Sunday, March 8, 2009
Chapter Eighteen - The Leatherman's Journal, April 1877
By the side of the road today I found several woman's magazines. They appeared not yellowed with age. They were dated in the year 1877.
If they are recent magazines, then I have been here in this country for nearly thirty years. Thirty years. I remember a time when I didn’t have thirty years under my belt to remember.
Thirty years. As old as I was when Marie met death, and left me.
Thirty years since I’d walked on my native soil.
Thirty years separated from my family.
Thirty years separated from Jules Bourglay.
I don't know where the time has gone. I have been kept busy in my walking, but if you had told me that pulling my feet, step upon step, one in front of the other, could have consumed thirty years this quickly, then I would have laughed at you.
If you told me yesterday that thirty years had passed since I left Lyon, I would have laughed.
But I have been kept busy. Busy trying to stay alive.
Yes, there are days that pass painlessly. Nearly effortlessly. Then there are days that I pray to pass quickly. Days of biting cold, or tortuous heat. Pass by, hours, fly.
Days when my angels walk with me, and will not let me be.
“You think you are a good man,” Beliel says. “But you are a murderer, and a coward.”
“You are forgiven,” comforts Adoneil. “Jesus is in your heart.”
“Jesus laughs, and you’ll be with me in hell,” Beliel taunts. “Walk your feet to the bone, and God will not forget your sin.”
“All sins are forgiven, for those who seek mercy,” Adoneil says. “Jesus is with you as you walk. So walk”
And I walk.
I walk the same paths. My feet seem to know them well. So well that I will walk miles and wonder how I’ve gotten to my destination. Unable to remember the miles gone by. I walk in a dream state. More sleeping than waking, and unless something distracts me, I may as well be walking in a great room, painted white, with no scenery to connect me to this world.
I see less and less that passes before me. I may as well have a job laying bricks, for it begins to look the same day after day. Brick after brick. Step after step.
I scold myself for still remembering who I am. Where I came from. What I know. What I’ve done.
These miles, I imagined, would have already stolen that knowledge from me. They haven't.
People treat me as if I am mad. I get the respect, and distance, bestowed upon a madman. I feel the weather has etched a permanent frown into my face. I look at it myself in still pools, and still recognize the man who once owned these features.
The people who help me are still good, good beyond my expectations of humankind. I am amazed at their kindness. Those who touch me in this way are my friends, and I feel they know it, though I cannot speak to them. A woman told me she could see friendship, and sadness, in my eyes. She looked at me and said that whatever had caused me to be silent, whether it was sickness or some event, she needed only to see my eyes to know that she is my friend.
These people had nothing to gain when they first took me in. They fed me, a beggar at their door. A beggar in a strange costume. They took me in from the rain and cold and let me warm myself at their fires. And they took me in each time I visited.
Now it seems, they all have gained something. The luck of the Leatherman, I hear them call it. Good fortune is said to smile on those whom I visit. I hope it is true. Perhaps it's the luck that has never visited me.
I have not been completely faithful to my vows. And perhpas that is why I haven't been blessed with blissful forgetfulness.
On a hot summer day, after my noon meal, I crossed a small river in Greenwich, not by the bridge as I usually do, but by walking through the river. It ran clear, shallow at low tide and cold, and looked inviting. I sometimes bath in still ponds, but the day was dreadfully hot, and my suit like a train's boiler. I crossed midway, and simply sat on the bottom.
It felt very good. While I was sitting in the water, a carriage approached. I stayed quiet do as to avoid attention, but I was spotted.
"Look, a bear," I heard a woman shout.
I didn't move. Didn't want to be shot, but I heard the carriage come to a halt. And though I could hear little above the noise of the river over the stony bed, I determined that they were coming to get a closer look. My choice was to remain still and hope they would leave me alone, or look at them and let them see who it was so they could be on their way. I sat still for several moments hoping they would make their way onto the bridge.
Then I heard someone else shout.
"Bring me the gun."
I turned and saw a look of shock and horror on the faces of two women and the man they were with. They all screamed. Carrying a rifle toward them was a black man who began to laugh, and was soon laughing as loud as the women screamed.
The two women and the man were dressed in city finery. They turned and ran past the black driver who was wiping tears and sweat from his face.
"It's only the old Leatherman," he said to them as they fled. "He wouldn't harm a fly."
Seeing that his words of solace had not slowed them down he laughed harder.
"Course no one knows for sure. Maybe he’s et everyone who mighta told us different."
"Henry, get back up here and drive us into town. Now."
The black man ambled back to the carriage and lifted himself into the driver's seat. The three gentlepeople didn't take their eyes off of me until they lost sight after the carriage turned a bend in the road.
Only then did I get up and finish fording the river. For the next two miles I dripped water, but I was cooler for my soak in the creek.
