Lorenzo stopped working when the sun set. He was tired and sore after the long, late summer day. On the walk back to his cottage, he surveyed his fields with pride. The spring wheat stood tall and golden. He reached down and plucked a stalk, rolling the head in his hands. The kernels were firm and healthy. Only a couple more days and they would be ready for harvesting. He smiled with anticipation and looked up at the sky.
A thin band of orange still shone at the horizon. Beneath the fading light, green hills rolled gently westward towards Holdfast, the city he'd never seen. For a moment he tried to picture a place where tens of thousands of people lived, stuffed together like pigs in a pen. Then he remembered the fresh butter waiting for him, the warm bread. He quickened his pace, his steps soft on the thick loamy soil.
Back home, there was just enough light left to see the swallows' nest, tucked above the door of his cottage. Peeking on tip-toe, he could make out the three eggs inside, white and brown-spotted. He smiled, careful not to touch the nest.
One by one, he put away his tools, then hung up his work belt. He pried up the square of sod that covered his root cellar and descended into the darkness for an apple.
He stood in his doorway after dinner, one hand on the lintel. He watched the darkness thicken and listened as the world grew still. Overhead, the swallows, in their blue capes and orange scarves, had returned. He stretched out his aching muscles, then carefully climbed up the rough logs that formed the walls of his home. He lay down on the thatched roof. Beneath him, he could feel the single, thin beam of slate among the wood. Laying the heavy stone into position by himself had been a delicate job. He stretched out slowly, careful not to disturb the thatch. After the heat of the day, the densely packed straw and heather felt cool and welcoming. Above him, the first stars were coming out.
He lay there for a long time, watching the slow, slow turn of the cloudless sky. The summer constellations were old friends. Ram, proud and bold, pursued by the lean Wolf, hunted by the Archer, tall and bright. The Eagle, as always, looked on in silence. The nagging apparitions of his past fell dumb and slid away. The worries of the day faded. His mind cleared.
He tried to picture the winter stars, slumbering beneath the horizon. Where would the Scorpion be, and the Shepherd, and the Bear? He looked straight up, into the very dome of the heavens. The luminous Dragon made its lair there, and nearby shone the simple circle of the Crown. Of all the constellations, only these two never set, were visible in any season.
Confidence ran through him. The fair weather would hold. Harvest would be a success.
The next morning Lorenzo took his harvesting equipment out beneath a tree for inspection and repair. He squatted down, selected a whetstone, and began to sharpen the shorter of his sickles. Soon he began to daydream, lulled by the heat and the rhythm of the stone against the blade.
He would buy a horse, if this harvest was truly a good one. Then, next year, perhaps he would be able to hire a farmhand. He would treat the man well. Lorenzo remembered the overseer from his first job, the scornful expression, the endless contempt. He swallowed the memory. He would hire a man. But first the horse.
"You are the tenant farmer, I presume?" The question was cold and precise.
Lorenzo startled. His hand slipped across the blade. Pain bloomed in his palm. He winced and made a fist. Looking up, he saw a man standing over him, blocking the sun. Blood ran down his hand. The man made no movement to help. Lorenzo reached for a rag and tied it around the long, shallow cut in silence, taking advantage of the delay.
The man was a stranger. He stood stiffly, which only drew attention to his lack of height. His shirt and trousers and peasant cap were a uniform khaki in color. They were made of rough cloth but looked new. On the man's right lapel was sewn, poorly, a single oblong rectangle of red. The fingers of his left hand traced the red bar unconsciously, almost gently, as though to reassure himself that it was still there. Noticing Lorenzo's gaze, the man's arm whipped guiltily back down to his side as he straightened up even further.
Lorenzo smiled to himself and slowly stood up. He pressed his bleeding hand into his side and extended the other.
"My apologies," said Lorenzo calmly. "I didn't hear you approach. Preoccupied with my work, you see." He gestured towards his sickle and the other equipment.
