Underneath the old stone bridge, in the summer heat, I first met my friend. I’d come to this spot beneath the bridge for as long as I could remember, following the small creek in our backyard down through the farmers’ fields, and behind the roaring freeway. Beneath the bridge, the dirt was still cool, even in the hottest noonday sun. I’d come to the bridge to think, to play, to cry, and to press my pale chubby fingers into the blessed cool soil, digging deep depressions in the damp earth.
The creek trickled by, but my father had told me never to go in the water; it had a thin scum on the top that reflected the light in an odd, shimmering way, like the shell of a beetle. I’d disobeyed him once when I was younger and the rash that boiled up on my legs had scabbed and bled for a week. Now, I was content to sit among the pale and drying reeds, to hold tight to that primal cold in the place where the sun couldn’t reach.
On the day he was first there, the cottonwood trees were shedding their seeds, bright white silken clouds that drifted in the air like snow defying the sun. The air was thick with heat and exhaust from the freeway, buzzing over the rise like an angry hive. He lay stretched out on the other side of the creek, his body half covered by the shadow of the old stone bridge. At first I saw only a pile of ragged clothes, capped with a wide-brimmed and frayed hat, but then I saw the long, bony fingers steepled across his chest, and his calloused and blackened feet.
Tied to his big toe with a perfect bow was a thin line of fishing wire, and I saw the toe twitching, tugging on the line. The hat covered his face, but beneath it, I caught the quick dance of a frayed stick or root, grasped between his teeth, sliding back and forth under the shadow of the brim. I watched him for an hour, nothing moving but his toe, the stick, and the slow rise and fall of his chest.
I didn’t move, or make a sound that I was aware of, but soon, the stick stopped its rhythmic journey and tilted upward, tucking under the brim of the hat. I saw the outline of his pale lips and teeth, as they dug in and pushed the stick upwards, lifting the filthy hat upwards like a cellar door.
He peered out, straight at me, and blinked in the sunlight; the rest of his body lay still. He was gaunt, and hollow-cheeked, his skin weathered and tanned like leather. As his bright sunken eyes met mine, his mouth split into a wide grin, showing a row of perfect and polished white teeth clamped around the twig.
It was infectious, and I found my own face stretching into a smile. I could have stayed there, smiling with him until the day went dark. I felt content. When he relaxed his mouth and allowed the hat to drop back over his face, it was so slow that I hardly noticed the movement until the shining coals of his eyes vanished beneath the brim.
As soon as the hat obscured his bristled chin, it began to rise again, revealing cheeks puffed out like a trumpet player and eyes crossed tight together. I laughed out loud, feeling a warm wellspring of happiness inside me. The hat dropped and rose again, this time his face was puckered, like he’d eaten a lemon. I laughed harder.
After a parade of distorted faces that left my lungs sore from laughing, he leaned forward and rose to a crouch. He removed his hat, running his hands through a thick mop of unkempt black hair. He smiled again at me, chewing on the twig, and began to twirl his feet around each other in a little waltz, coiling the fishing line around his toes.
The hook slid out of the water, dragging with it a little sparkling tangle of gold that caught the sun and ignited. Once he’d drawn the hook up to his feet, he reached down and clasped his hand over it like it was a bug. His face took on an exaggerated impression of fear, as he pretended that it was leaping in his hands, trying to escape as he struggled against it. I couldn’t help myself and I burst out laughing again, and my friend flashed his wide smile. He mimed throwing underhand until I understood and held out my hands, cupped and expectant.
The little tangle of gold sailed in an arc across the glistening filthy water, and landed perfectly in my hands with a sound like shifting sand. It was a beautiful necklace, with a tiny golden gross encrusted with sparkling green stones. I looked up, and my friend winked, the skin around his eyes crinkling and pulling, and he raised one thin bony finger to his puckered lips. I understood, and looked back to the beautiful little gift.
When I looked up again, he was gone.
I didn’t know the girl who was missing, but she was my age, and I must have seen at at school.
It made me angry to see people who didn’t know her crying and carrying on like they were the best of friends. I tried not to scowl at the little bawling clusters of kids in the hallways, and fingered the little gold chain in my pocket. I was dreaming of summer break, a scant two weeks away, and thinking about my friend when I fell, my fat clumsy feet wrapping around each other, pitching my body forward in a wave of inertia. I threw my hands out, but only succeeded in throwing the little gold charm and bending my fingers back against the hard marble floor.
It didn’t take long for the little crowds of mourners to break their stage-play of grief to laugh at me, sprawled on the floor with watering eyes. All except one dark haired girl with puffy wet eyes. She was staring at the necklace on the floor, with a look that I didn’t understand, blank, yawning and broken. Then she looked at me and screamed.
I understood then, but even as the principal and later the policemen questioned me, I played dumb. I told him I’d found the necklace outside of school that morning, repeating the story with clever little details I made sure to keep consistent. My friend had given me a gift, and I owed it to him to keep the secret. I wasn’t like the pretenders in the hall. I don’t care about some missing girl I never knew about, and who would have never cared for me. I care about my friends.
It was months before I saw him again, in the beginning of autumn; he was perched on top of the old stone bridge, his filthy feet swaying like an excited child. I hadn’t been let outside for the whole summer, trapped in the dry air conditioned dark of the house as my father drank and my mother cried at each new disappearance.
