Chapter 49: A Vulgar Fraction
In Which Strephon and Miss True discuss Thomas Aquinas, the Soul, and Things Which Quack Like A Duke
“Mrs. Trotter was right about you,” Cassandra said as she wheeled Strephon out of the church parking lot.
Her remark startled Strephon out of his brooding meditation. “What?”
“You do have a nice singing voice.”
“Ah. Thank you.” He tried not to let his thanks sound like a grumble. He used to be rather proud of his voice, but of late it seemed he'd had few reasons to sing. Not since Phyllis died. That sounded incredibly self-pitying, but it was true. “I beg your pardon,” he added. “I've had generations of church music directors trying to recruit me for their choir, and it becomes somewhat tiresome.”
“Piffle,” Cassandra said. “You enjoy singing. I could tell by your face. And even if you have no desire to join a choir, I think you still like being asked.”
“Perhaps,” Strephon conceded. He did not elaborate.
Cassandra waited until they were out of earshot of the other Sunday churchgoers before she asked, “Are we going to look at that list?”
“Ah. The list.”
He had wanted to slip out of the church quietly after the service, which was difficult as his damnable wheelchair made him about as unobtrusive as a rhinoceros in tin galoshes. He and Casandra had to inch their way through the press of parishioners filing out into the narthex to shake the Vicar's hand. He complimented Rev. Palmer on the sermon, and thanked him for the floral arrangement on the altar for his mother, and well and for the tactfully vague mention of Devon in the prayers.
He had almost forgotten about his request to Mrs. Palmer when Lydia intercepted him on the way out of the church and pressed a prayer request card into his palm. “These are the names of the current Council members,” she said. “I hope this helps you.” He had thanked her and tucked the card into his breast pocket. She had also asked if he thought he might need any help at the Council meeting that night. “If you think you could use a little back-up, I could arrange to be there.” He had told her he appreciated her concern, but assured her it would not be necessary.
Now he gave his breast pocket an absent pat. “We'll wait 'til we get home,” he said.
He and Cassandra continued on wordlessly for a while, as the sound of his rubber wheels and of her tread on the sidewalk offered a soft rebuke to his silence.
“You have something on your mind,” Cassandra said. “Would you like to talk about it?”
Strephon considered. Something had been gnawing at him all through the service, and it irked him to realize she had noticed. He did want to talk about it; yet it sounded so foolish. Would she understand? He decided to chance it.
“Cassandra... Do you think I have a soul?”
The question seemed to take her by surprise. “A soul?”
“Yes. An immortal soul.”
“I don't see why you shouldn't.”
“But that's just it,” Strephon said. “According to popular folklore, faeries don't have souls.”
“But you're only half a fairy. That means you ought to have half a soul at least, right?”
She meant it kindly, but having disinterred the matter, he was in no mood to take a flippant answer. “I don't think a soul may be reduced to a vulgar fraction,” he grumped. “At least neither St. Augustine nor Thomas Aquinas have ever commented on the matter.”
Cassandra was silent for a bit, and Strephon wished she were not walking behind his wheelchair so that he could see her face and judge her expression. At least she seemed to be taking the question seriously. He had feared she might not.
After a time, she said, “It seems to me that being able to ask the question in the first place suggests the answer. If you didn't have a soul, would you even care that you didn't?”
“I certainly might, if I felt the lack of it.”
“And do you?”
“I don't know.”
“Well, what do the fairies say? Popular folklore might be wrong, you know. What do fairies say about souls?”
Strephon sighed. “I asked Devon about it once. He said that since mortals have never been able to come up with an objective definition of a soul, the whole question is pointless and only a human would be foolish enough to ask it.”
“Oh.” Cassandra seemed disappointed, but undeterred. “But doesn't that suggest that your desire for a soul is evidence for having one? Like the Tin Man?”
The reference puzzled him. “You mean the Steadfast Tin Soldier, from the Andersen fairy tale?”
“No, the Tin Woodsman from 'The Wizard of Oz.' It's a famous movie.”
“I don't go to the cinema much.”
“We seriously need to do something about your education, Strephon.”
“In any case, all it suggests is that Devon is a cynical ass.”
Cassandra tried another tack. “Have you ever talked to your mother about this?”
“She said...” he had to think for a moment to recall. Ah yes. “She said that faeries do not have souls, faeries are souls. That's one of the drawbacks to going to the Fae for advice. Their answers will be poetic as blazes, but not terribly helpful.” That sounded bitter. He didn't like sounding bitter. But there it was.
“This must be very important to you,” Cassandra said after another silence. “Is this why you left the seminary and became a lawyer?”
Strephon was on the verge of making a quip about how being soulless was a positive advantage in the legal profession, but he held back. She deserved a truthful answer. “No,” he said, “it was why I entered the ministry in the first place.”
He leaned back to gather his thoughts as the rubber wheels of his chair whispered beneath him. “My Father and I were never close,” he said at length. “He was a vicar, did I mention it to you?”
“He watched me constantly. He wasn't exactly critical, mind you, but I always had a sense that he was silently judging me. When I was very little I thought he hated me and on the occasions when Mother would visit, I used to beg her to take me with her back to Faerie-Land. She never did, of course. She told me that she had promised Father that she would let him raise me, and a Faerie must always keep her promises. She assured me that Father really did love me, but that he was a mortal and mortals are funny creatures who have peculiar ways of showing these things. And that because I was half a mortal myself, it was important I learn about them.
