FATHER WILLIAM

By Thomas Rindt

        "'You are old,' said the youth; 'and your jaws are too weak

   For anything tougher than suet;

   Yet you finished the goose, with the bones and the beak --

   Pray, how did you manage to do it?"

                                                    -- Lewis Carroll

 

 

 

On a hook was draped a brown cloak, heavy woolen dark brown with a border of gold at the base extending nearly the circumference of the enfolding harbor.  On its far side, its exposed leeward channel, toward the stand, facing away from view, were four rows of buttons, clasps, for holding the garment in place about the throat, which held it now to the hook, to the stand, skeletal, with a claw from which dangled the old man's brown cloak.  Also away from view, at the level of the chest, just above where the garment, when worn by its owner, would rest next to the heart, five rows of medallions hung hidden up close to the body of the stand, having settled there as the cloak ceased moving after having been hung:  one bronze, one brass, one silver, and two gold, five in each row, each with three red strips of ribbon, pleated slightly, at three equidistant parallel points across the medallions, the equatorial band slightly the biggest of the three.  A high collar extended the cloak's narrow summit, stiff and straight, like a ring of mountains guarding the entrance to a lagoon.  Just barely visible, as slim crescents at apogee and perigee, were the cloak's armholes, empty now, limp, appearing to slowly come together like a fissure repairing its tear after a seizure.  Hidden from any perspective save inside the body of the stand, the lining held itself invincible in its invisibility, the slender strip which hugged the stand tightly from between the just barely parted edges of the cloak the sum total of its exposure to the outside, and even it as quickly blocked by the stand as it became exposed.  Any slice of the rainbow might smolder beneath that dark brown outer layer for all anyone knew, or the entire of the spectrum, or none:  what could not be seen did not perhaps exist, imagination alone able to detect anything more of its construction, its color, texture, specific gravity, or any other conceivable property.  Tall, cloak on a hook, standing in an empty corner, hung from a sturdy, well constructed stand, in tribute, an old man's cloak, unworn.

 

In the little town was a closed casket.  In the little town was a sole mourner.  In the little town were no pallbearers to be found.  Dusty were its streets, dusty the path an old man treaded, rope in hand, casket in tow, kicking up the dusts of the ancient street leading to the cemetery at the rear of the church, dragging behind him this plywood box heavied from inside.  His hands were chafed a bright pink, nearing the earliest shades of red after the pinks fell back.  His hands were roughened, the rope could not dig into their calluses, try as it might, and it seemed determined to try with all its might.  The hemps and jutes became little by little cactused from the strain of pulling this old man's casket, closed casket, its contents, its solitary inhabitant, made inimical to viewings.  The fraying rope was flung across his left shoulder, its beginnings held fast in both hands which pressed hard against his chest just above his heart, its termination tied securely to the eye of a hook braced to the front of the casket lid.  His steps were weary, his breath irregular, his tired white hair matted with perspiration which seeped from his brow down into his eyes to sting them, to blur his path, to entice yet more tears to flow.  His clothes were dusty, the old green of his shirt and pants showing in August what covered the fields; his hair was gradually picking up and holding dust in its damp recesses.  His sandals began looking more like hooves than shoes, so grimy were they becoming, his feet barely distinguishable from them.  He had just passed the little way station where the mail was delivered twice a week; that meant he was just past the halfway mark from his old shack to the yet older church and cemetery.  His lips moved in prayers, though his voice had nothing left to give God, he found too little strength to talk and work at the same time.  He had to save his voice for formal prayers, over the grave, once he had dug it and lowered the casket into it.  Then it would be back home again, along the same well worn path.