"You are the tenant farmer, I presume?" repeated the stranger mechanically.
Lorenzo smiled. "Fee simple, actually. Going on three years now."
"Ah, a landowner." The stranger pushed his thin lips together in a humorless grin, and for the first time Lorenzo noticed the scars on the man's face, two pulpy red worms beneath the skin, angled on each cheek from ear to mouth. The scars buckled and writhed when the man smiled and for a moment Lorenzo was afraid.
"Even better. Although…" The man hesitated, glancing to either side and then behind him as though several people should have been standing there but, for some unacceptable reason, were absent. He frowned. Then he shrugged. "No matter. Saves me a trip to the village." He said the word village as though it were obscene.
"A trip for what?" asked Lorenzo. Perhaps the man wasn't rude. Maybe he was just disoriented from the heat.
"To deliver this." The man reached into his shirt and pulled out a handful of papers. He flipped through them quickly and handed one to Lorenzo. The others he slid back into his shirt. Lorenzo looked at the paper. Several lines of black print snaked across the top, but most of the paper was covered by a large seal that clearly had been stamped. The seal was a thick red circle, in the middle of which sat another circle, small and red. Symmetric red lines radiated between the circles. The seal looked like a bloodshot eye.
"Don't bother pretending to read it," said the man condescendingly. "Your farm is now the property of the Order of the Wall. By authority of Uncle, Chairman of the Order."
"Who the devil…" Lorenzo quickly scanned the letter. He caught up and read along incredulously as the man continued reciting in the same mechanical voice.
"Your farm will be combined with the others in the Donet district and made more efficient on behalf of the people, using the latest scientific techniques. Security for Holdfast!" The stranger touched the red bar on his lapel again.
"I've never heard of your Order," growled Lorenzo. The old, familiar anger was boiling up in his belly. "I've never heard of your Uncle. And I may never have been to Holdfast, but I know it's a hundred miles away if it's a foot!"
"You have volunteered to work in the South Quarry." As he spoke, the man's gaze darted around Lorenzo's head without landing anywhere. "A cart leaves from the village square at noon. You will be on it."
Lorenzo's heart beat in his ears. Something was wrong. The man's eyes were too flat. Even the way he stood was off. His feet didn't seem to properly connect with the ground. There was no emotion in his words. He sounded like a schoolboy repeating lines he didn't understand.
The day was already hot, but something cold with many legs crawled up Lorenzo's back and settled onto the nape of his neck. He shivered and took a step back, away from the stranger and his twisted smile and his eyes that had no depth and didn't stop moving.
"If you think this piece of paper will let you steal…" Lorenzo brandished the letter. His outrage grew with the motion. "This is my farm! This land was nothing but brush and weeds. Bought with a lifetime of labor! By what right—"
The man raised his hand curtly and cut Lorenzo off. "By right as a Member of the Order of the Wall against the Dragon." He stroked the red bar on his lapel again fondly. It was almost a caress. "This is my authority. Bestowed by Uncle personally. But the MOWD are not taking the farm. You are volunteering to give it to the Order. With pleasure."
"Am I," said Lorenzo sarcastically. His hands were trembling. Horror rose in his throat.
"The Wall protects us against the Dragon. The Order is the heart of the Wall. Uncle is the Order. Obedience is mandatory." The words sounded memorized.
"Tell me about the Dragon," said Lorenzo calmly. The man had the gall to stand there with that self-important face and claim the existence of dragons. What a liar. He leaned down casually to pick up the whetstone and the sickle and resumed his sharpening. The letter, almost forgotten, crumpled and tore in his fist.
The man's eyes finally stopped moving. He looked at the ruined document with dismay.
"Destruction of the seal of the Order is a serious offense."
"Is it," said Lorenzo. The whetstone hissed each time he slowly slid it down the metal curve of the sickle.
