Sunday, September 13, 2015

12: There Is No Crowd

Entertainment was hard to come by in Haven, so when the opportunity arose, people showed up in droves.  Gathered on the slope and hillsides of the town commons, in front of the blazing bonfire, were nearly a thousand Havenites.  Here and there a triangular silver pendant gleamed in the firelight.  Emily sat up front facing them all, on a wooden bench side-by-side with Ben and Rosemary.  She stared out into the crowd, and felt every eye on her.  A thousand pairs of them, in fact.  Eighty-five percent of the audience is male.  Where are all the women?  she wondered, not for the first time.  And why is it that I’m the only one who ever asks that question, or even seems to notice?
As the last few stragglers took their seats, Ben stood up from the bench, took a position near the fire, and raised his hands for quiet.  “Bring out the girl!” shouted some raucous voice from the hillside; there was a small swell of guffawing from the crowd.  Beside her, Rosemary frowned with disapproval, but Emily resolved herself not even to give the heckler that small satisfaction.  Cowards shout anonymously from crowds, she thought.  And cowards can be controlled.
Ben was clearly irked, but made a smooth show of it.  “We won’t take much of your time tonight,” he called out in a round, ringing, stentorian voice, “as I’m sure you’ve important business of your own to attend to.”  He turned towards the portion of the hillside from which the loud voice had come.  “You, for instance, Alvin, surely have some property left that you haven’t yet lost to Smiling Bob in a card game; I’ll let you get back to that.”  This brought a considerably larger chorus of laughter.  Raising his hands again for silence, Ben continued.  “There are two matters at hand that concern the community as a whole.  To address the first, I turn to my colleague, Mr. Ammerman.”
Ammerman stepped into the firelight.  His voice didn’t have the oratorical ring that Ben’s did, but it did carry.  “Right.  Seems th’ hillmen been actin’ uppity again.”  There was a round of groans from the crowd; Ammerman raised his hands, palms out.  “Don’t shoot th’ messenger, now, I’m jus’ sayin’ what we seen.  Got scouts scurryin’ in, north o’ town, getting’ a sense o’ th’ lay o’ the land.  Got sum’n cookin’, lest I miss my guess.”
There was a cry from up the slope:  “Trying to sell more crossbows, John?”  This was met with an agreeing murmur from a large portion of the crowd.  A low grumble began brewing underneath it.  Ammerman’s expression never changed.  “Fine, fine.  Make yer own decisions, but ye might wanna hear it from lips other’n mine.  Jason?  Wanna tell ‘em?”
Jason stepped up out of the first row and turned to face the crowd.  Emily had seen him bring down a monster the size of a minivan without a hint of fear, yet the presence of an audience seemed to take all the starch out of him.  His authority was not enhanced by his attire; against everyone’s best advice, he’d had the psychovore’s hide fashioned into a hoodie, which he’d taken to wearing everywhere.  Worst of all, he’d left the beast’s eyes and teeth in and had its head refashioned as the hood, so his face appeared to be peering out from between its jaws.  He must think it makes him look menacing, Emily mused.  It actually makes him look like he’s being eaten
“Um…yeah…actually, he’s right,” Jason mumbled, barely audible.  Shouts of “what?” and “speak up!” echoed down the slope.  Jason sucked in a lungful of air and yelled out his message between gasping breaths.  “WE CAUGHT TWO WHILE WE WERE…HUNTING AND THEY WERE UP ON…GRETA’S BLUFF THEY MAY…HAVE BEEN SCOUTING OUT THE…TOWN.”  Red-faced, he limped back to his seat.
Ammerman nodded.  “So maybe if’n yer Golden Boy here says it, you’ll believe it.”  The remark drew a hostile glare from Jason, but Ammerman paid no heed.  “And there’s another man, right there, might be able t’tell ye ‘bout th’ truth of things, where th’ hillmen are c’ncerned.”  He nodded at a figure in the crowd.  Just at the edge of the firelight, Emily could see him―seated with a man at each elbow, his matted beard and hair still unwashed, useless legs swaddled in blankets.  Grigori, Emily thought.  Poor man.  Poor, violent, mindless, macho man.  Why did he go up there alone?  Who did he think he would impress?  What in the world leads men to act the way they do?
