“There are eddies in the slipstream of time and refugees among us, borne on desperate currents.” –John Roberts
Van Meer stood still, staring at a strand of wire stretched hip-high across his path. He stared intently for a long while. Morning dew settled on his shirt and chilled his shoulders, gathered in his beard and sparkled like jewels in the sun’s first rays. He stared, as thoroughly unmoving as a yam. There was something about that wire.
His thin shirt gave little protection; he couldn’t remember the last time he’d taken it off. His woolen pants were stiff with filth and old blood. He’d taken them from a corpse weeks ago. He could have taken more; there had been several corpses. But his mind shied away from the carnage; he lost conscious awareness, and when next he found himself he was fishing, stretched by a stream where water ran clear and shallow across a sand bar. His hand and forearm were numb with cold but a fish investigated his slow-moving fingers. When its fins touched his palm he scooped it out with a practiced flip. He had a knife, but he’d lost flint and tinder, so he ate the fish raw. God provides.
Now, his last meal was so long forgotten, hunger ceased to concern him. His belly was flat against his spine. His bare feet were purple, swollen with bruises and cold. Raw scratches festered on his arms. He had a stout stick and carried a large oilskin pouch on a strap across his shoulder. He was shivering but knew the day would warm. It would be winter soon. He would not survive another winter.
None of these petty concerns tarnished the exalted miracle of existence for Van Meer. He was weightless as a breeze, bright as polished bronze. He floated, he beamed, he glowed. He stared, motionless, stretched as taut as the wire. Morning dew made it precious. He reached out to touch it. A shock of pain and surprise jolted him all the way to his shoulder and completely out of his transcendent state. He was again just a man dying from starvation and exposure. His feet were agony, his knees cracked when he bent them, his teeth began to chatter. Was it the wire or some trick of his mind? He reached out again to touch.
The electric jolt was immediate and relentless. How it was possible he had no idea. But then, how anything was possible he had no idea. There were impossible miracles everywhere. His mind turned abruptly clear. Around him the world bared itself in sharp precise detail, distinct and guileless. Every truth and secret of nature seemed revealed in an apogee of wonder. He ascended once more to the state of grace brought on by privation. Starvation was a saint’s gambit, but Van Meer was not a saint. He was an angel. He folded to the ground to wait patiently for the sun, for warmth, for death.
He reached into his oilskin pouch and pulled out his Comfort, a tattered collection of papers that had once made a drawing pad. He shuffled complacently through them. They were nearly all black with ink sketches done on top of ink sketches. Later he’d used berry juice; raspberry and currant and some kind of red berry that birds could eat but people couldn’t. He used little split sticks or sometimes crows’ quills. The layers of drawings filled in every notch and corner and left no sign of paper white. They overlapped and ran together, threaded through each other in a wild profuse tangle that made it impossible to separate one image from another but it didn’t matter, he could see them all, separate and perfect. He touched them lovingly with his fingertips one by one and was content. His shivering eased.
He must have dozed. The sun was striking bright bold lances through shadowed trees when a woman found him. He opened his eyes, uncurled slowly, and sat up. Yes, there was an old woman on the other side of the shocking wire, saying something. It had been a long time since he’d heard a voice. The responding words in his head were thick and slow. He looked away, glanced sidewise at her, and looked determinedly away again. She was too painfully bright, shining with the white light of purpose stronger by far than any he’d seen. It swelled and pulsed around her head and shoulders. Angry flashes of red intermittently occluded the white around her hips and knees. He could sense too, hiding beneath the light, a deep and abiding sorrow.
He did not wish to see but it was too late. His fingers twitched and trembled and he mourned for one small scrap of virgin paper. He did not look at her again.
“Are you all right?” the woman asked. The words approached him slowly then sped up and fled on by. “Can I help you? Can you get up? I can call for help.”
Van Meer tried to duck into himself. He understood the words; he just wasn’t sure what to do with them. The solid sure presence of the woman pressed against him. It was like standing with his hand on the dikes feeling the pressure of the sea beyond. He swayed back. He squeezed his eyes, blocked his face with his forearm. “Please. Not so close. Please.”
The woman stepped back two paces and did something unexpected. Nothing. She did nothing. She even tamped down her aura and the considerable force of her personality. She was still too bright but she waited. Always before, people were impatient with him. They became louder, closer, more insistent. “Listen to me! Look at me! Answer me!” And the wounds in their souls would torture him. He longed to curl up again but it was too late, and his compulsion was upon him. He heard a strange voice, his own shaky voice say, “Please, could you find me a bit of paper? I seem to have run out.”
