When winter came to Paris, it dragged with it a sky full of clouds. Damp chill crawled along streets, eating through thick wool and thin cotton without discrimination. A week ago, snow raced through the skies, turning cars and trees into mysterious masses, a treasure for discovery. On this particular morning winter sleeps in so the snow melts, the chill slinks away down into the sewer, and the clouds peek out from the edge of the horizon.
The rising sun casts its light across the rooftops forcing anything wet to shine. With every inhale the taste of warm possibilities rushes down throats. Putrid city smells like sewage and smog are nothing more than a debunked theory.
A fifty-euro bill floats down into a man’s can as he sits against a wall, clutching a cardboard sign, torn and bent around the edges. Two cats lie curled into each other atop a metal grate, lazing in the new sun above and the warm air from the metro below. A young girl yanks on her father’s hand, begging him to buy her a pastry before school. Today, the father relents, and he buys two so they can sit on a bench and talk about the little things that he so often missed. A couple, far above the street, make love to each other instead of fighting.
Charles doesn’t see the world living around him. The morning sun shone too bright, so he pulls his cap lower. His sore feet remind him he’s been walking for hours, and his empty stomach recommends a café near the Pont des Arts.
The tables outside have two or three patrons each, all taking slow sips or long swallows of strong espresso. The beautiful day begs people to slow down and not rush off to wherever it is people must go on a Friday morning. Charles walks over to a table. The sole occupant is a dark-skinned man wearing an open wool coat and a skinny black tie. He is sprawled in his chair like a dog in the sun.
“Uh, excusez-moi.” Charles interrupts what he hopes was not a morning nap. “May I…” he trails off, gesturing towards the open seat. His high-school French classes have not stuck with him through the years.
“Oh! Of course,” the man responds, looking up at him. Charles sits, surprised and a bit happy to hear the familiar American accent.
“Thanks.” Charles offers a sincere smile, one of the few he has left. The sun-warmed chair soothes his aching body as he takes the weight off his feet. Charles resists the urge to remove his shoes and massage his quickly swelling feet.
“My pleasure. May I get you a drink? It’s early enough that the Italians won’t think less of you if you have a cappuccino.” The man is already hailing the waiter.
“Oh, no, no. You’ve been far too kind, as it is. Besides, I don’t think coffee on an empty stomach is such a smart idea,” Charles says.
“Nonsense. Let’s have a bite to eat, as well. Do you eat eggs?” The waiter arrives before Charles could respond, and his sitting companion orders in French. Charles misses most of what was said, but hears “cappuccino” mentioned.
“I got a little spread for the table.” Before Charles has a chance to protest, the man holds up his hand. “I was about to eat anyhow, you just gave me another reason to.”
The man reaches his hand across the table. “They call me Gabriel.”
“My pleasure,” Charles grips his hand. “I’m Charles.”
Careful to keep the silence at bay, Gabriel asks, “What brings you to Paris, Charles?”
“Not sure, truth be told. I came into a bit of money, wanted to see if this was the city I remembered.”
Charles looks around, taking in the Vespa’s flying past, and the clamor of a busy morning. All along the river booksellers are opening their green plywood stalls, sweeping aside leaves, making half-hearted attempts to lure pedestrians in.
“I don’t know.” Charles says simply. “It’s like seeing an old friend from high school. You used to be close, thick as thieves, and now you both hesitantly reintroduce yourselves, not sure who the other person has become.”
“Well said,” Gabriel agrees, never taking his eyes off the tired man.
“Thanks,” Charles chuckles. “What about you?” he asks in return.
“I went on a European trip once. Never finished it.”
“Like a gap year?” Charles asks.
“Exactly like a gap year.”
Before Charles can ask any further questions, the waiter returns with a tray piled with food. He places the plates of pastries, eggs, fruit, and meat around the table, and finally, two cappuccinos, one in front of each man.
“Merci,” Charles says.
Gabriel echoes him with a better accent.
The two men pause their talking while they each take a pastry and spread them with jam and butter. It’s a wordless dance, commonplace at nearly every table. The passing of food, the rearranging of plates, the prediction of what the other person might need, and to supply it before asked.
