27. A Partial and Uncertain Gift

Soundtrack: L7, Shitlist

Inglorion walks into the Gypsy encampment as if he knows where he’s going. He can’t be sure, of course. It’s been 30 years. Human lifespans being what they are, Krysztof may be dead or incapacitated by age. The cobbler’s wagon is where it was before, though. Inglorion shrugs to himself and knocks on the door.

Krysztof opens it, says in a matter-of-fact tone, “Come in, Inglorion.” The interior is still compact and tidy, its occupant brown and wiry. His hair is entirely silver now, but as thick as it was 30 years ago. At first glance, he looks calm and ageless. His shoulders are perhaps narrowed and stooped. It’s hard to tell — his shirt is loose and untucked, and the ruffled cuffs reach almost to his fingertips. “Would you like some tea?” Krysztof asks. 

“I brought you some,” Inglorion says. “I don’t know if you like assam.”

“I do. Thank you.” He puts the kettle on.

As Krysztof is preparing the teapot and a tray, Inglorion notices two charcoal drawings pinned up next to the bed. They’re two versions of the Jack of Hearts. In both, the figure holds a longsword in his right hand and a dripping, anatomically correct human heart in his left.

In the first image, he’s turned to face the heart and wears warpaint — a series of black stripes across his cheekbones, heavy black eyeliner, and stylized, drawn-on lashes scoring his cheek and temple. The warpaint is sharply delineated, but the features themselves — nose, chin, jaw — have been sketched in and then rubbed out. The iris of the single eye has been omitted, left white, while a pinprick of black pupil indicates the direction of the gaze. The hair, too, is blank, defined only by a black ribbon twined through it.

In the second sketch, the Jack of Hearts faces the sword, revealing that the left half of his face is a skull. Upon close examination, Inglorion can see that the skull is painted or tattooed over flesh. The detail is so fine that the illusion of death is deeply unsettling, and  hard to shake off.

Krysztof brings the tea-tray over and sets it on the bed. Without a word, he pulls down the first sketch, takes a piece of charcoal from his pocket. Swiftly, with four or five strokes, he fills in the features: an aquiline nose, finely molded lips, the angles of the chin, jaw and cheekbone. He glances up at Inglorion, then down at the drawing. “How odd that I didn’t see it before,” he says. “One never does.”

Now, with the addition of just a few lines, the strange little stylized figure is clearly Inglorion, wearing warpaint: white eye, white queue trailing over one shoulder, head cocked, a frankly seductive gaze. 

“And the other?” asks Inglorion.

“Oh, that’s you, too. I don’t think it’s a bad omen, though I can’t be certain.”

“Of course not,” says Inglorion dryly. “So that’s what you do when you’re not smuggling or shoe-making?”

“Naturally.” The Gypsy smiles and adds, “That’s the form that my divination takes. I wake with an image in my mind, and I can’t rest until I’ve captured it. As you can see, it’s a partial and uncertain gift.”

“Did you know I was coming?”

“No. When you appeared at the door I thought, yes, of course. Easily said, and yet the conviction is strong. Now that I’ve seen you, the picture is complete.”

“What does it mean?”

“I see the future in a very literal sense. You will look like this, or be portrayed like this, in the future. I don’t know how or why.”

“I’m tempted to make light of it — to say that some day we’ll all look the image on the right. That would be dishonest, though. A vision brought me here.”

Krysztof nods, satisfied. “Try the tea. It smells wonderful. There are no biscuits, but I’ve cut up a pear and spread cheese on the slices.”

The tea and snack are exquisite. Inglorion and Krysztof sit quietly, enjoying the mingled sweet and savory flavors. “It’s goat cheese?”

“Yes. We don’t keep cows.”

Inglorion takes another slice of pear and cheese, sips his tea. He studies the pictures, admires how deftly Krysztof has captured his expression, the carriage of his head, the shock of his pale eyes. 

Krysztof asks, “You had a vision, as well?”

“Yes, two weeks ago. Not an image. I heard a voice, and felt a strong conviction. I knew it was divine. Not from Corellon Larithian, but some other, more direct source.”

“What did it say?”

“‘They’re afraid because you’re crazy. You’re already dead.’ Death was present, but simply as an accepted part of existence. I realized that I have to go to the Underdark.” Inglorion’s words are tentative, halting.

The Gypsy doesn’t seem inclined to skepticism, though he does ask, “Do you often have visions?”

“I never have, though I’ve been devout — fasted, prayed. I used to reach a kind of ecstatic state regularly. I’ve always longed for a vision of some kind.”

“You’ve longed for certainty and truth.”

Inglorion grins. “Yes. Imagine my disappointment!”

“I’ve often been disappointed in just that way. You’d think I would be accustomed by now.” Now, looking at his gaunt and sunken cheek, Inglorion realizes that Krysztof is much older than he thought at first — perhaps 85 or 90. He feels a shiver of sympathy and horror. Krysztof is close to death at an age when many elves are still considered to be children.

