Two businessmen bustled past. Their briefcases swung by their sides as they discussed a matter in urgent tones. The chaos of northern city life permeated the calm of even this place secluded from honking cars on busy streets.
The man turned back to the fountain. Although its stream appeared constant, he heard the trickle slacken to drips, then stop. The wind sang like a piccolo, its sweet tune overwhelming his senses. He shook as he gazed around him. He noticed a child near the fountain skipping, a woman in a hat and sundress laughing. To him their joy was silent.
The wind intensified, howling a dread through the maple leaves. The man decided to escape and leave this behind. He ran from the park, accidentally nudging a passerby on the street. He muttered an apology but heard no words leave his mouth. The passerby glared but continued. The man bowed his head and began his trek, eager to escape the chaos of northern city life and leave his urban apartment behind forever.
A cottage now stood not fifty meters from him. He had walked weeks to reach this place. A frayed duffle filled with clothing and toiletries hung from his shoulder. He snorted as he climbed the stone steps. He had heard it said that folks go crazy within weeks of having no human contact, but he knew this rule did not apply. Solitude suited him – it always had.
He put a key in the latch and turned the rusted knob. The small door groaned in complaint but yielded after a shove.
“The place is in poor repair. No one’s been there in ten years,” he remembered the landlord saying a month earlier, his eyes veiled by a wide-brimmed cap as he proffered the key. The man recalled the quiet of the landlord’s office. Sparse lighting illuminated peeling paint. Wind could not enter this room. “Farming is a thing of the past ’round there. Folks packed up, moved up here to the North.”
“I hate it. The North,” the man replied. The North, home to people who focus only on their cell phones and laptops, connected at once with everything and therefore nothing, thinking skyscrapers and smog an Eden.
A rustic couch with torn cushions sat next to a dusty fireplace. He threw his duffle on a wicker chair near the door and flicked his hood from his face. A worn rug stretched from the middle of the room to the kitchen sink, above which sunlight leaked through a cracked window. He noticed a turn in the wall to the right of the kitchen sink. He walked towards the space and peered into the dining room.
Two children, perhaps brother and sister, sat upright at a small table. He stumbled back. The girl hovered over a small piece of paper she had drawn on, but the boy gazed at him with dulled eyes belying his youth.
“This is my house,” the man asserted, trying to appear commanding but sounding as if he were reminding himself of a remembered fact. The girl did not flinch, and the boy continued to stare. “Sorry, I … I’m not angry.” No movement. “I’m Ethan.” Still no movement. “Help. Can I help?” He advanced to their table and knelt.
The children could not have been more than eight, by his estimation, and the girl looked younger, perhaps six. He studied their faces as the girl’s eyes met his.
Ethan noticed a scar running horizontally across the girl’s left forearm. It looked as though a blade had sliced her, but only her lined face admitted pain. Their reticence reminded him of his own. He remembered sitting on the edge of his bed at their age, blood streaming from his forehead one of the nights when his father indulged. Those nights became more frequent after his mother skipped town and money got tight, and he forgot what it was not to feel pain and gave up on useless tears.
“What’s your name?” Ethan asked the boy. The boy tried opening his mouth, but stopped, clutching a laceration spreading beneath his jaw. He grabbed a paper card from his sister and scrawled four letters on its blank side with red crayon: N-E-M-O.
“Nemo?” Ethan asked. The boy grimaced as he nodded. “And your name?” he asked the girl, who looked at her wounded arm and back at Ethan, who repeated the question. Nemo took his crayon again and underlined his name, indicating she shared his name, the name of the Nameless, the No Ones, children abandoned and forgotten, as he was.
“You cannot stay here,” Ethan said. “I know who you are. I am one of you. I do not know how to help you – or myself.” The children bowed their heads, and Ethan bowed his. “Do you come from a house nearby?” Ethan had focused only on his cottage through the narrow opening of his hood, and did not attempt to look for any other place during his journey. The children’s head stayed bowed. Promising to find help, Ethan went outside.
The wind greeted him with its sweet tune as he looked beyond his cottage. A mile opposite the direction he had come lay a cottage like his, perhaps a little bigger, with a farmhand working its cornfield. At least, it looked like a worker, but he could not be sure at this distance. It may have been just a dried cornstalk, but the figure looked human. He would walk there, ask for help, though he resented the thought of meeting neighbors.
“No one’s been there in ten years,” he recalled the landlord saying. “Abandoned, all the locals say. Last folks there was a broken family.” The landlord’s baritone lowered. “Mother left. Drunken father.” He grunted in recognition as Ethan shifted his feet. “We know, don’t we?” Ethan walked back inside the kitchen. “And two kids.” Ethan reached his silent companions.
Rotting ligaments made a porch swing of the boy’s detached lower jaw while the girl’s detached forearm sprawled over the middle of the table, pinning down the card.
He shuddered while retreating toward the door, grabbing his duffle, leaving the door open behind him. The wind blared a crescendo from piccolo to flute to violin to cello to trumpet and ceased.
He reached for his hood but dropped his hands, the better to behold the cottage, its door squealing on abused hinges. A tear formed as he crumpled to the ground. He pictured the fountain in the park where children yelped, women laughed, leather shoes scuffled along crowded sidewalks. He heard an infant’s wail, or perhaps his own. He lay between the pointless comfort of urban life and the escape of this desolation, his soul torn by the two.