Monday, July 09, 2012

The Monologue Hermit

The man was sitting in a ruin by the side of the road. I mistook him for a rock at first. He was dressed in a huge, threadbare overcoat almost the same color as the sand. Only his head stuck out of the top. His hair was only a shade darker than the coat, bleached pale at the ends by the Desert sun; his beard had obviously not been shaved in years, but it had been carefully braided instead. There were small pebbles looped into it here and there.

He looked as if he had been there forever. The sand had formed a drift against his back.

He muttered constantly, a string of half-audible syllables that stopped only for the occasional gulp of breath. I couldn't make out any actual words. They sounded like the lyrics of a song - they had a rhythm, and hints of a lost, wandering melody - but if so, it was a song that had been misheard, misrepeated, held in a faulty memory and reduced to so much nonsense.

He was also occupying the only shade I'd seen all day. It was the remains of a tall, round building that looked as if it might have been a watch tower in the past. There was little left now but a jagged ring of stone. The man was sitting beneath the miraculously intact arch of its doorway. Behind him, spiral stairs coiled up to nowhere.

I was reluctant to interrupt him, but I'd been walking all morning, and there was nowhere else to sit if I wanted to rest in the shade. I sat down nearby as quietly as I could. He gave me a vague nod and muttered something that might have been "hello" between the other words. He looked half-starved under his tattered coat, so I gave him some of my remaining bread and a couple of red-skinned radish-potato things from Rikanta. He took them and wolfed them down, still muttering with his mouth full. His hands were covered with an intricate web of blue tattoos. Between the wrinkles and the dust, it was impossible to make out the design. Whatever it was, it was as incomprehensible as the constant mutter of his half-audible monologue.

I tried to resist. I really did. Eventually, though, curiosity overcame me, and I asked him what he was saying. He turned to me with a haunted stare.

"It is the incantation." mumble mumble mumble "It keeps the spiders down. I must not stop." mumble mumble mumble

"What do you do when you sleep?" I asked, fascinated.

"Sleep?" His stare was uncomprehending. "I do not sleep."

I didn't ask him any more questions.

When I finished my own lunch and got up to leave, he held up one hand in a wordless gesture: wait. mumble mumble mumble. Unlike the others, the tattoo on his palm was clear - a chambered nautilus shell, inked in exquisite detail and positioned so that his fingers became its tentacles. A blue ink eye stared at me from the base of his middle finger. With the other hand, he reached down to dig in the sand at the base of the ruined wall. He pulled out a pebble and handed it to me.

It was a perfectly ordinary pebble - small, rough, yellow-brown, and no shape in particular. I would have thought it completely unremarkable if I'd found it myself. In that hand, it took on a strange aura of mystery.

"Take it." mumble mumble mumble "Keep it safe until it is ready. You will know the time." mumble mumble "It will be grateful." mumble mumble mumble

I thanked him. I wasn't sure what else to do. He nodded once, gravely, and turned away, ignoring me again.

Tucking the pebble into one of my sturdier pockets, I turned and walked on. It was a long time before I was sure I could no longer hear the man muttering.

It is always hard to tell the perceptive from the mad. The world is full of all manner of people who see what the rest of us don't. Some of them are visionaries, seeing what is true, or what is hidden, or what could be. Others simply see what is not. For all I know, the pebble could be just as important as the man seemed to think it was; for all I know, it could be as ordinary as it seems, important only within his own mind.

I have no way to tell, so I'll keep it for now. I wouldn't want to disappoint him - or, for that matter, to disappoint the pebble.

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