In the place I used to be from, they have an old legend about a band of warriors – horses, sabers, embarrassingly well-fitted leather chaps, etc. The legend goes that the warriors were brave and noble and fought on the right side of history. Most retired in peace and died nonviolent deaths.
Except for the one warrior that kept on living, that is. He kept on living and living. Last anyone’s heard of him, he was 700 years old and counting.
Impossible, you say. Imagine the paper trail someone like that would generate over time, you say. A warrior wouldn’t be a warrior if he listened to the objections of people on the internet, though. And anyway, there was a lot for him to do. War never goes out of style.
The legend goes that a few hundred years into his deathless existence, the warrior – let’s say his name was Nik, it’s a good name – was riding along through some dusty little town where chickens roam the main square. It was hot and he was thirsty, and he found a tavern and bought some beer. Some things in existence you don’t get sick of, not even after centuries.
A beer wench brought Nik his beverage, and leaned down conspicuously, as beer wenches are supposed to do, but before he got a good look at her tits, he noticed her eyes. And her tits stopped mattering then, and Nik felt uncomfortable. And the beer wench felt uncomfortable. And the joy drained out of the day.
Nik didn’t bother finishing his beer. But he did seek out the beer wench and have words with her. And told her that he recognized her. And the beer wench asked him to please go away.
“It’s too hard,” the beer wench said, narrowing her pretty eyes with their sooty eyelashes. “It’s hard remembering what it was like to be strong, once. I can’t get used to being in a woman’s body. Even this damn fine body. I ran away from home and took a dead-end job, because it was easier than trying to figure out what any of this means. And the thing is, you’d think that remembering my past life would make it easier – that I could put it all together in my head and some kind of epiphany would occur, but it hasn’t. And I am growing older. And I am growing impatient. And most of the customers here are crap. At night I dream about the song my saber made as it cut through the air. At night I dream about that.”
Nik rode from that town feeling shaken. For the first time, he felt as if he had nowhere to go. He didn’t want to move in time, he wanted to be a statue, to be still. You’d think he would be glad of his apparent immortality then, but he had all sorts of dark thoughts about it. His fellow warriors had moved on through the world, their souls were learning lessons. They were unpleasant lessons – but at least it seemed that God had not forgotten to bestow them. Nik felt forgotten. He felt that he might as well have been born as a lump of rock.
A few years later, another war came. Riding to catch up with it, Nik came across the town. There were no more chickens in the square, and most of the buildings were destroyed. He didn’t bother looking for the body of the beer wench in the rubble. One way or another, she had moved on.
They say Nik still out there, you know. Riding through the landscape, square-jawed and resolute. But they say a lot of things in the place I used to be from.
I heard this story when I first came to work for my uncle. He owned a nice hotel in the old part of my hometown. I did a lot of spreadsheets for him there. I had a hand in redecorating some of the rooms. I told my uncle what was fashionable and what was ridiculous – older men with business degrees often need that kind of help. I had a good eye for bedspreads. Every once in a while, after dark, I would knock on the doors of those rooms and be let in and stand in the golden light of the old chandeliers, and cock my head to one side, and let my hair rain down over one bare shoulder, and be invited to stay.
I was young. Fun was easy to come by. And anyway, it was good to distract myself. The fiefdom was faltering.
Don’t ask me where it went wrong. Modern historical analysis never interested me much.
I noticed one day that life around me was getting frayed around the edges. More and more cracks opened up in the pavement. The birds in the trees started losing their feathers, which drifted down very slowly, accompanied by music that came from out-of-tune pianos in the crumbling apartments. The twilights grew flatter and duller, as if pressed between the pages of boring old books that no one would ever pick up again.
You might say that I was simply getting older. But that was not the point.
I’d been born with a presence like a cold, hard pebble in my heart. I didn’t talk to many people about it. Most people don’t like to hear about your problems, unless there is something glamorous about them.
I carried that pebble around with me. I took into the rooms of the men I visited.
A few years into my time at the hotel, I came to the room of a man who looked like he’d been on the road for too long.
We drank champagne that was so cold it made my jaw ache, and we talked for a very long time. He asked me if anyone was waiting up for me back home.
“No,” I said. “I am free.”
