Alchemist's Gift

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Silenced Hearts

Zeus pulled the cart along the country road. The sky changed from an electric blue earlier that morning into a faded turquoise sea filled with towering clouds. Roland did not want to feel rebuffed, but he did. He aimlessly searched the horizon and held onto his perceived scolding from Sofia as if it were a life buoy in the empty sea of his memory. He recognized this lover’s spat as familiar, almost haunting. He was frustrated because he could not attach it to anyone from his past.

Roland reminded himself that he was building a new life, and that life so far was encapsulated in a little over a day and a half. He had no idea who or what he had been like before yesterday morning. Roland did not know how he was going to act next or why. Wrestling with the thieving soldier had been exhilarating but had frightened him so much that he had to hide his trembling hands from Rene and Sofia. Why did he instantly have such deep feelings for Sofia and imagine she had feelings for him? He second-guessed his motives and was truly glad he did. At least he had scruples. Everything was a discovery.

Sofia held the reins and looked over at Roland several times. His silence made her anxious and nervous. At the moment, she was calm, but at the slightest thought, her memory amplified the thrill of their kisses, and the touch of Roland’s hand that had excited her so. She did not want to disobey her papa, but she could not ignore her feelings and desires.

They both looked out on the unplanted fields and abandoned livestock that was too scrawny and bony to bother to butcher.

“Do you see that?” Sofia tapped Roland’s shoulder. She held back a smile. His expression was unreadable. She presented herself calmly and coolly, slowed the cart down, and pointed.

Roland looked where she pointed. He saw something but could not tell what it was. “What am I seeing?”

“It is a man lying there.” Sofia stopped the cart. “I am going to look; he might need help.” She stood and saw that Roland remained seated.

“Are you sure you want to do that?” he said.

Sofia was relieved that Roland finally spoke. “Yes. Why?”

“It could be the plague.” Roland looked up to Sofia.

“The plague? He still may need help.”

Roland wrinkled his brow. “I don’t know. Is it worth the risk?”

Sofia stood and readied herself to jump down. “Would it be worth the risk if it were you? You do not have to come with me. I must go and at least look and see if I can help.”

It hit him that he had been vindictive and petty toward Sofia for putting him off earlier. Was he really uncaring and cold and afraid of the plague?

Sofia jumped to the ground. She turned to him. “If you do follow, please do not touch and cover your face and mouth.” She removed her headscarf and beckoned for Roland to lean toward her. She put it loosely around his neck and searched his eyes. All the while she tied the knot. “They say if you touch, you wake the demon who will jump into your mouth and carry the sickness into your belly.” She lingered a moment longer. A bit disappointed, she turned away from Roland and left him.

Roland knew that Sofia was right. He had no right or reason to sulk at the expense of helping her. She awakened something in him, and he wanted to experience that--as Sofia had put it--divine part of his soul. He jumped down from the cart and hurried after her.

Sofia approached and heard low moaning. She knelt down and touched his arm. “Sir, I am here to help.” She gently turned him over. His face was dirty, and little pieces of dead grass stuck to it. Sofia brushed the grass away and cradled his head in her lap. The man was thin and pale. His clothes were tattered and torn. His eyes were half open. His breath was foul, and his yellow teeth were pitted and brown at the gum line.

“Have you any food?” His words were labored.

“Praise be, you are not dead.” Sofia looked over her shoulder and was overjoyed to see Roland was almost there.

“Bring the food and the water.”

Roland ran to the cart and grabbed the water skin, and the cloth sack that held their lunch. He hurried back.

“Have you bread?” asked the starving man.

“And cheese,” Sofia offered with a smile.

Roland stopped short and pulled the handkerchief up over his mouth.

Sofia waved Roland closer. “He is faint from hunger. He does not have the black sickness. He needs food.”

Roland pulled the handkerchief down and knelt at Sofia’s side. He handed her the water skin. The man drank his fill, spilling as much as he drank. Sofia handed a small barley loaf to the man. He broke off pieces and began to wolf them down.

