Sunday, January 25, 2009
Chapter Twelve, The Leatherman's Journal - April 6, 1872
Something has happened.
I have, out of necessity, become a creature of habit. I wish to speak to no one, so I do not. I have found my meals with friendly folk, who, at first required me to perform some odd job, some task in order to earn the day's fare. I've returned to these kind folk again and again, until they grow to expect me, until they no longer require of me the chore, the task, for the mouthful. These folk respect my silence. Yes, some try to speak with me, but none require me to speak back. Some ask me questions. Questions that touch my heart. But none expect an answer. Some sit with me while I eat, and they watch. Others have given up on even that simple exercise.
A few have prodded me further. Asked questions and have held the food out as threat. Answer or you will not eat. From those tables I have risen and fled, never to return again. I crave no attention, though I get my share, and those who would give me too much attention, I avoid. I do not want to be a spectacle. I have always found another friendly door, which will provide me with food.
Most will put out food without any fuss, and leave me to eat in peace, and silence.
Ah, silence. When I am alone, I stretch my voice. Sometimes in song. Sometime in conversation with the shadows who walk along side me in the forest glade, and down rows of crop laden stalks.
And what I hear in return is nothing.
Too often my angels torment me. For months they will leave me be.
When I left France, they seemed washed away by the ocean, but they followed me to these shores, did Beliel and Adoneil.
Beliel, who calls himself the tormentor reminds me that the world is at my fingertips.
“Take the purse,” he hisses, as I sit at table on the porch of a woman who has fed me for two years.
“Look at this home,” he sneers. “She needs not these pennies, that would make you feel a rich man.”
It is Beliel, who reaches through my flesh, and rouses passions which I resist.
“Touch it,” he laughs. “Touch it, for no one else will. Now or ever again.”
And Adoneil, for all his righteousness, reminds me of my failings, again and again.
“Walk,” he curses me, as if I knew not better than to walk.
“Walk, until your feet bleed, and your legs shout for mercy. Walk that your sins may be forgiven.”
And so I walk.
I have determined the most efficient route between houses. I am able to walk about five miles from the time I get up to midday dinner, and another five before it gets dark. I can walk at a steady pace, not quickly, not slowly, but steady. Steady. I arrive at my destination on a timely basis. I walk without looking right or left. I do not want to peer into the shadow, to see the faces there ready to mock and cajole. I walk without raising my hand in greeting, or raising my eyes in recognition. I walk as do the mendicant monks of France, from town to town begging their living.
I have stopped taking shelter in barns and sheds, and prefer the rock shelters that rise up at the ends of the farm fields where I walk.
These shelters are usually boulders leaning one upon the next, or great slabs of cliff that have fallen from their vertical perch and now lean against the cliff which mothered it. These shelters provide me cover from the rain and wind, and all are large enough to contain a small fire. Many have natural flues, from which the smoke and bats escape.
I have found myself walking, each cycle of the moon, in a great circle. On the east and west borders are great rivers which I cannot ford without ferrying, and they naturally enough define boundaries which I need not cross. On the south is a salty spit of ocean, a large natural inlet that the local people here call a sound. At the north is a line I have drawn in my imagination, along a series of ridges and roadways. There is little settlement above this border, and few chances for a meal.
I walk these paths now without thinking which way I must turn. For it has been more than twelve winters that I've traveled. I've learned the byways and need not search, as I have in the past, for landmark or direction. My feet pull me forward like the hands of a fiddler will dance across the instrument as if beckoned by the tune.
I have found it necessary to circumvent the bigger towns, New Haven, Bridgeport, and I've not returned to the great port of New York since I landed in this country. In those towns, I am not considered a curiosity to watch quietly, but rather a curiosity to taunt.
On my last trip through New Haven, I was careful to travel on side streets. I passed a tavern filled with young men. They were not workers. They had not the swarthy color, the untrimmed beards, or the worn clothes of dockers or ditch diggers. In fact they wore matching waistcoats with the letter Y embroidered on the front pocket.
A few of these young men held tankards of ale and drank outside the tavern as I passed. I kept my head low, kept my eyes averted, and walked steadily. I had not passed the door of the tavern when one of the young men spied me.
"Stop." he shouted.
I kept walking, hoping he'd return to his beer, and his friend, and forget about the poor tramp walking by.
"I said stop," he ran a step ahead of me and blocked my path. I'm sure he stared hard on me, but I kept my head lowered, altered my course and continued to walk.
