When I was an afterling, a young one without knowledge, I imagined the bad things were confined to the dark. It granted me warmth and safety knowing I was gated in the sun. An invisible line, something I couldn’t see but as real and as tangible as anything that kept the monsters and the bad gods at bay. As I grew older, broad daylight would strain and splinter my belief system. Not once did I expect the monsters to be brazen or come for blood under the pale sun. Looking back, I think I should’ve always known that this specific brand of pain was never going to be kept out.
By any other means, the belated summer afternoon in question was a display of brilliance. The village harvest was in full surplus and had brought with it vitality for the ages. Bright-eyed and curious children stumbled toward the surf on new legs and gathered the foam in their hands, watching in wonderful terror as it slipped through their novice fingers. Beautiful and forsaken shrieks as they rushed against the universe and all its rules, and then running back into the arms of learned mothers and fathers. Our village, our people so educated and understanding. The summer season had been splendidly shaking its feathers and showing off its true potential one last time, a final yawn before the autumn chill snuck up and broke apart the warmth. We were a large enough town, an adept society. We had our own skills, sagacious artists and kind agriculturists. Our skin was a deep shade of jade, textured and cultured to fit the conditions of our tempestuous climate. We had never known or experienced any different. We wore garments of similar earth and jewel tones, passed down from generation to generation for conservation. They often became worn and ragged. We didn’t mind. Centuries ago, a barter system had been put in place, a sort of this-for-that and it had stayed in place ever since then. Rapt and delightful families roamed about our town, enjoying the day at a leisured pace. We had a well-established way of life. There was a way to everything, and everything found its way.
Toward the North was the ocean. Each morning she would send a crowd of her gray children, the fog, running over the town to check in on all of our festivities. When she was satisfied with our progress, she would call them home. To the East was a forest so dark and daunting, it seemed to be the only proper place to rest our dead. To the West were most of our houses and civilization, the place we called home. Finally, to the South were tall, inescapable and never changing mountains. It was custom to work with your back to the South.
That afternoon the fog hadn’t quite thinned yet, but it was getting warmer under the clouds. The lot of us were still outside; the ocean’s children and their laughter still lingered in the sky so we continued to work. Only until the sky had cleared, as did we. I had kneeled, pushed my hands deep into the dirt under the roots to pull up today’s harvest when there was a sound I had never encountered before and one that I hope I never hear again, although sometimes it still stalks me in the dark. Caution lifted my head, the scene in front of me remained undisturbed. Men and women working side by side, putting our work into baskets and blankets and carrying the feast into town. No one but the earth had heard it yet. The fog’s children above were retreating home to the safety of their mother and the wake of their stampede left a wind under my knees and pulled a primal hiss through the grass. My people did not have a word for this yet, but they do now. We call it Fear. Heeding the wind and her guidance, I turned slowly. If it was an animal, I didn’t want to startle it into an attack. If it was something else… if it was not an animal… I was not sure what I would do. Nothing had ever come down from the South before. From the South, we were supposed to be safe.
Whatever it was held a sickly empty pallor with no texture to its skin. And such slick skin like nothing I’d ever seen before. No fur, no scales, no hair. An unknown creature, but it bore similarities in size to some of our own. Quite similar. Despite the topical differences, it looked like us. Behind it lay broken leaves and a path right through the center of our harvest. Perfectly good food and hard work ruined by a seemingly unintelligent animal. It may look like us, but it did not think like us. I had seen cognizance and with this creature, I knew none resided within. Unaware, or maybe just disrespectful. Either way, the sun had come out and the fear in my bones had not ceased.
When the village had finally gathered, it was not in the way I anticipated. They ran past me like a river, embracing the creature in one steady and loving tide. When the creature finally spoke, it was not a language I understood. I looked around as my peers nodded and responded, engaging with his sounds. I may not understand it but everyone else did. And this betrayal of sorts, this suddenly being on the outside of my own people had left me more hurt than any other wound could ever. This was a sharper pain, more intrusive. With this new barrier in place, they spoke freely with the creature, in words I could not decode or understand. The creature pointed at things I saw as beautiful and would say words like ‘rah-ten’. Its tone held no kindness and the sun had begun to burn. But they raised it above their shoulders and paraded it toward the town, they even gave it a name. They called him Joseph. Apparently, there were archaic stories that praised the first one down the mountain. A vision of someone who would conquer death, understand the world and bring forth a life-changing strain of events. The people thought he was a God. And he let them.
