Cardinal Points

Late it was when they knocked on her door. Madeline lived alone so she was a little nervous but then she was getting on in years, too, so she figured what did she have to lose? It was shrugging that she opened the door, not deigning to stretch the question mark of her spine straight enough to look through the peephole. There were two of them, an old one and a younger one, both bearded and dirty.

“Hey,” said the old one.

“Hello,” said Madeline.

“We’re passing through, ma’am, and the guy we were supposed to crash with ain’t home and ain’t been since who knows when and we don’t have nowhere else to stay and no money for it. And my friend here, he hears you’re a lady that sometimes’ll put people up and we thought, well, we could try anyway.”

She looked at them for a while without saying anything and marked it up to their credit that they didn’t shuffle around or fidget. “Come on in.” She put them at the kitchen table and bustled about making soup. They sat there silently, watching her with the quiet intensity of cats.

“Heading somewhere in particular?” Warm smell of butter and onions sauteeing.

The old one shrugged. “No’m. Just passing.”

“Your friend doesn’t say much. He mute?”

“I speak.” He had a voice like a rusty gate.

“Hrm.” Lima beans and corn and tomatoes and broth and closed the lid. “That’ll be ready in about twenty minutes. You fellas want something to drink? I’ve got beer, if you’d like that.”

They looked at each other and the old one said, “Thank you, that’d be good.” She popped the tops off of three bottles and they all sat around the table drinking the dark brown fuzz of the ale and listening to the soup bubbling. She didn’t say anything and they didn’t say anything and that was fine. She’d grown out of words, almost.

It wasn’t until she started spooning soup into the bowls that she wondered. “What’re your names, anyway, fellas?”

The old one opened his mouth but the young one put his hand out. “No,” he creaked. “Sorry.”

“It doesn’t matter, I guess.” She watched them eat. Out on the street a police car wailed past, carrying the city behind it.