A Tale of Death

Written the night before my Spring 2012 Differential Equations Final Exam … and this story hasn’t been pursued since. Perhaps one day we’ll hear more from the Mushroom Folk, but for now you’ll have to enjoy the first chapter.

“That corpse you planted last year in your garden,

Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?

Or has the sudden frost disturbed its bed?”

-T.S. Eliot

1302: Ezra-Windors, part 1

The first time Damien Wolfbane died he was too far from the Vast Chasm to be sent to “the next life.” So, they held a secret funeral in the woods on the far reaches of the Land of Light, out of the eyes of the Masters and the rest of society. Damien had never been a popular man and the burial went without incident. On the twenty-second hour of the twenty-second day of June, year 1302, Damien Wolfbane was lowered into the ground with four strong hands— Sander Gorgontail and Walker Castlerock laid him to rest while the sister, Demarien Wolfbane, watched in silence.

If the Masters were to find out all individuals involved – including Damien – would have been offered to the Land of Dark within a fortnight. In the blackness they would have arrived to steal the lives of the three who laid Damien to rest. But no one in the village of Ezra took notice of Damien’s death and if they did no one asked questions in fear of their answer and thus, neither the sister nor the friends were caught in the woods as they put Damien Wolfbane into the ground.

That night they remembered the brief life of Damien Wolfbane and discussed the manner of his death. The poor man (and he was a poor man in every sense of the word - destitute and without luck) had been victim to a mighty fall along the cliffs of Ezra-Windors, where one may say that the world ends.

It was inevitable, they said. The man foraged for the mushrooms growing on the cliff face … and with the suspect rope and harness purchased from the drifter six fortnights ago it was only a matter of time until the carabineer snapped and sent one of the three, Damien, Sander, or Walker, to their death four hundred feet below.

But it was the only way to survive, they argued. The farming industry had long run its course in the town of Ezra, and the barren fields along the Cobble Highway leading to and from the village served as a reminder to Ezra’s citizens that while the Land of Light is the fertile half of the world (but is it really half of the world? Walker asked Demarien), it can still be an impossible place to live.

They said that the real miracle is that we were able to retrieve Damien’s body. When Sander heard the snap and felt the rope go slack he assumed the worst and rushed to the edge of the cliff. Damien’s broken body was just a red dot of ink on a grey sheet of stone. He called to Walker and Demarien who were slicing the mushrooms in the woods not far from where Damien would be buried. They noted the hysteria in Sander’s voice and dropped their knives, coming to see just what had happened. Walker took charge from there. He ran along the cliff of Ezra-Windors, through the woods of Ezra to their cabin bordering the woods and the back edge of town. There he gathered the entirety of their rope, slung it around his shoulders and set off at a daunting pace through the woods of Ezra and back along the cliff of Ezra-Windors until he reached Sander and Demarien once again.

The only difference from when he had left was that the red dot of Damien had become a red blotch on the grey below. They tied the rope together, wrapped one end twice around the oak tree standing lonesome on the bluffs, and threw the other end down the side of the cliff. The tail of the rope just reached where Damien lay. Up came the rope and after a brief, violent discussion about who was going down Sander fashioned a rough harness around the legs of Walker. The descent took thirty minutes, with Sander using his belay knowledge from years of climbing to safely repel Walker down the cliff.

Walker gave Sander five minutes to rest before tugging the rope to signal his wish to ascend with Damien. Demarien helped this time, and after two hours Sander’s brown hair was seen above the “edge of infinity,” as the locals called the edge of the cliff. As the rest of Sander’s body came into view Demarien gasped—her friend was red from the blood of her brother. Damien had been tied to the rope and then slung across Sander’s back, not unlike how Sander carried the rope from the cabin to the cliff face.

Damien’s skull was caved in and where his left eye was once blue it now was a pulpy red. He enjoyed no right eye. His left thigh bone had broken the skin and his cotton pants … the splintered bone now visible when he was laid flat. As for his arms they were bent in all the wrong directions and his back was more than shattered— it had collapsed, leaving a once strong man broken and hideous.

