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This Is How We Die
“You dream of being a hero,” the old man says knowingly, walking alongside his grandson as the sun begins to dip below the horizon. The Savoian vineyard is cool and peaceful after the searing heat of the day: the perfect place to converse. “You wish to stand out, don’t you? – for your gallant valor. You wish to prove that you are not simply another member of the masses.”
“Oh, yes!” the young boy cries in response, his eyes dancing delightedly. He can practically taste the metallic fear of the battlefield; hear his charged blood drumming through his ears. “I want to be a warrior like my father; I want to die a hero’s death, Grand-père!”
“Die a hero’s death? You desire, then, to have your breath cut from you in a single fell stroke on some distant battlefield beneath, mayhap, pelting rain and crashing thunder? You want to die alone – with some chivalrous idea of heroism etched on your bleeding heart? You want your battered carcass dragged back to a foreign city and exalted with festivities in which you cannot partake?”
“But, if I’m not to die in battle, how shall I ever be a hero? I can hardly stay here and find myself one.”
“You don’t have to die to be a hero.” Grand-père answers softly. “There’s another type.”
“What is it?”
“The survivor. The man who lives while his brother dies. The man who fights the incessant demons inside his brain and triumphs over the mistaken conscience that whispers its unceasing venom: “You should have died; it should have been you in his stead.” Every day that this man does not die, does not succumb to the pain of life, he is a hero.”
Not for the first time I’m laughing to see Jos’ honey-tinged, raisin-black mane bobbing wildly like a girl’s as he races me to our favorite tree on the far side of my family’s vineyard. Beneath its lofty branches we’re sheltered from both the tenant workers and the main house. The only one to see us flop down without a care for appearance is Grand-père, and, even if he did mind our colloquial behavior, he’s ten feet underground and probably more preoccupied with the affairs of the dead than those of the living.
I’ve never beat Jos anywhere, not once, but I prefer being able to see him. Mother has never approved of me mingling unnecessarily with servants and I’m superstitiously convinced that she would snatch him away from behind me. Of course, I don’t have a say anyway because it’s by Jos’ choice, and not mine, that he’s always in the lead.
Jos reaches the tree and tumbles onto the ground beside Grand-père’s grave, gasping for breath as I collapse beside him. Perspiration trickles down his flushed cheeks and pools in his neck as his Adam’s apple dashes up and down with each swallow. He finally conjures strength enough to pull his dampened tunic over and behind his head for a pillow.
I’m still trying to conquer my wheezing as he exclaims wonderingly, “Mon Dieu, Amay, look at my chest! You could wake an army; my heart is pounding so hard. One of these competitions, I’m going to just keel over and die. It’ll be your first triumph.” He flashes me a bright grin and then falls silent, listening to the jeers of the songbirds. I give a half-hearted smile in return but I’m stuck on “army.” And – more importantly – my father.
He’s due back in a week and the whole vineyard’s frenzied for the return of Sir Nialle. Mother is convinced that he’ll take me back with him to begin my training when he departs. It’s been coming for years, and I can’t say I’ll miss the soporific haze that permeates every corner of this place. But Jos won’t be coming with me. In fact, I don’t know what he’ll do. Probably spend his days working in the vineyard, or the kitchens with his mother.
I return to the present just in time to catch his dreamy words. “I wish I could see it.”
“My heart. Here it’s a vital organ inside me – I’m nothing without it – and yet I’m going to die without ever having seen what it looks like. It gives me the distinct impression that I don’t know myself.”
“You don’t need to see your heart, Jos, to know yourself. Plenty of men have done the one without the other.”
I can’t tell if he’s heard me, because he’s already on to the next thought. “If you were stabbed in battle, do you suppose someone could pluck your heart out and show it to you?”
I try to restrain an instinctive shudder. “That would hardly help you see your heart.”
“Yes, but at least you’d get to see yours. Anyhow, I think I’m going to see other hearts soon, and then I’ll be able to guess about mine.”
“How do you expect to see hearts? Raining from the sky?”
“My mother is sending me for an education in a lord’s estates in a month or so. She’s finally saved up enough money working in your parents’ kitchens. I meant to tell you.”
I sit straight up at the news. “Jos, that’s wonderful! Here I’ll be a lowly, soldiering vineyard owner, and mayhap you’ll enter the service of the Duke as a physician one day!”
“It’s possible I’ll see the Duke’s heart,” he says brightly.
