Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Way Through

She left her home that day in early autumn, perhaps for a year or more - or perhaps she'd return tomorrow, but better to bolt the doors all the same. Her friends rode with her as far as as the entryway, but none was fool enough to venture through, as was made all too clear! Well, never mind. It was a solitary journey, obviously, and silence and polite observation would be called for, no place for obscure jokes and slogans from home, however well-intentioned.

It was a long night, there in the thicket, but promptly at dawn the doors were opened, and she stepped on through. Her landing was soft enough, though finding herself one moment stepping forward and the next sprawled on her back could easily have been disconcerting. Luckily only the grass was there to see her, and it was forgiving.

There were hills in he distance and a pathway in the foreground, ready for her to join it. Surely it wouldn't be far to whatever was at the other end. And so it proved, as the grass gradually gave way to some kind of dryer terrain, and then around a corner, not a moment too soon, a roadway with a town at the end of it.

As her first arrival, it was all too momentous, though the town itself seemed drab enough, just a few small houses and an inn or two. One of these might even have room for her, if she decided to stay.

It was already past mid-day and she was hungry, so stay it was. She found soon enough that food was available, also various sorts of drink, and even a room for the asking and a fair amount of the local currency, luckily flexible enough that her collection or souvenirs and simulacra weren't problematic. "That's from the previous reign, that is," said the shopkeeper knowingly as he took her gold. "Not many of those left about." She had no explanation for hers, merely smiled and thanked him for the change, sure enough bearing a portrait of a stylish-looking monarch.

Walking around the town during the afternoon, she observed many things, people busy at industrious work of various sorts, also sitting on benches and laughing, also looking discontented and idle outside a sort of saloon. Unlike them she failed to go inside when the doors opened directly at five, but the sounds several hours later reassured her that people here hadn't much changed.

Nevertheless it was a pleasant night, the first in her life away from home. And enlivened with several rounds of late-night songs, not to mention birds and grumbling workmen in the early morning. The birds made her homesick for a moment, but their counterparts at home would hardly yet have noticed her gone. She wished these well and started on her day - another walk around town, perhaps, and then deciding which road to take to the next one.

What, already the second day here and no adventure yet? And is not a descent to another world adventure enough, she thought, without drunkenness and swordfighting, amorous passages or the like? Some of that may be seen from a distance at times, but (other than the drunkenness) not yet, and meantime there was entertainment enough having her breakfast and making conversation with the other travelers at the inn - the fat merchant woman here to sell sheep, the family of talkative children, the quiet older gentleman at the back. It all seemed very promising, and none even curious whence she came or what her errand, a vague passing mention of surveys or taxes perhaps if ever it came to that.

After breakfast the sheep were duly admired and praised and a tentative offer to join the caravan accepted, at least as far as the next town. It would be slow going inwards, perhaps increasing in difficulty as she went. The sheep-herders were welcome company and partook of sanity, a thing not to be said of all even so close to the gate.


The next town was at the top of a hill, up a long winding path. She arrived in the late afternoon, after a day on the road and a night at a wayfarer's station, walking through the city doors into a large houseful of people. No one seemed to notice her there, though she tried at first to announce herself as a guest, smiling politely and looking for someone to greet. Perhaps she had merely become invisible? To be sure they all seemed busy conversing with one another, or racing around on important and time-critical errands, so no doubt she simply wasn't worth noticing, a mere dull stranger with no urgent business.

She followed a group of them up a wide flight of stairs and into a central corridor, then through a set of doors, where several of them bumped into her as she failed to make haste. Their looks were annoyed, not at all apologetic; clearly she was in the way and should have known it! She took the apologies on herself at first, but that didn't seem wanted either. Staying well out of the way and a seat at the back (a fierce competition for the better seats was already well underway) seemed like the best she could do.

After a short but momentous pause, filled with solemn anticipation, a series of speakers took the stage. Speeches were brief and to the point, evidently, judging by the audience's cheers of approval, but she was entirely unable to work out what that point was. The language seemed simple enough, but the topic was obscure in the extreme, of fervent interest to only these few and no one else in the world. It seemed to have something to do with vegetables, or a budget crisis, or a musical event, or perhaps a redistribution of rooms contingent on an off-year major holiday. Or possibly none of the above, though there continued to be hearty approval every time someone mentioned cabbages.

After an hour or so, getting the hang of the speeches, she was almost tempted to make one herself - what if she proposed that peas be five a dozen on alternate Saturdays, unless you were in room 3? It might very well pass with a significant majority. But then again for all she knew it might lead to civil unrest or outright revolution, due to some obscure by-law of which there surely were many. Silence and an occasional safe vote seemed by far the better alternative.

At the end of the meeting she followed the crowd back out again, by now feeling entitled to a passing comment or two - "Shocking about the lettuce!" and "Fifty-nine for a couple of old marrows, you don't say?" Someone offered her a share in room 17, but she politely declined, and just as well, as she had no vegetables at all in her satchel, not even the remains of yesterday's dinner. Likewise a chance at reduced-rate lessons on the bean-blower, no not even if guaranteed a small part in tomorrow's event, alas; she made it a rule never to perform on a Tuesday or near a full moon. This went down well enough, accompanied by the offer of a cabbage or two at a later date, and she was able to make her polite escape.

Now almost her friends, several accompanied her to the doors, and the mournful wail of bean-blowers sent her on her way. Perhaps room 17 might yet receive a visit, next time she passed this way, and she would be sure to bring along plenty of onions!