Demarien cried. Sander stared. Walker walked behind the lone oak tree on the edge of infinity and vomited. After much debating and at the insistence of Demarien, Walker and Sander dragged the body into the woods and hid it under a pile of rotting leaves to wait for night to fall. If this were normal circumstances and we were normal folk, they said, we would have had to call into the Offices of the Masters to report the death. But that would have required another trek through the woods of Ezra and a walk into town, where only Sander was permitted to walk. The rest of the group— Damein, Demarien, and Walker— were merely known as the “Mushroom Folk.” While the town of Ezra focused on the cultivation of sheep, these four were outcasts for lack of land and questionable methods of obtaining their mushrooms. Some residents of Ezra argued that Demarien was a witch, using her three men as sexual accomplices as she conjured the sweet mushrooms from their sins of the flesh. The Mushroom Folk’s counterarguments went unheeded by such strong headed accusers … the cliffs of Ezra-Windors had been unoccupied for countless years past, ever since the Year of Reckoning. Mushroom Folk foraging on the cliff face? Preposterous.

The village tsar, Tsar Waith, had once proclaimed the Mushroom Folk as “vagabonds within our city” and instructed them to appoint one member of their group to trade in the village. Sander was chosen for his easy smile and had been their emissary ever since.

And so Damien lay under the pile of rotting leaves until the nightfall. Walker and Demarien continued cutting mushrooms; Sander busied himself by winding the rope that had been used to retrieve Damein. They left the cliffs at dusk and returned to their cabin in time for Sander to clean himself and venture into town to trade at the night market. They made no more mention of the death, but when Sander returned on the twentieth hour of the twenty-second of June of the year 1302, they returned to the cliff with a shovel and uncovered Damien, dragging him into the woods of Ezra. An hour later Damien’s body was in the ground with no marker to memorialize his burial. It was safer that way, they said. Safer for Damien and safer for us.

And that was that.

The next day they returned to the cliffs to forage for mushrooms, returning to the lone oak tree next to the edge of infinity. Only once did they look into the woods where Damien lay. Only once did Sander sigh and only once did Demarien let out a strangled sob caught in the top of her throat. Walker said nothing the entirety of the day except for when he volunteered to be the one to forage along the cliff face. That night they returned to their cabin and Sander went to the night market with his bag of freshly chopped mushrooms. By accident Demarien set Damien’s spot at the table and dropped his wooden cup when she realized that he wouldn’t be joining them for dinner that night or for that matter any nights to come.

The next day was better than the day before. Demarien let out no cries of sorrow and Sander did not sigh once. Walker spoke once in the morning and twice in the afternoon. That night Demarien did not set Damien’s spot at the table and did not fill his cup with the water he craved after a day of foraging. That night they fell asleep with relative ease.

The next morning was brighter than most summer days in the Land of Light, and Walker found himself shading his eyes when they exited the dense woods of Ezra and came upon the light blue sky past the cliffs of Ezra-Windors. There were no clouds today but Walker still could not see the horizon. There was no horizon past the cliffs of Ezra-Windors. It wasn’t called the “edge of infinity” without good reason.

They walked to the lone oak tree in silence, knowing too well that soon they would need to find a new location along the cliffs to forage. The mushrooms growing along that wall face were becoming fewer and farther between.

From a great distance the lone oak tree looked no different, a dark marker on the edge of the world. But as they approached Demarien noticed a figure leaning against the tree, body turned facing the blue expanse. She nudged Sander, who nodded and drew his hunting knife from its sheath. Mushrooms were their livelihood, but mushrooms alone couldn’t feed the group, and Sander’s hunting knife was their lone option in flaying the rabbits and squirrels caught in their traps set in the woods of Ezra. It was razor sharp and Sander prided his quick wrist.

They approached the figure slowly and in plain sight. Man or woman, it did not move. It just stared out at the sky. Sander thought that perhaps it was someone who ventured to the edge for death. Walker held onto the reservation that it was a trap and wanted to move their advance into the woods. Demarien didn’t know what she thought.

Still they walked toward the oak tree, its features becoming more distinct in their advance. Still the figure did not move. They were a hundred meters away. Then fifty. Then ten. The figure was almost assuredly a man, but his head was turned such that none could tell the face. Five meters. Three.

And then they were upon him, Sander first with his knife held out. “Who are you and what are you doing here?” he asked.

The man turned his familiar head and smiled a familiar smile, his blue eyes sparkling in the oddly bright summer morning.

“Good morning, Sander,” Damien said.

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