A Nameless Deed
Teveridies, the spinner-man of our township, came to the household of Caprion the week before the auction with unsteady news.
Teveridies is usually a spinner of bright yarns. That day, however, he walked Caprion away from his fine house and down to the beach. The two men sat on a deadfall branch sun-bleached just as white as a carious bone, and it was here Teveridies related the intelligence from town.
Down there on the beach, where wind and shore come together in that way that signifies change, the pair had fine views from which to choose: eastwards lay the rugged coast where many a fisherman has come to grief; to the west, a bosk of salt-stiffened trees, sea-shaken into a leafless tangle of darkened husks and exultantly spindly branches; south, they could see the now-hazy outlines of Caprion's house: north, the way they faced, was the clear ocean where the dolphin-roads lead back to the world.
The sun manufactured an overflow of light over the two men, light that lit the sand, the branch, the robes of the men, the sea-scud and put spangles of sticky succulence on the dates that Teveridies had brought in a brown paper bag to give to Caprion. Quick and wise, Caprion could tell by this token that the news the spinner-man brought with him was as bad as these dates were good—but no less fresh for all of that.
"There is a ship in the harbour," said Teveridies. "Metal-wrought," he went on when the little man did not respond—hoping to surprise a reaction out of his implacable companion, as is the wont of any teller of tales. "It flies no flag."
Caprion ate the dates.
When they were gone he wiped his hands on the paper bag.
He considered the sea for a long time.
"Atlantis," it is said, is what the world calls us. We call ourselves the Kingdom of Neighbours, and it may have always been so. I don't know. I never pay much attention to history in school, preferring our lessons about the future. Through the glassless windows of our classroom we could see the strange ship in our harbour. After lessons we could now go down into the town and move amongst its crew as we pleased; Caprion had not forbidden it.
It was easy to be fascinated with them, these strangers—interlopers from places we could not name—and often a pleasure to watch their pale ghosts move to and fro and hither and thither through the plazas, across the boulevards, between the columns, under the arches, into our houses and into our homes.
They brought blackbirds with them, held them aloft and listened to their chatter. They had sticks of cold fire for lighting up our nooks and crannies. Amongst them were old and young alike, speaking no tongue we could, or would, ever know—though they tried their best to read and speak what was written on our walls! They caused no harm, for there was no thing and no-one they could harm here, in the Kingdom of Neighbours.
The day of the Promise Auction drew closer.
Teveridies found Caprion again at the waterfront. The little man was sitting on the rocks of the long strand that forms our natural harbour, studying the metal ship. For a sprinkle of moments, the spinner-man merely watched Caprion, stroking the black moustache that roams over his cragged face as he tried to put words to his misgivings, but it was Caprion who spoke first:
"Remember when we talked about the happiness of Heaven, old friend?"
The question alarmed Teveridies momentarily—for he had forgotten such a conversation almost completely—but then he recalled that occasion Caprion spoke of, regained the memory slunk within himself, and nodded, still unhappy.
"Such a time is yet far off," the little man reassured his friend. Caprion tore his eyes from the metal ship and squinted up at the bigger man, the sun gleaming on the pate of his balding head and the squint making his nose yet rattier-looking. "The days keep coming, despite their arrival." He nodded in the direction of the ship. "It is a wonderful thing," Caprion admitted, now his attention was back upon it. "Makes one wonder what wonders the world would have in store for us . . ." His voice trailed off, like one of his unfinished lyrics. Absently he waved a hand. "But never mind my meanderings, Teveridies. You bring news from town."
"Yes," harrumphed the spinner-man. He took this as a cue to squat down alongside Caprion. "The Oscillationists have taken to the streets. They claim the ship confirms their belief that the universe expands and contracts . . ."
"Naturally, naturally . . ." mused Caprion. "It is a predictable conclusion for them to come to, of course. But go on . . ."
"The Deniers wish to petition you . . ." Teveridies stopped, for the little man gave an exasperated noise at this:
"Likewise not unexpected!" Caprion declared—but his tone was angry, as if he had not expected this at all. For a moment or two the men stayed still, almost savouring this unsatisfactory moment in unison. When Caprion spoke again his voice was calm:
"Tell the Deniers what they already know," he admonished his friend: "No spell of autumn can be readied yet." He looked into Teveridies's gloomy gaze. "The town knows it, as do I. These strangers must be endured. And it is no matter," he went on, his eyes again on the hulk of their black sea-machine, "for the perfume of the country will draw them on . . ."
"And then?" Teveridies squirmed, his knees aching with rheumatism, and nostalgia for the days when crouching caused no pain.
"Then, old friend, they will be far down the mountains."