“Oh – don’t stop at the Duke! Perhaps you’ll see le cœur de roi français!” He beams. “I envy you the hearts you’ll see. Mine will belong to just lowborn commoners - vineyard owners and the like.”
“Well we can’t all have the hearts of kings.” He pauses, guesses that this simple bantering is not what’s concerning me. “Are you ready to receive your father again?”
“It’s been so long; I hardly remember him.”
Jos laughs fondly. “I remember his smile. He loves you more than the entire universe. He used to snatch you up in those tree trunks he calls arms and whip you around until you were both a blur. I always stood in the kitchen with my mother and she’d tell me my father was like that, but I know he wasn’t. Your dad is special. He won’t ever let you get hurt.”
I smile at the thought, because Jos is right. I am lucky to have been sired by Sir Philippe Nialle, an honorable knight stuffed to bursting with dreams of glory. But it’s a daunting act to follow, and Jos picks up on my flitting unease.
“Don’t sell yourself short. If anyone can live up to such a man, it’s you. You were born to it.”
“I know.” I hold his gaze. How much time do I have left to dash across my isolated world in the dust kicked up by Jos’ cheerful feet? How much time remains to lament the rosy tattoos spilled across our shoulders and to artfully avoid our mothers as mine heralds my tedious lessons in geography and French and numbers; and Meesha screeches for Jos to lift the sizzling pies from the oven? How much time for me to fall into the charcoal depths of my brother’s deceptively guileless eyes?
“Nothing’s wrong. I’m just thinking about leaving. I love you more than anything, Jos, you know that. I don’t want to lose you.”
He studies me intently. “Yeah, Amay, I love you too – you’re my brother – but there’s nothing to fear.”
“You’re not afraid of parting?”
“Hey. I’m terrified of parting, but we’ve got wide-opened lives ahead. And then, when we die – in twenty decades or so, I’m thinking – you know we’ll be back to normal, inseparably wreaking havoc in heaven. With your Grand-père, of course.”
“Yeah. Come on. My mother will scold me for my absence and then she’ll give us something nice and warm to break our fasts.”
He jumps up and starts to dash away again, but – “Jos! Your tunic!”
“That thing.” He backtracks, glaring crossly at the garment. “It’s a waste, Amay, honestly. The thing scratches my skin and gets in the way – and I’m still roasted through.”
“You want to wear mine for a while?” It’s no prettier, but it’s cleaner and not as coarse. I know the offer interests him, too. Fine clothes have the feel of a great destiny.
“Your mother will kill you,” he warns halfheartedly.
“I know. When are you going to grow up, Amadeus? Those are your clothes. Mon Dieu: they’re clothes. She’s going to pop an eye out of her socket any day now.”
“All right, then.” He waits for me to turn over my tunic and measure the feel of his. I pull the heavy clothing over my torso and look him over. “What a proper young gentleman you are, Sir. What do you mean keeping company with such an underdressed swine as myself?”
He grins mischievously. “I’d draw my sword at such an affront – but there’s a small risk that you might actually manage something honorable, and that’s quite unbecoming. So I’ll,” one step, “just,” a second step, and suddenly he’s darting away, his feet barely lighting on the ground to propel each bound. He weaves expertly among the vines, every so often knocking a ripe grape to the ground where it explodes in a waterfall of sparkling beads.
“Jos,” I pant, hastily dashing after him. He cackles in return, and sings all the way up to the house – where Meesha’s plump figure barricades the doorway, hands planted to her sides, a disappointed growl already lurking in her throat.
“Where have you boys been?”
“Good morrow to you as well, mother!” Jos announces jocularly, smacking a kiss on her leathery forehead. He squeezes past her. “You should smile. It will help in the retention of your fair complexion.” He clanks a jar against the water bin while Meesha grunts in her son’s direction and winks at me.
“Oh, certainly,” he cries, clambering back outside. “You’re a real looker, Mama. I’d marry you myself – if it weren’t forbidden.”
“Oh, I’m sure. My son, the flirt.”
“Tremendously, magnificently, immensely handsome flirt. Dreamy coal eyes, long ebony locks… the nonexistent girls in this place can’t take their eyes from me.”
Jos gulps a swig of water and passes the jar to me while Meesha looks us up and down, and frowns again. “Has he stolen your tunic again, Amay?” She clicks her tongue. “Your mother certainly won’t be pleased – you’d best return it, Jossy.”
