“When you speak to me,” He had said, leaning forward with his arched back raised from the chair, “Do it, well do it quite slowly.” Mike had walked into the room with his head down, awkward like a kid’s first dance. His uncle normally spoke to adults, not to him.
You going to wake up every morning of your life, you know that, except one. You going to wake up every morning but one.”
“Well I’m just seventeen.”
“And tomorrow you’ll be eighty two.”
Circling birds trace casual calligraphy across the chroma sky. Dipping and weaving their white tipped wings look like breaking wave tops upon the horizon. A light wind pushes them towards the hills, and they go with it, they go where they are taken. A flex of their back, and they could cross a forest in a glide, but they just follow the air where it leads. The world is purer and darker in the evening.
“You see that sunset. Do you see it?” The uncle said.
“I don’t know what it means.”
“It’s a sunset.”
“I don’t know why it’s always so beautiful.”
“Just a reaction of the light isn’t it.”
“I don’t know why the whole world, always around me, is so beautiful.
But I’m fifty two, and every day, I still take the effort to notice it.”
“Understand? I know you don’t understand.
I know you’re seventeen, and you don’t think this way. But it’s important.
Let me put it like this.”
He looked out at the thousand mile sky and drew in a deep breath of smooth mountain air. It was a painting before him, dashes of light in all the right places.
“One morning boy, you woke up, and you were alive.
A scattering of particles coalesced, grew, and were born into the world.
And when you woke that first morning you saw the universe – that cosmic tapestry woven billions of years ago – now unveiled in front of your crying, swollen eyes.
You saw the most remarkable thing, you saw existence, your existence, and the existence of a whole host of shapes and sounds and movements.
Everything was awake with a new splendor, as the morning stars sang together and all the son’s of God shouted for joy.”
The boy felt the soft breeze rising from the veiled valley below, carrying the odd sound of water gently drifting towards the sea, pulled towards the vast emptiness of the ocean. The hills are silent. The roadways are cracking in the cold.
“And then boy. Then you and me, and everyone else, we just got used to it.”
And the kid listened to all this, as time flew by, and as around them his mind danced upon the moonlit world until the fires of his youth turned to risk aversion.
A week later, it is morning, and from his place upon the rock the kid, Mike, can see the gentle sunlight sketching out the valley, drawing out the landscape like some soft colour painting. He can see, below his feet, the hard white boulders – the giant’s pebbles that are tossed across the line of the ridge like metal across a scrapyard. He can see, ahead of him, a solitary path wandering left then right, passing in the hollows between the rocks, reaching down the ridge, then rising up, and then down, and then over the edge of the world. Beyond the ridge, and beyond the rocks, the road falls into the valley like a drop of water into an ocean, and it is lost amid the hundred thousand oaks, the churning freshwater rivers, the moving shadows and the whispering leaves.
The sound of wind rises from the valley, from that other world beneath the canopies, and brushes against his beard, cooling his wet face and his dripping brow. He can hear the morning joy of a bird, dancing around the ridge. Then he sees it, a violet dot against a wall of green. It sits ahead of him, on a branch, hanging over the edge of the escarpment, over the forest below.
He raises his binoculars, looking up from the sunlit landscape. The sky is light and blue and endless, like the outside of a balloon stretched out over them all. It sits like a canopy placed above the play, with the characters running and fighting, laughing, loving and dying, and all for the benefit of some disinterested audience far, far away.
He is walking the outer circle today – the ridge of stone that runs parallel to the boundary of the world – with his rifle hanging from his back, and his binoculars in hand.
They are walking it too, six of them making fast pace for Eldora, with machine guns. Six invaders that had moved out of the forests and then crept up the hills like rising shadows at dusk. Six enemies, come to change the world, walking in the morning sun with all the certainty of revolution.
He has been on the boundary for two years, since his father ran. He knows that most men move like ants through the mountains, rushing back and forward, following each other and scattering at the first sound. Most men move like ants. But these men, they move like lions.
The one at the front is short, brown and leathered, he walks with his head up and with his eyes ahead, as if he is not climbing a mountain, as if he is walking to a meeting. He does not seem to be carrying weapons, in perhaps the way that a serpent does not seem to be carrying weapons. A serpent is a weapon.
The next is tall and thick, paramilitary perhaps, with an M16 not over his shoulder, but in his hands. So he climbs the mountain without hands, he climbs it like a man climbs steps, upright, with ominous regularity, he climbs it like he climbs out of bed, but it is hard to imagine him sleeping. It is hard to imagine him ever as anything less than a source of death, coming over the landscape.
The other four carry the packs, in army fatigues, with leather jackets and rifles behind their backs. They have crew cuts and tattoos on their necks. They walk in a U around the first two. They walk with their eyes wide open, as if the movie they are part of is about to take a twist, and with their mouths slightly ajar, as if they are suppressing deep breaths. They are not the same as the two men ahead of them, they are just killers. The first two are something else. The first two are a revolution.
He lowers the binoculars, closes the lid, closes the case, closes his eyes, and hopes that they turn towards the dark world. But they won’t, they don’t, they can’t, they have been sent here to take the children.