Across the street, a young girl chases a flock of pigeons as they take off and land only feet from where they were. They play that game a few times before the pigeons fly off for good. The girl looks up and waves as they leave, watching as the circled in some intricate dance, known only to pigeons and children.
“Why did you stop?” Charles asks, once he had a few bites. The food and coffee settled well in his stomach, making him relax even more.
“Pardon?” Gabriel looks up from his pain au raison.
“You said you never finished your European travels?”
“Ah, that.” Gabriel nods as he took a bite. “I suppose it was a mix of things,” he says, finishing his bite.
Charles takes the lack of answers as a hint to not pry. “It’s always that way, isn’t it? Trying to find the moment it all changed.”
“And it’s over before you know,” Gabriel adds. “Looking back, I’ve found there was a moment it had all gone wrong. For certain, and without fail, everything had gone to Hell.”
“I can agree to that. In fact, I remember that moment well.”
“Oh?” Gabriel rasies an eyebrow.
Charles takes another sip of his coffee and bushes a few crumbs of croissant from his shirt.
“Eggplant parm,” Charles says, without preamble. “That’s when it went wrong.”
“I like to think I follow most things. In this case, I might have missed something.”
“Before I came here, before I came into that little bit of money, I made food at a private school. I was one of the lunch ladies. Lunch men? It was the most recent job in a long line of ‘how-do-I-make-ends-meet-this-week’ jobs. Before that I was moving furniture, tried some construction work, even tried my hand at pulling espressos. I’m too old for that. But a few weeks ago, I was working at a private school down South.” Charles pauses for a second, remembering where he is. “Not down south here, back in the States.”
Gabriel nods his understanding without speaking.
“My car would stall out in the parking lot just as I pulled in; I didn’t have money to fix the radiator. Each day it would be another meal to make with ingredients I couldn’t afford. Hotel trays of beef bourguignon, or mushrooms and trout. Whatever wasn’t eaten had to be tossed, as per some back ass-wards Health and Safety laws. I could never afford to make these at home, and instead I went to work just to throw them away. One day I was scraping out a hotel pan of eggplant parmesan, and it hit me. ‘How the hell did I end up here?’ I didn’t notice it all going to Hell, I only knew that I was there.”
Gabriel absorbs the story before speaking. “Do you mind if I ask how you got there?”
“Not at all,” Charles says, reaching into his pocket. He pulls out a plastic coin with “10” emblazoned on it. “Alcohol, mostly. But this,” he dropps the coin onto the table. “This is ten years sober.”
Charles looks down at the ground for a second, avoiding eye contact with Gabriel. “I don’t know how much good I’ve done in my life, or if I’ve really earned anything. But I earned this,” Charles looks up, his eyes red-rimmed. “I know I earned this coin.”
The two men allow the silence settle between them, like silt on the riverbed.
Gabriel speaks first, disturbing the silt. “I’m not sure if there is a judge at the end of all this,” he waves his arm around them. “But if there is one, I am sure they can attest to that.”
“Thanks,” Charles smiles, putting the coin back in his pocket. “I’ll be honest, I’m surprised you have me saying so much in such a short time.”
“Unfamiliarity can do that. It forces you to leave your comfort zone, to open up and make friends. Share experiences. Be a part of this narrative, just another facet of the same story.”
“Bit of a sad story, isn’t it?”
“Depends how you view it, Charles,” Gabriel says, using the other man’s name for the first time. “But I made a new friend today. I’d say this story is rather warm and exciting.”
“You remind me of someone.” Charles laughs, his eyes clearing up.
“Oh?” Gabriel smiles, “Who’s that?”
“My dear old dad,” Charles smiles back, though his voice was somewhat salty. “Only in part, though. No one should be entirely like him.”
Gabriel raises an eyebrow, but holds his tongue. It’s always impossible to comment on the relationship of a parent and child, and this is no exception.
