The Peddler

Boots’s Pick
Edward Rodosek


“Tara,” Marcel glanced at me over the newspaper, “the Bodoni Circus came into town yesterday.”

“Bodoni? I’ve heard about it.” I didn’t stop mincing the greens I was preparing. “Shall we go?”

He smiled. “You don’t care a pin for circus shows, Tara. But I know you’re mad about the fortune-telling.”

I stopped my work and gazed askance at him.

“Okay, okay,” he consented. “We could take a peep. Maybe they have some interesting animals.”

I chuckled. “I hope you don’t try to bribe some tamer to allow you to wash an elephant like you did last time.”

The doorbell buzzed and Marcel glanced through the window at the front yard. “It’s Bill. He surely brought me the last issue of Threatened Nature.”

I saw him talking with the postman. Then the local tramp, Ida, hobbled along the sidewalk pushing her shopping cart and Marcel gave her some change. Coming back, he waved at our neighbor, Stillman, who was out watering his geraniums.

Our cat, Kitty, entered the kitchen with Marcel. When he bowed down and caressed her, Kitty jumped up on a chair. He gave her a small vanilla cake from the jar.

“Why do you feed Kitty so much?” I objected. “Look how fat she is.”

“Oh, she’s just mad about those vanilla cakes,” he said smiling.

*

Our old Ford inched through the dense crowd in the City Amusement Park.

“It’s hopeless,” Marcel said. “We’ll never find a free parking space.”

“Look,” I shouted, “there on the left!”

He made a sharp curve into the last free space. I stepped out of the car onto the soaked grass, but the mud presented a slippery obstacle.

“Give me your hand, Cinderella,” Marcel said, “or you’ll lose your shoe.”

I chuckled. “Oh, Prince Charming, thank you so much. Where is the ticket office?”

We started to hustle through the crowd to a deafening roll of drums. A brass band thundered, and sawdust stuck to the mud that was already caking our shoes. Finally, we managed to find seats on a bench pressed between a fat man and a mother with a whimpering baby on her lap.

The show was already in full swing; in the middle of the arena, a huge cage was set and the tamer in it cracked his whip.

“Look, Tara,” Marcel’s eyes widened. “The tigers—four, five, six! Aren’t they magnificent?”

Soon the workers removed the cage and the elephants came in, holding one another by the tail. After them riders appeared showing their customary skill on the galloping horses, and then not too brilliant trapeze artists, and then a pretty dull snake-man. There were all the usual circus appearances but none of them were any more than average.

I glimpsed at Marcel who was trying to subdue his yawning. I neared my lips to his ear and he nodded with relief. While we got up and squeezed out of the big tent, the uproar behind us became more bearable.

I took Marcel’s arm and we walked along the row of brightly decorated stalls and countless little twinkling lights.

“Where do you wish to go now?” he asked.

“Wait,” I said. “I think we shouldn’t need to search for too long.” After several steps, I stopped and pointed to the left.

“Aha, I knew it; that was the real reason we came here.” In a loud voice he read the worn-out inscription over the entrance to a small cabin. “‘The Omniscient Fatima—your past, your future, useful advice for you’. Oh, what a cliché! Do you really want to enter?”

“What a silly question. Give me a tenner.”

He sighed and handed me the bill.

“Will you wait here for me, Marcel? I won’t be too long inside—ten, maybe fifteen minutes at most.”

“That’s out of the question. I’m going to find a tent with beautiful young belly dancers. Maybe they’ll also serve the arrack and an opium pipe.”

I frowned.

“Okay,” he added. “I’m going to look around the nearby stalls and I’ll be back here in twenty minutes or so.”

*

When I went out again—confused and disappointed—Marcel wasn’t there yet. Of course, I had only been inside five minutes.

I still couldn’t grasp why had the fortune-teller behaved in such an odd manner. After she had taken the tenner, she offered me a crystal ball, prophesying from coffee grounds or reading the future from my hand.

Madam Fatima was babbling all the time while I reached out my left palm and she held it under the table lamp. Instantly she became silent and her bronzed face went noticeably numb. She released my hand, got up, gave the tenner back to me, and began to excuse herself.

“Sorry, Ma’am. Regretfully I couldn’t see anything from your palm. My magic power is helpless in your case; that happens sometimes, you know.”

She neither replied to my question nor did she listen to my objections.

“Sorry again, ma’am, no hard feelings.” Then she helped me, gently but firmly, out of her cabin.

That damned gypsy must have been nuts, no doubt about that. And I was crazy for persuading Marcel to visit that silly circus. I should simply forget the entire incident.

I took a walk to the nearest sweets stall and ordered a coffee. After about twenty minutes, I decided to return to the fortune-teller’s cabin.

