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the bicyclist

An ancient Jew

By Diomedes | Robert O'Reilly | 2 Mar 2023




          By our campfire that night we decided that there were three questions we had to answer; where this highway to the north led, what the squads of men were doing upon it, and what cities or towns lay further up the coast, threatening our group.

          We decided to split up.  Hiram would travel north through the woods and spy upon any crews and trace out the road to see just how close it came to our camp, warning the others if there was danger.  I would circle south and choose some spot along that highway and waylay a bike messenger.  I would steal his uniform, take his bike and enter the suburbs of the city.  It was unlikely there would be officials in those parts and I could discreetly question some pedestrians about a city to the north, as messengers commonly did, and make my way back out of the place before suspicions were aroused.

          Plans often seem neat and sensible in the conceiving.  The only hitch to ours was that we couldn’t tell how long it would take to accomplish our ends.  We spent hours discussing where we’d meet up again, as if the rest of our plan was a "fait accompli".  We finally decided to make our canoe the rendezvous point.  If Hiram chose to head further north he would come back and leave a note to that effect before setting off.  Otherwise I would find him there or wait until the fourth day from now, before heading out on my own.  I had to assure him again and again that I could find the tribe.

          After four hours of sleep we rose at dawn and with a warm handshake parted for what would turn out to be forever.  I don't want to appear superstitious, but I can’t help noticing that every time I’ve given someone a warm handshake something important has gone seriously wrong a short time later on.  A few days afterwards I made a mental note of this but forgot it until it happened again.

          I travelled alone that morning to the south and to the west, intersecting the empty, white highway about five miles south of the city.  Then I searched its fringes until I discovered a suitable spot for an ambush.

The construction of the highway was curious.  The rubble of the old highway had been broken up into pebbles to make the wide shoulders for one newly paved and painted lane, about ten feet wide.  I found a spot where a large boulder was left close to its edge.  I could hide there and jump any passing bicyclist within seconds.  I had my pistol in my belt and a hatchet to encourage me.

          The road was deserted and I sat there a few hours into the afternoon.  Finally I spotted a lone bike-messenger heading towards me, up a long incline and probably weary of the toil.  Just as he passed I rushed out, almost too late, as he nearly escaped me.  But the shock of looking back and seeing a man in furs, hatchet in hand, and chasing him like an Indian, undid him.  As he looked he veered into the gravel and lost his balance.  I caught up and knocked him a blow to the head.  He fell to the ground unconscious.  Blood whetted his hair.

          He was a young man, clean shaven, as tall as me and probably stronger considering his pace up the hill.  I was glad the first blow had stunned him.

          The bike was undamaged.  I hid it in the brush and then dragged him a little ways into the woods, far enough from the road that his cries couldn’t be heard.  It took me awhile to switch his uniform with my furs and tie him to a tree.  But he didn’t come around.  I shaved myself quickly and applied the white ointment he carried in his satchel to my face and hands.  I left his arms free and my food and water within reach, hoping he’d wake up soon and live until I returned.  Then I cleaned his wound and splashed water in his face, but to no avail.  The last thing I did was to wrap up and bury my weapons nearby, sure I would be back to free him and go on my way.

          I picked up the bicycle and mailbag and gave myself one last visual inspection before setting out.  The only flaw in the outfit was the stain of a few drops of blood on my shoulder.  But the hood concealed that when it was down.  It was the custom in the cities never to show oneself in public places unless immaculately clean.  But I could explain, if need be, that I had fallen on the road and hadn’t had the means to repair the damage.

          I started off and slowly pedalled my way toward the city, to all appearances the same as when I rode out of another city some two-and-a-half years earlier.  It was late afternoon.  A shiver of fear came over me as I approached the white zone.

          I could see stray sheep here and there, and, as I came over a crest, at least two dozen hooded people ahead, mostly women and children, wandering about on this lawn, some quite near the road.  They were all looking down and bent over.  Some were even on their hands and knees, crawling about, much like the sheep, lowering their heads at intervals, apparently spitting at something or else looking for some very small object.

          As I came closer I could see that they all had the familiar canteens of white paint at their sides, from which they were filling their mouths every few minutes.  It was then that their pathetic business dawned on me.  A young child looked up and waved as I rode by.  I waved back, but then lifted my hood over my head to see only the road ahead and be as inconspicuous as possible.

          It was terrible to think what sort of life these people were leading, chasing after sheep droppings.  But the particulars of religious fanaticism always sickened me.  I had to remind myself to concentrate on my immediate task, to find out what projects the city had in hand to the north and get back with the information as quickly as possible to Hiram.

          I was now entering on the first rows of houses.  I wouldn’t call them houses, though they were used as such.  They looked like barracks, since they were all uniform and joined together, each with one door and one window.  The structure stretched a block in length and followed exactly the curve or straightness of the street.  There were no yards or plants of any sort, only bricks, and every one of them as white as could be.

