It was not long until the boredom got to him again.
Slowly he descended from his revere and into his daydreams. He saw a sunlit meadow where not a flake of snow had fallen in a thousand years. He saw dandelions for the first time, picked flowers, like violets, daisies, buttercups.
He’d seen pictures in the books. But just staring at dabs of ink on a page was nothing like seeing, smelling, feeling them in reality. He wanted that luxury. Just once. And grass. The feeling of soft grass on his bare toes. He began to smile and repressed it. It wouldn’t do to let Him see that smile.
At that thought, he came out of his revere. He sat in the corner, staring out the window. It was little more than a square hole in the wall. Gently, snowflakes fell outside. They always seemed to do that. Falling. Constantly falling…
He swore that he had sat there for hours. But there wasn’t much else to do. He had lived alone in a small house on a mountain side for weeks, almost miles from any civilization. He had been purged of all his things, left with little else but a brown robe, a fire pit, and a pile of firewood that had begun to dwindle. In the corner was a pile of hay he was meant to sleep in, though out of desperation he had tried to eat the tough, bitter material to repress the awful aching in his stomach. It had not gone well.
Over the course of his imprisonment, alone on the mountain, his health had begun to deteriorate rapidly. He had lost seven pounds, was stumbling when he had no good reason to, and was beginning to have difficulty lugging his firewood from the pile over to the pit, and the distance wasn’t even that far. The villagers were nice enough to supply water to him by way of human delivery, but the deliverer would never talk to him no matter how much he begged. It was against the rules.
He thought about stoking the fire. Maybe feeding it some wood. But he felt so tired. So extremely tired. He chose not to, even if his little hut was becoming chilly. He didn’t want to. He didn’t even want to get up and do anything… Never mind something that counted as pure work. Just the thought itself was tiring.
He drifted back into his daydreams again. He thought of green forests. Butterflies that might come to marvel at him, might stop to rest on his nose where he could laugh at how close he was to something so delicate and beautiful, the feeling of tiny feet on his nose. Leaves gently coming to the ground in autumn. Orchids.
He began to drift to sleep. Buried in thoughts of the woods, his anticipation of when his next drink was coming faded away. He began to dream of the things in the woods, the deer and the squirrels and the birds, who he was good friends with. They accompanied him in his aloneness, for he would forage for them seeds and bugs and plants to eat. It wasn’t a glorious existence that he dreamed of. Was it even worthwhile, to dedicate your life to feeding creatures that might die in only a few years? Should he have been dreaming of being with other humans, helping other humans? He didn’t know anymore. It didn’t seem to matter much.
When he awoke again, the overcast day seemed to have become slightly lighter, and a pitcher of water was set inside his doorway. Thanking the person who had brought it to him, he eagerly grasped it in his hands and downed the entire thing. Waiting nearly 12 hours every day for water would take something mighty out of a man. He supposed they could just not give him any water at all, forcing him to eat the snow and hope there was no diseases in it, but he also supposed that if he was allowed to eat the snow then he would surely have a more constant source of water… Perhaps that defeated the purpose of a fast, though. What was the purpose of it, anyway? He didn’t see it. Yet he stuck by the process.
Perhaps that made him a moron. But that didn’t matter much now.
After drinking the whole pitcher and in the process spilling a little on the floor, he sat down and thought of what he should do then. The bed was inviting enough, if a pile of dirty straw could be inviting at all. As he crawled in, he thought that he should really stoke the fire. It was starting to die on him. It wouldn’t do to freeze to death trying to cure his disease, but the motivation simply was not there. He rolled over and stared at the wall. Out of sight, out of mind.
He began to dream again, eyes drifting to a close. A beautiful doe came to him and asked him to kiss it, for it was really a kind young maiden; he did so gladly, and the doe turned into a young woman with shining blonde hair. He fell in love with her, and she with him; and eventually they married, with a little fawn as the flower girl and birds as the ring bearers. He felt the urge to laugh when he awoke again, then smothered it with shame. What a silly dream. What a cliché, silly dream to have…
He sat up in his bed, stared out the window. Feeling the loneliness poignantly, he thought to leave the hut and never come back. Perhaps he could find another village, fill the emptiness with other people. It was just as likely that he would die on the way. Was that worth it? Was the chance that he would just die without being cured be worth the chance that he would have someone to be with, someone to talk to? If he died now, he would suffer for an eternity in Hell, they said. He would never be able to feel empty if he never got this disease of his cured… He would feel tormented instead.
