Once upon a night … a thief

It was in autumn, the exact date escapes me now. The leaves of the maple trees near my house were yellow, and red, and the grass was wet. It was as if everyday, each tree contributed a few of its leaves to the battle on the ground: armies of Yellow against battalions of Red. In the morning, often, the spectacle was an excuse for me not to clear the battlefield, leaving mother nature the care to decide who will win the land, an unkempt garden. We know there will be no winner, but a sad brown period before winter and the first snow. Seasons always ruled my front yard, no matter how brave maples and grass tried to impeach them.

I remember well that night, it was towards the beginning, when I had left my regular job, if only to be a little further away from the throngs of the city. I had told them that it was time for me, as if there was a calling, to seek isolation from the world; from them. I had owned this house for many years, inherited in kind and in debt, so it was a natural escape destination. I had changed my routine, having discovered the old habit of second sleep. I got up early, at the first lights – there was no alarm clocks, no clocks in the house – and ready the tea, breakfast, eating it slowly while reading the newspapers. I had decided to separate myself from the maze of the masses, but somehow there was this attraction in me, to know what was happening, out there, where people lived real lives. Then I worked in the house, chores that gave me some enjoyment, while listening to old records; side A ‘So What’, side B ‘Flamenco Sketches’. I like the early Miles Davis. I liked the jazz, the records and the house cleaned and neat. If I had lunch it was outside, either on my way to the groceries – there was a vegetarian diner there in those days, or in nature, during walks food in one hand, an o-juzu (御数珠) in the other. I practiced and meditated in the afternoon, skipped dinner, and slept early, perhaps at 7pm, maybe at 9pm; there was no clocks. I woke up first in the middle of night, loving the light and the sensation to hear things that are there during the day, but whispering only to those listening at night. I wrote, read for an hour, or two, maybe three, there was no clocks, and I slept again. That was in the beginning, routines change.

He had a red leaf on a shoe, and a yellow leaf on the other. Was he attacked by autumn in the garden? She was not kind that year. Or was he just afraid to take a side, knowing he would eventually need to cross the garden again? Red maple and yellow maple pointing towards me. He was a strange bird, certainly not an eagle or a hawk, but a young crane at best; and he carried both flags, yellow and red on his tiny feet. Tall, his skinny legs bared but from socks and a short, he must have been cold out there; long neck and baseball hat – red as it appeared later – a white track suit jacket. Why would he wear white? The room was dark, only the fireplace was giving some light, his face features were either too bland or too flat, in the shadows he seemed to have no nose and flat cheeks. His eyes were shining, that much was clear. He tried to be fiery and strong, his eyes staring. He was just cold and surprised.

The gun was pointing towards me, dark tube catching the warm light. It was slightly shaking. Perhaps I should have been afraid, or I was supposed to be frighten; I was not, only surprised. We did not talk immediately, he did not know what to say: he was equally surprised. Did he think the house was abandoned? The garden needed upkeep, I remembered that every morning, but there was nothing else there than leaves, yellows versus reds, nothing broken, nothing torn or showing abandonment. Maybe other houses perhaps had children bicycles on the porch, rakes and brooms against a wall, an odd half-empty bottle of beer on the garden table. I had no garden table and no beers and no rakes. The action was in me when I watched that garden. I had good hopes the Yellow would recover the lost ground of the past week. That garden in autumn was my football match: live TV, without the annoying commentaries.

At last he moved inwards a little more, slowly. He looked at me more suspiciously, like if I had no business being here, in my chair, in my office, in my house. He passed in front the desk slowly, and stopped halfway to be between the fireplace and me, leaning on the back of an old sofa I have there. I like that office. Now that I write this story and the memory of that night, I can see him again, it was here, nothing much has changed. I can still see the crane-man with his gun black gun, the barrel, the white track suit, and the same sofa, the same desk, certainly the same piling of books and magazines – here and there. Places change, old records don’t.