For the weeks that followed, fires and feasts fed the excitement. With each passing hour, Joseph became more suited to his stature and with it, his attitude more brazen. He decided the rules and customs we had followed since the dawn of our being no longer applied to him. The power was almost as intoxicating as the wine and women he summoned, if not more so. I found sanctuary in the dark. I was no longer afraid of the monsters it housed, for I watched as they were drawn to a place in the light and had abandoned the darkness that once nurtured and sustained them. I studied Joseph cautiously from just beyond the circle of his influence. I watched as he moved similar to the animals I hunted, and how well he could hide it from the rest of our town. The artists saw a muse, the philosophers an unanswerable question. But a hunter recognizes a cornered animal. A man with something to lose is as violent and desperate as it gets.
There was a moment in the night when he stalled and recognized his mortality. For a man who was supposed to be a God, gods don’t often falter. He knew he had gained so much so fast, what would happen if he couldn’t live up to their expectations, what would happen if everything he had gained was ripped away? The fire screamed behind him as he snaked through the crowd and hesitated at the edge of the light. He controlled it no more than it controlled him. If he spoke, I could not hear him and I doubt that it would’ve made a difference. He offered me his uncalloused hand and a place at his side. I stood fast, my toes curled into the earth and I opposed him. As firmly as I remained in the night, he would not leave the light. It was a small act, a ripple in the water. It took no more than a moment, but I had tested my theory, I had proved my point and he knew it. This started as a strategic act on his part and a move made out of fear. My heart was operatic in my chest and I grabbed as many details from my small, soaring victory as I could before the reasonable fear returned. Our people swayed holistically around the fire, surrounding it without fear like this was all according to plan, some glorious and righteous ceremony. I may have confirmed that he was a powerless man, no more than a small monster under the bed to be easily vanquished, but in our world, even a powerless man was of more value and substance than a powerful woman. Everything that had unraveled with the appearance of Joseph was starting to take its toll on me. I could not understand how women would succumb to him and men would bend so easily. A wave of his pale hand and they saw the world change around them. I would not be so easily conquered. My world would stay the same. I denied his offer. A man with newfound possessions and everything to lose will risk anything to keep it. My defiance was the single chink in his armor. My silence rang loud and prominent in his ears. Because if he was truly divine, there would be no doubt and no argument against him.
The tone of our town had shifted, we no longer woke to greetings and giggles from the fog or worked alongside her children. Instead, they hid from us, no shelter from a formidable heat. Our faith had abandoned us. Without the cloud cover, the town rallied and centered around Joseph instead. The allure of a new era. My doubt in the divine right had reached the masses. Whispers weakened the very mountain he came down, the one he now rested atop of with his undeserved treasures and trophies. However, most of his flock was fat with defiance and I knew my exile was not far off. I could see my doubt spread slowly against the current, blood in the water and finally to the ears of the false god, himself. I was met with not a prayer answered but a threat, an ultimatum. My compliance or fear will reign true.
I had retreated to the water, prayed to the waves and decoded their guidance. When I returned, behind the door of my tent, Joseph sat centered on my mattress. Light-filled the room, protecting him. Seemingly strong men are not fond of things that combat their strength. Strong men are hardly strong. I had defied Joseph, and he was here to smite me. Fear slipped through my bloodstream, an ugly sedative. From my head to my toes I was dizzy with it. The flap to my tent had swung shut but the room was stilled, bright with bitter and biting sunlight. In front of him was I, the unconquerable. The defiant. I stood as a game that changed too quickly for him to understand, to win. Inside him, anger turned to power and cauterized his heart, his mind like a flare. Flares may not need oxygen to burn, however, I needed it to breathe and his hand was quick in stealing it from me, the way he coiled around my skin like a python. It tightened around my voice, forcing my silence. In no time at all I was prey. I was conquered. He took joy in cutting and tearing and ripping me apart. Joseph saw no error in his ways, no wrongdoing in his entitlement. Time and time again I was forced to watch my own death, a massacre of crimson and ivory. My blood may have been on his hands but I knew the world would blame me. I was not a sympathetic martyr.
