The Zeal of Thy House

This story is for Daddy. He asked me the other evening what something would look like in a story, or how it might be written, and saying something like that to me is a kind of strike the bell and bide the danger kind of thing. I wanted to try it. My mind started racing, and here is one piece of the several scenes my mind has managed to produce in twenty-four hours. I don't want to tell what his question was specifically, because, you know, that would be telling. I am sure that thinking this hard in such a short amount of time can't be good for me, especially since this is Sunday and Sundays, by virtue of their being packed with teaching, require a good deal of thinking from me already. I seem to be all right, though. I hope you enjoy this little haberdashery piece, Daddy - and I hope the rest of you do too.

" saw that a stone was cut out of the mountain without hands..."

With these thoughts on his mind Prosper turned a corner at the head of the street and came out of them with a jolt, drawing to a halt. He had been wanting, out of a strange, almost obsessive curiosity, to get a good look at the man and perhaps even have a conversation with him; and there he was, seated to one side in the nearly deserted square on a low block of rough-cut stone, bent forward, drawing with one finger in the dirt. It was not the image Prosper had expected of the White Necromancer at all; it was wholly tame, almost embarrassingly personal and boyish, that figure, leaning quieting to the rhythm of his art-work, caught up in the silent hum of his creativity. Prosper did not want to break him from that oddly lovely reverie, but he knew that if he tried to turn around he would only be walking back a moment later. Best, he thought, to get it over with.

He walked up to the seated figure and let his shadow slide over one bare knee. In the glare of sunlight Prosper saw the man’s tunic was dusted with a light covering of red dirt and the hand which lay idle over one thigh was calloused and grimed with red—and raw at the fingertips, as if he had been burnt. “Excuse me,” he said, coughing a little.

The White Necromancer switched a little curl in the dirt with the nail of his littlest finger. “Good afternoon, Prosper.”

It sent a sort of cold thrill down his spine, but somehow Prosper was not surprised that the man knew his name. He was the sort of man to know—he was the sort of man to know without being told. And now that it came to the point, Prosper was not sure what to say. How did one address this cool, knowing sort of man, this homeless street-performer, this man who played with fire as one might play with a pet? The form of this man was something Prosper could not quite get a hold of, and he felt the man slipping through his fingers before he had even tried.

“You know my name,” he said at last, lamely, and knowing he was lame, “but I don’t know yours.”

“No,” the White Necromancer said, still drawing in the dirt. “I haven’t told it to you yet.”

Prosper dropped his eyes to the drawing. It took him thoroughly by surprise. For a dirt drawing, it was magnificent. He found himself looking up a long and vaulted corridor, each column etched in detailed precision, each high, gabled window pricked out with care. Each flag of stone—were they marble?—on the floor was cut so sharp as to be almost life-like. It was beautiful. And, furthermore, Prosper would have bet his very life that it was a real place. The detail, the precision, the clarity, all spoke of a place the White Necromancer had known and was calling up from memory. What a memory! Prosper thought. Then, with a twist of pity, I wonder if that was his home once.

With a gusty sigh the man made to finish the drawing and climbed to his feet. He was startlingly tall up close, towering almost a head above Prosper, his crown of wild ginger hair burning against the colourless sky. Even in the shadows there was a light flickering in his dark eyes, a cool and dangerous light like lightning coming out of summer thunder. The posture was intimidating; the shadow that fell from him was cold.

“My name is Felix,” said the White Necromancer, and unexpectedly touched the tips of his fingers to his forehead and inclined forward in a gesture of friendly salute. Prosper, rather awkwardly, copied the gesture and wished the fellow were not so devilishly hard to pin down. Once they had both straightened, Felix added, “Your hand—I believe it appears burnt.”

Self-conscious, Prosper could barely keep from jerking the hand behind his back. “It is not very bad,” he said, suddenly not sure how to explain the accident.

“Not very bad?” said Felix in a tone that Prosper found almost annoying. “Here, let me have a look.”

Feeling ridiculously like a child, but unable to resist, Prosper held up his left hand and showed the red angry blaze of burn across his thumb and two middle fingers. They still throbbed a little, though by now Prosper had learned to ignore the pain rather well. But looking at the marks again, and thinking back to his stupidity in reaching for the little piece of feather, made the pain redouble with a vengeance.

“Hmm,” Felix grunted. Then his dark eyes flickered up to Prosper’s. “I can heal that, if you like.”

“Oh? You’re a surgeon too?”

The eyes remained steadfast, almost daring, but Felix said nothing. A hot wind blew around them, raking through the man’s hair until it looked like candlefire.

