He says he’s 105, but he looks like he could be older. Every six or so years he passes through the City, never staying to rest his head on a pillow, never taking any food but fruit from the trees, if they are in season, or any seasonal herbs that grow in the parks. He comes and goes in a day, and nobody would know he had passed, were it not for the stories he leaves behind. His name is Tolsham Bede.
He’s usually spotted out in the provincial dwellings, south of the City, traipsing his way along the Moway river as it meanders down from the hills. Occasionally he comes from the way of the Great Plains to the east, but this year he’s following the river; the houses at Devil’s Elbow sent out a girl on a bicycle two days back. He’ll be here by midday at the latest.
He’s ignored when he goes through the other districts, the ones that still hold themselves high from the days when they were first among unequals. Something still sticks with them from those days; they look down, past, do not meet his eyes. He doesn’t care, he’s guaranteed a warm welcome in the Warrens, where plenty of folk come out to see him still. They know by now he won’t take their food, but they have a mug of beer set aside for him, one of those earthenware ones he seems to like.
If you believe some, he’s been coming to the City for much longer than a hundred years; some say he’s been walking for over five hundred, but obviously that’s not possible. Nobody can quite remember a time when he wasn’t old, but being out in all weathers will do that to a face; it’ll make a young man seem ancient. Besides, any that would remember a young Bede would be pretty ancient themselves, and you know what age does to the memory. Maybe there were a few different ramblers, all by the same name. Who knows.
The children usually run to meet him a couple of districts away, calling out, ‘Bede! Beede! Beedey Beede!’ They run around him in circles as he steps assuredly forward, turning the world beneath his feet. He occasionally stops to ruffle some hair, to remember a name: ‘Daniel, isn’t it? Last time I saw you you were this tall! Did you get that bicycle you wanted in the end?’ The children look expectantly at the large bag he has, but they know better than to ask until he’s reached the Warrens.
They have a chair ready for him, next to the sliding window of the Leach and Mask, where folk gather on benches during the summer. The publican, a lady called Lisani, will pass the mug back and forth through the window; he won’t go inside. Never has, he says, never will. He will take the bag off his back and stretch out, sipping his beer. Eventually he’ll heed the cries of the children, and take out a box from his bag. It’s old and wooden, a little chest about eight inches across. On the lid is an inlaid design in mother of pearl; a swift and a high tower.
Inside the box, wrapped in an old piece of cloth are three things: a pack of cards, a candle and a shell. The cards are some kind of tarot, hand drawn. ‘A man out in the east drew them for me,’ he will say to the children, ‘far out east, past the plains, where the horse lords used to live, past the lake where the lily pad maidens come from, in a city much like this one. The ink he used is from a squid, an old squid they keep in a deep dark well. The paper is made from a tree they hanged a hundred people from. They would tell your fortunes perfectly, but a witch in Strigaxia cursed them.’
The candle is a normal beeswax candle, yellow and straight. ‘When it burns all the way down I will die,’ he says, holding it in both hands, ‘so I only use it when I really have to. No wind can ever blow it out, only my breath.’ The children ask where he got it, but he never tells.
The shell is white, speckled brown. It could fit in the palm of your hand. The children hold it to their ears, and the younger ones, those who don’t know the way of these things yet, will say, ‘I can hear the sea!’
‘No,’ he replies ‘you cannot. You can hear Old Johannes whispering. I met him north of the Ancestor Mountains, by the shore of the Outer Sea. He was looking out, so mournfully. “She’s gone,” he said, and then breathed his soul into this shell. I think he wanted me to throw him into the sea, after her, but I didn’t. I took him deep inland, instead, to forget. He whispers to me, and I whisper back to him, sometimes.’
After he’s said some quiet words to the adults, expressing his sadness that some have passed since he last walked through the City, after he’s given some advice, shaken some hands and avoided many questions, he walks down to the graveyards and stands by the gate for some time. He takes a violin case out from his bag, and opens it. He looks at the violin and the graveyard for a long whole, but he doesn’t play a note. ‘It’s not the time for music,’ he says, quietly, to himself.
Other festivals happening today:
- The Festival of a Leisurely Stroll with Your Cat
- The Dropping of the Brass Idol
- Fabricator’s Day