The Dawn Was Gray

~ Nikoline Kaiser

But here’s the irony of life,
His mother thinks he fought and fell
A hero, foremost in the strife.
So she goes proudly; to the strife
Her best, her hero son she gave.
O well for her she does not know
He lies in a deserter’s grave.

‘The Deserter,’ Winifred Mary Letts.

First

Inanna was tall and strong, with hair the color of ebony and a face that was big and beautiful. Enlil had a crooked back from a life before, spend in fields or chains, but his head was crowned by curls and he had, bit by bit, straightened his spine by sheer force of will and a soldier’s rigid training.

They were, both of them, soldiers. Or at least that’s how they turned out to be. One came from the East, the other from the West, though if you asked them, years later, they would not remember who had gone from where, or whether it was true that they had been born such strangers. Early days are muddled, the past left behind in dark pits of forgetfulness, and little by little, it becomes so forgotten that it ceases to be important. Inanna and Enlil could not be more different, but both were soldiers. And they did not wish to fight.

Whether they were on the same side or different sides, it matters little; they met on the battlefield. And they put down their swords together, though the war was almost over. They could not tell, at this time, which side had won, but they were also no longer sure which side they wanted to win.

They put down their swords, and they left their brethren and enemies behind, still fighting. They went to the sea, where a ship was waiting. They were bid welcome, and then away they sailed, across the seas of the world.

Second

Inanna had not traveled across the sea before, but Enlil had, and he warned her of the journey.

“They are strange, in other lands,” he told her. “They have strange customs.”

“Will they have swords?” Inanna asked, and his silence spoke for him. She drew her fur-cloak around her tighter, though the sun was shining. It was not cold. Her hand trembled.

The sea was rocky and made her sick, but it was also full of life and wonder, and Enlil pointed out the fish to her, and the whales, naming them in lost tongues and tongues to come. She watched the sailors throw spears to catch the sharks for eating. Enlil looked away as the blood filled up the water. They ate well that night.

They spent their days with the sailors, trying to learn the language. Inanna fell half in love with one, strong and swarthy, their eyes nearly black. They held her close at night; when she fell asleep by their side, she forgot about the fighting.

“Do not get attached, sweet Inanna.” Enlil warned her, and Inanna told him it was fine, though already her heart ached with the knowledge that she had to leave. They got better at the languages, at this different tongue. They sailed, for many years.

When they had learned the language properly, they changed their names to fit the new land they were coming to. When Enlil asked the sailors how long they would be sailing, they answered that it would be a while yet. The city still had to be built. When it was done, they would land on its shores.

Inanna called herself Penthesilea. Enlil took the name Mygdon.

The new city was tall, with great walls.

“This will keep the war out,” Penthesilea said, and Mygdon agreed. The city was beautiful, and olive trees grew, and the people were kind and not afraid of strangers. Not yet.

“No war will come here,” Penthesilea repeated, and dared to venture beyond the walls, though Mygdon did not.

“What if they come for us?” he would say, afraid of their old commanders and comrades, still with swords in hand, crossing the seas to slaughter them like sheep.

“If they come for us, we will meet them, unafraid.”

Penthesilea did not mind going outside the walls alone, though she did feel bereft, being so far away from Mygdon. They had not, she mused, been far apart from each other, not since they had different names and were perhaps on opposite sides of a battlefield. No, they had not been far apart at all.

The country surrounding the city with its great walls was beautiful, and as she walked up the hills, it became even more so. She walked up the hills, finding herself in the crests of a mountain. Where was this to where she had been born? She did not know which way to turn. She kept walking, until she met a beautiful shepherd-boy, his curls falling into eyes so bright they hurt to look at.

“Hello, fair lady. Can I be of assistance?”

Penthesilea gave the young boy a smile. “I believe a fox is making off with your dinner.”

The young, beautiful man cursed and ran away. Penthesilea stayed to pet a few sheep, unused to their softness, their gentle sounds, the way they did not care one whit that a stranger was in their midst. Sheep, she thought, did not know anything about wars. They did not need walls around a mighty city to keep them safe. All they needed was a beautiful shepherd-boy.

She met him again on her way down the mountain. He seemed dazed, and she was nearly beside him before he noticed her. For a brief, beautiful moment, Penthesilea thought of her sailor, now far away at sea, and the absence of them ached from her heart to her bones.

