The Hopeful Wanderer – Forth

A deep groan sounded through heavy fog as I inched my way up to a lane of thin ice running through a frozen lake. Though I was on the lookout for travelers along this lane, I also watched against any misstep that would send me plummeting below to a shivering grave. Several such lanes of thinner ice wound and turned beneath the frozen crust, steel gray water just visible below. Rushing from where one river fed into the lake to where another, far away, led back out. The lake itself stretched to the horizon, reflecting the fog and the white sky back and forth until I wondered if I stood in an upside down world.

As the groan died away, I took one cautious step back from where an ominous crack had split the thinner ice.

In the silence that followed, beneath that crack rushed a dark, amorphous shape, wriggling and reshaping. A water soul. Following by another, and another. All streaking along these icy lanes toward a world I could not reach. Not yet.

With care, I crouched next to the ice lane, little slivers of frost poking at my knees. I pulled off one glove and laid my hand flat over the crack. This fractional fracture, this threat to my very existence, was all that separated me from the other side. An impossible thing, an impossible distance away. Cold nipped at my fingers, leaching the warmth from my skin.

As I contemplated the passing souls, a much deeper cold settled into my bones.

Though I couldn’t swear it happened, as the last of the water souls passed, a vaporous hand had pressed a palm to the ice beneath mine. There for a flash. Gone in a breath. Leaving behind the freezing memory of connection with the dead.


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The Hopeful Wanderer – Buried Tracks

At the bottom of a lake long dried up, my hazy gaze rested hopefully on a cloud building in the distance. Dust rose up around my plodding feet, settling on my cracked tongue. The size of this lakebed desert must have grown since the last estimation. I didn’t have enough water to get back; I could only move forward and hope I reached the edge before I ran out.

I tried not the think about how dehydration could have me just walking in circles.

A ridge of reddish rock stretched across my path, a veritable fortress wall. In the distance, it culminated at a former island, towering upward. I had tried to scale the wall only to slide back down on slopes of shale. When I had rolled to a stop at the base, dust in my hair, I picked myself up and followed the wall instead, looking for a break. Better to save my energy.

The cloud inched closer, pure white edges blurring with the horizon.

A break in the wall appeared all at once to my left. In the moment I registered freedom to continue forward, I stumbled on a hard object in the sand, going down to my knees. Tiny rocks skittered away from my hand as I scraped the object free. At first, I frowned, not understanding what I found.

A railroad tie. Attached to a railroad rail. The line passed through the break leading straight to… the oncoming cloud.

I got to my feet as the rippling heat revealed a dark train running toward me from the distance. The cloud of steam puffed upward, better than any raincloud I could imagine.

As the train neared, I stuck out my thumb to hitch a ride. The brakes squealed as the train started to slow.


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The Hopeful Wanderer – Preservation Efforts

Without a breath of air to stir them, a plume of snowflakes rose up from the drifts coating the mountainside. Where the morning sunlight had not yet touched, deep blue shadows crept beneath a forest of firs. Nothing moved but the flurry of flakes, whirling around each other, the whole cluster angling upward along the mountain’s flank.

I crouched behind a screen of snow-heavy tree limbs, a tiny encampment from which I had not shifted all night. My legs hurt and snow soaked through the knees of my pants. Cold nipped at my lips. My breath fogged white, then gold, sparkling where the sunlight had just glanced over my shoulder, lancing between the trees down the mountain in a wide ray.

My breathing stopped. In the revealing light, the mysterious plume of snowflakes passing by my hiding place had resolved into a shape. Gold glimmered along the faint outline of a delicate creature – a long low body, tufted ears perked in my direction, pointed nose twitching for scent, one of four paws raised in consideration. Blinding white feathery wings folded along its back.

A breeze had lifted from my back, carrying my scent straight to the creature. All in a rush, it flapped those wings hard, scattering snow in every direction. The whoosh of wind threw flakes in my face, stinging my cheeks. Only four pawprints and the faint pattern of wings on the snow remained.

As well as one feather.

When I lifted the feather and moved it back and forth between shadow and light, it vanished in the darkness, though its icy touch stung my fingertips.

As promised to the people in the town below, hanging this at the community coop would at least deter any more of these creatures from stealing their chickens. That should appease the hunters.


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The Hopeful Wanderer – Burning Roads

Someone set a field on fire with me in it.

Gray smoke rolled skyward and drifted along the tilled dirt, tangling around my feet and stinging my eyes. I had picked this field to cross because nothing grew in it, so I couldn’t imagine what the fire consumed. Pulling my shirt up over my nose and mouth, I trudged along with my head down.

I hoped I wasn’t trapped.

With so much haze in the air, blowing ahead and behind me, I almost walked straight into a thick swath of fire. Orange flickered at the base of a line of heavy black smoke rising into the afternoon, flashing warning lights. The leading edge of flames churned ahead in a straight line.

