The series of tales from the War of the Tandonni continues, this time focused on a peasant family gathered around their rough table for the last time. Click here to start at the beginning: Table 1.
Photo credit: Longmandancer
…is made of rough-hewn ash. Four splayed legs hold up one wide plank, never quite flat to begin with, and now grayed and splintery. The table is long enough that when the now-eldest boy broke his leg last summer, the herbalist was able to lay him full down the table to splint him up. A table this big, and the space to put it, the man knows what a blessing it is. His family has that, at least.
When the man was young, his father built the table, after wood-ants ate too many holes in the old one. It looks like the old table, pretty much—crooked in different places, is all. Nobody’s learned a better way of making tables yet, not out here in the far country. A bench on one side, much like the table. A stool on the other side, and space on the chest for sitting too. Enough room for everyone to work. Their chores lie on the table—a bone needle and a loop of coarse thread carefully stored in a bark box, a thumb knife and a pile of whittled pegs, a grinding stone waiting in a cracked wooden bowl, a basket of tallgrass half-braided into rope. The man stares at the familiar items, set aside as if it were any other day. He wants to memorize the image, for later.
The family stands next to the table, all except the wife’s frail father, who balances precariously on the bench. The others hover awkwardly around the man—wife, three children, and the last baby, squirming in the second daughter’s arms. The wife should be sitting too. The man pretends he doesn’t notice her leaning against the table. He doesn’t chide her, this one last time.
The man wears his father’s weathered leather vest over a long tunic. His feet are wrapped in rags inside his thin boots, to stave off blisters from the walk ahead. A hand axe hangs from the rope around his waist. The man’s wife begged him to take the spade instead. The spade is plenty sharp, and has a longer handle. It makes a better weapon. The man said no. He thinks his family needs the spade more than the axe. With the spade, he might survive one battle longer. Maybe two. But his family will suffer all year without the spade. Even with it, they will find it hard to grow enough, on this dry, stony patch of land, without him here.
It’s the boy the man feels worst for. Without the man there, he’s the biggest, the strongest. With fewer hands but the same work, the heaviest burden falls on the strongest. With more work, even. Someone has to feed and clothe and armor the troops. And too many of those someones are already gone to be troops themselves. Gone and dead, most of them, between the killing and the wounding and the sickness.
The man’s brother was almost the same age when their father left, for a different war. He remembers his brother standing beside this same table that day, back straight, chin jutting out, lip quivering. Then, too soon, it was his brother’s turn to go.
Now this war against the magruks, only ominous rumors for so many years, has stretched its tendrils all the way from the other side of the continent to this tiny hamlet.
The wife says she prays the war will end, that the man will come home soon. The man knows he won’t be coming home. People like him don’t survive wars like this. He doesn’t say that out loud. He prays that the war will end before they call for his son to go, and his daughter next in line after that. She’s fierce with an axe, she is. Fiercer than her brother most days. Still, he hopes it won’t come to that.
The man picks up the sack of provisions at his feet and slings it over his shoulder. Now he is definitely leaving. He kisses the children, youngest to oldest, and his father-in-law, and finally his wife. Tears are dripping down her cheeks quietly, slowly, catching in the corners of the quivering smile she is trying to give him. He squeezes her hand and turns away. If he looks at her again, he might start crying too.
The man pats the table. He thinks of his father, building the table, letting his young son help, the two of them sitting at it for the first time. He thinks of his mother, later, slumped there on that same stool, her face pale and still, her eyes washed empty by despair. He thinks of his wife. The man’s legs wobble. He leans down on the table, heavily. It creaks and shifts, but holds him up.
The table does not give him one last splinter. The man sees that as a good sign.
Next story in this series: Table 3