And Then Come the Flies

Aaric raises the bow, a big dark yew bow of the best quality. Working slowly, carefully, his entire being focused on the task at hand, he draws the arrow back and tracks it up the leg of the deer, up the leg an into the white, there, just where the heart is.

He knows he could be out in town, carousing and drinking with the rest of them, eating on the fine clinking silver those uncaring clerks had paid, but he does not like to touch that silver, that blood money. He could be asleep in his sturdy house, built on those tainted bits of silver until there were only thirty pieces left, and thirty still remain ever since the house was built.

There is something simple and pure in the grace of it all, the stalking, the raising and firing of the bow, the smooth easy kill that came before it all, that came because he had to eat to live and to eat he had to shoot deer. Even now that his eyesight has begun to fade and the cleanness of the smooth, quick shot of his bow is going, he prefers, these nights, to sleep out here in the open forest places beneath the stars, going back to the clean, simple time in those true golden years before a man far away decided he wanted his father's land.

It was always summer in those memories, his mother a vague smiling figure and a smell of violets and roasting meat gone before Aaric had seen three of those summers and Cadda had breathed even one breath of that rich, golden air. There was the feel of the earth in the fields and under his bare toes in the forest's shade, the smooth, clean feel of a child's workmanship and a father's patience combined to bring home meat for the table. There were the rough tumbles between Cadda and Aaric. Cadda was quick-tempered and sharp-tongued, always ready for a good rough-and-tumble under the sad old willows and mighty oaks. Aaric's mind worked faster, but Cadda had a thousand good ideas to try, and he was always there in these summer-days, leaping like a playful deer through these joyous adventures in a world where everything was safe and people loved one another. Their fights were play, the bow a tool and no more.

Then a man far away decided he wanted his father's land.

For a long time after, Aaric didn't understand it even though he'd lived through it, but with the old age he'd never even hoped to reach came if not wisdom a measure of understanding and he found at long last a reason for the insanity. It was all because one man wanted another man's land, and the second wouldn't give it to the first one. It didn't matter if the land was no good for farming or anything else; if one man wanted another man's land and the other man wouldn't give it, it meant that the fields had to be sown with the blood and bodies of men and the forests had to be cut and piled into so many twisted hunks of wood to feed the towering fortresses of those men. And it meant that somewhere in the middle of it a greed for land had to come so strongly over everyone that a plain farmer would turn on a man by whom he'd never been wronged for no better reason than that one distant stranger whom he called "my lord" and another distant stranger who also was called "lord" both wanted the same little patch of green grass and shady trees.

The feeling of it comes to him then, as a series of sounds and smells, a vague blur of hoarse yells and bowstring twangs and the clashing rings, heavy thumps, and sick wet squishes of men fighting men and bashing at each other both far away and close; the shouted calls of "Aim, draw, fire," over and over again like a mantra in even his sleeping hours, until he mutters it to himself in quiet times and can no longer raise a bow without the distant echo of that shout. The rusty tang of blood fills the air until he cannot taste or smell anything else any longer, the invisible blood that never fades from men who have killed and brought death.

There is the sound of what it means even at home, the voices talking in the clean summer smells of overturned earth and wheat and grains struggling to push their roots through thin, rocky soil. His father, going off to war: "You take good care of your little brother, Aaric." Then his twelve-year-old voice: "I will. I swear it." Later, the messenger who came, clip-clopping slowly down the road, passing Cadda in the rock-ridden fields to knock on the door of the house with only two terse sentences before clump-clumping tiredly on by: "Your father is dead; he died well. I am sorry."

A fly buzzes past Aaric's ear and because he is already thinking of these things an image floats back to him, a big dark thing in the hazy shadows of false dawn fuzzing the world spread dew-soaked and new in front of him. He remembers the red-painted glory of the sunset behind him, and not being able to even glance at it because to look away was to die. The men are there in his mind, fuzzy as those shadows because they are not men he knows, they are from the cluster of conscripts and volunteers with the swords seeming strange in those plow-marked hands, not bowmen like the friends lying far behind him behind him as he streams desperately into the farmhouse with his long, dark shadow streaming desperately through the door because he has no horse to ride into that sunset's safety.

Those other men had driven them slowly westward all day despite the endless singing of his comrades' bowstrings to send black arrows like a thousand buzzing insects away east into the shadow from the setting sun. The men have looped around behind him but there are five shadows over his shoulder, and his job is only to draw the knife together with the three ahead beside his own shadow and purge those other men from this place. His hands are already soaked in blood from the fighting just to reach this safe place, great rivulets of it dribbling down and not even drying yet as more splashes up, and then they are gone and no more stand before him to bar the way to refuge.

Aaric falls finally, setting his back firmly against the wall because he cannot stand, and everything is painted red-gray in the sun's dying light. He looks up and sees three at the door, washed out in the gray-red haze in front of his face, these three now left in the doorway, two fallen ahead of them into the red sun and two more now standing alive against the wall. But one more man whom he did not call enemy had entered the house, and he does not see him.

A part of him, back in a cool forest with dew, not blood, on the ground, protests hard then but it cannot control the memory, the image that haunts him every time he sees those big round silver coins or his scarred old spare bow. There is one comrade dead with the others who tried to kill him; there is no telling which gave the fatal blow and besides it does not matter for these are unarmored unwilling conscripts also, but they are dead. His face is a mess of blood under the crude leather cap with a slash on top, but he is a friend and something in what is left of the simple hunter named Aaric compels him to fix this awfulness. He knows he is hurt badly somewhere, but this is a dim thing and he has not yet realized the futility of making beauty out of horror, so he twists the head towards himself to close the corpse's eyes.

No, the Aaric in the glade cries, not even able to say it aloud, the deer forgotten, everything but the image he can never escape.

Those wide, accusing eyes, staring at him, as the blood on the red hand dries, lying, unable to move, men looking in and passing over him and the bodies of his fellows' corpses. He cannot see the true face anymore, even in his memories, without those wide, staring eyes, the bloody hand and the black flies swarming like arrows from a thousand bows to land wherever there is blood and death, feasting where even carrion birds cannot come for fear of man.

But the flies are fearless and through those long, dark hours of waiting, of everything closed off by four bloodstained walls and a sagging roof of rare wood shingle, they come to gorge themselves on death and the spoils of war.

This is the face of war to him, a boy's face, skull smashed in by an axe and a great slash across the forehead from right temple to left eyebrow, and a fly on the red fingers almost touching Aaric's nose. This is the face of his brother whom he could not spare from war, whom he could not keep home and did not know to defend until the chance was long gone, killed by chance because he went ahead of his brother to the man with the axe who was now dead here somewhere, his axe in the Face and his deadly hand stilled.

Too weak to move, uncaring, and to Aaric this is the face of war and even this solitude in the glade, quiet morning, wet with the dew of birth and cool with the soft promise of peace, the deer, the smooth curve of the yew bow, none of this can wipe it from before his eyes.

But Aaric knows he must eat and, tranquilly, softly, he raises the bow again, draws, fires. There is a smooth kill, almost bloodless, and then he twists the head towards himself and slowly, methodically, draws his knife and cuts into the deer. And then come the flies as he works, his hands at last covered with the invisible blood he always carries, the mark of the face of war. He guts and dresses the deer, cleans the arrow and the knife, and carries the carefully readied body home.

On the way, Aaric stops at a stream to wash the blood from his hands. He will wash them here every day until he is clean.