Chapter 182: Listening To FearAlexandraErin on September 30, 2013 in Volume 2 Book 5: Nasty Disturbing Uncomfortable Things
In Which Mackenzie Falls For Emily
Knowing that this last time would count for everything, we took the time to repeat my original respectful approach to Emily, using the secular ritual that Eloise Desjardins had taught me for approaching a place spirit and having Amaranth there radiating goodwill at Emily, the empathic spirit equivalent of holding her hand. I’d ask her to inform Emily that I would be coming to talk to her with the circlet in place, and with no mention of the topic of removing it. She was so afraid of it that I didn’t want to even raise the subject until I’d established some rapport with her.
The ritual went pretty well, even though it felt kind of rushed and clumsy… I was taking my time, but the fact that I hadn’t been thinking about it as much as I had before the first time I did it meant that it came out as a bit of a frantic scramble anyway. Or maybe I was just more self-conscious about it.
The main thing I became aware of as Emily beckoned me closer was a sense of guarded curiosity. That was better than the reception I’d been braced for… after I’d managed to upset her all over again the day before, I’d been expecting suspicion.
Even though I was “listening” for her reactions, it was muted and muddled compared to the first time we’d interacted directly on purpose, as a result of the mental shielding that I’d built up. Probably an actual practitioner of the subtle arts could have been a little more selective, but I didn’t have that luxury. At least it wasn’t keeping her out completely… though if it was, that might have been a sign that the problem was solved.
“Emily, can you understand me?” I asked when I was admitted to arm’s length of her wall. I received a positive response, tinged with confusion.
“She doesn’t understand why you’re asking, but she understands your meaning,” Amaranth clarified.
“Do you know what this is?” I asked, holding out my wand. I immediately received an overwhelmingly affirmative reply. “Would you mind if I use it to… get to know you a little better?”
This time there was a little hesitation, though the response felt positive, if less strongly so. I looked over at Amaranth for confirmation.
“That was a yes,” she said.
“Okay,” I said, and I used the wand the same way I had at Gilcrease Tower to open a connection to the building.
The wand conveyed that the object it was examining was strongly magical, but other than that, it didn’t feel much different than the tower had. There were differences… like, if I’d been connected to one at random or couldn’t see which building I was examining I would have been able to tell which was a tower and which was a flat two-story building built into a hill, but there was no flashing sign in my head telling me that this building was inhabited by a living spirit, much less anything ushering me into the presence of Emily.
Was this it? Was this all there was to it? It seemed like there had to be more to it than this. Sure, I knew that Emily would appreciate any effort to reach out to her, but this would hardly count as reaching out. I could have learned something about how many windows she had or the status of her insulation or the composition of her walls, but Professor Stone had spoken of his ring as being something like a weather vane. Unless Emily was worked up enough about something to start slamming her doors or it was affecting her structure somehow, I couldn’t imagine how I was supposed to know which way the wind was blowing just by querying her physical properties. It was her mental properties, like her emotional state.
In that moment, I learned something about how responsive my wand was, because it queried her emotional state. There it was, clear and present in my head. Not only was there no sense of separation caused by my shields, there was no sense of separation at all. This was an illusion, of course, because the wand was still acting as a buffer.
Would this work on a person? Probably not… maybe on someone like Amaranth, if I was in touch with her field, though I doubted it since her field was a living thing. Emily, though she was alive and a thing, was not a living thing, not by the definitions that governed what I was doing. She was effectively a spontaneously enchanted object, which was why I could “read” her in ways that applied to enchanted objects.
So… I was one step closer to her. I wondered if I’d be able to read her thoughts, but I figured out pretty quickly that this wouldn’t work. In the first place, Professor Stone had said he couldn’t get more than a general picture. In the second place, I figured it was mostly a matter of fluency… her “words” were just modulations in the emotional impressions she gave off. Amaranth could decode the nuances because she communicated on the same level, but I could only hear the tones, not the words. And third, my wand didn’t give me anything different when I thought about her thoughts.
Well… I would have to work with what I had. It did seem to be sharper and clearer than anything I’d gotten from her on my own. Before it had all been one undifferentiated mixture. What I’d perceived as guarded curiosity before I now saw as separate threads. I was a known quantity now, and because of that, there was a surprisingly large amount of trust for me. I’d been unpredictable… first spurning her, then hurting her, then making a big show of respect in approaching her, and she wanted to know what I’d do next. But that curiosity was leavened with the knowledge that I’d hurt her and frightened her.
She seemed to be erring on the optimistic side, which I took not to be an endorsement of me personally but a reflection of her general outlook in life. After all, most people never showed her anything but love.
