I spied a man sitting at the end of a pier on Lake Tibney as I walked home from the market. He didn’t perch or recline but something in between. His legs hung down over the water, and his back arched forward, like he was a blade of grass held captive in doors and trying to get closer to the sun. The sun was receding into the background seemingly into the lake. I half expected to see steam rise from the orange globe’s descent.
My bag of random grocery odds and ends jostled as I walked down the pier. I could only see the man’s back, but he was so still, I felt the need to check on him. Wood creaked underneath my steps, but the man didn’t move. After a few steps, I saw his body lightly shifting up and down with his breathing.
He wore a green camouflage style shirt and a military-style hat. He looked like an officer on leave. I called out to him, and he ignored me. “Are you okay?” I asked as softly as I could. He continued to submit to his obvious indifference.
Once I was close enough to sit next to him on the pier, I placed my bag behind us and took my place at the end of the pier. I let my feet hang down over the water in imitation of the stranger. The pier was wide enough for four or five people to sit indian style, so I was careful not to crowd him. I was just close enough to speak directly. “Hello,” I said plainly.
He turned his head to look at me. His face was blank but not unkind. His eyes mirrored the blue water of the lake, lapping against the pier. “Hello,” he responded just as plainly.
“You looked like you could use some company.” I doubted my instincts for a second. Who was I to intrude on a stranger’s thoughts?
“Whether I did or didn’t, it doesn’t matter. You’re here now. And people are rarely here without purpose.” The strangers voice was deep and calm. I could immediately tell how reassuring he must be in a crisis on whatever battlefields he participated. His voice vibrated stillness.
A response didn’t come to mind. I was drawn to the pier. The reason would make itself known. So we sat in silence for a few minutes. Both of us letting our legs blow in the wind and watching the sun slowly sink into the lake’s horizon.
The soldier played with a bracelet he wore on his right hand with his left forefinger and thumb. He pulled it and flicked it. He rolled the small wooden beads in between his fingers. The bracelet was a red piece of twine at the core. Wooden beads of different colors and sizes shifted on the twine as he flicked and rolled the pieces.
“You’re a soldier?” I asked. I half-expected him to chuckle at the obviousness of my question.
“I am,” he replied.
“What branch are you in?”
“No branch. Special unit. A solo unit. I’m a stateless solider.”
My interest was piqued and my mind raced. I imagined secret assassin and spy stories like a hyper child. “Are you a spy?”
“No. Just a soldier. A very good soldier.”
“So how does one become a stateless soldier?” I was careful with my inflections not to mock. I tried to convey my genuine interest in the answer.
He propped his elbows on his knees and cupped his face in his hands while he answered. “You stop being from anywhere at all. You cease belonging to any place.” The bracelet was in better view, and I could see tiny names written on each bead.
“I like your bracelet,” I said inquisitively. “What do the beads mean?”
Without shifting positions at all and still looking ahead at the water, he answered slowly. “The beads are all the things in life that I can carry with me. Each one represents a spot I have in my soul for everything that isn’t me.”
I nearly asked him to repeat himself. His answer made me dizzy. “Are they people you’ve lost?” I asked, hoping the first logical conclusion that came to my mind would be in the ballpark of what he meant.
The stranger lifted his head and turned away from the sun to look at me. He half-smiled. Oddly enough, his eyes still glittered with setting sunlight even turned away from the sun.
“A few do.” He lifted his right hand in a fist and held it vertically between us to get a better look at the bracelet. “These four,” he started as he pulled three tiny plain wood beads and one reflective gold bead to the front of the bracelet, “are for a few grandparents and my dog.”
He gave me a minute to absorb. I could barely make out the writing on the golden bead. It looked like a name. “May I?” I asked, as I reached out to touch it. The compulsion was instant.
Before he could respond, two of my fingers made contact with the golden bead and one of the wooden ones next to it. Images flashed through my mind. A golden blur running through a green backyard. An older woman spraying water on a garden.
He pulled his hand back as he saw what must have been my glazed look. “These are mine to carry, not yours,” he said firmly but gently.
A million questions came to mind, but his face told me to wait. He had more to tell me.
He rotated the beads around to show a large green bead. “Work,” he said. Next up were four differently shaped blue beads. “Family.” Then three different colored beads, all the same size and shape. “Best friends.”
He put his arm down to rest on top of his leg. “Those are the things I carry,” he told me with his half-smile still intact.
“And love or home? Your past? Do you carry those things with you?” I wasn’t quite sure where I got the question. It left my lips before I could stop myself from speaking.
He laughed lightly. “I don’t have room. Don’t you see?” He dangled the bracelet again, and I had to agree. There wasn’t room for any additional beads.
“I’ve never had Home,” he confided. “I’ve always had a place to sleep. To house my belongings. But I’ve never had a home.”
“How is that possible?” Once again my lips moved without checking with my brain. “Everyone has a home and a past.”
“Your past lives in your home. No home. No past. I just have memories. Some are clearer than others.”
I wanted to argue, but I was so intrigued, I didn’t want to give cause for him to stop talking. “And love?” I asked. “No room for love?”
His smile faded. “Love means you give a piece of yourself. If I give anything away, I can’t carry my load. I have to carry my load. Love also means taking a piece of them with you. And as you can tell, I have no more room on my bracelet for any more beads.”
“How does that make you feel?”
“It doesn’t.” He answered plainly.
My mind raced. The whys, whats and where-to-fors just didn’t apply. So I sat there with the stateless soldier and watched the sun go down.