Telling Tales 115
The Soldier’s Next Beginning
It’s too soon, thought the soldier outside of his dream. How did I get here?
He knew that he was mostly asleep, drowsing while sitting up, his head lolling against the high-backed chair. He was awake enough to know that. He was awake enough that he could have roused himself if he truly desired. If he were in danger from a prowling beast or from cold, but even the tips of his toes were warm and although he didn’t remember that he was in a comfortable inn, he knew that he was safe and could keep sleeping for as long as he wanted. He pushed at memory’s dream, nudged it farther back, to another awakening.
His body ached. Every muscle protested, from the arches on his feet to his shins and the backs of his thighs, from the small of his back and around to his stomach, to his shoulders, neck, and arms. Even his hands and fingers felt thick. “Too much walking. Too much work with not enough rest and not enough food.” The hard surface against his back and head, now that he was aware of being awake, made it harder to fall back asleep. “Perhaps there will be time for a nap today,” he thought. He tried to bribe himself with the imaginary possibility of spare minutes during the day, but he hadn’t had the opportunity to nap since his days of guarding a wall that would never be attacked, owned by a tsar would would probably never be attacked, and during which his greatest danger was that one of his fellow soldiers in the regiment would play some joke on him.
That reminded him of one particular man whose practical jokes had been the stuff of legend in the regiment. “Here,” the joker said their commanding officer at the time, a wholly unloved man who much preferred the trappings of rank to the decision-making and responsibility that came along with it, “do my boots meet with your approval?”
“Where did you get the money for new boots?” the officer demanded.
The joker held up supple boots, well-worn but but well cared for, polished to a fine black. “These? These aren’t new! They’re nearly as old as I am! They were my father’s before me. I’ve only had them re-soled.”
Of course, the commander wanted to know how they were in such good condition, but the joker refused to say. It took weeks and several onerous assignments before he gave in and told our commander the family secret, that it was a special recipe. He refused to share the ingredients, but he gave the commander all he had left, two weeks worth, with instructions as to how to apply it once a day. Two weeks was not a long time. Before they knew it, the polish was gone and it was more punishments for the joker until he agreed to share the recipe. “You win,” he grumbled. “Two parts feces from a black bear – it has to be fresh – boiled with five parts tallow and one part juniper berries to combat the smell. Pour into a candle mold and let sit for two weeks.”
The commander fell for it and lost his rank for showing up at dress parade with boots that smelled of bear dung. The whole company agreed that pooling their money to buy new boots for the joker had been worth every penny.
A voice interrupted the man’s drowsing. “It’s time to get up.”