The Last Duty

photo of shed surrounded by tall trees
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“I am surprised that anyone would come to look for me in my little abode, I’m a man of little consequence.” The old hermit bumbled through his cupboards, looking for a second cup to pour some tea into. It was not an easy task, for he was not in the habit of keeping company in his humble home.

“That’s not true,” the wanderer smiled lightly. He pulled the heavy gloves off of his hands, and then fumbled with the strap around his chest, loosening it so that he could sit more comfortably. “Every man has his circle of influence.”

The hermit paused to look up at the water leaking down from above. The dried longleaf that thatched his roof had been sliding apart for years, leaving whole patches open to the starry sky.

“Well my circle leaks,” he said. “What does that tell you about my influence?”

“That you don’t mind the rain,” the wanderer’s grin widened.

“Oh so smart,” the hermit muttered under his breath. “Got an answer for everything.” Finally he produced two chipped, wooden mugs and a pot. He placed them on the small table, in the center of the one-room hut. He poured the tea and offered the drink to the wanderer who took it with thanks. It was very weak tea, essentially hot water with only the faintest traces of anything else. Indeed the strongest flavor was what seeped into it from the wood of the cup. The wanderer did not seem to mind.

“At least you have a home,” the wanderer said after a few moment’s silence. “I did once…perhaps one day I will again. But for now I remain a wanderer.”

“But there must be something that you wander for?”

“Yes,” the warrior nodded. “I do have a purpose.”

“Well I don’t have that. I would happily trade you home for purpose if my old bones were up to it.”

“Once you must have had one.”

“That’s private,” the hermit said sourly.

“No,” the wanderer said, still smiling in spite of his host’s prickliness. “No man’s purpose is a secret, because all men’s purpose is the same.”

“To their children,” the hermit had a tear in his eye.

“The very same.”

“Do you have children then, wanderer?”

“Of a sort…once. Do you?”

“I did. Once. Why do you say ‘of a sort.'”

“Well I had a people, and they were my children.”

“Ah.”

“I provided for their needs, I gave them instruction, I protected them from evil. And though it pained me to do so, I have journeyed away from them when necessary…. To do for them what is necessary. Was I not a father, then?”

“I suppose. Though why are you not still?”

“I lead them no longer. Another does. But why are you not still a father? Surely the duty of a father extends past all things, even beyond the grave?”

“The grave, yes. But no, not all things–” the hermit looked down into his cup, anxious to escape the question. “You mentioned duty. And of a truth, you named many. But you never did mention how you…disciplined them.”

“Ah yes, the last duty, the one every father hopes to avoid. We all wish that by doing the others so well, we will have no need for that last. Is it not so?”

The hermit nodded gravely.

“Well, there was punishment from time to time in our little community. I gave to them their laws, after all, so I had to enforce them. Never was I cruel, though. Our punishments were chosen together. Five lashes for stealing bread, a night in the stocks for disorderly behavior, we all agreed that these were fair.”

The wanderer took a sip, then continued.

“It seemed enough. It encouraged them to choose their better natures. All were committed to the prosperity of one another, and it was only the occasional stray moment that needed to be curtailed…” the way the wanderer’s voice trailed off was telling.

“And yet?”

“And yet something changed. Something. A monster, a demon, a–a something took their hearts and corrupted them. For the first time we had men who would cheat one another for their own advancement. Women who would falsely accuse one another to take their place. And still it got worse.”

The wanderer’s hands were shaking now. He set down the cup for fear of dropping it.

“I wouldn’t have believed it possible,” he continued, “but they even began to hurt one another for the pure pleasure of it. They had nothing to gain by it at all, they just wanted to see the other bleed.”

The wanderer paused again, and for a minute the hermit did not press him. But at last he couldn’t hold his peace.

“You said it was…something that turned them?”

“It was a man. The scourge of all these lands now. Surely even you have heard of him…”

“Azdenik,” the hermit did not speak the name so much as mouth it. “I know of the man.”

“And yet not a man. There is a dark magic in him, I have never seen one so able to seduce the innocent. Even I was enchanted with him when first he arrived in our village. And such promises he offers. You know of them?”

“Not promises,” the hermit shook his head darkly. “Exchanges. Little pieces of the soul you must give him…but he does not tell you that.”

“No, he does not. When at first he offered his little trinkets to us, his little charms and totems, we thought he was making a joke. How could his little idols make our fields double in yield, our clothes shine with greater luster, or our luck run more sweetly? How could such a clever, charismatic man expect us to believe such fantasies?”

“And yet?”

“And yet my people took them. They winked at his stories in public, but in the dead of night they came to his door and crept back to their homes with his wares. I knew it was happening. Everyone did. Even then it gave me great unease. But I could not explain why, and so I felt I had no right to intervene.”

“And your people began prospering?”

“Yes. I told myself it was just a coincidence. That this man came and then my peoples’ crops began yielding more and more each week, who could believe the two were connected? But the crops were only increasing in the homes of the most naive and gullible, the very same ones I knew would have taken Azdenik’s offer. Eventually more and more of my people started seeing increases in their farms, and so I knew that even the more practical were beginning to be swayed. If he had stayed much longer, everyone would have had one of his totems.”

“But he didn’t stay?”

“No, that was his greatest trick of all. You see if everyone had gotten one of the totems there would have been on a level playing field. By leaving early he put a rift in our town. Now those that prospered had an unfair advantage. They started spending more lavishly, and all the shopkeepers raised prices so that they could share in the wealth, too. Of course that left all the farmers who didn’t have a totem out in the cold. Suddenly they were paupers, and not because of a lack of industry. Those people started to grow bitter. Bitter feelings became bitter thoughts. Bitter thoughts turned into bitter words. Bitter words incited bitter actions.”

