A Confessor Walks





By M. Lazarus





Lark Publishing 2021

https://www.subsidingsun.uk/lark/

A Confessor Walks


All the lands were broken. Wherever you travelled, all the towns and villages and crumbling cities were broken. Some were smashed to pieces, some were still clinging on, some were trying to rebuild in the collapse. Here and there in these places flecks of weary movement were crawling over long stretches of ageing decay. For even in all these broken lands life still stirs and scrapes and struggles. People stubbornly live on, sometimes as best as they can, sometimes not even that well. The time when the broken world falls quiet may be coming, just as many have promised for so long, but for now there is still the inglorious but necessary business of people living on.



I.


The sun was on its way to sinking, but it was still a fever-orange and too hot when the Confessor came towards the town. The Confessor had been walking all day and the day before that and the one before that in the heat and dust and, frankly, he was sweaty underneath his large black hat and thick patched black robe. His boots were patched and wrapped, too, but still sturdy enough to walk for days between settlements. Every other step, the Confessor tapped lightly at the earth with the staff he carried in his left hand. The staff was topped with a dull-metal shining arrow pointing straight up, with two smaller arrows pointing out a diagonal on either side. This was the sign of the Confessor, so that people might know what he was when they met him on the road or watched him unblinkingly as he walked towards their village walls.


In the distance these particular walls were uneven, rising and falling in places and missing pieces, but never higher than a grown person's chest. They were walls too low for any safety. The Confessor paced down the dirt road, boots crunching on the dry surface. A small figure blurred in the heat before him, a tiny scrap of a figure. The Confessor walked on. The figure was a child, ragged and thin, almost indistinguishable from a collection of sticks blowing across through the heat. The child stared. When the Confessor was close enough to see more clearly, the staring child looked to be a little girl. The Confessor found a rock a suitable distance from the girl and sat down. Through his thick robe, the Confessor could feel the day's heat being released from the rock. The child kept her eyes fixed on him, and with an unwavering serious expression, she marched a few steps forward. The Confessor nodded at her. She wore a dress made of disparate pieces of sacking and she had dust in her hair. In her left hand she had a length of twine that twitched back and forth in the dirt. When she had her fill of staring at him, the little girl opened her mouth.

"You're a Fesser," she announced. The Confessor nodded in agreement. He sat patiently. He was used to ragged children staring at him. He was, he supposed, a sort of minor novelty for them.

"You can tell from your hat," the little girl explained to him, "An' your stick."

The Confessor waggled his three-pointed staff. The little girl chewed at her length of string.

"People tell you things, an' then give you somethin', don't they?"

The Confessor indicated this was so, and the girl, suddenly suspicious pulled her dusty length of string away from him. Pleasantly, the Confessor waved a hand to show that she needn't worry about him taking her string. This seemed to mollify the girl.

"I kin tell you somethin'," she said, her eyes wide with importance.

With a great show of attentiveness, the Confessor leaned forward from his stone seat.

"I saws a lizard!" the girl declared. The Confessor tried to make his eyes as large as hers to show he understood the significance of this.

Encouraged, the child began telling a rambling story about the biggest lizard she had ever seen, which she had found near the old well, perhaps it was the biggest lizard in the world, and she, brave and clever as she was, had nearly captured it, and yet, it had somehow got away.

The girl and the Confessor took a moment to appreciate this event.

"Now then," said the Confessor, and coughed, his voice dry. "I have attended to you, and if you would be so kind, I would appreciate if you would do something in return for me."

The girl held out the piece of string reluctantly.

"No, no," said the Confessor waving his hand, and the girl happily twitched the string back and started wrapping it around her hand.

"If you would be so good as to tell your village that I am here."

The girl nodded energetically.

"In the meantime, I shall try to find somewhere shady and quiet where they can come and see me. I would also be most grateful if someone might be able to give me a drink of water." His voice trailed off, unsure if the girl had heard this last, for she had turned and ran back towards the village as he spoke, until she was far enough away that she looked liked that rolling little bundle of sticks and string again. The Confessor considered shouting out to her, but it was much too hot to speak. He adjusted his hat to keep the sun from his eyes and with his staff he pushed himself off the rock and went in search of somewhere cooler to sit.


It was some time before any of the villagers brought him a muddy cup to drink, so the Confessor was all the more grateful for the water when he drank it down in one long swallow. He wiped his mouth with satisfaction. On the edge of the village, he had found a small half-collapsed wooden hut that had long been abandoned. One wall, however, was intact enough for the Confessor to sit comfortably in the shade. He leaned back against the worn wooden wall and waited. In slow uncertain trickles, the people of the village came to speak to him, walking towards him with the same curious suspicion shown by the little girl with the string who had first welcomed him to their land. As was customary, people began haltingly, and when they gained more confidence in talking to the Confessor, there was the usual outpouring of old gossip, flourishing feuds, and petty resentments. He heard about which family had stolen land from another family three generations back, about petty slights, about how the stinginess of in-laws-to-be was a well-known disgrace, about angry drunken fights, about mothers and fathers baked to impossible stubbornness by years of heat, about lazy sons and impertinent daughters. For the Confessor, this was like listening to a sort of rough, grumbling music, a folk-plaint that wove through this village and echoed through many other places he had visited in the past. He had heard a lot of this sort of thing over the years, and was well trained enough now that he could follow the gist of the village complaints without too much effort.

It was only as the number of villagers coming to see him by the collapsed hut began to dwindle and the fire of day began to cool with the setting sun that the woman came to speak to him. The Confessor looked impassively at her, as if he was just another unremarkable part of the jumbled-down ruin. The woman walked towards the Confessor, looking neither to the left nor to the right. Her hands were rough and her face sunburned, but she kept her back completely straight with the fierce habit of long years of refusing to be bowed. Like all the other villagers he had seen that day, this woman worked with her hands in the dirt and the sun, but you could see that she had a pride in the back of her, for while her dress was of dull dark material, she had kept it perfectly clean and her collar was as stiff as the woman herself, buttoned neatly all the way up, each button polished and clean. Her hair was strictly tied back, and two streaks of grey made a border between the sheen of where her hair was still black and her face.


The Confessor had placed an upturned washing tub to be used as a stool for those who came to speak to him. She ignored the seat and standing there, began as the others had with small complaints against others in the village and the occasional even smaller complaint against herself. The Confessor said nothing. He made himself as stiff and unmoving as the woman and waited. She fell silent, then, after a time, cracked her knuckles.

