First I'd like to thank you for taking the time to read some of my stories. It is folk like you that make this the most pleasurable of hobbies. :)
This collection of short stories stems from my desire to confront that of the soul which is often hidden, brushed away, or forgotten. I have always been fascinated by the idea of the soul; whether or not we have one, what it is, what it's made of, and what it means. How can we measure something we can't see? What comprises the soul? The fibers of choice? The thin membrane that separates logic and emotion? Or perhaps the soul is like an inscrutable spool of silk, composing an infinite number of realities and possibilities, each of us mere patterns in the grand cosmic cloth?
My desires to confront the soul have often gotten me in trouble, whether it be with friends, family, or the law, but I can assure the reader this: that same desire has taught me more about the world, myself, and humanity as a whole than I ever thought possible.
The stories that follow are varied in genre, style, and voice, but each attempts to identify and praise the slippery but oh-so-human substance of the soul.
Night Under Mercury
The rain comes in careless waves, little droplets tracing the thick curls of my auburn hair and dripping steadily onto the shoulders of my black coat. It’s a nice coat, old and well worn, but I’ve taken decent care of it. The night sky is flushed in rusty orange light pollution from the downtown streetlamps and bar lights. Cobweb cracks in the sidewalk gather puddles of muddy rainwater. Mercury is supposed to be the closest to the earth it’s been in over a thousand years tonight. Go figure we won’t see it.
I pass a peacock-masked enchantress in lingerie and try not to gawk out of respect. It’s not her fault she grew up in a brainwashed society that’s led her to believe she needs to conform to a standard of sexual objectification, and I don't want to be just another proponent of that harmful paradigm. I doubt she, in her apparent drunken reverie, would even notice anyway. Her friend, a scantily clad Cheshire cat, is pulling from a half empty pint of Vodka. In the brief moment I brush shoulders with the peacock, I imagine her turning to me with neon eyes and smiling. Not a devious smile, nor a flirtatious one, just a simple smile. I catch a whiff of her perfume. It’s the same perfume my mother wore. It’s only a scent, but it sets my mind reeling a hundred memories. And then it’s gone and she’s walking away.
Despite the rain and chill the streets are packed with a fantastical assortment of monsters and characters: creatures of worlds known and unknown. They weave and stalk in packs or couples, leaving trails of lust in their wake. I take care not to get too transfixed by them, although I do find myself admiring the way in which they gather. Sometimes it’s a meeting of chance, sometimes of purpose. The werewolf and the witch smoke cherry cigarettes under the arching sycamore tree. The ghoul and the scarecrow take turns courting the mermaid before she’s swept off in a passing wave of whisky runners and ferried down the way.
I left my friends a few streets back at Olivia’s house party on the corner of Littleton and Acorn. Olivia invited me out and told me to bring friends, but she’d been pissing me off pretty much from the moment we got there so I decided to take a walk. Olivia is great, don’t get me wrong, she’s just lost: existentially, not geographically. When we’d first met I could tell we’d get along. We’re both old souls trapped in young bodies. But lately I think she’s forgotten herself, or at least buried herself beneath a few layers of coarse falseness. I can’t blame her because I’m kind of lost too.
Anyways, the party was a bit crowded for my liking, bodies stuffed into the living room front to back like a pack of cigarettes. There were purple and blue lights strung across the ceiling. The shoddy carpet was waxed with spilled liquor and beer. I’ve never really cared for huge parties. All the noise, the heat, and the incessant drama that always seems to accompany large gatherings of strangers get under my skin and make me anxious. But it is kind of nice to get caught up in the rumble of bass loud enough to drown my thoughts. I like to close my eyes and wash away with the tide of electric melodies and heady orchestration. I can imagine I’m no longer at the party but rather floating in some bodiless wave of energy, free of human folly.
I pass under a streetlamp and take a right into a dingy alley behind a bronzed liquor store. There are a few cars parked on one side of the way and the other side sports sparse foliage jutting through the spaces in a chain link fence. I contemplate calling Olivia and seeing if she wants to meet me here, or anywhere, but I cant bring myself to do it. I don’t know why. I guess I’m still sour. Instead, I pull the creased marijuana joint out of the breast pocket of my coat and spark it with my Bic. I hear laughter from the street: another band of drunken revelers.
