Sourdough

Pulp Literature - - THE SIWC STORYTELLER'S AWARD -

Hec­tor lived at the very top of the moun­tain hid­den within a thick for­est. He hadn’t seen a sin­gle per­son in 346 days. He looked around his tiny log cabin. Hec­tor kneeled down by his sin­gle bed and pulled up the scratchy blan­ket to see if there were any cans of food that he might have squir­reled away. He pulled out sev­eral sin­gle, worn, ne­glected socks caked in years of dust. He went over to the cup­board and opened one, then the other. Only dirt and a few pantry moths flit­tered around. He sat down on the lone chair. There was one jar, on the rough wooden ta­ble that he had built with his own hands from the trees right out­side his door. Hec­tor picked up the jar of dried cran­ber­ries and shook it. There were just a few stuck to the bot­tom of the jar. The only re­main­ing nour­ish­ment left. He pulled a spoon out of his pocket and dug the cran­ber­ries out of the jar. He savoured them as he rolled them around on his tongue. They weren’t enough to calm his growl­ing belly. The truth seeped in through the walls of his tiny cabin. He felt it sink into the mar­row of his bones. He would have to make the three-hour trek into the vil­lage. He would have to re­plen­ish his sup­plies.

Hec­tor laced up his leather hik­ing boots. Each boot had a hole worn through the toe. He put on his over­coat and a cap that hid his scar. Hec­tor trudged over to the only photo on his wall and took it down. He pulled on the latch in the wall and opened the com­part­ment. He pulled out the wooden box. It had been a very long time. He hadn’t looked in­side the box since his last visit to town. There had been no need. But now, he counted the coins and stuffed half of them in his pocket.

The trail was so over­grown that he could hardly make out the proper di­rec­tion. Black­berry bushes and sting­ing net­tles brushed his arms and left scratch marks on his hands. He checked the lo­ca­tion of the sun and won­dered if he would be able to get to the vil­lage and back home again by night­fall. It would be pos­si­ble to sleep some­where in the vil­lage in­stead of risk­ing get­ting caught in the woods at dark. Pos­si­ble but not prefer­able. Def­i­nitely not prefer­able.

Hec­tor saw it. The vil­lage. A wave of fear en­gulfed him. Fol­lowed by a wave of sad­ness. The growl in his belly grew loud. With raw de­ter­mi­na­tion, he pressed on through the bram­bles and en­tered the clear­ing. He paused to brush him­self off. To leave the tell­tale signs of the for­est be­hind him.

Hec­tor felt in his pocket. No coins. He felt in the other one. Noth­ing. He thought hard and turned to look be­hind him. He willed the coins to reap­pear. Noth­ing. He looked to­ward the vil­lage. Then he pan­icked.

He con­tin­ued on and strug­gled to come up with a plan. Steal­ing was a pos­si­bil­ity. Or he could of­fer to help a farmer in ex­change for some food. He was strong af­ter all. Able to do a hard day’s work. As long as he wasn’t asked any ques­tions. He hated folks pry­ing into his busi­ness. That’s how this whole

thing had started. Pry­ing folks. Couldn’t keep their wan­der­ing ques­tions to themselves. “Hey, mis­ter. Where you from?” Hec­tor spun around to see a girl and a boy, maybe about eight years old, each of them. It was the boy that had spo­ken. He had sage green eyes and sprin­kle of freck­les across his nose. The girl had deep brown eyes, the kind that could hyp­no­tize an un­sus­pect­ing per­son.

“Just pass­ing through,” Hec­tor said, try­ing to sound as ca­sual as pos­si­ble. “To where?” the girl asked. “None o’ yer con­cern,” Hec­tor said, wish­ing that these two would leave him be.

“You look like you could be lost,” the boy said. “Did you need some help find­ing your way any­where?”

“Didn’t yer folks tell ya not to talk to strangers?” Hec­tor replied, in hopes that they would get the hint and be on their way. “Nope,” the girl said. “We were told to help strangers,” the boy said, “’cause you never know if you might be en­ter­tain­ing an an­gel.”