"I see you've had some water, and no doubt my neighbours have given you a meagre bite to eat," she said. She kept her lips tight when she spoke, as if to keep flies out, or words in. "You may not think much of what we have to offer, Confessor," she went on, "But it is wealth and bounty compared with what we've had in years gone by, let me tell you. I don't doubt that some of my neighbours complain to you, they look forward to seeing you and letting out a moan. There are a good few of them who have that weakness. But we know each other. We've all lived here, working this land for generations. We are those who stay, Confessor, I have to say that is true here for even those who don't live as they always should. They stay. We all do. This village is a part of us all, you see? Our parents are buried here, and even if there are those who never did anything better than fertilise the ground with their dead selves, still we all belong here. What would we be if we got up and left, Confessor? There might be some who give up when things get hard and move on elsewhere, but we are people of this land, for better or worse. We don't live like vagabonds. It might be all well for you, Confessor, to wander about the place, but that's no way for decent ordinary folk to live. If you don't know where you are in the world, then you aren't much of anything."

The Confessor raised his hands to show that he took no offence at the woman's disdain for his itinerant life. From the way she stared back, it was certain that she was not at all worried about offending the Confessor. The woman ran her hands lightly over her head to make sure every hair was still in place as it should be. She sniffed.

"Not that we haven't had some good years, Confessor," she went on, "We've had some fine times along with the lean. "

Her eyes softened and the merest hint of smiling came to the corners of her mouth.

"Yes, we have had good seasons and bad, Confessor, and some of the good were very fine indeed. Ah! I remember the festivals we used to have back in the day! That was before the aches and pains of life had settled in these bones, when we were fresh and innocent and didn't know a thing about hardship. Unknowing as new-born lambs we were, and how we looked forward to the festivals, my sister and I, after months of hard work! Hard work! Hah! We didn't know what hard work was then, when the land was rich and hale, and the fruit dropped from the trees into your hands. How my sister loved to eat the plums she snatched when we were supposed to be at work, the plump little thing. She was always greedy, was my sister, unable to say no to herself whenever her appetite awoke. At that time, when things were good, her being a greedy little madame didn't matter so much. She was only a year or so younger than me, but what a soft-faced spoiled baby she was. Always chewing away at something, always a stain of juice on her cheek, always dreaming about nothing when her eyes should have been fixed and diligent. It was always left to me to be the responsible one, the sensible one, ever since we were small. She was always a child, really. Never learned an ounce of discipline. Soft, she was."

The woman shook her head.

"Still, we had our fun at the festivals, the little madame and I. The fiddlers and the pipers would be out, and my sister and I would dance all day and all night. She wouldn't deny herself the pleasure, would she? But I, I had earned the right to have a small morsel of enjoyment, at least so I thought then. It is easy to be foolish when things are good, Confessor."

She made a small graceful turn with one hand.

"Ah! How we danced that year at the Midsummer festival! We never stopped for a moment. Why waste time? Even my sister, greedy lazybones that she was, was swept up in the excitement and never wanted to rest her feet! There was a brightness to everything that festival. Partly, no doubt, it was that our bellies were full and the village was prospering from a fine harvest, but partly it was also the way the sunlight lit up our land. It made everything you can see here golden and perfect. If you see this land - the trees and fields and houses, all bright and honey-beautiful like that just once in your life, and feel part of that golden bathing light, like you are preserved as part of the most fine and beautiful sparkling moment, well it is something to hold inside you for all time."

The woman's mouth loosened and the Confessor could see some small sign of how she must have looked that day when she and everything was forever young.

"It was that season's festival when we met him. Ah, we'd know boys before, but they was nothing compared to him. Strong and tall like there was no weight upon him. He was golden too, the sort of man who only exists for that moment when the light is right. He had come from elsewhere, a friend of a friend of a cousin of a cousin, or so he said. We didn't bother too much. He was there to help at one of the farms. The soil had been so rich that year, we didn't know what to do with all that it produced, and it weren't unusual for farms to take on new workers then, when folk could afford it. His hair was pale gold too, like the light from the gentle setting of the day. That's how we knew without saying, my sister and me, that such a fellow could only appear when the season was just so, like a beautiful creature shimmering from out of a land of dreams. Ah me, the look of his eyes, too! Promises of playful dancing they were, and they didn't lie. He danced with my sister and me all through the festival. The way I felt when I was near him. Like a rush of feeling with a sense I never had before. Nothing has ever felt like that, not before, and not since. Our golden lad."

The woman pointed. The Confessor squinted obligingly.

"Over that way. It's just wild weeds and scrub now, but there used to be a beautiful shaded grove there. The golden lad would take me there and twirl me about and sing poems to me.


"O, rare bonny girl,

I've roamed a'whirl,

to pick out a dream,

to spy your eye's gleam,

o'er the world I drove,

questing, deep I dove,

searching for thee,

teeth as pearls o' the sea

locks of fine-spun silk-"


She cleared her throat.

"I don't remember the rest of how it went now. He had many such things, and more beautiful words he'd speak to me. And we'd talk all playful-like in the grove. He'd mock me something fierce. 'A smile from the stern mistress!' he would say and I couldn't stop myself from grinning foolish at the golden lad. He brought a cool breeze of light playfulness to me, did he."

She covered her eyes with a hand.

"Well, in the end, for all that, he picked my silly, fruit-chomping, greedy, pink-cheeked sister. A bad choice, but I didn't know before then how foolish people truly are. They were pledged to each other, and my sister, the daft gosling, was all a'twitter with the preparations, such as they were. Of course, it was my duty to help her with every little thing. I never complained, mind. I always knew my duty, and after that I could never forget it. There was much to do, not that the pair of them would have noticed. That was the end of the golden time for me, no matter how the light looked upon the evening. My sister was making all sorts of plans for the cottage our parents would have built for her. She was already living in it, in her house of dreams, but that was always her way. She never grew up proper, nor scrounged up an ounce of sense in all her days, the little fool."

The Confessor showed that he understood and could picture her sister. The woman went on.

"I kept my silence all that time. If he wanted to choose her, that was his right, wasn't it? I couldn't begrudge my sister her little victory. Much good may it do her, I thought."

She frowned.

"That good didn't last long for my sister in any case. No good does, to my mind, Confessor. That's not the way of things. It's only the weak-minded who think the good times last more than a moment. And so it was for my poor fool sister. After barely a year, the golden man vanished from our village without a word. My sister, the poor infant, kept on saying that the last thing he told her had been about the bed he would have made special for their new cottage. None of that was to be, not ever now. He was gone for good. Off to who knows where. We never found out why he left. Maybe he just became sick of my sister. Maybe he realised it had all been a mistake and ran like a coward. Maybe he just vanished when the seasons changed, and went when the light disappeared for the year. I've never been able to find it in myself to blame him over-much, although he left me with such troubles. But there it was. My sister gone even more feeble in the head. Curled up on the floor and weeping all day and wailing all hours about the bed he had promised he was going to get her."

The woman shook her head.

