As far as soldiers went, he was young, most likely not even eighteen, the minimum age for soldiers. The army was rushing to defend the borders against a powerful neighboring country, and he had joined up without hesitation. There had been no hesitation on the part of the army, either: They were desperate for troops and couldn’t get new recruits fast enough. He knew that the enemy was reputedly invincible, and so did the rest of the camp. A feeling of despair hung over the ragged tents and guttering campfires, but he alone did not despair. Death was his friend, his brother. Death was nothing compared to Life, Death was preferable. He longed for its dark embrace, but was unable to take his own life. If he did, he knew his spirit would be doomed to wander the wilds for eternity, never finding rest in the afterlife. He stared, brooding, into the fire.
Once, Life had been different. Once, Life had been good to him. He gazed into the fire, and remembered.
Back then he had been apprenticed to a paint-maker. He learned the craft eagerly, and the old man in turn was an eager teacher, praising the zeal of his student. One day he had left his apprentice in charge of the shop and left for the next town to buy more paint supplies. That was when the young man discovered what was to be his all-consuming passion. His master had left out a stack of canvases, stretched over wooden frames, along with fine brushes of goat hair. He picked one up, admiring the smoothness of the worn handle. Soon he was lovingly stroking the colors into the canvas. In a trancelike state he painted for an eternity until he became aware of the breeze moving through his hair. Slowly he turned, seeing his master at the door, openmouthed, unaware that he had dropped a cache of supplies on the floor where they blew around. The apprentice straightened quickly. “I am sorry, master,” he stammered. But the old man smiled with pure joy and awe, and told his apprentice to look at the canvas. What he saw took his breath away…
Next to the soldier was a bulky pack, filled with what was left of his old life. He drew out and unrolled his first painting, the landscape to the east of the village, the golden grain and white clouds gently drifting in the sky. In the distance was the dark line of a forest. “I am sorry,” he whispered, and dropped the painting. It seemed to fall forever, before blossoming into flames. The fire licked greedily at the dry canvas, and soon nothing was left but ashes. But the fire burned on.
From the moment he had finished the first painting, the young man had labored less at the paint-maker’s and more at the canvas. The young women of the village liked to watch him, sitting behind his back as he coaxed the colors forth from his brush, eyes closed, yet never making a wrong stroke. The women whispered and giggled, but he was oblivious to all but his work.
Then he had met her.
He was painting, as he did every afternoon, when he became suddenly aware of someone watching, not his back, but his hands. He tried to concentrate on his painting, the birds in flight, going south for the winter, but his concentration wavered. He finally glanced over his shoulder. The watcher was leaning out of a second-story window, her golden hair hanging about her face. His brown eyes met her blue ones, and, like the dawn breaking, a smile spread across her face. He couldn’t help smiling in return, and, like a man in a dream, left his painting and went to her.
All traces of that bright smile were gone from the soldier’s weary face. He drew out the painting of the flying birds, whispering, “I am so sorry,” as it drifted down before blossoming gracefully into flames. A single tear trickled down his cheek, hissing in the flames, but the fire was impervious. It still burned on…
For the next few weeks she sat beside him as he painted. The village girls stalked past, green with envy, and shooting jealous looks at her, but she was focused entirely on him, on his hands creating pure beauty on the canvas. After a few months they were married: He was seventeen, she sixteen. Most of the citizens married around that age; nobody objected, and only the girls of the village disapproved of the match. When they kissed he felt like a fire burned in his heart, consuming all thoughts but his love for her. Together, they were happy…
The soldier drew out more paintings. Here was the house where they had lived together, here was the shop where he made paints, and here was the stream bank, where he and his beloved had sat together under the willow trees. More tears ran down his cheeks as he whispered a desperate apology to each of them, before they were consumed. The fire kept burning, leaping in delight, a hungry inferno. The flames reflected in his eyes as he remembered.
The fire had come out of the east, fanned by a harsh, dry wind. For days the men of the village had fought to save their grain, but to no avail. Finally they were too exhausted to fight anymore, and they could only watch helplessly as flames devoured their crops and their storehouses. As the fires died down, he found his beloved, her beautiful golden hair strewn about her, still beautiful in death. Her body was covered in burns, but her unmarred face seemed to gaze at him beseechingly. “I am sorry, my beloved. I am sorry,” he murmured, before losing himself to dark grief.
He reached into his pack for the last painting. It was her. Every detail was perfect, from her golden hair to her bare feet, a dress of midnight blue draped gracefully from her shoulders, her eyes forward as she stepped towards him. An aching longing filled his heart as her deep blue eyes stared at him out of the paper. He closed his eyes tightly, a stream of tears flowing down his face as his hand moved towards the fire. “I’m sorry, my beloved, sorry, sorry, sorry…” But he could not destroy her. He could not. His hand jerked away from the flames, which seemed to roar in anger, cheated of their prey. His arms crushed the painting against his chest, and he still cried.
That night it rained, the torrent extinguishing the fire he had deserted, which resisted weakly before sputtering out. He was not there, nor had he returned to his tent. That night his comrades in arms searched for him, but could not find him. They ranged through the forest, calling his name, until dawn.
As the grey sunlight shone through the clouds, they found him. He was standing, leaning against a tree. In his right hand he held a sword, in his left, a roll of parchment. His arms were spread wide to embrace Death as a friend, to defy Life one last time. He was smiling, and the parchment was warm.
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