The boy’s eyes lit up as he saw her; he was lonely, she realized, and a beautiful woman is a boon to anyone who is lonely.

“You came back.”

His look was leering, but Penthesilea smiled at him, nicely.

“I am on my way back to the city.”

“I am not allowed in there.”

“I see.”

“It is because . . .”

“I did not ask,” she interrupted him. “Some things are better left unspoken. If I am meant to find out, then I will find out.”

The shepherd nodded. “Fate. It rules us.” He grew quiet then, almost taciturn as he turned from her, and stared out over the mountains. If the high hills were not in the way, he would have been looking at the ocean.

“War and conflict are coming soon. It will be a glorious change.”

Penthesilea left him looking to the sea.

When war did come, carried on a thousand ships, Mygdon and Penthesilea had already packed. They were ready, though sneaking out of the city, with its great walls, fortified and prepared for war, proved difficult. Cowards, they were called, though most deemed it fitting that outsiders should leave—they could not be trusted in times of conflict. What if they betrayed the city? They had not been born here, had not even lived here that long. They did not belong here.

Penthesilea cried as they walked across the mountains, and she listened only with half an ear as Mygdon described the battlefields on the beaches, the ships arriving late, the lions clashing under the sun.

“I do not know where to go next,” he told her, but as they arrived on the other side of the mountain a fisherman was waiting for them, and he took them to their ship. Her sailor was still onboard, and they held her tight.

“We’ll sail where there’s no war,” they promised, though they passed many a country before they found such a place.

Third

He called himself Amir the next time they made land, and she had chosen the name Morgiana, though it sat strangely on her tongue at first. This land, old for others, new for them, was warm and comfortable. The cities were smaller, but easier to leave should conflict break out.

They did not accept strangers in the biggest city like they had where they came from, and so they hid in dry oil-barrels, waiting a night and a day until it was safe to crawl out. Morgiana’s legs ached, and once they found a place to sit, Amir massaged them until she could walk without cramping. They were terribly hungry and bought too much food for them to eat or carry, so they spend their last gold on a donkey, and fed it well.

“Do you think he would believe us if we said where we had it from?” Amir asked her, in their old, the oldest of tongues, as the merchant marveled and looked askance that two weather-beaten strangers should have so much wealth all at once.

“You could try telling him,” Morgiana said. They had followed a flaming spirit into a cave, bursting full of fruit-trees. They had eaten their fill, and scavenged the gold from the leaves, and found other fruits, ones made of crystal and sapphire. Morgiana’s arms had become muscled again from climbing the trees; she was glad it was not from swinging a sword. Though, when the spirit had betrayed them and tried to seal them inside the cave, she had wished she still had her old one, wicked and sharp, and ready to cut flesh and flame alike.

When, two months later, word came that that same merchant had perished in a terrible fire, swallowing him and his home and his children whole, Morgiana and Amir looked at each other, and they left the city only an hour later, them and their donkey.

“Were we wrong?” Morgiana asked him, as they traversed the desert. Wind and sun cut into the skin on their faces.

“Wrong how?”

“Should we have picked up arms again? Should we have killed the spirit? It was a deceitful traitor, and that merchant had done nothing wrong. He and his family would still be alive, if only we had killed the spirit. Or if we hadn’t gone into the cave at all to begin with, or . . .”

“We are deceitful traitors too,” Amir interrupted her, and for the rest of the day, they pretended the wind was too shrill for them to talk at all.

They came to a small village, little more than small huts and large tents placed around an old well. The children there showed Amir how to find special stones and throw them into the well over his shoulder, chanting to the gods, to the spirits, to the desert itself for luck. He told her later, in the tent they had borrowed, that he had wished for their happiness.

“Peace and quiet, and a place to stay,” he said.

“In that order?”

“I want it in that order, yes.” His arm snaked around her, his forehead pressing against her collarbone. It was too warm to hold each other when the sun was up, but now, in the night, they huddled together for warmth. Morgiana had faint memories of having done this with someone when she had been a young child, back in their homeland. Perhaps it had been Amir, or perhaps he was just so familiar to her now that every person she met carried a piece of him in them. Except for her sailor, she thought. Her sailor was something else entirely.

“Do you remember what we were fighting about?” she asked. “All the way back then?”

She could feel his hair against her skin as he shook his head.

“Land,” she mused out loud. “Or a woman, or the gods. Do you remember our old gods, Amir?”

