A Fork In the Road
Erik is almost 18 and is leaving the cold of Russia’s winters to a warmer southern climate. He’s alone, but he feels better than he has in a long time. He’s just spent three months with a wise Oriental man who taught him the skill of the Punjab lasso, as well as other important life lessons. Those lessons give Erik hope that he can protect himself without killing anyone in the process. In this scene, Erik’s active curiosity leads him toward one fork in the road, while his fears push him in another.
A Fork In the Road
The late September evening had a chill to it, so I pulled my cloak closer to me and settled in for a cool night’s ride. Looking back over my shoulder, I whistled for Luc to pick up the pace and catch up with us. Since we’d only been traveling for less than an hour, I knew he couldn’t possibly be tired. I turned in the saddle and watched my lazy giant lumber along, munching as he went, and I had to smile at him. Beyond him was a lavender and coral sky with majestic evergreen trees silhouetted against the copper sun—it was a breathtaking sight.
That part of Russia was exquisite, and I hated to leave my summer home, especially that year. I’d spent the last season in the western region of Russia. During that time, my emotional state of mind traveled through its lowest and highest points. It reached its lowest during those two-and-a-half years of loathing and self-pity. But in those last few months, I’d received the first real hope that perhaps I might be able to exist with the rest of mankind without harm to them—or me.
Taking my sight off the horizon and moving it to my hands on the reins, I had mixed emotions. My hands were capable of producing the most beautiful music and the most ghastly deaths. I became grieved to think of how many men lost their lives before I learned the fine art of saving my life—without taking someone else’s.
I pulled a lasso from my cloak’s pocket, laid it across my palm, and wondered about my ability to control it properly. My peculiar little trainer handled it with such skill that his actions would have been unbelievable if I hadn’t seen them with my own eyes. I could only hope that I would someday handle the lasso with his same expertise.
The Punjab lasso was the ultimate weapon in my eyes. I never carried a means of self-defense other than my own hands, my wit, coupled with my intelligence and agility. Perhaps my aversion to blood prevented me from using one. Perhaps Papa cutting into the meat that night at the dinner table, or perhaps the tiger’s attack and all the blood created my aversion. I’m not sure, but I could never willfully spill blood.
While I had a fascination with the designs of many daggers, they were simply too messy to use as a weapon. And I couldn’t use a gun for the same reason—there was simply too much blood. Plus, the pain of having my eardrums fractured with the abrasive sound of a gun was something I couldn’t tolerate. That’s why the Punjab lasso, being silent, bloodless, and deadly if need be, was perfect. With that simple piece of wound catgut, I would never be forced to use any messy instrument of death.
In addition, with the excellent instruction I received, it could be used as a warning and a life wouldn’t have to be put in danger. I could only hope that, with enough practice, with both the lasso and my temper control, I would never make the mistake of breaking someone’s neck instead of merely breaking someone’s will.
I traveled for over three weeks and was nearing the Caspian Sea’s northern shores when I entered a valley that was so phenomenal I decided to spend a few days there before continuing my journey south. The several streams that crisscrossed it were crystal clear and the area was packed with tall, stately trees of every imaginable shade of orange and gold possible. They were only interrupted now and then with thick green meadows—perfect pastures for my horses. The trees were so dense that I had to halter Luc and keep him close to me to prevent him from removing the packs on his back under a tree branch.
While I was in that area, there was one morning that was especially moving to me. I was sitting on the edge of a meadow and watching my horses graze and the sun make its way above the treetops.
My horses and my music were my life’s blood during that period in my life and the only things that kept me in a half-decent frame of mind. Consequently, I pampered them and played my music at every opportunity. My horses felt good that morning and showed it by kicking up their heels and running at each other, even my lazy giant—Luc. They made me smile both inside and out.
After about an hour, deer started to appear in the meadow and graze with my horses, so I had the added treat of watching them. Among them were several fawns, perhaps six months old, which spent the entire time playing with each other. They ran in and out of their mothers’ legs and chased butterflies or absolutely nothing. I couldn’t help but think: that’s the way life should be—full of happiness and the simple joy of being alive.
The way I felt while watching them naturally made me want to play my violin, so I carefully moved, trying not to frighten the deer, and retrieved it. After all, that type of setting is what inspired music. I started playing softly and then let what I was feeling at the time flow freely. The meadow and surrounding hills were filled with my music, and everything except my music disappeared from my view and my thoughts. The notes escaped from my memories—as if they were carrying my seven years of pain and sorrow with them up into the trees and beyond.
The sun was past its high point in the sky before I laid my valued instrument across my knees, and before my heart was sufficiently purged of pain and heartache. I expanded my lungs with a deep, clean breath of the fresh air—what a feeling.
I stayed in that area for five days before I forced myself to leave, knowing from experience how quickly the weather could turn. Therefore, just as the sun began its descent, I was packed and ready to leave. I stood for a few minutes watching the orange treetops against the deep blue sky. I really hated to leave that tranquil setting, so, putting it off for a few more minutes, I decided to play my violin first.
