Every morning, I swept the street in front of my family’s shop. By evening, travelers, horses, and shabby cats who dragged filthy prey across our front step had covered the entire street with a layer of rubbish, brown-red dust, and fat clods. So I swept. I drove that broom across the dusty bricks, all the while plotting how I might sweep on and on up the street until I was far from my town. If I’d had so much as a few tarnished coins in my pocket, I might very well have swept my way to the next county. I plotted and planned, but could see no life other than that which I had. So I swept. Every morning, until Emlas became immortal.
The hot summer was nearly ended. The windows of my family’s shop sparkled in the bright morning light. A veritable rainbow of goods stacked in the shop’s windows invited all to enter and spend coin. Travelers and neighbors alike came to my family for flour, nails, or yarn. I folded bolts of cloth, polished silver thimbles, cooked with my mother. And swept the street.
One morning, I swept a mouse skull and a piece of string, the very things I would have hoarded as a child, into the growing pile of rubbish. I heard Emlas cough, smelled him before I saw him. Liquor and goat smell. Heard him stop near me.
I still swept, kept my eyes on my task. A minute or an hour, as long as it would take, I would sweep until the bricks nearly gleamed. A girl my age had no business talking to a strange man anyhow. My father would kill him and me both. I hated my life, but not that much.
Emlas coughed a second time, scraped his old boot near where I’d just swept.
“H’llo, Miss,” he said, and tipped his tattered hat in my direction. “I wonder if you’d care to earn some good coin?” Emlas’s voice was the rasping squeak of a nail scraped across an anvil. Ragged and high-pitched.
Emlas was a petty thief and former snake-oil salesman, a beaten-down nearly dead washed-up thespian who was said to have had a fine voice in his youth. He was a little younger than my father, but his face—pocked, lined, rarely clean shaven—was gaunt. The skin under his haunted eyes was bluish. His long hair was stringy and oily. His fingers were gnarled and scarred. His clothes, although clean, were ragged and patched.
I swept, turned away from him.
“Yes, and you’re not to talk to men, of course.” He coughed again. “‘Course, you might happen to find this fine coin on the ground and do me a favor. . . .” A coin fell on the clean bricks, rang out like a small bell; it fairly sang to me. A copper coin. My coin. It glinted in the morning sun; a wink from the gods to me.
I tried to peer at Emlas without him noticing.
“A clever girl like you who can write . . .” Emlas opened his worn leather pouch of tobacco, speaking nearly under his breath, just mad old Emlas talking to his pouch of smokable herbs.
“Everyone knows you can write, Miss. And I need someone clever. Someone who might happen to keep sweeping, just like she does every morning, until she’s far past her father’s shop. Until she reaches the end of the street where the druggist lives. And if she were to sweep a small note under his stoop tomorrow morning, she’d surely find more coin tucked under the broken-down fence post where her father used to keep goats.”
Another coin fell. Silver. Emlas rolled a cigarette.
“And all the note would say, the only words that note would hold, are three words that I myself do not know how to write. ‘Yes. I. Can.’ And after the druggist reads the note, the note which he will expect, a few more coins will be tucked under the same broken-down post.”
I swept faster again, concentrating on the blown-around straw, feathers, and leaves.
“And were this girl to be trying to say ‘yes,’ she will, as I walk away, sweep the coins over to where she can pick them up later without being seen.” Emlas struck a wooden match against the stone exterior of our shop. He lit his cigaret and strolled away as casually as a man who’d merely paused to glance in the shop window and light a match.
I swept the coins to a mound where grass used to grow, then swept dirt over them, to be gathered up after dark, the same time I’d write the three words.
That note was not the only one I’d write for Emlas. He never appeared at any regular time. I’d find coins under the post one night, and the following day when I swept or ran errands for my parents, he appeared as if by coincidence. He’d roll himself a smoke and mutter, “Two words this time. ‘Two. Weeks.’ Same druggist’s shop.”
Emlas perfected a routine in which he’d pass me on the street walking with a slight shuffle in his gait, as if he were trying to dance like in his youth. He’d singsong a raspy tune: “Old man. Old man. Old man. I say, ‘Yes.'” Or “When I was a lad and young I spent my time in Lenderville. In Lenderville an old man said, ‘How can I?'” And once, a cryptic verse: “I am but a man, I am, indeed, but it is wrote, a man I will not stay.”
What replies he had, if any, I do not know.
