Aphelion Issue 289, Volume 27
November 2023
 
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Old Soldiers in a Time of War

by Laine Perez




Hen woke from uneasy dreams and cautiously lifted a hand to brush aside the curtain to scan the sky. It was empty.

Through the wall, she could hear her neighbor Yanna’s coughing, which had kept her up for most of the night. She stretched and stood up from the narrow bed, dressed, splashed her face and rinsed her mouth with water from the kitchen sink, put the kettle on the stove, and turned on the radio.

The announcer said that the war in the east was nearly won, and the war in the south was growing worse. Last year, the war in the south was nearly won, and the war in the east was worse. It had always been this way, even when Hen had served ages before. She still dreamed of the battlefields, the smells of blood and sweat and decay, the shadows of the dragons soaring overhead, and the slain reptilian and human bodies attracting flies, spent and left to rot.

It was still dark when she left the apartment, walking two streets over to wait for the streetcar. Over away in the north, she could just see the broken windows of the closed munitions factory where she used to work. Now, people who had lost their homes occupied the factory’s empty floors and rooms. There had been talk of eviction, but no impetus behind it, so the people remained, their fires lighting up the building at night.

The streetcar arrived, clattering and coughing, and waited impatiently for her to board before it continued, jerking through the streets, trailing noise and smoke. It rolled past buildings gray with soot and grime and crossed over three bridges before stopping outside the giant bronze gates that shielded the smart area of town where the streets were wider and lined with trees, and the air was easier to breathe. Hen still had to walk a good way to get to the fine house where she worked. The streetcars were too loud and too dirty to travel closer.

The path to the servants’ entrance wound through the extensive gardens where Hen labored in the summers. In the winter, she spent her time in the greenhouse, growing the most impractical and expensive of flowers. She had been directed to take special care with the costliest ones and was not allowed to make cuttings. This job was for the lady of the house, who made poor work of it.

At the end of the day, Oscar, one of the cooks, spread out the uneaten food from breakfast and lunch on the wooden kitchen table. The day laborers drew lots for the best picks, and Hen, terminally unlucky, went home with the bits and pieces no one else wanted.

It was nearly dark by the time she boarded the streetcar for home, still with the detritus of the day littering her clothing. The car lurched away from the wide, clean avenue, and the gates closed behind them.

The ride home was crowded and uncomfortable. Hen gave her seat to a woman who wouldn’t stop stepping on her feet. When she climbed off the streetcar, her joints were stiff from the cold, and she was already looking forward to burrowing into bed.

As the sound of the car faded, another sound arose, a great downward rush of wind. Hen looked up. A dark shape was falling from the sky. She could see the outline of wings and a tail and then there was a dragon in front of her, battle-scarred and shining green-blue. The creature studied her with liquid-warm eyes and then sat back to wait.

Hen sighed. “Yes,” she said. “All right.”

The dragon leaned forward, lightly nipped Hen’s shoulder and then, having completed her duty, turned away and crouched down, diving straight up into the sky.

A crowd had collected at the edges of the street, their faces still upturned, aching for one last glimpse of the dragon. The blood was seeping into Hen’s sweater, which would now have to be soaked in the sink to remove the stain. And, of course, the wound would need to be dealt with as well.

Yanna appeared at her side and threaded her arm through Hen’s. “Come,” she said. “Let’s get you upstairs.”

Hen could take care of herself, but it was easier to indulge Yanna, let her feel good for helping her old, fat neighbor.

In the shared washroom, Yanna helped remove Hen’s sweater, carefully pulling it away from her skin. The bite wasn’t deep, and it was simple to clean.

“Not too tight?” Yanna asked, smoothing over the bandage.

“No,” Hen said.

“I’ve started dinner,” Yanna said. “If you want to share.” Hen remembered the food that she had been carrying. She had carelessly left it on the street, and it had likely already been claimed.

“No,” Hen said. “But thank you.”

“Oh, it’s no trouble,” Yanna said and steered Hen into her apartment.

Hen sighed. “I can help,” Hen said.

