The dream had been a haze, an opaque set of unconnected images as they often come to me now. I wonder if my mind, too, is floundering as much as my body, if it can no longer sew together enough of the fabric of dreams to sustain a night’s slumber. Sara and my friends assure me that in my youth my dreams had been equally hazy, and the adversity I claim is imagined, but I do not know to believe them.
I woke to my usual great and debilitating back pain. I suppose this is the culmination of my long days of working alongside my blacksmith father – many would not deign to take up the order of the blacksmith, if there were a list where jobs are ranked in order of the comfort and wellbeing they bring those who work them, not only would the Blacksmith not find a place at the very bottom, it would not be featured at all! But my back pain is no pain, it is profoundly not so; in that, it is wholly unlike my notion of what pain is – it is clearer, more asserted and assured, as if an emboldened soldier with emotions vehement and heart irreclaimably ablaze with volition, bent ever so intently on my harm. The pain’s new different nature renders it both potent and exceptionally long-lasting, though I might also assign the latter attribute to my old sore body; surely, I do not presently deal with pain as I did when my most common of habits was running, jumping onto and off all manner of brick structures, and seldom standing still long enough for my hair to settle back down and tousle over my forehead. Now that I look on them, the events of my life have not been wholly unlinked to the act of running. And not only in the obvious way: my long journey from the village to the City gates. The skill of sustained running must have been useful then, but it was not only then that is was useful …
When I first laid eyes on Sara, I had been running. It was a bright subdued day, far from being distastefully hot but never the less brilliantly illuminated, as those of the spring are. My blacksmith father had sent me to an acquaintance of his, to deliver a written message that he regretfully could not deliver in person. My father’s friend’s son had passed, and the letter –penned on fine paper and bound in a silken band– was to be delivered immediately, a token of my father’s consolatory efforts. I had found it tragically funny that I would deliver such a message, when my own blacksmith father’s son had passed little over a year earlier, and in my blacksmith father’s eyes, I had been a somewhat solacing, if not wholly identical, replacement.
Perhaps fittingly, my father learned of his friend’s son’s death due to an absence. Before his death, the friend’s son, Laris, had frequently visited my father. Every week, rolling ahead of his a cart, he would deliver my father various sums of metal, as per his orders – if the blacksmith required, say, a thousand apothecaries’ ounces of iron for the breastplate of a suit of armor a high-born customer had ordered, the blacksmith would inform Laris, who would in turn – for a fee, of course – fetch the desired material from his father’s stores on the outskirts of the city where the rates of rent were least. The week before Laris had not paid my father visit, and when another young man in his stead, my father was informed that Laris had been raided by bandits and, resisting them, had received a mortal wound to the chest that left him breathless, delirious, and eventually, sprawled on a city street in a small pool of innocuous light-red blood.
The new boy looked younger and his face was warmer, his demeanor more welcoming, his words and gestures polite and considered. Unlike Laris, who had been a hasty one, and quick to joke, even at the expense of others. Never the less, Laris’s absence had left a discernible mark. “I’m sorry,” the new boy said. “Laris won’t be coming any more, but I’ll do my best to fill his shoes. I’m younger, but I’m every bit as quick and strong, you’ll see.” Where Laris was cavalier and cared for it little, the new boy exuded passion for their line of work. “Go ahead and tell me your needs, and I’ll see they’re delivered, earlier and faster even that Lar–” the faltering at mentioning the deceased “… earlier and faster, uncle, you’ll see. It’s a pleasure to meet you, uncle, I’ll see that I never disappoint you, uncle, you’ll see.”
Time would prove his pledges true. But now back to letter and Laris’s grieving father.
Laris’s father lived on the farthest edge of the City, so that though I started my journey to his old house in the early morning, I only arrived as afternoon broke. “As fast as you can,” my father told me, sliding the letter into my hands. “Don’t let it distract you. It’s big and busy, but you’ll see it all in good time.” I obeyed to the best of my ability: I ran and ran until I strained to pound air into my lungs, and then I ran farther still. Even a year later, the awe of big city had not worn thin, and I frequently caught myself with my mouth agape at the sight of it: so many people, such vastness and diversity: the men wheeling carts, the vagrants, the beggars, the rich: impeccably dressed and flawlessly groomed. As much as I wanted to deny, to wipe clean my past and pretend to start anew, I was still the boy whose origins were a small fisher’s village the population of which was scarcely larger than a hundred. But here were thousands upon thousands of complete strangers! The mild danger of the new and unfamiliar excited me.
I followed the route prescribed to me, running so quickly heads turned at my passing, when ahead of me stood a towering giant of a stone building. Out of its metal gate poured men and women, nestled in their grips books and pens and pads of paper, and she was one of them. I approached her, my head tilting to the side to catch the glint of her large unperturbed eyes, I ran and my head titled even more, tilting still, until …
The cart and its contents had upturned and the melons fell to the floor, and when I disentangled myself from the wooden cart I’d hit, I did my best to right it up again, lifted the melons back into it. Most didn’t break, much to my fortune.
“What’s that place?” I asked, handing the man all the coin I carried to pay for the two melons that burst red upon on the floor.
When his face calmed, he said, “The University. That’s the University.”
“And who can I enter?”
“Oh, you need much more than this for that,” he said, shaking the coin I gave him with a chink of metal. “But I’ll tell you what: your pair of browns will be here tomorrow at the same time. The students leave in the afternoon, every day, right through that gate.”
“Pair of browns?” What do you mean?”
He only smiled, patted me on the shoulder, and walked away, gentling his cart forward with frail arms. Only later that day, after I had delivered the letter and watched Laris’s father’s eyes water at reading it, did I understand that he meant her eyes. Lying in my bed that night, I resolved that nothing would stop me: tomorrow, I would cut across the city again, arrive at the University gate, and meet Sara. Of course, I hadn’t known her namethen. The next day, enamored by the very thought, I finished my work and set out to the University, and it was here that running served me well: I hadn’t started at early morning as I had the day before, so I had to run even faster if I was to arrive before she had left for her home.
So I …
Three knocks on the door. It’s her. “Come in,” I just said to her. Of course it’s her. She still is too good to disturb me in my study, a courtesy only extended to me by her. Three knocks, that’s how she knocks. Three slow raps at the wood, too tender and unmistakable to be misconstrued for the careless hands of anyone else. She slides the door open and steps through. Though she doesn’t believe me when I say it, she’s still as beautiful as the day I blithely ran to her University’s gate. She is walking toward me, silent like she always is in my study. Is she standing over me now? Is that her sweet breath against the back of my neck? Is she looking over my shoulder now, reading this as I write it? Is that a smile I see? She must be reading, then. Well, since she is: do you remember the first time I spoke to you? Another smile, but no words, seems she doesn’t want to speak. Very well. Take the pen from my hand, write it down. What happened?
You stammered stupidly and said I reminded you of your mother. I thought to myself, Who is this maniac? But something told me to believe you. Was it the earnest eyes? You looked so helpless, you were close to tears, remember? I thought I really must have reminded you of her. But then you ran off, embarrassed, and I thought I’d never see you again. But then the next day, and the one after, and those to follow, at the university gate, there you were, stammering stupidly again. Is this the pen Syres got you for your sixtieth? Anyway, take your pen back now.
My thanks. And no, that is another pen, this one is Syres’s gift, see? The engravings are different. And that was told better than I ever could, truly a fine job. I wonder, now, if the good lady would grace me with a kiss …