I managed to smile a little. The truth is: the pain was… getting unpleasant, even for one such as I, who has known more than his share. Maybe that’s why I asked him, in the end. Maybe it was because of the pain, and my own bad memories. Not because I thought he was opening up, but because I needed somebody to be mean to.
“ – Why did you do it?” I said after a while. “Back there on Earth, what happened, why?” I didn’t really asked that question. I blurted it. It just came like that out of my mouth, “bleh”, each word pushing the next as if they wanted to jump out all at the same time. In retrospect, it must have been obvious that the question must have simmered at the back of my mind for quite a long time, which, ironically, was precisely the impression I did not want to give.
I started to regret having talked immediately, maybe even before I had finished. He remained silent, his good humour gone for good and I thought he would never speak to me again. I grabbed his axe and went to the nearest tree.
Now, I know you’ve all been here for a while, or at least that you think you’ve been. Still, this last thing may strike you as a peculiar one to do: the trees after all had saved our skin just a few hours before, warning us of the Djall’s coming. But it had to be done.
You see, I remember what it is to be a tree, and I reckoned we had a debt to repay, old Adolf and I. I remembered the pain you feel when you are a tree, the pain in each of your innumerable cells, where the imperfect fusion of flesh and woods takes place, shivers and convulse. I remembered how it hurt, as you continuously stretch from head to toes, from roots to branches, to grab the dim, red sunlight which, at its best, is no different from the darkest nights of Earth, as you squeeze the rocks and the gravel into sand with the most delicate and fragile fibres of your body, in search of water that hasn’t been there for eons.
So I took the axe and I fell a tree. It couldn’t cry out, or scream, of course, but I still knew what pain I inflicted. I cut it down and then I hacked at its branches and I stripped off its bark. I cut again at the wood beneath, until I was left with what looked like the crude semblance of a torso, and a head, and maybe the stump of a limb; all of raw, pulsating flesh.
Because it had suddenly dawned on me: all those years ago, when we finally rose against the Others, and fought and killed them, using only our numbers, our bare hands and the fact that whatever happened to us we wouldn’t die, all those centuries ago we made a promise, even if none of us spoke it aloud or even thought about it since.
I did it without hesitation because, and hear me well here, in this place, pain doesn’t matter. This place is made of pain. But what matters is the possibility of its cessation, the promise that, one day, the pain will end.
I was still working in the morning when he came and put his hand on my shoulder. Around and behind me laid the result of my night’s work: cut branches, and chips, bits of woods and bark, all heavily stained with gore. And further away five bloody, flayed things that once had been human beings, and, time allowing, would become so again.
“ – You can keep the axe.” Adolf said. “ I never had that much use for it anyway. You may have to give it a name, though. I never bothered.
“ – I am sure he has a name already,” I replied. By then I had known for a long time that the axe was alive. Adolf had taken it from an Other after all, and They never made anything in which They could not trap a soul. “It’s just a matter of asking him.”
There was a rebuke in there, I suppose, but I thought he deserved it. Plus, more even than what he’d said, the fact that he said it in English spoke of a separation: when German seems too intimate a language, you know that you are losing someone.
“ – I think I will go North,” he continued without replying. “There is a Gate there, and I have had an idea.” We were near the southern border of the woods, by then. Adolf would have to cross again the whole forest to go to his Gate, and he knew I wasn’t going to follow him.
“ – I’ve had an idea too, as a matter of fact, and the axe will be useful. Thank you. While I am at it, can I ask you for another favour? Don’t eat any of the Djall, please. I have a use for them also.
“ – Sure, no problem. I never cared that much for the taste, anyway.” That, that was a lie, I knew: the flesh of the Others makes for the best food ever. Nothing, even on Earth comes close to it. Still, it was a lie for which I could be grateful.
He turned and started to walk away, and I thought that was the last I would get from him. But then he stopped and said, as if the idea had just come to him:
“ – I don’t know why. I just don’t have any idea why, you know? I can no longer tell. All the time here, these centuries, the torture. You change, I suppose… I can no longer understand why.”