It was sometime before late day when Mantkin Fredly frazzled himself over the wendings and windings, near splatting himself in his pell-mell, to drop the horrendous tidings.
“Bat’s piss!” exclaimed Figal Scrigley, he being the recipient. He flung his quill across the desk, black-spattering his whiskers. “There’s an end of me then! And before I’m properly mellowed too.”
“You might go undamaged,” suggested Mantkin, hopefully.
“No such blessing,” grumbled the Mathematician. “I’ll likely be hauled aloft by my jonglies for all to see and then dropped on my head to complete the tale. It’s a turd of a business, my curse on it. Who swung the vote?”
“None argued against the motion. But Saran spoke loudest.”
“Saran. Ah. I found against him once. Bitter fruit, and now the aftertaste.” Figal rolled the parchment at his desk, rising to his feet.
“I urged your cause the best I could,” stammered Mantkin, “pleading frailty, blindness, even bedwetting.”
Figal glared at him.
“The huntsmen were too few,” said the youngster, “and there it stood. They said you were needed.”
Along the walls hung the charts describing the numbers. Mantkin watched sadly as the old man straightened them with brittle fingers. How spiteful of the council to insist on his presence now, after so many years of veneration. The yearly hunt was a beastly business, not at all fit for a lawmaker. They’d never dared to demand it when Figal had presided as village magistrate.
Mantkin still thought fondly of those days, of the times he’d bolted from his mother’s skirts to slide the slopes to Scrigley-Sir’s cottage. Day after day he’d slipped wide-eyed onto the Mathematician’s knees to learn of the numbers: Eidon, the primary; One shall serve the community. Eudos; One shall not injure one’s neighbor. Then, Trifor; One should work for one’s own ends. All were of Figal’s own design and Mantkin had learned near the full set, enough in total to blot a tapestry. Only one remained unknown to him: Infinus, the greatest number, that beyond all others.
“You’re too small to know it,” Figal had snapped. “And when you’re larger, it might still pass you by.”
And so it had remained, the hallowed number never even invoked in legal judgments, for Mantkin had many times listened to Figal’s deft summing of village disputes. On the one hand, Eudos, but outweighed by the sum of Edren, and Teleth. Always, his calculations were received with equanimity by petitioners. It was the fizzle of his deportment that carried it, one could see.
Glued fast to unfolding sobrieties, Mantkin’s bladder had once swelled beyond fetter, sending him hopcricket to the scullery, where he’d peed into the furnace. Calath was the verdict, delivered upon Figal’s acquaintance with the steaming rankness: There’s nothing useful to be made of it.
“Calath,” grumbled the old man, in summation once more. “Here I am, a super attenuated crotchet in the coda of my allotted span, and I’m to be cast anew as a wild-haired mutt, all gristle and grunt. Bah! What effluent wisdom to wade.”
He made busy with the tidying of his books while Mantkin hung his head, a posture he maintained until the end of the day’s light.
On the morning of the hunt, Mantkin was early at Figal’s door, and was surprised to find the old man dutifully regaled. A sheepskin jerkin swelled the Mathematician’s girth, while able boots thumped him insouciantly about the boards. His sad wife set them both a mug of minted tea, before Figal broached the farewell business amongst the colanders of the scullery.
“Well, wife, here we are, come to the crunch. Me off to the hunt and you to the dishes. A predictable finale to our calendar, one might say.”
She barreled into his arms, desperate tears and no mistaking it.
“The papers will gather dust,” he whispered, stroking her white hair.
“Husband, your papers will be in good order.” She held him tight, breathing him in. She wiped her eyes as she broke to face Mantkin. “Now, little soul, I place this fool into your care. See he doesn’t give our good name to japery. Bring him to me whole again.”
Over her shoulder, Figal gestured as if to say, ‘take no heed, she’s a surly wench and sees no good in any rough and tumble’. Mantkin nodded, schoolroom-like, with flushed cheeks.
Figal made to put himself up the stairwell.