Charles seizes the opportunity to open up. “He was an alcoholic for as long as I can remember. One of the two things I inherited from him. Not that he was abusive, far from it. But he was… distant? He was around, but he acted almost as if we were in afterthought. Not in a bad way, in a…” Charles shakes his head. “I’m explaining this all wrong. Let me start again.”
Charles takes a sip of his coffee, and looks back up.
“I never really knew my father,” Charles begins. “He was an enigma, powerful and vacant. Our mother raised my two sisters and I, mostly on her own. My father was around for the important parts, though. He gave me ‘The Talk,’” Charles makes air quotes with his fingers, “And I had my first beer with him. The important bits, for sure. But prior to my birth, and even during my first few years, I had no idea of who he was. He didn’t share too much about his own life. Too late now, he’s dead.”
Charles pauses and brings his coffee cup towards his mouth before stopping and setting it back on the table. “He could’ve been the poster boy for a functioning alcoholic. You always hear these stories about drunk parents coming home, beating their kids into a pulp, night after night. Never him; never my father. Back when I was a kid sharing a room with my sisters, my dad would come home at two, maybe three, in the morning. He would turn on the bedside light, sit on the bed, and start telling us stories.” The smile dips a bit. “But I never really knew him. The perfect enigma, all the lessons he wanted to teach us wrapped in stories. Just stories.” Charles gestures with his hand to show the stories tossed in the wind.
“Stories?” Gabriel asks, breaking his silence. “I rather like stories.”
Charles looks over. “Do you now?”
“Quite a bit. The whole reason I’m here is because of legends and tales whispered into my ear when I was young, reinforced by mysteries and stories when I got older. It set me on this journey. I didn’t know where I was going, and I still don’t, but I know it’s somewhere. And it’s because of the stories people told me. So yes, I love stories.”
Charles nods and shrugs, “Fair enough. What if they seem more like legends?”
“More of a rumor, really.”
“The truth is overrated, anyhow.”
“Without a shred of truth, to be sure.”
“Now that I can’t believe. Every rumor came from somewhere.” Gabriel shrugs. “Maybe not the water cooler rumors, or high-school mutterings, but rumors that are woven into the fabric of humanity. Those have truth.”
“Very well. My father told me this story once, when I was younger. I was maybe… fifteen? I remember it so well because he told me never to forget it. To treat it as a lesson. I’m not sure I ever did, and I don’t know if I ever will. But I loved it when I was younger. He called it the Reveler and the Shepherd.”
“Long ago, before the time of industry, two men walked the Earth. They would use gifts of magic as they traveled to the different corners of the ancient world, visiting cities in times of war and sickness. The Reveler would bring music and laughter to the humble hearths and lavish manors. The Shepherd stayed out of the spotlight, going from hospice to home, healing those he could, and helping whoever he couldn’t cure cross over.
The Reveler could enchant people, entrance them with sound alone. He would arrive, lute in hand, and usher in all manner of boisterous music and high spirits. He would commandeer a plot of land or corner of the room and play. His fingers would sparkle over the strings, as he coaxed music into the warp and weft of a masterful tapestry of sound. Slowly, his crowd would grow. The travelers and their fiddles, the farmer’s kids with their pipes, each with their own voice to add. Soon food was brought, casks as well, and tables were laid out. The reveler danced in-between them, strumming all the while. The wealthy came down from their castles or manors high up on a hill, joining the festivities without prejudice. He was like that good friend or favorite uncle; you would only see him once every few years. Ah, but when he was there! Beer flowed forth from tapped casks, and music sprung from strung instruments straight into the hearts of worn out souls. The people of these lands, after years of exhaustion, felt renewed. They all danced with a reckless abandon found only in children, and children danced with them. For weeks afterwards they would speak of him, of the night the land was alight with fire and music. But gradually things returned to normal, as all things must. Prejudice returned. The wealthy extorted the poor, the travelers moved on, and the farmers returned to the soil. Memories of the Reveler faded, until people weren’t sure they actually danced with him. Some didn’t forget, and it was those who prayed to see him again.
