“I no longer recall precisely when I first arrived in this place,” the old man began, “but if the cobbled clatter of my stick had momentarily distracted you from more ethereal concerns you would have given little heed to the greybeard canted slightly forward like a man carrying a heavy burden uphill – and so I felt myself to be, but that is of no concern… The fact of the matter is this: I could have been a brigand or a prince, a troubadour or a contriver of schemes, and you would have paid me no more mind than if I had been one of these wretches.”
Reaching out a crabbed hand the old man snatched by the scruff a dog that had been snuffling about at the hem of his robe. The scrofulous cur, used to ill-treatment, cowered, its whimper inaudible to all but his canine fellows skulking silently to the other side of the room. With one hand the old man pulled the dog’s muzzle up and forward while with the other he swabbed a piece of bread through a mostly empty bowl of soup. The abbé, whose soup it was, shrugged and muttered a common but colorful French obscenity. The old man dropped the sop to the floor and released his canine captive. The dog quickly gulped down the morsel before slinking between the tables and through the kitchen door. In a trice three other dogs moved to the speaker’s side.
“What if I were to tell you,” he continued, “that that stooped old fellow hobbling along the road was a figure of legend, a traveler from a land unknown even to those who have traded in the silk bazaars of Samarkand or passed among the floating spice islands of Shikoku or gazed upon the unveiled faces of the blue women whose footsteps leave no trace in the endless desert – a man as ancient as the world he walks, one for whom the times to come are even more tediously familiar than the times that have already been, one for whom there had been neither direction nor destination until that unreckoned day he passed unnoticed through the city gates and happened upon this particular inn?”
“I would say,” said the Trappist without looking up from the ball of string he had been unraveling, “that I would never have known.”
“Precisely,” remarked the old emissary.
“And your point is what, precisely, my dear Sage?”
The Sage considered whether this question, posed archly by the smartly-dressed young Westerner, constituted an invitation or a challenge. Neither, he decided. A gangly acolyte passed through the Great Room ringing the sacristy bells, alerting the gathered scholars and contemplatives that sabbath services in the town would begin soon. “Which summons shall we heed this morning?” the old man asked of no one in particular.
“But it was my understanding…”
“Yes of course. However, my dossier instructs me to respect the local customs.”
“A man of legend holds no portfolio,” challenged the Antipodean.
“This is the usual objection,” the Sage acknowledged as he hoisted his coat over his shoulders. “It is not obligation but curiosity that impels me.”
Without restraint the bitter wind scattered the voices of the cloaked and cowled theologians, figures from an unremembered dream who drifted toward their appointed but unstated destination.
This book has been finished for nearly four years now, and until this month I hadn’t given it much attention since then. “Let the beginning serve as the annual Christmas story,” the Sage suggested in a precative mood, and it was so.