“Now, what distraction, curmudgeon crow?” snapped his wife.
“Why, the sun is high, and my crap is low. A solid evacuation will see me in good fettle for manly trekking; it’s a matter of less weight, as science tells us.” And up he went, closing the door at the top.
Mantkin wanted to hold Figal’s wife and give her his full assurance, but secretly fearing the worst, he made himself as still as the house, and cast his eyes no higher than its foundings. Nothing good came into his head. “On the trail, we might even speak of Infinus,” he offered, but she cleared the pots, unsmiling.
After much silence, Figal not showing, Mantkin felt compelled to hail him. The bellow from above shook the rafters.
“Peace, boy! I shall appear before you presently, uncrapped and ready to kill.”
And in fairness, the bowel-tending seemed to fluff him into a fine fettle. After shedding the final matrimonial ministrations, Figal and Mantkin traipsed under the warm sun to the market square, where long shadows toppled onto an array of grizzled faces.
Saran was the first to speak, a hog of a man, truffled in greased leather. “You’re late,” he oinked.
“And you’re primordial,” snapped Figal, “though let’s not into philosophy, shall we, as there’s murder waiting.”
Saran ruffled his nose, and held his bluster for a later moment. Gorath loomed at his side, infinitely oafish, axe two lengths his own height. He kept his quiet, as he stammered quite preposterously.
Joran, a spindly jigger, unsuited to legging it over the wilds, offered his mesh net up to Figal. “Sincerely, sir, I offer this implement as I think the lightness of will go well with your gait. The number of the principal is Teheth, I believe,” he chuffed proudly, “With lesser burden, freedom harks.”
Mantkin bounced in front, shrill and panicked. “No! The net will bring him to quarters with the Korrach.” He cast around the group for support.
Figal brushed him aside. “Boy, we’ll make no show of it. I was netted some while ago. So it goes.” He took the mesh, hefting it onto his shoulders, while the whole sorry gaggle of them took to the trail like a caterpillar of cutlery, all sloth and sharp points.
Figal fell in behind Gorath, whose axe trailed a whirl of dust in its wake. “To which point of the compass are we set, heroic fellow?”
“T-t-t-ttt-to the f-ffff-ff-” Jaw bouncing like a sprung trap.
“Hell’s gums. We’ll be arrived before I hear it.”
Mantkin fell in beside Figal, keeping pace with the sway of his hem. “Master, might we speak of Infinus before the journey’s out?”
“Before I’m killed, you mean to say?”
Mantkin was shamed to silence.
The whole packet of them wound their way over verdant downery, past pee-jaundiced busheries and through to the silvered draperies of the forest, where birds and beasts hocked and clicked their dismay. By midday, the sun was blinkered with smudgeons of sky, and several of the hunters being grumble-gut, they flattened a circle of stems and snuffled into muslin sacks with a euphoric display of dribble.
Figal sat beneath a birch tree, his head set against the ghostly bark, Mantkin folded attentively at his toes. “This is more renovation than I had thought,” smiled the old man. “I find my conduits engorged and my circulation free. This vaudeville enterprise may yet tickle me, given I return untrampled, naturally.” He watched as Mantkin drew absent circulations with a twig. “And how goes your painting, these days? Are you yet become proficient in capturing the moment?”
“I have practiced it little, Master Scrigley-Sir, I must confess. I had hoped for more tutelage in the numbers.”
Figal frowned and scratched his knee.
“I am curious,” added Mantkin, forlornly, “why you have never tutored another in the skill.”
“Well now,” burred the oldster, jouncing his leg a little to trumpet irksome vapors, “that is certainly a matter of housing.”
This brought stupidity to Mantkin’s features.
“Yes,” continued Figal. “We are raised vapid, I fear; perambulatory but unseeking. Goatish, one might say, tethered to our region. Who amongst the sediment creatures should I entrust to vault the enclosure, becoming irreplaceable?”
