The Traveler with the Long, Dragging Beard

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Literary Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
Lizbeth, a young woman living in a plague-ravaged town, ventures into the wilderness and encounters a man (and his mule, Mickey), who is even stranger than he at first appears.

Submitted: June 01, 2011

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Submitted: June 01, 2011

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Lizbeth lit a candle to fend off the velvet darkness that presently roamed the land. Her waxen blade, tipped with silent dancing orange, would have to suffice until the sun, seeming at once lazy to the sleepless and sleepless to the lazy, yawned, stretched, and stood, revealing to Lizbeth her meager garden of grapes, carrots, and peppers. These crops she would pick, place upon a plate, and set on her brother's nightstand, awaiting his waking. Such was the routine Lizbeth had followed for two years, after the death of her parents, who had been victims of a plague which had passed through the town, leaving alive only specks of once large families. Motivation, too, had been claimed; and the cracked homes, shriveled vegetation, and constantly downcast eyes of the withered townsfolk were its marker. Lizbeth's nimble-footed spirit, though, had somehow dodged all daggers, and planted her a daisy, pink as her smiling cheeks, in the center of that stone hamlet. 
 
“Ah, there you are,” she said in a voice as warm as the sun to which she spoke. Her pecan eyes squinted as the rays found her. Blowing out her candle, she made a basket out of her apron, dropped within it her bounty, and looked round, taking in the scene of the new day. A breeze blew, setting the leaves of the distant woods achatter and the remaining arms of the windmill aspin, groaning like the bones of a rising antique man. 
 
A rustling sounded from the grass near her feet. Lizbeth glanced down. “And good morning to you, Flash Jones,” she hummed. The strawberry cat lay on his back, licking one of his white paws. He looked up at Lizbeth's voice, eyes wide, as if saying, How dare you interrupt me during this sacred act! Placing her brother's breakfast on the ground, Lizbeth rushed at the animal, giggling—but Flash Jones whirled to his feet and bolted a few feet away. He stopped and turned his head. Lizbeth turned as well and began walking in the opposite direction, pretending to ignore the beast. Not able to bear this lack of attention, Flash trotted up beside Lizbeth and was quickly captured by her descending arms. The girl brought the lively warm fur to her chest and embraced, despite the cat's struggles. After realizing the futility of his efforts, Flash Jones surrendered to Lizbeth's affection. A final peck to the forehead was endured, and the feline was set free. Lizbeth reclaimed her produce and went back into her house, as the cat circled a spot on the porch and crashed down onto it for a nap. 
 
Once inside, Lizbeth cleaned the grapes, carrots, and peppers, using a small basin of water; set them on a disc of pewter; and tiptoed to her brother's room, so as not to wake him. The door was ajar, so she entered knockless. Hardly any light had invaded, for her brother had masked the window with one of his quilts. Lizbeth put the plate on the nightstand, smiled down at her sibling, hair splayed like the branches of an old elm, and turned to leave. 
 
“You know I'd really like an apple this morning,” called a raspy voice from behind her. 
 
Lizbeth stopped at the door. “Oh? I would bring you one, but we've run out. Won't that do for now?” she asked, nodding toward the plate. 
 
Rolling over, eyes still closed, Lizbeth's brother hissed through his teeth. “It is not what I consider sufficient.”
 
“Why not take a morning stroll to the apple orchard then? I'll go along with you. It has been a while since you've seen a fresh sun. Yes, I think a morning stroll will do you some good.” No reply came for many seconds, for the fellow had fallen back asleep. Shrugging, Lizbeth turned to—
 
 
“An apple would do me some good. And a stroll would do you some good.”
 
“If I go get apples, will you move the fallen tree in the back yard?”
 
“Yes, of course.”
 
“Are you certain? Because you've been telling me such for over a week now.” 
 
“Yes, yes, yes,” muffled, as he had covered his head with his pillow. 
 
