A Holy Man's Tale
I am Father Claudius. I am a simple man. I lead a plain life. Some would call it narrow, perhaps, and it is true I have seen very little of the galaxy and its ways. It is a good life, though, and my heart is at peace as I look forward to the time drawing ever closer when I will sleep with the Fathers who were before me. I have an eye on a successor already—a good lad, sincere and dedicated, though a little over-zealous for the rules and a little lacking in compassion. He reminds me a good deal of myself at his age. Ah, well, years softened me, and they will soften him soon enough.
I remember the first such experience that shook my youthful perceptions of life. (Forgive an old man for rambling into a tale; it happens too often, of late). I had just completed my novitiate, and was terribly proud of myself. My new duties, though quiet enough, seemed adventuresome and exciting. Confession—now there was an interesting task. I am ashamed to admit I found it a little too interesting at times. Father Lucius realized this fault in me, I am sure, but he must have known I would grow to appreciate the gravity of my responsibility with time. I do now, of course. The act of confession is a deeply cleansing, and sometimes healing experience. To listen quietly, without judging, without ever speaking of what he hears, is one of the greatest services a man can perform for his brother.
But I wander. I was not Confessor long before the most singular man to ever cross our gates knelt before my booth, one cold, bitter winter day. From whence he came I did not know, but from the strangeness of his accent and dress, it was far. I puzzle still over how he even found us, for our unpretentious walls are nestled high on a mountain far from the great centers of civilization. Yet here he was, and he desired to confess. I was more than a little curious, and had trouble smoothing my voice into the correct tones of solemnity. The man did not look up, but I remember the curious smile that tugged at the corners of his mouth.
"What sins have you committed?" I asked of him. His smile widened.
"You'd be here all day, Father. I just wish to speak of one, the only one I regret. It weighs on me."
"Ah…I see," I said, taken aback. "Well, proceed, my son."
His shoulders shuddered slightly, and then he told me this story, in a voice so soft I was forced to lean forward the entire time. He spoke softly, yes, and evenly, never succumbing to emotion as so many do. And yet it was perhaps the saddest tale I ever heard.
"When I was nine years old I forgot the meaning of goodness. Children's abstract concepts are heavily rooted in the concrete, and all that embodied goodness in my life was taken from me before my understanding could stand alone. There were compensations, later, for that small gap in my knowledge. I learned truth. I became familiar with the finest nuances of power. Nevertheless, I always felt the loss of that simple word in circumstances where simplicity was nearly forgotten, too. By the time I was your age I despaired of ever learning it again, all the more so because no living creature at that time would have dreamed I ever knew at all. Then I met her." He smiled again, but I marked it as a gentle smile now, full of memories.
"She was my match—or better—in mind, strength, and soul. At first I saw her as a challenge, something to be dominated like everything else. She wasted no time in correcting that notion, and in the process, me. To an extent, at any rate," he amended. "By then there were parts of me altered beyond restoration. But she taught me what goodness was. Goodness was passion, and beauty, and quiet friendship, and cold strength tempered by the fire of powerful love. In many ways I was a still a child. From then on my understanding of goodness was irrevocably bound up in her—was her.
"When we married, it was a political alliance orchestrated by others, but to us the reason was irrelevant. We completed, needed, wanted each other. And it was all thanks to her. I asked her so often in those days if there was anything she desired. I would have given her the stars if she asked for them, and we both knew they were in my power to give. She never answered, though, only smiled and told to me that someday she'd ask for a gift but today was not that day. I satisfied myself with that promise and with her love. For a little while we were very happy." He raised his eyes, and I smiled involuntarily at the dreamy happiness in them. For several minutes he was silent—remembering, I suppose. Then a shadow passed over his face, and it seemed to me that the room grew colder.
"One day everything changed. A mentor of mine, he…well, let's just say he died, and leave it at that. It was a timely death, but I could no longer be the person I once was. There was so much to be done that required me to be strong. So many battles to win. So much rebuilding. Any weakness left in me was finally ground away, except for the place in my heart that was hers.
