Finding Becky

Becky once said — or so I’ve been told — that my scars are a sign of my achievements. That was such a cutting thing to say.

You see: the barkeep in this little, lakeside village tells me that he serves the best drinks this side of the water. My landlady tells me that I’ll find no better room in the village, nor no better landlady — that comes, of course, at a price. The muleteer has the hardest working mules, the pie-maker the richest gravy, the puffiest crust. They want something, all of them. There is an uncontrolled need in them, a hunger, a greed.

You see: these people are like my scars. They remind me of a past I’m glad to have outgrown, of my “achievements”, which are only the outcomes of a dubious, immature intent.

And so instead of looking for my sister I drink cheap wine and remember what I once was — I imagine what I want to be. What would Becky think if I went searching for her at her doorstep? Would she talk to me? Should I leave her to find me instead? I remind myself that I am capable of acting, and sometimes we need to act even though the consequences are unclear.

Her family home is empty. Someone sits at the pier’s end, cigarette in hand, facing out towards the water. I don’t recognise her, but it’s been so long.

I haven’t come to prove anything. I hope she no longer wants me dead.

Becky doesn’t turn as I walk up behind her, but surely she can hear me. I say, through my mask, “Becky?”

Blue

A poet – I look for them when we’re in port – once told me, “I see a malaise on your soul, little warrior.” But I’m only a cabin-boy, and I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I’m not young enough anymore to be called by childish names. Still, malaise is a beautiful, difficult word. It sounds like something the captain or our doctor would use, but the sense of it is clear enough: sometimes, when I’m running a message, or scrubbing the deck, or tidying a cabin, I know I’m doing these things only because I have to. There is no want in me to do them, to sing and joke in the mess, to talk with others at our bunks before sleep.

I watch the doctor: he moves from action to action as if a fire burns within him. I know that’s something I’m missing; no fire burns inside of me. I think that’s what the poet meant: everything the doctor does he does as though a life depends on it, and no lives depend on me.

Our ship’s lone guest sometimes reminds me of the poet, the doctor’s fire, and myself.

He sits at the bow with his walking stick and a white mask he always wears. Sometimes the captain is with him, but the masked man doesn’t speak much, and the captain has been standing with him less and less.

Our guest also doesn’t speak to me, but he lets me sit beside him. I think that, like me, there is no fire in him, no heat. It’s not the here and now – not the ship or its people – that call to him: he watches, always watches, outward, towards the sea.

He watches the blue of the horizon.

Making an Escape

I begin to walk. From the lake to the moss forests and the bordering Plains of Wynch, up into the highlands where fog and hills accompany me and reeds grow beside bare paths. A ferry takes me across the Winnow Gulf into small Gasting’s Town.

I do not spend the night.

Down into the Gravellings I carry no water, but what are heat and haze to me? I notice this: no paths, no creatures, no birds.

On the twentieth day shrubs appear, firming the shifting sands beneath my feet. By the 22nd day I walk beneath stunted trees just taller than my person, with thin foliage and acrid fruit. Between them, on the horizon, a tower.

It is abandoned, too long exposed and unmaintained, breaking. Spending the night, I whittle a walking stick from a fallen branch.

This odd, dappled forest spreads into the foothills of a mountain range — following the westering sun I walk upwards; the air chills, the view expands. Beyond this nameless mountain is yet another, and taller, and colder. The horizon, once a smooth line, is now a jagged beast of turmoil I have set my heart upon.

Each night I carve people I’ve known into my stick. My hand is unsteady and untrained, but who would recognise these memories made real even if carved with perfect grace?

Onwards I reach the sea; on the horizon a ship with sails in a foreign, triangular cut. But then I am no sailor — I only guess at their foreignness.

I have reached the sea, and where to now? Behind me so many miles and yet my stick remains incomplete, my memories keen, and the horizon before me still so wide, open and uncomplicated.

I will build a signal fire.

Inadequacy

The yellow cab was gliding over the street, wheels screeching, locked in a moment that extended between the before (when everything was in its place and understood) and the after (which is unwanted, painful; a time when everything is misplaced).

Sophia was still running towards her children. She couldn’t run fast enough — there was not enough time left to her. The words she shouted were trapped on her tongue and her lips, in her mouth and her throat: “Stand up! Stand up!” They could not be spoken fast enough, loud enough; her feet were clumsy, felt entombed in rubber; they managed a few steps (too slow, too slow) but then the moment was past.

Becky was pulling at Gabriel to help him to his feet, but a twelve year old is only so strong and a fourteen year old that much heavier. The car was almost on them. Even if she’d had her adult strength, what could she have done? Gabriel will ask her this again and again, and mean it as a reassurance.