This, Lizbeth knew, was a lie. At twenty-two years old, her brother should have been taking into his uncalloused hands a hoe, working the small farm, helping provide for the household—but instead he was prone the majority of the day, or in the tavern, once his eyes had adjusted to the light of the moon. Despite this, Lizbeth still felt a stinging obligation to keep his happiness intact—perhaps because of how difficult their parents' death had been for him. So, to the apple orchard she decided to stroll. 
 
Flash Jones's alert ears honed in on the opening door, the sigh of weariness, the footsteps of the girl, basket on her arm, striding off into the woods. He decided to follow. “Oh, if only you had thumbs so you could help me with the housework too,” Lizbeth told him, leaning over and scratching his head. 
 
The two kept a brisk pace, Flash Jones pausing mid-stride once in a while, scanning the scenery, then resuming his step. “What gives my brother such a sense of entitlement?” Lizbeth asked the beast, who responded only by glancing up at the inquirer's face. “Does it stem from mother's and father's death?  Does he feel that, since sorrow fell onto his lap, he is now due recompense? Where else in Nature does such an expectant attitude occur? The only example of which I can think is the grizzly, who simply waits at the top of a fall for wriggling salmon to jump into his mouth. But that grizzly must still snag a slimy fish using only his jaws! No simple task, is it, Flash Jones?” Flash Jones's legs were moving so quickly that they appeared a blur, an orange and white mist, with the mystical upper body of a feline floating on top. “And here I am, fileting, frying, and feeding the fish to the grizzly, using a golden fork.” 
 
Presently, Lizbeth and Flash reached a small field of blackberry bushes, on the other side of which awaited the apple orchard. The sweet scent of the midnight-colored fruits painted the air so thickly that Lizbeth reckoned her nostrils had been gilded by it and she'd never smell another aroma again. A straight path ran through the center of the bushes. Myriad bees used this lane as the thoroughfare of their organic village. Lizbeth, whenever she was near, had to halt and admire the insects for their determination, their ability to work together as a community and thrive; and she could not help but imagine the splendor her town would hold if only these bees could dive into the ears of her neighbors, latch with their limbs of string onto the brains' levers, and take over those bodies capable of building and maintaining structures that peer over even the loftiest trees. “I bet the first thing they would do is fix the windmill,” she said in a voice loud enough for the bees to overhear, as if in hopes that one of the buzzers with an advanced set of vocal chords would zip to her nose, perch there, and offer her the assistance of his swarm in repairing her town. With a sigh she moved on. Most would have given the bustling plot a wide berth, for a stinger to the skin was easy to catch in this area, but Lizbeth cut through the bushes, trying with her eyes to track the path of a single bee looping, landing, becoming lost in the thousand separate avenues the toilers traversed. 
 
When she reached the other side, Lizbeth set about picking a dozen red apples. A strong gust suddenly swept through, setting the apples aswing like a priory's bell and bringing with it the creaks and groans of an approaching wagon. “I must hide,” the girl gasped, as she was alone, weaponless, in a lawless wood in which it was not uncommon for heathens to tread. She found a spot in a patch of dense foliage and, breathing in short pants, peaked out from between the leaves. 
 
Amongst the creaks was the sound of a man crying out many different expressions that held the same meaning: Ouch. “Yaghh!” he called, and “Kehhh!”, and, once, “Chicken legs!”
 
Oh, no! thought Lizbeth. It is a gang of ruffians with a prisoner who is plagued by constant pains produced by past tortures. I must not make a sound! How terrible to think that my brother is snoozing, completely unaware of my situation, which I am in simply because he wanted an apple. 
 
Finally, the caller came into Lizbeth's sight. It was indeed a man, an old one, though he was alone, with a wide-brimmed cloth hat which sank so low on his head that it covered his eyes and nose. In fact, all that fell from under the cap, other than a bent, blue-robed body, was a beard, white as the clouds overhead, whose length nearly doubled that of its grower. He was riding a brown mule who seemed to be grinning with the utmost delight, as his muzzle was composed entirely of squared yellowed teeth. With every step of his back left foot, the mule trampled the hanging facial hair of its rider, for, yes, the chin- and cheek-locks of the old-timer were that long. This trampling was the cause of the cries. Behind them, attached to the mule by a rope, was the creaking wagon, filled with what
looked, to Lizbeth, to be random trinkets. 
 
