A Brush with Dirt

The day was new. The sun had just lifted herself above the low horizon in the distance, and the fog that had lain on the world like a gentle hand was being sent away like some guest who had long overstayed his welcome. As it dissipated, the sun’s rays filled the valley, illuminating the long prairie grasses in their early sogginess. Even the earth beneath the green-brown growth was damp, and normally Henry would have been uncomfortable, but today was different. Today was an Adventure.

Caught up as he had been with the routine of civilized living, nature’s rare touch into his life was seldom met with anything other than revulsion. He was known in his community for being particularly unfond of spiders – the ones in the corners of your house that the broom or duster seldom finds. He was not grateful when he was forced to walk through dirt (especially mud on the horrid days of rain) on his way to work. He usually took the car, but every so often he successfully convinced himself that he needed the exercise; so with more than a bit of ginger in his step he would leave by the front door rather than the garage. His success in convincing himself of the rightness of these actions was moderate at best, however, for it was a constant struggle in his mind against the bugs and insects and rain and dirt and puddles with which he was accosted on his commutes. Usually after no more than two days of such drudgery would put him back in the car with relish.
“Why don’t you walk to work, today, Henry?”
“Sure, I suppose I ought to,” he replied dutifully. He knew the expected response, and rarely went in for the ensuing confrontations when he replied aberrantly.

One day he met a man. At least, he thought it was a man. His memory of the entire event was a little fuzzy, but he had always been one to trust his gut, and his gut remembered a kindred spirit, if not anything to specify humanity.

He had been on his way home from work, which generally created the exigent and overwhelming need to visit the pub (this was secretly his main motivation for his pedestrian commute. He would have no real opportunity for pubbing if he drove), which many from his work frequented. In some respects it was a way to debrief and declassify and degenerate one’s self from one’s work, although on occasion some additional item was discussed outside the dreary walls of his institutionalization area.

He passed through the doors and into the inviting atmosphere of the Friendly Gander (there was a big wooden grinning goose on the front of the establishment). He placed himself in a corner near, but not too close, to the bar. He wanted service, and perhaps to pick up some of the gossip from the others in the Gander, but he neither considered himself ambitious enough or worthy enough of joining said society. Pint of bitter in hand and relaxing comfortably, he was surprised and not a little put out when a man (at least he thought it was a man. His memory of the entire event was a little fuzzy, you’ll remember) seated himself right next to Henry at the small table.
“Evening?” Henry said, doing his best to politely ask how this man (at least he thought it was a man – his memory of the event was growing fuzzy) had the nerve – the gall even – to interrupt another’s contented solitude.
“And a good evening to you, kind sir!” The man (at least he thought it was a man – ) said, not fazed in the least by Henry’s artful combination of polite cold-shouldering. “By what name are you called?”
“Um, Henry.” And he took a long pull at his bitter, hoping that this would go away and wondering what sort of fellow this could be.
“Henry, I am Stephenost. Well met!” He extended his hand (was it a hand? He thought it was a hand) in greeting.

Henry was supremely unwilling to have anything to do with this extraordinarily effusive…being…but his politeness was of a more stalwart breed than his reluctance.
“How nice, how do you do,” Henry replied, extending a somewhat lukewarm hand in return. Stephenost’s grip was unwavering and firm, despite the apparent age of the gnarled hand he had extended. He pulled his hand away and rubbed it on his trousers. The hand had come away gritty, and, looking at his trousers, full of dirt. His disgust rose up, but so did his wonder. The man (was it a man?) looked clean, though perhaps garbed in an odd way, but then many did in a city of this size. Stephenost observed all this with an obvious perspicacity, and his eyes twinkled with mirth. He leaned in closer, dropping his bluff effusiveness for a kind of intent secrecy.

“You are marked now, young one. Where once you reviled, you will cherish. Where once you did not comprehend, you will commune. Where once you were powerless, you will be power.”
Henry was at this point bewildered beyond all reason, and couldn’t fathom what was happening. Hadn’t he just been sipping a pint in his local pub? Who was this and what was he being told?

“I’m sorry,” he said a little uncertainly, “I’m not sure you have the right chap, my good man. I’m afraid I really must be going.” On shaky feet he rose, grabbing his overcoat and shelling out some bills for the half-finished pint.

He did not look back as he exited the small and no-longer inviting pub. If he had, he might have seen the twinkle in the mysterious man’s (was he a man?) eyes and a touch of a smile on the lips as his gnarled and dirt-filled hand went for the unfinished drink. “Waste not, my good man.”


The Duchy

There’s an old tree out behind the fortress walls that nobody ever talks about, but everybody is aware of. I know it. One time I was caught climbing it by my grand aunt (that would be my father’s father’s sister, you know) who could hardly catch her breath to chastise me, she was so frightened. So later I tried to ask my Da, but of course he’s too busy with the running of the duchy to pay me any heed. At least that’s what Ma (she would be the duchess in this tale) told me, though if you ask me, the lines around my Da’s eyes got a little more pronounced when I asked him.

But she didn’t have anything to say when I asked her, either. Simply told me that I had no business climbing trees like that. No business? I was eleven! That’s what we do! And besides, my grand aunt wasn’t apoplectic with fear for me falling – it was the tree she so frightened of.

Naturally, my interest was piqued in it, but no one was going to answer my questions. I asked all the guards, especially those tasked with patrolling the territory to the south, around where the tree is. I could tell that all the guards knew exactly which tree I meant, but they all clammed up real quick. I suppose the tree is a little unnatural looking. It’s all black and gnarled with huge, low limbs. I like it because the limbs are so low to the ground that I can get up on them with not even a jump. There aren’t any leaves or new shoots when spring comes, but the tree isn’t dead. It isn’t withered, it isn’t black with rot or age, that’s just the tree. Nobody likes it, and I guess I can see why, but it never bothered me. I still climb it when I can.

Neither of my two sisters knows anything about it, but that’s not surprising because they almost never leave the keep. Too busy with dresses and dolls and hairbrushes. (I really wish I had a brother). The stablemaster doesn’t know, or won’t tell; same with the cook, the scullions, the maids, the keeper of house, the visiting nobility, any of my uncles and aunts and cousins, or anyone else.
The only one I think who really knows (and especially won’t tell), is the resident sorcerer. But then, he likes to pretend that he knows everything there is to know, especially when it’s something like a weird tree behind the fortress that is foreign. Alien? Who knows? He would say, and he would cackle. I like him well enough, for a sorcerer, but his reply rubbed me wrong.

So what’s it like being the only son of a Duke? Well, let me tell you, at eleven, there’s a lot of time to climb trees. In this duchy, anyway. My cousin Torwill is in line for the regency of his da’s lands and he doesn’t have time to sleep, or so he tells it. But Torwill was born a worrier, or so says my ma, and I happen to agree. Torwill is likeable enough, but we’re all afraid his brain will worry a hole in his head before long.

I get time to ride, to hunt (as much as my da allows, anyway – fox and birds mostly), and read, though I get a lot more time to do chores and get instruction on this or that system of regency and how exactly does one address a clerk opposed to a captain? and so forth. It is a life. And like other boys, we envy what we don’t have, despising at times the roles we have inherited, not understanding until it’s all too late that we have choices. Small choices, for some. And for others, destiny knocks, and the burden falls on your shoulders to open the door or close the shutters and pray it goes away. I wonder which I will be? Will it depend on the day of the week I receive the knock? Will I hear it at all?

~ jf