So, I’m back. After two months traipsing around Europe and having rather a lot happen to me, I’ve finally made it back to the USA, gotten over my jetlag, and decided to start writing again. And that means all the good things I’ve got planned can get off the ground again. I’ll be giving the Writer’s Carnival a kick in the pants and getting that restarted, and this time I won’t be going anywhere without internet access for the next nine months or so. Flash fiction postings will resume Monday morning, but as a treat over the weekend, I’m posting a short story from The Four Part Land. It’s called Tattoos, and concerns a general, and just how strongly he feels about the men under his command. And now, without further ado, to the story!
I have tattoos. Lots of them. They’re all over my arms, my chest, my legs, my feet, my back, even my hands. The only place that doesn’t have them is my neck and face, because I didn’t want to go there, not yet anyway. They started just over my heart, some twenty years ago now, and have spiralled out from there ever since. Each one is tiny, only two small words, each etched closely to the one previous, filling the space and leaving very slight patches where the pink flesh beneath can be seen. It makes my body an uncomfortable mosaic for many to look at, especially those who know what the tattoos signify. Right now, I’m adding the next three, over down near the end of my right leg, just above the ankle, taking up one of the few spots that hasn’t been marked yet. Maybe tomorrow or the next day I’ll need to add another one. I don’t know. I’ll just wait for the call to come through, and see what it tells me. That will determine what I do. Always has, really. Every time it happened, I knew when I had to add some more, but never quite how many. They’d tell me afterwards, give me the list. No one really looked at me straight then, they all thought I took it too seriously, took the loss and the pain a little too permanently. They’d shuffle away to leave me be, and I’d add the tattoos. Way back at the beginning, there were only a few at a time, often just one or two. I kept them small, even back then, since I knew there would always be more. Only way I could get away from it was a way I wasn’t going to take, and so I just ended up with more and more of them. These days, if something goes wrong, I need to add a hundred or more of the damn things. That will take me days sometimes, and if events hurry along, I don’t have the time to add them before more come along. Worst feeling ever, seeing that list just get longer and longer, and knowing what it means. You’d think by now, twenty years further on, that I’d be used to see those lists, that I could just shrug them off and say “oh well, it was worth the cost”. Still can’t. Don’t really think it will ever be worth the cost, at least not to me, but those higher up think it is, and sometimes, when I can pull myself away to look at the bigger picture, I do have to agree with them. After all, I don’t want to have that happen either, and this is how you prevent it.
I suppose I should introduce myself. I’m Argoll Filwr, a commander in this army, and these tattoos I’ve been talking about are all the men who’ve died under my command. Twenty years ago, I was a newly promoted soldier, just given my first leadership position over a half a squad of men. I felt responsible, but I was also young and ready to go. Leadership meant moving them forward, always forward. Not too much thinking about going the other way back then. After all, I was in the best army in the world, and we would win every damn fight, every damn time. Naïve, that was, but at the same time, its what the soldiers needed. They didn’t want to see me thinking and wondering whether this was a sound position or whether I might be killed out there. Morale mattered more than strategy. Then they started dying under me, and I knew I couldn’t let that happen, at least, not without remembering them in some way, and not just in a blood-money pay-off to the dead man’s family. That’s where the tattoos came from. I’d never forget them then, not if I could look down and see their name written on my chest. It has helped me remember, and I can still point to each one, and tell you where and what happened when they died. At least, all of those I was there for. Those I wasn’t, when our forces were separated or I was sitting up here, in command in the back, I had those who did see tell me, in all the best detail they can recall. I commit that to memory, to carry around at least a little of them still in this life.
