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Chapter 4: The Wintertime Story
The room was narrow, mostly filled by the lone single wooden bed in the middle. There was scarcely enough room for another.
A picture frame with a curved top hung from the light brown wall. It was made to look like a window, portraying white-winged angels flying across the blue sky and animals grazing on a green plain.
There were no real windows in the room. A naked lightbulb hung from the low ceiling, giving off a dim glow.
An elderly woman lay in the bed, covered by a green quilt with her head resting on a large pillow. Her eyes were open, but they did not seem to be looking at anything in particular. Slow, weak breaths escaped her gaping mouth.
Five people stood around her.
Two women and two men, all dressed from head to toe in unblemished white. They stood on either side of the old woman, wearing white aprons, hats, and masks.
The last person was younger, a girl in her mid-teens. She had short black hair and fair features, and stood at the foot of the bed with a large sack in her left hand.
The four adults were speaking to the elderly woman. There was no response. But they continued as though all five of them were part of the conversation.
The conversation was about the past. The four adults chuckled and smiled on occasion.
The younger person, who wore a black jacket, stood in utter silence and looked on as though she were part of another world.
One of the adults burst out laughing.
That was when the elderly woman finally moved, a faint smile rising slowly to her lips.
One of the four adults gestured to the others. They all looked down at the elderly woman.
The young person in black put her right hand into her sack. When she let go of the sack, it fell silently to the floor, revealing the object in her right hand.
When she raised it, a thin red beam appeared and stopped on the chest of the elderly woman in the bed.
The four adults did not notice.
There was a quiet noise. Then a second, then a third. Along with three metallic clicks.
As the adults looked on, the elderly woman’s head jumped slightly from the pillow, as though she had been shocked. Then her head fell limply back into the pillow, her eyes slightly open. The quiet breathing had stopped. A dark red stain spread on the quilt. But it did not spread past her chest.
The person in black was holding a persuader in her hands. A .9mm automatic that had a trigger with a built-in safety mechanism. It was equipped with a laser sight and a cylindrical suppressor. Three empty cartridges rolled on the floor.
The four adults turned.
One man stared at the persuader-wielder, his mask and hat hiding everything but his gaze. “‘What is the meaning of this, Heretic’?”
“‘I killed her because I wished to’,” the person in black replied.
“‘Begone from this place, Heretic’.”
Once the short exchange was over, the person in black put her persuader in the sack and opened the door at the back of the room.
One of the adults gently closed the eyes of the deceased, and just as the person in black was leaving, said with a trembling voice,
“Thank you… Thank you so much.”
Without responding, the person in black left.
The country’s stone walls towered around its perimeter. A set of tightly-closed metal gates were the only way in or out.
Outside the country was a forest of tall, thin coniferous trees.
The forest was covered in snow, piled up to the height of a child. Not even a single patch of dirt was exposed to the air.
A thick layer of grey clouds blanketed the sky, and the air was humid.
A long walkway started just next to the gates. Its high roofs led all the way into the forest. The path was paved with stone and lined on either side with strong walls to keep the snow out. Beyond the walls, snow fallen from the roofs had piled into snowbanks that concealed the pathway from view.
Next to the large gates was a small door. It was covered with stones just like the walls, so it would be difficult to see from a distance. The door opened inwards with a quiet creak.
The person in black emerged, holding her sack. This time, there was a holstered large-caliber persuader strapped to her right thigh.
A pair of guards followed after her, both armed with long spears and dress uniforms. Standing on either side of the door, they glared from behind their helmets. When the person in black turned, both stamped their feet in unison.
“‘Heretic! You have killed one of our countrymen and are hereby banished’!” one of them ordered.
The person in black put down the sack with the persuader at the guard’s feet. And she said without a hint of emotion, “‘I understand. I will now leave your country’.”
She turned back and made her way down the path, with the guards behind her. Snow had blown in from outside, forming a carpet that crunched softly under her feet.
The guards were still standing straight, but now with much gentler expressions. One of them said to the person in black, “We’ll send everything over later, as usual.”
The person in black replied without turning, “I understand. Please leave them in the usual place.”
