Ernest in All Seasons by Michael Robert
I first met Ernest two weeks into my new job at the Bean and Bistro. I remember it was the day I finally perfected the art of using the steam wand of the espresso machine to foam milk without scalding it, a requisite skill of being a barista that probably took me entirely too long to master. Fortunately, Anne liked me, and though she was not the manager (or any other figure of authority, really), what she said seemed to go around there, and she said I stayed. Which was good luck for me, as I hadn’t yet reached a level of success in my career as an artist that I could survive on commissions—a level that eludes me still, as fact would have it.
A silver chime announced Ernest’s entry, and, if I’m being perfectly honest, his appearance left me feeling trepidatious. Everything about him was weathered and worn, from the state of his cap, baggy jacket, and cargo pants to the leather texture of his sun-beaten face. His clothes weren’t soiled, but were so faded from exposure to the elements that you would be hard-pressed to name what color they were supposed to be. He had a blue nylon duffle bag slung across his back, the weight of which must have been considerable, as the strap seemed ready to burst its stitching at any moment.
Anne—short, stocky, curvaceous Anne with the pallor of a corpse and the eye makeup of a goth metal band—gently pushed me aside and took my place at the register as Ernest approached. “Morning, Ernie!” she beamed, a sunny disposition radically at odds with her black lipstick and black hair and black… everything.
“Good morning, Miss Gwish,” Ernest said, doffing his cap and stepping up to the counter. Both his hair and beard were iron gray and wiry, but reasonably well-groomed.
“Will it be the usual?” Anne asked, already punching the order into the terminal before Ernest could answer.
“As always,” he said, his voice thinned by what must have been levels of exhaustion I can only imagine, “I am deeply obliged to your charity and generosity.”
“I’ve told you, it’s not charity,” Anne said, standing on her tippy toes to reach across the dark hardwood counter and plunge her fist into the tip jar to remove a handful of cash. Counting it into the till as payment, she added, “It’s the veteran’s discount.”
At my questioning glance, Anne shot me a look that said, “What, you want to make something of it?” but seemed mollified when I held my hands up at my waist in surrender. What Anne said went around there.
“Now, go take a seat by the window and warm up while we pull that together for you,” she said. “Mornings are still cold this time of year.”
Ernest did as instructed, unshouldering his duffle bag with an audible sigh of relief and heaving it into the booth beside him before sitting himself down and reaching into his coat to produce a yellowed paperback novel missing its front cover.
“Your name is Anne Gwish?” I hissed in Anne’s ear as I poured a cup of drip roast coffee while she worked the panini grill to warm up a breakfast sandwich consisting of a slice of cheese, ham, and an egg between two halves of an English muffin.
“It’s my Instagram handle,” Anne hissed back as she plated up the sandwich. “I told it to him once as a joke, but it flew right over his head and I’ve never had the heart to correct it. You be nice to Ernie. He’s seen some shit.”
Sandwich and coffee in hand, I stepped out from behind the counter to drop the order off with Ernest. Though the front cover of the book was missing and the remaining spine was partially obscured by a thrift store’s price tag, I was able to make out that he was reading The Eternal Champion by Michael Moorcock. At my arrival, he set the book aside and unzipped the front of his jacket a little. To my surprise, the head of a black kitten emerged and looked around expectantly.
“So, you’re a veteran?” I asked by way of idle conversation as I set the food and coffee down.
Ernest nodded solemnly as he disassembled his sandwich and began to tear the ham into tiny pieces to feed his cat. “I am,” he confirmed, “though I fear not of any battle you would have heard of, miss…?”
“Julie.” With a wry smile, I placed my hands on my hips and challenged, “And I’ll have you know that my dad has a doctorate in US military history. You might be surprised by what I’ve heard of.”
Ernest pressed his lips together in thought for a moment before answering. “Very well,” he said, “I am king and high marshal Ernest the Ironhearted, who led the armies of the Seven Realms at the Battle of Adirondack in our campaign to free the destiny of man, bound into the fell grimoire of the dread archfae, Malifar.”
