What You Are


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Scene Title What You Are
Synopsis "But the self is not something one finds; it is something one creates." - Thomas Szasz
Date January 17, 2019

The soft pop of a wood fire invades the silence.

Within the low ceiling of a rural cottage, exposed beams hung with herbs, a firelight glow is cast from a wide riverstone hearth surrounded by clay jars sealed with wax. An old cat rests languidly in a chair beside the fire, gold eyes peering at the staccato beat of a mortar and pestle grinding seeds into a fine meal. In the firelight, a woman of proud posture and pale complexion cradles the stone mortar in one hand, pounding the smooth stone pestle in the other, grinding seeds between stone and sending a peppery scent into the air.

At the old wooden table where she works, several leather bound books sit in neatly organized stacks beside mason jars. Carl Linnaeus’ Systema Naturae, Isaac Newton’s Optiks, Gottfried Wilhelm Liebniz’s Specimen Dynamicum sitting atop a thick copy of Johannes Kepler’s Harmonices Mundi. Between the rhythm of grinding seed pods, there’s a knock at the door to the cabin. Her pale eyes alight to the noise, as does the cat’s, and the two share a momentarily cautious look. Setting the mortar and pestle aside, the darkly dressed woman moves to the door and opens it into the dimly-lit home, dusky sunset lights outside silhouetting the many figures on her stoop.

Madeline Rouen?” A tall and dark-haired man with a book in one hand and manacles in the other demands. Ms. Rouen looks down to the manacles, then to the book, then squares her jaw and looks up to the man confronting her at her door.

Oui,” she says with a raise of one brow, “vous savez qui je suis Monsieur Boulle.” But at Rouen’s admission, the crowd surges forward past the dark-haired man cradling the bible to his chest like a shield. Their cries pierce the air, joining her frightened scream.




Two Hundred and Seven Years Later…

The Pine Barrens

New Jersey

January 17th


Nathalie LeRoux has spent years trying to keep a firm divide between herself and the others who linger in her memories. In the Conduits' memories. It's served her well, keeping them away from her. But it also left her unprepared for when it happened regardless of her control. She hadn't felt that urge for violence since she was a child being experimented on, and when it came over her, she found herself helpless to fight it back.

She gave into it, instead.

That's what brought her to Eileen. Someone who could understand. Someone who could help guide her. Someone who could watch over her as she tried to come to some understanding with the powers she holds.

The air is cold. She can feel it in her teeth as she breathes, no matter how warm she tries to keep herself. She felt like she was freezing from the inside— and from more than just the air in her lungs. Her eyes are closed in an effort to disconnect from the here and now and let herself drift, one soul among many.

The scrub pine forests of southern New Jersey are dusted with snow at this time of year. For Nathalie the cold is a focusing point, an anchor to the material world should her mind drift on eddies and currents she doesn’t understand. Others before her had attempted what she was doing, reaching inside the collective consciousness of psychic impressions that make up her ability, and the memory of their attempts stirs an echo in her heart. The silence of the barrens, the natural splendor of it, helps provide a sense of serenity over what was a turbulent year of uncomfortable confrontations and senseless violence.

The snap of a branch beside Nathalie, where there is nothing living, causes her breath to hitch in the back of her throat. There, just to her right, a woman in a navy blue winter dress is crouched in the freshly fallen snow, looking at broad-leafed dark scrub vegetation pushing up through the snow, hardy red berries popping against the white of the forest floor. “Gaultheria procumbens,” the woman says, looking over her shoulder with a raise of one dark brow, blue eyes focused on Nathalie. “Creeping wintergreen,” she clarifies, scooting aside to show the oval leaf clusters to the girl as though she’d been here the entire time. Her attire is anachronistic, like something out of a Jane Austen novel, down to the overly large bun of her hair.

“Do go on and snap off some leaves and give them a chew,” she says with an eager expression to Nathalie. “They’ve a minty flavor. Perfectly safe.”

Nathalie jerks at the voice, even though her goal was to find those with her who are no longer living. She looks over at the woman, looking her over like she might be able to place her. "What?" As far as first words go, they're a little strange. "Oh," she says, with a glance toward the plant in question. "If it's safe to eat, they really should have given it a friendlier name. Creeping wintergreen." All the same, she reaches over to pull off a leaf. She smells it first, but it's only a moment before she tastes it. She makes a noise of pleasant surprise, like maybe she thought there was a chance she might fall down dead the moment she touched it.