“Of course. Thank you, Kino,” the guard said, holding his spear before him.
Kino slowly went down the walkway. The path was lined on either side with pillars at regular intervals, and snow had piled up at points along the way.
The sky grew darker, and without warning, it began to snow. The heavy, wet snow bore down upon the world without a sound.
Kino stopped to stare out into the world between the piles of snow and the roof over her head. She felt like she and the rest of the world had risen up into the clouds.
After taking some time to take in the sight, she resumed her journey down the walkway. Bells went off frantically in the country behind her.
At the end of the walkway was a lodge.
It was large and made of wood and stone with chimneys sticking out of the roof, too sturdy to be an abandoned house in the wilderness. There was one main section and a long, narrow hall in the back lined with rooms. The walkway led straight to its front door.
A thick layer of snow blanketed the roof. Icicles hung from the edges.
Kino stopped at the step in front of the door to shake the snow off her boots, and went inside.
The door opened into a common area furnished with all the essentials. There were wood stoves and fireplaces at either end of the room. A large window gave her a clear view of the forest outside. It was still dark, and still snowing.
Kino went to the hallway and walked into the first room. She pressed a switch by the door. The light flickered on.
The room was furnished with a bed, a desk, a chair, and a small dresser—atop which was a large suitcase—and the windows were covered with thick curtains. A motorrad was waiting inside.
“Oh, hey Kino,” said the motorrad. The sun was setting.
“I’m back, Hermes.”
“Welcome back. How many did you get done today?” asked Hermes.
“That’s a lot. No wonder you took so long.”
The next morning, Kino rose at dawn.
The snow showed no sign of letting up. It was practically a shower of snow, flowing in streams and obscuring the forest outside the window.
Kino went out into the empty common area for light exercises. She did drawing practice with the persuader she called Woodsman, then maintained it.
Afterwards, Kino took a shower and changed. The country supplied hot water to the lodge.
Behind the building was a hut for storing firewood, and next to it a large stone box. Kino opened it and took out potatoes, onions, and sausages.
She split the firewood, tossed the pieces into the stove, and started a fire. Putting a large skillet on the flame, Kino chopped up the ingredients and stir-fried them together. Half the portion was for her breakfast.
Then Kino boiled water in a small mug and steeped herself some tea.
The room grew brighter when the sun rose above the snowbanks. It was still snowing.
Kino returned to her room and pushed Hermes out into the common area, propping him up on his center stand.
“No bells today, Kino?” he asked.
“No,” Kino replied.
The fire was crackling. It was warm inside.
Kino had taken off her jacket and was sitting in a chair in the common area. In front of her were a small bottle of oil, a flint, and knives of varying sizes.
“Done. I’ve got nothing else to do today,” Kino said.
“I’m bored. Wanna play some word games?” Hermes suggested. It was still snowing outside.
Kino grimaced. “You’re going to use a word I don’t know again, aren’t you?”
“Hmph. ‘Susanna’ is a word. It’s a kind of food.”
“…Maybe I should start on lunch.”
Kino picked up her knives, put them away in her bags and pockets, and went to the window. The skillet was next to it, still containing leftovers from breakfast and covered with a lid. Kino shoved it into the fire to warm it up.
After lunch, Kino washed the skillet with water from melted snow and hung it up where she had found it.
She was sipping on her tea when she heard footsteps at the door. Someone knocked.
“Not every day you get visitors,” Hermes remarked.
Kino rose. “We’re visitors too, you know.”
“This is the place, right? I mean, not that there’s anywhere else it could be.”
The man was about forty years of age, with a thick mustache and beard, and hair in a messy waist-length ponytail. He wore winter gear with a wool hat and a large pack on his back. Snowshoes were affixed to his feet.
“Nice to meet you. The name’s Dis. I’m a traveler. The gatekeeper told me to come here.”
“Hello. My name is Kino, and this here is my partner Hermes.”
Dis put down his things at the door and began stripping off his winter gear and snowshoes, giving nods of approval at the building.
Kino offered him a seat. Dis took it with a word of thanks, breathing a sigh of relief. He explained that he had been traveling on horseback, until the horse collapsed in the snow and he was forced to make the treacherous journey on foot. He had arrived at the country that morning.