I laid on the battlefield of my sheets and the death of my own skin for what seemed like years afterward. I felt parts of me rot and grow anew and rot again. Every piece of me had atrophied and the only thing left to do was lay in my destruction and watch the sun rise and set day after day. A mockery. The world could go on. I could not. There were parts of the world that stayed silent, paid their respect to my suffering. The birds did not chirp, they honored my mourning period. But the colors remained disrespectful, too vivid, too bright. When I did move for the first time, it was not very far. I made very little noise in the dark. The sun had lost its voice from taunting me relentlessly and was resting far under the earth. Even the stars didn’t want to keep me company. When I moved from the bloodshed and loss of life, I was like no other. I forced motion into my muscles for the first time in this lifetime and wrapped a broken-down blanket tight around my shoulders. It understood my hard state. I was in the aftermath, a post phase. I pressed my back flat against the wall of my room, relief in knowing something truly is solid and forever and won’t change. I let the weight of every bad action, every cursed path I’ve walked, drag me down into the corner where the darkness is deepest, and I cried.
I cried for me, I cried for them, for the world. The rest of the universe was just continuing on with their day-to-day, and would not know this pain. Nothing had changed for them. Nothing would. How dare they. I was selfish. I wanted them to feel my pain. I didn’t want to be misery’s only hostage. When my eyes were no longer swollen and my throat had gone raw and bare from the sadness, I lifted my eyes out the window. Across the small clearing of high grass was the next house, and despite the lack of wind, the door flapped like a panicked bird. A young woman had darted from it and crashed to the earth, adding to the damage on her knees and the bruises on her wrists. Her screams echoed my own. Back in the doorway, forever illuminated was Joseph. I was not the only one, but had I prayed for this? By not wanting to be alone in my misery, had I caused this? I was caught. My fear had charged at me. A pale monster from every direction so fast and dizzying that I could hardly orient myself. I couldn’t let this happen to someone else. I dove into the dark, terror nipping and cutting at my heels like a snarling rabid dog. The broken grass reached for my legs, adding more scrapes and bruises to my arsenal. Her shattered sobs were my compass and map. I picked up speed. Had Joseph seen me leave my home, rush to her aide? Will he come for me once more? Has he already found her? Am I putting myself in danger? Is anything safe anymore? Will anything ever be again? My anxiety was a fire under my feet, splitting the earth open and pushing me forward. When I found her, the earth had stilled and she had absorbed its instability. She was shaking against a rusted aluminum harvest shed, her nightgown was soiled with muds and various other secretions. The strap to her dress was ripped clean off and absent; if I hadn’t known better I would’ve assumed there was no strap at all. Her hair was matted, dragged. Blood coiled down her scalp. My fingers floated up to my own neck, I could only wonder if this is how she saw me. If despite being a stranger, she recognized me. I sank my knees into the soil, approached her the way I was taught to approach young children, with respect. I steadied myself and then under the stars, I offered her my hand. She panicked, launched herself backward and I understood. The shed hyperventilated and whined against her heightened state. I waited, I listened for Joseph to show up behind me while my eyes stayed on her. But he did not. It took time and the sky darkened but she grew to trust me. I knew resistance and caution were now embedded in her. Her fingers pushed the blanket off my shoulder and revealed the amethyst bruises of my own. I inhaled, sharply. She grazed my injury without inducing physical pain. And when she understood our kinship, she took my hand.
Hand in hand, I led her back along the trampled path, the dark retracing our steps toward my tent. We stood together for a moment before entering. The earth guided us in a deep breath, and when we were ready, I lifted the door. She ducked her head under it and entered. There was no judgment in the dark, not here. Only safety. Unsure of her place, I made the bed with fresh sheets. When I was done, I retreated to my corner. She was scared, but she was also tired. When she had spent all her energy pacing, the bed opened its arms and held her tight.
