Title: A Time To Every Purpose
The other question in the back of her mind was now shifting from “Why aren’t you dead?” towards “Were you dead?”
It was late afternoon before Soleil found them.
Iris kept on throwing herself at the overgrowth like some kind of avenging garden angel. “We might be here for a while,” she said. "And we’ll get tired of gourd, and I - I need to stay busy.“
Which left Crystal with the job of talking to - not the thing, she couldn’t call him that anymore, she told herself. The old man. Their host.
He huddled on the floor of the cabin, never leaving that one spot in front of the door. When Crystal hobbled over to sit nearby, right after breakfast, he stared at her so piercingly that she flinched and dropped the canteen. She barely managed to catch it before all the water spilled out. If Iris had stopped to notice the clever little mechanism to hold the lid shut…oh well. She squashed down annoyance with the swiftness of habit.
When she looked back, he was huddled in a different shape than before, hugging his knees and watching the pile of shredded vines next to Iris grow ever larger. Crystal made herself study him as she would any newly-met and potentially dangerous stranger: frail and thin, even more skeletal than their father had been at the end. Brown eyes that seemed clearer and more human in the morning light. The unkempt hair and beard could’ve sheltered entire bird families. This man wasn’t at all well, and yet…she knew the stench of sickbed and deathbed, and could make a guess about long imprisonment. But there was only a faint musty smell here. And remarkably little dirt. In fact he was cleaner than half the men she’d known back home.
Some lucky people had powers, she knew. The settlement’s guardian warrior could call up a blue crackling shield around him in battle; his "Semblance”, he called it. But what power could explain these contradictions?
She couldn’t ask “why aren’t you dead”, and she had to say something. "Is it really all right for us to be here?“ Please don’t kill us in our sleep.
Without turning his head he rasped, "It is. But why are you here?”
“The caravan we were with got attacked, and…we were really lucky. I only hope my other sisters were too.” She didn’t let her voice shake.
“Travel is dangerous, then,” he mused, as though it wasn’t an obvious fact of life. “Why have you chosen to risk it?”
They’d been asked the same thing a dozen times in the last week. Crystal gave him the same answer she’d given Kane and the caravan traders. “The settlement wasn’t a safe place for us anymore with our parents gone. We’re hoping the city will be better.”
She expected “Why not?” but instead he said, "And which city would this be?“
What? "The…city. There’s only one. There’s only ever been one.” Was he addled? She stared at him,. trying to gauge if he was just mildly confused like gran, or worse. Though he kept on placidly watching Iris, she was able to catch a glimpse of the expression on his face by leaning forward and pretending to stretch her hurt leg.
He was smiling, just a little. And then one bushy eyebrow quirked up - she’d been caught - and the intelligent amusement in that smile made her feel about five years old.
“I need to practice walking,” she said abruptly, and stood up so quickly that a jolt of pain ran down her leg. Ignoring it, she limped across the yard.
“What?” Her sister crawled out of a tangle of underbrush, knife in one hand, dirt-smudged and glowing with mid-project fervor. "There’s a whole bunch of different plants surviving down here, herbs and vegetables. I think vegetables. Once I get the area clear, I should be able to replant the whole thing. And we can take some seeds with us when we leave.“
Crystal mentally crossed the idea of leaving tomorrow off her list of options. Once her sister got invested in doing something, she wouldn’t quit until she was satisfied or someone set it on fire. (And she’d never forgiven those boys.) Instead she said, "He’s really weird.”
“The bad kind of weird?”
“Probably not,” she admitted. "But he’s watching us and thinking and…I don’t know how to explain it.“ It was ridiculous, but she had the strong sense of being a small creature studied by a larger one. "He’s looking at us the way you’re looking at those plants.”
“You want to switch places for a while?” Iris asked with a noticeable lack of enthusiasm.
There were thorns in that overgrowth, no doubt, and bugs and snails and old tough roots. "Not really.“ Crystal sighed. "I’ll try again. Maybe if I had something to do with my hands - Any good fiber-stuff in that pile?”
