The adulation, the hero worship, sickens me.
It has sickened me for centuries, and will sicken me for centuries to come, for I am doomed to hear the tale echo throughout eternity.
More tourists. They come to Altdorf to worship their hero. They gaze at the mighty bronze figure towering above the village square, as though they gaze upon a god.
The statue looms; two figures stand upon the pedestal. The taller, the one the tourists came to see, is heroic indeed. Legs strong as trees, broad chest filled as though to announce his arrival in Valhalla, mightily thewed arm holding the famed crossbow over his shoulder. Even I once saw myself that way.
The smaller figure of bronze is a boy, raising adoring eyes to his father, the hero, whose defiance of miscreant authority set in motion the birth of Switzerland.
The statue is a testament to falsehood, the tourists but worshippers of the same.
The tale, heard so many times before, sears my soul. How Wilhelm Tell failed to pay obeisance at a makeshift shrine to the insufferable Hapsburg duke. How a Hapsburg agent sought to humiliate Tell by forcing him to take up his crossbow and shoot an apple atop his own son’s head. How Tell confidently placed one bolt in the weapon, and tucked another into his shirt, then demonstrated his famed prowess by shooting the apple as ordered. How the defiant Tell afterward explained to the agent, when asked why he’d tucked that second bolt away: “Had my first shot killed my son, my second would have killed you.”
And thus an outlaw was born, and a legend, and a nation.
I cry again as I listen to the tourists recount the tale. The story is true enough, where events are concerned. But they do not know all, as I do. If they did, they would spit on their bronze hero.
The lie is cast in metal, in the boy’s adoring eyes.
Oh, the living boy indeed once beamed adulation at his father, as the boy of bronze does now. How proud that boy was when his father refused to doff his cap for the hated Hapsburg! How the boy’s chest swelled with pride for his stoic, fearless father when the bailiff commanded: “Shoot the apple from your son’s head, at one-hundred-and-twenty paces, or you both shall be put to death.”
The boy worried not a whit. He knew his father’s prowess, knew his father’s mettle. The boy returned his father’s wink with a smile. Upon seeing the second bolt, the boy’s eyes shone. “I’m not afraid,” the boy said as his father confidently marched off the distance.
The bolt sailed true, spearing the apple, just as legend recounts.
But confidence, adoration — indeed, love! — vanished from the boy’s eyes the instant that bolt was loosed. The bolt destroyed his love for his father when it shattered the apple.
Before that shot, those brave young eyes had expected to see the bolt kill the bailiff, had expected to stare death in the face — along with his father — when it came at the hands of the Hapsburg guards.
The boy had expected to see almost anything but his own father calmly loosing that damned bolt in his direction.
No matter how great the marksman, many things can happen as a bolt traverses one-hundred-and-twenty long paces. A trick of the wind. A small move by the target. A single warped shaft, one botched fletching job, and the boy dies. The boy, a hunter himself, knew that.
I knew it, too.
And yet, I fired.
For seven centuries now I’ve stood at the base of this damned monument, a dozen paces from where the pierced apple fell. And for seven centuries I’ve asked: Why? Oh God! Why did I not put that first bolt through the Hapsburg bastard’s brain?
Steve Goble‘s fantasy fiction has appeared in several venues. Visit www.stevegoble.com/blog to learn more.