Sunday, September 13, 2015

24: The Harvest

It is very easy for a person living in an industrialized society to think of harvest-time in terms of the celebrations that have grown up around it.  The tendency is to associate the harvest with festivals, with frivolity and frolic and fall foliage.  A farmer knows otherwise.  A farmer in a society which is barely feeding itself knows very much otherwise.
The chintzy celebrations are rooted in desperation.  The original festivals did not celebrate the harvest, they celebrated the fact that the harvest was over.  When all the grain has been gathered in and stored away, the produce preserved, the meat dried and salted, there exists the possibility of joy, if all has gone according to plan.  If the crops have not failed due to drought, flood, fire or locusts; if game has been plentiful; if the process of gathering it all in has, for once, left everyone whole and healthy; then you might have a festive post-harvest season.
The harvest is what comes before.  The harvest is constant anxiety, winter staring down the calendar at you through skull’s eyes, the future eclipsed entirely by a merciless, back-breaking, blister-fingered present.  The harvest is the specter of imminent cold and terrible hunger, driving you on, and on.  You put everything in you into one single chance to cheat death for one more winter.  You wring yourself out utterly.  And then you hope it was enough. 
There had been a time, apparently, when newcomers to Haven arrived knowing this.  That time, Ben bitterly explained to Will, was long past; the new generation showed up thinking that food sprouted from store shelves, and were almost always ignorant as to which end of a scythe to grab hold of.  Haven wasn’t ready.  Will certainly hadn’t been ready.  He spent most of the autumn in a daze, broken and sweaty and sore and callused and exhausted past anything he’d known before. 
Will’s days stretched from before sunrise until well after sundown, and rarely included a sight of the town itself; every waking moment was spent on Phillip’s farm.  Will had known for some time that the community was fed by the farms and by near-incessant hunting parties.  He had assumed these were enough to meet Haven’s needs, and during the warmer months, they generally were.  But when winter loomed, it was barely the ragged edge of enough.  The truth be told, until the harvest began and the entirety of Haven bent to the task, community had been nothing more than a word to Will.  He’d gotten some sense of what it might mean at Emily’s incarnation ceremony and at Madeleine’s farewell, and even, in a weird way, at the soccer game. But during the harvest, Will came to fully understand Ben’s attitude towards the term—why, to him, community was a synonym for survival.  Had he thought of the frontier as the preserve of rugged individualists?  Well, Haven was very much a frontier community, and with winter coming on, individual “self-sufficiency” was a cruel joke.  Haven was a single body, completely interdependent to an extent Will would never have imagined possible.
Jason, who only a few weeks earlier had thrown everything into making things right between the two of them, now barely had time to nod at Will on his way out of town.  There were still living things out there in the wilderness, and Haven needed him to turn them into dead things and get them into the meat locker.  Lacking Jason’s facility for animal murder, Ben and Rosemary assumed responsibility for the storage of the food he produced; in the process, the dignity they’d built for themselves disappeared entirely, buried beneath a thin caking of salt and brine.  On a brisk morning, on his way into town for supplies, Will passed Emily in the street; she granted him a brief wave, showing him a hand that was raw and bloody from constant stringing of bows and fletching of arrows.  Afterwards, amidst the constant labor, Will thoughts returned often to the image of Emily’s shredded palm.  To what she was putting herself through.  To the question of whether he could have done anything to prevent it.
All of them were grinding themselves down to nubs in the pursuit of mere survival.  And through it all, more of Ammerman’s people were dying.
Milton was the second.  They found him poisoned, propped up behind the counter in Ammerman’s shop where he’d put in so many hours.  Takashi was the third, found one morning behind the store, virtually disemboweled.  There were no clues.  There was no explanation.  There were no heartlights spotted afterwards.  All there was was a growing collective terror, radiating outwards from Ammerman’s store to envelop the entire community.
Although a fragile peace had always reigned in Haven, it wasn’t necessarily the product of goodwill.  Far from it; some of the natives had had over three hundred years to accumulate grudges against one another.  What kept things in check was the promise of virtually certain justice; when your murder victim is likely to pop back into existence a couple of weeks later and immediately point a finger at you, murder isn’t really a viable option.  The killings at Ammerman’s changed that; some force was present that was, to all appearances, costing murder victims their souls.  And if one murderer could get away with it… 
It had never been uncommon in Haven to see people walking the streets armed, but it wasn’t until after the third body was discovered that Will actually saw a person stroll down main street wielding a battle axe.  It was that kind of autumn.
The murders at Ammerman’s produced only one opportunistic copycat.  One of the lady workers at Luther’s had been taken out into the forest and stabbed through the right eye.  Her heartlight was present in the Redoubt the next day; the day after that fact became known, the victim’s former lover disappeared from town.   The four deaths, and the intrinsic stress of the harvest, were enough to strain the fragile fabric of the community to the breaking point.  Perversely enough, there was only one place where one couldn’t feel the tension:  at Ammerman’s shop.  Despite having every incentive to flee screaming, his workers and followers continued to merrily churn out weaponry, like some homicidal/suicidal version of Santa’s workshop.  Will could not make sense of it; how could anyone be so fanatically dedicated to an ideology to put their soul at risk?
Life had never been cheaper in Haven.  Will was reflecting on that fact one blustery morning in the back shed at Phillip’s farm.  He had been sent there to collect a knife, as they were preparing to butcher some of the hogs they’d been fattening up over the summer.  He looked down at the utensil, at the cold, well-kept iron, shiny enough to see his own reflection in the blade.  Will looked down, and he wondered.