"That was all bad enough. My sister was no good for work most of the day, such a weeping mess was she, and as our parents were aged then, we couldn't afford the loss of hands. My sister may never have put her back to work our fields and orchards, but even her hands was better than nothing, and now there was more work left for the rest of us. My sister was never the most steadfast of people upon the earth, but when the man up and vanished, she was never quite right again. Always on about the damn bed, and the cottage they were going to build and how happy they were to be, as if he was just gone off a few days a'travelling and would be back home through the door at any moment. Then the yearling was born. A boy-creature born of a soft fool and a golden dream."

There was a cold quiet as the sun had sunk out of sight, leaving only trails of light across the sky. The air was finally beginning to cool a little.

"The child, that child," said the woman with disgust. She shook her head. "There's no sense in it. My sister was not worth much, but even I had to admit that she had the looks when she was young. A pampered thing like herself, she didn't show much of the wear. And to have such a father! But somehow it never came right in the baby. The child looked wrong. I could tell from the moment it were born. As it grew the thing became worse. He was healthy enough, and if you saw him in passing you may not notice. But there was something that weren't right about the child. It was like when you looked at the boy-child, parts of my sister and the child's father were there, but twisted-like, and where you could see there ought to be beauty and sunlight, there was the opposite instead. It made you sick to look at him, somehow."

It was as if she had something disgusting in her mouth when she thought of this, something she could not spit out.

"My sister tried to nurse the child, but she was drawn away to her dreaming sickness and sometimes she forgot the infant even existed. He never cried, the boy, too foolish to do what was best even for himself. There was always a sort of stupid blankness to the boy. Have you ever had a good look in the eye of a sheep, Confessor? Our family could never hold with raising sheep. There's a faithless stupidity to them, when you look at them. Never keep sheep if you can help it. A sheep is barely capable of being. They are always finding fool ways of dying. If it is too hot, or too cold, or too wet, or the wind blows wrong, sheep will die. Sometimes they drop dead for no good reason at all. A sheep is so so stupid and prone to empty-headed risk, that if a sheep could find a way to die two or three times, it would. That's what you always felt when you looked at my poor sister's boy. He was a creature that was barely supposed to live at all. Yet, the boy grew and grew, but never grew into anything worthwhile. We start turning our hands to working the earth young here, and there's surely no doubt that I could have used the smallest help. But even when the boy was old enough to do small things, he could not do them well. Could be he had inherited that from my sister. It was always better to send him off to do who-knows-what. If he put his clumsy little hands to anything, he would make any work twice as long and tiresome. Perhaps if my sister had been stronger, she could have made something of her boy, but that wasn't to be. For a time, although the boy was no use, my sister was not much better, and our parents were growing old and weaker, I managed for a year or two. But then we had our first bad year in some time. There had not been enough rain, and the fields cracked, and the orchids went bare. We kept firm, however, that's our way here. We thought, well perhaps things were bad this season, but the next would be better. The next year, our mother fell sick one afternoon. She spent two weeks trying to get herself up and back to work, until she was too feeble to do that. Then she died. We never knew what sickness struck her down, but that's often true in life, isn't it Confessor? Too often you can't unpick why one dies and another goes on, can you? A few months later, my father died too. Once my mother was gone, he could no longer remember what he was supposed to do to live, so he just stopped."

The woman twitched herself like a whip and snorted.

"If we thought things were going to get better in those days, we were dreaming up fancies. The seasons after were worse and worse. A blight one year left us with little. Then a drought for the next two seasons meant we had almost nothing left. The land, our poor land, our beautiful orchard and fields were an ugly wasteland, a horrible mockery of what it had once been. We could barely grow a thing, and all the while our hunger grew. I don't know how hungry you've been in your life, Confessor. After the bad seasons burned and stormed away our land, we ate less and less, until there was never a time when we were not hungry. There was never enough to eat. Our stores were long gone. We had nothing worth selling, and even if we had, who would we sell it to? Nobody in the village would give up what tiny scraps they had for any price, not when there was so little to eat. Many left the villager to find work and food elsewhere, but the famine must have spread far and wide, for none of those who went in search of life elsewhere ever returned. If you have to starve, you may as well do it in your own land, I say. By the time a long winter had turned the sky cold and dark, we ate up any strips of leather we could find, boiling them and gnawing them, too exhausted to even imagine we were eating real food. Have you ever been so desperately hungry that you eat your candles, Confessor? Or so hungry that you will dig up lumps of clay from out towards the river, and be glad to swallow down that clay because, if it won't do you any good, at least it will not do you much more harm, and when it slides down into your stomach, it feels something like being full?"

The woman stared at the Confessor, who said nothing, but lowered his head slightly.

"Everything was hunger, by then, Confessor. If there was any animal alive that you could run fast enough to catch or trap, someone would eat it. There were no more pets or strays to be found anywhere in the village. All that existed was hunger. There was no law any more in the village. Who was strong enough to keep it? If the villagers could get their hands on something to eat, it was snatched away. People were less than beasts. Tired, weak, maddened beasts with starving eyes. You learn what you are capable of when there is so little, Confessor. All prettiness is stripped away. My sister had taken to bed by then, and I had little strength myself. Yet I had to work even harder than ever, just to collect the little scraps that might keep us alive for another day. The boy was no good, not even for a moment. He would sit stupidly in front of the small fire and no amount of firm words could ever cut through to that lump of nothingness. When there is little food, Confessor, it becomes very clear that not all mouths are worth feeding. As the storms battered the walls and my sister lay there and talked to herself, I was out scrounging weeds to boil up to make a feeble soup that might keep us for a little while longer. If I should find such a thing as a crust of old mouldy bread, it was as if a miracle, a saddened reminder of the feasts my sister and I enjoyed in good times. How we would crowd about that pathetic piece of bread! I didn't let my hands tremble at such times, Confessor. No, I held the knife firm, for this was a solemn occasion, as I cut that crust into little pieces so we might make it last. And every time I had to feed that boy, it sickened me. Some day, in a few years, this burden would be growing towards manhood. What did he deserve such a thing for? It was one thing to have to starve and work until weary to gather a few feeble pieces of something like food to feed my poor soft-headed sister - she was my sister, after all, and little as she was now, I could remember her pink happy cheeks and lazy contentment of sunny days gone by. But the boy was still nothing, no matter how you exhorted him, or cried at him. He had no sense of his duty, of what he should be. And every time to look at his sodden unformed features was to be reminded that the boy was like the father, but in no good way at all. The boy was like the withered corpse of the man, blank-faced and stupid. If there was any of his father's spirit in him, perhaps I could have at least respected the child, but he was nothing but a disgusting mockery of the man who had been. If he had spoken out for himself or wailed or cursed, I would not have loved the creature, but I could have at least known that he was something with a faint flicker of life, rather than a poorly formed piece of clay, empty inside, where hidden ugliness echoed to those who knew how to listen. So I gave more of our meagre ration to my sister, Confessor, to keep the poor head-sick fool alive, and I gave less to her boy. I hated that boy, Confessor, but I do not feel bad for telling you so. He did not have what a person has inside them that makes you treat them as a person. The boy was a thing of mud, through and through. I gave him less food and my sister more, day by day he ate less and my sister ate more of his share, and the blank faced creature, this omen of disaster never said a word. He swallowed his little crumbs in silence and sat staring at the fire while the rain lashed our roof. He was a monstrous parasite that had crept into our household. I felt no shame it giving him less to preserve the life of my sick sister. With the only strength I had left, with my will, I was opposing this mud leech that had crawled into our home. Less and less food for it every day, a slow battle between us."

