Thursday, 20 December 2012

Under Cover of Rainfall

image from here
As Luke walked down the darkened and deserted street his mind wandered, retracing the steps he had taken since arriving in Victoria with the dawn.  His thoughts paused as a whiff of the fishmarkets from blocks away reached his nostrils, and he was brought back to this morning. His memory of the smell was entwined with a vision of rays of light washing across the cobblestoned streets as he wandered aimlessly through the early morning fog…  

Squinting through the fog enshrouded landscape, Luke’s pace was slow as he followed the heavy chain that roped the horseshoe of the inner harbour for the third time. Since his arrival at the centre of the city the sun has risen, and the gulls had become social again, but no signs of human life had stirred since the fishermen had quietly taken to their boats in the minutes before the moonlight released the tide. Just the muted chatter of the gulls, vying for the chunks of stale bread that Luke scattered in his wake, creating a counterpoint of sound to the hollow echo of his footfalls. The bread was meant to be his own breakfast, but he had found it’s taste stale after an unknown time period in his messenger bag. 
Once the bread was gone the gulls disappated, and Luke was left with his own thoughts in the silence. He continued to walk the chain-led path until he reached a bench that overlooked the harbour, and sat down to wait. 
The harbour docks were still full of boats, even after the disappearance of the fishermen. Bright yellow boats for whalewatching that would later be full with tourists, and many well-maintained yachts. Both types of ship would see disappointment that day, the former from crying children who missed seeing the fins of an elusive orca, and the later from being left in the harbour instead of being taken out onto the open ocean.  
Luke had seen one man emerge from one of the smaller yachts and call greetings to the fishermen as they untied from a few docks away, but he had quickly gone back below decks when his companions had departed. The boat was too far away for Luke to hear movement from the man, but Luke wondered why he had not gone with the other men. No nets or wire boxes could be seen on the ship’s deck, but the yacht had the look of a weathered vessel and lacked the polished gleam of the larger ships. The man’s voice had betrayed a note of false joiety that Luke caught even though the words were only delivered in snatches by the wind. 
Like the silent boats that filled the docks, the lower sidewalk below Luke’s vantage point was also empty of its normal populace. The was littered during the day under a barrage of  wheeled carts, folding tables, and colourful picnic blankets that plied the tourists with trinkets and food. The grey cement all but disappeared under the feet of merchants and eager shoppers, and any extra space was quickly filled with the professional buskers that performed daily. Between the conversations of sale and the myriad of music the harbour always felt alive, so the muffled noise of the gulls that drifted to Luke through the fog reinforced his feeling of melancholy. 
His thoughts grew cloudy and indistinct, at times congealing into seeming-solids before further contemplation reealed them to be as insubstantial as the fog that blanketed the harbour. Drifting in banks, and reflecting only whisps of brighter thought, Luke struggled to remember why he was here. Here, halfway around the world from where he wanted to be; here on Vancouver Island; here at the Victoria inner harbour with the dawn. The harder he thought the further the reason became from remembrance. He had thought that walking would make the reason clear earlier, but all he knew still was that a feeling in his gut told him to be here. Luke had never been good at being patient, but he knew that if he waited, and watched, he would know the reason why he was here. 
As Luke sat and pondered, the sun had gradually begun to push the clouds aside. The sky still mirrored the fog filled ground, but individual beams of light pierced through the blanket of cumulus to briefly illuminate patches of fog before disappearing and reappearing in another location moments later. The fog shifted as well in response to the slight breeze coming off the ocean, accentuating cobblestones, cement, and tufts of grass that had been previously blended together in a grey mass behind the fog. Luke’s curiosity was drawn by these moments of illumination that provided a different perspective to the place that he had become overly familiar with in the last few hours of wandering. Individual stones became shallow islands in the sea of fog, and debris left by humans seemed to shift as if animated by the light, both only to be swallowed up again by the fog and shadows. 
