***Warning: some adult language***
It was almost noon on a nice day.
The sun was shining white in the blinding blue sky. He had never seen such a nice day. Really. Everything was highlighted, embossed, bought to three-dimensional life. The discarded sword, snapped in half, metal dull with brown stains, almost seemed to float above the black mud. The cannon ahead, left behind by his comrades, its mouth pointed down in defeat…he felt like he could almost reach out and touch the gritty metal, though it was still at least 50 meters away. And the ravens; he could see the sharp metallic edge of each feather. Their eyes, when they looked his way, glinted white like the sun.
A man appeared from nowhere, pushing and running past him. He squeaked in delayed reaction and then squinted in the bright light, watching as the man continued on, stumbling, splashing in puddles. He had started running, at first, but now he was tired. Probably had to do with the gash in his leg. He’d walk to the line.
He wondered briefly when his hearing had left him. He no longer heard the sounds of the fighting. He felt the far-off brittle clash of swords in the tips of his fingers and his palms, the imagined shock of contact. The much closer thuds of the cannonballs reverberated through the thin soles of his too-big boots, up to mid-calf. The gunshots…well, he had heard that some of the Romuetian gangsters liked to shoot traitors in their knees as punishment. His ma had always said he was suggestive, so now he felt the gunshots as twinges in his knees.
The screaming, the gurgling, the grunts and the crying; his skin crawled with those sounds, as if he had slept on a nest of black ants. His ears had checked out, so now he felt the war. He supposed that was why he didn’t notice Crust until the man grabbed his ankle and sent him sprawling into the mud.
He looked up and behind him and felt a dull shock at seeing the cannon. He hadn’t realized he had walked so far. Crust was slightly underneath it, in a small ball of shade, half propped up by a mound of dirt. The man was pale, one hand on his chest, his eyes narrowed against the sunlight. “It’s Rabbit.”
His name was Kenneth, but they—the squad—called him Rabbit, because they could make him jump like a rabbit. His ma had always said he was jumpy and scary, and the guys had picked up on it like hounds on a scent. No one knew what Crust’s real name was; they usually called him ‘my lord’, but it was hard to shout, “You get on trench duty, my lord” and make it sound serious. Crust rang better.
No one knew what Crust’s name was and he didn’t speak of family. He didn’t keep to himself and it would have been better if he did.
Kenneth struggled to right himself in the mud, but Crust held onto his ankle tightly. He only succeeded in scooting closer to him and sitting slightly up right. “There’s…we’re retreating.” His voice sounded strange, so he spoke slower, tasting the words. “Didn’t you hear?”
Kenneth could well remember that moment when he had felt the shouted order to retreat. It was like a splash of cool water on his heated face, invigorating and calming all at the same time.
“I heard.” Crust smiled and then coughed, spitting up blood. It was then that Kenneth knew Crust was dying.
Kenneth’s heart sped up, and he tasted something metallic in the back of his throat. “Let me go, Crust. I gotta go. I got to get to the line.”
“No time for a dying man, Rabbit?” Crust seemed to be struggling to breathe, and his fingers tensed and then relaxed on his chest. “You always seemed like a good guy.”
His heart was still speeding along, and he was frozen, like a rabbit who had spied a hawk’s shadow. The feelings of war were becoming more intense as the enemy drew closer, eating up the land that they had surrendered. On occasion, a cannonball brought up mud and stone close by. Kenneth had been safe, protected, in his dazed little bubble, while he had been walking. Falling into the mud had punctured that bubble, and all he could feel was the trembling certainty that if he stood up and walked away, he might die, and if he stayed there with Crust, he might die.
“Stay, Rabbit. Don’t leave me.”
There was a hint of a command behind Crust’s words and Kenneth felt that his choice had been made for him. “All right. Okay. Okay. I’m…let go of my ankle, please. All right.”
Kenneth repositioned himself so that he was kneeling beside Crust in the mud, slightly sheltered by the abandoned cannon. His wounded leg throbbed. He wrapped his arms around himself and wondered for a moment how long it would take for Crust to die.
