She takes the dirty bandages off the day she is released. There will be scars. That is fine. She will always walk with a limp. That is fine, too. But her broken fingers haven’t mended, and that’s not something she can live with. So she finds an apothecary who owes her a favour and spends the first night of her newfound freedom biting down on a piece of wood, while he breaks her fingers again and sets them properly.
“They’ll heal,” says the apothecary, once he has finished with splints and bandages. “But it’ll take time.”
“Four weeks, maybe more, until the bones have grown. It’ll take longer to regain your strength and dexterity.”
“So no writing, then?”
The apothecary raises one eyebrow. “Probably for the best. Don’t you think?”
She doesn’t answer.
She stays the night at the apothecary’s, and sets about trying to find a place to live the next morning. Her house isn’t her house any more. She knows that, but she can’t help going there anyway. The fire that drove her out has not done any lasting damage. The board where she pinned up her writings is gone, of course. The soot stains have been scrubbed away, the broken windows replaced, and the outside painted a delicate eggshell white by the new owners. She doesn’t know who they are. Some rich nobleman, most likely, with a wife who occasionally deigns to show her face in a poorhouse under the guise of charity. They probably have sons who are studying law and daughters who spend the afternoons meekly embroidering.
It doesn’t matter. She finds a cheap room on the other side of town, where people don’t know her. Her landlord is an old man who has gone blind and is bored enough to pay her to read to him. It doesn’t pay much, but luckily she doesn’t need much. Her room is tiny, and furnished only with a plank meant to resemble a bed and a wobbly chair that she moves to the window so she can use the window sill as a desk. As soon as she can hold a pen again.
The four weeks pass slowly. She has never felt so useless in her life. She can’t cook or even cut bread, subsisting instead on bowls of thin porridge and soup that the old man’s housekeeper prepares for them. With her fingers strapped tightly together, there’s no way to light a candle or a lamp, so she can only read to the old man by the light that comes through the dirty window. As soon as the sun sets, she goes to bed, and the lies awake in the darkness, whispering to herself how many days are left. Sometimes she covers her ears with her bandaged hands so that she doesn’t hear the distant screams. She never knows whether they are real or in her head.
On the twenty-eighth day, she goes back to the apothecary, who unwraps her hands and flexes her fingers one by one. They look pale and thin, but they don’t hurt anymore.
“Gentle exercise,” he tells her. “Nothing too strenuous for at least four weeks.”
He walks her to the door, fiddling with the ring on his finger.
“It’s best if you don’t come back,” he says. He doesn’t meet her eyes. “I’ve had… visitors.”
She notices for the first time that the shelves look rather empty. There are gaps in the rows of neat glass jars, and the wooden counter top is marred by three deep scratches.
“Did they threaten you?”
He shrugs. “It happens, in my profession. Any herb that can be a medicine can be a poison, after all.”
“I’ll stay away.”
That afternoon, she reads to her landlord and marvels how easy it is to turn the pages of the book now that her fingers are free. The book itself is nothing special, just page after page of insipid praise masquerading as a history of some long-dead king. Father of the realm, hero of his people, supreme victor of many glorious battles. Nowhere does the author waste any words on the people who died, except that they were conquered. There’s also no mention of the king’s citizens who were murdered later in his reign, except that that were traitors.
The old man still has writing materials in the back of a cupboard. He won’t need them anymore, so she brings them up to her room, with vague ideas of keeping a diary. Opening a jar of ink is difficult. Dipping a pen into the ink is hard. Actually holding the pen and writing something is impossible. She only manages a splodge of ink. That becomes the first entry in her diary. The entries that follow consist of pebbles or leaves or flowers. She places them in a neat row in the window sill. Five times a day, she rolls the pebbles between her fingers and practises picking up the leaves using only her finger tips.
Every morning she walks beside the river. Just by the old town wall there’s a meadow. She likes to sit there sometimes to watch the sunrise and imagine a different life. Sometimes she lingers too long, and they find her. When that happens, she picks a few wildflowers and sits quietly until they leave. She never knows who they are. They could be soldiers, but they don’t have uniforms and their pallid skin speaks of long days spent indoors. They could be government officials. If so, she doesn’t want to think about who they report to. Her fingers twist the stems of the wildflowers, and she bites her lip and weaves clumsy flower crowns while they talk.
“How lovely to see you looking so well.”
“No lasting damage, I hope.”
“But perhaps you’d better not take up writing again. I hear it can damage a woman’s health.”
“You were very lucky to escape the fire.”
“Did you leave a candle unattended? I hear that happens often. People are so careless.”
“You live in a wooden house now, I believe?”
“I hear that neighbourhood is very rough. More murders than any other.”
She sits, letting their veiled threats wash over her while her heart thumps wildly in her chest. They never do anything except talk, and they always leave before the streets get too busy. Can’t have the fishermen and messenger boys and housewives paying attention to her, after all.
When her window sill is full with wilting flower crowns, she shifts them onto her bed and sets out her writing materials. She dips her pen into the ink and starts to write. Her fingers still feel weak, but they will obey. The letters are large and clumsy, but they are clear.
I write this knowing full well I will be accused of treason and heresy and worse. But it should not be treason to point out injustice in one’s country. And it should not be heresy to think about Nature’s laws and find them superior to those of our customs and religion. So I will think and write. And if they burn my house and lock me up once again, then so be it.