The woman waved a hand.

"I won someday, although so worn were we by want that it was hard to know how long I fought the mud worm in front of the fire, I only know that one day I won. It was hard work to bury him on my own, weak as I was, but I was glad to do it, no matter how long it took. The hateful creature had been driven out, that canker eating away at us with its empty eyes. Once it was destroyed, we could try to live on. And we did. My sister was never right in the head, but she lived. And I lived."

The Confessor looked into the woman's eyes. She snarled.

"I don't feel guilty for it, Confessor. Not a grain of guilt do I carry. I'm proud of it, Confessor. I don't want any advice from you. It doesn't weigh upon me, not like you might want to think. I have just longed to tell some one, that's all. I have kept that quiet battle to myself for so long and never told anyone, that's why I wanted you to know, Confessor. That's your duty, isn't it? To hear? We all have to do what we must."


It was almost completely dark by now. The Confessor sat silently and stared at the village woman while something barked in the distance. His eyes shone there against the tumble-down wall of the shed. She did not blink when she looked at the Confessor, but stood straight and unbowed. The Confessor made a gesture to show that he had heard, and she marched off. Sitting for a while, the Confessor contemplated what he had heard over the day.


In time, when the everyday need of having to find a place to sleep for the night came upon him, he lifted himself up from his seat with his trident-staff and cracked his back. He was about to venture into the village when the village woman returned with a sack. She dropped it at his feet and disappeared back into the night without a word. The Confessor opened the mouth of the sack. Inside was a bounty of food - bread, dried meat, and fine plums sitting there heaped in the bottom of the sack.




I I.


It was late in the morning before the Confessor caught sight of the valley. He had been walking since before the sun had come up, because he had sheltered for the night under a large old yew tree, but had slept poorly because of the shrieking of some birds above his head. The birds, for reasons known only to themselves, were not inclined to wait until it was light to quarrel over their nests. There had also been unseen rustling life that scurried about the roots of the great tree where the Confessor laid his head. Practice had given him the ability to rest wherever there was opportunity, and once he was certain the small rustling beasts amongst the roots had no interest in him lying there in his black cassock with his large black hat over his face and his hands folded over his chest, the Confessor managed to close his eyes for some short spans, until the bird arguments above his head and the curious rustling about his boots convinced him that he would not sleep any more that night and might as well set out now and leave the beasts and the birds to their own noisy business.


The Confessor had not slept under a roof for some days, and the prospect of somewhere more comfortable cheered his heart. Soon, if he would reach the old city in the foothills, he might even be able to beg a bed for a night from some generous soul. There, in cool white and green were the mountains, and at their base he should find the old city. He chewed at a small crust of bread and waved his trident-staff with happiness, feeling for a moment like a child with a rattle. The Confessor looked around guiltily, but thankfully there was no one to see him.


In time, as he trudged up the path through the valley he could see the old city wall before him, and worn fortifications that climbed back towards the mountains. The air became cooler as the Confessor entered the city walls, the same grave and stained stone used throughout the city. It would take some effort of mind, but even in the time-worn state of the city, you could perhaps imagine how it must have stood proud below the mountain peaks.


The Confessor spent much of the day touring around the streets of the city, awaiting those who wished to speak. There were people about here and there inside the sagging stone walls, but it was clear these walls had been built to hold many more. The city felt only part-inhabited, and the people he saw and who came to him were weary and only-half present, as if they had already begun to slip away somewhere, as if they would drift away when you were not looking and be absorbed by the great mountains looming behind, the same mountains that had watched generations of individual lives with calm and mighty indifference.


Many of those in the old stone city who had found the Confessor had talked about their fears, fears of all sizes. Some were worried about what they would have to do to earn food, some feared the revenge of those they had wronged who may be stronger and more dangerous than themselves, some feared in a choked and inarticulate way that they could not clearly express to the Confessor or themselves, no matter how he tried to help them.


Weary and unsatisfied with his work of the day, the Confessor had found a perch on a wooden bench in a courtyard outside the front of a tavern. The noise of the place had led him here, and he hoped that here at least, where there was inebriated clamour, there might also be some sign of life in the cold old city. The Confessor shivered beneath his robes and propped his staff against the wall. Some of the drinkers shouted over at him. Some mocked him, and the Confessor watched these men and women and saw that they did not even know why they did that. More fear, he supposed. Indeed, the longer he watched, and the more they drank and the darker it grew and the noisier the tavern crowd became inside and out, the more the Confessor realised there was nothing of celebration in the raucousness of this tavern. The noise was only there in an attempt to forget, to blot out, even if only for a moment. An older bald-headed man with a grey towel tucked into the side of his trousers came out and glared at the Confessor. Perhaps he was in charge of the tavern, and was about to send the Confessor on his way, feeling that Confessors were not good for his business. The Confessor wrapped his hands around his staff and half-raised himself, but after a moment the man with the grey towel went back inside without a word, so the Confessor relaxed back onto the bench.


As the night spread, a few of the drinkers came to sway over the Confessor and tell him their disjointed thoughts, often forgetting the point of what they wanted to say and starting again, or wandering off mid-sentence. When it had become dark the bald man came out and lit lamps raised around the courtyard. By the pale flickering light of the lamps, those who shouted and sang and drank seemed even more ghostly. A large group sitting by a wooden table to the side of the entrance started a loud debate that, from what the Confessor could hear, sounded like a difference of several opinions about what had happened at a past night of drinking that sounded much like the one they were having at that very moment. One young man took advantage of his companions being deep enough in their cups and their talk that they would not notice his leaving, and limped between the lights and shadows over towards the bench against the wall where the Confessor sat. The Confessor took off his large black hat so that he might see a little better by the lamp light. He brushed his hat, an action more ceremonial than effective at cleaning the material, and laid it down beside him on the bench.


Without speaking, the young man sat besides the Confessor. The young man placed an earthenware jug and cup beside him. He wore a soldier's uniform, a dark red cloth with buttons that shone when the lamp light found them. The Confessor presumed that those the soldier had just separated himself from were his comrades in arms. There was a wild darting to the young soldier's eyes, which never rested in one place for long. He poured out from the jug and handed the cup to the Confessor, who took the drink with polite thanks. A taste from the cup revealed that it was red wine. The wine was cool and watery, with a metallic aftertaste that appeared after it had been swallowed. The Confessor nodded appreciatively to the young soldier, who took a great swig straight from the earthenware jug and wiped his face.

