The Vagrant

by: Rob Hill1

A curious companion, amid an extraordinary journey…

matchstick-men-wolfgang-stiller

Sauntering along rusty steel railroad tracks on the outskirts of a nameless grey seaside town, a burlap bag slung across my jacketed back, I find myself amid rank weeds and discarded litter in a vacant lot behind a ramshackle garage built from dirty orange bricks. A tiny miniature trailer lies overturned at my feet, like a child’s discarded toy in the wild grass. Stooping, I retrieve the artifact and shake it gingerly, like a thermos, curious as to the contents. I strike a match on my boot and hold it near the trailer door for a glimpse inside its dark interior. A tiny matchbox man leaps out in a panic, his head ablaze. He runs in frantic circles, waving his little stick arms before stumbling over a haphazard leaf. Using the leaf like a fire blanket, he extinguishes his flaming head. He peers up, dazed, his little singed head like a lightbulb, his eyes like pinwheels.

How he could fit inside the toy trailer is not clear to me, since he is noticeably larger in dimension than it. He seems perplexed by this himself. I apologize for my negligence with the match, which he shrugs off without concern. His name is Edison, and he climbs onto my shoulder, clutching my ear for stability. I stroll down along a sloping road past empty grey buildings to a seaside cafe overlooking the bay where the air is salty and thick with the odor of cod. My stomach growls a warning, so I enter the cafe with my new passenger and slide into a booth providing us with a pleasant vista of the harbor. Edison clambers onto the table and seats himself on a salt shaker while I peruse the coffee stained menu with eagerness. Glancing about, I notice several dejected customers scattered about at separate tables, head-in-hands, staring miserably at dirty plates before them. The waitress in the tomato stained apron who brings me my clam chowder also seems vacant, lost in routine.

Edison suddenly emits an electronic gasp and dives under the table in haste as a gray hatted hatchetman lurches through the cafe door. He stands near the entrance, surveying the contents of the restaurant with a wary eye. Edison tugs my pant leg frantically. Understanding that the hatchetman means him harm, I open my knapsack and he nimbly leaps in, nestling amongst the books and articles of clothing. Then, having finished my soup and leaving a reasonable tip, I rise and pass by the hatchetman’s suspicious eye on my way towards the exit.

He follows me outside. From within the bag, Edison chirps a woeful prediction should we fail to elude the hatchetman. Without glancing back, I head for an abandoned structure nearby, a madhouse designed by a demented architect. With Edison perched on my shoulder once again, I climb up a flight of crooked caligarian stairs, the hatchetman trailing close behind. I lead him on a dizzying mad romp through five-cornered rooms and twisting passages of labyrinthian perplexities. A triangular door opens out onto the rooftop of the madhouse. Here I cling to a crippled weathervane, blinking in muted daylight as diabolical clouds swirl overhead.

When I feel enough time has passed that the hatchetman must have given up his chase, I return to the madhouse. I wander down sloping corridors, trying various doors in search of an exit. One room contains torn mattresses spilling cotton innards from ugly gashes onto a cement floor. Another door opens to reveal an eerie flooded room, a small grimy window letting in a turbid stream of light. A girl crouches in one corner, trussed up with rope, her mouth tightly gagged, her frightened eyes bulging. Strange translucent tubes, swaying and wavering, release poisonous bubbles into the water. Edison leaps off my shoulder, swims over and saws through her bonds with the sharp edge of his torso. She twists free and, with a grateful backwards glance, swims away through what appears to be a camera shutter in the ceiling.

Down the corridor we go until I discover a hatch which deposits us outside, not far from the fisherman’s wharf. Edison insists the hatchetman will find us again and we must launch a boat to get away. We climb aboard a stalwart craft and cast off, plowing swiftly through taciturn waters with powerful oar strokes, as seagulls scream overhead as if sounding alarm. Passing among a flotilla of ships engaged in a marlin hunt, our craft carries us away from the coast, across the salt stained waves, under a suspicious sky.

Beyond our wake we spot the hatchetman pursuing us in a vessel of his own. Oaring desperately now, we soon escape the harbor, and behind us the coastline sinks into the horizon. Then heaven cracks open and torrents rise against us, threatening to capsize our modest craft. Valiantly I joust the storm, paddling in seasick circles. Edison clings to the gunwale for dear life until the tempest snatches our craft from under us. The ocean, refusing to swallow me, washes me onto a shipwreck island where I collapse in the sand, falling into an obscure sleep. Hours later I revive to discover Edison sprawled beside me, dazed and shaking saltwater from his lightbulb head. The hatchetman’s boat drifts close to the shore, empty. He must’ve been cast overboard and pulled beneath the waves during the squall.

Wading through the surf with Edison perched on my shoulder, I reach the empty craft and struggle aboard. With weary bones, we row back to the mainland where I return my lightbulb-headed friend to the plot of land behind the garage where I first encountered him. He waves a fond farewell, then leaps back into his miniature trailer as I bound off, bag slung over one shoulder, down the railroad tracks once again, hungry and excruciatingly alive.

 

Rob Hill lives in an abandoned subway tunnel under the streets of New York City where he trains rats as pickpockets and nurses sick pigeons back to health. His work has appeared recently in Armchair/Shotgun, Akashic Books, Eunoia Review, Scrutiny, Polychrome Ink, and the ubiquitous elsewhere. He occasionally posts rags and bones at hellospider.wordpress.com.

  1. Header art is by the incredibly talented German artist Wolfgang Stiller. []
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