Verse 20: TESTIFY
Gloria came downstairs on Friday morning to find Lex, fully dressed, seated on the couch and using Tully's Walkman. The headphones, however, were not on his ears but around his spellengine. "Good morning," he called, setting aside the Walkman. He stood and walked to her, moving stiffly, as if he'd slept in an uncomfortable position. Then again, he had said he was not planning on sleeping…
"You look tired," she observed.
"I meditated to replenish my store of mana, which I have expended in like a wastrel these last two days. It took far longer than normal. This world has little mana, and it requires more effort to gather. Fortunately, I appear to be the only one using it. It took so long that when I stopped I had a leg cramp."
"Considering the day you had yesterday, you got off light. Let me look at your face." He bent down so she could examine him. "You really do heal fast!" she marveled. "Do your clothes heal themselves, too?"
He laughed. "I cast Mend on the trousers, but the shirt was beyond salvage. I merely took a fresh one from my purse. However, I seem to be missing a boot. It was gone after… when I changed out of my robe. That was my favorite pair, too. I had to put these on." He indicated his new footwear, shiny as patent leather and mottled gold and green. "They are far less comfortable."
"I suppose you had those in your purse, too? Let me guess. It's bigger than it looks."
He nodded. "Allow me to demonstrate." He held it open for her.
She peered inside, then jerked her head back. "Woo. Got dizzy there."
"The null field can be disorienting at first," he agreed. "Try again."
She held her gaze this time until she grew accustomed to the forced perspective. The interior of Lex's purse resembled a walk-in closet seen from above and in miniature. Shirts, vests, and trousers sat neatly folded on shelves, and there were several pairs of boots at the bottom. The gaudy robe hung from a peg next to a heavy leather jacket and something that looked like a cross between a parka and a wetsuit. On the other side were teeny drawers beneath a glassed-in cabinet that glowed faint blue and looked like it held food: meat, fruit, cheese, and several bottles. She also saw boxes of books and scrolls and a few small musical instrument cases.
"Is that a cross-bow?" she asked.
"Yes, but it needs to be re-strung. I wish I knew what happened to my rapier. It should have been left behind when the late unlamented Troll exploded. I hoped to have it repaired."
She whistled. "And they say we women carry a lot of stuff in our purses. How does it work?"
He shrugged. "No Idea. The Outfitters Guild makes a wide variety of items with such space-enhancing enchantments, but their techniques are proprietary and closely guarded secrets. This is one of the simplest and cheapest. Would you like to try using it?"
Gloria reached inside and was amazed to see her hand shrink to the size of a coin, yet she had no trouble using it to manipulate the drawer handless, "What's the glowing blue thing?"'
"Stasis cabinet," he replied. "Keeps hot food hot, cold food cold, and prevents spoilage."
"I'm amazed Warlock hasn't poked his nose in there and gotten lost. He's always getting into bags."
"It has a – no offense intended – pest repellent field." He closed the flap. "You look different," he observed. "I have not seen you wear a skirt before."
"I know," she sighed, feeling uncomfortable. "I have a meeting this morning and I was told to look 'presentable'." She uttered the last word with distinct distaste. Instead of her usual black jeans and low cut tops, she'd chosen an unflattering black wool jacket with dull brass buttons and a matching skirt that went past her knees. She also had on a high-collared white blouse and a small gold cross on a thin chain to complete the image. "You want some breakfast? I don't have time to cook anything, but I could get you some coffee, juice, and cereal."
"I ate with Nate and Hannah earlier. We had Cocoa Krispies. I have never eaten food that talked back to me before. I will accept your offer of coffee, though."
Since she'd had no time to shop for more of good stuff, they had to settle for instant, and microwaved at that. Carrying the mugs into the dining room, they sat at the table. She stared morosely into her cup.
"How is this outfit more presentable than your customary attire?" Lex asked.
"Beats me," she said, not looking up.
"You seem out of sorts," he commented. "Is something amiss?"
"I have to go to Providence – a city east of here – to meet a bunch of lawyers. Do you have lawyers in Novagrove?"