Most of the missing meant nothing to me, but those few whose names I recognized made me smile in secret. They were the worst, the ones that beat me, taunted me, and called me names. The ones that laughed. And I knew that I would be safe.
It made such perfect sense, that I wanted to share it with my parents, to assure them that it was only the bad people. That it was all okay. But I saw in my mother’s blasted eyes the same lying phony grief from my school. I saw her taking someone else pain and using it to plug the holes in her own emptiness, and it made me sick. When I finally felt like I was going to burst, so angry at them all for not recognizing the gift, I snuck out into the evening cool, leaving my snoring father and hollow mother and racing along the creek.
Somehow, I knew he would be there, but my heart still leapt to see him. His clothes were the same, if only more tattered and dirty, and he appeared to have the same wet and shredded stick tucked between his thin lips. He smiled wide at me, and I sat beneath the bridge in contented quiet, relishing the company of someone who simply understood and asked no more.
In wordless conversation, he showed me how he could crack the knuckles of his toes, just by shifting them quickly, playing a crackling little rhythm of pops and ticks as his feet shuddered and wiggled. I laughed as he juggled a pair of apples and a large dusty stone, taking a bite out of each apple as it passed his mouth, and miming a painful bite from the rock. The sun set and the stars pierced the sky. He was showing me how he could fold those long fingers into the shape of a flying bird, when I heard shouts, crying my name far in the distance.
My friend turned to me with a little wink and then dropped from the bridge, landing almost silently in the dirt beside me. He crouched, his shining smile and papery skin just a few feet from me, and I smelled a sweet, warm smell like cloves and cinnamon. His hand darted out towards my ear like a striking rattlesnake, and his face was a clown’s mask of surprise and shock. He twisted his hand with a flourish to reveal a key ring, packed with bouquet of dozens of keys, brass, silver, chrome, shining in the starlight. The key ring fell into my outstretched hands, and as I turned it over again, I thought how lucky I was to have a true friend at last.
Then, he was gone, and my father’s hands were on my shoulders, shaking me and yelling. A group of a half a dozen men, my fathers friends and important men in town, clustered around him, gripping lanterns and rifles, huddling close together, their wide faces reflecting fear and moonlight as their eyes darted at each noise.
I wanted to laugh at them, feeling that warmth in my chest as I saw what it looked like when bad people were afraid, at last. So much is changing for the better, and I have my friend to thank for it. The key-ring was heavy in my pocket, hidden from them and my father’s drunken anger. I clasped it tight, so that it was perfectly silent, a reassuring weight in my stubby fingers.
Later in the night, as my father and his cowering posse combed the countryside for what I knew they would never find, my mother covered me in crocodile tears and breathless constrictor hugs. It was only the little weight of the gift in my pocket that kept me from being sick with contempt.
When the winter came, the roads were blocked and no one could have left town if they’d wanted to. The food grew scarce and soon there weren’t enough of my father’s friends to patrol the town, and the vanishings and disappearances spiked. I confess that I was surprised at how truly rotten the town must have been, but I trusted my friend. He knew what was right.
The keyring kept me alive. While my mother and father doled out the last portions of dried rice and beans, I passed unseen through the silent white town to find a treasure trove of locked larders and pantries. My friend was wise, as well as benevolent. I considered sharing this gift with my parents, but if they were meant to be chosen, my friend would have let me know. So I stayed warm and fed, and my parents grew thin and drawn.
One morning I awoke to the pure silence of winter, the snow robbing the world of all sound. The usual movements and shuffle of my parents were gone, and even the creaking bones of our old house were silent. There was a sudden swell of happiness in me, like a youthful Christmas morning, before I was told it was all a lie.
I danced through the empty house, no longer trying not to smile. No longer holding back my joy, because I knew: the gift was complete now. I pulled on my snow boots and jacket and burst out into the silent world, purged of evil, emptied of predators, cleansed of all that was wrong.
My friend was at the bridge, sitting cross legged in the cobblestone road. He was covered in snow, it hid his entire hat under a broad cone of white, and it crested up against his sides like frozen waves. His broad shining smile rivaled my own, and his skin was flushed with warmth. When I approached him, he stood, slow and elegant, like a tree growing in front of my eyes, and I noticed for the first time how very tall he was. When he’d risen to his full height, he stretched, in exaggerated pantomime complete with a yawn that stretched the corners of his wide mouth. Then he leaned forward and pressed something into my hands, something cold and hard, and his long fingers wrapped around my little hands like a spider. I clenched it tight, not wanting to take my eyes off him, knowing that his work was done, and this meeting would be bittersweet and final.
He smiled warmly at me, winked one last time, and hoisted a filthy burlap sack to his shoulder. A few feet down the road, he turned and tipped his hat to me, sending a little flurry of snow down that obscured his face, and then he was gone, swallowed up into the swirling whiteness.
I opened my hands slowly, watching the bluish fingers curl away from the last gift, and my heart’s warmth flooded through my body, and hot little tears formed at the corners of my eye. My parents wedding bands, tarnished and simple, lay in my hand. The rings were somehow, impossibly, linked and intertwined.
I stood in the unbroken quiet and perfect drifts of snow, and looked out at the world. The silence, the freedom. The perfect and beautiful loneliness. This was the true gift. This was my friend’s work. And he asked nothing in return. All I can do, is to someday, try and return the favor.
Here’s a little sketch I did of the Vagabond.