Pain of Love Part Two- IV

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Cold rain mercilessly assaulted his form, and although his heavy coat and leather armor shielded him from the sky’s fury, Grayne was soaked to his bones. He wondered if it was possible for one’s soul to be drenched as he rushed through the streets of Lannisport, looking at houses and businesses with a single careful eye. On an ordinary night, the tall, well-armed Northerner would have looked out of place and raised the suspicions of the elite City Watch. However, he was all but invisible as guardians and criminals alike huddled in doorways and under overhangs to avoid the rain, even though at times the rain seemed to fall sideways. Even ‘ladies of ill repute’ were wisely inside warmer locales. Eventually, he found the building for which he frantically searched. The only thing of note that belonged to the humble door was a small golden seven-pointed star, a symbol that indicated a faithful of the Seven, the seven gods worshipped across Westeros, lived within the structure. He pounded on the otherwise nondescript door with his damp fists. The dark streets seemed to absorb and dull the sound from the rapid impact of his furious knocking.

Suddenly, the door swung wide, and light rushed into the street illuminating Grayne’s bedraggled and soaked shape. The tall, proud northerner looked not unlike a sad, wet dog under the deluge of water that sprayed from the sky. A tiny grey-haired man stood in the doorway, bathed in warm light emanating from the open doorway. “Come in! Quickly! It is wretched out,” the old man grabbed Grayne and pulled him inside without asking who he was or what he was doing at his home in the middle of the gods-forsaken night. The soaked warrior did as he was bade.

Grayne stood silently as the man closed the door behind them. He looked the frail man up and down, noticing his neatly trimmed head of grey hair, his gaunt form wrapped in a weathered housecoat and his piercing blue eyes that seemed brighter in the light of a single candle. “Forgive me, father,” Grayne said as a puddle of rainwater coalesced beneath him.

“My son, why are you here? How man I help you?” asked the tiny, frail man as he pulled a heavy chair along the wooden floor with a scraping sound.

Grayne sat down on a hard wooden chair and shifted back and forth trying to get comfortable. After failing to find comfort in the seat, he said, “I have heard you are a respected holy man of the Seven. I wish to confess my transgressions. I have done wrong and I seek the forgiveness of the Seven. I have committed a failure of spirit. Will you hear my evil deed?”

The bedraggled holy man sat in a soft chair across from Grayne. The chair looked black in the limited light of the single candle. He leaned in to say to the soaked traveller, “I do not pretend to communicate to the gods, my friend. I cannot speak for, or with them, but I know that if you speak the truth from your heart, they will hear you.” The man scanned Grayne’s weathered and war-torn visage with his brilliant blue eyes for some insight into the man’s past. Looking into his one good eye, he saw only pain. “Go ahead; tell me. What have you done?”

“i betrayed a woman, a woman who had treated me wrong, but more than repented for her own failure of spirit. I left her to die, and I know I am a moral coward.”

“Tell me,” said the holy man.

Grayne quickly explained the years of torture and his love for Summer. The elderly man listened with quiet respect as Grayne described in a few sentences the pain and horror of years in a desolate holding cell and his strange relationship with Raven.

“I find commendable and no sign of weakness your ability to forgive this woman for her role in your abuse,” said the man after struggling for long moments to absorb the tale.

“I always felt as if I was using her. Does that make sense? She was able to repair my teeth for me, and she had been a good travelling companion.”

“Yet, you bore her no love?”

“My love is for one woman.”

“Continue,” said the holy man, seeking a conclusion to the story.

“We knew the Ironborn liked to raid the villages up and down the coast, but we didn’t anticipate an attack while we were in town,” Grayne said looking down at the puddle below his chair.

“It was a raid?”

“A hundred of so Ironborn attacked from the south by land, and a few ships blocked escape by sea.They moved quickly, killing any men who stood against them and carrying off any women they could grab. I sent Raven running, but they had the village surrounded. I could do nothing as the Ironborn took her; they snatched her up as she ran. I dispatched the ones I faced easily enough, but there were two dozen between me and those who took her screaming through the streets. She called out to me, begging me to save her, but I did nothing. I ran like a coward.”

