Bob Bickford’s Caves in the Rain.
I sat down on the end of the dock. My head hurt and I felt listless. I stared out at the fog; the opposite shores were completely invisible, shrouded in gray. I needed to listen for the sound of Baptiste’s boat, and I wasn’t sure how much the mist would muffle the sound. Visibility was so poor he would be nearly on top of the island before I saw him. There was nowhere except the dock where he could reasonably land, unless he was willing to anchor and swim to shore. Since he was armed, and I wasn’t, there seemed to be no reason for him to come in secret.
I turned my head at a small sound off to my right. A canoe slipped by degrees from the vapour; it was so quiet that I could hear the water dripping from the paddle as it was lifted out. It came close and glided to a stop several feet in front of me. The lone occupant sat back and stretched comfortably.
I saw long red hair under an old brown fedora and recognized Dave. He wore a simple white shirt and blue jeans. The canoe was made from strips of wood; it appeared to be very old.
“Hi, Dave. Can I catch a ride out of here?”
“Oh, man. I would if I could, you know that,” he said.
“Didn’t think so.” I smiled slightly.
He smiled back, and shifted sideways to reach into his pocket. He pulled out a blackened pipe, and began to fill it from a pouch.
“You’re pretty sick, Mike,” he said. “Better take care of that leg as soon as you can. You still have stuff to do, and there isn’t much point to any of this if an infection gets you first.”
“You came to tell me that? When he comes and shoots me I should be healthy?”
I heard him chuckle softly around the stem of the pipe in his mouth. He struck a wooden match on the gunwale and looked down, rolling the flame as he puffed the tobacco alight. The brim of the hat covered his eyes, and when he looked up, they were pale in its shadow.
“I came to tell you about sanctuary,” he said. “Refuge. A long time ago, bad guys, or just people in trouble could go to safe places where the people chasing them couldn’t follow. Mostly churches. They sort of surrendered to the bishop there, and they were safe. No one could touch them.”
“Can you offer me that?” I asked.
“No, I can’t,” he answered. “Somebody here might. If they want to, they have that power. I don’t know, it’s probably dangerous to ask them, and I don’t see the future. Not a fortune teller.”
He looked at me for a long moment before continuing.
“The safe place was only for a little while. Then they had two choices. If they wanted to hang on to whatever they had, their houses or farms and families, they could leave the church and go face the law. Sometimes that was better than a lynch mob chasing them, ‘cause everyone had time to calm down. Even if they got executed, they kept everything, or their families did.”
The water beneath him was perfectly still, the same gray color as the mist. The canoe sent tiny ripples out from its sides, the smallest shivers in the water when he took the pipe from his mouth.
“They had a second choice. They could confess to whatever they were accused of and give it all up. They cashed it all in. They got a wood cross to carry to show they were protected, and they had to go to the nearest port. The next ship out took them away for good. Exile. They lost everything, but had a chance to start over somewhere else.”
“What have you got to lose?” I asked, under my breath.
He stared at me, and nodded. We sat in silence, both looking into the mist. Finally, he spoke again.
“Some people couldn’t make a choice. They freaked and couldn’t decide. They took away their food and water ‘til they did. When they were starving, they caved in and picked one or the other, but it was forced. They screwed up their freedom to choose, see what I mean? Some of them died of hunger or thirst because it was easier than choosing. Weird or what, huh?”
“Not a great set of choices,” I said.
“We can’t always win. Hardest thing I ever had to learn. We look at everything and everyone to see what we can get, what works for us. Sometimes nothing works. Sometimes we only get to pick what we want to lose. That’s when you have the most freedom, Mike. You pick what you lose, and that’s when you decide if you’re good or bad. Fuck winning. Winning means nothing.”
“Got a cross I can carry over my shoulder?” I asked. “I’ll take exile, and safe passage I think.”
His smile under the hat brim was strangely bittersweet.
“Nope. I’ve got this. Don’t worry, I have another one.”
He took his paddle from the canoe’s gunwales, and handed it to me, blade first. I reached for it. I didn’t quite expect it to be real, and nearly dropped it into the water under the dock when he let it go. It was heavier than I expected, quite genuine and seeming to be solid wood, carved from a piece and varnished. It was wet and cold. I laid it across my knees.
“It’s a start, buddy. I need the rest of the boat to go with it, though.”
We looked at each other.
“I guess you can’t do that either,” I said.
“No,” he said, “I can’t. I gotta go now, remember what Aunt Kate told you. Sometimes you have to risk hell to gain heaven.”
“You know Kate?” I asked.
He knocked the ashes from his pipe on the side of the canoe, and put it away. He picked up another paddle from the bottom of the craft, and put the blade in the water. He looked at me as he prepared to go.
“Good luck, Mike,” he said.
“Hey, Dave. When this is over I’d like to hear you play. I have a feeling you’re pretty good.”
His smile was beautiful.
“That’s a deal, man. One way or another, however it turns out. I’d like that.”
He stroked the canoe slowly away from me, back the way he had come. The fog softened his outline, until the silver cloud on the water covered him and he was gone.