I needed a moment to recover from that bit. “You’re right,” I said at last. “I haven’t heard of that one.”
“Most have not,” Ernest replied simply, sipping his coffee and picking up his book once more.
“Did he tell you about the Battle of Adirondack?” Anne whispered when I returned to my place behind the counter.
“Yeah. Like the lawn chair?”
“I think it’s the name of a county in Connecticut or something.”
“What a weird dude,” I said, casting a furtive glance in Ernest’s direction, but he was entirely too absorbed in his novel to notice.
Anne delivered a vicious elbow into my hip. “He’s not weird, he’s eccentric,” she lectured sternly as I gasped in pain and clutched at my side. “And when you’re eccentric, you’re not a vagrant, you’re local color. When he comes in here, we take care of Ernie, you got it?”
“I got it, I got it,” I said.
And take care of him we did. Until the very end.
Under the protective aegis of Anne’s self-declared rule, working at the Bean and Bistro was one of the more tolerable wage slave jobs I’ve ever had. She understood that for all the shit other jobs gave you about sitting down while on the clock looking “unprofessional,” customers don’t actually give a damn—in fact, most people are entirely sympathetic to the plight of a barista who has to be on her feet eight hours a day, and perfectly understanding of the very human need to just sit the fuck down and take a load off from time to time.
They were, admittedly, less sympathetic about me bringing my sketchbook to work and filling it with my artwork during downtime, but Anne didn’t see the harm of it so long as I kept it behind the counter and out of sight when customers were around. Besides, she liked my work enough to convince the owner to pay me a commission to redo the chalkboard menu with my art. Chalk isn’t really my medium and I wasn’t too pleased with how it all turned out, truth be told, but Anne thought it was great and paid me anyway.
Actually, in retrospect, I’m not sure she ever actually ran it past the owner.
Ernest became a regular fixture during my time there, turning up every couple of weeks for Anne’s veteran’s discount. If he had more than two changes of clothes in that duffle bag, I never saw them. What he did have, though, was a seemingly endless supply of secondhand fantasy novels in various states of disrepair. It was never the same book twice, and never have I seen someone read with such single-minded purpose and attention. Sometimes he would produce a notepad and a pen—almost certainly slipped to him by Anne, as it had “The Bean and Bistro” printed on the side along with our phone number and social media information—and take extensive notes.
On one of Ernest’s visits, it was warm enough out that he fully removed his jacket and sat in the booth with his surprisingly well-behaved kitten on the table. “Could I trouble you for some cream for my friend?” he called to Anne as he opened his latest book.
“You better not be feeding him any cream, Ernie,” Anne shot back from across the lobby. “Cats are lactose intolerant, you’ll have him squirting shit all over. I’ll go see if we have any tuna that hasn’t already been mixed with mayo for the tuna salad—he can have some of that. Julie, get him set up with his coffee, would you?”
This week he was reading Queen of Sorcery by David Eddings, holding the book steady even as his kitten headbutted his hand in search of attention. With a start, I realized the kitten wasn’t a kitten at all. It had grown no larger since the day I had first seen it, and it finally clicked that it was actually a very small adult cat that had probably been undernourished for most of its life.
“Cute cat,” I said as I delivered the coffee. “What’s its name?”
“He is called Guenhwyvar,” Ernest replied, setting aside the book.
“Guenhwyvar,” Ernest repeated.
“Such a nice name,” I said, not daring to try to pronounce it myself. Guenhwyvar, for his part, slinked across the table to me and started butting the back of my hand with his head, clearly seeking the affection Ernest was apparently not adequately providing, so I reached down and scratched him under his chin. Around his neck was a length of shoelace with a translucent black sphere crudely mounted in wire. Dark and fathomless, it was about the diameter of a nickel. I supposed it was a marble, but certainly fancier than any I’d ever had as a kid.
“What’s this?” I asked.
“That is a palantir,” Ernest sighed. “For all the good it does in this world, it may well adorn a cat’s neck.”
“What, like the thing from Lord of the Rings?”