Making a barrier right across my path.

Realization dawning, I ran. Lungs heaving, eyes streaming, feet digging into soft earth, I caught up with the fire. Leaped across in its path. The scent of gasoline hung heavy in the air, assaulting my already overwork lungs. Clinging to my shoes where liquid soaked the earth.

On the other side, the wind blew the smoke away from me. Indifferent to my near escape, the flames crept along the gasoline trail while I stood with hands on knees, taking huge gulps of clean air.

Later, as I climbed the side of the valley, I got high enough to see the shape of the roads burning through the field. They spelled out words in huge cursive letters. Big enough to be seen from space.

SAVE US.

The irony got to me and I laughed a little until I coughed up more sooty phlegm. I could’ve been trapped inside those lines.

If the fire starters wanted to message aliens, I sure hoped those aliens could read cursive.


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The Hopeful Wanderer – Bloodred Blight

Blood, slick and swift, dribbled like drops of rain from the needle tips of a tall, old pine. Red gathered around the base of the trunk, staining scrub, dirt, and stones alike. Lessening along the height of the pine, but climbing ever upward, spreading down limb and bough. A bloodred pool glistened at the tree’s roots, the stink of copper choking the air. I tasted pennies on the back of my tongue.

My boots squelched as I approached the bloody pine, liquid red filling the indents of my tracks. As I drew near, my skin stretched across my bones, losing moisture at once. Beads of sweat dripping from my brow took on a pink hue, mingling with the red at my feet as they fell.

Joints aching, I knelt among the tree’s roots. Clusters of low twigs reached toward me, grasping, ready to hold me here forever.

I withdrew a pocket knife. The blade gleamed, reflecting bloody silver. “You cannot have me,” I whispered through cracking lips.

Upon each exposed root, I carved a different sigil, all for loosening, for shaking, for falling. Blood welled up from each cut, flowing over my fingertips. Sticky. The pine above groaned and shivered with every slice biting into bark.

At last, I stood back, breathing hard, vision blurry. “May the earth rise against,” I gasped.

A rumble started beneath my feet, sending ripples dancing over the bloody pool. Rocks clattered. I stumbled and fell. A crack split the air, followed by a crash as the pine toppled over, its longest branches just brushing my sleeve. Like the fingertips of a betrayed lover.

When I looked, a network of roots lay exposed to the air, dripping blood slowing. Dirt and rocks clogged the pool of blood, clotted like a scab over an old wound.


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The Hopeful Wanderer – Visible at Sunset

An apparition. As the second sun fell behind a rocky horizon, the conical tail of a long-falling star appeared against the backdrop of deep blue night. Blazing with light, it outshone surrounding clutches of stars. Pointing down toward the disappearing sun like an arrow shot into the heavens, as if someone had taken issue with their sole source for life.

“Disaster…” The whispered word repeated over and over, taken up like a chant among several voices around me. We sat upon the spine of the world, one of many such spiny mountain ranges, and the word seemed to fall away down into the deep, rocky trenches, vanishing into the night.

Still gazing up at the wonder above, I asked, “Disaster for what?”

Eyes and teeth flashed in the dark as faces turned toward me. I had not started this mountain trek with this group, but we’d had the same destination in mind, so I had joined them somewhere between flat ground and here. A thoughtful hum rose from their ranks as they considered my question.

“The oceans may continue to rise,” one of them postulated.

“Bigger earthquakes,” said another.

“Restlessness of spirits.”

“Species extinction.”

“You know,” the last said, “disaster. The apparition is an ominous portent.”

“You forgot acid rain and deforestation,” I said. “All those things happened last year. And the year before. Our planet is dying. But this-” I waved my hand toward the distant comet, “has nothing to do with that.” My hand dropped back into my lap, heavy with the futility of it all. “The only ominous portents are us.”

The apparition, the mere comet, wandered along its journey around the suns. At such a great distance, cold and heedless of our tragedies. No wisdom to impart as it passed.


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The Hopeful Wanderer – To Be Known

Cradled in the palms of a young man was a nest of interwoven brown twigs, the bowl filled to the brim with tiny eggs the color of spring. Buttery yellow, pastel pink, hazy purple, soft white. All speckled with little red dots, minuscule dribbles of blood. The clack as they jostled against each other promised thick, hard shells, filled with gooey, spicy delight. My stomach twisted at the memory of overindulgence.

We stood together in a faded barn loft, where the boy had just pulled the nest down from among the rafters. Straw so old it had gone to white littered the wood floor and fine dust wandered away through the open loft doors. The eggs almost glowed with color by comparison with our drab surroundings.

As if in offering, the boy held the nest out to me. “Take these.”

Though desire arced through me, I raised my hands as if to ward him off. “Why do you want me to have them?”

“They’re my secrets,” he said. “I need you to hold onto them. Don’t you want to know?”