“I do.”

“Do you remember their names?”

“Inanna.”

“No, Amir. That was my name.”

He pressed closer; sleep had almost claimed him.

“That’s right. I forgot.”

“It’s alright. We can bury it with the rest of our past.”

He started snoring gently, the sound drifting into the night.

The next morning, she spoke to the Elder of the village, and he agreed that they could stay. He was an old man, and his son would take over after him, though his son had cruel eyes and Morgiana did not like him. For now, it was fine. She showed the children how to weave small crowns from the cloth left over when their mothers made clothes, and she boiled impure water until it was drinkable, and learned how to catch salamanders with her bare hands. Amir caught rainwater with hollows and rocks in the sand, and sheared sheep until the fluff got caught in his hair and beard. She plucked his curls free in the evening, while he spoke of the two women, older than his mother had been when she died, and how they were teaching him more stories than he thought even existed.

“There is one,” he said. “About a snake and a farmer. And another about a donkey, a donkey like ours, and an oxen. And there’s ones about foxes and wolves, and a bird large enough to catch elephants.”

“Are there any about people, or are they all about oxen and wolves?”

He thought for a moment. “There are some about people, I’m sure.”

“Well, ask them to teach you those tomorrow. I want to hear them.”

She gave up catching all the bits of sheared wool stuck on him, and they went to sleep, holding each other again. She caught a stray thought, and tried to hold onto it for tomorrow, afraid she would forget it. Amir shifted, still awake. She could ask him now.

“Amir?”

“Hmm?”

“What’s an elephant.”

He was silent for a moment. “Go to sleep, it is late.”

“You don’t know either, do you?”

“You cannot stay,” the New Elder told them, with his cruel eyes shining under the hot desert sun. “You are outsiders, and we do not want you here.”

“We want them here,” said the children Morgiana had played with, who were now grown.

“We want them here,” said the women who had taught Amir stories, now old and bent and crooked.

“It’s alright, we will leave,” Amir said, though there were tears in his eyes. Morgiana said nothing, afraid her voice would betray her, and then her fists would betray her, finding their way to the New Elder’s face.

They left, without their donkey, because their donkey had gotten old and died. They travelled through the desert until they came to a river.

The river took them to the sea. The ship, with the sailors, waited for them there.

Fourth

It grew colder the longer they sailed. Morgiana huddled beneath furs and skins, and the further they got, the more they had to huddle up with each other. No longer was Amir’s heat enough, they all had to lie in a mess of bodies and sweat, or they feared they would die. Most of the nights, Amir cried, and tried to hide it. Morgiana cried too and did not care who saw.

“Don’t you know?” Amir asked her when his tears had dried. “We weren’t supposed to live this long, not at all.”

They arrived in the cold, cold lands, and changed their names ones more. She shed Morgiana like a second skin and became Pyrri, and Amir emerged as Tjalfe, and they walked close to each other, shoulder to shoulder, and covered themselves in furs to shield from the cold. The cold, the cold. Sometimes, the sun never rose at all, and other times it would not go down. War was always on the brinks on these lands. And then, quite suddenly, they were in it. If you asked Pyrri, she thought it was because of the cold. The biting, relentless cold; you had to fight to get away from it. You had to shed blood to feel warm. But at one point, Pyrri woke from a nightmare, and she realised what she was doing, whose blood she had on her, and she was so disgusted she had to cry.

Tjalfe and Pyrri put down their swords when the battle raged at its highest. Pyrri’s was crafted with gold on the hilt. Tjalfe’s had a ruby embedded. They were beautiful weapons, and they sank into the mud freely. The cold blemished their faces and stuck to their skin, and they walked hand in hand, keeping each other up until they came to the longships and sailed, sailed across the wall, to warmer lands, to their old home, and then their even older home. When they came back to the cold lands, spring had come and Pyrri could breathe again.

“Coward,” the villagers spat at them, and they were driven from the towns, driven back to the sea, but their sailors were there now, ready to pick them up. Pyrri’s sailor in particular, though now they had grown gaunt, almost skeletal.

“It’s the cold,” they said to her, and Pyrri agreed. The cold, it got in everywhere. The cold was so horrid.

“It’s too cold to travel far,” Tjalfe said. “But we cannot stay here. I will not even mind the cold, in a new place, only—let us go somewhere they do not hate us.”

Not yet, he did not say, but Pyrri thought it for the both of them.

