Sunday, July 9, 2023

RBL Interviews: Hlao of Irrib, Coherent Shambler Disease Patient

[Preface: Hlao is a resident of the greater Irrib area, centered on the Western Branch of the lower River Khesh. He has been afflicted with Coherent Shambler Disease (CSD) for approximately twelve years, and is the longest-living known CSD patient by far. CSD, known by many colorful names, is a little-understood disease that attacks the nervous system of humans and, allegedly, certain ungulates. It is characterized by loss of bodily control from the neck muscles down, and a tendency toward lapsing into extended periods of low energy or borderline-catatonia when not in proximity to other humans unaffected by CSD. When in proximity to uninfected humans, a sufferer of CSD tends to violently lash out with lethal force, albeit not intent. The subject remains in full control of their mental faculties, but cannot exert physical control over their own body except to breathe, speak, blink, etc. The ultimate cause or vector for the spread of CSD is unknown. Theories include parasites, airborne toxins, emotional trauma, and even divine punishment. People with CSD tend to be killed immediately after their illness manifests, either in self-defense by their would-be victims or as a precaution by local authorities. That Hlao has been kept reasonably safe and healthy without any major incidents for more than a decade is very rare.

Hlao lives in a repurposed farmhouse located on a cousin's property. He is in his late thirties. He has short, messy hair beginning to grey at the roots. He is secured at one end of the room in a large, padded chair equipped with about a dozen reinforced leather straps to detain him. The only part of his body that is free is his head, which swivels and bobs slightly from years of slow neurological deterioration. As I enter the room his head snaps upright and his feet begin to kick. His fingernails have been freshly cut and filed, but the deep grooves dug into the armrests beneath his hands indicate that he is not always so well-manicured. His wiry muscles tense and strain hard enough beneath his long tunic that I fear he'll rip a tendon, but his gaze is clear, bright, and peaceful. He offers a cautious smile my way, but quickly averts his gaze and looks into an empty corner. I sit down at a stool placed close to the opposite wall away from him. His handler, apparently a friend, reminds him that they will be right outside, and takes their leave. We hold our conversation in raised voices to account for the distance between.]

RBL: Thank you again for reconsidering my request, doh¹ Hlao.

Hlao: I rebuffed you in haste the first time, doh Litte. I'm sorry for that. I assumed that anyone who wanted an interview with me would be like the last one who did.

RBL: I assure you I am not here for anything outside of your consent and comfort. I take the ethical strictures of my training very seriously. I simply wish to know more about you; not your condition. Besides, I have not paid off any of the town magistrates in order to see you.

Hlao: That last part is the most reassuring. Thank you.

RBL: Out of curiosity, who was this last person to "interview" you? I may have the means to file an official complaint about any misconduct on your behalf, if you so wish.

Hlao: To be honest, I don't remember him very well. I tried not to remember him or the examination for a long time, and eventually it worked. He's sort of a... pale, ghostly blur. I do remember he was from Serminwurth, or at least said he was. His name was M-something. Maren or Murzin or something like that.

RBL: ... Ah.

Hlao: Ah? Ah what? You know him?

[Hlao leans his head forward with sudden interest, his chair gently squeaks as he animates more]

RBL: I know of whom you speak. He is no longer a licensed practitioner of, well, anything.

Hlao: Well, that's good to hear. I hope he landed in a poorhouse.

RBL: He continued to study CSD for some time before he... ran afoul of certain ethical constraints. Last I heard, he floated down the Khesh and disappeared.

Hlao: Good. Drop-heads take him and keep him, I say.²

RBL: Er... quite. Now, may we begin the interview? I just have a few questions I wish to touch on.

Hlao: Sure, sure.

RBL: Please introduce yourself, in as many or as few words as you like.

[Hlao pauses at length, head gently lolling from side to side until he speaks]

Hlao: My name is Hlao. My village doesn't have a name, but it lies close enough to the town of Irrib on the Western Branch, that many of us tell outsiders we are from there. So I am Hlao of Irrib. I come from a family of farmers. They farm riverbed gourds. I used to farm with them too, but stopped when I became sick twelve years ago. I have one brother and four sisters. My siblings' children are learning how to read.

[Hlao straightens up in his seat to say that last part with some proud emphasis. It is the first time he has held eye contact so far]

RBL: That is wonderful to hear. Have they read anything by Tirti Naorut?

[Hlao grins in surprise]

Hlao: She is the littlest one's favorite. She says she wants to go to Nambar to prove the fairytales are real.

RBL: Oh, I remember feeling the same way... Now, could you describe a typical day in your life?

Hlao: I sleep in a special bed that is made to restrain me, so that I cannot hurt anyone or myself. It was made by one of the woodworkers in my village. It is one of a kind. I have a few chairs that I can sit in, too, but they are not as special. They are like this one here; repurposed from surgeons' or torturers' chairs- if there is any difference between the two. They are not as comfortable as the bed.

