Cassandra’s Tears

Tears of joy, tears of pain, we are reflected in the salt-water pools we create. So let us build a fleet of paper boats and sail them on our ocean of indecision, laughing at the wind-whipped white-crested waves that would wash over us, drowning us in our own despair, yet somehow never vanquishing us in the end.

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Location: Lennoxville, Quebec, Canada

Saturday, March 14, 2009

A Silver Coin

I’m just a regular guy who likes coins. Sometimes when customers give me change for their purchases at the Quickee Mart, I pocket the really interesting pieces and replace them with coins of my own. In this way I’ve made quite a collection of special minted issues and foreign money that would otherwise just have continued into circulation. My boss has never made a fuss about it, as long as the books always balance at the end of the day.

One day a customer came in and bought a few sundry items: a toothbrush, cigarette lighter, bottle of cola, bag of chips and a city map. He wanted one that showed all the street names and was very insistent about that, which is what made me notice him in the first place. He was extremely tall, with a long, thin face, very pale skin, and silvery hair sticking out from a soft felt hat that was jammed low on his head as though to hide his face. His clothing was also non-descript. I got one glimpse of his eyes which seriously spooked me. They were a pale, pale gray, almost white, like some huskies’ with silver lashes and one eyebrow with a scar running through it.

He paid for his purchases with a bunch of crumpled up bills and a handful of coins. As I was sorting them for the till, I noticed one in particular that was definitely not legal tender, even though it was the right size and weight for a 25¢ piece. I examined it closely and decided it wasn’t from any country I’d ever heard of, and it seemed to be pure silver, when most coins these days are made of nickel. I dug a quarter out of my pocket, dropped it in the till and slipped the silver coin into my pants and didn’t think about it again until that night when I was undressing for bed.

Taking off my jeans, the bright bit of money fell out of the pocket and rolled onto the floor. I retrieved it and looked at it under the light with a magnifying glass. On one side was the profile of some regal-looking personage with very aristocratic features. On the other was a swirling design that reminded me a bit of Celtic knotwork and also of oriental arabesques. There was writing around the edges on both back and front which resembled some form of Indian script, but which I knew wasn’t. I tried to follow the design, feeling that if I could just unravel it I would understand where this coin had come from. But as my eyes followed the twisting path, it seemed to get longer and longer, never meeting up with the beginning. I felt as though my consciousness were separating from my body and I was falling into the waving, twisting weave.

I had a very strange dream that night. When I awoke all I was left with were impressions of horses and tall people in irridescent cloaks, of torches and silver eyes glittering in lamplight, and of a wildness that I could not describe. It left me feeling empty, longing for something that I had lost, but I didn’t know what. The enigmatic coin was still on my bedside table and I pocketed it as I dressed for work.

When I got off the bus just a block before the Quickee Mart as I did every day, I felt a cool breeze blowing towards me out of an alleyway that I had to cross to get to the store. The smell was not of rotting garbage and the urine left by unwashed bums that I was used to; this was fresh and cool, carrying scents of the country, running water and woodlands. I stopped to breathe it in more deeply and the coin in my pocket suddenly became icy cold against my leg.

Shimmering in the air in front of me at the entrance to the alley was the same design I had examined so closely on the silver disc, swirling arabesques of Celtic-like knotwork. It beckoned to me and I stepped toward it, threading myself along the line of moving light until I was actually following a path, a real path under my feet, and I was no longer on a city street between a bus stop and a convenience store, no longer at the mouth of a dark and dank alleyway. The glyph faded from the air in front of me and I found myself in an open area with waving grasses, a forest off in the distance and the merry tinkle of a clear brook down to my left.

I stopped and waited. How had I got here? I was sure the silver coin in my pocket had had some hand in it. Off in the distance I heard the sound of horses, the creak of leather and the call of a silver horn. In a short time several riders were approaching, as amazed by my appearance as I was by theirs.

The leader stopped his horse and the others followed suit. Dressed in greens and browns with bows and arrows on their backs, they looked like Robin Hood’s merry men. But they, too, resembled my visitor at the store the day before, long faces with aristocratic features, pale hair and silvery eyes. I suddenly remembered my dream.

“Greetings,” said the leader. “I am Blaerieth. What brings you here to the elven lands from the world of men?”

“I don’t know,” I stammered. “I was on my way to work, and then I was here.”

“Do you carry a talisman upon you, perhaps?” the tall man asked me.

Suddenly I realized what he was talking about and I reached into my pocket and pulled out the silver coin and showed it to him. He looked at it thoughfully but didn’t touch it.

“You possess the medallion of Aleithien,” he informed me. “It was long-thought to be lost. How came it into your possession?”

I told him about the customer who had given it to me in a handful of change, how I had thought it interesting and exchanged one of my own quarters for it so that the right amount would add up in the till. Blaerieth listened attentively to me all the time, his gaze never wavering from my face. When I was done, he turned to his companions and said something in a language I didn’t understand. There was suddenly a horse standing in front of me and I understood I was to mount it.

I had only ridden a horse during the summers I spent at summer camp as a child, and was rusty at best. It took a few tries before I was able to get comfortable in the saddle and Blaerieth made sure that I wasn’t going to fall off. Then we were off, galloping across the meadow, racing the wind itself. It was exhilarating, and once more I remembered my dream of the night before.

We arrived at a large manor house and dismounted, our horses led away by grooms, and we were ushered into a large hall where other tall, aristocratic, silvery-haired men and women sat at tables and ate and drank or played cards or dice. On a dais in a large upholstered chair sat a man who was obviously the master of the house. It was him we approached and Blaerieth spoke to him in that language that I still didn’t understand.