Crust, for his part, shifted his body to the right and then to the left. Kenneth noticed that the mud shifted with him, his movements creating a small depression to hold his body.
“Can’t believe it.” Crust shook his head slightly and stared at Kenneth. “Too nice a day for this bullshit.”
“It is a nice day. Real nice. Nicest day I’ve seen since it started.”
They were quiet. The touch of war grew stronger.
“Family’s long dead. Home’s been gone for almost as long. I really don’t have much to live for, but…damn…”
“You’re not wearing your gloves.” Kenneth pointed at Crust’s hands, as if Crust didn’t know his hands were bare. Crust always wore his gloves, nice black leather ones that stopped at the wrist. That’s why they called him ‘my lord’. He always looked as if he were dressed for a genteel tea.
Crust grabbed Kenneth’s hand and Kenneth felt the strength in the fingers, the surprising roughness of his palm. He could feel Crust’s hand in his, almost as if Crust were cutting him with his skin.
“Talk to me. Tell me something. Make it easier.” Crust swallowed hard.
“I pissed myself.”
Crust smiled and closed his eyes, shaking his head. “****ing Rabbit.”
“I don’t know what to say.”
“Any…” Crust gasped and then exhaled. The stain on his gray shirt grew darker and spread. “Anything.”
Kenneth sat there, holding Crust’s hand, wondering how long it would take for him to die, feeling the steps of the enemy coming closer, searching his brain for something to say that would comfort a dying man. His ma always said that he should have listened better in church.
“Reminisce for me.” Crust squeezed his hand. “Take me away from here. Somewhere warm.”
“The clearing,” Kenneth said, the words ripped from him with the eagerness of having found something to say. “There was a clearing…”
He didn’t remember when he had found the clearing the first time, but it must have been sometime after he had turned eight. He had followed a trail into the forest and then left it to cross a stream, crashing through bushes and winding around trees, restless. After half an hour, he had been hit by sunlight, and had found himself in the clearing. It was nothing but a small opening in the forest behind his house, but as the years had gone by, it had taken on a magical quality for him. It was perfectly circular. The grass there was softer, finer, than the grass that grew elsewhere; the colors that the blades took on, green and gold, more vibrant. The birds sang louder and sweeter there, the sun was warmer and the breeze was cooler, more fragrant. There was a stump there, old enough that the bark had been sloughed away, leaving nothing but the hard light gray heartwood. It was a better chair than the best chair in his house.
He had returned to that clearing again and again. There he would stand up to the two boys up the road who had teamed up on him and knocked out his front tooth and gave him a scar on his chin. There he fought in imaginary wars, swinging and thrusting a solid stick into the trunks of the surrounding trees and returned victorious, laden with treasure. There he answered the questions that he was too frightened to answer in class; there he successfully pleaded with his ma to get a dog; there he never did anything wrong. And whenever he left the clearing, he had felt hopeful, that perhaps things would play out like they had in the clearing.
As he had gotten older, his visits had become less frequent, but more serious. There he talked to his pa, who had left his ma before he was born, and asked whether he should stay and take up work as an errand boy instead of leaving for the city to become an apprentice. There he wooed Beth and Dana away from their beaus and got them to go with him to Summer’s Fair. There he wondered what would become of his ma, who had gotten weaker as she had gotten older, if he left. He had asked that question often in the past years.
Then had come the war, and the draft. Some of the young men in town let him know that they intended to escape the draft, go across the border to Emula, and wait for the war to end. They had heard of the enemy from a cousin’s cousin, demons from the very depths of hell, the way they spoke to each other without speaking and how they ate anyone they captured. The war was unwinnable and anyone who joined had better start digging his own grave. But Kenneth couldn’t leave his ma, who nagged at him night after night, mentioning the great pay that soldiers got. When he hinted at his fear, she scoffed at him. “You’ll be fine. Meanwhile, the house is falling down around our ears. One Power save me from my coward of a son.”
“I looked for the clearing then, but I couldn’t find it. I was in that forest until night. Nowhere to be seen. There were a couple that I walked into, but none of them were it.”
