Consume My Heart Away; It Knows Not What It Is

July 3, 2011

A shed squatted in the northernmost corner of the orchard. Isidore pulled a flask from the rafters and gave the child a tot of whisky; then he brought forth a chipped basin. The otter’s pondwater stench deserted him after a thorough scrubbing.

Isidore helped Foweller shimmy into an old muslin tunic, dressed him with a sash, then directed him to lay on the pallet in the corner. “Rest.”

“I don’t want to rest. I want to get Virrel.”

“Then wait. I said justice’ll find him.”

“No. He’ll die.”

“That’s what I meant.”

Foweller fidgeted. He dove under the blankets, worried at his claws, sour and silent all the while, then settled for rattling the latch of a small carved chest with his footpaw. “You sleep here?”

“Aye.”

“The dormitories are better.”

“I don’t like them… Stop your fiddling. Give that here.” Isidore took the chest and unlatched it. He arranged his treasures on the floor: a silver puzzle-ring, a sheathed knife with an etched bone handle, a chunk of tile with swooping calligraphy on a field of flowers.

He pointed to the writing on the knife, and then the tile. “This is my name. And this is my brother’s.” He unrolled a small scroll: a rat in crimson dress and turban watched birds sweep over an outcrop of rock and into the high, undulating horizon. “That is my daughter. I know how the world must account for somebeast’s loss.”

Foweller slid the knife from its sheath. A mischievous gleam chased inset gold vines down the length of the blade; dark whorls banded the steel like flowing water.

“Get up,” said Isidore.

He retrieved a roll of burlap from under the bed. It cradled a long, wickedly curved saber. This too had a bone handle, but capped with bronze, and the same gold vines wreathed the blade.

“They didn’t steal these? I had a good shovel and Sister Amery took it.”

“I hid everything in that pallet. I haven’t used these, not in years.” Isidore flicked the sword at a gnat. “Can you wield that knife?”

Foweller twirled it, but it clattered to the floor.

“Never you mind, then,” said Isidore. He sheathed the knife, then pressed it into the otter’s paw. “Play with that when you can, and show me another time.”

“But playing’s for babies.” He seemed to quiver. “I’m a better shot than anybeast, and I’m not gonna practice tricks. I have a duty.”

“A blade does too.”

Foweller considered this, then tucked the blade into the sash at his waist. Isidore brewed him hot honeyed tea in the basin, dosing it with valerian and scullcap. Afterwards, sullen, fitful sleep claimed the otter. He thrashed under the thin blanket, barking and muttering at whatever troubled his dreams (maybe slinking weasels, or otters writhing through a forest of pondweed obscured by blood).

Isidore lit a candle. He thought of a poem he had read long ago, writ large on a tomb:

In the night city, the moth seeks a flame.
Her wings shed cinnamon, cassia dark
As scorched wood; her jasmine wings wither.
Lover, she calls, I burn. O, do not weep–
You chose me. You too will die, melt, puddle:
Your narrow thread of life will drown in wax.
Moth kisses candle, heat-lashed and quick.
Such is the end of love, and life; flowers,
Wars, weddings; grieve not. Bring thy sword to hand.
Be glad of heart. Give thyself up to fire.

He ached to think of that sun-steeped mausoleum, of a lap full of olives and the taste of sweet bright oil, of his paws so richly ringed with gold and bells that he jangled when he walked. He needed no more than a pawful of earth or a sturdy trowel. He wanted nothing more than this shed and a pallet full of hay. Work diverted him; he polished the sword’s hilt till he saw his reflection in the pommel. The bronze tinted his fur dark and rich as it had been when he was young. But the face was wrong: warped, so he saw a squinting eye and crooked snout, a broad curve of cheek humbled by a scar.

He wrapped the sword in burlap, and he took leave of the shed.

Outside the abbot’s manse, the air smelled of lavender and rosemary. Somebeast had nailed a wreath above the lintel to chase away ill luck.

The Abbot himself sat on the doorstep, deep in conversation with the new Skipper. “Pardon,” he said. “Brother Isidore. What’s your need?”

Isidore bowed to him. He unrolled the burlap and offered the sword to the Abbot hilt-first. “I’ve brought you something, Father.”

Carter drew and whisked the blade through the air. “I’ll be,” he said. “Rigg, hold still.”

“Martin’s balls–” said the otter, and then Carter neatly clipped his whiskers.

“What a beautiful thing,” said Carter, sheathing the sword. “You hid it from me this whole time.”

“I did. I’m deeply sorry to admit.” Isidore knelt. “I hadn’t meant to hurt with it, and I didn’t want it seen. I give it to you because– because I am ashamed.”

Carter traced the writing on the hilt with his claw. “No need for that. Come inside. There’s something I’d like to share with you and the Skipper.”

