My day is busy, as always. Success isn't quite the boon it may seem prior to its acquisition. Today is Communion day; twelve hours to the nightmare of my station. I want to hide in the kitchens or the cellar and pretend that my duty isn't imminent. But I think of Her, and remember that I must be the lord of the manor and all that that entails. The workers need direction, the priests need their wares, and I need a reprieve I cannot let myself hope for. After all, the land needs tending, our souls need payment, and the Root needs . . . me.
They say Communion can't actually be described to others, and that may be so . . . I'm not convinced. Perhaps the truth is that I could explain it, but that you would not understand. Dying is not relatable to the living.
I'm called out to the Works at first light, and there my more mundane duties commence. First, a survey of the hamlet. It's never been a picturesque plot — channeled by brackish gray canals, punctuated by yellow hills and a shallow wet valley, and ringed by sluggish windmills that pump the Root's refuse for use as fertilizer. My domain: a basin of shit. I'll never forgive the diaspora for settling in this sunforsaken land. Had I the opportunity, would I leave the Wetworks behind? It's a frivolous question, but often asked.
The survey is over in a haze of an hour. Sloshing through the lowlands with the foreman blathering on about export capacity and crop yield. As we crest the nearest hill, I stop following him for a moment.
"Yes, my lord?"
I pull a piece of rootgrain chaff off of my coat and shred it between my fingers. The yellow pieces fall to the soggy, stinking ground. "You ever get tired of counting barrels of Root shit?"
Hondell doesn't know what to say. It's obvious by the way he fills the ensuing silence with thoughtful grunts and exhalations. "Well, my lord, the Wetworks is as much a part of life as anything, ain't it? Other works can't grow meat or grain or lumber without fertilizer."
I try to count the hundreds of exposed Root cavities bubbling gray mucus into the basin. Flocks of shovelers and barrowers are busy loading whims with the stuff, ready to be dried and shipped to the proper works — the ones that make food.
"It's disgusting, Hondell. We use the Root to feed the plants that feed the Root that feeds us."
Hondell is impatient with my complaints. He has better things to do than stand here listening to me. He scratches his wispy beard and rests his hands on his pot belly.
I cover my chaff leavings with mud from my boot. "It's a cycle of excretion and consumption, and we're right in the middle of it. What a 'new world' we've inherited — a place where we eat food grown with refuse."
Hondell decides to just start walking without me. "I may not be a schooled man like yourself, my lord, but I'd say you're being mighty uncharitable." He looks out at the Wetworks with a kind of satisfaction and contentment that I can hardly imagine. "The Root cleans it all up for us. 'Sides, people used animal fertilizer in the old country. This ain't much different from where I'm standing."
I cover my wrists, unconsciously checking the time. Eight hours to Communion. "The Root is different, Hondell. Now show me the fields."
I commit the numbers and predictions of my survey to memory but try to discard the thoughts of Hondell and our conversation. The Husbandry doesn't need to know all that. The Wetworks are doing well this season, apparently. They will be pleased, though that is unlikely to earn me a transfer. Neither success nor failure seems to alter their need for me to be here.
Lowlands survey complete, I tour the grain hills. They never produce enough to feed the whole hamlet, so I will have to ask the Husbandry to supply us more, as usual. As I'm about to move on to the windmills, I see a pair of approaching carriages. I notice some kind of uproar at the grain mill, but I must welcome the guests.
"Hondell, go find Heap and send him to the mill in case Forven needs help."
I follow the trail towards the manor, leaving Hondell with his errand. I can see the house servants inviting the carriage occupants inside the manor, but I stop briefly as I approach the stretch of road where the carriages rest. I can't help but stare in familiar discomfort at the flaxen hitched to the reins. Eyeless, woody beasts, if you could even call them that. Bark-skinned mockeries that the Root has given us to replace old-world cattle. I watch them for too long. Their mute lumbering and swaying upsets what little quietude I have left; yet still, I look on. They lack the pleasing symmetry of true beasts, some bearing four legs, others only three. Worst of all, though, is the tether: a tough, leathery vine that keeps the wretched things from straying too far off the Root's prescribed path. Knowing that the Root writhes and undulates just below the soil here sickens me.
