Parchment and Paper

Talven sat at his parents’ dinner table, holding the parchment at arm’s length. Had it really been ten years? It seemed like only yesterday that his older brother received the same letter, advising him that the traditional sojourn into the city had been scheduled for the following weekend. It was something that was expected of everyone in the hamlet; experience the technology of the city, and learn firsthand why living in the bountiful fields of the country was the superior choice.

He didn’t remember much of his brother. Talven had only been six at the time, after all. But he remembered how excited Decken had been to return, telling anyone who would listen about the way “elektrisety” was able to power all sorts of devices that did work for you, instead of doing work the natural way. He’d brought Talven home a gift of some wax quills and some paper– real, smooth paper, not the parchment that was made as a byproduct of the lumberyard. Talven could barely imagine a place where no one used mana to cast spells, but he spent the entire day drawing pictures on the dining room table, delighted at the way the was quills shrunk as they were used, as if they might disappear entirely if they were used for too long.

He didn’t remember much of the argument. His parents kept trying to explain to Decken why the city was a barren landscape, devoid of mana, with only stone buildings and false hopes to sustain life, but his brother refused to listen. He kept talking back– flashbacks of his father’s red face and flying spittle came to mind– until eventually the small hut devolved into a full-on shouting match. Decken went over to his side of the room, packed his things into an odd canvas backpack, and left.  Talven never saw him again.

His parents refused to talk about him, disowning Decken entirely. At the time, Talven had been more upset that his brother had stolen several of his drawings. Not that it had mattered. His parents threw away both the paper and the wax quills, explaining to him that “the devil’s technology” was not welcome in the hamlet. As he grew older, his initial reaction to his brother’s absence was a source of embarrassment. But what could he do? Communication was banned, and the rest of the hamlet feigned ignorance of Decken’s existence.

Law required that citizens of the hamlet tour the city on the first summer after their sixteen birthday. In exchange, the hamlet was allowed to continue the old ways of life. Talven quickly learned that it was an unspoken rule to come back unchanged. Whether it was hatred of the unknown, fear of being conquered, or mere stubborn force of will, it was hard to say. Only three people had ever decided not to come home. The community refused to recognize the memories of any of them.

It was a sobering thought, to have every trace of one’s life scrubbed away so completely. Talven had spent years trying to figure out why Decken would have been willing to leave at such a high cost. Did his family mean so little to him? Surely it could not have been a decision made out of hardship– the family tannery provided more than enough wealth, and Decken had been one of the best magic users in the hamlet. And yet he left it all behind.

“You’ve stared at that letter enough for one day,” he mother said, walking into the room. “Any more, and you’re going to give your father ideas. We’ve had enough loss in this family, don’t you think?” Talven made no response. “Just go out back and grab a chicken for dinner, there’s a lad. Your father and I are almost done with the oxen harvest. One of the best shipments of leather yet, if I may say so myself, and certainly worth a feast. Heaven help you if you’re still sitting here like a louse when we come back.” Talven smiled. Knowing his father’s temper, that was the understatement of the season.

“Anyway, you got another letter today. It’s from your friend, Jakneb. Maybe he wants to plan to take the trip together with you?” she asked, setting the rolled parchment in front of him. She turned, walking back to the shed to finish tanning the oxen hides, leaving Talven alone in the hut.

He opened the letter cautiously. He and Jakneb hadn’t been close friends since puberty, so what could possibly inspire him to write a letter? Especially a muscle-brained hulk like him– Jakneb was never one to complicate issues when a simple conversation would suffice. It was part of the reason they had drifted apart. Talven’s methodical and pensive nature was no match for Jakneb’s impulsive enthusiasm.

Rolled up inside the parchment was a piece of paper. Real paper. Talven’s heart froze. It was one of the wax quill drawings from his childhood. Four crudely drawn people, labeled as his family, and a fierce dragon flying overhead for no apparent reason. “Dear Talven, I hope this letter makes its way to you,” read the parchment. “You wouldn’t believe how hard it is to try and find someone willing to smuggle mail into the hamlet. Though for good reason, I guess. I know I was never able to explain myself to you. Hell, I just hope you still remember that I ever even existed. I just hope I can make it up to you. Your pilgrimage is coming up soon. Have someone help you find the Belmont Diner, on 21st and Antioch. They’ll know what that phrase means. My boss gave me the afternoon off, and I’d really like to see you again. There’s so much for us to catch up on. With love, your brother. Dexter ‘Decken’ Tannian.”

Talven set the letter down, carefully sandwiching the contraband paper between the parchments to hide it from his parents. Only his quivering hands betrayed his emotions. He still couldn’t imagine why his brother had ever left for the city. But he was about to find out.

Neil Siemers grew up in Derby, Kansas, a comparatively small town south of Wichita. He moved to Lawrence to attend the University of Kansas, and hasn't left since. Neil likes to pretend that he is a big shot full time writer, although it's probably closer to a hobby. Either way, it's funded by a full-time job in the insurance industry, where he happily works as a cog in the machine for The Man so that bills can be paid.

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