Arrow retriever | The New Yorker

I am an arrow retriever. After a battle my job is to retrieve arrows. Arrows are expensive and time-consuming to make. It seems a terrible waste – and perhaps even a sin – for an arrow to fall to the ground without hitting anyone. Even if the arrow kills someone, it can be reused to kill someone else. As Randolf the Scot famously said, “Arrows don't grow on trees.”

I've collected thousands of arrows from battlefields and made some great friends along the way. I've collected arrows that were loose on the ground, pulled them off dead soldiers and horses, and even removed one from a mouse. (The mouse lived!)

My father, a wealthy landowner, did not want me to become an arrow retriever. He wanted me to become a lawyer. I thought he meant 'handrail'. “I don't want children to slide on me!” I would scream. He finally gave in and hired an arrow retrieval teacher.

When I finished college, I thought I knew everything there was to know about retrieving arrows. But I was young and naive. I quickly came to realize that finding an arrow on the battlefield is very different from finding an arrow on a manicured lawn with a servant pointing at it. And pulling an arrow from a month-old corpse provided by grave robbers is much easier than pulling an arrow from a burly, muscular Viking, especially if he's still alive!

Thanks to my father's connections, I joined the army of Henry the Pecked. I had to start as an apprentice retriever. That meant climbing tall oak trees, where you could get hit by falling acorns, or wading in swamps, where you could get bitten by salamanders.

I was accompanied by Snake-Eye. That's right, the Snake eye. He was the most famous of all arrow retrievers. It was said that he once pulled an arrow from a dragon's lair, and as a result of that encounter his buttocks were burned to a crisp.

Snake-Eye could be a strict taskmaster. Once while we were looking for an arrow, I got an idea. I dug deep into a huge haystack and emerged with the arrow. Snake-Eye's response was, “You got lucky.”

But he taught me many things. One thing was to look beyond the obvious. There might be an easy arrow sticking out of a dead man's belly, but if you turn him over, there's often another arrow in his back.

I've learned that sometimes it's better to lie to the royal family. When we discovered a prince's arrow stuck in the mud a few yards from any target, we told the prince that his arrow had impaled three enemy fighters, who were marching in a line, very close together.

Finally I felt I was ready to become a full-fledged arrow retriever. I have petitioned my lord, Henry the Pickled. At first he said no, but when his wife insisted, he said yes.

At the introduction ceremony I received my retriever's gloves after being hit in the face with them the traditional three times. Hendric then declared that I had to 'get out and get the shaft'.

During my time as an arrow retriever I have witnessed many things. I saw sad things, like a scarecrow that had been hit by a dozen arrows. Why? That scarecrow didn't hurt anyone.

I saw funny things, like a soldier walking around with an arrow through his head. It didn't seem to bother him! We laughed and laughed. (He eventually went from village to village, with the arrow still in his head, reciting humorous jokes to large numbers of peasants.)

And I saw acts of incredible courage, like when a retriever picked up an arrow covered in ants and, instead of screaming, calmly shook them off.

I enjoyed my years as an arrow retriever. But I've come to realize that it's a young man's game. It takes its toll. First your back and elbows give way, due to the constant pulling. You get tinnitus from the loud shouting. A fall can be fatal, especially if you land on an arrow sticking out of someone.

I have decided to retire and return to my father's estate. I will place my retriever's gloves, now stiff and crusted with blood, on the mantelpiece. I will regale my nieces and nephews with stories of the horrible things I have seen and done. Maybe I'll get my banister diploma.

I will miss my fellow arrow retrievers. We had a camaraderie. Together we had to deal with flies and vultures and complete strangers who constantly asked us for water. Some say we are heroes. But do you know who the real heroes are? The men and women who remove all the blood and guts from the arrows, sharpen the heads and replace the feathers so that they can fly through the air again and, with a bit of luck, fly in through the sights of a knight's helmet. ♦

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