Ever since I was a little kid, six, maybe seven, walking through the grocery store with my mom, I would look at strangers and try to imagine what was going on behind their eyes. I mean I would really try. I would give them a name, a childhood, and ponder their dreams, their goals, and wonder whether, in this frail state of juncture, they were the kind of person that would succeed or if they were destined to fail. A strange thing for a child to wonder, don’t you think? From a young age we’re taught to divide the world into two possibilities, success and failure; the threads of predatory capitalist thought had already woven their way into my brain through television commercials and pop culture.
Anyways my mom always thought I was just spacing out, and she would say, come on, spaceman, and pull me along to the checkout lane. I don’t do that very often anymore; delve that deeply into strangers’ minds. I guess I started to grow a bit sad when I realized that the game was rigged and most people were destined to fail most things and wind up cogs in a big machine.
At least these drunken creatures outside the alley are really talking, enjoying what little scraps of life they can fish up. Boy, you should hear them debate about practically nothing like it’s the most important conversation of their lives. I don’t know, maybe it is. Most conversation is systematic, even predictable. Who’s to say what is or isn’t important? Certainly not me. Their conversation mixed with the potency of the marijuana pulls me into another memory.
Last summer I was with Olivia and three others at her cottage up north. Her dad has this really nice spot on the lake and a couple of really fast Jet Ski’s. We’d all skipped out on work that day, the five of us. The sun was hot and bright and the air was thicker than a smear of honey, but the water was cool and the beer was flowing crisp and free. I was sitting on the front of the pontoon with Olivia right next to me. Kyle, Christie and Hanna were in the back.
Doesn’t it feel good to get away for a day, Olivia mused. It wasn’t really a question, but I answered anyways.
Yeah. It does.
It’d be a shame to work on such a nice day, Christie chimed in.
I reached into the pocket of my swim trunks and retrieved a double wrapped plastic baggie with a joint and lighter in it. I removed the joint and held it out to Olivia. She grabbed it with a smirk and I lit it for her.
I smell pot up there, Kyle teased.
Olivia held the joint his way but he shook his head. No thanks, he said, I’m not a pot smoker.
Neither were Christie or Hanna. They all said they’d tried it but they didn’t like it. I truly believe that pot has the potential to open up new neural pathways within the physical biology of the brain, granting the ability to view things from a different perspective. I think it would benefit each an every person alive to try it at least once. My problem is that I like that perspective a little too much, and although “they” say there’s no addictive property, I sure have to disagree.
Kyle cracked another beer and took a deep drink. Did you guys hear about Bill’s dad?
No, did something happen to him?
Passed away, Kyle said. Heart attack.
Hanna was seriously concerned. How old was he?
In his late forties, must have been, Olivia responded.
That’s too bad, Christie said.
I hit the joint again trying to pull up a mental image of Bill’s dad. I couldn’t do it. I’d only seen him once and it was very brief. I do remember thinking that he looked like the kind of man who’d completely forgive someone who’d wronged him, no matter how serious the issue, if they were honestly sorry.
I think Bill’s an atheist, Kyle said as an afterthought.
Can you imagine such a thing? Hanna pondered aloud. No life after death. That’s just awful.
It might not be so bad in the grand scheme of things, I said.
The group looked to me for explanation.
Well, I think of it this way. When we are conceived, we receive energy from the womb and use that energy to grow and grow until we are born, and then we consume food and continue growing, right? It’s a constant cycle of energy in, and energy out. All we really are is a little pocket of energy. When we die, we give that energy back to the world through decomposition and heat loss. Essentially, we are eternal, whether or not you believe in an afterlife. Some people find comfort in that.
I personally liked to think there was an afterlife, some sort of existence that transcends humanity, like a spaceless, timeless ocean of energy with each of us a wave vibrating at a specific frequency. But I understood the views of those who didn't, and could even entertain the thought that they might be right, and that my views were skewed by emotion.
What’s the point in life if there’s no afterlife? Hanna questioned.
The point is to better the human race for future generations, I continued. Look, if we really want to honor Bill’s dad we shouldn’t mourn him, we should live our lives up to his highest standard, taking lessons from the best and worst of him, and then try to pass those lessons on to others. Anything else is an insult to his memory.
That’s pretty deep, man, Kyle said.
The group grew silent, each one spacing off in a different direction. The talk of Bill’s dad made me think of my mother and how she'd been battling cancer for years. When I think of her I like to think of specific things that conjure good feelings. That time I thought of her reading in her favorite chair.