Anyway... I usually wake at dawn. Even in my sleep, I can hear other people getting up and moving around. I don't go to sleep around other people. My friends and relatives—my handlers—help me move to a chair and feed me breakfast. Sometimes they use a long spoon made from a broom handle to give me food, but that is only if my body is feisty that morning. Most mornings I am behaved, so they can feed me by hand. Everyone who knows about me, associates me with the giant spoon, though.

[Hlao laughs ruefully]

Hlao: Washing and dressing are still difficult. But we are leaving those out here.

RBL: Of course.

Hlao: Later in the morning, if the weather is not too bad, they will take me outside. I can walk with bound arms, and my legs will not cause too much trouble. Not anymore. I like to go for walks. So they tether me with ropes, and someone will walk where I've asked to go, and my body will try to chase them down. It keeps me exercised. And we all enjoy it- as long as the person in front of me is faster.

I spend most of my time at home, though. I don't really go places. I like to listen to stories while I sit. Stories or music. Anything that passes the time. But my handlers have to leave me alone in my room often, to give my body a chance to stop tensing up and fighting my restraints. When they do that, I close my eyes and... imagine things. Cities, languages, worlds. I imagine myself out there, experiencing them. Sometimes I can even wiggle my toes.

[Hlao looks down to indicate his sandal-clad feet, which are still making the same impotent kicking motions toward me as before]

RBL: What sorts of worlds and languages do you imagine?

Hlao: Why do you ask?

RBL: That sounds fascinating to me.

Hlao: Pssh. It does not.

RBL: I would not be out here if I did not value places and peoples, and the words they speak.

Hlao: Mmh... you know how they say that magic is like a sea?

RBL: Yes, that's one theory I'm familiar with. A metaphorical ocean of spiritual essence with the occasional godhead rising out of it like an island.

Hlao: It is like that, but... much more. I am there, standing on the "water", or sometimes swimming in it. I see the land rise up out of nothingness like the bobbing islands from Nambarish sailor tales. I sink my hands into the loamy ether and then rise up with it, into the sky. Into creation. I am there to see the first fires flare up and be quenched. The first to hear the burbling pits that stew with life. I stand like a stone, or drift like a cloud, and watch the world move around me. Sometimes it is like our world- sometimes it is our world, and I can walk it differently.

But other times I fill it with my dreams and nightmares. The words they speak, too. The screams and songs and profanity that they use every day, until one day no more mouths are left to speak them. I wander the emptiness afterward, and dwell on what has ended that never even existed. And then when everything else has crumbled away, the world sinks back down into the sea and only I am left.

RBL: ... You might want to consider having these imaginings written down.

Hlao: Why?

RBL: It would make a good story for people to read. Your niece, perhaps?

[Hlao scoffs initially, then stops to think]

Hlao: ... Hmm. I would need to trust someone with my private thoughts. Or learn how to write more than my signature with my teeth.

RBL: Did you not just trust me a moment ago?

Hlao: But that was... well, you are more... hmm. I will think about it.

[Hlao fidgets more than usual]

RBL: Shall we move on?

Hlao: Please.

RBL: Where do you usually hear stories or music from?

Hlao: My handlers, and other people who visit.

RBL: Tell me a little about these visits.

Hlao: Sometimes people visit me. Most of them are people from Irrib or beyond, who come to watch and study me. I don't like them. But they sometimes bring gifts and food that my friends and I need. They can't look after me for free. So I put on a friendly face and tolerate them. I almost broke loose once. That scared them off. It was funny.

[Hlao smiles impishly]

I like it when my family visits me. I may see them every few months. They tell me how the farm is going, and how the children are growing. I hope that someday my little niece will visit to read me some of her stories. Her mother won't let her, though. She is afraid of me. She... when I first got sick, I almost strangled her husband—my brother—to death, right in front of her in their bed. I don't blame her, though. Maybe in a few more years. My brother forgave me. He visits me the most. 

RBL: Tell me about your brother.

Hlao: He is set to leave and start working his own stretch of riverbank with his branch of the family in a few years. Our parents' farm passed to our eldest sister some years ago, and he has been saving up and doing favors ever since. So many families split their plots up smaller and smaller between siblings over the generations here, until you have barely enough land to feed yourself with and your second and third cousins don't even know you. Then one of the rich city people come around and offer to pay you half of what your land is worth, so you can leave to go and work for them on their tax-farms for even less. But he doesn't want that for us.

RBL: That sounds rather noble of him.

Hlao: I would go and help him if I could.

RBL: That sounds rather noble of you, too.

Hlao: Pfft. I just want out of this chair.

