The old man yet lived, only because he was useful.
He sat on a rickety wooden stool, alone, centred in the dim shop and staring down at his work; staring, unblinking and unmoving, for hours, days, weeks . . . maybe years even; he couldn’t say. Maybe decades. His hands rested asymmetrically on the shoddy table at his knees, supporting his immobile frame, one loosely closed on a shoe hammer, the other, covering a small chaos of cobbler’s nails. Between them rose a spire on which had settled an upturned officer’s boot, halfway through repair: the convergence point of his frozen, unfocused gaze.
There was no cognition in the man, no feeling. Although he was dimly aware of his own existence, beyond this one vague sense and the other subconscious functions of living, he was surrounded by a vast and colourless ocean of glass on which no thought or storm dared to make a ripple. The dark waters of his mind reflected darker the starless night of his waking hours; he might have later mistaken such a state for serenity, had it not been so completely empty.
He had been staring at this boot for so long.
Maybe for all the ages of man yet to come. Maybe man no longer tread the Earth.
Maybe the fighting was over.
Such a thought bubbled up from below the surface of his trance and woke him. He blinked once and again in some surprise, then grunted a single unsmiling laugh at the notion of peace: the rat survives, the dog plays, and man is to cruelty as blood is to red. He lifted his head with an aching creak, as aeons of stillness wisped from his neck, and he stretched so far as his aggrieved shoulders could allow him. As his eyes fell again, his gaze was drawn outside the shop, where the glowing orange dot of some tobacco product momentarily bounced past on the far side of the street in the darkness — it had been light outside last he looked. Hatred wrote on his face; no townsperson would be out at this time. No townsperson would have tobacco, for that matter.
The dot faded and, given its trajectory, its bearer presumably passed onward with whatever entourage he may have kept. The window was once again an empty black image around white letters spelling “riapeR eohS,” and an almost imperceptible mist of dried blood below “ape”; cruelty can walk out of frame, but red will always remain — most especially for so long as the old cobbler refused to clean it.
His eyes fell with his heart. Back to the boot. This wretched boot!
It had belonged to a cadet — a uniformed child, almost certainly not old enough to be partaking so intimately in the story of this village. An arrogant little bastard. Or was he? The cobbler couldn’t remember anything for what it really was anymore. The cadet had been in the shop only for a few moments. Had left the boots. Had been polite enough. Had he said please and thank you? Had he even said anything?
The old man’s hand flashed into pallor as he gripped the shoe hammer tighter.
It didn’t matter. The uniform said everything about this boy that he needed to know; politeness and platitudes be damned! You can’t be a good person when you’re born and taught of those who take; you can’t, at least, in the eyes of those they take from. And these people had taken so dearly from the old man.
His eyes shot back to the window, back to that blackness which encompassed a town that no person on the outside had ever heard of. His breath stormed from him.
These people took what they wanted, when they wanted. He could see their families safe at home, far from the conflict, so confident in the collective character of their sons and fathers; so confident in their cause; so confident that God or fate or “just because” puts a limit on the depths of human suffering and absolves them all of responsibility for their thoughts and opinions and actions.
He looked to his work and reverberated with emotion.
The old man yet lived because he was useful to these animals — but he had once known so many who weren’t!
In a conflagration, he struck the boot with the hammer!
So many, gone to make an example or prove a point; gone on account of whispered rumours of resistance; gone, maybe, just to entertain some feeble sense of invincibility that comes with adjudicating the life of another.
He struck the boot again! Again! Again! Again! The leather peeled back with every blow, peeled back to bloom into an inflorescence of hardened cowhide and raw emotion. He threw the hammer, and bits of plaster sprinkled from the wall where it hit. He stood and flipped the table, and the ruin that was once a boot ran across the floor with all manner of bit and tool.
He became still.
The old man looked down on his work and grasped for the stool below him; slowly sat again, reflective, no longer crowded by the table and its load. He leaned on his thighs. He had never been one for outburst or violence. He knew what they would say if they found this in the morning. There was time and material to fix what he’d done, but he had already made the decision to fight, feebly as it may be.
He knew what it meant for him if he lost his usefulness.
But the cadet won’t have his boot.
The old cobbler laughed with his eyes, and the passage of time evaporated from his mind once again. He lived here for generations.