The heavy bell over the door tinkled as a young woman entered, diffusing the thick scent of coffee and cinnamon with a slight gust of fresh spring. She paused, habitually scanning the menu before making her way towards the counter.
“My, it’s Kagiri! And how are you doing today?”
Scott counted three careful strokes before allowing himself to glance up, disinterested, at the newcomer. She was chatting with his mother as the latter poured coffee into a travelling thermos and folded slices of walnut cake into a brown paper bag. He watched her fingers as they drummed against the glass display-case, her back arching as she reached over the old register for the packages. Her eyes, a deep sky-blue as she turned and matched his gaze.
With a jerk, he tore himself back to the sketchpad balanced in his lap, but not before catching her shy smile and nod of greeting. Even in this manner, he could sense her presence as she weaved between the tables and chairs, waving at their inhabitants, on her way out.
Her presence. Considering his primal abilities, it would surprise nobody to learn that Scott could sense the people around him. But while the presence of most people in The Settlement were similar, she was…well, different. There was something unfamiliar about her, something exotic, even. She felt so unlike all the others in the settlement, that he couldn’t help but notice.
The bell tinkered goodbye as the door closed behind her.
Scott waited until he could no longer feel the pulse she emitted. Then, with a shake of his shaggy black hair, he applied himself to the half-finish sketch on his lap. Of course he’ll never speak to her, he mused, as a tree trunk took form beneath his fingers. They were four years apart, a world of difference. She had already been through The Second Ceremony, which made her, like his two brothers, a full-fledged member of the community. There was no reason – branches shot up haphazardly in all directions – to suppose she’d want to talk to him, and – as leaves sprouted all around its length – surely she wouldn’t be interested in what he had to say.
What had he to say?
Between his thoughts and the flourishing greenery balanced on his knees, the point of his pencil had broken off. With his pocket knife, Scott whittled the instrument to a point, then carefully studied his subject, an aging sycamore leaning out from below the closed window of the cafe. From where he sat, he could just make out his dim reflection in the glass, floating translucently between the tree’s lower branches. He scrunched his nose at it now, scoffing at his freckled face and thin, elongated limbs.
Yup, he had nothing to say.
。 。 。 。 。
He was just about finished when the bell rang again.
“Good afternoon, Scott. What a pleasant surprise to find you here.”
The boy looked up and broke into a sheepish grin at the sight of a bearded old man adorned in the flowing robes of the priests.
“Why, sir, I’m always here, and you know it.”
“So it is! So it is. But you must allow for an old man’s forgetfulness, my dear boy. No doubt I’ll be just as astonished to see you in this seat tomorrow.”
The newcomer sat down with a satisfied sigh, rubbing his knees contently. With a comical swish, he swept his long grey beard over his left shoulder, so it could remain delightfully out of the way.
“The usual, sir?”
“If it’s not too much trouble, Mrs. Fayer. I’m frightfully parched.”
Scott’s mother, a plump, rosy woman, returned with a slice of lemon bread and a cup of strong tea, which the newcomer gratefully accepted.
His exposed features were wrinkled, but softened by kindness, reflecting in them both his age and friendly countenance. A pair of bright green eyes peered out from behind a set of silver spectacles, and just at this moment, they were perceiving the pencil shavings by Scott’s elbow.
“Sketching again, are we? But of course you are. And what is the subject today?”
Somewhat shyly, the boy handed his sketchpad to his companion across the table. As if on cue, the large tabby cat that had been patiently warming his feet since early morning leapt into his now empty lap, purring all the while.
“My boy, this is wonderful! Truly a work of art.”
And so it was. For the pencilled sketch was definitely alive, its leaves rustling to the flow of an imaginary breeze. Outside the closed window, the sycamore shook slightly, as if puffing itself up to say, “yup, that’s me! Ain’t I a beaut?”
“Magnificent. Your abilities are coming along delightfully. You could make a career out of this, you know”
“But sir, I-”
“Yes, yes I know.” The priest sipped his tea and sighed. “You do not wish to undergo Shaman-training, and the temple will respect your wishes. But boy, just think of all the joy you could bring to the settlement! And to your parents…”
He stopped, frowning slightly at the boy in front of him. With his head down to avoid the gaze of the older man, Scott was absentmindedly petting the cat in his lap. The priest sighed a second time, then, “my apologies, Scott. It is not in my position, nor is it my right, to judge a decision you’ve made for yourself. I only wish the best for you and the community at large.”
Scott nodded. In the silence that followed, the purring of the creature in his lap crescendoed, nearly drowning out the murmur of the cafe’s other inhabitants in their cozy corner by the window. It was some time before either spoke again.
“Do you still have those dreams?”
“Sometimes, sir, but they’re uneventful and not frequent enough to bother me.”