Ernest’s brow furrowed and his demeanor grew defensive. “Fragments of the world that was still remain in this one,” he said rather curtly, “but bringing them all together is like trying to reassemble a grain of wheat after it has been milled into flour with its fellows. Still, I must persist, for what other options are left to me?”
“Here you are,” Anne said, appearing at my side with a small dish bearing maybe a quarter of a can of tuna. “Service animal discount.”
As Anne made small talk with Ernest, I regarded the empty lobby as an opportunity to take my legally mandated fifteen-minute break to fart around on my phone in the back office. When I returned, Ernest was standing at the counter with my sketchbook in his hands, leafing through the ink-saturated pages.
I froze on the spot, realizing that I must have left it by the register instead of behind the counter. Look, I take a lot of inspiration from the people and things around me when I draw. In that sketchbook was a picture of Anne done up as the high priestess of a circle of druids. There was a self-portrait of me as a mermaid princess, plying the waves with a pod of dolphins. And then there was the page that Ernest seemed transfixed by: a depiction of him as the king he claimed to be, presiding over an honor guard of knights while seated on a throne of books.
“I’m sorry,” I stammered as I rushed forward to reclaim the sketchbook, “I just—”
“Don’t apologize,” Ernest said quietly, shutting the cover and returning it to me. “Books are the vessels into which truth is bound. The wisdom comes in knowing which should or should not be set loose upon the world. Were I a wiser man, perhaps I’d not have set light to the grimoire and undone the world Malifar had wrought. But it may yet be mitigated.”
Heaving his duffle bag onto his shoulder, he added, “Please tender my gratitude to Miss Gwish for the tuna for my friend.” And with Guenhwyvar secured in his jacket, he stepped back out into the balmy, sunny day.
There is a brief, shining period for about two weeks in the fall season that is absolute perfection. It’s when the tree leaves have exchanged their greenery for the fire of an inferno, and the streets are ablaze with reds and oranges and yellows. The air is crisp and cool, inviting me to break out my sweaters and scarves and wear my cutest boots. There is just this overwhelming and pervading sense of coziness that saturates the world and demands that I curl up beside the fire with a book and a comically fat cat in my lap.
This idealized phase of the season is ephemeral and fleeting, though, as the air soon goes from cool to chill and the rain comes to strike the brightly colored leaves down from their branches to molder and decompose on the sidewalk and in the gutter. As the weather turned, we started seeing Ernest more often. He did not always take full advantage of Anne’s generosity, opting for just a cup of coffee to ward off the cold in his bones rather than partaking of the sandwiches Anne was perpetually trying to entice him with, swearing a holy oath to forestall her wrath that Guenhwyvar was being adequately fed. As was his wont, he was never without a thrift store fantasy novel that he would consume and take notes on with the rapt attention of someone writing a doctoral thesis.
Ernest became a recurring subject in my sketchbook, always depicted as a king doing kingly things. Since he had at the very least not been overtly offended by the sketch I had made of him previously, I would sometimes show him what I was working on. He would always take it in stride and offer comments and suggestions about what his crown had looked like, for instance, or just how tall the back of his throne was, or how many of the sacred sages were depicted in the royal seal. Speaking with him about it was like chatting with a retiree about what they had done prior to drawing a pension, only what Ernest had done was rule a kingdom.
I was working on a sketch one day depicting Ernest in the most regal regalia I could imagine, mounted atop a bear-sized Guenhwyvar and leading an army into battle against an opposing force of Adirondack chairs—I probably wasn’t going to show him this one—when Anne began shrieking at the top of her lungs. “Oh hell no!” she shouted, snatching her hardcase clutch with the steel chain crossbody strap before rushing out from behind the counter. “Hell the fuck no!”
Confused, I looked up as she ran out the front door and into the rain-slick street, screaming in what can only be described as a manner befitting a banshee. The rain sluicing down the windows reduced the world outside to an impressionist painting in motion, but through it, I could see two figures assailing a third while a fourth stood to one side, deftly slipping from side to side to evade the chaotic dance of the other three. The victim was carrying something bulky and blue, which I belatedly recognized as Ernest’s duffel bag.
