He hadn’t killed anybody. Light sifted dust onto the picture-perfect masterpiece he had painted of the world on the inside of his eyelids. He rested prone on shards on broken concrete which cracked as he shifted his balance and tried to evade the co-ordinates of war.
He was the pre-eminent Voltaire scholar in the country. Before the universities had been destroyed, being the pre-eminent Voltaire scholar in the country meant something. Now, all that had meaning veiled itself on the melted children’s swing sets. He was the pre-eminent Voltaire scholar in the country and he hadn’t killed anybody.
They were going to destroy the building that sheltered him. They had told him; if only to be polite. He should leave, but death was outside and the taste of pain would clutch his vallate papillae. Voltaire said that the young were fortunate. He was in a building which would be destroyed and which he could not leave. Perhaps the young were fortunate; he was certainly destined.
He had watched a miss-thrown grenade sever a man’s legs. The man had lain where he fell, alive, without any effort to move or cry out. At one moment the man had watched a news cameraman wash his body with photographs before heading away from the conflict zone to publish his photos in a well read journal. He had once left his prone position to crouch and try to look into the man’s eyes. All he found - as the man blinked slowly in the sun - was a futility which made him vomit.
A few days ago he had begun to see them. Bodies, drawing themselves through the streets, with broken skin dashed with grey. He would lie in stasis and let them draw closer. Then his hands would begin to bleed. Red droplets seeping through his pores and dropping onto monochrome flooring. A scorpion begins a war dance an inch from his face, clicking its arachnoid limbs against man-made stone. The scorpion’s tale teases its sting in the air as it oscillates, mimicking the pendulum which hung in the grandfather clock in his office. He would wake up when the scorpion stung his face, only to look out to the sky and find the moon dripping down his back. He was still in a building which they were about to destroy. He was the pre-eminent Voltaire scholar in the country. He hadn’t killed anybody, and at night he saw dead people.
The romantic sun of a childhood summer would grow a heavy heat a few hours after it had dawned. In the idyllic cool of the morning he picked himself from the floor and made his way to the floor below. He past the scattered bullet holes from a firing squad which had been assembled before the uprising had become a war.
The metallic pressure of a gun barrel reminded him of sharp rain in June.
“I am the pre-eminent Voltaire scholar in the country.” His voice mechanically intoned as his body hunched over his knees. He regarded the floor in the same way the pest-controller had done as he searched the skirting boards for termites whilst his mother cried and his father beat his fist on the table.
“How many of you are there?” The way the vowels were carved was a requiem for a teenage summer of bonfires; when students from the school in the town across the river had joined his own to drink and make love whilst talking about everything that didn’t matter.
“I’m the only Voltaire scholar in the country. Are you from Neum?”
The man whose vowels were too long paused and shifted the gun in his grip. “Yes. How many rebels are there in the building with you?”
“I’m the only one. They’re going to destroy this building.”
“I know, there are too many guns fixed on the streets outside though, to leave is to die for sure. Get up.”
The gun rustled and clicked as it was brought away from his neck. He got to his feet and turned to face a soldier with young eyes hidden behind a camouflaged face.
“Do you have a weapon?”
They had given him a rifle left behind by a man who had been killed. It would have been an injustice to be seen by one of his old students holding a weapon. He had thrown the rifle into the river. “No.”
“Sit down.” Youthful eyes widened as they struggled to believe such grace.
“You just told me to get up.”
“Now I’m telling you to sit down.”
“Because I have a gun and you don’t.”
It was an matter of fact. It is impossible to argue against such feats in times such as these. The residing facts that he was the pre-eminent Voltaire scholar in the country, trapped in a building they were going to destroy and that he had not killed anybody remained; yet they remained vitally less immediate than previously.
Through the empty space of a forgotten window, the curious trajectory of sight allowed him to see past the buildings to a space of fields beyond. A breeze which does not enter the city made waves in the long grass.
“How did you know I’m from Neum?”
“I grew up in Vares.”
The soldier flashed a warm smile of teeth left unattended for many days. “Hell. Why are you on their side then?”
It was the time when people knew it was almost summer. He would walk the goat path between Travnik and Jajce, which contoured as if lifted from some children’s picture book. They had shot him and left him for dead beside the path, hidden by the nettles which the goats ate. They didn’t kill his wife until they had let the war burn in their veins and their genitals.
“I was inspired.”
“To fight against your country.”
“Don’t misunderstand me. I love this country, as much as I pity it.”
