The scuff of leather over stone brought Dude’s head around to see a visitor. Dressed in a thin, beige, ratty robe that was stretched over his sharp-boned frame like a hide for tanning, the fellow’s elbows and cheeks appeared ready to rip through his parchment-like skin. Dirt and grime festooned his knobby arms, and lesions oozed blood and other liquids at elbows and knees. His sandals were less sandal than spliced twine tightly wound round skinny scarred feet. Apparently disoriented, he often glanced over his shoulder with his single good eye back the way he had come, as if fearing pursuit or wondering where he’d been mere moments before. As he turned away the first time, Dude could see sharply defined ribs under a gap in the robe that reminded him of a derelict boat he’d seen on a river on some other world. The planking of that long lost time-battered boat had long since vanished but the ribs had remained as though insisting, ‘I still am.’. The sun-bleached, crooked, thumb-thick stick in his hand shook and wobbled, threatening to break like a bow drawn to destruction, but lean on it the old one would as he stumbled along his none-to-steady way. At every odd step a knee seemed to catch at his robe pulling at it, fighting his progress and the whole of this one’s existence seemed a trial. As he neared, Dude noticed his hands were filthy and his broken nails encrusted with grime. Veins stuck out like roads on his arms and hands and he labored at each breath.
His grey hair was wispy, sparse, windblown, and disorderly in the morning light and his face dirty, unshaven, lined and deeply pockmarked. His right eye was missing with the socket sewn shut and his jaw hung like a quivering cave, betraying great gaps between rotten teeth, dripping spittal and quivering constantly.
The old man arrived, faced Dude in the shaking desperate silence, and the cutting morning breeze seemed ready to blow him off his spindly legs. That same breeze brought with it the odor of old sweat and body grease. Dude took a deep breath and glanced around. Many in the rapidly dismantling camp cast disgusted or annoyed looks in the old guy’s direction and not a few curses. For himself, Dude sighed because the worlds were full of the poor, helpless, and hopeless and he’d seen his full share.
A wagon-woman walking by with a sleeping mat spat in the dirt next to the old man, who flinched. “What is wrong with you?” Dude asked.
The merchant woman rolled her eyes and sneered. “He’s outcast, or else family or the Sisterhood of Mercy would care for him. It’s best he die and not pollute the air we breathe.” She stalked away rolling up the reed mat. The old man’s eyes flinched under her words, his tongue quivering behind gaping teeth like a scared dog.
Dude watched her walk away, shifted his eyes off toward the climbing sun, passed a hand over the deep blue, mottled scar on his forehead, and took a deep breath and calmed himself as the woman stumbled away wrestling with her burden. Looking up at the old man, Dude chose his words carefully, pronouncing them with great respect in the local dialect. “A new day, old father. Care to share my breakfast? It’s…not the usual fare, but it’s hot and offered freely.” Dude gestured with his bowl and a sincere smile.
The newcomer seemed only then to recognize Dude and shook himself as though surprised, but then looked Dude up and down, rearranged his robe of rags, and nodded as a way of greeting. “Offer breakfast to me? Me? Ah…breakfast would be good. I’ve got my own bowl.” A grimey, brown bowl appeared from under the newcomer’s robe
“‘Ware the pits in the black fruits,” Dude warned the other as he poured some of the aromatic mix into the bowl. “They’re hard on teeth,” said Dude, but the old man drove his fingers into the hot oil like it didn’t exist and seemed not put off by the heat of the mixture. Quickly the filth under his fingers was gone. Dude could see that the mix was still bubbling in places, but the old one did not seem to care. Dude’s breath caught a moment, as he considered just who the ‘old man’ might be, but then he dropped a piece of the toast into the old one’s bowl too. The newcomer set to with relish and paused, eyes catching Dude’s.
“This is…strange. Good, but strange.” The old man’s voice changed, slightly deeper, clearer.
“Is it to your liking?” Dude cautiously asked.