Mantkin’s spirit was doused at this, and as he morosed, Toruth — one of the few huntsmen blessed with rudiment musicality — rose to his feet and papped on his horn.
Figal rose to his feet. “Ah, the martial belch summons us, boy. There’s no shirking this cabaret, and there’s the truth.” Mantkin lifted the net for him, while Figal laid a gentle hand on the youngster’s shoulder. “One must first view the portal to see beyond it.”
Saran had gathered himself up, thrusting his breast to address the motley gallery. “Now friends, to order our campaign, I commend to you our comrade Gorath, who has fought many a struggle.”
“The greatest being to issue cogent thought,” hissed Figal into Mantkin’s ear.
“I hand the matter to his able sergeantry,” concluded Saran, ushering forward the axe-bearer.
“W-we ss-shhss-,” stammered Gorath, eyes submerged beneath an avalanche brow.
“Friends, an idle contemplation!” hailed Figal, finger flung skyward. “As our leader has depleted himself of his stock of sibilants, perhaps an illustration might lead us home earlier. We’ll be spared the spit, in any case.”
Some snorted their amusement but Gorath glared. Striding into the midst of the clearing, he trailed his axe to complete a circle, jabbing his finger about to indicate the current assembly. A further scribble in the center depicted the beast, and pointing directly at Figal, he speared the axe head within the circumference.
“Hung to the hub by my own wit, no less,” Figal glummed, knowing his mistake.
The whole party rumbled into progress, soldiering onward past protean limestone knucklery and through to ocean pastures where the Korrach likely grazed.
Figal trailed at the rear, Mantkin at his heels.
“Master Scrigley-Sir, might this not now be the moment to address the question of Infinus? I am only thinking of the worst possibilities of the day.”
“Boy, the direst fear was your persistent interrogation, well-founded I might add.” He said it without turning. “Here I am, striding into the sun, a battle titan in the making no less, yet you insist on dragging your muddy contemplations across my porch.”
Mantkin watched the oldster as he made his way, short-stepped and tall, rays flying from his silver hair. He was indeed a palace of man, much grander in design than any of the tumbledown throng he accompanied. Disgraceful to topple such proud architecture into the humdrum fallows. And doubly sad that the old cussmongerer would not impart his greatness.
Presently, the hunters came upon the Korrach, the prized beast grazing, as expected, in the lush carpet of the meadow. All dropped to their bellies in a scuffling tumult, leaving only Figal standing, his joints rusted beyond such strenuous articulations. The beast saw them at once, a buffoonery of whispering twig creatures, and thought nothing much. Shaking the flies from its crown of horns, it sneezed, and munched on.
“The beast will see you!” hissed Saran.
“One hopes it does not judge by the company, then,” retorted Figal.
“I have a thought!” cried the prone Toruth. “We might wait until the creature sleeps!”
“A solid conceit, full of spunk and mettle!” resounded the Mathematician. “I second the scheme of somnolence!”
Joran hustled over the weedlings to Saran’s side. “The beast is docile now, amiable and not disgruntled in any fashion. Now is the time to net it!”
Saran nodded and gestured to Gorath, who waved Figal forward with a swoop of axe. The old man hesitated.
“Look, look!” bursted Joran. “The beast is unloading. Now is our moment!”
Sure enough, the Korrach had squatted on its armor-plated haunches, chewing contentedly as it unleashed its bowels.
“Now! Now!!” bellowed the huntsmen in unison.
Figal looked into Mantkin’s eyes, recognizing perhaps the divorcing of their fates. “Well here we are, boy. My day turns toilet, as the beast is likewise engaged. There’s wisdom in it somewhere.” With this, he launched himself forward, hopping and bouncing with the sprite of a one-legged chicken across the flat grass, hefting the net from his shoulders. The huntsmen cheered him on, bellowing and mooing at his spastic gait.
The Korrach watched the wild-haired old man’s approach, its dim beadlets fixed on his erratic advance. Just as he drew close, the creature discharged the last of its wastage and stood full upright, pawing the ground. Steam piped from its nostrils.