Six hours to Communion.
I leave the miserable flaxen with a sense of pity and disgust. The children of the workers, however, don’t share my feelings; they rush over to them in my absence and begin to play-ride and climb all over them. I shut out their sounds behind the wide manor doors and slip out of my surveying boots and overcoat. Once dressed in appropriate daywear, I make my expected entrance at the parlor to welcome our guests.
"Ah, here he is now." My house matron Lora sets down a tray of rustic finger foods and tea, gesturing to me expectantly: "The honorable R.H. Young."
I bow to each of the other occupants of the parlor in turn. Father Steward sits to my left; how could I have forgotten he was coming today? He's a dry and sad little man, always a labor to entertain. The figure beside him, however, may be the most interesting thing I've seen all year.
It has four glistening eyes, shining in pairs behind two sets of spectacles. Its face is framed by a mass of thick brown fur — or is it hair? The thing sits with an air of ease despite how inadequately our human-sized chair contains its long, multi-jointed limbs. It readies a quill and sheaf of paper with many-fingered hands. A Beast Scholar, one of the curious savages far from its tree.
"A pleasure, gentlemen," I say as I take my seat.
Father Steward smiles in a way that he must think is gentle and kind. "Lord Young, pardon me. I don't mean to intrude on your meeting with this heathen fellow."
The Beast Scholar just blinks and begins writing.
"Father, please." These scholars are supposedly impossible to offend, but I still fret over the vicar's casual insult.
The Beast has anticipated my concern, however, and turns its writing pad toward me. Written there are the words: Names do not bother or interest me. Of more import today is the demonstration you will provide me later.
"Ah, glad to hear it." I'm unsure what it means, but I press on. "If you wish to see the hamlet, allow me to finish with the vicar first. We shall conclude shortly."
One of Father Steward's only virtues is that he understands how distasteful I find him. We waste no further time on pleasantries but commence the prayer contract straight away. Lora, thanks be, did not forget Steward's scheduled visit, and has already prepared our workers' prayers on a wide wooden tray. I follow along for my part in the liturgy, buying and selling benedictions on behalf of the whole Wetworks, but my thoughts linger on the Beast Scholar. What could have brought it here? What could it possibly want to know about the Root's fertilizer farm?
When the liturgy is finally finished, Father Steward hands me the receipt on a piece of fine vellum. Lora takes it for safekeeping and spares me the obligation of asking the vicar for a blessing by whisking him away to a prepared lunch. Left alone with the Beast, I notice a pile of word-filled sheets at its side. I hope it didn't come only to watch the weekly services. I wait for it to retrieve a fresh sheet of paper, then clear my throat.
"Now, to what do I owe the pleasure? What brings a being of your stature to our little corner of the continent?"
The Beast carefully refills its pen, then writes: I'm here to learn about you.
Surprised, I say, "You traveled all this way . . . to ask about me?"
Curious. How did it even hear of me? A dark thought looms in my mind's periphery, and I try not to acknowledge it. Does this thing know about Her? "I'm sorry," I feign a polite laugh, though I suspect such expressions are lost on the Beast. "Of what interest could I possibly be to you, sir?"
It turns a new page to me. I wish to know about you. To see how it works.
Involuntarily — foolishly — I glance at the door to my bedroom, then at the clock. Five hours to Communion. "Oh, the Wetworks?" I say, standing without waiting for an answer. I'm immensely disappointed, though. Normally, I only have to walk the grounds twice a week. It may be worth it to humor this creature, though. The Beast Scholars are said to keep much knowledge outside human ken.
The Scholar follows me outside, but stops writing. After an uncomfortable walking silence, I begin to fill the air with what I think it expects. "Well, I was not born into the Husbandry. I worked my way into an apprenticeship with Lord Marshe, of the northern Flaxenworks . . ."
