I was roused from my first night’s rest in my Shackleburg dormitory by a knock. Morning had already come and I mumbled requests for patience as I tossed on my robe.
“Goodday, K.K.,” Jasper’s voice reached me through the closed door. “I’ve been asked to fetch you before the rest of these wretches leave a fellow comrade behind to starve while others fill their bellies.”
I opened the door to discover Jasper, along with Monroe and Ianto, and others whose names escape me at the immediate moment, but struck me as the decent sort when we met the day prior. I apologized for making them wait and asked they delay for just a moment longer.
“They breakfast at three o’clock. We aren’t late yet, but we will need to hurry, so I suggest you pull your britches on and master dressing mid-stride.”
“At three o’clock?” I asked, suspenders over my shoulders and tucking in a shirt. “It’s not even three, then? The morning’s already so bright.”
“Is it? I suppose,” Jasper said. “Without obstruction, the sun will strike hard and early. And with the snowfall, we walk upon a mirror. Here, that’s well enough. Get your boots on, we haven’t a moment more to spare. Have you a cap? It’s cold.” I shook my head. Jasper looked to the others and gestured. “Ianto?”
Ianto tugged a spare cap from his coat pocket and passed it to me without a word. My eyes met his and neither of us betrayed the calm.
We were out the door and I carried on buttoning my overcoat and stomping my feet firmly into my boots. The loaned cap was snug and warm. There was another fine dusting of snow laid across the campus, melting into dewdrops and clinging to each blade of grass, still green amidst it all. And bright, my God, it was bright there, so close to the roof of the world. I shielded my eyes against the dazzling shine, hardly able to raise my sights and absorb my surroundings. My classmates each donned glasses with round, dark lenses, and leather triangles capped along the arms to block light intruding from the sides. I tugged my cap a little lower and caught a passing glance from Ianto who nodded at me from behind his protective eyewear, not uttering a word.
Another boy jostled me. It was Monroe. He passed me a pair of dark glasses. I thanked him and exhaled heartily in relief once I fitted them to my face.
“Did you sleep well?” Monroe asked, walking beside me. “How do you feel this morning?”
“I feel well, thank you for asking,” I answered. “What I can’t piece together is why it’s so bright at so early in the morning?”
“The university runs a different clock from what you’re used to. It’s nearly three o’clock in the morning, which—sorry, I’ve grown so used to it, I can’t convert it to the draconian system. There are one hundred kè in a day here. In minutes and seconds, you’d have to speak with one of the electrochemistry students, they’re superb mathematicians. Don’t permit them the opportunity to over-explain, though. I’m afraid they’d just go on and on. They’ll weep buckets over the persistence of the Gregorian calendar and then wax poetic on the superiority of their system, accounting for degradation in the Earth’s orbit, the angle of the sun’s rays, the cycles of the moon and its influence on the planet’s gravity. But, listen to me going on now, I sound like a cosmologist.”
Our conversation halted for a moment. We noticed other packs of students making paths toward the Fort near the top of the hill, just as we were. Only the New Chapel stood at a higher point. Whereas our gaggle of chittering boys streamed from the dormitory at the Clock Tower, these other bands came from all directions. It was also obvious after a quick realization, that these were the co-eds.
The women were dressed as we were for the unusual terrain and mountain conditions. Caps, fur-trimmed hoods, dark glasses, perhaps even more conscientious of the chilly environment, cloaked in warm pelts from some unknown beast.
“Do you see Yvonne among them?” I asked Monroe.
“Bold of you to be here a day and already begun teasing me,” he replied.
“I’m not teasing. I’d like to thank her for her help,” I said. “And I’d like to ask her more about what might’ve come over me.”
“You mean she didn’t say?”
“Not entirely. I was out of sorts and couldn’t summon every question I ought to have asked. A good night’s sleep does you wonders, and now I’ve something on my mind.”
I didn’t not press Monroe further. It was already clear enough he didn’t wish to converse on the topic. He put up a sturdy defense among his classmates the day before, yet that was an exhausting affair, to be sure. My new friend—yes, I suppose we were friends, by some stretch, given that I hadn’t truly nurtured a friendship in my life to that point, and my father certainly didn’t count—sounded exhausted at the mere mention of Yvonne’s name. The potential of a pendulum swinging from heartstrings was enough to make a man giddy, or weak from the weight. Even in this strange terrain, in this foreign landscape where time is called one thing instead of another, people remained familiar, at the very least.
Was Monroe in love with this girl that had treated my sudden illness? From among the throngs of female students gravitating to the Fort, I spied her at last. She set her hood down, removed her cap, and then her dark glasses, squinting when she pinched the bridge of her nose. I made no move to notify Monroe of what I’d seen. We’d begun grouping more tightly together to make our way through the gate to the Fort where the brilliant scent of cooking overthrew the now-familiar frigid nothing. Excitement captured the focus of all and conversation broke out between the boys and girls with greetings and calls for attention. Monroe and I were being driven closer to Yvonne by the crowd. I lost patience and stepped around him to stand beside her.
