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Bryan Zepp Jamieson


The merry widow was old.

She had reckoned her years at 52 the year before the plague, but stopped counting after that. Only the ambitious and the foolish mark the passage of the years, and the merry widow was neither. 

Someone had told her that the plague was over a generation passed, a reckoning that matched the tenderness of the scars on her heart and the gaps in her teeth. The merry widow thought she might be the oldest person in the city and took no pleasure from that thought. 

Morning shadows lurked at the edge of the square like coy maidens. The sun, searching, found the fountain and splayed invitations to dance to the doomed shadows. In the shadows, the coolness of the night lingered and the merry widow's joints reminded her that the nights were getting colder.  Perhaps this would be her last winter coming. 

Taking a quick glance around for observers, she twisted her upper torso, working the imps of the night from her system. She thought an incantation that gave the illusion of vigour, and, after another, more alert glance about, cracked her knuckles and shook out her stiff legs.

It would not do for her to appear as old as she felt. She counted her friends among the children of her childhood friends, and they, at least, remembered her strength and power and reckoned her still a force to be dealt with. But the children of the children, alien to the old ways, knowing little and caring less that the merry widow was more than an easily grabbed purse, must not be allowed to observe weakness.

She stepped out into the sunlight, a picture of steel resolve, refusing to squint at the sudden glare. In doorways and alleys, the huddled forms of the intoxicants were, and while it was unlikely that any would stir until the sun reached them, the widow did not tarry. Her life, she knew, weighed little against the prospect of money for another bottle of liquor. 

She stopped at the fountain, as was her wont, to gaze into the waters and divine the nature of the day from the sputtering coruscations of light that the fountain threw into the unheeding air. Resting a hand on the edge, she leaned toward the water, for an instant thinking of vaulting into the clear, fresh water, and flying among the bubbles. This, too, was part of her daily routine.

Then she recoiled in disgust. A large piece of filth floated on the water, and further along the edge, she saw, someone had vomited into the water. Angered, she looked about, and found the boy who tended to the fountain sweeping the square's debris from the previous day with a large palm frond. Taking a deep breath, she shouted, "Edem! Come here!"

Surprised, the boy dropped his frond and trotted over. "Yes, Memib?" 

"Do you see this foulness upon the water?" At the boy's nod, she continued "Why has it not been seen to?"

"My father is not with me, and I do the work of the both this morn."

"And where is that fat lout?"

"Memib...", the boy licked his lips, and daring, the words came out in a rush. "He has gone to the north and is in different employ." Encouraged by the slight widening of the eyes that the widow permitted herself, the boy continued, "The men of the north came to him, and told him that they had marked his facility with numbers, and that they had need of such men, and offered him wealth and a fine house."

The widow snorted. "A fine house-a hard box that does not permit the breezes of the day to enter? And the endless counting of THINGS. Well, it should suit that pig well. And has he left you, then?" 

"No, Memib. He says that in a fortnight, he'll come for me, and we'll live together with the men of the north..." 

"And lose a fine life...". At the boy's puzzled glance, she sighed and regarded the excrement in the fountain. It would be impossible to tell the boy what he would lose. "Never mind. Just get this cleaned up."

The boy stared at her, wooden-faced. Was he not going to live with men who lived as Gods, in a fine house in the north?  The widow stared back. She thought, but did not say, "Defy me, boy, and I shall personally feed your testicles to the pigs." The tenor of her thoughts flickered across her face, and the boy, uncertain, fled to gather materials to cleanse the fountain.

The widow watched the boy run, strong and brown in the sunlight. She liked the boy, and would miss him. A life in a sterile box, scribbling arcane notations on paper, would be no life for him. Still, were he to stay, might he not end up as one of the huddled forms in the doorways, senselessly drinking and pissing, lacking any purpose in life? There was no dignity left in life in the square. 

The widow glanced into the waters once again. She often gazed there, seeking to divine the course of the day. She twisted her lips into a wry smile. The fountain, it seemed, had served her truthfully, if not well, this day...