“Not while I’m ‘Jossy’ to you. Beside, Amay initiated it this time; he can fight this one. I’m innocent of it all.”
“You’re innocent of nothing,” she reproaches fondly. “I expect someone will be after you for retribution any day now. Very well, let’s get you cleaned up, then, Amay, even if you do insist on wearing that rag.”
“That happens to be my best rag, thank you.”
Meesha literally has her arm around my shoulders to guide me indoors when the ground starts to rumble. The house shifts on its frame and moans heavily. Far away dust starts billowing into the sky. Mother hurries outside as the house’s shaking crescendos, and immediately forgets all else as she takes me in with a sigh. “Oh, darling, dressed like a common servant yet again.” Jos abandons his scrutiny long enough to flash me a smile as he mouths along with her, “When are you going to grow up, Amadeus? Those are your clothes – for you to wear.”
I’m saved her full rant about how I have a great destiny ahead of me and I have to be proper and mature every second of every day for the rest of my life, because one of our tenant boys comes scrambling from the back of the vineyard, shrieking something that slowly becomes comprehensible: “Madame! There is an assembly of horsemen riding here. I think it’s Sir Nialle at the head!”
“Oh!” Mother clutches at herself and seems to conclude that she is not adequately attired for she heads back the way she came. “Meesha, please.”
Meesha leaves too, after sending the tenant boy with instructions to give the other workers a holiday so they’ll be out of the way for Sir Nialle’s homecoming, but I soon learn that Mother’s given her a coded directive because she’s back in a moment, rattling off something about being “presentable for your father,” as a prelude to unloading a frigid tub of water on my head.
I come out sputtering indignantly. “MEESHA! You’d think I was a dog!”
She shrugs unapologetically. “You certainly tramp about like one every day and come home caked in that grimy sweat.”
“Don’t I get a bucket of water?”
“What, you think it’s your father coming home, boy? I’m not wasting a drop on you. Let’s make it clear for Master Nialle who his son is, right? The slightly cleaner one.”
“Fine – give me that, Amay.” He snatches back the jar and empties it over himself, then sets it to the side. “Oh no, Mother, this is horrible: he won’t be able to tell us apart! Aaaahhh… what if he thinks I’m Amadeus and I have to go to war and study my geography?” Meesha just shakes her head at his antics.
I’m still trying to wrap my head around the idea of my father coming home now, a week early, too early, and why? – when Mother darts back into the sun and grips my arm. “You will stand beside me, Amadeus, here in the door. Meesha and Josiah will stand forward and offer their greetings first.”
As usual, Jos draws a finger across his throat at the sound of his formal name, but we form up as she has dictated.
And then there’s my father, seated atop his chestnut stallion like a true warrior: dark hair cropped close and flickering with dappled gold patches, blue eyes bright as crystal water struck by a beam of the sun. At first glimpse, my father is everything he should be. And I’m incredibly excited. He may have spent much of my life hundreds of miles away but I’ve always felt closer to him than to Mother, and a future with him doesn’t sound so bad now that he’s here. But as Mother’s hand tautens hotly on my arm, it’s quickly evident that something’s amiss – and more so when she unnaturally releases me entirely and speaks in a harsh murmur, “Meesha, exchange places with me; hold Amadeus.”
My mother never touches Jos. Ever. She regards him as inferior to vermin. There is nothing normal about her clutching Jos’ arm like a lifeline, but this is what she does as Meesha’s callused hand gently replaces hers on my skin.
The horses continue forward and now I can see, craning around Jos’ head, that the second rider clasps one end of a rope. The other is knotted tightly around my father’s ankle.
With soft, snorting whinnies and a few stamping hooves, the beasts are drawn to a halt. Sweaty lather mats their bodies; their bellies heave like ships tossed among waves. Nine armored soldiers dismount, some holding tightly to sword hilts, others only caressing the scabbards. They circle carefully around Father’s mount. He himself does not disembark; he cannot.
Mother’s voice is suddenly faint. “Husband. What is this?”
Father’s guard lashes at him with a whip, as if he’s another common beast. “Speak. Or I swear to you, it shall be worse.”
“Wife,” Father begins raggedly, silently imploring her for kindness as he swallows hard. “I am sent to my home as a prisoner on account of my grievous sin.” His hands twitch uselessly at his horse’s mane. He can hardly see us; the glare of the sun casts us all into shadow and blinds his eyes. “I mistakenly… and traitorously… abandoned my army in the heat of battle and found that my new allies could not prevail. My lord values greatly my tactical skills and so does not wish me executed, as is the destiny of those like me. I am to remain in his service. However… I must still bear some misfortune. As recompense for the lives my cowardice has stolen from the world, I must give up to death, in good faith, that which I love and cannot defend. I am ordered…”
The whip lashes out again. Blood drips down his stallion’s flanks.
