In the Shadow of Leaves 8: On Being Human

The swamp was always a strange place when the seasons changed. It was never quite as cold as the rest of the region. Pa had said it was related to all of the stuff rotting beneath the water. Corpses had their own heat, he used to say. Something his pappy and his grandpappy had said before them. Corpses had their own heat. Their own life. They moved through the motions, the same as the rest of us. Just usually less talkative. Idly, the old friar wondered if their swamp being so close to the kruzy-more swamp had caused some of them Gothics to rub off on his own little tribe. Maybe. Pa had a morbid streak, no denying that.

It hadn’t been until they were gone that the friar had given consideration to the nature of his parents. When they had been alive, they’d been towering figures. And when he’d been small, they might as well have been gods. Powerful, wise, patient, fearsome. That’s probably a very… human thought, the preacher reflects. Exalting one’s parents. When you’re small, they are your whole entire world. Then as you turn from them, you see more that surrounds them and they become smaller. Eventually, he reasons, there comes a time when you can look back and see your parents as human. Hopefully kind and well meaning, but human regardless.

His father had been a brave man, though his mother was the fearless one. The preacher remembering his father well, though if he was being honest, the father he remembered was the one of his youth, not what he’d been at the end. Not that he’d been wretched or anything, just that when the preacher closed his eyes and thought on his pa, his hair was chestnuty, his beard thick, and his back unbent. In his mind, he could remember the old man’s smile, or how he smelled on the hunt. He could remember with startling clarity, his pa’s hands. Their myriad of little scars, and the strange hash pattern skin makes when it gets all crinkly. The cleverness of the fingers as they tied a knot, or the way they could just scoop him up like he weighted nothing at all. They were good thoughts. But of all the things he remembered about his father, the thing that kept coming back to him was how his eyes, blue as a clear sky, would seem to flex when he was afraid, and pushing that fear away. When the food stores were slow in winter. Or when one of the highborn had a demand of the house. Or when his uncles were fighting over petty things. Those blue-blue eyes would turn from joyous to concerned. Nothing else would change, just the eyes.

Henri wondered the last time he’d felt afraid. Or hurt. Or weak. Or frail. There were… so few clear recollections of those moments. Perhaps the Mists had taken them. Or perhaps they’d never been. Its not like he could ask those that had known him best; they were all dead and buried (now).

A sigh escapes the lips of the fellow, and he resumes his work. A series of leather thongs that he was braiding into long strands. Something to keep his hands active while his mind processed the events from earlier that day.

Cole had come down in a lather. She’d been frantic, saying the guards were slaughtering Theo and Alphonse. The preacher made a mental note to discuss her habit of fibbing with her later. Regardless, she’d been quite upset. And, likewise regardless, his personal feelings on Theo or Alphonse was immaterial. They were a part of the Community. His Community. For all their flaws, they didn’t deserve to be killed in such an ignoble fashion. Though… part of him wouldn’t be surprised if Theo did die eventually to some overly zealous guard.

So up the hill he’d huffed and puffed. There’d been others that had answered the call, but they’d been slow, or wanted to gather something up first, and he hadn’t waited. If Cole had been right, they’d be dead when he got there, but maybe he could drag them back to Sophie for stitching…. actually… best not to dwell on that. When he’d crested the hill and seen them, there were no corpses, just two figures shouting at each other while two other figures sort of watched. The guard had a gun leveled at Theo, who was holding a dagger of some sort. The grip was odd, it was hard to say if it was a brandish of the dagger or just holding it, but neither individuals seemed peaceful.

As he’d gotten closer, the heated argument became clear. Theo was demanded that those two guards return with him to Delphine. Lately folks had taken to listening to Delphine more and doing what she said. Which, the preacher supposed, was all well and good. Though part of him kept circling back to the nagging argument of Friar Bullet. Why did we even have nobles if their sole purpose was to protect folk from other nobles? It did sort of seem like hiring bandits to protect you from bandits without really addressing the bandit problem.

A thought to pursue in another moment.

The preacher had slowed to catch his breath and his bearings as he’d approached. The guards were refusing to come, stating something about the Owl’s Nest needing to remain guarded. Which on its surface seemed reasonable. But honestly, it seemed like the crux of it was that Theo was Theo and the guard didn’t seem to care for poor folk. The priest had inserted himself into the conflict, hoping to buy time for the rest of the supporters to land on the scene. And perhaps to defuse the situation.

