A Short Story
I first saw Cain Adamson when I was eight years old. He wore a dirty overcoat over jeans and a hideous Christmas sweater. (I think he must have rescued it from a dumpster somewhere.) His clothes were shaded by an enormous hat. As he trundled a wheelbarrow along the old train tracks behind my house, he looked like any other vagrant.
One detail made him stand out, however—Cain was young. Most of the hobos who drifted past my house were grizzled old men. Even at the innocent age of eight, I could tell at a glance that the world had not been kind to them. They were lost, adrift in a cold, hungry world, and their faces showed it.
Cain looked like a man in his twenties. He looked, in fact, like someone impersonating a hobo for a stage play. His costume was perfect, from the muddy coat to the hat fluttering in the breeze. (I expected the wind to snatch it off his head and send it sailing into the sky like a paraglider.) Cain had a convincing prop in the form of his wheelbarrow, which was speckled in rust and covered with an old blanket.
Even the stage was ideal. My house stood on the outskirts of my little Indiana town, and not ten feet past my backyard ran an old set of train tracks. A line of trees lay beyond the tracks, and a cornfield beyond that. Those old tracks were the hobos’ highway: easy to navigate, somewhat sheltered from the wind, and out of sight of the police.
The costume, prop, and stage were flawless. The only problem was with the actor. Cain didn’t make a believable vagrant. He walked with a sense of purpose and urgency that none of his aimless contemporaries shared.
I saw him from my bedroom window, and watched him until he and his wheelbarrow passed out of sight. He made quite an impression on my young mind. My imagination suggested ten thousand stories for this mysterious wanderer. Could he be an undercover detective, or a criminal on the run? Was he a disinherited prince (unlikely in Indiana, but still exciting) or foreign spy?
Imagine, then, my wonder when he walked along those very tracks, going in the same direction, three years later, and again two years after that. His clothes had changed—he wore a beanie cap and leather jacket instead of the hat and overcoat—but I recognized him instantly.
Years passed as steadily as the traffic of vagrants along the tracks behind my house. I drifted from junior high to high school to college. At the weary age of twenty-one, I returned home from college one spring to visit my parents over a long weekend. It was then, as I sat on my back porch drinking coffee early in the morning, that I saw a familiar figure plodding through the mist along the tracks.
Cain had a new wheelbarrow—well, a less ancient wheelbarrow. It was newer than his old one, yet probably older than I. He wore a duster over a bathrobe (which looked exactly as ridiculous as it sounds) and a sweatshirt with slacks, and a cloth cap. As he passed my yard, I stared at his face. It hadn’t changed a bit.
To this moment, I’m not sure what came over me. It was unreal to glimpse this apparition from my childhood, and I suppose I didn’t want him to vanish again until I had found some answers. I set down my coffee, leaped off my porch, and ran out to the tracks to meet Cain Adamson.
“Good morning,” I said.
He looked me up and down. “You smell like coffee,” he said. His voice was as young as his face. “Spare a cup for an old man?”
I returned his searching glance. “Sure,” I replied. “You don’t seem dangerous—or old, come to that. Come on over to my porch, and I’ll get you some breakfast.”
Cain touched the brim of his cap. “I’ll stay just a few minutes,” he said.
“You’re welcome to stay all day.”
“A few minutes,” he repeated. “That’s all I can spare.”
“Well, excuse me,” I scoffed. “I didn’t realize you had such a full schedule, Mr.…?”
“Adamson. Cain Adamson.”
“Well, Mr. Cain Adamson, if you’ll deign to give me a few minutes of your valuable time, I’ll set you up with a bagel and some coffee.”
Cain parked his wheelbarrow in the grass next to my porch. I brought out a bagel, an extra cup, and the coffeepot. “Milk or sugar?” I asked.
“Surprise me,” said Cain, and then sank his teeth into the bagel.
“You’re welcome,” I said. I sat down and motioned to the other porch chair. “Have a seat, Mr. Adamson.”
“I can’t,” he mumbled through a mouthful of bagel.
I felt a touch of annoyance. “Have it your way, then: standing room only. At the very least, will you take off your cap?”
My guest shook his head, and I gave it up.
The sun was beginning to shine through the line of trees across the tracks from my house. Its beams stabbed the mist and crept across the wet grass toward Cain’s wheelbarrow.
“What have you got in there?” I asked.
Cain dusted bagel crumbs from his duster. “See for yourself. May I have another?”
After fetching more bagels, I stepped off the porch and grabbed the blanket covering the wheelbarrow. “Are you sure?” I asked.
I yanked off the blanket. The wheelbarrow contained an incredible jumble of books, jewelry, pictures, and miscellaneous junk, with a sword for good measure.
“Where’d you get this?” I asked, picking up the blade. It was one of the Japanese weapons called katanas—elegant, curved swords used by samurai.
“That old thing?” said Cain with visible pride. “That’s one of Miyamoto Musashi’s swords.”
“Nice try,” I said, smiling, “but there’s no way. Musashi is a legend. This is a nice old sword, but it’s not Musashi’s.”
“It is,” insisted Cain. “He gave it to me.”
It was then I realized Cain must be mentally unbalanced. Many vagrants are.
“Musashi lived hundreds of years ago,” I said. “He lived in Japan. That’s a long way from here.”
“It was 1644,” said Cain.
I stared at him as he selected another bagel. “I bumped into Musashi-san in a cave called Reigandō. Lovely place. Pity I couldn’t stay long. He gave me one of his swords and told me there was honor in wandering, the poor deluded fool.”
