Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The Student's Second Tale

The man who considered himself a warrior, a young man just beginning to reach his prime and just leaving the tumult of his teenage years, walked down an empty path through the hills of the kingdom. It was summer, and though the day was, by all accounts, cool, the young man, Arthur, found himself incredibly uncomfortable; his father's armor, given to him by his mother before Arthur left the household three weeks ago, was heavy, ill-fitting, and the combination of the stitches in the leather scratching any exposed skin and the chains in the mail forced Arthur to yearn for nothing more than a jackass so that he could get by without having to carry the weight on his shoulders.
At a distance of what seemed to be five, perhaps seven leagues, was the capitol of the kingdom: Oxham. He'd never been, nor had his mother, but his father had, once. It was before the war that took him far to the east - and before he returned with the chain mail Arthur now wore upon him. The only thing his father would say about the city was, "Aren't enough cows. Too many people. Not enough cows. People don't have nothing in their eyes what comes close to cows."
Arthur hadn't known what his father was talking about - and neither had his mother - but  now, years after that and after having been educated in Thought by a nearby priest, Arthur understood that his father had, most likely, seen things in that war that no man had seen, that led him to forsake humanity as soulless. The priest, obviously, disagreed with this notion of Arthur's father, and suggested wholeheartedly that Arthur pay it no mind. Still, that did not stop the priest from suggesting that Arthur not go abroad from their hamlet. The world, the priest said, was a, well, worldly thing. When questioned further, the priest would not expound, and forced Arthur to read from the hymnal instead of something more substantial.
Still, after a few months of such conversations with the priest, Arthur decided that his destiny lay not in the confines of his family's farm, or even within the cloister of the church, which the priest had suggested several times, but out there - past the Wood and out into what his mother referred to as God Knows What.
And then his father died and it all happened so fast. With the lack of a pater familias, Arthur's home deteriorated and his mother made ready to move with family in the next town over, a mile or so down the road. Arthur told her his plans and after a harsh discussion, she gave him his father's armor. He then went to the priest, where he had to use all of the meagre education he'd received in order to convince the father of the merit of his decision. Eventually, and after at one point being condemned to an eternity of hellfire, Arthur succeeded in being given a minor blessing and went on his way.
He spent the trek through the woods engaging himself in a minor internal monologue about what, exactly, he wanted to be. He guessed that he had a predisposition to war, since he'd asked for the armor instead of, say, some of the father's books, but that may not have been true (said a corner of his mind). Perhaps this request was one birthed by a desire to feel a connection - or protection - to - or of - his father. Books wouldn't provide that, but they would have provided ample fire-building material.
At any rate, by the time he left the woods, he decided that, damn it all, he was going to be a warrior. Moreso, he was going to smite the unjust. Who were the unjust? Well, he'd figure that out later, probably around the time when the king sent him on a quest of some sort. The reward of which, he thought, wringing his hands in delight, would surely be a princess. (Princesses, in his mind, were in ample supply, all were beautiful, and all swooned at whoever completed quests.)
At the current time, 4.5 leagues from the gates of Oxham, he came across a blind man sitting, his head lowered and a little snore emanating from his nose, at the side of the road. He was draped in tattered clothing, little more than rags, and held in his left hand a brown cloth satchel. His face was pockmarked and creased, and what little hair he had was in patches.
Charity being one of the virtues that stuck with Arthur, the warrior-to-be bent down and dropped a copper piece (bringing Arthur's net worth down by half) on the ground in front of the beggar.
Snapping awake, and a little drool flinging itself out of his mouth and onto Arthur's feet, the beggar felt around the ground near where the coin landed, touched it and said, "Oh hell." He moved his head around to the general vicinity of where Arthur stood and said, "I'm not a beggar."
"Then what are you?"
"I'm waiting to see the king."
Arthur looked up the road to the capitol, with its low buildings, save for the one, tall ivory tower.