Ella Roberts recognized the signs right away; the unwillingness to look directly at her, the precise, meticulous, somehow loving way he gathered up and arranged his pile of blackened papers, the oblique timeless way he had of speaking and responding. Of course starvation might do that to any rational man so she couldn’t be sure. But it was plain he could be easily spooked.
He may be autistic. He might have post-traumatic stress disorder, PTSD. He might have some kind of physical trauma or be mentally ill, but he may not be stupid. None of that means he’s stupid. Ella lowered her aching hips to the ground and spoke gently. “I can bring you paper. But if you come with me you can get warm, get something to eat. You can get clean. Can you stand up? What are you doing here? Oh! My name is Ella.” She let the unasked question hang between them for a time and finally he responded.
“Van Meer. My name is Van Meer. I’m an angel.” I walk the straight and narrow on God’s bent path, he thought but did not say. He pulled his knees up and hugged them and his Comfort tightly to his chest. “I like to draw.” He began to rock just a tiny bit. “There are people up there, I can feel them.” He jerked his chin in the direction of the house. “They’re all damaged. I’ll have to draw them all. Could I please have paper?”
The cool fall morning became bright clear and brisk, the kind of day that swells your heart with delight, the kind of day that no mere memory can fully contain. Children unable to prevent themselves did cartwheels in celebration. Cooks and housewives stepped to the back door to breathe sweet air. Carpenters and masons downed their tools and lifted their heads. Men strolled on their way to work, swinging lunch pails and whistling. Farmers in the fields laughed and sang. Ella hurried across the yard as fast as her old bones would let her. Both the fine fall day and the pain in her joints were eclipsed by her need to make a difference. “God’s hairy knuckles,” she grumbled to herself and snorted back a laugh. She’d adopted the expression from one of her boarders.
Ella was a widow. The death of her husband John Roberts marked a pivotal moment in her life. She still carried his memory like a cactus plant on a saucer. The wasted tread-water years of her life without John seemed a pale thing, a purposeless time, but she had a new life now and a new job rehabilitating time refugees because John had been right! John Roberts, her heart, her gentleman farmer, her extraordinary temporal theorist, had been absolutely right! Together they had bought the property where he’d calculated his ‘time refugees’ would wash up.
Ella remembered asking, “Why do you call them refugees?”
“Because,” John had answered, “The only way you can leave your timeline is if you’re leaving anyway.”
“Leaving. About to die unremarked and unremembered, having no more influence or effect in the world. If the right rare circumstances occur they may fall cross-time, into another timeline. Ours, hopefully, where historians and scientists ought to find them fascinating.” He smiled the idiot lopsided grin that had first attracted Ella so many years ago. John’s theories were scorned as nonsense by all but a few theoretical physicists. Lord, how she missed that grin. The memory singed her heart, and she shoved it away.
Ella had adoptive family and friends now—and resources, skills, and uppity notions. She was a force of nature is what she was. John had told her so. She’d simply forgotten for a while. She had work and purpose but especially purpose. The time refugees had changed her; changed everything. She intended that change for the better if she had to do it one refugee at a time. But first she had to save them, if she did that one at a time. And now there was another kitten on her doorstep. Okay. Ragged old tom. She hurried.
She burst into the kitchen at a near-gallop. Bru stood by the stove spicing a large pot of ham and beans. Fritz sat at the kitchen table with a cup of hot tea, the dust of the day’s labor already upon him. They both stared in surprise.
Bru was the first refugee Ella had taken into her home and she’d become an integral part of the family. Life had been difficult for Bru. She knew what survival took. “Trouble, Missus?” The large cast-iron spoon in her hand was suddenly a weapon.
“No. Fritz, say goodbye to your old boots and give them to me. Your socks, too, then run and get me your winter coat. Move!”
Fritz, bless his heart, bit his figurative tongue and hopped to it. Ella called after him. “Bring extra socks! And a hat! Hell.” She turned to Bru. “I want some of that,” she said, pointing at the pot on the stove, “and some loaves of your bread. Find something for me to carry it in but do it quick!” She tore from the room. A minute later she was back carrying a sketchbook, a six-dollar tin box of unused watercolors and several brushes, pens and pencils. Bru gave her a rueful knowing smile. She’d stand shoulder to shoulder with Ella no matter what but she had a more practical point of view.
“You can’t save them all, Missus.” She nodded at a lunch pail on the table. “Ham and beans in there. Beans need more time.” She laid two loaves of homemade bread on top. “I should maybe go with you? Just in case.” Refugees could be dangerous. Bru paused, unable to stop herself entirely, and blurted, “Going to draw a picture?”
