Cure Light Wounds
Cure Light Wounds: Upon laying his or her hand upon a creature, the cleric causes 1 to 8 hit points of wound or other injury damage to the creature’s body to be healed.
-Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Players Handbook, First Edition
Life was better before I could Speak with Dead. When I could only Cure Light Wounds once, twice a day? Those were the best times. Little miracles. That’s where it’s at.
Alas, I’m a High Maiden of the Cup of Tears, a Matriarch of the Church of Pain, with more worries than good will, and life is all about scoring mad loot by relaying snark from the afterlife.
Take my ten o’clock: his royal fancy pants, Lord Archibald Higginsworthy Ravensbeak IV. Every day for the better part of this month I’ve begun my mornings with emergency tête-à-têtes in the narthex between my boss, High Priest Gil, and the heirs of House Ravensbeak. Lord Archie died under mysterious circumstances—OMG! Who put that Death Milk in the Lord’s pudding?—and his pious and warty niece, her Ladyship, Princess Cordelia, is determined to unscramble this whodunit. The rest of House Ravensbeak is just keen for Archie to posthumously spill the beans as to how he intends to dole his estate among the remaining heirs presumptive.
"Maybe we shouldn’t bring up the pudding again,” says Lady Mimsy. “No need to upset Uncle Archie.”
“Aye, verily, no use crying over spilled milk,” agrees Lord Ned.
At which point Princess Cordelia recalls House Ravensbeak’s motto, A Ravensbeak rarely forgets!, which, on her interpretation, means investing heavily in our little church in return for a lifeline to her dearly departed.
It falls on Gil to consolidate their squabbling each morning into two questions I can put to the deceased. That’s the most I can handle at this stage of devotion: two questions per corpse, two corpses per day. At first, Gil was all fawning solicitude with the Ravensbeaks. Can I get anyone an espresso? Would anyone care for biscotti? Little by little, he’s become as testy as the rest. Soon, Lord Archie’s soul will be too long gone for me to coax any answers from his corpse, and it’ll fall on Gil, who has a good three thousand experience points on me, to take over haggling with the deceased.
“Look, Gil,” I say, a week into my interrogation, “I’m not saying I don’t like to Speak With Dead but there’s so much more I could be doing for the church. Cure Blindness. Cure Disease. Remove Fear. There’s a lot of fear out there, Gil. Believe me.”
Gil points out that Remove Fear does not build orphanages. Remove Fear doesn’t buy coats for the uncoated come wintertime, or fresh socks, or, for that matter, a fresh coat of gold leaf for the icons in the iconostasis, which would really make them pop against the sky-blue mural of the vaults of heaven he had painted last spring, and which may give us a competitive edge in the race for believers, many of whom gravitate to flashier churches on Temple Road, such as the Pleasure Palace of Dómé, with its tabernacles of Wit and Temptation, and which could lead, Gil estimates, to as much as a 5% increase in our recruitment and retention rates, which, he notes, is just another way of saying more charitable donations, i.e. more orphanages for the orphaned, more coats for the uncoated, more socks for the bare of foot.
In short, Remove Fear doesn’t pay the bills unless said fear belongs to our moneyed aristocracy, none of whom have anything to fear given their disposable incomes.
I point out there’s ample scriptural authority to suggest our god, Hallowed Be His Loving Facelessness, would find it more salutatory if we tended to the vulnerable rather than stack all our eggs in the basket of trickle-down compassion. Easier to thread an anvil than smuggle the rich up the Seven Summits of Mount Celestia. Better to tear the food from thine own mouth to feed the stranger, the widow, the orphan, than fritter away time trying to teach those with cash to burn how to catch their own fish, how to bake their own bread, etcetera etcetera.
Gil dismisses my objections. “Leave all that bread and widows drivel to the acolytes,” he says. “That’s small potatoes stuff, Cure Lights Wounds stuff. I shouldn’t have to tell you, High Maiden Liesel, that with great power comes grody-ass responsibilities. Now, get thee unto the Holiest of Holies and get busy jibber-jabbering the dead.”
There’s a formula for contacting the deceased: light a mugwort-infused votive, meditate on The Parable of the Restless Martyr for two turns, extinguish said candle and visualize success. Wait for the spirit to move you, and, when it does, in a clear, authoritative voice, say unto the deceased, Awake, [Insert Title/Name Here], for The Lord of Futility, Blessed be His Thousandfold Scars, summons thee unto plane of immanence! Naturally, I go through the motions, but in my experience the dead talk when they’re good and ready. You can’t rush them.
So, once I’ve finished with the pageantry, I take a seat, sip my morning coffee, and get busying cobbling up pros and cons.
Pro: Spence knows how to bake a mean meat pie.
Pro: Spence has a great tushy.
Con: Do I love Spence?
Some context: Spence is my boyfriend.
Last night he proposed. Again.
