Findel stood in the stone colonnade tapping a bony finger on the handle of his cart. His black hair flickered in the breeze and his trousers, six inches too short, revealed grey stockings with black filigree that wrapped spindly legs. He straightened his collar. A bell tolled. A pigeon rose in a snit from the courtyard next to the colonnade. Time dragged.
Typical of an academic, Findel thought, to keep a tradesman waiting. He eyed the cart. Sixty-six of the most elaborate sticks he had ever turned. Pewter inlaid with gold. Shining. Beautiful. Heavy. Almost too heavy to push in one cartload. This was the largest order Findel had ever filled in terms of volume, and certainly in terms of revenue. At the price of four coppers per stick, Gorgan could stall all he wanted. Today’s paycheck would be worth the wait.
Gorgan burst through a wooden door halfway down the colonnade wearing a robe and talking with two other men. When they saw Findel, they stopped short. Gorgan screwed up his face, took three cautious steps forward, recognized Findel, and then sent the other men away in the other direction.
“Aha, Findel! Welcome to King’s University. Have you ever been here?"
Gorgan didn’t wait for an answer. He led Findel through a door and down a corridor that was too narrow for them to walk abreast. Gorgan walked quickly and Findel struggled to keep pace with his cart. They unloaded the freight in an empty cell — rather, Findel unloaded while Gorgan asked him questions — and they repaired to Gorgan’s study.
“A pipe? I have one for guests,” Gorgan offered.
They smoked with the door closed, the smoke carving ornate shadows on the wood-paneled walls of the study from the late afternoon light coming through a huge window. Shapes that reflected Findel’s stockings. Findel had never seen a window so big. He wanted to ask about it but Gorgan seemed to have cornered the market on questions. Where had he sourced the gold? How long had it taken him? How did these sticks compare with the ones he delivered to Sovereign College last year? Findel finished the questioning and the pipe and then made a hint about payment.
“Yes, I suppose you have places to go,” Gorgan said. “I suppose I do too.” He was opening a drawer and lifting out a wooden box with a hinged lid. “Now, that’s sixty-six candlesticks at the rate of three coppers per stick—"
“Four coppers,” Findel corrected.
Gorgan eyed him for a moment without lifting his head. “Yes. Four coppers per stick. That’s sixteen coppers and a silver.” He handed the tokens across his desk to Findel. “Thank you Findel. Can you find your way out?"
“I can. But first I want to ask about your guild."
“My guild? You mean The Scholar’s Guild? What about it?"
“I want in."
Gorgan grinned and raised his eyebrows. “Well, Findel. We would love to have you! But I’m afraid the bylaws stipulate academics only. It is The Scholar’s Guild, after all."
“I know what it’s called. And I know more chemistry than half the science department here. They’re all wasting their time staring at the stars while I’m putting science to work,” Findel blurted all this out quickly. “I’m an applied scientist."
Gorgan’s grin was growing. It made Findel feel small.
“Plus, Horcan is in.”
“Horcan is a poet."
“Horcan is a drunk, and he sells ale for a living.”
“He writes poetry."
“But not for a living. He’s a brewer with a hobby. I’m twice the scholar he is."
“Mister Horcan’s work has been published into a circuit book that has reached as far as the Mediterranean.”
“Give me a break, Gorgan. He slipped it aboard a merchant ship and got lucky when someone wrote back. Everyone knows the story. C’mon. I can fit in with the thinkers. The artists. Take a look at one of those candlesticks and tell me I’m not an artist."
"Well which are you? An artist or a scientist? Or have you managed master both without an education?"
Both men frowned and puffed their pipes. Then Gorgan set his on his desk in a brass tray made for that purpose so that the stem stretched over the edge of the desk and a thin spire of smoke rose between the men.
“Perhaps I can illustrate our problem with a story,” Gorgan said.