I pushed my eyes open to find her curled in the center. The sun had started to rise and the cold had left her skin dimpled. The glow left her embryonic. There was a weight in the air and I wondered briefly if I was the only one that felt it. I dismissed the notion as I blanketed her with a sheet. It was time to start my day. She deserved to rest.
On this new day, I had pieces of information the others did not, as every great tragedy does. I had heard the watered-down screams night after night and could pick the women who were caged by their realized fears out of a lineup. I’d seen the canvas tear as they fled from his tent, the ripped skin and tattered remains of soul. I can taste their suffering on my tongue, sharp and metallic-like a blood warning. I was not hypnotized by his so-called enigmatic differences and charm. I refused him and that did not stop him. I saw his flaws for what they were, not prophetic gestures that the town would comprehend. I had experienced his tortures and theft first hand, and I refused the collective amnesia of my peers that still worshipped and validated him. To me, Joseph was nothing more than a deeply flawed and savage man, one who had become too powerful. The fear in my bones had evolved into a tight silence around my throat and I would weaponize it because one fact rang true. A god is only as strong as those who believe in him. And in his victims I would find those who believed me. Joseph may only be a man. And men could be killed. But I would have to kill a God.
As I attempted to be strategic in my execution and plead the townspeople back to my side, the number of Joseph’s victims grew. Men, women, and children now hid from the sunlight and sought sanctuary, knowledge, and guidance on what to do next. They came to me to heal, for the chance to rebuild. Joseph was an epidemic and no one was exempt. I did not have the answers they wanted and so desperately needed. I could hardly offer a smile and physical remedies such as hydration or sleep. What they needed I could not give, I could not heal the soul, not on my own. Those of us who had had more time to recover aided the influx of afflicted persons. An old woman leaned against my wooden table. They had the same amount of life in them. She balanced a young boy on her hip, cooed in his ear. He would reach out for the curly parts of her bright white hair that she kept hidden behind her ears. When he cried and wet himself out of panic, she did not scold him. I watched her leg shake, partially to soothe him and partially from arthritis. She brushed his hair back off his forehead and told him that what had happened to him was not his fault, it was not his fault. This is not our fault. This is not my fault.
Resistance was still high amongst the town. Stores closed their doors to us, and public places were plastered with paintings that spoke vile things against us. Disbelief littered the streets. Those who had not been affected did not believe us and our cries. Sometimes in our efforts to warn others, they would join us, stand with us on soapboxes and within the movement only to mock and discredit us. Some women occupied those spaces, they believed it was our fault or some sort of just cosmic punishment. Most believed it would never happen to them. And as our numbers grew and the louder we became, the harder we should have been to ignore. That was not the case. Even those that loved us, defended Joseph. He was a good man. He would never. How unfortunate for him. What about his future? Well, that’s in the past, it doesn’t matter now. As a whole, we were tired of being spoken over and invalidated in our pain. On our most recent march through the town, pleading to anyone for the sake of themselves or parents for the sake of children, something had changed. The air felt like gasoline. We weren’t protesting, we were warning or at least trying to, and no one was listening. Shutters tightened and locks clicked into place. The last lock that clicked was the match that dropped and lit us a flame. It told us that we were not here and we did not matter. I will take full responsibility for my actions, although I’m not quite sure that I was the one in control. I may have only been a conduit, a catalyst. I threw a rock with more force than I have ever known myself capable of. The glass fell around it. Attention was ours. We were here. The brittle sound sparked hysteria amongst Joseph’s followers. They panicked and escorted him out of the city, gated him off on a high hill far away from truth and allegations. Yet even then, more afflicted came down the hill and found the door to my white tent just past the edge of the light.
