“Hi. My name is Will, and I’m a rogue soul.”
A sweltering midsummer night. All around Will, filling the slopes and hillsides, the people of Haven were gathered. Ben, Rosemary and Jason were at his back, sitting on the benches near the bonfire, along with another, older woman he hadn’t yet met. Emily, despite having been invited to share a position of honor up front, was nowhere to be seen. Will had yet to lay mortal eyes on her.
“It’s been two days since my first incarnation, and…um…a little less than two days since my second. The first one didn’t work out so well.” A nervous titter from the audience. Will supposed they had reason to be a bit on edge, under the circumstances. His corpse, laid out in the Redoubt, had been seen by dozens of people, so it had been impossible to hide the fact of his immediate reincarnation. Nor did it help that the whole episode had occurred in the midst of a battle that had cost the community almost twenty lives. It wasn’t that they blamed him, exactly. But unmistakably, the people of Haven were nervous. And when people don’t feel safe, Will thought, they don’t take as easily to phenomena that they don’t understand. It’s not a trait that’s unique to Haven; entire nations have followed fear and hunger over the edge of reason. When the harvest doesn’t come in, folks take to burning witches.
His palms were sweating. He had been dreading the next revelation since he’d learned about incarnation. Will cleared his throat, and spoke as boldly as he dared. “I don’t remember anything.”
There was a sort of stillness in the crowd. In the front row, Will saw Ammerman smile knowingly, and nod.
“Well, not nothing, technically,” he hastily added. “I remember my name and, um, my age. I’m sixteen. And Englush…I mean, English. The language. I speak it. Obviously. Maybe not real well at the moment.” He cleared his throat again, opened his mouth…and had no idea what to say next. So he stood, for what seemed an eternity, with his jaw hanging open and a thousand people staring at him. Eventually he closed his mouth; the junebugs were pretty thick around the bonfire and he was afraid one might fly in.
A voice from the crowd: “How’d you come back so quick?” A chorus of assent; someone had given voice to the question on everyone’s mind.
“I don’t know.” The crowd offered up nothing but a low, ominous grumble in response. “It’s different for me, I guess,” Will added. “Instead of memories I sort of…ask questions. I have to, like, meditate first, but…I just sort of…” Will shrugged. “I don’t really know how it happens.”
Another voice. “Can you do it again?” And another: “How many times can you do it?” Still another: “Show us!” An emerging hubbub; hundreds of people talking at once.
Rosemary stepped forward and held up a hand. “You may be assured that Will and I are trying to work out what happened. You will also understand that the nineteen souls in the Redoubt are my first priority. Several of them are making rapid progress and will be back among us within days.” A ragged cheer at this; Will felt the tide of suspicion ebb a bit, and glanced back at her, gratefully. She nodded at him, then addressed the crowd again. “Will and I are working on the answers to the questions you’ve asked. My hope―all of our hope, I think you’ll agree―is that it will be a long time before Will has another chance to test our theories.” A chorus of reluctant affirmation; Will thought he might have hoped for a more enthusiastic response to the sentiment. “At any rate, I think you’ll agree that it would be wrong to slit Will’s throat tonight just so he can perform a party trick.” A wave of laughter greeted that, and Will exhaled slowly. I suppose that could have gone a lot worse.
Then, another voice. “Yeah, I got a question. We gonna see justice done f’r this boy?”
Ammerman stepped up into the light, his craggy face severe, and Will found he was suddenly sweating again. “Boy finally comes ‘round after a couple weeks. Puts on a cloak, like ‘es supposedta. Walks out the Redoubt an’…” ―Ammerman nodded at Jason―”some damnfool skewers ‘im like a hog. His own sponsor, even.” There was a low murmur from the crowd; then, a few cries of support. It seemed that, for once, some of the town thought Ammerman had a point. “Fortunate thing, this boy bein’ so gifted ‘at he can come right back, but what if he hadn’? What if he hadn’ come back at all?” He turned to address Ben directly. “We gonna see justice done, Ben? Or do th’ rules not apply to you n’ yours?”