“Still, it would be wise to practice caution. I shall send the Memory-Mender word to come visit you this evening.” Then, flicking back his sleeves, he continued more cheerfully, “and now, my dear boy, let us talk of something else. Do you remember where we left off last week?”
“Yes, sir. ‘One must want not, and need only what one already possesses’. Only then can one reach true personal happiness.”
“Ah, yes. Law number fourteen. I recall your looking slightly confused. Is there anything you want to ask?”
Scott paused, and looked up. His companion was regarding him kindly. They had met shortly after The Incident and his subsequent withdrawal from Shaman-training, to guide him through his grief. But where contact would normally be terminated following recovery, the priest had remained over the years as a friend and counsel. He hesitated now, not because he was afraid to voice his thoughts to the older man, but because he wasn’t sure how to put them in words.
As if reading his mind, the priest spoke again. “Don’t be afraid to confuse, my boy. Thoughts that are shared will surely clear themselves.”
“Well, if you don’t mind, sir, I was wondering…” He tried again. “It’s just, wanting is human nature, right? Wanting to eat when you get hungry, for example, or wanting to sleep when you get tired. How can we control that?”
His companion smiled. “But my boy, eating and sleeping are things that we all possess the power to do, so they are not desires, but necessities, and thus permitted. The wants that are against the Law and the Temple are materialistic wants, of the body or of the mind. These wants are frowned upon because they push individuals to act selfishly for themselves, instead of contributing like they should to society.”
A pause. Then:
“Tell me, Scott. Have you ever had wants?”
Scott squirmed in his seat, earning him a light scratch from the large cat in his lap. “Yes, sir. And I knew it was wrong of me to have them…but I couldn’t help it.”
“And what happened?”
A bit uneasily, the boy related his experiences. It had happened just before he turned five. There was a toy at the community daycare that he really liked, and that day he had spotted it in a younger boy’s hands. He had tried to brush it off and distract himself with the other toys there, but to no avail. “I just couldn’t stop thinking about it,” he finished.
“So what did you do?”
Playing with a stray thread on his sleeve, he muttered, “I went to the boy, and grabbed it from him.”
The priest nodded. All Wrongs, no matter how small, were reported to the Temple and written into their offender’s records. To guard against inaccuracies, the inscription must be signed off by both the scribe and a witness. This particular Wrong was no exception, and he had testified for its accuracy.
“The boy started crying. Of course, the Supervisor was furious,” the boy continued. “She pulled me to the front of the room and declared my Wrong to the class. Then she gave me three taps with the ruler.”
“And how did you feel?”
“Ashamed, sir.” The edges of his ears were red. “Very much so. I had never been tapped until then, so I was scared, too. After that I was forbidden Playtime for a week.”
“That is correct, my dear boy. Young children are the most likely to err, as they’ve yet to establish self-control. In these cases, we punish, not by force, but by shaming them in front of their peers, like what you experienced.”
Scott nodded, his face set in a serious expression. “It definitely worked.”
“We lucked out in your case,” his companion smiled. “It’s normal for us to see children amassing up to five wrongs before The First Ceremony, and rather more if they happen to be of the mischievous type. But by The Second Ceremony, and often even much before, these Laws become firmly established in their lives. There have been very few reports of Wrongs committed by adults.”
“What do you do for adults who have wronged?” Scott asked. “I mean, you can’t deny their Playtime, like they did with me.”
Laughing heartedly, the aged man leaned forwards in his chair. “No, you’re absolutely right. There is no Playtime to deny, by that point. But there is no need to take such dire measures. In most cases, a strict talking to by the Temple is enough to trigger a return of proper sense. In very rare, troublesome cases, we may choose to involve the talents of the Memory-Mender, to remove the thoughts behind the Wrong.”
“But what if that doesn’t work?”
“And why, my dear boy, won’t it work?” The green eyes winked.
。 。 。 。 。
That night, Scott lay in bed with Tabs curled up over his stomach, listening to the slight buzzing of the gas lamp and staring absentmindedly at the ceiling. Less than an hour ago, the Mender had come by to perform the Ceremony of Mends. It was a relatively simple procedure, used to release individuals from unwanted or bothersome thoughts, not unlike the apothecary’s herbal remedies for physical ills. Being also popular within The Settlement, it was often impossible to avoid a lengthy wait-list unless one was referred by the Temple.
Scott rather enjoyed the Ceremony of Mends. Since The Incident, he had used it to avoid unwanted nightmares. The chanting, when combined with the warm pulse of the Mender’s primal energy, relaxed the mind and could keep it blissfully clear for months at a time. Just at this moment, however, the boy was musing over what felt to him like a slight lack in clarity.
Maybe I’ve gotten too used to it.
Yawning, he gently nudged the fur pile off his stomach and turned to his side.
Tabs mewed and swatted playfully at a strand of unruly hair.
word count: 1972