Marcel wasn’t there yet, so I ambled through the stalls looking around. Then I noticed a dark, lonely figure standing aside with his back to the crowd.

“Hey, Marcel!”

He turned as if he had just waked up and his strange, absentminded gaze amazed me.

“Where have you been, Marcel? Is everything okay?”

He nodded without saying a word and stepped up to me. Then he pulled the car keys out of his pocket and without looking at me, he headed toward our car. Trying to keep pace with him, I looked at his profile and noticed he was… he was different in a way.

His expression was severe, lips tightly pressed, a protruding chin, his gaze fixed straight forward. Had Marcel always been that way? No, it was different. For heaven’s sake, I surely know my husband after seven years of marriage.

His silence made me nervous. “Did you find anything interesting?” I inquired.

Marcel shrugged his shoulders, still avoiding my eyes.

I wanted to know and I didn’t want to stop asking until I found out. “You’ve certainly visited the lion’s cubs? Or a hypnotist? The House of Ghosts?”

He shook his head repeatedly and that irritated me. “Damn it, don’t be so mysterious! Where have you been?”

Marcel hesitated. “I was at a peddler’s. His tent stood at the south end of the alley.”

“At a peddler? What was he selling? Did you find anything worth buying?”

Marcel shrugged again. “He didn’t have anything I wanted. So we just talked for a while.”

“You talked with a total stranger—what about?”

“Oh, I don’t remember. About this and that. Nothing in particular.”

“I don’t believe that,” I commented. “It must have been more then nothing in particular for you to look so absentminded now.”

“I am not absentminded.” His voice became gruff. “I don’t know what you want from me.”

He unlocked the car and we scarcely entered as he drove away even before I had time to fasten my seat belt.

Neither of us broke the silence all the way home.

Marcel garaged the car while I went upstairs to our bedroom. I undressed and stretched out on the sheets. There were no signs that my husband would come after me. I picked up a book but after some time I realized I didn’t have a clue what I was reading. So, I turned the light off but I wasn’t sleepy at all. I lay on the bed, miserable, hopeless, exhausted, and confused. Finally, I went to the bathroom, looked for a sleeping pill, and washed it down with a gulp of unpleasant tepid water.

All I needed now was a good, long sleep. In the morning, everything will be okay, as always.

*

I didn’t know how long I had slept when a brutal hand grabbed me and turned me over on my back. What…? Only a moment later I realized it was Marcel.

“Hey, wait!” I protested. “If you suddenly want sex, this is not a way to—”

Marcel’s hand covered my mouth and before I managed to push him away, he parted my legs with his knees. I resisted and tried to tumble aside but his body was heavy. He took me violently, without any kisses, and without any foreplay, as if I were a whore. He didn’t care a bit about my rage and it didn’t disturb him in the least. I felt only disgust and shame.

Luckily, he finished quickly and tumbled from me on to his side of the bed. Tears of despair fell down my cheeks; I started to strike him with my hands, I punched him with clenched fists—his back, his arms and legs and the pillow with which he protected his head.

Finally, I could only sob. I tottered to the bathroom and started to rub my body with a soaped sponge. I stayed under the warm shower so long I nearly fell asleep in the shower. Feeling dizzy I descended the stairs into the living room, grabbed a pillow and a blanket and lay down on the sofa bed.

*

The sun streaming through the living room windows woke me at eleven. I had a swollen tongue and a repulsive taste in my mouth. I got up and then I recalled what had happened the night before. An odd mixture of feelings flashed through my mind—disbelief, anger, and humiliation.

Marcel was on duty, thank God, so he wouldn’t return before six. By then I would have to decide what I should do. How I should behave? What would be proper to say to him? But, that wasn’t just an ordinary quarrel, damn it! It was… It was something I couldn’t understand. It was as if I had dealings with a stranger instead with my Marcel, my husband, whom I had known all those years.

I pondered at least a dozen possibilities about how I should behave and I discarded them one after another. Not scolding, not reproaching, not a threat of divorce—nothing seemed proper to me. I puttered around the house, tried to tidy up the rooms, displaced things aimlessly and then put them back. Before I realized the time had passed, I heard the well-known sound of Marcel’s car.

Oh, God, was it possible that it was already six o’clock? My pulls fastened, my mouth was dry and my palms wet. I sat down in the armchair against the door so I could see his face the moment he entered. I heard Marcel’s steps coming near and then he entered the living room.

“You are not Marcel, are you?” I heard saying myself. “Who the devil are you?”

“I don’t know what you are talking about.” He needed only a few seconds to overcome his first surprise. His gaze seemed soulless.

“You are not my husband.” I stared at his stern features. “I want my husband—I want my real Marcel to come back! He shall love me again, the way he loved me earlier, all those years!”

