by Bill Bowler
Chapter 5: Wandering Soul
Yanosh Straker’s illusions have been unmasked and his world has crumbled. He hits the road to get away from his own past and memories. Along the way, he picks up a hitchhiker, a young woman.
Spring came at last. Memories of the past winter’s tragic events were beginning to fade, to melt away in the spring sunshine. A fresh breeze caressed the city dwellers as they went about their business. The sun, bright in the sky, brought the first warmth of the new season and the cycle of death and life began anew.
A black SUV with tinted windows snaked through traffic down Ninth Avenue and pulled into a spot near the corner of 54th Street.
A barrel-chested man with a graying crew cut and rough whiskers stepped out of the car. He walked down the sidewalk past a pizzeria and a fish store, and paused before a gate with a small sign that read: “Madame Sonya Sees the Future. $5 per reading. All predictions guaranteed.”
The man pushed through the gate, walked down the steps to the basement storefront, and rang the bell. At the sound of the buzzer, he entered.
The interior of the room was a replica of Madame Sonya’s former parlor at the Big Top Circus. Thick drapes hung in the windows, darkening the interior. In the middle of the room, covered in purple velvet, stood a round table. On it, beneath a silken cloth, Madame Sonya’s power stone rested in the palm of the marble hand.
A couple of easy chairs were placed at the table for visitors. A thread of smoke from an incense burner filled the room with an acrid fragrance. On shelves in a glass cabinet against the wall, her devil’s head mortar and pestle, her scales, and the many jars, large and small, of dried herbs and powders were displayed.
Madame Sonya pushed through the curtain and came into the parlor from the small apartment in the rear. Her silver hair was disheveled and fell in waves to her shoulders. Her black blouse was unbuttoned in the front. Her skin was lustrous and her eyes were shining as she called out,
The fortune teller threw her arms around the hunter in a warm hug.
“It’s good to see you. Where have you been?”
“Nowhere. Just here.”
“I’m glad you’ve come to see me,” said Sonya quietly. “Sit down. I’ll make tea.”
Straker lowered himself into one of the easy chairs while Sonya puttered with the teapot. He looked around the room.
“I see not much has changed.”
“Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. Have you seen Josey?”
Sonya looked into Yanosh’s eyes. “He asks after you. And so does Tricia.” Sonya paused. “They’re talking about starting a family.”
“I’m glad for them. I envy them.”
“Josey has found his soul mate and you’ll find yours, too. In fact, let me see your palm, Yanosh.”
“Not now, Sonya. Some other time.”
Sonya felt the edge in his voice. She put three china teacups on saucers and placed them on the table.
“Why three?” asked Straker.
“Patience and you’ll see.”
Sonya opened the drapes, letting the afternoon sun in through the basement windows.
“You treat me better than I deserve, Sonya.”
“It’s not for me to judge you.”
Straker took a breath and spoke slowly. “I realize the pain I’ve caused you. I can’t undo the harm I’ve done.”
Straker saw that Sonya’s eyes were growing moist and her chin was trembling. She sat down at the table with him.
“We can’t unscramble the eggs, Yanosh.” Tears welled up in Sonya’s eyes. “I won’t lie to you. I miss them dreadfully, especially my grand-daughter. With the Strong Man and Nikko, your own life was at risk. But Tamara...” Sonya paused for a moment to collect herself. “I know her soul has transcended to the afterlife, where all of us are headed in the end, if only we are so fortunate. I also understand that you, Yanosh, when you pulled the trigger, were not acting of your own volition, though it must have seemed to you that you were. Like most of us, you were laboring under the illusion of choice.
“But even understanding all of this, the loss is difficult to accept. It’s natural to react with bitterness and anger. We all need time to ourselves now, time to work through our grief. That’s why I left the circus and opened this little shop. I couldn’t bear to be constantly reminded. I plan to live here quietly and stay put for a while.”
The kettle in the rear kitchen began to whistle. Sonya fetched it and poured three cups of tea.
“I’m grateful for your kindness, Sonya,” said Straker. “I’ll never forgive myself.”
“Don’t be so hard on yourself, Yanosh. It’s hardly your fault that what was necessary transpired.”
“When I think of Josey, how I tracked him and tried to kill him... I can’t face him now after what I’ve done.”
“I’ve dreamt of you and him — as two boys who were close as brothers, whose fathers were brothers, a dream of betrayal and revenge, of two children upon whom was visited the curse of their fathers’ blood feud.”
“I don’t put much stock in dreams. I’ve come to say good-bye, Sonya.”
“Yanosh! Where are you going?”
“I don’t know — just away from here. I need a change of scenery. I need time to think.”
“We’ll miss you. We’re very fond of you.”
Straker heard a noise from the rear apartment. Professor von Holzing pushed through the curtains and came into the front parlor, buttoning his shirt.
“Why, hello, Yanosh!”
Straker stood up and shook von Holzing’s hand. “What are you doing here, professor?”
