By the brook, where the trees faded to winter’s call and the grass’ day of ripening was long gone, he lay there. He was a flummoxing spectacle of strength and modernity, the kind of which the vast white space of the sparselands lent all its attention. From a distance, the landscape was an insincere one, as everything was a faded darkness, save the sharp blur of vermillion and lavender. It did not rise. Its consciousness faded like dew to the rising sun.
A young boy, wearing heavy linens and heavy brow, found the stranger on the shore of the brook near his village. The boy was excited, because clearly the heavens had sent him a divinity from the capitol. He ran for his father and only his father, for his father told him on the return that “no one ought know about what they had found today.” The boy understood.
They dragged the stranger to their town, a construction project of the foreman Misery. The paint on the facades was vanishing, the wood was wilting, and the identity of every building seemed to be Apathy. People were usually holed up inside their buildings, looking at their windows. Others were on rotation and farming in the near horizon. The creaking of a couple’s release could be heard from the streets. The boy and his father entered the stranger in their home, unseen, and guarded him in their guest room.
Two days later there was a knock at the door. The father opened it. He was a man in his 30s whose body was worn like it spent its whole existence pounding his coffin nails. The man at the door was proper; three piece suit and tie, the dreariest of color arrangements. Everything in his appearance was formulaic to the final algorithm one could propose on appearance. He even smelled of calculation. His hair, though, for the balanced lines of his creases and svelte of his ironing, was an upwards cumulonimbus storm, belting screaming gray in every which direction, zig-zagging and twisting through a small white chalky aura. It was an emissary of the Finance Minister Vick.
“Dear sir, we are regretful to inform you that we have reason to believe you or someone in this village is harboring a fugitive of the nation. If so, sir, then we’d wholly appreciate any cooperation you could spare us in bringing this wanted man to light. As per request of my ultimatum, if you do not provide this most dangerous criminal by the end of tomorrow, we will repossess this village and do with it what we please.”
The emissary thanked the father for his time and hovered away to the next building. The father, shedding sweat, burst into the guest room and found his stranger awake. He had disrobed himself entirely and so laid there this behemoth. “I’m not turning myself in.”
The father pleaded with him; he pleaded for the child and pleaded for the village and pleaded for himself.
“No. I’ve seen your town. It is a sad strand of bristle on the brush that paints the masterpiece of this war. My war. The one I’ll be a hero in. I’m leaving tonight, but I want some food.”
The father denied him.
“You haven’t heard of me. I was a former general under Emperor Llewylyn. Now I’m the Defector formerly known as Guard General Selegjohn. I will kill you.”
The father challenged that he do exactly as he said.
“Then, your son.”
The biting hush fell on the room. The father evaporated from the room. Selegjohn snapped a panel from the wall to erect his eye into a vigil.
The boy, returning from play with his chums in the sparselands, questioned his father on the condition of their rescue. The father, heeding to the twinkling energy of his son’s eye, broke into his bedroom and seized from his drawer a Colt revolver and a case of bullets. He placed them in his son’s palms and fastened the fingers around them. The lights from the overhead lanterns cast shadows over his shattering eyes. The boy looked at the weapon and then at his father. The father kneeled and, before the child could see the streams of red erupting around the iris and the water flowing out the soul, he embraced his son.
The crackling of lights lingered and the groaning of Selegjohn’s hunger wailed like echoes in a cavern and the world outside had a languor that turned a disinterest to a second of forever, like a memory that played out in a person for the entirety of their life. They broke the frozen moment and the father told the son to run. To where didn’t matter, so long as he ran away from the house, from the town. The son gave a mute compliance and quietly scampered from the household, free under the gaze of the stars.
The father returned to Selegjohn, later that evening, and caught him sitting quietly, eye peering out the broken panel. Thirty men held his rear, brandishing deteriorated weapons and farm tools. Thirty men held his back, holding the steadiness of a fault line and the steeliness of mercury. Thirty men encroached on Selegjohn, their assassin tools poised for a harvest of dignity. Thirty men crept on his back, speechless and shameless and hopeful. Thirty men formed a shadow against the lit wall, bending and buckling under the falling world, that made a malicious beast riddled with thorns and spikes; this beast of thorns and spikes crept on a smaller shadow. Thirty men went into that house that night to kill a pathogen in a town that did not even appear on a map, and that night thirty men’s bodies become one with a house whose identity was Apathy.
The next day, as the sun rose, killing the dew on whatever plants could hoard it, the emissary appeared at the house where there were reports of a tremendous violence. A squad of armed Macromulan soldiers emerged from the household. “There’s no sign of the Bandit Selegjohn, but there are a good deal of slaughtered peasants. Blood everywhere.” The emissary analyzed the town surrounding him, the small dirt roads and the intersections where tired things heaved their burden about, the absolute dearth of efficiency. “How should we proceed, sir?”
The emissary ventured into the house and scrutinized the details of its architecture. The dry heaving of dust trickled onto his shoulders, the tremors in the paneling leaked a harsh light into his eyes, and the wooden floor was curiously soft. “We could set a perimeter and operate a watch for the Bandit Sele-”
Without the slightest gasp or a flutter of consideration, the lead soldier lifted a crimson flag and in the horizon a sound of lead thunder shattered the few trees standing and burst into the house across from them. A storm of lead followed. The soldiers descended like rain into the town, blades hailing on empty heads.
By the brook, the son, seeing the smoke rise to the dreary sky, moved along the water. The town of Fames was settled when the brook was a river. Now it was enraptured in fire. The son looks once more across the sparselands. He looked for his father, he looked for Selegjohn , he looked for survivors. He looked onto the horizon, but the smoke of war had consumed it.