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Rated: E · Short Story · Contest Entry · #2204372
Amilcar and friend at a hermit convention. 3rd in What a Character: Official WDC Contest.
A Hermit Convention

It was Amilcar’s fellow hermit, Mendel Kurtzman, who told him of the upcoming convention. Normally, Amilcar would have taken little notice of the news since hermit conventions were annual events and always held in places remote from his situation at the time. This year’s, however, was to be held in Kolmanskop, a ghost town in Namibia. Since Amilcar was presently in the Namibian capital, Windhoek, a journey to the venue was quite possible and he, in concert with Mendel, began to plan a potential attendance at the event.

“We should leave soon,” said Mendel. “If we are going to hitchhike, it could take us many days to get there.”

“How long until the convention?” asked Amilcar.

“Three days.”

“Then we should start today. It’s a long walk through the city to the road to Namaqualand. And there is not much traffic so we might have trouble getting rides.”

“What about equipment and supplies?” Mendel seemed surprised at his friend’s eagerness to depart.

“We’re hermits,” answered Amilcar with a shrug. “We should be used to hardships. I’ve travelled the world and never taken anything with me.”

Mendel looked doubtful. “I know that’s what we’re supposed to do but- Are you sure we can do this?”

“Trust me,” said Amilcar.

The two friends set out that afternoon, a strange sight in the orderly streets of Windhoek and its suburbs, both orange-robed and shaven-headed, slight figures tanned by the sun to a russet brown but somehow fragile in their complete lack of travelling gear. Perhaps it was this apparent vulnerability that moved an old farmer in a battered Toyota truck to offer them a ride long before they reached the last of the houses. They squeezed into the front seat along with a pair of large dogs, several misshapen auto parts and a disgruntled chicken. The farmer asked questions about hermitry as they travelled through the dessicated brushland of the countryside and Amilcar happily held forth on the finer points while Mendel nodded in agreement.

As the sun went down, painting the mountains in the west with a reflection of the burning gold and scarlet of the eastern sky, the farmer asked where they planned to stay the night. When Amilcar replied that they would find a suitable bush to sleep under, the farmer shook his head, muttered something about jackals and leopards, and insisted they stay at his homestead overnight. So, that night, it was two well fed and satisfied hermits that tumbled into beds more comfortable than they had known for years.

The next morning and once again against all protestations of their need for ascetism, they were fed full breakfasts and driven in the truck to the main road. That day they travelled with other farmers through a dramatic landscape becoming steadily drier and bare of vegetation. When night fell they were treated to the same hospitality as they had experienced on their first day on the road.

On their third day, they were picked up by a tourist couple heading home to South Africa. The couple had already seen Kolmanskop and told tales of its eeriness and strange beauty. They let the hermits off at the turnoff for the ghost town, assuring them it was only a few miles away now. The two lonely figures set off in the dusk to walk a short distance before the darkness became complete. That night they slept under the stars.

In the morning they were awoken by a tourist coach roaring by on the road. As they gathered themselves to continue their journey, two more coaches went by. The two hermits stepped out once more on the road.

They were now walking through classic desert country, sand and dunes stretching as far as the eye could see. With the sun climbing ever higher into the sky, distances began to shimmer in the heat and images dissolved into reflections of themselves. Amilcar turned to grin at Mendel. “Now this is what a desert is all about,” he commented.

Mendel said nothing but concentrated on moving one foot ahead of the other.

A mile further on, Amilcar announced that he would climb a nearby dune in an attempt to see how far they still had to go. Mendel followed him without enthusiasm. As they crested the rise, they saw that the dune sloped down to meet the town on its far side. There were buildings scattered in the sand before them, some beaten and falling apart, others seeming as strong as the day they were made. The dunes had invaded the streets so that some houses were half swallowed in sand while others maintained a space to themselves. Coaches and cars were lined up in a parking area and people, both tourists and orange-cloaked hermits, mingled like ants between the buildings.

“We made it,” breathed Mendel. “And the convention is still open. I’ve never seen so many hermits in one place before!”

Amilcar sat down glumly. “I know,” he said.

Mendel looked down at him in surprise. “What’s the matter with you? This is what we’ve been working so hard towards. Aren’t you glad that we’re here?”

“I thought I would be,” answered Amilcar. “But to see all those people - I’m suddenly afraid.”

“Afraid? Afraid of what? You’re always telling me how much experience you’ve had at this, how you’ve been a hermit in all sorts of places around the world. How can you be afraid?”