The soft movement of the fog settled Luke’s thoughts, and his breathing quieted to a bare whisper of exhaled air. As slowly as the sun had begun to move the clouds Luke’s heartbeat began to still, and his eyes stopped following the shifting light to rest on an indistinct point still hidden by the fog. Lulled into relaxation, the fog and light before him blurred into a transclucent mass, and his eyes slowly began to drift closed. 
The soft sounds of the wind whispered around him, forming an indistinct voice that soothed his contemplation further, but disallowed his mind to fully rest. As his sight  became more blurred the quiet voice became more distinct, and he subconsciously struggled to piece together the words that he thought he was hearing. The voice drifted just below the range of his hearing, until he picked out a single word from the confusion, which snapped him out of his relaxed state. Luke’s eyes blinked open and found focus on the same space before him, but which was now free of both fog and shadows. 
Before him he saw a crevice between two cobblestones, deeper than those nearby, and now emphasized by the contrast between its darkness and the lighted stones. Luke furrowed his brows, and wondered at the hollowness that he could almost see from the distance. Standing quickly, Luke’s eyes stayed steadily fixed on the crevice as he walked the few paces forward and peered into the darkness. For a moment he saw nothing, but as the sunlight continued to shift along the ground a glint was reflected from the depths of blackness. Squinting, and bending at the knee, he reached long fingers into the crevice and felt metal at his fingertips. Probing deeper he brushed dirt and small leaves away from the object, finally grasping it firmly and drawing it into the light. 
Luke chuckled softly as he contemplated the half-greened penny resting on his palm. He stood, flipping the coin over to see the Queen’s face on the reverse side before placing it safely into his pocket. 
“Well,” he said, “That’s one.” And continued on his way. 

The cobblestones of the sidestreet that Luke walked had become slick with the light rainfall that had accompanied the sinking of the sun into the horizon. Streetlamps began to flicker on as dusk darkened the sky, causing Luke to focus on his surroundings instead of his thoughts. Thusfar the streetlamps had not created the chiaroscuro lighting of true night, but as shops began to close for the evening the darkness of the surrounding streets increased. Unpreterbed by the encroaching darkness, Luke continued walking down his chosen street, his memories taking corporeal form as his feet took him down familiar paths. 
Once again, Luke knew that he should be searching for something, or someplace, but he wasn’t sure which would come first. 
Much of what he had seen today awoke yearnings for his distant past that he had suppressed, and the longer he walked the streets of Victoria the more he wanted to leave. Leave, and run, as he had done before, but this time there was no excuse. No threat to his safety, no crisis of family, no pressing matter that could not be deferred, so he stayed. 
The last time he had come here was because he was called, and his rebellious streak had been his excuse to run and fight the powers that had called him, but this time he had come of his own free will. To leave before the sun had come full circle would have been to admit defeat at the hands of an invisible enemy, and Luke’s pride refused that wound. 
Each moisture-coated footstep was like a silent reprimand that picked away at Luke’s confidence. His choices had done nothing then, and this time around wasn’t turning out any better. Patience had never been Luke’s strong suit, and while he was at his best when thrown into chaos, this waiting and watching and pacing and wondering was breaking him down from the inside out. 
The longer he walked in this misty rain, the wetter his socks became, which only added to his worry. His messenger bag was only so water resistant, and it would not do for the book to get ruined by an accident of weather and negligence. Gritting his teeth as his sodden footwear squelched loudly upon making contact with a shallow puddle, Luke quickened his pace in relief as he saw a sign announcing the King James Pub swinging in the distance. 
Pushing open the heavy wooden door with more force than neccesary, Luke glanced around the dimly lit pub. The place looked exactly the same as the last time he had been here, and he grinned as he spotted the balding proprieter behind the bar. 
“Jimmy! Two fingers of your best whisky.”
Having continued to polish the glass in his hands without looking up, the barkeep’s response had a less than welcoming tone: “No one calls me Jimmy anymore, kid. And they only did in the first place so that my father and I knew which James people wanted.”
Luke seated himself at the bar, the grin still on his face. “Something aged, preferrably from Scapa. Almost the taste of home.”
Jimmy finally looked up at hearing Luke’s specific request. 