“S’yer call, folks.  Can’t nobody make yer decisions for ye.  Speakin fer me an’ mine…” Ammerman gestured to a small knot of men and women a few rows up the slope, “we’re gon’ be goin’ armed fer a while.  Keep an eye out t’ th’ north.  Might ought be ye’ll consider doin’ th’ same.”
Ammerman returned to the first row.  The heckler in the back of the crowd sounded unconvinced:  “This message brought to you by Ammerman’s Armaments!  Profiting from fear and paranoia for thirty years!”  But the murmur in the crowd was less assured, and bore an undertone of fear.  Ben raised his hands for quiet.  “I’m sure we all appreciate Mr. Ammerman’s work, and that of our hunting parties in keeping Haven safe.  I’m hoping more of you will volunteer for the hunting expeditions of the next few weeks and that you’ll keep your eyes open when you do; speak to Orson and Yvette if interested.   I would also recommend that no one leave the town perimeter unaccompanied or unarmed until further notice.  Those of you in outlying areas, especially those north of town, such as the farms, please consider posting extra guards.”  He paused and cleared his throat.  “And on a more joyous note, our second order of business.  We have a new arrival!”
A shout of welcome echoed down from the crowd.  Emily took a deep breath, stood, and stepped up into the firelight.  Her new outfit, on loan from Rosemary, was typical of the settlement, a homespun wool shirt with doeskin breeches and moccasins.  Ben continued:  “We will meet her according to our traditions, and hear what she has to share.”  He paused, his face growing a bit more severe.  “As it has been some time since a young lady arrived in Haven, this might be a good time for those of you of the fairer sex to remind your men of the standards of civilized behavior, and of the fact that our guest is not a performing seal.”  There were a few guffaws; one of the louder ones was followed by a painful squawk, and then silence.  Ben nodded, and turned to Emily.
Emily stared out into a thousand pairs of eyes―eight hundred and fifty people leering at me, the other hundred fifty too cowed to make them stop, she thought.
Some people would be afraid of this crowdBut I am not. 
Because there is no crowd. 
No crowd.  Individuals.  No people.  PERSONS.
One thousand persons.  Every one of them an individual.  Some of them are pigs, and some are saints.  But each of them came here to meet me.  And nobody came here tonight in the hope of being bored, or disappointed.  Each one of them is on my side tonight.  Each of them is looking for an excuse to love me.
And I am worthy of love.  And I am worthy of respect.  And I will give each of them something to love and to respect.  Emily’s eyes flickered, for just a moment, to a small, glowing light at the outskirts of the crowd.  And I will show her that her strength and her courage weren’t wasted on me. 
It all went through her mind in a flash; the pause lasted less than a second.  And she smiled at the people who wanted to love her, and when she opened her mouth to speak, she didn’t know where the volume and the resonance came from, nor the poise and the command; they were just there, somehow, as if she’d been doing this sort of thing all her life.  “Hello, everyone.  My name is Emily, and I’m a rogue soul.”
“HELLO, EMILY,” the crowd chorused back.
“It’s been two days since I incarnated for the first time.  I’m told that you share what you remember of your lives at these meetings.  I’m afraid that I don’t have a whole lot of knowledge that will be of use to you.  I’m a little young, as you can see.  But I’m eager to help out however I can.”
“What I remember most about Earth, actually, is my little sister, Brianna.  From what I remember of her, she was younger than me, probably ten or eleven when I…when I came here.”  She paused for a moment, staring at the crowd.  “Brianna looked sort of like a littler version of me―she was skinny and he had my…um…let’s say she had my tanning problem.”  She gestured at her pale complexion, drawing an appreciative laugh from the crowd.  “She’d get freckled up if she spent even a few minutes in the sun.  She loved to play with legos, which were these little plastic bricks you could snap together and build things out of.  She loved building things.  She didn’t care for dolls.”  She paused.  “Brianna was…I remember her being sad, a lot.  I think I was sick, maybe for a long time.  I don’t remember, exactly…I just remember Brianna was very sad about it.  I remember not wanting her to be sad.  I don’t think it helped.  I think Brianna loved me a lot.  I don’t remember her perfectly, but…I remember enough to miss her.  I miss her very much.”  She stopped speaking, stared at the ground at her feet.  There was a long stretch of total silence.