“Wonderful,” Yanna said and handed her a knife.

While the soup was simmering and Yanna was preparing a small loaf of brown bread, a short, precise knock came at the door.

Yanna opened it, her dark head disappearing around the door frame. She turned back to look at Hen. Hen stepped into the hall to see a man wearing the colors of the royal couriers. He bowed. “I have a letter for the selected,” he said.

“You can give it to me,” Hen said.

“I will need proof before I can authorize delivery,” he said.

Hen showed him her bandaged shoulder. The man examined it closely. He stepped away, put his hand into his bag, and pulled out the letter, printed on heavy paper and sealed in wax. He bowed again and left abruptly, marching down the stairs.

Hen slid her finger along the wax and peeled away the seal. The letter was short and written in an appallingly neat hand: “The queen appreciates your sacrifice. Report to the Revenue Department for compensation tomorrow. Your presence is required at the Dragon Ceremony three days from today.”

“Everything okay?” Yanna asked, leaning around the door.

Hen handed her the letter. She scanned it, mouthing the words to herself, then folded it and handed it back.

“You don’t have to go,” Yanna said.

This was foolishness. No one stole property from the crown. Still, Hen said, “I know.”

Yanna nodded and turned her attention back to the soup.

******

Hen waited until most everyone had departed for work and then locked herself in the washroom. She peeled away the bandage and carefully wiped down the stiff, grayish skin expanding outward from the bite. Then, she rewrapped her shoulder and went down to wait for the streetcar.

The Revenue Department building was tall and narrow, squeezed between its neighbors. At the end of a long hallway on the first floor, there was a man sitting at a small wooden desk surrounded by towering stacks of paper. He glanced up when Hen entered and pointed at a wooden bench settled against the wall.

The room was cold, nearly as cold as it was outside. Still, Hen was dozing lightly by the time the man cleared his throat and said, “Next.”

Hen fished the letter out of her coat pocket.

“I received this letter,” she started.

The man held his hand out for it, spreading it out on top of the other papers on his desk.

“There’s no one here to help you now,” he said, handing the letter back. “You have to wait.”

The morning drug on. Around midday, the man stood up. Hen stood as well. He disappeared into a room behind his desk. Hen sat back down.

Time passed. The man at the desk came back and resumed shuffling through his piles of papers. A woman came downstairs. She handed him a note. He read it, and without looking up, snapped his fingers at Hen and said, “Third floor.”

The stairs creaked and whined as she traveled upwards. The man on the third floor had a small brass nameplate on his desk that read Henry Carrier. He was young and nicely dressed, a pair of glasses perched hastily on his face.

“Where is your letter?” he asked.

“Oh,” Hen said and searched her coat pockets.

“You should always have your documents ready to present,” Mr. Carrier said. “We don’t have time to waste.”

“Yes,” Hen said.

She handed him the folded letter, and he placed it on his desk.

“First, I should thank you for your sacrifice,” he said.

Before she could answer, he stood and strode into a maze of shelves behind him. Hen heard a drawer open, and he reappeared with a file in hand. He sat again.

“No property,” he said.

“No,” she said.

“Sixty-three years old,” he said.

“Yes,” Hen said.

He nodded and then pulled out a piece of paper and began to write out a series of calculations. Finally, he opened a ledger and recorded the final number. He turned the book around to face her.

“This is what your beneficiaries will be owed,” he said.

The number was smaller than she had estimated. “It’s not,” she said, “it’s not quite what I was expecting.”

He nodded. “Yes. I’ve included a small gift that the state offers to compensate for the loss. And, of course, I had to subtract the amount owed to your employer for their inconvenience,” he said.

“All right,” Hen said.

He pulled a document from his desk drawer, filled out all the blank spaces, and turned it to her along with his pen. “State your beneficiaries,” he said.

Hen’s people were all gone. She put down Yanna’s name.

“Sign at the bottom,” he said.

She did.