The guard had shifted his pistol from Theo to himself. Holding out his palms to show he was no threat, but also clearly stating he wasn’t leaving had gotten him nowhere. The guard was incandescent and indignant.

“Look, I can’t leave, you need to come with us,” was the last thing he’d been able to say before the pistol fired. The force of it was the most surprising thing. It had caused him to take a step back, but just a flesh wound wasn’t going to slow him up much. Which… the guard also seemed to immediately assess. Moving faster than the preacher would have thought possible, the gun was reloaded and fired a second time. This bullet lodged lower and forced the air from him.

‘Well. I guess this is happening,’ was all that he’d been able to think before Henri reached for the gun, causally tossing it over his shoulder. He’d expected it to end there, but the second guard that had been observing swung his sword, slamming into the preacher’s gut. ‘Still happening.’

It had taken a bit longer to disarm the second guard. By the time the preacher could return his focus to the first, he’d been shot and was on the ground bleeding out. Henri moved to put hands on the guard before his own blood loss caused him to nearly keel over. Alex had been handy with the bandages, and Sophie the needle.

There was a stillness that had fallen over their little group. The guard was ranting about scum this or scum that, folks were arguing back, but the preacher just leaned against a log and looked up at the sky as Sophie stitched him back together.

He hadn’t been afraid. Not when the gun had been leveled against him. Not when it had fired. Not when it had torn through him a second time. No fear. He remembered the glowing eyes of Primus and how so many had stepped back in fear. Or the spiders and their harmless webs. Or the ghouls that would lunge out of the woods. When was the last time he had felt fear?

The needle worked through his flesh. He was aware of it. More the tugging than anything else. The way his skin sort of clung to the needle and thread as it was pulled through him. When was the last time pain had motivated him? Or hunger? Or sex?

It had been a perfectly crystal moment. That guard could have killed him. Probably would have. But he’d not been afraid. He hadn’t felt much of anything, really. A mild irritation that Convocation was delayed. Nothing else.

How much of the human experience was motivated by these basic urges? These… ‘low’ urges? He saw it. It saw it running through his Community every day. Fear was rampant here. Fear of the outside. Fear of the kruzy-mores. Fear of the inkqisishon. Fear of the vecatrians. Fear of the benalians. Fear of the elf. Fear of the mines. Fear of the feasting king. Fear of his child. Fear enough that were it a rising tide, the whole of the community would be swept away and drowned by it.

Yet he felt nothing.

When he’d seen Isabel’s hand mangled, the preacher had taken her hurt onto him. Yet that hadn’t really hurt either. He’d exclaimed more from the surprise of feeling anything than for feeling something bad.

Another braid was done, and he went down the length tying knots at regular intervals.

It was so hard to pick apart what made a person a person. Animals felt pain, but they weren’t people. Maelific felt emotions. But they weren’t people. The elf had all the right cosmetic parts, and yet was also distinctly not human. And the more the old preacher reflected on the essential parts that made a person a person, the more he realized that he lacked them in some raw, fundamental way. It simply wasn’t what he was anymore. Maybe he never had been.

For all the flaws he saw in his Community, he loved them. God help him, he loved each one of them. Even the guard that had shot him. Even his fellow that had stabbed him over and over. Even those in his Community that he knew were quietly betraying their fellows. He loved them all. Which is why the guilt, one of the things that he felt most clearly, was always so telling. He knew, or thought he knew, that what he had done wasn’t a bad thing. And yet, the guilt of it gnawed at him. Like some beetle, burrowing into a tree to consume it from the inside. It gnawed and gnawed and gnawed.

The preacher undid his belt. He lifted his frock over his head. He shrugged out of his jacket. And he discarded his shirt. There was a chill on the breeze, his flesh puckered in gooseflesh immediately. The leather he’d been braiding was added to the others, and the preacher gripped the lot of them, a dozen in all, in his dominant hand. Kneeling on his discarded clothes, he swung the braided leather into his back, as hard as he could. His flesh felt warm. A sensation that might have been pain erupted across him. It did nothing to slow the second blow. Or the third. By the dozenth stroke, the skin had worn away. By the hundredth, thin droplets had arced from the trailing leather, painting patterns of his own blood across the sagging room.

Eventually, the preacher collapsed in a bloody heap, unconscious from his own efforts. It hadn’t been the pain that had stopped him, but rather the maims, in the end.

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