"At the Quarry, you will be safe from the Dragon. It may appear at any moment, to burn this farm."
"The farm that belongs to the Order," said Lorenzo calmly.
"On behalf of the people. That is correct." The man looked down at the sickle. Lorenzo swung the blade lazily after each pass of the whetstone, as though testing the balance. Each swing was a little wider, a little closer to the man's legs. "Threatening a MOWD is a serious—"
"Offense?" asked Lorenzo, mockingly. For the first time, the stranger showed emotion. Fear. The fear fed Lorenzo's anger. He moved forward. "The harvest is here. Who will bring in the wheat?"
"Independent, aren't you?" said the man, taking a step back. He made it sound like an insult. "Do you really think you know better than Uncle?"
"I wouldn't give a handful of moldy wheat for this Uncle. As for your Dragon…" Lorenzo spit his incredulity. "Let me worry about that." He swung the sickle again, faster this time. The man stepped back more quickly.
"The arm of Uncle is long." The man looked around again, this time more urgently, but he was still alone.
"But mine is closer," said Lorenzo. He let the blade cut the cloth of the man's trousers. "And I'm accident-prone, stranger."
"Obedience is mandatory," repeated the MOWD. "The punishment for disobedience is death."
"Get. Off. My. Land!"
Lorenzo's voice rose with each word. By the end, he was shouting, his muscles clenched, his face red with rage, and the man in the khaki clothing was awkwardly running away, towards the gravel road that led back to the village, his hands pressed to his chest to prevent the other papers and the red circles of their seals from spilling out onto the ground.
That night, Lorenzo watched the patient progress of the stars for a long time before his eyes closed.
He woke to utter blackness. The moon was new and clouds covered the skies. The breeze moved tentatively across his face. The wheat rustled familiarly. He lay still. The air was too quiet. He strained, listening for the unknown.
A boot scuffed against the doorstep of the cottage. The shallow, labored wheezing of an overweight man. A whispered instruction. Lorenzo held his breath. Then he felt, more than heard, his front door pushed open, excruciatingly slowly.
A cry, then a rush of weight. Bodies, two, three, four, pushing into his home, pounding onto the floorboards, no longer trying to be quiet. A frenzy of movement in the tiny room. A crash, as one of the men fell into the root cellar. A curse.
Then, out of the darkness, from the direction of the fields, the soft, firm steps of a fifth man. He crossed the grass and stepped into the cottage. The hiss of a match and the sound of an oil lamp catching. Light spilled out of the cracks between the logs.
Lorenzo breathed out through his mouth and, in an agony of care, filled his lungs again. He was as aware of his body as he had ever been. The men were directly beneath him, less than an arm's length away. All that separated them were a couple of beams and a foot of thatch. Somehow, they didn't hear his heart thudding. He lay as still as a statue and closed his eyes to better focus his other senses. The slate felt cold through the straw.
"You have him?" It was the voice of the scarred man. The MOWD. He sounded completely disinterested in the answer.
"He's not here, sir." A deeper voice. Heavier. One that sounded more used to talking with its fists. "Must have scarpered after your run in."
"I am uninterested in speculation. Unless I misunderstood. Perhaps you blame me for his absence?"
"No, sir. No." The deep voice suddenly quavered and broke. Grumblings of disavowal echoed from the others.
"A relief, I'm sure." The MOWD poked around the tiny cabin for a moment. "Books." He sounded disgusted. A thump as they were knocked to the floor. "The man is nothing. The Order is everything. Burn it."
"His house, sir?"
"And the fields."
"But the wheat…"
"A warning to the others. But the grain quota for the district will not be changed." He sounded pleased.
Lorenzo strained his ears against the sudden silence. A faint splashing. The unmistakable sputter of a torch being lit. Then another. His eyes flew open. Light spilled into his peripheral vision. A drumroll of stomping boots as the men rushed outside. The clatter of a torch, thrown against the wooden floor. The kerosene caught with a roar. He could almost see the flames greedily devouring his books, his mattress, everything he owned in the world.
