Pro Patria Mori



I’d say I’m sorry for not killing you, except I’ve managed not to kill you for going on four lifetimes now, and given what most people from any place or era say about words versus action, I see where you might doubt my sincerity. So let’s start with that first life. My original life, so far as I know.

It’s a time when pantheon gods walk among men, but something as simple as paper is rare and fine. Fitting – or ironic, maybe – that the first time we meet is on paper, your life a contract in my hands, our home a land sliced into three kingdoms like slop for hungry children. You believe you’ll be the one to weave them back together. I believe nothing particular, except that blood buys gold. Your life, calligraphy soaking black onto rice paper, feels expensive on my murder-scarred fingers. I smile. 

Smile, like the indent my dagger carves against your neck, after I’ve crept into the inner enclave of your barricaded fortress. Your hands find my elbows, your life in my hands, in the literal sense this time. Your eyebrows rise over the thin red crescent. “Well.” Your mouth purses. “Are you going to do it, or aren’t you?”

Unbidden, I consider three kingdoms, which lie bloody. I consider my life, equally bloody. I consider your face, the red on my knife, the utter calm in your eyes. A riddle: can you be sick of blood, if blood is all you’ve ever known? Can you tire of food or water? Of oxygen?
I’ve lived three and more lifetimes, and to this day, I still don’t know what happened inside the inch between my blade and your life, but within that inch, a choice is made. 
Not that it matters. Three weeks later, another assassin’s arrow pierces a crescent-shaped scar on your neck, in the same instant a soldier’s sword cleaves straight through my belly. I never see which kingdom’s flag my killer carries. 
The second life smiles kinder on us, at first. Here, we’re children together, the sort of friends who carry that designation because peasant farming towns are terribly small, and neither of us has ever existed without the other. And I remember you. That particular look in your eye, like you’re a hundred people instead of one. Like you could overcome a hundred people, just you, without much trouble at all.
Civil war strikes the country in waves. When it envelopes our town, you’re the first to raise words of revolt against my parents’ people. We scream. We fight. I couldn’t tell you what about. You worship the wrong god, perhaps, or the wrong version of the right god, or you read a holy book with different annotations than mine. I don’t particularly remember, but I do remember when my brother plots your death. 
“Do it,” says the part of me that remembers calligraphy ink under my fingernails, the fine whisper of rice paper. “What do I care what happens to that damn heretic?”
Somehow, my body still winds up between my brother’s rifle and your chest, an object lesson in underestimating the irrational sentiment of childhood friendship. 
In the second before the musket ball pierces both our hearts, I wonder if I’d have done anything differently, given another chance. 
Another chance arrives, sure enough, centuries later, and dumps my old assassin’s soul into the body of a soldier. I’m tired of living the same war through different people’s eyes, but the harebrained power-that-be reincarnating us doesn’t seem to care what tires me. And what a war this soldier finds, one that claims sea, sky, and land alike, bombs blazing fire and rubble across nations and oceans. 
When we meet, we don’t even speak the same language, but I recognize your eyes, cutting across battlefields toward mine. We know. We both know. 
There’s no time. We die in a ditch, hands entwined through the mud.
The world turns a good many times before I see you again.
You actually cry when I finally flick your magazine aside in the enclave of a bookshop, bending myself, body and soul, across your ridiculous overpriced coffee. “You.”
“Me,” I agree.
Your throat works, a curving, living thing. “How long before the next?”
The next declaration. The next dispute. The next line across soon-bloody sand. 
“We could end it now,” I say, heavy-tongued with truth. The life of you, flicker of warmth, the clock of your heart tick-tick-tick beneath your bones, has always been extinguishable.
“You could have, sooner. The fortress, the village, the ditch –”
“None of that was mine to choose.”
There’s a peculiar quality to a new face inhabited by an old soul. The same expressions, through history, through space, reforming themselves on a stranger’s features. “But my life was.”
Your life. Paper, rich and rare between my hands. The crescent kissing your throat. The choice found inside an inch of space, between steel and skin, barely anything, but everything to a life rewritten ad infinitum through all the world’s rotations. 
“There’s always another war,” I say.
“Maybe.” You smile. “But always another you. Another me.”
It’s enough, maybe. This half-stretch of life, the inch between you and me. In this time, this place: maybe that inch is just enough.