“The Shepherd never saw the revelry. He left the healing of minds to the Reveler. When he went from town to town, he let his presence be known in other ways. Those who lost their sight found it, the ones suffering from infection saw it fade away, and fevers dissipated in the night. Children had twisted legs straightened, and eyesight corrected. Trees would bear more fruit while the crops would not mold in the rain nor whither in the heat. Cows produced more milk, and hives were found with more honey. People rejoiced, their prayers answered. Slowly, random mutterings and rumors were pieced together. When someone regained sight, or regrew a leg, a stranger was there. Passing through, never there longer than a night. A man dressed only in a white robe, carrying a staff. Then the rumors spread. They started in the quiet of the nights, only broken by the sound of a child whimpering and a mother praying. Praying to God to cure her child, and to a stranger who could do the same. Men at war would bring home stories of a man would could reattach legs, and heal the holes in the stomachs. They would murmur these stories around the light of a fireplace, wondering they had been touched by the Holy Spirit.
“It wasn’t long until the prayers to God ceased entirely. Instead they would pray for the Shepherd to come and heal their bodies. And the Shepherd would come, as he always had, but his shadow grew longer. What was once a battlefield of bodies to heal or guide to the Otherside became a monument to failure. He wore each loss as a chain that dragged behind him, but still he went. The Reveler went with him, to repair the minds of those who had lost them, and fill hearts with hope. Together, they helped the world come together.”
Gabriel doesn’t speak immediately; perhaps Charles will continue. But Charles isn’t looking at him, he’s looking across the river, his mind hundreds of miles away.
“Is there an ending?” Gabriel asks at last.
“I asked my father the same thing. He told me that as long as those two men walked the Earth, their story could not end. He said we could only look at them and try to be as generous and as helpful as they are. When I was young, I thought I was The Reveler. No worries, no regrets. Only new places, new people, and new friends. But more and more each day I see myself as The Shepherd, weighed down with regret as the world tumbles around me, each loss beyond my power.” Charles sighs, no longer the smiling man he was an hour ago.
The lines on his face deepen and his back begins to hunch again. Now he is just another person without a clear purpose.
The waiter comes back over, removing the used plates. Gabriel asks him for another two coffees and a bottle of water for the table.
“Never too late, you know,” Gabriel offers, as the waiter leaves.
Charles’s eyes flicker and he looks to Gabriel. “Pardon?”
“The Reveler. Your story. It’s never too late to be the carefree one, to be the Reveler.”
“I think I’m a bit old,” Charles gives a smile that could only be described as rueful.
“I didn’t realize there was an age limit on making new friends, or going to new places,” Gabriel remarks carefully.
“Look at me!” Charles explodes. “I’m in Paris! Again! I came here to see if it was the city I remembered, and it isn’t. Worse than that, I can’t tell if it’s me that changed, or the city. What happened to this place? It used to be so vibrant! And so was I…” His eyes grow wet. “Look at me. A foolish old man who never learned from his mistakes.”
“Would you prefer to learn from your mistakes in five years from now? Ten?” Gabriel asks, not unkindly. “There’s the famous saying, ‘The best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago. The second best time is today.’ And I think today is a great day for you to move on.”
Charles laughs, a grating sound. “Know a lot about moving on, do you?”
“More than I’d like to.” For the first time since meeting him, Charles truly sees him. His eyes are hard and sad. So sad. Charles knows the feeling of loss, having lost most of his family before he was thirty. He knows there is an anger sitting deep inside him and that strange sense of missing. He sees it in Gabriel, but he sees something more. Before he can put a finger on it, Gabriel’s eyes changed, and the stranger is once again the easy-going man in a wool coat.
“But this is not the time for that!” Gabriel exclaims as the waiter returns with more coffee, two glasses, and a bottle of water for the table.
“What is it the time for, then?” Charles asks, not expecting an answer.
“It’s the time for friends. For sharing sweet memories of better times, of laughing at past mistakes and recounting lost love. It’s the time to live in this moment, this here and now. For what is life if not but a single moment, trapped in time? Nothing exists outside right now, where we sit, where we drink and spin yarns. Nothing from our past nor our present, it is only this.” Gabriel taps the table with his finger. “It’s now,” he says, pouring them each a glass of water. “Saluti,” he says, holding up his glass.