“I think this is a solo mission, Bru. I’ll be careful. In fact, get somebody to spread the word. No one is to go near the south end of the farm today.” She added her art supplies to the pail and turned to Bru. “No, we can’t save them all, but we’ve got to keep walking in the right direction. And I won’t let anyone starve on my doorstep!” She nearly growled that last part. She didn’t explain the sketchbook.
Fritz entered carrying his winter coat. He’d stuffed socks and a stocking hat into the pockets. He placed them on the table next to the pail and added his best boots. In the surprise and activity of the moment his usually lurid wit apparently failed him. He flogged his brain for an appropriate dirty remark. “Did your lover get cold feet?” he signed lamely.
Ella laughed. “Is that the best you’ve got? You had nearly two minutes to invent something really clever.” She laughed again. All those years, she’d never noticed how seldom she laughed. Bru helped her into the coat, it was easier than carrying it. She nodded at the lunch pail and tried again, “I could carry that for you, Missus, or Fritz could.”
Ella picked it up and stuffed the sketch book beneath her arm. “Stop worrying. I’ll be fine.” She turned to Fritz, who had given up his boots and his coat without question or complaint. At this moment she was terribly, terribly proud of the young man. She reached a long way up and patted his cheek. “You’re too young for me to marry. Maybe I’ll just bed you for the winter.” She winked at him, picked up the boots and turned to leave.
Even with no tongue, it was the first time Fritz had ever been truly speechless. Ella banged out the door. From outside they heard her call back, “And turn off the blasted fence.” Fritz was another of Ella’s projects. How he’d lost his tongue was a story he’d yet to tell but desperation seemed a necessary component for time travel. So John had theorized. “If they are about to die there, they’ll be desperate here. We need to be ready to help.” Again he was right. The only part he got wrong was the timing. He was gone before their first rescue. The irony of a temporal theorist with bad timing would have made him grin.
How Fritz thrived under Ella’s wing was a story of a different sort. Ella taught him American Sign Language and proceeded to teach every able mind within range of her influence so he’d have people to sign with. For that alone Fritz could have loved her. That he’d lost his own Mam early on had nothing to do with it.
Bru guffawed out loud to see him at a loss for words. She gestured with the spoon, “Follow her. Don’t let her see you but keep her safe!” Fritz nodded. Security was just one of the many hats he wore on Ella’s behalf. He took his crossbow from its station above the kitchen door and slipped out. His feet were bare. He was still speechless.
Ella dearly wished she’d been able to coax the broken man back to civilization and comfort. This hurried return trip to their serendipitous meeting place could have been avoided. She hustled through the thinning trees bitching about her hips, her knees, the unfairness of life, and barbarous, uncivilized, brutal, empathically bankrupt people that left a stricken soul like Van Meer lost in the woods. She prayed he would still be there.
He was not. She placed the ham and beans and bread on the ground next to the boots, placed the sketchbook and supplies on top of that and covered everything with the coat. She thought to search for him or call out but she did not. After a bit, she withdrew altogether.
Van Meer was blessed with a memory that could fail, or perhaps he just refused to recall. So it was that the horrors of his own life were spared him. But things that tormented the souls and spirits of other people were his to see and remember. If every soul you see is a tortured soul are you not in hell? Van Meer had been in such a place, a private hell full of dented, twisted souls, a place that smelled of piss and shit and rotting, still-living bodies. He would draw them, had to draw them, and would always see them. The portraits he created then were nothing like the nature sketches, landscapes, and flower details in his Comfort. Instead of beautiful, soothing pictures the portraits were always true. Sometimes they upset people, made them angry and afraid. And frightened people are dangerous. He could not return to that past world, though his thoughts nagged. Hell needs angels, if any place does. Perhaps the shining woman would return with paper. He retreated into the woods where he waited and watched. She did return but not entirely alone. A man with a crossbow concealed himself nearby.
Van Meer sat unnaturally still, still as a fawn by the meadow’s edge, still as a rabbit in the shadow of an owl. But his earlier exalted weightless state had extracted a penalty. Heavy lethargy threatened to overwhelm him. He could not succumb. He needed to trip the trap, steal the bait, and find a way to survive. He laughed gently at himself for being afraid of an arrow but his disappointment was profound. He’d been an angel already free of earthly constraints. He tried hard to remember how to fly.
What does it take to lure an angel from heaven? Nothing more than a little hope. Ella had offered him food, and Van Meer found he desperately wanted to live. So he waited unmoving and invisible, starving, cold, and hidden. With his Comfort clutched tightly to his side he endured. Eventually Ella left, trailed by her bowman protector.
