A nomadic life doesn’t seem made for meeting others – in fact, not meeting others might seem rather the point. Still, now and again, you encounter someone, share a meal, swap a story or two. Those encounters remind you that you’re alive, remind you how to speak – sometimes remind you that you can speak!
There was this one old bloke… I’d been on the trail for a month or more without seeing a soul. Winter was just turning to spring but there was still likely to be a frost at night, so I kept moving through the dark and slept during the day. This night, I’d only just got going. The sun was well down and it was cold and crisp, the kind of weather that makes you want to keep moving. I was travelling through a small wood, concentrating on not walking into a tree. That was why I didn’t see him.
He had set up camp in a clearing but hadn’t got his fire going. In the dark, he looked like a rock or a stump. I managed to sidestep him but then found myself walking into his cooking gear. Thankfully, the pot was empty, or I’d have spoiled his supper, too!
The whole thing happened so quickly he hadn’t the chance to react until I was sprawled on the floor in the ruins of his tripod and kindling. I was just on the point of getting up – remember, I still hadn’t realised I was in someone’s camp – when this dead weight landed on my back, and a voice started screaming curses at me.
I crashed to the ground and hit my head on something hard, but I managed to wriggle round onto my back. I sensed the knife before I saw it flash in the starlight. One hand was caught underneath me but I grabbed hold of his skinny wrist with the other. The knife kept coming towards me, however, so I opened my mouth wide and bit with all my strength.
That shifted him and he fell back howling. I managed to get my own knife out but I quickly realised I wasn’t going to need it. He was nursing his injured wrist and glaring at me, and muttering about not being able to get a quiet night’s rest.
Rather than reason with him, I began to repair the campsite. I set up the tripod again, replaced the kindling and got it lit. That allowed me to see the pile of wood nearby that by some mercy I hadn’t disturbed. There was a stream a few feet away and I filled the pot from it, then dropped in a few leaves of a medicinal plant I always carry with me and used the concoction to bathe his wrist.
Throughout, he simply sat and watched me. He made no protest when I cleaned his wound and bound it up. Then I rinsed the pot and refilled it, found the rabbit he had caught for his supper and popped it in the water. Feeling that my penance was complete, I gathered up my own pack and prepared to move on.
“Stay!” I looked back at him in surprise; I’m not used to taking orders. He met my eyes but shyly, like a nervous fox. “I… I mean… please, stay. I… don’t want to be alone, tonight.”
I was going to explain that I’d had my sleep and my supper but there was something about him… He was as bundled up in furs as I was but they hung about him like so much loose skin.
“OK, then,” I conceded and sat down again.
I only intended to stay for supper – that was a tasty rabbit! – and then only until he fell asleep… But somehow, I stayed all night, tending the fire, watching him sleep – knowing the moment when he slipped away.
I buried him in the dawn’s light, digging in the soft ground by the stream. Then I built up the fire again and slept through the day. At evening, I finished off the rabbit and switched his sturdier cooking pot for mine but I left everything else for the next traveller.
Then, with a final glance of farewell, I continued on my journey.