He walked into the house with his shield grip in his left hand and his Dory rifle in his right. A thin black crest of charred residue lined the muzzle of the Dory and smoke still seeped from the barrel. Dirt, smoke, blood and blast marks covered the weapon like a tapestry flung onto a steel canvas by a blind man.
He stopped just inside the house, looking at her with dark eyes, sallow cheeks and a clenched jaw – he still thought of killing even though the smoke, fire and blood were a thousand miles away.
A wide rip slashed across his green and gray-flecked camouflage uniform from his shoulder, across his chest and to his beltline on the other side. His boots, which had shone to a mirror gloss just months before, were caked in mud.
If he had been in his own home, he would have carefully hung the Dory by its shoulder strap on a large ornamental black iron hook near the door, as if the weapon were made of crystal. He would have opened the steel drawer of a small cabinet beneath the hook to place his shield grip on an ancient woven cloth that bore his family’s insignia, handed down from his father and his father’s father before him.
But he was not in his own home, so instead he simply stood inside the doorway, his breath coming in long gasps that still smelled of war.
Standing in the sunlight pouring through a curtained window, she held a baby in her arms as she carefully eyed the man, not knowing if he would lash out at her in a rage from the fever of war that would never subside or if he would remember to kiss her.
Although she was not his wife and it wasn’t her place, she still said what was customary for a woman to say when a man returned home from war. It was a dash of stolen honor that she knew he would tolerate. She also knew that as she said it with honor, it would please him.
He nodded once. “Indeed.”
He walked slowly towards her with deliberate heavy steps, the heels of his boots thumping the wooden floor like a drum. He stopped in front of her, keeping a respectable distance between them. To her, he seemed too far away and she had to wonder if he would ever again come close enough to kiss her.
He nodded at the baby swaddled in a white blanket, its eyes half-closed as it nodded in and out of sleep.
“Ours?” he asked.
She ran her finger along the baby’s forehead, not knowing how she should answer. She could lie, which would dishonor him and risk a swift death that no man would ever discover but that every man would understand. She could tell the truth, which would dishonor his wife and she would again face the same risk of a swift death.
She looked up at him, hoping that he would remember the nights when she consoled him as he screamed in anguish, half awake, half asleep and reliving the smoke, blood and fire of the battlefield. She hoped that he would remember she had been there to comfort him when he had awoken and that she was the only one he trusted to see him that way. His wife certainly would not condone such weakness.
She hoped he would remember. But she did not know if he would. He had learned to forget many things. She looked into his eyes and answered.
He narrowed his gaze and stepped forward to place his hand near the baby’s cheek. Mindful of the dirt and smoke and blood on his hands, he did not touch the baby. At least she hoped that was why. She hoped it wasn’t out of disdain for the infant’s doomed heritage. She knew he would ask. He had to.
“Spartan or Helot?”
She had asked herself that question a thousand times. Sitting near her bedroom window sill, watching the smoke of war drifting across the moon, kept at bay by the ranks of men such as him who daily died so that smoke did not find its way into the cradle, she had asked that question. Walking through the market, keeping her head low so that no Spartan wife would see her eyes, she had asked herself that question. In dreams where he had run to her with his shield lighted and fear in his eyes as a plasma bolt pierced his back so that his eyes flew open and he fell with a shudder to her feet, she had asked that question.
The answer had come to her the only way it could. She was an honest woman and no mother wanted to see her son die in battle.
He pulled his hand away, stared at the baby for a moment longer and then looked at her with a stone-cold intensity that she knew was the kindest look he could find in that moment, because the war still lingered on his breath.
“You dishonor me.”
“Your wife would do worse.”
He smiled a little at that. He always smiled when she was clever. She fought to keep from trembling because she never knew when the time would come that she was not clever enough.
“You’re right. Still, you dishonor me.”
“I know. My life to you in debt.”
He nodded slowly. “Your life. Mine in debt.”
He turned and marched back across the room, opened the door and stopped. She held her breath, hoping to see him look at her one last time. He dropped a coin on the floor. Then, he shouldered his rifle, walked outside and closed the door behind him. He never did look back.
Helot by name, Spartan by blood, the baby gurgled in her arms. She smiled at him and ran her finger along his forehead, but then she started to tremble and then she wept.
She wept because she had noticed something. War had been on his father’s breath. A wisp of smoke had slipped from the barrel of his father’s Dory, snaked through the air and into his nostrils. The sound of his father’s boots stomping on the floor had rattled through her bones, down to her fingertips and along the baby’s cheeks. The smell of blood and smoke still lingered in the air.
And so she wept.
Because the baby did not cry.
©2021 Michael J Lawrence