Van Meer had to quiet his mind to know if anyone was near, to sense their presence as would a wild creature, though his mind was never completely quiet. Background noise pulsated like a crowd in the distance. Every now and again a voice would rise up, and be clearly heard like a gull’s cry above the sound of the rushing tide; but not now. He let his senses roam.
When the woods were empty he approached the little pile Ella left. He used his staff to lift the coat free and behold she had left succor and relief and passion. Virgin paper, untouched, a trove of them together in a book, and pens that were a wonder of clean efficient usefulness, that required no quill, no well, no ink cake, no crushed berries. Again he did not understand. This was more than bait. This was life. He put on the coat and enveloping warmth and separation from the elements occupied him for a time. He found again the hat, the socks, and the food. Bread, real bread, and beans congealed in fat. Cubes of meat. Ham. Tears wet his cheeks. God provides. Ella helps. He dug his fingers in and ate the beans slowly one at a time. He broke off little bits of bread and relished each crumb, eating only a little. He resisted exploring the rest of the objects as long as he could but as soon as his hands touched a pen his compulsion could no longer be held at bay. He licked his fingers clean, sat down with his back to a tree, rested the sketch pad on his knees and began. He forgot about food or comfort or danger. It was too dark to see when he stopped. His feet were warm, and he did not think that had happened in a while. He curled up in his new coat and when the damp of night descended, he was oblivious.
Through a wet blanket morning of rising fog and frost on dying grass Ella returned. She’d had a bad night. Bleary-eyed, sore-headed, and stiff beyond belief she let her worry for Van Meer drive her through the damp to the fenceline. Relief and disappointment met her there. The supplies were gone. In their place she found a single piece of paper carefully removed from the sketch book and kept from any stray breeze by a clod of dirt. She picked the paper up and shook off dirt and frost. The ink on the paper was undamaged, a drawing of her; exact and precise and exquisitely rendered by a master hand. Her own image looked out at her and in the eyes she saw the hope of joy and the sorrow of loss. Her heart stumbled and fell and that old, old pain poured out to mingle with fresh injustice. It was some time before she could call herself whole again.
Truly made whole, for she was baptized in the waters of catharsis. She stopped trying to betray her husband by letting his memory ebb and her sorrow ease. Instead she clutched the pain to her heart and embraced it as a treasure, the price paid for precious memories, for memories are all you ever make. John said that. She laughed, dried her eyes, and looked again at the paper. On the reverse side was another drawing. A mischievous imp peered out from a hidden place in the woods. He was holding a crossbow, and the likeness was absolutely spot on.
Ella went home renewed. She placed the paper in a safe place with other things she loved and did not look at it again. She never mentioned it to Fritz. Despite her arthritic hips she took to walking in the woods in the morning. Sometimes she would leave things there.
“Going back in time to change the past is a comic book concept.” –John Roberts
Fall granted summer a reprieve. A chill night yielded to a windless day and a warming sun. Butter yellow light gilded the trees, and deep purple shadows pooled beneath. An infinite blue sky graced the day like a benediction. Van Meer dug rocks from a shallow stream. He’d gleaned a meal from a nearby field and reasonably believed other creatures would do the same. A few deadfalls along the field’s edge seemed a good idea.
Eventually his pants got soaked, and he took them off to clean them of filth and grime. He spent a deal of time at this chore, long enough to lose himself thoroughly. Next he knew it was mid-afternoon, and he was following his nose, walking barefoot and bare-assed through the woods. The cuffs of his coat were wet, but at least he still had a coat. He took it off and tied it around his waist to warm his behind. He hoped his pants and boots were safe. He did carry the oilskin pouch holding his Comfort though he did not remember picking it up. It would help a lot, he thought, if God would inform me of His plans ahead of time. After a while he realized his nose was tracking the scent of hot sausage.
He came through thick woods to a scrub-choked fenceline. Beyond, a manicured field of dying grass held a sparse scattering of people with numbers on their backs. Across the field tiered benches held a crowd. More people stood along the field’s edge. A striped canvas pavilion shaded tables of food. The smell of sausage was intoxicating; he could almost see the breeze carry it to him. Van Meer stopped cold. So many. Even from across the field the energy of all those people shredded his nerves. But there was no denying. Whether he was driven by God or his stomach did not matter. Maybe there was no difference. Because he still had some dignity, he removed all his clothes. He carefully hid his coat and shirt and settled his pouch back over his shoulder. Naked as a day-old crow, he circled the field to get behind his quarry.