At one time I thought about something to do with my name and theirs, combining the two perhaps, adding their last name to my own. I got that from the story of a man who’d been captured as a prisoner, treated fairly by those lower down the ladder, and then killed and eaten by those up near the top as a show of bravado. One of the men lower down took his name in memory…. beautiful gesture really, just not something I could do. Too many people were going to die for that, and so it had to be something manageable, but still something that would remind me of them every day. Thus the tattoos; small, unremarkable perhaps, but certainly full of meaning. There is a lot in that meaning, I’m just not the one who can describe it. A kind of catharsis happens when that needle goes in, almost as if the dead are watching and approve, and that lifts a little of the burden off of my shoulders.
Let me tell you about the first time that ever happened, and just what lead up to the event.
There were six of us that day, myself and five others, sent out as a brief patrol around the army. It was a cold, blustery day in late autumn, and there was already snow on the ground, just enough that our steps crackled and slowed. We could probably be heard for miles around, the way we walked. We were basic soldiers, not real scouts, and this close to home we were hardly worried, chatting and talking pretty loudly, the mingled sounds of our voices and footsteps scaring birds and game out of the woods that we trudged through. On top of all that, our gear clattered and banged, although less than normal because we’d wrapped the exposed metal in cloth to stop it from sticking to and burning our skin with frost.
Despite the cold and the wet snow that would melt and seep into your boot, chilling your feet, we were still having a good time of it, although a lot of that had to do with a few of the men, me included, heading out on patrol with some strong drink hidden among the heavy clothing we had wrapped ourselves in. By then, two hours into the patrol, all of us were well warmed and fortified against the encroaching cold.
We were a typical patrol group in those days, six men comprised of one leader, two men with shields, javelins, and short swords, two with bows and arrow, and a third lightly geared with a short-bow and lighter arrows, but designated as the group runner, always the man sent back to report if the patrol found anything. The bow and arrow he carried was as much to make the enemy slow down if it tried to chase him as anything else.
The situation back then was that we were engaged in a desultory border war with the next country over. The border was a big plain, shot through with forests and farmyards and cattle-herders, and neither side had ever formally marked out the line. Thus, you’d get situations like ours, where two armies would sit there, posture at one another, maybe raid the other side a little, but mostly leave the people in the middle alone. Both us and them relied on the cattle and the grain they produced for a fair amount of our food supply, and neither really liked the idea of a famine all that much. Because of that, winter time was actually when most of the raids occurred. All the cattle was inside, the food was harvested, and as long as the ground didn’t get churned up too badly, it wouldn’t be damaged much for the next growing season. That was why we were out here, in the cold and the wet, looking to see if the other side was planning on raiding in this area and reporting back to base if we saw anything, and I, as the junior officer within my squadron, got the patrol duties.
We were only a short distance into the patrol, which would have come out the far side of the forest and looked across at the band of farms out beyond. Trudging through those woods, voices soon appeared from the left and from the right, quiet ones, but close enough to be heard. They were probably talking a bit too loudly for what they had in mind, but we were pretty clearly not all there, and had been making enough noise to cover their approach all on our own. As soon as we stopped and noticed the sounds of men talking, I yelled out “Run!”, and all of us broke, formation gone as we ran back for camp. The men with shields threw them to the ground, javelins following as they lost weight in an effort to speed ahead. The runner went out at a sprint, almost flying across the snow. I was in the middle, ahead of the two who had been carrying shields and behind the three men with bows. Behind me there was a sharp cry, and a brief glance over my shoulder showed me one of the shieldmen down on the ground, having slipped in the wet snow. I ran on anyway, knowing that he was a prisoner or worse. Then, I called it courage to run away from a man I was supposed to lead, even when I knew the runner was the one who would get through. He’d already outdistanced the rest of us and was clear of the woods. There was one last open area, another brief set of trees and our camp. Then he simply slumped down and leaned against the nearest tree, his legs almost collapsing under him. I kept running, because I couldn’t see what he could.
