Bitter

The fog had settled, the wetness making the fire seem smeared and streaky, even at only a few feet away.

The sky was dark now, no stars shone through the bare treetops, the black smoke lazily drifted from the north to the south, from the east to the west.

“Mm, I remember when days like this weren’t common and quite frightening,” the hardened elder said, poking the fire with a stick before feeding the dry debris to the hungry fire. Two sets of curious eyes watched the elder from across the fire, their figure looking like a reflection of a mirror covered in steam.

“Mmhmm, hot times,” they grunted as they sat down, moaning at finally being off their feet. “Well, the start of hot times. But, winter was a relief eighty-percent of the time,” they continued, sliding a boot off their foot. The eyes wandered to the sock covered foot; bloodstains, pus stains, grass stains, dirt, covered the years old sock. Underneath, two more socks in the same distress.

How old are you?” one of the sets of eyes asked, the rest of their face hidden behind dark shadow from the fire.

The elder chuckled and took off their boot.

“Too old,” they whispered, stretching out their legs and staring at the flames.

Do you remember how it started?” the other set of eyes asked, their face hidden in shadow as well.

“No, it started well before me,” the elder said, looking up at the eyes, watching them through the fire. “I was just collateral damage for something that was well beyond my control.” The elder shrugged, pulling a hiking backpack toward’s their person and opening a pouch.

“Do y’all even eat?” the elder asked, bushy unibrow furrowing from frowning. The eyes blinked.

“Good answer,” the elder mumbled, pulling out a bar of very expired granola.

“I make this walk every year.”

Have you ever been late?”

Did you see someone die?”

The elder was silent as they chewed their moldy dinner, ancient crumbs tumbling into the smalls wisps of beard hair on their chin.

“Yes,” was all they could say softly.

Will you say the story?”

Will you whisper their names?”

“No.”

The eyes blinked.

The elder finished their dinner, tossing the wrapper into the fire, watching it crinkle and turn black.

“…She used to say a story to me, every night on our raft, to help me fall asleep,” the elder started, taking a sip of contaminated spring water from a dirty flask. “And then my lover would finish it after she had died. Would you like to hear it?”

The eyes blinked.

“I won’t say the story if you don’t give me an answer,” the elder said, pulling out a small bottle of some sort of bathtub liquor.

“…Will you say the story?”

“…Will you whisper their deeds?”

The elder smiled, the ancient face losing a few decades in such a movement.

“There used to be a king, who had husbands and wives. Every year, from his 25th until his death, he would take on a new husband and wife and would get her pregnant and send them away to raise the baby on a new piece of land. When the land and his own seed dwindled, the king’s children fought as to who received the king’s money when he died. Hundreds upon hundreds of his childer showed to his funeral only for a fight to break out when the will was read.

All of the lands my children own is mine, and mine alone. But since my children are all me, all the lands are theirs alone, and theirs alone.

The children sent their small folk to fight their wars, promising titles, money, bigger homes and fields, which turned into healthcare and tuition, which then turned into just basic housing needs. The children played with their small folk like toys, tossing the broke ones aside and recruiting newer, healthier models a few months later. They made the small folk harm each other because the will didn’t specify which land was theirs so they had to go take it with small folk instead of just asking to work with each land in unison.”

The elder sighed. The eyes blinked.

“When the world caught fire, the children started to panic, blaming other siblings for their faults, but the spoiled, youngest was mostly at fault but hid their hands pretty well. Until the world caught fire. The children were sloppy now, having to hide their mischievous doing from their kingly father all those years ago, they now spilled all of the beans into the milk on the floor.

The small folk got angry when the world caught fire, but it was more than too late. When the world caught fire, the tears dried up as the world’s face was caught in the house fire. The small folk took the sea like before and waited. And for 50 years, they waited in the shrinking waters, watching the sky go from blue to the darkest of greys.

The children survived. Not the actual children, we’re probably in the great-great-great-great-great-great grands by now. A few at least. And barely. They’re scattered all throughout this barren planet, put on display and treated like animals, just like they treated us. Every year, I make this walk to pay one of these children a visit. To spit in their face for killing my loved ones.”

The elder’s voice caught in their throat.

“…Say their connection?”

“…Picture their face?”

The elder laughed, tears rolling down their wind-dried, dust-stained brown skin.

” They died of a sickness that could have been prevented if the military had just let them in. If they had just rationed more out. They died in my arms after I watched my other friend die by firing squad for trying to smuggle medicine out of the military clinic.”

The elder sniffed and wiped their face of their dirty shirt.

The eyes blinked.

“…Regrets?”

“…Shame?”

The elder shook their head.

“No, never those. Bitter.”

The elder pulled out a blanket from their backpack and pulled it over their shoulders, laying their head on the pack, falling asleep almost instantly.

The fire had died out a few hours later, the last ember going out when the elder opened their eyes. They sat up, stretched, put their blanket away and dug around in their bag, pulling out a small black bag that rattled when shook. They cleaned up their fire, tiling their head when they noticed two bags that looked just like theirs on the edge of the fire ring.

Tears ran down their cheeks that they couldn’t stop as they looked in the bags and saw seeds. Bags of seeds they had lost nearly a century ago. They pulled out a seed from each bag and planted them in a circle, watering them with filtered, clean water. They elder sang a song and danced between the small dirt piles, before disappearing into the haze of heat of the early morning.

Decades later, when the elder had passed, the eyes roamed the circle where the newly sprouted trees laid. What had been two sets of eyes, were now three, the shadows forming into younger versions of the elder and their loved ones, admiring the small green leaves coming through the cracked dirt.

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