The Hopeful Wanderer 39 – The Hardest of Hearts

A thump sounded beside me as an object landed in the springy moss along the dirt path where I walked. Following its trajectory, I figured it had come from a house crowding this side of the walkway; a lacy curtain stirred in a high open window, but no light filtered from within. There was no one in sight.

In the moss at my feet, a pale, stone heart reflected the moonlight. Someone had thrown it from the window above, cast it aside as worthless. Studying the heart, I disagreed. Though dings and dents marred its smooth surface, this heart had never broken, not even with this most recent fall. A brass key and padlock hung from the top by a strip of white ribbon, the key elegantly wrought, the padlock plain.

I crouched down, my outstretched fingers hovering just over the heart. I pitied its fate, thrown away like this.

The moment dragged out. But then I curled my empty hand closed and straightened. Stepping around the heart, I continued on my way, footsteps whispering in the moss. The heart had never broken, I realized, because the owner had never unlocked it for anyone.

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The Hopeful Wanderer 38 – Howler Alarms

Clusters of bells hung in every archway of an old stone city. At the center of each was the original bell and along both sides of its dark, weathered chain, smaller bells clung like uneven bunches of brass fruit.

I stood below one such cluster, listening to their small clappers shivering in the breeze. Bright purple ribbons festooned the cross chain, pops of color on this gray afternoon.

“What are you for?” I asked. People passing by in the narrow cobbled street looked at me oddly, but did not interrupt my conversation.

Atop the largest bell, the etched face of a god gazed down at me, but gave no reply.

I tried again. “Directive?”

The main bell pivoted on its shackle, sending up a cacophony of ringing from its neighbors. The street emptied of exactly everyone.

Beneath the continued shrill noise, a low moan rose. Hands snagged my upper arm, dragging me into a doorway as a hideous rush of wind tore up the street, blasting the skin from the back of my outflung hand. I gasped, snatching it against the safety of my chest. Hot, sticky blood ran down my wrist.

My rescuer bundled me inside and someone else slammed the door behind us. We all gasped for breath as two women with identical brown faces looked me over, one tutting about my bleeding hand, the other critical.

“The bells warn of the howlers,” said my rescuer. “Didn’t you read the notice at the gate?”

My mouth worked. I, in fact, had not. I inclined my head to her. “Thank you for saving me.”

They sent me on my way with a bandage around my skinned hand. Outside, I threw a glare toward the unforthcoming bells; it seemed I should have asked a person after all.

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The Hopeful Wanderer 37 – Resting Gods

One of the rare times that I tripped, I happened to do so over the heads of a pair of gods, which I had mistaken for a pile of stones. Though they were sunk to their shoulders into the ground, they smiled contentedly at me. One had moss growing on its round cheeks and the other an orange lily blossom resting upon its rocky curls.

This I had knocked askew on my trip to the ground. I reached up to straighten it. “How did you two get stuck like this?”

“We sat down here and we just didn’t feel like getting back up,” said the mossy one. “I mean, look at this place.”

Trying not to think about how stone eyes could see, I took in the glade around us. Moss grew everywhere in a thick verdant carpet, clinging to the roots of stumps and the trunks of trees. A clear stream meandered by, babbling over stones in showers of spray, enticing heavy white blossoms up out of the rich, black earth. Blue and orange butterflies flitted lazily from shade to sun and back, wings flashing in the light. Vines grew up and around and over everything.

Taking a seat next to the gods, I worked off my shoes. Moss tickled my toes and cooled my aching heels; a large fern frond draped around my shoulders in welcome. This was a place for resting.

Knowing I could not stay, I released a wistful sigh.

“Do you see?” the blossom god asked.

My lungs filled with fresh air, but my bones felt weightier. I understood how one might become stone from tarrying here too long.

“Yes,” I said, “I believe I do.”

With that, I closed my eyes and fell asleep with a couple of stone gods for company.

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The Hopeful Wanderer 36 – Dying Flowers

Glass tubes glinted in the afternoon sunlight pouring in through the front window. Each tube contained a bright colored liquid, several flower varieties soaking up the colorful water. Only, their blossoms were the wrong color.

As I examined them, yet another bloom changed, a pink carnation darkening to brown. I turned to the florist hovering nearby. “You’ve got prisms.”

Outside, laughter and shouting rang in the streets, this town’s spring festival in full swing. Yet the florist’s booth outside sat empty, a closed sign on the shop door.

The florist cast a nervous glance around. “Prisms?” he said. “What does that mean?”

“They’re eating the dye colors, stripping out different hues.” From my bag, I withdrew a fire starter. “We have to burn the infected flowers and boil off the dye water.”

A sigh escaped the florist, sending a sweet floral scent wafting around. “All of them?”

Nearby, an orange flower faded to bronze. “Did you buy dye from the Iad region?” I asked.

He nodded, cringing a little. Iad dye was cheap, but it could only be used on cloth, not plants. He knew better.

“Just the flowers in the Iad dye, then.” I knelt before his wood stove and struck the starter over a bunch of blossoms I’d piled within. The sparks caught and bright snaps of color appeared in the air, popping and hissing. One stung my cheek and I jerked my face away.