Figal piled to a dismayed halt. “Oh, crap!”
Before he could muster himself to leg it, the Korrach charged him down and hurled him over its horns, tossing him ragdoll over its back. The old man bounced on the grass and crunched to a halt.
“Quickly!” cried Mantkin. “We must make a rescue!”
“We should wait until the creature sleeps,” suggested Toruth once more, encouraging a babble of general agreement.
Meanwhile, the Korrach, having quite forgotten the reason for its expenditure of energy, paused for breath, collapsing its rear quarters onto the still Mathematician.
Stoked by grief, Mantkin burst from the thickery, armed with fearsome inanities and a spear, and ran full tilt toward the Korrach.
The alarmed beast hustled up and turned tail.
Witnessing its thunderous retreat, the huntsmen rallied themselves into cacophonous pursuit across the meadow, racing past Mantkin as he stopped to tend the felled Figal.
Joran paused, breathless, to collect the net. “A fine job, Scrigley-Sir. You’ll be remembered well for it.” And with that, he helter-skeltered himself away as the hunt disappeared over the horizon.
Mantkin listened for the oldster’s breath, then pulled him to the shade of a tree. Clearly, the wound was mortal, the essences too impoverished.
Figal’s eyes fluttered. “Why, this is a sorrowful mess, look,” he groaned. “My gizzard is all about the place. Undignified is what one calls it.”
“Yet a surgeon’s work might restore you?”
“Boy, are you blind? The pastry is broke, the juice is spilled. I’ll not be sloshed about the landscape as a kindness to beggarly birds.” His left foot twitched. “I fear my wife will bear this badly. She’s a good woman, in truth. Always kept her flatulence muffled until dead of night.”
As Mantkin had no medicinal tricks, he made do with pulling the old man’s jerkin tighter, as if to ward death from the scent.
A faint smile tugged at Figal’s beard, as if some prize was for the giving. “As it would seem I am done and dusted, I have a burden to pass. You will find it in my lower pocket, dry and well-folded. Always had you in mind for it.”
Mantkin stared a moment, then picked open the woolen pouch to withdraw a modest parchment, which he unfolded with tremulous digits. Unfurled, the parchment carried a drawing in black, a puzzle of geometrics that tumbled and skewed in perfect chaos. Mantkin’s eyes brimmed with tears.
“Infinus?” He could scarce believe it. The ultimate truth, on a sketching no greater than a napkin. “Master Scrigley-Sir, you have handed me the universe. How will I thank you?”
“I would not have it as common knowledge,” he whispered, “that I was fatally ended under some beast’s rump.” He reached with sudden urgency to seize the youngster’s sleeve. “See the portal, boy; vault the enclosure!” With this, the life passed from him in a fitful expulsion that ruffled the leaves overhead.
Mantkin held the old man’s head, running his fingers through the white of his hair. Before the light had gone, he had swaddled him in a blanket and placed him on a makeshift hurdle cut from green saplings. When the stars alighted over the world, he heaved the hurdle onto his shoulders and toiled the path home, a faerybug cortege at his shoulders.
Presently, the huntsmen rowdied past him, yowling their kill, the trophy head bundled high-spiked and dripping. Mantkin did not see how many depleted they were, if any. He hid in thick bushery, and waited until they had past. Dirith, he thought with bitterness:
One shall mourn the passing of one’s neighbor.
When Mantkin arrived back at Figal’s cottage, he found the Mathematician’s wife already waiting. She stood in the porchway, her lamp-lit features freshly dry of tears.
“There was nothing I could do,” he whispered. “Please forgive me.”
She hugged him and thanked him for his kindness, and they set the body in the sleeping chamber, where she retired after sitting Mantkin to the table with a pot of minted tea. Pulling the parchment from his jerkin, he frowned over the mysterious conundrum of lines and angles, falling eventually to slumber with the croons of grief at his ears.