My mouth watered with the heady scent of sugar wafting up from the eggs. I swallowed. “If I take these,” I warned, “I will devour them.”

As his eyes widened, he hugged the bundle of eggs a little closer to his chest. “Why would you do that?”

I slipped my hands into my pockets, resisting temptation. “Don’t be so willing to give your secrets out,” I growled. “No one can protect them like you.”

The boy’s head bowed. “I’d still risk it,” he whispered. “To be known.”

“You know yourself,” I replied. Though he flinched, I pressed on. “Secrets are dangerous and therefore delicious. Be careful who you feed.”


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The Hopeful Wanderer – Opening the Box

In the very last car of a subway train, I heard a squeak, as of skin sliding against glass. I glanced around the empty car from my seat somewhere in the middle, where I waited for takeoff. The noise came again, from the back door. Getting up to investigate, I wondered if someone was trying to sneak a ride.

But when I peered through the back door window, I found, somehow, another car attached to the back of mine. I had not noted this car when I boarded. Knew I had chosen the car very farthest back for a little peace.

In spite of my certainty, I could not deny this mysterious extra car. I opened my door and stepped into the service space between doors. A pair of hands were pressed against the other car’s window from inside. Another squeak sounded as the palms flattened further, as if desperately trying to push the door open.

No lights illuminated the inside of the car. I could not see the owner of the hands, which themselves were long and slender.

Above the door’s pull handle was a lock knob twisted shut. She was locked in there. In the dark. Who knew what she needed to escape? I reached for the knob.

A faint whisper in my ear. “Don’t unlock it.”

The lock snicked open beneath my fingers. The hands within pushed and pushed, shoving me aside. I stepped back to let her out, shuffling in the tight space.

But when the door swung wide, there was no one on the other side. Nothing but inky darkness. A cool breath of air brushed my cheek in passing and the semi-open door behind me creaked. Shocked, I pushed the mysterious car’s door shut, wondering what I had just released into the world.


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The Hopeful Wanderer – A Dusty Day

Thick dust whirled upward in a swirling column, thinning out and widening in breadth the higher the wind whipped into the sky. A dust devil. Close enough to my position in the middle of sandy scrub land that the dusty air rendered the sun above hazy. Close enough for the wind whistling through desert plants and scattering gravel every direction to take on the rattle of millions of skittering little feet.

Close enough.

Heat beat down on the top of my head. My bag lay somewhere to my left, to avoid getting mucky. I stood in the path of the column of dust, which rose and fell, rose and fell. I panted from my run to get there, eyeing the erratic motion of the thick base. Three times my width.

Here was good.

The dust devil bore down on me with a roar. I screwed my eyes shut and opened my palms at my side. Leaned into the wind slapping at me from all directions, twisting my hair. Felt dust and sand and gravel scour at my cheeks and palms. Wished the wind would lift me from my feet and carry me away.

But my feet remained bound to earth. In a blink, the dust devil passed, leaving me gasping in its wake. Hair and face and skin caked in dirt.

Turning, I watched the dust devil recede, losing momentum and structure. I licked my lips and spat, brown sludge mixing with the sand between my shoes. The thirsty ground wicked the moisture right up.

In the distance, the dust devil abruptly fell apart, collapsing and drifting away in the hot wind as if it had never existed.

Little granules of dirt ground between my teeth when I grinned. What fun.

In the distance, another dust devil rose.


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The Hopeful Wanderer – Secondhand Furniture

“When you said you needed help in your shop, I thought it would be a little more… finished.”

Afternoon light squirmed in through the front door of a very run down rental space, cascading through floating dust motes kicked up by my vigorous pushing of a broom. The floating dust would render my efforts useless later when they settled back to the floor, but I felt satisfied with my little pile of dirt and old leaves, with the clean white tiles left behind.

Nearby, my host knelt, carefully uprooting a sapling from where it had grown through a gap in the floor. Its branches strained toward the sunlight, growing just a little in shadow. A large pot waited ready for it.

“I been doing all this work myself,” said the shopkeeper. “Not a lot of folks willing to help out just for a couple nights in a bed.” She shot me a curious look over the tops of her glasses.

Before I could reply, a sneeze shook me to my toes. The shopkeeper, now also my host, offered me a handkerchief to blow my nose. “Sometimes,” I said with a sniffle, “it takes work to satisfy curiosity.” Said curiosity being at a cloud of dust billowing from a tiny shop tucked between two department stores in a city (usually) devoid of things like dust. “Why here, though? Seems more trouble than it’s worth.”

My host straightened up from repotting the sapling. She looked around at the boarded up windows, furniture so used as to no longer be secondhand, and weeds pushing up from beneath the floor. “I like rescuing things,” she said. “Besides, I’ve wanted to run a shop forever. Figure it’s time to put down roots.”

I gave her a smile to show I understood, not understanding at all.

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