The Hopeful Wanderer 24 – Cat Curiosity

Upon a stone fence along a country road, a cat rested in the warm sunshine. It was doing that thing cats do where they stare into space at something invisible, perhaps at a lingering spirit, perhaps at a mere dust mote. This cat’s eyes moved back and forth, like the perpetual swinging of a clock’s pendulum. Curious and lulled with the heady scent of lavender and honeysuckle, I paused next to it. Squinting in the direction of its gaze, I expected to perhaps find that the passing of a distant train or something had its attention.

After a moment, the cat said to me, “What do you see?”

Excitement surged through me; at last I could ask a cat why cats did this. I said, “Nothing that I expected.” Certainly, no train or anything else of interest appeared in this direction. “What about you?”

“I see the passage of time,” the cat replied. “Streaming and streaming and streaming by.”

I blinked, at once uneasy. “And… how does time appear?”

“Like a road of stars leading into eternity. But the ones which have passed glow brighter than those still to come.” Now the cat looked at me. I saw its pupils had become ticking hour and minute hands, spinning around the clock faces of its eyes. “Your time is running out, Wanderer.”

The afternoon closed in, the musty scent of rot rising with the wind. I took a cautious step backward. Though my heart tapped against my collarbone at this brush with the future, I kept my voice calm. “Time runs out for all eventually.”

The cat returned its gaze to the horizon. “Small comfort, that. But if you must.”

I hurried on down the path, prickling with the sense that as the cat watched time, it also watched me.


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The Hopeful Wanderer 20 – Catching Strays

Pure white light blazed in my eyes. A moment before, it had been the kind of vast, empty night that only farmland can offer. Corn rows marching away into the distance. Stars blazing overhead, etched sharply against the shapes of distant trees and a cluster of silos on the horizon. No artificial light for miles around, save for my own flashlight. Now I couldn’t see anything.

Throwing a hand up, I shielded my eyes, squinting against the intense glow from down the dirt road. Beyond it, I could just make out a hulk of green metal, dark rubber wheels rising higher than my head. Light reflected from cab windows above like the eyes of a wild animal. A row of long, sharp teeth glinted across the front.

A growl. Loud and rumbling, shaking the earth beneath my feet. Diesel smoke drifted to me on the still air, thick and sooty. The light grew brighter, nearer. Then those teeth started up, crashing together.

I stood right in the way, there on the road.

My boots sank into mud as I stepped off into the irrigation ditch. The combine rolled past me and I snagged a metal rung, swinging myself up the side, my mucky boots clanging mutely as I clambered toward the cab. The combine paused to examine a nearby irrigation system, ignoring me.

The cab door popped open. I plopped down into the patched driver’s seat, giving the dashboard an affectionate pat. “We’ve been looking everywhere for you,” I said, or rather, yelled over the engine roar. There was a reason why farm gates had to stay shut: combines would test any escape opportunity. Even worse than tractors. “Let’s get you back home.”

Catching the wheel, I angled us toward the barn, radioing the farmer to meet us there.


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The Hopeful Wanderer 19 – Butterfly Breaths

I drew in several deep breaths and blew them out, preparing to hold as long as I could. By my count, the constant practice while traversing this twilit forest had me up to a solid two minutes, though I still struggled. I had a feeling two minutes wouldn’t be long enough for what I wanted to see.

Gloom saturated a grassy glade where I sat with my back against a tree trunk, damp earth soaking my pants. A faint path passed through this, the very heart of the forest, on my left, ambling around a massive fallen oak tree. The log itself was ancient, mossy, rotten. Yet locals had detailed strange sightings here, even traded me the trick for getting a glimpse myself. I had to try.

Deep breaths. In and out. It would be worth the price I paid to see this even for just two minutes. Right as dusk changed to night, I sucked in as much air as I could and held. Instantly my heart rate jack-rabbited but I ignored its rapid beat, eyes trained on the log before me, straining in the dark.

A moment passed, two. Faint tinkling jingled through the air. Then a tiny golden glow flared on the log, emanating from a pale mushroom, cap glittering. Scores more followed, dotting the log, shining upon the glade like sunrise. Bejeweled blue butterflies appeared in the air, floating languidly above the glinting mushrooms, each carrying their own sparkling glimmer. Several flapped over to me, alighting in my hair, one on my nose. It smelled like sugar.

Lungs burning, I gasped. The glade went dark, butterflies vanished, the tinkling replaced with mere forest noises, punctuated by my rapid breaths.

I grinned and pumped my fist. That time, I had made it two and half minutes.


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The Hopeful Wanderer 18 – Fishing for Fears

“It contains your greatest fear.” The kingfisher perched in the branches above me preened its green and gold feathers with a long beak and a self-righteous air. “I can see into it. Want to guess what’s inside?”

“It contains your greatest fear.” The kingfisher perched in the branches above me preened its green and gold feathers with a long beak and a self-righteous air. “I can see into it. Want to guess what’s inside?”