The footsteps retreated further, back towards the gravel road. He gave thanks no one had bothered to check the roof. He tried to turn his head and get a glimpse of them, but failed. He tried again. Again, his body wouldn't respond. The other torch split off and headed towards the fields. His proud wheat, impatient for the harvest, deserved better.
As soon as he heard the first stalks crackle and cry out, Lorenzo found that he could move again. He rolled over. Flames were already climbing through the beams, but he didn't dare jump down to the ground. He would be seen in a moment against the backdrop of his burning home. The thatch began to catch. Smoke seethed all around him.
He pulled off his shirt and wrapped it desperately around his head. The heat from below grew. His lungs burned. He could smell the hairs on his arm sizzling. A crash. A beam had collapsed. The thatch pulled inward, like a ship into a whirlpool. More smoke. Tears poured from his eyes. He coughed, then tried not to breathe. He failed, and coughed again. He tried to catch his breath and failed. He couldn't stop coughing.
He reached down through the hot straw and found the slate beam, still relatively cool, protecting him from the worst of the fire. Another crash as another beam collapsed down into the ruins of the cottage. The thatch shifted beneath him and he desperately clung to the slate. An inferno roared beneath him. Death was everywhere. He stopped breathing. The straw directly beneath him was on fire. Flames licked his chest. Pain was everywhere. He needed to scream but his lungs were empty, desperate for air.
Like an earthquake, like the end of the world, the slate beam crashed down. Lorenzo held on through instinct alone. One end of the beam hit what was left of the sod covering the entrance to the root cellar and went through it like a gannet into the sea. The beam twisted and threw Lorenzo off. He tumbled like a log across the cellar floor. First he struck something soft, and then he hit the rough stones of the wall.
He lay on his back, almost blind from the smoke, struggling to breathe, unable to scream. Above him, through the cellar hatchway, the world rippled and boiled in flames. Around him there was only darkness and the cold. He vaguely realized his chest was no longer on fire. He tried to pass out. He failed. He tried to stand. His muscles seized up as tentacles of pain rippled over his arms and belly. He couldn't move. He couldn't feel his chest at all. Even through the blinding agony, he felt fear.
White heat shot through his nerves every time he inhaled. He focused on each breath, expanding his chest as little as possible and exhaling as slowly as he could. Unable even to turn his head, he was forced to lie still in the darkness and watch as the world was consumed by fire.
Thoughts pressed down against him. His neighbors would surely see the fire from their farms and come to help. No. They would be too afraid. Not of the scarred man. But of the single red bar on his lapel. What it meant. Rage seized him, forced him to try to sit up. There was a strange squeaking sound, a tin whisper of agony and terror and grief. Lorenzo realized he had made it. He did not try to move again.
Slowly, the fire burned itself out. All that was left was darkness. Gradually, he was able to breathe without pain. How much time had passed? Did he dare try to move? Perhaps he shouldn't even bother. Pain lay on the other side of effort. In the dark there was no pain. There was no sound. He was thirsty but the thirst was far away. It belonged to someone else. He would just lay here and wait for the death he had so narrowly avoided. He closed his eyes.
The dimmest hint of light pressed through his eyelids. He opened them. Slowly, the light crept down into the cellar. He could see his fruit jars, his barrels of potatoes and apples. One of the barrels lay on its side. Apples were strewn across the floor. The slate beam rested awkwardly, one end lodged against the stone wall, the other in the soft ground. He shivered when he saw it, even though he knew it had saved his life. He wondered if that was something to be thankful for. He was amazed that he hadn't brained himself against the wall. Straining to look to his right, he saw the folded black tarpaulins he used to protect his small garden from the cold and realized his luck.