“Emily… I don’t ever want to hurt or frighten you again,” I said, speaking slowly to help me pick my words and to focus my thoughts around them. It wasn’t the spoken words that mattered, after all. Speaking was just the easiest way to get my thoughts aligned. “I want to always be good to you. I want to make sure I never frighten you again. If I can’t do this, then maybe it won’t be safe for me to be around you.”
I felt some fluctuations especially during the last sentence, and I remembered after I said it that Amaranth had said that Emily had problems with conditionals and maybes, but with Amaranth helping to “translate” for me, everything I was reading smoothed out a bit several seconds later.
“I need to know that I can’t hurt you anymore,” I said. “It… might… hurt, but I can feel what you’re feeling and will know if you’re in pain, will feel your pain with you. If that happens, I’ll go away. I’ll never hurt you again. And I won’t try it without your permission, but if I can’t know that I’m… safe…” There was a big response to that word/thought, and I decided I’d stick with it. “…then I won’t be able to keep coming to see you. I have to make sure I’m safe for you.”
Emily’s emotional presence drew back into itself… I actually felt it leaving my mind, though since I could perceive her more clearly through the wand’s link I hadn’t been aware I was still hearing her in my own head until the moment when I wasn’t. There was something like confusion, but not confusion… deliberation? I remembered what Amaranth had said about how she’d needed time to work her head (so to speak) around new ideas. It hadn’t taken her very long before, so I decided to be patient.
I also closed the connection with my wand. I was more conscious of the energy drain now, and since she had withdrawn her presence, it now felt like eavesdropping.
Then she was back. The sensation in my head was… wanting? Inquiring? I’d never thought of that as an emotion, but that was what the emotional presence felt like.
“She wants you to… understand her,” Amaranth said.
“I want to understand her, too,” I said, reactivating my wand to get a better fix.
“I think she means she wants you to understand where she’s coming from,” Amaranth said. “Though that’s not nearly the way she phrases it, since she doesn’t really have the same concept of coming and going…”
“She wants me to listen to her?” I said, and I felt her affirmation.
“I can do that,” I said. “You’ll help me understand what she’s saying, right?”
“Of course, baby,” Amaranth said. “That’s what I’m here for.”
“Whenever you’re ready, Emily,” I said.
The nice thing about an empathic semi-conversation was that I could feel Emily’s hesitancy at the beginning, so what might have been an awkward silence was instead an actual part of the discussion. There was an undercurrent of both fear and yearning. The yearning grew in strength as the hesitation ebbed, but the fear remained.
“She’s not sure how to begin,” Amaranth said. “She understands the communication barriers that are at work here and she really wants to be clear.”
“I appreciate that,” I said. “She’s afraid, though. Is that still just… fear of pain?”
“Mostly, sort of? It’s also unknown… she doesn’t like not knowing what’s going to happen. There’s not a lot of noticeable variation in her life. It’s… it’s sort of hard to put it into words, though,” Amaranth said. “I feel like I’m losing a lot of the actual meaning in the process.”
“I can only imagine,” I said. “But I guess that’s part of the problem, isn’t it? Or…”
“Or what, baby?”
“I’m just thinking,” I said.
The idea that emotions lose something when they’re put into words wasn’t a new one to me. I’d always struggled with trying to convey what I was feeling using words, and had never really been satisfied with the results. Trying to translate what someone else was feeling? That seemed impossible… but then, the reason it was necessary to put our feelings into words was that we couldn’t feel what another person felt, or at least most of us could, most of us couldn’t.
“Baby?” Amaranth said.
“Maybe we’re going about this the wrong way,” I said. “Translation’s important when we’re trying to decide on a course of action or negotiate a boundary or something, but for this? I don’t need to have you tell me what she’s feeling in your words when she can show me directly.”
“Are you sure you’ll get her meaning, though?” Amaranth asked.
“To be honest, no,” I said. “I’m pretty sure that I won’t… but I think I’ll have a clearer understanding of her if I experience unfil… firsthand than I will if I’m trying to figure out what you mean when you try to tell me what she means. Feelings are… too big for words.”
I felt like I’d phrased that better once before, but I’ve never been the best at speaking out of my head.
“Okay, baby,” Amaranth said.
“Go ahead, Emily,” I said.
And all at once, I felt the fear. I understood… after a moment, anyway… that she wasn’t so much feeling this fear as she was telling me about it. That is, she was afraid, but it wasn’t the most intense thing in her head. She had the desire to communicate with me, the desire to have my attention and resolve this so she could continue to have my attention, and I could feel all of that but what she was telling me was the fear.