And she had them.  The faces glowed in the firelight.  Quite the rogue’s gallery.  Liars and honest men, workers and shirkers, doctors and drunkards and dreamers and dullards.  Some of you might have heckled me for that, she thought.  But the rest are remembering what was taken from them.  A sister of their own, maybe.  A brother.  A son, a daughter, a husband, a wife.   If the cynics among you were to turn on me now, they would tear you apart with their bare hands.
They fear the crowd.  I do not, because I know that there is no crowd.
Rosemary took a small step forward, but Emily saw her out of the corner of her eye and made a small, dismissive gesture with her left hand; Rosemary stepped back out of the firelight.  Emily paused to gather herself, then looked back up at the crowd.  The stage was set.  Now came the risk, the memory she’d been reluctant to share.  She’d initially been hesitant to include it, but Rosemary’s wild enthusiasm upon hearing about it had persuaded her.  “I also remember this other thing, actually, but…it’s kind of weird.”
A call came from the left side of the crowd, up close to the fire:  “It’s not how to make a kazoo, is it?”  The tension in the atmosphere dissolved, scattered under a universal wave of laughter.  Next to the heckler, a youngish man went red faced; he raised his fists in a fighting stance towards his neighbor, but his grin belied any actual hostility.  The men around him were laughing hardest of all; a couple of them slapped the mock belligerent on the back or shook him by the shoulder.  And Emily thought, Good.  Now everyone out there feels like they’re part of the performance, too.  And now that they’re a part of it, they want the performance to succeed.  They want to be a part of something special.
I have them.
And so, she allowed herself to laugh as well.  “No, it’s not how to make a kazoo; I’m sure Warren’s the expert there.  I wouldn’t want to challenge his authority or anything.”  More laughter.  “Actually, it might not even be as useful as that.”  A pause.  “What I remember is…a song, actually.”
A single beat.  Then a huge, collective roar of joy.  Emily did her best to look surprised.  Ben stepped up, hands upraised to quiet the crowd, but it was slow going, and in truth, he looked as overjoyed as anyone among them.
“Please!  Citizens of Haven, please!”  Slowly, very slowly, the ruckus subsided.  “I know we all want to hear this, but that will never happen if you don’t stop shouting!”  Slowly, Ben lowered his hands.  “You’ll have to excuse them, my de…Emily.  You see…” and here Ben grinned widely, “we have very, very few musicians here.”
A shout from the crowd: “Other than Warren!”  Another wave of laughter.
Ben acknowledged the remark with a broad grin, then contined.  “Few musicians, few composers.  And very few people arrive with the memory of music.  Those who do…well, they may be able to hum a few bars, but writing it down is another matter.  Much is lost to us.”  He smiled at Emily.  “So when a new arrival possesses a song, especially a new one…well, that is a very special and unusual thing.”
Another shout from the crowd:  “SING IT!”  A wave of approval and cheering.  Emily stood awkwardly, wringing her hands a bit.  Make them want it.
“I, uh…you see, the thing is…I have no idea why I remember it.  It’s…it’s not who I am, at all.  I know our memories are supposed to be about what mattered to us―I don’t even like it, especially.  I mean, it’s…it’s really, really corny.”  Make them NEED it.
A woman’s voice this time:  “Just sing the damn thing!”  Another roar of approval.  Ben was standing beside Emily, staring out over the crowd.  He raised a hand for silence.  But Emily reached up, took his hand, and slowly lowered it.  Then she took a larger step forward, directly towards the audience.  She put up her own hand.  In a matter of seconds, the silence was absolute.
“Okay,” she said.  “No promises about my voice.”  She cleared her throat.
Many times I’ve tried to tell you, many times I’ve cried alone. 
Always I’m surprised how well you cut my feelings to the bone. 
There was a tiny whisper of noise from the crowd―enough to confirm that the song was new to them.
Don’t wanna leave you really, I’ve invested too much time 
To give you up that easy to the doubts that complicate your mind. 
We belong to the light, we belong to the thunder. 
We belong to the sound of the words we’ve both fallen under. 
Whatever we deny or embrace, for worse or for better, 
We belong, we belong, we belong together. 
Her voice wasn’t much.  A narrow range, her pitch imperfect.  The notes fluttered and wavered at times.  And it doesn’t matter, she realized.  It doesn’t matter that I can barely sing, or that the song is corny as hell.  What matters is that there is music in your lives again, and that I am the one giving it to you.  If a thunderclap dared to interrupt me now, you’d tear down the sky to silence it.  And so, she continued, as the crowd sat spellbound before her.
