A Tale of Years
Dedicated to two friends who have been at my side since 7 years.
A bearded old man and a young boy in uniform appeared suddenly in the middle of a street with drunken people moving to and fro enjoying the end of the year.
“How… what…?” the boy gasped, disoriented.
“You’ll get used to it,” said Fourteen looking up at a large tree that should not have stood in the centre of the street. The night was decked up by lights but the tree stood there, dark and menacing, a moment frozen in place.
“Where did that come from?” asked the boy.
“They are ripping Time. They’ll try their hardest at the handoff.”
Fourteen raised his semi-automatic and taking careful aim, he fired. Something large fell from the treetop and if anyone was paying attention they would have heard the foliage breaking and creaking.
“Duck,” yelled Fourteen, pulling the surprised young boy to the ground. He couldn’t believe how slow the kid was. Had he been the same at his age?
The tree burst like a firecracker on New Year’s eve, each spark turning into a bat-winged creature that flew over them in a swarm. Fourteen, lying flat on his back, pulled out another semi-automatic and began shooting them two-handed. With every shot a beast fell and he never missed one. The young boy looked with awe at the aged figure at his side whose snow-white beard fell over his left shoulder.
“You been doing this for a long time?” he asked.
“Been doing this all year long. You’ll soon learn boy, this is your life.”
“But…but they said the job is only for a year.”
Fourteen shot down the last one and turned his eye to the boy. “Forget what they said. A year never goes according to plan anyway,” he said in his gruff voice.
He checked the semi-automatics but they were empty. He got to his feet, discarding the useless guns on the street which dissolved in white vapour. He pulled out the rifle that hung on his back. The yearglass on the side of his belt was almost empty and he checked it, murmuring, “Just one more to go. And they say they save the best for last.”
“Last what?” asked the boy but before Fourteen could answer…
Fourteen and the kid stumbled onto a windy path, up on a hill. It was chilly, but it wasn’t snowing: a south Indian winter. The sun was high up shining its January light, casting long shadows behind the two. The kid was looking at his own yearglass which was full.
“Heads up. They may be anywhere,” said Fourteen, hoisting his rifle.
“What are they?” asked the boy.
“Time eaters. Our enemy.”
The boy pulled out his issued revolver and cocked the barrel.
“Retro,” smirked Fourteen, looking at the revolver.
They heard a sudden laugh from up ahead and both, boy and old man, rushed up the hill toward the sound. They stopped when they spotted three humans, one male and two females, having a picnic under a large tree that held on to its leaves even in winter. The three did not appear to notice the gun wielding duo that had come up the path, enjoying the sandwiches in the shade of the only tree in the sprawling lawns.
In the sunlight, the boy’s bright blue uniform looked fresh and in stark contrast to the old man’s ragged grey coat, that was ripped and dark in places with dried blood.
The boy relaxed, lowering his gun but Fourteen hissed at him. He looked up to see the many boughs of the tree swaying in a solitary dance, and its shadow began writhing like snakes. The shadows shot at them, and Fourteen—beard flying—danced-ducked-dived and shot at them with his rifle. But it was no good as the bullets did no harm to the 2-dimensional shadows. One snuck around them slithering from behind and got hold of Fourteen’s ankle. His rifle fell to the ground as it pulled him to the tree, his long beard trailing behind him.
The boy, not knowing what to do, started shooting at the tree until his bullets ran out. But it made no difference.
The three humans, oblivious to this fight, were talking and laughing at jokes only they knew, and the boy stood there, helpless.
“Fifteen…” came a yell from the old man. His body was being pushed into the tree trunk where a black crevice had opened like a gaping jaw.
“No!” the boy yelled. Throwing his revolver away he pulled out the longbow that hung on his back and a single arrow laced with poison he had won in boot-camp. Going down on one knee, he took aim focusing on the tree trunk and let the arrow fly. The arrow hit its mark with a satisfying thunk, embedding the poison head into the tree. He heard a distinct wail and the branch holding the old man flung him away.
The boy ran to Fourteen who was sprawled on the ground and asked if he was alright. “You have focus. You will make a good year.”
But the boy threw down his bow and quiver: “I don’t want this life. They are not worth putting us in danger,” he said, pointing at the humans.
Fourteen pushed himself up with the last of his strength and looked at the three. They were laughing, delighted with the rain of leaves that now fell from the tree who had finally learnt to let go. His beard twitched—he was smiling.
“We are the keepers of time. Their stories are our legacy, they are your inheritance.”
Fourteen looked down at his yearglass as the last speck of sand began to fall. “It’s up to you now, time is in your hands.”
Fourteen opened his eyes in the place where all the old years go. The others helped him to his feet, the men remarking on his fine beard.
“How was it?” asked Nineteen Ninety Nine. He was an old stooped man, with eyes that held the weight of an entire millennium behind them.
“It was long,” replied Two Thousand Fourteen.
“When is it not?” laughed Two Thousand One. She was wearing a long black dress as if at a funeral, complimented by her high cheekbones and haunted eyes.
“And what about Two Thousand Fifteen?” asked Two Thousand Eight. Her long black hair twirled around her like a robe, and her aged face still held the spark of youth.
“He’s young but focused. He’ll do what needs to be done. The story started with you will go on.”
Two Thousand Eight smiled.
Inspired by January’s Tale, written by Neil Gaiman in his wonderful ‘A Calendar of Tales’.