The soldier squatted in front of him, placing the rifle on the floor beside him as he searched his person for a cigarette. In the silence of the empty living room, long cleared of any furniture or touches that once made it a home, a memory stirred of the silence which met his last lecture. It had not been a silence of awe.
“In Vares,” The soldier spoke between inhales of nicotine, “do you remember that girl, Bobo they called her. The one with the-”
“She loved tapestries.”
“She did! What a thing to love.”
Tapestries told stories through their weave similar to those his grandmother told him as he watched the fire in his house at winter. His cousins and sisters around him, they would listen intently to tales of castles on hilltops and sieges which lasted years. They were romantic enough for him to fall in love with them.
The soldier stood and crossed the room to look out onto the streets. Preoccupied with his cigarette, he had left his rifle on the floor.
“Do you know when they’re going to destroy the building?”
The weight of the rifle felt the same as the weight of gold they said his father owed.
“No. Sit down.”
The soldier tossed his cigarette to the ground and let his neck tilt backwards in bemusement. “Why?”
“Because I have the gun; and you don’t.”
The soldier smiled and sat with his back against the wall. The heat of the day was building, and the broken glass which could be found wherever anyone chanced to look glinted too brightly.
“Have you killed anyone, Vares?”
“I trained for this war beside blue glaciers which cracked the sunlight that fell upon them. When the war began, I saw my friends torture a rebel recruit who wasn’t old enough to fuck anyone let alone make love to any person. I did nothing. Then when my best friend returned from a rebel prison with his eyes torn out, I did nothing. The first man I killed was through a scope, two hundred yards from where I sat. It was near Travnik that I shot him, I should have shot the lady he was with though; her fate was crueler than any bullet. Killing is a process, not an act. Don’t you think, Vares?”
The soldier’s voice began to fade as a white light formed across his retinas. His ears clogged with a pitch too high which felt as if it should melt. His mouth felt as if it was filling with blood that was pouring from empty gums. He needed a cigarette, or else something to take the taste away from his tongue.
He thought of the children’s swing sets, and of the bomb. He remembered the chemicals which they had put in the water. The chemicals which cut the stomach open.
Soldiers are trained to act when their enemy is disoriented.
“Drop the gun.” The soldier pressed the manufactured steel blade into his throat.
He did so, his hands appreciated the weightlessness it brought.
“Take off your shoes.”
“Do we need to go over it again?”
His trousers and shirt followed his shoes. The humidity of the day stuck to his bare flesh with no wind to peel it away. He would have shivered had it not been so childishly delightful. He was in nothing but his underwear in the midst of a civil war. He had seen a man photographed for losing his legs. He was the pre-eminent Voltaire scholar in the country and he hadn’t killed anyone.
It wouldn’t be long before they destroyed this building. He felt a splinter of glass bite into the sole of his foot. The sensation of liquid wrapping itself around his bare toes echoed the moment he had stood in the ink which had spread like a halo from the typewriter he had dashed to the floor. He was not sure if this liquid was blood.
The soldier spurred him onwards with the rifle as a cattle rod. The pushes were gentle, yet they demanded something of his body he was unwilling to freely give.
“I should have gone to university, I would have studied philosophy. My father wouldn’t have it; I was to be a soldier like him. But to have my youth again; I’d leave this entire place, this world, this war that divides us. I remember my mother when she was dying, her body shriveled and grey. I was afraid to touch the death I saw in her. When I asked her if she was afraid she shook her head. Some of the soldiers spoke about immortality they found in the mountains. But it’s not here, not in this place. Only the death that shrouds us. It makes you wonder how it will be when you die. What it would be like to know that this breath was the last you would ever draw. I just hope I can face death in the same way my mother did; with the same calm.”
The soldier had brought him to the main entrance of the building; it had long since resembled the cavern to the dark caves parents warned their children about. The caves which swallow adventurous children.
“The army is camped straight ahead. Walk towards them like this and they won’t shoot. They won’t understand what you are. As for the rebels, even they wouldn’t shoot the pre-eminent Voltaire scholar in the country when he’s in his underwear. Do it now, because I have the gun and you don’t.”
He shuffled away from the soldier. His back to the gun he felt on his spine. The sun was obscured by the height of the building, yet the air hang as a still shadow draped forever on him. The bullet would pass straight into his flesh, shattering bones without any imagined knight’s armour to stop it.
“I just saved your life, Vares!” The soldier called out as two government soldiers ran over to him and led his all but naked form out of the streets.