Head tilted back, torso curving backwards, he stood and stared at his childhood. Within the ornate gold frame of the oil-painting, figures in their likeness of twelve years ago stood and stared back; himself, candy-coloured jacket the only mark of colour in the graphite landscape, eyes cocked towards his brother in hopeful gesture.
His brother, staring forward with powerful perfunctoriness, looking a thousand-years-older in his uniform. His father, malignance undimmed, sable robes swallowing all the light and making even his own red coat appear translucent.
The air felt weighted, dense with all his past selves, gathering here at various instants over the years. Clearest in his mind was the memory furthest back; his much-younger self, not long after the painting was made.
* * *
Even then the air was heavy, though the weight came from the noise of the Experimentation permeating from the Factory. He could hear â€“ almost distinctly â€“ the galvanic shock of the machines and the purling of the bottled-poisons. Even more distinct was the begging of the commoners being experimented on as power was sucked from them; beseeching amplified by his swallowing pity.
A familiar sound in the corridor made him start. ‘Father!’
Visions of his father’s contemptuous words and the incandescent glare in his glacial eyes barrelled through his mind. Muffling his panic into his hand, he stumbled away from the painting.
His terror of his father propelled him up the writhing, tumbledown staircases, and the fading daffodil butterfly painted on his bedroom-door was a beacon of relief.
* * *
Glancing at the forbidding figure of his father in the painting, he realised why he was so frightened; even then, though the panic had never established itself in words, he understood that his father held no place for kindness.
* * *
He lay gasping on the bed, accelerated breath distorting back to normal.
Then the door grated open, and a silhouette obtruded the shadowed corridor.
Mirroring him across the doorway stood his older brother, fully-dressed; his uniform the same slate-colour of the City sky, pearl-coloured buttons almost-fluorescent in the darkness. He looked momentarily lost, and started to back out of the room.
“Wait!” cried the younger boy, springing up from the bed. “Where are you going?”
His brother avoided his gaze, hesitated, then turned back. “I’m going out.” he answered finally.
“I’m going to kill Monsters.”
Wide-eyed with bewilderment and callowness, he paused, sinking down before rising again in panic. “You can’t! It’s late! It’s night!” His rapidly-gesticulating hands settled against the sleeve of his brother’s uniform, faster than the agitated yellow butterflies caged on his bedstand.
He shook them off distastefully. “I have to do this. It’s not right to let the people Father hurts suffer.”
He gazed pathetically up at his brother, anguished, and evoked a final, fervent answer. “I’m being kind.”
* * *
Was he being kind? Perhaps. He smoothed his bulky white gloves over the crimson coat of his own uniform. But I saw those people afterwards. I see them every day. Their lives have only pain. When my brother kills Monsters, he removes the pain. Then they have nothing. Nothing is worse than anything.’
* * *
He watched the minute figure of his black-cloaked-brother heading through the City, after Monsters that worked for his father’s exploiting schemes.
The slums stood out; shabby street a muddy smudge. He remembered being there, only a few hours before, to practice his magic.
The spell was simple; a spell for yellow butterflies. He had walked down the slums with his jars and liquids, noting shrewdly several children; very young, clothes tattered, skin caked-with-mud, eyes downcast and ribs protruding.
Stopping in an open space, he had set up his equipment. The spell was uncomplicated, but he finished leisurely, letting each simple action consume minutes he might otherwise have spent in his father’s house.
Finally, the largest jar unearthed, from porcelain-coloured smoke, a butterfly; canary-coloured, unembellished, wings oscillating unhurriedly. Five more followed it.
The six streamed into the air and back up the street. As they disappeared behind the strata of dirt on the walls, sudden youthful laughter burgeoned, making him start and then smile in amazement. The mirth of the children who had been before so miserable was marvellous, and he could barely believe it.
This is kindness.’ he had thought.
* * *
Even now, the memory brought a tingling smile to his face. ‘That was real kindness.’ He told himself. ‘I was making them happy. And that showed them how to stay happy.’
With these memories lucid, he focused again on the painting. “Kindness is necessary.” he told the portrait of his father.
“But you cannot just lift off people’s burdens. That won’t help them in the future.” he added to his brother. “You have to ease their burdens” show them that life is worth living, and that it can be lived, even here.”
Satisfied, he turned away from the artwork and paced outside.
There was kindness to give, and yellow butterflies to make.