"There was once a panther who ruled the Forest of Wurster with shrewd violence. In the course of his tyranny, for no particular reason, he killed a family of dogs leaving only one pup alive. That pup found aid in a parliament of owls who brought him food, nursed his wounds, and told him stories of great and wise owls before them. The only thing the owls asked of the pup was that he stand guard below their roosts during the daylight hours and awake them with a bark if danger came near. As the pup grew, he became more and more fond of the owls. He ate what the owls ate. He sang the owls songs. And he even started to sleep when the owls slept. By the time he reached adulthood, the dog believed he was an owl. He was clearly a dog, you understand. A big dog with sharp teeth and thick fur. The owl diet, high in protein such as it was, had treated his muscles well. He was a well-formed and healthy dog in every respect except his insistence that he was an owl.
"Then one day while the owls slept in their roosts and the dog slept at the base of a tree, the panther came upon the scene during his customary prowling. He attacked, and since there was no warning, he killed three of the owls before the rest could escape. He also killed the dog.
"Now, by this time in his life, the panther’s strength had waned. He wasn’t the same cat who had killed the dog’s entire family many years before. Sleeping owls were a more reasonable prey for his flagging abilities. Had the dog fought the panther, he could have won with little injury. Had the dog stood guard, he could have saved the lives of three owls. But rather than guarding or fighting, the dog fled. In fact, he tried to fly like the owls. Attacking from behind, the panther was able to catch and kill the dog.
“I have your best interests at heart, Findel. There is a natural order of things. A well-formed and healthy dog is a good thing — a very handsome and useful thing — as long as such a dog knows that he is a dog. I’m sure the candlesticks are lovely. But I can’t help you. Now, if you don’t mind, I have a lecture to give."
Walking away from the university, Findel had a vision. He knew what he must do. He saw himself three days hence, bent over a table working in jerks and grunts. He stood facing a wall of shelves in a dark room. He was holding a knife, ten inches long with a deep blood gutter. He was hacking at something and dropping offerings into a bowl that swirled with silvery liquid. It rolled and coughed a thin silver plume like a steeple of smoke. Findel whispered at the smoke.
Lauded for insight and praised for your knowing.
Speak not, honored dumb. Be blind where you’re going.
The spire of smoke moved, cracked and popped, and the silvery liquid took on a sculpted form. A pipe.
Findel was well into his third ale delaying his homegoing as long as possible when Lars came through the tavern door, shouting behind him at someone in the street. He spotted Findel, nodded, and sat at a table across the otherwise empty room. It was the kind of slight Findel had grown to resent. Findel approached Lars, waving his cup to a bar wench on the way.
“Evening Findel,” Lars said when he saw that conversation was imminent. “Heard you paid a visit to the university today. Thinking of enrolling?"
This was a step backward. Findel hadn’t intended anyone to see him at the university. “Delivering goods. I punched out sixty-six candlesticks for them. Cleared just enough to buy this cup."
“Good on you then. Does that mean you’re buying cups all around?”
Findel looked all around. “Happy to. Shall I count that my entry fee then?"
“We’ve been over this. The guild is for builders and growers.”
Findel drained his cup and put it on the table with a clap. “Yes, builders. You know, Lars, the greatest builder of all time began with light.” He shouted to the empty tavern, "Let there by light!"
As if in obedience to divine command, the tavern door opened at just that moment, spilling the late afternoon sunlight across their table. A broad man who they both recognized as a forester named Borlo walked to their table.
“What’s this then, Lars? Buying candles?” Borlo grinned as wide as most men’s shoulders and waved to the wench.
“We were just going over the requirements for guild membership,” Lars said. Findel raised a bony finger as if to speak but Borlo’s booming voice cut him off.
“Findel, old man. I felled and topped twenty trees today, and not small ones either. I’ll be selling them to Horace to build homes for shelter. Lars here slopped, what, forty? How many swine are you looking after these—"
“—Forty-five swine that will feed families from here to Trollensburgh.”
The wench brought three cups. Borlo eyed her while Findel waved her off and she returned to the kitchen with his cup.
“All that work has me in the mood of a story,” Barlo said, reaching for his cup. "Have a go, Lars?"
The older man cleared his throat. “I’m afraid it’s only sad stories this evening, lads."
“How’s that then?” Barlo wanted to know.
