... And of course we came here as soon as we could, once it seemed to be safe...
It was a superb afternoon, just like that terrible day itself: brilliant sun, deep blue sky, not one cloud. When we arrived, the air was glistening with dust, pinkish gray, which caused the sun to look rather lovely to him, he said, no doubt thinking to cheer me. But I knew what that dust was made of, what it had to be made of, to be that color — and to smell like that.
[Just inside the collapsed gateway, someone behind us sniffed sharply, as if drinking in the stench [of melted glass and metal, charred wood, days-old roasted flesh]. Everyone turned: a short stocky gentleman, in ordinary dress, stood like a stone amidst the stream of sightseers flowing around him, his lips curled back, eyes incandescent, his gaze fixed fiercely on something we could not see.
I knew that look — and there was no mistaking the bulge at the place where the man's legs joined. I said nothing to my friend, but quickly took his hand and led him away. How could I explain how I knew about such things?]
We neared what should have been the Locust Grove, but it was impossible to find: all the lovely tall trees in the entire Precinct were nothing but sticks jutting up like twisted-off arms and legs. My friend was so appalled I knew I had to get him away, before his gentle heart was overwhelmed with the question no one can ever answer.
At the time it was still unclear what had actually happened, and to this day no irrefutable proof has been put forward to vindicate any of several competing hypotheses. On that glorious sunny afternoon, it was still possible for my friend to blame tragic accident for such awful devastation, and I said nothing to discourage him from clinging to this hopeful theory.
In the event, [Breaks off — Ed.]
The obvious choice was suicide, but somehow the demon that entered me at the Retreat House wasn't finished with me yet...
I cannot tell how I returned hither...
... no account of my travels can do justice...
... but it would mean nothing: no place offered any rest, no person's regard was worth the effort to win, no work worth performing. I merely removed from one place to another, without hope, without light, my heart a dead cinder in my breast.
My only companion on this desolate voyage was the memory of that drunken scholar who vomited up his whole life into the crystalline waters of the cove in the Temple gardens, and then pinned me with his eyes, daring me to laugh at what he suffered. This Raggedy Man haunted me for a reason I could never quite grasp.
But I was grateful to him (or rather [to] his ghost) whenever he reappeared in my thoughts, for I somehow felt that my meeting with him was the moment my true life began [moment of my life?], strange as that may seem: there was no question that after our one meeting in the Locust Grove, nothing I created or performed in that sheltered [little] world seemed quite sufficient to [justify — or excuse] the suffocating drudgery and servility required for its attainment; the pride in the faces of my more productive colleagues never quite reached me, no matter what I achieved; or if it did, I at once perceived, behind it, gazing at me over the shoulder of the glittering prize, the image of that shabby scholar, his eyes burning with their unspoken demand.
And so it came about that by inches and by hours, as the Remnant say, I made my way back to this [point of] origin [implied: scene of the crime], though it took quite a while for me to recognize what had once been the Locust Grove, because the place itself was all but covered by ramshackle dwellings of the most disconsolate sort — indeed, I was drawn there initially by the promise of shelter that, from a distance, they seemed to offer, for by then I shared their insalubrious condition.
Unaccountably, these hovels were abandoned, as if unsuitable for even the most wretched of beings, and during my time there not one other person appeared to keep me company — or to drive me away. I judged the place to be under a kind of curse, to which I was perhaps immune, being the bearer of an even worse malediction myself.
Once I recognized where I was, however, I immediately sought out the Temple ruins, but found only a smoking crater where they should have been. [The fire down in there would have smouldered many years, for I was still in the City when the Temple was destroyed.]
The crater was deep, littered with rubble and debris half-submerged in evil-looking muck. Working my way around its perimeter as best I could manage, I suddenly perceived, some levels down in the opposite wall of the hollow, the sheared-off corridor that had once led to the Conference Archives. Immediately all strength went out of my legs, and I nearly pitched headlong into the hole.
For I had once labored there, as we all did, in our first years as students in the Temple School.
The sun was just setting behind me, as I sat down hard on the edge of the [caldera] that had once been, when I had one, my home.
And there, beneath a charred heap of all manner of [negligible administrative; adminicular] documents, I found [the Scholar's archives].
It had taken until midday to work my way down the nearly sheer wall of the crater, and the rest of the afternoon to enlarge the opening into the warren of rooms where the records were kept. An utterly dismal place: dark, dank, smutched with countless generations of torch smoke, where the least among the Conference drudges were consigned as if to perdition — quite the opposite of the bright airy library adjoining the Council's chambers, atop the Temple tower, with its wondrous vista of the entire harbor.
And yet I loved this gloomy dungeon. Our time here as famulai [starvelings?] was awful, for the Recorders were bitter men, and my master was the bitterest. He was kept here, he told me, on account of his clean hand and prodigious memory: and his catalogs were indeed works of art, both as exemplars of clarity and as finding aids.
[He was also a notorious pederast — though, to me at least, a surprisingly gentle one, if one could believe the stories my fellows told about *their* masters' private comportment. While he and I were at work with the others in the archives he was very quick to cuff and even beat me if I failed him in the slightest way, but when we were alone he could be quite solicitous, and it was he who taught me how to enjoy myself even as I serviced him.]
No, I loved this place because of its secrets, which interested none of my comrades, so anxious were they all, during this sojourn in hell, to get it done with, so that they could ascend into the light of their future greatness, as they imagined was their destiny.
This is, of course, the way I think of it now, from the distance of hard years. It is difficult to retrieve my view of things then, but perhaps that's a mercy. No doubt I was preoccupied, just as they all were, with emulating those most admired among our friends. It is the way of the young; and is it not this very lack of self-sufficiency — this "weakness" — that our elders exploit, too feeble or cynical to fight their own battles, sending us out to perform their evil and deadly work, knowing fully and well (as we cannot imagine) the frightful consequences? Is this not the vengeance the old cannot visit on *their* elders, who did the same to them when they were young like us?
I have set up a work area down here where I can examine and organize [the Scholar's] material. It is mere happenstance that the building collapsed in just the way it did, exposing the very pile of documents in which [the Scholar's] records have been languishing all these years. Truly, neglect has a way of preserving things, as the Remnant say.
For good or ill, I must add. I am aware, now that I have examined the archives, that their transmission may prove to be more trouble than they are worth. But, perhaps, given my spiteful frame of mind, that *is* their worth.
The collection has suffered little damage, being so deeply buried among the bureaucratic detritus of the Council's deliberations and findings. I cannot be certain, of course, that these records pertain to my Raggedy Man, but I like to believe they do, and that I can in some way redress the wrong done to him so long ago. I have no doubt that all the principal players have since passed on, or in any case have long ago relinquished any memory of this matter. But then perhaps that is *my* worth: I only am escaped alone to tell thee this tale.