The concealed girl blinked rapidly at the newcomer. He seems harmless enough; the mule seems to be the mean one. But, to be safe, I will remain hidden until the team passes by. Fate, though, waggled a finger at Lizbeth, for he was not in agreement with her plan.
 
The old man, between exclamations, commanded his vehicle to stop: “Yow! Stop, mule! Eeek! Cease, beast! Bliiyeee! Halt, ye moose!” This last jibe jabbed between the animal's ribs and hit a weak spot, as he stopped, turned his head to look at his companion, and frowned. “You know I did not mean it,” sighed the fossil, “it's just, I thought I heard something. A rustling. Coming from...” He pointed his finger before him and slowly rotated his arm clockwise, until the digit was aimed at Lizbeth's forehead. “Ah-ha!”
 
Lizbeth did not know what to do. She had been found out. Should she bolt? Surely she could outrun the stranger. But the old man's twinkling eyes, the pink globes that were his cheeks, and certainly the elegant ivory beard, woven at its dragging point with leaves and twigs, compelled her; so up she stood, sure that she had not made the old man's rustle, and asked, “Do you mean me?” 
 
“Me?”
 
“No, me!”
 
“Of course I mean me!”
 
“But do you mean me?”
 
“You know that I do.”
 
“Well, then.” Lizbeth highstepped from the bushes, and as she did so a cranberry-colored bird took flight from nearby. Oh. Perhaps 'twas he that made the rustling. After a moment, she stood only a few feet from the travelers. She extended her hand and offered her name.
 
“I am Edgewater Rogers,” claimed the man. The mule grunted. “And this ol' chatterbox is Mickey.”
 
Lizbeth scratched Mickey's ears and was reminded of Flash Jones. She looked around, but the cat, typical of cats, had vanished. Smirking, Lizbeth made a mental note to tease him for being antisocial. “Where are you heading, Mr. Edgewater?”
 
“To Ignas. I hear that city is an absolute whirlwind of activity.”
 
“I couldn't tell you,” said the girl, scratching at the ground with her foot. “I've never left my own village.”
 
“Poh!” puffed Rogers, swatting at a fly running circles round his head. “You ought! The world is, well, big. And certain points in it are quite neat. For example, I just came from a pie festival in Teer, and do you know what was there?”
 
“What?” asked the girl, clapping her hands together, excited to hear of anything that floated from the routine she'd followed these past couple years.
 
“Pies!” Edgewater leaned back and crossed his arms, confident that he had just blown the girl's mind.
 
“Well, I might have guessed that, actually.”
 
Rogers sputtered, nearly falling from Mickey: “Not just any pies! Giant pies! Pies large enough to swim in! And men (and one woman) large enough to eat them!”
 
“Oh! That is neat, then! And what are you going to see in Ignas?”
 
“Of that I am not certain. All I know is, it is going to be a long, long ride there, with this jackal stomping on my beard like he likes to do.”
 
Lizbeth tapped her lip with her pointer finger. “Why not just snip it?”
 
Edgewater Rogers looked at her as if she'd just suggested he steal a bear's honey. “Why, because I like it.”
 
“I do too,” she giggled. “I have another idea, then.”
 
“Do tell,” said Edgewater, curious, petting the hair currently being discussed with one hand and patting the Mickey on whom he rode with the other.
 
Several minutes later, as Lizbeth neared completion of her project, Rogers, with quivering lips, asked, “Are you sure this is not unmasculine?”
 
“I am sure,” Lizbeth with a smile. “Have a look,” holding up a mirror which she found in Edgewater's cart.
 
The old-timer, now flexing his biceps, now chomping his teeth, examined his likeness in the glass from every possible angle while in every possible pose, finally declaring, “The braid will do!”
 
Lizbeth, happy to have helped, beamed. “Not only is it stylish, it is also shorter, since the hairs wrap round each other rather than falling straight down.”
 
