Sunday, September 13, 2015

2: The Boy of Oak and Iron

Beside a rough-hewn wood-frame building, a hulking boy was splitting logs, and every time he brought down the axe, he imagined a skull beneath it.
            Off to the east, the sun was slowly sinking behind the chalky hills, its dying rays painting the high grass with a hazy, golden corona.  The boy―the young man, really―had wide, handsome features, skin the color of rich mahogany, and close-cropped hair.  Thick rivulets of sweat ran down his face to stain his leather tunic and trousers.  He raised the axe in work-hardened palms, and with an explosive cry, he brought it down in a thunderous arc, through the rail of oak and deep into the stump beneath it.  His every muscle―and he had an abundance of them―ached from the effort, and from the long day’s hunt behind him.  He barely noticed.  His heart hurt worse.
            Behind him, on the front stoop of the building, a door opened.  The woman who emerged was perhaps in her early thirties, a little more than a decade older than the teenager, slight of build and clad in rough cotton, milky-skinned, with mouselike features.  She rested her hands on the porch railing and watched the boy, her intelligent brown eyes full of concern.
            The boy never turned, but felt her eyes on him all the same.  “Don’t mind me, Rosemary.  Just making myself useful.  Chopping some firewood.”  With a massive surge, he wrenched the axe free, and stooped to replace the log with another.
            The woman spoke, her tone calm.  “Jason,” she said.  “It’s midsummer.”
            The boy paused.  Wiped his brow.  Blinked.  Looked, as if for the first time, at the scene around him.  Virtually the entire yard was littered with split logs, some of which had been chopped again and again, to tiny fragments, far past any conceivable use.  He lowered the axe; his shoulders slumped in resignation.
            “I know,” he muttered.  “It’s just…I get so angry sometimes.”  His face was miasma of self-loathing and repressed rage, a skyfull of dreary drizzle and incipient thunder.
            The woman descended from the porch and reached up―reached up quite some distance―to carefully wrap her arm around the boy’s broad shoulders; at full stretch, she was almost able to touch his far arm with the tips of her fingers.  She ushered him back to the stoop.  “I know you do, Jason,” she cooed.  She sat him down on the steps, then sat herself beside him.  “And you’ve a right to be.  But we’ve talked about this.  You have to learn to channel it.  Splitting logs isn’t what we need it for right now.  It isn’t productive.”
            A slow fire kindled in Jason’s eyes.  “Logs aren’t what I wanna take an axe to.”
            “Jason.”  Her tone was sharper, commanding.  The boy looked at her fiercely; she looked back at him quietly; slowly, the fire in his eyes died.
            They sat together in silence for perhaps a minute.  The last of the sun’s rays were dwindling on the horizon, and the moons were coming out overhead.  Finally, the boy spoke.  “Nothing will ever be enough, will it?  He’ll never forgive me.”
            The woman sighed and smiled sadly.  “Jason,” she said.  “Ben didn’t mean to snap at you, I’m sure.  And it certainly has nothing to do with what happened two months ago.”  She shook her head.  “It’s been…well, it’s been a long day for him.  And you know that he has a lot on his mind.  He has an entire town to look after.  All of Haven depends on Ben for guidance.  I think the strain’s too much for him at times.”  She drew her mouth into a tight line.  “That’s no excuse, of course.  But he does love you, Jason.  He loves you and I more than anything else on Elysium.”  She smiled warmly, and reached up again to wrap an arm around him; “Just as much as I love you.  You do know that, right?  You know that we love you?”  She tightened her grip as best she could, and perhaps the misery in the teen’s face abated a bit.
            “Sure,” he responded.  “Yeah.  I…I guess.  And I love you too, Rosemary.  I love you both.  I just wish…”  Jason’s jaw worked as he fumbled for words.  “…I just wish, you know, that I deserved it more.”
            “Jason.”  Rosemary’s tone was sharper this time.  “We’ve talked about this.  You mustn’t think about yourself that way.”
            “But it’s true!”  He turned to her, his face full of consternation.  “I mean…Ben’s amazing.  He knows everything there is to know about plants, and about people…he can build a house, or set a bone, or even run an army.  And everybody in Haven trusts him and depends upon him.  And you…you build new bodies for people!  You literally bring the dead back to life!”
