Standing Alone

The city was old and vast, full of domed structures and towers with twisting spires. The broad streets with ochre-colored earthen walls werecovered in a writing that seemed achingly familiar and yet not. Arrom could feel history bleeding out of these buildings - in their crumbling archways, in the long, narrow viaduct that swept overhead into the distance to some point he could not see, and even in the decaying plinths that lined what must have once been a grand thoroughfare, but was now overgrown and deserted.

On a blustery day, wind whistled through the city and danced in her abandoned streets, stirring up dust and plucking leaves from theclutches of withered and dying trees. Khordib believed the city was inhabited by the dead and the sounds they could hear were their voices carried on the wind, but Arrom could hear another voice more clearly—that of Khordib as his attempt at seriousness fell flat.

Arrom asked why they did not live in this city of halls and mud brick houses and unexplored places, but Khordib shook his head and told him that sometimes the ground moved and bricks fell; it was safer to be out in the open and near the fields.

The universe is vast and we are so small.
 
There was a fear that hid inside Arrom, steeled within his veins like it had always been a part of him, a coldness that lived like a thread threatening to snap with the slightest tension.

He does not yet know his place in thisvillage of welcome strangers. They gave him clothes that matched their own, muted colors that reminded him of the river that runs through the field they found him in, a slice of blue that breaks the landscape but which feeds the people, giving up fish for their tables. Mostly, though, the nomads offered him a home within their camp. Theirs was a measure of trust that was unquestionable, which bothered Arrom more than perhaps it should have, because despite all they had given him he felt awkwardly out of place.

This day was long and enduring, where Arrom’s only solace was found in the snatched moment Khordib afforded him, by way of company, on their visit to the abandoned parts of the old city. It was, as it had been since he first saw them, the walls of clay and plinths of coarse stone, with their lines of blocky writing that had mostly crumbled and decayed in the sun, which captured and held his attention.

Arrom closed his eyes in that place that commanded silence and attention, lettinghis fingers search across the roughly imprinted glyphs with their troughs and dips and broken lines. Scraps of images bubbled to the surface of his mind, fractured and warped. He caught flashes of other walls that glowed hazily with the life of even stranger writing. All familiar, but not. And all just out of his reach. But like a dream that faded when he opened his eyes, the moment was over when Khordib placed a firm hand on his shoulder and turned his attention to the west, where the sun was gently settling over the center spire and casting a long shadow up the side of the mountain behind.
In a tone that was both sad and apologetic, so much so that Arrom felt like a child being torn away from his favorite game, Khordib told him it was time to leave.

The city that had stood for thousands of years would have to wait for another day to reveal its secrets.

~oOo~

“… and Lantos reached for the heavens, his arms stretched wide and ready to embrace the stars and the unseen gods of his devotion, only to fall to the ground, to land heavily on a bed of his wishes.”

The words were familiar, their meaning not as clear as Arrom had hoped, but then like so many things that had risen from somewhere deep inside of him, they were lacking any real definition. He likened the experience to looking at his reflection in a bowl of water on a clear day, only to find that where his face should have been was nothing but an unmarred surface. Maybe that was oversimplifying the experience, because as the days passed and grew longer and colder, his reflection morphed into something truly terrifying.

Arrom mentally shook himself out of the moment and reigned in his wandering mind, turning it back to Shambda. From the children who sat at the old man’s knee, to the gathering of villagers standing just outside the periphery of the telling circle, there was no doubt Shambda commanded attention from even the most distracted of minds.

“Of course,” Shambda went on to say, his steely gaze and hushed tone proving to be an effective lure for both children and adults alike, “there is a lesson here for each of us to learn.” This revelation, which Arrom thought was more of a suggestion for his listeners to reach into their belief systems and pull forth a response, hardly drew the reaction Shambda was seeking.

“Do not tend your flock on the side of a mountain, lest you fall?” came an answer from the crowd.