"Of course! They are among greatest of the Great Guilds."
"Here they're among the greatest of the Great Pains in the Ass. Today, I'm giving something called a deposition… Do you really want to hear all this?" She looked up at him and he nodded. "It's like testifying at a trial, only without the drama. No judge, just a lot of lawyers and somebody making an official record, so my words can later be used against me. Sounds like fun, don't it?"
"Not from the way you describe it."
"Oh, it gets better. One of the lawyers will 'supposedly' be on my side, but all the rest won't be. They represent big corporations I'm suing. Actually, my father sued them, and as his estate's representative I'm carrying on in his stead."
"You are not looking forward to this."
"Well, duh!" she snorted. "It promises to be tedious, confrontational, and borderline traumatic. What's not to be thrilled about?"
"What sort of suit do you pursue against these businesses?" Lex asked. Gloria couldn't tell if he was truly interested or just being polite, but choose to accept him at face value.
"There's this stuff called asbestos. Do you have that in Novagrove?" Lex shrugged. "It's a fibrous mineral that is very heat-resistant, and thus perfect for insulation, fireproofing, and a bunch of other uses. Unfortunately, those fibers can be inhaled and cause a variety of diseases." She idly played with coffee cup, "Got me so far?"
"I believe so. Pray continue."
"The thing is, Lex, these diseases often take decades to manifest. In medical terms, that's called a latency period. My dad worked with asbestos when he was a young man, but he showed no signs of illness until a couple years ago."
"That is tragic, but where is the legal dispute in that? Disease is unfortunate, but this sounds like a matter for Healers rather than Lawyers."
"Everything in America is a matter for Lawyers. Litigation is our national pastime." She chuckled without humor and took a sip of coffee. "Not long after Dad was diagnosed, hordes of law firms descended on him, like gulls on a landfill, all offering to represent him against the asbestos manufacturers. They promised multi-million dollar recoveries and talked a lot about 'sending a message' to the 'heartless bastards' who placed profit above human life. Dad resisted at first. He reasoned that money meant little to him at that point, since he was too sick to enjoy it, and didn't want to spend what little time he had left embroiled in a lawsuit. Then the lawyers shifted their tactics. 'Think of your kids,' they told him. 'Think of Gloria and Nathan and little Hannah!' They always mispronounced her name that way, too, making it rhyme with 'banana.' She hates that. Anyway, it finally reached the point where it was easier to let them handle things than to keep turning them away. He regretted that decision later, especially when he learned that most manufacturers had gone bankrupt under the sheer weight of lawsuits. He started worrying if this was really the message he wanted to send. Why should thousands of people – manly blue collar Joes with families to support – lose their jobs because some upper-echelon assholes – most of them long gone – made a few stupid decisions way back when?"
"Did these businesses mean to harm him?" Lex asked, his tone redolent with confusion.
"They were only trying to make money without considering long-term health consequences. And with all these bankruptcies, the lawyers want to blame companies that are still around for conspiracy to hide the facts from the public. They keep looking for 'deep pockets,' companies that still have lots of money. Their latest targets are the automobile manufacturers, which are very big companies indeed."
"Automobiles are made of asbestos? I thought surely they are made of metal."
"It's in the brakes. Or was, I'm still fuzzy on the detail. When the lawyers interviewed my father about his life, they got all excited when he told them he worked at a service station part-time when he was in high school. Besides selling the fuel that makes cars run, the station did repair work, including replacing worn out brakes. Now as far as I know, Dad just put fuel in the cars and cleaned their windshields and maybe checked oil, but our lawyers want to put him right next to the brakes. They want me to testify at this deposition, under oath to my God mind you, that I heard my father say he helped the mechanics at the gas station fix brakes, and was exposed to the asbestos that way."
"They want you to lie?!" Lex said, clearly appalled.
She flinched. "They want me to remember things a certain way," she said, trying to put a marginally better spin on it.
"That is a fancy way of saying 'lie'! This is monstrous!!" he roared, leaping to his feet and knocking his chair over. He leaned on the table with both hands and looked her square in the eye. "What kind of villains are these so called Lawyers?"