“I think I know the place,” her sailor said.

Fifth

They stayed in the next place the longest since the tribe with the New Elder and their little donkey. Pyrri became Branwen, then she was called Elinor. Tjalfe stuck, quite adamantly, to the name Prasutagus, but as a decade passed, and then another, and then the children of their new home started calling him Amleth and there was nothing to be done when the children had decided.

It was by no means peaceful here, but Amleth walked with a limb, fake at first, but then so ingrained that he did not know how to walk without it, and Elinor was a woman not required to fight in this strange land, and so they tended to their chicken coop and they fed the children who came by, and the locals were afraid of them, yes, because they never aged and they never ventured far, and in the deadest, darkest of night, their skin was ebony and gold, and their hair was darker and more beautiful than the universe. But they did not bother them, but came to them for cures instead.

Elinor brewed rose-petals and grass to make a potion that cured lovesickness, and when they vomited it, they spat out their heart and told her they had been cured, though she knew she had given them nothing but a dream. Amleth told stories to the older children, tales of far-away lands that they thought he was making up until he showed them scars, or until the light from the fireplace hit his face, and they saw his features, so unlike their own, and they knew he had come from somewhere far, far away, even if it was the same place they had perhaps come from, once, long ago.

That was a thing Elinor and Amleth learned, in this new land, that everyone had wandered from the same place and stumbled into the world, blind and alone, holding out their hands and hoping someone would take them. Keeping a tight hold when someone did. It was unspoken between them that they would never let go, not ever, because in their hearts they knew that they were different, that they held something within themselves. That, though many others had run from disaster and death, had run from war, they had run the farthest. And they were still running.

It was easy, to gather the things they needed and burn down their cottage when war finally came knocking on their door. Elinor and Amleth did not look back as they put their bags on a pony and started their long trek away from the mainland and towards the ocean. It would take them a long while, they knew, and longer even than most, because when you are fleeing you do not always have the luxury of haste, though that is when you wish for it the most.

“I do not understand how they keep finding things to fight about,” Elinor said, and Amleth did not respond, but she knew he was thinking, of reasons he could give her, and she was sure that they would all be sound, and good reasons, and that he knew them to be good reasons, too. But Amleth said nothing.

It took centuries to reach the shore. The lands they had come to were small here at their heart, but Elinor had to wear long frocks and Amleth had to acquire a hat before they could pass through the nearest port-town. Carriages drove past, polished a shining black, and when Elinor caught her reflection in one, she became confused at the sight, and then she laughed.

“I barely recognize myself. I barely recognize you!”

She turned to him now, standing there in his fine, tall, black hat, and he looked nothing like she had ever seen him before. Was this what it had always been like? She wondered if they were even the same people now, or if they had become strangers wearing familiar disguises.

Amleth’s smile was thin. “I do my best to recognize you. After all, what else do we have left?”

They held hands and walked across the streets, ignoring the boys selling newspapers and the smell of caramel and coal. They reached the sea-side.

But there was no ship to take them, and they had to stay.

Sixth

His name became far too outdated, and in solidarity, she changed hers too. Richard and Ann they became, and they set up in a small flat by the sea, expensive, but worth it so they could watch out for their ship. It would come soon, it had to, but Ann knew she held more hope than Richard did. Her sailor was still onboard, after all. They had to come for her, they had to. Even now, as she looked so different, and bore a different name too­—it could not hinder them. It never had before.

She re-learned how to sew, and he worked with machines great and big, and she taught classes on proper grammar in a language she had barely known a hundred years ago and kept flowers in a vase by the window facing the sea, roses and lilies when she could get them, and daisies too, in the spring.

They held hands over the dinner-table as a radio full of static announced the start of another war. The laces of her dress were tied so high up her neck she could barely breathe; Ann had been choked before, she had been drowned and she had suffocated, but somehow, her fine lace-bindings were worse. Richard had to help her undo them, her fingers shaking too much, and then, when she could breathe again, he broke down, crying on her shoulder. She held him. She breathed for both of them. He had to go to war, and now the word for it was something ugly and foul, even worse than coward in its simplicity. But it was what they had to do. They packed up, both wearing trousers and low caps to hide their red eyes, and they were both so tired, but it had to be done. The alternative was worse.

“Do you ever see them?” Richard asked as they left their key in their solicitor’s mailbox and walked hand-in-hand to a carriage that would take them farther inland, away from the sea, and perhaps away from the war, if they were lucky.