He spoke before me: “What are you?” This was a strange question, aggressive and intrusive. “I write books.” He seemed to wonder, the answer might have been as strange as what he had asked. Perceptions. But I was not aggressive, I was calm and quite concerned for him. The gun trembled a little, I could see the reflection of the fire’s light blinking on it. He had shivers in the arms, the weight of the killing machine; cranes don’t carry things, I don’t know why. I remember he seemed puzzled, but I could not really know that: the fireplace now behind him, his face was covered in dark shadows. So I asked him if I could turn on the desk lamp; and he nodded slowly.

The light took its time to lit the room. One of those fitted with a light bulb that needed to warm up, I rarely used it. The lamp was a gift from one of them, from an earlier life, made of cityscapes and business meetings. It looks like it had cost a fortune. In a precedent life, gifts and wealth mattered. His face was young and the more I looked at him, the less confident he seemed to be. He was not perceivably changing, staring at me with angered eyes. The perception I had of him was changing. “What you write?” Now that was a good question, I told him so and he looked puzzled. He was oppressing, without doing anything. I tuned down a bit my expectations — it crossed my mind not to tell him much, he was not here to discuss Montaigne or Plato, and a half lie would be acceptable given the circumstances. “Short stories for magazines” I used to write short stories, in an earlier life.

It was not clear to me that he wanted anything, so I asked him. No reply. After a pause I added “if you’re looking for money or valuable this is probably the wrong house.” I lost track of time and had no idea how long we have been here already, looking at each other, there was no clocks. I knew he was very cold, shivers turned into shakes and spasms. The kind of coldness that ego and arrogance tried to keep at bay, and inevitably shows. He finally spoke, asking for all the cash I have here. “OK.” He seemed relieved, so I opened my arms a little over the desk, gesture of sincerity: “Now please lower this thing” — I pointed an accusing and itching index at his killing thing — “and I will go upstairs take my wallet. You have nothing to fear, I will not call the police and will not run. It’s too cold for that.” OK, gun down, crane-man relieved, leaves falling, tension down. I was sleepy. “Take a seat and warm yourself. You need it.”

When I returned he was deep in looking at the dying flames. He didn’t hear me walking back, so I knocked the door. Never take a killing crane by surprise.

I gave him the wallet, in earnest, with everything in it. He tried hard to look like an aggressive thief again, but the fireplace had soothe his traits. Red and yellow flames dancing on his cheek. Just a kid, alone in the cold, in the wrong house. It was clear he would not talk much more, so I did, while he opened today’s bounty and went through my papers.

“There are many, many doors outside; you picked mine. I don’t need to know why, it doesn’t matter. I’m glad you did. You see I rarely have visitors and I avoid going too far out. I vowed to avoid people, and for many years I have carried on that way. I’m an old man, I have lived, not needing anyone now. But you, you can’t be alone, you haven’t lived enough for that.” He dropped the wallet on the table and resumed his absorption for the fireplace, hues of yellow and red. I spoke faster, carried away. “This is an exchange. For my wallet, my stuff, anything you take here; you owe me, and you owe me to get things straight with the world. Take the credit cards, the money, the ID, whatever that can be useful. Just be useful. Get out in the world and own your place, know where you come from, your suffering, live with them and embrace them. Be generous, be friendly, and drop the gun. You can’t even hold it. Whatever you give in to the world, it will return it to you.”

This was hopeless, the fireplace was a stronger magnet than I ever was. I even didn’t know if he was hearing anything. We stayed a while, not saying anything, he looking at the dying flames, I looking at him, not understanding. When I woke up, hours later, there was daylight. My wallet was on the table, and a note. I recognized the grey ink, and the handwriting was familiar. Too familiar perhaps. “But this was never about me, old man.”

I looked at the leaves. Red and Yellow; Red, Red and Yellow; Red, Yellow and Red: Spain, flamenco, sketches of autumn fleeing, like a thief hiding from winter, Brown was winning today. So What — things change.