Prosper relaxed his shoulders. “If it isn’t a bother. They do sting a bit, especially when I have to use them.”

“Touch them together,” said Felix, and he put his hands confidently into his belt.

Instinctively Prosper snapped his fingers together, and braced for the raw pain. To his surprise, no pain came. He opened his clenched hand to find it hale as ever, and he gave a little yelp of bewildered discovery. “How did you do that!” he cried. He touched them together again to be sure it was not an illusion.

“They call me the White Necromancer,” Felix said coolly.

Prosper rubbed his fingers into the palm of his other hand. There was no pain, only the delicious and inexplicable sense of health. It could be only an illusion conjured by this wild young man, but even so he thought he would rather keep it. At least he could tie up his boots now without suffering agony.

With a little conscious jerk he remembered his manners. “Thank you very much. I certainly didn’t come over to bother you.”

“What did you come for?”

Coming from anyone else, Prosper thought it might have sounded rude. And maybe it was a little rude, but somehow the question made him shrink in on himself until he was what he thought his real size. It was a nasty feeling, far more than mere rudeness. Felix was tall enough, and rather splendid enough, without making a man feel any smaller. Wanting to be angry, and not quite conjuring it properly with the mixed feelings running in his mind, Prosper asked quickly, with a little jerk of one finger toward them, “Your hands are burnt. Why not heal them too?”

Felix smiled, and it made Prosper all the more uncomfortable.

Struggling with a rising temper, struggling to be polite, struggling to like the fellow for reasons he could not explain, the young man tried again. “I heard some people say that you were an architect. I’ve planned a few things myself—just a few byres and baths. Is that true—that you were an architect?”

“I am the architect,” he admitted, with a sort of laughing gravity that made Prosper wonder if he really understood.

Prosper gazed down at the drawing between their feet. The wind had not touched it; it remained intact, pristine; he felt eerily as though he might set a foot on it and suddenly fall through into the dun-coloured evening of a king’s palace in some world altogether other. He dragged his eyes away from it, the spell of it still lingering on him. The last traces of his cross attitude were gone. “You must have designed some fine buildings. This one, for instance—” he pointed to the drawing. “There are great homes for the rich and shack homes for the poor, and as-you-like-them homes for the middle class, but this is different.” He stared at it again, feeling Felix’s eyes on him. The man had not moved while Prosper went on, feeling more and more foolish, yet more and more determined to say what was in his mind. “It’s splendid—it’s fit for a king—but it’s…it’s honest. I don’t know. There is a sort of purity about it. I don’t know… It’s honest. Only an honest man could live there.”

After a long, painful pause he looked up at Felix again, disliking rather keenly that he had to look up, though Felix could hardly help that. Felix had not moved, but the danger had gone out of the eyes and there was a curious softness there. Prosper felt, in his crude, rambling way, that he had unlocked the secret intent of the artist, and that the artist was pleased. But he was not prepared when the White Necromancer said, very quietly and calmly,

“You are not far from living in such a house yourself.”

“You—” Prosper impulsively touched his tongue to his dry lips. The man did not move. The man could have been cast in a sort of living stone, for all he knew. He stood relaxed, head upraised to the sky, slender and splendid as a racehorse. Suddenly he seemed very far away, as though Prosper could reach out to touch him and miss, though they stood only a pace apart. “You are building?”

“I am.”

He looked back at the drawing. “What sort of house are you building now?” His voice, too, seemed to come from a distance.

One of Felix’s booted feet moved outward, smoothing the dirt over and killing the drawing. Something wrenched horribly in Prosper’s middle, as if he had just seen someone’s face blotted out. “I am building a house that will last,” said Felix, and when Prosper finally pulled his eyes back up the fierce light was back in the other’s eye. It was the light of determination: it was the light of a madman.

Without warning Felix lifted a hand and brought it down with a snap. There was a crack, a flash, a curl of pale smoke, and the White Necromancer was simply gone. The square was empty and the scent of wood-smoke and lavender lingered on the air.

Prosper sat down heavily on the stone, the breath knocked out of him.

“How does he do that?”

1 ripostes

  1. Wow, Jenny. What is there to say? Thank you for sharing this, of course, one could say that. It's beautiful, too--but I think it goes so far above and beyond that as to render saying it almost irrelevant. If that makes sense at all.

    "Suddenly he seemed very far away, as though Prosper could reach out to touch him and miss, though they stood only a pace apart."

    I relate. I think we all do. I am not a deep and wise philosopher, nor do I pretend to be, but in my own little way I understand this.