“Me? Well, I, ah, I’m helping Sonya get settled in.” Von Holzing put his arm around Sonya’s shoulder. “In return, she has agreed to collaborate with me on my next research project — a treatise on mechanical and pharmaceutical aids to precognition.”
“Please sit down, Abraham. Drink your tea.”
Von Holzing sat beside Straker. Sonya continued, “Yanosh has come to say good-bye.”
“Is that so?”
Sonya sat across from them. “It is. But Yanosh, before you go...”
Sonya removed the silken cloth and gazed intently into the crystal sphere that rested like a centerpiece on the table. They grew quiet. It seemed to Straker that the cloud within the globe was congealing and thickening.
Sonya watched the churning mist for a moment and then spoke.
“It’s highly unusual. The sphere has gone completely opaque. Even the near future lies hidden behind a curtain that has fallen across your path. It’s as if some counter-force were blocking our vision. I will continue to search for signs, for even a glimpse but, for now, I know nothing and can say less, except...”
“What is it?”
“I don’t know. Near the center, in the darkest, thickest part of the mist, there is one faint point of light. It flickers on and off. I can’t tell if it’s dying out or growing stronger.”
“Sometimes it’s better not to know,” said Straker, rising. “I have no use for these any more, Sonya.” Straker laid his silver Colt .45 and his ankle knife on the purple cloth. “Will you keep these for me? They have sentimental value, in spite of everything.”
“Are you sure?” asked Sonya. “Something might happen. At least keep the knife. A toothless wolf is easy prey. And you can use it to butter your bread.”
“No. I’m through with all that. I don’t have the stomach for it anymore.”
Sonya opened the bottom drawer of the bureau in the corner and placed the gun and knife inside. “All right. I’ll keep them for you, but they’re still yours.” She turned to Straker. “And, in exchange, I have something for you, a little parting gift. Just a moment.”
The fortune teller slid open the glass door of the display case, looked through her collection, and took a small jar from the rear of the top shelf.
“Here, take this, just in case. I want you to have it.”
“I hope that’s not the last of the love potion,” said von Holzing.
“You hardly need it, Abraham.”
“She could make a fortune selling that stuff.” Von Holzing grinned and turned to Straker. “Use only as directed, if you know what I mean.”
“Don’t listen to him,” said Sonya. “This jar contains an extremely useful elixir, my version of Wandering Soul. It induces the spirit to separate from the mortal shell and allows the soul to travel great distance while the body lies dormant. But you must be very careful. Yanosh, listen to me. This is only for use in... an emergency. The effect is profound but of short duration and you must return to your physical body before the next sunrise. If you fail to do so, the soul-body link will be broken and cannot be restored by any means. The return path will be permanently erased. Your spirit will be trapped outside your body, which will seem dead to any who examine it.”
Yanosh took the small jar from Madame Sonya and put it in a pouch he carried on his belt.
“I understand why you’re going,” said the professor, “and why you feel you must. We’ll miss you.”
“Going where?” The door had swung open and Josey and Tricia had come into the parlor from the street.
“Yanosh! Where have you been hiding?” Josey hugged him. Yanosh squirmed in Josey’s embrace, ill at ease.
“Hello, Yanosh,” said Tricia warmly.
Straker kissed her on the cheek. She was radiant, emanating life force in abundance.
“Yanosh is taking a little vacation,” said Madame Sonya. “He needs to get away from us all for a while.”
“We must be driving him nuts. You’ll come back, though?” asked Tricia.
“Of course he will,” said von Holzing. “He knows who his friends are.”
“We’ll see,” said Straker. “Good luck to you all. I’ve got to get going.”
Yanosh dropped his eyes, avoiding their gaze, turned and left the parlor. When the door closed, an uncomfortable silence ensued.
“I’m worried about him,” said Tricia. “Something’s eating away at him.”
“His soul is not at peace,” said Madame Sonya. “He wants to hide from himself. It can’t be done.”
* * *
With no plan other than to get as far away as fast as possible, Straker climbed into his car, pulled away from the curb, and set off with only the clothes on his back and a heart full of trouble.
He crossed the bridge and took the thruway north, gray and brooding, lost in his own thoughts. He was already in the rolling hills of the Adirondacks when he saw a hitchhiker standing on an exit ramp with her thumb out. She had a red bandana on her head, was dressed in khaki shorts, a tie-dyed T-shirt with a peace sign, and hiking boots. She had a backpack with camping utensils and a rolled up sleeping bag at her feet.
Straker pulled onto the shoulder and opened the passenger door.
The hitchhiker grinned. “Hey, man! What’s up?”
“Need a lift?”
“My mother told me not to accept rides from strangers.”
“She was right. Where are you heading?”
“Away from here.”
“That’s where I’m going. Hop in.”
The hitchhiker climbed into Straker’s car and threw her backpack and bedroll in the back seat. Straker saw her legs were long and shapely. Her face was sun tanned and freckled. A few strands of strawberry blond hair fell across her forehead from under the bandanna. Straker pulled back out onto the freeway and continued north.