“I’m surprised to see someone as young as you on the road.”
“What do you mean?”
“No offense, of course. It’s just that travelers tend to be on the road for a reason. A lot of them, I mean, they’re people who can’t go back home for one reason or another. Who am I kidding, I’m one of those folks. Let’s try and get along, no poking our noses into each other’s business, hm?” he said jovially.
“I didn’t know anything about this country before I got here. It’s more fun that way, I think. First thing I asked at the gates was for work I could do till spring, and they were floored. And they sent me over here. Don’t know anything else about this place. They said I should ask you for the details. I can live and work here, right?”
“I don’t mean to brag, but I’ve got skills I could put to work in most any country. It won’t take me too long to find myself a new horse, or maybe something better.”
“I see. I’m sorry to say this,” Kino said, “but the work they give us doesn’t require much in the way of skill.”
Dis was surprised. “Really? What kind of work is it?”
Kino replied without blinking, “Killing the people of this country.”
Then she explained the country’s custom, with Hermes chiming in to fill in the gaps.
This country’s religion forbade its people from giving medical treatment.
According to their doctrines, intervening in such a way was a sin. It went against the will of their god. Their faith claimed that humans were a part of nature, and that they must rely on natural healing as the wild animals do in order to survive. Humans were born in nature, and they must die in nature. Medical intervention was one of the most abominable sins in their culture, an act that could prevent a soul from being accepted into paradise.
That meant that the ill and the injured could not receive assistance. They had to let their own bodies fix themselves. Loved ones could do little but provide food and water upon request.
Minor injuries and illnesses were no concern, but those with serious wounds and diseases were essentially being left to fend for themselves. As a result, most people suffered excruciating pain before dying of ‘natural’ causes.
That was why the people of the country naturally began seeking out ways to end the suffering of their mortally ill and injured loved ones. But they could not kill their own countrymen, as the souls of murderers were condemned for eternity.
There was only one way to reach paradise without dying a natural death: to be killed by a nonbeliever. It was a provision that had been made for the case of war, decreeing that anyone who was killed by a nonbeliever was automatically granted entry to paradise.
“So that makes them carters.”
“You mean ‘martyrs’?”
Once in the distant past, someone in the country had asked a passing traveler to do exactly that. The traveler accepted, killing a sick person and being exiled. But not before receiving a handsome reward from the family of the deceased.
In the years that followed, the act became a national tradition. The government built a lodge for travelers outside the walls, asking them to perform the act before banishing them from the country, in exchange for food and supplies. Travelers were permitted reentry at will.
To prevent migration to the country, travelers were only permitted to stay for up to 90 days—for one season. Some stayed only a single day and others stayed the full allotment. In the winter, the lodge was either empty or inhabited by travelers who would be stuck there for the full duration because of the heavy snowfall.
Kino explained that she had arrived thirty days earlier, and that she would be staying until the snow had melted enough for her to safely ride her motorrad.
Dis did not say a word, simply staring as he listened.
Afterwards, Kino gave him a short overview of the lodge. There were many free rooms in the back, and the building was supplied with electricity, hot water, food, and firewood. Everything in the lodge legally belonged to the people residing in it, and euthanasia requests had to be divided fairly between everyone. That was the condition for living there.
“You can borrow persuaders and ammunition from the gates. And no one will bother you afterwards as long as you respond appropriately to the things they say, about you being a ‘heretic’.”
Hermes said, “Any questions?”
“Yes,” Dis finally said. “Of the people you’ve put to rest…were they any—even one person—who might have lived if they’d been given the kind of treatment your motherland could provide?”
Kino thought for a moment. “I think so.”
“Then…does that make you a murderer?”
“Was murder legal in your motherland?”
“I’m not sure. I don’t know much about the world of adults.”
Dis was silent.
“Do you have any other questions? If not, I think my work is done for the time being.”
“…You killed them. I don’t want to kill people.”
Hermes said, “You said you’re on the road because you can’t go home anymore. But you’ve never killed anyone?”
Kino finally said, “Then as long as we’re here, I’m not obligated to keep you fed, and you aren’t obligated to keep me fed, either.”