 

The boy cried for his grandfather.  He stood in the procession, at the head of the casket, marching solemnly toward the burial mound, crying.  He knew a boy no longer cried at age fifteen, not legitimately; yet he cried.  He would not be punished, only reprimanded, his tears were still small, the distortion to his face slight.  He knew he was crying, his father and mother knew he was crying, but no one else was near enough or aware enough of his presence to notice; no one but he knew how much crying the meager store he displayed represented.  He looked down at his white clean gloved hands, they were of no use to him right now, he could not risk smearing them with his tears, so he had to let his cheeks bear the stigma.  His chest was out, his stomach drawn tightly in.  His hat felt good, warm, in the February chill.  The boy's boots obscured the ground, desensitized his feet.  He marched in honor of his grandfather.  He had saluted once at the viewing, at the beginning of the requiem; he would salute once more, at the mound, just before the casket would be lowered.  His red cadet's jacket felt small, helpless to him next to his father's deep blue jacket, even if both had the same white pants accompanying it.  He was no more ashamed of his tears than he was of his jacket.  Everyone knew he was still a boy, everyone knew the sword he wore down his leg was yet for decoration; he had not used it yet, and his red jacket informed everyone else of it as boldly as it reminded him of it.  Grandfather, the boy wondered, when will I ever be like you?  Why couldn't you have lived long enough to see me receive my first, at least my first, medallion, my first bronze?  It wouldn't have been that much longer, just three years.  Then we could have shared stories, tales of our exploits, maybe even gone together on a raid.  Father is a pen-pusher, a bureaucrat, not like you, or like the way I want to be.  I want to be a warrior like you, grandfather, not an executive behind a desk.  I want the brown cloak of a warrior, not the navy blue coat of a pen-pusher.  Your cloak dwarfs my father's jacket as surely as his dwarfs my cadet's jacket.  Why grandfather, why?  Why couldn't you have lived?  Why couldn't we have gone on a raid together, just you and I?  You could have shown me how it's done.  I'm so scared I'll do it wrong, grandfather.  I know there's a right way, a proper way, and I know no one can ever teach it to me the way you could have.  You would have taken the time to show me, you would have been patient with my mistakes, tolerant.  I'm scared, grandfather, I'm scared.  What if I forget something, or if I'm weak, or if I'm too quick to get it over with?  What if I hurry so fast he dies right off?  What if there are no screams?  If even you nearly failed your last raid before retiring, then what chance have I?  What if he doesn't scream?  Oh dear God, dear blessed God, I'm scared!  If he doesn't scream they'll know it, the other warriors.  I'll shame you.  Why did you have to take him from me so soon?  Why, God, why?

 