A deeper breath. The pain was less intense now, quieter. From outside, a swallow chirped. He hesitated with fear, then looked down at his body. The shirt he had wrapped around his head was gone. His arms and belly were swollen an angry red, but much of his chest was pale, the skin leathery and rough. In the very center of his chest, streaks and blotches of black soot and charred flesh marred the mottled skin. Tears came to his eyes and he leaned his head back against the earth.
For some reason he didn't understand, the extent and severity of the burns gave him strength. He decided to stand up. It took a long time. By the time he was on his feet, he knew that there was no one within a hundred yards. They would have investigated the screams.
Walking like a man in water up to his armpits, he inched his way to the cellar steps. Then he used his hands to crawl up, careful to put as little weight on them as possible. Each time he moved without respect for his burns, his ruined skin twisted and tore. Each time he cried out. His cries were high pitched and feeble. Lorenzo was ashamed of them.
Finally, staggering into the gray light of the early morning, he turned slowly and deliberately, looking at what the man from the Order had left him.
The mortared stones of his doorstep now led to nothing but a black square on the earth. The cottage was gone. Only a few charred sticks remained of the logs he had spent weeks felling and sawing and planing. There was no sign of the straw and the heather and the moss he had used for roofing and insulation. His equipment was completely gone. He couldn't even see the few bits of metal from his sickle and shovel, his plow and pitchfork. Perhaps the pieces had burned black and were buried, twisted and lost among the charcoal.
Near the doorstep were three small crushed eggs.
A stone's throw away lay the ruins of his fields. They, too, were now flat and black. In a couple places, tendrils of smoke still curled into the air. The scar in the earth went all the way down to the river that separated his property from his neighbor's farm. The sight of the river made him remember his thirst. He walked to the water across the earth, almost in a daze, unconsciously going around the hot patches. On the shallow bank, he sank back on his haunches and, cupping his hands, dipped them into the cold, briskly moving water. The shock of the pain made him bellow. Then he drank, careful not to stretch the skin on his arms.
Just across the river, in his neighbor's field, a scarecrow seemed to be watching him. It was sitting on a pole and wearing a loose shirt and a broad hat. Lorenzo considered his situation for a moment. His arms, legs, and stomach hurt but the burns looked superficial. Water and then olive oil would suffice. He poked the ruined skin on his chest and felt nothing. That was troubling. Infection was a serious risk. What was left of the skin needed to be covered. Moving carefully, gritting his teeth as the current rubbed against his burns, he crossed the river and removed the shirt from the scarecrow.
He looked over his shoulder, still half expecting his cottage to still be there, waiting for him. For a moment, he remembered the land as it had been when he first arrived, more than three years ago. The village had been new, then, and the land still at the edge of the frontier. Cultivation had just begun.
He saw again the tangle of trees and wild bushes, brambles and long grass. The sound of his ax, of trees creaking and toppling. The protests of his back, wrestling with the stumps. Digging out endless root systems. Breaking up the black earth, inch by inch, with a makeshift hoe. Pushing a rented wooden plow until his fingers cracked and bled. Planting those first seeds, begged and borrowed. Caring for the crops like a mother fussing over her firstborn, fearful of locusts and weevils. Carrying water. Weeding.
Then the triumph of that first harvest. He had overflowed with pride of ownership, with the confidence that came with having struggled and succeeded. He had looked at what he had helped to make, the golden bounty of the land, and it was good.
He blinked and looked again. The long, ripe stalks vanished like a mirage. Only the charred earth remained. The smoking ruin of his home. The death of all his dreams.
He wept for a while, without sound. Then he cried for a while, without tears. Then he was calm again.
"A thorough piece of work and no mistake."
Lorenzo looked down at the ground next to his bare feet. A pair of muddy boots stood there. He recognized the boots. He hadn't heard Sal approach. He wondered, without caring very much, if his neighbor was upset. He tried to reply but found, despite no longer feeling pain in his mouth or throat or lungs, that he was unable to speak. It was as if he had forgotten how.