I leaned back against the cushioned seat of the pontoon and threw my arms behind my head, soaking the sunrays. My mind was suffused in a haze of marijuana, and the white light from the sun seemed to transcend my optical nerve and permeate the barrier between sight, sound, and feel. For a time I was awash in corporeal bliss.
When I leaned forward and opened my eyes I glanced at Olivia. She was looking at me kind of funny, I remember. She had this half smile but her eyes were really focused like she was trying to read my mind.
What? I asked her.
Nothing, she said. But I knew it was something. I knew she wore that smile because she thought about things the same way I do. We’d shared a moment of spiritual elevation, two self-enlightened creatures in the midst of a mutual revelation.
That feeling when I caught Olivia looking at me with that smile, that little secret feeling like we shared a fraction of our innermost selves with one another, pervades through the memory. Without that feeling it might have just been another memory lost in a nook of my mind.
My propensity for falling in love too fast is a quality I inherited from my mother. I’m sure psychologists would argue that it isn’t actually love but infatuation that I experience so strongly. I have to disagree. I recognize the difference between the two. Infatuation is the undertow of a strong current: it sucks you under and ceases to let you up until you’ve struggled free else drown in it. It’s a strong temporary obsession, the chase of an ideal, which usually ends in a crash. Love is more like a curiosity, the fibers of two entwined souls in perfect rhythm with one another, each with a strong desire to discover the vastness of their being. Love comes in many forms and is, in my opinion, harshly restricted by the boundaries of language and the construction of social labels. I’ve been infatuated before, often in fact, but every once and a while I meet someone and it’s different somehow. It’s not infatuation but something deeper, a spiritual connection maybe. Who knows? I just know what I feel, and to me it must be love.
Back in the alley the group of talkers has moved on out of earshot, and my mind wanders back to the party. I’m sure everyone is still there; I’ve hardly been gone half an hour. The problem is I don’t know what I’m going to say to Olivia when I go back. I flick the roach into a puddle and leave the alley, reentering the urban wilderness.
What can I say? She pretends to be this ignorant, shallow girl, numbing herself to fit in with the masses, but I know she’s so much deeper. And I know a part of her yearns to explore that depth, to escape from the shackles of societal structure. I don’t know. Maybe it’s futile. I try to tell myself that she’s just young, still only twenty, and that she has so much time left to deliberate.
I turn a corner and find myself face to face with a lioness and a doctor. The lioness asks me for a cigarette. I tell her I don’t have any and she sighs. No worries, she says. She tells me I have nice hair and then leads the doctor onward by the hand.
I’m not really going anywhere in particular. I head in the direction of Olivia’s house but I think I’ll take the long, winding route through the lightshade neighborhoods. The rain won’t let up. My hair is thoroughly soaked and my socks are starting to feel damp. Usually I can’t stand the feeling of damp socks, but right now it doesn’t really bother me. Right now I kind of welcome the rain. There’s purity in water, even chemical city water, that feels nice.
I see a very pale woman sitting on the bumper of a black Chevy pickup truck. As I get closer I notice that she’s naked. Half of her face and half of her body have been intricately painted to resemble a punk skeleton while the other half is bare pearly skin. Only, in the rain, her skeletal half is beginning to run, smearing her in swatches of black ink.
I walk over and sit by her. I figure, what the hell, she might want some company. You must be cold, I say.
No, I’m all right, she replies.
I laugh. She looks at me funny. I’m sorry, I say. It’s been a strange night. She offers the flask. I take a sip. It’s very strong. I cough a bit as I pass it back to her.
I know what you mean, she says.
We’re quiet for a few minutes, passing the flask back and forth and enjoying each other’s company. I don’t even know her name, but I feel like, just by sitting next to her, we’re sharing something somehow significant. It’s not love, and it’s not infatuation, it’s simply a human connection. And then she asks me a question.
Do you ever look around you, at this, this jungle, this madness we call life, and think you could fix it all?
I say that I do, often, in fact. She looks at me and shakes her head.
Bullshit, she says.
Why do you think that? I ask her. She says I look like someone who thinks he's awake and likes to pretend I know the answers, but I really don’t. I tell her I don’t care what she thinks. She says that’s exactly what she’s talking about. I should care, and the fact that I don’t means I’m still sleeping.
What makes you so real then? She shrugs and smiles. I don’t try to hide who I really am.
Neither do I, I insist. She disagrees again. She says she can see who I am, and she says that I know, deep down, who that person is, but she says I’m fooling myself. She says there’s something holding me back.