The bright bird offered the only splash of color on this snowy morning. Every branch, leaf, and stone bore a coat of glittering ice; pale dawn rays flashed through tendrils of fog rising from the surface of the nearby lake. At the end of the bough on which the bird perched, a perfect sphere of ice clung to a network of twigs, larger than a soap bubble but only just. Intricate patterns frosted its blue surface, delicate and unique.

“If I crack it,” the kingfisher continued, voice sly, “your fear will come out.”

On the lake shore below the tree, I stamped my feet in the cold slush and blew warmth onto my chilled hands, breath fogging white. “Is it heights?”

All I got for my guess was a contemptuous look.

“The inexorable passage of time?” I continued, tone blasé. “The bottom of the ocean? Meaninglessness? Needles?”

“None of those!” the kingfisher snapped, feathers ruffling.

I smiled. “Then it contains none of my fears.” Turning my face to the rising sun, I set off along the shore, boots crunching against thin ice. “Maybe the only fears it contains are your own.”

A stunned beat of silence. Then, behind me, several ringing taps, followed by a sharp crack and shattering glass. A high, frightened chirp. Feathers beat against air and when I turned, the kingfisher was winging away over open water. Where I had stood, a red fox trotted from the trees, watching the bird intently. Then it took off the other way around the lake, as if meaning to chase the kingfisher forever.


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The Hopeful Wanderer 17 – Accessory to Conceit

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Undulating waves of cotton candy pink and sapphire blue filled up my vision, shifting, swirling. Like gazing into a sunrise and finding it could dance. Over and over, the display stole my breath, made my heart sing. Dizzying me with euphoria. I desired nothing more than to keep watching; I wanted desperately to look away. Though I recalled no reason for either of these warring thoughts, they consumed me and tore at me, stretching me thin until soon I must break. A scream bubbled at the back of my throat, unreleased.

A harsh voice in my ear. “Wake up, human!”

I was standing knee-deep in a night-dark pond. Bright green lily pads clustered upon the watery surface and large gray rocks cluttered the rim. From among the cattails growing between these, crickets chirruped pleasant night songs. Cold water and mud oozed into my ruined shoes, the realization of which instantly irritated me. They would have to be replaced. Again.

Pink and blue light glowed from beneath the water.

As I clambered out of the pond, water sluicing from my pants and my shoes, I noticed a large land turtle perched atop one of the rocks. It regarded me with knowing eyes. As I sat down alongside to rest my rubbery legs, wondering how long I’d stood there, I said, “You woke me?”

The turtle nodded. “I guard this pond,” it explained. “Don’t mind my neighbor; he loves admiration.”

Cutting my gaze sideways, I saw a beautiful koi at the center of the bright glow. If a fish could look snooty and dismissive, this one managed it, turning his face from me in a huff.

“You’ve had enough of my attention,” I told the koi. With a nod of thanks for the turtle, I stumbled away, shoes squelching in the dark.


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The Hopeful Wanderer 16 – Pebble Prophecies

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White surf hissed against a pebbly black shore, curling around my toes in a wash of cold spray. Secrets from distant lands washed onto this ancient beach, catching on pebbles and snagging within tide pools. Collected and kept here where few knew to seek them.

The older secrets rested further up the beach, but the most recent ones lived here at the tide line. Dipping my fingers into the salty water, I came back up with a smooth stone the size of my thumbnail. No feature indicated what kind of wisdom it might hold, but I liked its shape.

Bringing the black pebble close to my mouth, I murmured, “Make your secrets known to me.”

Turning my head, I listened close over the roar of the pounding surf. Nothing, nothing.

Maybe this one contained no hidden message after all. But then… something. A mournful voice from far across the ocean, breaking with sorrow.

“Not all dreams come true.”


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The Hopeful Wanderer 15 – Warning Signs

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Blood on the dirt path ahead of me. So fresh it glistened bright red in the noonday sunlight, still puddling around bits of gravel. Just a moment ago, a hare had hopped down this turn, tall sunflower stalks obscuring it from my line of sight. Now it was gone. Now, the blood.

Sunflowers. Though the sun glared down from just overhead, every bloom lining the ditch to either side faced one direction. Faced me. Staring like brown pupils within unsettling yellow irises, unblinking. Tall stalks rubbed against enormous leaves, making a noise like bristly leather. No other sound broke the silence. My scalp prickled at the tension, at the sense of expectation.

I would not travel down this path. Despite the lack of breeze, a hissing rustle set up from the sunflowers as I turned away. Perhaps they should’ve waited to kill the hare, if they’d wanted to snare bigger prey like me. How could such a dangerous patch of plants be left alone out here?

Off to the side, I spied more red hidden within a clump of tall grass. A sign, though of a different kind than the blood. When I hauled the sign from the thick tangle of plants, I read on it warnings of danger ahead in four different languages. Do not pass. At least someone out there had tried. I side-eyed the sunflowers, noting the way younger stalks grew around a gap in the ground where the sign must have once stood. Suspicious.

Since the warnings couldn’t have saved the life of the poor hare, I silently thanked the unfortunate creature as I used a rock to hammer the sign back into the ground. Far enough away that the sunflowers could not cut it down again anytime soon.


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