          The wider streets, like avenues, all radiated out straight from the temple and its large, open square, which I could already see ahead of me.  Smaller streets intersected these and they were curved, like the ripples from a rock thrown in a pond.  I turned on to one of them when I saw where I was heading and passed tens of doors, each one exactly like the next.  Then I looped back to remain in this strange suburbs.

          This was a far cry from the cities I remembered.  The place was as symmetrical as a beehive.  The towns I knew were filled with all sorts of miscellaneous dwellings, assigned in blocks to people of the same job classification, since families were almost nonexistent.  At least in its external aspects this civilization seemed to have reached a perfected state.

          While I was thus wrapped up in curious speculations I realized with a start that I had been riding back and forth in the camp of the enemy.  I had no plan and had to keep pedaling for fear of breaking a law.  I rode another half hour in this dilemma trying to avoid the same streets and any attention.

          But the danger of my plight began to dawn upon me.  Perhaps inner-city communications had changed so much that my presence in these parts was already suspect.  I passed people who starred as I went by, making me all the more nervous.  Already the saner part of me was urging that I turn the bike around and pedal away as fast as possible.

          With growing fear and confusion I settled upon one attempt before heading out.  I rode until I found a street that was deserted except for a single person standing before a doorway.  Coming up from behind I would pretend to fall as a pretext to ask a few questions.  It was a woman.  I could tell this from the gasp that I heard as I spun the front tire and flew headlong into the cobblestones.

          Unfortunately the landing proved a little too real.  I raised both arms but my head still hit something hard.  I woke up seeing stars, disoriented and in a state of shock.

          I came around just in time to notice myself being dragged into a doorway by two men and then propped up on a bench against a wall.  Then a woman came and began wiping my forehead and my bloodied hand with a cold sponge.  I recollected myself and begged them not to call anybody, saying I would get in trouble if they did.  My head stopped spinning and I saw directly in front of me an old man with long white hair and a full beard.  He smiled an almost laughing grin and welcomed me back into this world.

          I was in some dim cubicle, probably the one behind the doorway where I had fallen.  There was a table a few feet in front of me and another wall with cupboards behind that.  A younger man was standing in the shadow of the older man and the woman stood there with her washbasin and sponge.  It hurt my neck to turn in that direction, so I could only see her from the corner of my eye.

          The old man had stepped away and came back with a cup of water.  "Take a drink and rest a while," he said.  "You've had a hard fall."

          My head was throbbing and panic gripped me.  I had no idea who these people were, or what I might have blurted out already.  I desperately tried to rally some presence of mind.  "At least I have this mask of injury to hide behind," I thought.

          "Thank you," I spoke up.  "You are very kind.  But please don't summon any officers here until I am recovered bit.  It would go hard for me.  You see, this isn’t the first time I’ve had a mishap."  I pointed to the bloodstain on my shoulder.

          "Are you from here?" the old man asked.

          "No, I'm from the south, far away, with messages."

          "Then perhaps we should call someone to help you deliver them," the old man continued.

          "No," I said, "Please don't.  I’ll do it myself.  My bicycle..."  The bicycle had been pulled inside the front door which luckily, was closed.  The young man went over and looked at it, guessing my concern, picking it up and spinning the wheels.  The front one was scraping against the forks.

          "It's dented and bent a little," he said softly, "but we can fix it."

          I breathed easier but still had one pressing concern. "Were others in the street who saw me fall?"  I asked.

          "No," said the old man.  "We were just about to leave for evening service.  My daughter-in-law here was at the door when you fell at her feet, knocking your head against our doorstep.  We brought you in right away."

          "Thank heavens," I mumbled.

          "You’re welcome to rest here awhile," he continued.  "I’ll stay with you while my children attend the service."

          With a nod he sent them off.  The woman wiped my brow once more, set the basin beside me and took her husband's hand.  When they opened the door I could see a stream of people filling the street.  I felt a shudder, but then the thought occurred to me that this would be a good time to escape, when everyone was at the temple square.  "If I can just gather my wits and ask the old man a few questions before leaving..."

          "You are very kind to me," I said, as the door closed.  "My name is Jonathan."

          The moment I uttered this I realized I’d made a huge mistake.  I knew it from the look he gave me.  I'd forgotten that personal names were not only abolished, but illegal to use in the cities.  Our more natural habits in the woods made me forget this.  There was an uncomfortable moment of silence as he gazed at me.

          I was desperately trying to think up some excuse when he said, much to my astonishment: "My name is Ben."

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B.A. in Latin and Greek from U.C. Berkley. Writer, Blogger and retired Electrician.

Robert O'Reilly
Robert O'Reilly

I am educated in the Western Classical Tradition, B.A. from U.C. Berkeley in Latin and Greek, English major, one year at U. of Toronto, studied under Alain Renoir and Northrop Frye, read most classics full time for many years after university in French, English, Latin and Greek to the modern day. I am interested in the near future of technology, what changes it imposes upon our heritage and character as humans. Short stories and Essays are my medium.

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