“Are you an an­gel, mis­ter?” the girl asked. “You don’t look like one, but maybe you are just dressed up like a home­less per­son, just to test us to see if we can be nice to a stranger.”

“Ya, I’m an an­gel,” Hec­tor said. “That’s the hon­est truth.” He hoped that this would be enough to send them on their way. “No way!” the boy said. “Wow,” the girl said, her mouth wide open, gap­ing at him. “Mis­ter an­gel, you have to come home with us and meet our ma and pa. My name is Ti­mothy. But you prob­a­bly al­ready knew that be­cause you are an an­gel and you know ev­ery­thing.”

“And I am Is­abella. I bet you knew that too. We’ve never met a real live an­gel be­fore.”

“Well now ya have, and ya best be on yer way,” Hec­tor said, ges­tur­ing them away with his dirt-caked hand.

“You can take off your cos­tume now,” Is­abella said. “We know that you don’t re­ally look that way if you’re an an­gel.”

“Where do you hide your wings, Mis­ter an­gel?” Ti­mothy asked. “That coat doesn’t seem big enough to pack wings un­der.”

“I take ’em off,” Hec­tor said, grow­ing weary of the ques­tions. He strode away with the two kids trail­ing be­hind, hope­ful that they would leave once they had their ques­tions an­swered.

“Whoa! No way!” Ti­mothy said. “Hey, Mis­ter an­gel, come to our house for lunch. Ma is mak­ing stew and she will be sur­prised that we found an an­gel in the woods.” “No …” Hec­tor be­gan. “You have to come. If you don’t, they will never be­lieve it,” Is­abella pleaded.

“Well … all right,” Hec­tor agreed as he re­al­ized that this was an easy ticket to a free meal. He only had to hu­mour these kids and their par­ents for a short time to get a full belly and be on his way.

“This way. Fol­low us.” Ti­mothy made his way, with Is­abella fol­low­ing.

“If you are an an­gel,” started Is­abella, “ish that like a fairy god­mother? Do you give wishes too?” Ti­mothy stopped and both kids stared at Hec­tor. Hec­tor felt the sen­sa­tion of blood ris­ing to his cheeks, which he had not ex­pe­ri­enced in a very long time. “No, I don’t give no wishes,” he an­nounced. “That’s too bad.” Is­abella let out a sigh as the twin­kle in her

eye dis­ap­peared en­tirely.

“That’s OK, Mis­ter an­gel,” Ti­mothy said. “I know that an­gels and fairy god­moth­ers are two to­tally dif­fer­ent kinds of be­ings. It’s not your fault that you can’t give peo­ple their wishes.” “It’s a shame, though,” Is­abella added. “We’re al­most there,” Ti­mothy said, round­ing a cor­ner and head­ing down to­ward an old stone house. “Ma and pa will be so ex­cited!” Is­abella said. Hec­tor was start­ing to won­der if he should turn around, when a wo­man ran out of the stone house.

“Ti­mothy and Is­abella!” she scolded with her hands on her hips. “Where have you been? I ex­pected you home al­most an hour ago.” “Ma, sorry we’re late,” Ti­mothy replied, “but we found an an­gel.” “He’s com­ing to have lunch with us, Ma,” Is­abella added. Ma looked Hec­tor up and down, dis­ap­proval mark­ing her gaze. “He doesn’t look like an an­gel,” Ma said slowly. “That’s be­cause he’s wear­ing his hobo cos­tume to­day,” Is­abella said.

“How do ya do, Miss,” Hec­tor man­aged to get out. He could smell the savoury stew waft­ing from the open door­way. Hec­tor man­aged a small bow, try­ing to look as civ­i­lized as pos­si­ble.

“Your pa wasn’t ex­pect­ing any com­pany,” Ma said, “and nei­ther was I.”

“Ma, you are sup­posed to be po­lite to an­gels,” Ti­mothy whis­pered to his mom.

