For the next two weeks, the old man named Isaac continued to walk the same route alone. It was already mid-November when he heard the young Isaac’s voice addressing him from a few meters away. Although he was glad to see the boy again, he relished the brief time he still had to walk alone. It was only a second or two, but in that time, he noticed the weight of his cloak against his skin, the fabric hanging in long, black folds from his shoulders and swinging like dark heavy curtains. The garments he wore scratched against his thin, chalky skin so that when he sweat on his extensive walks, the water soaked right into the cloth, leaving him almost uncomfortably dry. He had never thought about his habit before, and he didn’t have long to think about it before his acquaintance caught up to him.
“Hey, old man. Long time, no see.”
The man shook his head.
“I told you my name. I thought it would have been easy to remember, considering.”
“Nice to see you too,” he replied.
“Did you ever get your bike back?”
“Oh. No. My mom started taking me to school after I told her about running into you—I told you she wouldn’t like the whole ‘I-met-an-old-guy-in-the-alley’ thing. She said it wasn’t safe for me to be walking. Anyway, she was taking me before work, like, a half hour and forty-five minutes early and picking me up way late. I told her I was starting to feel like a latchkey program kid when the only people left were the ones whose parents are all on welfare. She doesn’t like to fight for very long, so here I am.”
“Ah, so you bent her will.”
“You could say that. I still wish I had my bike. Walking sucks, but it’s not as bad as the bus.”
“So you’ve said before. I, as you might imagine, rather like a good walk.”
At that, the old man stopped to pick up a stone and put it in his pocket.
“What was that for?” the boy asked.
“It looked interesting. I guess I haven’t grown out of putting strange things in my pockets. As I said, I like walks. They remind me of things I’ve forgotten, and sometimes if I let my mind wander just enough, I get these stories that I think about writing down.”
“So you’re a writer or a holy man? I thought you were a rabbi or something.”
“I’d be honored to be called either of those things, but I wasn’t called to either vocation. If I’m ever going to write one of these stories down, I better get going. I can lengthen my walks but not the measure of my days here, you know—I’m not getting any younger.”
“Right, right. So what kind of stories do you write—er, not write about? I could see you as one of those guys who’s really into science fiction.”
The sun was already beginning to set, and the air, though warm, hinted at the sudden drop in barometric pressure that would take place later that night.
“Well, until recently they were just scenes, but just last week I got hold of this one I can’t stop thinking about. I still don’t know where it came from. It’s almost like I was dreaming it, but it was so real. It’s the one thing, I think, that might actually get me to sit down and write.”
The boy rolled his eyes.
“Come on, then. Quit being creepy about it and share it. I’ve got three more blocks.”
Frustrated with the boy’s impudence, Isaac considered declining his request, and he would have, had he not been so plagued with his most recent scene that had come to him.
“All right. You will be the first, and probably the only person to ever hear this crazy story because if I know myself at all, I won’t be writing it down before my memory leaves me for good.”
“I’m game. Go ahead.”
“Well, there was a school teacher in a little village. He was a bit eccentric—that means strange, in case you didn’t know—and everyone thought he was smart enough to instruct their children, but they entered his home on an as-needed basis to pay their fees.”
“Wait, wait. When does this even take place? No one does school like that anymore.”
“I’m not sure, probably a long time ago. I haven’t figured that all out yet. Now do you want to hear the rest or not? We don’t have much more to go.”
“OK. Now, he was a bizarre man who found ways of doing things that irritated people, like keeping his house a bit too clean and sending their children home with more questions than they had taken with them to school. And so even though he was a good-looking man, none of the village women’s fathers ever approached him in regard to marrying off their daughters to him. When one of the more desperate widows was weighing her options, she changed her route home to include a regular stop at his place. She told him it was so she could start paying her child’s tuition piecemeal, with fresh eggs and hunks of bread.”
The boy nodded.
“I get it.”
“Right. And so did the young teacher. Now, he would chat with her to be polite, but the woman understood his reticence to invite her into his home as his tacit way of rebuffing her. She was persistent, though, and when she came to him on the second day of the week, she found a note tacked on the door, stating that he would be in the marketplace to give an address.”
“This was definitely old times. No one does this.”
“Yes it was, but you don’t know what you’re talking about. You’re not civically minded yet. People definitely still do things like this. Anyway. The woman was curious and told herself that she needed to purchase some fruit for the week, and followed him there.
When she found him, a small crowd of people had gathered round him and he was reading from a crumpled piece of paper. Drawing nearer, she could tell it was a well-written love letter. Her cousin found her and briefed her on the reason for the occasion: the strange teacher had announced to the village that his beloved would be coming to join him.
In the weeks to come, he would read a letter every week, and each week, an audience would congregate to hear his poetry. For the bored women, each letter served as a sermon of hope, and for the cruel children, it was one more reason to laugh at their teacher. At first, everyone wanted a name for this mysterious woman who so enraptured their children’s teacher. Precisely six months after the man began his stump speeches of love and promise, the man—I’ll call him Murray to make this easy, OK?—quit reading his letters to the townspeople. He’d stopped so abruptly in fact, that everyone who had come to expect his passionate orations began to wonder if he might die.”