"I know the wine isn't much," said the soldier. His voice was tired and worn. "It doesn't even do as much as it used to, don't you find that? When I was a little lad, a few sips stolen from an unattended goblet could set my head spinning. It takes a lot more than that now, and it doesn't even bring deep sleep any more." The soldier took another swig from his wine-jar.

"Some days they were then. Like stray dogs, we were when young," he continued, "Me and my best pal. Bloodyhead we used to call him. Wasn't just the colour of his hair. Little Bloodyhead would dive into any trouble, head first, and he took more than his share of cuts and knocks and always asked for more, the mad devil. And I was always there a step behind him when he'd go head-first into trouble. Little street rats we were, born and raised right here inside the walls, well, raised is too strong a word for it, Confessor. Nobody really raised us. Nobody wanted to claim me and Bloodyhead, so we raised ourselves, or the city raised us. Never seemed odd to us. We knew lots of other children just like us. We didn't really know life was rough, or we didn't understand it. We thought we were free to do whatever took our fancy. Didn't understand how other people could stay locked up in one place, in schools or in workhouses. That wasn't for us. Middeners, we were. Me and Head would pick over the rubbish heaps with the other young ones who had no particular place to be, looking for food and objects that might entertain us, getting into fights as a way to pass the time."

The soldier exhaled. It was cold enough that the steam of his breath was visible in the lamplight. The Confessor could smell the wine in the air.

"We were good in a fight, Head and me. Head had no fear, he'd throw himself right in. It didn't matter if the lad he was fighting was bigger than him. He even threw that thick skull of his right at a few grown men. No hesitation. He was that furious, though, like a whirling imp, like a burning coal thrown right at you. He always put 'em on the back foot and never let up until he'd knocked them to the ground. I was always right beside him, although I was never as fearless as him. I was terrified everytime he shot himself off swinging, but I was always behind him no matter what, because as scared as I was of gettin' a beating at that age, I was more scared of my pal realising that I hadn't come swinging in after him like I always did. S'funny, I think Head actually enjoyed flinging himself right into a smash. It was fun for him, I reckon. He was wild for it. Even when he got knocked about and smashed to the ground, and that wasn't often, there he'd be grinning like a broken-toothed loon, blood gushing out of his nose, his face cut up to a mess."

The soldier took a long draught from the wine jug. The Confessor took another modest sip.

"That's how we lived, Bloodyhead and me, running from one smash-up to another. And we got bigger, as lads are wont to do, and started doing some petty thieving and fighting for one of the gangs back in the day. Thinking back on it now, they were probably not much more than lowly cutpurses and brawlers, but back then they were like gods to us. Ah, how we looked up to their leaders. Everything they did impressed us. We didn't know a thing, feral rubbish-heap kids we was. You know the gang paid us for our services with a little knife? We would probably have done their thieving and the like for nothing, but we loved that little knife. We'd squabble over whose turn it was to have it, and if we had nothing better to do, we'd take it out and admire the blade and sharpen it all the time. Like little animals admiring a wonder fallen from the sky we were."

The soldier almost smiled at the thought.

"We did well, working for these men, and the younger midden-children, the next generations of street rats started making up songs about us when they saw us about the alleyways:


'The Bloodyhead boy is chargin',

he ain't never fear to strike you

for while most have but one shadow

that damn greedy devil has two.'


A little whistled tune followed from the soldier.


"Head loved it. He wanted people to run when they saw him rushing at 'em with me behind. When we saw the panic in their eyes, we knew we had 'em. Another sort of lad might have been put out to be called his shadow, I suppose. Never bothered me, really," said the soldier, "Head and me were a team. We'd come through all sorts. He was a mad, dangerous boy, but I knew him, and he knew me, and it was better to be his second shadow and behind him than to be the poor fool who was in front of him when he got his steam up and his head down."

Grinning wryly, the soldier sloshed around the jug of wine. He took another drink.

"Those were the days, when we were too stupid to know how bad things were. It couldn't last. Nothing lasts, does it Confessor? Look around you. This was once one of the great cities. Even when we were young rats, you could still see the faded glory that had died here. But now..."

The soldier shrugged.

"Our work for the gang ended one day when some of 'em was stupid enough to try and rob one of the garrisons. I don't think it was even for anything impressive. They were trying to pinch a bunch of trousers or something to try and sell them on. The gang was caught and smashed up by the soldiers. That garrison was thorough. They tracked down anyone even associated with the gang and captured them, so once they had gone through the rest of the thieves, last of all they dragged me and Bloodyhead off and locked us up. We put up a half-hearted fight, but there was a whole squad, all boots and weapons, and even Bloodyhead couldn't get excited about getting chopped up or strung up for someone's stolen trousers."

"Well, when we were locked up, one of the sarges must have seen something useful in us, so me and Bloodyhead were put into uniform and sent off to fight the enemies of the city. We always heard about the city being at war with one lot or another, but never paid much mind way or the other. Well, the sarge told us that the city's territories needed constant protection from pigswine enemies and rebels all across the map, and we were going to do our part for our mother city, whether we liked it or not. So they trained us with marching, and with a whole lot of sarges and captains shouting at us all the time, and Bloodyhead didn't care much for any of that and would have done a bunk or broken some sarge's jaw and have us thrown back in the lock, but they also trained us with weapons, which was enough to keep Head occupied for a time, at least until we were sent out into action. We hadn't thought much about war until we were in one or two, but it made sense to us. If you thought that someone was going to strike you, you had to strike them first to put the fear into them, instead of in you. Seemed to us that soldiering and war was just like being a street rat or in a gang, except bigger and with uniforms."

The soldier laughed at this and the Confessor's eyes darkened.

"Course we didn't know a damn thing, did we? Thrown into uniform when we wasn't much more than filthy children. Turns out there is some excitement and heat in attacking the pigswine enemies in soldiering, but there's mostly lots and lots of marching, and keeping your kit clean, and more waiting than anyone needs in one lifetime. Bloodyhead didn't like waiting for the fight. I think it felt...not pure to him. The rush head-first was the thing. If you wait, you are just sitting there stewing, and starting to think, and you don't need thoughts to creep into your head when you were crouched in a hole over the border, waiting to fight a pack of wild enemy pigswines everyone told you was ten feet tall and liked to tear the flesh from our lads with their bare teeth."

The soldier squinted down into his wine jug.

