“So we treat him like a bees’ nest. He hasn’t done anything malicious, after all.” Grant nervously wiped down his bar, despite its shiny, immaculate surface. Otherwise, though, he was a picture of calm detachment.
“And what if the bees are angered without our provocation? Cougars attack because they’re hungry or territorial, not because we provoke them.” Cal stood with his arms crossed despite being too tall to comfortably stand straight. Nervous himself, it seemed to Tomas.
“For what it’s worth, I say we leave him be for the time being, but keep an eye on him. Has anyone in town talked to him about his intentions? He could—”
For just a moment, Grant’s calm, impassive mask cracked. “Could what, Tom? He’s not a merchant, mercenary, poet, or painter. Who else comes here?”
It was quiet for a moment.
“Sorry, I don’t know what came over me. But what’s interesting about us to the outside world, though? We only do one thing here, and who does that bother?” Grant sighed. “I’ve heard most people don’t even really know where our Wheat comes from. What could anyone possibly think to accomplish by harming us?”
Jillian appeared then from the back of the tavern, filling the silence with the smells of searing meat and spice from the kitchen. [Jillian ran the inn’s kitchen back then. Best cook in town, and loving wife to Grant. Together, they ran the place, and it’s stayed in the family since.] All three heads turned toward the sudden movement. “I don’t think it’s anything to worry about either. We owe him the same hospitality we owe everyone else. That being said, I don’t think it’s outside our best interests to keep an eye on him, just in case. After dinner, I’ll spread word around town to keep an eye out for strange behavior, and if anything turns up, to let you know at your shop, Cal. We can’t keep talking about him here if we want to stay under the radar. And again, he hasn’t done anything. Sound like a plan?”
“What would I do without you, Jill?”
“Run half the establishment you do now, that’s for sure. And one other thing. If you’re going to talk about someone you can’t keep track of, maybe keep your voices down. He’s not here now, mercifully, so you’ve nothing to worry about. Just a thought.” With that, she went back into the kitchen, and the aromas of her cooking dissipated after her.
Cal sat heavily in a stool at the bar. “Some ale, if you don’t mind, Grant. This is shaping up to be a long evening.”
“Of course, of course. One for me as well, I think.” He said it more to himself than to Cal.
The two men sat drinking their black beers in silence for a few minutes. Tomas decided it was time for him to head home, rather than share a pint with the men. “Have either of you seen Kari in town today?”
They both just shook their heads, lost in thought. Tomas thanked them as he gathered his things.
“Good luck out there, boy. It’s a big world.”
“The sun’s still up, Grant. And it’s too cold for mountain lions anyway.”
“There are other things to worry about than cougars, Tom. You better get going.”
“I’ll be home before dark, I promise.”
Tomas’ walk home was uneventful. The mountains to the south cast long shadows as the sun set over the Lake behind him. His pack was light, all things considered, and despite the nocturnal chill in the shadows of the peaks, he soon escaped their grasp to walk with the warm sun on his back.
His parents were delighted at the coatrack and hung it just inside the front door almost immediately. As he had gone into town, there were no chores to be done on the farm that evening. He watched the sun set on the porch of his home, chewing thoughtfully on a sprig of Black Wheat. His journal was in his lap; in it, he wrote down all the things he’d heard and seen of the Stranger in town.
The next night, [a clear, still one with a bright, setting Moon,] Tomas was on his way home from Kari’s when he saw the Stranger again. From a distance, this time. It was past the crossroads where Tomas had encountered him on his way into town. He was two fields over, standing just within the southwestern edge of Tomas’ family’s fields, unmoving. His back was to the road upon which Tomas walked; he faced the Lake. The landscape seemed to frame him: the mountains plunging into the Lake just to his left; the sallow, waning Moon hanging above his head; a few lights still glimmering in town by his right hip. He stood with his shoulders slack, palms up, and hands forward with his head thrust back, apparently staring wide-eyed into the dark sky. As Tomas watched, the stranger drew his hands above his head, keeping his arms straight, palms remaining upturned. He held the pose for a full minute before slowly lowering his arms to lean backwards at an odd angle, head remaining thrust back, his filmy cape billowing. After a moment of holding the position, a weight seemed to lift from him, and he straightened back up, bending to pick up his satchel as his cape settled around him. He slung it over his shoulder, and froze.