She walked toward the marketplace, remembering who she was that her stance would not betray her. At the steps leading down to the market, she paused and surveyed the scene. In five summers, the tents were much less numerous, and many of those remaining given over to the selling of liquor. Indeed, many of the canopies were no longer made from the sturdy and honest canvas of yesteryear, but a strange, thin substance that water ran off of and that crackled in the breeze like a starved demon. The wares, she knew, would be of lesser quality, or strange, alien things that attended to the body only. Gone were the singers and jugglers, gone the heaps of dyed straw for bedding, the smells of the fine cooking, the open fires. Not even in the plague was the market so gray and sober...

No matter. She came only to find foods and mayhap converse with a few of the merchants left that she knew well. She approached Afin's tent, knowing that in the lateness of the season, his grindings would remain plentiful and inexpensive. At the corner, she stopped, openly amazed. The frame of Afin's stood, with the canvas carelessly pushed to one side. Had Afin died in the night? She wondered.

But no. His bald, sweating head poked up from behind his bins, and he awarded the widow with a checkered grin.

"Good morn, Memib! Come see! My stand shall be much brighter now!"

The widow strode around the bins, where Afin had dropped, and found him cutting at a piece of brilliantly-hued material from the north.  The widow bent, and rubbed the material between her hands. Soft it was, and thin. She knew that the afternoon sun would soon rob it of it's softness, but for now it was a fine material, weaved too closely for her practised eye to discern any warf and woof to it.

"See? I shall attract the finest people with these bright colours! So much brighter than any stand in the place!"

"Yes, the colour of the sunrise will certainly tell people of the quality of your wares." The widow's mouth tightened. "You ninny. Think you that people will discern what goods you have from the colour of your coverings?"

Afin laughed and clapped his hands. "No, Memib. But the people will see my bright colours, and will come to me from curiosity. In time, they will know merely to look for my brightness, and they will know that Afin is selling his grains. The men of the north explained this thing to me."

"And did these men tell you what you should do if all stands in the place use this very colour, or one's brighter? Should you set fire to your stand then, so that people may know that you are -still- here?" 

"Memib, this material does not burn..."

"...and have you marked the sun of late? This.." she gave the plastic a contemptuous kick, "..does not stop the cold from entering the way that canvas does. Shall the people then know that the bright colours mean that Afin has frozen his penis and has grain that cannot be ground? Has this colour blinded you to the approach of winter?"

Afin's grin, faltering at mention of other stands having the same colours, brightened again. "Come, Memib. Let me show you another wonder!" Gesturing for the widow to follow, he lead her into the area at the back of his stand. In the area where he slept, a box stood. He rested a hand on it, proud as if it were his son. "Mark this device well, for it truly is a wonder."

The widow approached, and gingerly reached out and touched the top of the box. It was cold, and hard. She pushed a palm against it; heavy, but able to be carried a short distance by one such as herself. She peered around the corners. Each of the faces was white, and of a material warmer than the top, but just as hard.

"You will not be able to store much grain in this..."

Afin laughed. "It's not for storing grain. Mark the lever upon the top. Take it at the fattest point, and move the arrow it forms as if tracking the sun across the sky."

The widow grasped what she surmised was the latch, and twisted it to her right. She gave it a slight tug, but the top did not budge. A faint hum emanated from the box.

Suddenly, the widow felt the hot dry wind of high summer about her.  Startled, she glanced up. The cold blue of late fall lay upon the sky. Her eyes swiveled back to the box. The summer wind came out of the box itself!

"Is it not a marvel?" Afin rubbed his hands and jumped from foot to foot, eager and as proud as a bridegroom. "It keeps the tent warm as a mother's breast, from sundown to sunup, and I'll not even know that winter has come as I sleep."

The widow stepped back from the heat, and Afin reached forward to shut the device off.

"It did not feel warm to the touch. How is it that it contains fire and yet remains cool?"