I think of Olivia.
She tells me not to take it personally. She says I’m more awake than most people.
I’m reminded of my mother. She is awake. I’m sure of that. She doesn’t have a false cell in her body. I can always count on her to be straight with me, even when I’m so obviously difficult.
Okay, I say, I’m sleeping. But I’m trying, and that counts, right?
The skeleton girl nods. We sit in silence again. The thump of bass from numerous house parties reverberates through the night. The offset rhythms provide a chaotic discourse of background noise. She finishes the contents of her flask and stands up.
Keep trying and you’ll be all right, she says to me as she walks away. Just remember, the world isn’t black and white, and unless you find your shade of gray, you’re in for one hell of a time.
I watch her disappear into curtains of rain and contemplate following. She is the most interesting person I’ve talked to all night. I want the conversation to continue. But all moments pass, and the next will never be the same as this one.
My phone rings and I snap back to reality. It’s Kyle, wondering where I am I’m sure. I don’t answer.
Red and blue lights flash down the street coasting on the thin film of blacktop water. The revelers, base and content, filter through the alleys in a casual trance. I join the nearest group, my desire for solitude in strong conflict with my desire for connection. Sometimes I do my best thinking when surrounded by strangers. I get clarity of thought from the fragments of their white-noise conversation. Together we walk the paved path laid out before us, each, whether consciously or not, searching for something more.
* * * *
The party is over by the time I finally get back. There are a few stragglers left milling about, looking for keys or phones or leftover booze to pilfer. Olivia is sitting on the couch with some guy I’ve never seen before. Her chestnut braid hugs her neck, and her deep brown eyes are glossy and unfocused. I stand in the entrance to the living room for a minute before she notices me. She looks at me briefly, then back to her friend as if I was of no further interest than a common housefly. I call her over to talk and she rolls her eyes. She tells the guy she’ll be right back. He hardly hears her response; he seems to be in another galaxy the way his eyes slant and his jaw hangs slack. I immediately dislike him.
Olivia pulls me into the kitchen and demands to know what I want. I ask her what’s been up with her lately. She hasn’t been herself. She tells me I have no idea what I’m talking about. I know she’s lying. She’s wearing falseness like makeup, thick and smooth, to hide her suspect imperfections.
It kills me, because I can still see the real her. I can see underneath the mask of deception. Why does she hide herself? From whom?
Olivia continues, telling me that I’m suffocating her and that she doesn’t think she can see me for a while. There were a hundred things I wanted to say, but I remembered the skeleton girl and immediately realized the hypocrisy of them, so I didn’t say anything. She walks back into the living room: my chance at reassurance blown. She pulls the nameless, faceless guy to his feet and wheels him into her room, closing the door behind them with a woody groan.
I stand in the kitchen and stare at the wall, revisiting in my mind the argument we’d had earlier. It had been me in her room, lying on her bed, trying to have a serious conversation about connectivity. I told her I thought we were soul mates, if there was such a thing. She shook her head and got really weird. She said that wasn’t a nice thing to say, because I had dated her best friend for years. I told her that it didn’t matter. Soul mates don’t have to be limited to romantic relationships. Soul mates can be friends. Friends that challenge each other and fill each other’s gaps. Friends that share an intimate connection deeper than sex and social understanding. A different kind of love. She started yelling at me, telling me that I was bullshitting her. She said I was only trying to get her to sleep with me. I tried to tell her it wasn’t like that, it really wasn’t, but she wouldn’t listen.
I think about that feeling on the front of the pontoon when we bared ourselves naked for one another. I think about the skeleton girl sitting on the bumper of that pick-up truck and how she knew me better than I know myself. I think about my mother, and how I stood at her side the last time she was in the hospital and none of us thought she’d make it, and how she told me she was sorry for everything, and how I told her that was nonsense, and that I was sorry for ever letting her down, and how she made me promise to live the rest of my life free and true with love in my heart, and how I promised that I would.
You see it is all about cycles. Birth, life, death. Birth, life, death. We learn from our elders so we can teach our young, and hopefully, somewhere down the road, identify and fix the mistakes inherent in the system. Only, my generation is lost in airwaves and digital bytes, raised by illusions. We see that things are wrong but we have been taught not to care. Our reality has become tainted with bittersweet ignorance. And I’m the biggest hypocrite of them all. Trapped by my own insecurities I can’t help but feel the pull of the undertow.