The grey-haired man’s previously welcoming demeanor faded as he squinted his eyes in judgement and asked, “Why? Why did you not help her? Were you afraid?”

Grayne closed his eyes and breathed in deeply. After a few moments, he replied. “Yes, but not for my own life. I knew I could never wade into such a throng of armed men and hope to live. I couldn’t help but think of the woman I loved, the woman for whom I had suffered so much. I knew I couldn’t save Raven without risking my future with Summer.”

The elder priest looked horrified and sad at the same time as his face drained of color and his eyes opened wide. “You left your companion to the mercy of the raper ironborn?” he asked, knowing full-well the answer.

Grayne’s silence mirrored his inability to save Raven .

The old man’s words shot from him like an accusatory ballista,.“Why do you tell me this story? Why do you come to me in the middle of the night…awaken me…for what? Do you seek the forgiveness of the Gods? I do not know what to say.” The holy man stood up from his soft chair and stormed about the room. “Your actions…your inaction…is without forgiveness!”

Grayne closed his eyes and breathed in deeply. He filled his lungs with warm air and said, “I had hoped someone would tell me I am not a monster.” With that, he stood and said,” I am sorry to have wasted your time.” He slowly, but determinedly, strode to the door, but before he could pull the door open and flee back into the cold wet night, the holy man asked him to stop. The elder priest stared at him and stood motionless contemplating Grayne and his story. Without expression, he slowly shook his head and said, “May the old Gods and new have mercy on your soul.”

Grayne slunk back into the cold wet night alone, and without the mercy he sought.

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Pain of Love Part Two- III

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Grayne looked up at the hand-painted sign that hung over the door to the shop. Though he could not read the words he recognized the map of Westeros on the wooden sign and knew he had come to the place he could purchase a map.

Grayne took a moment to look at the other shops to make sure there wasn’t anything else he needed to purchase for his journey home. Standing in front of the mapmaker, his good eye scanned the businesses that were open on the quiet overcast afternoon. He had warm clothing, weapons and armor. Even a horse was stabled for him. He caught his own reflection in the mapmaker’s window. The northerner had put on weight now that he was eating regular meals, and more than a year of cross-country travel had redeveloped his muscles. He took a moment to readjust his eye patch over his right eye so it covered more of the scar. Even though he was what any but the most scrutinous observer clean-shaven, he felt his own face for stubble and was displeased to find some. His years in a stagnant windowless prison had left him with an unquenchable thirst for cool air and no tolerance for facial hair. He stopped to shave no less than three times each day.

In the window’s reflection he saw a figure exit the weaponsmith’s shop across the street. He noted the figure carried an unsheathed blade in his hands and was armored in chain mail. Grayne turned to get a better look at the fighter.

Horrible recognition crashed onto his face like waves upon the shore.

Grayne knew the man, though he couldn’t make out his face from across the street. The armored man had long blonde hair tied into a ponytail that told Grayne he was not a commissioned soldier, for no military in Westeros would allow their men to have such long hair.

The figure watched with trained interest as Grayne strode determinedly toward him. As Grayne walked, he drew his sword in a swift, almost angry motion. The blonde soldier did not move as Grayne approached. The soldier’s naked blade remained loosely held across both of his hands. Grayne stopped a few feet away, close enough for a sword swing and stood there, his sword at the ready. Several people stopped to watch, paralyzed and uncertain of what was happening or what to do.

The blonde man simply asked Grayne, “Have I wronged you in some way, ser?”

Grayne scrutinized the man for long moments, long enough for him to doubt his actions. How could this man be the man I think he is? It is insanity! I am three-hundred leagues and a year from where and when I encountered him. I never saw him clearly, yet I know it is him!

A single voice shouted for the guards, yet Grayne and the man never took their eyes off one another. Finally Grayne spoke. “You took my eye.”

The man smiled sheepishly and said, “How do you know it was me?”

“I know not. But by the Gods old and new, I know it is you.” And with those words, Grayne attacked!

