by Charles Westlake
Before dawn I awoke, full of anticipation. Yesterday from mid-morning until late night, people on foot and in wagons had poured steadily into town for the spring festival and spilled over its walls into encampments outside. I dressed hurriedly and left my room, stopped briefly in the landlady's kitchen for some bread and cheese, and stepped out into the street. The swollen town was quiet except for birds chirping, occasional human stirrings, and my own steps ringing on the paving stones. I saw nobody until the guards at the gate. Then I crunched on the gravel road past the slumbering tents and finally shushed into the grass of the meadow. The dew quickly soaked my boots, and a sudden breeze made me shiver under my cloak. The eastern horizon was already glowing pink and silvery. I stood in the center of the meadow and welcomed the rising sun until it cleared the treetops. Now I could see people moving among the tents and hear them preparing for the day. I went down the slope towards the river near where I knew the altar would be placed, spread my blanket out on the ground, and sat down. Seven great willows along the river bank gently waved their yellow-veiled branches.Fascinated, I watched until I felt my own limbs becoming woody, my own sap running in my veins, and my own hair budding into leaf.
Gradually I became aware of voices nearby. Then I was staring into a deep blue void, awakening, as already vague dream shapes evaporated. What were they? They left a disturbing, even threatening residue, but would not return.Raising myself on my elbows and looking around, I saw I was indeed in the meadow, but no longer alone. People dressed in their finery, talking and laughing, stood in small groups or sat together on rugs with their baskets and sacks and jugs. Beyond, along the road, gaily waving banners and pennants welcomed more and more people, who flowed into the meadow and filled in vacant spaces. Judging by the sun's position, I had been sleeping for several hours. The ceremony would begin soon. How unlike me to fall asleep and miss the transformation of the simple meadow into a pageant of human hopes for the coming year. I always came early, to see the whole event, to be the witness. And now, this year, I had missed all the preliminaries, had slept through the building excitement. What had I been dreaming?
Closing my eyes, I tried once more to recall my dream. As I waited for images to reappear, I felt something lightly touch my head and slide down to my left shoulder, where it pressed down heavily. My shoulder gave way, and the hand - it felt like a hand - slipped down my arm, off my thigh, and onto my private parts. I grasped them as a body lunged against my side.Startled, I opened my eyes and started to protest, but saw a woman sprawled against me, trying to right herself. Something about the stiff way she held her head made me realize she was blind. Immediately I became solicitous and apologized for being in her way. She thanked me for my concern and commented that I felt damp. Someone was sitting down on her other side, a woman I recognized with a pang: a townswoman of mine for whom I had conceived an infatuation before learning that she loved only women. Any woman seemed unattainable to me, a municipal clerk without prospects, but my unspoken fancy for someone who did not even respond to men had made me resign myself to my solitude. The blind woman, whom I had never seen before, complained about being cold. Her friend put an arm around her, and the blind woman leaned against me. What could I do but put my arm around her too? And so,the three of us, the daughter of Lesbos on the left, the blind woman in the middle, and I on the right, huddled together for warmth, although I had not been cold until they sat with me.
Why did they sit next to me? Normal restraints were loosened during the festival, but my touching the arm of my secret love while embracing her sightless friend was completely unexpected. I felt excited, impatient for the ritual to begin. A restlessness stirred the whole crowd. Suddenly a raucous laugh broke out close by, and I turned my head to look. In front of the two women, a boisterous fellow in a red tunic was flinging his arms around a merry blonde woman, whose beaded white dress sparkled in the sunlight.Various woven bags, a large earthen jug, and articles of food were strewn around their rug. As I watched, he growled and pushed her away, pulled out a flashing knife and threw himself on her, pinning her down and pressing the blade against her throat, the point below her ear and the edge running under the line of her jaw. He swore most vilely at her, while her head and his hand gripping the knife lay almost in the blind woman's lap. I froze.I tried to shout, but no sound came through my clenched throat. Other people faced him and yelled at him to stop. Calmly he withdrew his knife, sat up,pulled his companion upright again, and kissed her on the mouth. Someone asked him what he thought he was doing. "I'm just having fun,"he cried. "Mind your own business!" The blonde woman echoed him:"Yeah, mind your own business!" He stared back at the people watching until they reluctantly turned away. Then he took a long drink from his jug and laughed. He picked up his knife again and waved it around, jabbing it very close to his companion as she dodged and giggled. They did seem to be enjoying themselves, but their wrestling frequently brought them near to jostling the blind woman. Her friend drew back and looked accusingly at me. All I could do was lean forward to try to push them away when they fell too close. The knife scared me so I couldn't speak. Why did people like them have to sit near me?