“This is getting ridiculous,” the boy said.
“I told you it was crazy. We have a block left, though. You want to know any more, or have you had enough?”
“Nah. Keep going.”
“He didn’t look feeble or neglect his hygiene like other love struck fellows of the town, but that kind of change seemed far too sudden to mark anything but disaster.
Murray did not die, of course. Instead, he began to clean.
He began by tearing all the thatch from his roof and building a real roof during the warmest part of the year. Every day after he released the children from school he walked home armed with a small green canteen still half-full with the remnants of his morning tea and an armful of supplies he bought for his next project. In three months, Murray finished a roof, put up drywall and laid pristine white tiles in his solitary home.”
The boy couldn’t help interjecting that the story had a lot of detail, asked in certain colorful language what “thatch” was, and if the old man was just contorting some fairy tale. Isaac had asked him to “hush up” one last time if he wanted to hear the rest, and carried on.
“Now, the cleaning was coming to an end one day, and after Murray tucked the final edge of the sheet under the mattress on his cot and smoothed his white linen trousers, he shaved the shadows of an encroaching beard and dashed some toilette water on his face and in his dark curly hair. Then he shouted to all who might hear him that his beloved would surely come today. One of the mothers of his schoolchildren stopped, sharing that she would like to meet her. She was that young widow who had often flitted her hair about his window and still lingered a little longer than necessary when picking her son up from class to make small talk. Though she was quite beautiful, Murray never acknowledged her pointed affections for him.
Upon her departure Murray suddenly grew tired and decided to take a nap upon his freshly made bed, even though he had hardly begun his day. His head swayed with heaviness and each time he stepped closer to the cot, he staggered a little more. He felt healthy enough, but it seemed as if he might sink into the floor every time he set his feet in front of him; it dipped into liquid. His clean tiled floor rippled. White concentric circles sent out small waves at first, and then they grew much bigger as he stumbled. ‘Maybe I spilled some milk,’ he thought (indeed, an irrational thought) as he crashed hard onto the rickety cot.”
“So, he was tripping out, basically,” the boy said.
“No, not exactly. Murray had no preexisting conditions that might affect his mental or physical state. He was simply exhausted, not having taken into consideration the extensive work he’d done in preparation for his absent bride in all the months leading up to that moment. His sleep came fast and so deep that when he awoke he would have believed he’d slept days and not known it. Without dream, without any recollection of sounds or movements around him, or any uncomfortable writhing that causes sleepers to contort themselves and half-wake in their slumber, Murray had taken the most sudden and complete nap of his life.
Pulling the sheets up to his chin, Murray considered getting up, but hesitated instead; he closed his eyes again, trying to remember the last time he saw her. She was wearing white—a perfect white. Had it really been that long since they had made those promises? In his memory, the long folds of cloth slung low and tucked into never ending layers that looked more like a burial shroud than a sari. He pushed the thought from his mind and rolled onto his stomach, finding scads of papers all in disarray before him.
‘I thought I’d put these away,’ he thought to himself. ‘Well, I’d better get up and get some dinner cooking.’
Just as he pulled his elbow in front of him and raised his legs to gather his bearings, a wind scattered the papers even more. Murray braced himself, observing the papers flying about and taking the shape of a small funnel cloud just below his cot. As the strange, brief wind subsided, the papers fell in place, revealing some blue sketch marks. The lines became liquid, fluid in motion with a life of their own, moving on the page with a swift ferocity, but not quite scribbling. Rubbing his eyes, Murray pondered how he might be witnessing such a sight. He wondered if he’d awoken from his nap at all.
The blue lines on the paper traced the graceful outline of a delicate shoulder—the curve of a young woman’s shoulder. The subtle slope of skin captivated Murray. Its softness reminded him of her. It was she. She had come.
Murray sprang from his cot, tossing his sheets aside, running for the door to announce his good news. Alas, his bride had returned. Before opening the door, Murray turned to observe the papers. That soft, gentle shape had risen from the paper so that he might kiss and caress about six glorious inches of her.”
The boy had been listening intently despite pretending to be disinterested. He hadn’t noticed that the two had passed the same stop sign with the gnarled rosebushes ten minutes ago and were only a few houses down from his address.
“I thought I had you pegged as a sci-fi freak, but this is getting half-decent. Don’t get me wrong. It’s still totally weird.”
“I’ve gotta go, though. Mom’s not here yet, or else I’d have you meet her. She’d probably freak out less about me walking if she knew you weren’t a real weirdo.”
Now, it was the old man’s turn to roll his eyes at the boy.
“Again, many thanks, Isaac. I’d love to meet her. Maybe we can finish the story next time.”
“Sounds good. It makes walking suck a little less.”