To the end of his days, Tomas could never fully explain what caused him to duck [though eventually, he had some educated guesses.] Just before he lost sight of the hooded figure, it began to turn, undoubtedly to face Tomas. How had he known to turn? Tomas hadn’t made any noise, certainly not that would have carried that far. Cougars hunted by scent, but what little breeze there was had been on Tomas’ face, not his back. What had made his cloak billow like that?
Paranoia swelling in his chest, he crawled on hands and knees to hide among his family’s crops, atop the packed snow. The Wheat was high enough this time of year that he could be sure that, when he sat with his legs crossed, trying to slow his nervous breathing, he was still well hidden. The light breeze returned, this time at his back though he was sure he hadn’t gotten turned around—he could still see his southern star, the one which remained fixed in the sky, through the heads of Black Wheat. The wind gusted, sending ripples over and across the sea of blackness that hid him. What had been a breeze continued to grow in strength, agitating the stalks of Wheat surrounding him more and more. Reflexively, he looked back to the sky and saw thin clouds wafting in from the east, veiling the southern star. They made disturbingly fast progress, and what little light remained began to fade as the clouds engulfed the tired, setting Moon.
Shapes danced around him on every side as his eyes did all they could to strain what little Moonlight was left into something definite, something safe. He gave up on controlling his breath and considered standing up. No, no, he couldn’t. Tomas was safest here, where the Stranger would never find him. Here, surrounded by darkness, where even he couldn’t see.
Or could he? The wind was howling now, blowing his hair into his face and eyes, which stung. Holding it to his head with a hand, he peered out into the miasma surrounding him, eyes wide as they would go.
All he could see was motion. Intense, terrifying chaos with no place for his eyes to land. He desperately turned his head this way and that, up and down, hoping against hope to find something still, something he could cling to. Something he knew.
Yet Tomas could find no anchor. There was no place for his eyes to rest, and squeezing them shut simply made the half-formed phantoms surrounding him clearer. Tears began to stream down his face as his hands contorted into fists, clenched tightly against the night around him. The wind continued to blow.
Tomas brought his knees to his chest and half-rolled into a laying position on his side, freezing snow sapping heat from his body. He sobbed freely now, his mind full of memories as vicious and painful as the maelstrom that filled his vision.
Lying about whether the barn door was latched…the cold took three goats that night. Sneaking out to see Kari and catching her flu, despite his mother’s warnings…he’d passed it on to his whole family. Attempting to carry too many of Grant’s bottles and dropping them all…shards of glass and liquor had gone everywhere.
He pulled his coat tighter around himself as the sobs continued to come, refreshed with each failure he recalled. The wind continued to howl; the stars were gone. There was only Tomas, alone and terrified as the Black Wheat raged all around him.
He didn’t know whether he slept, nightmarish as the world around him was. If he did sleep, the nightmares continued. If he didn’t, the figures all around him were terrible, grotesque things that watched him from around corners and hid in the shadows. He had no memory of Kari finding him, still curled up in the snow and sobbing though the tears would no longer fall. All Tomas knew was that in the morning, the sun was shining placidly through his bedroom window and there was nobody to be seen. Everything seemed perfectly normal.
As Tomas descended the stairs, an errant creak announced his progress to the kitchen; around the corner, a good-natured “Finally!” floated up the stairs.
Though he couldn’t see Kari until he was fully in the kitchen, Tomas knew it was her. She occupied her usual corner seat; an empty plate littered with black crumbs sat in front of her. He smiled at the sight of her, though he could feel the smile looked tired and distant.