With both hands on the hilt of his greatsword, Grayne brought the blade down in a downward strike, fully intent on cutting the warrior in half from crown to crotch. However, the pony-tailed warrior had other ideas and sidestepped Grayne’s blade easily and tapped the greatsword with his own blade to create a perfect ping of metal on metal.

A woman shrieked.

Grayne stood before his opponent with his larger sword before him in both hands. The other man simply held his blade in one hand with his body facing sideways. The men began clanging their blades together as Grayne sought to cleave his enemy in two, while the other man kept Grayne’s larger blade at bay, while seeking an opening himself. The two circled one another while the sounds of their grunts and the clanging of their blades rung through the city streets. The melee lasted for a minute with neither landing any serious strikes, when a pair of city guards approached with swords drawn. “Halt!” they commanded.

The blonde fighter deflected another of Grayne’s furious attacks and said, “Lest ye wish to spend the night in the city jail, we’d better change our tactics.” Grayne backed away but did not take his eye off his opponent, his two-handed sword at the ready.

The guards approached the combatants cautiously, “Throw down your blades!”

“Men, men”, said the blonde warrior thrusting his sword point in the ground so that the blade stood straight up harmlessly. He held his hands out palms first in surrender. “My friend Grayne and I were just testing the balance of my Valarian steel blade I just had re-hilted.”

Grayne looked quickly at the man and back to the guards. “Yes, sers. My friend…”

“Talbit”

“…my friend Talbit, and I were just practicing.”

“You!” a guard shouted at the man with the Valarian steel sword. “Kick your blade over to me.”

Grayne saw several more reinforcements running down the road to assist the two guards. He said to the blonde man, “Our situation worsens. We cannot let them take us. You will never see your Valarian sword again.”

The man nodded and said, “And I suspect you have had enough of prison cells. “

Grayne laughed for the first time in a very long time as the five city guards encircled them. “More than enough.”

The clang of steel and the sounds of combat lasted less than a minute.


 

“Who are you?” Grayne asked seemingly to his empty ale.

Talbit,” said the blonde warrior, patting Grayne on the back. Innkeep, two more ales!” he said with a shout.

The bartender came quickly and refilled both of their mugs. “Sers, you have had twenty-two ales between you. I must insist on settling your tab before I can let you continue drinking.”

Talbit flipped a gold lion to the man and said, “Keep them coming every ten minutes until one of us passes out.

The innkeeper greedily snatched up the coin and said his “yes sers”, and became obsequious again.

“It is you, isn’t it? The knight on horseback.”

Oh, aye.”

“Eye?” said Grayne standing up. “Is that some kind of joke?” he said, pointing at his eyepatch with feigned anger. His legs became tangled in the stool and he fell over to uproarious laughter from Talbit and the other tavern patrons. Talbit leaned over and with a mighty pull, yanked Grayne unceremoniously to his feet.

“Let’s get some air,” suggested Talbit as he firmly pushed Grayne toward the door.

The two stumbled from the stuffy, smoke-filled bar and into the cool night air. Grayne lifted his face to the sky and relished the cold air on his face. The two men clumsily walked with arms around each other, each trying to remember the words to a Marbrand drinking ballad.’♫…in flaming fields, we praise ye ♫” they ended the song in separate keys, neither of them correct.

“Grayne, I want you to have this,” said Talbit.

Grayne didn’t turn his head to look at his new friend and teased him saying, “I told you, Talbit. I’m not drunk enough to look at your tiny shillelagh. Save it for the tavern wenches.”

“No, you drunk idiot. My sword. I want you to have my sword. For my remorse. For your eye.”

Grayne stopped and slowly turned. Talbit held the naked blade before him as an offering. Grayne put his hands on the smooth, almost blue steel of the Valarian steel broadsword. The metal came from a continent far away and only the richest men carried a weapon of the finest steel. Many lords and knights would sooner lose a son than a Valarian steel blade.

’Tis the finest weapon I have ever seen.”

“Take it. I want you to have it.”

“I am not worthy. I am not the swordsman you are. I am a three-legged horse compared to you.”