“Have you not heard about the bridge at Tarventown?” Lars said with the twitch of a grin.
“I’ve not, sir,” Barlo said. “What news?"
“Well, you see Tarventown is a fine village. I have a niece there, in fact."
“I’ve been to see her on many a clandestine evening,” Barlo said with a burp and a smile. He punched Findel’s arm and it hurt.
“That’s right,” Lars said. "You’ll ruin more than the story if you keep that up, you bastard.
“As I was saying, Tarventown is a smart village with a fine church and goodly people.”
“Your niece being one of them."
“But Tarventown has a profligate magistrate. A man with no oysters always looking for clams."
“Ah, now that’s why you’re the bard of our village right there, Lars. You can turn a phrase as well as Findel here can turn a candlestick."
“Now Tarventown sets along the River Verdant, and the bridge over that river was downed in that big storm we had in Spring. Remember the one?"
“I do, indeed. It kept me from your niece’s warm bed. A sad storm that."
"The town fathers voted to build a worthy replacement, wide enough for two carts, with railings all along and lamps at each end. A bridge worthy of their goodly people.
"The magistrate was put in charge of construction, since he had working relations with many of the tradesmen needed to complete the job, and since he had asked for the post, no doubt seeing an opportunity for graft. And the magistrate took to his job with fervor. He hired every carpenter and forger in the county. He amended the town fathers’ plans, adding impressive embellishments, more lamps, a roof, and even a third lane, though no one could think why a third lane would be needed. In fact, he contracted for so many additional services that the town coffers suffered and the bridge itself became a monstrous thing. Its bulky shape appeared as more of a barrier to Tarventown than a welcome.
“On the day of the bridge’s dedication, the good magistrate strode to the center of the bridge to make a speech. He thanked God and the workers who labored so skillfully in the construction. He thanked the town fathers and the goodly people of Tarventown. And then he lifted his hammer to drive home the final ceremonial spike. And when the hammer came down, so did the bridge. The entire thing went crashing into the River Verdant, and the magistrate was lost in the tumult."
“Aye, it’s sad and true as well,” Barlo said, shaking his head. “I’m still wet from my last swim to meet your niece."
Barlo drank and Lars ignored the jab again. He turned to Findel. “You see, Findel. The thing that was needed for the bridge was utility, not frivolity. The magistrate failed to distinguish between the necessary and the ornamental. The Craftsman’s Guild is for men who provide a necessary good."
“Light isn’t necessary?” Findel asked.
“No one ever died from darkness,” Borlo grinned at Lars, only just picking up the train of thought.
“I disagree,” Findel said, rising to leave the party. "That is all anyone ever died from.”
indel was walking home from the tavern but his eyes showed another scene. He saw himself again bent over a small table — an altar — in a windowless room. It was two days hence. Candles glowed around him like sentries. Each commissioned to stand on its own decorated post.
The bowl he had used before now sat on a shelf above his head. He bent to another hex this time, and sealed it in wax on the bottom of the cloven hoof of a pig.
Forty-six swine, and you count as one.
Like Borlo’s great fells, your strength has gone.
Findel’s nose was two threads from his own front door. He stood frozen, his hand on the hold, his breathing shallow. He opened the door.
“Ah, so ya live here after all!” Grindel said loudly without turning to face him. Her rump pulsed like an enormous jellyfish in rhythm with the scrubbing she was doing. Findel watched it, unimpressed. “I made your dinner. It’s cold now."
“Thank you,” Findel said flatly. “Sorry I’m late. I made that big delivery to the college today. Stopped at the tavern on the way home to celebrate."
“Then you probably heard the scuttle about Jan Jorkenson?"
“No, what about him?"
He’s the newest member of the Craftsman’s Guild.
Findel couldn’t hide is frustration, though he knew that showing it would only degrade him more in Grindel’s assessment. “He makes clocks!"
“And not fancy ones, mind you. And yet, he managed to get in. Now’s he’s set. If little Jonas should get sick, if his shop should burn, if anything bad should happen, he’ll be taken care of. The guild takes care of its own."
“Probably paid off Lars,” Findel muttered.
