I came here again tonight. I cannot seem to leave the place alone.
We used to return here often: it was where we met, after all, or so my beloved told me.
However, I was not thinking of my dearest friend from so long ago, as I prowled the ruins of the Temple precincts, searching out a place of shelter for the night, and at last came upon what had once been the Locust Grove. Instead I was remembering that drunken hayseed, in his borrowed (or stolen) scholar's gear, whom I never saw again.
No one found out what became of him, in the end, though for a while the rumors snaked and drifted among us, for it was a curious affair: Censure and Confiscation had not been imposed for many years, and it was hard not to wonder if the "treasure" this "scholar" brought to the Convention was deemed too important for a nobody like him to be permitted to bungle. A couple of my colleagues began to muse ominously about a plot to trammel free inquiry; wisely, we avoided them, and before long one of them recanted, calling the whole thing a silly hoax. The other just disappeared, perhaps in order to pursue the matter independently, or... maybe he was persuaded to leave us in some other way.
Meanwhile, our work continued, and prospered, and before we knew it we were out in the world, some as teachers and treatise-writers, some as minor officials and even advisors to persons of power. I found myself having business with one or another of my former comrades nearly every day, as we carried out missions for our new employers, who of course all knew each other from the days of their own youth, when they first took up their work — and their lives as men — in the school of the Temple.
It all turned out exactly as we dreamed it would that day, as we drowsed in the shade of the Locust Grove, before that horrid man appeared. Indeed, after a time I no longer remembered the incident, though for some reason the sour feeling I experienced afterwards returned more and more often, until at last it began to affect my work.
My employer, a kind man, who loved me, offered to send me on retreat to a House in the mountains upriver, assuring me that my place in his household would await my return, no matter how long I needed to stay away.
And so ended my idyll among the blessed of this world. For at that isolated refuge, where we fasted, and sat for hours in the cold meditation hall, reading nothing, writing nothing, keeping perfect silence except to chant the ancient prayers and hymns, I fell in love, and whatever happiness I had been convinced was my destiny abandoned me forever.
My beloved, the House Master's assistant, seemed to recognize me from the first. I did not recollect it, but he said that we had spoken more than once at the Temple in the city. We had met, as he recalled with perfect clarity, in the Locust Grove, during his last year as a scholar. At the time, he said, I was too young to appeal to him, but for some reason I had never gone far from his thoughts, even after all these years. Did I mention that my friend was a poet?
His employer had sent him to the Retreat House, he told me — this as we lay in his bed that first night — because he too seemed unhappy, for a reason he could not express, and could not discover its source.
He sat for many months in meditation, trying to clear his mind and perceive the world for what it is — empty of any meaning but itself — when one day, during the morning session, the Master of the House, a severe man with a violent temper, struck him on the head with his baton and told him to stop smiling.
At that moment my friend was awakened, he said, and from then on the Master began to groom him to be his successor as head of the Retreat House.
In those days it was not unusual for the Master to have a wife, and this Master's wife was herself in love with my friend, or at least wished to possess him, as she had done with many others.
This woman convinced the Master that we were corrupting others with our debauchery, and my friend was expelled from the community. I was placed in confinement to contemplate my sins, but instead I raged and howled against the injustice of my friend's expulsion, denouncing the degenerate behavior of the Master's wife; eventually all restraint abandoned me and I wrecked the room in which I was imprisoned. At last the Master was persuaded to have me stripped and whipped and driven into the wilderness outside the Retreat House enclosure.
Some demon must have taken hold of me then. The public beating I endured was humiliating, but I could tell that the Master was not eager to punish me so severely: perhaps he was himself ashamed for being unable to resist his wife's debased commands.
As for me, every stroke seemed to fire some terrible inner strength, and by the time the flogging was over, and I was dragged out of the gates, I already knew how my revenge would be accomplished.