“You've saved me an immeasurable amount of breath, since I no longer have to shout in pain every three seconds.” Rogers made his way to his cart and from out of a small box composed of silver, with mermaids leaping from a lagoon engraved on its top, produced a small vial. “Please take this as a token of my gratitude.”
 
With trembling hands (for this gift seemed quite valuable), Lizbeth took the item and looked at it with an air of both reverence and curiosity. Inside the ampoule was a liquid, golden, thick as honey. “What is it?”
 
“A wish,” smiled Edgewater, hopping back onto his mule. “And that is all I will say about it.” He winked at Lizbeth, took a deep breath, held it, peered at the whispering treetops, and said, “Well, are you ready, Mick?” 
 
The cart commenced its creaking again as the duo started off. Lizbeth watched Edgewater's beard, dangling right around Mickey's belly, swinging like a priory's bell, and she called, “I hope I see you again, Mr. Edgewater.”
 
Turning his head, Rogers returned, “I think you will,” and disappeared behind a particularly stout tree, while whistling a tune Lizbeth had never heard.
 
Lizbeth stood staring for a bit before resuming her apple collecting and dropping the fruits into her apron. For some reason she now felt quite gloomy, as if she had, for only a moment, sprouted wings and glided with the wind to a distant locale, riper than her present, willing to embrace her, yet was whisked back by the Whirlwind of Submission, which she could not, in her current state, avoid. Thus, with downcast eyes, finding each bruise, each flaw in the fruit she bore, Lizbeth returned to the buzzing field of blackberry bushes, seeing not the vine strewn across its core, and tripping, falling to the dirt, amongst the rolling red apples. Though the worst she suffered was a raspberry on the knee, Lizbeth could not help but cry. 
 
Once those tears began to fall, with no one there to scare them back into their ducts, they seemed unending: a wave saved up these past two years, sealed away with the cement of obligation and duty. But now that that mortar had cracked, chipped at by both the thanklessness of her brother and neighbors, and the unselfish lust for content due to those of her ilk, it would never, and, indeed, should never, be repaired.
 
Overhead, the bees passed, unconcerned, a living, laboring roof, till Lizbeth saw fit to rise. She looked down at the apples and began picking them up, when underneath one she uncovered the vial Edgewater had given her. Grains of dirt sat atop it, so Lizbeth brushed them away, released the apples in her grip, uncapped the ampoule, and brought it to her lips. Hesitating, she looked around, keeping the golden liquid only inches from her mouth. In front of her, looming over the trees in the distance, stood the broken windmill, spinning slowly in a fresh gust. To her back awaited the orchard with the path Edgewater Rogers had taken to Ignas, alive with the song of the cranberry-colored bird, perched on a branch, flicking his head in all directions. And all around Lizbeth flew the bees, admirable, diligent, through the heavy, blackberry-scented air. 
 
“Why shouldn't I drink this wish?” she asked herself. “It doesn't look magical, so it probably won't work, anyway.” But, oh, how she hoped it would! “Although, what if it is poisoned? No, Edgewater would not have given it to me if it were. Who knows how old it is, though? It may be stale and make me sick.” Lizbeth, having nearly convinced herself not to swallow the draft, lowered the phial from her lips and was about to cap it when Flash Jones, a vivid orange blossoming from out of the green brush, pranced up to her, carrying in his mouth the flimsy form of a mouse. The self-sustaining feline opened his jaws, dropped his spoil, nudged it once with his nose, and looked up at Lizbeth. Lizbeth smiled gently at the cat. Still standing in the midst of the blackberry bushes, she watched for a moment the path of a single bee, squeezed shut her eyes, tilted back her head, guzzled the vial's contents, and immediately felt a dazzling warmth radiate from her chest. 
 
The next morning, Lizbeth's brother, having not seen his sister since yesterday's breakfast, walked outside, belly cursing, and picked from his meager garden of grapes, carrots, and peppers his meal. 


© Copyright 2018 Duhg Charlie. All rights reserved.

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