The sky was very blue. The morning air was fresh and full of life. It stirred Jaq’s old heart. His mind too. It felt clearer than it had felt for some time. Even his old limbs were eager to move. Jaq was glad of it. There was work to be done. He took his unexpected vigour into the garden and set to work. The beds had to be prepared for the first planting. Spring would always be a season of renewal, no matter how few remained to him now.
Later in the morning, when the wind shifted, Jaq looked to the sky. He saw dark clouds moving swiftly in from the east. Once the rain arrived, his work in the garden would be done for the day. Jaq’s eye was drawn to the crest of the low hill that separated his land from the main road. Jaq thought he saw a figure standing on the path that led to his shanty. When he looked again, no one was there. Jaq thought of Feste, the little white dog that had followed him during the final years of his time as a Holy Wanderer. He smiled. It was a good but unexpected memory to have. He hadn’t thought of Feste in years.
The kettle whistled and Jaq roused himself from his snooze. The rain had not yet come. Judging by the fierceness of the wind that rattled his little home, he would not have to wait much longer. Jaq loved the staccato sound of rain on his roof, especially when a strong fire was lit in his hearth. He took the kettle from the fire, and set it on a small iron table where the tea pot had already been prepared. He waited for the water to come off its boil and filled the pot with the steaming water. He took a deep breath of the tea’s bitter and floral fragrance.
Jaq’s heart jumped. A man was standing at the door. Jaq could feel his hard gaze on the back of his neck. Jaq listened carefully for movement, too afraid to turn and face the intruder. A traveler might come to the door seeking shelter from the approaching storm; only a thief would enter unannounced. The floor creaked again and cold sweat dripped from Jaq’s armpits. The kettle might be heavy enough to use as a weapon, if he flung it without warning; provocation also might make the situation worse. Jaq peered cautiously over his shoulder and saw only the door. He turned quickly and saw no one was there. He had been mistaken.
Jaq sighed in deep relief; the fear did not leave his limbs. Although it was impossible for a man to hide anywhere in the small shanty, Jaq looked in every corner and behind every piece of furniture. In a muddle of fear and embarrassment, he peered into the cupboards and some of the larger drawers. Only then did the fear ebb from his limbs. The door rattled and Jaq’s heart jumped again. The shiver of fear that wracked his body felt like a memory. A very old memory.
The man turned to face Jaq. His eyes were intensely blue; somehow gentler than Jaq remembered them.
“Why are you here?” Jaq asked. “Why are you here now, after all these years?”
“I made a promise to you,” the man answered. “I’ve come to fulfill that promise.”
The voice was unmistakable. It was the boy’s. Deep and ancient, as Jaq remembered it. The boy was a man now, as he should be, after so many years.
“Why today?” Jaq asked. “Why after so many years?”
“I am a man of my word,” he answered. “And your time is short.”
Jaq’s conversations with the boy continued long after the boy had abandoned him. At first, Jaq imagined the first conversation he wanted to have with the boy when he finally found him. Jaq re-lived it over and over again as he searched. It helped to keep him motivated. As months drifted into years, and his search continued fruitlessly, Jaq reimagined conversations he had had with the boy while they journeyed together. Then, he imagined conversations they might have had. Jaq was sure if he had said something differently while they were together, they would never have been separated. It hadn’t been inevitable. He was sure of it. He had been sure of it for a very long time.
“Genesius, after all this time, I didn’t expect to see you again. Why are you here?
“I’m sorry I didn’t come sooner,” the man answered. “I’ve been distracted.”
Jaq had not anticipated an apology. It softened his resolve. He motioned to the chair closest to the fire. “Please take a seat, and tell me why you have come?”
“I want to know,” the man said, “why you searched for me for so long.”
Jaq was taken aback. He had not expected Genesius to be interested in him after all these years.
“It’s a good question,” Jaq answered, “and one I’ve often asked myself.” Against his better judgment, Jaq asked, “Would you like some tea?”