The old one smiled. “Any food on a hungry morning is a thing to be thankful for.”
“Glad you like it.” Dude struggled to calm his racing mind.
They ate in silence for a time until the old one stopped chewing long enough to ask, “What is your goal in life?” He rubbed a hand across his smooth chin.
Dude did a double take. “Philosophy?”
“No real reason not.” The old one ran his hand over his mess of black hair, forcing it in one direction.
“Goal?” Dude paused. “Well…to contribute to the wellbeing of the people given into my charge; to develop and encourage productiveness and…leave more good behind me than bad. Oh, yeah, and to rise and smile every morning.” Dude looked closely at the old one’s no longer rheumy eyes.
“A bit atypical, isn’t it?”
“Maybe.” Dude spat pits as he stared down the lazy riverway toward the vast lake. “Move closer and enjoy the warmth of the flames, old one. The firewood I bought last night, so none can begrudge you its comfort. Assume there’s still a fine for cutting wood around the city?”
“Yes, yes. Bylaws.” The old man’s hair appeared combed.
Sidling nearer the low flames, the old man fingered one of the seeds and examined it closely. “What fruit is this? I’ve seen much…nay, most in this world and never seen this before.”
“Olives, father. They come from a place known as Guthmar in a land far, far away…” Dude chuckled lowly because he’d almost finished a movie quote. “They’re very healthy. Just what a body…or a spirit, needs.”
“And the bread. You are full of surprises,” mumbled the old one chewing with relish and pointing at the little flecks in the bread. “There are little seeds here birds would love and which give me happiness.”
” ‘M glad to spread a little happiness. It is a small thing when one has enough.” Dude finished, cleaned his bowl and squatted, facing the old one next to the fire, waiting, because more was to come. What was unknowable, but when the old one had licked and wiped off the very last drops and dregs, the bowl vanished back into his voluminous robe. He looked down at Dude and squatted too.
“Most would not share food with a dirty, old outcast. You don’t know me, my family or why I am here. Kindness was…unexpected.”
Staying calm, Dude reached into his pack and brought out a handful of almonds, raisins and dates, offering them and feeling the necessity of following his heart in this very important moment. The old one’s eyes lit up as Dude finished re-stowing his gear.
“More wonders. Do you seek to obligate me to you?” The old man’s eyes became sharp. “I am not weak, nor can you use me as some would.”
“I harbour no ill will and would not take advantage of the weak. Besides,” Dude gazed at the old one, whose robes now gleamed in cleanliness, “you’re neither weak nor dirty.”
“Hmmm,” said the old one, turning his face slyly as a bird might to gain full sight with his newfound right eye. He stood, leaning upon his oak staff as smoke from the dying embers of Dude’s fire passed between them. “Where is your arrogance and self-assurance? You’re young and strong enough to have both in full measure.”
The scar on Dude’s forehead ached and his skin tingled. “Arrogance is unproductive. Builds nothing but ego. To build something is worth living for. Generosity has therefore more…virtue than does arrogance.” Dude passed his hands through the lazy smoke of the dying campfire and gazed at the one veiled by the thin billowy film. “Giving has rarely brought me ill and since I have more than I need, I give when and where I wish. You seemed in need.”
Dude stood and checked over his bag. He sought out a side compartment and said, “Would you wish raiment, old father? I have a shirt of sheerest silk if you’ve need.”
“Alright,” said the man though his robe was obviously silk.
Grinning, Dude retrieved a yellow cotton blouse and handed it over with both hands. “Freely given.”
“Freely taken.” Dude noted that now the man’s hands were calloused, strong, and spotless.
“What do you plan here on Vurn?”
“I’m a wanderer, a businessman, and a student but mostly right now, I’m a tourist and on vacation…mostly.” Dude chuckled and hefted the bag up with his right hand. “That’s all.”
“I doubt some of that.” He fixed Dude with a steely gaze.
“Don’t lie easily,” said Dude, looking the elder straightly.