“How’d you know?” Crust’s eyes were closed. His chest was slowly, shallowly, rising and falling.
“I could feel it.”
They sat quietly, Kenneth staring at the underbelly of the cannon.
Crust squeezed his hand again, weaker this time. “Describe it to me. As many…details as you can remember.”
So Kenneth described it, his eyes closed; he spoke of how the dirt on the trail into the forest was always cool and dry underneath your feet and how you almost didn’t want to leave the it for the rough ground of the forest. How the stream you crossed was clear and small and always twinkling in the diffused light, how nice a drink from it was on a hot day. How you walked through stillness, the air almost an obstruction, until you broke through the trees and entered the clearing, where it seemed the breezes never stopped. Slowed, but never stopped.
He didn’t know when he stopped speaking, when he got lost in his own mind, back in the clearing. When he opened his eyes again, he was bewildered at the change in perspective. He was on his back, looking up into the belly of the cannon and the blue sky, but…he was also kneeling beside himself. It had to be him, because he saw the scar on his chin. And yet, he was on his back. And then the pain overwhelmed him.
It was as if he had been pulled into cold, cold water. He struggled to breathe, only feeling liquid where air should have been. His chest was on fire, his fingers suddenly weak. His hand dropped down to his side and he watched himself stand up, grimacing slightly at the soiled pants and carefully pulling on the black leather gloves.
“What…” Kenneth swallowed against his own rising blood. “Crust?”
Crust—now him, somehow—leaned over and reached out, touching Kenneth’s cheek. The soft leather on his cheek stung, like a slap. “Thanks, Rabbit.” Then he looked up, squinting into the sun. “Noon. Gotta get to the line.”
“Wait!” Kenneth threw all his remaining strength into the word. Crust glanced into the distance and then at him. His brown eyes softened for a moment. “Think of the clearing, Rabbit.”
Kenneth heard those words echo in his confused, agonized mind as he watched Crust walk away with his body. He felt as if the cannon had collapsed on top of him, the realization was so crushing; he was going to die. He had thought he would walk to the line, but now he was going to die. He pulled another breath of air into lungs that had little room for them, closing his eyes with the effort.
Think of the clearing.
He was sitting on the stump in the near dark. His feet dangled an inch away from the ground. The sun was setting, and he knew his ma would take a switch to him if he stayed out much longer. But he couldn’t move; it felt as if a weight were pressing him down. Besides, he wanted to get back at her, a little bit, for telling him that it was only because she was a good Unpoweran that he hadn’t been killed in the womb.
His foot twitched, and he felt the breeze slowly die, then pushing his hair into the nape of his neck, now merely tickling the strands, now a mere whisper, now gone. The air was still. Heavy. The warmth of the day dissipated, taken with the sun, chill sneaking into the clearing and grazing his skin with sharp feet. The grass blades gave up their color to the coming night, growing duller, solidifying into a mass of gray. The birds, one by one, grew silent. The frogs and the crickets weren’t ready to sing and so they didn’t. The quiet settled somewhere, as heavy as a stone, in his chest.
He knew he should get going, but he didn’t want to leave, didn’t want night to come. So he wished for the sun to stop setting. He closed his eyes and put force behind the wish, seeing himself holding the sun up by the rays to keep it from dipping below the horizon. He saw himself gathering back the light and life into the clearing, the birds singing and the breeze blowing and warmth and sunlight saturating him. He continued wishing even as the light crept further away, the colors grayed, the air chilled and became thicker and thicker with each passing second. Don’t let the sun set, don’t let the sun set, don’t let the sun set…His fingers spasmed, attempting to grip the edge of the stump. He held his breath.
Then…he felt it. Just when he thought it would become full night, it didn’t. When he thought the warmth would continue to leave, it stopped. He opened his eyes, looked to the tops of the trees, and watched the orange light. It stayed clinging to the crowns of the oaks as the seconds and then the minutes passed, not giving up an inch of leaf to the shadows. Somewhere close by a frog began to sing, its voice small and shrill. He exhaled.
The sunset lasted forever.