“Try the brown pods, they’ve got fluff in them. Or the vines with the leaves like this. I’ll start saving them for you.” Iris bent to plunge back in, then paused. “And Crystal?”
“You analyze people like that all the time. You’re just not used to someone doing it to you.” Her grin was smug enough to call for hair-pulling retaliation, if they’d been safe at home. “Now you know how the rest of us feel.”
When Crystal returned to the cabin’s front stoop it was with a pack full of plants. The old man pretended to doze as she sorted out stems from seedpods. At least she was pretty sure he was pretending. She poured more water from the canteen into his cup anyway.
Strip the stems and set them aside for drying, roll the fluff between her hands until it formed a sticky rope. The rhythms of the everyday chore soothed her mind. As sturdy, off-white yarn coiled around her drop spindle, the observing presence next to her began to feel more familiar. Listening, silent, nonjudgmental. Eventually, as though the warm sun was relaxing something in her throat, the words began to come out.
“Mother was always passionate. We loved that about her, and so did Father. She would laugh with Soleil and play games with her in the yard while the other mothers were doing chores, because she said we needed fun more than a scrubbed floor. And she and Russet would make up the most fantastic stories, epics really, and tell us a new chapter every evening. Whenever any of us got in trouble with the teachers or the priests, she would go charging in to defend us - even if she knew we were wrong.
"When gran died, she took it hard. But we knew she was going to, and we were all prepared. Father would sit with her and say, "What’s one good thing that happened today?” and keep asking questions until she could find something good. Iris and I took over most of the chores so she could spend more time with Soleil. Russet would tell stories from gran’s life, and repeat all the fairy tales she taught Mother when she was young. And I kept asking her to help me practice meditation. She would do it, every time, even though she knew it was just a ploy. We got through the first year, and her grief eased.
“When Father got sick, we tried to do the same thing. We really tried.” Her voice shook with emphasis. "He helped us plan out what to do, even as he got weaker and weaker. But none of us deep down really believed he was going to die. And then he did.“ Crystal spread out her hands, helplessly, seeing the callouses and small scabs on them. "Life is cruel and we have to bend with it serenely, like a tree in the wind, that’s what the scripture says. But Mother was like a tree blasted by lightning.
"She cried all the time, and she didn’t care that the neighbors could hear. Even worse, she cried in public. And she got so angry. After the funeral she told the priests she’d prayed and prayed for her husband back, and asked them what point there was in faith if the gods wouldn’t listen to her. They tried to tell her about the balance of life and how loss comes to everyone, but she insisted it was different for her. It was injustice, Father wasn’t old or weak, it hadn’t been his time to go.
"Everyone stopped talking to us by the second week. It got hard to buy things at market. We started to find tokens left at our door, black feathers, dishes of spoiled food. The priests warned us to calm her down, and we tried, but she wouldn’t listen. She just didn’t care anymore.
"And finally, a month after Father’s death to the day, I came back from gathering in the woods and she was.” Crystal swallowed. “She.” Angrily, she wiped at her eyes - stupid tears - and then caught her breath in surprise.
A brown, gnarled hand was close to her arm, the long curving nails nearly but not quite touching her sleeve. She looked up and met the old man’s eyes. They held more sorrow than she’d ever seen in anyone: not an angry sadness like hers, but resigned and patient. He nodded to her, once, and pulled back his hand. That was all. But her throat felt clearer.
“She was sitting in her chair and the cup was on the ground. Her lips had green on them and I…just knew. I held her hands and she smiled at me and said the moon, she knew how it broke now. The Lady broke it when the Lord died, because the world would never be whole again. Then she started vomiting and. It was over by the time my sisters got home, at least. That’s a thing to be grateful for.” Always find things to be grateful for.
Crystal took a deep breath. Almost done. "When I brought the cup back to the senior priest he didn’t even try to deny it. He told me they gave her a choice and she drank willingly to protect us. That we should take comfort in knowing she cared about the safety of her family, if not her community. And that he expected to see all four of us next week,right up front. I smiled at him and promised. We started planning our journey that night. “
If he’d said something sympathetic, she might have given in and sobbed. If he’d said one word about negative emotions, she might’ve thrown the spindle at him. But his words were thoughtful, measured, and once again not what she expected.