Was it even working? He had been fasting in complete isolation for weeks and nothing had changed. The village witch doctor had not allowed him to come out yet, still thinking of him as too impure. It was demoralizing, even maddening to hear the news that he still could not yet leave, and yet he’d been here for so long that it must be taking an effect if it was working. He didn’t think that he had done anything wrong. He had only wanted some company. Why would they drive him insane just for wanting to be with someone…?
And even now he was still not cured. He still felt the loneliness. It was impossible to deny that he felt alone.
He didn’t know what to do. He curled back up in his stack of hay and tried to go back to sleep, but he could not, tossing and turning in the pile of straw uselessly. When he got back up again, he was even more fixated on the thought, and tried to push it from his head by looking out the window. He only became more obsessed.
He thought he remembered hearing the elders talk about this, how sometimes the infected became maddened by the demons inside them and left the hut in a wild rage. They would be swallowed up by a monster that lived outside the village and then only their bones would be left. He figured that it wouldn’t be talked about if it wasn’t true, but then there were other versions of the story, like how sometimes people would say that there was a witch watching over the hut, that would kill whomever left the hut and used them in a potion or a stew. Still others thought that the people were so deranged that they died of insanity. He didn’t suppose that the way the story was told mattered much. Everyone thought that people died when they left the hut, and he did not particularly want to test that theory by going out himself.
But would a madman be able to make careful thought beforehand to decide if something was a good idea or not? Would they even hesitate to leave? He didn’t know. Maybe this was what being crazy was like. Maybe not.
He tried, again, to sleep on it. He curled up in his pile of hay and forced his eyes shut. He began to daydream, gently swaying in a branch on a tree. He was totally at peace. Someone sat next to him, though he didn’t know who particularly well. Her arm was over his shoulder, and he could feel her breath on his cheek. He would have slept there forever.
Hands began to creep from the woodwork, slithered down the tree’s branches and took hold of her. He fought and fought, but they pulled her away from him, and the wind howled; she was gone, leaving him in complete darkness. He began to feel incredibly cold.
He woke up, solely because he didn’t want to experience that dream anymore. The feeling of emptiness still lingered. His chest tightened slightly, and he curled up into a ball in his pile of hay, trying to distract himself.
He looked at the door again. It was latched shut. If he would, he could break the door down, leave and never look back. The thought was so comforting. Just to break that door down and get away from all of these memories. He wanted to be able to leave, to leave and never look back, no second thoughts, no hesitation, no regret. It was madness, he thought, it was madness to go out there into two feet of snow with a blizzard outside and expect to survive, it was madness.
He got up from his pile of straw and wandered towards the door. It was latched from the outside, and he could not reach the lock from the windows, but with enough power, he would be able to force it open. It wouldn’t be hard. It couldn’t be that hard.
He slammed, shoulder first, into the wooden surface. It made a sound like a colossal branch coming down in a storm. He stumbled backward after the first strike, nearly fell, and hit it again. It thudded loudly. Something was splintering, but he didn’t know what. He didn’t care much either. He swung his shoulder into the door, a third and a fourth time. The fifth time the door flew open with a loud crack, and he landed heavily in the white drift of snow. Immediately he felt chilled, shoulder aching. Even colder than he originally was. It was an unpleasant change, and he thought about going inside where it was warmer, but only for a second, and after that he got up and trudged steadfast into the snow.
Slowly, the hut vanished. Soon it was no longer visible, and he began to feel lost. It was a terribly vulnerable and frightening feeling. He thought, again, of turning back. Then he decided that he could not turn back now, there was no turning back after what he had done and he had to keep moving forward…
Slowly, he progressed towards an unknown locale. In the snow it was impossible to see anything and the wind was beginning to pick up, too…
He was a madman. It was the only explanation for what he was doing!
That didn’t matter. It was becoming colder and colder and colder out. His limbs were going numb, his throat stung with the effort of trying to breathe such dry air, and the shivering was especially strong now. Still, he soldiered on.
He had been such a fool. Such a fool to brush off his elders, think it was a good idea to just come out here on the random chance he might find freedom from misery. But he also supposed that death would free him from earthly misery… Before it began to torture him for his illness. In punishment to letting himself catch the disease, openly embracing it.
