“We’re sorry,” said the man, pointing. “We ain’t much here.”
The woman, they guessed his wife by the way she puttered around, doing many small things but nothing really, was shaking her head. The two were indicating the table, which indeed was sparse: bread of some kind, though it looked fresh baked at least, with a few beans. Butter and jam for the bread, and rough, wooden spoons. The spoons had nicks in them and the butter and jam each had bits of the other starting to collect in their hewn bowls, as if they’d been used recently.
The couple clucked their teeth lightly as if in apology, and sat. They’d claimed to be just setting down to table when the two travelers had knocked, and the travelers — night hikers by the look of the packs they carried and the long canvas coats they wore — let them say so. It seemed they were as hungry to come on, as the older couple, who lived in the house they’d found at the end of an unpromising side road, were to let them.
They sat at the table in the kitchen, also wood and also flecked by nicks and scratches — and even gouges as when on topographical maps the rivers of a land begin to appear from the spidery veins of creeks, streams and tributaries. Yes, the table looked as if it had been made a long time ago, and used often and faithfully since.
A small fire pulsed in the corner, coals gelling at the base of a cast iron pot, hanging and swaying. It likely held more beans, puffing and percolating, and the room was one of only two areas the travelers, a young couple from all that could be told of them, could see, though light from the fire and a candle in the middle of the table flickered and faded, flickered and faded, on some kind of hallway down and back and to the left side of a wash basin, also cast iron, and looking, it can be honestly said, like it and the pot for beans could spell each other in their respective duties, if light or the woman’s eyes faded and she inadvertently swapped one for the other, or if the fire grew too hot.
On the wall behind the washing pot hung four wooden mugs on pegs and two had been dripping as the woman, still appearing forlorn about the quality of the repast, plucked all four, alighting them on the table and producing from behind the tub a pitcher. Need there be said anything about it, hardly, but that it had also once, long ago, been carved from the branch of a large and old and perhaps important tree? She poured in deft sweeps.
“You’ll be wanting something to drink,” she said. “With the bread and beans.”
The pair when watched sometimes seemed to overlap in effort and sometimes seemed to be about their own busyness, but at all turnings seemed likely to be approaching and even pursuing a singular goal. A dance of sorts could be perceived, and there were occasional glances between the two. But anyone watching would do well not to assume they knew what the curlicuing moves meant, or that they had understood each glance. The meaning could be far from you, as distant to your decision as the four creatures in that kitchen were quite close to one another.
As if at the ceasing of a song, all four stopped, looked and sat.
The travelers set their packs at their feet, politely resisting their hosts offering to hang them in the hall, and choosing also that they keep wearing their coats.
“We’re a little cold, to be honest,” the girl said. Then adding, almost apologetically but perhaps not quite quickly enough, “which is why we’re so grateful for your kindness in opening your home to us. I mean,” she said, “you don’t even know us.”
“Oh,” the woman tutted at her and then to the fire as she turned and rose to stoke the coals. “Not to worry about that, sweet girl. We like an evening with visitors. Our lives can be lonely.”
Before she sat again, she hefted two stout stubs of wood from the corner pile. They looked for much of the world like an old-time circus performer’s rounded calves, and she tossed them on the fire. A shimmer of sparks rose, twinkled and hissed away into the air.
When the woman was again at the table the girl traveler set two fingers at the woman’s wrist, brushing lightly upward in one of those movements between women that often mean one wants to say emphatically to the other what has already been said twice or thrice, that surely they understand completely, and are together in some before all time kind of way.
The girl felt softness in the woman’s skin and strength below as if this elder had prepared many such meals over the years, and placed many such logs on many such fires.
Her traveling companion sighed and smiled at the beans and bread before him in the bowl and grasped his spoon.
“Looks good,” he said.
It sounded even to the old couple, who had not fully known what their guests’ reaction to the meal would be, as if he meant it. Sigh, cough, glance can mean many things but cold and hunger can also guide what we ought to take from them.
He began to eat, so quickly to where one could with reason wonder if he or anyone could taste at such a speed, so quickly that the older woman smiled at his ravening.
The young man pointed at the pot. It burbled at them as the new wood burned. Its forged top clanked with escaping steam.
“Smells rich enough for the whole week,” he said. He was careful to speak it in a light awe in, that is, a tone to show hospitality was appreciated, without abandoning honesty and absent that joviality old men see surely through if younger men attempt it.
He rose as if to take more, as if to honor the elder man’s work in growing the beans, and the woman’s in steeping them in that sauce, but his host was far the faster of the two and was up before him, and somewhat surprisingly so. He set the lid on the floor without so much as a towel to guard his gnarled fingers from the heat, scooped beans, set the ladle back in the pot, the lid back on the top, and sat down again.
He may have noticed the younger man’s gaze, because he spoke.
“These old bones,” said the man. “Well they are old. But when it comes to one’s work you find you can get the muscles to move. If that has been your habit to that point, I mean.”
The younger nodded. It may have been the man’s attempt at lesson, but one can’t always be sure.
“You’ll be wondering about my hands and the heat,” said the man. “Here, take them. Hold them for a moment.”
He held out his hands and the younger man grasped one. The older man immediately clapped the second over both, and the traveler, as if by instinct, brought his second hand swiftly into the fray as well. It occurred to each that he had not shook hands with the other, or maybe they had, at the door most likely, and they had not remembered because of the commonality of the measure.
Now, though, they gripped and lingered.
