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by Charles Westlake

Drifting. Drifting in a thick black fog. Cannot see through it. Hear voices. Try to reach them. Where are they coming from? Seem to be all around, talking and laughing. Taunting me. Maybe they don't see me. Are they free of the fog? Call for help. Cannot hear my voice. Where am I? The fog becomes gray and breaks up. I blinked and blinked and finally gazed into a wide, deep blue. A breeze played over my face. I was lying on my back on the ground. I raised myself on my elbows and looked around. People dressed in their finery stood in small groups or sat together on rugs with their baskets, sacks, and jugs. Their cheerful voices rode the breezes. Beyond, along the road, gaily waving banners and pennants welcomed more and more people, who flowed into the meadow and filled in vacant spaces. Down the slope in front of me, a white-draped altar covered with daffodils stood before a mauve curtain. Beyond it, along the river, seven yellow-veiled willows gently swayed.

Oh yes, I remember coming down to the meadow early, as I do every year, spreading my blanket on the ground, and lying down. I must have fallen asleep--for several hours, judging by the sun's position. The ceremony would begin soon. A vague yet disturbing memory remained. My head ached. What had I been dreaming? Closing my eyes, I tried to recall images from the dream. Suddenly I saw a black-bearded fellow in a red tunic. His knife at the throat of a blonde woman in a beaded white dress. Its handle sticking out from a priest's chest, and the priest toppling over.

"Are you all right?" A hand gripping my arm startled me, and I opened my eyes. People were looking at me, surprise and concern on their faces. "You screamed. You're as white as lamb's wool," said a man kneeling at my side.

"I'm... I'm ah... I'm all right. It was just a dream. Just a dream."

"Here, drink some of this." Honeyed goat's milk soothed my throat.

"Thank you. I'm all right now." People smiled and turned away. There was more to the dream. What was it? The blind woman and her friend, my townswoman, sitting next to me. I jerked around to spot them before they reached me, to prevent the same unfolding of events. Something hard and cold slid across my chest under my robe, and a chill went down my spine. Reaching down the neck of my robe, I fished out--a medallion. A gold medallion with a rayed sun surrounded by lightning bolts. The medallion the scoundrel wore around his neck when he exchanged clothes with me in the prison cell before the guard clubbed me. I remember now. Weeks have gone by. But now I wake up in the meadow on the day of the ritual as if nothing has happened, as if it all has been a dream. Except for the medallion. Or am I dreaming now, again, repeating the festival a third time? The blind woman and the daughter of Lesbos will arrive, the villain and his blonde companion, and the drama will begin again. Then will I awaken on the floor of the prison cell?

Something bumped my head, my shoulder, and I half-turned to see a woman in a pink shawl laden down with baskets and jugs. A man's voice behind me said, "Here's a good spot. Pardon me, sir, this space isn't taken, is it?"

"Uh, yes. Oh ah, no. No."

Three children swarmed over the grass and threw down their bundles, while the husband and wife set down their baskets and jugs and carefully spread out rugs on the ground next to me. Does this mean it's not going to happen again? I stood up and searched through the crowd for the blind woman and my townswoman. No black beard and red tunic, no blonde hair and sparkling white dress caught my eye. Sunbright colors from clothes and banners breezily shimmered throughout the meadow. Everything looked persistently solid, convincingly real, not like the shifting images of a dream. But everything before had seemed solidly real too, and the weeks between the murder at the festival and the exchange of identities in the prison cell had progressed hour by hour, not like the instantaneous transitions of a dream. I walked away from the family, away from the altar, to the back of the crowd and stood under a banner at the edge of the road. Nothing made sense, especially the medallion on my chest. I clutched it through my robe.

A long trumpet note pierced the air. I looked towards the altar. The herald lowered his horn and withdrew behind the curtain. The chorus of women danced out and sang to the East. The six men ran out with long swords, waved them into intricate patterns, and formed the Eye of the Sun. No man in a red tunic interrupted them. A line of women writhed out and poured water onto the ground from a large urn held above their heads. Four horned men draped in black pranced out and bellowed to the North. The priest, who had been killed, emerged from the curtain and addressed the crowd. The spring ritual celebrating the planting of seeds and the birthing of livestock continued without disruption, while I kept fingering the medallion and scanning the crowd. The excitement grew. All the people, having risen to their feet, were swaying back and forth, swinging their arms up to the sky and down to the earth, as the mighty chant to the warming sun, the nourishing rain, the black soil, and the unfolding seed rolled across the meadow. Despite my worry, I too was caught up in the dance, swaying and swinging and chanting with the rest, losing myself in the great tide sweeping the meadow. Finally we fell to the ground and embraced the earth. Joy and peace welled up in me. I felt cleansed of my ordeal and returned to the community.

