Without a word, or even a glance at me, the spindly fi gure mounted the porch steps with rigid urgency, collapsed his long legs into a squat, and raising my dog’s bowl of water to his lips, drained it in one prolonged draft, the knot of his Adam’s apple pulsing like a dwarf heart in the slender, sinewy throat.
Too stunned to be startled, I found the book I’d been reading seemed to have drifted into my lap, as the arm that held it before me had deflated. Odd that I hadn’t even caught a peripheral glimpse of his approach, alerted only by the determined thud of feet upon the hollow treads.
And stranger still that Samson, lying at my feet, had not at least stiffened, growling with that ominous rumble with which he greeted even frequent visitors, often provoking a laugh that such an earthy, virile warning could arise from so slight a beast. But not this time: head still resting on his paws, a pacifi c canine gaze took note of the intruder as if neither the apparition nor his conduct diverged from ordinary expectation.
Whatever my dog, with his superior instinct, had sensed, I seemed, in my unreliable human fashion, to reflect, for the most surprising aspect of the grotesque incident was that the man himself provoked no fear in me—not even the least hint of apprehension.
Rather than a hearty swipe of his sleeve or a heavy sigh as he set down the bowl (gingerly, as though fine porcelain or glass composed it), he dabbed the knuckle of a crooked index finger to each corner of his mouth, accompanied by a soft, contented moan.
“Do get thirsty up there.” He nodded toward Grizzly Peak, but I guessed that he meant the further mountains.
My house was liminal, inhabiting a zone where pavement gave way to dust; crossing the crumbling but tidy cemetery allowed you access to the rear lot of the supermarket, while the opposite direction, along a path fl anking the ill-tended garden of the fading mansion, invited you to fields of wild grasses unfolding all the way to the foothills, interrupted only by the railroad tracks that, like a zipper joining sundry lengths of fabric, or a scar familiarity has almost rendered comely, distinguished without entirely dividing our comfortable world from the wild beyond. From here, distance and mist obscured the wooded slopes and peaks of the Siskiyous.
“Been in the mountains long?”
“All spring . . . come down from time to time, though.”
Now and again one heard rumors of hermits, or even handfuls of people here and there, living in the forest like gypsies. Sometimes a small item or two would vanish from a campsite, along with a modicum of food, but there had never been any serious reports of marauding, let alone violence of any sort. When the autumn turned bitter, they would vanish, taking refuge who knew where. But an inveterate hiker I asked about it simply laughed, dismissing it as nothing but an urban legend.
“And in winter?” I asked the stranger.
He shrugged, one side of his mouth almost rising to a smile.
“Who can say? Quite a life, since I’ve been banished . . .”
He uttered the last word as if that condition were nothing unusual.
“Use to travel a lot. Riding the rails. Everywhere. Well, here and there, anyway . . . All the way down to L.A., up to Portland . . . far east as Chicago.”
At that he roused an enchanted memory. I remembered once taking the late train from Klamath Falls to Sacramento. Well after midnight, a flickering light urged open my weary, sleepless eyes. Under a sable sky a small bonfire blazed on the crest of an embankment, some hundred feet from my window. Four or fi ve men stood or squatted in the sphere of its glow, like the remnants of some lost platoon of hobos from the Depression, broken adrift from their native era, stranded now on the shores of a remote and unfamiliar night.
Suddenly I fancied that he might have been among that band.
Despite wondering about his origins, I refrained from asking, sensing that his cordial nature belied an essential need to remain elusive. His accent was indeterminate, suggesting a place between the Midwest and the South, or rather an inner amalgam of the two locations. Nor did his appearance readily disclose his age, which I supposed lay somewhere between forty and fi fty. The skin of that gaunt face was weathered but unwrinkled. Although his eyebrows were black, the curly hair above them was reddish brown without a trace of gray, a combination that immediately evoked a bay horse. His eyes were a vivid blue-green, of a shade I’d once heard called tourmaline.
I disguised my curiosity with playful nonsense. “You said ‘banished.’ Did you offend a king somewhere along the way?”
“Queen,” he snorted. “My wife . . . kids, too. For what I did. I never guessed they could . . .”
I waited for a confession that was not forthcoming.
His gaze fell toward Samson, dozing blithely away at my feet, but the man was obviously engulfed in something other than admiration of my dog.
“For them I didn’t exist any more. And you know, after a while—well, I’ve thought about this a lot. Talked to a fellow once, we hardly slept all the way across Montana—a scientist he said he’d been, before misfortune settled on him . . . You know about those particles?”
I shook my head.
