The wanderer shrank from the sudden light. A shadow occupied the doorway. It raised a lantern, spreading struggling beams across the ground. One of the hunters stared at him with low eyebrows. The hardness of the face surprised him. It was as if he’d stumbled upon a mountain, and behind it was the warm, safe fields.
“How can I help you?”
“Excuse me, sir, the sun”—he pointed behind the cottage now, up into the branches—“it’s going down now, and I seem to be lost.”
“You need directions to town?”
“Sir, with all due respect, I’ve been hunting now for three hours and my legs are fit to crumble. I saw your smoke and thought I needn’t make a fire.”
By this time, the second hunter had edged beside the first. The two were, no doubt, brothers. They shared the same minute mannerisms, the way they carried themselves.
“I have some berries in my pouch… a few herbs. And two rabbits earlier in the day, I can track ‘em fairly easy. No bigger game, but the coming winter….”
“Come inside,” the first said. There was no persuasion—he almost wished there had been.
The cabin shrank as he stepped into it. Even three minds, in the middle of this wilderness, were too many. There was a short table, two chairs, a low hearth with roasting meat.
Now they set to examining him. It was obvious he’d been in the woods for a long time. More than a simple hunting trip gone wrong. It was obvious he couldn’t offer much, because he only offered enough for himself. A frog hopping from pad to pad before they sink.
“Here, sit by the fire.” The first hunter offered a chair. “I’m Paul Parsons, and this is my brother Henry.”
“I’m James,” he said. Even his name required effort. It had become a strange, extra thing.
The fire, at least, was welcoming. He sat next to the iron grate, warming his hands. They were still staring. Suddenly, he recoiled. Something deep inside it seemed to be reaching out to him. A long-forgotten arm, an outstretched hand, was in every leaping tendril of flame. He set down his pack in a corner of the room. Surely this would pass.
“Where you from?” Paul said. He had noticed his unusual activity, had drawn closer.
“I was born in Chester. But I live in the country now.”
The other hunter didn’t speak. He knelt by the fire, shifting the crimson logs.
“So, I take it you haven’t been to Midtown before.”
“Not in years.” He looked again at the table. The thick smell of meat was infesting the air. Surely it must be done by now.
“Must be quite the life, roaming the land,” Paul said. “No money, but no taxes. No connections, yet all the freedom. To do whatever you want.”
So, they suspected. “I’m not the kind of person to take what isn’t mine.”
“But you refuse to possess anything?”
“Where I live, nature is common to all.”
Paul only nodded, moved to the table. Dinner was short and punctuated by fragmented requests. Henry returned to the fire again and again. Paul only sat and looked until the moon was high.
James avoided the fire, set up his cot. He knew they had moved their cots underneath the gun rack, and he minded, but he didn’t say anything. It was just another prick, light as a bee’s sting. Nothing he wasn’t used to. It was only a night, only the passing of a few short hours.
For once, there were other faces. It would not matter how much they opposed him. They would only be there, and he could rejoice in that.
For once, he was not under the stars.
Copyright Michael Nellis 2018