I walked then to a house at which I stopped every month. The name "Harris" was printed on their post.
The woman of the house, whose name was Maddy, by what her husband called her, always served me my meal on the front porch. It was never an abbreviated version of the meal they were about to have, or leftovers from a meal the day before. It was fresh, always cooked well, as though prepared especially for me.
When I got there this day I was dry, but my leather suit creaked louder than usual. The children of the house spotted me just as I made the bend in the farm house road. I heard them call as they ran to the house.
"Leatherman's here. Come see, Leatherman's here."
I walked up the drive and sat at my usual place on a bench and at a plank table. The place was not set. It usually wasn't, and I guessed that the honor went to the best behaved of the children that day. This day it was a little girl who looked, unfortunately, more like her father than her mother.
She carefully set two places at the table, never daring to look at me. I gave her the opportunity to steal a glance or two as I gazed unwaveringly out to the field.
I wondered about that extra place setting.
I smelled the good aroma of roast meat coming through the open window. I guessed it was fowl of some kind, and my mouth watered. Though I begged every meal I was not able to keep myself from hungering for the good country food these women cooked.
The front porch screen door slammed behind me and the woman of the house was leading someone into place across the table from me. She glanced at me, a look of stern forbearance on her face.
"He insisted," she whispered. "My Papa. He says he always takes the air when he eats."
The old man merely harrumphed, as I looked down at my place.
She looked at me again and apologized. I didn't raise my eyes.
In a few moment she returned with the meal. On my dish was a half chicken, roasted, with bread and giblet stuffing. There were sliced carrots and an onion and potato dish, fried and highly seasoned. On the old man's dish was mashed potatoes and corn cooked with heavy cream until it had lost all its identity as corn.
He looked up at me and opened a mouth as vacant of teeth as a schoolroom is of children on a summer's day, and howled.
The woman of the house came running out, and I must have had a look of horror, and apology on my face from the way she reacted. I was preparing to get up and leave as she put a hand on my shoulder.
"Don't. Stay and eat your meal. I know you didn't do anything. He's just like a child. He's lost his good sense," she smiled and nearly ran to the kitchen at the sound of her husband's voice.
I looked at the man's face. His blue eyes stared back at me unblinking. He smiled.
After years of avoiding anyone's steady gaze, I felt weak. I could not help myself, and I smiled in return.
"Donnez-moi le poullet," he said, pointing at the browned chicken.
"Vous avez tout que vous voudrais."
He smiled again and lifted the chicken from my plate.
"My parents were from Chambourg." he said in halting French. "Where are you from."
I said nothing at first. He repeated his inquiry six times, and finally to quiet him I answered.
"Lyon," I said, determined not to encourage the conversation.
"They think I'm crazy, my daughter and her husband," he cackled. “But I'm smart. They leave me alone if they think I don't understand. The only bad thing is this food she serves me. I haven't had teeth for twenty-five years and I never ate this mush."
He knocked the plate into the dirt by the porch step where it was immediately set upon by two farm mongrels who finished it off before it could leave a damp spot in the dust.
"Ask for more," he ordered, pointing a finger at the spot on the plate where the chicken recently sat.
"Go ahead. They love you. Why, I don't know, but you could have the whole brood of chickens if you wanted."
I remained silent.
"Aren't you hungry?"
"Then ask for more. Ask for more. I'll help you eat it if you can't."
"I cannot speak to her."
"And why not."
"I cannot speak to anyone. It's a vow."
"You're speaking with me."
"I thought you were crazy."
"You spoke to me in my native tongue," I confessed.
"Then I am smarter than you too, ha-ha." After he amused himself with his own joke for several minutes he returned to his interrogation.
"So you are like me."
"In what way?" I asked.
"You pretend you are afflicted by a malady that does not exist."
"I pretend no such thing. I simply do not speak."
"And so all the good people think you mute, and feed you out of common charity. It is a good trick."
"It is no trick."
Reacting to the movement of chairs at the table inside, he reduced our conversation to a whisper.
"What is your story."
"I have none."
"What is your name."
"I have none."
"Everyone has a name. Mine is Phillippe," he extended his hand formally to shake mine. I took his hand and felt a grasp still strong and sure.
"I'm Jules," I heard myself say in disbelief. "Jules Bourglay."
As I finished the whisper I heard the lady of the house step quickly toward the door.
"Papa," she shouted. "Shame. Shame, shame. You have become my child."
With this the old man wailed in a way that would frighten the souls in purgatory. Before I could be stopped, I picked up my bag and staff and hurried down the porch steps.
The woman moaned perceptibly, and picked up her scolding with renewed vigor.
"We've lost the good luck of a poor man," she shouted. "And all we have is you."
Though I frightened myself, and was frightened by the wildness in the old man's eyes, I knew I would return. For the old man, and for the luck of the woman.