“The forms will be filed in the morning. Approval will take two months and then allocation of funds should follow about three months after that. If funds are not released by this date, your beneficiaries can come here to refile the forms.” He offered Hen his hand. “I hope your needs have been met today.”

Hen stood but hesitated.

“You can go,” he said.

She fell asleep on the streetcar home, her head tucked into her chest. She rode past her stop and had to walk five extra blocks home.

******

The morning of the festival, it rained, a quiet drizzle that was typical for winter.

Yanna was curled up asleep in Hen’s bed, having come over with slightly stale pastry hours earlier. She started to fade around the middle of the night but did not want to return to her room, saying she feared leaving Hen alone. Hen had turned down the covers for her, and Yanna was snoring minutes later.

Hen then packed her bag, carefully folding and stacking each item. When she bent over, she could feel the small, tender protuberances that had broken through the skin of her back the day before, little nubs on her shoulder blades and above her tailbone.

She picked up her good coat, the one she had repaired only two weeks ago, and her warmest mittens and sat at the table to wait.

The knock came before she thought it would, but the hours had stretched and then compressed so much that she had no sense of what time it was.

A courier stood at the door. Hen looked back at her bed where Yanna still lay asleep. The courier said, “Come now. We’re on a tight schedule.”

Hen stepped into the hall and pulled the door softly closed.

The ride into the city was quiet. Hen sat in the private streetcar, her bag pressed to her body, hands resting on top. They looked old. She supposed this had been true for a while, but she was rarely still enough to consider them.

When the car stopped outside the palace, she was ushered up a tall staircase, across a wide portico, and placed in a small room, carpeted and plush. She was afraid to sit, but she did remove her coat. Outside, ribbons and garlands and hothouse flowers were being placed on the portico’s columns. The crowd, those wealthy enough to be selected to attend the ceremony, waited outside the gates to the central courtyard.

A woman finally entered the room. “We’re starting,” she said and grabbed for Hen’s arm to pull her outside.

The ceremony seemed endless just as it always had when Hen sat at home and listened to it on the radio. There were the same speeches by the same people about the ritual and honor of the sacrifice, the strength and unity of the country. The blessing came last. A priest from a religion Hen did not follow washed his hands and placed them on her head. He said a lot of words that didn’t mean much. The crowd clapped and cheered when they were meant to and filed out after standing in the cold for two hours.

Hen hadn’t considered what happened after the ceremony was over, where the sacrificed people went. She was placed into another streetcar. This ride ended at the docks. There was a large ship, and Hen was led up a plank and across a deck and then down into a room with a tiny window, a bed, and a table and chair. The doors closed and locked behind her.

She sat on the chair. There was nothing to do and nothing to look at and though she was tired, she was too uneasy to sleep. It took an age, but the ship finally began to move. After dark, a small knock came at the door. Hen waited.

There was another knock.

“Come in,” Hen said.

A man entered, holding a small lamp and a plate of food. In the light, she could see that he was older than she had assumed, perhaps only slightly younger than herself. He put both the lamp and the plate on the table.

“It’s not much,” he said, his voice aching and raspy, “but it’s warm.”

Hen was not hungry. “Thank you,” she said. “Can I ask where we’re headed?”

“East,” he said.

“To the front?” she asked.

He nodded.

“Can I know your name?” she asked.

“Simon,” he said. “Please. Eat.”

Hen considered the food. The smell of it made her nauseous. She would have liked for it to be taken away but looked up to find that Simon had vanished.

Despite the bed’s discomfort, when Hen laid down, she fell asleep almost immediately but woke soon after feeling sick, unmoored, and unsettled in the dark. She turned over and vomited on the floor. The smell, rancid and sour, spread quickly.

It took her hours to return to sleep.

******

Someone else was in the room. She opened her eyes, and a young man was kneeling by the bed with a rag and a bucket.

“I’m sorry,” Hen said.

He looked up at her and shook his head, an approximation of a smile on his face. He finished his work and slipped from the room. He had left a basin of water and a cloth on the table.