"I suppose it was the same man?" asked Sal. "Scarred face, insignia of the Order?"
Lorenzo nodded without turning. Sal grunted. In front of them, the river burbled inanely.
"Thought as much. Figures you would give them trouble. You and your pride." Sal spat. "Or else just too stupid to know he would have a crew."
Lorenzo smiled ruefully at that and moved his hands up and down, palms to the sky, as though to say, "both".
"Much good your regret does now," said Sal.
Again, Lorenzo tried to speak and failed. The holocaust of his fields held his eyes irresistibly.
I never liked you, Enzo," Sal said matter-of-factly. "Enzo without-a-last-name. Enzo all-alone. Enzo keeps-to-himself. Enzo never-says-two-words-in-passing."
This was news to Lorenzo. He turned his head slightly in surprise, but still couldn't say anything.
"No one likes you, Enzo," Sal continued. "But I doubt you noticed. The proud are blind. Can't be bothered to see what's in front of them. Don't care about others as long as they aren't inconvenienced."
"And who will pay for Enzo's pride?" Sal asked rhetorically, grinding out the words as though controlling his rage with a great effort. "We will. Not everyone has been sent to the South Quarry. Some of us have to remain. Serfs on the land we used to own." Sal spat again.
"Your friend was nice enough to tell us how much grain we would have to harvest. To send to Holdfast. Before we can keep any. Your tantrum didn't change those numbers, Enzo. All you accomplished was less wheat for the rest of us this winter."
Lorenzo looked at Sal for the first time. The older man had aged ten years since Lorenzo had last seen him. The lines on his face was deeper, the shadows darker. Sal was telling the truth. Lorenzo felt ill. He bowed his head slightly, still unable to speak.
"They hung Florian," continued Sal, almost idly. Lorenzo tried to picture the manager of the general store with his neck broken. The overlay of images didn't make sense. Florian was always smiling. Bouncing between customers, full of energy and telling dirty jokes. Selling on credit and not being a hound if you were late. He couldn't be dead, swinging at the end of a rope.
"Right in the square," Sal went on relentlessly, his words hammering Lorenzo into pieces. "Forced us to watch. To applaud, Enzo. To make us share in the guilt. He's still hanging there, too. Won't let his family cut him down."
"But you're alive," said Sal. He breathed in heavily through his nose. "You should be dead. If the man from the Order found out you were alive, you would be dead. If he knew we were talking, I would be dead."
Lorenzo looked from Sal to the flat black square of his cottage and then back, questioningly.
"They burned it three days ago. All night your neighbors worked to keep the flames off their fields, to limit the consequences of your pride and stupidity."
Lorenzo nodded. The man from the Order should still be in the village. Lorenzo would go and find him. The man would hang Lorenzo next to Florian. Some sort of balance would be restored. His neighbors wouldn't get into any more trouble. His burnt flesh would give him no more pain. For a moment, he rubbed the worn fabric of the shirt he had taken between his fingers. Then he held the shirt out to Sal.
Sal's lip curled. "The caught thief always surrenders what he stole."
Lorenzo nodded. He walked back to the scarecrow. It was harder to put the shirt back on than it had been to take it off, but he took his time. After this task, he had only to walk into the village and die. Peace filled him.
He came back to stand by Sal for a moment. He wished he could speak. Perhaps it was better that he could not. He couldn't think of anything to say that was worth saying. He just raised his eyebrows and gave a twisted grin goodbye, then turned and began to walk towards the village. Even with his injuries, he could be there by noon.
"Stop," said Sal angrily.
Lorenzo stopped. Sal strode up to him.
"Can't you talk? I see your burns. Have you lost your tongue? Is there no air in your lungs? What is the matter with you, that even now you say nothing!"
Lorenzo made a speaking gesture and opened his mouth to show that the words wouldn't come. Then he smiled weakly, ashamed at his failure, and started walking.