"What are we doing here?" she ends up asking as she stands up and dusts snow off her jeans. She looks at the woman, brow furrowing. She's there, but not there. It's not an entirely comfortable experience for her. "Where are we?"

“Outside.” The woman says with a raise of her brows, standing up straight and looking at Nathalie. Then, with a motion of her chin she indicates over the girl’s shoulder. The cabin. Nathalie’s. “You're the one who walked outside.” Except Nathalie has no recollection of that. But this space, this isn't a dreamscape, isn't somewhere within the labyrinth of the Conduit. It's real and this woman is—

“Madeline Rouen,” she introduces with a slow incline of her head in a polite nod. Her accent is distinctly French, though she speaks an eloquent English. “You opened the door,” has both a literal and figurative meaning. “I ask you the same.” What are we doing here?

That their surroundings are familiar— well, it doesn't help Nathalie feel settled, exactly. But when the woman introduces herself, that snaps her attention over to her. "It's you. I wasn't sure I could actually find you." A pause follows, before she realizes she's skipping a step. "Nathalie LeRoux," she says, although the name doesn't come off naturally. She's still practicing that one.

"We're here because I want to know about what we are," she says, arms folding as if against the cold. "Our creator, the warrior twins… why we are what we are. I heard you might have more insight than the others."

All Rouen does is raise one skeptical brow at that. Then, smoothing down a crease in her dress she closes her eyes and shakes her head. “That is the question philosophers have been debating for centuries. Why?” She raises one hand, as if to hold something aloft for inspection. “Why are we here? Why were we made? All through the lens of a man’s eyes, the desire for purpose and being special without having earned it.” She snaps her gloved fingers. “They want to feel important just by asking the important questions, without knowing where to look for answers. So, then turn to myths.

Rolling her eyes, Rouen clasps her hands behind her back and takes one meandering step forward, then another, leaving no tracks in the snow. Nathalie is, though. She motions with her head; a walk with me gesture. “Two points to clarify. One: you did not find me, you opened the door and I found you.” She looks ahead to the snowy pine forest. “Second: when the door is open, you have no guarantee of who will come through. You are a Conduit, Nathalie. You must understand this.”

"Well… thank you, then. For finding me." Nathalie has no idea what her searching must have been like from the other side of that door, but it suddenly hits her that someday she might be the one answering a call like this. To be walking and leaving no tracks in the snow. She lets out a foggy breath and follows, checking her own tracks, like she's not sure how real this is. Real enough, is what she ends up deciding.

As she catches up to Rouen, she listens and feels… young for the first time in a long time. She's been used to feeling older than her age, even before the conduits came to her, but walking with her, she feels small and inexperienced, learning that she only barely missed making a huge mistake.

"A conduit for what?" she ends up asking. It feels like an important question, all of a sudden.

The question causes Rouen to stop in her tracks, looking back to Nathalie with one brow raised. There's a modicum of surprise in her expression. “You're the first to ever ask that. It isn't an easy answer, and requires some elucidation on my part… so I apologize if any of this is overly technical.”

As she turns her attention back to the forest, Rouen picks up her pace again. “When I first came into possession of this gift, I was already a naturalist. I had been studying the world with a secular eye for some time. So to have my comprehension of the laws of nature upended was… enlightening. Where lesser people may have turned to superstition, I… turned to science.”

Rouen looks over at Nathalie, blue eyes as cold as the snow, then looks back to the trail ahead. “I should have been dead, and yet my life was saved by the death of another. As his body turned to ash, I felt a warmth flood me, a vivaciousness. I had thought at first I’d become some sort of monster. But after emotions passed and clear heads reined… I turned to study the most fascinating of things. Myself.”

Wistfully, Rouen walks with her hands folded in front of herself. “When I learned that my touch drained the life from the cells of living things, I could comprehend it. But the memories of others impressed into me, into the fiber of my being, that was something else entirely. Was it truly possession as the church would say?” She shrugs, looking to Nathalie.

“This I was unable to finish my research on. But I attracted the attention of another, much like myself, but a man of faith. Father Antoine Boulle, a priest from Louviers,” she shrugs, helplessly. “He was like I, though his gift anathema to my own. We were drawn to one another, like magnetism…” Rouen stops walking, looking down at the ground, then shakes her head.

“We are conduits to the past,” Rouen finally explains, looking up to Nathalie finally. “To the memories of those that once held the gift we do. We are conduits for their experiences, their hopes, their dreams. To speak as Antoine did, we are mediums. But I do not prefer those words.” Rouen glances down to the snow, then back the way they'd come. “We are conduits to everyone who came before, that walks the purgatory shadows of memory.”