The children turned to each other and giggled, some behind their hands, while some cautiously looked back and forth between Shambda and their parents, perhaps seeking permission to respond. But Shambda quickly silenced them all with a raised hand, as he looked towards Khordib and replied smoothly, “The mountain was smaller than the distance Lantos had to fall, and yet he, too, failed to understand the lesson.”

Khordib tipped his head to one side in an act of veneration and smiled affectionately. Arrom understood the moment with perfect clarity; he had seen this game played out before between the two men. One was the master, the other a sometimes reluctant apprentice, but they worked in harmony to show the children that every story had more than one moral to teach, more than one outcome.

So Khordib, his work done, nodded briefly to the other adults and turned away from the telling circle, leaving Shambda to pull the children in closer with a sweep of his arms, as though he had a secret that only they could keep. Eager faces looked up at him, their eyes bright with anticipation and wanting, but Shambda put a single finger to his pursed lips and instantly bought their silence.

“Lantos,” he said softly and crossed his arms, “was a man who wanted much but gave little in return. The only hand he held out was the one in which he expected to receive great treasures. And the bed of wishes he made, the one on which he fell, was as hard as it was hollow.”

If the children failed to understand the lesson, they clearly did not say. Dark heads bobbed again and whispers were traded, though Arrom was almost certain, from the looks on their faces, that most of them had little concept of the message Shambda was trying to impart.

Shambda put his hands on his knees and rested them there for a moment before rising to his feet. “After first meal tomorrow, we will let Lantos continue to teach us the lessons of his poor choices. His history is long, his woes many,” he announced with a stiff nod, only this time some of the children responded with unappreciative groans as they picked up their resting mats and moved away.

“And where is your bed of wishes?” It was disconcerting to find Shambda standing beside him, looking down at him with his arms crossed and hands lost in the sleeves of his winter robe, and a look of concern etched on his craggy face.

There have been moments, small and seemingly insignificant, simply because he knows they are extensions of his fears, where Arrom has lost time. His mind stops, trapped in a thought, in an instant, where even though on some level he is aware of the world carrying on around him, he feels he is caught in a bubble of his own existence.  This time, Arrom lost himself between Shambda dismissing the children and finding him at his side. The loss was as alarming as it was unnerving. "What?"

“You are ill?” Shambda asked, head cocked to one side and his brow furrowed questioningly above the shine of his caring gaze. “Perhaps you—”

“No.” The sun had slid almost fully behind the distant mountains, in perfect synchronization with the moon rising and lighting up the pathway of stars across the sky. “It’s nothing.”

“Nothing is something which does not exist.”

Which made no sense to Arrom, though he was loath to admit it. “Did Lantos ever learn his lesson?”

“Ah! A wise distraction.” Shambda pulled up a stool next to Arrom and gathered in the folds of his robes to sit. “Lantos," he remarked, crooking a bony finger up at the evening sky, "looked to the heavens and ultimately fell to the ground.”

“I know how he feels,” Arrom replied dryly.

“Do not compare yourself to a man without virtues. His lesson is only yours to remember and learn from.”

“Not to emulate?”

Shambda looked sadly at him. “Again you doubt yourself. Have you learned nothing in your time with us?”

But Arrom found himself turning to the wall of writing at his back and feeling the knot of loss that he carried in his chest, curling even tighter. “You said Lantos looked to the heavens but ultimately fell. I’m starting to wonder if he didn’t take lessons from me.”

“His time came and went many, many moons ago. Well before my father told me his story and his father before then. He would not be the first man to want more than he was able to hold.”

Arrom left the wall of confusing words to the growing darkness and turned back to Shambda, meeting the old man’s worried gaze with a small smile. “True,” he agreed somewhat begrudgingly, because while some of the children may have been too young and distracted to comprehend the simple concept of giving and receiving, he was not. “But you have to admit to a few similarities.”