“It can’t be. No one has asked for Scapa-malt since”
“Maybe I just have a taste for fine drink,” Luke said, “Or maybe you’re just getting old, James.”
“Well, maybe you’re right,” the barkeep laughed as he reached up to his highest shelf. “Two fingers you said?”
“I did. Neat, if you please.” 
Once the glass was placed in front of Luke he took a deep gulp of the dark golden liquor, and settled in to bide a few hours drying out in the King James and collecting his thoughts about the day’s happennings. 

Earlier that afternoon Luke’s fingers had lingered over the spines of leatherbound books that he couldn’t acquire, but lusted over all the same. 
His transient lifestyle was not meant to be bound by possesions, since the most he ever carried was a duffle bag of essentials. Luke owned a cottage on an unnamed Orkney island off the coast of Scotland, but it was a quaint homestead, with little in the way of modern luxuries. 
Luke valued his privacy more than anything else in his life, and he took precautions to ensure his anonymity. He avoided making friends when he travelled, the money that he had was kept in a multitude of banks under a variety of pseudonyms, and he paid to keep his island off cartographer’s maps. He spent most of the year on his island, and even after living there for longer than he would admit he never tired of its sparse forests, which when riddled with sea fog took on a mystic quality, and its multitude of cliffs, which made his heart sing with an unknown spirit of longing. 
The one thing he always wished that he could add to his Orkney home was a proper library, but he knew that books would scarcely last with the humidy from the sea that leaked in through the empty window frames, and it pained him to think of a book’s eventual demise in his care. But everywhere he travelled Luke made the rounds to the area’s book vendors, just to soak up the serene atmosphere and the smell of leather and paper and ink. If he had the time he would pick a book at random from the shelves and lose himself in its pages, curled up in a cozy chair and sipping sweetened espressos for hours. 
As Luke browsed through the shelves in the quaint bookstore he had found nestled down an alleyway, he smiled as his eye was caught by familiar titles from his past. Memories of the many international bookstores he had visited over the years surfaced: reading Candide in a little café in London when the downpour outside was torrential, finding a dog-earred copy of All Families are Psychotic in the Louvre and spending the afternoon reading it instead of looking at paintings, attempting to read a Greek copy of Plato and not being impressed with the linguistic style, stiffling laughs at the Marquis de Sade’s antics on a tourbus in Greece, all memories that were defined by the book in his hands. 
When he saw a spine that was bare of print, his curiosity was piqued. Pulling the book form its place on the shelf he was surprised not to see a title engraved into the cover either. The leather was only marred by a stamp in the right hand corner, a small circle dissected by a feathered quill. From the lack of title, and the quill on the cover Luke expected to open the volume and see blank pages that would eventually become a journal. Yet when he looked inside the pages were filled with  handwritten script that was barely decipherable as an old form of German that he hadn’t seen in anything but ancient manuscripts, with a scattering of sketches. 
Why would the owner of the store put this book in with the fiction titles, when it was obviously a journal? Luke wondered as he flipped to the front pages of the book. The fact that it’s handwritten, and not in English, should have placed the volume in a category of its own. 
Translating the first few lines caused Luke’s eyes to widen as he realized what the journal contained. He flipped forward a few pages to the first illustration, and recognized a combination of Norse runes and the outline of an oak leaf that he hadn’t seen since his falling out with his family. 
Luke closed the cover of the book with a snap, and wound his way through the maze of bookcases to the front counter of the store.
“How much is this?” he asked the squat man standing at the counter. The man frowned slightly and held out a hand for the item in question, at which Luke frowned in return and paused, not wanted to hand the volume over for even a minute. 
“It’s a journal,” the man said as he flipped quickly through the pages, the frown deepening between his eyebrows, “I don’t even know how this got onto the shelves.”
“Oh, I just want it for the binding.” Luke mentally cringed as the lie left his lips. “The leather is exquisitely finished, and would cover nicely one of my volumes that needs to be replaced. Just the right size: half-quarto, and contains about 200 leaves.”