That evening, Dis sat on the edge of his bed in the room he had chosen. A small lightbulb hung from the ceiling. A leather bag lay on the desk, next to which was a messy wrapper from his portable rations.
It was dark outside, and still snowing silently.
“Damn it…I shouldn’t have come here…” he whispered, slowly turning his gaze to the leather bag. “Damn it…damn it…”
Dis whispered deep into the night, but no one heard his mutterings.
Kino sat on the edge of her bed. A small lightbulb hung from the ceiling, its reflection distorting against Hermes’ fuel tank. The curtains had been drawn shut.
“Even if it’s something you don’t want to do, and know it’s wrong, huh?” Kino wondered.
Hermes said, “You’re you, Kino. You don’t need to do what he says. Anyway, you should start thinking about what to do once spring arrives.”
“Spring. That’s still a long ways off.”
The next morning.
Faint traces of color returned to the forest at the break of dawn. The pale blue glow grew lighter and lighter until the snow, the trees, and the leaves regained their hues.
Though the snow had stopped, it was still cloudy outside. The forest was buried even deeper than the previous day. It was eerily quiet, with nary a bird call to be heard—only the sound of snow slipping off the branches broke the silence.
Kino warmed herself up before doing her usual exercises and persuader drills. Then she showered and changed, secured Cannon on her right thigh, and put on a black jacket over her white shirt. She smacked Hermes awake and pushed him into the common area, propping him up next to one of the chairs.
Then she made breakfast; the same amount as the previous day.
Kino was sipping tea after her meal when Dis emerged.
“Who’re you?” Hermes asked, flabbergasted. Kino was equally surprised.
Dis was completely clean-shaven, his hair now cut short and tidied. He looked like a much younger man.
Just as glum as the previous night, he greeted Kino and Hermes and took a seat at the table.
“Did you cut your hair yourself?” Kino asked.
“Yes,” Dis replied, nodding.
“You’re very good. I’m a little jealous.”
Dis did not respond. Kino told him that she had made an additional portion of breakfast that she was saving for lunch, but that he could have it himself so long as he washed the skillet later.
That was when the bells went off. The peals went on and on, multiple bells ringing frantically from inside the walls.
“The morning bells are a signal telling the citizens that they’re ‘being attacked by heretics’.”
Without a word, Dis went to the kitchen. He warmed up Kino’s leftovers and brought the food to the table.
“You have to earn your keep.”
Dis glanced at Kino, then at the skillet. And he started eating.
“We’ll take turns from now on, one person per day. Would you like to stay or go today?” “Well?” asked Kino and Hermes, almost simultaneously. Dis continued to eat without responding.
Once he had finished, Dis set aside the skillet and fork and gave Kino the same glare as the previous evening.
“I’ll go,” he said. “Hope you won’t have any complaints.”
With that, he rose from the table and went back to his room. But Dis was not gone long—he returned to the common area, dressed in winter gear and carrying a small bag.
“I’ll make sure you never have to go to that country again,” he said.
Kino slowly stood. “What do you mean?”
“I want to save them.”
“How?” asked Hermes.
“Medical intervention, of course.”
“Even if you convince them, they don’t have any doctors who could give treatment. They might not even have a word for medicine,” Kino said.
Dis nodded. “Of course.”
“Then how?” asked Hermes. “You’re going to make a phone call and ask a doctor to come?”
Slowly shaking his head, Dis replied, “That won’t be necessary. You’re looking at one.” He opened up the leather bag he had been holding, revealing showing its contents.
The first thing Kino saw was a set of scalpels, arranged neatly in a row. The bag also contained a stethoscope and syringes, along with medical equipment packed neatly inside their cases.
“So you weren’t a barber.” “Wow.” Kino and Hermes were floored.
Dis nodded and closed his bag. “I’m a doctor. I told you, I can put my skills to work in most any country.”
“Of course…” “Right.”
“I used to work at hospitals on my journey. Taught people medicine, and once in a long time I’d even learn a thing or two.”
“But why are you on the road?” Hermes asked.
Dis gave a wry grin. “I thought we agreed to not poke our noses into each other’s business.”