The scene: our flat, un-shuttered windows displaying gables choked in wisteria. Street sounds: hoofprance, troubadours. Smells: air thick with lingering scents of the dinner Spence had baked. Mussels adrift in coconut milk and echograss. Spiderflower cordials. Wine-poached pears. Me, easing into the evening like a hammock, giving Spence’s knee a little squeeze under the table. Too comfortably, it turned out. He was already lowering himself when I noticed he was wearing The Look.
Every few months he catches it. Out of nowhere, he becomes unbearably quiet. He purses his lips up like they’re the knot on a balloon fit to burst. He gets down on one knee. He asks if I’ll be his wife.
I say, “You’re sweet, Spence.” I say, “No.”
The problem is that marriage to Spence means churning out at least a few doughy pillows of flesh and bone to inherit the future. It means abandoning my vows of chastity, which, in itself, is no biggie, but I’d have to give up spellwork if I left the church. No more Speak with Dead. No more Cure Light Wounds. And I can’t help but think I was tossed into this world to do something… I don’t know. More?
The way I see it, not everyone can Raise Dead. Not everyone can Control Weather or Find the Path or Wind Walk or conjure locusts and pillars of flame. Someday, I might. That must mean something, right?
“Just think about it,” Spence says.
He is a sweet kid. I remember the morning we met. It was six years back, the beginning of the end of the Noble Guardians of Toblerone. Spence was a teen, a street urchin by the name of “Six Pence,” with scraps of patchwork leathers draped over his bony chest and a chipped carpenter’s chisel in lieu of a dagger. He was waiting for us at the gate in the West Wall, feet glued to earth like he was preparing to place his hands in the cracks of a dam.
He said, “I shall follow thee into the dark.”
Cole the Bloody looked at Jensen the Brave, and Jensen looked at Marguerite de la Sorcière, and Marguerite looked at Jensen, and Bjorn Bjattlebjeard scowled, and I thought, Okay, now Jensen will look at me, and I thought, Please, look at me, but Jensen looked at Marguerite again, and Marguerite blushed and said, You crack me up, and he shot her The Smile and everything got quiet and awkward. And Jensen was all like, Oh, I’m sorry. And finally everyone looked at me, and I said, Well, we could use a torchbearer. Someone to cook? Pitch tents? And that night, our bellies full of pan-seared rosemary venison drizzled in a tart cherry and red wine reduction, something Spence had concocted, somehow, from the rations in our packs, and gathered around the campfire, Cole sharpening knives, and Jensen and Marguerite canoodling, Bjorn busily scowling, Spence listened to me describe what it’s like to talk with a god.
There was this look on his face. His eyes, enrapt, were the empty space between stars. I got this image in my mind: a hand tossing coins down a well, a beggar at the bottom, each glimmer like lightning to sun-starved eyes. Maybe that’s what I should have said—what it’s like to talk with a god, like you’re waiting to catch these wish-bearing pennies.
Anyway, the point is that’s how Spence listened to me. No one had ever looked at me that way before.
These days, he still waits at the West Wall, though we Noble Guardians are no more. He tries to hire on with dungeon crawlers. He sells scratch-made pies while he waits. It pays the bills.
He claims to be a half-elven swordsman but there are at least two problems with this self-description. One: Spence doesn’t own a sword. Two: there’s nothing to suggest elven heritage. Can Spence see up to sixty feet in the dark by peering into the infrared spectrum? Can he spot hidden doors more successfully than most? Not in my experience. The truth is Spence is a five-foot-one twenty-two-year-old with a nice butt and a beard that belongs on a turnip farmer who begins each day of honest labor with a cold glass of buttermilk. He is the nicest guy I know. He has no business scrapping with cave monsters.
The sad thing is, he has a gift. Spence’s cooking, it brings joy. Maybe not the epic stripe. Wandering poets won’t compose odes to his ham-and-potato-leek soup. But people smile when they eat his dishes, and, quietly, they pile an extra bean onto a scale in their minds, the pan labeled, “Glad to Have Experienced This.”
Of course, Spence promises he’ll forgo dreams of high adventure if I marry him. A quiet place in the sun is what he’ll give me. Quiet miracles: bread, neighbors, home.
Pro: Spence has never pressured me to surrender my virginity.
Con: Spence has never pressured me to surrender my virginity.
I’m contemplating my predicament when Lord Archie shows up for questioning. It’s unnerving. His corpse’s lips are too swollen to speak but his voice can be heard all the same. It’s as if the walls are talking. His words sound like they should be written in ink made of the crushed bones of those fish who live at the bottom of the ocean and never see a hint of daylight. He calls me “sugar tits.” He asks if I’m really a virgin.
“Seriously, how old are you? Thirty-two? Thirty-three?”
I swallow my indignation, feed him his daily questions. Lord Archie’s been cagey all month, probably because he knows he’s as good as forgotten the moment he coughs an honest reply. He parries his heirs’ queries. Who killed you, Lord Archie? A person, sayeth he. To whom do you bestow your estate? To those who mayhap receive it. Three weeks of such verbal jousting and I’m reduced to circumlocution.