He glared at me. “Tara, you’re either drunk or out of your mind.” His voice was restrained, his attitude steady.

“What… Oh, God, what happened at that damned peddler’s? What has that devil done with you? Did he implant something in you… some demon?” I was on the brink of tears and I felt my fists clenching so hard my nails thrust into my palms. “Answer me, damn you!”

“Why should I answer you?” His voice remained indifferent. “You just said I was not your husband. I’m somebody else, a stranger. Therefore you haven’t any right to ask me personal questions.” Calm and self-controlled, he walked into his study and closed the door.

I wanted to go after him and confront him head on. I wanted to say him he had no right to treat me the way he did. But I couldn’t do that. All my arguments seemed unconvincing and my entire imagination vanished.

I was still sitting in the armchair when he came out of the study dressed in an old sweater and flannels. The odd thing was that I felt an embarrassment while he obviously didn’t. He took armfuls of books from the shelves and carried them out into our backyard. I was dumbfounded for among these discards were five or six complete bounded volumes of Threatened Nature, his favorite magazine.

Not long after that, I noticed the smell of smoke. I went to the window and saw Marcel burning the magazines inside an old steel barrel. I didn’t understand. He loved these magazines and before yesterday he had been literally obsessed with reading them.

I went to the kitchen to make a sandwich or two, for my own supper only. While I was buttering my bread, I heard a painful groan from outside and noticed something white flying past the kitchen window. What—?

I rushed to the window just in time to notice our white cat running away from Marcel, who watched it scornfully. He kicked it! He kicked Kitty, our beloved pet that he’d always caressed and spoiled!

My blood was boiling. I had patience when he treated me rudely but that was too much! I won’t allow him to wreak his malice on the poor animal. I rushed through the entrance hall but Marcel was already getting into our old Ford. Then he turned the car onto the street running over a neighbor child’s bike.

“What are you doing, you bastard?” I shouted with rage. Then I realized it wasn’t an accident for he braked and backed over it again, distorting the bicycle. Then he accelerated down the empty street.

I was dismayed. Who could I ask for help or at least for advice? My parents were dead, my only sister was somewhere overseas, and my best friend Sophie was in the maternity ward at the hospital. What about an adviser for married couples or a shrink? Oh, no. They would surely demand I should first talk reasonably with my husband.

I shook my head. Maybe that was the only way. I mustn’t give up after the first try. I have to persuade Marcel to listen to me and both of us have to try understanding each other. Calmly, as two adult, civilized people.

Hours passed, and then it grew dark but Marcel still didn’t return. Late in the evening, I went upstairs to our bedroom. I grabbed Marcel’s pajamas, two pillows and a blanket. I held them as far from me as I could—and carried them downstairs to the living room. Tonight I was going to sleep in the bedroom. In the locked bedroom.

Again, I waited in vain for hours waiting for sleep. And again, I had to get up to fetch a sleeping pill. The living room was still empty and quiet.

*

The slanting beams of the rising sun woke me up. I heard Marcel’s steps from below and the opening and closing of the living room door. While I descended the stairs I saw Marcel’s bedclothes folded up where I had left them the night before. So, he didn’t come home until morning. He’d never done such a thing during all seven years of marriage.

He entered the room and this time he didn’t avoid my gaze, he only nodded to me.

“Marcel, do you have a minute or two for me now?”

“Of course.” The words weren’t hostile; in fact they were strangely neutral.

“We must talk about what happened. I will be open-minded and I expect you’d be the same, okay?”

He shrugged. “I’ve nothing to hide. I also wouldn’t lie to you—if that is what you mean.”

“Everything… Everything is different since we came from that… oh, hundred times cursed circus! I haven’t the slightest idea what that damned peddler has done to you. But it had to be something awful—something evil.”

His attitude remained calm. “Why are you thinking that way?”

“Listen… Marcel.” I could barely utter that name. “From that evening you became a total stranger to me. And probably I became a total stranger to you, too.”

He tacitly shrugged, obviously agreeing with what I’d said.

“Help me to understand, at least that much I deserve after seven years of marriage.” I had to dry my tears and I hated that emotional response of mine. “You… You have to give me back my Marcel as he used to be. We both must take certain steps, together.”

“What do you propose?”

“We must go back together. I mean to the place where all this began. Let’s go to the circus again. We must find that peddler and force him… No, we can offer him money. I have quite a lot of my own savings. We can pay him, as much as he wants. All I want is that he lifts that spell from you, for heaven’s sake. Marcel?”

“Okay, if that’s all you want.” He spoke as if we were going out for a newspaper. “And forget about your savings. He wouldn’t claim any money from us.”