I was just starting to untie it from Luc’s pack when a gentle breeze pushed past me, moving my cloak around my legs. Along with the breeze came an eerie sound and I automatically looked in its direction, but then the breeze stopped and so did the sound.
Strange, I thought, as I went back to the rope holding my violin. Then a harder breeze hit me and again the eerie sound came along with it. I looked deeper that time in the direction of the breeze and started searching my mind for an explanation.
The sound wasn’t like any sound I’d heard before, especially one created by wind, causing my curiosity to pick up a notch. Consequently, I retied everything, mounted Molly, and with Luc’s lead in hand, I called for Libre. After getting us all turned in the right direction, we started off toward the mysterious sound. I only stopped whenever it did, so I wouldn’t lose its location.
I continued until the resonance became recognizable—a distant violin is what I was hearing. I sat motionless, wondering who else could be in the wilderness with me. I was a one or two-day ride from the nearest town, so I knew the music couldn’t be coming from there. It had to be from someone else traveling or perhaps living alone in that picturesque setting.
I moved on until I smelled smoke and food cooking. Then I spotted the smoke hovering in the treetops high above my head. Not much farther I heard voices, which meant there was more than one person out there. Instantly, I felt a knot in my gut. Turning around, I started to ride in the other direction, not wanting to encounter more than one person at a time. But then I heard the unmistakable laughter of children. I pulled up and listened for a few minutes more, and then the voices and music quieted down. Again, my curiosity encouraged me to follow the smoke and the periodic sounds of laughter.
Darkness completely enveloped the forest by the time I spotted the glow of a campfire through the trees, and by then, the violin music had started again. I moved a little closer, and then I could see the fire and a man moving around it while playing his violin rhythmically. With a gasped breath, my heart nearly stopped when I spotted a wagon. All those sights, sounds, and smells triggered horrible visions of the indescribable tortures I’d gone through while in that circus cage.
I instantly turned around and started to ride away again, until I realized that what I saw wasn’t a circus wagon; it looked more like a colorful Gypsy’s wagon. Although I’d never come in personal contact with them before, I’d seen them from a distance. With another look at the wagon, I felt certain a Gypsy wagon is what I was looking at—or at least certain enough to allow my curiosity its free will. Therefore, I dismounted, tied Molly to a tree, put a black bosal on my more agile mount’s head, and then swung myself up over her back.
That time, I went closer, until I could see several colorful wagons by the fire and two men and a woman all in multicolored clothing. I was then close enough to hear their speech, which was in Russian and about an upcoming fair. I nudged Libre, and we moved past a few more trees. Then I could see three men and two women, along with four children. I kept slowly moving forward until there was only one tree between the camp and me.
At that point, a woman turned and looked in my direction. Naturally, she dropped the jar she was carrying, and then she let out a frightful scream. The rest all looked at her and then followed her sight to me. The other women also screamed and then rounded up the children and headed in the other direction toward the wagons.
At the same time, the men who were present, and several other men appearing out of nowhere, moved toward me. I was questioning my decision to allow my curiosity to take me there, when all the men stopped. Then only one man moved toward me, until he separated me from the rest of the camp. He studied me for a moment or two and then motioned for me to come forward.
I hesitated, not knowing if I wanted to turn and ride away or follow his instructions. To this day, I’m not sure what allowed me to move forward and put myself in what could have been a dangerous situation—but I did.
After removing my left glove and wrapping my fingers around the lasso hidden in my pocket, I gently pressed on Libre’s ribs. As I tried to watch everyone at the same time, we stepped into the small clearing filled with a dozen or more brightly clothed men. I looked down at the average-sized, middle-aged man who made his way toward me, and then I tried breaking the ice by speaking to him in the Russian tongue.
“Good evening, sir. I apologize for my intrusion. I didn’t mean to interrupt, but I was drawn by your gay music. Please don’t stop on my account.”
The man was cautious, and yet his eyes were friendly enough as he first looked me over. Then his dark eyes narrowed when he focused on my masked face and started questioning me.
“What’s your name, and where do you come from?”
“My name is Erik,” I answered, without knowing why. I hadn’t told anyone my name in several years, so why I gave it up so easily that night I’m not sure. But as for the rest of the question, I wasn’t as straight-forward with the answer. “I’m as you are. I come from nowhere and yet everywhere.”
He walked up to Libre and stroked her nose. “Where are you headed, Erik? You’re traveling light for being so far away from civilization.”
I motioned toward the fire before answering. “At the moment, it would appear I’m headed into your camp, and there are certain advantages to traveling light.”
He then strained to look closer into my eyes before he asked, “What do you want from us?”
“Only to share in your music for awhile, if you don’t mind,” I replied as I gestured toward a young man who still had a violin in his hand. “That’s all. Nothing more.”
He took a deep breath and looked at Libre and then at me again. “Why the mask, Erik? Do you plan to rob us?”
“I only intend to rob you of your music, and the mask is necessary for you to allow me to do so.”