I felt the hand on my shoulder, and spun around, half on his power, half on my own. This time I looked at him. His teeth were clenched in a grimace, and his beer mug dangled from a fist propped on his hip.
"I told you to stop you insolent old bum," he said, rather drunkenly.
I turned to walk away, but once again I felt the hand on my shoulder, and once again I was spun around to face him, but this time I raised my walking stick over my head as I turned. It was a sturdy stick of maple, stripped live from a tree along my route, just at a joint so there was a heavy knob at the top about the size of a big potato. When swung, I imagined it could crack arm bone or skull, though I never had the opportunity to test it on a human. I sent angry dogs whining with their tails betwixt their legs. But I had never before even raised my stick to a fellow man.
I swung now, aiming to miss the man's head by a generous margin, and with his ducking, I missed by a few yards. He bounced back to his feet and staggered back several paces. I turned and began to walk away.
Before I could get to the end of the street, and I had now altered my speed to get as far as I could, I heard a commotion behind me, I didn't turn to look but kept my head low, and rounded a street corner.
"There he goes," a familiar voice shouted.
I heard heavy footfalls move from walk to run, and I realized that I too must run. Something I had not thought of doing. Something I had never attempted in heavy leather boots, coat and trousers. I did what I could, but even the kindest judge would not have called it running.
The footfalls behind me were very close now. I turned to face my attackers. And in turning, I found that they were surprised that I stopped. I did not raise my stick, for though I knew if I could easily drop one or two of them, I would, as a result, make certain my own fate at the hands of those who could avoid my swings.
They were, like most mobs, fearless and chattering. Full of uncertain energy and undefined hatred. They were, like most mobs, uglier as a group. More likely to do harm.
They stopped running when I turned, and seemed uncertain as to what to do. I did not recognize my original tormentor amongst the men who faced me. There seemed to be ten or twelve of them. A row of soiled moustaches and crushed derbys. As it turned out, the man who stopped me first was, like me, a slow runner. He pushed his way to the front, breathing heavily.
"So you want to make trouble, do you tramp?" he asked, braver now for his fellows, who grew uglier by the moment.
I turned again, and began to walk.
"Not so fast old timer," he called, stopping me more with the appellation than the command, for I was probably not much older than he. I know I did not look true to my age.
I knew I was not going to be able to simply walk away. I faced him, and he moved toward me with a smile on his face.
"What have you got in the pack, old man?"
I held tight to my leather satchel, but with the help of his friends he pulled it away from me, and emptied its contents onto the street. They seemed surprised that it held no riches. A handmade ax and knife, a pair of scissors that I purchased on my first day in New York, likewise a spider, a tin filled with cigar stubs that I would crumble later and smoke in my handmade pipe, some leather scraps, a sturdy leather awl and needle, a tin cup, and this, my journal.
They ignored everything but the journal, which one of the young man picked up and began to fan in front of his eyes.
"What's this?" he asked in a general way.
He held the book up to show his conspirators, then pulled it to himself and began to turn pages again.
"What are these scribblings," he held it to my face. "This is not any language I understand. Pardon my ignorance friends, but for a moment here I thought this good man might be a very literate person. Full of native genius. A border poet like the great MacPherson. But I'm afraid he's a scribbler, a scrawler, and worthy of the beating he's about to get.
"Let's just leave him alone Martin. He's done us no harm. Let the poor beggar go. Let’s go find a nigger to torment."
It was a voice from the back of the crowd. A bespectacled young man, whose voice demonstrated a gentleness not evident in his rough and well-formed figure.
"He was about to brain me with his rod," the original tormentor, who now had a name, Martin, complained.
"Then he deserves a drink," another of the men said, and they all laughed.
"All right then, a drink," the first man said. "Jimmy, run and fetch a bottle of whiskey for us to share."
Martin then turned to me with a smile on his face quite unlike his original menacing grimace.
"We've been unkind to you my good man. We offer you an apology in an upturned bottle.”
With that, the entire congregation cheered good-naturedly. I stared at the cobblestones.
When the bottle arrived it was passed noisily from hand to hand, each man taking a long pull of the amber liquid. When all but a quarter of the bottle was gone, it was offered to me. I kept my head lowered.
"Come now, my good man. You escaped a beating, it's time to celebrate."
I stepped back, but felt the brick wall behind me. I shook my head violently, making it clear that I wanted no part of the whiskey.
"What. A tramp who doesn't like the taste of whiskey. Old man, what are you, some kind of holy man?"