At last a herald emerged from the mauve curtain behind the altar and blew a long single note on his trumpet. "It's about time!" cried the knife-wielder and started to curse the authorities responsible for the festival.This time many people turned around and shouted angrily at him to be quiet.He settled down. I was relieved. Bless the gods! They won't let him disrupt the ritual. Everyone turned back towards the altar, draped in white and covered with yellow daffodils. A chorus of women danced out from the curtain and sang to the East. Then six men ran out with long swords, waved them into intricate patterns, and crossed them to form the Eye of the Sun. At that the man in the red tunic leaped up and boasted: "You think you're swordsmen? Watch this!" He threw his knife up high and pirouetted several times as his knife paused against the blue sky, then sped back to earth.As he spun around on his final turn, he gracefully arced his arm over his head and plucked his knife out of the air. He grinned broadly at this feat and bowed, but a loud cry went up against him. He straightened up and stood defiantly.
Several priests and priestesses came out from the curtain around to the front of the altar. One stepped forward and spoke calmly, quietly, with great dignity and authority to the fellow, telling him he was disturbing the spring ritual, for which so many people had come so far, which was so important for the crops and herds; he was making the gods angry; if he wanted to be part of the ritual, he would have to sit quietly like everyone else;otherwise he would have to leave. The fellow seemed so chastened that noone was prepared for what he did next. Screaming "I'm a free man! I don't have to obey you!" he hurled his knife. Time slowed as we all watched with sickening disbelief the gleaming blade flying straight to its nest. It thocked into the priest's chest. Blood oozed out of his mouth.He fell straight over with a thud. We all sat or stood in shock for long seconds. Then several men awoke from the trance, rushed over, and grabbed the knife-thrower, who struggled against them. They almost trampled the blind woman, but I pulled her out of the way. Finally they subdued him and took him away. He was laughing and shouting, "I killed that priest!I killed the Father!" his voice trailing after he was lost to view.Indeed he had. Those attending the priest said he was dead, the knife lodged in his heart.
During the next week the town talked of nothing but the priest's murder.I myself was obsessed with it, the scoundrel having been so close to me that I could have touched him - should have stopped him! But how could anyone have expected him to kill the priest in front of hundreds of people? Such a mad, impulsive act, without provocation or regard for consequences! Did he think he could escape? Did he think he would not be hanged? He would get a trial, of course, and I would testify against him. Lawful people must be protected from such a dangerous and unpredictable villain. The prosecutors,after interviewing me, complimented me on my complete observation of the events. When people heard how close I had sat to the villain, they sought me out in the streets or the town square and made me tell them what I had witnessed. Never before had I spoken so often to so many people. My townswoman and her blind friend also told their stories. The murder gave me a reason to speak with the woman at whom I had secretly gazed for the past year.Standing close to her as we compared our experiences and shared our outrage,I saw how brightly her eyes played over her sightless friend, and how coolly she regarded me, despite her friend's gratitude. "How awful it was!You saved me from being crushed," said the blind woman. My townswoman glared at me and said, "At least he did that much."
What was she implying? Had she seen what I had? I dared not ask her and reveal my complicity. I told nobody that while the priest had been speaking,I had seen the villain's stealthy knife between his arm and leg turn over, its handle towards the ground, and slip down until its blade rested between his thumb and fingers. I knew he was going to throw it. But I sat still,afraid, disbelieving, horrified, yet fascinated, wanting to see what would happen. I was the closest man to him, the only one who saw him ready his knife. And I did not stop him! I should have thrown myself on him then,before he stepped forward and cocked the knife behind his ear. But I sat rooted like a willow and watched. Even before he hurled his knife, I should have spoken out or done something at one of several points to change the course of events: when he threatened his blonde companion, when they were jostling the blind woman, when he was disrupting the ritual. But I was too afraid. Right at the start I was unnerved by watching him pin down his companion and press his hard knife against her white throat, ready to rip it open.That image haunted my mind more than that of the priest standing with the knife handle sticking out from his robe.