Jaq often tried to remember the exact moment he had given up on his search for the boy. He never could remember it. Jaq only knew that he had searched for a long time, and, then, at some point, he was no longer searching. He had no memory of the decision or of any particular event that had caused him to give up on his search. The trail had never gone completely cold. There was always a story or a sighting to follow up on. Jaq never once lost the feeling that the boy was only a few steps ahead of him or around the next bend. Even now, in his little shanty, with a spring storm brewing, he felt like the boy might turn up at any moment, a boy no longer and with many stories to tell. Even so, at some point, Jaq had given up on the search. The search had been his whole life for what seemed to be a very long time, and then, one day, it wasn’t. Looking back on it, from the whole arc of his life, his time with the boy and his search hadn’t been very long at all. The time he spent with his memories of the boy and their imagined conversations was much longer.
Jaq didn’t want to answer the man, so he asked a question instead.
“You said you’re here because you’re a man of your word. What did you mean by that?”
The man pulled something from the pocket of his heavy traveler’s tunic, and placed it on the low table that separated them. Jaq’s old eyes couldn’t make out what it was. He leaned in closer for a better look. It was a coin of some sort. No, Jaq realized, it was a Holy Wander’s token. Jaq had not seen one in decades. His old order had been disbanded many years ago.
“I’ve come to return what belongs to you,” the man said. “I’ve also come to kill you.”
“Why,” Jaq asked, “why kill me after all of these years? After we have been separated for so long?”
“I made a promise to you. I intend to keep it.”
From time to time, Jaq would argue with the boy. The arguments were theological in nature — on the goodness of God and the soundness of the Father’s plans for his people. The boy had only ever seen in the world proof of God’s cruelty and madness. Jaq had always tried to convince him otherwise; he often returned to their old argument. The years following the war had been anything but peaceful, and Jaq was sure Genesius would have seen too much in the world to justify his dismal view of God, but God’s vision was plain to see in the turmoil, if one knew where to look. Jaq was sure Genesius would be blind to it. Out of habit, Jaq tutored him, even if he wasn’t there to hear it, telling him where to look and how to think about what he saw. The argument was as irresolvable as it had been when they were together; this time, Jaq took comfort in the fact that he was sure he said everything he wanted to say.
“Now that you know why I am here,” the man said. “Tell me what I have come to hear. Why did you search for me for so long?”
“Tell me,” said the man. “Your time is short.”
“I was worried for you,” Jaq finally blurted. “I’ve always been worried for you. From the very first moment, I found you at the crossroads. That’s why I approached you. That’s why I traveled with you. That’s why I searched for you. I worried for you. I wanted to protect you!”
“What would you protect me from?” the man replied.
“From yourself! Your hate knows no bounds. It’s irrational. Reckless. Terrifying. I knew you would turn it on yourself one day. You were on a path of self-destruction. Self-annihilation. I wanted to guide you from it. Protect you. Prevent it.”
“Very noble,” the man said. “A very noble lie.”
Jaq protested, “It’s not a lie. It’s the truth. I swear it.”
“You’re a coward and a liar, Jaq,” the man said, with an old familiar cruelty. “That’s why I left you behind. That’s why I abandoned you. This is your last chance. Speak the truth now or die a liar.”
Jaq began to cry. Jaq would never speak the truth. Even after all these years, even in the face of death — even if Genesius asked him — Jaq would never speak the truth. Not once. Never. Not all.
The rain started, slowly and unevenly. Then, all at once, it fell swiftly against the roof of the chanty. Jaq remembered his tea and found that it had cooled while he was lost in his thoughts. He rose from his chair, stoked the fire and put the kettle on to boil again. The sound of the rain and the warmth of the fire was soothing. Jaq returned to his chair.
