Across the Oar by Greg Szulgit

A pilgrim stops to hear a warrior's troubling confession in Greg Szulgit's masterful short fantasy.

I had planted the oar at the crossroads...
...And they were all I loved.
- John Ciardi, Ulysses

The pilgrim was aware of the man who had been following him for some time. He did not, however, feel endangered or concerned, as it was common for people to stalk him in a way, gathering their courage to approach him for confession. Often, the idea of a telling had not been planned on the teller's part; the need welling up in them only after a confessor crossed their path unexpectedly. If a friend asked what was bothering them of late, why they drank more heavily, or hit their children, or handled their affairs with impatience, they might reply honestly, albeit naively, that there was nothing wrong. The sight of a pilgrim's oar blade bobbing along above the heads of a crowd could, however, cause a man to look into himself and, like Aldam and his wives in the Orchard, feel a sudden shame at his nakedness. And so it was on this day, when the hard-browed man had been on his way to collect his order of nails from the blacksmith, that he found himself drawn to the bearded pilgrim in the red robes who chanced to be passing through his town.

"Pilgrim, will you know me?"

The man had approached before the oar had been customarily planted in the ground at a crossroads; an action that spoke either to his lack of etiquette or to his desperation. The pilgrim nodded to the man to let him know that he had been heard and would be tended, and then began setting up the sarjatar, the prayer station. He did not rush, as the time that it took him to prepare was usually helpful to those who approached him. It allowed the troubles within them to roil to the surface and, often, they would open the telling by simply sobbing with a rush of emotions never before confronted. There were even times when this was all that was needed, and the teller would leave without a word.

When the oar was set flat on the ground, and the life-bowl was placed in the center of its blade, the pilgrim knelt and poured a handful of sand into the bowl, saying, "There is nothing new in this world." He then struck it hard and waited for the ringing to subside, following the ever-fading tone until the distinctions between it, and silence, and the world were incomprehensible. And he waited for the man across from him to speak.

"I can't get this old Jowl out of my head, Pilgrim."

The pilgrim raised his eyebrows but did not speak.

"I was flank-guarding a small caravan to Kaad, through the hinters, last fall. During our lunch stop, two of us bars went to collect mistletoe in the hills - we usually get enough to cover our gift-giving for Woses' Day. Anyroad, we were far from the caravan walking fast but quiet, thinking that we might spook up a stewing rabbit if we were lucky, and we saw these two Jowl kids hunting. They didn't see us, but they must have heard us because they looked around real concerned and then started heading away, deeper into the hills. We knew if we followed them we might be late on roll call but Lucas, our High Bar, would understand when we told him that we spotted Jowls. So, we followed them and they led us back to a small group of tents. We figured it for just a minute or so - it was a day camp for hunting and there was just the one family there."

The pilgrim readied himself for what he knew would follow. His mentor had taught that a pilgrim should remove himself from the telling; that any reaction to the confession was certain to alter its purity or, in a worst case, alter it entire. If the teller felt judged, then the confessor had cheated them egregiously, and in their most important moment, their assenting. Still, the pilgrim was no master and he had to make a conscious effort to suppress judgment at times. Having lost his own children to war, this was sure to be one of those circumstances.

"There was thick brush on one side of the camp and a rock wall on the other. Perfect for the "river net" they teach in first weeks. We never tried it in the field, so we were excited for the chance to make good on our training. We got up a good run and, when we reached the camp, my partner charged straight to the other side to block any retreat. He passed one of the kids, who was tending the fire, but didn't break form and swing at him because he needed to "set the net"; he's a good soldier. I was hoping to get to the kid before he had much a chance to yell out, but I was too slow and he called out for his great-dad before I could split him. An old man come hot out of the main tent, along with the other kid who we tracked before, but neither one had anything more dangerous than his skinning knife and the pot he was eating from."

The pilgrim tried not to visualize the scene and told himself that this was in the past; that the victims were at rest now and that it was only the living who mourned the outcomes of such encounters.