Maybe it’s a sign of weakness, when I don’t know what to say. 
Maybe I just wouldn’t know what to do with my strength anyway. 
Have we become a habit? Do we distort the facts? 
Now there’s no looking forward, now there’s no turning back, when you say:
 We belong to the light, we belong to the thunder. 
We belong to the sound of the words we’ve both fallen under. 
Whatever we deny or embrace, for worse or for better, 
We belong, we belong, we belong together. 

Will hovered, disembodied, watching and listening.  I’m broken in some profound way, he thought.  I question everything.  I’m unable even to appreciate the glory of The Light in the way a human should.  And here is a gift straight from Emily’s soul.  And I hate it.
Emily’s voice was filling the soul of every person around him with peace, with a sense of belonging.  But deep down inside Will lurked that ugly little presence which had enjoyed witnessing the violence on Greta’s bluff.  And in the midst of perfect unanimity all around him, that voice was speaking defiance, and telling him to listen to the words Emily was singing.  And telling him that he hated them.
Will requested, then demanded, that the voice inside him be still.  But it refused to obey.  It interrogated every lyric.  It filled him up with questions.  It insisted that we DIDN’T, in fact, belong together, that the I should never, ever be subsumed in the We.
And Will hovered, torn between loving the woman before him and hating the voice that ruled him.  And he asked himself, not for the first time, What sort of person must I have been?

Jason’s contemplations ran in a somewhat different direction.  Dude, he thought.  She’s totally hot.

Close your eyes and try to sleep now, close your eyes and try to dream. 
Clear your mind and do your best to try and wash the palette clean. 
We can’t begin to know it, how much we really care. 
I hear your voice inside me, I see your face everywhere, still you say:
We belong to the light, we belong to the thunder. 
We belong to the sound of the words we’ve both fallen under. 
Whatever we deny or embrace, for worse or for better, 
We belong, we belong, we belong together. 
Emily took in a long breath, hands folded in front of her.  “That’s it,” she said, quietly.  Two more beats of complete silence.
And the crowd exploded.
And you are mine, she thought.
All over the slope in front of the bonfire and the hillsides adjoining it, there were grown men and women, some of them presumably hundreds of years old, jumping up and down like little children.  Up front, in the firelight, Ben and Rosemary were staring into each other’s eyes, hands clasped, grinning like teenagers.  In the center of the storm was Emily, looking out on the whole scene with a small smile on her face.  And maybe, she thought, maybe I am yours a little bit, too.  Maybe.
And then she saw, out of the corner of her eye, that while she had won over perhaps nine hundred and ninety-nine members of the crowd, there was an exception.  A tall, angular figure in the first row, a patchy reddish beard upon his face, he stared that laser-beam stare of his straight at her, his frown a single wrong note amidst the orchestra of emotion.  Interesting, she thought.
Rosemary broke her grip with Ben and raced forward to embrace Emily.  Ben stepped up and raised his hands again for silence.  He was a long time waiting.  Finally, he spoke over the excited buzz.
“Wonderful, was it not?  What a wonderful gift Emily has given to Haven.  This young lady is under Jason’s formal sponsorship, and is, as of this moment, a full member of our community!”  A cheer went up.  “Now, of course, there is the question of employment to resolve…”
A series of shouts from the crowd.  Dozens of hands shot into the air.
“The mill!  We can use another hand at the mill!”
“Always room on the farm!”
“Natural-born carpenter’s assistant, that one!”
Hands shot up all over.  Shouts filled the air.  Ben was muttering in Emily’s ear, pointing out and identifying potential employers, when a new hand went up, and a voice carried over the crowd.
“I’ll take ‘er on.”
The crowd’s rumble died immediately.  There stood John Ammerman with his hand in the air, his small collection of followers looking as surprised as anyone else.  Emily glanced at him, then at Ben.  In the space of a few seconds, Ben’s expression flashed through shock, then to a moment of what looked for all the world like terrible anger, before settling back into the usual formality and composure.
“You, John?  It’s been years since you took on an assistant.  And never a newcomer, to my recollection.  I believe you generally prefer to check your workers’ ideological bona fides first, do you not?”