Something happened on the field to arrest everyone’s attention. The crowd roared. Van Meer recognized God’s impeccable timing. He cleared his mind and with head up and shoulders back strolled across an open stretch of ground and in under the canopy where he found a long table holding an embarrassment of wealth: sausages and cornbread, corn on the cob, pickles, bread, biscuits, pretzel twists, and plates, cups, bottles, and pitchers of beer. A beer keg on a wooden rack stood by the table. Two people on Van Meer’s side of the table and five on the far all had their backs to him and their attention on the game. None turned his way. If he was not invisible he was at least unnoticed; that was often the same thing.
He stepped up beside a large man with a white apron tied around waist and stopped nearly elbow to elbow, Van Meer’s eyes level with his biceps. Just like everyone else the man’s attention was riveted on the game. Van Meer picked up four sausages, placed them in the half-filled pitcher the man was distracted from filling, took it from beneath his hand, put a page from his Comfort down in payment, whispered “Thank you,” up at his ear, and turned away feeling invisible to all the world. Behind him he heard a vacant voice say “Yeah, sure,” and another roar went up from the crowd.
Halfway back to his clothes and hidden by the trees when he began to think again Van Meer trembled. Later, he knew, he would mourn the loss of his sketch page. It was a sacrifice he had not wished to make. He had taken a damp freshly washed sock along hoping it would do but had not been given a choice. Really, a sock didn’t feel right to him either. He had hoped.
He was giddy with elation and beer when he made the far corner of the field and started along the back line to his coat and boots. There he stopped still as cold mutton. He remained unmoving for several minutes while the sweat on his back and thighs cooled in the light breeze. Three men crouched in the fence row and watched the field. Van Meer couldn’t see them but he knew they were there. Eventually one of them spoke softly and Van Meer backed up, planning to disappear altogether, but his compulsion stopped him. He took out pen and pad, moved up behind them and began to draw, sure and quick. He knew they would not look about.
He finished with a final flourish, withdrew into the woods, and settled down on his back to study his drawing. He had not seen their faces but there was a familiar malevolence in their tense backs and hunched shoulders. A shudder of fear took Van Meer’s breath away. He knew these men, had seen them on the killing field where he’d lain like a corpse until they’d gone and the crows had gathered, brutal desperate men avoiding mortal fate by feeding Death the souls of innocents. They slipped away from the field back into the forest. One had a war axe on his belt. Van Meer sat up and sipped a little beer, trembling. It was a miracle they had not smelled the sausage. He stood up and brushed leaves and tiny sticks from his bare hide. That was when he saw the bowman climbing over the fence. He didn’t have his crossbow. Van Meer could have wished otherwise.
There had to be a dozen set of lips between Ella and the source of the story she had just heard. She hurried to the beer tent to see for herself. The ‘tender, Sam, told her how the beer pitcher in his hand had turned into “this” and showed her the paper. “I swear. I was filling a pitcher just when Harry got caught between third and home and I heard the crowd and I turned to see and when I turned back to the keg I had this paper in my hand. I tried to fill it with beer. It was like magic and you know me, I don’t believe in magic. But I had the pitcher and then I had this!” He was ready to say it all again. “Look! It’s got scratchy little pictures all over it. Flowers and little birds and what is that? Is that ink or blood? Here, take it,” he said, handing the ten-by-ten-inch piece of stiff paper to Ella. “Keep it. It’s probably some kind of witchery if you ask me. Don’t be surprised if it turns into a beer or something when the moon is full.” It was half-soaked with beer now. Where it was wet the ink began to run.
Ella recognized it right away from her earlier encounter with the broken man. She chided herself for referring to him in that manner even to herself. He’s been damaged somehow. No need to insult him. She hurried back to Bru and Fritz muttering to herself and berating her hips for having the nerve to be anything other than healthy. Don’t know why I was worried. He seems to be doing quite well for himself, as far as I can tell. He didn’t steal that beer, either, he paid for it! But she was worried. Van Meer needed help, of that she was sure. She hurried on, wishing she’d brought her staff, or at least a cane. A cane! Oh Lord. “Fritz!” she called into the stands, “Could I bother you for a minute?”
Fritz saw her coming. She was walking that “Could you do something for me” walk. Fritz had been acting as Ella’s foreman for two years. That something had come up did not surprise him and he was proud to be her ‘go to’ man. He’d do anything for that old lady despite his irreverent attitude. Anyway, baseball was okay, but what he really enjoyed was mugging for the crowd. He’d become an unofficial team mascot. There was even talk of making him a costume. He walked down the benches to Ella. “No beer?” he signed.