It was hard for the old man to recall his grandson's face.  A fifteen year old boy does not have much of a face of his own yet, not yet, thought the old man as he got the boy's best Sunday clothes out of the closet for him.  That was not quite it though, for the boy's face was his own, its expressions unique if not yet distinct; no, not that it was not yet his, but that it was still only his:  it had not been molded yet by outside forces - perhaps that was it, he thought as he readied the suit.  An unforeseen nail lurking somewhere near the door jamb caught hold of the small gray suit jacket and ripped a long tear in it before the old man realized what the noise was.  He sighed at this misfortune, thankful that if it had to rip at least it was at the back where it wouldn't show.  Then he remembered what it was for and nearly cursed aloud at what seemed to him for just that isolated moment the perversity of things.  For it did not truly matter if the tear were visible or not, were at the back or the front, since the casket lid would have to be closed anyway, or else the body turned face downward, in which case the tear would show precisely for its being at the back.  It could not possibly matter; but even so he set to repairing it as best he could, with needle and thread, though he seemed to have only white thread, neither gray nor any other nice variety of shades - only the surgical white from long ago, long before even he was born.  The boy should be buried whole, he thought; then, from a furtive sideways glance, he saw the boy's body lying on the small bed.  He began to cry so hard he had to cease his sewing.  At least his clothes should be whole, he corrected himself.  He vaguely recalled his grandson's face, but his memory was shorted by the sight of the boy, the horrible sight, as he had found him after the raid had ended and it was safe to come out, safe for those not already trapped out in the open, like a boy at play.  He  could not even begin to recognize the boy, neither now nor when he had come upon him, though for some mystical reason he knew it was his grandson, the boy's clothes lying but a few yards off, a piece of the boy's shirt torn from it and clasped in his frozen fist merely confirming what the old man already knew.  In his heart he knew from the first who this maimed corpse belonged to, who had the responsibility of burying it, who had to mourn for it, who had to drag it through town in its closed casket kicking up dust along the way.  He knew.  He had collected the parts of the boy's body which had been severed, the usual parts, the ones always severed from the young boys whenever the raids occurred, collected them, all but the one, the same one, the one always taken, the left eye, and wrapped them in the boy's shirt, then carefully, tenderly pulled the boy's pants over the corpse and picked him up and carried him home, the wrapped severed parts lying on his chest, seeping only a few drops of blood.  It was in modesty he had first put pants on the boy many years ago, to cover what had begun to show; now it was in shame, for what was no longer there.  The boy was light to carry, perhaps from the loss of so much blood, though he was small anyway.  There was an awful odor coming from the body where the anus had been ripped open, something not normally done - so why now? the old man asked.  Why to him? he asked over and over carrying the body home in his arms, though it would have been easier to carry it flung across his shoulder like a sack of flour; then either the odor faded or else he had gotten used to it, and his question too ceased to stand out from among his other thoughts.  He hated to think what hideous agony it must have caused the boy to have whatever had made so dreadful a wound on his body inflicted upon him.  He hated above all else to have to think of that.  He tried, as he trudged home, not to look down at the boy's mutilated face, at the empty eye socket, the swollen mouth, the broken nose, the ear stub, the puffy horror-swollen right eye, which he had forgotten to shut while the boy was still on the ground.  He tried instead to recall the boy's real face, but it was hard, as he had nothing, no context, to put it in, no other faces he could recall which were similar enough to his grandson's to form any general type against which to place it.  It was like no other face he could recall, so it was lost to him, or seemed to be, for just that very reason.  All the same, he tried to picture the boy's face; he even shut his eyes just for that purpose, he knew the way home well enough not to need his eyesight to guide him.  He thought he heard a thump at his feet, but he failed to look, he was so close to seeing his grandson's face in his memory that nothing on earth seemed cause enough to abandon his task.  He never quite succeeded though, the face kept fading in and out, appearing then vanishing then slipping into a haze, then a fog, then a pool of water, then it was gone.  It was always motionless, like a mask, not a face at all.  It was not until he arrived back home that he became aware what the thumping noise he had heard had been.  It saddened him.  One of his grandson's severed limbs, the left hand, had somehow worked its way loose from the shirt in which it was wrapped and fallen at his feet.  The rest were intact:  the right ear, with its narrow sliver of a lobe; the right arm, below the elbow, a fine blonde down on it, where the blood was not crusted, and a torn piece of shirt in the clenched hand; the right foot, with so much sand under the toenails; the other parts too, adolescent parts.  They were all there, just as he had put them.  Only the hand was gone, as he discovered.  He had gently laid the boy down on his bed then had begun the inventory which yielded the missing limb, though he could already tell from the forced opening at one end of the shirt that it had been tampered with, that something had been jarred loose and had fallen at his feet, with a thump -  the left hand as it turned out.  He went back for it.  It had not been long, but long enough for the dogs and the vultures to have picked it clean of flesh to where it scarcely resembled anything human any longer, certainly not a fifteen year old boy's left hand.  He shook his head no.  I won't have it, he thought.  It's no longer his.  I do not wish a claw in my grandson's casket to lie beside him forever.  Leave it where it lies.  It's nothing to me now; just be glad the vultures and dogs had not seen his body itself before I did.  He left, but returned before he had taken ten steps, to cover it over with dirt:  to dig out a little place in the ground for it, then to bury it.  The rest go with the boy to God, the old man thought.  The hand stays behind.  The boy will have to say his prayers before God with only one hand.  God will understand, just as He'll avenge the boy's death, as He always does the injustices inflicted upon us.  He took the boy's pants off, cleaned the body as best he could, got it ready for burial, dressed it up in its best Sunday suit, though with a rip in it, then closed the casket lid.  It was in modesty he had first put pants on the boy; now it was in shame.  But the boy would have those special, private parts in his right pants pocket, wrapped in a clean white handkerchief, right ready to take out and show God as soon as his prayers were over, so that God would know his sex and could house him accordingly.  The arm and the foot were lying beside the boy, braced so they would not become dislodged in the journey through the old village streets to the cemetery behind the church.  The ear was in the breast pocket, snuggled close to the boy's chest so that the very first heartbeats when God awoke him would be heard by it.  But it might be a long time before God called him.  God had to take things in the order of their importance; it was His way.  The old man understood this very well, so when he said the final prayers over his grandson's grave, he tempered everything accordingly, scaled everything to his place within the order of things.  His prayers were informal, spontaneous, made up as he went along.  First was the plea for justice.  "I know you will avenge this terrible thing, in your own way and your own good time," he prayed.  "Please do not be offended or disgusted by my grandson's appearance," he prayed.  "Put him back together please," he asked.  "And while you're at it, maybe repair his skin, clear up those blotches."  The drought had killed off most of the trees, there was almost no shade, the little stone markers at the graves were bleached bone dry until they looked as if they could be wiped off the earth with a dust cloth.  There was no place for the boys to play outdoors where the sun's rays did not crush down upon them to scratch their young skin; they all had the kind of lesions the old man prayed to God to remove from his grandson.  "And one last favor," the old man prayed:  "please make my heart stop soon.  You've shown me enough of life now.  I'm ready anytime you are.  Amen."

