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It was autumn, and the city was at war. As the pavements turned slick with wet, yellow leaves, the hills to the north talked to each other in low rumbling voices. Soldiers clattered into the city in trains, spent their money in a whirl of drink and women, and left for the hills. Fewer returned. Those that did, drank more quietly, eyes on the floor, worn coats patched up against the spiteful wind. The leaves fell, the war carried on, and every day the night stole in a few minutes earlier. It was autumn, and the city was at war, and Alex was afraid.
He was one of the lucky ones. He had spent fourteen days on the front, cowering in holes in the ground while the earth erupted around him and men that he had spoken to just hours before lost arms, legs, lives. His entire world had been mud. He had lived in mud, tasted mud, pressed himself into the mud as if it could shelter him from the world being ripped apart around him. Then his sergeant had crawled up to him one morning, spat in his face, and told him that his daddy must have lined somebody’s pocket: he was to report to the back lines for transport to the city, and when—not if, when—he returned to the front the sergeant would make it his personal mission to ensure that Alex was first in the firing line.
Back in the city he was assigned duties couriering messages back and forth, from civil servant to general, to minister, to anonymous civilian. It was tiring, it was tedious, and it was safe, but Alex was still afraid and often when he ate all he could taste was mud. He spent hours shivering outside closed doors, shuffling his feet in the rotting autumn slush. He hurried from one side of the city to the other, two stops on the train, six stops on the rattling tram, hours of getting lost in strange streets, and everywhere, the dead.
Alex tried not to look at them, conscious of the impulse to stare, embarrassed by it. He had seen the occasional dead person back in the village, as had every child. He’d even slept under the same roof as one, when his grandfather came back. None of this prepared him for the city. In the village, custom was that families kept their dead to themselves, that the week was a time for private moments, not public display. In the city, Alex thought at times that the dead outnumbered the living. If the war went on much longer, maybe they would.
As he searched an elegant row of tall houses for the address on the letter in his hand, he passed one of the dead. The man stood on the pavement, looking at the houses, slowly moving his head from side to side in an unconscious mockery of Alex’s own search. It struck Alex that the reason there were so many dead in the city was that they could not find their families. They were cut off by the dislocation of wartime, everything in motion. Perhaps the man standing in the street, vacantly considering doorways, belonged to a family who had all died together, and now for a week they wandered the streets with the same cold stare, looking for one another, never finding each other, always lost.
Alex was only nine the day that his grandfather came back. The old man had been ill for weeks, sweating and wheezing in his bed. Alex had spent dutiful hours by his bedside, alternating between fear and boredom. It had seemed that his grandfather was over the worst and would live to sit glowering by the fireside another year, but then he sat up in bed, said something about last year’s apples, and died. He was buried the next day. Alex stood uncertain in the soft rain while his mother cried and the village priest stumbled through his words. Then the mourners walked away, Alex’s uncle putting a hand on his shoulder to guide him. Halfway across the graveyard he looked back.
The graveyard workers stood around the shallow mound while the black-coated priest knelt in front of it. His coat tails flapped around him, and for a moment Alex thought that he was not a man at all, just a swirl of crows, come to reclaim their graveyard from the intruders. Then the priest thrust his hands into the soil and pulled, and Alex saw the thin white legs of his grandfather appear, heard the priest muttering the blessings.
"This isn't for you," his uncle said softly, and the pressure of his hand kept Alex walking. He still looked back though, and he saw his grandfather's rebirth from the ground, the soil falling from him like black snow. When the priest had brought the body back into the world again, he nodded his head and the graveyard workers draped a shroud over it, and carried it slowly into the place of rest. "Now we wait, son," Alex's uncle said. "Now we wait for the miracle."
Three days later, as Alex steered his dinner from one side of his plate to the other, there was a heavy knock at the door. Alex’s mother gasped and closed her eyes. His father stood up and said, “Well. Well.” Alex took the opportunity to drop several vegetables under his chair.
“You go to your room now, Alex,” his mother said.
He looked up cringing, thinking that she’d caught him, but saw that her eyes were still shut.
“No,” his father said as he walked to the door. “No, the boy should stay. He’s old enough.” Standing outside in the rain was one of the workers from the graveyard, and just behind him stood Alex’s grandfather, looking confused, as if there were something very important that he should remember that he could not. Alex’s father handed over the customary couple of coins and the worker nodded and then walked away.
“Come in, father.”
The old man shuffled into the house and stood in the middle of the kitchen as if he were unsure what to do. Alex stared at him, fascinated. He was the same grandfather to look at as always, but his skin was pale and his eyes were clouded, the way fields were by the early morning mist. Alex’s father ushered the old man to his usual seat by the fire, his mother cried, and the boy hung back by the door, wondering, uncertain.
Alex climbed worn stone steps and knocked on a dark green door. An elderly man in an ornate servant’s uniform cracked the door open and raised a trembling eyebrow.
“Message for the colonel.”
The old man held out his hand, and Alex gave him the letter. Noise came from the end of the street, a brief scuffle, the sound of running feet, but no voices. Both Alex and the servant turned to look into the gathering darkness, but a voice bellowed from inside the house and distracted them.
“Who’s that? Who is it there, eh?”
“A messenger, Colonel,” the old man said. “Message for you. I have it here, I will bring it up.”
They both looked out at the street again, but whatever the noise was, it had stopped.
“A courier, eh.” The colonel had come down the stairs, and stood in the hallway red-faced, breath wheezing, looking at Alex. “Know what the message is about, son?”“No—no, it’s sealed sir, I wouldn’t read it—"
“Don’t have to read it, son. Know what it’s about. Know what they’re all about, every damn one of them. They're about how little by little we are trying our hardest to lose this damn war. Don’t look so shocked lad, you think that’s treasonous talk, you should hear what the generals say. A drink for the cold, eh.”
The servant creaked off towards a side-table in the hall.
“No, my orders—" Alex said.
“Bugger your orders. Who gave you your orders?”
“Bugger your sergeant. I’m a colonel, still counts for something. A drink for the cold.” The servant had returned with two shot glasses. The colonel handed one to Alex.
“You been there, have you son? At the front?”
“Yes,” Alex said.
“Thought so. See it in your eyes. Changes a man. Those who go there, they're not the same as those who come back.” He raised his glass in a toast. “To the end of the war.”
“End of the war.” The raw spirit burnt Alex’s throat and made his eyes water. He bit down on his tongue, desperate not to cough. The servant took the glass back, and Alex began to retreat down the steps.
“Yes, the end of the war,” the colonel was staring out into the dusk, one hand tugging at his beard, seeing a landscape that wasn’t the city. “Don’t go back there, lad.”
Alex saluted and hurried away down the street. Just before he reached the main road, he saw a dark huddle on the pavement. It was the body of the dead man. Alex looked around, wandering what to do, who to contact. The man had obviously been searching for his family or old friends, and had not found them. Now his week had passed, and he was gone for ever. Given a chance for those last goodbyes, and it was wasted. Sad. Alex bent down over the body, and then he saw the white petals of the lily that had been placed on the man’s stomach.
The fire of the alcohol in his stomach turned to a sour swell of fear. He looked up and down the street, saw no-one, and hurried away towards the main road, towards the light. Alex knew what the lily meant: it meant that this was none of his business, and that he should leave now, before those responsible saw him there, considered him a witness to their crime. It had never happened in his village, but he had heard the stories, knew what the lily, flower of mourning, meant. It meant political support for the enemy over the hills, it was a mark of rebellion against everything—the government, custom and tradition, all the old ways. Those who left the lilies were subversives who put into practice the ways of the enemy. They committed the strangest of murders. They killed the already dead.