Amilcar sighed and sifted a handful of sand through his fingers, watching it fall and drift away in the breeze. “That was all wishful thinking, Mendel. The truth is that yes, I’ve been to a lot of places in the world but I’ve failed in every one of them. I sat in a cave in a mountain for a year and had to come down in the end to get away from the crowds that came to gawp at me. I wanted to sit on a pole to meditate but couldn’t even get the pole upright. In Australia, I went into the wilderness to be alone and ended up at a barbecue with a bunch of ranchers. I’ve even tried a desert before and gave up because I couldn’t find any honey or locusts.”

He spoke quietly now through the hands that covered his face. “I’m nothing but a failed hermit and I dare not go down there to meet all those real hermits. They’ll see me for the sham I am, even if they hide it. I’ll know and I don’t think I can bear the looks they’ll give me.”

“But what about your certificate?” protested Mendel. “At least you’ve got your certificate from The Most Worshipful Order of Hermits and Sundry Ascetics. You’re an official hermit which is a whole lot more than I am.”

“That? That’s just a matter of answering a few theoretical questions, that’s all. A parrot could do it. A real hermit knows that it’s just a bit of paper. The real thing is out there in the world, experiencing hardship and achieving enlightenment. I’m nothing but a failure, Mendel. And I’m not even very good at that.”

Mendel sat down next to him. “Well, you’ve helped me a lot. I don’t think I’d have got this far if you hadn’t encouraged me to do it instead of dreaming all the time.”

“Oh great, so I’m dragging you down with me as well. When it comes to failure, I’m an expert, Mendel.”

They fell silent and gazed unseeing at the ghost town before them. The noonday sun beat down unnoticed on their stubbled little heads, two crestfallen hermits defeated by the world.

In the end, when the afternoon was creeping on towards evening, Mendel spoke. “So what are we going to do now?”

Amilcar looked at him. “We? Well, you can go down there and join the rest of them. They won’t have a problem with you.”

“Not going without you,” said Mendel.

Silence fell upon the pair as Amilcar considered this. It was clear that Mendel meant what he said. And, anyway, Amilcar wasn’t exactly sure what his own courses of action were. “Alright,” he said, “I’ll go with you. But don’t expect me to enjoy it.”

“Deal,” said Mendel.

The two rose then and scrambled down the face of the dune to enter town. The coaches had loaded up and departed by then so Kolmanskop had become a town of orange-robed figures wandering respectfully from house to house. Mendel engaged them in conversation while Amilcar held back in silence like a follower in attendance on his master. His robe, bleached and worn by long years of weather, gave the lie to this, however.

The next few days passed in similar fashion. Mendel went to several seminars and Amilcar followed, sitting a few rows back and not speaking to anyone. He had heard it all before in his studies for the certificate but maintained an attentive, if not eager, attention. In the evenings, when Mendel bubbled over with all that he was learning, Amilcar smiled and agreed that it was all good stuff.

On the last day of the convention, coaches appeared in the car park and began to fill with orange hermits, all chattering away with the excitement of their new understanding. Amilcar and Mendel watched until the last coach had gone. Aware that they could stay until they chose to leave, the two rested in the shade of a dilapidated house and pondered their experience.

“That was wonderful,” said Mendel.

“Yes, it was,” replied Amilcar. “I was a little surprised to find that they hired coaches for transport but it fits with my revelation.”

“Revelation? What revelation?”

“Oh, didn’t I tell you about that? I had a revelation while we were here.”

Mendel stared at his friend in astonishment. “And you kept it quiet? You didn’t think to mention it to me?”

Amilcar spread his hands in apology. “I’m sorry. It’s just that you were having so much fun and I didn’t want to spoil any of it for you.”

“What could possibly spoil things for me, especially a revelation for my friend? You’re such a poop, Amilcar. Don’t you think I’d be glad for you?”

A rueful grin spread itself across Amilcar’s face. “You’re right, it was a stupid thing for me to do.”

“So what’s the revelation?” asked Mendel.

“It’s like this, Mendel. I realised that the problem is not really mine. It’s true that I don’t enjoy company, that I’d rather spend my time alone without the distraction of having to bow to the whims of society. It’s the way I am and there’s nothing I can do about it. The real revelation is that this actually makes me more of a hermit than anyone at the conference. If they were true to their stated ideals, hermits would have no conferences. They wouldn’t even gather in groups. It’s contrary to the ideal of hermit existence.

“Oh, I’m not saying that there was something terribly wrong with having a conference. It’s good to encourage those who find things difficult. But, for those who are naturally or by devotion good at hermiting, it’s a bit of a waste of time. Better to hermit every available instant, methinks.”

Mendel looked at him with eyes wide open and mouth gaping. “I knew it!” he said. “I just knew you were getting something important at this convention. And I was right!”

Word Count: 1,905
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