 

The rain had intensified, it was a cold rain, but still a gentle rain; it was February, and like all the months February was kind to these people on the coast.  The boy sat on the edge of the bed, reluctant to get undressed.  The fading light outside seemed to swirl the clouds into strings of pearl lying strand close upon strand like a necklace about the world.  "I know I turn sixteen tonight," the boy explained to his young companion lying, behind him, on her side, facing his back, propped up on her elbow, "but grandfather was buried today, this afternoon, at four-ten P.M.  I know my duty, I know I turn sixteen, and I know I'll perform it; but not well.  I miss grandfather.  I miss his stories.  Why should he die while so many useless people continue to live?  One night he was alive, saying his prayers, I heard his nightly prayers, asking God for forgiveness for his sins, though he had none.  Then he got in bed, shut his eyes in sleep, and in the morning he was dead.  He never woke up.  He died peacefully in his sleep - but he died, damn it, he died!"  The boy's red cadet's jacket was unbuttoned, his white undershirt a sliver showing where it parted, a corridor as of light between the enfolding clouds of a deep sunrise.  He black trousers were wrinkled horizontally at the crotch, a nightness just below the sunrise:  he had been sitting there, on the edge of the bed, a long while; but the creases down the front of his legs were intact.  He could easily make inspection tomorrow morning; he could arise from his bed, a man, and get dressed; and the jacket, once it was buttoned, would hide his wrinkled crotch, allowing him to go directly to morning inspection, crisp, fresh, orderly.

 

"If I don't mind being used, why should he?" the girl mused somewhat testily, not speaking to the boy directly but not unaware how her voice carried.  She played with her long blonde hair with her right hand, not like a sophisticated young woman attempting seduction with alluring gestures, but like a girl whose long silky hair bothered her, got in her way, and was played with, impatiently, only as a prelude to pushing it away from her face.  She was fourteen, a virgin, with breasts not fully developed, with a thin body, almost boyish, but with big blue eyes and a sensuous full mouth.  There was no response to her observation.  "I don't mind being used," she repeated, still to herself, though louder this time.

 

"What?" the boy asked.  "Did you say something?  Being used?  You said 'being used?'  What do you mean?"

 

"Well, you know," she said.

 

"No, I don't."

 

"Being used," she repeated.  "Like now.  Or like it's supposed to be now.  For your sixteenth birthday.  Your manhood.  Your first hurt.  For that, you know."

 

The boy turned half toward her, his face various shades of puzzlement,  creased between the eyebrows, drawn at one side of the mouth, pulled upward and in along the sides of the nose as if sniffing, the whole head cocked to the right.  His face was slightly flushed, his dark wavy hair spilled a few of its looser curls onto his forehead, his dark eyes were still glazed with sadness.  The red satin spread on the bed puckered into soft folds around the boy as he turned, rippling like a pool.  "What do you mean 'used?'" he asked in complete puzzlement.  "I don't use you - how can I use you?  All I do is express my manhood.  Or try," he added in a whisper.  "What has 'used' got to do with it?"  The girl merely shrugged her shoulders.  The boy reached across with his right hand and slapped her across the face.  "You  don't shrug," he explained matter-of-factly but politely.  "When you're asked a question, you answer.  Particularly by a man.  Now what has 'used' got to do with it?"