"When there wasn't any fighting, we were bored, to be honest, bored and stupid. So we would sneak off to find a bit of fun. Break some things. Steal things to try and sell. Find some drink and something we could nick that was tastier than a lowly foot-soldier's ration. Maybe start a few fires, just to have something happen. We had got away with it for a few months because we were always posted out of the way. Locals weren't going to say anything if they caught us up to our tricks. They were too scared, and had bigger things to worry about, like if a proper battle was going to come and cut them away. As Bloodyhead saw it, we were almost doing a bit of good if we broke into a few places and messed them up. If they were pigswine enemies of the city, then we'd put some fear into 'em, and if we were on our side of the line, well, it'd teach them to be a bit more careful in future. We were over on an enemy side of the border one day and had snuck off late afternoon to find something to entertain us. We came across a shack in the middle of nowhere. Didn't even have to kick the door in to have a look around. There wasn't much interesting inside, and we were turning the place over for no good reason, when Bloodyhead made a surprised noise and his eyes went wide. We turned around, and some damn kid barely old enough to piss standing up, if you'll pardon me, Confessor, some lightfooted kid must have seen us in the hut and snuck up on us and swung a bloody great big billhook, a chopper almost as big as the piglet swine, swung right at Bloodyhead's neck, and hit him too. The piglet dropped the billhook, turned and did a runner, and Bloodyhead, true to his nature, started right out running after the kid, ready to tear it in two. I followed close behind as Head pelted across the grass, until Head suddenly seemed to trip and collapse onto the ground. He wasn't moving. The kid was long gone, but the little creature must have got a lucky hit, because when I went to check on my pal, there was blood leaking all out of him where the billhook had cut him. His face was all covered in gore and dirt from having taken a tumble. Now I don't know nothing much about doctoring, but I tore up some strips of cloth and tried to bandage the wound on Bloodyhead as best as I could. Even I could tell just by looking that it was sure as the day ends that those scraps wasn't enough to stop the bleeding. He had to be got back to our camp for someone there with supplies and proper knowing to get him sewed up if he was going to have any chance of surviving."

The soldier shrugged.

"Well, Confessor, we were out in the middle on our own, like I said, and there's nobody about to lend aid, since we had snuck out over the line on our own. I didn't think about it for but a moment, but hauled Bloodyhead awkwardly over my back like a big leaking sack of meat and blood, and started heading back to camp as quick as I could. He seemed to get heavier and heavier with every step I took through that deserted land, which didn't make any sense to me at the time. If his life was leaking away, surely he ought to get lighter as there was less of him left. He didn't feel much like anything alive on my back, and I couldn't hear a single noise out of him the whole time I walked, even though there wasn't any noise except maybe a gentle breeze in the long grass as I struggled on through. He just got heavier and heavier. If I had any brains, I would have dumped him in the grass. There was every chance that the kid who had taken a lucky strike to Bloodyhead's neck would go fetch some pals of his own to come finish me off too. But dumping him never occurred to me, Confessor. Not because I'm brave or loyal to him I grew up with, but just because I'd always been his second shadow, hadn't I? And this was just what I always did."

The soldier tipped his head back and drank, holding the jug over his mouth for some moments to catch the very last drops. Shaking the wine jug to make sure it was empty, he put it down carefully on the ground.

"It was some ways back, and he kept getting heavier and heavier. I don't really remember getting back into camp with Bloodyhead. I think I was covered in sweat and blood when I collapsed. The short of it was that I'd made it back to camp in time for the cutter there to patch Head up. The cutter told me that Head would have been a corpse if I hadn't carried him back all that way."

The stone wall the Confessor and soldier were sat against was getting colder as the shadows between the lanterns deepened. The soldier's comrades drinking over by the tavern entrance were becoming louder and drunker and more frenzied.

"There was a lot of shouting after that from the sarges, of course, and the brass weren't happy, but I suppose they decided that two lowly soldiers roaming around wasn't important enough to bother with that week. Head was sent to a hospital somewhere, and I was posted to guard one muddy field after another in different companies."

"A shadow on its own doesn't amount to much, does it, Confessor?" said the soldier quietly, "This was the first time Head and I hadn't been side by side. He was off lying in a bed somewhere, while I was being moved around to see if anybody wanted to cut my throat. I followed orders. That wasn't much of a problem for me. I didn't have anything better to do. I was a passable soldier, and months went by, and I marched from one place to another and waited, and saw people torn to pieces and lying like ugly lumps of meat that you wouldn't believe ever had life in them, and I fought when I was told to, and did what I was told, and then marched on elsewhere to do it again, and years passed."

The Confessor took a small sip from his wine and waited for the soldier to continue.

"I hadn't heard from Bloodyhead for some time," the soldier said, "I got word he had survived the hospital, but after that, nothing. Wasn't so strange. We didn't really ever know what was happening in the army. I was wounded badly in the leg one day. I'm not even sure how it happened. We were facing some enemy in a field and I had rain and mud in my eyes and someone got me in the thigh and I fell down. It seemed to make as much sense as anything else. With my leg like that, I wasn't much good for marching any more, so they sent me back home, here into the stone walls of the city. They gave me a job sitting down that I barely have enough brains to do. They made me a paper soldier. In the city, everyone whispers all the time, fearful things, and I started to hear that Bloodyhead had deserted some time ago, not long after when he had been able to get out of the hospital."

The glinting eyes of city-scavenging animals could be seen in the distance, creeping about the streets, just outside the boundary of lamp light. Something coughed and then barked.

"Later," the soldier said quietly and slowly, "Later, I started hearing stories about him. That he had joined up with some rebels in the mountains. That he was their fiercest member. That he was soon running at their head, breaking into the provinces and even into the city walls to cut and smash and stab and kill. Rumours talk of him as if he is a monster now, a man who has died once and cannot die again. The Bloodyhead Beast, who will slice open man, woman, child, or animal with equal glee, and play amongst their entrails. "

The soldier coughed and spat onto the cobbles between his legs. When he straightened up, the Confessor saw his lips and teeth were stained red with wine.

"I have never again seen him since I carried him back to the camp, Confessor, but I hear about him, or something like him all the time now. I was sitting one day at my little desk, doing my paper soldiering, when I heard from another room a woman calmly explaining that her entire family had been killed by Bloodyhead and his band. He had cut up their legs so they could not walk, then set their house on fire, taunting them and driving them back if they tried to crawl from the flames. The woman who was explaining this in the other room was trying to get the army to do something about this, but you could tell from how empty her voice was that she had said these same things many times already and she had no hope that these things could be stopped. I have done much wickedness myself, I know that, and I did it because I knew no better. But even in this life you can learn. The army is a fine place to learn the stupid emptiness of killing another person. It is hard to make anything mean anything, Confessor, but especially ending lives, I think. The Bloodhead Beast roams in and out of the city and kills without reason, they say. As one who has died, he hates the living, they say, and burns to destroy them, to drink their blood. I have heard these stories so often, they become worse than real. And I lie awake at night, and think that even if only half, even a tenth of what the rumours speak about the Bloodhead Beast are true, I was the one who saved him. I kept him alive so that he could grow to become a monster. If I had left him to die, Confessor, if I had thought for myself just once, would that have been the right thing to do? Would that death have been better than all the others that followed? Every time he kills, that is my fault too, in part. I gave him that, didn't I? What if what they say is true and he cannot be caught and he cannot be strung up? Will he go on covering himself in blood from crown to heel?"

