"peak sweetly to the devil, until you're both over the bridge."
Transylvanian proverb

n a country of mad forests and night, there was an open plain, and pitiless sunlight.

A man dressed as a clown was running for his life across the plain.

A baked-clay track, the only road for miles, reflected the sun's heat and made the man sweat as he ran along it. He was staggering a little as he ran, for he had been running a long while and he was fat, and the silken drawers of his clown costume had begun to work their way down his thighs. It was a particularly humiliating costume, too. It made him look like a gigantic dairymaid.

His tears, of terror and despair, ran down with his sweat and streaked the clown-white, graying his big moustache; the lurid crimson circles on his cheeks had already run, trickling pink down his neck. His straw-stuffed bosom had begun to slip, too, working its way down his dirndl, and now it dropped from beneath his petticoat like a stillbirth. Gasping, he halted to snatch it up, and peered fearfully over his shoulder.

No sign of his pursuers yet; but they were mounted and must catch up with him soon, on this long straight empty plain. There was no cover anywhere, not so much as a single tree. He ran on, stuffing his bosom back in place, whimpering. Gnats whined in his ears.

Then, coming over a gentle swell of earth, he beheld a crossroads. There was his salvation!

A team of slow horses drew two wagons, like the vardas of the Romanies but higher, and narrower, nor were they gaily painted in any way. They were as black as the robe of scythe-bearing Death. Only: low, small and ominous, in white paint in curious antiquated letters, they bore the words: MOTHER AEGYPT.

The man wouldn't have cared if Death himself held the reins. He aimed himself at the hindmost wagon, drawing on all his remaining strength, and pelted on until he caught up with it.

For a moment he ran desperate alongside, until he was able to gain the front and haul himself up, over the hitch that joined the two wagons. A moment he poised there, ponderous, watching drops of his sweat fall on hot iron. Then he crawled up to the door of the rear wagon, unbolted it, and fell inside.

The driver of the wagons, hooded under that glaring sky, was absorbed in a waking dream of a place lost for millennia. Therefore she did not notice that she had taken on a passenger.

he man lay flat on his back, puffing and blowing, too exhausted to take much note of his surroundings. At last he levered himself up on his elbows, looking about. After a moment he scooted into a sitting position and pulled off the ridiculous lace milkmaid's cap, with its braids of yellow yarn. Wiping his face with it, he muttered a curse.

In a perfect world, he reflected, there would have been a chest of clothing in this wagon, through which he might rummage to steal some less conspicuous apparel. There would, at least, have been a pantry with food and drink. But the fates had denied him yet again; this was nobody's cozy living quarters on wheels. This wagon was clearly used for storage, holding nothing but boxes and bulky objects wrapped in sacking.

Disgusted, the man dug in the front of his dress and pulled out his bosom. He shook it by his ear and smiled as he heard the clink-clink. The gold rings were still there, some of the loot with which he'd been able to escape.

The heat within the closed black box was stifling, so he took off all his costume but for the silken drawers. Methodically he began to search through the wagon, opening the boxes and unwrapping the parcels. He began to chuckle.

He knew stolen goods when he saw them.

Some of it had clearly been lifted from Turkish merchants and bureaucrats: rolled and tied carpets, tea services edged in gold. But there were painted icons here too, and family portraits of Russians on wooden panels. Austrian crystal bowls. Chased silver ewers and platters. Painted urns. A whole umbrella-stand of cavalry sabers, some with ornate decorations, some plain and ancient, evident heirlooms. Nothing was small enough to slip into a pocket, even if he had had one, and nothing convenient to convert into ready cash.

Muttering, he lifted out a saber and drew it from its scabbard.

As he did so, he heard the sound of galloping hooves. The saber dropped from his suddenly-nerveless fingers. He flattened himself against the door, pointlessly, as the hoofbeats drew near and passed. He heard the shouted questions. He almost - not quite - heard the reply, in a woman's voice pitched very low. His eyes rolled, searching the room for any possible hiding place. None at all: unless he were to wrap his bulk in a carpet, like Cleopatra.

Yet the riders passed on, galloped ahead and away. When he realized that he was, for the moment, safe, he collapsed into a sitting position on the floor.

After a moment of listening to his heart thunder, he picked up the saber again.

t was night before the wagon halted at last, rumbling over rough ground as it left the road. He was still crouched within, cold and cramped now. Evidently the horses were unhitched, and led down to drink at a stream; he could hear splashing. Dry sticks were broken, a fire was lit. He thought of warmth and food. A light footfall approached, followed by the sound of someone climbing up on the hitch. The man tensed.

The door opened.

There, silhouetted against the light of the moon, was a small pale spindly-looking person with a large head. A wizened child? It peered into the wagon, uncertainty in its big rabbitlike eyes. There was a roll of something - another carpet? - under its arm.

"Hah!" The man lunged, caught the other by the wrist, hauling him in across the wagon's threshold. Promptly the other began to scream, and he screamed like a rabbit too, shrill and unhuman. He did not struggle, though; in fact, the man had the unsettling feeling he'd grabbed a ventriloquist's dummy, limp and insubstantial within its mildewed clothes.

"Shut your mouth!" the man said, in the most terrifying voice he could muster. "I want two things!"

But his captive appeared to have fainted. As the man registered this, he also became aware a woman was standing outside the wagon, seeming to have materialized from nowhere, and she was staring at him.

"Don't kill him," she said, in a flat quiet voice.

Image Copyright 2004 By Mike Dringenberg, used with permission

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