The One About The Founding (1918)
The fire in the grate, the only light in the dark room, cast orange flickers and dancing shadows at the man who sat in an armchair close to the hearth, with a pile of carefully cut paper beside him on a small table. There was a hand-crocheted afghan—a dark red, almost black in the firelight—thrown over his knees, and he wore a dressing gown of a heavy, good-quality silk over a pair of flannel pajamas. His feet, hidden under the rug, were bare and thrust into a pair of sheepskin-lined slippers. On top of the rug, almost automatically, almost without paying any attention to what he was doing at all, the man’s hands were busy folding a piece of paper from the pile beside him into an intricate origami animal. His eyes only occasionally strayed to the work that his hands were doing; mostly, they stayed on the fire, unfocused, and it seemed clear that his mind’s eye was somewhere else entirely, somewhere far away. Somewhere that made him unhappy, because every now and then he would shudder, or his shoulders would rise to hunch up about his ears, and he’d blink once or twice, rapidly, furiously, as though he had just woken up from a dream, or a nightmare. But he would slip back into the same dream almost immediately, his only barely stilled hands back at his work.
Behind him, in the corner of the room, the firelight picked out the tinsel glittering on a small but proud Christmas tree, decked with ornaments that were part elaborate Victorian glass globes and part strange wild pagan things that didn’t look like they had any business on something that was reared up as part of a Christian festival. It looked, perhaps, strange—but not to someone who knew the man whose room this was, whose tree this was. It was perfectly understandable, to such a someone.
Like the second man who opened the door into the room and slipped inside, wrapped in his own somewhat more homely version of a thick dressing gown. The second man wore a luxuriant moustache and frankly boastful sideburns of a rich ginger hue; he boasted a lanky frame, with long thin legs poking out from underneath the hem of the dressing gown. One of his arms hung at an odd, useless angle by his side, his hand curved into the beginnings of a loose fist. It was clear that he had no control over that hand.
“Have you been to bed at all, Tim?” the red-haired man asked gently, slipping into a second armchair by the fire.
“No,” Tim said, tearing his eyes from the fire, his gaze softening slightly as it landed on his companion. “I thought you were long since asleep, Matthew.”
“I was. Something woke me.”
“I haven’t made any noise,” Tim said.
“Perhaps it was the silence,” Matthew said, yawning. “What is it, you can’t wait until Christmas Day? Like a child?”
“I am a pagan, not any kind of a Christian soul. I have never really kept ‘Christmas’ in the manner you describe—maybe, when I was really small, hiding behind my mother’s skirts, but not since I have known who my true father was. It seemed kind of… disrespectful. To celebrate with such pomp and circumstance the advent of a new God, one that supplanted my own father and his family in the minds and temples of men, would have seemed like an act of repudiation, almost. I have never wished to do anything that might be interpreted as that. I am actually not unproud of the fact that I came from the loins of Odin himself, even if I was just an illegitimate by-blow got on a mortal woman, even if I was maybe no more than an impulse, a moment of play, something that was barely remembered at all and perhaps only thought about with regret. It happened, I am here, but I am hardly a ‘Christian’ in any sense.”
“But yet the tree,” Matthew said, smiling.
Tim shrugged. “I like Christmas trees. I like the gaud of it, the joy. One can put one up without any other ulterior motive than that.” His hands completed a final fold and lifted; from beneath them, an origami paper bird of paradise or some such creature, with a long trailing tail, sat quiescent for a moment and then stirred, lifted its wings, rose from Tim’s lap, and flew up into a shadowed corner of the room. Another of its kind, its lifespark spent, lay there already, in a pile of dingy unraveling paper. The origami creatures that arose from Tim’s paper squares had the gift of life from his hands, but the span of it was briefer than a mayfly’s. Some of them lasted a day or two. Others not even that. Matthew picked up their sad little corpses from the floor dutifully every day and removed them. Somebody had to. Tim didn’t appear to notice them, and he kept making more—the room would have been buried in paper creatures in short order if the defunct ones were not whisked away before they became a problem.
Tim reached out for another paper square.
“So what is it, then?” Matthew asked, glancing back at the tree.
“When I come to this day,” Tim said softly, “I always remember 1914. Granted, it’s only been four years, but it seems like it was in another lifetime altogether. I almost can’t believe that I was there, that it really happened, that it wasn’t just one nice moment of dream between the hell that had been and the hell that was yet to come.”
“It happened,” Matthew said. “I was there, too.”
