Tell me, William, was it worth it? Do you remember the long shadows in that square, the way your shoes scuffed on the cobblestones, the way the multitudes cowered at the perceived authority of one man? Not you. You walked on by. So many of us work and work to make a legacy, but when push came to shove, doing nothing was your spark.
Of course, you had worked. Hours and hours in the woods with your bow had made you an expert in things of this nature. In shadows and light, with live prey and imagined, these skills were your greatest power. Your punishment tested what you did best.
And so you went to another square, another day, this time bound with your son in tow. Your son was scared, of course he was. You worried he wouldn’t keep still. At the dinner table, in church, and with his own bow raised, he never kept still. This was a test of his bravery, maturity, as much as your confidence.
The crowd assembled, the same men and women in somber colors that had bowed not to the emperor, but to a symbol only, his raised hat. Did you wish at this point that you had just gone along with them, knowing it was stupid but doing it anyway? Did you see the way the sun shone on your boy’s hair and regret your stubbornness? Or did you relish this chance to show your skill, to bite your thumb, as they used to say, at the powers that were?
The crowd went quiet, and you relied on them, too, not to distract you. Everything had to be just right, this golden moment: Boy, arrow, apple, string. Did you pause as you sized up the target? Were you proud of your boy for standing so perfectly still, still like the alpine air on that cool autumn day?
Yes. You pulled the string back, you took aim at the apple, just above the spot where your son shone brightest. You took aim, you let go.
The look on your boy’s face when it was over, when he stood flecked simply with apple juice and not with blood. The pride you felt in him, in yourself. The way the crowd cheered.
Later Gessler shook your hand, and it seemed he had decided to make an ally of you. But you remembered those little indignities, the new things the teachers were told to teach, the unfamiliar lessons your son had come home repeating. The new colors on the castle walls and the new taxes at the farmers’ market. They called Gessler a military man, but his hand was small and he shook softly. He smiled and asked about the second arrow in your quiver.
If he had been a sporting man, a working man, he would have known. Nobody relies on one arrow alone. Nobody gives himself only one chance. You looked at your son, gave him the old family signal, a nod of the head and he made himself scarce.
“If I had killed my son, so help me God,” you said, still grasping Gessler’s hand, “The other arrow was for you.”