I regale it for some time on the subject of my advancement, sterilized and made featureless, of course, by removing all mentions of Her. The Beast Scholar takes no notes and writes no commentary. With no other requests forthcoming, I offer to provide a tour of the mucus flats and drying vats. I feel strangely obligated to entertain this creature, somehow. Husbandry customs do not require such deference, and indeed almost discourage it. The laborers we pass in the lowlands look on us with distant apprehension, as is their wont in the face of the unknown. I suffer no such superstition on the matter of the Beast Scholars; to what benefit I can't exactly say. The thing follows me wordlessly across almost the entire hamlet, though I avoid the mills in case Forven and Heap haven't managed to address whatever fuss was on earlier.
As the light dims and evening draws near, I grow nervous. The Beast has written almost nothing down, and my curiosity grows tepid. Two hours to Communion. I stop near the manor again.
"Forgive me sir, but I think there is hardly anything left to show or tell you about me and my ward."
The creature stretches lazily and finally scrawls something on its paper. I wish to see your quarters.
"You already have . . . that's where we met."
No, it writes. Not the parlor. Your sleeping chamber.
I'm sure the color drains from my face. "Well, first of all," I stammer, "you ought to have said so from the start, that I might not waste your time."
You wanted to show me your land, so I did not interrupt. Your kind is easily offended.
"Then you do not know so much about 'my kind' as you think. I'm afraid you will be disappointed. I do not allow visitors into my private quarters."
The Beast Scholar scratches a quick note on one piece of paper, then answers on another. I've come to see you Commune with the Root.
I step away, shaking slightly. "Sir, I would request that you leave now."
I heard that you have a uniquely negative reaction to the Root.
How could it know that? "I no longer wish to continue this conversation. Good day."
The Beast makes a strangely human bow, then shows me a final note: I will return soon.
"I think it's best that you do not."
Thirty minutes to Communion. Why do I bother dreading it? I would save myself so much anguish if I simply accepted it. I rub my wrists again. Lora serves dinner, but I hardly taste it. I ought to tell her to serve me gruel on Communion night. Meat is wasted on my palette in this state of anticipation. I avoid looking at my own bedroom door across the table, but it looms in the corner of my vision nonetheless. Sitting before a finely-laid table, spread with delicacies of steak and wine, I can only be fervently jealous of the field workers. I imagine them partaking in bland-yet-hearty meals, readying ground-hard beds, their skin and hair still filmy with residue from the mucus flats.
Twenty minutes to Communion. At this moment, I would give up the whole manor just to sleep in the servants' dormitory.
The other members of the Husbandry don't seem to share my discomfort with the Root Communion — not that I've ever asked them. Perhaps they are like me, but the shame is too great to discuss or admit. But why then would they continue to participate? At least I'm doing this for another reason. An obligation that, despite all my apprehension, forces me to dismiss Lora for the night, snuff the candles in the dining room, and retire to my bedroom.
Five minutes to Communion. My room is pitch-black, quiet, and uncomfortably still. That is, until it begins to wake. A cracking, creaking sound fills the silence. I take a step forward. Unlike the field laborers, I will not be sleeping in a bed tonight. I will be reclining in the leather chair in the corner, surrounded by a circle of exposed dirt. All around the chair, crawling up through the opening in the stone floor, the Root waits for me.
It curls up like thick, gnarled fingers, holding the seat in a sinister grasp. This is the grip of the Root. It is the salvation of the new world — and my recurring nightmare. The price we pay for sustenance in this strange place, and the cost of my promise to Her who I bound myself to so long ago.
Time for Communion.
I'm already sweating as I roll up my sleeves. I sit numbly down into the inevitable embrace of the Root. I give in to the restraints of my station. The Root is shifting eagerly now, excited by my arrival in the chair. Its wood groans and pops as it oozes up like slime from the ground. I feel it shudder in anticipation. It must know by now that I can't stop myself from struggling, for several gray vines slither up and bind my arms to the chair. I sit, the lord on his throne, chained by a living plant to the seat of my apparent power. It ties my legs down next, then my head. It almost caresses my cheek as it reaches up and wraps my skull in a wooden crown.