Grindel sent a blast of breath through clinched teeth. “That isn’t the point. He’s done it. He’s won. He’s found a way. That’s the point."
Findel had a strong urge to leave. He eyed the coat he had hung on a peg next to the front door. He was imagining a place to escape while Grindel kept talking.
“Have you heard that story from Horcan’s book about the turtle and the rabbit? They’re teaching it in the schools now. I heard from Matilda. I wouldn’t know myself, of course, seeing that you haven’t given me a child."
Findel rolled his eyes. “I’m a turtle, am I?"
“Nay, Love. You’re neither the turtle nor the rabbit because they both compete. You’re a spectator of some sort. A bird, perhaps, with those spindly legs and too short trousers. You’re watching the racers from a distance. By the wayside. Unengaged."
“And you?” Findel asked. “Do you race?"
“I have been prohibited because of my gender, but I still contend,” Grindel said, waging a dish rag at her husband. “As a fox. I’m clever, I am. I’ll fox a way to do what my husband can’t."
Findel grunted and put his feet up. Grindel wasn’t finished.
“You know the rest of the turtle and rabbit story? The rest of the story is that the turtle went on to become mayor of the animal village. The other animals respected him for trying. They came to see his slower pace as a virtue. He was wise, they thought. He was steady and trustworthy. Findel, the only difference between a wise and respected turtle and a shameful pariah bird is that the turtle tries. The turtle works at it."
“I do important work,” Findel said with half the fervor that statement required. "I bring light to darkness."
"Yes, and you stand there and hold the light while other people contend and win and gain honor."
Findel shook the man’s hand again, bowed his good-bye, and closed the door behind him. He turned to face Grindel whose eyes were as big as the cups he cast for pillar candles. It had been just two weeks since the last rejections by Lars and Gorgan, but the gentleman who had just left their home had offered Findel full membership in the Craftsman’s Guild. It had been the second offer of the evening, the scholar having barely left when the craftsman appeared. The representatives had explained that, in both guilds, there had been a sudden and dramatic change in leadership.
In the case of the Scholars’s Guild, Professor Gorgan had decided, unexpectedly, to retire early so that he could spend more time with his beloved books. He was working on an annotated translation of the classic works of Horcan Herbsgarden, his favorite poet. The volume would be his crowning academic achievement; his swan song. This was the official story. Findel and Grindel had already heard the scuttle in the village about the professor having gone mad. He had stopped speaking entirely and taken to eating live locusts. Three nights before, had been found, awake and sober, going from home to home in a narrow street asking people at each door if theirs was the house he lived in.
The craftsman had explained that Lars had, likewise, taken a keen interest in establishing a legacy for his life’s work in the form of a magnificent castle he was building on Rainbow Moor. The truth was that Lars had been asked to leave the village and the guild when his unnatural love affair with Borlo was discovered.
Grindel wadded her apron in her hands and stared at the floor. “What just happened?"
“I suppose the fox won out,” Findel grinned. “You found a way, did you?"
Grindel nodded slowly. “No, I— It wasn’t me. I don’t know where this luck has come from."
“It wouldn’t be from me, to be sure,” Findel offered. “Couldn’t have been on merits."
Grindel unfolded her apron and smiled. She offered pie to Findel. “It’s still warm,” she said. “The gentlemen both left in such a hurry I didn’t have time to offer them anything to eat.”
“Such a stroke!” she said, turning her back to Findel while she bent over the pie with a knife. “What luck for us! Will we decide tonight?"
“Which guild, of course,” Grindel put the pie on the table. “I assume you’re leaning toward the scholars. More money there. But I hear the brotherhood of craftsmen is frightfully loyal.” She grinned, and Findel was sure he saw a touch of the sly comeliness of youth in the corners of her mouth.
Grindel’s change happened slowly but she noticed right away. The day after Findel had been admitted to the Scholar’s Guild, an occasion celebrated with some ceremony at the Spring meeting at King’s University, she had complained of a headache. The next day, there were bumps on her head. And four days later, after having worn a bonnet day and night for the intervening period, she unwrapped her head in Findel’s presence to reveal little, furry triangles that poked slyly through her hair. They looked for all the world like the ears of a fox.