The busy street, from the crossroads at one end near my family’s shop to just past the old druggist’s, was always tidy by noon, ready for the remaining day’s barrage of travelers, horses, and preying cats.
The precious coins I saved in scattered hiding places, away from my parents and brothers. I counted them every few days. Some silver, some copper, all good. I never bothered to worry where Emlas got the coins from. Each coin was a blessing from the gods. Each coin was my freedom.
One morning, the summer dust was pocked by a few heavy drops of rain, the first herald of autumn. I swept as I would on any dry summer day. Emlas stumbled by but gave me no instructions that day. When a heavy rain fell in the night I peered out the window at the lightning illuminating the other houses and shops, and the yard that once held goats.
Emlas, briefly lit, appeared beside the fence post. By the time the next flash brightened the yard, he was gone. I waited all morning, sweeping slowly up and down the street, brushing the fresh mud away with old fury and newfound purpose, but Emlas never appeared. I did see the druggist hunting around his stoop, one hand clutching a bright blue bottle. He looked up and down the street several times. When my mother called me home, the druggist was still searching.
The rain fell harder that night, and well into the morning. I couldn’t go outside in the rain to pick up my coin. And I could not sweep. I stood in the doorway of the shop clutching the broom, my rage eating what little heart I had. Emlas came down the street in the pouring rain.
I stepped out, I hoped unseen, and crept along the edge of the street in front of the shop. Emlas looked me right in the eye as he passed.
“You’re a good girl. There’s another coin for you and one last coin if you fetch a bottle from under the druggist’s stoop today.” He raised his face to the stormy sky. “Got to be done today, my dear. I think the street ought to be cleaned of this rubbish the wind has brought.”
So I swept. Along the edges of houses and shops. Up and up the wet brick street. The rain soaked my back and shoulders.
I swept. Grabbed every leaf, pebble, and mouse turd I could, and drove them across the wet street and farther. I swept debris into the wee rivulets that ran between the bricks. I heard the travelers whisper about the mad girl who swept in torrential rain.
I swept until I reached the druggist’s shop. There, I edged the broom under the stoop around and around, but found nothing. I got down on my knees and peered under the rotting stoop. Blinked to see in the darkness. A dead mouse, some moldy straw, a rock. I pushed the handle of the broom far under the stoop until it hit something. Lying on my stomach, impervious to the wet, chill, and mud, I reached far back to the end of the stoop and touched glass with one fingertip. Using broom handle and fingers alternately, I withdrew the beautiful blue bottle. Even on that gray day it shone as if noon sunlight was glinting off it. I stood up and pocketed it, wondering if I should slip it under the post for Emlas. I ran down the street, crazy mud-covered girl. By the post I fell to my knees and began to dig, clods of mud spattering the rain-cleaned street.
Emlas’s cough startled me. “Aye, girl, good girl,” he said, reaching out a gnarled hand.
I handed him the bottle, grabbed the coin he’d left for me the previous night, and kicked the dirt back around the post.
Emlas kissed the bottle and hugged it to his chest.
“Listen, girl . . . I’ve never talked to you, and all that’s been under the post was shiny buttons or colorful rocks.” He uncorked the bottle and drank greedily from it. The bottle glinted even then, shone as if from within. Emlas shuddered, wiped his mouth on his raggedy sleeve.
I nodded, noticed for the first time his green eyes. He withdrew another coin, this one gold, and began to hand it to me.
Then my father roared, snatched the coin from Emlas’s fingers, and shoved him to the ground.
Emlas jumped up with more energy than I’d thought possible, and leaped away from my father’s swinging punch.
“It is all noble, I assure you. I fell and she helped me up. I wished to give her a coin for the trouble. But of course I should not have, never, never.” Emlas bowed. “I will atone, amend. I will marry your daughter, sir, and give you a goat as a dowry.”
“A goat?” My father paused, then spat. “She’s too young to marry. She hasn’t had her first blood yet,” he lied.
“Then I will return for her. And I will give you the goat in advance.” And Emlas ran away.
I was beaten until I could hardly walk, but to tell my father the truth meant to lose all my precious coins. My future.
The next day was as warm and dry as the summer days had been. I swept, supervised by two brothers. Only the thought of my hoarded coins kept me from screaming.
That night the rain fell with a fury that matched my own. The thunder shook our shop and rattled the goods that were lined so neatly on its shelves.
“Quickly,” one of my brothers called us. “A madman says that he can catch the thunder in his hands. Come see!”