“I can teach you. You have what no other man I have ever seen has. You are the toughest man I have ever met! Or even heard about. Even the mighty Bjorn the Indomitable of the Age of Heroes would have been lucky to carry your codpiece. When that soldier hit you over the head with the flat of his blade and his sword broke! I thought he was going to shit himself!”

Grayne chuckled and smiled at the memory of the fight they had been in hours before. He turned away from Talbit and the blade. “I haven’t the time for lessons, Talbit. Nor can I take on the responsibility of such a weapon. After what I have endured, I simply don’t have it in me to care for such a fine weapon.

“What is it, Grayne? Where do you have to be?” Talbit asked with sincere concern in his voice.

He turned back to face his new warrior companion. Grayne opened his good eye wide, smiled, and said, “I am trying to get back to Summer.”

Fast Times at N.G.A.

I can hear them as soon I open my car door; the barking and rooing (a combination of howling and singing that is the trademark of the breed) can be heard through the walls and carries across the parking lot. I have arrived for my turnout shift at Northern Greyhound Adoptions in St. Albans, Vermont. Walking to the entrance, I pass an iron and wood bench engraved with the name Donald Westover.

Donald and his wife Dorothy founded the kennel in October of 2001. For years, he could be found spending his weekends introducing potential adopters to dogs and answering questions about life with sighthounds. His passion for the breed was evident: his enthusiasm was infectious, and many hounds found homes because Donald went the extra mile to make adopters feel comfortable – about the dogs and the adoption process.

Those who met him remember Donald fondly. He was a big man with a big heart, and he continued to carry the torch for NGA even after being diagnosed with emphysema, often attending adoption events with an oxygen mask in tow. His first priority was always the dogs, that was never in question.

He remained active with the non-profit as much as he could, even as his health deteriorated. He made it a priority to bring a greyhound and a donation bin to a local pet supply store every week. Now that he has passed, his devilish charm, his ‘hound companion, and most importantly his donation jar are absent. NGA is feeling his loss in many ways. They need your help and mine.

I am here to let the ‘hounds out of their kennels, in groups, and by themselves for bathroom breaks. This is one of four daily chances for the retired racers to stretch their long legs and for their mini-apartments to be cleaned. While they frolic in the yard and take care of their doggy business, I check their impromptu dens and change their bedding when necessary.

It’s a busy shift letting the forty-two dogs out and keeping the process steadily moving along. I know how cranky I would be if I was dependent on another being to allow me to go to the bathroom. The number of dogs in need of permanent homes swells at times, to as much as seventy. As tracks close all over the country adoption centers like this one must meet the demand of the increased number adoptable dogs.

This humble kennel in northern Vermont has never turned away a greyhound in need.

I have just added another function to my volunteer service; that of a member of the board of directors. A wise woman I know said everyone should sit on a non-profit board of directors. I am now privy to the financial aspect of the non-profit and often I wish I weren’t. The charity runs on the generosity of others, through donations and the other fundraising endeavors of the operation. The coffers are always low and the kennel seems to run on a month to month basis. Rent, utilities, and vet bills take their toll on the threadbare finances and I wonder if some catastrophe would push the charity to the breaking point. The weekend yard sale that lasts throughout the summer has ended, and the long cold winter approaches. The board has frequent meetings to discuss fund raising strategies in order to survive the cold months. The financial survival of the non-profit is a constant struggle.

I gain strength from the dogs. The mental burden of my role as a board member fades and my excitement rises as I take care of these beautiful animals. My worries and fears diminish as I look into the face of the first greyhound I let out of his apartment. I take a minute to scratch Mallow’s enthusiastic white face. I lean close and say to him, “I missed you, buddy.” He leaps out and runs around the kennel with wild abandon and I have no doubt he missed me too.mallow

Donations can be sent to Northern Greyhound Adoptions, 999 Fairfax Road/Route 104, St. Albans, VT 05478 or online at http://www.Northerngreyhoundadoptions.org

Just a Pinch

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It is said that split-second decisions can change your life. I didn’t understand how true that statement could be until the winter of 2006. I worked for Macy’s in the cosmetic department. I was a unique feature there; I was a heterosexual male. Therefore, I should have been on my guard.

