“Destination,” he said, “is the quality of having played out one’s destiny to its end.”
The man was tall and thin, with an angularity, a precise cleaving of the lines of his face and the planes of his body, that gave him a formality of bearing that conferred a dubiously legitimate authority. The whiteness of his linen suit accentuated the darkness of his weathered complexion, as did the matching hat, which contributed its own nuanced effects, as the wide brim darkened further a face already darkened by the climate. My confusion being obvious, he continued.
“You have come this far. You believe there is nowhere left to go. That is why I am here. I am a…guide of sorts. I have what you need to go on.”
There were, I assumed, no secrets in this town. It was small and sinister, populated by travelers and rumors, all the unsavory criminal elements that spend their lives escaping from one disreputable port to another. Misinformation, however, abounded. Clearly, this was a case of mistaken identity. However, as the afternoon wore on, and the increasingly beautiful barmaid refilled our glasses with telepathic efficiency, I ceased to care. I began to revel in the possible dangers in which I was placing myself.
“Let me show you,” my companion said, clutching my forearm with one hand as he searched several jacket pockets with the other before finding a felt tipped pen.
“We are here,” he said, drawing a hasty ‘X’ on a napkin that was quickly soaking up the condensation through which it had been dragged. “Tomorrow, we leave. Be at this pier. Ask for Ramon. You will land here. From her to this pass is perhaps a mile, perhaps a little less, maybe more. In the valley there is a village. Its name is not important, and in fact may not even be preserved in the speech of those who live there. Look for the cantina where works a woman whose perfect skin is the color of raw coffee beans. There,” he said, sitting back in his chair and pounding the napkin upon which he had emphasized his every word with a swirling script composed of lines, squiggles, circles, arrows, and seemingly random, illegible letters, “there is where you will find your, as you say, destination.”
The next morning, I awoke still wearing my clothes, though my shoes were missing. While searching my pockets for my wallet, which I found eventually, I came across the napkin. It was still damp, torn almost in half, in danger of disintegrating entirely, and with blue splotches of ink that, upon finding water an agreeable traveling companion, found their way to places never intended. In desperate need at the moment for something to believe in, I convinced myself that I could still read and accurately interpret my companion’s drunken scrawls.
The bell of the local brothel began tolling the hour, and without stopping to count, I headed for the bay. The number of the pier could have been 11, 17, 71, or 77, but since there were only twenty, my choice was narrowed to the flip of one of this island’s worthless pieces of currency. Upon arriving at Pier 17, I asked for Ramon. I was told there was no one here by that name. My guide was nowhere to be seen, but there was someone there named Roman. Thinking I had perhaps misremembered, or that my guide had been mistaken, I continued aboard. I spent the next several hours at the ship’s rail, pouring out of the vessel of my own body the chunky libations due the gods of the sea.
Upon landing, I took my map, which had transformed in my pocket into a soft, fragile puzzle of perhaps a half dozen pieces. Perversely, the degradation, the gaps, the uncertain readings gave it a mysterious quality that held me in its thrall. Like some ancient Gnostic gospel with its cryptic Coptic text, it exuded a sense of secrecy, of counter-conspiracy, as if, forbidden and forgotten, there were sealed within its lost tongue hidden messages decipherable only by the initiate. It never occurs to the true believer that the original held no such esoteric knowledge, that only its fragmented foreignness grants it its secret wisdom. But of course by now, I was a true believer myself.
The topography was not what I had expected. The convexity of what I took to be the hand-drawn harbor on the napkin was off by ninety degrees and the mountains were in the wrong place. As I began to make my way inland, I came upon a village almost immediately, not in a valley, but built onto and into the foothills that began just beyond the point where the dunes of the beach ended. A sign that read ‘Taverna’ beckoned me. A false front was built directly over the mouth of a cave that had been fashioned into a tiny room, dominated by a stone ledge bar, over which presided a woman whose beauty could justifiably be called ‘haunting’. Her smile was a perfect crescent moon, made more dazzling by her complexion, which was the color of ripe mango flesh and that seemed to phosphoresce, making her face the only source of light beyond what filtered through the door. I found the local beer, brewed in a sub chamber deep within the hill, quite refreshing as I sat on a stool that was a sheered off stalagmite topped by a cushion of ocelot fur stretched across it. As if a precipitate of the darkness itself, a short, pudgy man whom I had never seen before, materialized on the stool next to me.
“I did not expect to meet you here,” he said. My unfamiliarity with his accent made where the emphasis lay in his statement ambiguous. My understanding of exactly what he meant was therefore tenuous at best.
“This,” he continued, “is your destination.”
I was caught within a web of possible meanings. I understood the words, but the syntax borne toward clarity by voice and gesture eluded me. I lifted my beer bottle off my napkin, now once again being used for its intended purpose. On what was left of it the ink had bled into a single, hopelessly unintelligible blue mass. I had been on a journey, no doubt, but had it been mine?
“Before I forget,” the man said as he lifted a canvas bag onto the bar and slid it over to me. I looked inside, and saw a pair of shoes. Though not mine, they were at least the proper size.
“What is the quality of having played out someone else’s destiny to the end?” was all I could think to ask.
BIO: Bob Carlton lives and works in Garland, TX. His story, “Great Disasters in the History of Flight”, was nominated for a Pushcart Prize by Blue Five Notebook in 2012.