Hen tried to push herself up. Her shoulders slumped forward, weighted down by the swollen nodules on her back now the size of potatoes. Her legs ached, her hips sore and her knees and ankles swollen so badly the knobs of the joints had nearly disappeared. She pushed one foot to the floor and then the other and, with significant effort, rose to her feet. She leaned heavily against the wall, hauling herself over to the chair.

She sat, and it took her a moment to regain her breath. Then, she set about the task of removing her clothing and cleaning her skin which had become sticky with sweat. She wiped her face and her neck and slipped the cloth down to the grayish skin of her arms and chest. She scrubbed underneath the weight of her breasts, around and under the folds of her stomach, passed the cloth over her legs and in-between her thighs. Redressing was a process.

She could not fathom the journey back to the bed. Outside the window, snow fell on the sea. The light was gray and hazy. She wondered what time it was, how many hours she had been traveling and how many hours she had left. Suddenly, she was afraid in a way she hadn’t been since she was a child.

There was a knock on the door.

“Yes,” she said, unable to keep the eagerness from her voice.

Simon entered with a mug cradled in his hands. “Do you need help?” he asked. “To the bed?”

“Yes,” she said.

He let her lean her entire body into him and placed her down gently, pulling up the blankets over her legs.

“Here,” he said, nestling the mug into her hands.

“Thank you,” Hen said. She sipped at it. It was overly sweet, but the warmth was a comfort. Her fears still crowded close. “Where are you from?” she asked.

“North. Over the mountains, by the sea,” he said. “But I haven’t been back in a long time.”

“Will you tell me something about yourself?” she asked.

“Not much to say,” he said.

“Anything,” she said.

He folded and unfolded his hands. “I used to think I wanted to be a musician. A fiddler. But I suppose that isn’t all that unusual.”

“Do you still play?” she asked.

“No.” He took the mug from her. “I have to leave,” he said.

“Oh,” she said.

“I’ll come back,” he said. “If you like.”

“Yes, please,” she said.

The day passed, each hour unrepentantly longer than the last. It was dark by the time Simon returned.

He sat down in the chair, handed her another mug, and waited quietly.

“Have you done this before?” she asked.

“Many times,” he said.

“The others, were they frightened?” she asked.

“I suppose,” he said. “The younger ones were angry. They would throw things until they couldn’t anymore. The older ones were more like you. Most of them didn’t want to talk though.” He rubbed his hands against his thighs and looked out the window. “This used to be easier when I was younger.”

“How much longer? Until we arrive?” she asked.

“Two days, a little less,” he said.

“I served. A long time ago,” she said, a useless statement since everyone served unless they could pay someone else to do so for them. Still, he nodded.

“Will you tell me something about yourself?” he asked.

She didn’t know what to tell him. No one had ever asked her this question. Her life had been an insignificant one. She’d had small desires, desires that diminished as the years passed. She thought. “This is the furthest I have had ever been from home,” she said.

“Yes,” he said. “They keep pushing further and further afield.”

She wondered what they would do when there was nothing left to take. Simon rose to leave.

“You can’t stay?” she asked.

“I’ll be back in the morning,” he said. “Don’t worry. You won’t be alone tomorrow.”

She shivered and pulled the blanket up around her shoulders.

******

In the morning, she woke feverish. Her limbs were too stiff to move. The doors opened, and two people entered. One said, “It will be soon. Stay with her.”

“Yes, sir,” Simon replied.

A cool cloth was wiped over her face. She opened her eyes. Simon sat beside her. He was quiet for a very long time. Then, he began to tell her a story. She could not follow it, the threads and strands unravelling as soon as they were woven together, but the shape of it was familiar. The day moved on. Simon’s voice faded. She opened her eyes and found that he had gone.

Her body felt overheated, and she suddenly, urgently, without warning or explanation, knew that she needed to be in the water. Her hands, gnarled like claws, pulled her up and out of the bed onto the floor. She crawled, agonizingly slow, to the door and rapped on it until her knuckles were raw. She tried to call for Simon but could only make a sibilant hiss. No one came. She lay on the floor, sweating and shivering.

