The Mad Poet
Many squirrels watched Albey from branches high off the ground as he followed his trail to the river’s edge. They did not scurry down to him, nor did they chitter nor churr nor let rip their virile chutters, but they did not hide from him either. They seemed curious from their posts in the trees, as though they were familiar with the race of ‘man but had not encountered one for some time. He was not sure what bearing this had on that which awaited him in the cabin, but such things were shoved into the back of his mind by the welcoming roar of the river. Yes, he would get in, he would burn the door to cinders and shatter it to pieces with a swing of his foot, but first he would eat. First he would relish in the satisfaction of an empty belly filled.
It would not take many fish, Albey reasoned as he approached the rockstack at the water’s edge, which had sunk slightly into the dirt overnight. His mother and father – may they frolic with mirth in the pastures kept under the watchful eyes and greenest thumbs of the divine ones; may Iuqon and Ram’rl join them – taught Albey many things when he was but a tyke, a refugee who escaped the sinful Life of a highwayman. They taught him to be graceful, to be thankful for the blessings he has received and would yet receive; they taught him to hunt, for both new ideas and for wild game, and they taught him how to craft the means by which he would do both. For game of the mind they showed him charcoal and the powdery streaks it makes when dragged upon the smooth underside of bark, and for game of the wild they showed him the spear, slender wood sharpened to a fine point to pierce the flesh and deliver merciful Death. Most of all they taught him to be humble, to those he bested and to those who bested him, though the latter did not stick as well as the former. In times of drought and famine, which would be often for ‘mans on the run with a past so haunted as theirs, a little bit of modesty would go a long way, for when a ‘man only has so much to give, there is only so much they can take before they are overwhelmed with the burden at hand.
The Mad Poet’s stomach, empty as it was, would not take many fish to fill. Eat too much and he’d spill his guts; though the rhyme displeased him, he knew it to be true enough.
Albey shook his head then, clearing it of thoughts. Standing over the river and watching the fish swim blissfully in ignorance would bring him no closer to his goal of earning his way into shelter; he needed a spear, which meant he needed a slender branch and a rock with which to sharpen it. He looked to the rockstack then and shrank a little at the smoothness of the stones. He did not forget, he simply did not remember, and for that his shoulders did slump.
“I could try to pelt one,” he said feebly, knowing it would never work. The river would catch the tossed rocks and skew them off their course like it does beams of light. He sat then, and took one stone into his hand to rub his thumb over its smoothness. “I doubt I would even have the strength; it would simply bounce off the fish’s hide like an acorn off a boulder. You cannot sharpen wood, and you cannot brain a fish. What good are you to me, then?”
He tossed the stone limply across the river, meaning to land it on the other side. It broke the water’s surface somewhere in the middle and sank lazily to the bottom where it joined the rest of its brethren. Albey sighed.
“What good are you at all?”
This sorrowful tossing continued until there were no stones left to be thrown, at which point Albey put his hands into the soft soil and prepared to stand up. His right fell upon something hard, something cold and rigid, something he had left here last night and put out of his mind entirely as he slept.
Albey picked up the triangular shank of the sheath which once held his Poet’s quill, two sides dull and one sharp enough to split skin, and held it flat in his palm. This he could use to sharpen a stick into a spear, this he could use to clean and gut his fish, this reminded him of the six other flanks of metal sitting at the bottom of his firepit, likely glowing with the rest of the embers. They’d be unusable, surely, after heating and cooling just to be heated again. Probably too brittle to bend flat, good for little more than tainting the smoke with their noxious fumes.
“Enough, there shall be no tainted fire. Their metal is pure, they will not poison my meal.” But how could he know that? How could he know for sure? “I do not… but it matters not. I’ll simply dig through with a stick and evict them from the pit.”
Those cursed rhymes… why must his past haunt him so? He is no longer on the run, he’s nothing left to protect. Albey is alone and The Hillside Commons is safe. Well, safe enough, no more in danger than it was before Iuqon’s lab burned to ashes. Gobon still roams this wood with intentions of spreading his Plague of Decay, that much is surely true, but there is no longer a vault containing the world’s knowledge for him to pillage. He may have his tricks, as all sorcerers do, but he also has his limits, ones set and upheld by the sad circus that is his wicked intent.