He looked up at me and frowned ever so slightly and then made a trip around us. I was again thinking I’d made a big mistake by approaching that band of Gypsies, especially when Libre started to pick up on my uneasiness and stepped sideways. Ready to turn Libre and run, I hesitated when the man stopped and stood in front of us again. He placed both his hands on his hips, in what appeared to be questioning thought.
“From your accent,” he started again, “I would say you’re French. If that be the case, you’re a bit far from home, aren’t you?”
“As I said, I come from many places and France is only one of those places. Would you prefer a different greeting? Perhaps, sir, des gutenabends, or sir, de la buena tarde, or good evening, sir, or perhaps signore, di buona sera? I can be whatever you wish.”
His eyebrows raised, his eyes softened, the corners of his lips turned upward, and then his hands spread out to his sides.
“Well then, join us, won’t you? My name is Ivan. Would you like something to eat? Emilia,” he called toward the wagon closest to us, “get Erik something to drink. Here, have a seat,” he said, as he pulled up a stool close to the fire and motioned for me to dismount.
For some odd reason, I did as he asked and slid down. Then I threw Libre’s reins over a branch. Ivan made me feel welcome, although my fingers remained around the coil for a while longer. I did have a seat and I did eat, and I listened to their songs sung in Russian. I watched the ones with the violins as they played both fast and slow pieces and loud and soft ones.
They were a happy and colorful group, and other than the initial interrogation by Ivan, they were also very friendly. Ivan introduced me to all those present, which included his wife, Emilia, and five children.
I was there for over an hour enjoying the music, the laughter, and the cognac, when Nicolae, Ivan’s eldest son, began playing a piece from Ruslan and Lyudmila, a Russian opera. Several men and women joined in singing that slow piece in harmony, which was beautiful and emotionally stirring.
I was humming when Ivan slapped my leg and then motioned with his hand for me to join in the singing. I don’t know if the cognac caused my reaction to his suggestion or simply my love for music, but I started to sing. Softly at first, and then I let all the feeling and emotion that particular piece called for to be expressed in my voice.
One by one, the colorfully clad people around me stopped singing and started watching Nicolae and me who were left to carry the melody. Then close to the last stanzas, when I went to the highest register and the most powerful and longest note, I was brought back to reality when I heard Molly’s high-pitched squeal—and so did Libre.
She pulled back, releasing the reins from the branch, and then while answering Molly’s call loudly, she swung around and headed for her. I ran for Libre, but just missed her. With my hands on my hips and my head shaking, I realized I would have to walk back to my horses. I turned toward the group, who were still watching me with their mouths open and their dark eyes questioning what was happening.
I shrugged my shoulders and said, “I’m sorry, but I must be leaving you. Thank you so much for your hospitality, but I have a lady who I believe is getting anxious for my return.”
“You have a lady?” Ivan questioned quickly. Sounding almost incensed, his eyes searched in the direction of Libre’s flight. “Why did you leave her out there all alone? Go get her, and let her join us.”
“No, not that … ” I started to explain, when we all felt the pounding on the earth along with the sound of thunderous hooves.
All of us turned and looked into the darkness of Libre’s flight. Then within a second, there was Molly, at full speed, heading straight for us, with Libre immediately behind her. I raised my arms out to my sides and headed for her, while everyone else scattered. She didn’t slow her gait until she was directly in front of me, which meant that, by the time she skidded to a stop, her head was in my chest, and then I was on the ground. While I shook my head and laughed loudly, she tossed her head and nickered, obviously scolding me for leaving her alone and frightening her.
She was standing over me, with her nose in my face and neck, when Ivan, Nicolae, and Parfin, Ivan’s brother, showed up beside me. They were trying to either help me to my feet or to grab Molly’s broken lead and move her off me. She wasn’t happy with me and even less pleased with their attempt to control her, but once I was back on my feet, I quickly gained charge of her and the situation.
Ivan’s eyes were wide with concern as he pointed to the empty saddle on Molly’s back and began giving orders. “Vasile! … Ion! … Go find Erik’s lady!”
“No!” I had to say loudly at the two running men. “This is my lady … Molly.”
Everyone stopped in confusion at first and then started laughing, only to have their laughter interrupted by more thundering hooves and the crushing of foliage. Once more we all turned in that direction, and then instantly, Luc appeared in his lumbering trot. He was tossing his massive head, causing everyone to scatter as if a monster had just appeared.
He did look menacing with his large, black body along with his gleaming eyes appearing out of the darkness. But when he approached me and placed his head in my chest, he didn’t even ruffle my shirt—nothing like my excitable Molly. I cradled his mammoth head while I tried to survey my jostled belongings, which were barely hanging on the pack on his back. Within moments, Ivan appeared beside me, surveying all I owned and my three horses, which were vying for my attention.
“I thought you said you were traveling light, Erik.”
“I believe what I said,” I started to explain while I tied Libre to a tree, “was that there were certain advantages to traveling light, not that I did so.”