Clovir: An Overture

Part VII

Judgment and labels hurt us all. In this story, a man learns the value of compassion and acceptance. Released on Boxing Day 2018, this is another tale set well before the opening of The Yoga of Strength.

If you like the story, please consider pre-ordering a copy of The Yoga of Strength.


Boots

“Everywhere I seek things, speak to me,
Things speak to me, please sing to me.

- High on Life, Rebelution

“Lawrence… Lawrence… Larry!”

Lawrence Malley looked up from his bench to see his wife darkening the door of his workshop. He had a magnifying scope wedged into his right eye, a tool he used to help him see deeper into the tan grain of the leather, the black iron of the nails, and dark wood of the materials he worked with on a daily basis. Lawrence Malley was a cobbler, and though he would never say it himself, he was the best one in the poorer western district of Isha. A good man, and thorough, it was his attention to detail that had attracted his wife to him in the first place. It certainly was not his social graces, of which he was possessed few, though he was not unkind. He simply forgot about things that most did not from time to time.

“Yes, dear?” Lawrence said, pulling the scope from his eye and setting it down next to the pair of boots he had been repairing for the past hour or so. “You know I don’t like it when you call me that. Larry Malley – it sounds so-“

“Christ-man, Lawrence, it’s the bleedin’ baby! It’s comin’!”

Lawrence, wide-eyed with surprised, took stock of his wife again. She was wearing the simple blue cotton dress with the green fringe that was in fashion in the city in those days. His eyes were drawn downward to where his darling Mrs. Malley was pointing. There was a dark stain in the fabric below her knicker-line.

“Right!” said Lawrence, standing up and nearly tripping himself on his stool as he did so. “I’ll go get the midwife. You go back into the house.”

Lawrence walked over to his wife and motioned for her to leave. She began to comply, and then a screech pierced the morning air again. Mrs. Malley grasped for Lawrence and managed to get a scrap of the man’s ample forearm. She did her best to give the man a facsimile of the terrible squeezing that was ripping through her womb.

“Ouch!” said Lawrence, wincing in unison with his wife. “Christ-man, Estelle!” Lawrence looked at the mask of agony on his wife’s face as he added, “It’ll be alright, my dear. I’ll be back in a flash with Corky.”

Lawrence had the uncharacteristic presence of mind to wait with his wife until the contraction passed. Then he was out into the streets, half walking, half running, all the way to the midwife’s home.

-----

“It’s a boy, Lawrence,” said Corky, wiping blood she had missed from the back of her hand with a crimson-stained kerchief. “That’ll be two for you then, eh?”

“Kyle,” said Lawrence, trying to peer into the room behind the midwife blocking his path. The door was closed. “That’s what we said we’d call him if it were a boy.” Lawrence dropped his gaze to the bloodied kerchief. “How’s Estelle?”

“Mom and babe are resting,” said Corky, brushing her sweat-matted hair out of her face now that she was satisfied that her hands were clean. “I’ll let you in but ye have to promise me to let her sleep after a few moments. She’s had a long day.”

“How ‘bout me, can I see him?”

Both father and midwife turned to see Chris Malley, Lawrence’s brother, standing with a toddler in his arms. He was still dressed in his uniform: chain shirt, leather armour, and the ivory tabard of the White Guard. The boy in his arms kept motioning at the visored helm resting on the kitchen table, indicating to his uncle that he wanted to play with the only removed piece of his standard issue gear.

“Alright, Chris,” said Corky, “give’s Reed.” She took the wailing toddler from Chris. “Make sure – both of ye – that ye let Estelle sleep. That means ya get the fuck out of here for the night. I’ll keep an eye to her and the babes till tomorrow morning, Lawrence.”

Both men nodded vigorously and squeezed on past the midwife to see the newest addition to the Malley clan.

-----

“How goes the battle, then?” Lawrence said, pulling up a stool next to his brother. Accepting the wisdom of the midwife’s words, they had left for White’s Public House soon after they had met Kyle. “You enjoyin’ lickin’ boot for the King, brother?”

“Eh, s’alwright,” said Chris, clapping a hand on Lawrence’s back. “There ain’t much to do, workin’ as a bodyguard for a man who barely leaves the castle. Mostly it’s just standin’ around, tryin’ to breathe through that blasted visor, jokin’ around with the lads.” Chris paused. “Not like you… speakin’ of boots, your workshop is rotten with ‘em, eh?”