I wondered about Marcel’s swift agreement. No objections, no irony—was that possible? Marcel led the way into the garage while I grabbed my purse. My hands were trembling so hard my keys fell on the floor.

There were not nearly so many visitors as there had been that fatal evening. Many of the market stalls were closed, including Madam Fatima’s cabin, and I was frightened the peddler would already be gone, too. Marcel drove along the main alley to the end and then he stopped in front of a large tent.

The peddler’s tent was entirely different from all the others. A black, semi-translucent foil was strained tightly over a kind of slender, deceptively fragile framework. In front of the tent an empty, smooth plate, resembling black glass, was placed. It seemed to me the plate hovered inexplicably, without any support, about three feet above the ground.

The peddler was standing in front of his tent. A tall, self-confident figure, donned in a black mantle, black hood over his head, huge sunglasses, black beard, and a mustache. His lips were blubber, sensual, like on the pictures of Pan chasing a frightened virgin.

My mind got instantly blank. I couldn’t recall any of the words that I’d earlier prepared to say to him. Marcel was the one who restored the situation. He stepped forward and said calmly, “I’ve been here earlier, remember? The day before yesterday, in the evening.”

“Oh, yes, of course.” The peddler’s sensual lips widened in a kind of demonic smile. “You were the one who was interested in— Well then, let’s forget that. What can I do for you now?”

“I have… We have a sort of complaint.”

“Really? Such things happen to me very rarely. Still, I’m wholly at your service. You’ll tell me what seems to be wrong and I’ll try to correct that.” While the peddler was talking, I had a feeling his black glasses were fixed on me. “Perhaps it would be better if we talk inside my tent? After you, please!”

He flashed a smile at me, politely stretched his left arm, a door-size part of the tent slipped aside, and we entered.

*

During the first part of our ride home, Marcel and I remained silent.

It must have been raining meanwhile for on the uneven parts of the street surface many puddles remained. That district was sparsely populated so walkers were rare.

Each time Marcel noticed a puddle near the sidewalk he drove the car close to the curb and spattered a pedestrian with muddy rainwater. That seemed to me so funny I chuckled at every such occasion, especially when the wet splattered person responded by using strong language.

“Hey,” I made a comment, “you missed that one.”

“That wasn’t my fault,” he objected. “The puddle was too small.”

Then, I noticed a stray Doberman so I called Marcel’s attention to it.

“You better fasten your seat belt,” he said, as he sharply turned aside and stepped on the accelerator. The dog began to run for its life in a zigzag manner. I stooped forward as far as the seat belt allowed me, licked my lips, and watched the exciting chase. Marcel kept twisting like a professional racing driver, speeding up and breaking violently. Three or four times we nearly got the Doberman but then it found a gap in a hedge and swooped through it.

“What a pity!” I said. “Still, you were wonderful, darling.”

Several blocks from our house, we saw the old local tramp Ida carrying an apple in her hand. About the time she started to push her shopping cart over a stripped crossing Marcel put the engine in neutral, and we silently drove close behind her back.

Then he pressed the horn.

The old woman gave a shriek, her cart overturned, and all her belongings strewed on the asphalt ground. Her apple rolled slowly across the entire width of the road until the curb on the other side stopped it. I roared with laughter when I saw she was pressing her hand on her chest, her eyes horrified by fear.

After Marcel locked the garage, a thought occurred to me.

“Listen, Darling,” I said, “maybe we could pay a visit to the Stallmans’ this evening. What do you say?”

“Sure,” Marcel said. “We could chat a little, play cards, and even afford ourselves some drink. Was that what you had in mind?”

“Yes, Darling. Besides that we could suggest to the Stallmans that we should go to that peddler… I mean… to the Bodoni Circus, all together. They have three children, so it wouldn’t be too hard to persuade them.”

“That’s a good idea,” he said.

pencil

Edward Alexander Rodosek is a Construction Engineer, Doctor of Technical Science and Senior Professor in Faculty of Civil Engineering, Ljubljana, Slovenia, European Union. He is married to Rina and they have one daughter, Tejka. His pastimes are chess and long walks with his golden retriever Simba. Besides his professional work he writes science fiction, mostly at night. He is an author of ten collections of short sci fi stories and four novels (see: http://www.cobiss.izum.si/cobiss-eng.html) in Slovenia with good reviews. Several of his short stories have been published in SF magazines in USA and UK (Aphelion, Brew City, Down in the Dirt, Dreams Passage, Expressions, Jupiter, Midnight Times, Nocturnal Ooze, Quantum Muse, Sacred Twilight, Silver Thought, Spinnings, Spoiled Ink, Static Movement, Thirteen, Ultraverse, Vermeer, Whisper of Wickedness). E-mail: lesim[at]volja.net.