Jaq knew Genesius wasn’t ever going to come for him. He had known it in his heart for some time. He rehearsed for his return anyway, in his garden, over tea, while digesting meals or trying to sleep. Again and again, Jaq imagined how it might go. It was an aberrant hope. Genesius lived and breathed, of that he was sure. If he thought of Jaq at all, Genesius probably couldn’t even remember his name.
Skelley paused and scanned the attentive faces around him. No one moved. No one whispered. Their bowls of fruit went untouched. They were taut with expectation, waiting for the conclusion of the story they all know so well. Skelley looked again to the master of the house, who leaned forward in his chair. His eyes were also bright with anticipation.
“Jean pressed on, his wounds bleeding all the while, until he came to the very crossroads where he had met Yannick and Lavache all those years ago. Jean looked south, down the road that led to the home of his childhood, and he knew he could travel no further. He had walked his final steps. Death was upon him. He would not make it home. Not today. Not ever. Jean set himself down at the center of the crossroads, on the very spot where Yannick and Lavache had found him, all those many years ago, and he prayed aloud with all the strength that remained to him, his heart filled with regret and repentance, ‘Oh Lord Father, I have defied you all these many years, and yet you have only shown me mercy. At every turn, my wickedness, you have forgiven it. By way of thanks, I have repaid you only with defiance heaped upon defiance. Your mercy and love knows no bounds. I’ve never been worthy of it. And yet, as I sit here dying, so unworthy of your grace and so deserving of every punishment, my wicked heart reaches out to you once more. Think not of me, oh Lord. Think instead of my dear mother and proud father who wait for me, worrying themselves over my return. For them, oh Lord Father, it is too cruel. Do not punish them for my defiance and misdeeds. I beg you, with all my heart! Grant me the strength to make it home, so they might know what has come of me. And if you should spare them the misery I have caused them, I will honour you in all my remaining days. I will do only good works, and always sing your praises. I will be a good son, an honorable neighbor, and, if your will be done, a loving father! I swear it, with all my heart. I swear it. I swear it. I swear it.’ And upon swearing it a third time, God took pity on Jean. His wounds were stopped, and his limbs were made strong again. Jean rose, as if reborn. He shed tears of joy and thanked the Lord with all of his heart, so anyone near or far might hear him. Jean returned to the loving arms of his family, telling them all that had happened to him and begging them for forgiveness. His mother and father, brother and sisters, they wept and thanked the Lord for his redeeming grace. And Jean was true to his word and honoured the promise he had made to the Lord, our Father. He returned his father’s sword to its rightful place on the wall by the hearth, found a wife, and had many sons and few daughters. His wild wandering days were soon forgotten by all. His neighbors knew him only as a man who loved God and who did his duty each day. And Jean lived in peace and righteousness for all his remaining days. Amen.”
Skelley dropped his hands and smiled. He again scanned the faces around him. The sense of peace that comes with a story well told filled the space between them. Some nodded in satisfaction. Some looked stunned. Others had retreated within themselves to manage the emotions he had unleashed. Whatever their response, they were united by the story. Skelley knew he had done well. After a moment or two, someone remembered to clap their approval and the others quickly followed.
The master of the house rose from his chair, clapping. “Well said, teller, well said. You’ve honoured us this evening with your telling. Please stay. Eat and drink, take your fill and, if you should desire it, stay the night and share another story with us tomorrow.
Skelley bowed. “Master, you and your kin have honoured me with your hospitality. I humbly thank you and gratefully accept your offer to eat and drink. I will be honoured to serve you again tomorrow. Thank you.”
“I am pleased to hear it, teller, I am pleased to hear it,” said the master of the house. “Eat well, and drink well. More wine for all!”
The crowd cheered, a toast was proposed, and Skelley moved towards the back of the hall, where the performers and household servants took their meals. Normally, he would stop to speak with anyone who acknowledged or thanked him for his performance. On this evening, he moved as quickly as decorum would allow. He hadn’t had a decent meal in days.
