It was his old friend, now, and he knew it best just to give yourself over to it. He laid like a dead thing on the litter in the bottom of the canoe, face gone white. Paler even than his lobster back coat, worn to a sort of cheesecloth here and there, and faded from the sun and rain to a kind of translucent pink that reminded him of the scales of a fish.
Everything that drifted by was a marvel. The British Army thinks everyone is good for everything. He boxed the compass of mediocrity. He didn’t even like the killing much. He did it like the others when it was required, and shrugged and stopped when it wasn’t. No enthusiasm, his officers said. But he cooperated, in his fashion, and they decided his fine fist made him just the man to collect the samples of every damn thing they came across in the
First it was the heat of the kettle when you forgot the rag mother kept by the hod for the handle. Then it was shivering like the snow from the kirk roof sliding down the slick grey slates on the roof and down your collar after Christmas Mass. It was the shivering he hated. It made you look silly, or worse, like the drunks in the lane, sleeping off the night’s gin in a pile of straw and offal and a puddle of their own functions gone crazy. His comrades carried him and cursed him, until they were no more. Who did they curse, really?
No, he wanted the heat. It surged through you and enervated you so completely you could just lie there and sweat and not care if you lived or died. You weren’t a sick man any more. You were a baby again, given over wholly to the care of another, unable to do more than sigh and gesture. He embraced it. Everybody else was always searching for something. He just roamed along with them, cataloging or killing as required, and looked for something to look for. It had found him.
The savages were his mother now. He lay on a sort of matt woven from supple branches of some sort, like the wattle of a sty at home. His hands brushed the gossamer sides of their boat, made like sorcery from the bark of a tree, and as thin as paper. He could feel the river pass by him through it. Sometimes the sun would come low on the horizon and the banks of the river would temper their angle and the trees would open up and the sun would light up the boat like a lantern, and you inside it. The copper backs worked the paddles deliberately in front of him, one magnificent looking brute behind him, and never wearied or paused. They sang the song of death, the song he heard them sing before they waded into the last of his mates like a plague and killed them without mercy. And with weapons he couldn’t kill a barnyard fowl with. Then they had stood over him, talking in their fashion. They didn’t look anything like the Hottentots or Arabs, but like how he pictured his own brethren, centuries before—Picts; Jutes; Angles; Celts; grim and powerful men painted for battle and living among the beasts they covet. They opened the box and looked at the crazy whorls of his writing and fingered all the little talismans of their home he had collected before he had become bored of it. That, and the Sergeant had begun worrying too much about seeing home ever again to bother him about it. They spared him in his sickness. Or perhaps for the remains of their life’s objects he carried and blessed with his runes.
There is no understanding them. But they sing their song of death for him now, for he cannot, as they search for the place where he must go; where they would go if they were him.