Rhine gold, Colorado gold
They had decided that during their honeymoon in southern Germany they would attend a performance of Richard Wagner’s opera Der Ring des Nibelungen. The full opera cycle was to be performed over the course of four consecutive nights at the regional theatre. The first night, a performance of about two and a half hours, proved to be a great disappointment. They’d purchased tickets for the least expensive seats, which were in the balcony, only to discover that an immense chandelier obstructed their view of the English surtitles so that they could not follow the libretto, neither of them having any knowledge of German. By the time they returned to their hotel, they were exhausted by the night of opera and the day of sightseeing that had preceded it. Reluctant to sleep, they sat up in bed drinking Bavarian pilsner from cans, reflecting on the tedium of the incomprehensible performance, debating whether
they would be able to endure the epic cycle in its entirety. Since they were together, she said, they were obliged to follow through with the commitment they had made, for the money that would be wasted on the unused tickets would be twice as great as that wasted if either one of them had planned to go alone. On the other hand, he countered, the frustration that would result from attending the remaining three nights of opera would be twofold the frustration felt were either one of them to attend the cycle alone. For this reason, he thought it doubly sensible to cut their losses. After all, he said, it had been his idea to go in the first place—for he’d thought an opera about a ring would be of interest to his wife, who was a jeweller by trade—and he was willing to admit he’d made a terrible mistake before their suffering was unnecessarily prolonged.
He recalled then, sitting up in bed next to his wife in the hotel room in southern Germany, a story she’d once told him about the apprenticeship she’d completed shortly after they’d first met. A few weeks into their courtship, she’d travelled to a remote town in the Colorado Rockies, where she apprenticed under a jeweller of international renown. She’d agreed to apprentice for a period of six months, discovering upon her arrival that the tasks expected of her were mundane and of little instructive value, her love of the trade to which she aspired tested by the drudgery of the work. Her one consolation was that the weekends were her own to do with as she pleased. She spent them hiking in the mountains, eager to explore a part of the world she’d never seen before and would likely not have occasion to return to again. She missed more and more the young man she would eventually marry, the growing familiarity of her new life only serving to emphasize his absence.
They debated whether they would be able to endure Der Ring des Nibelungen in its entirety
One weekend, in an attempt to break out of her routine, she travelled by bus to a nearby town, a mining settlement long past its prime. She was taken with its melancholic beauty, the dilapidated grandeur of the nineteenth-century buildings in its centre, the simple wooden houses and abandoned trailers along its outskirts. She spent the day taking photographs and that evening she ventured to the town’s saloon. She sat at the bar, not far from a man who looked to be in his seventies who was speaking to the bartender. The man was bearded and wore a leather vest and blue jeans. His long white hair was tied back in a ponytail. She learned he was a drifter who’d travelled the world, working odd jobs, staying in one place as long as he pleased, moving on when he wanted a change, which was often, living for more than fifty years without obligation or attachment. The drifter spoke of the first time he’d been in that region, more than forty years before. At that time, he’d nearly fallen in love with a woman who lived in the town where he was working as a labourer. She’d waitressed in a diner where he took his meals. The service there, in his opinion, was better than the food, which was poor even by his standards. One evening as he settled his bill, the waitress told him that her shift was over and that he should buy her a drink. Impressed by her forwardness, he agreed. In the bar that night, he discovered how much she enjoyed the country and western records that played on the jukebox. He’d never paid much attention to music before, but from then on he made sure to have change in his pocket to feed into the gleaming machine so he could play her favourite songs. He’d take her out several times a week. She began to hint at them having a life together, knowing full well how he’d lived before they’d met. Though her suggestions were casual, it soon became clear that she was serious. He was surprised by his own interest in the possibility of their shared future. He’d been happier, he realized, those last few months than he’d been in years. He knew he’d have to make a decision soon or else it would be made for him.
One evening, after they’d said goodnight and kissed goodbye, he returned to the rooming house where he was staying. That evening, before going to sleep, he wrote a letter to the waitress in which he stated that he might like to marry her, but that such a decision required further thought. He’d be gone by the time she read the letter, and he might return in several months and ask her to marry him or he might
The drifter spoke of the first time he’d been in the dilapidated mining settlement more than forty years earlier
not. If he returned and she would have him, then she could be confident he’d thought things through and his commitment would be unwavering.
He rose before dawn the next morning and made his way through town, the weight of his pack heavy on his shoulders. As he passed by the diner he slipped the letter beneath the door. When he reached the edge of town, he stood by the side of the road and soon after was picked up by a travelling salesman. The salesman spoke with equal enthusiasm of his abiding love for his wife and children and of the opportunities for sexual adventure his line of work afforded him. After they’d travelled thirty miles, the drifter asked to be let out by a creek. The drifter made his way along the bank of the creek, following the directions that had been given to him by a stranger he’d encountered several days before. It had been the night of the drifter’s twenty-seventh birthday. He hadn’t observed a birthday since he’d left his childhood home but his waitress had prodded him for the date, insisting on a celebration. After they shared a meal at the diner, she presented him with an elaborately wrapped package and he removed the paper to discover a batteryoperated AM radio. She was very glad, she told him, that he shared her love of country and western music. He did his best to make his expression of gratitude seem genuine. After he’d walked her home, he’d returned to the bar alone, the radio, still in its box, tucked beneath his arm, his head filled with thoughts of a settled life and the obligations it would entail. Sitting at the bar, he overheard the stranger speaking to the bartender. The stranger was short, stooped and haggard. He described a creek-side cave outside of town, claiming that as a younger man he’d lived there and panned for gold. He’d had some luck, but not enough to make it worth his while and eventually he’d given up and taken a job in town. The drifter asked him if he thought there was still gold to be had in the creek, and the stranger turned and looked at him as if he hadn’t understood. Then the drifter ordered a beer for the stranger and the stranger drank it and said there likely was, but not enough to justify the trouble it would take to find. The drifter asked the stranger if he could remember the precise location of the cave. The stranger said he couldn’t. Then the drifter ordered the stranger a double whiskey, and the stranger, after he downed the drink, described the location of the cave in precise detail. When the stranger finished, he again advised the drifter that the venture was foolhardy, and the drifter assured him he’d no intention of trying to strike it rich. The stranger said he didn’t believe him, but that it made no difference to him, that sooner or later he’d learn which hopes were best pursued and which ones best left behind.