I saw it soon enough. The entire open space between the two sets of trees was filled with troops, and the troops weren’t ours. I collapsed heavily to the ground next to the runner, just wondering what to do. Fighting might get one or two of them, but I’d be dead, and even captured, I thought I was more good alive than dead. So I sat there. I still remember what that day looked like. The runner and I sat in the edge of the forest, cold and damp creeping up through our clothes, the weak late-autumn sun blocked from where we sat by the canopy above our heads. Out in that sunshine, the opposing army marched. Rusty chainmail and stained leather creaked and clattered, the din of an army on the march. They were spread out in battle order, advancing across the open ground and into the trees in close-knit progression, those in the vanguard already out of sight among the branches.
This was it then. The end of our country. There were enough men here that without the warning that a patrol could have given them, there would be no hope for the army at home to be fully ready in time. We would be crushed, our king and kingdom swept away like a log in a torrent. I looked back to the runner, and saw him sitting there, head in his hands, his shoulders heaving as he could no longer bear the sight of the army marching past.
The three men with bows had run on ahead, corralled in the field by the army they had run right into. Being tied down as prisoners, their bows lay on the ground next to them, quivers held in the hands of the soldiers standing over their prone forms. One of them looked back at me, slumped under the tree on the edge of the woods, waiting to become a prisoner. His face was twisted from the angle, but even at a distance I could see the humiliation showing through his eyes. He turned away after a moment, face down into the ground, looking away from the rest of those few of us who had been on his side. The soldiers tying him up looked at him as he lay there, and let him be, just taking his weapons away. Bound only across his arms, he could have stood and tried to escape, but the bowman was not even on his feet for many long minutes, lying there in the snow and the damp.
The last shield bearer, the one who had not fallen prey to the treacherous snow, burst out past me. He was still fleeing, weapon up, a cry forming at his lips, fleeing right into the side of the enemy army. I think he was going to try and take a few with him before dying. It certainly looked that way, with his reckless charge into the flank of the marching troops. I watched him run by, pinned down under the weight of my own sorrows and made no move to stop his futile charge.
It is, like many of my memories, an image that I can recall as easily as the time it happened, and to this day would rather be rid of than remember. Several bowmen, a squad marching to the goal of taking our land, turned at an order from their commander. Bows raised and arrows nocked in smooth succession, the twang of the bowstrings as the arrows flew free, the colour of the sky overhead, it all forms a single, almost still image. It unfreezes a moment later, the arrows thudding and screeching as they hit the armour and punch on through. One of them got him in a vital area, and the shield bearer didn’t last long. I think he was dead almost as he hit the ground. He fell some thirty feet from where I sat, and his blood ran freely for a little, staining the snow crimson, a dark counterpoint to the white snow. The bowmen resumed their march, not even stopping to retrieve the arrows. That would be the job of the workers in the baggage train that came behind, picking the dead clean of all that he possessed and throwing it into the empty carts that would be filled with the leavings of those who had died on the fields of battle.
The runner and I sat there for over an hour, and the army marching past never broke stride, never slowed, and never acknowledged that we existed. Eventually they would, sending a few men from an older, reserve battalion to bind our hands, collect our weapons, and march us to the back, where they would hold us as prisoners until the fighting was done. The runner and I would have a wonderful view of the campaign that unfolded, held by the reserve battalion, poised to be called into battle should the need strongly arise, but otherwise content to watch it unfold from afar. I was surrounded by old soldiers, men who had fought on the other side of the war from me for several decades. Some had served for longer than I had been alive. One of them spoke of something called “one land”, a phrase that would come to be common place in the years that followed, but had not been heard on our side of the border. It was a simple phrase, but wrapped up in it were layers of meaning that I probably still do not understand. At the root lay this: Our two countries bled one another, day by day and year by year. Neither grew the stronger, and so the killing continued, a battle of attrition out of which neither could win. Even if one did, it would be a Pyrrhic victory, the winner bled so near to death that he could not assist himself to the rewards of the victor. However, as one land, the killing would stop, the farmers would no longer flee in terror as armies trampled their grain and sheep underfoot, and fed off of the land the families of the farmers needed for food and money. It would finally stop, and we could be one land. Culture and customs varied only slightly on either side of the border, and we spoke the same language, although their accent was truly barbaric, a rough guttural attack on the sweetness of our tongue.
