I did not follow Rystala’s instructions to the letter. After she left, I finished the tea, pouring a new cup for myself from the kettle while I considered my next move. It seems that I was passable enough as a human, now, that she had not questioned leaving me alone in her home.
I decided that I wanted to know more about her home. I had never had the opportunity to see how human lived in their own territory. As far as I knew, they were unique among creatures with the extent to which they transformed the space they called their own. Other animals built nests or burrowed into the ground, but a human dwelling was something else entirely.
The design of the house intrigued me because of the way Rystala had crafted the room I was in into two distinct spaces without a wall between them. One portion of the space held the stove, the table, and the herb-filled hutch. The other had a larger piece of furniture, cushioned and obviously intended to hold more than one seated person, which faced an alcove of stone which had been built directly into the wall.
I found the difference in feel between the spaces surprising. With my tea finished, I moved into that other space. The mats of woven wood covered the entirety of the floor, but here, another mat covered them. I leaned down to touch it with my hand, embracing the limitations of my human body rather than falling prey to the temptation to send out a tendril of myself. Like my clothing, it was made of twisted strands of the fur of some sort of animal.
There were no herbs hanging from the ceiling or floor in this portion of the house. There were more chairs, similar to those around Rystala’s table, but with round cushions placed upon them for increased comfort. All of this intrigued me, but that which captured the greatest amount of my attention was the collection of shelves built into the far wall between the two doors, which contained books.
I had never seen a book before. Perhaps it seems a mundane thing, to those reading this; perhaps communicating in a way that lends itself to such permanence is nothing special, considering how ubiquitous it is in more advanced human societies. To me, once I came to understand what the books were, it was a revelation on par with my first encounter with spellcasting.
I approached the books and took one from the shelf. I had no idea what it was, or even what it was made from. I absorbed tiny bits of it through my flesh in an attempt to decipher its make. I was surprised to discover that both its inside and outside were of biological origin, though both were mixed with chemicals I could not identify. I recognized plant matter in the sheets within it. The makeup of the cover was more unexpected: the dried flesh of an animal.
For all that these details amazed me, it was the odd symbols that had been stained into the plant-fiber pages which drew the majority of my curiosity. They were obviously as intentionally made as the object into which they had been scribed. I stood there, flipping through the pages, for longer than I cared to admit before it occurred to me what their purpose might be. Even then, I was unsure of my guess.
If humans could communicate via patterns of sound, perhaps they had also learned to communicate using visual patterns. The thought excited me, as learning how to speak had excited and intrigued me. For some reason, I did not feel the frustration I had felt upon learning of the existence of more than one spoken language. This, I could see, had uses beyond what a spoken language could encompass.
Looking back, I feel a sense of pride in the fact that my younger, more ignorant self so easily puzzled out the basic meaning of those symbols. Obviously, I couldn’t read them, as I had no point to which to connect them to the spoken language that I knew. Still, I believe that even making the connection to language when I have never encountered a written form of it before was an impressive feat.
I took the book with me and left the house to seek out Rystala. She had, after all, asked me to join her outside, and I didn’t know what her response might be if I failed to do so, or if I took longer than she anticipated. I had originally intended to open the doors that led to more of her house, but the discovery of the books distracted me.
I found her in her garden, prodding at the ground with a metal tool in one hand while tearing plants from it with the other. I paused at the edge of the garden to watch her, not understanding her intent. I could see that the arrangement of the plants it the garden had more order to it than anything that grew in the wild. I did not know why she sought to remove some plants, discarding the into a basket, while leaving others untouched.
After several minutes, during which I silently watched Rystala work, she sighed. “Why do you have one of my books?”
“I want to know about it,” I said.
She leaned back on her heels. She had donned a hat, woven of what appeared to be even smaller strips of the same material that covered her floor. It shaded her eyes from the bright light of the sun, casting her face into shadow. This ravine ran parallel to the path of the sun, and so had many more hours of meaningful daylight than those that ran perpendicular to it.
“Okay,” she said. “I suppose you can read it, if you want.”
“I don’t know how to read,” I said, guessing that this was the term for interpreting the visual language. “I want you to teach me.”
Rystala laughed. “I guess it’s true what they say about Roamers being illiterate, then, eh?”
“Yes,” I said, agreeing not because I knew the answer but because I wanted to get back to the point in the conversation where I could discuss my own goals. “You have to teach me.”
“No, I don’t,” Rystala said. “I don’t have to do anything, and I’m not sure where you’re getting the idea you have the right to make demands of me.” She stood up, leaving her metal implement on the ground and dusting the dirt from her gloves as she did so. “Besides, I’m a terrible teacher.”
“Then you can help me find a good one,” I said. “Do you not know how to read? Why do you have books?”
“Yes, I know how to read,” she said, her voice taking on a harder edge. “The village helped me pay for those books. They contain knowledge about herbs and healing, which helps me help the village.”
“If you know how, you can teach me,” I said confidently.
