Markus poured the wine. His friend had a high, slow pour that sent the dark red liquid diving into the glass, sloshing at it rose. Such little things had always fascinated him since…He couldn’t recall. But it pleased him to watch Markus fill the glass, tapering off his pour as the wine swelled toward the rim. Yes, he was sure that it had always pleased him.
“It is only just,” Markus said.
He nodded absently, accepting the glass and giving it a little swirl as Markus poured another for himself. Then they both set their drinks on the table – his little table in his little kitchen – to let the wine breathe. Yes, it had to breathe, to release its hidden truth. Time was the only way.
It was dark in his little kitchen. Dark because it was night (though he hadn’t noticed the sun setting or he would have invited Markus out to the porch to watch it) and they only had the one candle on the table. A fat stub surrounded by the meltings of its death. Inevitable. For to be a candle in truth, was to burn toward annihilation. We are all consumed by the work of our days.
“You are being morose again, my friend,” Markus said. “There is only sadness down that road and you don’t need to carry that – not anymore.”
“I know.” And he did, he did know. That he did know.
They were quiet, letting the wine breathe. Markus watched him and he let his gaze roam around the kitchen – his gas stove, his sink, his fridge, his cupboards, the half-curtains on his windows. Antiques, he realized suddenly. Expensive antiques. Indulgences.
But were they really indulgences? That seemed absurd. How could it be indulgent to have simple amenities? No, it couldn’t be indulgent to have what the people of this community scrimped and saved to buy, worked so persistently, so craftily to maintain. It couldn’t be.
“I see you’ve taken up another hobby,” Markus said with a gesture toward the countertop. On the white cloth lay the casing, the wheels, the hairspring, the screws, the mainspring barrel, the regulator, the battery, the minute and the hour chapters. He could see their arrangements, their fitting together, their workings, and when he was done he would see time. Surely that was the promise of the watch.
But Markus had offended him. “A craft, Markus.” Hobby is such a demeaning word. “I can get all the tools, genuine ones from home, but the quartz has proven difficult to find.”
“That must be disappointing,” Markus said.
He nodded. It wouldn’t work properly, the watch. Not without the quartz. So he continued under the burden of never knowing the time, the exact time (except when the monks were about their services). But he only wanted genuine quartz, the kind from home, no synthetic substitute would do. There must be at least one captain, some prospector who would be willing to find it and bring it back to him, across that immeasurable distance. He was owed that much, surely.
As if summoned, low chanting began to float in solemn tones through the open window. The monks were beginning evening prayer, warding themselves and the world against the advent of the time of evil. Even after all these years, even faintly heard at a distance – the forms, the calls and responses, all the old words came to him.
“And your sleep,” Markus said, “how has that been?” It was a required question, they had agreed upon it.
“Yes, and the bed. The brothers do not go in for comfort.”
“You could request another bed. I could arrange it for you.”
“I’ve slept on worse.” The bunk under the bulkhead, the old military cot, a bed of leaves, the cold hard earth. He had done those things.
They enjoyed the wine, polishing off the bottle in silence as the muffled cadences of ancient liturgy drifted in. He almost asked for news, but didn’t. It would only pain him and that would hurt Markus, ever dutiful Markus, who had already suffered enough in his service.
After his friend left he tinkered with the watch, putting it together, then taking it apart again. Without the quartz heart it was just an elegant, but dead, mechanism. His hands had given life to many mechanisms, many instruments, many subtle and terrible designs…He arranged the pieces carefully on the cloth, put away his tools, and blew out the candle. Then he went to the bathroom to prepare for his nightly trial.
The open cabinet with its bare shelves greeted him when he opened the door. The mirror hadn’t been replaced. Apparently the monks hadn’t gotten around to it yet. Yes, that had to be it. The last shards of glass were still on the floor, wedged under the register. He had cut himself cleaning up. Best to leave the rest for the monks. Yes, they would insist on that.
So he performed his evening ritual and went to bed.
* * *
That night, like every night, he tossed and turned.
It felt as if there was a tree root in his mattress that followed him wherever he fled. It shouldn’t have bothered him, such things never used to bother him, he was sure of it. But this did. It was so malicious, so petty. Always after him, tormenting him, needling with impunity – and how could anything or anyone nettle him without fear?
Markus was surely wrong: It wasn’t just.
He sought solace on the left side, with the open air at his back. Then on the right against the wall. He rotated himself, setting his feet toward the headboard. He made a buffer of layered blankets. He kneaded the mattress with his fist. Nothing worked. Nothing brought relief.
It wasn’t to be borne. He threw off his blankets and leapt to his feet, yanking the mattress of the frame. There was a board underneath, a sheet of plywood, he tore that off too – and heard something fall softly to the floor.
Not wanting to turn on the light, he got down on his hands and knees and groped blindly under the bed frame until his fingers grazed the unmistakable spine of a book. It sent a chill through him.
But surely it was just a monk’s prayer book. Or a thin volume of scriptures. Yes, that was it, undoubtedly the case. A holy text, left and forgotten under one’s head to invoke holy dreams. Or a thorn to trouble the wicked.
Yet he was curious. So curious that his hands trembled.
It was leatherbound and well-worn, which only reinforced his theories. But the leather was smooth without etching, without engraving. A journal? A madman’s scribblings? A prophet’s secret visions?
He began to sweat. He should just put it back. Yes, remake the bed and put it back. He shouldn’t look inside, it would be wrong – but how could it be wrong? Why? Why was it wrong? A sharp ache bloomed in his head, lights began to dance before his eyes.
