The Locust Grove

We were lolling in the grove of honey locusts that stand on the terrace just outside the main hall, above the esplanade at the water's edge.

It was hot, and we were sweating in our regalia — the closing ceremonies of the Convention were to begin in an hour's time — and we'd taken wine at luncheon, during which some venerable luminary had been lauded for a lifetime's contribution to the community.

I was sitting on a bench, my back against one of the graceful trees that shaded us from the blazing sun, enveloping us in the golden glow of their just yellowing leaves. The tower bell tolled in pairs, blessing the lazy murmur of desultory discourse, attended by the gardeners laboring invisibly nearby, waiting for us to move, and the bees that worked the sea-roses in their beds beside the cove.

There was a remarkably high chop, and the pleasure craft tied up there strained at their moorings, thumping against the pier posts and each other in a vaguely annoying way. Otherwise, all was well, all was very well, and the tranquility of the scene was enlivened by the bouncing bosoms of young women taking exercise along the esplanade, a pleasant spectacle that we scholars affected to eye with disdain, while the gardeners' young assistants gazed at them with frank admiration and desire.

Two of us were discussing the life shared by those august persons who had occupied the dais at the luncheon we were at present digesting — men from all over the world whose accomplishment had earned them the right to move confidently among the highest levels of society. One of my colleagues, reflecting the clear expectation we all had that we would follow these important men into a life of attainment, wondered if they might feel more at ease in each other's company than they would with people from their place of origin, even their own families. The other said this was certainly true, and proposed that this commonality might even extend to their sense of possibility, of knowing with [assurance] what could be changed or created in this world, and of themselves as possessors of the knowledge, skills, and power to make it so.

We fell silent, nodding — what more need be said? A breeze passed politely through the grove, cooling my forehead; a robin warbled sweetly in the branches high above the grove. An odd phrase drifted through my mind: my fugitive peace.

Just then a disturbance erupted near the side door where the workmen and servants came and went: a person in scholar's garb, ill-fitting and faded, staggered out into the plaza. After righting himself, he began to move towards us with the overcareful precision of a person who's had too much to drink, trying with difficulty to keep his eyes focused on the path. Suddenly he began to shake, and stumbled down the steps to the railing, where he vomited copiously into the pristine blue water.

It was shock as much as anything, I believe, that made us laugh at the drunken man, but our amusement turned to disgust as he roared again and again, bending strenuously over the rail with each heave, until long past the point where there was anything more to bring forth. All the charming music of the moment before had ceased — except for the thudding of the boats — and every scholar, resident, servant, and wild creature in the cove stared at the man as he eventually straightened up and wiped his mouth on his sleeve.

He turned and attempted to smooth his tunic, which only made worse the slashing stain down its front. Then he raised his eyes and met mine.

We were no more than a few paces apart, and the look on his face has haunted me my whole life. I saw him *see* me, and *know* me, and somehow try to tell me with those baleful eyes that what had happened to him could happen to me, that the worst thing I could ever imagine was ever waiting, always able to come to pass, and that there is nothing whatever in this magnificent world that can protect anyone from *that*.

He regarded each of the rest briefly, then took in a sharp breath through his nose and strode straight through our little group, scattering those in his path, making for the main gate, which he then passed through without hesitating and was gone.

Immediately my colleagues began to cluck and comment excitedly. One recognized him from a pre-convention workshop some days before, something about an archive of ancient writings that he had discovered in a backwater House upriver somewhere. Another had heard an administrator remark that the Council would make short work of the "country cousin with the archive" — obviously an upstart trying to push his way in among his betters by passing off forged documents as a major find in his province.

During the interminable speeches and ceremonies of self-congratulation that followed, I idly wondered how such a pageant would appeal to the drunken man we had seen in the locust grove. If any of the gossip about him was true, he might have deserved whatever punishment he received; but I mused that deserving my punishment has never made it any easier to take, and, were I in his place, I most certainly would seize my first opportunity to get so crapulent I puked my insides out all over the authorities' pretty little cove.

Before this, it would never have occurred to me that said authorities could be totally in the wrong, but the aftermath of the wine, the stifling heat of the auditorium, and the pompous thunderings of the speakers' perorations had cast me into a misanthropic mood, and for the first time I began to reflect rather darkly upon the enterprise to which my guardians had engaged me.