“‘Tis the season,” Lawrence laughed. “And no rest for the wicked, as they say.”

“You ain’t got a wicked bone in your body, brother,” Chris said, motioning to Raymond White, the publican, with two fingers outstretched. “Two Cisterns, Ray.”

“You got it, Chris,” replied the barkeep.

The two brothers sat in silence, their preferred mode of being, for the several moments it took for Raymond White to pour and deliver their Cistern Ales. The brothers had previously agreed that White’s Public House was as seedy a shite hole as they came, but the beer could not be beat. They clinked their earthenware mugs when they arrived.

“Congratulations on the new brat, Larry.”

Lawrence looked up at his brother with a pained look on his face. Chris was the only one whom he permitted to call him ‘Larry,’ though it was less out of volition than of painful memories of the beatings the elder used to lay on the younger, before Christopher joined the White Guard in their early adulthood. Their father, a man as meek as Lawrence, did nothing to stop the bullying. He had thought he made good the entirety of his paternal duty towards Lawrence by offering to apprentice the boy as a cobbler. Lawrence was all too happy to follow in his father’s footsteps, but advancing age and growing wisdom served only to dim the fear he had for Chris, not extinguish it completely. Still, Christopher Malley was a White Guard now, and brother or not, he would assault a civilian only upon pain of defrockment. And so it was that Lawrence’s rational mind knew his own safety, though his heart was not yet convinced.

“Thanks, brother,” said Lawrence, taking a sip of the beer and returning his gaze to the spot on the tavern wall before him. His set face upended into a smile as he saw an opportunity to embarrass his former tormentor. “So when are you ever going to find a missus and have a few of yer own?”

Lawrence did not need to turn to look at his brother to know that his face would have been turning red at this very second. It was an open secret in the Malley family that the likelihood of Christopher Malley ever settling down with a woman of his own was slim to none. He had found more than brotherhood-in-arms within the White Guard and it was either a Liserian arrow or a hangman’s knot for charges of buggery that would see him leave his fellows.

“Eh, maybe one day, when I’m not so busy like,” said Chris after a moment. “’Sides, why do I need pups when I’m already uncle to a pair of lads?”

As soon as he had twisted the knife, Lawrence felt the hot prickle of shame on his neck. He would betray his brother like that, for what? Calling him a nickname? Maybe when they were boys, but Christ-man, that was not how a man behaved.

“And one hell of an uncle at that,” came a voice from behind the men.

“Carl!” said Chris, spinning on his stool and standing to grab the man by the arms. “I thought you were on shift tonight?”

“Traded up with Herb, what with Ophelia’s condition. Things have… changed. I am feeling in dire need of a swallay this evening.”

“Larry, I want you to meet Carl Nicodemus.” Chris said, ignoring the sombre look on his friend’s face.“One of the finest men in all of the White Guard.” Lawrence beamed as his brother and friend shook hands. “Have a seat with us, me buddy.”

“Fair ‘nough.” Carl said quietly, taking a seat with the men.

“Now, tell Chris and Larry all about your troubles, Carl,” Chris implored.

“I’m not sure if this is the place, Chris,” said the white cloaked man as he pulled up a stool to the right of Chris. “I mean, I just met your brother, I’m sure he doesn’t want to hear-“

“None of that shite,” said Chris, putting his arms around both the men. “We’s celebratin’ tonight, so let’s get that weight off your sad sack chest and on to merrier things, eh?”

Lawrence and Carl’s eyes met for a moment, a nod was exchanged, and Carl began to recount his story. It was a story that would have been apposite in a world where reality had been flipped, as it was one of natal misery where Lawrence’s was of joy. Ophelia Nicodemus had miscarried for the third time, and she had nearly died in the process. The couple’s midwife had informed the Nicodemuses that one more attempt to bear children might kill Ophelia, so she had left the pair sitting in their cold hearth room with a bundle of sea herbs known as Neptune’s Crown. Brewing the vegetation into a tea would see an end to any future child should Ophelia miss her moon’s blood. Ophelia had cried herself to sleep and Carl left her snoring in their bedroom before making his way down to the pub.

