After a long day of working by committee on Matt's story, someone deleted the first six sections. Frankly, I'm surprised more craziness didn't happen. Lots of people dug into the story diligently, making big and small, smart and wacky changes (obviously, the largest revision was deleting half the work). Now Matt will work to synthesize all the input into a final piece. Will he see the forest through the unquantifiable trees?
Matt is diligently editing, all day on May 21, here.
Even in the day we must rely on our torches. The men complain of hunger, of cold, of homes they can't recall. A hare leads one of us away from the camp. We don't follow, and when we finally do, we find only a torso, and inside honey, and inside bees. We wait until he is covered in pollen and buzz and set him ablaze. For a day, the pyre lights our way, gives us warmth. For a day, we lose no more men.
Rarely, we catch one still in the form of woman. We smell her first. In my tent, I ready myself with prayer and fasting, my body cleansed of want, my bones in relief, shoulderblades against papered flesh. I call for her, using my own name. Wrists and ankles bound, she comes to me.
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 visions persist until they infect the imaginations of others. Soon their hands hesitate, hang back from their spear-hafts. The next time I command them into the brush, they challenge my authority, dare question the edict of our elders, our charter. I say nothing and the men remain loyal. One night, fever descends, and Taschen rids himself of what he does not need.
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 opens the cage. He cries the loss of her innards, asks the offal how long until we reach the sea and complete our journey.
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.
It is useless to question the contents of the book of the living. 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 extinguished the weapons with which to challenge these foes. One by one, the pages of my book fill with the names of my men, and yet we remain unprovoked.
Already diminished when we return to our camp, we 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 cry for the one inside him, his tattered uniform, his tired flesh. He yields and is subdued by something we cannot see. Shackled, he drives himself forward into the forest, then burns away what failings he 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, uses 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. I have been gifted something unforseen. 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 all weakness, but choose none.
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 mask the decay, but still, the men sneak away, first alone, 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 against its iron skin. They brought this on themselves, I say to Bina.
The next day there are fewer tents. It is no longer possible to determine 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. I 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 because it knows how I am called.
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.
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.
Barton. 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 myself to the end of the roll, so that whoever finds it might remember my name as I have remembered all these faceless others. No longer myself, I do not mourn. Someone will remember how to name. Centered in this forest I lie, wanting.