Whenever a soul reincarnates in Haven, it’s more difficult that it was the time before.  Almost anyone can incarnate once.  A select few can do it four times.  Nobody can manage five.  It gets harder every time.
Harder…for everyone except me. 
My first time was nearly impossible, until I learned the trick.  The second time was so easy that it was almost an accident.
So the question is…would it be even easier the third time?  The fourth?  What about a fifth?
More to the point, if it’s easier every time…would I have any limit at all?
He stared down at his reflection in the blade.  Beneath hirsute brows, brown eyes stared back.
I know things, but I don’t know why I know them.  I haven’t a single memory of life on earth to guide me.  I’m not attractive or physically imposing, and even if I’m smart, I’m not smart in the ways that matter in Haven.  I’m of no significant use here, except as a hewer of wood and a carrier of water.
But  There are two things about me that make me different.  I can outfly any soul, and I can incarnate as often as I wish.
Will reflected.  A murderer or murderers on the loose.  An entire community in danger.  Emily at the center of the peril.  She, and the other potential victims perversely unwilling to defend themselves.  What could be done?  Never had a community been more in need of a police force.  But this was Haven, where the allergy to formal authority was epidemic.  Even now, even with a murderer or murderers on the prowl, there was no way the citizens of Haven would tolerate police.
No police.  No authority in Haven.  People treasure their freedom too highly for that. 
But…I’m free, too.  Free to go where I want in whatever state I want.  Free to observe.  And there is something in me which wants to see.  Which is desperate to see…
A single observer―invisible to normal sight―who can go anywhere.  Who can walk through walls.  Who can bear witness to anything and everything.  An invisible protector.  An investigator without any limits, legal or physical.  A real live superhero.  Well, LIVE may not be the right word…
Slowly, Will brought the knife to his wrist.  A little pressure.  That’s all it will take.  A little pressure and a little pain.  And I’ll be free.  Free to look.  Free to listen.  Free to finally do something that matters, to help those who’ve done so much for me.  He stared down at the blade in his hand.  It was razor sharp; already he could see a tiny bead of blood welling up.  Just like butchering a hog.  Do it now.  Do it now, before you change your mind…
Will looked, and compelled himself to act.  He demanded that the hand holding the knife move.  And it wouldn’t.
Come on, Will.  This won’t hurt nearly as much as the harpoon did.  Don’t be afraid.   Just a moment’s sting, a little waiting, and it’ll all be over…come on…come ON…
He could reason the process through.  He could decide upon the act, could desire wholeheartedly to have it happen.  He could understand that there would be no lasting consequences, that he’d be back among the living in a flash of light whenever I chose to be.  But even so…he just couldn’t do it.
Will still had that grim particle within him―that nasty little passenger he’d first identified on Greta’s Bluff, the one who sat watching horrors, nodding and taking notes.  The Observer.  But what he was discovering now was that the passenger wasn’t alone.  He had a twin―equally stubborn, and a great deal more insistent when the situation called for it.  The Survivor.
Having been beyond the barrier, Will’s fear of death had nothing to do with the idea that death was permanent.  But permanent or not, whether for a noble cause or as an accident or for no reason at all, death is still death.  And Will knew that no matter how firmly he chose to set his mind on death, his body wanted to live, and there was no persuading it otherwise.  There was no arguing against billions of years of evolutionary imperative.  The Survivor would fight every step of the way.
Will knew what it would be like.  He knew his heart would race in uncontrollable panic, his system would flood with adrenaline, as millions of years of evolutionary instinct overwhelmed his mental reassurances.  He remembered what it had been like, on the point of Jason’s harpoon―his entire nervous system a thrashing, desperate, quivering mass; his lungs fighting frantically for oxygen.  And deep inside, the Survivor, immune to reason or to explanations, screaming out against the dying of the light.
Had Will thought life was cheap in Haven?  He knew better.  He tossed away the knife.  Whatever his reasons, whatever the benefits, he could not willingly put himself through the process of dying again.
But maybe there’s another way to figure out what’s going on.  Another way to protect the people I care about.
In the back of Will’s mind, Ammerman’s invitation kept thrumming at him.  Come t’ me, ye come in as a free man an’ an equal.  Tell me a few things.  Might ought be I’ll have a few things t’ tell ye as well.
What held Will back was a simple fact:  he would be utterly unable to pay back Ammerman in the currency he demanded.  Ammerman (and, really, most of the town) had seen Will’s strange abilities and assumed he was privy to some sort of mystical knowledge, to great secrets.  In reality, Will knew fewer secrets than any man in Haven.  What could he offer Ammerman?  And what would Ammerman do if Will disappointed him?
But do I even have a choice?  Things can’t go on this way.  At this rate, if winter or the hillmen don’t finish us off, we’re liable to finish off one another…
But, if I’m really being honest, what matters most to me isn’t this community, or my desire to protect my friends, or to prove myself.  What defines me is the questions I ask, and the need for answers.
There was something in him, something he couldn’t turn off, that was constantly asking questions.  And yet, after months of asking, he was no closer to understanding critical truths—the mysteries surrounding the deaths at Ammerman’s, the questions surrounding his own background and his unique abilities, even the central questions of human afterlife on Elysium.  His entire past was a blank canvas, and he had only the tiniest leads to proceed from.  He hadn’t even a single memory to guide him. 
            There was no avoiding it.  I need a man that remembers things.

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