The Old Man in the NightThough it was well below freezing, the youthful man in the old brown coat with the snow-white hair and ageless face did not shiver as he joined the men by the burning trashcan, even though his coat trailed open as he sat. Fate had not been kind to most of those gathered, and more than a few sat rocking and shivering in the cold. Some looked like they rocked and muttered to themselves even when it was warm. The cold night wrapped the stale odors close to each, too cool to waft the odors of sweat and wine from each bearer, while a lonely dog howled in the distance.
The new man in the corduroy jacket smiled and nodded as they passed around the soup from the nearby makeshift kettle, adding to their stash a bag of days-old bread, then sat with them as they ate, taking the occasional nibble as he sopped his soup up with a piece of the loaf. Afterward, he didn’t respond at first with anything more than a shake of his head as stories made their way around the circle.
Finally, well past midnight as the cruelly clear sky gazed down with frozen stars on the homeless men, one of their bent and age-scarred number slowly thrust a palsied hand out from his fatigue jacket and drew aside his threadbare scarf of second-hand green Army wool to address the newcomer with the white locks.
"What’s your tale, son? You’re too young and Gary Cooper-pretty to be on the road, though someone seems to have taught you how to bring food to our feast."
A shy, almost sly smile crossed the newcomer’s beardless face and hawk-like nose. In a clear and youthful voice he addressed the circle. "Are you sure that you truly want to know one of mine?" The small, roughly clothed crowd nodded assent.
The visitor smiled again. "As you have asked, so I return your hospitality.
"I remember green hills almost like these, rolling, cool, and rain-swept, where I once walked. Small towns and villages spotted those hills, each like but separate from the next. The sun had been shining through the rain that day, and I thought that I knew what the omen meant, though I was mostly wrong. There were stranger Gifts afoot than I had expected."
At the mention of omens and the supernatural, the circle of ill-clothed men huddled in closer to the guttering fire. One or two of the men crossed themselves, and another stuck his hand out into the frigid night air to gesture a quick ward against the evil eye. The taleteller leaned forward, and his open jacket feathered behind him like the wings of some mythical griffon.
"It was well past dusk when I finally came to a small village on my road. Many of the houses were dark, though a few still showed lights within. It was too late to ask for lodging, so I made my way to the commons after drinking from the bowls of milk and porridge set out for the elvenfolk. I knew that they wouldn’t mind, nor trouble me; they never had. And then I saw the dark figure who was sitting on the frost-sparkled grass.
"He was sitting there in the night, arms wrapped around himself, slowly crying and whispering to himself. He was far from young, and I thought it strange that the village would leave an old man outside in the cold. A town, perhaps; and certainly a city. But he must have been mad or a criminal to be cast out on a cold night.
"So I joined him." The newcomer paused and became stiller than the winter night, then nibbled a small peck from his stale piece of bread before continuing.
"At first he was sullen, but then he warmed to my company in the dark. He talked of many things that he had done and that he had been. At first he spoke of recent misfortunes, and why the villagers thought him mad and fey. But then he grew more wistful as he talked to me. He spoke of how he had once been a goat, a dog, a horse, and how he had tricked and how he had served the fields of men, bedeviling cattle, bewildering lonely travelers, and helping with barnyard tasks. He said that he had done right in his kinds’ duties by the Lords of Faery, the Tylwyth Teg and Daoine Sidhe, but he had grown to love the ways of men and women with their rough clothes and rougher farms, and the laughter of small children.
"At first I did not believe him. But as dawn finally began to cast its earliest shadows he spoke of how he had petitioned the Lords of Faery for a simple, single boon for his long service. He wanted to be a man. And he described those Lords, their shimmering formless beauty wrapped in hopes and dreams and greenery older than the ways of men.
"And they gave him his wish. Form and feeling and language. And he walked among men and women. And he was with them, but he wasn’t one of them. Never. Outcast throughout his years in mortal flesh, he had finally given up hope.
"Finally, in that earliest light of the impending day, I saw how black his hair was, and looked deep into his red-rimmed his eyes. And I gazed within, saw a familiar lack. And I knew him for the Phooka he claimed to be, cast from his role into the role of man. And I knew with what curse his boon had come.
"I bent and kissed his brow, then, and gave him the only blessing that my siblings and I can now give. I suspect that the villagers likely buried his body in the paupers’ field. But it would not have mattered; he was not damned, but consecrated earth would not have hallowed him nor done him any good.
"For the Lords of Faery in their shimmering beauty had granted his fierce wish. And they had fixed his form, given him the language and culture of the people of that land, and made him even more manlike than a changeling child. But they could not craft nor give what they did not know. And I had seen the same look in his eyes that I had seen in the eyes of my brothers and sisters on the day when we lay down our swords of ice and flame and walked away from our post, letting the Gates of Paradise crumble behind us. The Lords of Faery have no more soul than we, and so they could not grant the Phooka a soul of his own."
The homeless men stared wildly about and silently drew closer to the fire as the white-haired visitor sat and looked at each of them with cold eyes and unlined face. Finally he nodded and smiled as if satisfied. Starlight barely sparkled the frost in the trees as he smoothly stood and walked away again into the night.
copyright May 19, 2002