Ella gave him a half smile. “No. But I’ll buy you a gallon if you do this right, and you can go off and get rip-roaring. Remember Van Meer, the starving man I was telling you about?” She had never shown Fritz the drawings she’d found. Van Meer had caught more than just Fritz’s likeness. He had caught Fritz’s personality and spirit, too. Ella did not know why she hid it away.
“You mean the wild man you found?” Fritz signed, “I never saw him. But I’ll probably recognize him. He’ll be wearing my coat!” He rolled his eyes in exaggeration. Signing involved a lot of exaggeration and pantomime, which seemed to suit Fritz just fine. He didn’t miss his tongue. Much.
“Apparently he walked into the beer tent from the back, purchased a beer, and left the same way.” Ella waved the paper about. “He paid with this!”
“Was he wearing my coat?” Fritz was relentless in pursuit of a laugh.
“Nobody even saw him. Fritz, do you think you can find him? He needs help. He may be autistic. He probably doesn’t have a place to stay, and it’s going to be a hard winter.”
“Find him? How? Which way do they think he went? Are you sure he needs help? At least he’s got beer!” Ella slapped his shoulder, smiling through her concern.
Fritz figured downwind was the most likely place to start looking, opposite from where Van Meer had entered the scene. At least that’s what he would do, and directly across the field was the quickest way to get there. He waited only a few minutes and crossed the playing field during the seventh inning stretch. As he climbed over the far fence and pushed through the overgrowth he didn’t think his chances were good, but he spotted Ella’s broken man only moments later.
No wonder she was worried. Van Meer was naked, incredibly hairy and the skinniest man Fritz had ever seen. A pouch on a strap across his chest hid nothing. He clutched a pen in one hand. If a sparrow, an underfed baby of a sparrow should happen to blunder into him it would likely knock him down. Fritz looked at him and grinned. Where the hell is my coat?
Van Meer’s eyes went wide. He looked abruptly away and did not look up again but stretched out an arm to give Fritz a sheet of paper. As Fritz moved to take the offered paper he heard Van Meer whisper, “You are the Bright Lady’s man.” Fritz made an inarticulate grunt. If the man wouldn’t look at him, he couldn’t even nod his head. How do I get into these messes?
The paper held an astonishingly detailed drawing of three men in hiding watching the baseball game. Fritz recognized the players on the field. The three foreground figures crouching along the fence exuded menace even though he could only see their backs. Fritz was suddenly very nervous. His hand went to the knife at his waist too late. Cold steel shifted and glinted in the dappled light and three men with wicked bright blades closed on them. To try escaping through the choked fence row meant sure death. Shouting would be pointless. They were trapped. Fritz backed between two small tree trunks for their meager protection. Ella, he thought inanely, isn’t going to like this.
The bandits surrounded them. The one nearest Van Meer lowered his sword, laughing. “What’s this? Where are your clothes, hairy man? Were you expecting someone?” He reached out with his free hand to grab Van Meer by the elbow, expecting no resistance. To expect resistance from such obvious frailness was to expect danger from a celery stalk. The man couldn’t even look at him.
It was a stupid mistake. The moment the swordsman touched him Van Meer shrieked and turned, swinging his fist in a wide arc. He drove his pen deep into the bandit’s right eye. The man dropped his sword and fell to his knees screaming, groping at his face. Van Meer scrunched his eyes closed and put his hands over his ears.
When Fritz’s opponent turned his head in reaction to the shrieks, Fritz took a short step and kicked forward in precisely the way his instructor had made him practice the past eighteen months. He crushed the bandit’s testicles and broke his jaw with a second savage kick as he went down.
It was now two against one, a fact the lone standing man seemed to understand. He turned and ran but didn’t make thirty feet before Fritz caught up with him. He turned at the last second and took Fritz’s knife low in his ribs. He swung his sword about in a high sweep and Fritz’s left arm, ignoring anything sensible Fritz might have suggested, came up and forearmed the flat of the sword. In a killing rage Fritz plunged his knife in again and again and did not stop until the body fell.
His arm felt as if someone had walloped him with a bat and followed up with a white-hot poker. A flap of skin and muscle made his hands tremble when he pressed it back into place. He threw up, waited till his shakes diminished, picked up the dead man’s sword and retraced his steps, panting with adrenaline and fear. This was his need, his desperate fantasy, his anger unleashed. How many times had he wished he could go back and change things? If only he had kept his big mouth shut. If only he had run away. If only his brother Michael had not come to his rescue. Fritz would still have a tongue and Michael would still be alive. These were not the same men but the same kind of men, and Fritz in his murderous frenzy just did not give a damn. He killed the man with the broken jaw without remorse. The other swordsman was curled up, already dead. Van Meer’s pen must have penetrated through the eyeball into the brain. Fritz wondered if Van Meer knew. He had completely disappeared, which given the circumstances seemed entirely reasonable. What’s he done with my coat? Missus is going to be pissed.