After he left the bar that night, the drifter lay on his bunk and reflected on the conversation. What he’d told the stranger had been true. He was not concerned with wealth for its own sake, but the thought of marriage had led him to thinking of a ring. He was more attached to the notion of self-reliance than the average man and approached the prospect of marriage with great caution. If he were to be bound by a promise and a ring, then both the promise and the ring, he decided, would be of his own making. He would attempt to pan the gold himself that would be cast into his fiancée’s ring. He didn’t consider this idea to be romantic so much as practical, a way of testing the strength of his conviction.
If he were bound to a promise and a ring, both would be of his own making
And so he’d come to the creek and followed it as it wound through the wilderness until he came upon a cave. He’d packed a pan for panning gold and as much dried food as he could carry, as well as the tools and provisions he’d need to live off the land for a few months, intending to fish in the creek and set snares to catch hare. His sole concession to comfort was the radio the waitress had given him for his birthday. That afternoon he started panning, a skill he’d learned from his grandfather as a child but had never put to use. He spent the days in the months that followed in much the same way. He’d fish and gather firewood and check his snares, spend the rest of the daylight hours swishing his pan in search of golden dust and nuggets. In the evenings he’d sit by the fire and listen to the radio. The reception was limited to a single frequency, a country and western station originating some fifty miles to the south. The station seemed to play exclusively the songs of love and heartache that his waitress was so fond of, songs he’d become well acquainted with during their courtship. He came increasingly to feel that the desires expressed in these songs were not the same as his, though after several weeks of living in the cave he still couldn’t say for sure what it was he wanted most of all. He’d brought one extra set of batteries, and when the first gave out, he limited himself to just a few songs a night. This rationing came easily, for he’d grown tired of hearing the same songs repeated endlessly, songs he’d never cared for to begin with. If a song was introduced he couldn’t stand to hear again, which happened often, he’d switch the radio off and try a few minutes later, hoping to catch one he disliked less than the others, eventually avoiding the music altogether in favour of the DJ’S mindless prattle in between.
When the second set of batteries died, the drifter did not miss the radio at all. The peace he felt then surprised him, his evenings spent sitting and staring into the flames, or else lying with his eyes closed, listening to the crackle of the fire until he fell asleep. He felt at home in the cave and he grew reluctant to return to town though he’d long since gone through his store of dried goods and hadn’t caught a fish or hare for days. One morning he saw his gaunt and bearded reflection on the surface of the frigid water, his features nearly unrecognizable. He became conscious of the dull ache in his abdomen, the sensations of hunger and deprivation having become so familiar as to be almost comforting, companions that clung to him even in his dreams. Recollections of the meals served to him by the waitress in the diner came to him, taunting him, and he acknowledged it was time to face what could no longer be ignored. The next morning, his nearly empty pack on his shoulders, he made his way along the creek back to the road, where he stood for several hours before a trucker eventually stopped to pick him up. When the drifter rebuffed the trucker’s attempts at conversation, the trucker turned on the truck’s AM radio instead, the pedal steel twang of heartache filling the confines of the cab.
In town the drifter learned that the gold he’d panned was worth very little, less than half of what he would’ve saved working in town in that time. There was barely enough for the casting of a single ring. He considered this for only a moment before he decided to sell the gold. Without stopping to glance in the window, he walked past the diner where the waitress worked and made his way to the most expensive restaurant in town. Assessing the condition of his hygiene, the maître d’ refused him entry until the drifter showed the contents of
his wallet and pressed a folded bill into his hand. The maître d’ directed him to the service entrance, ushered him to a small table in the storeroom where the waiters took their meals. The drifter ate very well, smiling and raising his whiskey glass at the cooks. It occurred to him he must seem half-crazed, for he’d barely spoken for months and had seldom bathed. Upon finishing his meal, he went directly to the bus depot, spending the rest of his money on a ticket for the next bus out of town, not caring what direction it was headed or how far it was bound. The most important thing, he’d decided, was that he leave before he changed his mind, for his time away had made plain to him what he’d suspected all along.
When, some forty-five years later, the apprentice jeweller seated at the Colorado bar asked the drifter why he hadn’t stopped at the diner to say goodbye, he said he’d feared the clarity he’d found in solitude would vanish as soon as he laid eyes upon the woman he’d grown to love, that once he saw her smile again and heard her voice he would be powerless to leave and it would be as if the ring that never came to be had been on her finger all along.
When the young man, newly married to the jeweller, sat in the hotel bed in southern Germany next to his wife and recalled this story, he could not help but relate it to the context of their own fledgling marriage. The ring his wife wore on her left hand was an heirloom that once belonged to her great aunt, who’d never married and had died alone. His wife seemed unconcerned with the history of the ring, her commitment to him steadfast beyond romantic whims. He knew she’d still be wearing the ring while he wore his, as together they sat behind the chandelier in the balcony of the regional theatre and endured three more nights of Der Ring des Nibelungen, the two of them having purchased tickets for the entire opera cycle in advance.
Devon Code is the author of Involuntary Bliss, a novel, and In A Mist, a collection of short fiction. He lives in Peterborough, ON.