“Been a while, yeah.  All th’ more reason t’ bring in some new blood.  Besides, young gal like that, oughta learn t’ defend herself.”  He turned to address Emily directly.  “Not t’say y’can’t take care o’ yerself, missy.  S’plain ta see ye can.  Might be not ever’body in Haven ‘preciates that.  Might be they’d place ye on a pedestal, make ye sing fer yer supper.”  He chuckled.  “If it’s a pedestal ye want, best turn down my offer.  All I gots fer ye is work, hard work, an’ hard learnin’.  Take a strong woman, work at Ammerman’s, learn what I got ta teach.”
Ammerman nodded.  “Might ought be ye got that strength in ye.  I’m a man what remembers things.  Might be some don’t wanna remember, don’t wanna know.  Might be ye got it in ye to know what others don’t.”
As for Ben, his ordinarily smooth veneer was cracking appreciably.  He raised his hand.  “That’s enough, John,” he said, through gritted teeth.  “We’ll discuss this later.”
Ammerman, by contrast, was all smooth polish.  He raised an eyebrow.  “You raisin’ up a hand ta silence me, Mr. Big?  Cain’t recall nobody in Haven gave ye authority to do that.  Seems t’me that every man in Haven gotta right to be heard.  Every woman gotta right to make her own decision.”  He gestured broadly.  “Or are you claimin’ ownership o’ some kind?”
Ben’s gaze leveled at Ammerman.  His voice was pure acid.  “I.  Said.  Later.” 
The two men locked eyes for a long, dangerous moment.  Finally, it was Ammerman who raised a conciliatory palm and smiled.  “Works fer me, big man.  Jes’ s’long as ye don’t get th’ impression that ye got the right t’sell th’ girl off to the highest bidder, or some such.”  He turned to his cohorts.  “Reckon we’re done here, fellas.  Let’s git t’ ramblin’.”  To the rest of the crowd:  “Pleasure as always.  Yer free men an’ women; don’t go forgettin’ it.”
His followers in tow, Ammerman marched past the campfire and back towards main street.  Ben glared daggers into his back as he proceeded.
A nervous quiet had settled over the crowd.  It was broken by a rowdy voice from the hillside―it might have been the same heckler whom Ben had hushed at the beginning of the event.  “Hey―let’s sing the OTHER song!”
A round of relieved laughter, and then a growing swell of affirmation and applause.  All the tension left Ben and was replaced by weary resignation.  His shoulders slumped.  Eyes downcast, he shook his head sadly.  If anything, this only egged the crowd on.
“C’mon, Ben!”
“There’s no harm in it!”
“We promise, it won’t turn us into sodomites!”  This last remark brought another wave of raucous laughter.
Ben’s patience was exhausted.  He raised a hand.  “I hardly think this is the time…”  Rosemary interrupted, taking him by the other sleeve.  One eye on the crowd, she muttered something under her breath.  Ben deflated again.  “Very well.  Be it on your own heads.”  A roar of approval.
A short, dapper figure with a pointed brown goatee came scampering down the slope, a small wooden whistle in his hand; a chorus of cheers heralding his arrival.  Meanwhile, Ben trudged wearily away from the fire with Rosemary alongside him.  Rosemary glanced back at Emily, silently inquiring whether she’d had enough.  But these people were hers now--and she was, perhaps, theirs--and she was eager to know what she’d gained.  So Emily shook her head, and Rosemary and Ben proceeded alone into the gathering darkness.

Will watched from a distance, his heartlight a tiny flicker at the edge of the crowd, as the little man blew a jaunty, buzzing fanfare on his tiny instrument.  As it ended, he pulled it from his lips and raised his hand like a conductor.  As one, the crowd joined in, a vast sea of noise:
Young man, there’s no need to feel down. 
I said, young man, pick yourself off the ground. 
I said, young man, ‘cause you’re in a new town 
There’s no need…to…be…un-hap-py...
Young man, there’s a place you can go. 
I said, young man, when you’re short on your dough. 
You can stay there, and I’m sure you will find 
Many ways…to…have…a-good-time…

Will could not sing, and didn’t feel much like singing.  But he listened to the whole song.  He couldn’t quite figure out what it was about; the references made no sense to him.  But it was loud, and it was cheerful, and to the thousand souls gathered around the bonfire and around Emily, that clearly counted for something.  And in the end, as the crowd broke up and went its separate ways, Will was forced to concede that the loudmouth from the audience had been correct; it hadn’t turned him into a sodomite.

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