The proprieter took another cursory glance through the volume’s pages as he listened to Luke’s request. Murmuring to himself the man squinted at the familiar, but unreadable script in the book, before examining the binding that was the purposed reason behind Luke’s purchase. 
“Well, if you think you can get some use out of the cover, that’s more than anyone else could. We don’t normally stock handwritten copies of anything, especially when they’re in another language.” The bookseller smiled at Luke, glad that he would get a bit of renumeration for the volume, which would otherwise have been thrown out, and suggested a price: “The leather itself is worth at least $50, but I’ll let you have it for $30.” 
“Done.” Luke pulled out his wallet, and hastily threw the appropriate bills onto the counter, wanting to get the book out of the store before the seller changed his mind. 
As the shopkeeper handed the book back to Luke, the two exchanged a nod of mutual understanding, and a brief smile crossed Luke’s face before he tucked his purchase into his bag. 
After quietly thanking the bookseller Luke’s steps sped out of the shop. His mind reeled at the thought of the precious volume that was now in his possession, and he let his feet carry him away from the bookshop. 

Now on his fourth scotch, Luke had warmed up enough inside and out to want to start noticing the details that had changed in the King James since he had last sat in this same seat. The dark mahogany bar was the same, but scuff marks now marred it’s formerly glassy surface and it was scattered with napkin holders, salt shakers, and dishes of peanuts. The tables and booth had also acquired the same paraphenalia, as well as ketchup and vinegar bottles, indicating that the pub now served food instead of strictly alcohol. 
The selection of bottles behind the counter had expanded as well, and Luke was sorry to see that the previous exclusivity of European spirits and beers had been degraded by cheap American brands. The King James was only a few steps away from becoming just another typical bar, what with the scattering of flashing neon signs that promoted Budweiser and kitschy cardboard coasters with a decal of the pub’s logo. Luke remembered the days when the walls of the pub were bare, except for the Scottish coat of arms of the owning family, and coasters were considered to be a detriment. The pub used to be a meeting place for the Scotch population of the city, and the air had been rich with scotch-burred voices as the patrons did what they knew best: drink, argue, and laugh. 
Time had not been kind to the King James and Luke knew that Jimmy would be the pub’s last proprieter. The pub itself would  survive, but there would be no more Jameses or Jimmys to keep the memory of King James, the Scot’s favourite king, alive. 
“It’s four in the morning, Luke my boy.” Jimmy’s voice broke into Luke’s reveries. 
Their conversation had come and gone throughout the rainy night as Jimmy bustled about the pub with the sleepless nature of the agéd and Luke sat and slowly drank his way through the pub’s half bottle of Scapa whisky. It had been Jimmy who carried the conversation, and his years of working the bar meant that he was used to patrons who didn’t answer questions, so Luke’s silence was not out of place. Luke hadn’t been unresponsive, and he knew Jimmy better than most of the people who he had run into during his travels, but he kept the Jimmy focused on telling stories of the pub. Some of Jimmy’s memories were Luke’s as well, so he had to hold back from joining in vocally remembering, but after Jimmy told the story of Luke’s last visit to the bar it was clear that he didn’t remember Luke’s part in the small fire that had ensued. While Luke was relieved not to have to explain, he was struck by the malleable nature of human memory, and their ability to rationalize chaotic events. 
“Yeah, Jimmy. The sun’ll be up in a few.” Luke downed the last of his whisky. He was sure that this was the last time he would be at the King James, and he was almost sad to go. He had been here at the pub’s begining, he had seen the it at its most lively, and now he was here to witness its death-knoll. 
As he stood from his seat Luke noticed the ring of moisture that formed a circle around the King James logo on his drink’s coaster. The water-ring neatly confined the crown and cup that made up the image and brought a focus to the innocuous design that made it conspicuously obvious to Luke. 
“Hey Jimmy,” Luke said, brandishing the piece of cardboard “ I’m going to keep this, for old times’ sake.”
“Okay, kid, I have about a million more of ‘em.” 
“I’ll see you around, old man, in this life or the next.”
Luke raised a hand in farewell before pushing open the heavy door and stepping back into the rain outside. 