Ben stepped forward to object, but before he could, Jason shouted out a response. “He’s right, Ben!” Ben turned to hush him, but Jason didn’t stop. “Ammerman’s right! I killed him! For no reason. Just…just insanity and…and stupidity, and…” He stared hard at the ground in front of him. Then he looked up at Will and nodded. “And there’s only one fair way of handling it. He should get to kill me.” He strode forward into the firelight, presented Will with his harpoon, and pressed it directly into his hand.
Ben hesitated for a moment; that was all it took for the crowd to explode into argument. Opinions were being shouted from all directions; a dozen miniature debates had broken out. Visibly struggling for his composure, Ben stepped forward into the light and raised both hands in a futile attempt to bring silence. Jason, to Will’s amazement, was actually kneeling in front of him; he had pulled open his shirt to reveal his bare chest. His dark eyes were wide in the firelight, anticipating the worst; his Adam’s apple bobbed nervously.
Slowly the hubub subsided. Ben spoke over its remnants. “We have lost many Havenites recently, and will lose another tonight. I do not feel that on such a solemn occasion as this―”
And from Ammerman, an insistent shout. “Don’t reckon it’s yer decision, Ben!” Another outbreak of argument. Then, slowly, on its own, the tumult receded, leaving tension in its wake. Will looked up and found a thousand pairs of eyes on him, and at Jason by his feet. He stood holding the unfamiliar weapon awkwardly in clumsy, sweating hands.
“All right, John. All right.” Ben turned to Will, his face pale in the flickering firelight. “What say you, Will? Your life has been taken without cause. Accidentally, we must surely acknowledge…” Another swell of argument, but Ben put up a hand of command and it immediately stilled―”…but your life was taken, nonetheless. Will you have this ‘justice’? Will you accept Jason’s life in exchange?” His tone was level, but his eyes pleaded.
Will stared dumbly at the harpoon. A hero would throw it aside with a sweeping gesture, then help Jason to his feet while everyone cheered. But I’m not a hero. I’m just me. And Will was thinking about how the shaft of the harpoon had looked, sticking out of his chest. About all the blood. About how much pain there’d been. About how it had felt to spiral back down into darkness, thinking at the time that he might never make it back.
Will stood for some time. And it seemed to him that the hideous little passenger in his head, the one who’d enjoyed the events on Greta’s Bluff, was observing with interest. Will couldn’t look at Jason; instead, he stared straight ahead, dwelling on the pain and the fear he’d been dealt at Jason’s hands, the gears in his brain shuffling aimlessly. And then, finally, Will lowered the harpoon. “Not right at the moment,” he mumbled.
There was a collective sigh from the crowd. “Then justice is satisfied,” Ben announced in round, ringing tones, but Jason never heard him. He merely sprang to his feet―straight from his knees to his feet, in one impossibly fluid movement―and leaned in, his mouth to Will’s ear, his hand clutching Will’s arm in a vise-like grip. “Ammerman’s right, though,” he whispered emphatically. “I owe you for what I did. One life,” he breathed. “I owe you one life, Will. Don’t think I’m gonna forget. Not ever.”
Ben continued to speak. “There is no doubt in my mind that, whatever he may or may not remember, the gifts that Will will bring to the community will be considerable. He will remain under Jason’s sponsorship…” This sparked an explosive guffaw from Ammerman. Ben aimed a death glare in his direction, then turned to Will. “…unless he has any objection?”
Will made a dismissive gesture, and Ben started to speak again, but Ammerman cut in: “Paper over this all y’like, Ben. Reckon ‘at boy there knows a bit about things.” And even amidst the pressure of a thousand other stares, Will could still feel the weight of Ammerman’s gaze. “Reckon ‘e knows the difference between who respects ‘is freedom, on the one hand, an’ who put a harpoon through ‘is sternum on th’ other.”
Another glare. “In…any…case…” Ben continued, “there is still the question of employment to consider.” Ben locked gazes with Ammerman. “Will any man or woman here agree to take Will on, that he might make his contribution to our community?”