 

"Nothing, I guess," the girl said in a disappointed voice, the lack of a justification for her observation more painful than the boy's reprimand.  She had felt that she was being used, especially if she got pregnant, and gave birth to a boy, which would be fed to the President's dogs, first it arms, ripped out, then its legs, finally the trunk, the head then marinated in brine as a special canine delicacy; though a girl would have been allowed to live, like her, at least long enough for this phase of the initiation into manhood to be completed.  She had just felt it, that she was being used; but when pressed for specifics, nothing she could think of seemed able to substantiate or justify her feeling, it was all too vague.

 

"Please refrain from making wild statements which you cannot support," the boy ordered.

 

"Yes sir," the girl answered.

 

"You do not call me sir yet," the boy explained patiently, "not till I have been fully initiated into manhood."

 

"Tomorrow?" the girl asked.

 

"No, not tomorrow either.  Mating is only the first step.  I must perform my other duties as well.  I must complete my studies; I must go among my people to work for their well being; I must carry out a raid.  Once I have brought back proof of my worthiness, the left eye, then you must call me sir.  If you are allowed to live that long.  It's doubtful.  Without your virginity you have no purpose in life."

 

"But if you impregnate me?" the girl asked.

 

"Then you will live until the termination of your labor.  If a girl, you nurse it.  If not, it dies."

 

"And I also," the girl mused.  The boy nodded, somewhat pedantically.  He turned away from the girl to once again face off into the emptiness of the far wall, looking on past the black bureau which stood against the wall, on past its silver trim, its silver knobs, on past the plaque sitting on it, past the inscription which read "A man is what he makes of himself / All the universe awaits his choice / A man is what he does and what he believes / God smiles down on those He loves."  Past all this the boy looked, to a point on the wall halfway between the bureau and the ceiling, trying to formulate an image there, a picture of a kind, loving face, the face of his beloved grandfather as it smiled down on him so many nights as he lay, a little boy, in bed awaiting God's precious sleep to descend upon him as golden moonbeams.  Smiled down, grandfather William's old face with its deep creases and its healthy living glow running like mighty waters within those creases.  The boy was five and a half, his grandfather eighty-three and set to retire the next day, his final in a long lifetime of raids carried out that very day.

 

"I have a surprise," the boy's grandfather announced.

 

"What is it grandfather?" the boy asked eagerly.

 

Beaming with pride, the old gentleman pulled a trinket from his pocket.  Or what might have been a trinket.  "It's yours," he said to his grandson, placing it gently in the awaiting little hand.  "My last one," he went on to explain, "and it's yours:  my last, your first."

 

"Oh thank you sir, thank you, I'll cherish it always, I promise I will.  Always."

 

"I know you will.  Shall I tell you a story?" the old gentleman asked.

 

"Oh yes sir, please, please do!" the boy answered eagerly.

 

"Of my final exploit?"

 

"Oh yes sir, yes, please please sir!" the boy chirped out eagerly.

 

"Very well then, but you must promise to go right to sleep when I've finished."

 

"I promise, I promise sir," the boy replied earnestly.

 