Twisted alleyways became Luke’s pathway in the hours before dawn; retracing some of his footsteps from earlier he passed the bookstore wherein had lain the rune-filled book and he smiled in remembrance. His task was almost complete, and his impatience had largely fled, so he rambled with the usual ease that dominated his movement.  
Even with the impending dawn close the city was dark as pitch, and Luke moved through the shadows of the deserted streets with the calm and ease of a creature of the night. On the main streets wrought iron lamposts cast pools of light into the shadows, but the rainfall dampened even their bright glow. The light rainfall drowned the sound of Luke’s footfalls, and even the city’s rats had fallen silent by this hour. His mind occupied with the future, Luke ignored the frenzied movement within the alley’s shadows before him. The creature within didn’t rise in response, so Luke continued to walk towards the breaking of the dawn.  
Suddenly he was slammed against the brick wall that lined one side of the alleyway, and a knife was pressed against the taut skin of his neck. 
“Give me your wallet and your watch – your wallet and your watch damnit!” his assailant demanded, breath reeking of something stronger than alcohol. 
Luke paused, thinking; he glanced down at his right wrist, ignoring the pressure on his throat and the sharp edge of the knife, which lightly bit into his skin. 
“I don’t wear a watch.”
In the darkness of the alley the smirk that now twisted his lips went unnoticed by his attacker, but a smithereen of moonlight penetrated the shadows that hid Luke’s face and flashed against the darkness of his eyes. 
The hands of the adversary were now slick with perspiration, causing his grip on the knife to shift and for the sharp blade to move the fraction of a millimetre needed to draw a droplet of Luke’s blood. 
“Just give it up asshole, or I’ll slit your goddamn throat!” A tremor of fear belied the seriousness of his words in reaction to Luke’s nonchalance, but desperation fueled the adrenaline and drugs coursing through his veins and he slapped his free palm against the alley wall. 
Luke clicked his tongue against his teeth thrice before he spoke again: “Hmm, you should be more careful who you threaten.” His eyes caught the light again as he shifted, drawing more blood from the blade, and to his assailant it looked as if they were momentarily filled with a cold fire.  
Luke’s hands left his sides, one now wrapped around the hand that held the knife against his throat, the other halting the quick intake of air to his adversary’s lungs as it constricted his windpipe. The knife was quickly relinquished into Luke’s possession as his assailant struggled for air, and Luke raised the blade to eye level. 
“For three drops of my blood, you shan’t die, but consequences there shall be.” Luke released his grip on the man’s throat, allowing him to drop to the ground and slowly inch away.
Eyes still locked on the blade before him, Luke cast any thought of the gasping man at his feet from his mind. Bringing the blade to his lips he traced his tongue along the sharp edge that had broken his skin. 
“What has been taken shall return within, and it harm none.”
The blade now cleansed of his blood, Luke dropped it into the side of his left boot, and continued walking down the alleyway. 
As he reached the mouth of the alley the rays of the sun began to become visible  over the edge of the horizon, and Luke picked up his pace. Glancing at the sky as he jogged, Luke noticed that the rain was slowing and the clouds had begun to shift as if the sun’s light was chasing them. He smiled as the cliffs lining the ocean came into view, and he looked east to see the burgeoning rays of light dappling the remaining cloudcover. 
Luke reached the cliffs and looked over the edge, seeing the pebbled beach far below before sinking to sit on the grass that covered the cliffs. As the breaking dawn turned the grey ocean shades of platinum and silver Luke removed the knife from his boot, the crown-and-cup emblazoned coaster and the runic book from his bag, and the penny from his pocket, and laid all four items on the ground before him. 
These items were the beginning of something, something that Luke knew not what, but that he knew he had to see through. Luke had always defined himself against the status quo, and it was once again time to prove himself. It had been aeons since Luke had last been in the middle of an unknown situation, but the feeling  of fear mingled with curiosity that woke in his chest felt like coming home. 
“The night is darkest in the moments before dawn, and it is that shadow that defines the light that will come.”

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