"Stop!" Sal repeated. He sounded angrier than ever.
Lorenzo stopped again. Sal grasped his bare shoulder to turn him around. Lorenzo bellowed with pain and fell to his knees. Sal swore.
"I shouldn't have done that. I didn't realize."
Lorenzo stayed on his knees, struggling for self-control. The heat from where Sal had touched him rippled in waves through his body for a long time. Sal squatted down next to him and picked up a fistful of earth, breaking up the clods with his rough fingers and letting the loose soil fall back to the ground.
"When this land was worthless they sold it to us," said Sal quietly, almost to himself. "Now that we have invested years of sweat and blood to make something of it, Uncle takes it back by force. We have been ill-used, Enzo. Anyone could see it."
Lorenzo made a fist, meeting Sal's eye with a look of challenge.
"Revenge? So we kill one man from the Order. What then?" Sal shook his head forcefully. "Uncle will send a dozen, with swords and spears. I'm a farmer. A father. What do I know of fighting?" He reached out again and put his calloused hand onto Lorenzo's head, touching only where the skin was singed and not burnt.
"Besides," Sal continued, more quietly, "I prefer dirt on my hands to blood. Stealing the shirt made me angry. But I will give better than you tried to take. They will not get everything." His face was grim. "By this land, they will not." Still squatting, Sal offered his hand to Lorenzo. Lorenzo took it. The two men pulled against each other and stood.
"Come with me," ordered Sal. He began to walk back to his house. Lorenzo followed, too drained to think, too exhausted to care.
Lorenzo stayed with Sal and his family for seven days. He slept in the cellar. The first night, he awoke from a nightmare of fire to absolute darkness, screaming so hoarsely he could barely hear himself. It took a long time before he remembered where he was. The pain of his burns helped.
The lesser burns swelled with a clear liquid and then itched. The crusts of scabs began to form. Sal's wife, Eva, kept Lorenzo supplied with cool cloths that helped him to not scratch open his sores.
The worst burn, in the center of his chest, healed more strangely. He felt pain only at the edges of the wound. The skin there was red, raw and shiny. In the middle, the skin was either burnt black, or unnaturally pale. Sometimes the red splotches and black patches appeared to move and shift, but they neither healed nor peeled off.
During the day Lorenzo stayed underground, out of sight. The weight of the earth pressed down on him. He was often seized by a blind panic. Each time, he was barely able to restrain himself from clawing his way up the stairs and out into the fresh air. But he knew to be seen meant death, not only for him, but also for Sal and Sal's family. Fear for others became a tool to control his terror.
Once the sun set, Sal would return from the harvest and give the all clear. Then Lorenzo would climb up and sit in the doorway, his feet out on the porch. Sometimes Sal would join him and they would sit together in silence. Occasionally, Eva or one of Sal's daughters would come out and chat with Sal, lightly or seriously. Lorenzo enjoyed these conversations, although he was still unable to speak.
Initially, he was melancholy, unable to stop ruminating on what he had lost. Then, slowly, he began paying more attention to his surroundings, especially when Sal spoke quietly of what was happening in the district. What Lorenzo learned help distract him from his own troubles.
In Donet, only Lorenzo had put up enough resistance to the Order to have his farm burned. Half the farmers, the richest, the most productive, had been sent to the South Quarry. But not only farmers had been conscripted. The miller. The blacksmith. Craftsmen. In their absence, their tools were being misused. As a result, equipment was already breaking. The remaining farmers, Sal among them, were responsible for meeting the grain requirements set down by the man from the Order.
Once, when Sal mentioned him, Lorenzo drew a question mark on the wood of Sal's porch, but neither Sal nor anyone else knew his name. Lorenzo understood the power of that, of being the instrument of a distant and all-powerful organization. Of being not a man, but MOWD.