“Christ-man, Carl,” said Chris, putting his hand on Carl’s back and moving it in concentric circles, “if I had known…”

“I tried to tell ya,” said Carl, “but I know what you’re like. It would have done no good – you would have kept at me until I spilled my guts. That, or I could have left. But I am in no mood for anything but drink tonight. So tellin’ ya - and stayin’ - was a no-brainer.”

“So we’ll drink deep,” Lawrence said, breaking the silence that had been with him throughout Carl’s story. “Celebration, sorrow, makes no difference with Cistern Ale on tap.”

“It’s a curse,” said Carl, letting his head droop into his mug. “A curse from God, for my sins...”

“Carl,” Chris said sharply, “None of that shite now. This is a ‘public’ house. Look around ye.”

The tavern had filled to bursting throughout the time it had taken for Carl to relate his grim tale. In the booths near the back, the slatternly wenches, well-known to eat a knob for a brace of silver pieces, were draped around the men, offering up lascivious winks, actor’s grins, and too-shrill laughs at the raucous utterances coming from their potential johns. The tables closer to the bar were filled with more loud peasants and military men, supping on mutton and potatoes and drinking from great tankards of the tavern’s finest. In their immediate vicinity, every single stool had arse upon it, mostly with the most regular of regulars, nursing their beers in silence as they drank themselves into the stupours that would see them later stumble back to their hovels in the Purple Run, screaming at cats and passersby in the night.

Lawrence himself, feeling the effects of the ale and once more a dart of the old anger against his brother as he saw him exercise his authority on a man who had opened his heart to him, decided to probe further.

“What do you mean, ‘curse?’ What sins?”

It was a question asked innocently enough, but the look on Chris’ face as he turned to look upon Lawrence bespoke a grave trespass to be found in the younger brother’s question.

“I said, not fucking here,” Chris rasped. “You understand me?”

Lawrence looked at the pair again, at his brother and this man who was sitting here at the bar when he should have been home warming his bed next to a wife ravaged by the vagaries of life in this cold world, at their easy physical contact with one another, the way they looked into each other’s eyes. Their familiar manner spoke of great openness to one another. Lawrence understood. He understood indeed.

-----

It was a screech from newborn Kyle that pulled Lawrence out of his bed that next morning. It pierced him to his bones, sodden with the after-effects of drink as he was. He moaned and rolled over, patting the cool straw of the mattress next to him. Bless the Christ-man, Estelle was up with the little one, he thought. Then the call from elder Reed came, followed by an admonishment from his wife to get the fuck out of bed and help her with the babes.

That morning was pure agony. Lawrence went through the motions, but the motions demanded by infants are quite the motions indeed. When he finally felt well enough to speak, his wife listened to his story.

“That poor man,” said Estelle. “And his poor wife – two times over. Told she can’t have a babe after three tries, and her man is a bugger to boot.”

“Eh, Estelle,” said Lawrence, “yer right about their situation with the babes. But our Chris is a man of that persuasion as well. You think so little of him, too?”

“No, no,” said Estelle. “He’s a good man, and so good with Reed. I hope he’ll be the same with Kyle, now, too.”

Lawrence fell silent, as was his wont. After a while, he spoke. “I don’t think that man, Carl – I don’t think it’s an either or thing with him, hearing the way he spoke about his wife, and the way he and Chris were together. I think he truly does love the both of them.”

“Christ-man,” Estelle replied, “what a way to live.”

“One of many,” said Lawrence, “one of many.”

Lawrence thought back on his anger at his brother again, how he had let it grab him while he was in his cups. It was a potent force, and a convincing one. But Chris had not shown any violence nor rage to him, not since he had found himself as a member of the White Guard. Finding a purpose seemed to have dampened his temper. Perhaps there was a lesson there.

“I am to work, Estelle,” Lawrence said, crossing the hearth to look out the window. “There’s still a few hours left before dusk. Are you alright with the babes? I know two at a time is new for you. I can take the whole day off.” Lawrence paused. “It’s just that I’ve so many orders and there’s no one but me.”

“You keep that coin coming in, Lawrence Malley,” said Estelle. “You’ve three mouths to feed now, apart from your own. Besides, the help you’ve been giving me, sitting like a lump and stinking of ale – I think I’ll survive without it.” Estelle paused to smiled warmly at the love of her life. “What’ll it be today, then, hun? Shoes or boots?”

“Boots,” said Lawrence to his wife. “In this frozen shitehole of a city, it’s always the boots.”