The Phoenix (iv)

His death was his own fault and not by my skill. I still don’t know to this day whether his mistake was intentional or not. He flew with mastery and fought with honour, disabling many of our planes without killing the pilots. His attacks were as tender and final as a lover carrying a virgin over the threshold. Yes, I too had the same dreadful, feeble, and woman-like feeling that the Baron’s aura produced. My dread became reality and I ended up in a dogfight with the man himself. Some ancestral warrior spirit possessed me, took the controls from my shaking hands and I flew with a courage have never been able to reproduce. But even this miracle was not enough; he ripped my left wing to pieces, I felt the bullets dart past my face, and the plane began to spiral.

I should have bailed but somehow I managed to get the plane to slow and I brought it back level. The next few moments are like a strange dream. I observed my surroundings and saw the Red Baron was flying low, not manoeuvring or dodging or attacking, simply flying straight toward the westward sun. All the other pilots must have felt that they too were in dreaming – no one attacked him, save for myself. My engine sputtered and I had to lean the aircraft at a strange angle, to tack back and forth, in order to fly straight. Slowly but surely, I crept up behind him while he simply observed the rays gleaming through the scattered clouds. Locked in my sights I fired off a burst. And just like that, his plane dropped without another sound. It glided for a few seconds and then skidded to a halt into a muddy ditch by a marsh. My plane went down soon afterwards. It was strange being on the ground, I felt like an unwanted stranger on the ground. The dead trees seemed to evily at me and the ground under my feet felt hollow. Smoke rose in the air from Richthofen’s wreck and after assessing my own plane, I crossed a small brook and stumbled over to it.

There it was. A smoking wreck, small flames licked at it – a dying fire reduced to coals.  I approached and saw that the demi-god I had duelled was just a man. His uniform was dripping in blood as red as his infamous plane. He looked at me and when I got close enough to see his eyes, I saw they contained no anger or sadness just the glassy stare of a man who has died long before his heart has stopped beating.

Richthofen said only one word, “Kaputt.”

He closed his eyes and died. All was silent except for the small brook that continued to sing its common and song. The gravity of the situation hit me, though it wasn’t till I properly researched the man that I really understood the enormous meaning behind his last word. The fighting above ended with the German’s morale broken by their hero’s death and soon after soldiers arrived at the crash site. They cheered, put me on their shoulders, and sang songs. I smiled on the outside but I knew internally something was broken within me.

After the war, I looked into his history and his personal statements. He was a man sick of war and wrote it: “I am in wretched spirits after every aerial combat. I believe that the war is not as the people at home imagine it, with a hurrah and a roar; it is very serious, very grim.”

At a time when 15-20 aircraft kills were considered exceptional, he shot down 105 planes, far more than any other pilot in the war. And here I am, a man who anticipated a great joy in killing the greatest there was, then has realised too late that there is no joy in the destruction of beauty. I have ripped apart a rose, slashed the canvas of a masterpiece. Richthofen’s last word was spoken in relief, the Baron’s burden is placed on me now, and it is lonely at the top, the price of greatness is solitude. The only man I could possibly relate this to is dead by my own hand.

I know the secret behind his skill as a pilot and I also know of why he simply flew towards the sun. These two mysteries tortured me until I realised they were intrinsically related. Richthofen fought with nothing to lose, took risks that others would never even conceive – each victory cost him a piece of himself until finally there was nothing left to lose and so he flew to the sun. His last unconscious desire was simply to rest and feel the simple satisfaction of warming his face in the sunlight. I think for long periods of time about these events, hiding from my fame by my house on the shore of Lake Ontario. I hide and wait for another war to start. Then I can fight in the skies again to join the Baron and the line of ancient warriors behind him. I am an ageing phoenix who is feeling the call of the ashes, as the Baron did. Like him, I will pass my flame to another young hopeful and fade into the blue yonder.

I watch the sunset reflecting off the marshes surrounding Lake Ontario, where I shot down my first bird, and smile as I imagine gliding on a summer breeze towards that great golden egg. To close my eyes. To rest. To be finished.

<- Part 4 of 4


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