            Rosemary sighed.  “No, Jason,” she said, her expression indicating that they were on well-worn conversational ground.  “People rebuild their own bodies.  They bring themselves back to life.  I’m merely a guide.”
            “Yeah, but still!  I mean…both of you…people need you.”  He stared back down at his hands.  “What do people need me for?”  he mumbled.
            Rosemary smiled reassuringly.  “People need you to be you, Jason.  Maybe you can’t operate an apothecary like Ben, or guide an incarnation like me.  But neither Ben nor I can run down a deer in the wild.  Neither of us can fight off three hillmen singlehanded with nothing but a flint sickle.  We need you to keep Haven fed.  We need you to keep Haven safe.  And Ben needs you, Jason, to remind him of what it is he’s fighting to create here.  You make him proud.  He may not say so, he may not be capable of saying so, but there’s a reason that you’re the only newcomer he’d have in his home…in our home.  You always make him proud.”
That drew a slow, sheepish smile.  “And you have to remember, Jason,” Rosemary continued,  “we’ve put in a bit more time here than you have.  It’s only been, what, eighteen months?  Whereas I’ve had fourteen years.  And Ben has been here for well over two hundred.”
The boy frowned.  “Eighteen months is enough, though.”  He shook his head.  “Enough to have known better.  Enough to have not been taken in by a pretty face.  Enough to have not been made a fool of.”
Rosemary stood, then stepped down off the stoop.  Crouching in front of Jason, she grasped him by the hands, and stared straight into his eyes.  “Jason, you have to let it go.  You were far from the only one fooled by them.  And you certainly weren’t the only one taken in by Delia’s charms.”
“Yeah.  But…hillman spies!  And I trusted them!”  Jason blushed.  “I trusted her.”  He swallowed.  “At least you knew better than we did.  If you hadn’t, who knows how much more they would have been able to accomplish…”
Rosemary smiled ruefully.  “Yes, Jason, you did trust her.  And you do trust.  You are yourself so trustworthy that I think sometimes that it never occurs to you that other people might not be.”
            He ground his teeth.  “I wish I weren’t.  So trusting, I mean.”  He shook his head.  “And…and so angry.”
Rosemary smiled.  “I don’t.  Jason, I don’t wish you were anything other than what you are.  And neither does Ben.”  Her delicate hand kneaded at the back of his neck affectionately.  “Jason, you really must learn to forgive yourself for your mistakes.  We’re all doing the best we can here.  This world we’ve found…it’s all about second chances.  It’s all about the opportunity to do better.  I’m convinced of it.  So that when we’re the best versions of ourselves we can be, we can enter The Light with clear consciences.”
Jason stared at the ground for a moment, then back up at Rosemary.  “You think so?”  She nodded, but his expression remained quizzical.  “I wish…”  He spread his hands, grasping aimlessly at the air for a moment, then they dropped bonelessly to his knees.  “…I just wish I remembered.  You know.  I just wish I knew what I was, before.  But it’s all a blur.”
            Rosemary returned to his side and wrapped a comforting arm around him again.  “It’s like that for all of us, Jason.  You know that.”
“Just a blur.  Just…a name, and those loose memories.  The games, and the friends, and dad…and that…”  Slowly, his face crashed.  “…and that other thing.”
Rosemary interjected quickly.  “And soccer, Jason.”
Instantly, Jason’s entire demeanor changed, his face exploding into an expression of pure joy.  “Soccer!  Yeah!  Game in two weeks!  It’s gonna be epic!  Are you coming this time?”
Rosemary smiled again, although this smile might perhaps have held something in reserve.  “Of course, Jason.  I wouldn’t miss it.”  But Jason was grinning maniacally, all glumness forgotten, and she gave him another reassuring squeeze.  “For now, let’s head back inside, all right?”  Instantly, Jason popped up onto his feet and reached down to pull Rosemary up with him.

They turned to enter the building, Jason opening the door and holding it for her.  “Remember, Jason,” she said, quietly, as they went inside.  “Elysium’s not about who we were.  It’s not even about who we are now.  It’s about who we can become.”

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