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 23 – Concerned Cloud

At the top of the world, I approached a cloud that had come to rest on the tallest mountain peak. Though a rocky path indicated this as a thoroughfare, the cloud had remained for days and days, obscuring passage and worrying the locals, who asked me to climb up and negotiate.

“The people need to pass this way,” I told the cloud. Wind eased around my clothes and tugged chill fingers through my hair. “Please return to the sky.”

Foggy particles of moisture thickened, blocking my vision until I could no longer even see my feet. I had the cloud’s attention.

“If I go, they will come with me.” Its voice was muffled, like someone speaking from beneath a blanket. It sounded big and old. “Whisked away to the clouds yet too heavy to float upon air.”

“Who?” I asked.

“Follow their calls.”

I heard nothing but my own breathing. But then, distantly, thinly, a sound reached me; a damp cry of distress. Following it, I found I had to leave the guiding safety of the path and plunge into the blank depths of the fog.

“Can you not release them?” I asked, hesitating.

“They are enthralled,” the cloud replied, “following wherever I move. You must lead them out.”

I stepped off the path, making scuff marks in the mud as I went, to follow back. Down the mountainside, huddled beneath a bank of rocks, I found people, shivering and miserable. The slack in their bags showed they had used up their supplies.

A hollow-eyed man gazed pleadingly at me. “Help. We’ve been here so long.”

On the way back, my scuff marks had filled with rainwater, as if the cloud wept. It vanished as we passed out of its boundaries, relieved to at last be freed from the ground.


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The Hopeful Wanderer 22 – Living Art

Beneath the tiny bristles of a street artist’s paintbrush, an alien landscape spread across what had once been a blank wall. I caught glimpses of her progress in flashes, around the bodies of people moving up and down the sidewalks between us. Some of these, like me, stopped to watch, mouths open and faces tipped upward as the painting spread, higher and farther outward, seemingly on its own. Those unimpressed jostled us on their way by, cursing our wonder. But even these dwindled as more and more of the crowd stilled, mesmerized.

Soon, no sound broke the quiet but the scrape of paint against brick. All motion had ceased, every face turned toward the mural and its creator. She ignored us, big green hat flopping around, focus zeroed in on her work. At last, the spread of paint began to slow, revealing tufty trees and floating, geometric shapes, sparkling planets, and long-limbed creatures cavorting across unimaginable worlds. Yet the artist had imagined it, and from her work, vitality resonated. People began crowding in, hands outstretched toward the spark of life within the mural.

Before anyone could get too close, the artist’s gaze snapped to the crowd, burning with molten fire deep within her irises. She held her arms out, protecting the painting with her body. “Don’t touch it,” she snarled. Those in the front halted in surprise, faces shamed. Her expression softened some. “Wait until it’s dry. Then,” she gazed up at her creation, “do what you want.”

A breath passed in which we basked in the warmth radiating from the stunning work. Then the artist gathered up her paints. She just managed to squeeze free of the roaring crowd as they surged forward to rest their cheeks against the painted wall. As she walked off, she didn’t look back.


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The Hopeful Wanderer 21 – A Way Marker

There was a light shining from beneath the sand. I spied it while walking along the seashore late on a moonless night, chilly surf chuckling around my bare toes. Just a steady glow ringing a patch of emptiness. I guess I already knew what it was when I started digging there, because this had happened a few times now. Not the sand part or the buried part, but the light. I wondered what object would contain it this time, which direction it would seek to send me.

Cold, wet sand scraped against my fingertips and packed beneath my nails as I shoveled mounds aside. Soon my fingers struck a metal handle and, tugging it, I dragged up a lantern caked in muck. When I washed it off in the nearby sea, it turned out to be new and red as blood.

The lantern was full of stardust. Bright, glittering shards, fine as powder, rolled around within the glass globe as I set it upon the sand. The light of ancient stars cast outward from the hearts of these, shining across the waves as far as the horizon and reflecting bright as day off nearby dunes. But its most intense light shot off in one direction. A beam, pointing north and just slightly west, angling away from the sea, bending maybe a little more than the last one had. I consulted the time and the constellations above to verify. Then I shrugged. Now I knew the course, I would get around to following the way marker’s direction eventually.

Gaze following the beam, I wondered where these markers were meant to lead. Yet, somehow, I felt no inclination to follow. Disquiet settled over me. Nothing like sensing danger and everything like being lost.

Who kept leaving these behind?


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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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