“Oh shit!” I said as I snatched my keyring with the pepper spray canister and chased Anne outside. “Shit shit shit!”
Anne was already upon them when I got outside, a diminutive little chubby girl wielding her clutch like a flail, attempting to brain the bastards beating on Ernest. She wasn’t even using words at that point, just howling with inchoate rage as she choked up her grip on the chain strap and swung straight for their faces. I tried to unleash my pepper spray, but the mist of capsaicin was instantly washed away by the rain, so I resorted to my fists.
They were laughing about it. At Ernest. At us. The one off to the side was recording the whole thing with his phone, giggling his ass off at our skirmish. The strap on Ernest’s duffle bag gave way, tearing a gaping hole in the side and spilling the contents into the rotten leaves and rain-swollen gutter as Ernest fell to his knees with an anguished cry.
Books. Dozens upon dozens of paperback books, the whole bag was jam-packed with them. McCaffrey, Brooks, Jordan, Hobb, Martin, Sanderson, Le Guin, Rothfuss, Pratchett, Feist, and countless others besides.
“No!” Earnest wept, trying to scoop the sodden novels back into the bag. “I haven’t read them all yet! I haven’t found the right one!”
“C’mon, let’s get,” one of the assailants said, already edging away, perhaps intuiting that their attempts to chase clout on social media might have transgressed into a felony. The other two made to follow, but not before I slapped the phone out of the hands of the videographer and watched in satisfaction as it fell straight into the gutter and down the storm drain.
“Cunt!” he screamed at me, making to advance but quickly backing off as a feral Anne interposed herself between us, brandishing her clutch with a snarl.
“Asshole!” I screamed back before dropping to my knees to help Ernest collect his books. Anne joined us a moment afterward, and between the three of us, we filled the remnant of Ernest’s bag with the ruined novels and hauled it across the street back into the coffee shop. Anne forcibly sat him down in his usual booth, and there he remained, looking broken and defeated as he curled up against the window with Guenhwyvar cradled to his chest. The cat, mercifully, had escaped unscathed.
“He reminds me of my granddad,” Anne confided in hushed tones behind the counter as we waited for the cops. “He served in Vietnam and was just… eccentric, right? Like Ernie, but not the same way as Ernie, you understand?”
“Yeah, I think so.”
The flashing red and blue lights of the police car heralded their arrival. “Fucking pigs finally decide to show,” Anne grumbled. “Hey, Ernie, cops are here! Why don’t you—”
But the booth was empty.
As the days grew shorter and colder, so too did Ernest’s visits grow longer and more frequent. Anne and I went in together to buy him a new duffle bag that he gratefully accepted, but that was as far as he went in acknowledging the altercation in the street that day or his subsequent vanishing act. In retrospect, it was no surprise that he would be reluctant to speak with the cops, given his situation; it was one that he didn’t seem particularly keen to talk about with us, either. He thought himself a king who had already suffered the indignities of the loss of his kingdom and his erasure from history—wasn’t that insult enough without having to revisit his being beaten to the ground for nothing more than clicks on a video?
The first hard freeze of the season was brutal. Overnight, a latticework of ice crystalized over every surface, a stubborn rime steadfastly resisting the edge of ice scrapers and holding firm in the wan light of the morning sun. Even as the hour approached eleven, the temperature had yet to rise above freezing. Anne kept a nervous eye on the door, leaping in startled disappointment every time the chime rang to announce the arrival of someone who was not Ernest.
I was concerned, too. I had never seen him in anything warmer than his jacket, and there was absolutely no way that would have been sufficient to stave off the temperature going well below freezing overnight. Anne had secured promises from him that he had somewhere warm to stay the night, and Ernest had sworn one of his baroque holy oaths that he and Guenhwyvar would be well taken care of, but the day wore on with no trace of them.
“Grab your coat and come on,” Anne said, flipping the door sign to “Closed” right before the lunch rush usually began. Even by the standards of Anne’s unofficial command, that seemed to be overstepping her bounds. “We’re going to find him.”