…but “fear” is just a word, and so I was doing the same thing Amaranth had been doing. It wasn’t a simple one-word concept we were dealing with here. This wasn’t the fear of something unexpected or painful or unexpectedly painful she was conveying. It was… isolation? Was she showing me her loneliness? But loneliness wasn’t particularly frightening, necessarily, and Emily had hundreds of friends. They came to see her every day… most of them didn’t stay long, but she wouldn’t be used to relating with people one-on-one in the first place.
But that was my own thoughts, not what she was showing me.
I’d known isolation. I’d known what it was like to be ostracized and excluded, to be alone in a crowded room… that wasn’t what she was showing me. I’d also known what it was like to be alone in an empty house, to not know when anyone would be back or who would be coming… isolation. Alone in an empty house.
…Emily had awoken to the world alone. No parents, no… society, no culture. No people. No one had been expecting her or waiting to welcome her into the world. Unlike Amaranth, she hadn’t been brought forth fully-formed with a head full of thoughts and ideas. A point of light in an endless void. A single voice screaming into the darkness with no answer, met with fear and confusion and then… gradual acceptance. No one had explained her existence to her. In fairness, nobody had probably known how, but nobody had tried.
Things had improved for her, but… well, it was no wonder she appreciated any effort to communicate.
“Thank you for telling me this,” I said. I wondered why she was, but I wanted to convey my gratitude more strongly so that was what I focused on.
More fear… different fear. Married to or blended with the fear of sudden, surprising pain, but that wasn’t what she wanted me to see. It was just too closely related to… oh, that was me. This was a thought about me, and she was using that impression of pain and fear to signify that, even though it wasn’t what she was feeling. So she was afraid not of me, but had a fear that was about me.
Afraid for me? That didn’t seem right… I didn’t think Emily could notice much in the way of mortal or semi-mortal peril, and this feeling still seemed centered around her.
Yes, it was a selfish fear.
Fear of… loss.
“You’re afraid of losing me,” I said. “The fear of uncertainty… you aren’t just afraid that you’ll be hurt again, you’re afraid that if it happens, it means I won’t be able to come around again.”
And she valued me, because I’d bothered to try to explain myself to her.
…and I had told her that if I couldn’t make myself safe for her, I’d leave.
“I’m sorry, I just wanted to reassure you,” I said. “I don’t to lose you, either, Emily… I don’t have a lot of friends, and I feel like we have more in common than I realized. You know, I didn’t know what I was, either. The thing in me that hurts you? Nobody explained that to me, until… until it hurt me, too. And… well, I was trying to reassure you, but the truth is, we do have another shot after this, one more chance to fix any problems that are small enough… but to fix them, we have to know if they’re there. If I can’t try now, then I won’t be able to find out in time to do anything more. That’s why I need your permission to do this now.”
And then… slowly, and with great deliberation… it came. A sense of assent, mingled with curiosity and… well, I could only call it wincing.
I disengaged my wand and hung it off my belt, then… just as slowly and deliberately… I lifted the crown off my head.
Nothing changed. Emily was still basically holding her breath. It was like she hadn’t registered that I’d done anything.
“That’s it,” I said. “Mission accomplished.”
I had the presence of mind to let go of the circlet, because falling to the ground or even hitting a wall wouldn’t damage such a powerful magical object, but I could easily have mangled it with my equally magical hands as the emotional force of Emily’s reaction knocked me on my ass… well, to be fair, that was more my reaction to her reaction, since there was no physical force, but it still bowled me over all the same.
“Baby!” Amaranth cried.
“I’m okay!” I said. “It worked.”
“I know, I heard the response, too,” Amaranth said. “Are you okay?”
“I’m great,” I said. “Did you see where the… oh, thanks. Just put it away.”
She’d already retrieved… or maybe caught… the circlet, and was holding it out to me.
“Are you really okay?” Amaranth asked.
“Yeah, it’s not like I’ve never landed on my ass before,” I said. “I’m just glad I didn’t break… oh, shit!”
I felt for my wand, hanging at my side… I’d been so concerned with the circlet—rightfully so, since it wasn’t mine and it was an heirloom—but the wand had far less protection. If I’d landed…
No, it was fine. The copper struts weren’t even bent. I would definitely need a holster for it or something, though. None of this hanging loose stuff.
“Don’t scare me like that!” Amaranth said. “I know… intellectually, I mean… that you’re mostly invulnerable, but I was afraid you’d broken something.”
“So was I,” I said.
“You know what I mean,” she said. “You know, you can always make another wand.”
“I know,” I said. “But still… it’s nice to have something just go right for me, without some horrible unexpected consequence or any price to be paid.”