Once Skelley had eaten all he could eat and his head was full of wine, he turned his attention to the nearest tables. If he could catch the eye of a woman with a warm bed, he would sleep much better for it. The families sitting this far from the master of the house weren’t likely to be wealthy. They weren’t likely to be fussy either. Any bed would be more comfortable than the hay waiting for him in the stables.
Skelly’s eyes were drawn to a beautiful woman walking with purpose from the front of the hall. Her dress wasn’t fashionable, but she carried herself with dignity and poise. Skelly’s storymaster had often reminded Skelly that nobility came in many forms. Old money rarely wasted it on fashion. Judging by the proximity of her table to the master of the house, Skelly decided she was well-bred. A courtesan would have been much more fashionably dressed.
Skelly returned his attention to a homely woman at the table nearest his own. She had looked away each time he had looked at her. The last time their eyes had met, they lingered long enough for him to smile. Skelly was optimistic. She looked the type who might take a tumble or two with a storyteller.
“Please accept this gift of thanks for the story you have shared with us this evening.”
It was a woman’s voice, rich and strangely accented. When Skelly looked up to see who it belonged to, he was stunned to discover the beautiful woman he had been admiring a moment before.
He leapt to his feet and bowed.
“You’re very welcome, mistress. Please, your words of thanks are gift enough. The master of the house has already provided for me.”
“I insist.” She placed a small plain leather pouch on the table in front of him. “I always bring it whenever a storyteller is promised for dinner. I rarely give it.”
“You’re too kind, mistress.” Skelly clapped his hands in front of his chest and briefly bowed his head before picking it up. He fixed an admiring gaze upon it, but he could not think of words suitable for its praise. He had never received such a gift before.
The woman answered the question written on his face. “It’s mugwort,” she said. “Where I come from, we honour a story well told with a gift of mugwort.”
“I’m sure I warrant no such honour. I thank you all the same, mistress.” She seemed in no hurry to depart, so he dared to ask the question on his mind. “If I might be so bold to ask, mistress, your accent is unfamiliar to me, from where in the province do your kin come?”
“My kin are not from this province nor from the territory,” she answered. “They live across the sea.”
Skelly bowed quickly to hide the shock that would have been written on his face. “You honor me again, mistress. I have heard people sometimes visit us from the lands across the sea. I have never been honoured to meet any of your people before.”
“Can you be so sure?” she asked. “Many of my people come to trade with yours and speak your language without accent. Would you have guessed I wasn’t one of your people by appearance alone?”
“No, I don’t suppose I would have, mistress.” Skelly knew better than to mention her unfashionable frock. “I confess, I have always imagined that the differences between our two peoples would be more discernible.”
“There was a time when we shared an emperor and much else. It is the present age that makes strangers of us, not our bloodlines. The same might be said of our stories. May I sit for a moment, there is something I would like to discuss with you.”
“You honour me again, mistress,” Skelly said. “I welcome any of your time you might spare me.”
The woman sat without ceremony before Skelly had a chance to prepare the chair for her.
“Your telling today,” she said with relish, “was infused with a vitality that I forgot this venerable story can sometimes have. I was reminded of what it was like to be a child and to hear it for the first time. A remarkable achievement for ears as accustomed to stories as mine.”
Skelly bowed his head in thanks and placed his hand over his heart.
“Tell me,” she continued, “By your reckoning, what is the meaning of the story?”
Skelly dutifully replied, “The grace of God is infinite and salvation is assured to all who welcome him fully into their hearts.”
The woman frowned and offered him a crooked smile. “Do you truly believe that is the meaning of the story? It seems to me that God is hardly relevant at all. A trite convenience to hang the story around.”
Skelly winced in the face of her strident blasphemy. Only a foreigner of significant rank could be so brazen. He was nevertheless intrigued by her question. He decided to caution her, in the hope that their conversation might continue.
