Words in the Darkness
"I would hurl words into this darkness and wait for an echo, and if an echo sounded, no matter how faintly, I would send other words to tell, to march, to fight…."
~Richard Wright, American Hunger
The paper is smooth, clean… if a little ragged at the edges. Yellowed, like the light by which he writes. The cheap tallow candle stinks, and the smell of it echoes into the very shape of the air, as if the room is a glass crucible, a heated prism that catches and holds everything, and magnifies it back on itself.
He pauses to dip his pen into the greasy black well of ink and, with his other hand, brushes a speck of dirt from the page. His fingers are long, slim, and very white against the paper, yet their knotted joints and lean, hard planes speak of a man not born for a life of soft palms and letters. Stains are ingrained into his fingertips; not just the inevitable ink smudges, but the marks of the herbal poultices, powders, tonics and brews he spends much of the day bent over. The smell of it gets into his clothes, his hair… an acrid, complex mix of hogs' lard, spindleweed, pulmonaria, elfroot, embrium and Maker knows what else. The majority of his patients come to him with the same types of problems and, over the past few years, he has grown accustomed to the challenges and repetitions with which they present him.
In some ways, he supposes, things have improved. That first year, there were many deaths… many he could not save. There were women in labour—more babies delivered dead than alive—and old folk for whom he could do nothing but take away the pain, and there were so, so many who had terrible fevers and foul diseases. The very real danger of Blight plague was bad enough, but the things they brought with them off the ships were worse, and the slums of Lowtown and the Undercity didn't do much to improve their general health.
No, things are, he will have to admit, a little better. In that way, at least. He sees fewer emaciated, dying children now, riddled with sores and lice. Of course, his presence is no longer quite such a jealously guarded secret. The Marchers come to him now, not just the refugees, and the whole lot of them have begun to grow complacent.
He still delivers their babies, tends their dying, and dresses and heals their wounds regardless of whether they are acquired through accidents in the foundries or warehouses, or through drunken brawls in dockside bars. He also deals with their embarrassing rashes, their colds and chesty coughs and minor niggles, aches and pains and, every so often, he helps girls who've run into trouble. He listens to their fears and their complaints, and tries to endure it when they shout at him for not doing enough, or for failing to save a loved one who was already ashes when they came to him.
Most of the time, he manages to keep his temper. He remembers that they need him, and that they would be worse off without him, even if they have forgotten a time when he was not here.
But, when he shuts the doors, the night is his. There may not be much of it left, but he treasures the few dark hours of quiet.
He is… not exactly alone, but he has accepted that. Anyway, it doesn't matter so much. He sits at this small, uneven table, and lets the words spill out across the paper and, for just a little while, he lives in them. He exists only in those threads of fire that sear the page, and his whole being is condensed into the single line of thought that flies in the shape of the letters, tied to the act of writing like a silver bird: one clear, complete purpose.
They are very perfect moments, but they do not last.
From time to time, he will stop, re-read what he has written, and frown to himself. One lean, white hand will snatch up the page of loose, fervid scrawl and screw it up, flinging it to the ground as if it has offended him… and it has, usually. So often, he fails to say what he wants to, fails to set the truths he knows to be self-evident and inalienable down before him, and they snake away, leaving gaps and bleeding wounds.
Sometimes, he does not waste the paper with these acts of violence, because it is expensive and frequently hard to get hold of. He just scores lines through his mistakes, and they glare at him like scars, like thick, raised tracks along a wrist.
That is a temptation.
People have suggested he should write his story. A long, long time ago, in a place that may as well have been a different world, he declared that he would write a treatise… a manifesto that would shake the very foundations of the Circle and, beyond that, shout to the core of society, a shrill cry for justice and equality. Karl told him he was a fool. Karl said that it was not politics that changed things, but people. If he wanted to set the world on fire, he had to give it something to burn for… and that was where a story was needed, not a cause.
He'd disagreed, of course, bombastic and ignorant and full of his own importance as he was at the time. Safe, and comparatively happy, now he comes to think about it, because he was so much bloody luckier than so many of the people he's met since. There were plenty of moderates in Ferelden, even if he didn't want to see that when he was younger. He'd wanted to be a rebel, with the unshakeable convictions of youth, and he'd refused to listen.
Why be victims in their eyes, he'd demanded, instead of being right?
Besides, counting the numbers of suicides, of rapes and beatings and cowed, terrified children who grew up never knowing what it was to stand outside in the rain, or cook their own supper… what did that do? Perhaps it shocked a few stuffed shirts. Perhaps the odd bleeding heart might make murmurs about the Tower's regimens, and the need for reform. It wouldn't actually change anything, not beyond that initial mumble of surprise and the ineffectual muttering of civic duty. After that, they would simply be swept under the rug again.
No. In any case, people didn't want to feel sorry for mages. Pity ran too close to fear.
They'd stayed at odds over it, he and Karl. He'd enjoyed that, in a way. It was… stimulating. One of the few pleasures they shared, except the obvious. He hadn't realised how much he missed that—any of it—until long after it was over.
He blinks, aware that he has lost the thread of his argument, that he really needs to check the reference he plans to quote, and that the pain he feels now is a violent, guilty ache which will not go away quickly. He remembers the man who was his friend, his lover—one of his greatest failures—dying in his arms, with a fleeting look of gratitude in his eyes despite the brand on his forehead, and he knows that his own story is not worth telling. If anyone's is, it is Karl's, and he can't tell that. He doesn't think he ever really knew it. He doesn't have the words, anyway. All he has are memories, and the few surviving letters he kept over the years, folded up in an old tinderbox somewhere in the back of the cupboard he stores the tinctures in.
He isn't really sure he can trust memories anymore. Oh, they're still there, but they taste different. When he thinks of Karl—of the way they were once, when the things he wanted from life were so much simpler, and when the world itself was a completely different place—he finds there are other things overlaying his memories. No longer the pure recollection of their giddy, impish laughter, the games of misbehaviour and the pleasure of rule-breaking for the sheer hell of it. Something else stains those thoughts, as it does the memories of their other, more intimate transgressions. Justice—he, it, I—does not, it appears, approve.
He dislikes this, this feeling of an oppressive presence within his own head, monitoring and arbitrating his life… and his past. Of course, he knows better than to fight it. He can't. There's nothing there to fight, no point at which he can safely define the difference between them. It would be like the head of a snake trying to tear its tail off. Or maybe he's the tail. It wouldn't surprise him.
And so, he plunges back into the writing. He clutches the pen like a life-raft, and makes himself a voice with the shiny coils of ink; a place where he can shout as loudly as he can, and remain in control.
Justice, for once, does not argue. This clear, concise action agrees with him. He—I, we, it, us—lives in the words, and rises with them, and with every page added to the ever-growing stack, just maybe there is a little more Anders there. Maybe, divided into chapters and verses and footnotes, there are sane places and secure chambers; a labyrinth through which he can find his way, his hands skimming walls of solid, real rock until he knows—for certain, this time—that he is safe.
It is a faint, probably foolish hope. It is, however, the best he has.