"So I went straight for the great-dad, knowing that my partner would be ready for the kid when he tried to break off. The old man tried to block my Brelling with his cooking tin, but I cut him at the wrist and then back-bladed him at the eyes. He fell on the ground and yelled something, probably his greatson's name, before I stuck him in the ribs. The kid was already down and Mathew was finishing him before I even could help. It all happened so quick."

If the pilgrim had let himself be affected by the story, the teller didn't seem to notice, going on with a fervency borne of confessional release.

"We weighed bearings and decided that all enemies were tended. And then, as if back from the dead, I see the old Jowl on the ground raising up his head and trying to gasp out something. He's lying there, like a fish out of water, trying to get some air into him, and he gets enough to mouth some word, but I can't hear what it is. I couldn't even believe he was still alive. So Mathew stands on the old Jowl's hands while I lock his head between my ankles. I tell him, 'What are you mumblin at, old man?' But you know these fuckin Jowls; he probably don't even speak Wendish. He gurgles something, some m-word that probably means 'you pig-fuckers!' He's obviously not about to answer me with the respect owed a bar, so I cut the guy's pants free while Mathew steadies his head. I ask him one more time, but he's still doing the fish-gasping thing. So I punch my sword up his ass. That woke him up!"

The pilgrim had dropped his eyes at this point, which was against the teachings, but he feared that to not do so would betray his revulsion; his memories. He found himself back at that moment, eight years ago, that still defined his present more than he would admit. It was the end of the planting season and he had gone quarrying, expecting it to take all day, but the rock was well-fractured from the hard winter and he finished gathering a wagon of shards by high noon. He considered going directly home, but the spring air was sweet, and he was in no rush to resume the routines of his life. Instead, he indulged himself with a trip to town, where he spent more than he should have on a hair pin for his wife and smash-taffies for his two littles and his teens, being sure to include some ferments for the latter. So it was in high spirits that he returned to his stead to find that the expectations for his life had been fractured and scattered, left for him to reassemble into a new, ugly mosaic of guilt, anger, and loss.

As he approached the cabin, he didn't hear the pigs, nor the chickens, nor the dog. Then he saw the door, splintered and hanging on one hinge, and broke into a run. The shambles of the interior were lost to him as he searched the room for his family. He found his wife under the overturned table, her lifeless hands still clutching the youngest, dead child. The next youngest, six year old Salia, was nailed to the back door. His nightmares throughout subsequent years breathed life into his fears that she was still alive for both the nailing and the subsequent rapes that left her dress torn and bloody. He found the eldest in the well, his mouth stuffed with straw, pig feces, and two of his own fingers. His teen daughter, Cynthia, was never found, though a few fistfuls of scalp-torn golden hair were left behind.

He had been a fool, and he knew it now. The People's Way had spread the word months earlier that they expected taboda to be planted for their use, and that all farmers were advised to aid in the Way by doing do. He had done as they asked, but had planted too much too quickly, suggesting to the guerilla group that he had a substantial amount of cash at hand, as taboda sprouts were not cheap. He had tried his best to appease them this season, and now his thoughtlessness had cost everything.

"So the guy kicks his head back and howls out the same curse as earlier, squirming around and kickin the dirt like a toddler having a tantrum. I gave the pommel one good, hard kick, and drove the blade in about as far as it'd go. I must have hit an upper chakra because he stopped moving after a few more jerks, but not before he spit out that word, again: 'munda.' Gotta give him credit, he was a feisty old fuck.

"Anyroad, Mathew and I requisitioned their portables and got ourselves back to the caravan to report to Lucas. He was right pleased with our work and even rode alongside of us, chatting us up about the incident and Jowls in general. He knew them good and said he even spoke some Jowlese, so I asked him what 'munda' meant. I thought it was gonna be something awful. I figured he was cursing me, or God, or the whole fucking world. Well, do you know what Lucas tells me?"

The pilgrim sat.

"He says that 'munda' means 'why?' Can you imagine, I'm sticking a sword up this guy's ass and his great-children are hacked apart, and all he can say to me is, Why?"

