When the old man reached the pick of the hill, twilight was almost passed. His friend had been buried in the old cemetery on the left side of the river and he had always visited his grave in a dark hour, sometimes before dawn, sometimes after dusk. He stopped his black bicycle to gather some breath and looked down from the hilltop to the line of well-lighted houses along the left river bank. His glance went from the farthest to the closest one, right below him. It stood in an upper position along the river bank, alongside the most gentle slope of the hill. That one had been his friend’s home, built by him anew, stone by stone, upon an old brick shack.
The old man sighed, then dried the sweat from his foreheads with a red handkerchief, adjusted the flat hat on his head and started to pedal again. That old black bicycle had been a loyal companion to the old man since he had become a medical practitioner in that little town, fifty years before. When it was all new and shiny, the local peasants struggled not to laugh at it. In those days, a true bicycle had to be a rusty, heavy iron frame with one rickety seat, two mismatched pedals and patched inflatables. To be taken seriously, a bicycle should have no mudguard, no functioning brakes, no lights, no distinguishable colour and absolutely no bell. But the large brown bag in the rear basket reminded them that it was the ride of a good doctor and the peasants learned to respect the bicycle as they respected its rider. At least, it had no gearshift.
The man sniffed the cold air of the upcoming night as he approached the cemetery gate. He left the bicycle by the wall and entered the cemetery with the flat hat in his hands, his hair a mix of white and grey wool. He passed tombstones which were nothing more that roughly sculpted rocks, worn out by the weather and the years. No name or date was still readable. The little chapel on the left of the narrow gravel path, painted in a creamy gold tone only two years before, had already changed into a dirty yellow. Here and there mould was growing strong in strange patterns along the edges of the walls. The man stopped his walking and was tempted to touch it, but held his fingers away from the mould.
Shaking his head, he started to walk again. After a sudden turn on the right, he reached a larger space, blessed with green fresh grass. There, under a plum tree, was the tomb. He smiled at it, waved his hat and sat leg crossed on the ground opposite to it.
“I am going, Antonio”
Said the old man after a sigh.
“I know what I promised, but I am old — he looked far away at his left — we all are”
He turned and watched down at his hat. He played with it a little.
“I have no more time. You know what is like to keep quiet and watch from a distance, how it can tear you apart, and I waited longer than you did”
He looked straight at the tomb. Now the light had gone and his friend portrait, in the almond-shaped frame, was barely visible. He knew it showed a dark man in his fifties, dressed in a pompous uniform, but he preferred to remember Antonio as a young boy, dressed in dirty trousers and a torn white shirt. Barefoot. He was a good-hearted boy, always ready to sing for his supper. And he really sang a lot.
“Do you remember the time you came to me after dinner, while I was studying to say that you had seen the witch? That you had actually seen the witch and wanted to free the town from her?”
The man scratched his head with fingers full of rings.
“You know, I didn’ believe a word. I just thought you had spied on some tramp.”
He played again with his hat.
“But you insisted, so I asked for some proof and when you brought it — he sighted — damn Antonio, you kept on going to her all the nights while I was scared just at the thought of it.”
He scratched again his messy woolly hair.
“You were a brave guy, my friend, and a loyal one too.”
He looked again to his far left.
“But I can’t stay here one minute more. Your family will be ok. My son is here. He is a grown man now, ready to take my place. He knows anything — he sighed — anything that he needs to know.”
He looked at his bejewelled hand.
“I gave him half of mine. He’s protected and he will protect your family better than me”
He put his hat on his head and stood up with unusual agility for a man his age.
“I am old, Antonio. I have to go. It’s now or…”
He looked at his friend tomb. Slowly, he kissed is own right hand and touched with it his friend portrait.
Then he turned his back to his life-long friend, exited the cemetery and took his bicycle. It never felt so heavy. The old man told himself it was for the two saddlebags on the back and his old doctor bag in the front, but it wasn’t. He paused a moment before giving the first push on the pedal and looked at the sky. The night was clear, a bright full moon lighted his road. He took a deep breath and moved away from his past.