“What did you do?”

“We had our laws still, and I enforced them. But they were no longer of any effect. Discipline only works when it awakens a man’s innate desire to do good, and it doesn’t accomplish anything to put a scornful man in the stocks.”

The hermit nodded, as though he understood something of this. “And then it’s easy to come down harder and harder on them. If they won’t awaken to remorse, perhaps they will to fear…”

“Aye. And then you aren’t their loving, guiding father anymore. You’re their vengeful taskmaster and they hate you for it.”

“Yes, you are not their father anymore,” the hermit nodded sadly. “The duties of the father can extend through the grave. But through hell?”

“Surely there must be something a father can do for a child even then,” the wanderer fought down his despair. “Do you not think so?”

“I don’t know what.”

“There must be. I know that there must be!”

“If you say so.”

A few moments of dark silence passed between the two, then the wanderer continued with his sorry tale.

“I only saw how complete my failure was when Azdenik returned. I could see in his eyes that he knew what had happened in his absence. He had counted on it. We were but a husk of the charming village when first he visited. He offered the survivors to join his band, to drink more fully from the power of his totems and follow him in conquest.

“I begged my people not to go. Reasoned with them, pleaded with them. Threatened them! But Azdenik was their father now, not me. They left me, every single one of them left me. Gone to break the innocence of other lands, gone to kill and plunder, gone and made me a wanderer without a home.”

“Terrible,” the hermit shook his head. “just terrible. Although…you said you had a purpose in your wandering?”

“Yes, to do my last duty to my children.”

The wanderer’s voice grew dark and very cold. He reached out and took another long, slow sip from his tea. “My children lost their innocence,” he whispered, “and I quest to reclaim it.”

“You–still think to save them?”

“All are innocent at birth. And all are innocent in the grave.”

“Oh,” the hermit groaned, and shook his head at the heaviness of that pronouncement. “Why have you come here, grim man?”

“I raised one army after another, eight times!” the wanderer stood upright and clenched his fists.  “Each one I spent against Azdenik and his people–my people–and each time I alone crawled away from the bloody defeat. Now I know of a certainty that there is no breaking Azdenik so long as he holds those cursed totems!”

“Why have you come?” the hermit wept, holding his shaking head in his hands. “Why have you come?”

“To do what you would not, weak man!” the wanderer spat.

“Leave me!”

The wanderer turned rabid. He grabbed the hermit by the front of his frock, and pulled him up to his feet.

“Tell me what I need to know!” he snarled through clenched teeth. “Azdenik must have a weakness!”

“I don’t know, I don’t know…”

“No lies!” He threw the hermit against the wall, and the old man crumpled into a sobbing heap on the floor. The wanderer leaped on him, turned him over, and struck him across the face. “Tell me!

“I c-can’t. I don’t know. It’s not right…”

“It is the only right that is left!”

“Why do you trouble me? Why should I know these things?”

“No man knows another like a father knows his child!”

I have no child!” the hermit wailed. “Azdenik isn’t my son! My son was Geoffrey Braithwaite!”

“Yes. Good, good,” the wanderer’s eyes glinted and he panted like a predator closing in on his prey. “And you know how to kill Geoffrey Braithwaite.”

“No.”

Yes you do!” He struck him again, then leaned in hungrily. “You do not wish to, but you do know what his weakness is. He must have one, and you know it. You can tell me how to kill him, and you know that when I do the monster he became will die as well. Don’t do it for me, old man, do it for your son. Do your last duty to him…. Let me give Geoffrey rest.”

Streams of tears ran down the hermit’s face. His mouth stood agape in silent wailing. “I never knew it would go so far,” he sobbed. “I should have smothered him when I could.”

“I will. I’ll do it for you. Tell me how. You know!”

Several moments.

“Alright…I’ll tell you.”

 

As I said on Monday, my entire intention with this story was to show a character that does what he has to, even though he feels condemned by that action. It’s not like this was ever going to end in a positive place!

At the start of this story the hermit seems innocent enough. He is polite, has basically good desires, and a few of his comments suggest that he has a strong sense of duty. This seems well and fine, but as we press towards the end we realize that there came in his life a moment of conflict between his good desires and his duty. He wished for the well-being of his wayward son (a good desire), and because of it denied an obligation to destroy him (his sense of duty). This crossing of the lines is even hinted at with a subtle line of dialogue: “it is the only right that is left.”

In the end he is persuaded, or perhaps we should say forced, to finally choose duty over child. Now let me make abundantly clear, this is not a resolution that I intend for the audience to be wholly on board with. My expectation is that the audience will be taken aback, and then call into question the logic with which the story concludes.

As I suggested on Monday, a story like this is intended to divide readers. Some of them might finally conclude that the hermit should never have relented, and some will say that he should. Some may say that he already failed long ago just by letting his son go astray. Some may say that that couldn’t have been helped.

Whatever conclusion a reader settles on, they will understand their own selves better for having made that determination. That is the entire point of a story like this: to dissatisfy the audience into a self-affirming decision.

This story does not end with an answer, only with a question. Namely, to what extent is a man responsible for what he has created? This has long been a query of literature, extending back as far as Frankenstein’s monster and even Oedipus. Come back next week when we’ll look more closely at this idea of a character’s responsibility. I’ll see you there on Monday.

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