Kari could see it too. She gestured to a freshly assembled Black Bread sandwich on the table at which she sat, evidence his mother had only just left the room. “So…what happened?”
Tomas opened his mouth to answer but hesitated before wordlessly sinking into the chair opposite her, as the memories began to return. He shut his eyes against them, but there was nothing he could do. Fresh tears began to form. He took a deep breath, but sobs took it from him. He heard the tears hit the wooden table, one small noise at a time.
After a moment, he took another breath, shaking his head and wiping at his eyes. “He did something.”
Kari leaned forward. “Who?” There was no judgement in her eyes, only fury.
Tomas rubbed his eyes again, nodding. “He’s been staying at the inn in town for almost a week.”
“And now he’s hurt you.”
“No, Ri, I don’t think what he did was to me.”
She didn’t respond, just sat back and cocked an eyebrow.
“Well, okay. Something happened to me. But he didn’t know I was there until after he started to move on. It was like he did something to our fields. To the land itself. Well, maybe not the land. The…place?”
“I don’t get it, Tom.”
“Neither do I…”
“I’ll tell you what I do get, though. When I found you, I practically had to fight you to get you home. You didn’t recognize me, and you jumped away when I reached for your hand, like you were scared of me or something. Me!
“Whether he was aiming for you or not doesn’t really matter to me. There are consequences to messing with my people—or…well, my Home. You said he’s at Grant’s?” She pushed the now less freshly assembled sandwich toward him. “Eat. I want to talk with this stranger of yours.”
“There’s not much to tell for a long time after that. The Stranger had already left town by the time Kari and Tomas could ask around. Most people just shrugged their shoulders and went on living. You know how people are.” I can pick out more than a few local faces laughing quietly and exchanging glances at that. Smiling myself, I continue, “If you’re looking for a small break, now is the time to go refill your cup or stretch your legs. The next few years were idyllic, with bumper crops and good, strong winters without all the bite. The extra resources gave Kari the opportunity she needed to rally proper expeditions, assisted by Tomas at every turn—sometimes literally. Kari’s sense of direction was practically nonexistent; it’s part of the reason she so strove for a simpler route to Brin. It took two short, wet summers of searching, but she and her team ultimately found a pass they could turn into a good road. It was completed the next summer.”
I lift my hand and point to the quickly darkening sky behind my audience. An orange orb of light hovers low in the southern sky, above the horizon but far from overhead. “It is there that Kari found her Pass. That great lantern is visible from Brin as well. A pity Kari herself never got to see the light, as it was forged long after she’d left this world. The Pass, though, bears her name to this day.
“After the creation of the road through the mountains, it seemed to the people of this little town that life couldn’t get any better. It’s a shame they were so correct.”
This is always one of my favorite moments. Everyone here knows something has to happen to get the story really going. They’ve just gotten a taste, and if the crowd was respectfully quiet before, now they’re reverently silent. Even the youngest children, sitting as close as they can to the edge of the raised garden in which I sit, still their constant fidgeting. Even if it’s only for a moment, silence is a powerful thing, and I let it hang for the space of a breath: any longer would be oppressive.
“Winter came late the next year. Later than we’d ever seen it come. Not only that, but that next spring came early. It wasn’t catastrophic; the previous years had been good to the farmers, so there was plenty of rationed Wheat to go around. ‘Next year will be fine,’ the farmers would say to each other. ‘There’s always bad years, but they pass, and there’s always a planting season after it.’
“But the next year wasn’t better. Not to say it was worse, but as seasons go, it was as bad for our harvests as rain. Tomas writes about townspeople sending caravans away that year. They couldn’t trade their only food, and there’s only so much charity that could come over the mountains. There was no surviving another lackluster winter, that much was certain. So what could they do?”
I let the question hang in the cool night air. A light breeze ruffles the heads of Wheat gazing over my shoulder at the congregation assembled to hear their story. The audience seems to notice as well, so, when the time is right, I continue.