Outside, the rain comes in careless waves. The night sky is flushed in rusty orange light pollution from the downtown streetlamps and bar lights. Cobweb cracks in the sidewalk gather puddles of muddy rainwater. Somewhere in the city a peacock-masked enchantress wears my mother’s perfume.
It was the second morning since the battle and the death of The General’s son.
Oh, how The General grieved.
He was not seen on the first day. He never left his tent and it hadn’t seriously crossed anyone’s mind to attempt entry. No cries or angry curses came from inside. No mourning or pleading. Only one thud that caused a few soldiers nearby to hold their breath for a moment, at the end of which, upon realizing that nothing of further interest was to occur, they exhaled and continued to wait. For the most part The General was still.
In truth, as the sun descended, he was sitting on the cold floor of his tent holding a wooden relic of The Mother, guardian of life and children. The Warrior was broken in half, hurled into the corner. Tears glazed The General’s eyes and his throat was tight with anguish. Thoughts of his son dying in his arms played through his head in slow motion over and over, as if to grind the grim reality into the fibers of his being.
The General had been helpless. In the middle of the battlefield, the grass long gone and replaced with bloody, upturned soil, he had held his son’s limp body, marred by the deep, armor piercing cut rent from shoulder to hip. His son’s last breath had left him and there was nothing in The General’s power that could stop it. No amount of pleading, medicine, or prayer could put life back into the boy The General had given the breath of life almost eighteen years ago. The boy who loved philosophy, art and music, not war.
If The General had only paid attention, if he had only acknowledged his son’s differences, the boy might still be alive.
Cold and windy night followed the long and painful first day. The wind was unrelenting, blowing in from across the vast field to the north of the massive camp. The chill crept into The General’s tent but he made no move to warm himself. He made no move at all other than the occasional shudder of a choked breath. His snow-flecked-gray beard was damp from tears, and his rough hand was cramped from clutching The Mother with increasing force.
In the sparse forest south of the camp, owls sung a solemn condolence for the boy. The last streak of ruby faded from the western sky, blanketing the world in shadow. Unease among the men was nearly palpable as they huddled around their fires, fidgeting or sharpening their swords unnecessarily. The conversation was thin; hardly anyone spoke above a whisper.
“What do you think he’s doing in there?” one soldier pondered aloud.
“Fine tuning his plans for taking the city,” another replied. “That’s what I’d do.”
“He could be crying.”
“He had to have known this was a possibility. This is war. People die.”
“You never think it’s going to happen to you, though.”
The night grew colder and the men huddled around their fires to keep warm. Still no sound had come from The General’s tent since the thud of The Warrior cracking on The General’s desk. The stars slowly traced patterns in the night sky as the camp drifted into an uneasy sleep.
Morning did not find The General well. The only change in his stature was the heavy slump that had him staring into the ground. His eyes were bloodshot and snot had frozen in his mustaches. The Mother lay in his lap; his fingers too tired to hold her anymore. For that matter, his mind could no longer hold her, either. His thoughts trickled through his head like a muddy stream, cloudy and impure.
As the dim ruddy glow of his tent announced daybreak, The General moved. His body was tight from lack of use, and he nearly stumbled into his writing desk. Lighting a candle, he rummaged through the desk in search of the most recent orders from the His Majesty, orders the General hadn’t questioned before. When he recovered the missive, he spread it out on his desk and read with care.
You are to invade as soon as possible and seize control of their government, no matter the cost.
That line stuck out to him. No matter the cost? The General had paid the dearest cost he could ever afford. If the skirmish outside the capital had yielded such death and destruction, he could only imagine what lay ahead.
He gazed through the piece of paper in the flickering light of the candle long after the light of day rendered the candle useless. Questions flared through his head now, many and varied, and the General was afraid of the answers.
Always eager to forge himself a better place in the world, The General had carried out his orders without question for over thirty years. His superiors were sure to know what was best for him, their country, and the good of the world.
His nation was the model for the new world. They had the most fluid economy, the strongest military, and were founded on truly moral principles. Why they needed to force others to adopt their government and religion The General never understood. It should have been an obvious choice.
The questions in his head were sparking new thoughts that had never occurred to him. He was beginning to reevaluate the state of his nation.
Their economy might be the best in principle, but they were in the midst of the largest recession in the last hundred years. People were living in the streets. Many couldn’t even afford food. The interests of the government weren’t entirely focused at the moment. Political unrest plagued the nation like wildfire.