“You and Kino did. I never agreed.”
Dis gave a bitter laugh and gave in. “All right. Let me tell you why I left home. It’s kind of funny, telling this story in a place like this. Well, long story short, I used to be a doctor. And I killed my patients, because they were beyond saving.”
“You mean…” Kino trailed off. Hermes finished for her, “You euthanized them.”
“I told you, I’ve killed people in the past.”
Kino waited for Hermes to speak.
“So that’s your story, huh?” he said.
Dis nodded. “That’s right. I don’t mean to brag, but my hometown was on the cutting edge of medical science; although I didn’t realize how developed we were until after I left. I learned so much there. But even with all the knowledge and techniques at our disposal, some patients were just too far gone. There was no cure, no treatment. Nothing we could do for them but help them manage their pain. And sometimes, even that didn’t work. Don’t get me wrong. We weren’t useless. But sometimes we were helpless. All we could do was stand by and watch.”
“So some people wanted to die,” Hermes theorized.
“Yeah. Patients modern medicine couldn’t save. The ones whose pain we couldn’t ease. They wanted to die peacefully, with dignity. They wanted to die comfortably in their homes, smiling with their loved ones and showering them with words of wisdom as they passed, rather than as ragged shells of their former selves just waiting to die of the pain.”
“Like the people in the country over here?” Kino asked.
“Exactly,” Dis replied. “But in my hometown, euthanasia was illegal. There were a lot of reasons, but the crux of the argument was that it was murder, even if the patient wanted it.”
“But you did it anyway.”
“I did. Not without a lot of agonizing. It wasn’t exactly like deciding what to have for lunch. I spent years and years wondering it it was the right thing to do.”
“So what happened?”
“I did it for years. Worked as a doctor, and quietly euthanized people who asked. Funny enough, both the people I saved and the people I killed thanked me. But one day, I was caught and arrested. There are no secrets in this world.”
“By the time they found me out, I’d killed more than just a handful of people. The whole country was in an uproar. Huge debates about assisted suicide. But in the end, the laws didn’t change. I assumed I’d get life in prison if I was lucky, and capital punishment if I wasn’t. Looking back, I don’t know if things were quite that serious, but I was certainly prepared for the worst. I was even ready to put myself down if it came down to that. When they sentenced me to banishment, I barely registered what was going on. And that’s how it happened.”
“I get it now. Thanks for telling us.”
“You’re welcome,” Dis said, and turned his gaze to Kino. “Sorry it got so long. I’ll be off now; and I’ll be doing whatever I can. If heretics are allowed to kill citizens, that’s what I’ll do. In my own way. And who knows? Maybe my hand will slip and I’ll end up treating them instead. I might accidentally develop medication for them. And if they happen to take the medication, which might for some reason help their bodies heal themselves, it’s not my responsibility.”
“You don’t know if they’ll let you get away with it. Is that all right right you?”
“Even though it’s a matter of life and death?”
“That’s what life always is, isn’t it? Every decision leads up to that crossroads between life and death. I’ve sentenced people to one or the other so many times now. And now I’m going to sentence myself. I was up thinking about it last night—although partway through I stopped thinking about what I should do, and ended up thinking more about what I want to do.”
“I see… And what if I were to persuade you to reconsider?”
Dis understood what Kino was implying. “Ah, I see. If I succeed, you might not be able to live here anymore. You’d be losing your work and home, in one sense.”
“That’s right. I may try to stop you, even if it means taking your life. I may have to pull the trigger on you in order to survive,” Kino said, glancing at Cannon and putting a hand to her right side.
“A .44 caliber revolver. A beautiful weapon. And lethal, too.”
“But it’s not going to persuade me,” Dis replied, picking up his bag in his right hand and gently tapping his chest with his left fist. “If you’re going to do it, I recommend the heart. Three good shots, no hesitation. Make it quick and painless,” he said with a smile, and turned. He went to the door and opened it, stepping outside.
“I’ll pray that the bells don’t ring,” Kino said.
Dis did not turn. “Prayers don’t save people.”
“I’m sorry it had to come to this.”
“I’m sorry too.”