“So happens I got a job offer out already at th’ moment,” Ammerman replied. “Certain young lady I’m lookin’ t’ hire. All full up otherwise. Wouldn’t dream of bringin’ in that boy as an employee. That boy, there? He’ll come to me on ‘is own, in ‘is own time. Not as an employee. As an equal.” He sat down.
Ben broadened his gaze to the entire crowd. “Anyone else, then?” Not a single hand. “Anyone?” For long moments, nothing. And then, finally, well up the slope, a single hand. “Always room for one more out at my place, Ben,” a voice called.
Ben identified the figure, then nodded. “Very well,” he said. “If you’re interested, Will, there’s an opening for you on Phillip’s farm. It’s been a traumatic few days; you may wish to regain your bearings a bit before considering whether to take advantage of the offer.” Hs gaze returned to Ammerman. “Does anyone have any further business, before we move to our ultimate task?”
Ammerman rose again. “In light o’ the circumstances, Ben, I’ll keep this short, and less demandin’ than I’d have a right ta.” He turned to face the crowd. “Every one o’ ye heard me warn about th’ hillmen comin’. Pretty much none listened. Nineteen men an’ women paid th’ ultimate price. I’m right sorry ‘bout that, an’ I hope we’ll have ‘em all back soon.” He hesitated. “Meanwhile, I got my store cleaned out. Whole place, ceptin’ the workshop, stripped down t’ th’ floorboards. They took every bow, every crossbow, every bolt, every arrow. They took it all. I ain’t lookin’ fer no charity out o’ ye. John Ammerman’s no welfare chiseler. I’ll make my way back t’ my feet on my own, like a man oughta. But I wantcha t’ think on two things.” He raised a finger for each. “First, John Ammerman’s no fool. Reckon I had this situation right, whereas others…”―here he aimed a long glance in Ben’s direction―”had it wrong. Might ought be you’ll think longer on what I have t’say, next time. ” In the front two rows, Ammerman’s cadre of followers nodded. No member of the audience rose to disagree with his sentiment. “Second’s things this. Next time you face th’ hillmen? Won’t be no wood spears an’ stone axes in their hands. They got my weapons. Next time they show up, they will be armed to the teeth.”
Amidst silence, Ammerman returned to his seat.
“With that, then,” Ben said, “we will move on to our final business of the evening. Rosemary?”
Instantly, there was a change in the atmosphere of the gathering. It wasn’t a reduction in the tension, more a shift in its nature. Where before there had been dread and the electric crackle of imminent conflict there was now solemnity, or even reverence, sentiments that Will would not have guessed a Haven crowd was capable of feeling.
Rosemary stood and stepped into the firelight. “Earth is not like Elysium,” she intoned. “Each of us arrives here with our own unique set of memories. But there is one fundamental fact so ingrained in us, so fully certain in each of us, that we need not speak of it, need not share it, to know it is true. There is not one soul among us who left Earth voluntarily.”
“The majority of us died of old age and its effects. Some of us died of disease. Others in accidents. Most of us do not remember, in any direct way, how we died at all. What we do know is this: not a single one of us took his or her own life. Whatever life’s brutalities, no matter how great the pain life inflicted on us, we soldiered on. And in the end, we found ourselves here, having forgotten the pain, and having remembered what was precious. Elysium is for those who are fully forged in life’s crucible. We do not know what happens to the souls of those who commit suicide on Earth. It could be that they go directly to The Light, or that they go somewhere else entirely. All we know for certain is that they are not here.”
“Elysium is not like Earth. It is inhabited by those who, for some reason, resisted The Light’s call. Yet we all still feel that call at every moment. Every one of us yearns for The Light.” Will felt himself squirm a bit, but said nothing. “Elysium is not a second life in the true sense of the word. It is merely a sojourn, an interruption of our ultimate journey. It is a place we go to live, to assess, and to prepare. And at length, after a time, we all go home. We all go into to The Light. Rogue souls, yes, but free souls, in the end.”
She paused. “Madeleine, step forward, please.”
