Short Story: The Vagabond

Eleazar noticed the caravan just before sunset. The horizon nearly devoured the sun as it set, the caravan had their weary backs against the sun as they trekked. Feeling the first frigid breeze of the desert evening Eleazar shivered then grabbed his ax. He was acquainted the weight and its inherent lethal capacity, but Eleazar would not use it for such things. Eleazar retreated to his decaying church with ax in hand and proceeded to the section which had no roof. With a force that forced tight his muscles, Eleazar brought the ax down on the hardwood floor. This was the preacher’s solitary act of destruction but it yielded him firewood.

The caravan approached approached silently. A majority of the caravan moved within the church. They would pray there and return shortly after. Meanwhile, Eleazar emerged with the firewood which he then exchanged for two gallons of water and a loaf of bread.

The caravan held their heads low to the sands, a quiet despair seemed to enveloped them all. Before he could ask the men about the somber mood, Eleazar saw the middle aged man slumped over the hump of a camel. The leader of the caravan read Eleazar’s suspicion, so he spoke, “We noticed him nearly buried in the shifting sands. The wind’s been blowing so hard we almost couldn’t see him. My crew was reluctant but I had to try to save him. He’s thankfully not dead, but we can’t bear his burden any longer. Our water rations will deplete too soon if we keep him around. Please keep him safe.”

With a trader, Eleazar moved the man to the bedroom. Once they hospitalized the stranger in the bed, the caravan departed eastward. Eleazar dampened cloths with cool water and placed it on the stranger’s head and on his nape. He tended to the man’s heat exhaustion to his utmost. When he realized he could not tend to him any longer, Eleazar left the room.

He retreated to his study down the hall from the bedroom. There were no books in the study save for one: a copy of the Holy Bible. There were once bookshelves, and possibly even books, in the study before but the shelves had to be sold. Eleazar carefully closed the door behind him and offered a silent prayer of protection over the stray. He kept his eyes closed, he repeated the prayer three times to ensure God heard his plea. Instead of retreating to his bible as he intended, Eleazar recalled the pack the caravan brought along with the man. Perhaps, he thought, he could discover why this poor man was alone. Being in service to a greater good, Eleazar felt little moral conflict in spying. He needed to understand his new guest and help in anyway he could.

The pack had the bare minimum required for survival: food, change of clothes, bedding, a tent, crude tools, but a distinct lack of water. There was also a bound notebook and a loose sheet torn from a book. Pressed into the notebook were a myriad similar torn sheets. They were maps where each page referenced a location simply called The Oasis. There was days of scrawl within the notebook detailing the location and its possible vegetation. They referenced folk tales and other stories passed on through the years. The preacher felt a tugging at his conscience, a minute sting of guilt. He’d done enough prying.  

***

Jovahn was born a decade after the geomagnetic surge rendering electricity useless. He heard stories from Elders on how the world used to be; they would say that people were happy then even if they didn’t know it. In that world, that distant memory, people treated water as an unlimited resource. After the surge, access to water plummeted to local reservoirs. People clung to their old water habits, and within a decade, expended their local water sources. So, colonies migrated out of the cities to find water. Jovahn’s original clan was decimated save a handful by dehydration. Jovahn was then adopted by a woman of another clan, who passed away from the same affliction when he was fourteen.

His adolescent life was riddled with tales about a paradise, one with abundant vegetation and water. This paradise had no wars and no one died. Eventually, people called this place Oasis. Travelers spoke to other travelers, who would then tell citizens of clans they visited. Oasis was the final hope for mankind.

When Jovahn turned twenty he sought Oasis. He visioned it a perfect neutral territory, where all clans from could congregate and exchange ideas. All within reach of fresh water. He spent the subsequent thirty years investigating. He roamed  various clans but never found proof to Oasis’s existence. Whenever he stumbled onto a lead it was either entirely make believe or otherwise false. When Jovahn turned fifty he settled with a clan in a desert, a rumor about proximity to a nearly intact library brought him there. It would take five years but, Jovahn found evidence of Oasis within a recovered atlas. Jovahn left the clan that granted him residence, telling no one of his departure, leaving only traces of his ever being there at all.

***

Jovahn’s pulsing brain felt too big for his skull leaving him with considerable pain. His body ached and his throat felt as if he had devoured sand. A startle enveloped Jovahn, he didn’t know where he was. Scanning within his confinement, he realized he was in a bedroom. On the wall hung a familiar symbol, though he hadn’t seen it in decades, of a large cross. Unable to remember how he had gotten there, Jovahn searched the room for clues. His bag was next to his bed, its contents shuffled but everything, including the page torn from the atlas, remained.