"I may have made the mistake of love," I said to myself as I was dumped by the side of the road, "but the Master's wife shall not remain in the Retreat House either, if my friend is to be treated so unjustly."
It was still the custom to have a small garrison nearby the more remote Houses, by that time more to ward off the odd marauding bear than to protect them from armed human enemies, and I went there in my nakedness, saying I'd been attacked by bandits, and asked to be sheltered for the night. One of the soldiers seemed to recognize me from the House, but I begged him with my eyes not to let on, and in his returning look I could see that he would go along with the deception, at least for the moment.
This man took charge of tending me; he bathed and bound my wounds with an expert gentleness that bespoke a kindly heart — so I thought at first — all the while murmuring to me in a soothing voice, asking no questions, but gradually helping me to understand that he knew precisely what had happened to me, and at whose hands, and that he could guess with some confidence what I had done to bring such treatment upon me. In short, he let me know that he would exact some recompense for his conspiring with me to hide the truth.
I was fed and given a spare uniform to wear; he told me it belonged to a younger comrade who abandoned his post and never returned. As I looked into his eyes, I saw that in this matter as well, he knew entirely what had happened to his missing friend.
By then it was dark, and the men began to drink. I had seen from the first that the old sergeant was a rumpot, and it turned out that he and the only other soldier at the post were long-time confrères in this nightly ritual. They invited me to join them, saying it would do me good, and I saw my plan ripening more quickly than I could have imagined.
Except for my "nurse". I had a good idea what would be entailed in my repaying his kindness, or at least how it would begin, and, since there was no avoiding it, I let him know by my expression that I was prepared to do whatever he asked of me, whenever he wished. He told his companions that he would take the first watch, an idea which struck them as excellent and worthy of the gentleman and scholar they had long known him secretly to be, and they set to their work with a will, whilst my caretaker collected his gear and went up the ladder to the watchtower.
Within a short time they were nodding on their benches, and I was able to bid them good night, having barely sipped at the foul but potent brew that apparently was nectar to them, at least after the first potful.
I stood to take my leave, and turned to find myself face to face with my guardian, who led me not into the small dormitory, where he had first laid me carefully on one of the four cots in order to see to my injuries, but up to the tower, where, in contrast to the tender concern with which he had put his hands on every part of my body just a few hours before, he seized and raped me with such suddenness and power that I had not even the breath to cry out.
Afterwards he struck me hard across the face, then levelled a warning finger an inch from my eyes — no need for words to tell what lay in store, if I so much as thought about betraying him.
I suppose he might have murdered me there and then, and I saw him consider it. Had he done so when he had the chance, he could have made me disappear as he had done with his young comrade, and many lives would have been spared.
Instead he raped me again, though this time with less violence, as if endeavoring to bring me to some pleasure as well. Or perhaps he was just measuring out more carefully what potency he had left: he was no longer a young man.
I could only submit, as before, and when he was finished I leaned upon him as though succumbing against my will. But I knew our final reckoning would not take long to arrive.
He pushed me away, and sank back onto the bench that ran along the wall behind him. I shivered and whimpered on the floor, but watched him closely all the while, considering my options. When he at last raised his eyes to look at me they were filled with such hatred and disgust I was certain that my time to die had come.
He lurched toward me, and I backed away as best I could, but soon was hemmed against the opposite wall, where I cowered, my arms before my face.
But he did not attack me. Instead he fell on his knees and embraced my feet, weeping and begging me to forgive him.
I snatched my feet out of his grasp, and scurried into the nearest corner, but he did not pursue me: he simply collapsed on the floor in the center of the room, sobbing and blubbering about how my exquisite beauty had inflamed him, he couldn't help himself, he was mortified by his actions, and so on.
His behavior was so astonishing that I could hardly understand the words he said, and this made me hesitate to seize the nearest heavy object and smash his head with it, as I should have done. I did, however, manage to pull a stool from under the small desk nearby and put it between us, so that I could, in theory, ward him off with it if he came at me again.