He gathered up the weapons and the blood-spattered drawing and returned to the baseball field carrying the swords of his foes. In hindsight, he should have gone around. He pushed through the fence scrub and climbed back over the fence, throwing the blades over ahead of him along with an axe. The clash of metal on metal drew the attention of the middle fielder, who was nearly brained by a long fly ball.
Fritz’s energy drained away with the adrenaline and his shakes began again. He stumbled onto the playing field, and all hell ensued. The players reacted first, running towards him. Then the fans reacted. Some thought he was deliberately disrupting the game and complained, booing loudly. Some laughed, figuring it was another of his dumb stunts. But blood is never funny. Deep crimson soaked his shirt. He could feel the weight of it.
As the true situation became clear the stands emptied and people ran onto the field. Fritz looked up to see Ella standing on a bench seat halfway up the stands, at this distance looking old and alone.
People pressed around trying to get the story but only a few knew sign. Fritz signed to a kid who did a credible job of passing his report on verbally. Joey. Joe. Good lad. I’ll have to tell Ella. Several hotheads started towards the fence. Some people apparently thought panicking would help and proceeded to do that; more got in each other’s way trying to help Fritz. He let one of them tighten a strip of cloth about his arm. Someone with a parade ground voice began to straighten things out. Men were dispatched to deal with the bodies and search for more outlaws. Complaints were made. A growing faction wanted to finish the game.
Fritz pressed through the crowd towards the bleachers. He signed to Missus Ella, “I’m okay.” She stood above the crowd looking now like a commander surveying the troops. People kept walking over to speak to her. Men called up to her from the ground. Two people signed. She nodded or shook her head, folded her arms and waited for Fritz. He was not looking forward to giving his report to her. Amazing. He’d just killed two men and here he was afraid to talk to a little old lady. He shook his head and marched bravely on.
Ella was standing on the first riser when he reached her which placed the top of her head about equal with his nose. She put her hands on her hips and looked up. Her lips thinned. “You just scared a year out of me! I haven’t got that many to spare!” Her eyes were bleak and red. She threw her arms about him regardless of the blood. “You big lug!” she said, and sobbed into his neck. Fritz was astounded. He knew Ella loved him, loved every one of her extended family. He just didn’t realize she took it so personally. He held her and patted her back, surprised at how frail she felt in his arms. He tried to say for the second or third time, despite his missing tongue, “I’m fine, Missus, I’m fine. I’m just fine.”
Ella pulled back and her face cleared. “Oh,” she said as if in surprise or enlightenment. She gave him a look that penetrated all the way to his boots. “You never said, and I never realized. Someone died, didn’t they, trying to protect you?”
Fritz nodded dumbly. Ella pulled him close again to whisper in his ear. “You don’t have to feel guilty. It’s not your fault.” Fritz’s heart twisted in his chest. Tears blurred his vision. But Ella’s eyes shone clear with the light of revelation. “When we get home,” she said, “I have a drawing you need to see.” Fritz nodded again, unable to do anything else. He hadn’t mentioned Van Meer. He hoped the poor lost soul had a rabbit hole.
Van Meer walked beneath large calm fall-colored trees. Light and shade made intricate lace patterns on the ground, stirred by a sweet breeze. He wore only a shirt and coat. His Comfort in its pouch bounced at his hip and he carried a pitcher holding two beer-soaked sausages. He had no idea how he’d come by two beer soaked sausages. God provides. He fished a sausage out of the pitcher. Ella helps. He remembered that.
His hairy shanks were bare but Van Meer couldn’t be concerned. It was going to be a mild night, a soft lovely night with an oversized moon, a night meant for contemplating miracles. He was happy. And he thought he might know where his pants were. They were probably dry by now.
“All creation is a mystery. Life is too short to learn much. But what the hell. Learn to enjoy the quality of mystery.” –John Roberts
Van Meer lay on his back quiet as a corpse, his arms folded over his chest, listening. Sometimes his head would empty out and he’d listen that way. When air moved across his face he inhaled deeply searching for clues. Only his head was above ground. There were men in the forest searching every foot.