“For shit’s sake,” said The Drunkard. “Really? Are you really doing this?”
    “Shut up,” said The Traveler, “and let the man tell his story.”
    The Drunkard grunted and sat back in his chair, sucking down half the glass of whiskey in one go.
    The Traveler motioned for The Student to continue. After clearing his throat, he did.
“That’s a ways away,” said Arthur, nodding at the capitol, “and you are simply sitting here. Are you sure you wouldn’t be more successful actually being in the same area as the king?”
The beggar cackled and rocked back and forth, slapping his knee in delight. “‘In the same area as the king,’ he says. Oh, that’s rich.”
Arthur cocked his head to one side.
“No one gets in to see the king,” said the beggar. “Not even me.”
“Well who are you?”
“Me?” The beggar puffed out his chest. “I used to be the red knight on the black and white horse.”
Arthur looked around. “I don’t see a black and white horse. And I sure as hell don’t see any red armor.”
“That’s why I used to be the red knight on the black and white horse. Had to give up the horse as a Regal Tax.”
“Boy, you don’t know anything about the way this kingdom works, do you?”
“Apparently not.”
The beggar leaned back and took a deep breath, “Well, you’re lucky, because I have a chart of the bureaucracy.”
Arthur stood scratching his head for a moment. “Uh.”
“Yeah, I know. I’m blind. Wasn’t always part of it; I had to give something up that I valued in order to see the Grand Vizier, and I chose my sight. Here.” He dug in his bag and pulled out a crumpled and yellowed piece of parchment. It was rectangular, with colored squares linked to each other via black lines. Once, Arthur had seen a genealogical chart that the father had kept as part of his archive; this resembled the chart, but had more of a chaotic feel about it. More of a web. In the center of it all was a box highlighted red, and in the center of that box was GRAND VIZIER. At the top of the web was REGUS. Sprinkled around were various offices throughout the Kingdom of varying importance. The most commonplace - like sheriff, for example - were out at the peripheral of the web in smaller boxes, while the interior offices were in boxes that greatly increased in size as their job descriptions grew more nebulous. Looking over the entire chart at once made Arthur’s head ache. He realized, then, that his mission to endear himself to the king would be harder than he set out thinking.
He handed the chart back to the beggar and said, “So, what if I just wanted to, I don’t know, gain a little bit of status in the kingdom? Get just a bit close to the tower.”
The beggar laughed. “Kid, let me tell you something. Back in my heyday, I had princesses swooning all over the fuckin place. My name? The Red Knight on the Black and White Horse? My friend, that was more popular, on more people’s tongues than the Bible--in some parts of the country. But, did that mean that I could get any closer to the King than you, a veritable peasant, could dream of getting. To keep it short, nobody gets in to see the king; not nobody, not no how.”

The Writer spat out a mouthful of ale, which splattered on The Stalker, who made a throat-slitting motion with his finger. The Writer did not notice, and simply sputtered madly for a few moments, his arms flailing. The Student paused in his tale, looked at The Writer for a moment with his head cocked to the side and said, “Er.”
    When it became clear that the only thing The Writer was going to do was sit there and silently flail, The Student cleared his throat and continued on.
Arthur looked on towards the ivory tower in the distance. Could it be that the beggar was telling the truth? Could it truly be possible that the object of his self-issued quest was so insulated and so well-protected by layers of, for lack of a better turn of phrase, hurdles that in order to reach him, the King, one had to waste one’s entire life, and throw everything else aside? No, he thought. He would not dip to that much cynicism. He built himself up and took a self-inflating breath.
The beggar, once knight, seemed to understand what Arthur was doing by the sudden intake of breath and said, “If you want to proceed, by all means go ahead. Don’t expect to get anything out of it, though. You’ll just be lost in a sea of pompous, self-righteous imbeciles who ask you to prove yourself in incredibly inane ways.”
“What does that mean?”
The blind ex-knight shuddered. “Imagine, if you will, walking through a pasture full of cows.” He paused, an invitation to do so.
“Oh, right,” said Arthur. He closed his eyes and found himself in a sunny field full of brown and white cows, lowing at nothing but the breeze. They occasionally bent their heads and chewed some grass. Off in the distance, one of them pooped. Arthur’s face soured and he wondered what was wrong with his subconscious.
“Good,” said the ex-knight. “And now imagine that you must go up to each cow and study them, taking down every detail you see and writing them down in a special booklet. But one cow is not enough, you must do this for every cow in the pasture. You must do so to the point where you can differentiate them in the same way that you could between your family members. This is a task that takes you a year and a half, because you are a fast writer. And then, at the end of the task, as you say goodbye to the only creatures you have known for that year and a half, you return to the Sub-Minister of Agriculture who gave you the task, only to be sent to a slightly more senior Sub-Minister who looks over your work, deems it only ‘passable’ and then assigns you the task of doing the same thing, except this time for sheep.” At the finish of this, the man crumpled forward and shook his head. “Ech.”
“I take it you had to go through that.”
“And others I know had to go through much worse. One man of whom I’ve heard had to do the same with grasshoppers.”
“Yes. They’re fast, you know. And they hop. Blend in with their surroundings much moreso than cows.”
“Still,” said Arthur, “I need to go on. This is my quest, to get to that tower and show myself as a worthy person in the eyes of th--”
The ex-knight sighed. “You’ll show yourself as no such thing unless you’re already one of them. Join their ranks if you want to be worthy; aspirants are a dime a dozen in their eyes.” He waved a hand in the air in front of him. “Go on, waste years of your life in order to join an order that has no effect on anyone save themselves and those immediately around them. I’ve learned not to talk to madmen. Only thing it cost me was my eyes.”
Arthur tried to apologize to the knight for seeming ungrateful, but it was if the man had gone suddenly deaf. After trying to reach out to the man, Arthur sighed, gave up, and continued on his way.