Ma frowned and gave Hec­tor an­other once-over. “Fine. Do you have a name? Gabriel?” she asked with a slight tone of sus­pi­cion.

“Hec­tor, ma’am. Pleased to make yer ac­quain­tance.”

“Hec­tor.” Ma rolled the name around on her tongue. “That sounds fa­mil­iar.”

Hec­tor swal­lowed hard. He hadn’t thought to use a phony name. “Maybe I should be goin’,” he said. “No, come in­side for lunch,” Ma said. “I in­sist.” Hec­tor fol­lowed the kids’ mom, and as they walked through the en­trance, a black and white cat dream­ily looked up at him. The cat was curled up on a soft blan­ket by the fire­place. The sun shone through the living room win­dow. The cro­cheted cover on the sofa re­minded Hec­tor of years long past at his grand­mother’s home. He had spent much of his child­hood there. He had sat on his grand­mother’s lap as a tod­dler. Hec­tor no­ticed the pho­tos and paint­ings adorn­ing the walls. He fol­lowed Ma into the kitchen and passed by the well-stocked pantry. There was a full jar of cook­ies on the kitchen counter with a large bowl of fruit be­side it. If only this was his home. Food. Warmth. Family. Things he didn’t have any­more.

Pa sat at a large wooden ta­ble that looked like it be­longed in a me­dieval cas­tle. “Who’s this?” Pa asked. “The kids brought some­one for lunch,” Ma replied. “Mis­ter Hec­tor is an an­gel, Pa” Is­abella ex­claimed, tug­ging on Hec­tor’s sleeve to show him off as though he was a huge stuffed an­i­mal that she had won at a fair.

“Pleased to meet ya,” Hec­tor said, grow­ing tired of the an­gel cha­rade and wish­ing that he could just take a bowl of stew and go. “An an­gel?” Pa in­quired. Ma plopped a bowl of stew on the ta­ble along with two thick slices of freshly baked sourdough bread. “Yes, an an­gel.” She ad­dressed Pa with a wink. “Sit down here, Hec­tor, and have some lunch.”

Ti­mothy and Is­abella sat across from Hec­tor as he slurped his stew and chewed with his mouth mostly open.

“I guess an­gels don’t have to have man­ners,” Is­abella said, dab­bing her mouth with her nap­kin. “Is­abella, don’t be rude,” Ma scolded. “It’s OK, ma’am” Hec­tor said as he grabbed a nap­kin. “Are you from these parts?” Pa asked as he stared at Hec­tor’s long beard. “Just passin’ through.” “Where you go­ing to?” Ti­mothy asked. “Just have to get food and go back to my home,” Hec­tor said. “You need to take food back to heaven?” Is­abella asked with wide eyes.

“Some­times we run out of food there,” Hec­tor said, aware that he was walk­ing a tightrope be­tween the kids’ ex­pec­ta­tions and the par­ents’ sus­pi­cions.

“We can give you food,” Ti­mothy said. “Lots of it! Pa just came back from the vil­lage with food.” Pa was si­lent. He looked over at Ma. “We could prob­a­bly ar­range to send a few items home with you,” Ma said. “That wouldn’t be needed, ma’am,” Hec­tor started. “We in­sist,” Is­abella said, run­ning over to the pantry. She read out the la­bels on the con­tain­ers. “How about rice, and beans, and dried apri­cots? Do they need those all in heaven?”

Hec­tor looked over at Pa and Ma. “That would be mighty sweet of ya.”

Ma went over and made up a big pack­age of food for Hec­tor. “Ti­mothy, go get a bag to put all this in so that Mis­ter Hec­tor can carry it with him.”

“OK, Ma.” Ti­mothy dis­ap­peared and reap­peared with a burlap bag.

Pa slowly for­mu­lated his words. “I heard of a man named Hec­tor a few years back. He lost his wife and son when the river flooded. Ter­ri­ble storm. Hor­ri­ble tragedy.”