The master turned his silvery gaze upon me and I felt chilled to the bone. Then he spoke in oddly-accented English.

“Welcome to my home, young man. I am Lord Thurien. It is a long time since anyone has crossed over from the world of men to the elven lands.”

“Thank you,” I answered. Everyone was being very polite, but I felt ill at ease, perhaps because I was the alien here. I started playing over all the things I remembered from fairy tales about mortals who had trespassed on faerie soil and began to get worried. Would a few hours in this place translate into a generation in the other? Would I return to find all my friends either aged or dead from the passage of time? Lord Thurien must have noticed the concern in my expression.

“Come, you must be hungry and thirsty from your ride. Give our guests something to eat and drink,” he called to the serving folk. The other riders and I were led to a table where we were served platefuls of fruits and nuts and given goblets of water. It was the iciest, purest, most refreshing water I had ever tasted. It invigorated me thoroughly and I fell hungrily upon the food which satisfied in a different way.

When we were done, Lord Thurien himself came and led me down a passageway to a small room that resembled a den or study. There were a desk and bookcase, comfortable chairs and a table with a fire crackling in the grate. He bade me sit and then asked to see the coin. I readily produced it and handed it to him.

After examining it closely for some time he turned to me and spoke. “This medallion once belonged to one of our greatest heroes, Aleithien. He was killed at the battle of Glasroth and it was believed lost with him. But now you have it. Tell me how you came by it.”

I told him what I had told Blaerieth earlier. He asked me for details about the appearance of my customer, but I was not able to supply them very well, since all these elven folk seemed very similar to me. But I remembered the small scar running through one eyebrow that interrupted the growth of hair. When I gave this detail to my host, he gave an abrupt start.

“Galashien!” he cried out hoarsely. “That is who stole the medallion . We always suspected, and now we know. I’m positive he did not knowingly pass it on to you, but had it hidden in the change in his pocket so that no one else would find it, and then accidentally handed it to you for his purchases.” The old elf lapsed into silence again and appeared deep in thought.

“We must apprehend him,” he said. “He will surely notice the medallion is gone and will come looking for it. He will retrace his steps until he reaches your store and then will demand its return. You must not give it to him, for he handed it over in fair trade and you in return traded what you believed to be equal value, at least in the world of men, so that you might possess it. But he will return, of that I am certain.”

I was escorted back to the hall where the riders waited patiently and were instructed to return me to the place where I had been found so that I might continue on my way. With the coin back in my pocket, I was soon riding the same mare as before and left to dismount where the riders had first picked me up. I did not know how many hours had passed since I had arrived there, but I feared that something would be terribly amiss in my own world, the world of men.

Blaerieth made a gesture and the same Celtic-arabesque knotwork as before appeared in the air. My gaze was drawn into it again and I stepped forward, almost colliding with a passerby on the sidewalk as I stepped out of the mouth of the alleyway. Once more I smelled the musty odours of rotting garbage and hobo urine.

Quickly I hurried to the door of the Quickee Mart, but it was locked. I fumbled for my key and opened it and glanced at the large clock over the counter. I was early for work. No time had passed at all since I had walked into the elven lands. I was pleasantly surprised after all my worries.

The morning passed uneventfully with the usual customers. It wasn’t until after I returned from my lunch break that the same man from the day before arrived in his run-down clothing, his hat pulled low over his silver-gray eyes. He seemed rather nervous as he approached the counter where I was rearranging cartons of cigarettes.

“Excuse me, young man,” he addressed me in strangely-accented English. “I was in here yesterday and I believe I gave you something rather more valuable in change than twenty-five cents. I would like it back, please.”

“I’m sorry,” I answered. “The till has been emptied since last night and the contents deposited in the vault. I can’t open the vault; only the boss can do that.”

For a moment the stranger, whom I now knew to be Galashien, bristled and a strange glow enveloped him. Then it disappeared and he seemed to sniff the air and looked straight at me.

“I know it’s here,” he said quietly, “in this room. I can feel it. I would appreciate it if you would hand it over and no one will get hurt.”

“It’ll cost you,” I answered back. “Twenty-five cents. That’s what it’s worth to me.”

He started rummaging around in his pockets, pulling out bits of this and that: a bird feather, a smooth pebble, a streetcar ticket, what appeared to be some precious gems. These all fell to the floor and rolled off or scattered, but there were no quarters or coins of any kind among them. He was starting to get desperate. The anger was building up behind those eerie eyes and the broken eyebrow stood out prominently. He suddenly raised his empty hands towards me and pronounced words in that language I could not understand that I had heard just that morning. A golden glow formed around his hands and shot towards me, only to be absorbed by the talisman in my hip pocket. It became icy cold and I felt the chill right through the denim of my jeans.

It became clear to me what I had to do. I pulled the coin from its hiding place and held it in front of my face. Then I said, “Heads it’s mine, tails it’s yours,” and tossed it high in the air. He watched in troubled fascination as it tumbled over and over, falling, falling, and then suddenly passed through a glyph in the air, the same Celtic-arabesque knotwork that swallowed up the shining piece of silver. Just as quickly as it disappeared, though, another shining coin fell into my open palm and I quickly slapped it over onto my forearm.

“Tails!” I shouted. “It’s yours. Here, take it,” and I handed him the now very ordinary quarter and smiled. He backed away, not touching the proffered coin, until he suddenly turned tail and fled from the store. I knew then that the talisman of Aleithien was now safely in the elven lands and my erstwhile customer would finally come to justice for his theft.

I still find and collect unique coins, but none quite as interesting as that one.