I almost forgot I wanted to write more about Brother Reticence, from a previous Thursday in this Story A Day May challenge. On Thursdays, I’ve been writing stories set in the world of SAGE, my fantasy trilogy. So here he is, on the last possible Thursday of the challenge.
It’s been so much fun, exploring corners of the world that didn’t make it into the books! There’ll be a collection of SAGE stories coming out Real Soon Now, called SHIFTY, because SAGE is about — among other things — change, variation, and perspective.
The New Name of Reticence
by Marian Allen
The former Brother Reticence requested no hospitality on his way down the mountain. People who saw him approaching gave him the widest possible berth or shut themselves and their children into their houses. They even called their dogs and cattle away from him. He still wore his habit and boots, which marked him as a monk, which meant he had lived on Antosillia’s very border, contaminated by contact with the outside world.
He was glad no one spoke to him. If he had told them he had not only spoken to an outsider who wanted to cross the border, he had also failed to kill her when she sinned by telling him the monastery wasn’t the place for him, they would have driven him away with sticks and stones.
He didn’t want company just now, anyway. He needed to think; he needed to choose a new name, to decide if he should make a plan or simply wander until he found his place. All of Antosillia spread before him, from the foot of the mountains across the hills and plains to the distant sea, invisible in the distance. Though his heart still longed for the austere beauty of the forbidding mountain peaks and the warm serenity of the Cavern of the Labyrinth, the lowland of Antosillia had never stopped calling him back to the comforts of her lush beauty. How could you name a man who was both faithless and faithful, two-minded and steadfast?
The monks had named him Reticence, to remind him to hold his tongue, but he was already reticent enough for the outside world. He had come to the monastery with the name of Purpose, because that was what had led him, after much wandering, to the guardianship of the pass. Should he take that name again, now that he had returned to the search?
By the time night fell, bare rock and high meadows had given way to rubble and thin dirt, flowering ground cover and berry bushes. The cold mountain air had softened to what, for a man who had spent years in the heights, was mildness. The air was thick down here, as hard to breathe as the monastery air had been when he had first climbed to what he had thought was his life’s work.
He found a stream, one of the Ten Thousand, as tradition had it, that fed the many rivers that separated Antosillia into cantonments and united the country by all emptying into the same sea.
The sea. He removed his boots and soaked his feet in the stream. They weren’t sore, for monks were on their feet from dawn until dark, sometimes in boots and sometimes barefoot, but they were hot, and they were unaccustomed to being hot.
He stripped off his habit, spread it behind him, and stretched back on it, feet still in the gurgling water.
He had pulled his feet out onto the bank sometime during the night, though he didn’t remember doing it. His skin, loinwrap, and habit were clammy with the lowland’s perfumed dew.
The stranger had been right. As much as he had missed the lowland, being in it again taught him how little he had known the depth of his longing.
His drank deeply from the stream, filling his empty belly with sweet water. There was ground-fruit all around him, but another day of fasting would do him good.
He wrapped his boots in his habit, tied the bundle up like a traveler’s pack with his habit’s rope belt, and shrugged into it.
He was still marked for avoidance by his paled skin and unbound beard and hair, but he could feel the air on his body and the ground under his callused soles and knew that the stranger had been right: this was where he belonged.
He saw the old man stagger, fall, rise, stumble in another direction, and fall again. He picked up his pace, running as the bloody scrapes on the old man’s legs and hands became visible.
“Father Not My Father,” he said, extending a hand to help the old man up, “may I help you?”
The puzzled, despairing, frightened eyes the old man lifted to him told him that he was hardly seen, let alone judge, and certainly not rejected.
“I’ve lost her,” the old man said, in a voice oddly strong for being so uncertain. “My One goat is lost. Have you seen her? She’s white, with black around her eyes and one black dot on the tip of her tail. She flicks it like this.” He flapped his hand.
“I haven’t seen a goat, Father Not My Father, but I’ll help you look.”
“Will you? Thank you! Thank you! The others won’t help. They tell me to stay home and forget about her. But she’s my One goat! Without her, the herd will scatter!”
Oh, the words, the terms, the ways of the lowlands! He felt the way his feet had felt the night before, plunging into refreshment and renewal!
“We’ll find her, Father Not My Father. Give me food and drink, and I’ll search with you.”
“Of course. Of course. This way.”
It was a lovely house, dug through the topsoil and down into the muddy clay, the excavated clay used to build up the sill and waterproof the roof of woven branches, to mold the fireplace and chimney. An empty goat shelter was falling to ruins in a yard overgrown with ground cover. Yes, the house was solid, but the place was deserted.
