The beggars were marked. Not all of them, of course. There were a few souls who remained honest. Some old women huddled together around a fire. The Laws were not so cruel as to force the fire out. A few children scrounged in corners and begged for coins. Of course, only the little ones could remain whole. Mostly, though, the destitute of the city were punished for their actions summarily. A pinky ring or two missing, a pointer, the worst crimes earned the loss of a thumb. The worst and the unluckiest.
It was fair. Some cities took whole hands for the theft of a wormy apple. Fairness, though was relative. When it was not your hand forced on the block, it was only just to be punished. When the gnawing in your belly got to you, and you were a poor thief and an unlucky bastard in every way that’s true, the strong arms of Laws forcing you still was harder to bear.
It was a small number watching. Nowhere near the excitement of a beheading, but still. Entertainment was entertainment. Mothers forced their children to watch as a warning that one should always keep one’s hands to oneself.
“For the theft of money and goods from an honest merchant, the sentenced shall lose their middle finger, mark of the greedy,” announced one of the Laws not holding down the man’s hand. There was no fighting it. His eyes closed tight, his fist curled save his middle finger, and the Laws held his hand in place. A thump was overshadowed by a much louder pain that raced down his arms, up his throat, forcing out a howl. A Law wrapped his hand loosely in bandages and sent him on his way. He was marked. He would not find work. He was a beggar.
“Now, now,” said an old women, through gummy jaws that made the words sound more like ‘no’. “Don’t be rude, young one.”
“Nanna, I have the mark of the greedy. I couldn’t be rude if I wanted to.”
She smiled, flashing her few yellowed teeth. “Greedy you are still, if those honey words mean anything. Well, no matter. Hmm. Yes, well, in that forest there was all manner of beast that hollered and moaned at every minute. I’d sit and listen to them all, wondering what they said. You know they’re talking to each other, don’t you?”
“Of course,” he said, as you do when you don’t believe something an elder says.
“Hm. One day, this big, and I mean big – I was a little thing back then too – mother bear comes into that clearing, and she knew I was there up in that tree. And she started stomping and roaring and I nearly wet myself, I did, but then I thought – well I thought I might know what she was saying. Do you know what that was?”
“She was hungry?”
Nanna cackled. “If she was hungry, she’d have climbed right up and eaten me then. No, no. The next day, I come right back. I’m very brave you see. And there comes momma again, this time with two cubs in tow. And she says the same thing again, and I don’t look at her at all this time. And I don’t look at her cubs neither. And then they start playing on that grassy knoll. So, now do you know what she was saying to me?”
“Don’t touch my babies?”
“Well, no, not quite. You don’t listen do you?”
“Not very well, Nanna.”
“No, she was saying that this was her knoll. Her babies got to play there, and I did not. She got to lay there, and I did not. But so long as we kept it that way, we’d be just fine. You’ve got to wait and listen, you see?”
“No you don’t.”
There was some quiet. Nanna pulled her blankets closer around her, warming her hands on a steaming cup of water that had been sitting near the fire.
“You have all these stories of the forest. What brought you to a city like this? Surely not the sounds of nature’s beasts.”
“Oh, well that’s something else. That’s another story for another day. No, I’m not telling that now. Not until I know you can listen. So, why don’t you tell me a story, eh?”
“Alright,” he said, scratching his furred jaw. “Let’s see, let’s see. Hm. Well, here’s one. It’s about a boy. Now this boy had a great momma and poppa. Momma was the greatest one there could be. She told wonderful stories and made lovely food. She knew just the right thing to say. Poppa worked hard. He owned docks, and he spent all day there, making sure they were the best they could be.
“The boy’s name was Swery, and he was always bored. One day, when he was growing to be a young man, he decided to go on an adventure like all the sailors his father would talk about. He decided to sign up to be a cabin boy on a merchant’s vessel that was going far, far away. But the merchant did not make very much, and he couldn’t afford to keep Swery. Instead of going on an adventure to tell Momma and Poppa about, he was stuck in a faraway place with no way of finding home.
“He looked for work, but he was young and the town was pour. He got the odd job when he could, and the kindness of strangers kept him going long enough to reach the next town. And the cycle continued. Just enough coin to reach one town over. Swery was lonely. And after years, he could not bring himself to keep trying to reach home, and he settled in a great city, hoping one day he would reach his home again. But Swery had grown older, and he was thin. People did not want to pay him for work, and soon his stomach hurt. One day, he tried to steal some food and some money, the food for now, and the money so he would not have to steal again, but Swery was no thief, and he was caught, and as punishment he was marked so everyone would know what he had done without ever knowing why. Some say to this day, Swery still asks for work, hoping to reach a momma and poppa that he may never see again.”
Nanna sipped long from her cup when the story ended. “You should interact with your audience more. Ask questions.”
“I’ll keep it in mind.”
“I don’t know anyone hiring, though,” she cackled.
“No one ever does, somehow.”
“So you never waited and listened, did you?” asked Nanna.
“No, I suppose I never did.”
“Well, I’ll tell another story another day. Maybe you’ll be better then.
“Goodnight, Nanna.” With that, Swery left, wandering into the dark streets.
Nanna never had children, but she was the town’s Nanna. No one turned her away when she asked – though she rarely did – and people would give her food and coin. Swery had come to enjoy her stories, even if he never seemed to like them the way she wanted him to.
On his way ‘home’, Swery popped the back lock on his least favourite bakery. He used the key that was carefully hidden underneath the safe and opened it, stealing a few coins. Next he stopped at his favourite bakery, leaving a note and the coins on the counter before leaving again and relocking that door.
“Here’s your scones.”
“Thanks, much,” said Swery leaving Sweet’s Bakery. He bit into one of the warm treats, all buttery and just a little flaky. Once he was well away into the shit part of town, he started calling out. “Scones! Fresh baked scones! Can’t get them better, can’t get them cheaper!”
Yes, the beggars were marked, but there were still ways to make a living.