"Was it necessary? What they did to your mother?”
He said it like it was a genuine question, one he didn’t know the answer to, and that halted the “No” at her lips and made her actually consider.
“I…want to say no.” Her hands clenched in her skirt, and the neglected rope of fluff broke and smeared her palm. “The Grimm attacked twice that month, and that’s pretty typical. But both times they came over the wall right next to our three-house. We saw the claw marks. Our warrior said they headed right for us, and maybe he was told to say that. But maybe not.”
“Only one warrior to protect all of you?”
“Well, yeah. We - they’re a small settlement, just a hundred or so, and he was the only one with a Semblance. The other men stand guard, of course, and help with the small ones. Anyone can do that. Even Russet shot a bird-shaped one once, though we kept it a secret. But true warriors aren’t born often, you know. They say most of them choose to protect the city, that’s why it’s so much safer there. ”
“Do I?” The look on his face was distant now, as though he were fitting pieces into some invisible puzzle. Did she look like that to other people? "So the Grimm are a severe and constant danger, and your leaders chose to focus on suppressing the populace rather than bringing out their potential to fight back.“
The last thing she wanted to do was defend the priests, and yet she had to ask, "But what’s the alternative? Ordinary people can’t fight those monsters, not the big ones. And they home in on negative emotions.” He hadn’t said it, so she would. "We’re putting you in danger by being here. Even having this conversation is dangerous. Why are you letting us stay? How have you not been attacked? “ Oh no, she hadn’t meant to blurt that last one out.
Distant amusement. "Those are large questions. As a partial answer, I would say that "ordinary people” have more strength and potential than you were raised to believe. As for myself, well.“ His head turned to take in the sky, the garden, the trees beyond. "I suppose I haven’t felt much of anything in a very long time.”
The other question in the back of her mind was now shifting from “Why aren’t you dead?” towards “Were you dead?” Crystal didn’t think it prudent to ask either one. She picked fluff out of her skirt and returned to spinning, and they shared a a peaceable silence until Soleil came running up the path and leaped into her arms with a shriek of joy.
“I’m so glad you’re both okay! I ran and ran and then I tripped and this faunus found me, Iris there are faunus out there and they’re so much friendlier than we were told, he was so tall and he had these cute deer ears that flicked back and forth and antlers, and…” Soleil paused to gulp a huge breath. She was perfectly capable of talking like a normal person, she’d done it at sermon and school, but her preferred conversational speed was full-tilt.
“I want to hear more about this faunus, but get some food and drink in you first and let me check you over,” Crystal told her. Three out of four. They were almost all safe, and Russet had the best chance of any of them. Please, gods, I said I’d never pray again but please…
Soleil was in surprisingly good shape after two nights in the wilderness - some bruises, a torn and ragged fingernail, and a shallow scrape on her abdomen that someone had already cleaned and bandaged. Crystal looked the neat work over with surprise. “The faunus did this?”
“Yes. His name was Chamois.” Soleil sighed dreamily. "We spent the night at his place, and he took me here in the morning, he said his friends saw a fire and it was probably you. I wanted him to meet you all, but he said no.“ Her shoulders drooped. "I really liked him.”
Crystal and Iris exchanged a look. “When you say really liked…"
"No, I swear, nothing like that!” Soleil’s eyes were brimming pools of innocence. "Just a little kissing. Well, a lot of kissing. Mostly.“
The strange part-animal people weren’t allowed in any settlement Crystal knew about, and she doubted the city would be any more welcoming. And a human with a faunus child…she hoped the deer-man had been sensible as well as kind.
"Well.” Crystal sat back on her heels. “We’ve been all right here so far, so just stay put, okay? No going to look for Russet or anyone else. There’s plenty to explore here. And you can talk to…our host.” She moved out of the way so that Soleil could see the cabin with its open door.