Everything was empty now. There was no middle ground. We had commandeered the tents around us to make room for our growing population, and Joseph’s devout locked themselves away with him on the hill. I could no longer keep track of the survivors and not everyone was getting the help they deserved. Some slept in shifts or on the floor three deep from the wall, some hardly slept at all. With no one working, food was running out. It was time I made the trek. I waited until the majority had fallen asleep, not sure I could explain my absence if I had to put it into words. Or maybe I would talk myself out of it and I couldn’t afford that. We couldn’t. I slipped through the door, glancing back one last time at my home, that had slowly become a church. The young girl from the first night and the little boy curled into each other at the top of my bed, their hands interlocked. This was their first week without nightmares. I believe the distance from Joseph helped. I secured the door and moved outside. I took a few heavy steps forward, a coat and bag on my back and burst into tears. I had not been alone or taken care of myself for so long. I caved inside myself. A weathered hand brushed the back of my head, calming me. The old woman. “You have taken on so much, so young. You’ve forgotten to breathe, it’s good to take care of others, but it’s necessary to take care of yourself first. Take your time, you can be a martyr tomorrow.” She hugged me and for a moment, I had a place in the world. A family. When I finally recoiled from her touch, the years had slipped away. I was no longer 300 years old and hardened by time across many lives. I was 19 and rightfully terrified because I had no clue as to what I was doing. I knew I had a mission. Joseph could not live through the week.
I crossed through our hollowed-out town, even the wind doubting me. I made my way to the bottom of the hill. I looked up, right into the sun. Time moved differently around the mountain. Did I stand for minutes or hours before the first set of gates opened and I stepped forward? The ground was wet here and this world was silent. There was no going back. Joseph’s followers descended the hill quickly, worn and manic. The eldest stopped clear in front of me, mud splashing up against my legs. It was a man with a deep voice and caverned skin. He pushed the hood back, clearing the shadow from his face. “Why are you here, girl?” My ears strained to hear him, he spoke quieter than I expected. I squinted, everything was so bright here I could hardly see. I stepped up, using the man and his height to block the sun. This time when I looked in his face, I could see his eyes were clouded over. He was blind with rage. “I want Joseph, on trial. For his crimes.” It was less eloquent then I had pictured so frequently on the journey here, but it was the first time I had spoken his name aloud and I knew there would be vast consequences. The juvenile part of me feared that saying his name would summon him. I looked past the blind man, waiting for another figure to manifest or come down the hill toward my request. But Joseph remained unmoved. “I don’t see why not.” The blind man spoke. I thought it would be harder. I knew it would be. This was the first of my obstacles. “Tomorrow.” He decided. “Tomorrow.” I agreed.
As the sun rose the next morning, the town was told that a trial would be held at dusk. Everyone was to be present and participate. By late afternoon, groups had started the reluctant pilgrimage to the water’s edge. The ocean was our great equalizer, our final judgment. She saw all, heard all and to her we pled our case. When the majority of the crowd had gathered, testimonials began. Everyone who survived Joseph, says it aloud. Joseph stands front and center for the accusations. The crowd blocks his view of the ocean but he can hear it, it sounds like parents bickering in an adjacent room. Unhappy through a closed door. He watches the trust and resolves he had built so surely slip from his devout’s fingers with each testimony. This is a pleasant outing no longer. The mud wraps a tight fist around his ankle, keeping him in place. He can still hear the rolling tide, now a burst of bitter laughter. They no longer believe him. Maybe they never did. He had been promised time and time again that this would not be his demise and yet here he is, locked face to face with what will surely kill him. Each second drags along like a body down a hall. All saturation has been drained from the world. The fog climbs over the crowd for the first time since his arrival.
Today I get to play God, just like he did. He is the only mortal soul to blame and today is his execution. I touch the knife on my hip like a security blanket. I am out of his line of sight but his final argument and plea float around me. He does not see me yet and he will not get in my head. I had so much of my life stolen in minutes. And he is not done taking things from me yet. I bite into the part of my hand that bends as he promises he is an innocent man to a jury of our peers, colleagues, friends, confidants. I laugh aloud before I falter — what if they believe him? What if I am crucified instead? I can’t go through that again. I have seen fathers who sobbed when they found out and with these confessions and testimonials, things have clicked into place for sisters who had seen symptoms but were unaware or unlistening of the cause. The longer Joseph talks, the longer he lies, the thicker the fog gets. “These are not just my victims. I will be the first of many to be executed for this crime. A crime in my eyes that is hardly a crime. One that so many before had never anted up and paid a debt for. I have come and conquered by all means, but I have done nothing worth death.” Joseph is struck in the back, his knees buckling beneath him and the mud embracing him. The cold soaks through his pants, past his bones. I am tired of waiting, if I wait any longer my morals will grow back and I will lose my resolve. I will not let him live with this. The only price there is to pay for what he stole from us is death.