“The Italians consider it bad luck to toast with water,” Charles points out.
“They also think black pepper causes hemorrhoids. I leave old superstitions to the superstitious,” Gabriel counters.
Charles shrugs. “Cheers.” He clinks his glass to Gabriel’s. “To now.”
They both take a sip. Charles pauses for a moment; feeling a rush pass through him, like stepping out of a cold shower, skin buzzing and humming. As the feeling fades, he sips again, but this time nothing happens.
“Everything okay?” Gabriel asks.
“Yeah. I just…” Charles doesn’t want to say he felt something strange and endanger his new friendship. “Nothing, just a feeling.”
“A warm tingling feeling?” Comes the question.
“How’d you know?” Charles asks him.
“Just one of those things.” Gabriel shrugs. “Sometimes a toast inspires, and sometimes a word is more than a word.”
“And sometimes a stranger is more than a stranger,” Charles pokes gently.
“Sometimes.” Gabriel smiles back, his mouth wolfish.
“What brings you here, Gabriel? You’ve heard my story, I have yet to hear yours.”
“Oh, mine is no fun. No fun at all.” Gabriel shakes his head, smiling.
Charles stares at a bookseller and customer haggling over the price of a small book. “Were you here yesterday?”
Gabriel shakes his head. “Why do you ask?”
“Snow up to here.” Charles gestures with his hand to his mid-calf. “Absolutely frigid. Just miserable.”
Gabriel doesn’t answer.
Charles takes a sip of cappuccino and gazes around. “Beautiful day, isn’t it?”
The other man nods, sipping his own coffee.
“Strangely so,” Charles says, his voice almost a whisper.
“Perhaps it’s fate.”
Charles smiled at the idea. “Oh, is that so?”
“Would you have been walking around is such treacherous weather? Would I, or anyone else, be sitting outside?” Gabriel gestures to the people seated around them. “The one spring day, in the dead of winter, drives the two of us together.”
“Where’s the water?” Charles asks, instead of replying.
“I would imagine it’s in front of you.” Gabriel points to the Seine that flowed just on the other side of the street in front of them.
“Not that water. From the snow. Easily five inches of snow, and now? Not a trace. Not a lingering snowdrift in the shade, nor a snowball under any eaves. Where’s the melted snow?”
“Where’s the water?” Gabriel echoes. “Must be one of life’s great mysteries.”
“I doubt that. Want to know the second thing my father left for me?”
“I’m sorry?” Gabriel asks, entirely lost at the change in conversation.
“I told you I inherited two things from my father, one was the drinking.”
“And the other?” Gabriel asks.
Charles digs around under his shirt for a brief second before pulling out a necklace. Hanging from it is an insignia of some sort. It could have been a Nordic rune, or an eye, or even a bird. If you squinted, it looked like pretty much anything. Like a cloud, it found shape in the eye of the beholder. XXX
“Do you know what this is?” Charles asks.
“I have a pretty good idea,” Gabriel murmurs. His eyes never leaves the pendant Charles holds.
“My sisters got everything else. The house, the money, the heirlooms and keepsakes. And I got this. Only this.” Charles holds it up, farther away from his chest. “What is it?” Whether on accident or purpose, Charles asks his question somewhere between a plea and demand.
“It’s an object of exclusivity.”
Gabriel thinks for a moment, relaxing back in his chair. “People without the Mark of Aerie.”
“What’s that?” Charles asks.
“Do you know where you father got it?” Gabriel answers.
“Mom always said he’s had it as long as she can remember. Never took it off. One say, after he passed, it arrived in the mail. Came in a small wooden box. The letter inside said, ‘For Charles. Remember who you are. Walk proudly, speak kindly, love fiercely, and above all, live well. This is my last gift to you. Love, Dad.’” Charles’s eyes waters once again. Somewhere, deep inside him, the young boy without a father wishes he had an answer. Now, with Gabriel across the table, he knows more about the heirloom than he ever had. There is more than one, and it has a name. “What is it?” This time, the demand is gone.