Her flighty sister and the old man stared at each other. And stared. And stared, until Iris began nervously, “Sir, this is our sist-” She was interrupted by Soleil bursting into laughter.
“What is THAT? He looks like a scarecrow covered with snow!"
"Be respectful!” Crystal hissed, but it was hopeless; Soleil was already making a beeline for him. She dropped to her knees and they stared at each other some more, closer up.
“Why do you look like that?”
“How else should I look?"
"Most people cut their hair at some point,” she informed him. "And your clothes are falling apart. Why are you sitting on the floor? Were you out here all alone? Wasn’t it dangerous?“ Her eyes widened suddenly. "Were you dead?”
Crystal put her face in her hands.
“Not as far as I’m aware,” he answered seriously, as though it was a perfectly reasonable question. "If I was, how would I know?“
"Oh.” She appeared to think about this for a moment, and then shrugged. "What’s your name?“
The prudent thing to do at this point would be to pull her sister back and start babbling apologies. On the other hand, very few people could get angry at Soleil. She was like summer sunshine personified.
But she didn’t think an answer would be forthcoming, and she was right. "Hmm. Perhaps you could pick one for me. And what is your name, young lady?”
Soleil got to her feet, brushed down her muddy skirt, and swept him a curtsey. "Soleil, good sir. Soleil…of the Vale!“ She twirled around in obvious pleasure at her own cleverness. "I am on a journey! And I am waiting for my sister. You’ll like her, she tells the best stories.”
“I look forward to it, then,” he told her. "The Vale, then, is that where you are all from? You hail…from the Vale?“ Amusement bright in the brown eyes.
"Yes!” She beamed. "You get it! I mean, it’s just another word for valley, but it sounds much grander. I think it should be our family name, when we get to the city. Everyone says we’ll need one. Now, show me around. I want to see everything!“
"I…” For the first time, the old man looked slightly taken aback. “There isn’t much to see, my dear.”
Subtlety was a foreign language to Soleil, but she was never cruel; Crystal saw her glance at the tiny dilapidated cabin, and then at the overgrown yard. “So? You must have a favorite tree and places to sit, and a rock that looks like an animal or something. And then we can play hide and seek, you’ve got the home advantage but I’m very good at it.”
He blinked at her, clearly nonplussed. “You want me to…join you outside?”
“Why not? You don’t stay in there all the time, do you?”
An awkward silence followed, broken by another silvery peal of laughter. "You DO! That’s ridiculous! It’s so much nicer out here. Come on. “ She held out a hand.
He looked, Crystal thought, even more ordinary when baffled. She could hardly believe that yesterday she’d seen a cryptid instead of this gentle hermit. Was it all due to familiarity?
Perhaps not. Certainly he looked a little more sturdy after vanishing into the shadows of the dark cabin and returning with an ancient floppy black hat. And his clothes, when he finally stepped across the threshold, proved to have no embarrassing gaps or holes despite being threadbare. They stayed on his emaciated frame through the expedition to look at Iris’s garden progress, an interesting bug in the grass, and several flowers. At that point Iris vetoed hide-and-seek in favor of preparing dinner, and he sank down on a rock with obvious relief.
"Sorry about that,” Crystal said to him in an undertone as she cut up onions and mushrooms. Thanks to Iris’ digging, they had more variety tonight. "My sister is a force of nature. If she’s a bother, we can get her to back off.“
The old man smiled. "Not at all, she’s quite refreshing company. Despite all you’ve endured she seems quite happy.” The tone of his voice made it half a question.
“Everyone has their way of coping. Soleil has known since she was very small that unhappiness is bad. So she is always happy, and does her best to make others happy. No matter what.” Crystal lowered her voice again. "She’s completely sincere, and yet in a way it’s an act. We play along because we’re afraid of what will happen when it stops.“
Words she’d held inside for a long time, with no one safe to say them to. It felt good to hear them spoken aloud.
The old man just nodded, but it was enough; she was understood. "And yet,” he said so softly she had to lean in to hear, “I am grateful for her performance.”
She let the tilt of her head ask the question.
“I had forgotten the sound of laughter.”