Why did the scoundrel do it? Why did I do nothing? Why did he sit near me?For that matter, why did my towns-woman and her blind friend sit next tome? Such a series of events had never happened to me before. It seemed that I, the observer, had been pulled into a vortex of action. Somehow I was connected to this villain. My passivity allowed his callous crime. Even if my townswoman did not directly accuse me, I read my guilt in her eyes. For a while I resisted the idea that beckoned me, that finally compelled me to follow: I had to talk to him. Only he could answer the questions my conscience raised. That idea made me shake with fear. Yet if I could summon what courage I possessed to see him in the gaol, perhaps my guilt and shame would be assuaged. It was not easy to arrange since my department had nothing to do with criminal cases, and I was supposed to testify against him at his trial, but after several days of research, I did discover a suitable legalistic pretext. I am nothing if not assiduous. We clerks do have our own sort of power - the power of the form signed and witnessed. My supervisor commended my zeal and obtained the clearance for me to serve the prisoner with the necessary papers.
The guard unlocked the heavy oak door and led me down the corridor to the prisoner's room. Trying to stay my anxiety, I watched my shoes trodding the wide oak floorboards, and the mortised joints running between the large sandstone blocks of the wall. My heart skipped as we came to a doorway,but the guard kept walking. When he finally stopped in front of a cell,nodded to me, and walked back up the corridor, my memorized speech and questions fled from my mind. A gate of iron bars blocked the threshold into the dim room lit only by a small window high on the wall. I looked into the room for several minutes before I suddenly saw the shadowed villain sitting on a cot glaring at me. I gasped. Standing at the bars, I tried to force my voice into words, but managed only inarticulate wheezes. He stared at me for a while, then with a contemptuous snort lay down on the cot, and turned his back to me. I despaired of talking to him. I coughed politely. He ignored me. Taking a deep breath and wresting my voice from my throat, I said, "your pardon, sir." No response. "I have some questions to ask you,a form to be filled out." Silence. His dirty boots, his expanding and contracting back, his tousled hair mocked me. "Why did you do it?"I breathed. I heard a noise - what was it? A long, deep snort, a pause,then a louder repetition, and another even louder. He was snoring! I grabbed bars. "Listen to me!" I cried, or did I only think it? He snored on. I pressed my face against the bars and sighed in frustration. He snored loudly. How could I talk to him? What could I do? I turned around to a small window in the corridor and looked out over tile roofs and brick chimneys to trees, hazy in the distance. What was I doing in this prison with this villain? Why did I come here? What did I hope for? I would leave, forget this foolish quest. I became aware of the quiet; he had stopped snoring.I turned back to the cell. He was sitting up again watching me. He grinned at me, his mouth opened wide, and he started laughing.
"You still here? Ha, ha, ha! Ha, ha, ha, ha! So my little friend, come to see me, huh? Ha, ha, ha, ha!"
"Yes, I wanted I want to talk to you."
"Ha, ha, ha! So talk, my little squirrel, talk away. I'll bet you're a fine chatterer indeed. Ha, ha, ha, ha!"
"Who are you?"
"Who am I? Who am I? Who wants to know? You, my little mouse? What could you possibly understand about me? Come on now, squeak up!"
"I need to know I need to know why I, uh, I have a form that needs to be filled out."
"A form! A form! You miserable clerk, what do I need with your damned form! You think because I'm in this cell I have to answer your stupid questions?Let me tell you, you ink-stained spider, you're in more of a prison than I'll ever be!"
