Matt Bell Week 5: Lily Hoang Revision

Lily Hoang, author of Changing, has taken the reins from Matt Bell and Michael Kimball and, in a rigorous hour of editing, made changes to every section of Matt's story. Read below to see how it stands now (and, for comparison, here is Michael's draft and Matt's). From 9am until 9pm EST, stop by the MeetingWords site for the big crowdsourcing party, to see what happens when revision is done by committee.
Our charter does not account for the killing of them. We can only drive them out. In the forest, we find them now as cat, as hog, as black bird and rat. They can steal any shape,making them indistinguishable from the other animals we hunt when our supplies run low. 

We yell warnings, but the snake twists her mantled collar up and up, coiling toward Barton's face. Two days pass before she finishes swallowing Barton, another four before she can scuttle her swollen body across the cracking leaves. We follow her until we are sure he is gone, until she passes his remnants--scattered bones, organs crushed into hardened rocks--out her body, then we set fire to her pit and to the woods all around the pit. Stink thickens the air as we pry her scales free. Hours pass and Birn argues for haste, but we must finish our task. We can't leave any bit of Barton behind.

We traded a lifetime of service for the promise of a wife. It is only the length of that life that we take issue with. The spires of our homes so far behind us, the ocean is never in sight. These woods expand in every direction. We have pledged to push into the sea.

We circle our tents tightly around our dwindled supplies. The strictures of my station demand my hunger and thirst. No such vows guide my men. Their bodies require rations we no longer possess. They hunt the forest or steal from those who live in it, ignoring them who haunt these woods. We burn them from their homes.
I brought my men forth from the bright city to stand before these swelling trees, multiplying what we cannot quantify. My beard has grayed since, my limbs braided with muscle. Our scouts, the cut and gelded men sent before us, they led us to new holdings set somewhere in these dark woods.
The names of the men I lose are legend. I remember each of them into the book of the dead.  I will return word of their sacrifice to their widows-in-waiting.


Now, they are opossum and badger and muskrat. 
Others have attempted to flush this forest. Some believe those first battalions still exist further into the forest. I do not care if the forest is full of men or empty. I have not come for men who refused the new order of our cities. I care nothing for them. We have resolve only for our duties.

Even in the day we must rely on our lanterns and torches. The men complain of their hunger, their cold. A hare leads one of the men away from the camp. I hold the other men back as a worm and a fly lay their eggs in him. We wait until he is covered and set him ablaze. For a day, it lights the way. It gives us warmth. For a day, we lose no more men. 
Rarely, we catch one still in the form of woman. Always, she is young. Always, she is comely. Always, she tempts me with her want to steal from me what I have already pledged. In my tent, I ready myself with prayer and fasting, my body cleansed of want, my gauntness prominent. I watch my shoulderblades press against my papered flesh. Only then do I call for her. To do less is to risk too much.
In our twelfth year, Taschen begins to recognize his childhood in the faces of them we have pushed out. In the form of a hare, he sees the eyes of his nursemaid, then in the gait of a deer a girl he chased without affection. His fantasies persist until they awaken the imaginations of others. Soon their hands hesitate, hang back from their spear-hafts. The next time I command them into the brush, they bacquestion my orders. They dare question the orders of our elders, the orders that inform my own. At my command, the men who are still loyal turn on Taschen, hold him down while I clean him of delusions.

If it is his sight that gives him trouble, then it is his sight I must remove.
The scout Roob captures one in the form of a crow. Rather than push her on, he cages the bird, hangs her from his wagon. For a week, the men busy themselves with superstitions. They sit below the cage, listen for signs of the witch within, test her as the book instructs. On the eighth day, Keenan wrings her neck, then opens it. He scries her innads, asks its offal how long until we reach the sea to complete our journey. He receives no answer.

Despite his sin, I let him continue, let Keenan prove there is no prophecy, no answers, only my words

He spits and cooks its flesh, shares his prize with no one.
There is the book of the dead and the book of the living, but it is only in the first that I write, that I amend with the scripted names of our fallen. The book of the living is already perfect, absolute. Its commands are infallible. 