“Free is a fancy word for alone,” he said. I didn’t take offense. It seemed as though he was talking about himself as well.
When he took his clothes off, I wanted to get a good look at his tattoos, but he didn’t give me much time. Sex with him was rough and disorienting, which is the kind of thing I’d always liked. I felt the pebble inside of me come loose and knock around the chambers of my heart, and I wanted to say his name then, but it had already slipped my mind.
The light of dawn made the room seem as though it was submerged underwater. Slowly, his tattoos came into focus. Pagan military drawings – iron wolves, suns with swords instead of rays of light – the kind of thing you’d see on a tattered banner in a museum. You’d think I wouldn’t recognize it, but it was modern history I had no use for, like I already said.
“You’re an old soul,” he told me as he left.
“Is that a good thing?” I asked.
“It can be. If you want. What do you want?”
I wasn’t sure what to say just then. And it made me feel afraid.
He kissed me in a way that didn’t feel like a comma or an ellipsis. After he left, the chambers of my heart felt airy, filled up with wind and weak sunlight, like the echoing rooms with high ceilings in the old buildings of my hometown.
Our fiefdom kept on keeping on, but it was getting worse at the task. An accident at a secret military factory set a bunch of wandering black holes loose in the countryside. They got a lot of women and children and old people who couldn’t get away fast enough. Still, it wasn’t as bad as the man with razors for teeth, who went around stripping children of their skin in the smaller towns, and eating them while they were still alive. The police failed to catch him twelve times in a row. When they finally caught him, a crowd stormed the first court hearing. Razor man died in the melee – but so did a number of innocent people, including the court reporter, who was trampled to death. She had been a year ahead of me at school, and nobody had ever said a mean thing about her, and there was a school get-together over the incident, and we looked at how much older we had gotten, and cried.
The government drank. Members of parliament air-lifted cisterns of rose water onto the roofs of official buildings – all to bathe their harems in. Instead of turning golden, the leaves turned brown. Armies fell asleep in wheat fields and never rose up again. Everyone was talking about war in the vague way that socialites talk about poverty, and the rain drummed like a lover’s fingers on the window glass, but when you looked outside, the street was always empty and the lights were flickering desperately, as if being choked.
One day, my uncle shut up his hotel, boarded up the windows, and went north. He was tired of having to pay off both the mob and the security services to make sure his business was kept operational. I felt sorry to see that years of my work had come to nothing. It got cold that winter, and then it got colder, and the heating failed. My teeth chattered a lot, and I worried about shattering them – because all of the dental clinics had closed.
At the first hints of springtime, I went west. I stayed on an old farm that had seen all sorts of times. It was owned by a man who had owed my uncle a favor. Favors were their own kind of currency in the worsening economy. I redecorated several rooms on that farm. I got rid of the old molding and had the creaky old floors ripped up. I promoted the virtues of new pipes and solar heating. We did argue quite a bit over his provincial tastes – because he had money, he felt he knew better when it came to everything – but it was good to be living closer to the earth, even if the earth had become poisoned.
One day in the summer, a couple of orphans came by the farm. They brought back strange tales of the world ending. The world appeared to be carrying on, but the skies got red at night. Nobody at the farm liked that. They said it could be bad for the crops.
People are always superstitious, but they turn especially superstitious at complicated points in history. Soon, there were mutterings that the orphans had brought misfortune on their backs, though no immediate misfortune could be identified. Soon, I could hear warding spells chanted at night, in the corn. I became fed up with all of that and left, and took the kids with me.
We rode a train that rattled too much and finally stopped in a field and would go no further. A town smoldered in the distance. In the opposite direction, another town lit up as the sun went down.
“If this is the end of the world, it’s extremely half-assed,” one of the orphans said.
“Half-hearted,” the other orphan, the more polite one of the two, agreed.
That night, I stared at the empty field through the dirty window of the train and wished that I had been born a warrior. A proper one. I wished I had death-dealing hands. I knew that nobody was coming to help us, and that we would have to do the heavy lifting ourselves. I worried that we would fail and die violently and messily. It was reasonable to worry.
The orphans held me tight as they slept. They held me tight – and the indifferent stars did shimmer.