Down the road, heat haze rising, dust scuffed into the air by bare feet. Even the birds are silent in the baking sun. Cows stand in what shade there is, heads down, chewing slowly, as flies circle them; the buzzing and the slow swish of tails are the only noises.
The boy crests a hill, a satchel slung across shoulders burned brown, and begins to descend into a little swale, dry now since the spring rains ended. He is returning home from the market with flour, oats, barley, salted olives, and a little block of sugar, a rare treasure in this country where plain food is eaten year round, and glad they are of it because there have been some years when there was little enough even of that.
In the distance, the boy sees a man coming the other way, and he shields his brown eyes with one hand. The shimmering air blurs the man’s outlines, turns him into a smear of wavering color, blue and purple and green and tan, but as the space between them diminishes his edges grow sharper, and the boy lowers his hand, frowning, and takes hold of the strap on the satchel.
They walk the roads, his mother once told him; they appear suddenly, telling fortunes and reading palms and making love to the women and stealing from the farmers; then one night they vanish, and reappear in the next town, to start it all again. Devilish handsome they are, his mother said, earning her a sharp look from his father, who nevertheless said nothing. Devilish handsome and sweet-spoken, but not to be trusted. They’ll steal everything from you, she said. Everything. And that evening, she looked sad, the boy thought, and so did his father. And he did not understand why.
The man is closer now, and his strange clothing grows clear; an embroidered shirt, blue and purple, with wide sleeves and a crisscrossed corded green tie down the front, and brown pants of linen tied with a belt ending in a pair of brass bells. A braided piece of twine encircles his neck, with a loop of copper wire hanging from it, twisted into an intricate knot. Dangling from his belt are several leather pouches, tied with cord. He is barefoot, but wears a silver ring on one toe, and a bracelet made of blue stones on one ankle. Closer still, and the man stops, the corners of his mouth turning upward in a little smile. He is perhaps forty, has a narrow, shrewd face, and dark eyes under eyebrows that arch ironically as he look the boy up and down.
“The sun shines her hard blessing down on us both today, eh?” the man says, and he bows at the waist, and the bells on his belt give a little jingle of greeting.
“It does,” the boy says, and his grip on the satchel strap tightens.
The man laughs. “You have no need to fear,” he says, and his smile exposes a row of teeth still white and even despite his age. “I do not want your flour and oats and barley and olives, and neither do I want the sugar your mother will bake into sweet cakes for festival time. I take away from the people I meet only what is freely given.”
“It is said that your people are thieves,” the boy says.
“Is it? Perhaps there are some who are. As for me, I have no need to steal. I can keep my belly full and my other needs met by gifts alone.” He holds one hand up, gestures at the fields and hills around him. “Looked at properly, all the world is a gift.”
The boy’s mother’s words come back into his mind, both her warning not to speak to the strange men who wander the roads, and also her comments about how handsome they are. He thinks at first that he should not speak further with the man; then curiosity does battle with caution. Curiosity wins. “Why do people give you gifts?” the boy asks. “What do you do in return?”
“Do?” the man says, and his smile flashes out again, white in his dark face. “If it is a gift, you do not pay for it, yes? It is given, and that is that.”
“But why would anyone give you something? You are a stranger.” The boy stops and considers adding, And my mother said that your people are not to be trusted, but he doesn’t, not knowing how much it would take to anger the strange man.
The man shrugs. “I give gifts, and others give gifts to me. It is not payment, but I do not steal.” He cocks one eyebrow. “Do you want a gift, boy?”
The boy feels his heart give a little gallop; his family is poor, and they do not have enough money for gifts, so it is a long time since he has received one. He looks at the man’s fancy shirt, dyed blue and purple, and the copper knot at his neck, and the brass bells on his belt, and he says, “Yes, I would.”
The man smiles, and bows. “Then I will give you a gift.” He reaches down and selects one pouch from his belt, and unties the cord, and pulls from it a handful of silver coins and silk ribbons. He arranges the ribbons carefully across the palm of his hand, and lets the coins drop, and the boy sees that each of the coins has a hole, and the ribbons pass through the hole so that the coins dangle from his hand like fruit from a tree.
“Select one of the coins,” the man says, leaning over, and holding out the ribbons, blue and green and red and orange, each with its swinging, spinning silver coin.
The boy takes one, a shining coin on a slender green ribbon, and holds it up in front of him. The coin has the face of a king stamped on one side, and a phoenix, surrounded by flames, on the other. The boy stares at it in wonder, and then looks up at the man, whose hawklike eyes are regarding him with a humorous expression, wry and intelligent and not necessarily friendly.
“Now you can give me a gift, and then I will tell you what to do with yours,” the man says.