The house smelled of beeswax and oakwood and something needling and rank. Rigg fiddled with the stubs of his whiskers. They stood in the dark of Carter’s study. The Abbot set a new match to each candle, stirred the dying fire so gloom fled the corners of the chamber. He set Isidore’s saber on the desk, then took a bundle from a tall cabinet.

“I’d ask something of you both.” He gave the bundle to Rigg, who tenderly unwrapped it: a sword. The firelight glossed licorice-dark leather and apple-red pommel. “You have your own fine blade, Brother Isidore. I return it to you.”

“Thank you, Father.”

“You are both honorable beasts,” said Carter. “Some in the Abbey aren’t half so true. Some harbor treason in their breast. They lie, cheat, steal. They murder. They seek to defy my rule in every way they can. These mutineers– they hide in the Abbey and in our villages– one of them has fled already.”

Isidore envisioned the weasel racing through the wood, Foweller trailing him with knife in paw.

“Selendra Bon has turned tail. I want her associates under constant scrutiny, and their connections too. The peddler Merritt, the foxes and their thieving ward, the otter Gabriel. You will be my eyes and ears.”

“Hell’s bells. Little Selly?” said Rigg. “We played at cards only a few days ago.”

Isidore frowned at him. “She’s not so faultless as she seems.”

“She wanted to get out, I’m sure, Father. Lass can’t abide being stuck here. She went half mad over winter.”

“Were that it true,” said Carter. “The stonemason Clacher went to repair a chink in the wall and caught one of our guests trying to escape, one Berend Beecham. She intended to follow Miss Bon.”

“They are friends,” said Isidore.

“Yes. But she confessed a crime– she and Miss Bon both have informed against the abbey.” He beckoned to Rigg and Isidore. “I have her in my wine-cellar even now. Come. Let’s speak with her.”

They descended a flight of cold stone stairs. They had started to crumble; the foundations of Carter’s house seemed immeasurably old, a part of the ruins of some fable. He paused at the door.

“I’ve been with Martin, seeking his advice,” he said. “He hasn’t left my side day or night. I pray to the warrior, oh, give this duty to another and let the Abbey guide herself; let me be as I was. That is impossible, he replies. The wind is in your sails, you are in the storm. There is no turning back. Once something has begun it must end.

“We cannot founder, even if there are beasts here who are eaten away inside with lust and greed, who would see us drown and die. There will be no place for untruth in my abbey, no place for the wicked.”

The cellar smelled of cold, dust, and blood. The badger Clacher sat atop a barrel of wine. He gnashed at a leg of squab, grease dribbling down his chin. He smeared it away. “Father. She’s been cryin’.”

“Away with you.”

“Aye, sir.” Clacher seemed to rumble when he walked, like a mountain moving. His progress up the stairs sounded like the whole of the Abbey might fall around them. His captive, the mousemaid, winced at each pawfall.

Rigg approached her gingerly, and Isidore followed. She cowered before them; her eye had swollen shut and seemed to bulge like an overripe fruit. Her feet had been tied and her good arm bound to her chest, as if she clasped her torn shift to her body in an absurd gesture of modesty.

“You lemme alone,” she said. Her voice was hoarse.

“Rigg, untie her,” said the Abbot. “Let her stand.”

She wobbled like a kit walking for the first time, then lunged forward. Isidore caught her by the scruff of her neck and held her back.

“Don’t,” he said. “And don’t struggle. I shan’t hurt you if you don’t struggle.”

“Well!” said Carter. “How does that feel to walk again? Feels fine, doesn’t it? Do you want some wine, little maid?”

“Lemme alone,” she muttered. “Kill me. Go on.”

“No.” The Abbot caressed her cheek. “Clacher is cruel, I know. I can put you in the Abbey cells. They’re dry. We’ll treat these wounds.”

“No, you won’t,” she said. “You’ll ‘ave me done for. Case is comin’ for you, him and all his armies. ‘E lives for the day your head’s on a spike and this whole Abbey burns.”

“You don’t wish that, do you?” said Carter.

“I do.” She wriggled from Isidore’s grasp, but the Abbot knocked her down.

“Tell me more,” he said, “tell me all about Case, I’ve missed him so much. Tell me!” He kicked her, and she scrabbled away. He drove a paw between her shoulders, pinning her to a barrel. “Rigg! The sword.”

The otter hesitated; Isidore took the blade from him. It did not have the familiarity or the grace of his saber, and felt strangely heavy. It dazzled him, though, and shone starlike blue even in the dark cellar. The leatherbound hilt felt soft as worn cloth. Berend shook and quivered, scrabbling for purchase, her arm extended.

Isidore swung the sword, and her paw came off clean as the bud from a flower.

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