The first wave of pain arrived, her back erupting, the skin stretching impossibly outward. At its crest, it divorced her from her body. When she came back to herself, she was panting, fingernails scrabbling against the floor. Simon was beside her. His hands were under her head and on her shoulder. He helped her sit up and held a cup to her lips. She lapped at the liquid eagerly.

“It will go easier for you now,” he said.

He lowered her back down, her head resting on his knee. Her body tensed, waiting for the coming agonies, but before they could arrive, her vision grew hazy.

“There you are,” Simon said as she drifted. “There you are.”

******

She could smell salt and feel a breeze on her back. She inhaled deeply and then exhaled, feeling every muscle tense and release. She no longer ached. All the joints and tendons, organs and fluids, had been made new. Her body contained the same boundless, unflagging energy that she had possessed as a child. She thirsted to spring up and fly.

But her body was bound, and nothing would budge past a slight wiggle. She thrashed the tip of her tail in displeasure.

Simon appeared. She ground her teeth inside the metal muzzle.

“I know,” he said. “But you’ll be free, freer, soon.” Once they landed, he meant, though he was too kind to say this aloud, knowing that the freedom she would be granted would be an empty one, able to move but with no choice as to where to go.

Around her, she could hear people moving and feel the vibrations of their speech, the noises of life continuing. Hen stared up at the sky. Two thick bands of stars, colored red and blue and gold, appeared. The night was cool and bright. Her wings twitched, tightly bound to her back.

Slowly, the deck quieted and stilled.

Simon came and crouched down by her. “All right?” he said. She growled.

He lightly stroked the scales on her neck and then began unlocking the chains that held her. Each one was removed quickly but with care.

“Go on,” Simon said.

She rose but hesitated.

“Go on,” Simon repeated. “It will be fine.”

She knew that it wouldn’t be; this kindness would only be viewed as blatant thievery. She wanted to go, but could not, not alone. She crouched down, turned to nudge Simon with her head, and waited for him to climb aboard her warm, broad back. From behind, there was a bellow of alarm, but before anyone could reach them, Hen bunched her limbs beneath her and, unsure if she would fly or fall, leapt upward. Her wings caught an updraft, and she sped over the sea.

Once they were far enough away, she slowed and hovered mid-air, twisting to see the dark outline of the ship in the distance.

Simon leaned forward on her neck. “To the west,” he said. “The mountains.”

Light was appearing at the edges of the sky by the time the mountains came into view, their lower slopes covered in pine and the higher ones in scrub and ice. She found a cave small and secluded enough to provide a place to rest. Simon slid off her back and stumbled to sit against the cold rock. He was shivering. While the cold no longer touched her, he was fragile.

She crawled back out of the cave. There were small, insubstantial shrubs close, and they proved easy to uproot. She dropped one at the cave’s entrance and nudged it inside. Simon glanced at it and shook his head.

“No fire,” he said.

Hen used her body to block the worst of the cold coming in from outside. Simon still shivered. She huffed and used her tail to poke at him until he moved close to her. She tucked him in close to her belly and watched as he settled and slept restlessly. The dragon, the possessive, little creature whispered inside her head: mine. She lazily eyed the birds and rodents that got too close to the cave’s mouth and, having grown hungry, caught a fat, little mouse as the sun was setting. She felt a brief flash of revulsion as the furry creature touched her tongue, but this quickly turned to satisfaction at a successful and easy hunt. She swallowed the mouse down whole.

Night arrived. Simon woke, groggy, and leaned on her heavily as he shook away the last bits of slumber and struggled to his feet.

“I think I would like to go home,” he said.

She pushed her body as close to the ground as she could to make it easier for him to climb on her back.

“Over the mountains,” he said.

The sky was cloudy, and as they rose up higher, it began to snow. The wind grew more powerful, and she battled against it, her body aching with the strain. Coming down the other side of the slopes was no easier, and when she finally reached tree cover, she landed roughly, limbs collapsing beneath her. Simon rolled off her and pressed himself into her side. She lifted a wing to cover him and lowered her head to sleep.