"Highly successful ones," she said, recoiling a bit in the face of his fury. "They make lots of money for their clients… but then they take a third of every dollar they recover."
"But they are dishonest! And uncaring! And cost many good people their livelihoods because of actions over which they have no control!"
"They're lawyers," Gloria said dispiritedly. "That's what they do."
"Not where I come from! In the Imperius, Lawyers are revered Champions of Justice. They worship truth and pursue fairness like those Pythons sought the Grail. They would be horrified by the picture you paint! Here everything is about money and if that means cozening perjury and exploiting suffering, so be it! The Lawyers I have met would sooner gouge out their eyes with their own quills than demand a share of such tainted funds!"
"Well, excuse me!" Gloria shot back. "Things are different here than in your precious Novagrove."
"You can say that thrice and not be exaggerating!" he barked derisively.
"What's that supposed to mean?" she said, her Irish rising.
"This world is a fetid rathole!" Lex screamed. "Your Lawyers have fewer scruples than the brigand who waylays you on the footpath and steals your goods! At least he does not make you sit for hours in uncomfortable clothes while doing so! Your leaders argue endlessly but accomplish little. Your air stinks of the effluvia from your vehicles, which travel on the same roads as pedestrians who not only have to breathe their fumes but must dodge to avoid being struck. All your women seem preoccupied with how much money a prospective mate has and what kind of vehicle he drives and if he has a boat and a for-oh-one-kay, whatever that means. Your men, on the other hand, are fixated on the size of a woman's breasts, except they call them derogatory names like 'boobs' or 'hooters' or 'melons' as if they were produce. Much of your food is bland and tastes of chemicals, and do not get me started on the beer! And sex!"
"What?" she said, startled by the complete nonsequiteur.
"Sex! The single most enjoyable pastime in the universe! On your planet, it is tainted not only by the ever-present consideration of wealth but also by the threat of disease! Yet you accept this and adopt practices to make it 'safe'! Well, sex was never meant to be safe!!" he bellowed. "Sex was meant to be joyous and free and messy and perhaps a little dangerous at times to give it flavor, but not to make you sick or kill you!! Heavens, woman, what are your Healers doing? In Novagrove, they would not sleep until they eradicated these plagues, but here they must be too busy making money!"
"That's not fair!" Gloria yelled.
"Oh, I agree wholeheartedly," he yelled back. "It is unfair to craftsmen and tradesmen and laborers and children and lovers and those who suffer because there is no money in making things better for them. Never mind justice! Never mind compassion! Never mind taking time to see the good and beautiful and ugly and silly and take in the whole splendid chaos of life! You rush around like weasels with their tails on fire and all anyone ever talks about is how much something costs, not what it is worth! When that portal opens again, I shall run through it with a smile on my face and joy in my heart. I cannot wait to shake the dust of this primitive, pestilential dirtball from my boots. And Urth is a stupid name!"
He crossed to the closet in two long strides, flung open the door, and grabbed his instrument.
"What are you doing?" Gloria cried. Things were spiraling out of control and she saw no way of reining them back in.
"Leaving." He moved to the front door and yanked it open. Gloria grabbed at his arm, but he pulled away.
"But why? What have I done?"
Lex whirled to face her. "Nothing! That is the problem! You meekly accept this without question."
"I do not! Anyway, I'm just one person."
"And is that supposed to be some sort of justification?" He took her roughly by the shoulders and brought his face very close to hers. In a lower, but no less angry tone of voice, he said, "One person can make a difference. The individual shapes society, not the other way around. We admire those who toil honestly for a lifetime, but we revere those who strive for greatness because they know what is right. History is not made by nations, but by individuals – good and evil – who fight for what they believe! Anyone who whines that they cannot change the world and thus refuses to try is a coward!!"
He pushed her away, walked out the door, and crossed the lawn heading towards the street. She pursued, but Lex outstrode her by a significant margin. By the time she got to the trees at the edge of the roadway, he was over a block away, and she abandoned her pursuit.