“That’s not how teaching works,” she said. “It’s not that simple at all, especially with something as complicated as reading.”
“I think that’s just an excuse you’re using because you don’t want to teach me,” I said. I think back to the family I met in the forest, whose clothing became that which I was wearing. I consider trying to convince Rystala to help me in the same way I tried to convince the matron of that family.
I decided against it. If I tried that here, I would alienate this whole village, forcing me to seek out another one. My methods had also failed dramatically before, so I had no guarantee they would work.
“No,” Rystala said. “If you really want to learn how to read, maybe we’ll let you join the children at the village school, but you won’t be learning from me.”
I considered. “That seems like a viable alternative. Where is the school?”
“I said we might let you,” Rystala said. She put her hand on her hip. “That doesn’t mean it’s a sure thing. You do seem off in the head, you know? I’m starting to think you might have been born that way.”
“I am not off,” I said.
Rystala raised an eyebrow. “Look. Maybe you spend some time here, maybe you help out around the village for a while, and we’ll see if we start feeling like we can trust you enough to let you in the school with the young ones.”
“You should trust me now,” I say. “I have done nothing to seem untrustworthy.”
Rystala stared at me. “You say that without the least bit of irony. It’s uncanny.”
“I don’t understand.”
She shook her head, her eyes drifting to remain focused on mine. “You really don’t, do you?”
“That is what I said.”
“There’s something wrong with you,” Rystala said, her brow furrowing. “I can never tell if you’re telling the truth or lying. You just always have the same tone. I have this weird sense that either everything you’re telling me is a lie, or it’s all true and you just don’t know how to sound genuine.”
“There is nothing wrong with me,” I insisted. I began to fear I had lost her.
“Nothing other than the memory loss?” Rystala said. “Or the lack of coordination? Or how lost you look and sound when you’re talking to me, like you haven’t figured out how to navigate a conversation?”
“Yes. Nothing else.”
Rystala scoffed, shaking her head once more. “You sound both sincere and insincere at the same time. You sound exactly like you’re hiding something that you don’t want me to know.”
“How do I stop sounding that way?” I asked. There was so much more nuance to human interaction that I had not yet come to understand, so much to language beyond the words that were used to give it meaning.
“I can’t help you with that, either,” Rystala said. “I don’t know if anyone can.” Rystala glanced upward, not toward the sky, but toward the edge of the ravine where it formed a hard line against the clouds passing far, far above. “This is going to sound crazy, but I’m going to ask it anyway because you sound crazy most of the time yourself. Are you one of them, somehow?”
“One of who?”
“One of the Pale Ones,” Rystala said. “Childrens’ stories say they come down among us, sometimes, from above the ravines. They usually come at night, and nobody sees them unless they’re about to die, but — well, you’re so strange.”
“I don’t know what the Pale Ones are,” I said. This was the second time in my life I had been accused of association with them. I recalled the white being I had seen in the woods, the one with cracking flesh and irregular growths sprouting from its body. “I think I’ve seen one, though.”
“You saw a Pale One?” she asked, cocking her head to one side. “But you don’t know what they are?”
“I saw a creature in the woods I had never seen before,” I said. “It stood on two legs and had pure white flesh which flaked away in places like the bark of some trees. It watched me with eyes like two black disks.”
Rystala shook her head, more vigorously than she had before. She pointed at me with a shaking finger. “You need to leave.”
“What?” I asked, surprised by her sudden change in demeanor.
“You need to get out of our village,” she said. “You’re cursed. Marked for death.”
“Because I saw one of these Pale Ones?”
“Yes!” she hissed. “They don’t let you see them. If you do, you die. That’s what the stories say. The come down from above the ravines and take people away.”
“It did not take me away,” I said.
“It didn’t take you away yet,” she corrected. “For all you know, it’s still watching you. Maybe it followed you here. Now the whole village is in danger.”
No more danger than I bring to it myself, I thought. “I am not afraid of the Pale ones.”
“Then you really are crazy,” Rystala said. “Every sane person fears the Pale Ones.”
“You didn’t seem afraid when you asked if I was one,” I argued.
“I didn’t really believe it,” she snapped.
“Then why do you believe that I saw one?”
Rystala paused. “I don’t know. Out of all the things you’ve said, I’ve barely believed a word of it. I have a hard time even believing you’re human. Your skin is weird, though I’m not sure how. You don’t know how to act.” She shook her head. “But when you say you don’t know what the Pale Ones are, I believe you. When you described the one you saw, I believed you.”
“You make no sense to me.”
This was not entirely true. The fact that she had noticed something off about my skin, and that I had not noticed, instilled in me a sense of defeat. The fact that my behavior was not passably human magnified it still further.
“You make no sense!” she said, her voice rising in volume. “You make my skin crawl. I want you gone.”
Once again, a set of options presented themselves, and once again, the one toward which I gravitated was killing her and attempting to find someone in the village who would be more receptive to aiding me. I opted for another path instead.
I sat down in the dirt of her garden. “I will not leave. I want to learn.”