“Who was it who had the bright idea to use sunlight hares in the attack?” The General asked impatiently.
“Hares, sir?” The adjutant hid his amusement. Although the General was only beginning to gray about the temples and the nose hairs, dementia was surely not far off.
“There was a figure on a hill. Outflanking the poor bastards in the ravine. The figure was holding a mirror, reflecting light onto their faces. It wasn’t remotely clever it was… ridiculous, that’s what it was.”
The adjutant’s ruddy complexion momentarily turned white with fear. The General did not notice. He was not in the habit of noticing things that were of no tactical importance.
“The witch is up to her old tricks again,” the major said to the captain
The captain desperately wanted to laugh, but issues of rank prevented him.
“You’ve heard the stories people tell in this place: the witch with her mirror, and so on.”
“Is she a good-looking witch, sir?” The captain asked.
“Why else would she carry a mirror?” The adjutant asked. He had been listening to the conversation.
“And yet whoever she points the mirror at runs like hell,” the major continued thoughtfully. “Have you seen her, sir?”
“No,” said the adjutant.
“No,” said the captain.
“But the general has,” said the adjutant. What he really was thinking was: This place is cursed. Overrun with magic, or, otherwise, by poisonous plants and mushrooms. Why did we come here? But not even the general could answer that question.
Late at night, the adjutant climbed the wooded hill overlooking the ravine. His boots were muddy and he was mildly aware of being drunk. His breath formed a cloud in front of his face and, when he squinted his eyes, he saw a face looming through the cloud.
“Hello,” said the witch, or, rather, a young man in a deceptively loose cloak.
“Well, well,” the adjutant said. He couldn’t tell if he was disappointed or not.
“The locals rarely venture here,” the young man smiled, lighting a pipe, and the adjutant could see that he was handsome. “You must be with the army.”
“And you must be the witch,” the adjutant took a drag from the proffered pipe and coughed.
“Your people fear women more. It’s a good disguise, if one is to enjoy one’s privacy on one’s hill.”
“Tell me about your mirror.”
“Oh, it’s just a very blunt mirror, that’s all. It always shows the truth. Look into it, and you might see unpleasant things. Perhaps you will find out that your beloved grandfather was once cruel and indecent with a child. Or that your lovely, green-eyed wife drinks the blood of lambs to keep herself so lovely.”
The adjutant shuddered. He had a lovely, green-eyed wife waiting for him at home.
“Don’t worry, my friend,” the young man clapped him on the back. “I am not nearly as truthful as the mirror. I have been known to make jokes.”
The adjutant noticed that in this part of the forest, the crickets were silent. The stars did not twinkle overhead. And the tall grass did not shiver in the breeze.
“Who are you?” The adjutant asked.
“Oh, I am one of them.” The young man said. “Of the tribe that meddles in human affairs out of sheer boredom, I suppose,” he added, when the adjutant furrowed his brow in confusion.
“And why are you on the side of our regiment? This is just a border dispute. What does it matter to you?”
“Well, well,” the young man said in a mocking fashion. “I would have thought the terrible effects of my magic mirror on the forces opposing you here would not lead you to question me so roughly, adjutant-sir.”
“I’m only trying to understand. It’s my job.”
“There’s no particular reason,” the young man shrugged. “I like the music that your people produce. I like your modern painting. I like the way your noblewomen dress for dinner – crinoline, I like.”
“It doesn’t seem like a particularly fair reason to help.”
The young man pursed his lips and sighed in a manner that suggested he found the adjutant extremely dull and uncouth.
“And what is fairness anyway? Are border disputes fair to begin with? Has most of your life been guided by the concept of fairness?”
The adjutant shook his head slowly.
“You’ll be general yet,” the young man clapped the adjutant’s shoulder again, and almost sent him flying down the hill.
The adjutant’s future lay in front of him: inevitable, grim, and beautiful, like a trail of bright blood on the good earth.
The general was three years old again. His mother stooped over him, her curls caressing his cheek. In her hand, she was holding a small mirror.
“What do you see, bubby?” The mirror angled, and a burst of light danced across the oil paintings and the china.
“It’s a hare made from sunlight, bubby,” his mother whispered as he clapped his small hands with glee. “Hopping about.”
“But it’s not like the hares in the cage, mama.”
“It’s a special kind of hare, bubby. One that can never be hunted on trapped.” A note of sadness crept into his mother’s voice, and a terrible feeling of loss seized his small heart.
The mirror angled again, and a light-burst landed on the bridge of the future general’s nose.
“What do you see bubby?” She asked.
“I see sun, mama.”
The general opened his eyes. Someone was sitting at his bedside, someone whose breath smelled like wildflowers.
“I have waited,” his mother said. “And you came here, at last.” She did not call him bubby, for he was grown up. For her part, his mother had not aged a day. And the general knew, his large and steady heart told him, that he would never age a single day again himself.
At the doorway, a strange young man lit a match.
“Your mother has come to take you where you belong,” he said in a tone that suggested that he had known the general his entire life.
The general smiled.
In the morning, they found his bed empty, but warm.
The literal translation of “solnechniy zaichik” is “sunlight hare.” The phrase is a colloquial term for a ray of light reflected or refracted.