A Hundred Eyes
Casimir Pitsudski would not stop working.
He refused to look back at the one-eyed creature until he was done.
With each mark of charcoal, he felt the monster’s rhythm of inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale on the back of his neck. Sweat poured down his face as if a thousand steaming kettles were going off at once. It took every ounce of will to remain conscious.
With each mark, it became clearer why the beast hadn’t snatched him. Why it was called the monster with a hundred eyes. Why it hadn’t done to him what it did to Sylwia.
His canvas, a tiny portion of gray stone among vast cavern walls, came together slowly. A nearly empty lamp of oil provided the only illumination. Casimir fought to maintain focus and forget the fate of his recently-met companion, yet at the same time, hold it in his mind.
Lines and shadows emerged from his shaking hands.
With each mark, it helped to remember everything that happened.
They woke the priest.
“You cannot send my son,” his mother started.
Casimir was nervous. He knew coming to the church under the cover of darkness was a bad idea, but his parents were afraid to rouse suspicions among the other villagers.
Father Bogdan shook his head, wiped at his eyes and tried to look at the three of them. Curly salt-and-pepper hair bounced off his forehead. His gaunt cheeks brought to mind more a monk than a priest. “Are you so special?”
“It’s not fair,” she replied. “He’s only a boy.”
“This is the way it’s always been. Your son’s name was drawn from among the others. There is no better way.”
“Let’s petition the magnate.” It was his father now. “Maybe he will send knights.” He was a short but stout man with a long, brown beard and thick arms. They reminded Casimir of the trunks of dark beech trees surrounding their remote village. Casimir was ashamed to think that his father lacked a deep-thinking mind, yet the man could never be accused of not caring for his family.
“You have a short memory, Piotr,” the priest said, not completely unsympathetic. “Do you remember the last time we did such a thing? Go, wake Irena. Ask about her daughters if you’ve already forgotten. One taken away like chattel, the other scarred from eye to chin by the whip of one of his soldiers.”
His mother started now. “But if we can show him–”
Father Bogdan raised a hand. “Show him what? When is the last time you saw his face? He never leaves his castle except to fight a war and win more land. His men would never dare to waste his or their time with the folk tales of peasants.”
His father seemed to withdraw a little.
The priest took an exasperated breath.“The magnate cares not about excuses. It’s grain he wants. We all wish things could be different, but this is a contract that was made long ago. We invite death if we violate it.”
“To hell with the contract!” Casimir’s mother yelled, oblivious to her initial desire to keep things quiet. “My son. Does he not die?”
“He is but one. Would you rather we all be killed?” Father Bogdan looked directly at Casimir as if the decision lay in his hands.
“We’ll discuss this no further,” the Father continued, holding his hands up before them to brook any protest.
He turned to Casimir and spoke as if they were the only two standing in the tiny room at the back of the church. “Gather the things you’ll want to take. You’re to meet the other one at the crossroads in the morning.”
“What will happen?” Casimir asked.
Father Bogdan began to bless the boy who had barely turned fourteen last month. “I don’t know,” he said.
Casimir knew it was mostly a lie. He wasn’t sure why he had asked.
What does one want to see, or hold on to, before one dies?
It was a question Casimir pondered on a sleepless night, the arm of his snoring mother wrapped around his waist. She refused to let him lay down alone that night.
Pale moonlight slipped through a crack in the stone wall of their cottage and as soon as he had decided what to take with him, he gently removed her arm, careful not to wake her. Quietly, he gathered a few items in a woven sack and left without saying goodbye.
He supposed it was a mistake, but he knew that any long farewell would only frighten him more.
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