2022 Annual Literary Contest
by John Wheatley
The grocery cart, mounded with every scrap of Bert’s life, rattled down the sidewalk.
It was a ritual that spoke of the years. Woken by the rumble of trucks on the bridge overhead, Bert would wander down to the creek to splash freshness on face and hands. He would walk back under the bridge to roll up a carpet, some newspapers and a plastic sheet that kept away the night. Everything had a place in the cart, the tightly rolled carpet became a flag mast, the newspaper silenced rattling and the plastic sheet over all shed rain and inquiring minds.
If the sky had cried during the night Bert would struggle to pull the cart up the muddy hill to the sidewalk, but these days were dry so he was able to push the cart, its wheels complaining over every bit of gravel. No matter how difficult the journey, a quest drove Bert: he needed to feed the dragons. He would turn right at the sidewalk to go into town.
Even with just morning sun the day was already warm. Bert would have to hurry to get enough food before people escaped the afternoon heat in the cool of their buildings. Bert would methodically canvas all three streets and the avenues but today he knew he had to get back under the bridge before it became too hot. He crossed the street to be in morning shade so the walk back to the bridge would be in afternoon shade.
“Spare some food for the dragons” Bert’s raspy voice called out to the first person he passed.
“Just visiting” was the reply. Bert turned to watch as the stranger hurried along with eyes focussed on the concrete sidewalk.
Bert continued, the rattling wheels preceding his passage.
Although most people in the town recognized the man pushing his cart, they only knew his name from a uniform he wore on days that were cold. They knew he was harmless. His presence was tolerated in most parts of the town but Bert chose to avoid the streets where the big houses and fancy cars lived. Dogs in the park did not like Bert either so he never sat on a park bench.
Bert appeared several years ago after walking until his only memories were in the cart. Soon after he met the dragons. Only Bert ever saw the dragons.
Georgina checked her phone. Bert would pass soon. She tried to watch out for him, always giving him a small package from yesterday’s supper. Through the years Georgina never saw the flicker of recognition in his eyes but she knew what it was like running from memories.
‘Spare some food for the dragons” Bert called out when he saw her.
“Here you are Bert.” She smiled as she handed him the package. “It is going to be a scorcher, maybe you should stop by later to get away from the heat.”
“Thanks, but I have to feed the dragons, they don’t like it when I am late.”
Georgina watched as he rattled down the sidewalk. She did not understand about the dragons. No one did.
Bert paused at an intersection. Waiting to cross on the other side was that lady with her dog. That lady only saw empty space when Bert walked by, but her dog was not as blind. He would growl and lunge at Bert’s cart. Bert turned up the avenue to miss that lady. He would have to walk in the sun for a bit but that was better than having dog barks draw attention. Bert tried to avoid attention.
Sam was working on a car in front of his garage. “Spare some food for the dragons” was the chant that caused Sam to straighten up and wipe his greasy hands on his coveralls.
“Here is a bit of a sandwich and some water.” Bert did not like too much fuss and Sam knew to diminish what he gave. Bert stood in silence and drank the water. He moved to hand the bottle back but Sam told him to keep it. Bert put it in the bag with others. He would take the full bag to the depot. The money would buy special treats for the dragons.
Bert shuffled though the streets until the sun was high. In the still air Bert knew it was time to go back to the shade under the bridge. But first his quest. Pausing, Bert carefully looked around him. Once he knew he was unnoticed he turned down the lonely lane where only the dragons lived.
Bert knew the rattling wheels would wake the dragons. Their eyes glowed when it was dark so Bert tried not to go when it was dark. They hissed when they were angry. Sharp claws sometimes followed the hissing and Bert knew to keep a distance. As he approached the end of the lane, he could feel the dragons watching. It was hot and these dragons hid to avoid the heat of the sun.
Bert reached into his cart to retrieve the parcels the town had given him today. Slowly he unwrapped each, took away the bits of bread and fruit he knew they did not eat, and emptied the rest onto the rock in the shade of the oak tree.
Having finished his daily quest Bert turned and pushed his life back up the lane.
Once the rattling became distant, the dragons crept out of hiding. First was a crooked-tailed tabby, who always claimed the biggest bit. Then came the ragged-eared calico followed by the one-eyed gray and white. A group of others hurried to finish the remnants.
Bert reclaimed the shade under the bridge. He rolled out his carpet and layered the newspapers. He sat down to finish the bread and fruit. With his back against the base of the bridge he watched the creek meander along.