Telling Tales 28
Negotiations and Other Delicate Words
“I SAW YOU!”
Dmitri bellowed as he discovered the bartender’s hands clasped around his throat. Everyone else jumped as well, hanging as they were upon her every word, but it was only Dmitri who was looking into her eyes, so fixed upon her story that he didn’t even notice that she had leaned over the bar, closer and closer.
They all laughed after that. Only a few of the merchants laughed at Dmitri, because the truth of the matter was that any of them would have been as scared as he had been. In fact, hardly any of them had even noticed her hands moving. The handful that did laugh at Dmitri did so to cover their embarrassment, and those few soon realized that everyone else was laughing in relief at the fiction, at the delight in a story well told, and in being so caught in the tale that they did not even see the end coming.
“I thought it was a different kind of story!” shouted Dmitri. “I didn’t think she was going to try and scare us!”
“She did more than try,” joked his friend.
“Who’s next?” asked the man with the red nose. “The second story! A half case of vodka is riding on this!”
“So it is,” answered Dmitri. “Then let it be you. You’ve traveled far, let’s hear something from one of your journeys!”
The red-nosed merchant sputtered. “Me? Me? I’m no storyteller!”
Dmitri grinned, a broad, toothy smile. “Then I win.”
In the chorus of howls, catcalls and huzzahs, only the traveler by the door noticed the dark looks on the faces of the innkeepers, the man cleaning tables and the woman behind the bar. Night upon night of free lodging and food for Dmitri and the traveler would gut them.
The red-nosed man continued to protest, “How can I?”
The innkeeper had re-emerged from the back with a small tray of food for the old man at the door. It was nothing more than a chunk of bread, butter, a beer, and some broth, but there was no food that was not precious.
“Come on, Sergei, weren’t you telling me about that strange thing you found, that tangle of string? That sounded like a good story.”
The red-nosed man hemmed and hawed. “I wasn’t even there for all of it.”
“You don’t have to know how the history goes from the beginning to the end.” Everyone turned to look at the old traveler. “You only have to know the parts that make the tale worth the telling.”
The second man, standing between the belligerent Dmitri and the red-nosed Sergei, walked over the man by the door. “You’re full of words, aren’t you?”
“It’s not so much that I’ve lived so long, although that’s true. It’s also not that I’ve had remarkable experiences, although that’s true, too. Look at our host,” and he nodded at the bartender, “she just told us something marvelous. I was just a soldier. She’s a bartender. We’re not special.”
“Sergei tells us about his tangle of string, then you continue with your story,” said the man. “You’ve still got your own deal with our hosts to complete.”
“Of course,” said the old man.
“Fine,” grumbled red-nosed Sergei.
“Thank you,” said the traveler to the innkeeper.
The place’s owner favored him with a sour smile and set the food down. He, for one, hated his wife’s story. It made him think of the scars on her back and arms, hidden beneath her clothes, gouged deep as tree bark could go.