The Hero Unspent

When he spoke it was with such hushed intensity that I wondered if I had not finally fallen asleep and his words were an incantation designed to keep me dreaming.

“Let me die tonight,” he said. “My whole life I have been dying to die for something.” The crickets answered him rudely, speaking over one another and never giving pause for polite conversation. He was accustomed to their incessant commentary and thus continued on himself. “It has been in the small moments, always, I have been gripped by it and has consequently stretched them into tiny eternities.” Here he paused just long enough for the fear to well up inside of me that he would stop speaking. “For I loved living so feverishly that I could conjure no greater sacrifice in its honor. Point of fact, as the years crawled along, young as I was, I began to fear I might never arrive upon the opportunity to die in service of a cause.” I imagine he smiled at himself in this bittersweet moment, but the moonlight glowed so dimly I could not make out the features of his face. “For hours I would study the shadows on the ceiling above my bed and wonder if any, even one, of my countrymen felt the same as I on those nights. Of course, the morning would steal away such dreamlike desires. But they always returned and like a poet remembering his verse for the first time, I was grateful for them.” I became suddenly aware that I was not alone in listening to him. Like children we were awed, as if he were an untamed animal wandering too closely by; both beautiful and mean in its magnificence. I knew then why I followed him with such conviction. The gods had unwittingly allowed one of their own to escape. Though I would one day witness the contrary, I did without a divided heart at that time believe no divine power could permit the death of such a man. Perhaps this is why I selfishly followed him so closely through the jaws of catastrophe. I hoped by proximity to gain the privilege of his protection. Again, he spoke. “Let me die tonight that each of you may live.” Without so much as another breath he plucked his rifle from its rest and stood up from where he lay on his belly in the grass.

Our tiny eternity had expired and it was with insatiable hope we carried on behind him through the trees and off toward morning.