He leapt across the room and ripped the papers out of my hand. I jumped back just in time or else he would have grabbed my arm. He shook the bars with such ferocity that I feared he would tear down the gate and leap on me. I shrank against the opposite wall as he grunted and growled in his passionate exertion. Then letting go of the bars, he wadded up the papers and roared: "Come here! I'll shove this form down your sniveling throat- make you choke on it! I'll ream out your constipated ass with it!"He reached a long arm through the bars and clawed the air in front of me."Come here and let me ring your neck, chickie! I'll put you out of your misery!" Almost swooning, I vaguely heard other shouts in the corridor and saw two guards with clubs beat him back from the gate. He raged and cursed at them, foaming at the mouth. The guards half-pulled, half carried me back up the corridor, the prisoner shouting after us: "How could you know me, you contemptible pen-pushing, ass-licking clerk, scared of your own shadow, sitting on your blanket with your limp cock, hugging those dry cunts!" The words struck me like a knife through my shoulder blades.He knew who I was! He remembered me from that day! I thought he did not even see me, but he knew more about me than I ever would about him.
I fled into the street, mad with terror and shame. I raced blindly through the town until I tripped over some debris in some alley and lay panting face down where I had sprawled. After a while I got up on my hands and knees and crawled over to a rough cobblestone wall and sat huddled against it.Oh, why had I gone there to be humiliated by such a monster? What did I really hope to accomplish against him? I was no hero, no Gawain, no Percival.I was a humble clerk. I sat and cried. Suddenly I longed for the safety of my office. I stood up, dusted myself off, and found my way there. The arched doorway embraced me as I entered, the familiar musty smell comforted me, and the well-worn wood of my desk and stool calmed me. Why had I been so obsessed? Why had I felt so guilty? I wasn't accused of anything. I was even a valued witness against that madman. I was a respected municipal clerk,secure in my daily routine. Settling down to work, I tried to copy a document,but my script was so shaky that at the end of the day I folded up my copy and hid it in my robe.
Not wanting to face my fellow lodgers, I wandered out-side the town walls until nightfall, then went home and ate a cold supper alone in the dining room. Later in my own room, trying to keep calm, I gazed into the fire on the grate, fascinated by its gyrating orange shapes. Before I knew it, I was shaking and sobbing. I felt hot, burning as if I had fallen into the fire. Panting and sweating, I pulled off my shoes and robe. My body trembling and twitching, I found myself on my feet, flinging off my undergarments and careening naked about my room. My body felt like a furnace, my skin searing and my flesh baking off my bones, my blood bubbling and my sweat steaming off me in clouds. Dizzy, giddy, I collapsed on the floor, convulsed with maniacal laughter, unable to get my breath. Finally my muscles violently contracted and I lay paralyzed. What was happening? I tried to shout, to summon my neighbors to my aid, but I couldn't make a sound. The heat engulfed me
I am walking under a bright morning sun to a meadow streaming with banners and teeming with people. A blonde woman in a sparkling white dress is walking beside me. I feel unusually strong and energetic, full of life and full of myself. A red tunic clothes my broad chest. We find a space in front of two women and a little man in a clerk's robe. I take a long pull from my jug of strong rum and laugh. I grab my woman and kiss her. She calls me a bastard and pushes me away. I get mad. I pull out my knife and pin her down and tell her what I want. She sees that playing coy with me is no good, and we become friends again. But I am getting impatient for the show. How long are they going to make us sit here? Those authorities, always lording it over us, but unable to do anything right! Just because they were born into nobility, does that make them better than us? I've yet to meet a better man than I! Why should I sit here and beg like a dog and gulp down the scraps they throw us? Finally they start. Some so-called swordsmen come out and weakly wave their swords about. I jump up and show them what a real bladesman can do. I toss my knife up high and spin sprightly around and grab its handle as it falls back to me. Ha! I'd like to see them try that- they'd probably get their fingers sliced off or get themselves stabbed.But nobody appreciates my skill. You mothers' darlings, sitting there sucking up that pap, then turning on me for giving you something meaty to chew on!One of those precious priests comes out and lectures me: "Be a good boy! Mind your manners! Sit down and be quiet!" The more I listen,the more I seethe. How dare that eunuch tell a man like me what to do! To hell with him! To hell with all of you! I get my knife down at my side ready to throw. And I throw it right into that priest's heart as he wags his finger at me. It hits with a satisfying thud, and his eyes show his surprise before he falls. I feel triumphant. Men rush at me, and I fight them off. "No,no, no!" I cry. Everything grows gray as I struggle and struggle. Finally I open my eyes and find myself writhing on a floor. I recognize the rug,the table legs, the chair, and realize I am in my own room, naked. Then it was just a dream, but so real, so real - and I was him! Oh, horror! But it was just a dream. It didn't really happen like that. He killed the priest,not me! Not me! I'm the clerk, not him! Not him! I sat up, shaken and confused.The sharp light of dawn cut through the window into my room. I should get ready for work.