The promise I wanted to sell had lain like a hot chain on my soul over those weeks when the auction began to loom ahead on our calendar. I was proud to have it in my possession, but like rain coming down a winter chimney, it made my fire spit and spark in the dark, and that is a feeling one soon longs to be rid of—an itch as unbearable as that of one's first tattoo.
I could well imagine the many things others would give in return for having such a favour bestowed upon them. Such rewards began to figure prominently in the dreams that came to me both day and night: gold for the spending, influence over significant events, fine food and finer wines, rare shingles from our southern shores, a game of my own, a wink in the marketplace, a blanket made soft from long-loved use, a knife whittled to a nub by generations, a tour of the machines . . . on and on the dreams came, each with its own tantalising guarantee of lifelong custody and usefulness, each with a singular assurance of felicity.
My parents thought me too pale; my teachers thought me struck dumb. In the crowded marketplace I sat, in the shade of the trees, listening to, first, The Oscillationists and then, just before school resumed, the bitter sermon of Arigo the Denier, that decried the days of judgement at hand, saying that this was the time of Atonement, a time Caprion had known would one day come.
Spittle flecked Arigo's beard—and the black robe that fooled precisely no-one—whilst all around him the pale interlopers wove about like gossamer threads on an unseen loom and my anticipation thrived and shook within me, the way corn writhes when it's growing in the field.
I went back to school and planned a story I would never write. At home I walked an imaginary dog, fed an invisible parakeet, shared secrets with none and kept no journal.
Strangers walked through our house whilst we ate, but they brought no blackbirds and lit no corners in our home.
Already, it seemed, their interest was waning, their behaviour changing.
Caprion was right: the newcomers began, one by one, to fade. The first of them had come to the southern edge of town and seen the ley of the land below. Their ghosts began to shimmer, to age, and around each the nimbus of pale and blue light that marked their presence began to shade into the greys of smoke. A transmutation was passing through them, one by one, and soon it was no surprise to now see them float through one's ken like wintertime exhalations until they were little more than the sometimes-smell of curried goat that wafts up on cold nights from the far plains below where the Distancers dwell in the thresholds.
How bright they had seemed when first they came, though! How we had marvelled at them, taken joy from their joy! Now they were going, and the happy tang-taste of our auction had been made a little bitter—though not yet unpleasantly—in the expectancies of all. Soon only enough of them to crew their dark ship were all that remained, and these were a rare and mixed bunch, it seemed to us, with no purpose shared between them now that the others were gone: an old man, bald but bearded, who had once denied his father's teachings; a lady who had lost a fortune; two children who knew no kin.
And the young man with the sad heart.
"Look at him," said Kasies, nudging me as we crossed the marketplace after our last Accountability lesson; the young man with the sad heart was mooning over the fountain beneath which the land-springs flowed. Lightly his smoky fingers traced a slow melody on the carvings of stone, the blessings and words each age of us had carved there as we passed. My friend and I sniggered at him. Of the handful of ghosts left he was by far the most contemptuous to us because we were fools, too.
His mouth, beneath a week's worth of beard and framed by hollowing cheeks, worked wordlessly and formlessly and found no fit frame for what was writ around the water. As we watched, we saw even Arigo the Denier pass by him without sparing a second glance.
"Who are you taking to the auction?" Kasies asked me. I hadn't told him of the falling out between Jarosyne and myself.
"Their ship is still in the harbour," I said.
Kasies laughed: "So, too, is Caprion!"
The day of the auction came, and the two children who knew no kin went up the southern paths and then were gone, like two errant puffs of smoke—or so our teachers told it. The old man and the lady had returned to the ship: they had completely broken hearts (or, at least, this was what the girls in class opined—broken hearts and no more wants or needs of our kingdom).
Down on the strand, Teveridies came again to Caprion.
"The boy is in the square," announced the spinner-man.
"And the monkey is in the tree, I suppose!" Caprion snapped back. He had been fasting for the last two days and was in no mood for baseless worries.
"The auction will be in the square," the tale-teller said, confused.
"And are we not fit for guests?" Caprion asked. "Should we be ashamed? Can you not tell the Oscillationists he has been here before, nor instruct the Deniers to ignore him?"
Teveridies breathed in a bullish fashion through his nose. "And the others?" He asked when he was done.
"Tell them to pack up their promises," Caprion answered, softly: His eyes did not leave the ship of steel through all of this.
Haminies, the washer-woman, sold her promise first—the promise her husband had made to put up some shelves fifteen years previously. The auctioneer's gavel fell and silenced several voices, and thus an old man's labour was bought for a handful of black pebbles and three sack of flour.