Dis stepped forward again. He went off down the walkway. Kino’s hand was stopped over her holster.
That was when, without warning, he turned. He was beaming. “By the way, I forgot to tell you something!”
“What is it?”
“Thank you for breakfast! It was delicious! Goodbye, Kino.”
Kino was flabbergasted.
She watched him depart, until he disappeared into the distance. Then she shut the door.
The snow stopped.
The wind chased away the clouds, and the sky began to emerge.
It was evening.
The snow was still piled high on the ground, but the red glow of the sun shone bright like pillars through the gaps.
Kino sat at a desk in the common area, dismantling Woodsman, her automatic hand persuader, to clean it. Then she put it back together.
When she looked up, she saw icicles outside the window dripping water.
That was when she heard footsteps, and a knock. Hermes woke up. “A visitor.”
Kino holstered Woodsman and rose.
“Kino, are you there?” said a familiar voice.
“Hey, that’s one of the guards,” Hermes said.
Opening the door, Kino saw both guards and let them. in. One was carrying a wooden box, and the other was empty-handed.
“I have unfortunate news, Kino,” said one of the guards, whom she had met often at the gates.
“What is it?”
Standing up straight, he broke the news to Kino. “‘A heretic who entered our country today intervened with one of our countrymen, who was courageously battling illness with dignity. The heretic bears a striking resemblance to the man who came to this lodge alone yesterday’.”
Kino was silent. Hermes said, “Ooh, so what happened?”
“‘His intervention, thankfully, was not severe, and our countryman’s body has tapped into the innate capacity for healing we are all born with and is recovering quickly. However, we cannot let the heretic’s act go unpunished. We have arrested him and have passed judgement upon him, that he may never do such a thing again. The heretic’s sentence is visitation with each and every one of our countrymen who are suffering from illness or injury. He is to see every last one of them and apologize for his actions. The heretic accepted his punishment with gratitude. It is only fitting. He will be unable to return to this lodge for some time. We have given him strict orders to never intervene again, but should he happen to commit yet more offenses, his punishment will continue forever’.”
“Really? He sounds like a troublesome man.” “Yeah.”
“‘Indeed he is. We have no idea what was going through his mind. We have also decided that until the man has repented fully, you will be barred from entering our country. We cannot provide you with a persuader, as we did at the gates’.”
“‘Finally, although the heretic is a loathsome criminal, we shall provide him with humane treatment. He will be guaranteed food and shelter. When we informed him, however, he had the gall to say that he was a light eater, and that he wanted half of his portion to go to the outlander living outside the country for no particular reason’.”
The other guard put down the wooden box and opened it. It was filled with food, as usual. “‘We cannot partake in food left by a heretic and a criminal. But it goes against our doctrines to waste the food provided us by our god and the earth, so we have come to rid ourselves of it. We will be coming by every day with more. You and the other heretics living in his place do not have the right of refusal’.”
“‘That is all from our country! We shall now collect the belongings of the heinous criminal. Would you like to pass on a message to the heretic’?”
“Yes,” Kino said, smiling.
“Please, go on.”
“Please tell him that I’m sorry he had to eat my cooking. And that he was the first person to compliment my food with a smile.”
“Pardon me?” the guard asked, smiling.
“Master might have died if she’d eaten that,” Hermes said.
“She’d have shot me to death first, though.”
The guards exchanged glances. “‘We shall pass on your message, Heretic’.”
The guards gingerly packed up Dis’s things and left the lodge.
The red evening sun soon disappeared behind the trees. Clumps of snow slid loudly from the roof.
Darkness fell over the world. The bell did not ring once.
That night, Kino sat on the edge of her bed. A small lightbulb hung from the ceiling, its reflection distorting against Hermes’ fuel tank.
Kino was laying out her things on the bed.
Neatly-folded shirts, her hat, her gloves, and a miscellany of other things sat on the sheets. Kino picked them up and put them in her suitcase.
Once everything was in, she closed the lid. Kino picked up her lukewarm cup of tea and took a sip.
“What’re you gonna do when spring comes, Kino?” Hermes asked.
“Spring, huh? I think I’ll—“