“Here we are,” the old man said. He called, “Prudence! Wife of my heart and life! Cheese and wine! Bread and oil!”
There was no answering call, no frail or sturdy old woman wiping dough from her hands with leaves waving from the doorsill to show she heard.
“She must be out looking, too. Come in. I’ll manage something.”
But that first impression had been correct. Vermin scuttered about and out of the vacant house, with its cold fireplace and empty larder.
“I don’t …. I don’t understand,” the old man said, turning in circles, hands gesturing aimlessly. “Where is Prudence? Where are our things?”
Outside, voices quarrelsome with worry approached.
“Father?” A woman bent over to peer into the gloom, her heavy breasts sagging against their covering band.
The old man’s eyes focused on her. “Patience? Patience, where’s your mother? Where are my goats? Where is our food? My One goat is gone, and the herd after her.”
As he spoke, the woman came down into the house. The man who came behind her was large, but not so large as his frown.
The woman patted the frowning man’s arm and said, “You see, Temper, I told you he’d be here again.”
“Yes, yes, I know.” To the former Brother Reticence, he said, “Who are you?” His eyes, adjusted to the change in light, took in the pale skin, the cloth bundle. “Have you been in prison?”
It would be easy to agree, to trade the contamination of outside contact for the relative respectability of moral error, but then he would have to name himself Honesty, and no one would ever trust him again.
“I was a monk,” he said. “I had to leave because I refused to kill the person who told me I shouldn’t be one.”
“Sounds like a good choice,” Temper said.
“Patience,” the old man pleaded.
“She’s gone, Father,” the woman snapped. “It’s all gone. This isn’t your home anymore. You live with us now, remember? Remember?”
It was an obvious effort, and the old man’s expression clearly stated that the memory was uncertain, but he nodded.
“You’ve got to stop leaving. We can’t stop at home all the time. There’s food to gather and goats to herd and milk. There’s trading to do, and ….” She burst into tears and squatted, hiding her face with her hands, making her emotion invisible.
Temper shook his head and spoke to the former priest. “For the past year, he’s been wandering off while we were away. Two months ago, he found his way back here, and he finds it again maybe every third time he leaves our house. His wife died twenty years ago, and he sold his herd when he moved in with us not long after. Our canton chief says we have leave to let him go wandering until he finds his way to The Land of Bright Shadows, but Patience can’t bear to do it.” He reached a large hand out to stroke the old man’s disheveled locks. “My own father is long, long gone to that happy place. The Father of My Wife has been a father to me for most of my life, now.”
A thought popped into the former monk’s mind, as if a fish had risen to the surface of the sea or a tight green bud had burst into blossom.
“I’m looking for a home and a place,” he said. “Would your chief allow me into your cantonment? Would the cantonment grant me a small herd and a One goat and two or three geese, if I lived here with the father of your wife and looked after him?”
Temper said, “Father of My Wife, would you like to live here again? Would you like to have this man stay with you?”
The old man said, “I do live here! And this man has promised to help me find my One goat if I feed him.”
Patience stood up, wiping her face and nose with the tail of her covering band. Her smile was radiant.
“Our cantonment chief is called Ferocity, because he’s so easily moved to pity. I’m sure he’d agree. And it’s birthing time, so there are sure to be runt goats no one wants, if you don’t mind the extra work of coaxing them to strength.”
“I was good at that, as a boy. I’d love to see if I still have the touch.”
“We have three geese we’d be more than glad to be rid of,” Temper said. “They’re yours.”
“His.” The former monk tapped his left shoulder as he faced the old man, signaling his servanthood.
Temper snorted, just a little. “All right, his. The One goat will be a purchase, though.”
The One goat – the One Who Leads Many – was a goat who, for no reason anyone could determine, other goats liked to follow. Its horns were coaxed to grow together into one, signifying its status. One goats were a precious commodity.
“Would a pair of boots and a habit’s worth of cloth buy one?” He handed over his pack.
“They would buy enough of one that the rest of it would be reasonable.”
Although the old man had little understanding as yet of his coming return to security of place and mind, he joined in the group expressions of agreement and joy.
One voice rose above all, and the other three grew silent to listen.
“I came down the mountain, nameless and placeless. Now I have a name. I will be known as Drifter, because now I have a place.”
MY PROMPTS TODAY: geese, cow, unicorn (Yes, I know they’re goats and not cows, but that’s how prompts do, sometimes.)