In a room with white paper walls they asked me if I had any reason to live. If I had, what had I been doing during my time in the streets? What had I been doing with all that I knew and all that I did not know? Why had I not been seeking, tireless as the pole star, after some way – however despicable – to climb up from my impermanent place in the world?
Kneeling, head bowed, I begged their forgiveness.
When I woke I was the weakest I have ever been. I laid there and memorized the straw bed, and the bareness of the room. I could not see out the window. After some time a woman came, and she asked me how old I was. I did not know.
She was Balsa, wide and tall, who kept that inn with no one but her hired help, and who had an old sword hidden behind her bar. They said she had used it before.
Balsa fed me a clear broth, saying little but that she was surprised I lingered with the living. As the broth dwindled in the bowl I wait for more questions that did not come. For days I did nothing but sleep and eat, and she brought me to the chamber pot, and to the bath, and laid me back in bed. Everything Balsa did was with economy, and she was most often silent, neither rough nor gentle.
Once I could walk she brought me clothes to replace the large linen shirt that I had been wearing. Though I was deeply ashamed, I had to beg that she let me be dressed as I had been before, as I had come to know myself, and when I said that her grimace sent a flinch through the whole length of my body.
She took the clothes away without a word, and later a serving girl appeared with a shabby but clean tunic, and breeches. The girl brought me my dinner also, and I fretted.
Yet the next morning Balsa came in, and I could not hide my great relief at seeing her, so I fidgeted and chattered and hurriedly ate my food. I believe my behaviour startled both of us, and for me it was like truly being in that room for the first time. Balsa brusquely mentioned something about the inn having been busy last night and I understood. She cut my hair for me, and the way that her rough hands were quick, but quite unpractised, was how I learned that she had no children of her own. I eventually heard that there had been a husband, but he was long gone.
I began to help about the inn, unbidden. When Balsa first saw me hanging the new onions in the cellar I thought I saw a nod of approval.
Her nod, imagined or not, left me content. And yet I was simply growing strong again, in that inn on the quiet street. Growing strong, listening. I could not forget the room with the white paper walls.