The family members have tears in their eyes when they welcome Kaim back to the inn from his long journey.
"Thank you so much for coming."
He understands the situation immediately.
The time for departure is drawing near.
Too soon, too soon.
But still, he knows, this day would have come sometime, and not in the distant future.
"I might never see you again," she said to him with a sad smile when he left on this journey, her smiling face almost transparent in its whiteness, so fragile—and therefore indescribably beautiful—as she lay in bed.
"May I see Hanna now?" he asks.
The innkeeper gives him a tiny nod and says, "I don't think she'll know who you are, though."
"She hasn't opened her eyes since last night," he warns Kaim. You can tell from the slight movement of her chest that she is clinging to a frail thread of life, but it could snap at any moment.
"It's such a shame. I know you made a special point to come here for her..."
Another tear glides down the wife's cheek.
"Never mind, it's fine." Kaim says.
He has been present at innumerable deaths, and his experience has taught him much.
Death takes away the power of speech first of all. Then the ability to see.
What remains alive to the very end, however, is the power to hear. Even though the person has lost consciousness, it is by no means unusual for the voices of the family to bring forth smiles or tears.
Kaim puts his arm around the woman's shoulder and says, "I have lots of travel stories to tell her. I've been looking forward to this my whole time on the road."
Instead of smiling, the woman releases another large tear and nods to Kaim, "And Hanna was so looking forward to hear your stories."
Her sobs almost drown out her words.
The innkeeper says, "I wish I could urge you to rest up from your travels before you see her, but..."
Kaim interrupts his apologies, "Of course I'll see her right away."
There is very little time left.
Hanna, the only daughter of the innkeeper and his wife, will probably breathe her last before the sun comes up.
Kaim lowers his pack to the floor and quietly opens the door to Hanna's room.
Hanna was frail from birth. Far from enjoying the opportunity to travel, she rarely left the town or even the neighborhood in which she was born and raised.
This child will probably not live to adulthood, the doctor told her parents.
This tiny girl, with extraordinarily beautiful doll-like features, the gods had dealt an all-too-sad destiny.
That they had allowed her to be born the only daughter of the keepers of a small inn by the highway was perhaps one small act of atonement for such iniquity.
Hanna was unable to go anywhere, but the guests who stayed at her parent’s inn would tell her stories of the countries and towns and landscapes and people that she would never know.
Whenever new guests arrived at the inn, Hanna would ask them,
"Where are you from?" "Where are you going?"
"Can you tell me a story?"
She would sit and listen to their stories with sparkling eyes, urging them on to new episodes with "And then? And then?" When they left the inn, she would beg them, "Please come back, and tell me lots and lots of stories about faraway countries!"
She would stand there waving until the person disappeared far down the highway, give one lonely sigh, and go back to bed.
Hanna is sound asleep.
No one else is in the room, perhaps an indication that she has long since passed the stage when the doctors can do anything for her.
Kaim sits down in the chair next to the bed and says with a smile.
"Hello, Hanna, I’m back."
She does not respond. Her little chest, still without the swelling of a grown woman, rises and falls almost imperceptibly.
"I went far across the ocean this time," he tells her. "The ocean on the side where the sun comes up. I took a boat from the harbor way way way far beyond the mountains you can see from this window, and I was on the sea from the time the moon was perfectly round till it got smaller and smaller then bigger and bigger until it was full again. There was nothing but ocean as far as the eye could see. Just the sea and the sky. Can you imagine it, Hanna? You’ve never seen the ocean, but I’m sure people have told you about it. It’s like a huge, big endless puddle."
Kaim chuckles to himself, and it seems to him that Hanna’s pale white cheek moves slightly.
She can hear him. Even if she cannot speak or see, her ears are still alive.
Believing and hoping this to be true, Kaim continues with the story of his travels.
He speaks no words of parting.
As always with Hanna, Kaim smiles with a special gentleness he has never shown to anyone else, and he goes on telling his tales with a bright voice, sometimes even accompanying his story with exaggerated gestures.
He tells her about the blue ocean.
He tells her about the blue sky.
He says nothing about the violent sea battle that stained the ocean red.
He never tells her about those things.
Hanna was still a tiny girl when Kaim first visited the inn.
When she asked him "Where are you from?" and "Will you tell me some stories?" with her childish pronunciation and innocent smile, Kaim felt soft glow in his chest.
At the time, he was returning from a battle.
More precisely, he had ended one battle and was on his way to the next.
His life consisted of traveling from one battlefield to another, and nothing about that has changed to this day.
He has taken the lives of countless enemy troops, and witnessed the deaths of countless comrades on the battlefield. Moreover, the only thing separating enemies from comrades is the slightest stroke of fortune. Had the gears of destiny turned in a slightly different way, his enemies would have been comrades and his comrades enemies, This is the fate of the mercenary.
He was spiritually worn down back then and feeling unbearably lonely. As a possessor of eternal life, Kaim had no fear of death, which was precisely why each of the soldier’s faces distorted in fear, and why each face of a man who died in agony was burned permanently into his brain.
Ordinarily, he would spend nights on the road drinking. Immersing himself in an alcoholic stupor—or pretending to. He was trying to make himself forget the unforgettable.
When, however, he saw Hanna’s smile and begged him for stories about his long journey, he felt a far warmer and deeper comfort then he could even obtain from liquor.
He told her many things...
About the beautiful flower he discovered on the battlefield.
About the bewitching beauty of the mist filling the forest the night before the final battle.
About the marvelous taste of the spring water in a ravine where he and his men had fled after losing the battle.
About a vast, bottomless blue sky he saw after battle.
He never told her anything sad. He kept his mouth shut about the human ugliness and stupidity he witnessed endlessly on the battlefield. He concealed his position as a mercenary for her, kept silent regarding his reasons for traveling constantly, and spoke only of things that were beautiful and sweet and lovely. He sees now that he told Hanna only beautiful stories of the road like this not so much out of concern for her purity, but for his own sake.
Staying in the inn where Hanna waited to see him turned out to be one of Kaim’s small pleasures in life. Telling her about the memories he brought back from his journeys, he felt some degree of salvation, however slight. Five years, ten years, his friendship with the girl continued. Little by little, she neared adulthood, which meant that, as the doctors had predicted, each day brought her that much closer to death.
And now, Kaim ends the last travel story he will share with her.
He can never see her again, can never tell her stories again.
Before dawn, when the darkness of night is at its deepest, long pauses enter into Hanna’s breathing.
The frail thread of her life is about to snap as Kaim and her parents watch over her.
The tiny light that has lodged in Kaim’s breast will be extinguished.
His lonely travels will begin again tomorrow—his long, long travels without end.
"You’ll be leaving on travels of your own soon, Hanna." Kaim tells her gently.
"You’ll be leaving for a world that no one knows, a world that has never entered into any of the stories you have heard so far. Finally, you will be able to leave your bed and walk anywhere you want to go. You’ll be free."
He wants her to know that death is not sorrow but a joy mixed with tears.
"It’s your turn now. Be sure and tell everyone about the memories of your journey."
Her parents will make that same journey someday. And someday Hanna will be able to meet all the guests she has known at the inn, far beyond the sky.
I, however, can never go there.
I can never escape this world.
I can never see you again.
"This is not goodbye. It’s just the start of your journey."
He speaks his final words to her.
"We’ll meet again."
His final lie to her.
Hanna makes her departure.
Her face is transfused with a tranquil smile as if she has just said,
"See you soon."
Her eyes will never open again. A single tear glides slowly down her cheek.