But he did not, and after a while he sat back on the floor; we stared at each other through the legs of the stool, as if through the bars of a cell. Which of us was the prisoner, and which the keeper, however, at that moment teetered in the balance.
At last he heaved a great sigh, then cleared his throat, as if about to make a speech. "My fate is in your hands," he said, unbuckling his weapon, and sliding it over to me on the floor. "I have disgraced myself, I have violated you, and I cannot hope to be forgiven. I would be grateful if you would end my life, but, if that is not sufficient reparation, I bow my head to whatever punishment you care to impose."
I spoke before I knew it. "Burn down the Retreat House."
It did not take long. With the garrison's key he opened the gates; he then smashed a keg of lamp oil against the front door of the House, and set it on fire with his torch.
We fled into the forest, and climbed to the top of the other side of the chasm that half-surrounds the Retreat House like a moat. From there we watched the ancient building burn to the ground, taking with it the barn, the granary, and the meditation hall.
The alarm sounded, and we heard the screams of men and animals, but saw no one escape. A floating cinder touched off the thatched roof of the tiny garrison's watchtower, and it too was enveloped in flames immediately. Neither the sergeant nor his boon companion emerged.
We destroyed every living being that entrusted its life to the protection of that House.
Sometime before dawn I wrenched my eyes from the blazing wreckage and saw a queer look on my accomplice's face: his lips were drawn back, his eyes fixed on the flames, bright as any stars; he pulled in a prodigious breath through his nose, then gave out a long howl of unmistakable triumph.
We were sitting near the edge of a precipice. As carefully as I could, so as not to disturb his moment of transport, I shifted so that my legs were behind him, and then, planting both feet in the middle of his back, I shoved with all the power I could gather, propelling him into empty space. As he fell, he reached back and caught hold of the sleeve of the young soldier's light blouse I was wearing, and for a few hideous moments I felt myself sliding toward the edge, but then the seam split and the sleeve pulled loose, and my rapist disappeared into the abyss without a sound.
The first thing I saw when I came to myself was my beloved's face peering earnestly into mine, as if trying to pour all his abundant strength into me. I learned that I lay in the infirmary of the Scholars' Residence at the Temple, where later I would be attended by an unsmiling nurse in stiff white linen and visited occasionally by the physician I remembered as an instructor in medicine at the school.
My friend told me that, after his banishment from the Retreat House, he had returned to the city and told his employer of the treachery of the Master's wife; his employer himself set off at once to confront the Master about this flagrant injustice.
And so it was that the destruction of the Retreat House was discovered. My friend's employer set an inquiry in motion, which determined that it must have been a terrible accident, from which I alone had escaped, so traumatized by the catastrophe that I could remember nothing of how it came to pass.
My beloved himself discovered me lying in the Locust Grove, nearly dead from exposure — how I had made my way there must remain a mystery, for even today I have no memory of descending the mountain and entering the city, let alone how I passed through the locked Temple gates in order to finally collapse in just the place where my lover would find me.
Poor innocent! He did not inspect my injuries, or did not know how to interpret them — he only understood that I was badly hurt and needed his help.
To the physician and the nurse in the infirmary, however, it was obvious that I had been whipped and violated, and from their mild but repeated questions I inferred that they were not completely convinced that I remembered nothing.
My nurse in particular sensed that some evil still clung to me. One day I opened my eyes to find her gazing at me thoughtfully, as if gauging me somehow; her lips were slightly parted, and she was taking in a deep breath through her nose... just like that man. The one I murdered.
When she saw me looking at her, her countenance changed instantly to its accustomed mien of professional concern, but a curious light still gleamed a moment longer in her eyes. I feel now that I could have told her everything that had taken place and she would not have been surprised, having guessed as much already from the signs upon my body.
