Fabian rapped delicately on the door. The wood was warped and rotted in places. Anything more than a gentle knock would probably take it off the hinges entirely. After waiting the requisite five minutes, he nudged it open with his foot and stepped into the dark room.
The air was thick and musty. It had the stink of many lives worn into a tiny space, the odor of secret meetings and unwashed passion. Most of all, it smelled of loneliness.
He’d learned a long time ago not to open the blinds. It wasn’t that the man he came to see hated the light or anything, Fabian just didn’t want to be seen in his company. So he kept his visits to the hour just after the sun came up, when most of the village still slept below, except for the poor kids out tilling fields.
In one hand he carried a basket of food. Mostly stale bread and some rotten vegetables from the hog pile. Sometimes, he would sneak meat from the kitchen, even though he knew he’d catch a beating for it if his mother ever noticed.
There was a loud grunt from one corner of the room as the man rose from the pile of rags that he slept in. Some were fashioned into a sort of robe that trailed behind him. He scratched himself and shuffled over to the table where Fabian was failing to hide his disgust.
“You look like your father,” the man muttered, brushing dishwater grey hair out of his face and settling onto the chair. Fabian pushed the basket across the table, not wanting to lean in and risk smelling any more of the man than he had to.
“You always say that,” Fabian said.
“It never gets any less true.” The man grinned around a mouthful of bread. He brushed crumbs and dust from the table with a wrinkled hand, then nodded to the basket. “What, you couldn’t pack in some pig shit along with the rest of the slop?”
“If you don’t want it–”
The man swept the basket into his arms before Fabian could finish his sentence. His chest heaved with the exertion and for a moment Fabian wondered if a hard shove wouldn’t put him out of everyone’s misery.
“We had an arrangement,” Fabian said. “I bring you food, you tell me about him. It’s been months and you haven’t told me anything I didn’t already know.”
“Why should I tell?” the man asked. He squinted at Fabian and pointed a bent finger in his direction. “Could be you get what you want, and then you forget about me. Leave me here to starve.”
“I wouldn’t do that,” Fabian said after a long pause. “You’re the only one left who knew him.”
“You could ask your mother,” the man said, leaning back in his chair and setting the basket aside. “I’m sure the hogswife would tell you all you wanted to know about him.”
“She’d only tell me the good things.” Fabian stared down at his hands. He felt the man’s eyes traveling over him and tried not to cry.
“You don’t want the good things?”
Fabian shook his head. Swallowing back tears he said, “I just want the truth.”
The man had been shoveling a handful of moldy strawberries into his mouth, and began to choke on them. Juice dribbled down his chin onto the table. In the dim light, it almost looked like blood.
“What’s that then?” he asked with a wheeze. “The truth? Just words. Words that only mean something if you believe them. Why shouldn’t your mother say nice things about your father? He was nice to her. Treated her like a fuckin’ princess.”
This was the most that the man had ever spoken of Fabian’s father beyond little hints. Fabian’s mouth went dry and he tried to swallow back his anticipation. Maybe this was the moment he’d been waiting for. The reason he risked bringing all of this food every morning.
“You want the truth? Out there, it’s the truth that I’m a coward. I left my best friend to die on a hill of mud and shit and bodies to save my own skin. Made a widow of his wife and left his son without a father because I was scared. Of course I was scared. I was twenty years old. Doesn’t make the rest of it true.”
“So you didn’t leave him to die?” Fabian asked. His voice was raw and excited. Each word caught in his throat on its way out. Maybe his father hadn’t been killed defending the gate after all. Maybe he was out in the wilderness somewhere, unable to get back.
There was a long pause. The man pushed the basket to the edge of the table, leaving it to teeter on the edge for a second before he pulled it in enough to save it.
“The last thing I saw, as they closed the gate, was your father’s face,” he finally said. “He was more alive than I’d ever seen him. Hair streaming in the wind, laughing like a mad thing out of the stories. ‘Come and fight,’ he’d yelled. ‘There’s plenty for everyone!’”
Fabian’s hands shook as he gripped the table. He hadn’t even realized he’d grabbed on to it. Struggling to keep his voice steady, he managed to say the words he’d been afraid to speak for months. “He’s still alive, then. I always knew somehow he would have made it.”
“No,” the man said with a bitter laugh. “Gods no, son. When they found your father’s body it was days later. He’d been trampled by a horde of stinking Frontiersmen, pinned up against the wall. The only way they were even able to identify him was the birthmark on his neck.”
“My father was a great warrior,” Fabian sputtered. “I don’t care how many Frontiersmen there were.”
“Spoken like an ignorant boy,” the man said. He leaned in closer. “You ever seen one of them up close? They’re all tangled beards and crooked teeth. Red hair, like yours, but knotted and matted from living out in the woods. Blades almost as dull as their brains.”
He went back to eating the strawberries, smacking his lips while Fabian tried not to vomit. “They’re not civilized like you and me,” he added around a mouthful of food.
“I don’t understand,” Fabian said, staring at the man across the table. “If he was alive when you saw him, why do they call you a coward?”
“Your father led the charge against two thousand angry Frontiersmen,” the man said. “Fifty men against two thousand. He was my best friend. Hell, he was the best man I ever knew. And when I told them to close the gates behind him it was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do in my life.”
Fabian started to speak, but couldn’t find the words. He wanted to make the man stop talking. Shut him up. But it flowed out of him now, the words coming in a thick and steady stream.
“There’s your truth. I saved this worthless fucking town from being wiped out. But the truth says I deserved to lose my name. To be exiled from my family on the edge of the wilderness and forced to eat rotten food brought to me by a kid who looks so much like my friend that it hurts. To be reminded every week about the choice that I made.”
Before he even knew what he was doing, Fabian had thrown the table aside and slammed the man up against the wall. The room shook. For a second, he wondered if it would come down on top of them. The man stared down at him with that same smile on his face.
“That was the same look he gave me when the gates swung shut,” he said through croaking laughter.
It took all of Fabian’s strength to release him. Tears ran down his cheeks as he walked to the door, although he couldn’t say when he’d started crying. He was standing on the porch when the man called out to him.
“Will you be here next week?”
Biting back fear and revulsion, Fabian looked at the small shack. The wind was already blowing through the crack they’d made in the wall. The man was eating the food off of the dirt floor now, scrabbling through rotten vegetables and old meat. He imagined his father’s body, crushed and trampled and bit back a scream.
“Do you have other stories to tell?” he asked the man, not sure if he actually wanted an answer.
“I do.” the man said. “True stories, if you want them.”
“Then I’ll see you next week,” Fabian said, his voice breaking on the last word. He walked out into the morning light towards home, where his father’s sword hung on the mantle. He had pigs to feed, and his mother would be waking soon.
©2017 Chris Page. All rights reserved.