My grandkids, they ask me about you, and I tell them.
I tell them I remember quiet; a great deal of it. There were the usual sounds of camp, the popping of morning fires cooking fatty cuts of pork and the clanking of our metal cups, but I could acknowledge only a dull ringing, like the far away sound of sirens calling. It had been that way since the day before, when the fighting was the fiercest, the air thick with death, and when you and I met face-to-face for the first time.
But the silence did not last, and all at once it broke as the sound of bugles pierced the peaceful mountain morning and my own aural deficiency. Men all around me stood, pulled on their blue uniform coats, slung the white straps of their ammunition pouches across their chests, and fell into line with their muskets. I followed suit, taking my place at the end of the column. The rising sun caught the metal of our buckles and the barrels of our guns as the dust kicked up from our movement settled back upon the ground.
The villagers, despondent and defeated, gathered lazily around our formation. They squinted together through the bright, reflected glare to hide their grief. The adults stood slumped but stoic, silhouetted by the star rising at their backs, while children were hushed when they found their voices. Just the day before there had been no soldiers in their sleepy mountain village. There never had to be, except that that was where you had fled, and that our orders were to follow.
You had told them, had told everyone, that we would come for them. Months of rhetoric gave way to a sea of violent youth that could be ignored no longer. When they marched us out, you slipped away, and so they marched us further and further, far away from our families and our homes, into all the places you predicted we would go. We followed your voice until at last we found you, held you down, and made you ours again.
I tell my grandkids about the battle in the mountains, over open and rocky ground. The sun baked down upon us from high overhead as we picked our way up the pass, bayonets fixed, charging towards the flashes of musket fire at our front. It was then, as we closed, that the firing rendered me nearly deaf, but left me otherwise whole. The sweat poured from our brows as rifles and fists began to swing, tearing at skin and crushing down on bone.
You froze before I fell upon you, your hands raised as your weapon fell to the ground, silent and inert. The look upon your face read of terror, but only for the briefest of moments. I saw the movement of lips, but heard only the damnable ringing of my own broken ears. Your fingers gripped into my coat, trying to throw me aside, but I held fast and landed a fist against your jaw. Pain shot through my knuckles, but I felt yours give way and fall, and I knew there would be no need for a second blow.
My comrades pulled me from you and bound your hands, taking you and your young friends prisoner for their crimes. By the point of bayonet they forced you down the same rocky hill we rushed upon only minutes earlier, past the dead and the dying friends you had taken from us in your arrogance and your mania.
I hesitate, but then tell my grandkids about your followers, the bravest young men who followed you up into the mountains and accompanied us down. They bore the signs of privilege, the kind that leads to idle time and dangerous thoughts. With jaws set, they stood up straight, chests out, hands tied behind their backs, and received the shots from my comrades upon the firing line. They sputtered through wet breath and fell away, their defiance crushed beneath the weight of their newfound martyrdom.
The villagers buried them there in the dirt where they had been cut down under our supervision. In a show of mercy the local priest was called upon to speak to the Lord on their behalf. Again his lips moved, but I could hear little of what he said. Only later was I told that they were quiet, subdued words; a sort of mute eulogy unbefitting the ferocity that filled their spirit only an hour before.
My grandkids again ask about you, so I return to the morning and tell them about how they dragged you out of the closet they stowed you in the day before. Your eyes were heavy and sullen, your head bowed, as they led you past our column shimmering in the sun. Ahead you saw the stake and the piling of wood that would suggest your fate, but it seemed to give you little pause. With hands tied at your front, you continued to walk slowly before us, spurred by the bayonets of your guards.
It must have been the sight of the fresh graves of your comrades that stirred your soul at last. Roused from your thoughts, you stopped before me at the end of the line. I watched as your lips quivered and your brow fell upon your squinting, hollow eyes.
“Tell me!” you shouted; the first words that punctured the din in my ears.
“Tell me, are you free?”
You looked upon me, and I returned your gaze. It was the second and last time you and I would meet face-to-face.
“In word, or thought, or deed? I must know! Tell me! Are you free?”
Your eyes grew brighter, but I did not shrink before them. We stared at one another for a minute, an unflinching and determined stare, before the guards’ hands fell upon your shoulders and urged you forward towards your fate.
I tell my grandkids then about the way you were walked to the stake, where with more ropes we bound you, standing upon a pile of kindling. Your steps were sure and steady, your only physical defiance left, and your words continued, even as we lashed you securely to the heavy timber.
“They have killed the bravest men, so surely only cowards are left! Will we fold our hands and hold our tongues, then?”
Like a zealot, you heaped your judgment upon the bowed heads of the villagers, and they shifted their weight beneath your words.
“So long as the gallows stand, tell me! Are you free?”
Fire was produced and the dried sticks and twigs at your feet caught easily. The orange glow spread rapidly, not unlike a dangerous and treasonous thought. Before long I could feel the radiating heat through my coat and felt the sweat begin to drip down upon my brow. You winced and strained, but your words continued.
“I know I am free!” you shouted frantically. “I can feel the flames licking at my feet. I am breathing fire. Even as it devours me, I know I am free!”
I tell my grandkids that you stood tall, amidst the smoke and the flames, and cast down your judgement even as you wasted away before our eyes. The plume carried ash and embers high into the air and away on the breeze. Only coughs and sputters interrupted the vitriol until finally the crackling of the fire was all that could be heard.
I tell my grandkids much, but I do not tell them everything. I do not tell them that we all saw the terror in your visage that morning, as only I had seen prior. I do not tell them of the great sadness we felt for your plight. I do not tell them that we had soaked the wood in water the night before in mercy. I do not tell them that you were quickly and fortunately overcome by the smoke and did not suffer for long. I do not tell them that we averted our eyes, or that we wept that day and night for what we knew we had lost.
Because every revolution requires a martyr, and every martyr needs a liar, I do not tell them.