“I am ordered.”
“It looks as if an entire lifetime of suppers threatens to spill through his lips. He looks around shakily. “I am ordered to turn over our son to my captors.”
Mother gasps in horror – but retains her hold on Jos. Something is buzzing faintly in my brain, something I can’t grasp – but something I know. This turn of events has gone too quickly. One moment we were organized to offer a jubilant welcome to a glorious soldier; now, the venomous men facing us with Father tethered to them are out for blood, and it’s so bizarre. Something’s missing. Father has reported that he must turn over his son, and I am his son, yet Jos is the one facing peril. Mother’s fingers have gone white on his skin. He knows it too. I can see that he knows it: he’s gone rigid. He could flee; he’s faster than anyone here. But he won’t because he’s Jos and his heart is pumping furiously and reminding him of who he is and what must be done. He won’t run because he’s too brave for that.
Meesha is a statue next to me. She knows too. What? What do they all know? What do I know that I haven’t discerned? What?
“Which one?” a soldier drawls finally when Father doesn’t say anything more. He sizes Jos up, and then looks intently at me.
And this is it. My entire life has led up to this moment, where my golden name becomes a curse, where I am forced to bear the brunt of my father’s foolish mistake. And I don’t really mind. My head is still full of that thought-thwarting fuzz. I’m sure if I could think about it, the matter would not seem as straightforward and clear as it does. There’s only one way out. I will die for him. Is it a hero’s death? Perhaps – since I’m redeeming him, an eye for an eye.
I’m a solid, gleaming reflection of my father. I am his greatest sacrifice. But it’s an eternity between the question and the response. We’re nailed to the spot like flies drowning in honey. I’m about ready to shout my name myself. I’m ready to die.
What is he waiting for? There’s no way out; we won’t disappear. There’s only one person for him to name and that’s –
“There.” He doesn’t even bother to recognize me as his. “There is Amadeus. There is my son.” I close my eyes, burning with shame, and wait for the rough grip of a stranger dragging me to my doom. But I don’t feel it. And then Mother starts wailing but it’s oozing with falsity because she isn’t crying for me. It’s that impassive mourning that gets to me; I’m begging my eyelids to seal shut, to protect me from the truth, encase me far away in my world of utopian lies where pain and joy blur into an array of sounds that do not hold sway over me. My world where Jos is a physician and I am on my way to war at my father’s side.
But my eyelids flash up unbidden – and there he is. My strong Jos, my boyhood companion, is tucked inside the arms of a burly soldier, hands fastened behind his back like a common criminal, torso forcibly bent forward. Father is too ashamed or too proud (or perhaps too uncaring?) to catch his victim’s eyes; he gazes resolutely at the ground, but I can see that his limbs are taut – maybe he has no care for Jos but he knows that something irrevocable has just occurred; there is a new barrier between us that can never be shot down. Mother sags against the doorjamb, seemingly distraught, but her eyes glint warningly at us. Meesha is the only person who understands that my body is disintegrating beneath my skin, leaving only a mirage of myself. She understands, because she too is melting to nothing. But she can neither move to Jos’ rescue, nor implore me to. For, in order to save him, I would have to take his place and that is a transfer she has not the authority to undertake.
“Look at your father!” someone screeches. “Look at that villain while you die! Let him see your face!”
I do. Look at my father. I don’t feel anything at first, probably because I’m still disappearing, but I’m suddenly overwhelmed by a wave of hatred. He has done this to me. I was ready to die for him, and he couldn’t even give me that honor. No. He made it black. He twisted everything around; there was no way out for us, and he found it. But it isn’t the way out, because that’s Jos right there, taking the blows that should be mine. And this is Meesha beside me, burning with the helpless sorrow that should belong to my parents.
Jos looks at him too, but it takes a whip across my father’s back for him to grant a glance at the boy who does not deserve the end he’s been handed.
They move him to ten paces from my father and hold him there. All the while he gazes into my father’s face, into death. Father breaks away, shaking.