The jury has come to a decision and it does not match my own. The ocean had agreed with me, sent me her children as a voice to my peers and they had denied her still. So through the gray world, I emerged. I would not stand for this. Now I am god, remade again and again. This time remade into Joseph’s executioner. His words linger deep inside me and I cannot push them down far enough. To him, I am like visiting a childhood home. He may no longer live here but there are echoes of him everywhere. I know it. He knows it. I pretend I am made of stone. I wonder if I will crack.
I move into the path and out of the fog. The world slows around me. I am going into battle. This will not be easy. Nothing ever is. He is worn, like the earth, walked on and somehow he still won. An older god or a younger version of myself would’ve felt pity, empathy. I do not. My hands are burning from the cold. My knuckles are white. I stop about a foot in front of him and a spray of mud splatters him. I hope he tastes it. I hold my tongue. He is so still. I want to scream at him. Kick. Fight. I can’t. I have one shot and I have one plan. A guaranteed win. The Gaussian haze of our peers is now 12 or 13 people deep. My suffering had an audience, so will his. This is the only way we mirror each other. I take a deep breath and the clouds yawn for me, dampening and darkening the world to my command. I won’t look at him, I can’t. The person he is now does not matter to me because I am here to kill the person he was and that lives inside him. He cannot change the weight of his choices, the impact of his destruction. Joseph is not cuffed but he might as well be. Rain will disguise my hesitation. My coat is long, the bottom is most likely covered in mud. That will never come out. That will never go away. There was no coming out of this clean. I push my coat open and it brushes the grass underneath me, a deep exhale. The knife is still on my waist. I am still safe. What an odd thought. I will never be safe again. Today I am the killer, and my reflex is to doubt and double-check my own safety. I pull the knife off my thigh and press it into my palm. The metal is jagged and old and cold. It bites into my skin. A thin crimson line drips down my palm and I am brought back to earth. Time is not moving fast enough. I am reminded of my task. This is personal. The knife is tighter in my hand than it should be. I am convinced. I need to stay convinced. Before innocence is lost to a man like this again.
It still singes the back of my eyes. I turn so fast I make myself dizzy. I pull his head back so far I almost rip his hair out the way he did mine. For the first time in years, we are face to face. I want to crawl into a ball and die. I want to bathe in bleach. I never wanted to touch him again. I look into him for remorse, regret or concern for any of us. He looks right through me. He has taught me time and time again that I exist for him, and now at my crowning moment, when I need him to see me he will not give me that either. I let out a small scream and shove him into the dirt. If he kneels before me, why do I feel like I have no power? No control? “Do you have anything you would like to say? Last words.” My back is to him, but for a moment he’s silent. It’s a different kind of silence, anticipatory. I hear a strong inhale, and I raise the knife above my heart. I will sever his hope, bleed him of all security and safety. I will make sure he is broken and terrified. Vengeance should not inherently be seen as evil. I am settling a score. He killed me. Now he gets to die for it. “You look good.” That’s not an apology, his conscience may be clear but he will die anyway. I stare into his soul and rip out his heart. He has faced death and lost, he is finally paying the price. My arm swings down hard and cuts up through his windpipe. He will choke on his own blood before he bleeds out. He will have no control over his body. He will be in pain. I watch but the cycle ends with me. The blood spills from his throat and then slows to a crawl. It reaches for me. I let his actions paint the earth instead. Some will not understand. Some will blame me for it.
I stand alone, listening to the thoughts of the crowd. “Shame she ruined his future. And what a bright one.” I turn away. “I don’t think he did it. I think she just killed an innocent man. That girl is gonna live the rest of her life with that on her conscience.” “At least she has a life.” There are no winners here.
Featured Artwork: Salome with the Head of John the Baptist, c. 1607.