The last man
The photo sat on the mantelpiece in my grandparents house. It had always been there, on the left, over the coal fire. One of my earliest memories is of a winter afternoon, looking up at the picture and wondering about it, while I played the delicate game of too-close-or-too-cold with the coal fire. When I was older, at university, worrying about death and wanting to capture what I could of our family history before it was too late, I asked my grandfather about it. He simply got up, took his cane, and walked out of the room. I turned, confused and upset, to my grandmother.
She told me that it was the last photo of his father, my great grandfather. Something had made them take it, before they went out that night. Five men, with what weapons they had, sitting in the living area of my grandfather’s family home, while the one man in town with a Box Browning waited patiently for the film to take. Two of them, she said, had lived together. Her parents had told her they were bachelors and saving money. I didn’t think she believed that any more than I did.
A farming family on the outskirts of town hadn’t come in on the usual day, and people were worried. Five left, four returned, and those four were different. They wouldn’t talk about what had happened to my great grandfather, nor would they say what they had found at the farm when they got there. They would simply, she said, look fearful. The next morning, at dawn, the sky was blood red with a huge cloud of smoke drifting up past the woodline, and the rest of the village knew the men must have burned the farm. They would have asked questions, but something in the expressions of the four who remained made them swallow them unasked, and merely speculate wildly to each other in whispers when the men were absent.
The first of the four drowned in a well a week later. The next was trapped under a cart when a wheel came off the day after the new moon. After the third was found hanging from a crossbeam in his own barn, the fourth retreated into his small house, coming out only occasionally, only in bright sunlight when most had sought the shade, and then only went as far as the dry-stone wall that marked the edge of his garden. It was widely held that he had gone mad, and the speculations became fact, and that not whispered anymore- the villagers did not trouble themselves about whether the fourth man heard them or not, he could not understand them. If he understood, why did he not speak up?
My grandmother remembered people taking pity on him, after a while, as he had cared for the village in his time, and been a fast friend of my great grandparents. She remembered bringing him some food, and that in amidst the incoherence, the rambling of strange lights, sounds in the darkness that might have been screams, if they had sounded human, and the shadow that had fallen over all of them, he had told her that what happened to my great grandfather had been merciful by comparison.
“And do you know what?” she said, taking the photo off the mantel and looking at it for a long moment before continuing, “I believed him.”