“Yvonne?” I asked, startling her.
“Oh, Master Keyes, or, Keziah, I oughta say,” she corrected, smiling throughout. “We’re both students, aren’t we?”
“How do you do?” I said and we shook hands. “Thank you for your kindness and your treatment. I was a touch out of my mind with surprise, if you can imagine?”
We had entered the hall now. It was a roar of voices and life. I made a quick glance to find Monroe with no success.
“How you feel today?” Yvonne asked next.
“That was what I wanted to speak you about,” I said. “More specifically, can you explain what illness I had? Maybe why I fainted during the carriage ride?”
“Hmm.” She removed her gloves and wondered aloud. “It coulda been a change in atmosphere. Shift in the seasons. Shackleburg harbors a queer climate. It can take time a while to steady out. Although—taking in the look on your face, I dunno if you’re satisfied with any of those theories.”
“Satisfied with theories, but still curious for more answers. Should I be so hearty this morning, though, based on the symptoms you observed, so recently?”
“Do you want the truth?” Yvonne asked. “You’d need to speak with someone who’s gathered more experience on this exact topic.”
“That’s alright. I’m simply concerned about my health.”
“Well, it’s the only body I’ve got and I don’t want it to fail me. I respect your opinion and I thank you for your advice. If I wished to ask additional questions, whom do you suggest I bring them to?”
“I’m the most senior teacher’s assistant for the physiology department. It’s why I’m in charge of the infirmary. The only person with more authority on this subject is Professor Tatum.”
I recited the name back in my mind. “The Five Old Men,” I said.
“Correct. Look here, Keziah, I don’t want you to feel like I’m keeping answers from you. You’re sure right. It is your health, and you’re in an unusual place that you aren’t used to. But I think that’s just it. Your body is a series of systems. Heart, lungs, brain, skin, tummy, all that. One bit of it got overwhelmed and it failed on you, for a sec. The rest kinda struggled to pick up the lopside of weight. Your insides panicked, doing the best to keep you alive. When it turned out you weren’t gonna die in your sleep, it all came back. A little rest, and you’re set. Isn’t that what I told you when you left the infirmary?”
“Can you believe me?”
“So do it.” She slid her scarf off her neck. The crowds had subsided and we were one of the only ones not seated. “Were the boys good to you once you’d arrived at the Clock Tower?”
“Yes. Entirely. Though I’ve lost track of them. Your—one of them, Monroe, said he was good friends with you.”
Yvonne tilted her head one way and smiled the other. She seemed happy at the name. “We are best friends, yeah,” she said. Then she looked me over before quickly adding, “Come sit with me and my mates.”
“Is that allowed?”
“Sure. It’s 1891, anyone can sit anywhere for dining. This way.”
Yvonne made quick work of familiar surroundings and guided me without delay to a round table located nowhere of particular import in the dining hall. The space was expansive and it presented no center, no stage, no grand high table, nor site of authority. Servers lowered plates to the waiting students and raised them when the meal was complete, and those dining sat patiently for the next course.
The conversation was continuous, and even occasionally rowdy, proclamations spiked with rippling and earnest laughter that follows youth.
“Here we are,” Yvonne said, arriving, and introducing them one by one. “Eriem Flint, Francesca Kaczmarek, C’rizz Karasawa, and Jordan Kwan—this is Keziah Keyes, ladies. He arrived the day before yesterday.”
The four women smiled and welcomed me to the table, urging me to sit as the first plates arrived. I felt no pang of unease, or disorientation. Thoughts of time and place slipped away, and I wanted nothing. I conversed and shared in their wit, genuine and unforced on any topic. The architecture of the universe was an invisible thing, and yet I felt it fold around me in those moments of unthinking truth. This was good. What was to come did not frighten me, nor did the past embarrass me, and I sensed no such timbre in my companions’ voices, only certainty.
I would like to linger in the casual calm, reader, because these continuous instants in a person’s history are too often manifest as bliss through the proper lens. For that is what we are here to do—we are here to observe good people, people better than I, defiant of misfortune, tyrannical and unceasing.
The bell in the New Chapel rang, so loud that it might be in the hall with us. Conversation halted, a feeble thing against such a peal, and all voice recoiled at the marching chime of the souls above. Yvonne placed an assuring hand on her cohorts when her words were drowned. She looked at me and stood, as did a few others at tables here and there about the hall. For a moment, I managed to catch a glance from Jasper Barlowe crossing the floor. He finished wiping his mouth on his napkin, never breaking his gaite, and converged on the dining hall doors with the rest.
-- Alex Crumb
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