A day later (after having to traverse some unsteady ground when the road to the tower had been partially buried for a mile under a landslide), Arthur arrived at the outskirts of a small town called Bugford. In it, all of the houses were uniform and wholly unremarkable. Looking at them one moment, a viewer would find it nigh on impossible to remember any details about them in the matter of an hour afterwards. In fact, the most remarkable thing about the town seemed to be the red, wooden tool booth set up near the entrance of the town.
That is to say, Arthur assumed it was a tool booth. It was certainly booth-like. On the window there sat a pail. Behind the pail, inside the booth, there sat a man in a royal blue tunic. He slouched over, his head slumping like he was about to go to sleep; and, indeed, he was. As Arthur approached, the man would snap awake with a grunt, mumble to himself, and then slowly go back to sleep.
Arthur walked up to the toll booth and waited as the man snapped himself awake again.
As the man’s eyes focused and he wiped the drool off from his chin, he seemed to notice Arthur’s presence. “Oh,” he said, blinking rapidly. “Oh.” He ducked down underneath - Arthur presumed - his desk and pulled out a leather-bound ledger and an ink pot in which sat a quilled pen. The man cleared his throat and barked out, in a surprisingly authoritative voice, “Name?”
“Arthur. Of the--”
“That’s fine. Have a seat,” the man said, gesturing with one hand to the slightly raised ground to the side of the footpath at the side of the tollbooth and scribbling down Arthur’s name with his other.
Arthur did. In retrospect, he probably should have shown some drive in continuing with his quest, but, well, the man had such an authoritative voice. Arthur watched as the man scribbled for longer than it should have taken to simply write down a name followed by “of the--” and then, with slightly more confusion, as the man replaced the pen in the ink pot, blew on the fresh ink on the page, gently closed the cover, and began to go to sleep again.
This struck Arthur in a bad way. “Hey,” he said, “wake up.”
The man snapped awake with a grunt and said, “What? You? What do you want?”
“Aren’t you going to take a toll from me so I can continue?”
“A toll?” The man thought about this for a moment, then laughed. “No, no that’s not how this kingdom works at all. Taxes pay for tolls, sire. This is simply, ah, a registration booth, so to speak. Yes. And this is the register.” He patted the register.
“What’s the register for?”
The man blinked. “Well, to keep tabs on how comes to the town, of course.”
Inside the town, church bells rang.
“So that means I can come into the town, right?” asked Arthur.
“Oh, no, sire. That’s not possible quite yet. Regulations state that new entrants may only enter into the town between the hours of 12:00 and 12:01. Those bells, by the way, were the noon bells. It is now 12:02. You’ll have to come back tomorrow.”
“But I don’t have a watch. I can’t tell when it’s noon.”
The man shrugged. “That sounds like something you could rectify by going into the town and buying a watch.”
“Can I go into the town and buy a watch?”
“Between the hours of 12:00 and 12:01, yes. Other than that, I’m afraid you’re stuck outside of the town.”
“That’s absurd.”
“But I just want to get closer to the King to prove myself.”
“Well, there’s a chancellor in the town this week. I’d be willing to bet that he could help you. Of course, what do I know? I live in a box.”
Arthur gazed longingly into the town.
‘That won’t help you,” said the man. “Nor will continuing to pester me. We’ve all got a job to do, sire, and my job is not to coach you into learning how to work with governmental regulations. My job is to open this register and write down the names of people when they come by, and, occasionally, I draw cartoons in the margins; though that’s not part of my job description.”
“So what do I do?”
“That’s none of my concern. If you want into the town, return here tomorrow.”
And so Arthur left. He returned the next day, only to find that it was 12:03 and had very much the same conversation with the man in the toll booth. And so on and so forth until one day, as his rations had been whittled away to essentially nothing, Arthur jumped out of a bored stupor at the sound of the church bells, ran up to the toll booth, blurted out his name, and waited as the man yawned, dragged a finger down the register until he reached the scribble that contained Arthur’s name and finally said, “Yeah, go on in.”
Arthur almost skipped inside the borders of the town to find that it was, well, depressing. Inside, everyone moved at the same pace. No one spoke to each other. The only sounds were the sounds of feet scuffing against the dirt roads and the wind going through the alleys between buildings. Arthur wandered the identical buildings, hoping to find some sign of the chancellor. Eventually he came to a building that purported to be a town hall and found that the chancellor had left due to excessive boredom. Slightly more broken than he was before, Arthur trudged to the market, restocked on some supplies, and went along his way.

