1. Homeward Bound
The old man paused his journey under the welcoming shadow of a pine tree to catch his breath. Leaning against the trunk, he raised his left foot and glared at the hole in his sole. He needed new shoes – soon. Stuffing those old boots with newspapers wouldn't get him much further. He sighed and reached in his backpack for his water bottle. He found it empty but for a couple of mouthfuls – not enough to soothe his burning throat.
Shading his eyes with his palm, he glanced ahead. The town was a few miles down the road, but a lone house stood in between. Perhaps luck favored him and good people lived there. He dusted his brown jacket, picked up his backpack and had just started walking, when a sparrow flitted above his head. He raised his hand.
"What news, Niben?"
The sparrow perched on his finger and cocked his head. "There's the sign of a cat on the mailbox, Master Radagast."
Radagast smiled. In hobo code, the cat sign identified the resident of the house as a kind lady.
In a little while, he found himself outside the garden gate, under the branches of a cherry tree. A white tomcat napped on the branch right above the door. With Niben perched on his shoulder, Radagast reached out to push the door open.
"Well met, Master Radagast."
His hand froze in mid air he raised his gaze to the cat. "You know me?"
"Obviously." The cat yawned. "In another life. In a white city."
"Ah." Radagast shifted his weight from one foot to the other. Memories of past glory and past sorrow flashed in his head. How strange to meet someone from the old world here! "Do you have a name, my friend?"
The cat's green eyes darted from Radagast to the house and back. "She calls me Mr. Whiskers, but my real name is Isilme the White." He stretched his right foreleg in a fluid, languid motion. "And I see you've brought me a treat. How kind of you." He eyed Niben and licked his whiskers.
Under the hungry stare of the cat, Niben trembled on Radagast's shoulder. "Monster! Don't let him get me, Master Radagast!"
"Do not fear, Niben." He fixed his gaze on the cat. "This sparrow is not prey."
Isilme yawned again. "Whatever. I'll leave him alone, for old times' sake." His wagging tail told otherwise. "So, you've come to see Misses Beth?"
"I had hoped that the lady of the house would spare some food for a tired traveler."
"She'll do that, yes. She feeds every wretched soul that knocks on our door. As if she doesn't have enough of my kin to look after," mumbled Isilme and climbed from the branch to the fence and on the ground. "Come, I'll escort you inside."
Radagast pushed the garden door open and followed the cat, who had already reached the front door and scratched it furiously. A middle-aged woman, her hair silver and her clothes black, opened the door. Radagast held his breath. Her eyes, clear under arched brows, focused on his face and, for a heartbeat, the shadow of remembrance crossed her face. Then Isilme mewed and rubbed his head against her legs. The shadow vanished, her lips curled to a warm smile and she stepped backwards, holding the door open.
Radagast clenched his backpack to his chest. "Good evening, ma'am. If you could spare some leftovers for an old man?"
"Of course." Isilme rolled over, purring loudly, exposing his ample belly. Her smile widened. "Mr. Whiskers likes you, and heavens know he's picky. You must be a good man, Please, come in."
The scent of cinnamon and apples filled his nostrils as he closed the door behind him. She led him to a small but cozy kitchen, and served him shepard's pie at the table by the window with the white-laced curtains. Niben landed at the windowsill outside, and Isilme climbed on the chair beside Radagast, watching closely the route of each spoonful from the plate to his mouth.
Misses Beth brought a pitcher of lemonade to the table and sat across him. "Mr. Whiskers, leave him alone to eat." She patted her lap, inviting the cat.
Isilme blinked and ignored her.
She sighed and took out her knitting. "Purl one, knit one, knit two…"
Radagast watched her as he ate in silence. The shadow of an old sorrow lurked in the lines of her face: the burden of a barren womb.
"…knit four, knit five…"He had never met her, but he had heard of her. In a time now lost in grief and sorrow, intolerance and cruel judgment had set her adrift to the north wind on a black-sailed ship. When her mortal coil perished, her soul sailed on, ever-seeking a welcoming harbour. Those she loved sailed with her, purring, velvet-pawed satellites to her travelling soul, drawn to that kind of love that alienates humans and befriends the beasts of the earth.
"...purl one, knit one..." She glanced at him. "Have you been travelling long?"
"Yes." He took a sip of lemonade, the bittersweet taste awakening memories of cold spring mornings in the forests of another land. "I'm going home."
She smiled. "Still a long way to go?"
He glanced at Isilme, his green eyes ever-watching, knowing. He smiled back at her. "A few days to the west."
"You have family there?"
"Family and friends." He finished his lemonade and stood. "I have no words to thank you, ma'am. I'll be going now." He offered her his hand.
She put her knitting aside and stood. She shook his hand, her grip firm, and the veil of her clouded memory seemed to part from her gaze. "I had hoped to travel west too, once. But I'm needed here." She glanced at Isilme, who arched his back and purred. White fur littered her black blouse.
"I see." If he looked sideways, out of the corner of his eye, Radagast could almost see a long forgotten emblem form upon her breast: a white tree beneath a crown and many-pointed stars.
She released her hand. "Safe journey, my good man."
He bowed his head and left. Isilme escorted him to the front yard. Niben came to greet him, and Radagast adjusted his coat and backpack.
"So, you're going West?" Isilme licked his forepaw.
Radagast nodded. "Perhaps you want to come along? I know you have kin in the Undying Lands, and Cirdan values feline contribution when it comes to vermin control in his ships."
Isilme's eye narrowed. "Are you a fool, Bird-Tamer? You expect me to work?" He glanced back at the house. When he spoke again, his voice was kinder. "And I don't have the heart to leave her behind. Farewell." He turned around and trotted back inside, his tail erect and trembling.
Radagast had barely left the house, heading for the road west, when another ragged man in an old army jacket crossed his path. The stranger scratched his beard and flashed his crooked smile at him.
"Mornin', mate." He nodded at the house. "Are they good people?"
The man in earthen brown smiled back, the memory of another life still warm in his heart. "Yes. The lady of the house is a real queen."
About the title:
Bill Bryson suggests in Made in America that it [hobo] could either come from the railroad greeting, "Ho, beau!" or a syllabic abbreviation of "homeward bound".
About Queen Berúthiel:
"She was the nefarious, solitary, and loveless wife of Tarannon, Berúthiel lived in the Kings house in Osgiliath, hating the sounds and smells of the sea and the house that Tarannon built below Pelargir at Ethir Anduin. She hated all making, all colors and elaborate adorment, wearing only black and silver and living in bare chambers, and the gardens of the house in Osgiliath were filled with tormented sculptures benieth cypresses and yews. She had nine black cats and one white, her slaves, with whom she conversed, or reead their memories, setting them to discover all the dark secrets of Gondor, so that she knew those things " That men wish most to keep hidden", setting the white cat to spy upon the black, and tormenting them. No man in Gondor dared touch them; all were afraid of them, and cursed when they saw them pass. At last King Tarannon had her set on a ship alone with her cats and set adrift on the sea before a North wind. The ship was last seen flying past Umbar under a sickle Moon, with a cat at the masthead and another as a figure-head on the prow. And her name was erased from the Book of the Kings."
Unfinished Tales, Part 4, Ch II The Istari Note 7
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