Grindel sought every possible remedy over the next few weeks. She sent for a doctor from the neighboring village (wanting to protect her identity in case there were cracks in the doctor-patient confidentiality nearer home). She asked for prayers at church. She washed and bleached and scoured and treated the little triangles, but to no avail.
She was first embarrassed, then sullen, and finally enraged. She stopped leaving their hovel and never spoke with other villagers. She stewed and boiled in her anger at God, at the universe, at her mother who had clearly had relations with some kind of monster, but mostly at Findel because he couldn’t help her and didn’t seem very eager to. He was an easy target. Despite her haranguing, Findel produced no doctor or sorcerer or glimmer of hope that could improve her condition. She stopped cooking and stopped eating. She forgot all his kindnesses and spoke to him only in snarls and yelps.
Findel knew Grindel was bound to discover his secret room eventually. He used it too often and, though he had hidden its entrance with shrubbery, the bushes had grown thin with winter, and the hole cover sometimes rattled in the wind. It was a cavern near the back of their property where it abutted a forest owned by a rich neighbor. Grindel had grown suspicious of Findel’s outings there. He tarried longer on the evening walks he insisted on taking alone. He said he had trouble sleeping and was sometimes absent from bed for hours at a time. Grindel tried hard to imagine what level of desperation or blindness would entice a woman to be his mistress, but couldn’t conjure anyone in town willing to bed him. She certainly wasn’t. And yet she hated the thought of being cuckqueaned by him, and knew her new, unnatural appearance might have given him leave. One evening, she pretended to go to bed early and then, when she heard him leave, she followed.
The entrance was little more than a hole with a shaky ladder dropped into it, but when she reached the bottom and turned from the ladder, Grindel’s stalk of an unfaithful husband turned to sickening fear of something else. Findel stood at a table with his back to her, facing a wall covered in shelves that were loaded with jars of nightmare. Pickled animal pieces, skulls of various species, cauldrons and knives. Findel wore a hooded gown and one hundred wicked flames cavorted with his shadows. They lit up the grotto as if they were standing inside an oil lamp. Findel was holding something in both hands, and when he lifted it above his head, she could see with unmerciful clarity. A fetus. The unborn of a lamb. Findel was bloody to the elbow. He lifted the dead thing and called forth more in a voice that did not sound like his own.
Grasping at standing, your status is thus:
Childless, mocked, forgotten and dust.
Grindel gasped. Findel turned his chin to his left shoulder. He lowered the fetus to the table and faced her. “Hello dear."
She could barely form words. “F- Findel. What?"
Findel stood stock still, his hands at his sides dripping lamb life. “You look surprised."
“Let me tell you a story. There was once a butcher who was taken captive in war and exiled to a land far away to the east. There he was made to slave for three years to earn his release, which he did with no complaint. But upon regaining his freedom, he lacked the money to travel home, so he made a living in that foreign land the only way he knew how; butchering. But his butchery soon faced a problem. The people of that land ate a species that he didn’t know how to carve. Every day, people brought to him cats and, try as he might, he couldn’t slaughter them cleanly. He fouled the meat with entrails or tore the steaks beyond repair. He was losing business and every hope of returning to his homeland when a stranger helped. One night, while the butcher was bemoaning his plight with strong drink at a tavern, a hooded helper led him to a solution. The hooded man said that there was a way to butcher cats that wouldn’t require him to learn any new skill with knives. In fact, it required no knives at all. The butcher only had to mix a few recipes in a boiling pot and a learn a few repeated phrases, and he would summon a power of slaughter greater than any knife he had ever wielded. The butcher learned fast and soon became the most successful of his trade in all the East.” Findel finished and smiled.
Grindel clenched her fists. She had been frightened by the scene and by the talk of slaughter and butchery, but now the silence sent her panic even higher. “Ok. Findel what the hell is going on?"
“Can you guess the moral to that story?"
“There’s more than one way to skin a cat?"
Findel turned back to his table and said over his shoulder, “or a fox."