All that day the dream troubled me. I could hardly concentrate on my copying.To relive the morning of the ritual was bad enough, but to live it as the ruffian - to feel his pride and passion, his strength and skill, and to believe his actions justified - was horrible. Horrible, yet exciting. I had never felt such confidence or intensity in my life. But his emotions frightened me; I wasn't made for such excitement.
Over the next week, violent feelings of rage and lust or exuberance and hilarity welled up and battered me in waves. Wicked thoughts about women and evil thoughts about authority flooded my mind and drowned my conscience.I wondered why I had been so dutiful. What had it ever gotten me but more work laid on my desk? They didn't pay me any more or do me any favors. They just took advantage of me. Why should I slave for them? Wasn't I a freeman? What a fool I was! What a cowardly fool! And women - how I longed for love! No, how I lusted for women! But they didn't notice me. Some women friends did confide in me because I was "such a good listener,"but they would never consider me for a lover. Oh, that I listened so ardently to the victims of other men's exploits! How I craved my own exploits! Such desires and resentments smoldered and threatened to spew out. I tried to contain them, especially in town where people could watch me. When I felt like I would explode, I walked far beyond the town walls where I could be alone to scream obscenities in the forest and laugh hysterically in the fields, horrifying myself. To keep from erupting in the office was especially difficult, the effort fatiguing.
One day my supervisor reprimanded me; I had been a reliable clerk for many years, but my recent work was completely unsatisfactory. My productivity had declined alarmingly. I had been seen staring into space for long periods of time. And the copies I did make were blotchy, filled with errors, almost illegible. They were unusable. If I did not improve immediately, I would be dismissed. Such censure would have mortified me before, but now, although outwardly apologetic, inwardly I fumed. Rotten, bloated taskmaster, sitting idly in his private office or gossiping in the halls while we clerks copied all day bent over our desks, our fingers cramped, our backs stiff! How dare he threaten me! When I calmed down, however, I worried about my sudden changes of mood. I was losing control. Had the scoundrel hypnotized me or cast a spell on me? How could I break free from his influence and return to myself?I thought about consulting a sorcerer, but feared the exposure of my own possible guilt. If I could just manage until the villain's trial, then he surely would be hanged, and I would be free of him. But I feared I would break down on the witness seat and go mad. Oh, why had I ever gone to see him?
Then a curious thing happened. The papers I had taken as a stratagem to see the prisoner came back to the office. My supervisor laid them, torn and creased, on my desk and asked me how I had lost them. He said they were incompletely filled out, and I would have to interview the prisoner again to get the required information. If I did not do a proper job this time,I would be dismissed. At the sight of those forms carefully smoothed out,a feeling of doom overcame me. The scoundrel must have sent them back. He wanted to see me again, to play with and torture me further. Like a mouse in a cat's jaws, I went limp, wanting him to make a quick end of me, to relieve me of my suffering. As he said, I was imprisoned in my life. Perhaps he would release me.
The same guard on duty volunteered to stay with me this time while I talked to the prisoner, but I declined his offer. Whatever happened would happen.I wouldn't resist. He opened the oak door, and I walked slowly down the stone corridor past barred gates until I reached the ruffian's cell. He was standing in the middle of his room facing me. "I've been waiting for you," he said. "Come in."
"I can't open the gate. I don't have the key."
He laughed. "The key? The key is for others. We don't need the key."He stepped to the gate, pulled a wire out of his tunic, and jiggled it in the lock. In an instant the gate swung open.
"You could have left any time you wanted!"
"I was waiting for you. Come in."
I swallowed, inhaled deeply, exhaled, and stepped across the threshold.I spoke: "Who are you?"
He chuckled. "Who am I? Who am I?" His laughter grew louder and spread throughout his body. "Who am I? You still don't know me?"