“So I threw myself into my studies. I poured over my catechism. I sang louder than anybody in church. I memorized Bible verses, the various 'begats' and the list of the Kings of Judah and so on. I thought that by making myself as Christian a young man as I was able, I would gain his approval. And sometimes he would reward my efforts with a smile and a modicum of warmth and even, perhaps, pride. But these were only momentary gleams, and quickly he would resume his distance, as if I were some wild beast who might become dangerous without warning.
“When I grew old enough to understand what the word 'bastard' meant, I thought I knew the reason for Father's coldness, and the reason why my parentage must remain a secret. I was a living, breathing reminder of his sin: not just of having illicit relations with a woman, but of doing so with a non-human creature of unlawful magic. My presence, my very existence must have been a dagger in his conscience. Which in turn made me feel guilt in turn, although it shouldn't have because it wasn't as if I had any say in the situation. But, as mother said, mortals are funny creatures.
“But I didn't really understand Father completely until one day, about the time I entered seminary. He was enjoying one of his good moods and we were having a pleasant conversation for a change. And then I asked him – I don't even remember why – 'Do faeries have souls?'
“His face turned pale, like a sepulcher, and his voice came out as an anguished croak: 'I wish to God I knew!'
“In that glimpse I had a sudden comprehension of my Father that I had never realized before. I did not see guilt in his countenance; I saw fear: fear for me, and to a certain extent fear of me. And I saw myself in his eyes: as a strange, half-heathen changeling he had brought into the world. As my father, he felt an obligation to my spiritual well-being and the salvation of my soul. That was why he had insisted on my guardianship when it would have been so much easier to let the faeries take me. But what if I had no soul? What if I were some inhuman mockery of a man?”
“You are no such thing!” Cassandra said.
“I like to think not. But the doubt haunted my father for most of his life, and I went into the clergy partially to please him, but also hoping to find an answer myself.”
Cassandra was quiet, and Strephon wondered for a moment if he ought to say something else.
“What about Phyllis?” Cassandra said. “What did she have to say about your soul? I imagine you discussed it with her.”
Strephon turned red and was now glad that she could not see him from her position. “Phyllis said...” He faltered. There was no chance of escaping with his dignity intact now. He took a deep breath and plowed on. “Phyllis said I was a silly goose.”
“Did she, now?” Cassandra was smiling now. He could hear it in her voice.
“She said that if I didn't have a soul, I'd be incapable of loving her; and that she wouldn't be able to love me either. But since she did, and she knew I did, then I must. Q.E.D.”
“It's hard to argue with logic like that.”
“You would agree with her,” Strephon scowled.
Cassandra pulled his wheelchair to a halt and walked around to the front of it. “Mister Strephon Bellman,” she said, leaning over him with her hands on the chair's arm rests. “You are as kind, as courteous, as compassionate a man as I have ever met. Besides which, you sing like an angel. I refuse to believe that a man with a voice like yours can have no soul.”
“My voice is immaterial.”
“By definition, so is your soul.”
“My behavior is simply how I was raised. The proper thing to do.”
“And if you knew for a fact that you didn't have a soul, would you behave any differently?”
“Of course not! It has nothing to do with any spiritual qualities I may have. I simply try to behave as if I were a gentleman.”
This momentarily distracted her. “Aren't you a gentleman?”
“Not strictly speaking Father's family was In Trade, as they say. They came from Yeoman Stock. No peers in my family tree, nor stately manors, I'm afraid. Unless you count Mother as one of The Gentry, as some call the Fair Folk. No, I am solidly middle class.”
“You just act like a gentleman.”
“It seems to me that if it looks like a duke, and it walks like a duke, and it quacks like a duke, then...”
“Now you're being preposterous.”
“What I'm trying to say is that a soul isn't something you can just buy off the shelf at Darling's during their Fall 50% Off All Metaphysical Concepts sale. It's completely out of your control. But you can control the things you do: how you treat people, how you act in the world around you. You can't change your bloodline, but you can decide whether or not to act as a gentleman.”
“There is something in that.”
“So my advice is to focus on treating others with kindness and respect – as you do – and let God worry about the theology.”
“That, young lady, skirts very close to heresy.”
“I refuse to believe that Jesus saved the sins the whole world except for Strephon Bellman because your parents had icky sex, and if Thomas Aquinas disagrees, then Thomas Aquinas is a butt-head.”
“Let us not malign Thomas Aquinas, then.” Strephon was having difficulty keeping his mind on theology with her leaning over him like that. His every fiber urged him to throw his arms around her and kiss her. Which St. Aquinas might possibly condone, but which St. Augustine definitely would not. “Come to think of it,” Strephon said, “Pastor Shepherd was telling me something very similar the other day, but I did not see it applying to me.”
Cassandra stepped to the side of the chair as Strephon propelled it forward. She had given him much to think about.
She was thinking too, because about half a block later, she said, “Your wheelchair is moving by itself. You're magicking it, aren't you.”
Damme. He was. He didn't like using magic when he knew others were watching, even people who knew his Fae nature, like Cassandra, but he had been preoccupied and grown careless. “Yes,” he admitted.
“You let me push you all this time when you could have done it yourself?”
“Well, I could have done it myself without magic too, but --”
“I felt sorry for you!”
“And I appreciate the kindness of your gesture. Thank you.”
Cassandra wrinkled her nose at him. “I take back what I said about your being a gentleman.”
NEXT: I’ve Got A Little List
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