"That's a good boy," the old gentleman said proudly.  He paused a moment to consider where he might best begin.  "It was quite a day," he began at last, "quite a day for me," repeating the opening phrase to better evoke the atmosphere of a tale.  Thinking back ten and a half years on it now, the boy, sitting on the edge of the bed, staring at the wall, felt warm, loved, secure.  The tall old man seemed to rise up before him, the earth around him almost visibly lighting up, the white hair an ozone to keep the dark places beyond from burning unseen the beautiful earth below, the glittering dark eyes each a command, both together the grand design, the supreme order, the divine plan revealed.  "Quite a day for me," he said down gently to his young grandson.  "The land beyond the hills is all parched; it never rains, boy, it is perpetual dust, over there, beyond.  It was hot, boy, the air scorched, it looked it even.  Remember the time the maid scorched my white linen shirt with the iron and had to be punished?  Remember the brown blotch on it? and the ones on her face when we let you hold the iron to it?  That was how the air looked over there beyond the hills.  The trees are reduced to twigs, come from an oven, boy, dried out and shrunk like the sack we wrapped the maid in.  We came silently, boy, fifty of us.  The boys were all out playing.  They didn't know it, but only one was fated to die.  Fifty of us, boy, but my final raid, so only one would die, only mine.  A final tribute to a great warrior.  They looked up finally, the boys, from their playing, and saw us.  We had moved like wind, silently, only three hundred yards from them before they noticed us.  They all scrambled.  Worms, boy; vermin, boy.  Panicked, and scrambled, just like worms.  But one froze for a moment.  I saw him, I know he saw me, and in that moment he and I both knew he would be the one, singled out, separated, caught, killed.  My last one.  We both knew, boy.  Warrior, and victim:  we both knew.  I'd seen him a thousand times before, boy.  The same puny face, over and over, a thousand times, reaching clear back to my first one.  Even at three hundred yards I recognized him.  Soon I had him, there was no escape for him, and he knew it and I knew it.  He struggled some, at first, then gave up, like a worm, like vermin, just gave up.  How I wanted to rip his eye out right then and there, but I couldn't, it is not the way, the eye can be taken only after the victim is dead, and the eye has hardened sufficiently to keep from being mashed.  I took his manhood first, right off, with my middle knife, this one here, boy.  He squealed and shook and spurted blood, but he did not scream.  I held his hands behind him.  He froze on me.  His ugly blue eyes got so big and ugly I was afraid they would both pop out; that is why it looks so odd, the one I took.  I had held him and with my other hand undressed him, then first took his manhood as I held his hands behind him.  He only squealed.  I spat in his face, hoping to snap him out of it, but he seemed only to go deeper into this abominable lethargy.  I jerked his head back by his stringy yellow hair and growled down at him.  His soft lips, rounded, fleshy, weak, the same lips I have seen a thousand times.  The same soft cheeks, very little bone, the same low brow, the same small chin, the same stringy yellow hair I have seen a thousand times.  Each one seemed weaker than the last, more easily subdued, less fight, less life in him.  Each one I killed more brutally, but each one put up less struggle, until this final worm, this final vermin, put up no struggle but just stood there frozen to be slaughtered without so much as a scream.  Next I took his foot, but I did not hack it off with my sword, I sawed it off with my large knife to give him greater agony.  He moaned and squirmed and his ugly blue eyes all but popped out, and he oozed scummy sweat all over, and his body stank from it, but still he did not scream.  So when I took his hand, I made him hold the knife and guided his hand, forcing his right hand to slice off his left one.  He began trembling like an old man palsied, all his muscles began tightening up into knots.  And he began crying, sniveling, whimpering, crying.  Like a baby, not like a man.  I loathed him, I was determined he was going to scream.  Like a man.  Not cry and whimper like a thing, like those babies we feed the President's dogs.  