"And good luck to ya!" The washer-woman called to the buyer, a young and newlywed woman from Calcies Street. The crowd roared gladness, and we were away—all around the square the stalls were up again, ale and wine flowing freely and the meat of bird and calf and lamb sizzling on every spice-lined skewer. Bright the stars overhead and no-one really worrying—not now that we had come to it, now we had come to it at last—that amongst us there was one who did not belong; for was that one not even less than half a presence? And who has anything to fear from a young man with a sad heart?
The neighbours of the kingdom made way for him as he walked sadly to and fro and back and forth around the square. Some danced around his staggering steps: some raised toasts when he drank from his own worn gourd; children eyed him widely as he traced our well-carved words on our well-wrought walls.
Peladion, our lecturer in Rationales, sold his wife's promise that everything would be all right for a side of salted ham and six month's worth of peace of mind from her protestations. Teveridies brought back his own promise to tell a story that lasted more than half an hour from a young lad I did not know by name. During the sale of a promise to buy new boots, there was a brief interruption of the bids because the young man with a sad heart started yelling. By now he was looking pretty drunk, had careened across the square and clambered partway up the monument. His clothes were positively hanging off of him, in some places torn. Blearily he seemed to be eyeing the inscriptions there.
"He is of no matter," the auctioneer called out sternly. "My word is the final word tonight."
The auction resumed: I waited in line, away from my parents, away from Kasies and, essentially, away from all thought of what I was doing and how selfish I was about to be. I nearly didn't get the chance to do anything because Arigo stepped up before me and voiced his lot:
"Caprion promised to keep us all safe!" He shouted.
Caprion stepped into the torchlight. Around him the township fell silent, and behind, still hanging off the monument, the young man with a sad heart took up a muttered chant that ran along now in a counterpoint to Caprion's words.
"Is this, then, to be the forum for our soul's arguments?" Caprion asked. "Is this what you would choose, Arigo?"
"As good here as anywhere," the black-bearded Denier responded, stubbornly.
"Look at him!" Caprion said, his eyes gleaming as he pointed to the young man with a sad heart. "Look long, Arigo! He is the world! The world is here! Look at him, all of you! What is there to fear?"
We all looked. The young man with a sad heart's fingers of smoke were tracing the lines on the monument.
"They are leaving, Arigo! Don't you see? We are always safe. Safe as we have always been!" The little man turned his pleading eyes on the town. "Can we not still have our night of fun?"
Arigo opened his mouth to reply, but a low rumble of displeasure passed through the crowd, unmanning him, and he staggered out of view.
Into the empty arena of his absence I now stepped, and because of this exchange, there were plenty of ears to hear what I had to say:
"From the maiden, Jarosyne," I said, supremely ecstatic, "I have her promise to give me . . ."
A voice bellowed out, senselessly, but with a keening yearn that cast a spell over all of us.
"Sold!" The auctioneer yelled, slamming down his gavel. It was a nonsensical bid, thus none could top it. I suppose the auctioneer wanted to get our triumphant night back in his control. We all looked around to see who had purchased this nameless deed—sight unseen, tale untold—for such an invaluable sum.
From the fingers of the young man with a sad heart fell his gourd of spirits. It smashed on the cobbles of the square and burnt away. He grinned down at us all, not even seeing us.
In that moment he looked like a drooling idiot.
Two days after the auction, the young man with a sad heart sailed his ship away. The township was again hushed and at rest, as it always was and always would be. But now, in that stillness and that silence there was, for me, more emptiness than I had ever known.
I was not shunned, but I was shunned both.
I became a skulker and a ferreter of things.
A year passed and the auction came again. I did not wish to go but my parents forced me, as they had every right to do. I kept to the shadows and was largely ignored. I drank wine, but no-one raised a toast with me.
As the evening drew on, Jarosyne stepped out of the queue—but she had no lot to sell; she had come to remind me—and show to everyone how I was bound—that I had made a promise to marry her if she kept her promise true. What she had promised me belonged to the young man with a sad heart, and though he had never—nor would he ever—put claim to it, she had kept her word to be true. By law I had no choice, nor, it seemed, did she. We were soon wed.
I owe my wife much, but there is much I cannot do for her; likewise there is a thing she could have done for me, had I not given it away like a fool. It is gone—just as that young man with a sad heart is gone—and it cannot return.
It is lost to me, over the bulging horizon.
S. J.Hirons (firstname.lastname@example.org) was born in Greenwich, England in 1973. Educated at Rugby and Cambridge, he currently resides in Leamington Spa with his partner, Mrs. Pepito. He has studied creative writing at the National Academy of Writing and Birmingham City University. More of his short fiction can be found in Subtle Edens: An Anthology of Slipstream Fiction from Elastic Press, SFX magazine's "Pulp Idol" 2006 and at www.pantechnicon.net. Further pieces will appear this year in The Willows magazine and in the "52 Stitches" project.