I know. Again I know that whatever happens next – I could stop it. But it’s going too fast. All of it. I can’t think. Beads of blood are peppering the dirt; red rivers are spurting through the dry ground. Jos is squealing like a girl one moment, and grunting like an animal in the next as those trained killers take turns brutally wrenching his arms around, beating him to the ground, kicking his vulnerable flesh. I hear bones crack inside his stomach and the subsequent agonized whimper. I can’t breathe. His flesh is seared from him. Chunks of skin take flight. Mother rages pitifully, flashing her tears. Meesha is crumbling beside me, too broken for sound, too far gone in her torture.
I’m standing next to this shattered woman and I know that her pain is my fault. They don’t want some young nobody: they want the progeny of Philippe Nialle. They want Amadeus. And that’s me. It’s strange, in a funny way, that these soldiers are so trusting when it comes to the words that man says. Hasn’t he just betrayed them in battle, after all? How is this any different?
But that’s when the screen is dragged from my eyes. They don’t care. It doesn’t matter if the boy is Amadeus. They just want to break my father, that’s all. And they’ve done it. He’s torn our family apart. Sure, they demanded it: but he did it.
So it doesn’t matter now who I am, or who he is. In the end, I am a boy with a future who has the power to grant a future to the boy without one. I could be the hero that I’ve always thought my father was.
I’m still churning with this revelation when Grand-père’s fragile frame suddenly leaps full into my vision and I’m so taken aback that I simply accept his presence. “Hero?” he chortles. The corners of his mouth curl down. “I’m disappointed, lad. You’re going to die? You want it over? The sun? The moon? The breeze?” He pauses, smiles. “The lack of breeze?”
“It’s my duty.”
“Oho! Your duty – to jump rashly into death?”
“They have to kill someone.”
“Yes, that’s true, I grant you that. But I don’t understand why it must be you.”
“Well, why should it be Jos?”
“Because he doesn’t get to make the choice: you do.”
But he’s gone.
And when he goes, so does my determination. I’m blank again, my brain torn asunder by conflicting duties.
I should die for Jos.
But I’m a coward.
I fail him utterly and irrevocably in those few endless moments because we both know I can’t be that hero. Because it’s not due to my breeding or station or anything else that I am as selfish as a human can be and I have weighed the scales of our lives in my mind and I have found mine the more valuable. I have failed Jos because I don’t want to die, because he is not worth dying for. Not really.
Jos understands; his eyes flash with a last pinch of love for me, stored up over the years – and his final subtle gift: forgiveness. This is as it should be his wan smile whispers. I’m too much the coward to take your place; and you’re too brave to take mine.
Brave. Brave. Even then, even there, I almost break into a peel of astounded laughter. I am the one offering him up as my sacrifice. But you are brave he frowns sternly. You are brave because you love me and I’m not going to be here. You are courageous because you are going to go on alone.
And suddenly I don’t want to be brave. My world turns icy and black as a cave and I’m alone and terrified and helpless. And I can’t do this without him. My breath catches. And then I’m running, running, the world is a mass of oscillating shapes shouting in tongues that I won’t heed. Jos is there, just there. I’m not brave; I need him. “JOS!”
“Shut up, boy!” Meesha screams miserably, tearing after me, trapping me in her arms, fighting her own fury. We stand there together, drowning in our grief, while my parents watch impassively and the soldiers gleefully double their efforts, shredding Jos like predators on prey. He doesn’t bother to fight. I don’t know if he can’t, or if he’s simply not interested in delaying the inevitable. Cheerful, handsome Jos. Intelligent, thoughtful Jos. His life drips from him with every blow.
It’s too much. I’m not brave – or maybe I am brave: Grand-père thinks so; Jos has told me so. I’m a coward because I won’t die, because I value my life more, but I’m not a coward because it will be harder to live without Jos than to die for him. I don’t know what I am. I don’t understand any of it. But Jos screams, one long, drawn-out screech, and I snap because I can’t handle his pain. “Meesha, let me go. Let me go, please. Me! You have to take me! That’s not Amadeus! That’s not him. Ask him! Go on – please. Ask him.”
“Jos,” Meesha says numbly. “Shut up, Jos. He doesn’t want you to die for him.” Her nails are digging into my skin, but as she says it I’m not sure who she’s talking to.
“Ask him.” The rain falls freely from my eyes, pattering Meesha’s neck. “Please.”
A skeptical guard waves the other men back, approaches Jos’ solitary figure. “Who are you, boy?”