“No matter,” Albey finally decided as he emerged from his mind like a turtle from its shell. “The fiend is powerful indeed, but so far as I can tell he is not currently in my presence.” A branch broke in the distance, as if to test Albey’s resolve. Steadfast he continued, “I am the Poet no more; the rhymes shall fade overtime. Mayhap I will write again and pick back up the mantle, but my days of merry rhyming are through.” He considered this, and decided to admit something to himself outwardly, for the first time and mayhap for the last time. “I shall be the Mad Poet, one of prose told out of stanza, and if I acquire the bottomless ink of days past? My words shall ring with prophecy, and Gobon the In’Flu-Enz’a shall fall.”
Strengthened by his words, Albey rose steadily to his feet and set off to find a long branch. He found many but they were curved, bent horribly out of shape, and only when he gave up on finding a perfect stick did the very one appear to him. It resembled Iuqon’s steelwood staff, in a way, covered in knots and shaggy bark, but it was straight enough. What little bends it had actually worked to Albey’s favor – they provided handholds which lent leverage to his grip.
The carving did not take long. There was still much time before the sun peaked at high noon, the fire was surely still aflame in the pit at the center of the clearing which lied at the end of no path, and so Albey stood with legs bent at the bank of the river, arms arched over his head, spear ready for the strike. Many riverfish swam beneath the surface, watching him with their empty eyes.
Albey jabbed once, swift and true, but the river surrendered no fish. Still they floated watchfully, swimming in lazy circles.
Albey jabbed again, taking aim with one eye closed, and brought forth only water from the rushing river. The fish did not disperse, merely went about their lives.
Albey jabbed a third time, dulling the spear on the rocks at the river’s bottom, and struggled to reclaim his weapon.
“I do not understand,” he said after taking a cross-legged seat on the riverbank. “They fled when I plunged my head in to take a drink, but when I stab forth with the spear they move only to doge. It’s as if they mean to mock me.” He shook his head, letting the spear drop into the dirt. “Perhaps I truly am Mad… mayhap there are no fish in the river at all, simply figments of the imagination of a ‘man destined to die alone in the wood, a ‘man trampled by the spinning wheel of ka…”
Albey bent forward with one hand to cup himself a small sip of water, for he still had yet to drink that day, and his eyes widened as the cold crept up his forearm. The fish did not flee, did not swim away from him, they merely stayed their way. He drank, watching them meander about without a care in the world (or at least, without the sense to conceive of such things), and then a thought came to him. Palm open and fingers slightly curved, Albey the Mad Poet dropped one hand directly beneath a fish and slowly lifted it back towards the surface. The fish, content in floating motionless as its fins flapped against the current, did not move to dodge, nor did it struggle when Albey’s fingers closed around it. It gave one jolt after it was taken from the water – just enough to let the Mad Poet know it was indeed alive and not a trick of his dying mind – then allowed itself to die, as if such was its purpose all along.
But what other purpose is to be served by those who live if not to die? Albey once thought he had a purpose, a role to play in the grand drama of Life, a promise to keep and an oath to uphold, but that all went down in scarlet flames, just like the ‘mans who bestowed him his sacred tasks. Once meant to safeguard the compendium of all the world’s knowledge, that of the past, the present, and the future yet to come, now sat on the bank of a cold river in dirty clothing gripping a smelly fish in his fist, a fish which would not fall to a sharpened spear but only be taken by a humble hand.
Three more of these queer fish joined the first before Albey started back towards the clearing. He sharpened his spear and skewered his catch, hanging them over his shoulder as he went. The smell roused many denizens, hungry and looking for food, who followed him just out of earshot.
This has been the second subchapter of the second chapter of The Face of Fear, a novel about bigfoot written by the writer in Untitled Bigfoot Project. Here is everything you need to know about it:
I’ve written a few other books, too. Click here to see the list.
The Hillside Commons has a Facebook page. Here’s that.
If you’re there, hypothetical reader, thank you for being there. From this day on, we move forever forward~