Inglorion gives himself a mental shake. It’s useless to feel sorrow for humans. This is why the races rarely mingle. “Do your visions always foretell the future?” he asks.

“Not always, and not in a simple way. They really are just static pictures, a single instant. That one was odd — seeing a portrait rather than a frozen scene.” He pauses, refills their teacups, then says deliberately, “I saw your father’s death as it was happening, though I didn’t know it at the time.”

Inglorion sets down his teacup, looks over at Kryzstof, confused, troubled. “What do you mean?”

“I woke up several nights in a row with an image in my head and a sense of urgency. I saw the scenes over days, as events unfolded. Even when the images were complete, I didn’t understand them. I didn’t know where or when it was happening, or to whom.” They are both quiet for a time. “Later, of course, I knew. Like seeing your face.” The old man sounds genuinely troubled. “I wondered why I’d seen it at all, since I was powerless. I didn’t know what was happening, whom to warn. It was a source of pure distress and sadness.”

“Did you draw it?”

“Yes. Every night.”

Though he feels dread, Inglorion says, “I think you should show me the drawings.”

Krysztof looks relieved. “That’s what I thought when I saw you — that perhaps they were meant for you.” He pulls out a flat drawer on the built-in desk, removes a slim portfolio, arranges five drawings in sequence on the bed, left to right. “I drew these over the last five days of October. As it was happening, I think. The last came to me during the day, as part of the aura to a migraine. We got the news on All Souls’ Day.”

The first sheet is covered with cross-hatching and smudges, a series of looming, bulky shadows. The sense is of an underground, confined space, perhaps a root cellar, with a single, horizontal gap or window. It’s partly blocked by a confused heap of tangled shadows. Krysztof says, “A cold night, a strong smell of blood. I was among the dead, and I could not free myself. I felt their weight pressing on my chest, face. I was one of them, and utterly cold. I could not free myself from death.” He sighs. “There was some special dread attached to it. Not just the natural horror of death and decay.”

The second drawing is set outdoors at dusk or dawn. A circle of five vague, ragged shapes are propped up like scarecrows. In the foreground, Krystof has rendered part of a sixth figure in detail: a child’s thighs and buttocks, entirely flayed, skin hanging in irregular strips. “I felt the child breathing,” he says. “I knew they were all still living.”

Inglorion cannot make out the third picture at all: an outdoor clearing just before dawn, with six vague lumps, perhaps stones or tree trunks, arranged in a circle. He glances over at Krysztof, who merely says, “That scene was repeated over three days.”

The scale and shape of the lumps is clearer in the next drawing. After a moment, Inglorion realizes that they’re disembodied heads. Their features are obscured. There’s a curious sense, perhaps because of their flowing hair, that all six have been planted like exotic bulbs.

The fifth image is lit by a cold noontime sun. The light is brilliant, shadowless, pornographic. Six heads arranged in a circle facing inward, the bodies buried from the neck down. Three faces are visible: eyelids excised, lips dark and cracking, cheeks scabbed over with cuts and burns. Inglorion studies the features for some moments before recognizing Tereus and Lavinia. The third is a pale, dark-eyed elvish girl of 10 or so. He does not know her. In the center of the circle, a crude eye two feet across has been scratched into the dirt. Underneath a word spelled is out with twigs: 

θεατής

Inglorion sits down heavily, covers his face with his hands. He does not think he feels grief. It’s more horror and disgust. The little girl. His father. It’s hard to piece together the battered features, but even just the nose, jaw, brow, the way his eyes are set. It’s plain enough. He draws in a shuddering breath, wraps his arms around himself. Finally he looks up at Krysztof. “I’m sorry. You have a strange gift.”

“I wish it came with understanding.” He gathers up the drawings, returns them to the portfolio and drawer. “I’m sorry, Inglorion.”

Inglorion looks down again. He’s rubbing his hands against his upper arms, as if to warm himself, or to brush off something loathsome. “You know what I thought when I first heard about it? ‘Nemesis is slow and lame of foot, but she always catches her prey.’ Fucker had it coming. Now I feel like I should pray. It’s an unclean thing. Even I don’t hate that much.” They sit quietly. After a time, Inglorion calms himself, unwinds his arms, sips his tea. He says, quietly, “I have to go there, to the Underdark.”

“To Philomela? The Theates clan?” Inglorion nods. “I can send a message so that they know who you are and when to expect you, and I can take you to the egress point.” 

“When can you do it?”

“A day or two. I’ll let you know.”

“Do you think they’ll kill me?”

Krysztof smiles gently. “Not out of hand, or I would refuse to take you. I can’t be certain. Our tribes have been allies in the past, and I can deliver a message reliably, but I know Philomela very little.”

Inglorion gives a crack of laughter. “If my own mother gets a look at me and thinks, ‘Hey, here’s a second chance to kill that motherfucker,’ I won’t curse you with my dying breath.”

“And you’re already dead.”

“True. I keep forgetting.”

Krysztof slices a second pear, and they share the rest of their treat in peace. 

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