He stares at me, hard. I love you his broken heart says. And I’m not brave enough to live if you die. “Je m’appelle,” he takes a breath, waits for the sky to break open, “Amadeus Nialle.”
“Good enough for me.” He beckons the men forward to resume their punishment. But they’re acutely aware of me now, and one of them casually saunters over, stationing himself in front of me. Father, I see from the minutest glance in his direction, is still bound by the rope and planted on his anxious mount. He stares blankly out at the vacant vineyard.
A gold-buckled boot slams into the back of Jos’ knees and two muscled arms guide him into the approximate position of kneeling, thwarting his drooping limbs. There is a wide gash over his chest. Innards ooze; his breath is haggard, difficult. Something shines vulnerably, surrounded by liquid red and black and gray, and encased with crumbled bones. I’m no doctor; I can’t guarantee it, but I think it’s his heart. He follows my gaze down, fingers the gaping hole in awestruck silence. And then someone shoves his chin up and holds it there. And when I look up, as well, from the mess that is Jos’ body, his eyes are stricken with fevered terror. It does not matter how strong he has been: he is facing death and he is more afraid than I have ever seen him. It’s the fear that almost kills me. I want to run for him again, but I can’t now because the soldier is watching me carefully.
Black insects swarm the scene unabashedly, drawn by the odor of boiling blood, and nearly eclipse the sun as a single dark cloud. The abrupt darkness fits perfectly because the universe stops again and I know what’s coming. I could still do something, except Jos has agreed to this – Jos wants this – and I’m scared to die.
Most of the men back away from him suddenly and my eyes are drawn to the remaining rusty blade as it pulls through the air, extending out from the largest soldier. It’s moving so quickly; it can’t possibly stop in time. This is the end.
Jos wearily attempts to smile at me and a scream fills my throat. Doesn’t he know that the metal blade is whirling toward him? Can’t he feel the breeze amidst the aridness? Doesn’t he understand that he can’t die – that I can’t lose him? “Jo –” I get out.
And that’s when they slice off his head.
Meesha weeps; and Father buries the slim body and then gingerly clutches the head by its web of bloodied hair. The soldiers howl at both his discomfort and the substances gushing from the seams of the neck. They had roared, “Bury your son,” and my father had mechanically complied, finally dismounting from his horse after the public humiliation of having the rope untied from his leg.
Meesha cannot approach the makeshift grave where her son has been discarded; it would be unseemly. And so she remains like a ghost beside me: soundless, sightless, senseless.
My own head is gloriously empty. Nothing makes sense – it’s all a grotesque jest and I’m having trouble comprehending the punch line because Jos has been split in two and I can’t figure out why. I can’t feel anything. I can’t speak. I can see the soldiers mounting their horses and galloping off, their duties done; I can see Father wiping sweat from his brow, and Mother bustling inside while Meesha sits like stone on the ground. But the pieces aren’t fitting together.
So I run. There’s only one place to go and that’s to Grand-père. He’s the only one who could ever really understand how I’ve lost more than Jos has, even though he’s lost his head. He’s the only one who won’t dismiss Jos’ sacrifice or paint horns and a forked tail onto me.
But he’s dead too. I slump down at his plot, surprised to learn that my eyes are streaming bitterly even though I’m still covered in this filmy aura of abnormality. The motions are there, obviously the grief is there or my eyes wouldn’t be brimming with tears – but I’m not there.
Really, there’s nothing to tell that the air won’t have already whispered. “They decapitated my best friend before my eyes and the blood wouldn’t stop flowing until it pooled around my feet, crept under my toes”? He can smell the stench on my skin; there’s no wind to dissipate it. “I was a coward”? He knows that, too. And then I realize that I don’t want to tell him: I want to be told. I want to know what I am. I lay there, hoping against hope, but hating myself for it too. Where is Jos now? What’s happened to him? Why didn’t I stop it? But I tried, the other side of myself pleads plaintively. That’s not good enough. He chose to die. Didn’t he?
“Grand-père!” No – it’s Him. “Don’t call me that.”
“It’s your name,” he says quietly.
“Oh, it is again, is it? Sorry I can’t seem to keep up with all the changes.” He freezes. “Did you think it was me back there?”
“No. I knew it wasn’t. You’re my son – of course I know who you are.”
“Then why did you do it?”
Jos’ blood has congealed on his fingers; we’re mutually captivated by the unholy glaze for a minute when he accidently wrings his hands out. He quickly snatches them away, but it’s too late: the red paint is already etched on our brains. “You were more important, Amay –”
“Amadeus,” he repeats numbly.