“I have to do something with it?” the boy asks.
“Of course. It would not be much use else, eh? But first, now that we are friends and exchanging gifts, you should think of what you would like to give me.”
I have nothing but what my mother sent me to buy, the boy thinks, and I cannot give him that or we will have nothing to eat. And besides, he said he wasn’t interested in flour and oats and barley and olives and sugar. And then he remembers that on the way to buy food that morning, he saw a strange stone in the road, all sparkly and glittering, and he picked it up because he had never seen such a stone before, and it was still in his pocket. So he brings out the stone and holds it out in his open palm, and says, “I would like to give you this stone.”
He half expects the man to laugh, or to shout angrily at him and take the coin back, but the man picks the stone up between his thumb and one long finger, and holds it in front of him, so that it glints in the sunlight. “Oh, a kingly gift,” the man says, and the boy does not know if he is saying it in mockery or is speaking the truth. But whichever it is, the man puts the stone into his own pocket, and says, “Well then. Now that we have exchanged gifts, I will tell you how to use yours. Take the end of the ribbon in your hand, and let the coin hang down.”
The boy does so, and then looks up, a question in his eyes, but he says nothing.
“Now, whirl it around your head, faster and faster, and then let it go.”
“I must throw it away?” the boy asks, dismay on his face.
“Yes!” the man says. “And once done, you must not try to find it. Leave it for a magpie or raven, or a lucky traveler to find. It will bring you only harm if you search after it; such is the way of things. But once you have thrown it, I will tell your fortune from watching which way it flies, and perhaps you will find that you have still come out ahead of the bargain.” The man’s expression becomes shrewd. “Or, if you like, keep the coin, and forgo the knowledge of your future. It is your choice.”
The boy gives a doubtful look at the man, but he says, “No. I’ll take the knowledge.” He steps a little away, and sets down his satchel, and holds up the coin on the end of the ribbon. The coin slowly twirls in front of his face, a crowned king on one side, a fiery bird on the other. Then he begins to swing it in circles over his head, faster and faster, till the green ribbon and the silver coin are blurs, moving too fast for the eye to see. And he lets it go, and his chest heaves as he does so and he gives a great, involuntary cry as the coin soars glittering into the blue sky, making a graceful arc with the ribbon flying behind it, fluttering like a kite’s tail. The man’s right hand shields his eyes from the glare of the sun, and he watches the coin’s trajectory as it flies. There is a sharp ping! as the coin strikes a black rock in the field, and it bounces up into the air, flicking end over end, and then is lost in the golden stalks of dead grass on the hillside.
The man continues to stare in that direction for a few moments, standing silent, motionless as a strangely-garbed statue.
He turns, gives the boy an appraising look. “Well,” he says. “I should say to you, ‘Well thrown,’ or some such, but in reality, we all follow the same path, eh? A short flight up, a short flight down, and then gone. Lost.”
The boy meets the man’s eyes, his expression filled with anguish, and he says nothing.
“Still, something more might be said. You will have a long life. You will not live forever, none of us do, but your time here will be judged long. A hard life. But not without joys. You will know pleasures, many sorts. Some you can guess, eh? A boy your age knows.” He reaches out a thin forefinger and pokes the boy’s bare shoulder. “Others, you have yet even to anticipate. You fly, flashing through the air, a silk ribbon tied to your tail.” He makes a swooping motion with one hand, and the boy follows it, watching it rise and then descend. Then the man’s quick glance meets the boy’s again. “And I predict one thing more. You have the greatest gift the gods can bestow: a quick death. You saw how the coin came down. And it struck the rock, and that was all. Your death will be like that. A long way off, but when it comes it will not be lingering, not a sliding into the abyss like some animal dragged to slaughter, howling and crying and pitying itself and pissing on the ground in its desperation to get away. You will be taken, so!” And he smacks the boy’s back, hard enough to leave the mark of his palm on the boy’s brown skin.
The boy reels a little from the blow, but he does not cry out, only takes a step to the side to keep his balance, and looks up at the man with wide eyes.
“And now, do you think it a fair trade? A coin that was mine, traded for a stone that was no work of yours, and in the bargain the trajectory of your life? Not bad, eh?”
The boy manages a smile, and says, “No. Not bad.”
“Then good. Take the flour and oats and barley and olives and sugar home to your mother before she wonders if you have been waylaid by thieves.” The man’s smile glints, quickly, and then is gone. He turns, whistling, the bells on his belt jingling, the stones around his ankle clicking. The boy looks over his shoulder and watches him for a while, until the man’s walking takes him up a hill in the distance, up, up, up and over the crest, and then down the other side, and he is finally lost to view.