Lorenzo tried to forget the man, and was surprised at how easily he succeeded. The man by himself was not important. This had been clear from their first conversation. The man was only a tool of the Order. The man had power, but no animus, no inner life. Lorenzo found he had no hatred for the man, or even contempt. It would be like hating an ax, or a pen.
Sometimes, Lorenzo wished that he felt hatred. Hatred would at least have given him a purpose. Sal's mercy had spared him from death, but, with his farm destroyed, he could find no meaning to his life. He had no family. He would die before going back to any of the farms where he had been forced to live as a child and then forced to work as an adult.
One evening he watched as two swallows worked, building their nest of mud and straw under a corner of the roof. He pointed them out of Sal, remembering with a pang the nest above his own door, the broken eggs.
"Those?" asked Sal. "Showed up the day after the fire. Were they yours?"
Lorenzo tilted his head back and forth, as though to say, "perhaps".
"It is given to man to begin again," Sal said. "Apparently, this is also true for swallows." He sounded tired. Lorenzo asked with his eyes and a gesture.
"It's the harvest," Sal answered, rubbing absentmindedly at the calluses on his hands. "There aren't enough of us left to bring it in. Good wheat is going to rot in the fields."
Lorenzo made a frustrated face. Sal's news was hardly a surprise. Exile half the farmers on the eve of harvest, and destroy all incentive of the other half. What did the Order expect to happen?
"We've tried telling this to the MOWD," continued Sal, "but he refuses to listen. He's calling us enemies of the Order, claims we're hoarding grain for the winter. His men have been getting violent; the rumor is that the next step is forced searches of our homes and the granaries. In the meantime, the penalty for gleaning is now death."
Lorenzo tried to express his outrage with his eyebrows and was rewarded by Sal with a wan smile.
'Either way, given the quotas, I don't think he's going to allow the district to keep much grain. And a hard winter coming, by the looks of it." There was silence again for a moment, then Sal stood up.
"Good night, Enzo." Sal went back inside, but Lorenzo remained on the porch, watching the swallows' rough cup-like nest and listening to the white noise of the river in the distance.
He tried to look more carefully at the swallows. The light of dusk was fading and the birds were small. He couldn't be sure, but perhaps one of them had some singed feathers. He wanted these to be his swallows. He wanted evidence that it was possible to rebuild.
He wanted to be hopeful. That was something, at least. For a moment, Lorenzo felt alive for the first time since before the fire. A strange sensation, almost a flutter, ran across his chest, but when he looked down all he saw were the familiar pale scars, mottled by black skin and inflamed red flesh.
He would not embrace despair. He would not lay down and die. The man from the Order, mindlessly obeying Uncle, was an instrument of destruction and death. He, Lorenzo, sinful and foolish as he may be, chose to side with the living.
Rebuilding the farm was out of the question. Grass was beginning to grow in the burnt fields, but the other farmers were avoiding the place like the plague. Already the area was taboo, a cautionary tale about the Order to be told in private.
Some part of Lorenzo wanted to deny that his old life was over, wanted to cling to the past and refuse to change. But that path led down to Sal's basement. He pictured hiding by day, emerging by night to eat Sal's food, week after week, month after month. No. He could not stay with Sal.
He watched as the sparrows continued their work. He had to embrace change voluntarily. Perhaps he would head for Holdfast, the city he had never seen, the city Sal and the other farmers were working to feed at the risk of their own starvation. The people in Holdfast needed to know what was happening. If he could not farm, at least he could try to bring the truth to the city.
He listened for the river in the darkness. He knew it joined other rivers further down and then ran through Holdfast into the sea. He could follow it all the way, hidden by field or forest. He was used to sleeping in the open.
Lorenzo looked behind him into the house. The lamps were dark. Everyone would be asleep. He found an old, weathered knapsack and gathered a few supplies. He wrote a short note of apology to Sal and left it by the door. He had already stepped into the night and made his way, by feel and by sound, all the way to the river before he remembered that it was his birthday.