Smoke billowed and the city burned. The fire bit into the grey. Child-like embers danced in the darkened sky because the glutton named War had eaten all day. Bombs flashed, revealing Death in the night. The Soldier was tired. His feet seemed to break open on the broken pavement he tread. He felt like he had run for a long time, though he could not recall whether it was towards or away from the enemy. He sped from street to street, adrenaline in his blood still guiding him, tearing his head open at every corner. He did not know why he ran. He knew it was necessary.
His costume had been violated by the filth of murder. The theatrics of Life and Death were written all over him. The Soldier worried that he had soiled himself; a man is never ready for War. A gunshot sounded, warm and red. He fired a couple of irons and turned around, faded out, ran another direction, never to return. He haunted streets as nameless as himself. The shadows of anonymous buildings weighed down on him as he flew up a hill. He passed beyond a candy shop with a sign that read: ‘’Nyssa’s Indulgence’’. Flames licked at the letters. The Soldier could not remember the last time he ate. What he had ate. If it had tasted good. He ignored the hunger that lured him towards wickedness.
Heat grasped at his awareness through clouds of thick smoke. He wanted to cough but no sound came out. A brief pause for the young Boy in shorts gawking at whipped cream in the ocean above. The waves turned dark. The grass refused to tickle his feet. The Soldier could not see as he reached the top of the hill. He rubbed his teary eyes; the fumes of memory were beyond him now.
He was greeted by the town’s silent center, a plaza haunted by the joy it used to bring. The cafe chairs had been strewn about. A single table, upright and proud, presented a lunch like an eager waiter, aware of the meal’s superior quality. A tree waved at no one. A bike rested on the trunk, unlocked, but with no one to steal it. The steps no longer applauded with pride at the heels of children who skipped towards their futures. He looked up at the cathedral, hunched over like a parent in mourning. The roof had collapsed and its side had spilled over the plaza, big stones spread everywhere. Amidst the mess was the torn head of a gargoyle that had failed its duty. The Soldier walked towards it, gun at his side, and questioned its solemn eyes.
Day finally split the ashen clouds. Long streaks of warm sunlight stretched out across the plaza. The Soldier stirred. He was not alone. A Knight kneeled with postured grace in the center of the plaza. Rays of sun gathered around the pristine armor that covered him. His sword was at his side. His shield was around his arm, its crest a reflection of the sun awakening above them. A woman had been crushed by the fallen stone. Her corpse lay twisted like only the dead could. The Knight at her side closed her eyes and cleaned her lips. A smudge of bright red filled the cloth he used. His helmet turned towards the Soldier, who had forgotten how to breathe.
“Why do you fight?”
The Knight’s words were clear, but the Soldier was still attuned to the noise of War.
“Why do you fight?”
The Knight repeated his words, yet no patience was lost. The Soldier was lost. He twisted and turned in his boots. There he stood: a muddled man.
“Why do you fight?”
The Knight arose. His stature reminded the Soldier of his ability to speak. His lips parted:
“It is my plight,” the Soldier said.
A warm, low laugh filled the plaza. The knight motioned with amusement towards the marked cloth in his hand.
“See this handkerchief?” he said. ‘’In a past time, we would carry the embellishments of our ladies, to remind us of the promise we made to them. It is easy to forget the quest you set upon for a pretty thing. Easy is it as well to lose yourself in trying to remember. Ugly things are much more difficult to forget. More painful to remember.’’
For a moment the Soldier considered using his gun. He was now accustomed to shooting the things he feared. He reconsidered. The Knight continued: ‘’War is an ugly thing–a true beast. But what about the men that feed it?’’
A flash of curled blonde hair. A Daughter latching on to her mother’s skirts. Goodbye, child of light. The Soldier shook his head. No.
“Why are you here?” The Soldier’s words came out like a tremble. He clenched his teeth to keep them from shaking.
“Answer the question I posed to you and I might answer yours.”
The Soldier seemed to imagine a smirk underneath the helmet. The smirk made his blood boil. He felt a weight lift off his throat and his tongue tasted of pain as he opened his lips.
