We are in war. We sweat it. We dream it. It is in every step we take. War. Violence. It sits heavy on the horizon, like the smoke of a forest fire. It’s in my heart, my mind. It’s everything. All things.
Each morning we get up and climb the ramparts. We look out over the kingdom, a quiltwork of fields stitched together by the pattern of their grains, and the delineations of their borders. We look for them. The evidence of them. The marks they leave.
There they are, amassed down the hill. Their skin is sallow, as ours. Fatigue glazes their eyes, as ours. The cold creeps into their metal, as ours.
We are bonded in this way. This shared experience we drive each other into because it has been, and because it has been, it will have to always be.
I can’t recall how war even started. The beginnings of it are so far buried they may as well be myth. Some people say it doesn’t matter, their hate is so strong it overrides everything else. But there are vats of blood spilled out of bodies. There are heads crushed. There are limbs lobbed off and left on the battlefield like discarded garments. There are hollowmen left. They are specters lingering in the alleys, sitting slumped against walls and not-quite-staring at passersby. They have forgotten themsleves while the rest of us see them in their before and after, and know the truth of them, which sets an ache in our hearts something like a rot spreading through our organs. For all of these reasons, we should remember the why of it.
I am sent from the village, from my family. I am to war. I am my armor, my weapons. We are us, and they are them.
Middle winter brought their retreat, but retreat is not enough for they are still a threat, because still they breathe. Still they make weapons and plans. Still they try to know our weaknesses. So we follow, and I learn how to strike, how to play dead, how to cut down horse and man. I learn how to clean blood off my sword, and my armor. My family is distant from my mind, but the hollowmen are constant companions.
I wade through the still waters of the house. The greyness outside makes it dusk inside, and transforms the familiar into mystery. I have looked for my wife, for my children and my mother, but they are hidden, and this place reminds me of pre-dawn on the field of battle. It is like this. Still and waiting. All the beds are made.
I finally find someone. “Nan, I am home,” I say to Grandmother.
She says nothing, instead squats at the hearth with her knees up around her ears like a crude peasant. I stem the tide of words battering the shores of my tongue at this image. It disgusts me, but she carries on as if it’s natural, as if her body doesn’t contain all these other meanings — whispering or screaming — in the shape it takes.
“Must you crouch like that?” The question leaks out.
Her answer is the thin clinking of wood as she arranges sticks atop each other on the charred stone. It’s a servant’s job she does, even as I stand in her presence for the first time in weeks. She can’t be bothered to look at me, though. Her grandson returned from the war.
Once the arrangement meets her satisfaction, she sets about tucking in the shavings of bark she’s saved off to the side.
“Are you building a fowl’s nest?” I ask, hand resting in the pummel of my sword.
“There is only one foul thing in here,” she says. Next, she takes a small pile of wool, and wedges it in near the edge of the construction.
“What mean you?”
She grunts, takes the flint and knife out of her pocket, and begins to shave off pieces of the metal into the wool.
My hand tightens on its own. Sword and hand are well acquainted now.
With her back turned, somehow she sees it, and cackles like an old crow. “Strike me, will you? Strike me for truth-telling?”
“You insult me.”
Sparks dance over the wool, which smokes. When its starts to catch, she breathes on it. After it’s lit, she unfolds herself to standing and turns to me. Lines streak her husk-like skin, more than I remember. The flickering fire does magic with her face.
“Do you remember how to be any other way?” she asks me.
Her face transforms, takes shapes. She is my mother, my wife and daughter. Worse, she is the women of them. The ones we killed and left on the battlefield, faces pale, and eyes open to the sky, and I see my women like that. Deprived of warmth, of smiles and futures.
“Where is everyone else?”
She smiles. “The beds are made, the fire is lit. It’s time to join them at the well.”
“What are you saying?” I ask as she shuffles past me. “Have you lost your mind?”
“It is Imbolc. We will all celebrate Imbolc together.” Grandmother claws her cloak from its peg, and drapes it about herself before stepping through the door.
“Stop this madness; I’ve come home.”
“Not yet. But hopefully you will soon.” She joins the trickle of old women doddering down the street. As they find each other, they clasp hands and walk together out of the gate.
I run after her. “What is happening?”
“We have remembered,” another woman says.
The thawing roads are thick with women. “Come,” they all say. “Come help us celebrate.”
I see the first man on the road. “What is this?” I ask him. “We keep to the town for Imbolc.”
He smiles. “This is leap of faith.”
“What does that mean?”
“The old ones have come out of slumber to remember something. And they hope, we all hope this will stop the war.”
Senseless. What do women know of war? Of making it, or stopping it?
“You doubt,” he says. “It’s good; there’s much to doubt.”
At the crossroads ahead, more women join the procession from the east and the west. “They are them,” I say. They are the enemy women, coming from villages, which are not our own.
They smile at us, and take the hands of our women as if they are sisters.
Ahead, the road winds to the top of the mountain where the Old Hall sits. Its builders and use have passed out of memory, and yet smoke curls out of its chimney and torches light the pathway.
A woman no higher than my elbow keeps pace with me. “You think I am different from you,” she says.
“You are them.” It is a simple thing. Us and them.
She laughs. “It seems like that, doesn’t it? Yet we have the same habits, we honor the same traditions. We even come from the same source.”
“We are enemies,” I say because it comes to my mouth involuntarily, like a reflex.
She doesn’t respond to the comment. Instead, she says, “We will celebrate this Imbolc with our Fathers and Brothers. Our husbands and sons.” And then she is gone
I can smell the colcannon, the bannock and barm brak. These are the smells of Imbolc. Tables, which are full of women, fill the hall. Women rush around with platters of food and pitchers of sowens. Their chatter rattles the rafters, and it is so strange to see them all here. Enemies and family, except now that they are commingled, it is more difficult to tell one from the other.
All of the women and children are here. In the middle of the room I finally see my own, and seeing them makes my heart stomp like a charge horse. I make my way to them. “We must go,” I say.
“We must stay,” says my wife. “Everyone is invited, so everyone is coming.”
“We are in danger.”
She nods, and tears make her eyes sparkle. “That is the risk. But this war has gone on too long. And the truth of it is, we all come from the same place. We are all of the same tribe.” She begins to laugh. “All this time, we’ve been killing our own.”
Archers march in. The music, the laughter, the clinking of cups and the serving of food continues as they line the walls, and draw their bows.
“This is supposed to be peaceful,” some men shout.
Arrows flood into the assembly. Blood erupts in clouds from the bodies of the women who are struck.
There is screaming. There is crying and fear, but the women sit closer together instead of running from the Great Hall. The archers waver as they see their own wives and mothers and sisters clumped together.
“Fire,” the commanders of the opposing sides each call out to their men.
The women hold hands, and each other. They begin to sing. It’s an old song, but each previous word elicits the next from memory. The melody weaves together as another volley follows, this one more sparse then the first.
Some of the men have started to sing, too.
“Fire,” the cry comes again. This time, instead of firing into the hall, the archers whose bows are still taut fire at the commanders.
This story was inspired by a dream I had after watching a PBS documentary about the first humans and Mitochondrial Eve. The dream was just the last scene in the Hall, but the feeling of it was so strong I wanted to build a narrative around it.