So he moves towards the six invaders, across the rock and between the trails, out of sight, running low with his hand brushing the rock to balance. He moves towards them not to stop them, for a feather can’t stop a train. He moves towards them not to hold them off, for day can’t hold off the night. He moves towards simply, fatally, to do his family proud.
As he ran, Mike remembered two years ago, an officer knocking on the door. He remembers the man standing there in a leather cap holding a conscript notice in the summer rain. He remembers turning to his father not with a smile, but with that dangerous silent pride.
‘To the boundary.’
And his father, too selfish to show emotion, had said nothing, but he now knew that his only son would die before him. He couldn’t hug him; the history between them and the fighting egos stopped that.
The father, raising his eyebrows, looked down and then away, just playing the game, just trying to put the world down so that he rose up. His tone was gruffer than normal. His son was going to war and his tone was gruffer than normal.
‘You do your family proud.’
It was a command.
His father had then been called for a second tour in the autumn. He had fled, evaporating like his imagined reputation as self sufficient, self made, self governed. He had disappeared and he was not missed, for he did not miss anybody. He had wanted to be respected more than he wanted to be loved, and he had ended with neither.
But here his son was, doing his family proud, trying to earn respect from a dead father, as he ran across the ridge.
And as he did so, as he ducked and dived between the stones, I watched. I listened. I lined up the scope on my sniper rifle, tracking his dancing movements with the bullseye, sitting, thinking and waiting.
Mike was less than a kilometer away from the six when he stopped to rest. He wrapped himself in his thick, hooded green jacket, and pulled his light leather sleeping bag up over his head but not over his eyes.
Around him, sweeping stone faces in the perfect still of dark blue night. Monumental rock, a thousand grey peaks. Shadows and apparitions. The midnight world ceased to be scientific, methodical, mechanical. The midnight world felt like a fantasy, like a miracle. A beating drum and a fleeing sun.
His mind was at its most aware, wakened by the cool still air.
“Sleep.” The young man whispered to himself, as he tried to quell his nerves. “Sleep.”
But in the dark night, the scurrying thoughts were free, to spin his head round, and keep his mind alight.
He thought of the township down below, on the flat dry side of the ridge, sitting under the moon with straight streets, tall brick homesteads, leather caps hung firmly, and polished boots ready for the morning. He thought of that ancient town, sitting under the midnight moon quietly begging for forgiveness. Trying to go on as if the past was a dream, lingering in the mind but unreal. He thought of that formal place, silently terrified that its history would emerge like some dark specter from the fog, passing through the town in the emotion of night. He thought of those ageing people, sitting on their verandahs waiting for the past.
Mike could not escape the dark shadows of his history. They were his past, for better or for worse, and without them he was weightless, he was a man without history, and a man without a history is a man without an identity. Better a sordid past well acknowledged than life without context. Better sitting around the fire at night-time, humbly admitting – that was us, than a life of rushing around pretending to be a middle-class angel.
There are no angels down there in that township – just human beings. Human beings and corpses from the seven-year war, buried under the fields.
“Sleep.” He said out loud, to the ancient wilderness.
But images were flashing in front of his brain like a slide show, like a compulsory slide show of his youth.
He thought of the mountain walls around him. He thought of the millions of years that these rocks had seen, with shadows passing up and down these surfaces as the sun rises and sets a billion times, with all the landscape moving like some time lapse vista, but with these stones still and unmoved.
I want to walk, inch by inch, through all of history, start to finish, to see how it all was.
“Just, sleep,” As he banged his temple with his hand.
But, finally, his mind was slowing. The shadows of his subconscious were growing thick, slipping up on him from behind, forming thick dark knots, and gravity was pulling upon his eyes.
He yawned, silently, at the stars.
‘Close your eyes, escape, and go home.’
Time slowed, realities’ grip slackened, and the prisoner was free. He relaxed, and wandered amongst the apparitions.
In the morning over breakfast, he saw the shadows coming, sweeping over the ridge, over the ancient forest, the rippling creeks, and towards the corrugated homesteads, and bringing with them the sound of a dozen jet engines. They flew over in the same direction as the six men from way off in the never never, beyond the end of the world, towards the Empire. Down in the pockmarked village, the broken farms sit like a lunar landscape. In town, it is the quiet of the agricultural life – and then a whistle – and then the leaping tongues of a hundred instant infernos. Empty streets, sitting in summer, and then flying glass, floorboards snapped like dry twigs and heat escaping in every direction. Silence, and then a concussive thud, thud, thud; the relentless drum of a careless foe. Everywhere you look, is either crater or bursting flame.
Looking down on the madness, from his spot on the ridge, dark blots can be seen rushing about like threatened ants, like a colony on fire. They move in every chaotic direction, until they disappear into white. The sound of the explosion is always a second delayed.
He continues drying the cooking pot. The six men ahead of him have stopped. They stand in a line looking down on the burning village.
Mike places the pot on the ground and grabs his binoculars. He sees the tall one first, squatting, and it is close enough to see his smile. Then he sees the four army men, laughing together as they kick out the fire, some packing their gear. Then he sees the short brown man, standing on his own.
The short man turns with his head looking up at the ridge, at the boulders, scanning with his thin emotionless eyes, and it feels as if there is nothing that he does not see.