“Because I’m your son? Because we’re wealthier?”
“Because you have a life.”
“Yeah? Jos had a life too, Philippe.” He’s stung by the sound of his name but I don’t care. All of a sudden, the emotion comes roaring back through me, and I hate him. I hate him with all my soul. There’s a hard rock in the core of my stomach; it hurts. It hurts so badly. And yet, even though I can feel that stone barrier, I’m still utterly empty. I look around at the vineyard, at my father, at the world, and all I feel is massive loss. Jos is split in two and lying in the ground. He’s not supposed to be there. This wasn’t supposed to happen. I love him. I love him more than anything except I obviously don’t because I’m here and he’s not and I miss him. I miss him so badly and I’m so afraid. And there’s my father. My awful, evil, coward father who let him die. “He was going to be a physician. He had prospects too. And he admired you; you were like his father. Hell, he loved you more than I did. But you don’t care, right? You know why it was supposed to be me? They wanted to break you – oh, but you don’t give a damn. They didn’t destroy you. You still have your precious little family. Mon Dieu, I just wanted to live up to you. But I was too afraid to be brave when you couldn’t be. I wasn’t ready. You were supposed to turn me in. That was all you had to do.”
“You make it sound easy.”
“I don’t care; easy isn’t the point. You were supposed to pay. Not me. You were supposed to give me one last reason to love you. All you had to do was prove that you could still be an honorable loser and swallow your own damn consequences – and let me die.”
“Don’t you hear yourself?” he cries, aghast.
“You had no right to keep me alive at his expense. I should have died. Why did you have to give me a choice?” And that’s the crux of it, isn’t it? I had the choice. The world gave me the choice between myself and my brother, and I was not a hero when it mattered. But He wasn’t either.
“I was weak.” He waits for the forgiveness I won’t grant. “I don’t know what was between you boys. All I know was that I loved you and I –”
“No, hold on. You’re right. You’ve been away so long defecting from your army. You have no idea what was between us; you can’t even pretend you know. And then you come in here and rip apart my entire universe and now you want your bloody forgiveness. You don’t know me anymore.”
“No, I obviously don’t, Amadeus, because the boy I left behind last time wouldn’t have acted like this.”
“The boy left behind wouldn’t have any reason to act like this. You let them slaughter him. Why did you do it? Why did you get in this mess?”
“I didn’t agree with them. I didn’t want to be aligned with their practices. I’m sorry.”
“Yeah, that last bit doesn’t matter.”
“Where are you going to go?”
I’m fifteen paces away when I grace him with a glance backwards. He’s watching me solemnly from the base of the tree, standing just beside Grand-père. I’m not empty anymore; I’m filled with venom. I don’t care about my father or my mother or my future. Jos is gone; he’s gone and they can’t bring him back. “You’re not going to stop me? I demand that you stay here. You listen to me, young man.”
“No, you’re beyond that. You’ve grown up. I can’t stop you.”
“Good. I don’t know. Anywhere. I just can’t stay here. I’d wake up every morning with Jos’ blood on my eyes and his screams in my lungs and his head bobbing at my feet; I can’t do that.”
“I know.” I give him one last look, and my anger fades away. He’s going to be haunted too. “I just wanted to do the right thing –”
“But you’re going to do better than me because you’re actually going to do it.”
And that’s the best good bye I could have gotten.
So I leave. I don’t bother seeing Mother. I was never a person to her; just a piece in whatever game she was playing. But Meesha can read me as well as anyone and she’s waiting for me at Jos’ abandoned gravesite.
“Amay.” Her melodic voice is soothing even with the fresh melancholy harmonics interspersed. From her, “Amay” doesn’t hurt. From her, it feels right.
I can’t believe it’s only noon and the sun is still a brilliant orb in the blue sky now that the insects have all drifted away. They should come back. There should be the comforting shadows of night to obscure us. Jos’ passing is open to the laughter of daylight and that itself seems to be blatant disrespect to his memory. “You’re leaving.” It isn’t a question.
“You know I can’t stay here, Meesha.”
“Well, farewell, then.” I make to give her a polite berth and head into the emptiness.