Hec­tor swal­lowed hard, the stew turn­ing to lead in his gut. “That’s a sad story, sir.”

“That’s not ex­actly lunch con­ver­sa­tion.” Ma wrin­kled her nose at her hus­band. She put all the items in­side and pre­sented the bag to Hec­tor. “We wish you well.”

Hec­tor grabbed the burlap sack. “Why thanks, ma’am.” He turned to leave. “Mis­ter an­gel,” Is­abella started, “come back and visit us.” Hec­tor paused. “I don’t know … Well … if ya kids be­have yer­selves, I just might come back and grant ye a wish.”

Hec­tor made his way up the bram­ble trail. His pack was heavy and the black­berry bushes scraped his skin, but he hardly no­ticed it this time. Lost in the past. The past that he had tried to push back with all his might. It came in like a mon­soon. Pelt­ing him with mem­o­ries. So many mem­o­ries. Tiny hands in his. Then gone. A wo­man to care for that was no more. Hot tears carved their way into his weather-hard­ened cheeks. Tears that had never come. Hec­tor cried out in agony. The trees wit­nessed his pain. He found his way to the tiny cabin, ex­hausted. He fell on his bed.

One lone photo gazed down at him. His wife and young son. Taken away. Stolen from him. He gin­gerly took down the photo and cra­dled it as though it was a new­born child. He rubbed at his scar. The an­gry re­minder of how he had tried to save them and failed. He had failed his family.

Some­thing in him let go. Let go of the pain. Let go of the dis­be­lief that it had hap­pened. They were gone, and he would have to go on.

A knock at the door. Hec­tor turned in shock to look, as though he had been sucked through a por­tal from an­other land. A knock. No one ever came. No one ever knocked. Here. In the woods. He wiped his eyes with his dirty sleeves and opened the door slowly. Two chil­dren. One with freck­les. One with soft brown eyes. “Mis­ter an­gel,” Is­abella said, “you for­got to take this with you.” She held out a ragged over­coat as if it was a royal robe. “Yah,” Ti­mothy said. “You don’t want to be catch­ing a cold.” “How did ya kids get up here?” Hec­tor man­aged to squeak out. “We just fol­lowed you,” Ti­mothy said. Is­abella held out a bou­quet of wild­flow­ers. “These are for you, Mis­ter an­gel.” Hec­tor reached out for the flow­ers. “Thank ye, lit­tle missy.” “You are wel­come,” Is­abella re­sponded in a sing-song voice, sway­ing back and forth with pride.

“Pa says that he would like it if you come and have lunch with us ev­ery Sun­day,” Ti­mothy an­nounced. “He said that he would like to see an an­gel at his ta­ble reg­u­larly.”

“Yah, Mis­ter an­gel,” Is­abella ex­claimed. “We all want you to come back.”

“And to­mor­row is Sun­day,” Ti­mothy added, as though he was is­su­ing a royal de­cree.

Hec­tor stared at the floor. He looked around his cabin. “I don’t have nothin’ to bring to share with such fine folks.” “Just bring your­self,” Is­abella said. “We got to get back home now,” Ti­mothy said.

“See you to­mor­row, Mis­ter Hec­tor.” The two of them waltzed out of his cabin, leav­ing the door wide open. He watched them skip down to­ward the trail.

Hec­tor sat on his bed. It was all too much for one day. He looked over at the photo. The heav­i­ness had lifted. Per­haps it was OK to move on. To say good­bye. To go on living.

Hec­tor awoke the next morn­ing. He had an in­vi­ta­tion. His pres­ence had been re­quested. Just maybe he would go. Maybe this would be a new start. He rus­tled through his drawer of odds and ends to find some­thing he hadn’t used in a long time. There had been no need. A comb. He would comb his hair and go to lunch.

Reg­is­ter for the 2017 Sur­rey In­ter­na­tional Writ­ers’ Con­fer­ence and en­ter the Sto­ry­teller’s Award at siwc.ca

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