Several moments passed in silence. A gusty breeze whistled over the top of the life-bowl, causing a few grains of the sand within to dance slightly, and the man with the hard brow began to wince with long-overdue tears in his eyes. The Jowl's question was the reason that the man had stopped the pilgrim; it was the thing that had been eating him from the inside.

The pilgrim brought his hands together to call an end to the session. It seemed that this man, if one could grace him with such a term, had come away from the caravan experience a better person, even if it took the lives of an untold number in his past to get him there.

"And now that you have learned the value of all persons, may you be more at peace," declared the pilgrim. It was contrary to the stricter interpretations of the teachings to add his own commentary to a telling, and he knew this, but he did it as much for himself as for the man with the tears in his eyes. He rarely became enwrapped in a telling, but his own ghosts had been awakened by the soldier's story, and he needed to banish them to that space in his heart that he had surrendered to his past, along with his name.

A change came over the man's face, slowly at first, but with an increasing intensity that pulled his lips taut and hardened his stare more than when the two had first sat down. "Value?" the man shouted, spittle careening off his words. "Value? Those fuckers! Who's gonna pay them back, Pilgrim? Who's gonna pay them for Wessad Mountain? I was there, and it's all true! Who's gonna pay them for Meisser Pass? Do you think I'm sorry for what I did? I would do it again if I had the chance. Little Jowls grow up! They grow to be big Jowls; fucking pig-people! All men know this."

The pilgrim sat aghast, horrified by what he had done. All of the shame that he had previously felt for the soldier, he now turned on himself. How could he have been so arrogant? Now, due to his pride, his weakness, he had robbed the universe of an assenting, and probably doomed more innocent people to death at the hands of the angry man on the other side of the oar.

After a long pause, the man took a deep breath and steadied himself. He closed his eyes and concentrated on his words, "It doesn't bother me to ask why the Jowls are shit, or why they have to be hunted to the last. I know what's right. But since that day, I can't get the question out of my head: why? Why does it have to be this way? Why can't we live another way?"

The two sat for a few minutes, both stirring the telling in their heads. Each knew that there would not be a cathartic ending to this telling, but they also knew that change and peace do not always come easily - that sometimes stories cannot be finished in one sitting. And, so, the pilgrim brought his hands together and pointed them toward the bowl, inviting the teller to strike it with the oar-pin that lay beside it. As the single, clear tone rang out, the pilgrim looked the soldier in the eyes and felt a hope return that he had abandoned only minutes earlier. Neither smiled, but a tension had cleared, and he sensed a sort of kinship with the man. The feeling surprised him, and then sickened him a little, and then was gone.

When the man was done following the tone, he took the bowl in his hands, stood, and poured the sand out onto the ground, watching as much of it was carried away in the crosswind. As he finished doing so, the pilgrim recited, "Today is not tomorrow; be at peace." With that, a faint smile crept over the soldier's face and he nodded to the pilgrim, turned his collar up against the wind, and walked toward the blacksmith's shop with steps that became ever stronger and more even.


  1. A terrible and brilliant allegory - hauntingly told leaving vivid prints on the imagination.Thank you,

  2. first class story, beautifully told,
    as Ceinwen said, it lives on in the memory.
    Well done

    Mike McC

  3. This one didn't pull me in as much. It may come from the fact that "The Pilgrim" seemed distant. If you're writing from the character's perspective, they know their name and I'm not a big fan of 2nd person writing or 3rd person omniscient. It wasn't bad, just didn't capture me. But that may just be my tastes.

  4. "Why" strikes to the heart of the matter, doesn't it? The sad thing is that we know, but choose to never know. Nicely done.

  5. Greg’s short fiction, “Across the Oar,” is a story of deep-seated animus between “others” though the otherness is never defined. Is it based on religion, race, creed, or something else? Greg never specifies, nor does he need to. It is a difference and a hatred torn from the pages of history, from the headlines of today. His use of jargon and idiom and other unfamiliar words and phrases are a little jarring at first and I even Googled some of it, but it all comes together to form a literary whole. Thoughtful, honest fiction. I looked and was disappointed to find only one other Szulgit story in the FOTW archives.