They had stumbled upon a town and tried to approach it, but had been driven off with stones. Or Karsten had. Nils had stayed there, at the base of the wall, pleading, and had been struck, and then struck again. When Karsten had shouted to him to come away, Nils had turned and then been struck yet again, in the head this time, and fallen.
There was blood leaking out of his head when he fell, and in the brief flash he caught of him on the way down, Karsten thought he had seen bone. But as he hurried away he began to doubt. Were blood and bone really what he’d seen? Or had he convinced himself that he had seen them because he wanted to believe Nils was dead and thus no longer his responsibility? Shaking his head in frustration, he turned around and went back.
He stopped shy of throwing range. Nils lay near the wall, in a heap. Perhaps he was dead, perhaps he was merely unconscious.
He cupped his hands around his mouth and shouted his friend’s name. When they heard him, the men on the walls threw a few stones. None came close to hitting him. At the base of the wall, Nils didn’t move.
‘Nils!’ he called out again.
Maybe Nils was unconscious, or maybe he was simply dead. Or maybe he was injured in a way that kept him from moving – a broken neck, say, an injured spine.
But in any case Karsten could not retrieve him.
‘Nils!’ he cried. ‘Can you hear me?’
There was no answer. What was he to do? He would have to leave him. There was no choice but to leave.
He started away, but he could not bring himself to go very far. Nils had stood by him, a part of him argued within his skull, and he should stand by Nils.
There were other parts of him that argued differently. But, after a while, the first part of him won.
He pretended to leave. If Nils was injured but conscious, Karsten hoped he would not see this and think he was leaving. But if Nils did think this, there was nothing to be done about it.
He entered the woods and threaded his way through the trees, coming out further along, near one corner of the wall.
They do not suspect me, he told himself. They think I have seen my friend struck dead by a stone and so I have fled. But they do not reckon with this: how do I know what I have seen?
Probably, yes, Nils was dead, but this was not certain. Perhaps he was dead. But perhaps dead is not the same thing as dead, he thought. Perhaps he was not dead and could be dragged to safety.
Safety? wondered Karsten. What did that even mean? They had gone looking for a town because in the forest they were famished and not safe, likely to soon be dead. If a town would not take them, what then?
He stayed crouched in the undergrowth on the edge of the forest. He waited, watching the sun slip along the sky.
I will wait until the right moment, he told himself, and then I will drag Nils to safety.
Safety? he wondered again.
How will I know the right moment? he wondered.
The right moment came and he missed it. Or it didn’t come at all. How was one to know the right moment? The sun touched the lip of the wall and made everything swollen and red as blood, and then it slipped behind the wall and was gone. Then the light was dwindling and the air was still and he wondered: Now? But shouldn’t he wait for dark?
He shifted in the bushes and blinked, and abruptly, or perhaps not so abruptly, it was dark, the night bereft of moon. It was almost too dark to see.
He groped his way out of the bushes and forward, stumbling on the uneven ground. He had matches, but too few of them to waste, and the guards were perhaps still on the wall and would see the flame. No, he couldn’t use them.
Nils was already dead, he reasoned. I should simply abandon him. There was no point to this.
He moved forward.
When he reached the place where he thought Nils would be, Nils was not there. He felt around, sweeping his hands just above the ground. He felt the tickle of grass against his palms, but couldn’t find a body. He paced forward and back and after a while was unsure where the forest was, where the wall was. There was ground and grass, and, sometimes, stones, but that was all.
He kept searching, crouched, his hands held outstretched before him, feeling about.
After a while he stood and walked forward, looking for a new spot to search. Almost immediately, he stumbled over something and fell. He grunted, clattered heavily down.
He heard a voice cry out, saw above him a light. Beneath his touch something other than dirt or grass: the feel of a coarse woven cloth, maybe. He pushed his hands down, trying to right himself. More shouts. A light fell upon him. And then he was up and running.
Something struck him in the back, hard. He kept running, his back throbbing, was hit again, and again. And then something struck the base of his skull and his vision bloomed into a strangely vivid darkness.
When he awoke, it was light outside. The bones in his hands ached from cold. The rest of his body, too, was chilled through.
He turned his head slightly, found he was closer to the wall than he’d imagined. Nobody was atop it, as far as he could see. He turned it the other way, heard a scratching within his skull as the base of it dragged along the ground.
He sat up, looked around. Only bare ground, the grass and dirt crusted with frost and rime. Nils was nowhere to be seen, but the ground was soaked with blood where he must have been lying. He touched the back of his head and winced, brought away a hand filthy with blood and mud.
A moment later, he was up and weaving, staggering away toward the forest. He kept expecting there to be a shout, a halloo, and then for stones to start whirring over the wall again, but the only sound he heard was that of his feet through the grass and his own ragged breathing.