Two years later, an emaciated man hauling behind him what we would know as a rickshaw carried along a man wearing a robe and a black square felt hat. Arthur, the emaciated man, now virtually unrecognizable save for the armor - his hair had fallen out in patches from exposure to various harmful elements, and his eyes were sunken in. The man in the rickshaw, who had a stack of leather-bound tomes with him, and wore a monocle, prattled on incessantly. He spoke few facts, and those he quoted were wrong. His subject of choice was the religious dogma and theological tenets of the world at large.
Initially, Arthur took this as an invitation to engage in a discussion, especially considering he had ample experience in terms of the methods by which the Church indoctrinated its followers and educated its members. However, after a minute or so of talking to the man, who referred to himself as a Doctor of Knowledge, Arthur noticed that the conversation was decidedly one-sided. He turned around in the rickshaw (he’d been tasked to carry the man around by a sub-vice-chancellor in a town a mile outside of Oxham) facing the man and saw that the doctor was staring at him with his lips compressed in a straight line, his eyes sunken, and his nose twitching.
When Arthur had been silent for two minutes, the man said: “Good, you are finished. I think, young man, you are mistaken as to your purpose. No, do not open your mouth to utter one syllable. You are not to express any views, you are not to ask any questions. As far as you should be concerned regarding your purpose: You are naught but an empty vessel which happens to have the ability to propel itself and, thus, my conveyance, to my destination. When we do reach my destination, you may or may not be asked what you think about all that knowledge I have imparted unto you, but the likelihood of that occurring is very much tied to your performance of a self-aware mule; which, by the way, you are failing at significantly.
“Now,” he continued, sitting back in the rickshaw, some of the hatred evaporating out of his eyes with the spittle that flew out of his mouth with the end of the tirade, “now, you will listen to my thesis as I continue to present it. I remind you, plebian, serf, peasant, that you are as far along in this process as you are because I am allowing you to pull me to my destination. Any comments you have will not only be unwelcome, but they shall also remain unanswered. I am a Doctor of Knowledge, and you are nothing more than a minor accident in the grand scheme of things.”
Arthur considered calling the man a pompous ass, but by the time he’d managed to recover from the onslaught of madness, the doctor had begun ranting about the inherent contradiction between the Church’s call to charity and the practice of tithing. (Arthur desperately wanted to point out that, in his experience, the tithing went to upkeep of farmers’ houses, but there was probably no chance that he was going to find the time to get that into conversation.)
And now, several months later, and no seemingly no closer to reaching the doctor’s destination (though Arthur did not know the destination, it must be admitted), they passed through a settlement composed of a small cottage, an abbey, and an out-of-place light house. The doctor told Arthur to stop in front of the abbey gates. Arthur did.
The doctor stood up out of the rickshaw and stretched. He then stared at Arthur for a few moments and said, “Very well, I thank you for your time these few months.” And then, he walked towards the gates without another word.
Arthur dropped the rickshaw. “Wait! What about joining you?”
The doctor slowly turned to face Arthur. “Are you still laboring under the impression that--yes, I can see you are. Alas, it was not to be. In my observations during our time together, I have determined that you are, sadly, not up to the task of taking up what I have to teach.”
“What? How can you know that?”
“I studied the way you reacted to my discourses. You didn’t pay nearly enough attention to what I, your senior, had to say. Thus, I can judge by your hubristic attitude towards those who know more than you about subjects which you could ever hope to know, you are not properly, ah, geared to understand.”

The Student let loose a massive sigh. Through the entire narrative, he’d moved from a sitting position in which he seemed like he was truly into the story to where he was now: essentially laying out on top of the table, slurring out words while, presumably, his brain tried to think of something else to add to the story. He’d long since finished his beer, and had begun sighing repeatedly between sentences and, as the story progressed, words. No one said anything, though, because we were afraid of The Traveler’s role as moderator effectively banning us from future roles in our contest.
             He waved his hands in the air. “Yadda yadda, more bullshit about the inevitable failure of youth to succeed by so-called conventional channels. Everyone has to know someone in order to get in to what they want in life. Academia is bullshit.”

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