As I squeezed my way past Marie, I impulsively pinched her squishy, 60-year old tushy with my thumb and index finger. I imagined her silent outrage as I walked away without acknowledging the maneuver, a smug smile on my face. I imagined myself quite the little trickster.

I knew Marie quite well, and she knew me. At least I thought so. We both worked in the cosmetic department at Macy’s, she at the Elizabeth Arden counter, and I in the fragrance department. Our areas of responsibility were close by and we would often help each other unpack shipments and deal with customers, if the other needed assistance. Such camaraderie often brings people closer. Friendships are created, not unlike those that serve in combat. Stress brings people together. I felt we were close enough that the pinch would be considered a funny prank. Hell, I had been to her home! We drank wine and she said I could stay over if I didn’t think I could safely drive home. I certainly didn’t think that was a sexual advance, just as I didn’t imagine she would think my innocent pinch could be interpreted any other way. The innocuous squeeze was meant to be a joke, a cute bit of fun during a boring workday at work. I expected she would chalk it up to typical Jan shenanigans. I liked to call them “Jananigans.”

My youthful exuberance was not always interpreted as such.

I had been in the store manager’s office on many occasions. I was, at one time, a night supervisor and reported directly to him on all things related to my duties. These duties included closing the store during the week, as well as the responsibility of supervising all the associates. The other managers and I called him simply “Matt.” He and I would talk casually about associates and fellow managers, sharing details of my previous evening’s shift. Sometimes we would even get off-topic and talk about movies and music. It was a business relationship, but he made the situation seem to be friendly and professional at the same time.

This time I didn’t sit in front of his oak desk that was cluttered with knick-knacks. Instead I sat at the small, round conference table off to the side of that desk. Instead of his smiling, goateed, forty-something face, I looked into the face of a more serious, almost somber, store-manager. Gone was the good-natured boss. Replacing him was the very severe, store manager of a national conglomerate.

To exemplify this, he was not alone. Sitting next to him at the conference table was a woman I had never seen before. I couldn’t guess her age if you put a gun to my head. Her hair was pulled back in a tight ponytail and consequentially the skin on her face appeared to be pulled tight. She could have been twenty five, or seventy-five. She wore a knee-length wool skirt that did not give a hint to her figure. The things I could determine about her was that she was thin, Caucasian, and serious.

“Jan, this is Eileen Scrimshaw. She is from the corporate office in New York,” said Matt, introducing the thin, serious Caucasian.

“Mr. Campbell, have you read the employee handbook?” she asked, getting right to the matter. There would be no back-and-forth in this duel. She was out for blood!

“Not in some time. Not since the turnover,” I said, referring to the Macy’s buy-out out the previous department store Filene’s, the year before.

“Specifically the two pages on sexual harassment,” she said.

My heart began to beat faster. Blood rushed to my face and I was dizzy like I had just been sucker-punched. She had indeed drew first blood.

“I guess,” I confirmed vaguely. I attempted a parry and quick counterstrike. “It’s bad, right?” My attempt at a joke pulled a dry chuckle from Matt but otherwise there was complete silence.

Ms. Scrimshaw cleared her throat signaling that this was not the time for levity. “Mr. Campbell, Macy’s takes very seriously accusations of sexual harassment and must investigate all claims of such activity.”

“Of course,” I agreed sheepishly.

“You work with Marie?” she asked.

I closed my eyes as the confusion I felt withdrew and understanding advanced in its place. “Yes,” I confirmed.

“She has written a complaint that on October, 11th, 2006 you pinched her on the rear-end while on the selling floor. Specifically, behind the Estee Lauder counter,” the details landed on me like a series of well-placed punches to my stomach. I struggled to breathe. “True, so far?” she asked.

I took a deep breath and said “Yup.”

She placed a clean white piece of paper in front of me and said “I want you to write your account of what happened. Just leave it on the table when you are done.” She and Matt stood up and quietly left the room, leaving me to find the words to detail an incident I had not thought of since it happened.