Another town, he told himself as he pushed his way through the brush and into the trees. There are other towns. Other places besides this one. Surely one of them will have me.
At first he knew where he was going, or thought he did. But as the trees closed around him he lost his sense of direction. The sun was out: he could follow it, try to derive a compass from its course. But most of the time he could hardly see it through the canopy of red and yellow leaves overhead. Leaves were thick on the ground too. It was hard for him to understand how they could be so thick on the ground and yet still thick on the branches too. It was as if another set of trees had dropped their leaves and then melted away to make way for these trees with their new set of leaves.
He shook his head to clear it. It did not clear. He reached back and touched the back of his skull and again his hand came away dirty, mostly with blood this time, very little mud.
What’s wrong with me? he wondered.
What had they done with Nils’s body? he wondered. Had they dragged it inside the walls? He hadn’t seen any signs of dragging, but maybe it had been carried or conveyed in some other way, a way that left no mark, or perhaps he simply hadn’t looked hard enough. But if they had, why had they left Karsten where he was?
Perhaps Nils had managed to get up and stumble off to die somewhere in the forest. But hadn’t there been too much blood on the ground for that?
He was still cold, but the bones in his hands no longer throbbed. He did his best, by what little glimpses he had of the sun, to move east, until the ground began to slope upward and he veered off course. North maybe – it seemed plausible it could be north.
He heard the sound of a stream, or thought he did, and his tongue suddenly felt thick and dry in his throat, but when he tried to look for the stream he could not locate it, and the sound never seemed much closer.
He kept walking. He gathered some pinecones from the ground and crushed them between his boot and a flat stone, hoping to get something out of them, but there wasn’t anything inside that struck him as edible. Perhaps he didn’t know what to look for, or perhaps they were the wrong sort of pinecone, or perhaps he was simply too confused and tired to make any real sense of the world at all.
By the time it began to grow dark, he was very hungry, thirsty too, but above all cold. He stopped in a small clearing, kicking the dried pine needles and dead leaves into a pile. He gathered sticks, tenting them atop the pile, then a number of larger branches, which he stacked to one side.
He fumbled in a pocket, felt out three slim matchsticks with his numb fingers. Carefully, he extracted one and struck it alight, brought it cupped in his hand over to the leaves and needles.
He watched the flame spread from the match along a leaf, reducing it to a delicate, spidery armature that quickly collapsed. The needles tensed in the flame and flindered away to nothing. He blew softly and steadily and watched sparks careen, the fire grow and crackle, and saw now a scattering of red mites pursuing a line up one of the branches, away from the heat. Before he could decide if they were actual insects or just sparks, the branch caught fire and they were gone.
He fed the fire until it was roaring, and then settled down beside it, watching the flames dance. Eventually, exhausted, he fell asleep.
He awoke screaming. The fire had spread somehow from the pile he had made and into his hair. He batted it out with his hands, his head ringing, and then was up and stomping out the runnels of flame trying to work their way out of the clearing and into the trees.
When he was done, his hands were blistered and his hair all or mostly gone and the soles of his boots melted enough to grow sticky, but the fire was again safely contained.
He cleared the ground around it again with his boot. For a while he remained upright, breathing heavily, unsure what else he should do, but slowly he settled again, crouching at first, then sitting, then finally lying down on the still warm ground.
For a long time he just stared into the flames. It was like watching water, he thought, except it was not water. He felt like he was being hypnotized. How had the flames spread? Had he not been careful enough when he arranged the fire last time?
I should get up and check, he thought. Walk around the fire and make sure I didn’t miss anything. He did not move. I’ll get up, he thought again. A moment later he was asleep.
In his dream, he was in another time, and was another person, though somehow at the same time it was still him, and still here. He and a man whose face he could never quite see were travelling by horse along a ridge trail through a bitter wind. The other man had been shot in the thigh. In the dream, Karsten wondered idly if he’d been the one to shoot him. He asked the man who was always travelling just a little ahead of him if this were the case, but the man didn’t answer. He just kept following the trail, hunched in the saddle, with Karsten behind, watching the man’s back, babbling, not sure if he was talking to the man or to himself. The man’s trouser leg had become soaked through with blood, and Karsten could see the blood now welling up through the fabric and leaking down the horse’s side, as if it were the horse rather than the man who had been injured.
‘Hey,’ said Karsten. His own voice was unfamiliar to him. ‘Hey. You got to bandage that. You don’t and you’re gonna die.’
But to this too the man said nothing. He just kept riding, an impossible amount of blood seeping from his leg and down the side of the horse, the blood painting a shape on the horse’s ribs, a vaguely human figure, like a man in a robe or an angel. Though no, Karsten was seeing things – it was just blood, he told himself, just the slow, regular brushing of a blood-sopped leg against a horse’s side. It didn’t mean anything.
