The Lament of Footsteps
By Seth Strickland,
I sat uncomfortably in the metal folding chair, the room around me filled with the echoes of somber chatter. I wasn’t part of the conversation. I acted more like a fixture in the room, no different from the lifeless furniture, still and silent, apart in my own mind. The table in front of me a moon in the horizon, cups and plates craters, and the white tablecloth dust, wrinkled with the scars of time. I sat still silently in orbit as the starlight of candles flickered.
A quiet man sat nearby, alone. His face, framed by a beard, was haunting and his eyes piercing. I avoided his gaze. He was a slim man and wore a grey suit that was seldom worn; perhaps only for occasions like this, grey fabric witness only to the agony and grief of loss. Uneasiness permeated the room. I closed my eyes for a moment and thought of a different time and place.
The night was warm with the summer heat stored in the still air and the stones on the ground. The stars shown bright in the total darkness that was night there in the shadow of a lone mountain. Absent were the unnatural lights of home, which tend to dull the night sky. I gazed upward and felt small against the vastness of the celestial view. It was silent and the smell of smoke from cooking fires, tended behind compound walls, hung in the air. Life differed in this part of the world from my own. Life here was hard, real, and for most, born unto war. Toughened hands and weathered faces ubiquitous features amongst those who have lived here.
I watched the man in front of me descend into darkness. Before I stepped in his footsteps I looked behind me. The line of men was intact and uninterrupted. As I walked down the steep path, rocks slid and clattered together under my feet. The noise they made was sharper at night and echoed off nearby mud walls. The rocks were made smooth and rounded from years of the winter’s seasonal floods. They were now dry and covered with the fine dust that, around here, covered everything, eventually.
We were almost back. From the opposite bank of the dry steam bed I could see our small village. The road before us snaked in and out of view as it crested and descended hills, rising a final time before disappearing from sight into the town. The road covered a desolate space between our destination and us. The residents of the emptiness relegated to a cemetery along the way. The highest hill before the mountain itself was adorned with the scars of trench lines, which stood as reminders of the past.
Ye though I walk…
Forward we continued, following the road over hills and down them. Each step we took gave way to a new view. Dust rose from our footsteps, which left reminders of where we had been and where we were going. A step strayed.
A wave, suddenly, came over me and forced me forward to the ground. I rolled slowly from prostrate to see the ground fluid, rising in a wave of earth and stone. The wave crashed around me silently. Dust rolled over me. Ordering, but not hearing my on voice, the two ahead to higher ground, I stumbled into the rising cloud.
He was on his stomach with his face in the dirt. I rolled him, yelling his name. “What,” he breathed more than spoke. I looked into his eyes. Glazed and dust covered, they stared back, unblinking and emotionless. I tried to stop the bleeding from absent limbs. His breathing lessened and weakened and his heartbeat faded.
In the end I whispered to him as I held him in my arms. The silence resumed and the sea of stone was still. The dust had settled around and on us. I held him still as the moon set behind the mountain and a deeper darkness covered us.
The man looked at me. A kind smile broke my orbit. He had been watching me and knew where I had been. His son had looked like him. I stood, as did he. He gestured to the door and began to walk. I nodded and followed him into the cool, humid air. A gentle breeze welcomed us as it danced on the water that spread out into the night. We spoke softly of his son as the pines listened and swayed with the wind. Through tearful eyes I looked again for the moon, but it had yet to rise, and the darkness continued; footsteps forever imprinted in the dust of my thoughts. I have lost my taste for war.