Realizing it would be rather rude of me to remain in silence with him obviously intending to rest beneath me, I offered a leisurely greeting to break the silence. My thought that he was unaware of my presence was quickly confirmed as his entire body lurched and his eyes shot up with almost terrified surprise.
“I had no idea there was anyone around!” Obviously. “Have you been sitting there all along? Why didn’t you say anything before?”
Apparently, he wasn’t too interested in not being alone. Rather than respond to his unnecessary shortness, though, I replied with a more congenial question. “Nice day to be out. You been traveling long?”
Perceiving now that I meant no harm to him and that he was the one being intrusive, he offered a gentle nod and confided that he had been traveling since yesterday morning from Gleshna, the king’s city. He followed by asking if I lived nearby.
“Just beyond the river’s edge,” I replied. Coupling the knowledge that he was avoiding notice with my suspicion that he’d rowed quickly past Torren without stopping, I suspected he was more than ready for a place to rest. “You’re welcome to rest there a while if you desire. Want some help tying up your vessel? “
His earlier hesitance now seemed almost completely gone, and he offered a grateful smile. This young man was obviously not accustomed to the elements of the woods, and had probably managed next to no sleep the night before. To confirm this suspicion, I asked half-heartedly, “Not many places to stay around here are there?”
He offered a sheepish grin, as he confessed, “No, I tried camping along the shore last night, but…” He seemed too ashamed to admit that he’d been scared, but it was evident in his expression.
“Well, I always sleep better inside too.” I offered. “When I first moved out here, it took me a week to sleep through the night without being awakened by the noise of the night. These woods never sleep.”
“Apparently not,” he replied, shaking his head. “How long have you lived here, then?”
“About eleven years now.”
That interested him, but I wasn’t sure why. He had a hunger in his eyes, like a man who longed for adventure, but had yet to taste what he sought. “Where did you live before?” The boat was securely tied now, and after grabbing his pack of belongings, he climbed up the bank behind me, and we both started through the trees to the clearing where my cabin stood.
“The son of a fisherman,” I paused briefly, remembering the smell of saltwater mist blowing on the wind, “Grew up by the sea and moved here when I was old enough to leave home. Always wanted to live in the forest, so here I am.”
He looked a bit disappointed now. “Why do you like the forest so much? I’ve always thought the sea was better.”
He was direct; no doubt there. “Just water.” I replied, “Too lonely. I like the feel of life all around me out here, helps me remember I’m not alone.”
As we arrived at the cabin, I stepped onto the porch and opened the door. “Well, this is it,” I offered. He looked inside and his eyes went straight to the pears and squirrel jerky on the table. I showed him where the bed was, told him to help himself to some food, and let him know I’d be back in a few hours. That was all the invitation he needed. He had three bites of jerky down before I made it out the door. As I returned back to my writing, I considered the fact that he hadn’t mentioned a word about himself. He didn’t seem untrustworthy, just green, inexperienced at life. I would have to see about getting more out of him after he slept a bit. If he had really been as hungry as he acted, I thought, it was no wonder he seemed a little off.
I returned to the cabin at dusk, after picking some more fruit in the orchard and checking my traps. The place was quiet as I approached and I started to wonder if my visitor had left prematurely. A loud snore from inside answered me quickly enough, and I realized that there was a chance that he might just sleep through the night if permitted. Clearing my throat, I opened the door and left it open to combat the growing darkness. After replacing the missing pears at the table with two more, plus a couple apples and some blackberries, I grabbed my cleaning knife and went back out to the porch to clean the two rabbits I’d found in my traps.
An hour later, I was enjoying the savory aroma of fire-roasted meat. Darkness had fallen now, and I sat calmly in the light of the fire, finishing the story I’d started earlier in the day about a bird I’d once watched from my father’s fishing boat. The creature had managed to catch a fish twice it’s size right out of the sea. I still don’t entirely understand how he did it, but he carried it right off into the horizon, popping up and down with the fish thrashing in his talons. It makes an excellent story. It’s one of my mother’s favorites, and I’m glad I finally got it down on paper. Sometimes the biggest challenge for me is not to find a story to tell, but to decide which one I want to tell first. I decided long ago that it is a good problem to have.
I had just pulled the rabbit off the spit, when I saw a sluggish frame meander out of the cabin and into the light of the fire. How timely of him to wake up just in time for dinner. I suppose the only thing stronger than a man’s desire to sleep, though, is his desire to eat. I knew this well, but seeing it happen so blatantly was somewhat comical to me. I nodded as he approached and he offered a yawn-like smile.
“It appears that your nose is working properly,” I said dryly.
“My mother always said my appetite was my strongest feature,” he chuckled. Seeing the sizzling hot food made him forget his sleepiness faster than a squirrel can scamper down a sapling, I noted mentally.
“Well I’m glad you managed to wake up while it’s still hot. Wouldn’t want a good helping of meat like this to get cold. Here have a seat,” I said, pointing to the log bench across from mine.
He sat, and readily started in on the food I offered him, after waiting minimally for it to cool. He had to be at least twenty, I thought, by looking at him, but he acted more like an oversized kid, who hadn’t seen enough of life to know how to act around new people. It was almost a naivety, I realized as I watched him eat. As I had wondered before, I became gripped by the desire to know his story. Who was he, and what was he doing out on his own sneaking around like this?
After he finally looked up from his food, I asked, “So what brings you so far up the river?”
A momentary look of panic flashed across his eyes, and he looked away. “Just needed to get away,” he mumbled, “like you, I guess.”
“Away from what?” I pressed gingerly. I hoped that by now he trusted me enough to at least be somewhat informative.
This wasn’t working very well, so I tried a more direct attempt. “Is someone after you?”
This brought a mixture of fear and spite piercing from his eyes that I had not expected. “Look, you’ve been real nice and everything, but if all you wanted was to get another story to write, I don’t recall volunteering for it.”
That rubbed me the wrong way, and I shot him a look that indicated as much. I’d hoped that some sleep would help his edginess, but it apparently only gave him more energy to express it. “Well,” I said rising. “You won’t be able to make much progress on the river tonight. I’m heading to bed. You’re welcome to stick around until morning, but you’ll have to find somewhere to sleep.” And for a little self-gratification I threw in, “I wouldn’t roam around in the dark too much, though, you never know what you’re going to run into out here.” I heard him curse under his breath as I walked away, and I was glad he couldn’t see my smug grin as I disappeared into the darkness.