"What about the show tonight?" she yelled at his receding back.
"Worry not!" he called, but kept moving. "I am a professional." He practically ran past Fred Davies who was walking his schnauzer and had stopped to enjoy this impromptu soap opera moment.
Gloria cupped her hands around her mouth, "Where are you going?"
Lex chose not to answer her, at least not in any way she could hear. "Where no one will say anything that will make me crazy," he muttered. He picked up the pace, fuming as he headed in the general direction of Away. He felt a tight knot in the pit of his stomach.
"I'm only one person!" he repeated in an unflattering imitation of Gloria's voice. "It's not like I asked her to do something impossible, like set the gravity back to something reasonable or make the sun stop being yellow all the time, or even make purple juice the right color!"
As the minutes and spans passed, however, doubt and guilt began to peck away at his crop of anger like hungry sparrows. What had possessed him to rant that way? He was generally slow to anger and non-confrontational by nature, but had vented his spleen without justification. Yes, this world had faults, but what of it? Gloria had not deserved to be the target of his tirade. What had possessed him to explode at her like that, a woman who had shown him nothing but kindness and comfort and hospitality and honest affection?
Guilt was replaced by shame. His pace slackened and he fought the urge to turn around, run back, and beg forgiveness. Lex stopped in his tracks, but eventually trudged onward. It was too late to make amends.
After five minutes, he reached his destination, a place he had noted in passing from the back of Gloria's motorcycle. He paused before twin pillars of grayish yellow stone and asked the Ban She'a who guarded the spirits within for leave to enter. When no grave-nymph arose to question his intentions, he slowly walked into the cemetery. It was a serene, verdant place, filled with trees and flowers, and he felt his anger melt away in the face of such calm. At first, he just wandered the s-shaped path, breathing the summer air, watching the butterflies and listening to the insistent shrill song of the cicadas. Birds trilled and cawed and chirped in counterpoint, and, somewhere in the distance, children screamed in delight.
He ambled among the headstones, bearing names like Fitch, Morgan, Potter, and Russell. He stopped before one large stone that clearly covered three graves. YOUNG it read in large, bold letters at the top. Underneath, three names with numbers below them had been chiseled into the stone.
REUBEN ELSPETH MARY
1817-1883 1822-1850 1850
He wondered what the numbers signified, then realization slapped him like an impatient Master. Birth and death. There could be no other explanation. These had to be dates. He did the arithmetic in his head. Reuben had lived 66 years, Elspeth less than half that time. And Mary…
He knelt on the ground above the remains of the Young family and rested his head against the cool marble. Reuben Young had been born, married, fathered children, become widowed, and died in less time than it had taken T'Lexigar Machallo to reach adolescence. Elspeth had died, in childbirth he suspected, at an age when he would have not been trusted to go to the baker by himself for fear he would forget the way home. He did not want to contemplate Mary's short story.
Lex felt mortified over his earlier outburst. He had always accepted his longevity as the norm, or been jealous of races who enjoyed even longer lifespans, but these people were mayflies. Small wonder they had to rush to achieve their goals before their bodies failed them. He had allowed frustration and disorientation and the whirligig pace to overcome his reason and compassion for his fellow humans. He wanted to run into town and apologize to every stranger that he met for being so crass and judgmental
Then it struck him. The dates had but four digits. Did that mean their history went back little more than a handful of centuries? That appeared to be the case. These evanescent creatures had managed to accomplish so much in what was a single breath by his standards! Their machines were primitive, their culture naïve, and their social conventions adolescent, but they’d done it all in less time than his father had lived. Respect and admiration replaced scorn and disdain in his heart.
The Minstrel stood from the gravesite, resolving to put all recriminations aside for the time being. It was a lovely day, he had a show that night and it was time to act like what he professed to be. Noting a gnarled apple tree alone amid the field of tiny markers and ornate memorials, he sat beneath it. Tuning his mandojo, he began to plan the set list he would perform tonight for these flickering candles who deserved a touch of grace and joy in their lives.