I was sure the only deluded fool in the whole business was Cain, but put back the sword without comment. He was clearly out of his mind, and I felt a little resentful that the wanderer from my childhood was nothing more than a crazy hobo. Cain had lost his mystique. Disappointed, I sifted through his treasures in the hope of finding something more interesting than their owner.
“What’s this?” I asked, flipping through a book. “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Whose autograph is that in the front? Who is—” I paused, squinting at the signature. “—Stephen Wright? I’ve never heard of him.”
“He’s the Ancient Mariner,” said Cain.
I chuckled bitterly. “Of course he is. Cain, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner was written centuries ago. Your edition of the book was printed in 1984. Even if the Mariner had been a real person, which he wasn’t, he would have died ages ago.”
“You haven’t actually read the poem, have you?” asked Cain. “As penance for his sin, the Mariner is cursed to wander the world and tell his story. He’s still wandering, waiting for the Final Judgment.”
I tossed the book back into the wheelbarrow.
“Careful!” said Cain. “That’s my only copy.”
“Where did you meet the Mariner?” I asked sardonically. “Neverland?”
“I met him in Ecuador last year,” replied Cain. “We bumped into each other in a park in Quito—that’s in the Andes Mountains, in case you didn’t know—and kept each other company till we reached Guayaquil on the coast. The book was a parting gift.”
“So you’ve been wandering for hundreds of years,” I concluded, and laughed. “You’re looking pretty good for your age, Cain.”
My guest frowned.
“Have you met many other old wanderers?” I persisted. “I’m guessing Stephen Wright wasn’t exactly a young man—he’s called the Ancient Mariner, after all.”
“I know you’re making fun of me,” said Cain. “For God’s sake, I’m not an idiot. Oh, don’t worry,” he added as I lost my grin, “I’m used to it. At least you’re feeding me. A bit of light mockery is a small price to pay for bagels.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I recognized you from when I was a kid, and I was hoping you were, I don’t know, a spy or an exiled prince or something. You’re just a man, and I was taking out my disappointment on you. I was sure you were someone special—I mean, you haven’t changed a bit in all these years!”
Cain Adamson took a long, contemplative drink of coffee. “I’ve changed a lot,” he murmured. “You just can’t see it.” He took a bite out of his bagel and continued, chewing, “To answer your earlier question, I’ve met a few immortals in my time. There was the Ancient Mariner of course, and the Wandering Jew, and Odysseus.”
“I’ve heard of the Wandering Jew,” I said. “He was cursed to wander forever after mocking Christ on his way to the Crucifixion. Odysseus is another story. He made it safely home to his family. I know it—I’ve read The Odyssey.”
“But have you read Dante’s Inferno?” inquired Cain. “Dante missed a few details, but he got two things right: Odysseus abandoned his home and family for more adventures, and his travels didn’t end well. What Dante never learned was that Odysseus was cursed to wander the earth till its end for his unfaithfulness to his family.”
The sun had risen higher, and the mist was clearing. For a few minutes, Cain and I sat in silence. I drank more coffee. He quietly finished off the last bagel.
“I’m seeing a pattern here,” I said at last. “Your imaginary friends are cursed to wander the world for all time.”
“I wish we were imaginary,” said Cain, and took a final swig of coffee. “Better not to have been born than to spend thousands of years walking back and forth, never stopping for more than a meal or a night’s rest, driven onward by the curse of God! We all deserve it. That doesn’t make it any less hellish. Ah, well,” he sighed. “At least I have my souvenirs.”
I glanced at his rusty wheelbarrow and its jumble of rubbish.
“I’ve been collecting for millennia,” said Cain. “Of course, I’ve thrown away most of it. Gathering souvenirs is hard when all you’ve got is a wheelbarrow! Still, it’s quite a collection. I’ve got a gold piece from Rumiñawi’s lost treasure, and Amelia Earhart’s compass, and an autographed picture of Morgan Freeman. None of it matters, but everyone needs a hobby.”
I stared at him as he rose from his chair, adjusted his duster over his bathrobe—it still looked ridiculous—and moseyed from the porch to his wheelbarrow.
“Goodbye, Cain,” I said. “One last thing before you go. I don’t believe your tall tales of immortal wanderers, but that doesn’t mean I’m not interested. What’s your story? How did you end up cursed to wander forever?”
Cain covered his wheelbarrow with its blanket, and then turned to me. “I killed a man,” he said. “Thanks for breakfast,” he added, and lifted his cap in gratitude. For an instant, I saw an ugly mark on his forehead before it was covered again by the dirty cap.
Cain Adamson trundled his wheelbarrow away from my yard, followed the train tracks, and passed out of my life back into legend.
Eternal wanderers are an intriguing literary motif. As far back as the book of Genesis in the Bible, people are forced to wander as punishment for their sins. I couldn’t help but notice the way this trope appears throughout literary history, from the Wandering Jew to the unlucky protagonist of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. (“Yes, I’ve read a poem. Try not to faint.”)
The motif of the cursed wanderer begged a question: What if these stories were all true? What if the earth were full of cursed sinners wandering until doomsday? Would they know each other? Would they form a club? How would they cope?
My original intention was to write a novel, perhaps titled Professional Wanderers, with the Wandering Jew as the protagonist and Cain as the villain. In the end, not having the time, I settled for this short story. I like the idea, though. Maybe, when I’m between jobs, I’ll expand this short story into a book… once I write The Eliot Papers and that detective novel, of course.
(I need more time to write.)
This short story was written as a backer reward for a donor to TMTF’s charity fundraiser. My thanks to that gentleman for allowing me to share the story here on the blog!