Becky won’t always understand it that way.

In the distance, beneath the screeching and hooting, someone was shouting, “Stand—” And in that moment (which was between the before and the after) Becky knew that she was neither strong nor quick enough.

But she was holding her brother. And the car was gliding, beautiful, a gull on the breeze.

Remembrance

“Grandpa, what’s the scariest thing you’ve ever seen?”

“Scariest thing, hey? That might be too much for you—sure you’re old enough?”

“Grandpa! I’ve already kissed a girl!”

“Oh, well, in that case—

“Let’s see. Well, when I was still an unmasked apprentice—maybe 210, 220 odd years ago—my master and I were in the Fuligin marshes. I was young, but I’d thought I’d seen everything, you know? I was a Pariah’s apprentice, as wise as the hills—”

“Grandpa?”

“Wool-gathering. Sorry. That’s what old age does to you.

“We were hunting zoëleiche, the two of us in a small boat, rowing in the shadows of those black, weeping trees. The zoëleiche had gathered in small groups, mining the muds for I can’t remember what occulted thing. We killed the zoëleiche as we found them, set them aflame.”

“Did they attack?”

“Hells, no. Zoëleiche are mindless—but the lore-wise who raised them, now they were dangerous. We discovered them on an unlit barge, coloured black as pitch, as night. Can you picture that? A ship as dark as death? The smell of corpses and embalming fluids lingering behind it, like the smell of your mother’s cooking?”

“You’re spoiling it!”

“Yes yes. Now, we followed that ship to a village built on stilts at the Fuligin’s peaty heart. A village full of corpses and lore-wise creating zoëleiche polyptych out of severed limbs.”

“What did you do?”

“Burnt it. All of it. I’d never seen Master Gabriel so—wrathful. He turned the air itself into an ocean of flame. The waters boiled, the trees were torn, shredded, ashed, and the ashes consumed.”

“So you won?”

“—my bladder’s killing me. Help me up.”

Steadfast

This is how one hunts.

One needs to equip tools. Tools do not make the hunter, but they provide the facility to surpass oneself. I don my caestus: the leather and metal straps that glove the hand. Mine are adorned with blades and spikes and were my brother’s gift to me. It’s fitting that I use them now.

When one hunts something more powerful than oneself, fear becomes a great beast that stalks you in its turn. Recognise your fear but practise detachment and equanimity; your mind must be free to focus on the tasks at hand.

Set aside reservations; you are a hunter with a role in society. You are paid well. 30 pieces of silver is often an adequate security for me. Yes, he is my brother, but he threatens this fine city amongst the clouds. There is no passage to our home here, no matter the depth of his search, the extent of his threats.

Alabaster is a soft stone; I remember Gabriel, when he first put on the mask, complaining about the care needed to avoid scratching its surface. The claws of my caestus easily cut through the alabaster of his mask, the only resistance coming from the parting of flesh and the catching of blade on bone.

Your heart may scream against your actions — it is a hunter’s task to ignore that shout, to bring to bear all of one’s skill upon one’s prey. Sorrow and shock do not serve you well when you need to act — they must be put aside, ignored, until you’re free to hide your sight behind tears.

Payment in full only comes upon successful completion of the hunt. There is no place for a failed hunter.

Hoping and Waiting

He’s come for me now in the summer, when the lake isn’t a vast frozen field, when children laugh and play in the sun and people sit on rocking chairs overlooking the waters, a hand-rolled cigarette hanging from their lips and a carafe of wine beside them.

A Pariah wearing an unadorned alabaster mask has been walking our streets. The mask is a sign of his knowledge and status; it hides the scars I gave him, which are a sign of his accomplishments. I haven’t seen him and his scars in so many years, but now my hopes are fulfilled: he’s come for me. Maybe I’ll see them again.

There’s talk that the Pariah will consume our village in conflagration, heat and dust. But my brother is not extravagant, has always been controlled. I remember his focus and drive, like that of a stalking cat. The village, I think, is safe.

I wait for him here on the pier, under the sun, while my husband is on the waters with our daughter and the nets. It’s my third day of waiting, but the Pariah hasn’t come for me yet.

I hope he comes while my family is away. They shouldn’t have to live with the disappointment of discovering my past.

What will I say to Gabriel when he finds me? Maybe I’ll tell him that I’m sorry. I am sorry, but what does that change? I hope he’ll talk to me in English, talk to me of New York and London and home, all so far away now. Of our old dreams. I hope he’s anger is a cool anger and that he’ll be merciful and quick.

I hope.

I hope.

I hope.

And wait.