S H O R T S T O R Y
THE BICYCLE FABLE
b y a n n a h a r r i n g t o n ~ o a k f i e l d, t e n n e s s e e
SHE STOOD on the little, winding road with a broken bicycle at her feet. Her hand shaded her eyes as she stared toward the horizon and squinted against the mid-morning sun. She waited. Something was coming toward her, she knew—she felt it the way old men felt approaching storms. A pulse from down deep in her bones, a weakness in her legs...whatever it was that was drawing closer, she couldn't name it. She had no words for it. Yet, she knew it was coming, and she waited for it.
A low, almost imperceptible hum that was more felt than heard rumbled down the country road like a bee buzzing past on a summer's day. A steady motion of machine and muscle sliced through the air. He pedaled on, skimming through the fields, passing ancient wineries and stone walls, cows that barely looked up as he flashed past—he was moving toward something, he felt it. A pinch in his stomach and chest, a trembling in his thighs...he couldn't name it. He had no words for it. Yet he was chasing it, and he knew he would catch it.
They saw each other. She turned toward him as his figure on the racing bicycle came into sight. First, nothing more than a dot on the horizon, then growing steadily larger, he slowed and raised a hand toward her in a lazy wave. Slowly, she waved back. He saw the bicycle at her feet and stopped.
He spoke to her.
Not understanding, she only tilted her head.
She spoke to him.
He shook his head, not understanding.
They stared at each other, both at a loss for words in either language that the other didn't know. Shy glances, smiles, pointings, head shakes and nods, they tried to communicate, but engulfed in the language barrier between them, neither thought to question how such a tiny woman on such a tiny road could blow such a large hole in her tire, just as neither thought to question the deep pulse of the wait and the chase of the pinched stomach. He fixed her tire—a quick patch and pump—she thanked him—then he mounted his bike and peddled away.
When he was nearly out of sight, when he was little more than the dot she had first seen on the opposite horizon, she called out to him. But her voice was only a shy whisper.
Yet, over the bumble-bee hum of the tires and chains, he heard her. Her voice was a whisper on the wind, a language he didn't understand but in words that cut through him.
He rode back to her. She raised a hand and waved to him, and the exchange of smiles melted them both. They needed no words. Together, they rode back to the old village, to a tiny café tucked back within the maze-like streets. In silence, they stared at each other over cups of café au lait and cappuccino. It was a comfortable silence filled with smiles and flirtatious glances, deep looks into each other's eyes, perfectly timed sighs. He walked her back to her rented room, kissed her cheek goodbye, and as he turned to ride away, he held up his hands to her, palms and fingers wide.
She nodded, with a smile of relief. She knew, somehow, what he meant.
The next morning he came for her at ten o'clock, riding an old bicycle with a picnic basket strapped to the back. With a gentle laugh, she climbed onto the bar side-saddle and rode between his arms. Smiling and laughing—and off to a very wobbly start—they rode out of the village toward the countryside. He took her through fields, past the ancient vineyards, over the little stone bridges...Finally, they stopped in a field of sunflowers. He poured her wine, she fed him grapes. He pointed out the flowers to her, the ladybugs, the clouds, and the mountains in the distance, and he named them all for her in a beautiful language that matched his dark looks, in a beautiful language that both mesmerized her and abandoned her as soon as she heard it. She reciprocated, and he, too, lost the language like the mountains lost the clouds drifting into the sky. Yet, neither minded, because neither needed the words. And when he plucked a sunflower for her, its yellow petals sprouted wings and exploded in a burst of golden butterflies that leapt from his hand and danced away on the gentle breeze.
And then she kissed him.
He came for her again the next morning, and the next. And so he continued to come for her every morning, rain or sun, without permission asked, without permission needed to be given.