Then, brows furrowed, she adds: “All conjecture. One woman’s perspective.”

"I have that thought sometimes. That I'm a monster." Berlin looks down at her feet, watching the snow kick up around her steps and scatter down again. "People have used science to try to understand us here, too. In my time. I have a pretty firm understanding of what I'm capable of on both sides of the coin. No one seems to understand the collection of memories. Why some personas cling harder than others. We're a connection to the past, but tapping into that connection risks losing myself." Not ideal, by her tone. "From what I can tell, what I've picked up is… instinctual. Languages. The feel of a gun in my hand. I feel like if I walked into your home, I would know it."

Her hand reaches up to rub at her face, fingers gliding across her skin as she looks back to Rouen. "I always wondered if they were preparing me for something. Something bad. Did you feel it, when it was your turn? The… violence?" It scared her, that much is obvious in her troubled expression. "There's something coming. One of us. Maybe the first of us. They've been locked away, but I've been told they're trying to break free. They're connected to us in the myths," she says, a crooked smile peeking at the corner of her mouth. "I'm trying to see if there's anything to that. I think that whatever all this experience and instinct from the past is preparing me for, it's coming. I'm just not sure if I'm supposed to fight for them or against them. Or if I'm meant to do anything at all."

She folds her arms, protecting against a cold wind biting through her. "I haven't tossed out the possibility that I'm grasping for importance."

“We all are,” is Rouen’s philosophical retort. “We humans are creatures seeking meaning or importance in the chaos that is life. Some find it in religion, clinging to the tenets of a God that tells them they were made for something greater. Others find it in a cause, living to accomplish something, whether it is remembered into the future or… fades into obscurity. The whole of the human condition is based on importance.

Rouen stops, turning her back to a particularly scrawny pine tree, to regard the young woman across from her with more scrutiny. “What we are not, is monsters, by nature. Nurture, however, is another matter entirely. But we are the sum of the choices we make in life, us perhaps even more so than others. The Indians believe in reincarnation,” Rouen says with a wave of one hand, “on karma determining what one reincarnates into. Is our existence not entirely unlike that? Are you not my future? Am I not your past?” Rouen shrugs. The question remains a hypothetical.

“But we, all, live in a time of violence. It was no different in my era than yours.” Rouen says. “There has not ever been an era without violence, merely that we are more attenuated toward life and death, and feel the pull of death more acutely. What you have, from me, is a selfless gift. A life for a life. How others have used it…” she spreads her hands, “abused it,” and her hands come back together, clasped at her waist, “has colored your perceptions of it. In my time, it was the other side of the coin, what was the monster.

"I try to see the good in both. Trying to. It's hard to separate them from the people who held them. How much is us, how much is it." Berlin shivers a little, but it's hard to say if it's from the weather or the topic. "If there is a difference between it and me. I can tell you that when I lost my hold on them, they felt the same. Violent and angry."

Those last words surprise Berlin, but only for a moment. Before she really thinks about it. The white conduit.

"I used to try not to use them. Then I tried to find a way to use yours for something good. But it wasn't pretty. The other side, makes me feel— no, it makes it so that I have to decide who gets to live better. Who gets to live at all. I can see how that could make someone a monster." Unfolding, she shifts to slide her hands into her pockets instead. "How did you use it, when it was yours? I've been told you might be the only one who knows how to use the black the right way."

“Mathematically,” is Rouen’s response. “I took what I needed to survive, like stealing food to sustain one’s self. I used the long life I was given to pursue scientific endeavors. A little taste of someone’s youth here, a sup at the cup of life there, and the decades marched on. I never felt a violence or a thirst for anything, rather the opposite.” Rouen’s brows furrow softly. “I felt a yearning to save lives, at the cost of my own.”

Looking into the forest, Rouen’s brows furrow, and the sound of distant crackling flames and shouting voices rises to suddenly audible levels from silence. “I do not regret the choices I made…” she says quietly, “and I suppose that is the most important lesson I can impart on you.”

Turning pale blue eyes to Nathalie, Rouen tilts her chin up imperiously. “Never regret what you are.”

And as if like waking from a dream, the noises in the forest are gone, and so is Madeline Rouen. Nathalie stands alone in the cold forest of the Pine Barrens, a short walk from the cabin.

The walk will give her time to think.

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