The soldier shivered. "I cannot bear it, Confessor."

The Confessor wrapped his robe around himself and sat thoughtfully. Then he spoke.

"There is enough wickedness in the world that we need not take on that which is not our own. The shadow is not the same as that which casts it," he said. Then he made a sign to show that he had listened to the soldier and would think upon it. The solder was no longer paying attention. He was staring out towards where the mountains must be there in the dark beyond the stone city, waiting.



I I I.



The scenery on the path by the coast was soothing to the Confessor, even if he had been plagued by a cloud of flying bugs some miles back. He had taken off his large black hat and tried to wave them off, but they had ignored the hat, flowing around it and humming mockingly. Scratching at one bite on his neck absentmindedly, the Confessor walked on. The air was warm and salty here along the coast. He had stopped on some dark grey rocks overlooking the waves to rest, and carefully had some water and a bite to eat. He tried not to think about scratching the insect bites and tried to remember if there was something he might find growing wild that could possibly soothe the itching, but frustratingly nothing came to mind. When he had finished eating and drinking, he climbed down to the pebbled beach and cautiously walked to the wavering water's edge. When the wash came towards hin, he splashed his hands in the cool sea, cleaning himself and wiping some salt water on to his bites as an afterthought, just in case it might help. Walking back to his path, the Confessor found a rock pool. He poked at the rocks with the base of his staff, and amidst a cloud of dirt in the water, a rather large crab stared angrily up at him. The Confessor apologised to the crab and continued on his way.


His path curved along the water. In the distance, he could see the remains of the grand old mansions. Once, these seaside buildings would have commanded a fine view over the water and received cooling breezes in the worst heat of summer, but the mansions had been abandoned some time ago and were slowly collapsing out of sight into the weeds and bushes and creepers and trees that were gradually covering them over. The Confessor idly noted that the houses being swallowed by the green-brown plants looked to have been left relatively untouched by human hands since their owners had gone. Perhaps these buildings were too far from anything else to be worth the trouble of stripping them.


Late morning brought a strong salty-vinegar smell in the air, and a coastal town came into view. Everything was gnawed with salt air and damp, despite the cool breeze. The Confessor could soon see that most of the village was little more than simple huts, especially by the waterfront. The locals accepted that the structures would not stand forever, and did not bother to waste time making them more lavishly permanent. Off to the north east beyond the village the waves slapped at the cliffs, and there were still some posts and struts visible, signs of earlier versions of the fishing town that had fallen into the rising tides.


Whenever the breeze settled, flies would fill the void. It was never quiet, between the drone of the insects, the cries of birds, and the regular wet rough hissing of the waves before they threw themselves against the rocks and the pebbled shore, slowly pushing thick clots of foam and seaweed back and forth.


The Confessor did not have much success in the fishing town. No doubt they were too busy, he thought to himself. The inhabitants were a weathered lot, faces marked and pitted by lives facing the salt water lash of sea and wind beneath the sun. They gave distrusting glances to the Confessor. They had no time for strangers, when they were devoted to surviving between land and sea, while the slow devouring surf took more and more of their village with such lazy power that you could only see it happen in the span of years.

The Confessor set himself on a log which had been left exposed for long enough that the part of it nearest to the ground was turning into a spreading brown substance. All over the surface of the log were marks. The Confessor squinted at the lines on the wood. They were clearly cut into the log's surface with knives, but no matter how hard he looked over the chaos of lines and scratches, he could not make out a sign of a single name, or of a word, or even a letter. The Confessor sat on the log with his trident-staff raised. He could see and hear much of the activity of the fishing village from here. They didn't fall silent when they saw him. Instead, the inhabitants talked loudly but somehow always away from him as they went about their work, tarring boats, cutting wood, mending nets. He watched them for a good while but nobody came to speak to him. They never stopped watching him as they worked. He smiled patiently upon the fisher folk. After a good while, the Confessor suppressed a yawn and philosophically decided he might as well stretch his legs and stroll about the water. Perhaps he might find someone willing to share a small fish to eat with him.


As he walked away from the waterfront, he found himself drifting in the direction of the remnants of the old town that had been taken by the sea. Feeling as if the stinging winds were whipping about so forecefully that they were keeping the air from his lungs. he paused to catch his breath. The wind seemed to move a shape in the distance, there among the long sharp grass on a hill. The Confessor squinted. The shape moved again, and he realised it wasn't the wind idly thrashing against brown grass, but was the shape of a person, someone sitting on this hill just out of reach of the fishing town and staring out over the water. The Confessor approached slowly, nodding politely every few steps and smiling at the person. As he got closer, two damp eyes turned to him, and the Confessor was relived to find that he hadn't been mistaken that here was a living shape. It was a young woman, not much more than a girl. Her sandy hair was cut short and indifferently. Her jaw was square, and although there was a solidity to the young woman's hunched frame, her eyes were watery confusion. She wore an apron that was so stained it was impossible to tell what colour it had been originally. Her clothes beneath the apron were a dull brown-green that looked as if they had been taken directly from where she was sitting on the hill and explained why it was so hard to see her at all until she moved. The Confessor nodded again and took a seat next to her on the ground. A gust of wind brought a sudden rotting stench that made the inner corners of his eyes and nose smart. The Confessor held on to his black hat to stop it flying off.


"You don't have to sit so close by," said the girl in a flat voice, turning to look up at him, "It's the smell. You can't be rid of it. I won't be offended if you move."

Taking a moment to adjust, the Confessor waved his hand to show that there was no need for that and he was perfectly happy to remain here.

The two of them sat in silence for a good while, counting slow fat waves.

"They won't have given you much of a reception in town, Confessor," she said nervously, "I'm not sure why. I've lived there my whole time, and I don't know what they are thinking. Sometimes it feels like they all talk in some secret way that I don't hear or understand. They all know things and I don't even know what I'm missing. That's how it feels." She scratched her hair. "'Course, it could be the losses. A lot of boats have gone over the last few months. Not even during storm. Sometimes the water will be thick and flat, and they will go out to fish and only some of them will come back. Nobody know why it's happening, or at least, nobody told me. Sometimes even a boat will come floating back, all empty, but pure untouched, and no one can say why. So the town talks to itself and don't trust anything, without knowing why."

The Confessor nodded understandingly. He and the girl watched a group of birds screech at each other on the edge of a rock, as if in heated debate.

"I went deep down the water myself, Confessor," the girl said suddenly, "Not that long ago. I'm sure nobody noticed. They have their own things to think about, I suppose. I've been working in the shed there my whole life, for what it is." She gestured in explanation.

