On the back of an oversized aardwolf he arrived at the battlefield too late. Days prior at a fork in the trail, the aardwolf’s tongue had pointed right and the soldier’s compass left. The left they took, and it led them to an immense iron mine in the middle of nowhere. The soldier didn’t want to admit his mistake. He was a field marshal with many medals. Field marshals did not make mistakes, and even if they did—which they didn’t—then they did not admit it when they did. He hated lateness because it spoke of a soldier misled. But now, in the desert, here he was, days late, or days too late—he wasn’t sure which, because across what threshold did late become too late? The same question dogged him concerning quicksand, weapon-forging, and evaluation of circumstance; as in, always he wanted to know when he approached the verge of too much, too small, and too bad. Now, too late, he’d come here to fulfill what was asked of him by army and by witch alike. Get his head cut off in the important way. Was he a tick or a tock? He checked his timepiece: it had stopped making noise. But it didn’t tell the right time.
“I was supposed to die here today.”
Baba Yaga had prophesied it. She’d flashed him the glowing timepiece that extrapolated the exact time and manner of his death. Its precision comforted him like few things could a soldier lost in the desert. Given to rash impulses, he’d snuck away from his army to find her in the woods and ask for a reading from the wheel of fortune. At first he wanted to know his future—tick—and then he didn’t want to know—tock—and then he did again—tick—so he believed her. She bargained the prophecy and the timepiece for his posthumous head: “Where you’re going, it’ll only slow you down.” “And where is that?” he asked. She said, “Another question requires another head”—she grinned two rows of metal teeth shaped like pinion cogs—“and I won’t take the aardwolf’s; they’re notoriously empty. And full of bugs.” He had visions of fatal glory: his severed head rolling across the desert back to her cabin in the woods while the rest of him rested in some final resting plot among the plots of his men. He couldn’t imagine returning any other way, unfulfilled, to her eerie-looking cabin on chicken legs.
On the battlefield among the rotten bodies stood tall spears and taller termite mounds. If these were what he was too late to die beneath, it disappointed him double. “Am I immortal now?”
“Seems just as implausible a thing as a talking aardwolf,” answered the aardwolf. He tilted his head in surprise. Baba Yaga’d rapped his ears with her soupbone but he’d thought it punishment for licking one of the chicken legs, not the gift of speech.
The soldier said, “It’s human nature to die.”
“No,” said the aardwolf. “It’s human nature to talk a lot about it.”
“We talk so we can think.”
“Wrong again: you talk so you don’t have to.”
He regarded the aardwolf’s mouth. He was still stunned at perfectly clear words where usually black crawly things. “Don’t get too smart.”
“You’re looking perplexed.”
“I’m not,” he said. “Just thinking.”
“For something so important,” said the aardwolf, “I figured you’d have thought plenty already.”
He asked, “What’s there to think? Live, live, then off you go. Living’s the hard part.”
“Sounds terribly easy to me.”
Having given himself a little confidence in the face of all this too lateness, the soldier tried to off himself himself. He jumped into quicksand and sat stewing in the grittiness. He tried to raise his army to fight again, but he was no witch and his resurrection rituals were forgeries. He tried to sleep forever because he was really exhausted. He even offered his neck to the aardwolf.
The aardwolf turned up his long nose. “Every day I eat 200,000 termites. I have a long sticky tongue perfect only for slurping.”
To be a termite, the solder wished, but his wishes grew out of hand. 200,000 termites too many on an aardwolf’s tongue, and suddenly he felt incapable—the one termite who’d dropped out of the smacking mouth to carry blindly on.
When he appraised the battlefield, the sun made sundials of all the spears. The tiniest bronze-tipped ones bounced big light; they said: you should have been here. Too often the desert was a cruel place filled with crueler metals.
Among the dead he saw many good soldiers he knew. Of what was he now a good example? He lay beside his men, his own pounding head too late to be removed. He was feeling a bout of mortal poeticism coming on. “Oh Aardwolf, I’ve missed the gap to mesh with the larger wheel of fortune,” he versed aloud at the one chance gone by. “I will always be a smallish pinion with smaller cogs, unmeshed.” It took a long time for him to strip every medal from his uniform and cover them with sand. Meanwhile, the aardwolf sermonized on the disappearance of all threats quicksand-ish, the advantages of iron over bronze, and the release of dopamine upon the slurpage of termites. “Death, death, death,” he said, then stopped. “Your poeticism is making me pucker. Won’t there be another gap along soon? What if you were supposed to fail?”
With all his medals buried, the soldier then pulled the timepiece from his pocket. Its glow was gone. The face had blanked. His mind had too. “Please stop. I can’t think with you talking like that.”
“You want me to talk like something else? Say, a crocodile?” He pretended to peek his eyes above an invisible pond. “A winged thing with echolocation?” His flight attempts from the tops of termite mounds: mere hops and plunges.
“I want you to stop talking altogether.”
The aardwolf chewed over this possibility. “I intend to take advantage of newfound liberties; I suggest you do the same.” He stuck out his long pinkish tongue. “But really, what if you were supposed to live?”
The soldier stood up. “Then Baba Yaga was wrong.” He plucked a spear from the sand and tested the sharpness of its tip. He laid the timepiece on a rock. From the spear’s weight, he judged how quickly and how deftly he could deal the clock a crushing blow. Each swing, he stopped just short of the face, hoping it would start glowing again and tell a new time.
“Let’s see: a witch who lives alone in a house on chicken legs in the woods. Her credibility isn’t exactly watertight.”
“I said, ‘Be quiet!’” He stood and levied the spearhead at his mount.
The aardwolf strolled right by the weapon, slurped up a stray termite, then licked the soldier’s bare calf.
He jerked back. “Do you have a deathwish?”
“Listen to your mount.” The aardwolf spat. “Even your meat’s past due.”
“Mounts don’t talk. Mounts don’t sample their mounters.”
“If I’m your mount and you my mounter, then our arrangement is as trued as your compass.” He smacked his mouth like he enjoyed these words’ taste. “In a perfect world, I’d now be mounting you.” His tongue slithered out once more.
Having had enough, the soldier sliced the air between them.
The aardwolf’s tongue dropped to the sand and twisted like a line of insects.
“Now what do you say to that, mount?”
The aardwolf halted his walk and his talk. And from the looks of his bleeding mouth, he wouldn’t begin again. He took up the timepiece in his jaws. He tried to swallow it but briefly choked and coughed it up. He would have said something about the incompatibility of iron pinions and the Proteles cristatus cristatus’s digestive tract, but it was too late for him.
The soldier said, “I’m immortal,” like one would “I’m hungry,” or “I’m afraid.” He had no one left here to command. He had no one to not admit his mistakes to. Feeling more alone than ever before, he left the speechless aardwolf and the bodies of his men and he walked to the edge of the battlefield. The winning army’s bootprints and wheelruts led on to the next engagement; he had no way to measure how much, how far, or how bad the trek would be. He turned a circle in the dry heat, and every horizon looked like a step in the wrong direction.