|A modern iteration of an ancient story and poetic style.|
BeautifulA youth, when “beautiful” is one so named,Beautiful by Yitik
This poet would imagine justly then
Ascent within herself from that proclaimed:
The timid corners of her lips first bend
Just upwards shyly when their mount is praised;
Perhaps her chin might tilt two inches then.
Before this verse perhaps you’d be unfazed,
What stretch of tongues could cause abiding turn?
I answer: one with candour that is raised.
To her, the words few spoken are a burn,
A brand which she shall for all time maintain.
Your tone persuades her of esteem or spurn.
But speak to her with confidence if fain
Your compliments for this coy youth to be,
So will your commendations then remain.
Perhaps those smiling eyes will one day see
The truth that what you said to her that time
Is truthfully her great ascension’s key.
Watch as then she lifts a knee to climb
Upon her chair to tower o’er the rest,
Awarded now, now wreathed in light sublime.
And pressing on, she conquers every test,
Each obstacle she
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I first heard it, like most people first hear anything at all, from a screen. An attack, read headlines, marquees, the blog post titles of those white and privileged enough to be alarmist: A terrorist attack. Gang activity, proclaimed the police force, and the left-wing apologists. The dead canary insisting upon more tax dollars into law enforcement, or into education, or into national security. Misinformation abounds in such situations to the point that no one can tell what the truth ever was to begin with — no one with a voice, at least — and every soundbite and video rant said something different, believed something different, had different claims and different solutions to this problem that yesterday did not even exist.
Yesterday, entire city blocks did not get murdered. A bombing? There was no explosion: Not a shingle of that residential district was out of place. The weeds still grew out from the cracks in the pavement like some metaphor for the inexplicable appearance of the perpetrators, unharmed. A mass shooting? But then the bodies found were lacking in nothing but bullets: Blood drained from long slashing wounds, splinters of bone protruded from shredded flesh, spines and facial expressions both twisted in awful ways, but not one entry wound or powder burn, or witness to the sound of gunshots.
We live in a culture desensitized to gore and entrails, and the deaths of strangers. A couple dozen people dead on the other side of the country was just one more thing for the pundits to fill air time with, and for their followers on social media outlets to use as ammunition against their friends; to act terrified or offended by. And so, within a few days, someone filmed a video gone viral about how selfish we all are, selfish to be over twenty-six corpses when millions are dying overseas of starvation and genocide. So we made our decision as the consumer masses, chocked it all up to organized crime, the collateral damage of a blood feud, said our last prayer for the families of the victims, and then we moved on.
But a week later, it happened again. Five hundred kilometers away from the first attack, and forty dead — hanging limp from an open window to bleed out into the streets, or impaled upon a garden rake, or left in the driveway as though posed to reach desperately for their disembodied limbs. And this time, there was a witness.
A cell-phone was found clutched in the remaining fingers of a popular girl in this small town, and waiting to be posted to her feed was a short video that made sure to crystallize a state of terror in the nation:
It’s towards the end of the afternoon. People are walking home from work, or just pulling out of their driveways to spend the evening in a more amusing city, but as the lens turns the opposite is occurring at the other end of the road: Cars blockaded on the streets by a mass of ten or so men and women, frothing anxiously around something that seems quite determined to continue moving despite the attention. What’s going on? asks one nearby voice, while others insist from the distance, Are you alright? What happened? Someone call an ambulance! Stop him, he’ll make it worse! But clearly, no one is able to stop the inexorable focus of the crowd, as he comes into view of the photographer, limping painfully down the street in an exhausted pursuit of what can only be the other end of the block. His face is hidden; he is doubled over to stare at the pavement as he walks, and he’s clutching at his clothing, which is ragged but ethnic, as though he’d just crawled out from a grave of a different faith. Bones poke through his emaciated form as he sways first this way and that in his determined death-march.
As he approaches the girl with the phone, the frantic squabbling of the surrounding would-be humanitarians is slowly but surely drowned out by the terrible sound wheezing from him with every tremulous breath: a cacophonous skirl, three notes that succeed and blend into one another and then end pitifully, only for their torture to resume in wheezing reverse with his next aspiration. Like the drone of a bagpipe it follows him — as does the camera — overpowering every other voice in the vicinity until the one hundred and eighty-second limit is reached for the video upload. It ends with something partway between a choked scream and a drowning gurgle, and the device awaits an open WiFi network.
Again and again these attacks took place, all over the country, in dirty suburbs, in little oil towns, on university campuses. As the death-toll reached three digits, and investigators were still unable to identify the perpetrators, a state of emergency was declared and the killings labelled unanimously as terrorist attacks. There began to emerge survivors, if only because they fled the crippled men and women who shambled down the sidewalks, the sound of strangled bagpipes heralding their approach and the murder of anyone hearing who could not run in time. Citizens were found dead clutching guns, knives, baseball bats, mangled for incurring the wrath of their assailants. Police and children, behind bolted doors or cowering in an alleyway, the place and status of the victims varied as greatly as the means of their death.