And yet he kept staring at it, at the man on the horse, at the blood smeared thick on the horse’s side, the blood now reaching the bottom of the horse’s belly and beginning to drip off. Karsten hardly saw the path any more. All he was watching now was that slow drip, drip, drip of blood off the horse and the drizzle of it into the dirt of the trail, the blood drip that his own horse now followed as if it were the real path.
Even when the dream was over the dripping didn’t stop. When he opened his eyes, there was a little dark puddle before him, something still drip, drip, dripping into it from somewhere up above.
He turned his head away from the puddle and slowly looked up. Above him, just visible, he saw the branches of a tree. Something was in it, some animal, its teeth or eyes just catching the light of the fire.
For a moment he was confused, didn’t know that the dream was over. He reached for his gun, but no, he didn’t have a gun, that was in the dream. So he held still, and then wondered if he wasn’t imagining it. Maybe nothing was there.
But no, the puddle was still there in front of him, and something still dripping down into it. He reached out and touched it and brought his finger close to his eyes. The liquid was dark, thicker than water, sticky. He touched his finger to his mouth, tasted metal.
Slowly he sat up. With the tip of his boot, he stirred the fire, then loaded a few more branches onto it. Once the flames were high again, he took a brand out and quickly turned around, holding it up.
There was something in the tree above him. But it wasn’t an animal. It was a man.
‘Nils?’ he said.
Nils didn’t answer. He seemed at once dazed and watchful, holding perfectly still and staring down at him from where he was spread along the branch. His jaw moved strangely, as if it had been broken, and blood was dripping from the side of his head down onto the ground. Yet he didn’t seem like he was in any pain.
‘What’s wrong with you?’ asked Karsten, his limbs feeling suddenly very heavy. ‘It’s me, Karsten. What are you doing up that tree?’
‘Hello, Karsten,’ said Nils. He turned Karsten’s name around curiously in his mouth as if not quite used to saying it. ‘I’m glad I found you.’
‘You’re bleeding,’ said Karsten.
‘Bleeding?’ said Nils, and no, Karsten saw, whatever bleeding there had been seemed now to have stopped.
‘What’s wrong with your jaw?’ asked Karsten.
‘My jaw?’ asked Nils. He reached up and prodded it, and Karsten thought he saw a jag of bone push up beneath the skin. Then, with a swift movement he crunched the jawbone back in place. ‘What do you mean?’
‘Why are you up there?’ asked Karsten.
‘Do you want me to come down?’ said Nils. ‘Are you inviting me to join you by the fire?’ And then, when Karsten didn’t say anything, ‘Karsten, invite me to join you by the fire.’
Something’s wrong, thought Karsten, but the worst part of it is that I don’t know for certain what or how much. Maybe everything, he thought. He lifted the brand higher, expecting Nils to turn his head away or shield his eyes, but he didn’t move, didn’t even blink. Karsten took a step back and nearly stumbled into the fire.
‘What are you doing in that tree?’ he asked again.
‘What tree?’ asked Nils.
Very carefully, Karsten made his way around the fire and to the far side of it, putting the flames directly between him and Nils. From there, he could barely see Nils.
He looked at what remained of the pile of wood. There wasn’t much, but he wasn’t anxious to leave the fire to look for more. Maybe it would be enough to last until morning. He sat down, pulling his knees up close to his chest and stayed there, staring up at Nils. He laid his brand back into the fire, then let his hand run idly over the ground until it found and closed upon a stone.
‘Shall I join you by the fire?’ asked Nils after a time.
‘Are you asking me to invite you to join me?’ asked Karsten.
For a moment Nils remained motionless and then he nodded.
Karsten thought, chose his words carefully. ‘Who am I to tell you what you can or can’t do?’ he said.
Nils made a little hissing sound that made Karsten sick to his stomach. Only after a moment did he realize it was laughter.
‘Ah, very good, Karsten,’ said Nils. ‘Who indeed?’
For a time they were both silent.
‘Are you coming down?’ Karsten finally asked.
‘What do you have in your hand, Karsten?’ asked Nils.
‘My hand?’ asked Karsten. ‘Nothing,’ he lied.
Again that little hissing sound, abruptly cut short. Then just silence except for the crackling of the flames. How long, wondered Karsten, until morning comes?
He didn’t fall sleep, he was sure of that, more or less sure. Maybe he closed his eyes a moment or maybe he just blinked. When his eyes were open again, Nils was down from the tree and sitting on the other side of the fire. In the firelight, Karsten saw he was very pale, the front of his shirt stiff with dried blood. His jaw had slipped out again, and one side of his head looked as though it had been dented in. Maybe it had always looked that way, Karsten hoped.
Nils smiled, but reservedly, in a way that kept his teeth hidden. ‘You can go to sleep,’ he said. ‘I’ll tend the fire. I’ll make sure it doesn’t go out.’