Rather than argue, I grabbed my parka from the office in the back and tied my scarf so that it covered my ears and the lower half of my face. “Where are we looking?” I asked, my voice muffled as I pulled on my gloves.
“I think he usually hangs out at the shelter on 5th and Union,” Anne said as we stepped out into the frigid air. “He doesn’t always stay there, but I know that’s where he gets his clothes washed and takes his showers.”
The shelter was a ten-minute walk from the coffee shop, a building that consisted primarily of a single, large open space with row after row of beds, each with the same thin mattress and moss-green bedding. All of them were occupied: a warehouse of human misfortune.
“Excuse me,” I said, trying flag down anyone who looked like they worked there, “we’re trying to find—”
“Hey!” Anne shouted into the room, her hands cupped into a makeshift megaphone. “Has anyone seen Ernie? Duffle bag full of books?” We had any number of glares and stares cast in our direction, but no other acknowledgement.
“Ladies,” a silver-haired woman with a name tag identifying her as Doris said through a strained smile as she came up to us, “I’m afraid we don’t—”
“Yeah, yeah,” Anne said, waving her hand dismissively before grabbing my sleeve and marching toward the exit. “He’s not here anyway.”
Outside, Anne cursed openly and abundantly as she stormed down the sidewalk. “C’mon,” she said when she’d once more gathered her wits, “we’ll do, like, a grid search, or whatever. You’ve got your pepper spray, right?”
“Good. Let’s get cracking.”
The Bean and Bistro was in a genteel part of downtown, but you didn’t have to dig too deep to get beneath the veneer of gentrification. The narrow spaces between the buildings were full of old brickwork with crumbling mortar. Dented and battered dumpsters that reeked of putrefaction. Boards of plywood over broken windows. Each alley we searched was dismal and inhospitable, frozen and silent, vacant and absent of life, human or otherwise.
When I caught the whiff of something burnt and smokey rather than smelling of waste, my stomach turned flips. “Ernie?” I called into the shadowed depths. “Ernie, are you back there?”
There was a pitiable mewling from the end of a row of trash bins. Heart hammering, I stumbled forward along the ice-slicked pavement and rounded the corner of the last garbage container.
Ernest sat with his back against the brick wall, his eyes hazed with a film of frost. Resting between his outstretched legs was a disposable barbecue—really just a tray of aluminum foil with a cheap metal grill—and atop that were the charred remains of a novel, its identity forever lost and blackened. Guenhwyvar emerged from somewhere to weave in and out between my legs as he meowed up at me, shivering violently.
Anne let out of a wrenching sob, her mascara and eyeliner making rivulets of ash down her pallid cheeks. “Oh god!” she choked out. “Oh god, he was burning his books to stay warm. They were all he had, and he was fucking burning them. God damn it, Ernie, you swore to me. You swore a fucking oath.”
Kneeling, I scooped up Guenhwyvar into my arms and held him close. Looking at the marble dangling from his ad hoc collar, I once more gazed into the depths of what Ernest had claimed was a palantir. It remained as abyssal as ever, but this time, I thought I could see a single mote of light at its center, steady and unyielding. Opening my parka, I slipped Guenhwyvar in and felt his thrumming purr against my heart as he quaked with hypothermia.
The police were far more responsive when it came to the removal of a dead body than an assault on a homeless person, and the parade of various uniformed officials we spoke with all seemed to concur with Anne’s assessment that Ernest had been burning his books to keep warm and that it just hadn’t been enough. But to this day, when I look at the marble on Guenhwyvar’s collar and behold that unwavering point of light at its core, I think of the expression on Ernest’s face when we found him. Not one of despair or desperation, but of relief. I don’t think if he’d been trying to keep warm, he’d have only burned the one, single book. Whatever book it was he laid upon his makeshift altar, there was purpose in it, just as I imagine there was when he set light to the grimoire of Malifar after the Battle of Adirondack and begat the world as we know it.
I think, in the end, I prefer to believe that Ernest just found his way home.
Michael Robert is a nonbinary author of speculative fiction and enthusiast of (almost) everything geeky. He is a lover of unicorns. And robots. And robot unicorns.