Traveling Mercies by Rachael K. Jones

 

In the old stories, strangers at the door could be disguised gods, so you had to invite them in. It was a sin to turn away a guest.

Atithi devo bhava. Sanskrit: the guest is God.

I am not God, though I am old.

As the road rolls by, I know sunrise is near by the darkness outside. A church approaches on the left. A spotlight beneath the steeple sends a long, black finger into the sky. Everything looms larger at night, bulked up by shadows like fluttering cloaks.

I pull over and rest my head against the wheel. Travel takes its toll, but you can’t stop until you’re home.

I’m far away from home.

And I’m almost out of time.

Just as the horizon turns gray, I reach a long gravel driveway that wraps around a green-shuttered house. They’ve left the porch light on. They’re expecting me. I knock anyway, and a woman answers the door, coffee cup in hand, wet gray hair drying limp on her shoulders like moss. Marcia, an old friend.

“You made it!” The force of her hug knocks me back a step. “Come on in, Alif. You must be exhausted.”

“I’m pretty tired,” I admit. “Construction on I-96. Not much traffic, but it was slow going.”

“I’ll take your bag.” Marcia grabs for it, and I let her. Sometimes you have to let people take care of you. That’s the contract, the covenant of friendship. There are rules to this sort of thing, like how they have to invite me in. “Want coffee? Sam brewed a pot before she left for work. Or do you want to sleep?”

I do need rest, but another, more desperate thirst drives me, so I take her up on the coffee. In the kitchen, we watch the sun wash the countertops rose-gold. Reflexively I flinch from the light’s touch, but the feeling passes. I’m safe here, for now.

Hospitality is sacred, and the guest divine. Let no harm befall him once you have welcomed him in.

Marcia and I haven’t crossed paths in years, not since we bonded over coffee and good music in Johannesburg. “Keep in touch,” she’d said, “and look me up if you find yourself in Michigan. Wish I could stay longer, but Sam is waiting.” She said Sam the way another woman might say home.

That’s how she came to join the address book that never leaves my pocket. My lifeblood. It took me eleven years to take her up on the offer—travel takes forever because I can only move at night—but I made it.

When I have slaked my thirst for conversation, I set down my cup. “I’d better get some sleep. Long drive ahead of me tonight.”

Marcia is crestfallen. “Can’t you stay a little longer? You just got here.”

I shake my head. “I’d better not. I need to get home.”

I’ve been saying that for two hundred years now. It’s another rule: company that lingers too long becomes part of the household, so I mustn’t overstay my welcome. Otherwise, I need to be invited in again. Easiest to just move on. Besides, I have many friends to see.

Marcia’s guest room is well-lit and comfortable. An old patchwork quilt drapes the wrought-iron bed. It’s heavier than it looks, like the weight of the years is trapped between the layers. Out the window, the sun rides over the treeline and does not destroy me. The invitation protects me.

I have slept in guest rooms grand and humble, sometimes no more than a blanket on the floor. There is a painter in India who puts me up on a cot beneath an easel spattered saffron and blue. In Curitiba, Brazil, my hosts stay up so late I’ve never even seen the guest bed. When I cross the Atlantic, a flight attendant’s welcome on a red-eye flight shelters me on my journey.

At Marcia’s house, I sleep like a dead man. When I wake, the horizon is pink like scar tissue and the smell of garlic fills the house.

I find Marcia in the kitchen with Sam. A half-assembled lasagna rests on the stove between them.

“Please, stay for dinner,” Marcia says.

I don’t think I’ll ever like garlic, not after all this time, but I’ve come to tolerate it. A good guest accepts the hospitality offered with grace and thanks. I’ll eat anything for the sake of good conversation, an hour with an old friend. These moments fill me up like blood did, before the invitation changed me.

I slake my thirst on stories about Sam’s catering business. My genuine interest makes her glow like a little sun herself. Sunlight filtered thus is good medicine for me.

“Where are you headed next, Alif?” Marcia asks during a lull.

“Montreal, if I can make it.” It’s a long drive, to be sure, and the border crossing to make.

Sam lights up. “I have friends in Montreal. Where are you staying?”

“I was going to get a cheap motel.”

“No, stay with Will! I know he’d love to have you. I’ll call him.”

“All right, then. Where does he live?” I pull out my notebook and flip to the section for North America. I jot down the address and phone number Sam rattles off.

Another name on my list. Another dot on my map. Another shelter against a consuming fire, a long overdue death.

It is dark when I depart. It is always dark. My hosts stand framed in the golden light pouring onto the lawn, pointing to the driveway like a road sign. I climb behind the wheel.

I’m going to miss them. I wish I could stay, but home is ahead.

There is this: some say it’s really the guest becomes God.

There is this: in two hundred years, my address book has never left me shelterless in the coming of the dawn. Someone has always taken me in.

Together, eyes shut, vulnerable in sleep, we place our faith in one another. In this lives something divine, a kind of redemption. Even old, weary monsters of the night can learn to live on such food.

We are always arriving home.

 

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