Building coffins


I kneel in darkness before an almost extinguished fire, stirring up old coals for the warmth they hide.

The organ glow barely bright enough by which to see my own fingers

Boys – not men – slumber to either side of me, worn out by another hard day’s ride, their steeds more sturdy than they are for all the weight they bear

Armor and weapons carried towards an invisible war many miles yet ahead of us.

I alone see what lies ahead, having gone there and returned too many times to count, each visit to the front leaving friends and acquaintances in scattered and bloody pieces across the landscape.

At home, men and women praise us for our exploits – we, they say – keep them safe and secure.

They give us their sons so we can keep the war going – though none knows who started it or why, or when it might come to an end.

We call their side savage and kill them.

They call our side monstrous and kill us.

Blood mingles with blood so I can never tell whose is whose and which was spilled for what cause.

In the dark, I listen to the boys moaning, boys still calling for their mothers against the terrors of the night.

Our war has already slaughtered all those old enough to fight, killing kings along side peasants so that these boys must come next.

Out here – waiting for dawn and the certainty of eventual battle that will leave many of these boys dead, I wonder if any will think war as glorious as when we left amid the cheers, here where no pretty women wave hankies and flags on our behalf.

I remember being scared the night before my first battle, hoping sleep would take me and bless me with a few hours of peace.

I stir the coals, shiver and cough, thinking back to how shocked I was when war finally came.

And how much I hated it.

Then how much I came to love it later when I realized I had survived when others had not.

Life offers no greater pleasure than the ability to kill another man,. To watch his life ooze out of him at the point of your sword – you still standing, his blood dripping across your shivering fingers.

I remember how shocked I was when I heard other, older warriors talking in such a way, not of love of country or freedom preserved, but of the thrill of battle and death inflicted.

Yet over time, even that thrill passes, and killing becomes a chore as dreary as hammering nails, each blow of the sword as repetitive as the swing of a hammer – though I build coffins while carpenters build houses.

After a time, I have only grave stones to show as my life’s accomplishments.

One boy comes out of the dark, looked in some nightmare of death and dying, not yet done, his dreams more truthful than all the flag waving or patriotic songs.

I want to comfort him.

I do not know how.

I know only how to build coffins.


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