I grabbed him and cut off his ear so fast I doubt if he barely felt it, but my anger at this infernal worm, this vermin, was almost unendurable.  'Damn you!' I roared.  'Damn your soul!  Die like a man!  Scream, fight, live:  let your death mean something!  Scream, fight!  Scream, damn you!'  I even began beating him, but still nothing, just that same whimpering cry.  In a fury I hacked his right arm off just below the elbow.  He almost passed out, but God was with me, He roused him up again, thankfully, He roused the boy.  Not enough to scream.  Not enough to be a man, to live, the feel the surging vitality of life and the horror of losing that life, piece by piece, bit by bit by slow agonizing bit.  Not enough for that.  I damned him again, I prayed to God to damn him; and I prayed for guidance.  'Dear God help me' I prayed.  'Help me awaken him, help me find a way to make this vermin testify to your glory.'  A man's death should mean something to him, boy.  I was determined to make him scream, he was not going to cheat me of victory, of knowing I had killed a man, not a stockyard animal, but a man, whose screams tell the world of my valor and my devotion to the one true God.  I am a warrior boy, not a butcher of cattle.  I will not be insulted, I will not have my stature diminished by a man who acts no better than a head of cattle; nor will I have God's sacred plan thwarted by a whimpering worm.   I prayed again for guidance.  I thought for a moment, then I knew God had answered my prayers.  I knew, and I could tell he knew.  The boy knew.  I could see the terror building in his eyes.  Even after all he had suffered, he knew from the gleam in my eye that it was as nothing compared to what was coming.  Now at last he was ready, he was no longer paralyzed by the fear, it was made an active part of him, he a part of it.  He muttered 'No, no, please, no.'  And I smiled at him, for at last he and I understood one another.  At last he understood his proper role - the sole reason God had put him here.  I grabbed hold of him and turned him upside down.  He began kicking and struggling.  At last he understood.  He kicked and struggled like a man, but I held him fast.  I took my sword and I set it, very gently, at the opening of his anus, and left it sit there a moment so he would know what was coming.  He yelled 'No! please! no! in God's name no!' Then I rammed my sword up his anus, its entire length.  God in heaven did he scream then!  Dear God above did he scream then!  He screamed as I have never head a man scream, as no man alive has ever screamed.  Then I withdrew my sword, only slowly, gently, to let him feel it all over again, only slowly, each wound doubling in pain and in duration.  As much as he screamed before, he screamed doubly then.  Screamed so hard his vocal chords snapped.  He just ceased screaming, all at once.  I thought he was dead.  I turned him over, and he was still screaming, but no sound came out.  Then I saw down in his throat the strands of his vocal chords, they had snapped and he was now choking on them, gagging, strangling, choking.  I smiled at him, because he had done himself proud.  At long last he had understood what it meant to live.  He did us both proud.  And more than that, he glorified almighty God.   Then he died, and I took his eye.  That is why it looks as it does, boy, that eye.  It is the eye of a man who screamed himself to death.  Cherish it, boy,  Cherish it always, it is a badge of honor, both mine and his.  Supreme badge.  He understood, he became a man, he lived.  I gave him life, I then took it back.  His face will remain with me forever.  I see him right now; distorted though it was, horrible, grotesque, distorted to hideousness, still I see him as clearly, as perfectly, as if he were standing before me.  I see his face as it was, only with the understanding I gave him.  I see all of them, in his, for all are alive, a thousand faces of a thousand victims, all the same, each contained in his, in its softness, its roundness, its look of gentle pleading, of incomprehension, which I hardened into a man's face, its hideousness its proof of its having at last understood, of having become finally a face, a real person's face, hard, alive, hideous - the hideousness of agony - the chisel which in my hands and through my agency molded it, formed it, created it.  From nothing, something; from the chaos of softness, manhood; from the disorder, order.  From a boy, a man.  Cherish it always, boy.  My last is your first."  My last is your first.

