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The One Moving Into Battle

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When venturing among the heavenly spheres, it's generally advisable to bring a friend for safety's sake.

His leg aches; in the night-to-morning chill and damp it seems to take offense at being asked to labor under such conditions but it doesn't stagger him or impede his gait to such a degree that he falls behind his companion. Gamely he keeps up, while his friend marks out his way with a walking stick that is almost as old as he is. The dew has not yet dried, and the ground is still muddy; his stockings and trouser-hems are damp where they've brushed against the long grass. The two of them pick their way up the hill with cautious steps; Lorentzen grips August's sleeve like a schoolboy unsure of his way, and August's merry scientific chatter dies out by the time they've crested the rise. Even his breathing falls hushed, though Lorentzen's own breath sounds terribly loud in his own ears when he would much rather be listening for the rustle of the wind, some still small word from God, the swelling silence of empty places. Men have been here in the past, hewing down trees and striving to rout out decaying stumps, but no such attempts have happened recently. The glade is silently working to rub out the memory of them in the way that a wound heals.

They are altogether alone here, two restless creatures set against the cloth of the universe.

If not for the strange summons on them -- on both of them -- he would just as well be in bed, but something in the air has seen fit to keep them awake until this giddy time between night and morning. (The clocks are all unwound, and neither of them could say with any certainty what hour it really was; Lorentzen has spent most of the night writing (he wrings out a cramp in his right hand even now, from holding the pen) and reading significant passages aloud to see what his friend can make of them; the hours pass no more quickly this way, as the strange twilit place into which he sinks when he's at work seems to keep its own clock and calendar, but his fellow unlikely woodsman's yawns and sighs mark out irregular intervals, as well as the creaking of his chair when he rises to put another log on the fire or to set down his pipe. His own policy has been to afford himself no indulgence until the work is finished, but he's only halfway through the final article of this his masterwork, and has found he still cannot resist the beckoning pull of this unearthly light, as if someone's tied a thread around one of his fingers and now seeks to lead him by it. On nights like these, the woods ought to be thick with malign spirits; they pull travelers astray and turn their bodies around from where the well-worn path would lead them until they are lost beyond recovery. Insects sing, and there is the occasional choked cry of an unidentified creature that is most unhappy with their trespass.

August murmurs an aphorism. He is solid and companionable against him, not warm but firm.

"You see now what I wanted to show you," he begins to say to his admirable companion, but in the wild air of the copse (not yet promising frost, but glittering and tight with something chillier than last week's rains) neither of them really wishes to speak.The moon is sharply waxing, a sharp peel of white in a sky that has already begun to blanch with the coming of the morning light. It's barely begun and it throbs with potential like the first notes of a song, or the next-to-last; yet there is something uncanny in it, something unfriendly and not homely, for being seen in a wilderness place. He tries to impress it on his mind's eye so that he might carry it away with him and transform it into solid verse before it's borne away like river-water and leaves only its fleeting traces. The moon-to-come rests within the squinting crescent of the moon as it is, dimly visible like something glimpsed through a tarnished mirror; the sky is lit up and yet obscure, dark and yet dawn.

There's no sign of the stars, only this queer paling coin-clipping of light. Only it doesn't grow paler, it swells and shines still brighter, and it comes to their eyes unnaturally clear.

Something is rallying in his breast like a star on the rise, a painful crystal point of recognition. He doesn't know if what he feels is love or fear -- a great, serene, all-surpassing love for all things and for all men, or a horror, that he is yet so weak and his grasp so very limited. He holds up a hand like a surveyor estimating a distance or like an astronomer with his instruments, slivers of the slivered moon poking through his fingers.

August does not remark on it, the strangeness of his participation in this all, and his gratitude for this knows no bounds. After a moment of eye-stinging loveliness, not tearful but painful, he sets his arm around him; his wool cloak smells like the wood-smoke of the stove.

The man is young enough to be his pupil, old enough to be a true companion to him, to understand enough about the struggles of managing a household and treading water in the academic realm to turn a blind eye to a poor friend's frayed edges. He is not old enough to remember the world as it was, but still desires in his heart to see those days come again. It does not matter so much in such wild places as these as it does in town that he is his physician and not simply his peer with whom he happens to keep house.

August has a clear eye and a glad heart, he sees God in the rotten underbrush and in the face of the cosmos and in Lorentzen's crooked body, in the dissection pan, in watercolors, in star-charts. Lorentzen sees his own god in the rustle of ink-green leaves, in the thin brilliance of moonlight.

A night-bird cries from somewhere in the wood, splitting the sacred calm, and August breathes out a small laugh.

When the spell is broken, they stumble home on uneven legs, drunk with awe.
They don't dare to cross the clearing and to interrupt the haze of spilled-out light, but tramp down the hill leaving nothing to record their presence but boot-prints and the half-circle marks of the walking stick. He clasps August's big-knuckled hand in his own and can scarcely imagine a better support.