It was still light out when she woke. She looked around. In the distance, the forest abruptly stopped, transforming into a wide cavity. She could not see its contours from where she lay, but they were not far from this unnaturalness.

She nosed at Simon until he groaned.

“All right,” he said. “Give me a moment.”

At dusk, they began again. Below, the trees disappeared and, in their place, emerged stumps and wide swaths of brown and gray emptiness. The land, stripped and vacant, had become a fetid and decaying corpse. Further on, they passed over towns that had once flourished and thrived and were now crumbling. In some, mudslides had clawed away walls and foundations; in others, vines and vegetation had eaten the remains of what was left. Beyond the last of these, the landscape opened to sand and sea.

“Here,” Simon said.

She landed in the tall, brittle grass. Simon climbed off her back and walked to the sea’s edge. She followed him and lay down, letting the sand slide over her scales.

“The sky used to be filled with dragons,” he said. “People would come to the beach to watch them. I never saw them myself. But my grandmother did. When the army came to take the land, they took the dragons too.”

They sat. Simon drew patterns in the sand. “That was home,” he said, pointing to the dark village to their right. “I can’t stay here. This isn’t… it’s all gone now.” He sighed, the breath catching in his throat, and then, overcome, leaned against her and wept.

The sun came up. “Enough,” Simon said, wiping his eyes with the heels of his hands. “That’s enough.” He stood slowly and rested his hand on her flank. “Stay here,” he said. “I’ll be back soon.”

She stayed, and she fretted. Her body—its bulk, wings, claws, and the fire she could feel warming in her belly—was made to protect. And Simon was hers. He was gone a long time, far too long. The sun was setting by the time he returned, carrying a sack over his shoulder. He dropped it in the sand and turned away again. Hen nosed around inside it, finding coils of rope, tools, and other human accoutrements, most torn, cracked, or broken. On the bottom, there was a small wooden case with a broken latch that housed a fiddle, itself in poor condition. Simon reappeared, dragging a boat out of the grass. He retrieved the sack, threw it into the boat, and began pushing it toward the sea.

“There’s an island,” he said. “My grandmother used to say that’s where the dragons came from. I’ve never been there, but I heard it’s not too far. Just far enough.” He looked up at her. “You’re free. You can go where you like. You should. But I thought, I hoped, you might come along. We could make a go of it. For a while anyway.”

Hen huffed. Of course. How foolish to think she wouldn’t come. Where else would she want to go?

She helped him shove the boat into the water and then flapped her great wings and rose to follow him. She kept the boat in her sight and nudged it along when it seemed that Simon’s strength was flagging.

The moon rose, and over the edge of the horizon, an island emerged, rocky, bleak, and beautiful. It had been empty for some time, but the signs of habitation were still there, little caves that had once been homes, paths that had been carved across the terrain.

They pulled the boat ashore, and Simon built a fire while Hen hunted. Fish were plentiful and easy to come by. With several clutched in her talons, she wheeled back around.

The brilliant orange of the fire bloomed in the distance. Above, the comforting bulk of the island hovered. They would have time, plenty of time, to explore every inch of it, the mountain crags and frozen rivers and sharp pine trees. Eventually, when the time came, Hen would gently nip Simon’s shoulder and would see him born into his new body as he was supposed to be, cradled in the ocean’s waves. Then, it would be time to reclaim what had been taken from them, the land that had been spoiled and the people that had been flattened by the boots of empire.

For now, though, there was the waiting warmth of the fire and the assurance of a shared meal.

Hen trilled softly in anticipation and pleasure and dove back down to the water to snap up a fish in her teeth before returning to the beach and to Simon.


THE END


2023 Laine Perez

Bio: Laine Perez works at the University of Arkansas and received her Ph.D. in English from the University of Texas at Austin. Her work has appeared in Beneath Ceaseless Skies and Luna Station Quarterly. She lives in Arkansas with her cat, Mauer, who is named after a baseball player.

E-mail: Laine Perez

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