“Aye, but you can mislead, can’t you?”
“It is not always expedient to tell all, but I try to tell the truth in the words I speak. When it is not expedient I try not to lie with abandon. My occupation often puts me in harm’s way of those who have no right to demand information. Having no right to ask or receive all a man’s details, I deny the giving. ‘Far away’ is in fact far away. A place is indeed a place, even though they know it not.” Dude rolled his other shoulder in negation. “Mislead? Granted, but to trumpet that I carry treasure would make me a fool and I make no claim to the profession. And…I have the right to carry such.”
“Good enough.” The Elder pointed with his gold inlaid staff. “Where did you get that hideous thing on your face?”
“A fight. ‘Should see the other corpse’.” Dude grimaced and fingered the scar on his forehead which was twice as big as it was ten years past and which whispered in the darkness of his every night.
“I don’t like that thing. It angers me and yet I feel oddly calm.” The old one’s head cocked to one side. “Do you fear me?”
Dude frowned as his hand gave a last caress to the scar on his head. “Fear you? Surely, but I know fear well. I know enough about fear to write its biography–with endnotes. It is not that kind of fear that I feel. What I feel is more akin to respect. Respect for the downtrodden and now for an elder.”
The Elder paused looking keenly at Dude the way Anton might. It gave Dude the chills. “Odd outlook in one so young. Have you done great evil? Murdered mothers? Dashed babies heads on stones? Stolen food from prisoners or widows?” The Elder held the staff pointing at Dude’s face.
“All men do evil and I am no stranger to violence, but I’ve had a truly great teacher and I listen. I do not seek to do that which is evil. Life should be more. I do fear death but not for the reason of most. This demon seed in my head will hatch upon my death, and I wish not to leave such a legacy behind. I would leave more than that if I can.”
Dude closed his eyes and quoted: “So live your life that the fear of death can never enter your heart… Love your life, perfect your life, beautify all things in your life… Always give a word or a sign of salute when meeting or passing a friend, even a stranger…” Dude opened his eyes and pointed at the Great Elder, for so he was, then he closed his eyes again and continued, “…Show respect to all people and grovel to none. When you arise in the morning give thanks for the food and for the joy of living. Abuse no one and no thing, for abuse turns the wise ones to fools and robs the spirit of its vision. When it is your time to die, be not like those whose hearts are filled with the fear of death, so that when their time comes they weep and pray for a little more time to live their lives over again in a different way. Sing your death song and die like a hero going home.” Dude opened his eyes on the regal Great Elder glowing, backlit by the rising sun. “I live my life by those words. Might’ve missed some of that or got some wrong but that is the way I’ve been taught to live.”
“This comes from your teacher?”
“No. From another great man of my lands. His name was Tecumseh.” Dude smiled. “I’m a student of his too.”
“Well student, know some things.” The god gazed out toward the lake. “There is war. City states squabble over silliness.”
Dude inserted his arms into the straps of the bag and turned toward the gate. “Thank you for the news. I must go. I’m late for my vacation. Be well Elder.”
The Elder waved his hand through the dying smoke of the fire and the cooked and burnt olive seeds on the rocky ground popped, cracked and budded into little green shoots where they lay, worming themselves into the soil. “Wait.”
Dude stopped before his first step.
“Do you have children yet?” asked the god.
“Not that I am aware of,” Dude smirked.
“Very well. Remember the burdens of the poor. Do what your Tecumseh would do and slaughter two bulls at the temple of the Sisters of Mercy.”
“Yes, father,” Dude said, noticing the olive seeds had become shoots, six inches high, “I’m always willing to help the poor.”
“The bulls will feed a hundred this day and there is great need.” The god’s golden robes shimmered in the morning brightness. The Elder pointed toward the center of Lisia and Dude turned to look. “Respect those below you and most important of all: do not die here, Stone Walker.” With that, the Elder was gone, just gone.
“I really hate it when gods do that,” said Dude, breathing out and taking that first step.