He began to daydream. He began to dream of a cold woods, where he would cross paths with an acquaintance and talk. He poured out his heart to her and asked if it was okay to kiss her. She let him and he was still enraptured with that new feeling of intimacy when they were caught and they told him that he was diseased, that love was a disease and shoved him away in that hut…
His chest tightened up so much, it felt like he was about to burst. It was painful. He collapsed onto his knees and cried, and his tears would freeze into little spots of ice on his robes in the incredible cold of the mountain. He didn’t try to be strong, he didn’t even want to pretend anymore, he was just so sick and tired of it all…
Slowly, he got ahold of himself again and struggled to his feet. He forced himself to keep moving, still wiping the water from his eyes. It would never get better if he stagnated. It would never become better if he just sat there and let himself wither by the frost and cold.
There was nothing but white emptiness for what felt like the longest time. Slowly, something began to show in the endless white. He pursued it relentlessly until he came upon what it was: a stream, flowing down the mountain. He put his hand in the water against his better judgement and found it to be warm. It was an incredible feeling for his cold hands, almost painful, like an ember on his fingertips. Wondering how it could be so warm in such cold weather, he laughed. He laughed, unrestricted, for the first time in forever. It felt wonderful. So wonderful he almost started to cry again.
Slowly, he gathered his bearings and ascended to his feet. Thinking that it must lead somewhere, he began to follow the river down the mountain. He stumbled through the drifts of snow along its banks, sometimes struggling to find the stream underneath the mounds and mounds of cold snow. The barest of life grew on its edge, feeding on its warmth. The sight of just grass and moss on the banks gave him hope. Just a little hope that there would be more of that life.
The stream lead down into a lake, which had no ice on its surface, for it too, was warm. Without thinking, he walked into the water and completely submerged himself, forgetting to hold his breath, too absorbed in appreciating how warm it was. When he realized it, he felt a jolt of panic, then realized again that he wasn’t drowning; he could breathe just fine in this water. He didn’t know how it was possible, and grinned at how ridiculous it was. He simply let himself drift to the floor of the pond and lied there, comfortable in the warm water swishing around him.
He was beginning to daydream again. But, he had only gotten to the daisies when something touched him on the shoulder, and he opened his eyes to look only to be blinded by an ethereal light. He closed his eyes tight and put an arm over his face to shield himself from the glare.
“Who’s there?” he called, “Who are you?”
The apparition seemed to laugh. It sounded pleasant and calming, a woman’s voice. “Calm down. You’re okay.”
Well, isn’t that the farthest from the truth, he thought, and slowly opened his eyes to look. They seemed to be adjusting, because he could see her better now through the light she gave. She wore long white robes that trailed behind her and smiled at him kindly. Bewildered, he asked, “Are you an angel?”
“Sure,” she replied, and held a hand out to him. “My name is Solfrid. Would you like to walk with me?”
He didn’t even have to think about it very hard. He reached out and grasped her hand, and she pulled him up out of the silt and dirt of the pond’s floor. The feeling of having something to hold on to and being supported in turn was comforting to him. It was comforting to have someone nearby.
They began to walk deeper into the pool. She didn’t seem to mind that he wouldn’t let go of her hand, but he worried at the rudeness of it. He didn’t want to let go, though. He would only hold tighter at the thought of it.
“What’s your name?” She asked.
“Is there anything you would like to talk about, Faddei?” She asked, smiling at him gently.
He thought about that for a while. He had poured his heart out to near-strangers before… He had only known Solfrid for a minute. What would he even say? What could he talk about that wouldn’t seem like whining or, or something because if he began to complain about his circumstances, then he would complain about trying to be good and that would be bad, especially to an angel.
“…No,” he finally replied.
“No? Why not?”
“I don’t want to talk about anything,” he said, thinking that it should’ve been obvious.
“But why don’t you want to talk?”
“I just… don’t.” He blinked, slowly. “I just want to walk with you. Is that too much to ask?”
Solfrid didn’t reply for a little bit, and he worried if he’d been too upfront. Then she sighed. “Of course not. I was simply wondering if you wanted to resolve your issues while you were down here.”
“I don’t know how we would,” he moaned. “I feel so stuck.”
“That’s a good start.” She gripped his hand a little tighter. “Come on. Keep going.
Indignantly, he began to feel that she had tricked him somehow into entering a locked confession booth. But she only smiled at him. There was no mischief or trickery involved for as far as he could see. Only a genuine desire to see him get better.