We burned half the shop’s inventory. Colorful smoke billowing from the stovepipe floated over the town like a glowing cloud, beckoning festival goers to the shop. Eventually, the florist had to unlock the doors to let people in, while I continued feeding the fire.

He sold all the rest of his un-dyed flowers that day, but he did so wearing a sad smile.

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The Hopeful Wanderer 35 – Soul Glow

There was a star caught in a tree.

Branches hung over a neighborhood sidewalk and the first breath of fall had convinced some of the topmost leaves to begin drying out. It was in this cluster of yellow foliage that a golden spark twinkled.

I stood below on the cracked sidewalk, head craned back. “Did you get distracted?”

The little glow shivered. “I’m lost,” it whimpered. “The sky called me home, but I can’t find it.”

“Sometimes,” I said, “you have to fall before you float.” I held out my hands, cupped palms upturned.

After a moment of thought, there sounded a faint snap and a crinkled leaf began to float down, the star perched atop. I snagged the whole ensemble by the leaf stem, careful not to pinch the star. Warmth touched my fingertips. “How’d you get stuck there?”

“I followed mom and dad home from the hospital.” Its voice sounded small, like a child. “They didn’t let me inside, though.”

I glanced at the house fronting the sidewalk. Two-car garage. A bike on its side in the front yard.

“Ah,” I said. “So you know what happened, then.”

“Yeah…”

“And you know where to go now?”

“Up! But I got stuck.” The star changed to an embarrassed shade of pink.

I stepped off the curb into the street. Twilight had fallen, casting houses and trees in black shadows. Above, the stars began to appear, winking on one at a time.

I pointed a finger upward. “That way.”

But the star had already launched itself from my hand. It spiraled up and up, leaving a trail of golden dust in its wake. I watched it go for a long time, until a new star appeared to take its place in the night sky. Then it winked off, gone forever.

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The Hopeful Wanderer 34 – The Cost of Skepticism

“It collects starlight, you see,” my host explained. She sat across from me at her kitchen table, the two of us admiring a geometrically cut crystal orb dangling from the top of the big picture window overlooking her dining room. Weak afternoon sunlight filtered through the orb, scattering little rainbows across the table’s surface.

I cupped a fragmented rainbow in my palm. “Solar-powered, then,” I concluded, disappointed. The intriguing rumors surrounding this particular gem were just sensationalized after all.

“Yes and no.” My host was elderly and it showed most when she smiled, crinkling her face into a multitude of wrinkles. “Solar-powered objects charge with sunlight and activate at night.”

“Right, and the suns are stars, so what’s the difference here?” I tipped my hand forward and the rainbow dripped off my fingertips, splattering onto the table. The droplets then evaporated.

“It only charges at night under starlight,” said my host. Her smile changed to something more smug. “Then it glows when you take it into dark places during the day.”

My interest returned and I peered closer at the gem. “Where’d you get this?”

“Picked it up at the bottom of the Earthways mines, back when I worked for them.”

“Interesting.” My right eye itched. When I rubbed at it, a soft, sandy substance slithered around my fingertips.

We both stared as a swirl of twinkling dust danced through the air and then vanished into the orb. A noise like struck glass rang out and the gem flared bright.

I clapped my hand over my aching eye. “Ow!”

My other eye started to itch as my host guided me back from the window. “Maybe you should stay away from it.”

When I looked at her, I couldn’t quite remember her name. Nodding, I said, “I think you’re right.”

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The Hopeful Wanderer 33 – A Home Fallen

Tiny lights burned yellow and dim from within the needles of a fallen Yule tree. It lay in the snow where it had crashed, sprawled across the path ahead, branches sagging into the powder, crossed boards of the base sticking up like stiff toes. Several sets of footprints tracked where passersby had walked around or stepped over the tree.

When I paused next to it, falling snow took the opportunity to begin piling up on my bare head. My breath puffed frosty white in the streetlamp light. “Need a hand up?”

“Oh, if you don’t mind,” several tiny voices chorused at once. They jingled like the tongues of a hundred little bells. “Someone thought it funny to knock our tree down and we can’t lift it ourselves.”

I set my bag down into the snow next to me. When I began lifting the tree by its rough trunk, faint little shrieks of surprise tinkled from the branches. The string lights flickered. But once I had the tree upright, they shone bright again, casting a halo of lights that reflected off the snow like golden stars.

“Did no one else offer to help?” I asked the lights. The tree kept trying to fall again when I released it. Upon inspection, I found one of the base boards had snapped.

“We didn’t ask,” the lights replied.

I looped some string from my pack around the tree trunk and the nearby handrail. “That,” I grunted as I tied it off, “should not have mattered.” Now when I straightened, the Yule tree remained upright, proud as the others that lined this footpath.

“Who are you?” the lights chimed. “That we may thank you.”

“No idea,” I replied. I hefted my bag, preparing to move on. “But it doesn’t matter. You’re welcome all the same.”

Happy New Year. Be kind in 2019.