Ms. Scrimshaw poked her head back into the room and said, “Also, you are suspended until a decision is made regarding your employment at Macy’s.” She was gone again, leaving me cut up and wounded. I had lost the duel.

I felt very alone. Suddenly I was very angry! Why did Marie do this to me? We were friends; she knew I was only playing. Did she think I was coming-on to her? I mean, really! My self-righteous indignation was boiling to meltdown proportions!

I struggled to find the words as I detailed the short encounter. I made sure to indicate that I was friends with Marie and in no way was I making a sexual advance. I made a point to indicate how bad I felt about the incident. It was true, that I had not been overtly sexual to Marie, but I was lying when I said I felt bad. In fact, my only remorse was the fact that it had come to this. My excuses took up more room than the description of the incident.

It was a nerve-wracking couple of days, and the powers-that-be decided that I had not committed an egregious enough offence to lose my job. I suspected they thought I had learned my lesson by having to fear for my job for a couple days.

“What did I learn from my experience?” I ask myself. I learned to choose my words carefully. I learned that a single event can have multiple interpretations, and what may seem innocuous to one, may seem hostile to another. I certainly learned to be professional in my actions, while at work. Most of all, I learned to keep my hands to myself.

A History of Violence

I never knew my father. Alone, my mother raised me, but I lacked a male role model; a man who would teach me about girls, fishing and fighting. I had four older brothers who did have a father, but most of them had a penchant for violence that often got them into trouble. This violent history even got my oldest brother killed, so maybe it was best that I didn’t know my father. I believe violence has its place in the world, but there is a time and a place for fighting and there is a skill in knowing when and where.

My earliest role-models were the super heroes of four-color comic books. The modern age of comic books is filled with strong men and women who do not avoid the dangerous world of vigilante violence, but most avoid killing at all costs. Pop culture is filled with admirable, powerful heroes who punch first and ask questions later. However, super heroes do not actually risk much. Despite the risk to their social lives, the heroes usually win, and even when they die, they come back after a short hiatus.

“C’mon, kick his ass!” I was in a foster home at age seven and one of the first things my foster brothers and sisters wanted me to do was to beat up a local kid who was about my age. For some reason, they thought he deserved to be beaten up, but he was younger than them, so, by schoolyard rules was untouchable. I didn’t want to fight him, so I walked away. Perhaps I had failed an initiation test, but I didn’t care. That kid had done nothing to me, and I wasn’t going to fight someone else’s battle.

“I’m going to beat the shit out of you!” Nate Mason, a much bigger kid whispered to me in fifth grade math class. He was so much bigger than me that I didn’t doubt he had been held back once or twice.

I didn’t know what I did to warrant his aggression. I was quiet, but did well in math class and participated often. Only now do I realize how that might make a slender kid with glasses and a girl’s name the target of bullying, a term often used today, but hardly ever at the time.

All day he threatened me as we moved from class to class. “Jan, I’m gonna kick your ass after school!” I was terrified. I could have gone to the teacher, but that may have made things worse. In my frightened twelve-year old brain, the thought just didn’t occur to me.

The final school bell rang and I rushed out the front doors of the school. The door’s hadn’t closed behind me when I heard a familiar voice from behind me say, “Jan!”

Batman never called his mommy.

I spun and he was there- leaning against the brick wall next to the double-doors was Nate Mason, a full foot taller than me. Before he could say anything, I attacked him. With the strength of the Incredible Hulk and the rage of Wolverine I grabbed him by his heavy winter jacket and shoved him against the wall. Lke the Flash, I began to pummel him with a million punches. Only the shouts of the bus ladies brought me to my senses and I threw his broken body to the ground.

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Perhaps that story is dramatized, but the details are true. What I learned from that incident and from the one before it was when to walk away from a fight and when to stand up for myself. The knowledge that it is sometimes important to fight my own battles is valuable. Over the years, I have been involved in figurative fights and literal ones. I have fought solo and alongside allies. And for every battle I won, I lost two. And every time I lost a fight, I learned much more than from the ones I won.