He shook a little. It shamed him to say it. He was ashamed to talk about it. “I… I was really lonely.” He couldn’t find it in him to keep walking. He stopped, and sat down at the bottom of the pond to talk. She sat facing him, patiently watching. He buried his face in his arms. “I really shouldn’t have because there were people all around me. But the elders always taught me that if I became detached from everything, then I would never feel sad or angry or passionate because there would be nothing to be sad or angry about, and so I would never be tempted to do bad things. And they taught that if someone did something bad enough, they were possessed by a demon that latches onto them and eats away at their sanity.”
He curled up into a tighter ball. “I didn’t like being sick, so I thought that I should follow what they said so that I never got the disease. But it was so miserable. I felt so alone and hopeless and empty… And because most everyone else around me followed the same philosophy there was no one I could talk to without being ridiculed. I tried to do the best I could to be a good person but I couldn’t. I couldn’t.” He began to choke on something and ignored it. “I was driven mad, and there was this girl I started to like and like a fool I told her everything and begged her to kiss me even when we were practically strangers…”
He felt like sobbing. “W-we were caught and now they think that we’re both sick. I only wanted to be with s-someone and they had to t-take that away from me…”
He couldn’t see it while in the water, but he was sure the tears were flowing now and he felt the impulse to wail like a child. He couldn’t bear the thought of looking at her and closed his eyes. “I-I’m not getting better… Surely she’ll never want to see me again after what happened.”
“I don’t think she could hate you that much.”
“But it’s torture. Being treated for this disease is torture. And I must have made her feel really uncomfortable. She’ll blame me. They all think she caught the disease from me and it’s all my fault…”
“Don’t you think that you’ve suffered enough?”
“I don’t know!” He stood up suddenly, kicking up clouds of sand, fists balled, feeling a tantrum coming on. There was no desire to stop it. “I don’t know when it will be enough! I want it to be over but I’m never good enough for it to be! I-I haven’t done enough! It will never be enough! I… I…” He collapsed onto his knees. “I will never be perfect enough…”
Nothing happened for a while. Timidly, he started to look up, his gut in knots. But, Solfrid only smiled sympathetically at him. “Sounds like you’ve had it rough,” she offered.
“Isn’t that the understatement of the century,” he replied in frustration, staring sidelong as a fish passed by.
She laughed. “I’m surprised you have enough energy to be sassy.”
Faddei was suddenly uncomfortable with the realization that he’d been rude. “I-I’m sorry.”
“It’s alright,” she replied, scooting a little closer. “Well… If you want my opinion, I don’t think you were sensible in trying to get that woman’s attention, but you were desperate, and those other people of yours had no jurisdiction taking away your right to feel.”
He laughed weakly. “You think?”
“Yeah.” She put a hand on his shoulder. “People need love. They need to know that there are other people who care about them and look out for them. It’s not healthy to demonize love, anger, sadness or happiness because those are things humans are naturally inclined to feel. To demonize emotion is to demonize humanity. And maybe it is better for society, for everyone to be completely logical and unbiased, but…” She shrugged. “Humans aren’t like that. They are bundles of melodrama and emotion that are always making mistakes. They need the security of knowing that they will be loved despite that, because an unloved human is undeniably miserable whether they show it or not.” She smiled wider. “That makes sense, doesn’t it?”
He nodded. Bit his lip. “Y-yeah,” he replied, quietly. “…Do you think my mom and dad love me?”
“I think they do. If they worked so hard to keep you from getting that disease, then they have to care some, right?”
The two sat in a precarious silence for a while. Carefully, the woman pointed at his chest. Curious, he looked down and began to fiddle with his collar.
“Do you feel anything?” She asked.
He shook his head, but unbuttoned his robes to look anyway. He took a great breath of air (water?), and began to feel faint. Stitched into his chest were leather laces, holding shut a long opening like a cut stretching down his chest. Stretch marks were in his skin as if the laces had been holding the opening tightly shut, but when he touched them, they gave in slightly, as if they weren’t all that tight right now. He didn’t remember where he got them.
“I think the knot’s gotten loose,” she said, grinning. “You think we should undo it?”
Faddei laughed a little. “Is this a metaphor for something?”
She only laughed at him. “It is if you want it to be.”
He huffed and looked down at himself. Timidly, he began to fiddle with the knot. Pull a string there, another there. Not long after he had it looped over his finger and was pulling it apart. The ends fell limply, and he started to pull the laces out of their holes one by one, even as something black and wispy began to leak out and float out into the water. Not long after, the laces were out. His chest was open and there was something coming out of it and he didn’t want to undo his work to fix it, though he had half a mind to. He started to shake, shuffling backwards as if to get away from it. “W-what’s happening to me?”
