I crouched in the thicket, watching the tinker stir the contents of the pot. The fragrance of vegetables and meat wafted in my face.
“I know you’re there, lad.” The snowy-haired tinker spoke without turning. “Come on out.”
I straightened, my legs wooden, for I’d been watching him for some time, as he’d fed his nag, set blocks against the wheels of his old caravan wagon, and then gone to the spring for water. He’d collected wood and filled the cooking pot with potatoes, onions, and mutton.
“I put an extra tatie in the stew for you. There’s your plate and spoon. Help yourself.”
I took a portion of the succulent stew and sat down, barely able to keep from devouring the mixture in several quick mouthfuls.
“You haven’t eaten for days, have you?”
I shook my head. “Berries. Mushrooms.”
“Where are your folks?”
“Sickness came. Everyone, everything’s gone.” I averted my eyes as I sopped up gravy with bit of biscuit. Silence reigned as I remembered the black days, the sweet stench.
“Well, lad, what say you fall in with me? I could use a pair of strong hands. I dare say a couple meals a day would suit you proper. Give it a try?”
“Yes, sir, thank you.” I was asleep before my head hit the grass.
In the misty morning, I filled the nosebag with sweet hay and attached it to the nag’s halter. I brushed her while she ate, and afterwards, the tinker handed me a simple breakfast. I gulped at steamy tea and cold biscuits.
“Now, lad, have a look at all the utensils along the side of the wagon here. The good wives like to know where everything is, the latest gadget and whatnot. See?” He showed me parers, peelers, slicers, and scissors. Fabrics, fripperies, ribbons, and razors.
“We’ll discuss more as we go.” The snowy tufts at his temples bobbed as he swung into the wagon seat. “Up you come, lad.”
He encouraged the ancient horse, and the wagon trundled forward, accompanied by a cacophony as the contraptions and devices jangled together.
“I’ve travelled the length and breadth of this country many times,” he spoke amidst the clatter, “but, lately, I’ve avoided the hill country. ‘Tis hard work. You up for it?”
The days grew into weeks, and I came to admire the old tinker. The women were waiting at their gates when he arrived, their pennies in hand, ready to buy a length of fabric, a skein of yarn, a tea strainer, or sugar tongs. He sharpened their scissors and looked at their molars. He was vender, doctor, lawyer, news-bearer, and confidante.
Life was grand.
When life is grand, it must not be clasped too tightly, lest the soul be torn apart when the inescapable comes.
The hill people were particularly glad to see him, since he’d not visited them for many years. They were poor folk, and we soon had sacks of potatoes and onions traded for pots and knives. More than we could eat, but we’d trade them, down mountain.
We’d one more road to climb to one last cluster of cottages. The procedure was that the tinker would lead the horse while I pushed the wagon from behind. It worked well, though slowly, for the nag was frail, and we’d no wish to overtax her. The road was steep; we’d move a bit and I’d put a stone behind the wheel and rest.
We could see the summit when it happened. The stone behind the wheel slid sideways, and the caravan started to roll backwards. I threw my shoulder against it and tried to kick the stone, to no avail.
“The brake, lad!”
As if on command, the wagon arrived at my side, and I vaulted into the seat. I pulled on the brake.
The wagon ground to a halt, rolled backwards again, stopped.
Assured the brake was secure, I alighted and stooped to push a stone behind the wheel, and as I did, I discovered the awful truth.
The tinker lay under the wagon. He moaned, and I crawled to him, seeing with dismay the odd angle of his leg and the scarlet pool beneath his head.
His last word, spoken in the shadow under the wagon full of potatoes and fripperies.
My wagon now.
The women come to greet me when they hear the clanging of the pots and scissors. I keep their secrets and pass on their news.
Life is grand.
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