photo of a hand holding beaded necklace

Beggar Beads by Forrest Johnson

The old man stared at the kitchen table in puzzlement. It was almost eight o’clock, and there was no sign of breakfast. Shuffling slowly in his tattered robe and worn slippers, he looked in the bedroom, then in the bath, and finally the living room. Sarah was nowhere to be found.

“She must have gone somewhere and forgotten to tell me,” he thought. Forgetting things had become a daily problem for both of them. He checked the door of the fridge, but she hadn’t left a note. There was nothing in the oven. He would just have to feed himself.

He put some cereal and milk in a bowl and sat down to eat. His hands were trembling again. They trembled a lot, these days. The doctor had said something about that, and given him medicine, but he sometimes forgot to take it. The medicine was in the fridge, or maybe in the bathroom, but he didn’t feel like getting up. He would take the medicine after breakfast, if he remembered it.

Meanwhile, he had spilled some of the milk and cereal. There were napkins in one of those drawers, but he wasn’t sure which one, and he wasn’t going to interrupt his breakfast, now that he had started. He would just have to clean up later.

As he carefully navigated the last treacherous spoonful into his mouth, he raised his eyes and saw Sarah standing in front him. She was just standing in the middle of the kitchen and looking at him. Was it Sarah? She was wearing Sarah’s favorite necklace, the one with the agates. “Beggar beads” it was called. But she was dressed all in black. Sarah didn’t like black. It made her look too old and skinny, “like a witch,” she said. This woman was not old and skinny, but still, she looked a lot like Sarah.

“Good morning, Sarah,” he said experimentally.

The woman in black shook her head sadly. “I’m your daughter, Anne. I’m here to get you dressed.”

“I can dress myself!” he said, insulted. “I’m not a child!”

“Not today, father. We need to get you into a suit. Also, you need a shave.”

He reached up to touch his chin. He hadn’t shaved in…it must have been three or four days. Shaving was a chore, with his hands trembling so. He got to his feet and walked over to the woman, staring at her pretty beads. He ran the smooth stones through his fingers.

“These are Sarah’s beads. I gave them to her. Why are you wearing Sarah’s beads?”

“She gave them to me. You probably don’t remember. Let’s go to the bathroom.”

He didn’t need to go to the bathroom. And if she did, why was she dragging him with her by the elbow? He was going to ask about that, but then she suddenly left him in front of the mirror and walked away. The face in the mirror stared at him. It looked surprised. The surprised man in the mirror was very old. His face was all wrinkled and blotchy. He reached up to touch his own face, and the stranger did likewise. So it was really him, only looking older than he knew himself to be – a mystery.

Sarah came back, holding a chair. “Sit down,” she said, and before he could object, forced him down into it. Then, she began lathering his face for the shave. He didn’t like being pushed, but it didn’t seem worth arguing about. He sulked quietly while she ran the razor over his face. Sarah was very annoying, telling him to do this and that. He would have to talk to her about it, but later, after the shave.

Now she was towelling him off, and before he could say anything, they were in the bedroom, and she was rummaging through the closet.

“I need to find the serge suit, the charcoal grey,” she said, “Where is it?”

“In the closet.”

He didn’t like the serge suit. It was baggy.

“Don’t like it,” he said, as she threw it on the bed.

“Don’t like it,” he said again, while she was buttoning up a starchy, white cotton shirt.

“We’re late,” she said, and began putting his feet in the old, black wingtips.

“Where are we going?” But already, she was dragging him to the car.

“People are waiting. They can’t start without us.”

“Start what?”

But it didn’t seem to matter what he said. The woman in black was driving through a strange part of town. Where was she taking him? Was this really Sarah? Could Sarah even drive a car? He wasn’t sure. He looked closely at her, but he couldn’t tell. She was wearing Sarah’s beads, though. He reached out to touch the cool, reassuring beggar beads. She slapped his hand away.

“Don’t touch me while I’m driving,” she said. There was nothing to do but sit there in the passenger seat and wonder what was happening.

“Where are we going?”

“It’s a funeral. Just be quiet. You don’t have to say anything.”

“Whose funeral?”

She didn’t hear him. She had stopped the car and was waiting for him to get out. There was a big, green field full of headstones. It looked familiar. Had he been here before sometime? He didn’t know when.

She had him by the elbow again and was hustling him along, to where some people were standing around an open grave. Whose? He didn’t remember anyone dying.

Now, a big, red-faced man dressed in black was offering him his hand. “I am so very sorry for your loss,” he said solemnly.

His loss? What had he lost? He turned to ask the woman in black, but she wasn’t looking at him, just staring into the grave, with tears running down her face, one hand clutching the pretty beggar beads.

Born in 1952, Forrest Johnson worked for years in newspapers and magazines, before moving on to the software industry, and eventually starting a third career as a writer. In between, he accumulated four college degrees, most recently from the Free University in Berlin, where he studied history and literature.

Lead image“Misbaha (7of 12)” (via Flickr user Flavio~)