by Carrie Naughton
Everyone knows that the monks are a bunch of swindlers. Only the desperate and the damned leave the City and walk west into their wilderness. I don’t know which I am. I followed my Mother here.
If you have an old Mother, then chances are you might do the same one day, so don’t bother judging me. She thinks they can heal her. I think they’ll hustle her. Because come on, she’s not sick.
“I don’t know why you’re following me,” she says, not even glancing back but forging onward through the pathless forest.
“You can walk beside me.”
“I’m fine…back here.” I’m panting. I can barely keep up.
She sighs, then pauses to examine the fruit of some nameless tree.
“What is it?” I catch up to her, but not to my own breathing, and stand there gasping. “What is this fruit?”
She glances at me, eyes narrowing. She’s about to scold me.
“I wasn’t asking if we could take it,” I protest. If we were home, it wouldn’t be a big deal. Everything is free. You take what you want. But not here, she already warned me.
“You would take it, though. Sooner or later.” Her lips press together, and she turns away.
I try to stay close on her heels now.
“What happens when we get there?” I ask, between breaths.
“We’re already here,” she replies, in a voice so quiet it’s a good thing I’m right behind her. Near enough to catch something in her voice. Hope? Fear? A little of both, maybe. Isn’t that what the promises of all faith healers engender in believers?
I glance around. There is nothing here but green depths and a stillness that makes me shiver. Even the shapes are wrong, within these unsettling patterns of leaves and rocks. I long for right angles and the soothing rumble of engines.
“So where are these so-called splendid mendicants?” I ask, mostly to goad her, but also because I’m tired of walking and I’d like this journey to end. The sooner she learns she’s been suckered by false advertising, the sooner we can go back to the City. “I don’t see any signs that say Welcome to the Realm of the Mendicants, Mother. You better at least tell me there’s a restroom.”
“We won’t see the monks until nightfall,” my Mother tells me.
“Night?!” I stop walking. I’m so shocked it’s the only word I can manage to speak. Although I don’t so much speak it as bark it at her. “Night?!”
“But…the night here…will be dark.”
“Not for long.” She stops, walks in a tentative half circle around the base of a large boulder, and then settles herself down beside it, leaning back against the rock and contemplating me coolly.
I understand then that my Mother is quite the scam artist herself. I don’t know the way back, and even if I did, I wouldn’t survive without her. I sit down on a patch of unpleasant, spongy moss, near to her but still a slight distance away.
The air here stinks of growth and decay, wood and soil. I didn’t realize that trees have a smell. I find it appalling, and decidedly unsterile. I’m glad there aren’t many places left like this. As the light wanes, a cool wind begins to blow. I detest the feel of it against my skin. Where does it come from? What if it isn’t purified? All of this must be a trick of the monks, to frighten the skeptics with the possibility of all manner of disease, until we clamor for a cure.
Darkness comes, like no absence of light I’ve ever encountered. I can’t see my Mother anymore, but I hear her breathing.
“The monks aren’t coming,” I insist. “I want to go home.”
“You are home here,” her disembodied voice corrects me.”
“This place is wrong. It’s dirty and it’s too dark.”
“Look up,” she urges me. “There they are.”
I crane my neck and blink at the night sky. Between the black branches of the trees, there are tiny lights. Infinitely tiny, and so many, in strange, bright patterns. I cry out in horror. “What is that? What are those lights?”
“The mendicants,” she whispers.
“No!!” I rise up on my knees and shake my head in the dark.
“The mendicants are monks. Not these terrible lights in the sky.”
“You always argue,” Mother speaks. “You don’t even see that I’m dying.”
“You’re fine. You’re just old. Let’s go. I want to leave. You’ve been cheated. This place is nowhere.”
“I came to be healed. The mendicants live only by the charity of others. They will treat my disease. But there must always be a balance. Alms must be given.”
“Alms? You mean – pay? Well of course they’ll fix you right up if you if you can pay,” I scoff. “That’s how you know it’s a cheat. We don’t have to pay for anything in this world.”
“Oh yes, you do. Take what you want. And pay for it.”
“You have nothing of value to give them,” I blurt out. “How will you pay?”
“Sacrifice,” my Mother whispers.
This conversation is foolish. Maybe she truly is ill. I play along, thinking I can cajole her into leaving.
“What is this disease that you want them to treat anyway?”
There is no reply. The wind chills my skin.
She is gone. I am alone. Alone with the splendid mendicants gazing down upon me.
Carrie Naughton is a freelance bookkeeper who writes speculative fiction, environmental essays, and poetry. She blogs frequently on her website, carrienaughton.com.