I never could get the sight of that lonely body out of my mind, not even after seeing a field of the dead, mostly men from my country, fallen as they had defended her against the attack of the aggressor nation. Each time I looked down upon another corpse in the snow, there lay my shield bearer, arms splayed, weapon dropped from his grasp and bloodstained, the hilt dripping when lifted from the snow. After a time, he even began to invade my dreams, although I think he was more a symbol of all of the men who I had witnessed die. I would sleep and find myself with my eyes locked on that single moment, his sword held high, defiance and daring allowing him to charge on even as dead raised their bows against him. It would stay like that for hours in the night, neither going forward nor backwards, simply that one moment. There had to be some way for me to remember what he had done, a way that would be permanent, at least while I was alive. As a captive I had few options and no money, although there was the odd barter between myself and the soldiers holding me prisoner. One morning I walked out and asked them for a needle and some black ink. The sentry standing guard over our little pen looked at me, shrugged, and yelled at a comrade to get the supplies. The ink was clumped and coarse and the needle was dull, but some hours later, I had his name tattooed over my heart, the first one that I ever did. Even the runner who had seen that same event did not seem so affected, and looked at me strangely as I pushed the needle in. A few years ago, I had to renew that tattoo, faded with age and with wear. I went through the shops of the town, looking for a coarse ink and a dull needle. I would walk into stores and ask for their cheapest ink and their dullest needle. Proprietors looked at me and shrugged, resigned to what I wanted, for by then I had stopped by many times, always in search of a needle and ink. I sat at a mirror in my home, shirt off, tracing the order of the tattoos from the newest back to the oldest, faded and over my heart, and I pushed the needle in again, renewing the covenant I had made that day so long ago, sitting in the snow.
As you can tell from where I am speaking to you now, “One Land” did work, successfully defeating the country I was a soldier of, and erasing it from the maps, although not from the minds or the ideals of many. The victorious living made no demands for payments, and almost no looting, killing, or debauchery took place as they marched through the city. Instead, there was a parade, an instalment of our ruler as a subservient monarch to theirs, and little else, except for the disbanding of our army. Theirs moved in as a replacement, keeping the peace and behaving themselves admirably. The conquerors would let those of us from the defeated side join their army, although we were dispersed among much larger bands of their soldiers. Ever since then, I have fought on their side, keeping alive the idea that I still fight my country, and that I still serve my homeland, province of an empire though it may be.
My duty requires that I watch men die, that I order them to die, and that duty and the covenant in a cold, damp tree in the snow also order me to remember them. I began here, over my heart, old, faded and roughly done, a prisoner’s needle and a pot of cold ink. I learned the techniques as I spiralled outwards, ever larger rings across my breast remembering those who fell under my command. The tattoos become clearer as they move outward, finer needles, better ink, and a steadier hand all contributing. Each has their own snapshot of memory too, a little spot where they are held dear. It is not always the moment of death that is the memory. It has been a smiling face as they receive promotion to the next rank, the tears of a man who hears that his wife has died in childbirth, or the image of a face at a window, looking out into the pouring rain. I recite each one, starting from the beginning, whenever a new name and face is added to the memories. By now, it is a long process, but one performed as a ceremony over the newly deceased, and at the waning of the full moon, the fading away of a good life as the light flickers, and dies.
It is a long process for me and one that is soon to be over, as my time in the army comes to an end, but the memorials will remain, a last honour to soldiers left behind and forgotten by all but a few. My next step will be to write their stories, their stories as I knew them. One moment to capture a man, to preserve him in time so that his name does not die, and he does not become a carving on a rock, but is remembered for what he was. I will start, as always, with my shield bearer, lying in the snow, the impetus behind my new life.
I’ll never forget his name, not while it is right here, tattooed onto my heart.