“Hold on. I have something for you.” She tugs a brown pouch from her waist and I instinctively realize that it’s Jos’ tuition money, carefully accumulated over sixteen slow years of sacrifices. There’s little resemblance to the older story, yet it strikes me as a reincarnation of Judas’ blood money, even so, and I don’t want those coins. I don’t want to profit from this. But Jos knows, and so he takes my reins again, via his mother. Meesha has aged a thousand years in an hour, but her small smile is genuine. “He wants you to have it. You were everything to him.” And as if that weren’t enough: “I want you to have it too.”
“Meesha, that’s everything you have. You could start a new life; you could go away.”
“No, that’s not what I want.”
“You were so close to giving him a future. I ruined all of that, didn’t I? You were so close, and I, I just couldn’t -”
“Amay, I gave him a future the day I brought him into this world, and he took that future and ran with it up until the very end. Don’t you worry about my Jos. He did what he had to do; now it’s your turn.”
“Why are you doing this? He’s dead because of me.”
“Maybe not,” she says quietly. “He may be dead for you. Take the money, please.”
“Are you sure?”
“Amay Nialle, you’re as good as my son, too. This belongs to you now.”
“Thank you, then. Really. I’ll do well by you both, I swear it.” The pouch is heavy in my hand. There must be a hundred coins at least. “What are you going to do now? Stay here with them? You wouldn’t, would you?”
“I’m going to take care of my son,” she says. Tears speckle her eyes but we both pretend they don’t exist. “Whatever it takes. As I’ve always done.”
“Fare you well, then, Meesha.” I offer a hug that expresses what my words cannot, and turn to go. I don’t look at Jos; that haphazard pile of dirt isn’t who he is. He’s not there.
The vines part smoothly, rippling with the wind. A young man trudges through them, tugging a grape loose every now and then to quench his thirst as the auburn sun droops to the rainbow horizon and illuminates the way for the pearly moon’s lofty approach. He wears a stained servant’s tunic and clutches a bag of clinking gold and silver coins, enough for a year’s tuition in a French lord’s estates. Before him, the dusty lane forges into the unknown. Shadows slink around every contour of the night and the filmy, spreading darkness wafts over the lane like a blanket. His feet drag slightly as he nears the last few protective plants, for there is no turning back past this point and he has not convinced himself that it is the right decision.
He blinks; a figure suddenly materializes a pace in front of him, wavering indistinctly as the white light from the moon licks his translucent skin, turns him milky.
“Slow poke,” the boy – for it is a boy – teases gently. A slow breeze stirs around the pair and the new arrival takes off running, his gait easy, his breathing rhythmic and comfortable.
The second boy takes off too. “Jos!” he cries, his heart burning with furious joy.
The other one looks back cheerfully. “I’ll get there first!”
“No, Jos, let me talk to you! Are you healed? Are you okay?... Could you ever…Do you think… Could you forgive me?”
The boy keeps running. His reply is so faint as to be nearly lost: “For being the brave one? Let me tell you, Amay, dying is easy. You stop breathing, thinking, feeling. And you just float and you’re nothing and you’re safe.”
“You saw your heart, Jos, didn’t you? Like you wanted to.”
“It wasn’t so pretty.”
“No, it was perfect. You were perfect.” He’s overtaking Jos. He’s going faster, much faster than he’s ever gone before. The world is fading back, blending into a whirlpool of color: he is the world. His breathing, his heartbeat. That’s the world. He leaps forward, surpasses the other boy with a long bound from the safety of the vineyard onto the open road, and stops – stunned. “Hey! I just – I just beat you!” But no one counters his jubilation.
He looks back quickly, but there’s nothing to see except the last limp vine, swaying heavily with its plump grapes. The elation drips away, leaves him alone and small and scared on the lane to nowhere.
But a new sound rises up from the shadows: shuffling. The old man steps stiffly forward from the darkness. “You’re surprised? Surely you know we’d never let you go without a farewell?”
“Your friend was a true hero to sacrifice himself.”
“Yes, he was.”
“But there’s another kind too. One that people don’t like to talk about.”
“What is it?”
“You. The survivor. The man who recognizes that he has a life worth living, who knows both that it is not his time to die – and that he will struggle more to live. The one who fights his demons every day, and misses his lost brother for every second of every one of those days. Listen to me, Amay. This is how we die: all the same. Our lungs dry up; our hearts stop beating. We all go cold. But you can tell who has lived. Jos was a hero, yes. Now return the favor and prove that your life was worth dying for. And when your time comes – we’ll be waiting, don’t you worry.”
The boy is not surprised when he finds himself alone again. He adjusts the pouch, loosens his muscles, and sets out for the future.