Their military was undoubtedly the strongest, but some of the soldiers, The General’s son included, were not on the battlefield by choice, it seemed. It should have been an honor to serve for their country, not a chore. Why wouldn’t they want to serve?
The question of the morality of his government was perhaps the most troubling to The General. No matter how he puzzled it out, no matter how many angles he tried to take, he couldn’t shake off one thought: What if they were wrong?
From birth, The General had been groomed a loyal subject. He supported his nation through war, recession, crises, and conquest. It had occurred to him that their actions might seem harmful, but he did what he did because he believed his superiors to be wise and trustworthy, focused on the greater good.
Brought up by a father very like himself, one of the best generals of the age, The General grew to accept orders without asking questions. Questions were a sign of disobedience, and disobedience was heavily frowned upon. His mother had often encouraged his father to be lighter with him, to teach him love as well as obedience. No matter how often she tried, she was met with a blank stare and a change of subject.
When The General was fifteen, his mother was killed in her sleep by an assassin’s knife meant for his father. The city mourned for a short time, strangers offering their sympathies when The General was out with his father. There was little time for mourning, however, The General’s father hungered for revenge; a hunger shared by His Majesty and the prominent figures in the capitol. Following evidence that the assassin hailed from their neighbors to the east, the death of The General’s mother was the striking of the flint that sparked the conquest.
The General lost all his mother had managed to teach him over the subsequent years, and he filled the hole her death left with rage. He enlisted as soon as he was of age and followed his father’s wake. His life became one of planning and preparing to conquer the neighboring nation. All the while hatred grew within him until it infested the deepest part of his soul. A hatred that ebbed and flowed as the tides, sometimes strong enough to turn his eyes red, sometimes tucked away deep beneath a layer of emptiness.
He felt that hatred growing as he stared at the orders from His Majesty. He felt it so strongly that he began to see red. But then he remembered his son. It was only a brief memory, but it was enough to send the hatred scurrying back to the recesses of his subconscious.
The General’s son was thirteen. He was sitting at the base of a tree in the back yard, meditating. The General was watching through the window. His son was so still, so calm. His narrow face was soft stone. He had been sitting like this for well over an hour. The General didn’t understand. He wasn’t one for wasting time with such idleness. Meditation was simply a means of distraction from the problems of the real world, as he saw it.
Watching his son under the tree, however, something stirred inside The General that he didn’t understand, and wouldn’t for quite some time: a tiny bud of acceptance that would take too long to blossom.
“You look tense.” The General’s wife glided over from the sitting room to place her hands on his shoulders. “What’s the matter?”
The General couldn’t think of a response, so he remained quiet. The General’s Son continued to sit under his tree, unaware of The General’s scrutiny.
“Maybe you should take after him,” The General’s Wife teased. “He seems to be happy.”
The General grunted and took his leave. There was military business to attend to, as usual. His wife lingered a moment to watch their son. She was a gentle woman with a kindness that extended beyond formal occasion. She supported her son in whatever choices he made, for she could see the compassion he hid from his father.
Perhaps The General’s Son, at such a young age, had shown more discipline than The General had known was in the boy.
Now The General stood again and walked to the other side of his tent where a local map was pinned to the thick canvas. As he analyzed the map, another memory took him.
The General’s son was sixteen. The slight hint of a future beard tickled his square jaw. He was finally old enough to enlist and The General couldn’t have been happier.
It was an overcast day. Tiny dribbles of rain threatened to turn into showers, but a skin of pride hugged The General so tightly it might as well have been the sunniest day of the year. The General was watching his son fasten his boots for the walk to the Military Quarter. The boy was dressed well, but not too fine; clothes The General had chosen.
“I’ve waited the last sixteen years for this, my son. It’s time for you to continue the tradition of honor and excellence that has presided in our family for many generations. You have the potential to be as great a general as myself or your grandfather, given time and dedication.”
“I know, father,” The General’s son replied. “I won’t let you down.”
On the walk home, after all the papers had been signed, The General praised his son’s courage and spoke of future battles of glory. He saw the vacancy in his son’s eyes, but dismissed it as nerves.
How could he have misunderstood the look in those eyes? If he hadn’t been so blinded by his own pride perhaps he might have noticed.
Other memories came flooding back as if a dam blocking the river to The General’s past had collapsed.
The General’s son was seven. It was late evening and The General was holding him by the hand, leading him through the darkening streets of the capital. A musician was playing the strings on the corner. It was a beautiful tune, a stark contrast to the musician’s shabby and frail appearance. The General’s son stopped to listen, letting go of his father’s hand. The General tried to pull his son away.