The wizened woman down the bench from Will stood and stepped forward into the firelight. She was short, dignified, with a sharp nose, a prominent chin, and a slight overbite. “We have been blessed,” Rosemary continued, “to have Madeleine with us on our sojourn. She has enriched our community in numerous ways―through service in the fields in summer, and perhaps most of all, through her presence in the long winters, beside the fire at the bunkhouse, through the stories she shared with us. And now, Madeline is ready to move on, to complete her journey home. Madeleine?”
The older woman smiled brightly. “And to think I got through it all on one body!” There was a swell of laughter at that, and even a round of applause. Madeleine soaked it in, and continued. “I have run my mouth for so long at so many of you. I feel as though I have run out of words. So many of you have given me so much love. Know, please, that I loved you as well. Always. Even when I couldn’t, or didn’t, express myself adequately.” Madeline reached into a pocket in her breeches and withdrew a bit of cloth, which she pressed to her eyes momentarily. “I think you all know that things have been a bit rougher for me, a bit grimmer, since Roland moved on. But it’s not sadness that provoked this decision. It’s simply…time to move on.” She paused. “I’ve already told you everything I know about living. It’s not so much; it may be less than what others have to offer. But I flatter myself to think it’s worth knowing. Forgive me if I choose to remind you of it, one final time.” She stepped backwards, to the very edge of the firelight, and then a bit off to the side, addressing not only the crowd scattered before her, but Ben, on the bench off to her left, as well. “The Light is not love. Life is love.” She turned her eyes to the first few rows of the crowd. “Many of you, like me, have found yourself experiencing a different afterlife than the one you were expecting. You may have felt cheated. You may feel―you may feel very keenly―the absence of God. But I tell you, God has not abandoned you. He is present, even when you cannot see him. Look for him in your neighbors. To appreciate the unique glory of another human being is to know Him more fully. The connections you make to one another are not a surrender of your own sovereignty; they are the most precious gift you will ever receive.” She turned back towards the bonfire and the bench, where the rest of us sat. “And know this as well. No deed you can commit―no betrayal, however heinous―can sever you from His love. You cannot stray so far from Him that He will not collect you again, in the end.”
She turned again to face the crowd. “I am so grateful that he gave me this extra time. To know all of you. To know Him better. And now, I’m ready to go to Him. I’m going home!”
To Will’s right, Rosemary stood. She held a woolen blanket, stained with a yellow-green dye, and an earthenware flask painted the same color. As she walked slowly towards Madeline, Will caught a glimpse of Ben, behind her. He was staring past the two women, into the middle distance. It seemed to Will that he looked older, somehow; that there were lines of pain and regret etched deep into his countenance; how had he missed them before? Will blinked, and the lines were gone; he was just Ben. Perhaps it had been a trick of the firelight.
Rosemary was in the process of embracing Madeleine, collecting her to bring her back to the bench, when the cheering began. It was impossible to pinpoint a location from which it spread; the celebration generated itself spontaneously and was everywhere, all at once. Will had heard the cheers of the crowd before, but this time, it was somehow different. Reacting to Emily’s song, the people of Haven had been overjoyed, exultant, appreciative. This was something deeper, more fundamental, more primal. It was a spring storm, thunderous, irresistible in its fury. It was a spontaneous outpouring of pure love, in the form of a thousand voices, each shouting in appreciation of a precious, unique soul.
“You made it perfect, Madeleine!”
“He can’t wait to have you, Madeleine!”
“Make me a place, Madeleine! I’ll be along someday!”
No one raised a hand to silence them; what would have been the point? One might as well have put a stop sign in front of a river. Will stared out over the crowd as a thousand hearts poured forth their love. Others can have The Light, he thought to himself. I’ll take this moment.
And on it continued, and on; even as Madeleine wrapped herself in the shawl; even as she drank, deeply and without hesitation, from the yellow flask; even as Rosemary helped her recline on the bench; even as they saw her chest rise and fall more slowly, and then stop; even as they saw her heartlight rise, slowly, into the sky; even as they saw it fade, receding down a path they couldn’t see, in a direction for which mortals had no name.