Suddenly I felt very warm and tingly, strangely excited. I started coughing,which, as soon as I stopped resisting, turned into my own laughter. He put his strong hands on my shoulder, gripped them tightly, and laughed in my face. And I put my hands on his shoulders and laughed back, looking him full in the eyes. A moment of panic - what's happening - came over me, but before I could pull away, he started dancing with me. We whirled round and round the room. I was filled with a dizzy euphoria. An intense power flowed through my body, making my movements strong and graceful like never before.After a while I became aware that we were chanting:
I am fire, I am free
I am laughter, levity
I am pride, I am will
I am power, passion full
I felt ecstatic, totally alive, as if I had discovered a secret or forgotten part of myself. Eventually we slowed down and stopped, and I found myself winded and exhausted. With his hands still on my shoulders, he looked deep into my eyes as if fathoming my soul and then hugged me tightly. I could feel his great energy surging into my body and began to weep. Gently he sat me down on the cot and stood facing me. "Who am I?" he said.He chanted in a wild, raving, sing-song voice, teasing, jeering, wrathful:"I am your master, I am your slave. I am your conscience, I am your rebel. I am your evil half, I am your power for good. I am your deception,I am your truth." His madness awed me. He was saying we were connected.But how? "I am he whom you have denied all your years, as you've humbled yourself before everyone who's stood in your way. I want you to free me from this prison you've put me in. I want you to let me out into the world,free to act."
"But I didn't put you here. You killed someone! You're completely irresponsible and uncontrollable."
"True, I killed someone, but it was for you. That guardian of the social order has been oppressing you all your life."
"But he was a human being."
"True, but we all must die some day. Life comes and life goes. It does no good to feel guilty, to be afraid. I killed that priest to wake you up.Being a priest, he should understand sacrifice. Ha, ha, ha!"
"No, no! I can't accept it. I won't have that hanging over my head.You killed him. It horrified me."
"You willed it. I was acting on your desire."
"No, you did it, not me. I never desired it. Some desires should never be acted upon."
"Come, would you renounce me? Would you stay in your prison after I have opened the door?"
"How could I leave when you have killed someone and say you did it for me?"
"Oh, very well. If you feel so guilty about that silly priest, you can stay here and stand trial for his murder." He flung off his tunic,breeches, and boots, and tossed them on the cot next to me. He grabbed me roughly and yanked my clerk's robe and shoes off me. A gold medallion that dangled from a chain around his neck repeatedly hit my face. He was so strong that he pushed and pulled me about like a doll. And like a doll, I had no power to move on my own. He patted himself down and seemed to shrink before my eyes. He put on my robe and shoes. He smoothed down his hair and rubbed his hand across his face. His beard fell out! He looked like me! He pulled at my arms and legs and chest until I felt bigger and taller, and he threw me into his clothes. He ran his fingers through my hair, making it longer and wilder, and passed his hands over my face, bringing forth a beard. He stood back, looked me over, and smiled. "Yes, indeed. You'll pass nicely."His voice sounded shriller, like mine. He pulled out a mirror and held it before me. I looked like him! "Now you are free. You can be tried and go to your execution like a man. Your life will be redeemed. Who cares how long you live as long as you live with daring! I'll take these forms back to the office." With that he opened the gate and clanged it shut behind him before I could reach it. I shook the bars; it was securely locked. He held the wire up in his fingers. Remember, forms don't matter. They can be changed at will. And remember how we danced together, for then you were free. Good-bye for now. I'll see you at your trial. Sorry I'll have to testify against you. Ha, ha, ha, ha!" I watched him walk up the hallway and heard him call for the guard. The guard opened the door and let him through without question.
"No, No! It's him!" I cried, and noticed my voice was deeper."Let me out. Let me out of here!"
The guard came down the corridor.
I screamed that I was the clerk. "I've had enough of you today,"he said. Before I could jump back, he cracked me on the skull with his club, and the world went black.
TO BE CONTINUED
CHARLES WESTLAKE has been practicing something or other for some twenty or thirty years. When he can get a tune out of it, he'll give a recital.
This article was featured in
Obsidian issue 2