[Hlao and RBL both laugh. Hlao clears his throat and licks his lips]

Hlao: ... Doh Litte. A favor of you?

RBL: Yes?

[Hlao lolls his head in the direction of a nearby pitcher of water sitting on a table]

Hlao: I need a drink.

RBL: ... Oh! Of course.

[RBL pauses his live recording here]

[RBL set his notes down and crossed the room to the table. He found a small wooden cup to fill with water, then approached Hlao. Hlao's hands and feet tensed more than usual, curling violently as the proximity of another living person sent impulses through his body. Hlao just kept his eye on the water. RBL hesitated momentarily, then leaned in and tipped the cup to Hlao's lips. Hlao drank in loud, draining gulps that emptied the vessel in a few seconds. He belched, and nodded appreciatively at RBL]

RBL: Oh, erm...

[RBL produced a handkerchief and gingerly dabbed away the water that dribbled down Hlao's chin.

Hlao: What a gentleman.

[Hlao chuckled]

RBL: You are uh, welcome.

[RBL returned to his seat. Hlao's body relaxed somewhat]

[RBL resumes his live recording here]

RBL: Tell me about your friends? Forgive me, I just sort of took their presence for granted until now.

Hlao: The people who act as my handlers? They were old acquaintances from before I first got sick, but they became real friends after the fact. They renovated this house for me, and take shifts keeping me company. They're decent. They don't fake smiles around me. I appreciate that. One of them is a cousin we never lost touch with. The other three are old drinking buddies. We don't drink together anymore, though- my body fights the beer.

RBL: How so?

Hlao: I don't know. It's like it knows what drink does to it- dulls its reflexes and makes it less able to attack someone. I went sober after the first year when I kept popping loops in my chair to fight off a kurshaz³ of beer.

RBL: Do you miss alcohol?

Hlao: It was bad, the first few months. But it was bad for a lot of other reasons, too. Not so much now. I switched to tea.

RBL: I am sorry to hear that.

Hlao: Which part? The trouble, or the tea?

RBL: ... Yes.

[Hlao snorts]

RBL: What other creature comforts do you enjoy?

Hlao: After the harvest season ends and the river branches reflood, people here do everything they can with their gourds. Make bottles, ferment the greens, dry the flesh for later, whatever works. But I like the seeds, roasted. Go to Irrib during the festival and try some for yourself- but make sure they don't use too much salt and oil. That drowns and ruins all the flavor in them, mmh?

[Hlao inclines his head at RBL with the gravest of expectations. RBL nods solemnly]

RBL: Light on the oil and salt.

[Hlao nods, his head bobbing and drifting hard to one side. He stares off into space for several moments, then drifts back]

Hlao: May we finish soon? I am getting tired.

RBL: Oh, of course! Forgive me, we can stop now if you would prefer.

Hlao: No, no. I can finish.

RBL: Very well... Let me see. Ah, yes. I think this will do. What is something you aspire to? Is there a particular dream of yours that you hope will come true?

[Hlao dwells on this question at length]

Hlao: I have been told that we do not attack other people who are sick. Do you know if that is true?

RBL: Hmm... Yes, I believe so. In all the literature on the disease that I have read, none has ever suggested or shown evidence that infectees react aggressively to one another's presence. That is part of why infections in isolated areas can come as such a sudden surprise.

Hlao: I would like to meet another like me someday, then. And I would like to spend time with them. Even if we just stood still with nothing to talk about... I just want to be in another's presence where we aren't a danger for once. I would like that very much.

RBL: Of course. I... I will make sure your words are heard.⁴

Hlao: Thank you, doh Litte. I thought you were odd when you approached us. And you are- but you are also an enjoyable visit.

RBL: That is my single greatest aspiration in life.

[Hlao laughs again]

RBL: Before we finish this, are there any parting words that you would wish to share?

Hlao: You mean something I want to tell your readers?

RBL: Yes, I suppose I do mean that- all four of them.

[RBL laughs weakly, then clears his throat]

Hlao: Be good to your family, whether it's the one you're from or one you find yourself in. They might be the ones holding your spoon someday.

RBL: Thank you, doh Hlao.

[Live transcription ends here]

¹ An informal honorific commonly used in and around the alluvial plain on the western bank of the lower River Khesh. Comparable to "mister" or "boss".

² I chose not to confront my interviewee on this issue because I am his guest and he has already been a surpassingly gracious host. Additionally, I did not want to jeopardize the project by breaking from the interview to lecture him. But it should still be stated somewhere that the Sayaula do not appreciate any of the epithets derived from their cranial shape, and I believe their use should be discouraged.

³ A vessel and associated colloquial unit of measure roughly equal to half a liter. Literally a "thin one".

⁴ I should not get his hopes up with promises to seek out another patient. I have no idea what sort of hurdles this would require, if it is even possible.

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