Eleazar paced with his bible in the aisle between the pews of his church. Stirred by the shuffling in his bedroom, Eleazar moved to check on his tenant. There was a panicked scurry in the room when he opened it. Eleazar gazed at Jovahn, as Jovahn postured ready to fight despite a perceivable sway caused by dizziness. “No need to fight. I’m a friend,” said Eleazar. “Some travelers found you yesterday evening. Left you here to avoid the burden.”

His mouth was dry and his mind struggled to determine the truth of Eleazar’s words, but he put down his fists anyway. “Where did they find me?” Jovahn asked with a slight rasp.

“Just after the sand dunes.”

Giving in to his faintness, Jovahn sunk his seat onto the bed. Eleazar rushed to him but Jovahn waved him off. “I’m fine, just a little dizzy.”

The preacher wondered if now was the best time to bring up Oasis, his curiosity had been raging about since spying on the maps. It was only seconds but he could not contain himself. “Oasis, do you believe in it?” Eleazar asked then immediately followed with, “I didn’t mean to sneak. I thought I could learn more about you. Maybe find out why you were alone out here.”

“I have no choice but to. Its the only hope people have,” Jovahn said rubbing his eyes. “It’s still quite a ways from here, if we are by the dunes, but if it exists, mankind might have a chance.” Jovahn looked at the cross on the wall then back to the man, “So you’re a preacher of some sort. That’s why you let me stay here? I don’t think anybody else would’ve endured the burden of caring for someone who wasn’t their own.”

Eleazar was impressed. For a man as old as he and to have just woken from unconsciousness, his mind was startlingly acute. “You’re right. You’re in my church. The part that is left, anyway.” There was a fact boiling within Eleazar, it percolated from a memory of his former mentor. Oasis wasn’t real. It couldn’t be real. He repressed the temptation to lecture, forced a smile and invited Jovahn into the main hall for breakfast.

In front of the pews was an altar, the wood was ragged, beginning to rot but unsalvaged. Eleazar kept his food behind the altar. His provisions were diminishing. He’d only enough food to last a week and water for a little longer. Traders could return within a week but they often ran late. Despite an inner voice of protest, he grabbed two loaves of bread and poured two cups of water into a can. They sat next to each other, lifted before them was a grand wooden cross. The designs were handmade and intricate but they were fading becoming lost to time. Jovahn took a hesitant bite out of the bread, it was stale and somewhat sour, yet he was thankful.

After eating Jovahn stood firmly, without a hint of dizziness, and said to Eleazar, “Thank you for the meal, but I have to get going. If I could, I would appreciate some water to help me on my way.”

Eleazar nodded and handed him a gallon jug, reducing his water supply to five days. He said, “I’ve plenty. Take it.” Then he paused noticing the froth of his conviction spilling over, and said “Where do you plan to go now?” The answer was obvious, he’d be trying to find Oasis, but he had to hear it a last time.

“Oasis,” Jovahn said. “The longevity of people in this region depend on it.”

Words sprang from Eleazar as they did from his mentor when Eleazar himself sought after the Oasis, “There is no such thing as Oasis. It’s a story people tell one another when they’re talking about Heaven. You’d be seeking a phantom. You’d roam endlessly, forever into an unknown. You’d reduce your existence down to a Purgatory in your pursuit of Heaven.” In his protest, Eleazar blocked Jovahn’s way. “I can’t in good faith let you go. I’d be willing you to your death.”

Jovahn’s face morphed red with irritation. “I have only been cordial. I’ve been thankful for you saving my life. Now you are stopping me from whatever fate your God or any other God might’ve crafted for me. I must ask you, please, to move.”

The ardent preacher wouldn’t back down. He rooted himself like a tree into the words of his predecessors, neither man would bend. Jovahn pushed through his now silent hindrance but Eleazar nudged him back. All the while, Eleazar rapidly pondered what of God’s lessons he was intended to learn. A spark engulfed Eleazar and, without having to hear it, he knew Jovahn’s protest.

“Our paths crossed here at this church, and I’m sure there’s no coincidence to that. However our crossing had to be swift, as we are on entirely separate paths. I don’t wish my path to intrude in yours and I hope you not impose your path on mine. Even if Oasis isn’t there I’ll keep roaming. I’ll seek a sparkle of hope, despite the futility of hope.”

“Why you? Why do you assume responsibility?” Eleazar said aloud to a simmering Jovahn.

“Not many know me, I don’t have any loved ones. My death would be inconsequential. It is the passage set before me. I could strain to ignore the call but it will seek me out always.”

Jovahn grabbed his pack and tread passed Eleazar. Jovahn turned around before exiting the church and said, “Really, thank you for everything, but I have to go.” The Vagabond walked into the desert morning. It was already hot, almost unbearable. The sand that had buried him only a day ago blew in the wind delivering a haze into the world.

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