I ask, “The person who hired the person who hired the person who put the Death’s Milk in your pudding, does this person’s name rhyme, by any chance, with Lady Shmimsy? Also, if Lady Mimsy were in the market for a new chateau overlooking the Ascot Sea, where elegant seafowl reel above vineyards and the sea thrums with sea-dragon song, would she have enough coin in the bank, thanks to, hypothetically, a forthcoming inheritance, to afford the down payment?”
Archie says, “I’d like to speak to a manager.”
“Was I or was I not more-or-less lawfully neutral and kind of sort of good? Did I or did I not play by the rules? Are you telling me this is heaven? This is not the Arcadia I was promised. This, frankly, is a shithole.”
I remind Archie the dead are prohibited from speaking the lightest word of their prisons. “It’s not called the undiscovered country for nothing,” I point out.
“What a rip off,” he mutters. “What a scam.”
I scarcely eat a nibble on lunchbreak, which I take at the dockside plaza under the hanging lamp-blackened streets, where the canals spill into the Muddy Guthrie. Spence has packed a lunch: beer bread, boiled eggs, silver-apple dumplings. He hides a note at the bottom of the pail: Marry me? ☺
I feed it to the bombanats laundering their wings in the fountains’ suds. A tattooed giant parks a rickshaw-lorry, buys a shave from a windup barber. Vendors announce their wares: cabbages, astrolabes, trumpets. A haughty courtesan walking a coeurl on leash bargains with a tinker over the costs of repairing a clock. A disillusioned pilgrim, coiled in phylactery and reduced to cardsharping, dares passerby to draw from A Deck of Many Things. Elderly fishermen mend nets, trade lies about the ghosts they’ve dredged from the river, the wishes they’ve misspent.
My two o’clock is a kid. Fifteen. Sixteen maybe. Gangly. Grimy. Protuberant eyes. Hints of overbite. Moon-pale skin with traces of bioluminescence, sea-green, non-human ancestry. He reminds me a little of Spence.
He’s laid out in the undercroft, on a plank resting across a pair of broken pews. There are livid bruises on his neck.
Gil leaves a note on his chest, tamped under a thurible. Cutpurse. Name unknown. Attempted to pilfer Quill of Xagyg. Died fleeing scene. (See neck! Ouch!!) Artifact missing. Mad loot on return. (Woot!) Question re location, accomplices. Thanks! Keep smiling, Gil.
Halfway through my incantation the words fail me. I can’t explain it. I’m gazing at the boy’s face as I chant, idly contemplating, I suppose, the things one wonders about when gazing on the face of someone who has passed. First kisses. Biggest regrets. How the world tasted to this now-lost privacy. How similar to one’s own world’s taste?
I’m thinking too, I confess, about our last expedition to Mothfire Peak—Jensen and Marguerite clinging to each other amid the dragon fire. How romantic it seemed. How, afterwards, those of us who survived couldn’t discriminate their ashes, so we drew a line down the middle, called one half “Jensen,” the other “Marguerite,” how I stood vigil over the sheet in which “Jensen” lay puddled. How I wept. Wished I was a high priestess so I could Speak with Dead, so I could pose questions I’d been too timid to squeak when he was alive. How silly it seems to me now.
I think too of Spence in those days—his vigil. How he waited on the church’s steps each morning to walk me home. No words spoken. No hint of jealousy in his eyes. How good it felt to let him sleep beside me, the sound of his breathing, or to wake to the murmur of him in another room, like the tide of this world’s smallest ocean, quiet but no less unchanging, humming to himself as he tidied my disordered life.
The reverie snaps, a broken kite string, and the boy’s face is as big as the world. I feel like an artist who’s been ordered to paint the most beautiful thing and sits paralyzed before an empty canvas. What questions befit a face?
When the walls start talking, the boy’s soul is a pandemonium of cussing and injustices. The whole room goes throbby. Gil will be pissed, but I can’t bring myself to complete an interrogation.
“Here’s your chance,” I tell the boy. “Tell me all your useless things.”
He does. He sings memories of a dusty Elsewhere where there was nothing to do except pick fights and get “country drunk,” where the water was sulfurous and hoppers rattled dry grass. Nothing for us here, said Loon, his bro, and so they shouldered North or East or Wherever-Upon Loon espied far-off joy, but Loon’s been dead for three years, and Twist ran aground of this “Big Pussy Town” full of “Big Pussy Liberals.”
My mind wanders. The boy reminisces about “handjobs” and “sweet-ass camo.” Soon, his voice ceases to be voice. It metamorphoses into song, or wave. Rising and falling. Rising and falling.
I imagine myself returning home at the end of the day, standing outside the door of our home, Spence’s and mine, the smells of good things to eat wafting into the hall. I picture myself tarrying at crossroads along the way, pausing for the beleaguered, the bored, those who could do with an extra grain of contentment. I tell myself I shall cure their light wounds.
Joshua Shaw is a philosophy professor at Penn State Erie, The Behrend College. He has published a book and several articles in philosophy, but began writing fiction mid-career because it made him glad to be alive. His stories can be found in Booth, Hobart, and James Gunn’s Ad Astra.