"The shed, that's where we take care of the fish once the boats have brought 'em in. Mostly women we are there, and I've been working there since I can remember. They let me have a corner to sleep, for I've never had elsewhere to go, or else they aren't bothered by the space I take up. The women clean and descale the fish, their knives and hands so fast you can't see them, and they talk the whole time while their hands clean the fish. They stand there all day talking and cutting and scraping. Sometimes they sing over the fish and the knives, too,


'Little silver coat

come out o' the sea,

Shining silver skin

sing my days to me.'


I don't understand what some of the songs are about. Jokes, too, I think, but I don't know. Ain't nobody never explained them to me. The singing and larking is just what they do over the fish when they ain't talking. There's others who are in charge of pickling. They're the most important of those who work in the shed. Most of the fish end up pickled in barrels. Some get in salt. The eldests who know the recipes keep it like it is some old secret. I don't do none of that. I ain't important. They have me collect the fish guts and take them away. It's a job for a child, picking up innards all day and putting them in buckets and shooing the hungry gulls and throwing the guts away and coming back to get more, and always stinking, no matter how much you try to clean. Even after I came out of the water, I still stunk of fish guts, and I don't even know how long I was awash in there. I should have got used to it. Everybody in the town is used to the smell of fish and vinegar, but I'm the one that always only smells of fish guts. When I think the smell has gone, I'll turn or wake up and there it is again making me sick to my stomach. I'd not want to be doing the guts all my life, but who will have me do other work? I can't move my hands as quick as the women with the knives, can I? I don't know the other work. I don't know how to do anything much. So they leave me to do the child's job with the buckets of guts."

She hugged her knees.

"I never talked to a Confessor before, you know? But there ain't nobody else here I can talk to. I could shout it at the wind, but the wind is deaf and I'd feel a fool. I feel like I haven't any strength. I'm not sure it's even worth telling you. I get up and do my work and I go to sleep and get up and do my work, and if I'm there or not it don't make no difference. Honest, I haven't done anything right in my life. I don't think I'd know how. I'm like... a sort of accident, a left over. Like the part of the fish you can't do nothing with. Fish guts. I'm fish guts. I suppose I'm lucky to have a place to eat and sleep and some work to do, I've heard there's many out there who ain't so lucky. But it don't feel lucky to me, Confessor. It don't feel like anything. I ain't got no family, nor no friends, Confessor. I ain't important to anybody, and why should a person be here if there ain't a single reason for them to be? Oh, I've had, well, esteem, Confessor, strong esteem for someone, but thems don't know or care."

She shrugged.

"Why should anyone bother themselves about whether I am or not, Confessor? I shouldn't think I'd bother about me. There's nothing to recommend me now, is there? I ain't pretty, or smart, or useful, or lively."

Lowering her head, her voice was almost muffled by the wind.

"But even if I understand why there's no time for me, Confessor, even if I understand why I'm not ever part of the talking, it still hurts me inside my stomach. It shouldn't, I know. I ought to be tougher about it, for there's nobody else to blame for my being here, is there? The least thing I could do is learn to be accepting of the nothing of my days, but I ain't even done that proper."

Picking up a pebble, she turned it around carefully in her hands.

"Oftentimes I don't sleep so good. It don't matter if I'm tired or not, anyway, but when it's dark and I'm trying to sleep and you can hear a rattling from the wind between the boards, I can't hardly sleep. I get this itch, you see. Maybe it's always there, like the rattling boards, but I can only feel it when it's night. I get this terrible itch about me. Under my fingernails. Behind my lips. But most of all, in the bone in my head. It doesn't matter how I scratch at it, I can't get to this itch. I always try but it never goes away. I can scratch until there's blood and my skin hurts, I can't get right into inside where the itch is. The only thing I can think when that itching keeps me awake at night, when it stops me from having the piece of quiet of being nothing, being asleep, before I have to get up for another day and do all the things I'm supposed to do that don't matter, the only thing I think when it keeps me from the nice quiet sleep is that I wish I wasn't there. That's clear to me, in the middle of the night, that the only way to not feel the itching would be if I wasn't there at all. If I wasn't there, then I couldn't feel the itch, could I?"

Pausing, she threw the pebble aimlessly in front of her.

"I think how nice that'd be, Confessor, not to be anymore. Even if people say there are those who would be happy to have what I have, I still think how nice it'd be not to feel that itch at night, not to feel sick during the day when everyone is working the fish and singing and joking and talking far away from me."

She shrugged.

"One night, I couldn't sleep as usual, and I crept out past the shed and the boats and I climbed up high above, where the things had fallen into the sea years back, and I thought how loud it was even at that time of night, the crashing and the creaking, and I wondered if it was quiet underneath the water. I thought it must be quieter, and how strange it must be that there are old huts and houses and things that fell into the sea, and how it must be like a quiet lost town under there, with the water going in and out, far away from this noise. I didn't think long and hard about it, standing there, Confessor, but I decided that I would throw myself in, that if I had a choice, I would rather not be here. I'm not brave in any way. I don't think I've ever done anything brave people do. Could be I did it without thinking because I'm not very clever, and there's nothing brave about that. Maybe I just moved all by myself without needing to think. But I walked out over the edge, into the air, and down."

There was a gleaming in her eyes, as if she was sinking slowly now, wondering at something that only she could see.

"I must have fallen in to the side. There was a big slap on one side of my face and all down that side of me. It hurt terrible. I couldn't see anything but thick murk, and then I was sinking and I drank the murk, horrible and salt and all there was to breathe. I suppose it must have been cold, but it just felt like stinging pain to me. It was so dark and blurred that my thoughts tried to fill it up, in little pieces, little images. And then I don't know."

She shook her head and bit at her nails angrily.

"Couldn't even do that right, Confessor. I woke up on the shore, not far from here, my face on the stones. My face was sore. My eyes were sticky, and it took a while to get them open. The first thing I saw were two gulls staring at me. Waiting to see if I was something to eat or not. It wasn't even full light yet. Just the first little bright before the sun has come up. I got up slow. I brushed myself off. I went in to work, just like every day. I went to carry buckets of fish guts back and forth like usual and I still stunk bad, even after being in the water, and nobody said nothing because nobody noticed."

The Confessor looked at her with kindness.

"The short of it is that I don't know what I feel bad about, Confessor," she said, "Do I hurt now because I tried to go away into the water, or because I didn't do it right? I'm sort of stuck. Worse off than before, because nothing is even different after I woke up on the shore. I don't know what to do. I guess nothing."

The Confessor was silent and thoughtful for a good while.

"I am merely a Confessor," he said gently, "I cannot tell you what to do. I can only sit here and listen to what gives you, and others, pain. I don't know how to fix that, and for that I am sorry. But I do listen. And when I leave, I will take that away with me. And I promise I will try to remember you and what you have said as I travel. I will carry a small part of you and of others together with me as I go, and will hold those parts within m