‘Is that what you were doing in the tree?’ asked Karsten. ‘Watching the fire as it caught in my hair?’
‘It didn’t go out,’ said Nils. ‘It was a healthy fire.’
‘I don’t mind staying awake,’ said Karsten, a vague panic beginning to build within him.
‘What’s the matter?’ asked Nils. ‘Don’t you trust me?’
Karsten didn’t bother to answer. He pretended to watch the fire, all the while watching Nils. He suddenly realized he was gripping the stone tight enough to make his fingers ache.
‘Shall I come around the fire and keep you warm?’ asked Nils.
‘I’m fine,’ said Karsten as calmly as he could manage. ‘Don’t trouble yourself.’
‘No trouble,’ said Nils, and began to stand. Karsten stood too. Nils smiled, sat back down again. Slowly Karsten sat too.
‘Then I’ll tell you a story,’ said Nils. ‘Something to keep us entertained.’
‘There’s no need,’ said Karsten. ‘Please don’t.’
‘What are you afraid of?’ asked Nils. ‘It’s just a story. A story can’t hurt.’
Can it? wondered Karsten. But before he could decide, Nils had begun.
A man was shot, he said, or perhaps struck by a rock, and killed. No, shot, let’s tell it that way, like a dream rather than real life. He and his friend had come to a town to retrieve something, or rather to steal it, but they did not call it stealing because they had a high opinion of what they deserved. The townsfolk saw what they were doing and prevented the doing of it and then shot one of them as they tried to escape.
The man who was shot and killed did not realize he was dead.
What did you say? Karsten interrupted.
You heard me, said Nils.
Why would you tell me this? Karsten asked.
It’s just a story, said Nils. We’re just having fun, aren’t we? Why wouldn’t I tell you it?
The man who was shot dead did not realize he was dead. Like the other man, he ran to his horse and leaped onto it and galloped out of town and into the mountains. The townsfolk gave chase but both men, the dead man and the living one, rode hell for leather. Soon the townsfolk turned back. The two men, not knowing if they were pursued, rode on.
They rode a narrow trail, dead man in front and living man behind. Slowly, as more time went by without the sound of pursuit, the man riding behind began to relax. Only then did he notice that the other man had been shot in the leg –
– in the what? asked Karsten.
The leg, said Nils.
Who told you this story? asked Karsten desperately. How do you know it?
Perhaps you are thinking, ‘A man isn’t killed by being shot in the leg.’ Perhaps the dead man was thinking this also, and this was the explanation for why he didn’t know he was dead. But he had turned toward the gun as it fired and the bullet in entering him severed the artery and with each step he took, each step the horse took, more blood left him. Soon his trouser leg was sodden. Soon too the side of his horse had grown bloody, blood awash all down its ribs. It took a very particular shape, and to the man riding behind him, when he finally noticed it, it reminded him of something.
Stop, said Karsten. Please.
No, said Nils. Don’t interrupt. It reminded him of something, he said, but for a long time he didn’t know what. In trying to think of what it was, he kept himself from thinking about how much blood there was, about how any man who had lost as much blood as this was not just good as dead, but, in fact, dead.
He rode behind the other man, wondering about the shape on the side of the other horse. And then all at once it came to him. It was like the shapes he had made as a child when he lay down on the ground after a snowstorm, moving his arms and legs back and forth to clear the snow away. A snow angel, he thought. And then thought, no: a blood angel.
And only once he had thought this could he admit to himself the other man must be dead. But since the dead man himself did not know, that was where the trouble started. He watched the way the blood had run around the belly of the horse and begun to drip down, Nils said, and smiled in a way that showed his teeth. It drizzling a path in the dirt –
But at this point, Karsten bolted into the night and kept running until he ran face-first into a tree.
When he awoke, he was back before the fire, the flames very low. Nils was there with him now, on the same side, kneeling over him but not touching him. Karsten wanted to push him away, but was afraid to. Besides, he wasn’t sure he could move.
‘There you are,’ said Nils.
Karsten tried to open his mouth to speak, but nothing came out. He tried to turn his head but it didn’t turn. Nils was peering at him, smiling slightly. And then Nils leaned in close to him, almost touching his lips, and drew in a deep breath.
When he straightened up and Karsten could see his face, he looked different, not quite like himself.
He leaned in again, and this time did touch Karsten’s lips, and drew the breath out of him. When he raised his head again he was different still. It was as if Karsten was looking in a mirror.
No, said Karsten, but no sound came out.
‘Shall I finish my story?’ the face looming over him asked in a new voice, in the voice he had stolen from Karsten. ‘In a way, it’s the least I could do.’
He stayed there hunched over Karsten, waiting for an answer. When no answer came, he smiled and nodded, and then, making that same soft hissing sound, he leaned in.
Photography © Len Radin, White (?) Birch, 1976