There was nothing in that pocket but a smear of black coal dust and a pretty red ribbon fashioned into an elaborate bow, dark hair. My friend examined them intently.

“Now how did one of my hair ribbons get into your shirt pocket?” she asked, genuinely puzzled.

“Yours?”

She nodded, eying me coyly. “You didn’t have anyone else with you in that old store, did you?”

Is aid no and frowned. We tried to work it out but the circumstances being what they were, so odd, it was all to no avail until, on a hunch, I asked if she had anything with her that she might have kept from her own travels as a souvenir.

“A ruby,” she said animatedly. “Given to me by an old gypsy woman – at least that’s what I think she was. I can’t be sure of her but it is a ruby, I know that much.”

I asked her to get it. In her loose fitting dress – a shift, she called it – she had several secret pockets that I never would have guessed were there and she reached into the one where she had hidden her keepsake. Unaccountably it, too, had vanished.

“Anything in its place?” I asked.

“Just a red smear along the bottom of the inside of the bottom of the pocket. It looks something like lipstick. And this – a button.”

I checked my clothing and found that there was a button missing from the flap over the back pocket of my trousers. The found item matched it perfectly.

“I had a diamond,” I said. “That I was going to give to you.” She smiled with gratitude for my foiled thoughtfulness.

“I was going to give you that ruby to thank you for not taking me seriously when I offered – uhm – my services.”

“Two transmuted gifts,” I said, musing. It was a romantic set of circumstances which I would never have believed possible, it all seemed so contrived. I reached across the table and took her hand and asked, “So now what have we got?”

“Just each other, I guess.”

“And a new day,” I said. “But where shall we begin?” I looked around, out of all the windows, indecisive. We went out the door of the place onto its balcony. We had not realized that our little lookout was nestled atop a tower some thirty feet high, presumably to give one a better vantage point for surveying the surrounding forest, which we did.

“How about….” She closed her eyes and, stretching out her arms to either side, spun around swiftly for several moments until she was quite dizzy when she topped her dervish whirl, one horizontal finger indicating, “That path, that one, there.”

“There?” I asked, pointing. “By the tall pine tree? All right. Why not? Finished eating?”

She nodded happily and wiped off the drying milk mustache with the sleeve of her dress. “Let’s go, then,” I said eagerly.

“What do you think we’ll find?”

I shrugged: no answer necessary. The hinges on the door whined belligerently as I swung it shut. We trusted that there would be no one to rob us in our absence. There was no lock of any kind on the door, not even something as simple as a latch hook, so the thought was a moot one anyway.

I dropped my new friend’s button memento at the base of the tall pine that marked the beginning of our first finder’s trail together to show that we had been there and slapped its thick, straight trunk for luck as we passed by on our way.

“Here we go,” we said in unison and then laughed at this sure evidence of our compatibility as we took our first tentative, adventurous steps together.



THE END


© 2018 Stephen Faulkner

Bio: Stephen Faulkner is a native New Yorker, transplanted with his wife, Joyce, to Atlanta, Georgia. Steve is now semi-retired from his most recent job and is back to his true first love – writing. He has recently had the good fortune to get stories published in such publications as Aphelion Webzine, Unhinged, Hellfire Crossroads, Temptation Magazine, Hobo Pancakes, The Erotic Review, Liquid Imagination, Sanitarium Magazine, The Satirist, Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, Tuck Magazine, New Concepts, Fictive Dream, Flash Fiction Magazine, The Literary Hatchet, Midnight Street Anthology #3 and the anthology, “Crackers.” He and Joyce and an ever-changing number of cats have a busy life working, volunteering at different non-profit organizations, and going to the theater as often as they can find the time. His novel, Aliana in Paradise, has been published by World Castle Publishing and is available through Amazon.com and Barnesandnoble.com.

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