In which a bugbear hides and is later shot,
resulting in a chase through a forest.
I know I’m ugly.
I know I was created on the Fifth Day or cursed to be a man without the likeness of God.
Dubois says, “You’re beautiful to God.”
“I know that, but He must not be telling people."
"Perhaps, they're not listening?" he asks. "But why does that matter?"
"You don't know what it is to be a monster," I say.
"I know what it is to be a heretic, and that makes me a monster to some." He sits beside me and puts his hand on my shoulder. "You're a good man, and Christ has made much of you. There is nothing more beautiful than that."
"I'm not a man."
Why did I say I was not a man? I could have—Something's coming.
I rip the moss on the forest floor, between three stones, and hide the axe between the stones. I climb a beech. Beeches are stronger than firs, and the color of their skin matches my hair. I am in the canopy by the time Lefebvre comes into sight. He runs to the fir I have cut and whispers aloud, "Ourson, there are men." I snap a branch, and Lefebvre looks up anxiously. I point to the stones where I hid the axe, and Lefebvre searches them and finds it. He uses it to chop at the fir with a technique as wild as two goats ramming.
Three men come through the trees wearing barely more than rags, each with a cudgel, followed by a fourth man wearing a cuirass and carrying a pistol. They tell Lefebvre to drop the axe, and the youngest of the ragmen, barely older than Lefebvre, sniffs the air and says,” You smell like a fucking bear."
"Me?" Lefebvre asks.
"Is there someone else?"
Lefebvre sniffs his chest and then an armpit. "You're right. I kind of do."
The young one, with fire in his cheeks, moves toward Lefebvre with his cudgel ready.
Lefebvre raises the axe. The young one barks, "Listen here, you little cunt, if you want to act an ass, I'll shove my—”
“Payson,” the cuirass wearer says, "I see the shit from your father's field on your cheeks, but it seems it's in your mouth, too. Should I clean it for you?"
The cuirass wearer is tall, a head above the other men but as remarkably spare. He is no chevalier. Chevaliers know hunger only on the battlefield, but this man dwells in hunger. He wears a helmet and a cuirass and carries a pistol. He has the wealth to eat but refuses. Dubois said I should be wary of men like this. "They are not always bad men," he said, "but they are always irascible. You may not see it, but it is there wearing the reisläufer like a hide. It makes him distrust a full stomach and surmise that comfort is only moss hiding a viper. But who can blame him? His soul’s first memory is of crying at his mother’s dried teat; and unless the Lord prevails in him, that memory will prevail. As a child, he will steal food and pull scraps from the mouths of dogs and livestock. At war, he will watch knights wilt while he remains unmoved. At home, he will deepen the chasm of his heart with strong wine and fille de joie until his stomach shrivels to the size of a sou. The world has told him hunger is inevitable and those who embrace that inevitability will remain alive. Remember, Ourson, the anger you feel in the pit of your stomach when you have not eaten for three days, he always feels it. Such anger keeps a man at war."
The cuirass wearer—the reisläufer—strikes the young one, and the latter stumbles unto the stones. His nose drips like an oak leaf after a heavy rain. He covers his nose, but the reisläufer pulls his hands down and whispers, "I want you to feel this. May your blood be like Isaiah's coal." Tears mingle down the young one's cheeks and dilute the blood around his mouth. He grips his pants so he won’t touch his face.
The reisläufer approaches Lefebvre and kneels. "What's your name?"
Lefebvre points to the fir. "Paquet."
The reisläufer examines the fir. "You are no Paquet."
"Am, too," Lefebvre insists. "You saw me swing this axe. I know it's a bit dull, but you saw what I'm capable of." Lefebvre then flexes his pitiful arms. "Or should I say what these are capable of?"
The reisläufer smiles and points to the fir, "Let me tell you what I see. Those scratches are from," he grabs Lefebvre's arm and squeezes gently. “Those lacerations,” keeping a hand on the bottom of Lefebvre's arm, the reisläufer raises his other hand and squeezes the air where my arm would be. "Tell me, little scratch, where is your Paquet?" He tightens his grip on Lefebvre's arm and wrestles the axe from him. "Little scratch, I won't abuse you—as these paysons would!—because you baptize men twice. Baptize them as many times as you want. I don't care. I care only for the truth. Little scratch, lying to a man is stealing the truth, and the truth is needed to survive. Say I needed to cross a bridge and you tell me the bridge is fair—except, when I try crossing it, it crumbles beneath my feet. Do you see how you have killed me by stealing what is and what isn't?"
"Good." The reisläufer lifts his head and sniffs. "It does smell like a bear. Little scratch, have you seen a bear nearby?"
My fingernails pierce the beech deeply as if its heart was only moss. Why would Lefebvre say that? He lied and called himself a Paquet but now chooses the truth? Does he not know the reisläufer’s pistol would kill me as if I were a man? But why am I upset? My life is not worth one sin on Lefebvre's soul, so why would I have him lie for me? I see now, Lord, as I always have, I am a hypocrite. I will only have truth as it is convenient. Forgive me. If we survive, Lefebvre and I will kneel and repent.
The reisläufer lets go of Lefebvre's arm and pulls up a sleeve. Scars like endless blisters run the length of his arm. "They leave more than bruises, little scratch. You shouldn't be out here."
Lefebvre takes a step back. "I came to warn him."
"Where is he?"
"If you found him, he would leave more than bruises."
The reisläufer unsheathes his pistol. Its stock is fashioned from walnut with a grip that runs straight until a knob adorned like a scepter erupts from its base. It has no cock but rather a small, circular plate with a lever curved like a dog’s legs pressed against it. "And I would leave a hole."
Lefebvre takes another step. He looks up and says, “And he would eat you.” The reisläufer follows Lefebvre's eyes until his eyes find mine. There is no fear in his. There is no fear in his. Lord, deliver me.
I drop from the beech into a squat then unspool myself standing the length of a pike shaft. The ragmen pull back their cudgels and retreat a few steps. The young one cries more deeply. I am the anxiety of childhood, a story to frighten the unruly. I am the interminable arms in the dark waiting to snatch up the disobedient. I am the beast woven from sin to punish sinners. I am the house that stands against itself but holds. I see that anxiety in the ragmen. All men become children when they are afraid. I roar, and the ragmen run from a fear they could not escape in childhood, the Bugbear.
The reisläufer, a man starved not only of food but fear, is however unmoved. He centers his pistol on me, and as I instinctively cover my face, the shot fires. The bullet grazes my ear but fully finds the palm of my left hand.
My roar shakes the forest with a sudden flight of birds. The agony in it is excruciating as if I were nailed to Christ's cross, His hand over mine. My mouth becomes dry leaves and my sight like that of a blind man only half saved. I stumble and land on a root, and the root should feel like a club beating my ribs but my body is only with my hand now. It knows nothing else.
The reisläufer kneels and retrieves a rod latched to his pistol by a length of cord. He inserts the rod into the pistol and cranks it until the pistol clicks. He releases the rod and reaches into his sheath and removes a packet maybe the size of a man’s finger. He chews an end of the packet, and gunpowder slides from the packet into the pistol’s flash pan. The reisläufer snaps the pan cover in place and forces the dog leg erect. He then shoves the packet into the muzzle and frees his scouring stick from beneath the muzzle and says to me, "Come here, devil—I am your Michael,” and plunges the stick into the muzzle.
I roll unto my hands and feet and nearly cry from the weight placed on my hand. It cannot support me, so I right myself and slowly lumber toward the Lake.The next shot lodges near my left shoulder but it is strangely painless. I move deeper into the forest and hear another shot ring out, but it falls well short.