The two men walk through the piazza in Siena, before the dun-colored cathedral, the autumn winds pulling at the hems of their coats. They turn up their collars further, against unshaven cheeks and under tired eyes.
They say that he does not often speak the truth, that the intervals of his lucidity come with less frequency, the taller one says.
He will tell us what we need to know, the shorter man says.
An hour later, the two men sit in a room of the cathedral, high above the piazza and close to the belfry. Sitting before them is a man in a tattered fleece-lined coat, gray trousers. His eyes are slightly glassy, his skin is leathery and burned, he is pinched and thin. His overall appearance is like that of a hollow man.
Tell us how you found Al-Khattabi, the short man asks.
Oh, you heard about that, hmm? How the desert fortresses burned and crumbled into dust?
You found something there. We know you did. We know after your rescue from the desert, you spent some time in Cairo, and then went to Burma. It was there that it passed from your hands
You know, some would say I died and was reborn in that desert. I was not rescued, I assure you. I had no desire to return to this world, I was ready and my time had come. She came for me and brought me back against my will. In some distant fantasy I suppose we sat once more on the shores of a midnight lake in Green Kandiyohi, watching distant lighting flash in silence over and over again.
We do not care to hear about Green Kandiyohi. Tell us more about what you did with the Dragon’s Scale. The shorter man drums his fingers on the table impatiently, hears the pigeons rustling in the belfry.
The taller man takes off his hat, places it on the table, and looks at the hollow man with pensive eyes.
Will you tell us your real name?
No, I will not, the hollow man says.
After she brought you out of the desert, what led you to Burma?
I took myself to the mountains of Tibet, learned the names of the flowers upon the plateau. I followed the rivers down the glaciers and into the hills of Burma, among the Shan and the Kayin. In the ruins of temples I meditated, in the sweltering jungles and brown streams I once again sought rebirth, something to bury my memories once again.
But then the railroad, you were conscripted during the Japanese occupation?
I fought alongside Merrill’s Marauders, I dug the trenches for the railroad, I did it all. At the end of the Japanese occupation, I left. There was enough time, enough distance. Green Kandiyohi and all its bitter promises were but vague dreams.
Tell us what you did with the emerald.
I left it with someone in Moulmein. I cannot tell you more than that.
Listen, starts the shorter man, you will—
At that moment, the cathedral bells begin to ring, making the small room shudder and agitate with deep tones emanating from the neighboring belfry. The two men, startled, nearly fall from their chairs, the tall man’s hat tumbling from the table into the dust on the floor. The noise from the bells subsides and eventually dissipates, but when the two men look back across the table, the hollow man is gone.