“Would you like some coffee?” the hitchhiker leaned over into the rear seat and took a thermos from her backpack. Her shirt rode up, revealing the smooth skin of a slender waist.
“Thanks,” said Straker, snuffing the spark that had flared for a second inside him.
The hitchhiker poured steaming coffee into a plastic cup and placed it in the holder on the console.
“How ’bout half a sandwich?”
Straker was suddenly ravenous. He realized he hadn’t eaten all day. “Thanks.”
* * *
They drove in silence for some time. Straker held the wheel with one hand and sipped his coffee. The hitchhiker sat quietly sipping hers, watching the landscape glide by.
“My name is Yanosh.”
“I like that name. Where are you from?”
“New York. But my ancestors were Romanian.”
Yanosh waited but the hitchhiker said nothing more. He returned to his thoughts. After a few moments, she picked up the conversation.
“Is anything the matter? You seem sad.”
“I’ve been better.”
“Want to tell me what happened?”
Straker considered for a moment, then answered,
“Someone I know died... in an accident.”
“It was my fault.”
“I don’t believe it.”
“Thanks for the vote of confidence.”
“Don’t beat yourself up over it. I can tell already, just from being here with you, you’re a good person. You’ve got great vibes. I have a sixth sense about these things. I’m partially psychic.”
Straker smiled. Since the incident with Josey, since his memories of his own past had returned, his nascent telepathic powers had grown in strength and acuity. He had already probed the hitchhiker’s aura. She was a gentle spirit but completely normal. There was not a shred of psychic ability in her.
“Since I’m not, can’t you tell me where you’re going?” Yanosh was more and more curious about her.
“I’m going camping.”
“I like being by myself. But you’re never really alone anymore. There’s lots of people on the trails and in the campsites. Plus, I’ve got this.” She pulled a can of mace from a pocket of her backpack.
“I see you’re prepared for any contingency.”
“Don’t be sarcastic. Hey! There’s the Pawling exit. This is where I get off.”
Straker suddenly felt deflated. Despite himself, he had been enjoying his conversation with this good looking young stranger. It had eased his mind to speak with her. She was fresh and seemed uncomplicated, not part of the tangled web of recent events and conflicts he was trying to forget. Why did it have to end so soon?
Straker took the exit.
“Where can I drop you?”
“There’s an access point to the trail about two miles from here.”
“Show me. I’ll take you there.”
Following her directions, Straker drove down a service road.
“It’s there,” said the hitchhiker, pointing to a turnoff.
Straker turned onto bumpy, rutted gravel road and followed it slowly through a thick wooded area to a dirt parking lot. Several vehicles were parked in the lot, their owners presumably hiking the trail. Straker pulled into a spot between two cars.
“Well...” Yanosh felt himself sinking again. Memories of hunting Upwyr, of tracking and killing his own kind, flooded back into his mind. That he hadn’t known or hadn’t remembered his own past, his own identity, only made it worse. Straker felt himself collapsing, physically and spiritually.
The hitchhiker was observing him. “Cheer up. You look really bummed out.”
“It’s not your problem.”
“You know, Yanosh, you look like you could use some time off away from your troubles.”
“I guess I could.”
“It wouldn’t hurt you to get back to nature for a while, either.”
“No, I’m sure it wouldn’t.”
“In a natural environment, you could cleanse your system, purge the toxins, find your center, get in touch with your inner self.”
“That sounds like just what I need.”
“You see what I’m getting at, right?”
“No,” said Straker, though perhaps he did.
“Why don’t you come camping with me? It would be a blast!”
Straker leaned back in the seat and smiled despite himself. Talk about crazy ideas. But a sense of relief was seeping into his being.
“I don’t know...”
“Why not? What have you got to lose?”
“And then I wouldn’t be alone in the woods and you could protect me from the Big Bad Wolf.”
“You shouldn’t joke about things like that.”
“Then it’s settled,” said the hitchhiker. “Come on. You can leave your car here. That’s what this lot is for.”
Straker gave in and let himself be carried along by events. What the hell, he thought, and turned off the engine.
Straker locked his car, put her backpack on his shoulders, and the two of them headed on foot across a broad, flowering meadow towards the nearby foot hills.
“I have to warn you,” said the hitchhiker. “This could be a long camping trip. I’m not planning on going back any time soon. I’m fed up with the material world. I want to completely lose myself in nature, to find my true self.”
“I’ll hold your coat while you look.”
The hitchhiker laughed. “Why don’t you ask? You’re dying to know.”
“What?” asked Straker.
“My name. Don’t you want to know my name?”
“I figured you’d tell me when you got around to it.”
“It’s Hope. My mother was chronically depressed but she had a sense of humor. Funny, huh?”
“I don’t think it’s funny at all.”
* * *
Copyright © 2008 by Bill Bowler