I shook my head again, and looked the man in the eye pleadingly. He smiled broadly again, and this time there was some of the ugly anger back in his expression. He addressed his fellows again.
"What we have here boys is a holy wanderer, like they had in the Old Testament. You remember. Anyone cite me chapter and verse?"
There was a general mumbling in the group, but no ready reply came. I myself knew quite well a passage about a famous wanderer.
"We'll make his soul new again. What say boys. We'll baptize him. Welcome him into the fold. Christen him. He'll be born again."
He stepped toward me and this time I raised my walking stick. He held for a moment and then shouted.
"Get him men."
The assault was quick and complete. I was brought to the ground without swinging my staff. I was pummeled. Beaten in the face and body until I resisted no longer, and then, with two men holding tight to each limb, and another clamping my nose shut, they waited until I gasped for air, and forced the neck of the bottle into my mouth. I gagged, and spit back what I could, but they would have none of it, and I would have choked to death had I continued to struggle, and so I drank a measure. Truth be known, I recalled the taste, and it did not taste badly. I forgot how much I missed the fire from the bottle, as it lit my throat and stomach with a familiar warmth. I was limp. Within minutes it began to light my mind with the same fire. The next two days are gone from memory. I feel that I spent the time with my tormentors, but the facts of those days are as lost as my soul.
I awoke sometime days later groggy and injured.
Adoneil whispered to me, “Worthless.”
The skin on my face and body felt taut, and sore to the touch. All my limbs ached, and my recollection of how I was able to make it to this shelter, miles into the countryside, and up a rather treacherous trail, were obliterated by the fermented liquid. I had strange tastes in my mouth that reminded me of my life in Lyon, and I had trouble focusing my eyes when I first woke.
I had boiled some coffee, and drank it while it was still steaming, and dunked my head in a nearby spring. Only then did I began to feel more like myself. I know that the liquor made me drunk, and I knew that I probably enjoyed being drunk , but I was fortunate that God was kind enough to keep the remembered pleasure from me.
More or less refreshed, I checked my belongings. They were intact. My pack was neatly arranged, and my journal was amongst my belongings still, and all my clothing and my walking stick were tucked into a corner of the small rock shelter.
I took from my pack a small piece of smoked jerk meat that I carried from a meal the day before, and began to eat. The food did not stay with me long. I retched up great puddles of liquid.
I slept for several more hours, and when I awoke I walked all afternoon, not stopping where I usually did for a noonday meal, but walked at a quickened pace so as not to miss my evening meal.
I felt tired, but much more clearheaded after my brisk walk, and though I knew that I must look frightful with my swollen face and fresh wounds, the family I visited for a meal that evening did not turn me away.
The wife, a sturdy woman of about forty-five loved to serve me fried chicken and muffins smothered in a salty gravy. And this she did again, but not without asking me several times if I was all right. She wondered aloud if I could continue on my journey, or if I needed to stay the night at their farm.
As was my habit, I did not acknowledge her questions, but when finished, I lifted my hand in a flourish of thanks and walked down the path.
Before I was able to leave the boundaries of her farm, heading as I was for a shelter I kept in the hills beyond New Haven in the town of Trumbull, she caught up to me in her horse and wagon. She had a package wrapped in old newspapers. I looked at it and at her.
"It's liniment, the vet gave it to me to use on the horse, but I find it makes my rheumatism feel a might better too. Lord, I work like a horse, why wouldn’t it work on me,” she laughed kindly. “It might ease your muscle aches too. And there's a hunk of pie in there. You'll need a good breakfast tomorrow."
That's all she said, and pulled her horse up and headed back toward the farmhouse.
It was late by the time I reached the shelter, and the air was brisk with a hint of winter. My teepee of kindling was in place from the last time I stayed in this shelter, and I lit the kindling with one of the matches I carried. I boiled some coffee, and sat and read a newspaper I found by the side of the road, using the light of the fire to illuminate the words.
When I was through with the news, I used it as a wrap for some of the old cigar tobacco I picked up off of the road that day. I rolled an ungainly cigarette and lit it in the fire. The printer’s ink burned in the back of my throat, but the tobacco was enough to make my lids heavy. Though I was alone, it made me feel happy that I was full, and had a roof, such as it was, for the night.
When the fire burned down, I swept it, ashes and all from the flat rock where I had built it. I lay my ragged blanket on the spot where the fire had glowed, and the heat from that flat rock kept me warm through much of the night.