The younger man, any man watching would note, tested the elder’s strength, as young men will do. The older, beyond such concerns, from years of testing strength in other ways, let him, encouraged him even, by resisting, holding back, then releasing in pulsing slips and jabs of his own, just enough tensile response to arouse interest, to test the other and to communicate that here was reckoning.
The younger man also felt heat, though not quite the dissipating heat of a hand that had simply recently stirred a pot or felt a flame. This warmth was inside the man’s hand, steady as if always there, and surging along with the slightly increasing grip. It had the nature of heat: powerful, imposing and uncertain.
“You’re warm,” said the younger one.
“We’ve been here longer,” said the other.
The younger woman swallowed a bite of bread; there was a churned crunch of butter, salt sprinkled on it, and she had knifed a bit of it off the top with the harsh carved wooden wedge beside it, dabbing the cream onto the rough slab in her hand browned at the edges, soft and chewy nearer its center. Though she was certainly thirsty from walking she sipped only demurely at the full mug.
“This tastes sweet,” said the girl. “And summat kind of tingly.”
“We add some sugar,” said the woman. “And mint from the garden.”
“Anything else?” asked the girl. “I take recipes.”
“Can’t say,” said the old woman. “I keep secrets.”
They were smiling, but the meaning, whatever it was or had become may have been lost on the men, who snapped and chewed hungrily happily at beans, bread and butter.
“You sure you won’t let us take your coats,” said the old man in his best gallant voice. He nodded at the fire. “It must be warm now.”
“No, really,” said the younger. “It’s kind of like a uniform for us these days.”
He pulled a pipe from a pocket and replaced it, and indicated a sheaf of maps sprouting from another.
“We keep everything in here,” he said. “Be lost entirely without them, actually.”
He said it “eckshually” as if affecting an accent, and he might have meant it to lighten his own demurral of the older man’s request, a reluctance mirroring his partner’s reticent chewing.
“Understand that,” the man said. He was gruff, but not rueful. “I’d say we’ve got our own uniform as well, if it comes to it.”
And it seemed they had.
His shirt was tattered at the arms if it did not quite fit, and had been worn daily for some time, despairing with the woman herself of ever seeing repair, let alone mending. Truth be told, it would not have seemed even to belong to the man, perhaps not fit him as rightly as it should, as it should be expected, of store-bought togs perhaps.
And likewise the woman wore her dress as one that itself had been sewn, sewn and re-sewn severally, it seemed doubtlessly so.
For all this they looked spry. Not just in their well-practiced movings, but simply comfortable in their skins if not so much in this clothing, that did not look as if it belonged to them.
The four, sitting at the bowls around the table, arranged as if they might have been playing cards, each laughed lightly at this joke about uniforms.
The candle flickered.
Spoons rattled to table.
The hosts did not look as if they’d eaten much more since their guests had arrived. The young male hadn’t touched his second helping. The girl had eaten naught but buttered bread.
The old man had begun to grumble, the woman looked as if about to rise, it may have been to begin the washing up. The girl looked at her companion, who heard the grumble, checked the woman’s rise at a glance and returned the young girl’s gaze.
“Don’t suppose you get many visitors here, ‘specially at night,” he said.
“Not many,” said the old man. “One does get hungry for more.”
In a flash the man was up and sweeping all of it onto the floor in a great and calamitous Crash! and his gruff cough had grown to a glad growl, then to a snarl as the clattering spoons and bowls seemed to give permit, then a purchase, on the thousands of years of churning anger and ache and hunger and hate frothed full formed from his belly.
His claws were out now, and dug into the surface of the table, scraping not toward him, as you might expect, but toward his guests, pushing against the wood, carving into it, forearms growing massive before the travelers’ bulging eyes.
And his were not just claws, but claws on claws, two and three rows deep, like a sea creature’s ancient teeth like the talons of a bird with wings to blot the sun, raising dust whorls from the table and grinding closer to his guests.
The old crone had jumped at nearly the same time, though waiting as always for the signal from the other, that line about hunger, as if the words had to be spoken afirst to say this is what I feel, this is what is here in my gullet and craw and emptiness. She jumped backward not forward, giving the work over to her mate, but clucking her teeth in greed and glee as also because they grew in her mouth anticipating, and some emerged from that dripping draught in four fangs, two others having been long lost to age and use.
The male creature roared and his female screeched and again they both and each moved independent and in concert by design and desire.
So the travelers saw, almost too late but as they’d realized the moment before — a sureness becoming habitual the more and more it had happened in their hiking and in their happening, their seeking really, of beasts that live at the end of such unpromising side roads — before and just in time as they saw this hunger leap, as they’d grown certain it would.
And from below coats they would not remove, could not remove for deep promises they’d made, they now removed silver swords from sacred scabbards, the latter worn down from more years than you might expect, while the former sharp as ever, tiny threads of the water they carried resting along the inside of the scabbards and now engrasping the edges of blades slashing and singing, drowning the gut cries of the monsters dying at their feet.
Later, after they’d cleaned their swords in the fire and water, and replaced them in their scabbards, they took shorter knives from the silver felted pouches from the packs at their feet, and made the difficult work go quickly, and then washed and cleaned these tools as also the bowls, cups, spoons and, now, the table.
Producing bright white rags, damp and ready, they wiped all the room down, not because anyone would ever enter it again, or leave it for that matter, but because clean was better than not, and they had come to like things clean, and even to love them this way.
From the doorway, they threw these soiled rags in the fire, now burning with the pile of wood, that immense black pot now filled with more than just beans.
The morn had begun to mist, and walking was cool and easy.