I brace for its final intrusion, but my nightmare is interrupted by the sound of a latch lifting, then my bedroom door closing. I can't even turn to look, but soon the bespectacled visage of the Beast Scholar looms into view, returned as promised. It gives no apology or explanation, just settles onto the edge of my bed and begins to write. I try to protest, or even whimper, but the Root reaches around and covers my mouth with a mask of rough bark.
My cage is gray and yellow-brown, my shackles wooden and stiff. But the worst part, that which I've most anticipated and feared, is yet to come. A section of the Root rises into the air near my wrists, then begins to bud into a fleshy pink flower. Then another. Hovering near my wrists are now a pair of long, thin fruits; soft and spongy at the base but tapered on top to needle-sharp points.
'The Husband's Reins', as my tutor Lord Marshe called them. The means by which all of the Root Husbandry communicates. The tendrils squirm toward my naked wrists like worms to fresh soil. The rest of the Root moves slowly, branching out like an arthritic vine. But the Reins slither with a quick intention, aiming straight for the patch of skin that exposes my frantic heartbeat. The Root's bark gag cannot fully stifle my scream as the Reins puncture my veins and burrow inside.
The Beast Scholar takes note of my writhing and weeping.
Almost instantly I feel the other minds of the Husbandry, like so many handprints on my face and back. The cacophony of fellow thoughts and reports completely drowns out my perception of the bedroom and its intruder. All across the new world, the Root Husbands commune with each other in a simultaneous conversation of heartbeats and thoughts. The Reins extract missives from one wrist and deliver reports to the other. Wordlessly, we — the Husbandry — share the results of our surveys and discuss the maintenance of the Rootworks. Some provide crop-yield projections for the year, others the number of flaxenbeasts hatched this week. I inform everyone of the state of fertilizer production and make a formal request for grain enough to feed my workers.
Alone, I cannot even decipher what my own report means for the rest of the Root. Attached to the minds of my fellows, however, I somehow comprehend the impact of mucus viscosity on Grainworks yield and can foresee the need to have my workers prune excretion cavities 8a and 13c. The Root itself squats on the whole of our conversation like a dark cloud, making its needs known to us through our own thoughts. Some works will tend to its lungshoots, others to its flowers and meats, and many more to its watering and cleaning. Together, we coordinate the care and cultivation of this continent-wide plant upon which we all subsist.
Our formless forum lasts several hours, and by its end, each of us understands tomorrow's needs. We will instruct our workers on the communal orders, survey the results, and meet again in three days to repeat the Communion.
But amidst all the public cooperation, I harbor a secret thought. It hides deep inside my mind, trying desperately to stay clear of the Husbandry's intrusion. I only dare to let it touch my waking mind for the briefest moment, and only as a distant part of my perception notices the first light of dawn sneaking into my bedroom. My fellow lords and ladies begin to detach their Reins, but I alone will keep the horrible needles to remain in my veins a little longer. One by one, every other member of the Husbandry leaves the Communion until it's just me, alone with the vast alien presence of the Root. It is a dangerously alluring void. I'm already beginning to lose my sense of individuality, lost in the near-infinite awareness of its underground reach. It would be so . . . simple to let the Root take control, for it would certainly decide to keep me here forever, drinking my blood . .
But no. I haven't lost everything yet. I still feel a dull thump of hatred in my spine for this plant, and I anchor to that. I reach out one more time, mentally whispering into the now-empty expanse of the Root.
“Are you there? Are you alright?”
When I come to, the needle-flower Reins are wilting. They shrivel and fall out of the bloodless holes they made in my wrists the night before.
I turn blearily to the Beast Scholar, who sits with a towering stack of notes on the bed beside it. Though it has no mouth, I'd swear it's smiling at me.
Caleb Sierra is a writer living in Richland. Read more chapters at http://sunsetsorcerer.com