Under Tim’s fingers, a flat square of paper began to assume a three-dimensional form. “Stille Nacht, they sang. Silent Night. Yes, I knew there were German words. They had not occurred to me. When I heard them, there in those trenches, it was like—I don’t know how to tell you this.”
“I understand,” Matthew said. “I do. But does that spontaneous magical Christmas truce mean that you have to hold vigil in its memory ever after?”
“Sleep, at least on this night, was a gift I left for whoever eventually found it in the blood and the mud of the trenches,” Tim said, his eyes on his hands. “If it isn’t still buried there.”
“Christmas gifts are a Christian thing,” Matthew said, smiling ruefully.
“Gifts are a human thing,” Tim said. “They long predate the Christian God. I can give gifts where I choose.”
“When was the last time someone gave a gift to you, my friend?” Matthew asked. “I could put the kettle on for some tea, but it is a pretty self-serving gesture since I would probably need to you to bring in two cups in here.”
Under Tim’s hands, a small origami dragon flapped its intricate wings twice, lifted off Tim’s lap, burped an apologetic spark of a small experimental blue-tinged blaze, and tumbled ungracefully into the flames of the hearth even as its own unwise breath lit one of its wings on fire.
He reached for another paper. The first few folds were, as usual, random-looking, but Matthew, who was fascinated by Tim’s gift, tried to discern what was coming. A cat…? a frog…?
“No tea for me, thank you,” Tim said, folding. “But if you want to look at it that way… tonight might be a sort of gift. It’s over, Matthew. It’s over. That is hard to even believe. I don’t think we’ll even know the full impact of it until the history books have been written and the pencil pushers have had a chance to tot it all up… but from what I know, now… in just six campaigns, in the last three and a half years, we have lost five million men in battle, for reasons that nobody alive could possibly explain to you and make sense of any of it. And that isn’t counting the millions who died of disease, or of stupid accidents, or as prisoners, locked up somewhere and hoping for a reprieve that never came. And even that is ignoring the civilian deaths. The whole thing is all still too close, to those of us who lived through it—but, my friend, trust me when I tell you that a hundred years from now, they will remember the names of Passchendaele, or the Somme, or Verdun. And everything that went with them.” He glanced up from the thing taking shape in his lap, into the fire, up at his friend’s face. A ghost of a smile played about his mouth. “And there would have been more. Except for your gift, Matthew.”
Matthew made a dismissive gesture with his good hand. “I did very little.”
“On the scale on which I was speaking, perhaps,” Tim said. “But there, on the ground, every set of bones mattered. And not a few of them owe their lives to you. To you and to that extraordinary superhero ability you own, Bulletproof Man. If I had not seen it happen before my eyes, I would have thought delirious people who were about to die were making the whole story up from whole cloth. But I saw you. I saw you walk out there, saw the bullets simply veer away from you, like they had hit an invisible wall. From you, and from the wounded men you brought back to safety, and to life.”
“They will think they were just seeing things,” Matthew said. “Perhaps it’s just as well.” He lifted his dead arm in a despondent way. “In the end, they get you anyway.”
“You picked up a live grenade to throw it out of the trench,” Tim said. “That thing got inside that shield of yours. It could have been worse—it didn’t blow up in your hand, it only exploded as you tossed it—you still have all your fingers, and your arm.”
“Little use it is,” Matthew said, a little savagely. “So, now, peace is here. What is a crippled superhero, if you insist on applying that label, to do with his life? I’m not yet thirty years old, Timothy Dunne. I’m hardly ready for the scrap heap. These should be the best years of my life. I should be putting together a future, starting a family. What woman would have…?”
“A woman took my one-eyed father, and made me,” Tim said equably. The thing in his hands was turning into a lizard-like object, humped in the middle, and he was just folding a curl into its tail. “You’re not something to waste. The world owes you, even if it doesn’t know how to compute the debt. It owes… so many people whom it doesn’t know how to appreciate. The heroes and the superheroes.”
“Like you, Origami Man?” Matthew said, nodding at the creature from whom Tim’s hands had just lifted. The paper chameleon rose to all four legs, arched its back into a deeper hump, and began to shade into the burgundy of the afghan on Tim’s lap. Before long he was almost completely camouflaged. The bit of burgundy chameleon-shaped shadow slipped from Tim’s lap and down onto the carpet, where it was briefly evident, a burgundy-colored smear, before it took on the color of the floor and disappeared again. Matthew could hear paper rustle as it scurried, invisibly, away.