“I fight for our freedom,” he finally answered. “I fight for honour. I fight because it is right.”
Empty words. He swallowed them as the Knight waited.
The Soldier hung his head and looked down at the weapon he carried. He compared it to the sword hung next to the Knight’s waist, kept securely in its frog. The gun seemed smaller now. Less brave. He noticed darkness around him.
“Daddy, Daddy!” Her curls bounced up and down. The room was lit by a lone candle in the middle of the table. The Father looked down at the curls the Daughter had written upon the page. They were beautiful. She was beautiful, dimples everywhere as she smiled. Light flickered across their faces.
“Can I learn some more?” She was eager and young, but aware of the power the letters she learned held.
“Maybe tomorrow. It is already quite late, darling.” The girl pouted. She was impatient but heard her mother’s words resonate in her mind: “Patience is a virtue.” The Father blew out the candle.
The Soldier moved forward. He set his sights on The Knight. His eyes had adapted to the light.
“I fight to forget. Ugly things are hard to forget. It takes effort to do so. I figured that if I fought hard enough, eventually I would have put in enough effort and I would finally forget. I know it is a foolish notion. But I could not live with my regrets. I told myself I should repurpose myself and hoped to change the outcome of our lives. And I did, though I am not sure if it was for the better. It all seemed too late.”
“Tell me of your regrets.” The Knight guided him gently.
“I could not control my urges. I thought that living a free life meant filling all your desires. We had everything, but everything meant nothing. We were proud of being loud and greedy. It wasn’t until we started losing our freedom that I realized that I had started losing things long before. I was angry. I tried going back to a life of desire instead of working to get back the things I lost.’’
The Father stumbled into the room. He was as quiet as he could be with alcohol masking his sound poorly. The house awoke, as disturbed as he would be the next morning. Sleep could not hold the Daughter. She came to welcome her father home. He did not recognize her. The words she spent so much time to learn hit a wall and were spit back at her. She learned what vomit smelled like. The Mother approached and shielded her the only way she knew how. It was in vain; her small body was flung across the room. They were all in pain. They cried ugly tears the colour of a family broken. Abused. Pain was left unspoken. Forgotten but felt. Pain is funny that way.
Words were lost. The Soldier dropped his gun. The small thing clattered around his feet, littered the street, bit at his toes in frustration. The poor gun had lost its worth, and would not be picked up again. It simmered down in defeat.
The plaza echoed with the sound of moving armor as the Knight approached The Soldier. No, he was no longer a Soldier, now that his weapon was on the floor. He was a Boy, a Son, a Man, a Husband, a Father, a Lover, and a Lost Soul. He had many names, but he did not answer to all of them. He did not remember all of them. He would eventually, but not then. Then was not yet the time.
The Knight waved the handkerchief in front of his face. The Boy remembered the red fire truck he had received for Christmas. His father’s tobacco. His mother smelling sweetly as she reached out to grab him with out-of-bed hair, her old shirt in broken white. He wished he could have stayed in her womb forever. He remembered the games they used to play where he would hide in the covers beneath her, and make her pretend she was pregnant all over again. He remembered asking his mother to marry him and being confused as to why she said no.
He held out his hand and the Knight dropped the handkerchief. It floated down like a petal. A present. It was very soft. The colour of blood reminded him of his own, red and warm. As the Boy watched curiously, the Knight proceeded to lift one of the café chairs out of the rubble. He placed it at the sole table standing in the plaza. He politely bowed and reached out his arm to present the meal that still waited. The Boy was suddenly filled with hunger and he hurried towards the food. He jumped on the chair, his legs swinging back and forth as he sat. The Knight handed him utensils, neatly wrapped in a napkin.
“Thank you,” The Boy said. His voice had not yet grown a beard.
Somewhere a Girl was praying and a Man was passing on. War had been fed and Life began again. While the Boy ate, the Knight looked at the sky. The sun was still shining brightly. The clouds knew their place and slowly drifted away. The Boy chewed loudly with an open mouth and much too fast. His father had not yet taught him manners. He ought to get a good scolding. The reflection of The Knight’s armor showed a Father who was to become a Soldier at the end of his life and onto the next.