“You must eat slowly, my friend.” She withheld the next bite until the man chewed at a more leisurely pace.

“Good bread.” The man held out his hand. Roland helped him sit up.

“What brought you to this?” asked Roland.

The starving man took a bite of cheese. “It seems like the powers of Heaven and earth are punishing me. I try to live by God’s word. The black sickness took my family. The tax collector took what little I had left. Now I have nothing. I go from poor farm to poor farm looking for work. No one has anything left. If they cannot pay their rents or feed their own, they cannot pay or feed me.” He held out his hand for Sofia to pass him the water skin. He took a swig and continued, “Our great duke is always away fighting for the pope. Those scoundrels Duke Gunter left behind to protect us are no more than criminals, thieves, and rapists. “

What Sofia told Roland earlier rang true. “Is there nothing to be done?”

“Pray to our Lord that peace will return to our people,” Sofia offered.

“Amen. Thank you both for this food. I have been three days without. May God protect and reward you.”

The man got to his knees and tried to push himself up. Roland and Sofia stood, each taking the man by his thin arms, and helped him up to his feet. Neither let go of him until they were satisfied he could stand on his own.

Sofia bent over and snatched the sack up off the ground. “Here, take what is left. There are some strawberries and a little jar of clotted cream.”

Roland had a flash of déjà-vu. Like earlier that morning, it was that same eerie, familiar feeling he had had when they had their spat about not making love. He felt Sofia giving the man the strawberries and cream should have meaning to him. He searched his mind and again was frustrated that he could not make a connection to anyone.

The man, so fortified, bowed. “Bless you both, and fare thee well. Stay clear of the duke’s men.” He slung the sack over his shoulder and headed away across the field toward a distant farmhouse in the.

They silently returned to the cart and took their seats. Sofia handed the reins to Roland. A crow and an owl were squabbling overhead, and it caught their attention. Roland and Sofia watched the crow zigzag just ahead of the owl. They watched the aerial show until the crow headed away over the tree line and out of sight. The owl returned to its perch in a nearby cypress.

“What do you make of that?” Roland asked as he slapped the reins on Zeus’s rump. The cart lurched and headed back onto the road.

“Wisdom and sacrifice always overcome the darkness from the past.” Sofia was subdued and pensive by this haunting portent.

“All of that? I thought owls only flew at night.”

“Have the faith to believe what is in front of your eyes,” she said softly.

Roland thought about what she said for a moment. “That was a good thing you did. What do you think will happen to him now?”

“What we did,” she corrected. “The deed needed to be done, and we were fortunate enough to be touched by the divine. Let us hope he remains under God’s protection. Be content that we were able to change his world today. Sometimes one person can change the world if the world is not too big,” she added with a smile.

“Sofia, what I said earlier… I didn’t mean to offend your Pater. I know he is a very wise and good man. Where I came from, I can only think it must not have been like that.”

“Perhaps, but that is the past. I was hurt because you ignored me, and the oath that I gave to Pater. My word is all I have to give anyone. If you take such things lightly, then you take me lightly. If that is so, anything that we do means very little, except for the moment. The moment passes so quickly.”

Roland was glad Sofia did what she did. He was not at all grounded in this new world, and the last thing he needed was to deal with a woman of such depth and gravity. There was no question in his mind that they were deeply attracted to each other. Roland hoped the surprisingly deep feelings he had for her were more than an infatuation with a pretty young woman who had taken him in. He wondered, too, if he was sincere just now by agreeing with her, or if what he said was a fabrication to keep her on the hook and to fool himself into thinking what a thoughtful person he was. Roland tried to find meaning in why he was so quick to promise Rene he would protect Sofia. “Yes, the moment passes so quickly--and who knows what’s going to happen next?” he said with an uncertain smile.

Sofia felt a twinge of desperation when she heard his answer. She hoped the choices she had made and the things she had said earlier that morning wouldn’t lead to her squandering something she could never retrieve. “Let us look ahead and not back. Maybe someday…” Her voice trailed off. She was afraid to finish the sentence.

It wasn’t much longer before the city gates appeared on the horizon.

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