“My sailor? Only in my dreams.”

“No. I meant . . .”

His eyes were unfocused. He was looking at it over her shoulder. She did not have to look, she did not want to look. She knew what it was. Behind him, War and Death were juggling human heads and human limbs. It was a show they had put on for a thousand years, and they would put it on for a thousand more. Longest-running show on earth. Tickets were always on sale.

She had to guide Richard into the carriage, because he could not look away from it.

The war ended before they had even reached their destination.

And then, it seemed to them it was only the next day, another war began.

Seventh

They were in the city as it was bombed. Foolishly they had thought to return, thinking it safer and better, staying near where they had left before, still scouting for their ship and for her sailor. They huddled beneath their dinner-table, cradling each other as if each was the babe and each was the mother, and Richard had to rock her to sleep on the fifth night because the sound of the missiles and the screams was too much for her to bear.

When the worst of it cleared, at least for now, they emerged and brewed a pot of tea and sat on their living-room floor, her dress spread out like a carpet, his coattails covered in dust and debris.

“This time is not like the others,” Ann said.

“War is always the same,” Richard said. There was no show on in their flat, but there might as well have been, for as far away as his eyes had gone.

“It is not. I am thinking—if we had . . . if we had not left, that first time. The first war. Or even the one after that, or the one after that . . . perhaps we would have not been like this now.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean that we would have fought, and we would have died. The suffering would not have been as bad as what we are seeing now.”

He said nothing; she was right. “They must have sent soldiers after us. They did, even then, when someone . . .”

“Please do not say the word.”

Richard, or Tjalfe as he had once been named, or Amleth or Amir stared at her, his eyes defiant, and she knew he was about to break her heart.

“When someone deserted, they send people to kill them. But no one has been sent for us.”

“No—no, there is only our ship, and the sailors.”

“They are fleeing like us.”

She licked her lips. The tea had gone cold. “Then where are they? Is this war too terrible? Has it finally taken them? Are they lost, or imprisoned?”

Richard put down his cup. It clinked against the saucer, such a sharp, prim sound. It made her wince.

“Inanna,” he said, and she almost screamed when she heard that name. “You must know. They are already dead.”

Eighth

The ship came for them in the night, just on the cusp of dawn. They had built it into a long barge, and her sailor, now it’s captain, stood at its fore with a long stave, pushing it forward against the ocean-ground, deep, deep below. Their teeth were as white as the day they had met, and though their face had sunken in, their eyes hollow, their hands cold—she still loved them.

“We never asked your name,” Richard said. The cup of fine porcelain was still in his hands, and it went to the sailor as if of its own accord, disappearing into their large, black sleeves. They reached out a hand, and Ann was about to find something for them too, a six-pence or a drachma or a krone, but their hand came up and caressed her face instead, and short of ripping out her own, pulsing heart and offering it on a plate, she had nothing better to give. She let her hand drop, and smiled at her sailor, her captain. They smiled in return.

“Charon,” Pentheselia said.

“A Valkyrie,” said Tjalfe.

“Anubis,” said Morgiana.

“You may call me whatever you like,” her sailor said. “Will you board? There are yet more wars to fight. There always will be.”

“We will fight no wars,” said Enlil, an ancient promise. It made her so proud to hear. “You have waited so long for us. It is time we board, I think. For good.”

Enlil squeezed Inanna’s hand, and stopped onboard. It was quite easy to follow the pull. His hand was warm in hers. She stepped onboard the wooden boards, listening to them creak. The gaunt, skeletal crew were all smiling at her, and though she could hear the din of bombs falling in the distance, it was only behind her. Ahead were fields of golden grass, and, she knew, a long, long rest.

“Let us sail,” said her sailor, and pushed the oar into the dark waters of the last river in the world.

 

Nikoline Kaiser is the author of several poems and short stories, including “ode to an asexual” published with Strange Horizons and “Last Year’s Water” with Pole to Pole Publishing. Her work focuses on family, feminism and queer themes. She lives in Denmark and has a Masters degree in Comparative Literature from Aarhus University.

When not writing she works on a project communicating knowledge about women authors around the world and haunts the halls of museums in the hopes of getting to stay among the relics. Visit her at www.nikolinekaiser.wordpress.com.

 [ issue 3 :  summer 2021 ]