“Sure you do. Atomic particles. Can’t see ‘em, but they’re all everything’s made of. He told me how if you took one of those particles and isolated it from all the other ones, where it belongs . . . You know what happens? It just disappears—poof, no different than if it never was. Cause everything’s connected, even when you don’t know how. That’s what made me understand . . .”
I was fascinated now, and the long pause frustrated me, but I feared that any prodding on my part would only provoke a retreat.
At last he said, “Wouldn’t want to alarm you. Don’t think I’m one to rush to hasty conclusions, but it all fits. I’m pretty sure I’m not among the living.”
I suppressed a smile. “A ghost, you mean?”
“Something like that.”
I wondered if he was really mad, or simply waxing romantic. Only a moment later, however, I realized I had lost my own bearings, finding myself thinking quite calmly that his notion would explain Samson’s curious behavior; and then another inner voice objected, But if he were a spirit, surely he wouldn’t suffer thirst.
To catch myself seriously pondering that absurdity was more than a little shocking. I suppose that accounts for my impulsive invitation.
I can be hospitable when I’ve the mind for it, but ordinarily I’m more chary than charitable, and in only a few hours I had to be at the restaurant, preparing the sauces and dealing with Joseph’s indolence and Kevin’s mindless prattle. I’d craved a few hours of reverie, seeking inoculation among the pages of my book, a chance to lose myself along the banks of the Orinoco.
“You must be hungry,” I said. “Let me fix you a meal.”
“I’m alright for now,” he replied, patting the bulge in a pocket of his ragged blazer, jerking his thumb to a defl ated pouch slung over his left shoulder. “Maybe if you see me around again . . . Much obliged, though. People can be so generous, you know . . . Malicious, too, on the other hand—and when you’re counting on ‘em most. No doubt, if you ask me: most curious creatures God ever dreamed up. Next to us, rhinoceros makes perfect sense.”
I told him I could hardly disagree.
“You live alone?” he ventured.
“Not by design.”
“But by defeat?”
“I hear you, brother . . . ” He glanced over his shoulder toward the hills. “Only one thing you might do,” he said.
Tensing, I realized my naïve attempt had opened a gate. I could already hear the inevitable request for money.
“You know some Jewish fellow told me a story once. There was this man who died. Had his sins upon him, like all of us. But because he was abandoned, his soul stayed behind, wedged inside a stone. And when people passed by, they could hear a sort of rustling inside the wall where that stone was set, like some trapped bird. But this holy man came by, took pity—or maybe more than that—and every day he’d stop along his way and pray there. And would you believe it, after a while, there was a kind of burst of fluttering, and clear as day the sound of something flying away, whoosh—despite no bird in sight.”
I smiled indulgently. “A nice story.”
“Tell you the best thing that Jewish fellow said: he says,‘And you know, it’s a true story, whether it really happened or not.’ Now there’s a wise man for you.”
Squinting, his haggard eyes took on the cast of a boy’s uncertain hope. “Could you do me the favor—at your convenience, of course—just take a moment to pray for me?”
To attempt an explanation, let alone engage him in argument, was clearly inappropriate.
“I’ll do the best I can.”
He stooped to offer me his hand. That I didn’t hesitate to grip the grimy scabrous flesh came as another surprise. Those fingers, I realized during the few seconds I held them, might once have been described as graceful, even elegant.
“You’ll need my name for that . . . and if you give me yours, I’ll pay you back in kind.”
At first I didn’t understand.
“They know me up there,” he said, adding with a ragged laugh, “all too well: Cyrus Hammond.”
When I offered my name in exchange, he turned, repeating it as he descended the steps, seeming to approve of the way it sat on his tongue.
I waited a long time for him to recede. After a while he was only a tremor amid the curtain of dry grasses. Glancing down, I realized I had never removed my fi nger from the book. Noticing the number of the page where I’d been interrupted, I rose and placed the volume in the permanent hollow of my wicker chair before reaching down to offer Samson a brief caress, enjoying the contented sigh the act provoked.
Entering the house, I couldn’t bring myself to kneel. Instead, I settled on the sofa, resisting my natural tendency to slouch, and sat erect for quite some time, palms open, overlapping at my knees, imagining him traipsing through the stalks of grass beyond my sight, before staggering myself among what mangled syllables I managed to gather, repeating his name with all the fervor I imagined he would utter mine, cobbling together what we hoped might constitute some sort of blessing.
Michael Bradburn-Ruster’s book The Angel or the Beast explored the interplay of philosophy, mysticism, theology and literature in the Spanish Renaissance. A frequent contributor to Poetry Salzburg Review, his literary and scholarly work has been published in a variety of international journals, including Studia Mystica, Sacred Web, Cincinnati Review, Eastown Fiction and Damazine (Syria), and is forthcoming in Able Muse and Grey Sparrow Journal.