I do not know who I was. In a dusty room of sod and timber, on the dirt floor of a pit dug just for me, with chains around my wrists and bones showing beneath my emaciated skin, I struggled to breathe with a half-crushed windpipe by heavy hands and I ponder on this. It is not what will become of me that is the great mystery, it is the fact that anything will become of me at all: That I am alive, I think, and that something must have happened to me before my present living, and that is something I cannot remember. Did I have a career? Friends? Family? Did I have goals, desires beyond being rid of these shackles, out of this pit and existence of oxygen-deprived misery? No...the only thing I know is not knowing. A sidewalk, I remember a sidewalk. It was a sidewalk that the whole street fled in abject terror with three notes — high, low, high again, droning wretchedly, coming closer — I remember not knowing what it was. I remember a house. The house I hid in, not knowing why I did so. I remember not knowing how this tall, dark, wrinkled woman was inside with me, why she was crushing my throat, why I couldn’t fight back.
The man who was in the pit next to me did not know, either. He remembered only what I did. It’s like our lives have been simultaneously erased, as though we’ve simply stopped mattering. When I spoke with him, it was only one or two words, and all we could utter were frivolities, meaningless sentences about dust motes and rusted metal links. We’d chuckle wheezily and then we’d be quiet once more. I could see his face over the lip of my prison. I could see a sturdy wooden table, newly finished, the hammer used to make it resting on the unvarnished surface so as to remain new for aeons. And I could see my neighbour.
He was the only other living being I ever saw in the lifetime I spent, a living corpse, wasting away, gasping for breath for every waking moment. I don’t remember much more. But I remember when he was removed. I saw them, a woman and a man, take him by an arm each. From within their simple, dusty clothes from some other place or time they withdrew keys to unlock his shackles, and then together they dragged him, along with the sound of his regretful wailing, to the new table. They hurled him atop it, as naked as the day he was born — if he ever was — and indeed as naked as I, screaming like a weak wind through a tunnel. They tied new ropes to his wrists and his hips, keeping him firmly on his back. And then came the hammer, that heavy blunt object, raised up in the bony-knuckled hand of the man, the brought down with furious passion onto the joints of his legs — first one ankle, and then the other, again and again until the angles at which the prisoner’s feet stuck out were to his tormentors’ satisfaction, and he was out of breath to sob. I remember wishing for more dust to muffle his torture, for my own deafness, but then that ancient woman leaned down to whisper something into his ear, something I couldn’t hear, and he lay still.
And then the old man raised a short, thin object of sanded wood: a lovingly polished tube whose angles caught the thin light that was allowed into the room, from fires burning outside. I could smell them and the vegetable oil that fuelled them. He took a deep breath of that acrid air, expanded his frail belly, closed his tired eyes; he placed the object to his mouth, and he blew three long notes. The bound man began to struggle again. I remember those notes.
Now the old man gave the instrument to the woman, and she played it as well, more loudly so that we four could all hear them over the exhausted, desperate crying of their prisoner, savouring those three notes. The old man seized the fellow’s jaw in an iron grip, not giving a half-inch, and the woman removed the piece from her own mouth to press it against the prisoner’s bared teeth. And then past them. And then further. He gagged wretchedly, pulling at the ropes with every ounce of strength left to him. Only then did I squeeze my eyes shut, but not before I saw the woman once more pick up the hammer. My world was dark, but I could hear the man’s muffled screaming, my own heart pounding, and the patient tap-tap-tap of the tool. With each tiny tap of heavy metal on wood, his agonized screams grew louder, deeper, resonating with the table, vibrating my inner ear until it surely bled. Another few taps, a dozen, two dozen, and the changes in pitch and volume became changes in quality: Screams became yells became deep, sharp notes that echoed despite the small size of the sod chamber. By the time I risked opening my eyes once more, minutes or hours later, the hammer was back to its resting position as if it had never left, and the musical nail bulged in the poor man’s throat. Every breath he took was of three laborious, mournful notes.
I don’t remember how long ago that was. But now I stand staring down an empty road, barely balancing on the blades of my feet beneath twisted ankles, my whole body vibrating each time I fill and empty my lungs. The woman’s dry lips are at my ear.
She repeats what she told me in that dusky room, on that wooden table.
“You did not know, one time,” she tells me. “You did not care.”
I bow my head. Not out of exhaustion, or out of fear, but out of shame.
“Now you understand better.”
I blow three notes. Again and again.
I walk forward, one barely managed step after the other on skinny legs, with the traditional clothes of a young warrior, a combatant in training, hanging from my shoulders. A noble militant, I head onwards, unhalting, scattering the ignorant masses with the song in my neck. I foretell vengeance. Respect. And I head onwards, onwards, towards the edge of this city. I walk past houses, once home to people like me. I walk through carparks built on the bones and monuments of the dead. Until one day soon the cement will end beneath my feet. I will come upon moist grass. I will breathe freely. There will be nothing left before me.