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The morning after Vaidwattie left, Srilal found the first thing of beauty. It was lying on the damp pavement outside his house, where a thousand boots trod every day. The first thing of beauty was an origami bird so delicate and fine that when Srilal lifted it on the palm of his hand, he thought it might fly away. He placed it on his mantelpiece, above the dead television, next to their wedding photo, and he cried.

Once, Vaidwattie had told him, "I can make you anything with twelve folds of paper." He hadn't believed her. "Prove it," he had said, but she had just shaken her head and been hurt.

The wedding had taken five days. There had been seven types of curry served on palm leaves, and rum until dawn faded the stars. His cousins had danced and his aunts had sung. Vaidwattie had worn a red, white, and gold sari. Srilal had worn a white sherwani.

The second thing of beauty was a poppy made from fine silver wire. It lay where the first had lain the morning before. When he turned it in his hand, the petals caught the rain-paled light and seemed to glow red.

Her lips had been brown, not red. Sometimes she had worn lipstick to make them red, because she thought it pleased him. He had preferred them brown. He had not told her that until near the end.

After he had placed the flower by the origami bird, he returned to his bed. He lay there and listened to the thousand boots of five hundred men march up the street from the camp. Always from the camp, never towards it.

"Love has a bitter heart," Vaidwattie had told him. "That makes its lips all the sweeter."

"No," he had said. "Love is war. It glorifies us all."

He did not sleep that night. He sat by the window, staring out at the street, to see who was leaving the things of beauty. Hoping it was Vaidwattie. He saw no one.

At first light, he stepped out onto the damp street and found the third thing of beauty.

It was a simple green box. He opened it and there was a bigger box within. Inside that was an even larger box. He wondered if it would go on forever, but when he opened the third box a galaxy floated within. He blinked and it was gone.

"I love you like the stars love night," she had said.

"Like the sun loves the day," he had said.

"Like a river loves the ocean."

"Like men love the North."

"No," she had said, shocked white. "Not like that. Never like that."

"One day I will march north," he had said, full of pride. "Men's souls are born in the North."

"I would hold your soul here," she had whispered.

"You could never understand."

There were a hundred numbers in her address book. A hundred places she could have gone when she left. He sat by the phone with the hundred numbers, not dialling them.

He had given her his life. He had given her his heart. She had taken it and then she had gone. And he didn't. Know. Why.

The fourth thing of beauty waited on the fourth morning. It was a white stone shot through with grey-blue and grey-red.

They had met when they were fifteen, Vaidwattie and Srilal. Her hair had been thick and black and oiled, and it had reached her waist. She had dived into a clear, fast stream that day and brought out a white stone shot through with grey-blue and grey-red. She had placed it in his palm, and curled the fingers of his hand over it, then curled her own over them.

"We are like this," she had said. "We are this strong."

He had kept it ever since beside his bed.

The fourth thing of beauty felt as fragile as an empty egg. He held it in his fist where a twitch of rage could crush it.

He listened to five hundred men march north between endless red brick row houses.

She was gone. The peg pinning his soul was gone.

Day grew long, became empty sleepless night. Became cold. Became hard.

He arose. Morning slipped over damp rooftops.

He opened his front door, leaving it to swing.

The fifth thing of beauty was a felt-soft heart that pulsed gently in the light rain. Srilal stepped over the fifth thing of beauty and left it lying on the wet pavement, and turned down the street towards the camp. That day, a thousand boots fell on the thing of beauty, and it died.

 

Copyright © 2003 Patrick Samphire

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Patrick lives in Leeds, UK, with his partner, Stephanie, and their dog, Nika. He has had fiction published in Realms of Fantasy, Ideomancer Unbound, and The Third Alternative. He is currently working on his first novel. For more about him and his work, see his website.

[Links updated and removed in 2011.]

Patrick Samphire


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