Ars Moriendi: Fiction by Jake Webber

When did the snow begin to fall?

Sable trees poured down like ink from the cobalt clouds above, burying themselves in snow. The few branches that still sported leaves were far outnumbered by those that lay exposed in the freezing twilight’s air, though all the limbs in this forest were blanketed with a soft, supple layer of pure white. Now more snow fell, as if the clouds themselves were melting.
A man lay alone in a small clearing amidst the dark masses of trees and bushes that so contrasted the pallid luminescence of the snow, brilliantly gleaming even now after the sun had set. He watched as the snowflakes danced with the moonlight, drifting towards him. He tried to remember when it had started snowing, but his memory failed him now as he felt at his wound.

When did the blood begin to pour?
Warm crimson oozed out of him and into the snow. Melting. Steaming. Spreading out around his chest and seeping into the white. It was not killing him, not yet; he had not lost enough blood to consider it deadly. But his time was coming, and he could feel the tug of the moonlight above him, quietly ushering him towards the clouds. It would not be long before he would have to give in.

When had the sword been drawn?
It had been approaching sunset, and the snow was an awkward, complimentary mixture of orange and purple as it reflected the sky above. This had always been the man’s favorite thing about the winter: the colors of snow, especially at sunset. Clutching a battered blade with trembling hands, he had looked over his shoulder at the troops behind him, and the man could still see how the muted brown of their makeshift hide armor had been drowned in the orange of the sun. They stood in haphazard formation with fear polluting their eyes and minds. There would be no escape from this, and they all knew. Only death. Only cold. This would be the snow that would last forever.

The world had silently held its breath as the enemy troops approached from over the western hill. The fervid orange of the sun caught their armor and they marched in tight formation as if of one mind, feet falling in unison but with the same sense of uncertain fear as their opponents. Their general rode atop a black horse that sauntered menacingly. The man, himself the general of his own army, stood upon his own two feet, for he knew that he was no more valuable than any of his men. The opposing general held no such illusions. The two locked eyes, and before the battle began the world seemed so still. So very still.

Then there was nothing but motion and sound. Screaming, hacking, bleeding, slashing, crunching, stabbing, screaming, screaming, so much screaming.
When had the man ever been drafted into this terrible war?

The clouds above offered no answer, so he searched as far back as he could into his memories but could not remember anything but his failure. He had been their general, and he had failed. His men had trusted him for leadership, and he had failed. From the pain of failure dripped memory.

He had opened the letter with a dull, muted apprehension, knowing what the words would say but denying that he of all people would be chosen to die for the crown. That’s all that could happen, anyway. No one ever came back after receiving a letter like this. The red wax seal had seemed to melt the white of the letter, as his blood now melted the snow beneath him. An ironic eulogy. His mother had cried as she watched the man read those hollow words of ‘glory’ and ‘honor’; his father had stared blankly, disbelief intermingling with his taciturn gaze.

When had the crows begun to fill the trees?
Perching restlessly, the dark birds preened at their greasy feathers and croaked out into the silence of the snowfall with their twisted symphonies that the man always thought sounded quite like laughter. The songs of dusk were trapped in their wings, their dead eyes even darker. The man stared blankly ahead as they all nervously waited for their meal to finish dying so they could begin the feast.

When had he left the girl that he had loved?
She had been beautiful, or at least the man had believed her to be, and that was all that mattered. He had loved the curls of her hair and the gleam in her eyes and the chipper melody of her laugh that he could still hear as he bled out in the snow. He could still hear her and he could still smell the roses that she had always cared for. She was so real in memory, so pure. He blamed himself for leaving her, as he had kept his feelings hidden deeply behind layers of doubt and ego, laboriously hauling the assumption that a single moment of embarrassment would remain preserved forever in time. How funny that fear in a single moment can squander so many of the rest. Guilt hurt more than the wound from which his life was leaving.

Everything was happening so fast, and the dying man felt claustrophobic as the memory of his short life began to surround him as one moment. There was so little of his life that had actually held substance, so much of it spent hiding from truth, so much of it spent worrying about what did not matter now, so much of it governed by fear. Everything was swarming him. Everything was happening so fast.

When had all of these memories stopped being real? When had they left the present and become these far away ideas that the man now desperately clutched at as they faded away beneath the blood and the snow?
Why was it that nothing had seemed to change, but now, at the climax of so many years, everything was different?
When had it changed? When did time throw away that little boy in the village who loved a girl he couldn’t speak to and played in the forest in the early hours of the morning and loved to play with the stray dogs and cats and stare at the moon at night, wondering what fantastic adventures he would have when he grew older? When had it changed?
When had the moon risen above the clearing, piercing through the clouds?
When had the blood stopped seeping out of the man as he lay cold and afraid on the ground? Snow had begun to pile atop his limbs. They resembled the branches of the trees that surrounded him, the cold, dead skeletons of spring lightly dusted with pure winter’s white.
When had life left him forever?

None of these questions would be answered. The man’s body would never be found by another living creature, save the crows that picked at his flesh until all that remained were bones and memory and unanswered questions soaked into snow.

—Jake Webber, Grade 11.