Jul/Aug 2021  •   Nonfiction

Familiar Stranger

by Sydney Lea

Photo by Solen Feyissa on unsplash

Photo by Solen Feyissa on unsplash

He strode into our general store trailing a slightly smoky odor. He was humming a barely audible song. I didn't quite know the tune, but something about it intrigued me as I followed its cadences—it stirred a memory, for the moment unfetchable.

I can't really render the stranger's appearance. For the most part, his features, like his clothes, were indistinct; but when he turned his eyes my way, I swore I felt something like a burn, though the eyes had what I can only and inadequately call a ghostly look.

Undetected, I hoped, I watched him browse the shelves. He didn't seem to be after anything specific. Browse: yes, that's just the word.

At length he chose a lighter. A chronic sucker for metaphor—if that's the right term here—I thought the choice accorded with that heat his presence had kindled in me, like a mild fever's. But I soon discovered I couldn't apply that tune, those eyes, that odor or warmth to anything, metaphorically or otherwise.

So why was I primed for wild suspicions? What led me to imagine misfortune?

Everyone in the store flinched a bit when a siren erupted outside. That's a common enough sound in big cities, but we rarely hear it in our small upcountry town. Through the plate glass window, we all watched a police cruiser shoot by. All of us, that is, but this out-of-towner, who waited to pay at the register.

I didn't ask anyone else, but to me that strident noise seemed more than merely abnormal. It did pierce the ordinarily pleasant routine of our village, yes, but for whatever reason, I also thought it sent a cryptic signal from some unknown dominion. Pure nonsense, of course, as I well knew. Even so, it left me unsettled, to use an easy euphemism.

Without his notice, I hoped, I contemplated the demeanor of this largely unremarkable visitor, who soon nodded pleasantly to all of us, shoved open the screen, and left, still humming that air.

My neighbors, scarcely noticing, went on with their palaver, none beside me appearing the least concerned with this unknown man but rather, quite understandably, with what that siren might mean.

Then, quite abruptly, I had it.

As a boy of 13, I'd ridden along one autumn morning with the hired man, who was hauling a boar hog to the abattoir. When we arrived, he quite curtly ordered me to stay in the truck.

I heard the tailgate clank behind me. Turning to look out the rear window, I could tell the fattened pig somehow sensed what awaited. An attendant, casually smoking a thin cigar, electro-prodded the poor thing into a chain link passageway and then through a low steel door, which he emphatically slammed shut.

He walked the hired man back to the truck where I sat, and for a minute or two, the two conversed through the open window. Then, having stubbed his cigar, the attendant retreated into the squat, grim building through another entrance. Before the hired man cranked up the window, however, I clearly heard him whistle, or rather breathe, the tune I would half-recognize more than 60 years later.

I'd caught a whiff of his tobacco, too, and seen his more or less nondescript outfit. But I chiefly remembered the abattoir worker's spectral eyes, and more uncanny, how just then I flinched at the sudden scream of a siren.

It had only blown to announce high noon, but after it wound down, another scream broke loose from inside the slaughterhouse.

Though the hired man was rugged, seasoned, he sat staring through the windshield for what seemed a full minute, rough hands clenched on the steering wheel. Then he started the engine—far too late, however, for its rumble to erase that cry, which, however I tried all these decades later, I likewise failed to erase.