However, her interest chilled me, and I never revealed to anyone what really happened — until now, of course, and I have no knowledge of you, to whom I send this sad missive from what may well be the ancient past. But I sense you; I know that you are there; I feel your presence, if that is the right word, however light or indistinct the impression you make upon my consciousness. I have decided to confide in you, as I have done with no one else, since not one among those now living, in *this* world, can be trusted in anything. I am myself the paragon of this precept. Take heed, if you can.
I was yet young, and in time my body healed under the doctor's medication and the nurse's calm proficency; my spirit as well gained strength under the persistent effect of my friend's sunny hopefulness. Before long I could walk again, and soon thereafter was told I was well enough to leave the infirmary. My friend — against advice, I later learned — brought me to stay with him at his home.
Shortly after this, I received word from my employer, asking after my health and inviting me to call on him. I was apprehensive about this reunion: he had not visited me in the infirmary, nor had he sent any message to me, though he must have heard the story — I was certain the entire city was abuzz with it, though my friend tried to shield me from rumors and gossip as best he could.
The interview was worse than I imagined it would be. With difficulty my employer told me that he could not keep the promise he made to me when he granted my leave of absence — that I should be able to return to his service whenever I was ready. I could see how much it cost him, not only to go back on his word, but also to hurt me; he was, as I have said, a kind man, who loved me, or had at one time.
His explanation was straightforward, for he was just such a man: after what had taken place, it was unlikely that I would be able to regain my relation of fellowship with the rest of his household, and this potential source of disruption he could not afford, given the sensitive nature of his business, which required as always his complete concentration. I could be certain, he said, that there was no doubt in his mind of my complete innocence in the affair, but he could not speak for the others, upon whose full faith in *him* he had to rely.
I could not bring myself to say another word to him. I do not know why I thought there would ever be a chance for me to return to the life I had known before setting off for that terrible place. That former world, I now understood, had expelled me, as a poison is purged.
It was impossible to think of my friend suffering any further on my account, and I realized that the only way to prevent that from happening was to get me away from him. However, this would have to be accomplished in such a way that he could accept it, and not do anything foolishly gallant to try to keep me from leaving.
My death might have solved the problem neatly, for him at least, but I'm glad to say that, even in deepest grieving over my lost world, I was unwilling to give the right-thinking people, who now included my former employer, the opportunity to use *me* as a bogle with which to frighten their children into obedience. Yes, the demon conjured by my unjust punishment at the Retreat House still very much wanted this story to continue, and would not be satisfied to let it stand as a mere cautionary tale.
And there's the respect that makes calamity of so long life (to resurrect that most ancient saying of the Remnant): a story has an ending, which may or may not edify; in our life, there are no endings, only arrivals and departures. My consciousness may fall asleep for a time, but it will awaken in you, when you read these words. What I think of as myself is merely a meeting place, where ghosts come together for a while to converse, then go their several ways, having exchanged whatever they came here to pass along.
In the end, my beloved's employer forced the issue, by appointing him to take charge of his interests in a distant city. At first my friend tried to refuse this promotion, but was informed that the only alternative was dismissal. It was very difficult for me to convince him to take this assignment, for my friend was proud, and felt he was being treated like a child. But I finally persuaded him by telling a lie: that I myself had received a call from a remote outpost of the Conference, and had accepted it. He was hurt by this, but I told him I was unwilling to be his kept thing, generous and loving as he had always been to me: I must go my own way.
I will not speak ill of him; he saved my life and never failed in his tender concern for my welfare. But I saw in that moment that he was relieved, when I released him from his unspoken vow to me, that he would not be required to break faith with his employer, who was indeed like a loving father to him.
As for his employer, I have no doubt whatsoever that his only motivation was to rescue his prized protégé from a calamitous entanglement: although he had never met me, he recognized me as a person best kept away from.
I can testify to the truth of yet another saying of the Remnant, that love is sweetest on the eve of departure.
But at the very moment my beloved's conveyance finally passed out of sight, this saying came to me, and suddenly I knew that I was the one who had been set free.