Another caravan accompanied her partway to the next town, but she managed to leave them behind on the second day - after only a few days here it was already wearing on her. Even the best of companions spoke too much and moved too fast and thought too loud as well: so much to plan for and wonder about, so many friends and aptitudes and ways to make money and spend it as well!

Rumors from the caravan indicated that this might be a market town, but oddly none of them seemed to want to visit it. And the town, when she came to it, seemed entirely empty, long straight streets with no one on them, silent houses with shuttered windows, though the sun was still high in the sky. No people around anywhere, not even in the doorways, and no inn either that she could see. Well, a night in the fields wasn't such a bad thing, she was thinking, finding herself increasingly eager to pass on through, when this drama ahead arrested her:

A fellow emerged, tall and young-looking, perhaps even handsome. There were several others behind him, but they were clearly negligible by comparison, perhaps even to themselves. And lo! from across the street a similar set of women. The one in front no beauty perhaps, but bold enough, and as may well be imagined some pairing off must be about to occur.

Or was it? In this mercantile culture nothing was certain, and she was not at all surprised to see money change hands and all parties walk away smiling. Where is the drama in that, you might ask? Ah, but soon enough the women turned around and back they came, looking furious, perhaps even ready to fight. Some small article of goods was in question, not as described or perhaps even shoddy workmanship, and out poured people from all the other doors to argue and comment. Would the women get their money back? Would they in addition get to keep the shoddy article, and if so was it really that undesirable, or was there an element of double-cross here?

Moving off, she watched it all from a distance, noting with amusement the passionate attachment to the object scorned just a moment earlier. Clearly the life force was hard at work here!


an interlude with fish

swift they swim, and unfurl themselves
beneath the bank
reaching for light

someone throws crumbs for them
the joy of their surfacing
then bidding them dive down again
where no one can hurt them
least of us

a world where all are loved
but not yet
and will you live to see it
little fish?


All the towns had beggars now, she noticed, often cripples or the mentally weak, sometimes treated with almost indulgence, at others with contempt and starvation. She had bent over the crippled ones, the starving or freezing, trying to help, only to be warded off by some official, or even an interfering householder, buying superiority with their contempt. "You can't help them," she was told, many times over, and when she asked why not, had it explained that they liked it that way, as if it was self-evident that a cripple would prefer the gutter and a householder a mansion full of every comfort. One almost snatched the coin from her hands, exclaiming at its largeness. "A fraction would do, you can't give that to a beggar!" And sadly she had to agree, as the moment she walked away the beggar would no doubt be forced to relinquish it. A stupid foreigner, she smiled apologetically and exchanged the gold for silver, still "too much" but grudgingly allowed to pass.

Back by the gate there had been no beggars, and even the tavern-goers and the rude workpeople there seemed harmless and cheerful now; the markets a few towns over where the haggling was good-natured. Children in the streets, and houses where the doors weren't always barred. Farmers coming to town to sell their goods, heading back home in neat little wagons.

And the open fields, well-planted, and the rows of trees by the roadway - here the roads were bare and dusty and the streams flowed dirty beside them. Fields lay bare, or over-planted with specialty crops, no good for eating, and no room left for trees or hedges.

And one more town lay ahead, dark and ugly, mean gray stones coated with dirt and the soot from too many chimneys. They wouldn't let her in at first, suspicious and prying, wanting to see everything she had with her, making imaginary difficulties about papers. Strong hints that a few coins might clear that up were duly followed, and she finally tiptoed in, walking in that way that says "I'm worth nothing, don't bother."

Twice she saw thieves at work, once successfully, once thwarted by street patrols. Mutters overheard, "They take all our taxes and the thieves get in anyway! It's robbery, that's what it is." Who "they" were could easily be seen by the gold-plated coach passing along, an unloved noble whose people would barely get out of the way for him, perfume wafting from inside across the malodorous streets.

Further on, two men on a corner came to blows as others watched interestedly. Not even fighting over anything, as far as she could tell, clearly not love nor honour nor even an item of damaged goods. Red faces, angry shouting. Other quarrels overhead and behind the shutters, and once a pail of dirty water flung right in her path, though aimed not at her but at some angry-looking fellow passing by. She hurried past before it could get any worse.

Crying children, someone persistently screaming: down an alley she looked and some poor woman on the ground, alone, something not right with her. Fending off offers of help with more feeble cries, but coming alive at the sight of a coin or two. Was that all she could ever do here?

And in the next town over would be war, or slavery, or famine caused by rich men's hoarding...she had gone far enough, there was no bearing it. For a moment it seemed that it should all be destroyed, but she spared a thought for the children and the working people and the frightened ones who cowered in their houses while the fighting and greed went on all around them. Or the poor forced to hang idle when there was no work to do, and ending up in the taverns: a terrible waste, but not their fault. But they had to live their lives out, even in the midst of it; there was no way to start over. And the animals lived innocent lives as always and must be protected, and the fields were still green, not yet paved over and made into marketplaces.

Must we live here? she asked herself. Must we give up so much of our own lives for theirs? The visits were never enough, and our idle curiosity, our occasional interference, if no real harm, had done little real good. How can we turn our backs on this, year after year? Their dirt and greed are ours; we washed our hands of them long ago.

She would stay here a few days or weeks and do what she could, then she must go home and bring the others back with her, as many as would come. And if no one, she would still come back - even alone there was much she could do - and in time try again.