"I know not. But it does not take fuel, and the heat it gives will be for all the winter and spring."

The widow spoke slowly. "Surely this is a wonder. Did this, too, come from the men of the North?"

Afin nodded. "They say I have but to surrender it to their inspection in late summer each year, and I shall never want for lack of comfort come winter."

The widow shook her head admiringly. "All these years of cheating me and your other customers, and now you can live like a rich man..." 

"But no, Memib! They cost a pittance-a mere pittance. In sooth, I will be selling them along with my fine grains."

"At a princely sum and a tidy profit, I'll wager." "I have an extra at hand. I will be happy to sell it to you at my special price for friends."

"'Special price', is it? And which hand of mine will you carve? Or do you have carnal demands?"

Afin let a mischievous look cross his face, and decided not to risk it. "Memib, I'll let you have one for just 3 fairings." 

Despite herself, the widow blinked at the price. 3 fairings would be about three days worth of food, at her modest demands. "Oh, Memib. The men from the north will demand an additional two fairings for the inspection. They call it a 're-charge'."

"A re-charge?" The widow laughed. "A recharge it certainly is. Why should I pay twice for the one device?"

"I know not. But they say that if they do not receive this 'recharge', the heater will fail to operate."

The widow considered. Certainly, the cold of the evenings were striking her with increasing cruelty. With such a device, she would no longer have to borrow from her spirit strength to stride as a woman of power in the mornings. And she could have 10 or 100 of the devices if she so wished...

"And, Memib, you could rid yourself of the heavy and smelly bundlings and canvas, and live in a light and airy place, open and warm." 

"MY bundlings are not smelly. And why should I wish to rid myself of my fine canvas?"

"It would be a shame to keep the canvas and not allow the heater to perform as powerfully as it could..." 

"Would this harm this 'hee-ter'?"

"No. But it would not be able to work the way it could."

"So I should exchange my canvas for this silly material, just so the device can work harder? Have you taken leave of your senses?"

Afin fell silent. He strode to his side, and pulled open a bin. Instead of grain, there were dozens of the devices. "I'll save one for you Memib. You'll learn that just because you did something a way since you were a girl doesn't mean it's the best way."

"Perhaps. And how is business?

"It is a tragedy, a disaster. Many of the merchant class are gone, and those that stay prefer the prepared meals that the men of the north sell." 

"That food is of no taste or quality", the widow pointed out. "Still, they buy it. It is of a price like unto mine, and requires no effort to prepare. That is why I sell the heaters, too, for business is poor."

"The market is small these days."

"It is that. And getting smaller. Someday, perhaps, there will be no market, and I shall sell prepared foods from a metal box to live as well." 

"A sad thought. Did you know that Taxen and Edem are leaving us?" At Afin's nod, she continued, "Who then shall care for the square? There is naught left but for the drunkards and thieves."

"And robbery afflicts the marketplace. It is a sad time. I'm glad the men of the north have come to ease our burden."

"Have they eased it? Or did they cause it?" At Afin's blank look, the widow said, "Never mind. I shall think upon acquiring this heater.

Meanwhile, what vermin-infested, moldy grain to you have to sell me at a king's ransom this day?"

* * *

Winter came and took the widow a few weeks later, gentle as a lover.

As it was, a man of the north found her huddled shell in the pitiful area in front of her tent.

"Why", he asked, "did this woman not have a heater?" Afin, having heard the news of the death of his old friend, was there, and replied, "She did not want one."

The man of the north, exasperated, said "But we nearly give them away to you people. Is there some superstition? Do you people prefer to live in this filth and squalor?"

Afin, shrewd in the ways of men, sensed that the man's wrath came not from the pain of seeing a proud woman dead upon the ground, but from petulance that the woman rejected his toys. He looked at the man and wondered.

Had Afin been just a bit shrewder, he might have felt a bit happier, knowing that the widow died in her time, and by the ways of her life, true to what she believed, at rest with what she loved. 

The widow's corpse bore a slight smile. She had greeted death as a friend.

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