"Time passed, and slowly, we grew apart. I still loved her, but it was more a knowledge instead of the old wild devotion. We had very little time together now, and even less after she got sick. It was a dormant illness, and lay in her body for a long, long time, the signs barely noticeable. I didn't know—I didn't know—that it was just taking its time. In my arrogance I assumed she would always be there for me. So I forged on in the path I had chosen, and life eventually resumed some normality, though it was drastically different than before. The changes went deeper than my new duties and powers. I...I felt no joy anymore. I was changed. Circumstances and my own choices changed me. But I felt satisfaction... most of the time. There were moments when I'd remember the way it used to be...or could have been...and the emptiness of those moments should have warned me. But if it did, I paid the warning no heed." He paused for a long breath, seemingly exhausted by the telling. When he continued, he spoke quickly, as if desiring to be rid of the words.
"Then one spring morning she came to me. It must have been a lovely day, but I didn't notice such things then. I was consumed, as usual, with my affairs. I didn't notice the morning, and I didn't notice how dull my wife's shining green eyes had grown. I didn't hear how tired her voice was. I didn't notice her hair...her beautiful hair..." he made a noise in the back of his throat, almost like a sob, and didn't finish the sentence. "I only remember my irritation. She told me she wanted something. The look in her eyes should have made me remember. But I had forgotten many things and only waited impatiently. So she asked me..." His voice sank to an even softer level, "She asked me for a flower."
I blinked, surprised.
"A simple flower," he continued. "Because no flowers grew on this city-world, she said. She wanted a real flower that grew in the ground, the most beautiful one I could find. I couldn't leave, I thought, not then, not for a woman's whim. I ordered an extravagant array of hothouse roses sent up to her rooms and put the matter from my mind. She returned, though, and asked me again. It was such a strange request coming from her…my wife was different, now, too. But she kept coming, and then sent messages when she was too weak to rise from her bed. No matter how fragrant or elaborate the plants I sent, still she returned them with another plea for a real flower in a vase for her bedside. Somehow, I never had time. Then one day, no message came. She died, Father. She died before I could give her the only gift she ever asked for. She died and took all my goodness with her." A single tear slipped down his scarred cheek.
"I buried her in a field of wildflowers."
He lifted his head.
People cannot see through the narrow slots of the booth. But I will swear until I die that this man looked into my soul and pierced my most secret thought with those unblinking eyes. I…saw things, in that moment. Or perhaps it was an eternity. I saw a child, straight, shining, true. I watched with terrible pain as a hand of darkness twisted the child into something else, tore the brightness from him, and crushed his dreams with an invisible fist. I wept as he wilted, unable to stand. I trembled with rage as it fed upon him and grew and spread for a lifetime of suffering and pain. The darkness was old, and tired, now. It sat in him, fat and bloated, and the child wished to be rid of it at last. I saw this, and I grieved, for though he could leave it with me, there was not much of the boy himself remaining. Most of him lay elsewhere…
…In a meadow, wide as the eye could see…an ocean of color, rippling in a gentle breeze…a wash of golden summer sunshine… the plaintive tune of a shepherd's pipe in the distance…and flowers, flowers everywhere.
"Am I absolved, good Father?" he whispered. I nodded mutely, my heart too full to make the proper reply. He must have seen me, because a look of inexpressible peace crossed his worn face, and he left the room with shoulders straighter than when he entered.
An acolyte found his body the next morning, at the bottom of a ravine. He had no name on him, so we buried him in our graveyard, with an unmarked stone to mark the spot. There was no ceremony of any sort. What would one say?
I am a simple man, and a little overawed by the great and important folk who began to arrive when they discovered that the deposed Emperor lies here. Some come to bless, some to revile, and many simply to pay their respects to a man who wielded great power. None give any mind to me. Nevertheless, I stand up to those grand beings from far away who wish to erect fancy monuments over Luke Skywalker's grave. The monuments themselves I have no objection to. They're very nice, I suppose.
But they would cover the flowers, the flowers no one planted and never go away, the flowers no one has ever seen before in this land. They are small, and red as fire, and they cover the stony ground over him like a velvet carpet.
I am growing old, and tend to be forgetful. I can't always answer the gardener when he wants to know why that particular grave must never be weeded. He abides by my wishes, but he'll outlive me. That is why I record this, though my gnarled fingers can scarcely grip the quill. One of these days I will give it to the lad.
Let the flowers alone, my son. Let them alone.