“It’s okay.” The woman gently held his shoulders, laying him down with utmost care. “You’re going to be fine.”
“But there’s black stuff coming out of my chest!”
She laughed. “Think of it like an infection you need to wash out.”
“So I am sick.”
“Not in the way you think of it.” She started to swing her hand around in the water to push the disturbing substance away. “It’s not hard. Just relax and let it seep out.”
“Will I be able to close my chest again?” He looked down, began to feel ill, and looked away again. “T-that’s a reaaaally big opening.”
“It won’t be that hard. Just lace it back up again.”
“So, I’ll just always have stitches in my chest?”
“Yeah. Then you can open it again to clean out any more infections.”
“You think I’ll get it again?”
“Most people do.” She looked closely into his chest, and he wondered how she managed to look in such detail and not become squeamish. She waved her hand at a few spots, as if blowing away some spots that hadn’t come out on their own. It felt slightly ticklish, in a weird way. “There we go. Try sitting up.”
She helped him into a sitting position and produced a red ribbon from her robes. “Here. Try this.” She looked over at the discarded piece of leather. “We can’t use that anymore, you’ll just get infected again.”
He nodded in understanding and took the shining ribbon. It floated easily through the water, and she helped him re-lace his open chest closed again, ending in a simple knot. It was only tight enough to keep the nastiness out. Nothing more, nothing less.
Delicately, he ran his fingers along the ends and smiled. “I don’t know why, but… I feel really happy right now. And different…” He looked at her genuinely. “But in a good way.”
“That’s great. It did some good to get that out.”
He smiled even wider. He willed for his cheeks to hurt. He wanted to feel those things that told him how alive he was. For no reason, he started to laugh, laughing harder and harder, and he couldn’t make himself stop. He didn’t want to stop. He only stopped when he had become too tired to keep at it, lying on the bottom of the pond in his disheveled clothing and a lazy smile.
Laughter was surprisingly exhausting. As he closed his eyes and relaxed for a nap, he was surprised to find that he was not daydreaming. Gently, he drifted in and out of his reality at the bottom of the pond, and the calm of his own head.
The woman carefully scooped him up into her arms. He opened his eyes just enough to see what was happening, and then closed them again. “…Am I dreaming?”
“If you want to believe that, then sure.”
“Whassat supposed to mean?”
She smiled with amusement. “If you want to believe that it’s a dream, then sure, it’s all a dream.” She sighed a little. “I’d love to stay with you here, but you have a life you need to live. When you awaken, you’ll be left in good hands. I will no longer be there, but know that I will always be watching over you.”
“You’re welcome.” She kissed him on the forehead. “Good night.”
Faddei was aware that there was a world outside of him, but he didn’t open his eyes just yet. He was still enraptured by the serenity in his own head. The calmness. Like floating in a pool of water. Swaying slightly with the ripples and the breeze. Lying completely limp in his bed.
He felt it was a bed because he could feel the blanket over him. The mattress under his body. The pillow under his head. He also heard a crackling fire, a sound he had become familiar with in the past few weeks. Around him were also the sounds of people – talking, laughing, walking. Wonderful, beautiful people. Maybe he was worried that he had been dreaming, and the dream would end when he opened his eyes. That he would be trapped in his little hut, living on water, tending to his fire, sleeping, feeling the familiar emptiness as he watched the snow float by. But he would never know until he opened his eyes.
So he did. Turning his head, he felt a flutter in his heart and smiled. He lay on a sofa among a throng of strangers loitering about a spacious living room, socializing around a fireplace. There were a lot of them, like the reunion of an extra-large family. The smell of boiling stew was in the air.
Slowly, he began to ascend to his elbows, and the blanket rolled off of his chest. He still wore the same clothes that he did during his fast, but what about the lacing? He started to fiddle with his shirt collar, and soon caught sight of the little red ribbon underneath. He pinched it between his fingers and pulled it up, feeling a tug on his skin. It was still there…
Footsteps began to approach him. Looking up, he saw a kind looking woman standing next to the couch. She wore a homely brown dress, and carried a sleeping infant in her arms. A purple ribbon was tied up in a bow and displayed proudly on her bosom.
She knelt down next to him. “How are you feeling?”
He smiled. “I have… Never felt more liberated.”
“I felt the same way,” she said, pulling a purple ribbon up from under her collar. “Welcome home.”
At that moment, he felt that he had truly come home.