And so they continued, communicating without a common language, speaking without words. Yet the smiles and the laughter and the gentle touches spoke all they needed to say. Little gestures made clear their lives to each other—she had an overly protective brother, he had a grandmother who adored him. He loved wine and pasta, she devoured pain du chocolat. She was a tourist on summer vacation, he was training for the race. He loved cycling, she loved...him. More smiles now, more deep stares into each other's eyes, all their gestures filled with love, a sense of possession, and relief. He made love to her in the middle of a sunflower field, and yellow butterflies rose up around them like a golden cloud. When they murmured words of love to each other, their voices were lost beneath the hum of millions of beating wings.
And so they continued.
Once, on a rainy afternoon, when gray clouds hovered over the village, they sat inside the café and, armed with a dictionary and cups of coffee, tried to bridge the languages between them. But the new form of communication was foreign and problematic, each word bringing frowns and confusions, double-meanings, wrong meanings, unintended innuendos...Each put up hands to stop the other, frantically flipped through the pages, and scribbled pencil against paper. But there were never the right words to express their emotions, and the lovely simplicity of their nonverbal speech fell into unwanted complexity. Suddenly, he grabbed the dictionary, opened the café door, and heaved it out onto the rain-drenched cobblestones. He nodded decisively, she laughed with glee. And the words, so recently scratched in pencil and shared, were quickly forgotten. They held hands, stared into each other's eyes, listened to the rain falling across the village, and spoke to each other in their shared language of silence.
And so they continued.
The day of the race arrived. He asked her to come, to watch him sprint for the finish, and through the searching glances and gentle touches that she had learned fluently, she reluctantly agreed. She had never seen a cycling race before, and she didn't know what to expect. But he had pleaded with a glance, and so she went. For him. She arrived at the end of the mountain road and entered the gathered crowd where the finish line lay, where thousands crowded together...all straining for a quick-flash glimpse of the riders as they sped past, all dreaming about being one of them in the palaton, all cheering on the break-away sprinters and wishing that they, too, could race the wind. She waited and hoped for a glimpse of him, but the crowd moved like a living animal, jostling her and deafening her with its cheers.
While she waited, he raced toward her on a late-stage breakaway only a few hundred meters in front of the palaton. His thighs and bike set a blistering pace that dared the others to challenge him, and his rivals fell away one by one as victims to the alpine grade. The crowd lined the road. With only a few more kilometers until the finish, he increased his pace even faster to pull away even further—he turned into the last switchback and pumped through the searing pain striking up his now-numb legs to his lower back and shoulders. A single roar exploded simultaneously from the thousands in the crowd, and the cheering people pressed close to the barriers.
She rose to her tip-toes to watch for him, but someone pushed her from behind, knocking her off balance. She fell. The crowd closed in around her like a swarm of bees, covering her as she lay on the ground and struggled to climb to her feet. Someone stepped on her hand. She cried out.
His head jerked up. He felt her cry pierce his chest. He called out for her above the roar of the crowd—she heard him and reached out toward him. Only a few meters from the finish, he turned and plunged into the crowd after the sound of her voice. The people pushed in around him, a thousand hands grabbing at his jersey, pulling at his bike...He pushed through the swirling mass of bodies and found her. He pulled her onto his bicycle, and cradling her between his arms, he fought to bring her out of the crowd. But they pressed in upon him like an ocean surge, threatening to rip her from his arms, to carry her away from him like the tide...
Even now, all these years later, the old men in the villages still gather on warm summer nights and tell the story of the cyclist who sprouted golden wings and rose above the crowd to carry away the woman he loved and of the woman who, without words, put her complete love and trust in him...And that is why, they explain, that a little known rule exists that the cyclists' tires must touch the ground as they cross the finish line, and that is the real reason, they insist, that only the best cyclist wears the golden jersey—to prevent them all from sprouting wings and leaving the earth behind forever.
But the cyclists know the real lesson. They know that if one morning they should find a woman standing alongside the road—a tiny woman with a tiny bicycle with an inexplicably large hole in her tire—they should offer their help, especially if they speak different languages, for they know that language comes not from words but from the heart of the one who loves...and they know that this woman might just be the one who gives them wings.
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