“Mistress, as I am sure you understand, all stories, whatever their apparent meaning may seem to be, are always truly about God and his infinite grace. It may be, of course, that you have been privileged to acquaint yourself with a dissenting opinion among the Glossators. A humble wandering storyteller, such as myself, relies on the teachings of the Church for such matters.”
The woman caught herself. She smiled and looked away from Skelly, considering her next words. Her blue eyes returned to his. “At the end of the story, God’s grace is given and Jean returns home. Why is it, you think, this act of grace is important for those who hear the tale?”
Skelly was relieved. The woman had understood him and had sense enough to steer the conversation to safer ground. The conversation that she wanted could be had, if she was willing to approach it obliquely.
“Above all else,” he answered her, “they are happy to witness God’s grace present in the life of man.”
“Yes, they most assuredly are. All of those assembled today love God and are true to the faith.” The woman winked at Skelly, as she spoke the overtly pious words. “My faith is also aroused by the sublunary nature of this particular act of grace. Why do you think Jean’s reconciliation with his family moves the listener so fervently?”
“I can’t say I have given it much thought, mistress. As a storyteller, my thoughts are of God and his grace first and always. I am, withal, intrigued by the question, especially because it has been put to me by a person of your stature. It may also be that, in seeking its answer, we might better understand the wisdom of our Lord and Father. I only hope that my answer is not worthy of reproach.”
“I welcome your words however they may be spoken,” she answered, smiling, “so long as they are spoken in service, faith and love of God.”
“I do humbly swear it.” Skelly paused to collect his thoughts. “I might venture to say that people are moved by Jean’s reconciliation with his family because we all long for reconciliation. We also hope it will be granted without condition. The Church is the expression of God’s will in the world. The family is the expression of his love. We are nothing without the will and the love of God. As such, we are nothing without the authority of the Church and the love of our family. If all can be forgiven of Jean, by God and family, then surely none of us will ever stray so far from the true path that we will not be welcomed home again. Those who feel lost, like Jean, I believe, are comforted by the hope that they will always be welcomed home, however minor or severe their transgression.”
“Yes, yes, I think you’re right! Exactly right. Well said.” The woman leaned forward and took hold of Skelly’s wrist in her enthusiasm. “I might only express the point a little more directly. Our greatest fear is ostracization from our family, our peers, our community, and yet, at the same time, we long to be free of the smothering burdens of solidarity. We want security and we want freedom. We want to know the thrill of escape and alienation and the profound comfort of return and reconciliation. This is what makes man man. The morality of the herd and the will of the beast live within us both. It is the struggle between these two opposed dispositions that determine our character both as individuals and as a people. How we respond to the struggle, how we tell the story of the struggle, this is what makes us who we are, this is what makes us a people, more than bloodlines or proximity or language, it our struggle to make sense of our individuality in spite of our longing for the comforts of our banality. Wouldn’t you agree? As a storyteller, you must understand the point I am trying to make. I explained it all to the Compte once and he refused to understand me, no matter how many times I repeated it.”
Skelly’s heart jumped into his throat at her casual mention of the Compte. If it were true that this woman had ever talked with the Comte, her status was much higher than Skelly had estimated it to be. If she were lying about the encounter, she was profoundly reckless. Either possibility was worrying and dangerous. Skelly decided to tread more carefully.
“Let me share something else with you, teller, that I’m sure will intrigue you. Among my people, we tell a story very similar to the one you have told this evening. The names of the characters are different, of course, and not all of the details are identical, and yet, there are too many similarities to discount the likelihood that, at some point in history, they were the same story, not unlike our two peoples. There is, withal, one major difference. In our story, Genesius, your Jean, never returns home. Indeed, he has no home to return to because he destroyed it himself. He only moves forward, always forward, on an unending journey, searching for that which never can be found — must never be found because the journey is all we have. Our story is both a celebration of that journey and a cautionary tale. For us, it is the perfect summary of our character as a people, drawn as we are by trade to travel beyond our lands and away from our kin, the very people for whose well being and comfort we travel and trade. Does it not intrigue you that these two stories can be so similar and yet so very different? Not unlike our two peoples. It’s fascinating, wouldn’t you agree?”