No, the answer was to put it back, to not take it out to the kitchen, to not peal open the cover and read by the pilot light of the stove. It had been left behind, let it be left behind. The author had probably died. Let it be buried with him, his thoughts, his musings, his memories, his doubts, his unquenchable righteous rage, all those visions of dreadful wrath. He should put it back.
And not know.
He snarled, stumbled over the mattress, made it to the door, out to the hall, to the kitchen – then there was a knock at the door. A tentative knock. He had disturbed the monks. Ruthless clarity took possession of his mind. “A moment,” he called out. “I’m coming.” He opened a cupboard as quietly as he could and placed the book atop his plates, closed it just as carefully. One missed step would ruin the effort. Then he hurried stealthily to close the bedroom door. At last, steadying himself, he went to answer the knock.
It was Markus.
He stared down at his old friend, his oldest friend, steadfast Markus who had remained him almost to the end, almost to the very end – and felt the echo of an old and murderous fury. Was it true? Had it happened? He stumbled back from the door, the room spun. The floor rushed to meet his face.
* * *
There was mist on the field. Mist and smoke. He had been above it all, surrounded by cold metal that pulsed with the hum of power, his power, but he had come down, he had descended as he always did. To feel again and again and again the consequences of his choices, and so affirm the choice, the singular choice of his life, the one he had made in his cell when he was a young man with all the piercing clarity that only resolute conviction could bring. And thus, again, set to rest – one more time – the gnawing feeling that he could not name, would not look at it…
This was necessary. This was needed. Not compromise, not hypocrisy, not the hollow theological prattle of those he had once called brothers, those who mouthed holy words but always fell into pragmatism, into compromise. He had surpassed them in righteousness, in the working of real justice. And in the end left them behind. For this. This great work. This heaviest of burdens.
A raucous cry drew his eye skyward. Crows in the mist. There were crows here? It was strange, that there should be crows. But there they were, circling above the field, above him. Let them witness. Let them give voice to their complaints. In a moment he would return, ascend once more above the fires he had lit, above the smoke of their burnings, above the roof of a world’s tomb. He would come stalking down the ramp, breathing once more the well-scrubbed recycled air, and Markus would be waiting for him with shame in his eyes for what he was about to attempt…
There were more of them now, the mist was rife with them, crying out to one another, a broken chorus, harsh and hard. Witnesses, full of accusation, leveling their charges one after the other and demanding justice. The gall. The audacity. They were unworthy.
He threw back his head and roared defiance at the heavens. And they came, hurtling down in a murder of darkness. The crows came shattering down. His hands swatted at them, fending off those hard, cold smooth bodies.
Then it was over and he stood, blinking in the daylight, his plates shattered all around him – and there, illumined by a shaft of sunlight, the book, fallen atop their ruin. A ruin that smote him, deep, deep, staggeringly deep.
“My friend,” Markus said from behind him, at the table. But his voice was wrong, mangled.
He didn’t look. He wouldn’t look. There was the journal, right there, right within his reach.
“Let it go,” Markus said. “You came here to let it go.”
Any other man he would have called a liar. Any other man he would have driven out of his presence. But Markus was a man of unbending principle, a man who always sought the straight path, no matter the difficulty, no matter the cost. No other man could have earned his trust so thoroughly, no other man could have become his friend. That is why he had chosen him. That had to be so.
But his words, they were true too. The words he had left behind, left for himself, for when they were needed, for when his resolve faltered, his faith failed. To come back again and read the truth that he had set down in the clarity of revelation, a memory to save himself from weakness – pernicious weakness.
Even a righteous man could fall into error, be confused, led astray into a fateful choice. And Markus had stumbled. But only once. At the foot of the ramp. Yes. That is how it had happened. And the book was right there.
A hand came to rest on his shoulder. “Turn away,” Markus said. “Go back to sleep, return to your beautiful machines and the singing of the monks, you missed them. You always told me how much you missed them, even more as your regrets grew thick.”
But the answers were there, the defense against such assaults on his resolve, but lay a hand upon that cover, but turn one page and it would be upon him, the glory of his calling, the dread majesty of his power. Then he would be unassailable, then he would be without rival, never again to suffer weakness or betrayal, all would be restored and with it, purpose. His purpose.
A sob wracked him. “I can’t, Markus. I can’t be satisfied with shadows. I can’t remain like this.”
“We have had this talk before, you have stood in this place,” Markus said.
“How many times?”
“You told me never to answer that question.”
Of course he had. He who understood the workings of things, a master of men and machines, would not have stinted in the forging of his own prison. But how could he trust the decision of a man overcome with grief, drowning in doubts?
“If you return,” Markus said, “only sorrow will be waiting.”
“Grief can be mastered.”
“Not by you, my friend. Not this grief.”
“I can finish what we began.”
“There is no end but ashes.”
“Then there will be ashes.”
Silence fell heavy in the kitchen. But in the yard, the monks took up the morning service, greeting the dawn with the hope that only faith could give.
“If that is your decision, then I have but one request,” Markus said with soft, horrible gentleness.
He knew what it was without being asked. And so he turned because he owed Markus that much. By all the will he had ever possessed he forced himself to turn and face his oldest friend. The wound cleft Markus’ face, running down through his chest like a ravine. But it was the pity in that one remaining eye that rocked him back to lean upon the countertop.
“Stay, it is the justice you have wrought,” Markus pleaded. “Justice for us both.”
But was it truly just?