We all raced after my brother, even my mother and father. We ran until we reached the fountain in front of the town hall.
The madman was Emlas, standing in the fountain, waving a tall metal pole, and taking up a collection.
“Every single coin returned to this town if I do not survive!” he bellowed. “So be as generous as you can, good people.”
“You thief!” my father shouted at him. “You drifter, you philanderer! This man tried to give money to my daughter!” The crowd, however, could not hear my father’s accusations over the rain and thunder, and Emlas’s bellow.
But Emlas heard. He turned to me. His face had grown youthful and smooth, his complexion robust. “I want a wife who is clever!” he shouted over the crowd. “I want a wife who can write and count! I want a wife who will come away with me tonight! I’ll give her father enough money for two goats!” He looked directly at me. I stepped behind one of my brothers to hide from him.
Meanwhile, the townspeople tossed coins, good and bad, into Emlas’s passed hat. When the hat reached me, I peered in at the collection of silver and copper, buttons and stones. I handed it to the next person without adding to it.
The thunder roared and Emlas’s face lit up when the lightning flashed. “Marry me!” he shouted in my direction.
“No,” I whimpered, and thought of my hoarded coins to give me strength. Emlas dashed through the rain to me. He was only a little older than I was. He whispered over the thunder and I heard: “I need a scribe, not a wife. Meet me at the northbound road when the clock in the town hall tower strikes twelve. I’ll give your father coin enough to buy three good goats.”
I blinked against a new flash of lightning. Emlas was nowhere near me.
He was, instead, still standing in the fountain, holding the pole upright. Emlas yelled like the dead trying to escape Hades. Lightning flashed four times before it struck his upheld pole. The crowd shrieked and yelled. Bolts struck his torso and head. Emlas convulsed. Smoke and sparks streamed from him. I thought surely he was killed.
Then the pole dropped and Emlas fell backwards into the fountain’s water, sputtered, rose, and held his arms up victoriously.
The crowd became silent. Then:
Several men and women crowded around Emlas, threatening death. He raced swiftly through them, and leapt over a high wall. The crowd, bellowing and shaking their fists, tried to follow him. Others quickly fled home, among them my father and mother, dragging me and my brothers along.
I tossed in my little bed. Under my nightshirt I wore my brother’s discarded trousers and shirt; under my bed I had stored a blanket with what few clothes I owned. And my coins. Every precious one, save the gold coin my father had taken from Emlas. By the time the clock bells rang out midnight I was huddled in a field by the northbound road just outside the town.
The rain had stopped. Crickets whispered to me, mice rustled through the damp grass. A half moon shone with hardly a cloud passing over it. No one came until well after our appointed meeting time. The clatter of hooves stirred me from a light sleep. Emlas, riding a handsome horse that might well have belonged to the mayor, passed me without a glance. I sat still and watched him pass. Then I stood up, brushed the dirt from my trousers, and grinned. And jingled my pouch of coins, my fortune. By dawn I was walking alone as far from the town, the shop, and the broom as I could.
Though my coins did not last as far as I wished, they got me far enough. I made my living without Emlas: a scribe to a respectable lady; a woman who wrote for those who could not; a tale-teller finally. I spoke of what I had seen and spun nonsense no one had heard.
And I have seen Emlas, and I vow this tale is true: now my own face is wrinkled and my death time draws nearer, yet Emlas still has the youthful face he had the night he stood in the fountain. He walks as steadily as a young dancer. He juggles with grace and ease, and plays stringed instruments with nimble fingers. He sings in a voice as sweet as cold water on a hot dry day. And he sells grand promises of renewed health and returned vigor, all from a concoction in a bright blue bottle.
Recently, I stood among the gathered crowd. Emlas had played his songs, and held a brilliant blue bottle to the sun. Emlas’s youthful eyes met my ancient ones.
“A bit for you, dear lady?”
I shook my head—my own longings had long ago been fulfilled—but kept my place in the crowd. A few hands rose, waved coin and paper money, bought the promise of health. Blue bottles were dispersed among the crowd, blue bottles and green and red; a concoction for every ailment.
When at last the crowd had dispersed, Emlas packed his wares. I circled his wagon slowly. He seemed not to know me, and I wondered if perhaps he did not recognize me. But then he pulled a broom from among his wares, and swept, slowly, until he reached the back of the wagon where I stood.
He tipped the broom in my direction, and winked. “H’llo, Miss.”