“There are many answers to that question. To you, it is a way to remember your father. To me, it is a way to recognize friends. To others, it is a Mark gives them a feeling of inclusion by excluding the world around them. A way to fit in.”
“How does it help you recognize friends?”
“The same way the Ichthus does, or a certain colored bandana, or even an accent. A long time ago I found a group of people that shared the same ideas I had.”
“That there is more to this world. In some way, shape, or form, this world is not bound by the rules we have discovered.” Gabriel taps his head with a forefinger, over and over. “It was this feeling, this desire even, that there was more. I was disillusioned by how people interacted with the world around them, or with the people they called friends.” Gabriel stops tapping his head.
“When I was younger, I was angry. Always angry. And I refused to take responsibility for anything I did, but I knew I was refusing to do so, and it made me angrier. I wanted to be someone. Someone powerful, yes, but more than that, I wanted to be someone different. I was scared there wasn’t any different. That we weren’t any different from one another. That we followed the same drone-like life decade after decade. And I wanted to change that. I wanted to be someone and do something.
“I wanted to summit mountains, swim in stormy seas, and travel the world with only a single pair of clothes and a toothbrush. To sail around Tierra del Fuego, traverse the Sierra and the Gobi, meditate in a small temple and sing songs in large ones.
“Maybe I didn’t actually want to, but I just wanted to have that option. As I grew up, I read every book I could get my hands on. I began to fall in love with the world between the pages. I wanted to see it all: from the bazaars of Morocco to the soulless city of Shanghai, from the back roads of America, to the heart of Africa. I wanted to sleep in caves with herders, and lose myself in the silence of nature. I had an idea of how life should be lived.”
“And have you lived it?” Charles asks, putting the pendant back around his neck. “Have you seen those mountaintops and ocean crests?”
“There was love,” Gabriel responds. “And loss. A betrayal, and an alliance. There were indefatigable enemies, but more than that, there were redoubtable friends. And there was this.” Gabriel pulls back the sleeve of his coat, showing a bracelet. On the bracelet hands the same insignia Charles wears around his neck.
“You do know what it is?” Charles nearly yells.
“I do. I know where your father made it, and I’ve been there myself. In fact, you and I would probably have met before now if not for your fathers desire for privacy.
“I’m getting ahead of myself. I will tell you where that comes from,” Gabriel points at Charles’s neck. “But it is a long story. Are you sure you’re ready for it?”
Charles smiles, and deep inside him the boy smiles as well. For years Charles knew his father was gone, but across the table from him sits something so concrete he feels reconnected again. “Look!” Charles exclaims. “The day is beautiful, the sun is warm, and the chair is comfortable. Every so often a beautiful woman walks by and smiles, and that is far too rare for me. So, yes, I am ready.”
“Fantastic! As a matter of ease, feel free to interrupt me. If you need further clarification, or if I’m giving too much information. I may ramble a bit as it feels as if my story happened years ago.”
“And did it?”
Charles stares at Gabriel, finally starting to put a finger on what was bothering him before. “Gabriel, how old are you?”
“Ohh, I don’t know.” Gabriel releases a deep sigh. “Maybe twenty-six? Twenty-eight? I’ve lost track.”
The mental arithmetic doesn’t take long. “Goddamn. Twenty-six?”
“I feel older than I look,” Gabriel offers as a consolation.
“Don’t sell yourself short, you look older than you are,” Charles jokes. “Kidding aside, I thought you were at least in your thirties.”
“At the risk of sounding contrite, along my journey I met young monsters and old gods; sometimes I had trouble telling the difference, and sometimes it didn’t matter. In short, I don’t think age weighs as heavily as experience. And I have that by the bucketful.”
Charles laughs and shakes his head. “Are you going to start?”
Gabriel smiles, and laughs with him. Leaning back in his chair, Gabriel adopts the same pose Charles saw him in when he first arrived at the café; sprawled in his chair like a dog, his eyes closed and his face turned towards the sun.
“Where should I begin?”