The morning sun brought him to his senses and he jerked his head upright, the parchment pasted in sweat to his brow. Unpeeling it, the puzzle of angles taunted him still. Perhaps he’d been gifted an unknowable thing, forever taunting him with its impossible riddle.
As he had not unloaded for the best part of a day, he elected to unburden himself into the upstairs latrine. He ascended the stairwell, folding the parchment into his pocket before dropping his breeches for business. Pots of Mercurine and blossoms of Theam glowed against the white stone of the latrine walls. A solitary beam of sunlight percolated through the crumpled glass of the skylight, throwing a crazed jumble of rainbow squares.
As Mantkin stared, the world telescoped to the moment. He tore the parchment from his pocket, not trusting the mind’s eye.
It was true. Before him, in sunbeam and stone, Figal’s pattern!
See the portal, the old man had said.
And there it was.
Hoisting his breeches, Mantkin clambered onto the stone trestling above the pot, finding it already grimy with boot prints. Figal himself had stood here; it was beyond wonderment! With butterfly heart, he grunted the window open and perked his freckles over the sill.
The sight below perplexed him, for there was nothing stupendous to be viewed, only the back yard to the washhouse, where freshly lavendered suitments hung to dry from wooden frames. Mantkin began to wonder if Figal might not have lost the reins to reason.
Then, movement: a wash girl with basket, plumpishly pretty, no spring bud to be sure, an evergreen perhaps. Mantkin ducked his head a little.
Carrying the load to the wooden frame, the girl hung the wet clothes one by one, stretching up with slender wrists to peg them. Mantkin could see the pale squeeze of her largish jollies deep in the blue fold of her bustle. Even as his eyes googled, she glanced up, catching his gaze. She stared, steaming Mantkin’s cheeks red. Then she smiled, a sly grin, quick as a thunderbolt. With a furtive glance, she unlaced her bodice, allowing her weighty womanlies to spill out. When she lewdly jiggled, Mantkin nearly dropped from his perch.
Gathering her strings, she giggled and flounced from his view, as jaunty as the leaves that dizzied at her feet.
Mantkin sat heavily onto the cement throne, a thousand hopes dissolute at his feet. It was cruelty beyond compare, the pinnacle of learning no more than squalid peepery. The old man had led him false.
He sat with his head between his knees and wept.
When Figal’s wife found him, she knocked gently at the door. “Do not cry,” she beseeched. “We must honor his name now.” Leading the youngster to the study room, she brought him a teeming broth and her husband’s pointed hat, which she pulled over his ears. “Will you make the numbers?” she asked him. “Figal would have wanted it.”
He gave no answer, and she left him sitting at a window desk, pencil and parchment at his fingertips.
He sat in silence as shadows creaked across his brow. Beneath the glass pane, a flower of Mercurine had grown through the wooden frame, its gilded petals dancing in the half-light.
Mantkin found himself transfixed. Perhaps the blossom’s span was nearly ended, the sight of it gifted to him, miraculous, intransigently beautiful.
Taking up the pencil, he began to sketch on the parchment, carefully capturing each petal’s brave flourish; forward and back, side to side; the quietest whispers of movement. As he drew, he thought of the washgirl, of her smile, of the leaves dancing at her feet, careless of time.
The unknowable thing. The capricious allure of a world of possibilities.
The number of hope.
Figal himself might have smiled, placed his arm around the boy’s shoulder, and hugged him.
Mantkin’s eyes welled with tears.
When the drawing was done, the sun was dull and low in the sky. Mantkin tucked the parchment under his arm and left the cottage. Crossing the street, he came upon Saran and Toruth, who were much surprised to see him.
“Ho, young sir!” greeted Toruth. “Not at your studies?”
“I have decided to make myself a painter. So I go in search of beauty.”
“We thought you locked to the numbers,” jibed Saran, “by Master Scrigley’s decree.”
“Not so, brave hunters,” he replied. “I had locked myself.” He hugged the parchment tight and smiled. “But my friend left me the key.”