Shambda shrugged. “There is a part of Lantos in all of us, Arrom. Even in the most pious of men. Perhaps what you heard today will sound different tomorrow.”

“Perhaps,” he admitted slowly, cautiously accepting the now familiar unease that came when something was nagging at him, teasing him, a memory of a feeling rather than an actual event from his past. "If you are truthful, the essence of a story should remain the same, no matter how many times it is told."

"So serious, you are." Shambda reached out to lay a hand on Arrom's knee, patting it softly like a parent would for a child who had just learned a hard lesson. "Do not confuse lessons of morals and good manners with those of our history. Should you wish to know more, perhaps you should seek Khordib for more than just company on your wanderings through the old city. His stories are of our people."

“Like historical documents?”

"Documents?"

"Using ink to write words down on parchment."

"Ah! We have never had a use for such things. Go, talk to Khordib. His stories are for learning—”

“As yours are for teaching.”

Shambda shrugged and sighed heavily. “Though both contain lessons of the past, I fear my young audience is becoming less and less interested in my stories.” He climbed to his feet and looked down at Arrom. “And still you look unwell, my friend.”

There was a hum that settled across the camp at night as cooking fires snapped and sizzled and the smell of flatbread and spiced broth filled the air. These are the remains of the day, when children have said their goodnights and retired to their tents. And where words of importance faded to talk of family and health, of milestones come and gone like the setting of the sun.

Fearing he had taken too long to answer, Arrom nodded quickly and whispered, "I'm fine." Shambda gave him a cautious nod of acceptance, and then sighed heavily when Ridah, his wife, called him for his evening meal. Once again, Arrom found himself sitting on the periphery of camp life, feeling the bonds of family and friendship so woven into life here, but not quite able to be part of that rich tapestry. Loneliness tore at him from his place outside the telling circle, to where the firelight cast an eerie shadow on the ancient walls that served at best to distract him from his wandering mind.  

“Perhaps you should join us this night,” Shambda said in an almost pleading manner, with a heavy accent on should that quickly turned his words from a suggestion to being a demand, but Arrom, sympathetic though he was, could not share their table.

As was usual, and because he was unable to escape her scrutiny, Ridah watched him as she set her bowls and spoons, her face a mask of guarded suspicion from the doubt she pinned to his chest. She was an elder, like Shambda, but in every way his opposite. Arrom quickly learned that her comely smile and the neck charm she wore of cloves and wild Darrow flowers from the field, that left her smelling of home and hearth, was a false façade for the unease she radiated when her withered fingers touched his cold skin on that first day. Shambda had light-heartedly christened him ‘the naked one’, but Ridah, in what Arrom could only excuse as a moment of surprise and shock at his sudden appearance, for there was no other explanation, called him ‘motherless’ under her breath, almost as though she was looking into a part of his soul that only she could see.

Yet despite her doubts, and the wary watchfulness Arrom felt her holding over himfrom time to time, it was Ridah who took him into her home and covered his nakedness with robes and gave him food and soft bedding and candles. And it was Ridah who held him to her chest when he cried with a loneliness he could neither explain, nor could she fully understand.

These were his moments of loss, where Arrom could no more fill in the blanks of his past than he could find his way back to his former life. He was a nameless man with no past to remember, no future to contemplate, and no tangible connection to a present and place that felt awkwardly familiar and yet totally wrong.

There was a temptation to reach up and touch the low-slung moon in the night sky, that maybe tapping it lightly would send it off on some wandering journey, much like Arrom felt he was on, but instead he gave it a small smile as he rose wearily to his feet.   Behind him, shrouded in near darkness, the old city stood tall and silent. Arrom gave it one last look over his shoulder before he walked off in the direction of his tent, content for the small measure of comfort he found in the glow of Ridah's candles.

Somewhere, and he was sure of this now, the answers to who he was were waiting for him to find. Perhaps Shambda was right when he said that what Arrom heard today might just sound different tomorrow.

The End

 

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