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.

The Hopeful Wanderer 31 – A Migrating Forest

Worry had just begun to gnaw at me when I felt the thin silver chain wrapped around my fingers twitch. In what I thought looked like an ancient river bed, I paused, swinging the pendulum hanging from my hand back and forth. Slowly, slowly. At the bottom end of the chain hung a smooth orb of iolite, tinged a dusky purple. It spun a little, but remained vertical. Not a good sign. Maybe I had imagined it.

There had been so many directions to choose from, so full of possibility, and only one the right choice. I chewed my lip, looking around myself again. It was the way big, smooth rocks poked out of the dirt here, as if worn away by constant water flow. But it wasn’t like underground rivers had to follow their old routes exactly. This one could have looped miles away, leaving me here, with vulnerable friends counting on my help.

The pendulum chain twitched again. I paused, squinting at the dangling orb in the failing light. It spun and spun as I swung it around myself. But then, when I had walked several hundred feet to my left, the chain at last leapt away from the ground, hanging at an angle almost horizontal.

I grinned. This was it.

I ran almost a mile back the way I had come and clambered over a huge limestone deposit. At the top, I shouted down to the forest of tall, spindly trees below. “Northwest!”

As one, the trees shook to life, digging roots through leaf loam and dry dirt as they shifted northwest, edging around the limestone that had blocked their path along their river.

The tree passing me ran a cluster of twigs through my hair. “Well done, Wanderer,” it whispered with rustling leaves. “Thank you.”

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The Hopeful Wanderer 30 – Fifteen Minutes

Fifteen minutes of hope. That was all it took to drive me into standing in line for a week, winding step by step through the bottom of a valley alongside hundreds of other travelers from the world over, all sharing that same hope with me. No one maintained the line, yet in it we stood, hemmed in by long-standing tradition set down by years of previous hopefuls. Old stalls set up along the line sold food and supplies at intervals. I told tales of my wanderings to those around me and heard more in turn. Line mates became friends became family, until they reached the end of the line and departed, never to return.

For the destination of this line was a single sandglass set upon a stone pedestal, containing fifteen minutes’ worth of black sand within. From where I stood, I could see it at last, glinting in the setting sunlight. A woman took her place on a worn stump set before the pedestal, hands clenched as she stared into the upper glass bulb. Then she smiled, laughing as her eyes filled with tears, spirited away to the past. From here, only the mirage of images danced inside the glass, disclosing none of her secrets to onlookers. Fifteen minutes of perfect, detailed memory. But only once, never again.

Variations of the same repeated with the next several in line. When I reached the sandglass myself, night had fallen and tiny stars winked overhead. Anything, I thought as I took my seat. I hoped for any of my memories from before I began to wander. Anything at all.

But when I flipped the sandglass and stared into the orb, precious sand running to the bottom, no images materialized. Nothing, not a single recollection, up until the last grain fell through.

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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 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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