 

"God I miss him," the boy cried.  He turned toward his young companion.  She had ceased playing with her hair; it had been pushed away from her face.  She asked if he was ready now to become a man.  He looked into her soft blue eyes, at her round soft mouth, at her tiny ear lobes, at her boneless cheeks.  "I will do my duty," the boy said.  "Not well, for my heart is not in it.  But I will do it."  He removed his red cadet's jacket.

 

"No," the old man said at his grandson's grave, the safest container for the boy's maimed body, the best protection from the periodic raids from across the mountains, on the coast, where it rained and the vegetation was vibrant and the boys did not have to play in the hot sun all day long till they got blotches all over their bodies.  "No, I won't say the regular prayers," he explained to God.  "They do not seem appropriate, so if it please you dear God I'll make up my own as I go, so they'll seem more real to me.  If I began by saying 'Thank you, Father, for the great gift of life,' and went on to say 'The boy's life was full and rich and happy and peaceful and I commit it now to you, Father':  if I tried to say these prayers, as we're taught to say, I would burst out in tears, so I won't say them.  I thank you, God, that only one boy got caught outside, this raid.  He was a fine boy, God, and I know you'll take him, once he explains it was not his fault what happened to him.  I know too you'll take care of whoever did this to him.  You know all things.  It saddens you to have your children struck down in their prime.  If it were not for the mountains I know your tears would fall on us.  You won't mind, will you, if I tell you a little about the boy?  You don't mind either, do you, that I don't have flowers to mark his grave?  I know the flowers help absorb the smell of decay, which is so disheartening to you.  He was a fine boy, God."  The old man remembered a thousand small things his grandson had said and done; he wanted to relate them all to God, but neither was there time nor was he able to separate them long enough from one another to focus on just one at a time.  He found he could not speak of them at all, that he could not relate them to God, but only think of them.  It saddened him till he recalled that God could read his mind as well as his tongue, that God would know his grandson through his thoughts.  He thought of the little boy running naked, of the bright green pants he had gotten to cover the boy's nakedness; he thought too of the fine gray suit he had gotten for the boy's wedding next year.  He thought of the yearly carnivals:  they were recalled as a progression of entrances, the grandfather and grandson passing through a tent flap, at first hand in hand then gradually, as the boy grew, the hands parting.  He thought of the boy's boasting how easy the great feats of daring actually were and how he bet he too could do them.  Of the boy's repugnance at the freak show, where from across the mountains were gathered all the deformed and the cripples and the idiots and the victims of accidents, some burned, some dismembered, and the unhuman castoffs, half human, half reptile or beast or God only knew what, to be sent around to the provinces with the carnival.  And he thought of the cattle the boy cared for, and his sadness when they were taken away from him, back across the mountains.  Then he thought of the girl his grandson had met, had loved from the very first glance.  He remembered the boy asking to speak to him late one night; the confused look on the boy's face; the reluctance to talk, but the need to.  The girl had told him she was afraid, she did not wish to get married, that it would hurt to mate, and that she might die giving birth.  He had promised her he would not hurt her, that if she chose not to he would not mate with her, but that he would love her and protect her just the same.  He had asked his grandfather, he had wanted, begged, needed to know if that was right, what he had told the girl.  "Pray it does not offend the heavenly Father," the boy was told, "for it pleases Him to watch a new baby being born.  He loves His children.  He is their eternal Father."  The boy then asked if God was his own father too.  "Yes William," the old man answered, "He is.  A long time ago He gave us His own name to use, that we may know always that we are His."  The boy had looked up and asked if this meant he must mate, no matter how much agony it brought.  His soft blue eyes had been stained with tears, stains fell upon his soft babyish cheeks, stinging him where they touched the ugly blotches from the hot sun.  "God will reveal this and all else to you in His own good time," the old man had explained.  Now at last it was revealed to him, to the boy's grandfather, what he had been struggling all day to discover.  He had finished at the grave and was on his way home to supper.  The funeral was over.  There, along the dusty hot street, hot even now at twilight, in the middle of the village, the cafe on his left, the store on his right, God's skies above him growing less hazy as the white sun lowered slowly before him, he saw it.  His grandson's face, which ever since finding the boy's body he had tried to recall.  At last he saw it, finally saw it, as if God had held up to him a picture, so crisp, so clear was the image, all the features in place, exactly as they would have been in a picture, had there been any.  The old man looked hard, strained his eyes looking directly into the hot gurgling glare of the great white ball of light just above the horizon, and there he saw it, the soft gentle face of his grandson.  He looked a long time; his eyes began to grow dim, they began to hurt.  He knew he was risking blindness, yet still he looked.  Then at last he shut his eyes, and he spat up at the great ball of light God had placed there for the good of all men.  "It is not him," the old man announced.  "It is his features, but it is not him.  It is an image, not a living boy.  Take it away, I have no use for it.  It is but a graven image of the boy.  I won't look at it.  Do as you will with me."  The old man made it to his cottage and to his little straw bed, where he lay down, never to arise.  Blind, and paralyzed finally, he lay there until the agonies of thirst and hunger seeped away from his body to lie beside him till the heavenly Father came to collect the old man.  He had forgotten to say his prayers before dying.

 

"Requiem aeternum," the priest chanted on a chilly February afternoon.  Drizzle was starting to fall.  The chorus echoed the chant.  The burial ceremony began.  God was weeping for the old warrior who had brought Him so much glory.  It was 4:10 P.M.  Sharp.