It is against the law of the book of the living to question its contents. When the men pester with endless questions, the book proves itself true, creating shapes new to this forest, borrowed--stolen--from our oldest stories: First one in the form of a griffin, then a three-headed dog, then a scaled woman with hair made of shifting snakes. We have improper weapons with which to challenge these foes. One by one, the pages of my book fill with the names of my men.
We are already diminished when we return to our camp, only to find our wagons shattered, circled around a wreckage of human bodies. Atop the piles stands the form of one of our brothers, armed and armored but no longer of his own mind. We test the one inside him with our lances, tatter his uniform, ribbon his flesh. He yields. After he is subdued and shackled, we drive him forward into the forest, then burn what fallings our blades left behind.
After the wholeness of our covenant is broken, I watch the faces of my men for signs their nature has turned. What more is it to give up sleep? When exhaustion cracks my spirit, I cry out the names I have written, then the prayers, then apologies meant for their unfulfilled brides' ascension to their absented pyres.

But we are too far away, my moans unreceived, only my men remain to hear me. They are silent.
Too long I tolerate their grumbling, their blacked glances. The dagger hangs in all their minds, but it is the hand of Elgar that brings it to my tent, employs it to open my shoulder. I sunder his thread with my own blade, but my injured arm is already denied its strength. No more will it hold my lance, nor the staff of my office. It is not by their authority that I rule, so this changes nothing. I regird myself in fresh leathers and tunic, loop the symbol of my station around my neck. To my men, I can show no weakness. I must remain the avatar of authority. 


Beneath leather and cloth, the wound festers and leaks. First yellow, then green. What morning is it when I awake to the first maggots crawling from the puncture, stinking the space of my tent? I send my manservant Harlan out into the dew and the dark while I pour holy water across my shoulder, rub in the blessed salts. The wound burns, but what grows inside me is deeper than my fingers can reach. The birthplace of flies, or else those in the form of flies. To be betrayed from within so that later I might be betrayed from without.


With prayer and sacrament, I fast my body. What lies within hardens even as my shell collapses. Bina urges me daily to take a horse, ride upright so that the men might note my posture, my authority. I refuse his request. There is neither luxury nor convenience in the testimony of my example. We fill my tent with incense in the mornings to cover the decay, but still, the men sneak away, first one by one, then in pairs. 


One in the form of a gorgon gores Cheva, then turns his brother Emir to stone while my men batter their blades agianst its iron skin. She is uneffected. They brought this on themselves, I say to Bina. I say, This is the demonstration of their doubt. 

The next day there are fewer tents. It is no longer possible to ascertain the difference between the missing, the dead, and the deserted.


And then I am alone, even Harlan gone off into the forest or else laid to rest by some beast. A fever overtakes me, but still I dress. Still, I belt my blade to my waist, strap the book of the living and the book of the dead into their harnesses. Everything else I leave behind. I have no need of tent or horse-tack, no want of rations. I do not require a lantern. I am becoming light, blaze, beacon. I know the way.


In the fire, I have seen the sea, have seen the adversary tumble into its waters by the hundreds. Only the faithful will be there when I arrive. I have seen their shapes, shrunken as my own, standing on the shore. They are waiting to deliver my reward, if only I can reach them to receive her, my promised wife.


The forest darkens, or else my eyes shrink to slits. They who haunt the trees grow closer. I sense them around me, before me and behind me, waiting, watching. I reach my hands out, feel forward. I never once wasted prayer upon myself but now that I am alone, I am all I care for. I beg for the thinning of trees, for the coming of cliffs, for the switchbacked descent to shore. I beg for the scent of the same, the strength to go on. I receive no appeasement, no boon granted for my long service. 

There is only dark to see, only the ones around me to hear, only the rot of my right arm to smell. 

I stumble and I stumble and I stumble.


Breton. Chocma. Kether. Hod. Jesod. Tiphereth. Gebura. Nezach. Taschen. Roob. Keenan. Elgar. Cheva. Emir. Bina. Harlan. On and on. So the book of the dead reads. An alphabet of absence. I long to add my name to the end of the roll, so that whoever finds it might remember me as I have remembered all these others. But I am not dead. I can write nothing, though my hand commands it. My flesh tumbles from my shoulder, slips to the forest floor until it exposes bone. I stand, centered in the forest, unsatisfied. 

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