Thursday, August 30, 2012

The Tiger, Part II

Part I is here.

When he woke up he was in place of warmth and complete darkness. As he tried to open his eyes, someone seemed to stab a red hot needle into each one. He closed them again.

He didn't know how many days he slept and woke, to drink some very strong tasting broth, only to sleep again. He lay naked under what felt like a fur blanket of some sort, and a cloth was bound over his eyes. Strange voices spoke in a strange language, softly, and that was his world. He didn't mind it though. It was a pleasant world, simple, uncomplicated, soft, and above all warm. He could smell the smoke, and hear the crackling of a fire most of the time he was awake. It smelled like they were burning dung.

Eventually the blindfold was removed and he looked around him for the first time. Many people, all very old, all very brown, with high cheekbones and serious, intent faces stared at him without speaking. He stared back. Eventually, one by one, they got up and left. It appeared he was in some sort of mud dwelling with a low, flat roof. The embers of a fire smoked lazily through a square hole in the ceiling. Whenever the curtain over the doorway was opened he could see snow, sometimes swirling in a white mist, sometimes falling lazily against a wall of stars in the night sky, sometimes lying blindingly white in the sun, sending daggers of pain shooting through his head. He preferred it when his eyes were closed.

After a few days of this, he rose, accepting the clothes he was offered. He had tried to speak to his hosts in Latin, German and French, or in the few words he knew in the Moorish tongue, but no one even answered. Among themselves they spoke a soft, guttural language that seemed more suited to whispering than to yelling. They seemed to have no desire to communicate with him at all. As soon as he was up and about, they left him completely to his own devices. Meals were served regularly and if he was asleep, he soon learned, he would miss the meal. No food was ever left when all had done eating.

In a week or two he began to wander outside the hut and found that there were about twenty such dwellings scattered around what looked like a giant flat plain, surrounded by mountains. On one end of the village was a much larger hut with a sheep pen outside it. Children dressed in fur and wool watched him curiously from afar, but the entire village seemed to share the same intent, serious, silent stare. No one spoke to him.

Eventually he found his armor and weapons. Or rather they were brought to him. They had been wrapped carefully in a leather cloth and left by his bed while he was out on one of his daily walks. After that he began wearing his armor daily to re-accustom himself to the weight. Out on the plain alone he began practicing with sword and shield. At first the exertion was almost more than he could handle, and he thought ruefully that "The Tiger" was more like "The Kitten" these days. Slowly he began to grow stronger and his speed and agility returned. The snow made it harder to move, bogging him down a bit like the heavy mud he had endured in the wars, but a lot more slippery. This forced him to work twice as hard, but he welcomed the challenge. One day he shot a cat, a large white cat that looked a little like a leopard. He carried it back to the hut, and roasted it over the fire. The entire village came and partook of the feast, accepting the meat he offered them in complete silence. At first he had thought that they didn't speak to him because they either didn't like or didn't trust him. Now it occurred to him that they might very well have no concept of people who spoke other languages. If he wouldn't speak to them in a tongue they knew, why should they waste their energy speaking to him? They seemed a very practical people.

Months wore on like this in a silent but courteous existence. Edward found himself retreating out into the wild to pray, as well as to practice his swordsmanship. He didn't know what else to do. He was not restless anymore. He was empty. He trained because that was his way, but he did so with little sense of purpose. Every day he asked God to bless and watch over his family, and every day he asked, "Jesu, why have you brought me here?" And always the only answer was stillness, the gentle whisper of emptiness, wind, and cold. It might have been his heart talking, for all it said to him.

The weather began to warm, slowly, but noticeably. The children and women began to appear dressed in bright, vivid colors, bright, sky blue, brilliant yellow, like the buttercups back home, and deep, deep rich burgundy. It made a brave show, and somehow awakened longings for he knew not what. Some of the younger children would even smile at him now, as if the warming weather had warmed their thoughts of him. Or perhaps they had just gotten used to him.

On a day in what he took to be mid spring he took his weapons and began to walk. He had a notion that if he climbed one of the nearer hills he might be able to get some idea of the lie of the land, and still likely be back before nightfall. He would shoot some kind of animal along the way so he wouldn't have to go hungry.

He began walking straight westward until he reached a trail heading into the mountains. He followed that northward until he lost it, and then continued moving upwards. There seemed to be two large mountains with what looked like a pass between them. If he could reach the pass and look through it, he would be able to have a clear look to the west for at least a good day's march, he hoped. Looking back into the valley below him, he was amazed to see how much of the snow had melted. The village he had been staying at stood out clear and brown, with little bits of color, amid a predominantly white background. He could see the river, gray, brown, and even a little bit green in spots winding its way through the valley, from where it emerged from the mountain glaciers, to where it disappeared in whiteness at the end of the valley. He saw something he had never noticed before. Along the slopes of the hills he could see patterns of ditches and hedgerows, arranged in irregular shapes, which he took to be irrigation works. Acres and acres of such fields stretched as far as he could see on both sides of the valley. The men and women of his village no doubt had constructed these fields, or their ancestors had. They had probably been living in this valley for hundreds of years, quietly handing on their fields and irrigation ditches, flocks, huts, traditions and languages generation after generation. Strangely, his heart swelled with love for them. They were so stupid and ignorant compared to his people back in Europe, but what strength! What toughness and determination! "Lord, these people are as tough as the mountains they live among. Surely, Lord, Your Love is here with them, as surely as in Christendom."

He continued on. It was a stiff climb to the top of the pass, and before he got there he could smell the smoke. Something on the other side had made a dreadful burning. A saddle between the two hills narrowed until it became a ravine, with sides so steep that no horse and precious few men could have climbed them. It was in the middle of this narrow pass that he stopped. Before him lay a valley much like the one he had come to think of as his own. In the center of it was a village much like his own, except that this one was on fire. Thick, black smoke rose from every hut and small black shapes lay motionless scattered over the snow. He could tell what they were, even at that distance.

1 comment:

  1. I'm really enjoying the story, though I have to say that the line about the red hot needles in the eyes really made me cringe!