This is a man who will live forever, the barber knows.
He is waiting by the shop when the barber arrives, weight shifting foot to foot, staring up at the pole and wire of the new tram line. “Electricity, Jakob.” The barber says, in lieu of greeting. “The world is changing.”
The vagrant nods. Gnarled white locks hide his face. He does not reply.
“That time of year already?”
Another nod. The barber sighs. Unlocks the door. Throws the switch and the light bulb sputters to life. It’s light out, the bulb isn’t necessary, but the novelty is good for business. Like the tram.
His first customer is not a novelty he needs. He cuts Jakob’s hair in haste. He pulls back the razor, scraping whiskery white stalks off tender, reddened prairies in long rasping strokes. There is no complaint, and the barber is not gentle. They have done this before. Once a year, at harvest, Jakob comes to him- once a year, he shaves the man’s head to the ragged patches of scalp. Each time, the same exchange.
“How long will this take?”
“I am not from here, you know.”
And the immigrant suffers his humiliation.
He’s a crazy old man, has been that way for the whole of the barber’s life. And his father’s. His grandfather knew him too. He lives on the docks, down by the Old City, he stands on the great wooden pylons, reaching up at the sky for hours, a wild penitent monk. Sometimes on one leg, sometimes two.
The barber remembers, (in boyhood, when his father had been the one who had performed Jakob’s yearly ritual,) asking Jakob why he did that. What was he doing?
Then Jakob would tell his story. Shifting his birdlike frame in the chair, his hollowed eyes fixed, intoning a long-memorized orthodoxy. Always the same story, the same words, the same way.
When Jakob Osmochescu was young, when he was a stranger in Dubrovnik, he killed a man whom he had never met. When they came to hang him, he claimed that His People, the ones from the Faraway, had told him to.
He stood trial before the Baron Mayor, behind closed doors. Jakob had known things- things he should not know, could not know, of empires and powers beyond his capacity. The Mayor had listened, deliberated, judged Jakob’s story to be true. He had addressed the crowd, told them there would be no hanging, that the stars themselves had spoken in Jakob’s defense.
The throng was not satisfied. It didn’t much matter that the man that Jakob had killed had been a brutish man and secretive, long been suspected of making several of Dubrovnik’s children disappear. Stars or no: blood had been shed, and that demanded atonement.
The folk of this city had never been easily governed. Faced with the roiling mob, the Mayor, and the stars, relented.
Jakob was beaten, stripped of his possessions, he wailed under blows for His People, the ones from the Faraway, “Why do they always hurt us? Why do you always let them hurt us? Help me!”
But they did not help him.
“My People! Hear me! I know you have the power to strike down this entire world. I know you can save me!”
They could not save him.
“We come so far, we always try and save them, but they never listen. Why do they not listen? Answer me!”
They would not speak to him again.
“What will happen to Jakob now? What is to become of me?”
For penance, he was given immortality, silence… and a razor, every year.
That is the story he tells, to anyone patient enough to listen. “I am a man who will live forever.” He says it as though tasting the words for the first time in his mouth. “For my sins.”
Jakob is no longer a stranger. Now, he lives by the docks. He stands on the pylons and waits. He tells the fishermen, (who relay the stories with eyeroll and scoff when they sit in the barber’s chair,) that he is closer to the Faraway out there. That is the place where he will hear his People when they forgive him, when they call him Home.
This is why he spends so little time in town. A little food, a little water, and, once a year, a haircut. All the time aching to return to his vigilant listening. Though, lately, he’s caught Jakob lingering by Dubrovnik’s electric wires. Even now, in the chair, he stares at the barber’s light bulb.
“My People will hear me soon.” He mutters.
Foolishness. The barber knows it’s foolishness. Of course.
But every year, when Jakob and his foul and white and unkempt hair walk through his door, the barber does his work as swiftly as he can. He does not want him in here. It’s not the smell so much, nor is Jakob an ill-mannered customer.
It’s the eyes, sunken yet Faraway, staring at the bulb with such childlike wonder. The eyes of a man older than his grandfather, his great-grandfather. Tired eyes, fighting off sleep in hopes of seeing something long-anticipated. Eyes like the dog the barber’s no-good neighbor would beat after too much wine. It’s the way the eyes stare, with utter transcendence, when Jakob tells his story. God save him, the barber hates that story.
Could he survive like that? The question comes to him, unbidden, every year. The barber does not know if he could bear the pain of such loneliness, such singularity of purpose, no matter what the cause.
If the story, the man’s story, implausible and long rehearsed though it is, what if-
The barber tries to keep the razor in his hand from shaking. How would his eyes look, he wonders, if he were left alone in a strange land, forever?
“How long will this take? I am not from here, you know.”
The barber knows.
This story originally appeared in Asymmetry Fiction.