Skelly was intrigued by her smile, her enthusiasm and the cool touch of her hand. He wanted to respond to her enthusiasm in kind, to debate dangerous ideas long into the night. The consequences, he knew, were too great. The reward too fleeting. Skelly decided to withdraw to safe and familiar ground.
“Begging your pardon, mistress, I’m not sure if I can say that I do or don’t agree with what you have said because it is truly beyond my understanding. The Wayfarer, the story I have shared this evening, is one of the three gifts of the Prophet, long may his name and deeds be remembered. There is only one true version. Everything else is a corruption.”
The woman knit her brow and removed her hand from Skelly’s wrist. “Yes, of course, there is only one true version of The Wayfarer, one of the three gifts of the Prophet, long may his name and deeds be remembered. I well understand the views of the Church on the fidelity of the alternative versions of The Wayfarer which are said to circulate among people less pious than you and I. Fully accepting that the story of my people is wholly different than the Wayfarer, I wonder, if you, as a storyteller of impressive talent, have any thoughts on the significance of their similarities and what it might say about our two peoples.”
“You humble me again with your kind words, mistress, and I thank you for them. I fear what you ask of me, withal, is beyond my understanding. There is only one story of the Wayfarer and only one meaning, which is taught to us by the Church. Whatever accidental similarity your people’s story may have to it is of no concern to me. My only concern is with the will of God, as it is taught to us by the Church. As a storyteller, that is the only truth and meaning that concerns me. You have lived long enough among us, I hope, to understand why that must be so.”
The woman looked deep into Skelly’s eyes. Her disappointment was clear. Skelly had to look away. At the other table, the homely woman was watching them intently and, perhaps, listening too. After a long pause, the woman spoke again.
“I apologize for putting you in an awkward position, teller. I now see and understand my mistake. Among my people, storytellers are free to speak their minds. Indeed, they are expected to. It is both a right and duty of their craft. The feelings you stirred in me this evening with your fine telling of the Wayfarer reminded me of home. Alas, I am not home. Not yet. Not for a long while yet. I forget myself, and I did you a great disservice. I apologize.”
The woman stood abruptly before Skelly could protest her apology. She looked down on him for a moment. Then, she turned to go. Skelly leapt to his feet, and spoke loudly enough to be heard by anyone who had eavesdropped on their conversation.
“Mistress, I thank you for this gift in honour of the pious story I have shared this evening. Might I know your name so I can include you in my prayers.”
The woman stopped and looked over her shoulder at Skelly. Then, she moved swiftly, took him by the shoulders and whispered sharply in his ear.
“Teller, leave this wretched place. Cross the sea as soon as you can. Travel to my people and my lands. Live among them. With a talent such as yours, you would be celebrated and free to speak your mind. You would sit at the head table. Not at the back of the hall. You could think and speak freely, as you please. Tell any story you think worth telling. Challenge any idea worth challenging. You would be happier. I am sure of it. You must believe it is possible. You must.”
The woman pressed her lips against Skelly’s cheek, turned from him, and headed to the front of the hall. Skelly watched her go. She never looked back. When Skelly finally looked again for the homely woman, he was relieved to find her looking at him with open curiosity in her eyes. Eventually, and with less effort than he had anticipated, he made his way into her bed. From there, he carried on with the ebb and flow of his life, as he knew and understood it. Ever after, the foreign woman’s words stayed with him. He often wondered what his life might be like in the land beyond the sea and if he would ever have the opportunity to learn for himself whether her words were true. For the rest of his life, Skelly was never sure if he was sustained or abraded by the aberrant hope she had given him. He only knew for certain in the last flicker of his dying life.
A PDF of the complete novella is available here.