“Wait, I want to listen!” he protested.
“We don’t have time,” The General replied.
“Because there are more important things in the world than music.”
The musician’s melody followed The General as he dragged his son down the street.
The General’s son was ten. He was playing with the other boys from his class while The General drew up documents for the year’s new recruits in his study. He wondered vaguely how many years it would be, now, until his son’s papers would rest on his desk.
The General peeked out the window to check on the children. They were playing war in the courtyard, whacking at each other with sticks and throwing rocks. One boy, however, was off in the corner, drawing in the dirt with his fingers. The General squinted to get a better look, and upon realizing it was his son, turned red with shame.
Other memories flashed through The General’s head, weaving a tragic web of ignorance and misunderstanding.
He remembered the look on his son’s face as they prepared to leave home, and the reassuring smile he gave his mother.
“It’s alright, mother. I’ll come back.”
The General had no words for his wife. She had seen him return from battles before, and she would see him return again.
The General’s son was nine, and The General was late returning home from a council meeting. When he pushed open the front door, he beheld his son sitting on the polished wooden floor of the foyer, painting a picture of a bird. When the boy saw his father he eagerly held up his artwork for his father’s inspection.
“It’s... nice I suppose,” The General frowned. “Have you been studying your military history?”
The boy’s face faded from animate to stone. “Yes, father.”
“Good,” The General nodded. His son let the painting slip from his fingers and departed for the outdoors. The General plucked the art from the floor and studied it for a moment before tucking it away in his knapsack.
It was the day The General’s son died. He remembered the last conversation they’d had, The General sitting on his horse, while his son nervously checked the straps of his armor.
“You know I was about your age when I fought my first battle,” he assured his son. “There’s no cause for worry. You’ve been trained well, better than most. And you have a strong guard. You’ll live to see tomorrow.”
“I know, father. It’s just a lot to think about.”
The General grunted in agreement.
“I couldn’t sleep last night,” his son continued. “So I carved these.” He proffered two wooden relics, The Mother and The Warrior. They were old world relics, believed by ancient peoples to bring luck. The Warrior to give the soldiers strength, and The Mother to watch over all of her children, old and young.
“I know you don’t believe in that kind of stuff, but, like I said, I couldn’t sleep and -”
The General cut his son off with a clap on the shoulder.
“That’s enough.” He gave his son a sharp look. “Compose yourself, we have a battle to win.” As he rode away leaving his son to his nerves, he tucked the relics into his saddlebags.
The last memory of his son was the one that truly broke The General.
It was a chill evening yet The General was numb to the cold. His soldiers were arrayed in perfect order, their crimson armor bleeding in the light of the dying sun. Across the valley stood the enemy, armor as green as the grass beneath their feet, ready to defend their kingdom with their lives.
The battle took longer than The General had anticipated. Like most battles, The General only remembered flashes of a skirmish here, a dead soldier there, and a lot of blood. He wasn’t the kind of general to sit idly in his tent and wait while his soldiers fought his battles. He liked to be right in the midst of the battle, boosting morale and offering quick tactical alterations.
Then he saw his son, alone, locked in a fight against five men in green. Why was he alone? Where was his squad?
The General ran to his son’s aid, feet pounding the blood-soaked earth with increasing vigor. His son’s sword was deft. He slew one, two of the men. He was magnificent; in perfect rhythm with his enemies, but he was mortally outnumbered. He cut down the third and fourth, but suddenly he was surrounded by a whirl of enemies, a lone flame in a sea of green. In the commotion, The General’s son glanced over and locked eyes with his father for a brief, agonizing moment. He blocked the sword arcing through the air towards him, but another was too quick to follow; he couldn’t lift his sword in time. The General’s heart froze as his son was cut down.
Fresh tears welled up in The General’s eyes as the memory left him. He choked them down and sighed deeply. For the first time in his life, The General felt as though he understood his son for who he truly was.
“It’s not too late,” The General mumbled to himself, his voice rough from lack of use. “I can redeem myself in my son’s eyes.” He looked through a hole in the rough leather roof of his tent and to the sky.
. . . . .
Inside the Capitol, sitting in his high throne of gold and jewels, His Majesty received unwelcome tidings from a messenger.