Van Meer’s rabbit hole, more likely a groundhog’s abandoned burrow, ran horizontally into a sharp slope beneath a pine tree different than those in the world Van Meer knew, sparser in branch and needle. The hole was too far from an open field to do a groundhog much good but it fitted Van Meer’s needs. He had spent considerable time enlarging the burrow. Clay was easy, rock and coarse soil tougher, stubborn roots were the most difficult. He placed his coat on the brown needle pack and piled hacked roots and clay onto it to be carried to a creek bed and dispersed, leaving no sign. Time and labor were not a problem for Van Meer. When he focused on a task time did not exist.
To make his bed wide and deep enough, Van Meer had to go into the hole head first. At the last he measured his full length in the narrow tunnel and the back of his neck brushed the tunnel’s roof. All he could do was back out on his elbows dragging a shirt full of dirt and rock with him. But he did not fear cave-ins, he was not claustrophobic, he felt safe in tight dark until he was driven out to face what demons there were.
He stuffed the far end of the hole with pine needles and lined the rest with dry grasses. He pulled on his coat and wormed feet first into his nest, warm and safe. Only his face was exposed to the elements and concealment involved nothing more than pulling a pine branch over his head. Even without that precaution he was beneath living tree branches and impossible to spot. But there was something to give him away.
Rocks in the creek bed sheared easily in thick smooth flakes that exposed odd shapes pressed into the stone. He found a leaf carved in perfect detail. He found little round shapes and stem stalks and a segmented worm carved in the soft rock. Sometimes they were all mashed together, pressed on top of each other in bewildering proliferation like the intertwining drawings of his Comfort.
Not a hundred feet from his hidey-hole he placed dozens of the stones organized by size and content. Some he laid out in patterns. Some he piled into shapes and figures. He had intended to use them to back a fire pit that would bank heat into his shelter but had been compelled to stack and order them first.
Men methodically combing the woods for swordsmen found his collection. Van Meer heard them clearly. “Look at this! What is this? It must be a gathering place for a witch’s coven or something.”
“Ahh, you’re always going off the deep end with that stuff,” said a second voice. “Probably just another ambitious squatter. Okay, an inhumanly organized, tightly squeezed, madly drunk squatter. Lord, look at this. This is amazing!”
“What would be amazing is getting out of here before dark. Isn’t Ella Robert’s farm over that way? If we can get lost in here how can bandits who don’t know the territory find their way?”
“Maybe bandits are just brighter than you two,” said a third voice.
A sharp concussion of sound jolted the entire length of Van Meer’s body. Somebody let loose a rebel yell. “I’ll be damned! Completely, totally, eternally damned! I’ve never seen anything like it. Did you see that? That deer jumped right out into the middle of that circle. This is all for a trap, some kind of crazy hunter’s trap! I will be damned!”
“If you’re gonna’ keep wishing for damnation, do it somewhere else. I’ve got other plans.” That was the third voice. “I say it’s luck or God’s grace. We’ve spooked every animal out here today. No wonder they’re jumping all over. But either way we’ve got a campsite with an easily-made fire pit and spit and fresh meat handed to us. And I don’t want to get caught wandering about out here in pitch black. So drag that buck to water and butcher it. I’ll make a fire. We’ll camp here tonight.”
Van Meer, hidden safe and warm, thought Yes, God’s grace, and went gently to sleep. He woke up drooling in the black of night. He could see stars through the branches but they cast no light down here. He turned his head and saw a deep red glow above the hot coals of a dying fire. He smelled roast meat and heard the occasional drop of grease hissing on coals.
Joy ascended. God’s glory cast its cloak upon him. His spirit rose to dance. In total rapture he slid from his burrow. In glee and fearless delight he approached the fire. Moving like mist he floated across the campsite, the ground itself could not feel the press of his feet. He spirited over to the first of the sleeping men and trying not to giggle removed a spoon and a small pouch of oats from the man’s kit. In patient wonder Van Meer removed a tiny cross on a delicate silver chain from around the sleeper’s neck. He did not question how he knew it was there.
One man still sat by the fire occasionally lifting a hand to turn the spit, an act no longer necessary. His head rested on his knees. Van Meer took his blanket. He slid the entire loin of deer from the spit, replaced the spit and tip-toed away like a naughty four-year-old with a stolen cookie. He pressed his lips together to keep from guffawing at the sheer thrill of it all.
Van Meer slid the hot meat into his hole and pushed it all the way back with his feet. He wormed in until his head was fully underground and finally giggling out loud pulled two dead branches over the entrance. God provides. In strange, unfathomable ways, God provides. His feet were toasty warm. He slept smiling and undisturbed deep into the afternoon never knowing the rippling pebble-in-a-pond effect his actions engendered and the stories to be told, meant to color the world.
To Be Continued . . .