Editor’s note: Karen Lord has taught physics, trained soldiers, and worked in the Foreign Service. Her story Legend explores questions of power, political change, and communal justice in a way that feels simultaneously of another time and yet entirely of the moment.
~ Julian Yap, January 16, 2022.
The funeral cortège pauses at the Tombs of the Fallen, as well they should. If matters were different, this would be the final resting place. But a legend should not be assigned a quiet berth in a many-roomed mansion. A legend requires more.
* * *
“Many of the Council thought there was something between you and the General. A tension. A bond. Nothing they could name or prove.”
The words came slow and soft, as much due to the age of the speaker as the delicate nature of the topic. The lead carriage, horse-drawn in an excess of honor to tradition, rocked its three occupants gently from side to side. The High Councilor took time to look at the Elder who had long been her advisor. In a place of many peoples, he did not stand out at first glance, but after all these years he still maintained an aura of difference. A curious thing.
The High Councilor’s calm expression did not change as she gave the Elder’s question the answer it deserved: “I am well accustomed to misunderstandings about the nature of my history with the General.”
The Elder smiled very slightly, and his eyes looked briefly sideways. There was the High Councilor’s young aide-de-camp, trying to stare blankly at the opposite wall of the carriage, but a flicker of a blink betrayed his interest.
The High Councilor saw the glance and the blink and understood what both desired of her, but she rebuked the Elder quietly. “I am not in the mood for humor today.”
The Elder lowered his eyes, finally chastened to sincerity. “Of course, Your Excellency.”
The carriage rolled on. The city was sprawling, the route was long, and there was at least a half hour more of witness by many eyes before the procession could reach its destination.
* * *
I love your passion for justice.
It was true, she had said it, but with an edge that had nothing to do with the man who was not yet a general, and everything to do with their common enemy. When she said love, what she meant was I can use you, and when he replied with a bright, fierce smile, he meant the same. They were matched in intensity and focus, and the trust this brought had been so close to a romance that she could see why the misunderstandings had begun, and continued. At one stage, she wondered whether he, too, had become confused, but no. Not him. Confusion was for others. He exuded certainty in whatever he did, and the people saw it and believed in him.
Even on the day when they finally had the Brigadier with his back to the wall, drained of defiance, and desperate for a quick end, she saw how the people’s belief approved the swoop of the General’s sword (oh yes, by then he was a general, there had been enough battles by then). His execution of the Brigadier could not be loved by anyone who loved justice—pure, cold-blooded, disinterested justice—as she did. But there was a government to install and rebuilding to start and no leeway for creating division in the fragile peace they had found. She lodged a protest, and the Council ignored it even as they gave her their highest honors . . . gave them both honors, as if that balanced and settled the matter.
In a way, perhaps it did. For those who craved justice with a ready blade, the General was their avatar. For those who wanted justice with a poised pen, she stood as representative.
The awards and adulation rankled. They knew how close was the call between glory and dishonorable death. The difference between the two of them was this: she would work for the rest of her life until she became deserving; and his blade-lust would compete for his love of the people until one conquered the other. To her own path, she was committed, but his fate was a shifting mirage that she could never fix in her mind’s eye.
* * *
They passed in silence the gates to the memorial park where the protesters had died . . . where the General had had them kettled and killed. The aide-de-camp blinked again, but this time it was salt water, not curiosity, that cracked the mask. He was young: the General’s early triumphs happened before he was born, but the later atrocities had indelibly marked his life.
She should have been more guarded, but the sway of the carriage lulled the High Councilor into a moment of weakness. She breathed a sigh and a sob. The crowd had not been with the General then, but she had been with the crowd. She had sheltered them and been sheltered by them when the shooting began. Because of her presence among them there, and her advocacy for them afterward, they had granted her another kind of honor, but this kind she’d take. Medals might be more tangible, but it was the people’s respect that had sheltered her from those who would have seen her punished, by swift blade and not by slow law, for her part in bringing the General to justice.
The Elder, who could be kind when not teasing, and attentive when not enamored of his own brilliance, gazed at her with sympathy and recited a verse of his own composition.
“Our promised spring led to the tyrant’s end,
grew blossoms for our allies’ monument,
but drifting leaves adorn the graves of friends
till winter’s loneliness and discontent.”
She knew he meant well, but on this occasion she could not silently accept it. “My dear Elder, you have lived long and traveled widely and I cherish the wisdom you have gained, but you do not come from a flexible culture. Must everything move in four seasons for you? How long have you lived in our winterless land? You should have adapted your art to our cycle by now.
“There is a time and a season for every thing.
A time for peace, and a time for war,
a season of sun and a season of showers,
a time for love and a time for hate,
a season of flood and a season of drought,
a time for yearning and a time for earning,
a season of getting and a season for regretting.
A grace and a reckoning for everything under the sun.”
The lines were not original, but they suited. The aide-de-camp’s blink became a single tear with enough volume and weight to trace from cheek to chin. The High Councilor’s hands, resting lightly in her lap, did not shift or fidget, but she very slowly leaned a little into the young man, increasing the warmth between them too subtly for the Elder to notice.
The Elder turned his face to the window and cleared his throat. “Here we are.”
The Elder, the aide-de-camp, and the High Councilor descended from their carriage with careful dignity. They watched as soldiers carried the General’s body from the gun carriage and brought it with pomp and ceremony to rest on the pyre. They witnessed as the advocate for the victims set the torch to the kindling to start the blaze. And they each, in their own way, approved the poetry of the weather as a faint fall of rain from a cloudless sky touched the bright, fierce fire that would be the General’s only epitaph.
Thank you for being part of The Sunday Morning Transport journey this week.
Barbadian writer Karen Lord is the award-winning author of Redemption in Indigo, The Best of All Possible Worlds, The Galaxy Game, and Unraveling, and the editor of the anthology New Worlds, Old Ways: Speculative Tales from the Caribbean.
“Legend,” © Karen Lord, 2022.
I do love that line "who could be kind when not teasing, and attentive when not enamored of his own brilliance"
Thank you for this quietly heartbreaking story.