“Majesty, I hesitate to relay a particular piece of news, for fear of your retribution.” The messenger was prostrate on the cold stone floor. Great black tapestries hung from the vaulted ceiling like jagged teeth, each depicting scenes of war and triumph. High, narrow windows spaced evenly across the wall behind His Majesty cast him in a halo of dust motes, giving him an almost god-like appearance.
“A letter arrived from The General; he has abandoned the conquest. He refuses to march.” The messenger flinched. Disbelief cracked His Majesty’s wrinkled visage. Only one word found it’s way to his lips.
The messenger shook his head. “His son was killed in action. The rumors have it he’s holed up in his tent mourning. Hasn’t seen anyone.”
His Majesty took a moment to compose himself. “Summon him here, now.”
“He will not come, exalted one.”
His Majesty couldn’t believe it. The General, one of his oldest colleagues, abandoning their conquest? Sure, his son’s death was regrettable, but he should have been prepared to face such consequences. This conquest was a product of their efforts; an endeavor wrought from the mutual understanding that their cause was just.
His Majesty rose to his feet, his next words heavy as stone.
“Insubordination is met with execution.”
“But, Majesty, his family has been loyal to our nation for generations, perhaps there’s been a misunderstanding?”
His Majesty’s head was pounding. If he didn’t punish The General, he would lose the respect of his subordinates, and potentially the war. This was a cumbersome situation: a true test of His Majesty’s devotion to his cause. He rubbed at his temples and the corners of his mouth twitched as he hissed, “we are too close to winning this war! I can’t allow the entire conquest to fail on the shoulders of a broken man. To disobey me is treason.” His Majesty descended the few steps to the floor and bid the messenger to rise.
“Prepare my contingent, we ride for the battleground.”
“Do as I say, else your fate will be as his. I intend to win this war myself.”
“Yes, Majesty.” The messenger bowed low and scurried out the ornate oak double doors to the palace foyer, calling His Majesty’s retainers in a shrill tone.
His Majesty would be damned if he didn’t get to the bottom of this himself. What madness had consumed The General’s mind?
. . . . .
The General was sitting cross-legged on a rock near the edge of the woods as His Majesty’s contingent arrived at the camp. He had taken to meditating each day since his revelation. His soldiers were starting to grow restless; they respected The General’s word, but many were conflicted between what was right, and what was dangerous. He had told them to go home days ago, but only a handful of soldiers had left. The rest remained steadfast. Loyalty, The General knew, a bond deeper than fear.
His Majesty rode to The General with a frown, men parting like a dagger cutting silk. The General stood to meet His Majesty with a patient gaze, ignoring the accusing scrutiny.
“What’s the meaning of this?” His Majesty spat.
“We were wrong,” The General stated simply. “War isn’t the answer.” He motioned around him. “This fighting, this death and destruction, it will never be the answer.”
“How can you say that? After the murder of your mother, the wars, the skirmishes, the political scheming... have you lost sight of the bigger picture?” His Majesty’s face was flushed with scarlet rage. “I thought you a stronger man than this.”
The General allowed himself a smile. “Strength isn’t defined by the ability to swing a sword. It is defined by the ability to recognize when not to.”
A few moments of tense silence filled the void left by The General’s words. His Majesty was loath to continue, but The General left him no choice. “Go,” he commanded. “Lead my army to battle, or die for high treason.”
The General inhaled deeply and slowly through his nose, held the breath a few seconds, and exhaled the same way. “My army isn’t marching to battle,” he replied. His Majesty was not pleased.
“You leave me no choice.”
His Majesty motioned and two of his personal retainers stepped forth, grabbed The General, and threw him face-first onto the rock. A third approached with a sword. The General didn’t struggle.
“No, no!” His Majesty waved away the third man, “I’ll do it myself.” He dismounted his charge, drew the sword from his hip, and stood over The General with the authority of a tyrant, cold and cruel.
The General, face pressed into the cold stone, surveyed the eyes of his soldiers surrounding the scene, thousands deep. Many that the General had personally trained, young and old alike; loyal friends that would follow him to the end of the earth. Their eyes were sharp and ready. Some shouted out for His Majesty to stop. Others simply frowned, caught between the hammer and the anvil.
In the last moments of the General’s life he felt peaceful. His worries had disappeared with his condemnation. He was content with his actions because he had no reason not to be. His son would be proud. Somewhere amidst the commotion he thought he saw one, no two of his soldiers draw their swords.
The General closed his eyes and pictured his son at age thirteen, meditating under the tree in the back yard.