Relief loosened my gait as I walked in the midst of the multitude on the gravel road back to town. I have seen the priest alive. Nothing has happened, and I was returning to myself and my work. Yet I felt a certain disappointment. Witnessing the killing and confronting the villain, although terrifying, had been exhilarating. Now I was going back to my life as if nothing had happened. Reaching the town gate, we came to a stop, the throng being too large to pass through at once. In the jostling of bodies, I bumped into a fellow clerk and exchanged pleasantries with him until he paused, looking quizzically at me, and said, "You know, you look different somehow. You sound different too. The ritual must have agreed with you."

After squeezing through the gate, we poured into the street and paraded riotously to the main square--strutting, strolling, dancing, drumming, clapping, chanting, singing, shouting to various beats and a variety of songs. Yellow, orange, and red banners and scarves waved and swirled above our heads. People hanging out of second and third story windows cheered, threw food on us, and showered us with drink. Coming around the final corner, we broke into the square, in which long rows of tables, chairs, and benches of every size and description had already been set up. Cooks and bakers had started long before dawn roasting steers, lambs, and pigs and making breads, pies, and cakes for the great feast. When we broke into the square, the seats were already half filled. I was carried along in a wave of people, which broke apart around the statue of the first Duke of Warwix. My side surged to an empty table and quickly engulfed it. Beached on a bench, I was getting my breath back, gazing at the windows of my office in the town hall, when someone lunged into my back, and a female voice said, "Quickly! Here are some places." I froze, not wanting to look, as someone bumped against my shoulder and hip while getting onto the bench. A male voice shouted, "Hey, move down, move down. Plenty of room, plenty of room." The body shifted closer, pressing against my side, and I felt a breath in my ear. "Oh my, we are packed closely together here, aren't we? I hope you don't mind." I turned to see the blind woman facing me, and next to her my towns-woman.

Putting my palms on the table, I pulled myself up and leaned over it, searching above the heads of the seated crowd for the man in the red tunic. "Oh, were you saving these seats?" my townswoman asked. "No, no, not at all," I replied, wanting to leave. But wedged between the blind woman and a large man on my right, I could hardly extricate myself. Although I did not see any empty seats nearby for the scoundrel and his blonde companion, I was sure they would show up. "Hey, hey! Watch those elbows! Stop kicking!" exclaimed the man on my right. "Sit down. Don't be impatient. It will take a while for the food to get here. Have some ale." His strong hand yanked me down by my shoulder, and his other hand thrust a tankard under my chin. I drank long and hard. My head swam. Was I a man? What had he called me? A squeaking mouse, a chattering squirrel. But then he had embraced and danced with me. And then he had tricked me, had imprisoned me while he escaped. I wasn't meeting him for the first time. What had I learned? Whether I was dreaming or awake, forms didn't matter. The point was to take responsibility, to change the pattern of events, to be a man. When he appeared this time, I must make sure he didn't kill anyone. Or if he did, I would be the sacrifice. I finished the ale. "Man, you're really swilling the barley water," said the man next to me and poured the tankard full again. But I left it alone. Must keep my head.

The roaring of voices so resounded across the table-filled square that we had to shout to make our neighbors hear us. Above the hubbub, against the cloudless sky, busts of men and statuettes of animals and demons gazed serenely down on us from the cornices of the merchant and artisan houses enclosing the square. A shadow from the houses on the west already covered some tables and was slowly spreading across the square, but torches were ready everywhere to be lit when the sun went down in a few hours, for the festival would last far into the night. Huge silver platters piled high with food sailed like ships over the sea of heads, then sank. Loud cheers arose from the tables on which the platters had run aground. When the platters came closer, we could see them riding atop the hands serving men and women held above their heads as they passed between the tables. Our table finally cheered as several platters slid onto it, and we merrily scooped and speared the food, helping ourselves and each other. As the man next to me piled pork and mutton on my plate, I piled beans and rice on the blind woman's. Her friend told her what was on her plate and guided her hands to the beans and beef and bread. The communal feast made me feel more at ease. I ate and drank heartily and talked with the amiable man on my right.

A sudden movement catches the corner of my eye, pulls my head to the left. My townswoman sits with a man's arm over her shoulder, his hand at her throat, and in his hand a knife pressed to her neck, its edge running under her jaw to its point below her ear. The man sits behind her, his sneering red face against her hair, whispering thickly and spitting into her ear. Her face is white with terror. The image, so familiar, transfixes me. No one else at the table moves or even notices. Suddenly a tremendous heat starts in my bowels and rises up my spine. My back straightens as the fire surges up to my head. The top of my head feels like it is going to blow off. The crowd feasting in the square falls away. The roar of voices stills to silence. All I see is the knife at the throat. I rise from the table, moved by a strange will. My movements are slow and smooth. I am the only one moving. I glide over the couple locked in that aggressive embrace, my eyes focused on the knife, his hand, her neck, their faces. He does not see me. Slowly, smoothly, effortlessly, I pull his hand with the knife away from her throat, pull him by his hair away from her, and hit him in his solar plexus. He falls back against the man next to him, who pushes him away, and he topples towards me over the bench, his head striking the ground. A river of blood pours out of his mouth.

Then voices: "He killed him! Grab him! Watch out, he has a knife!" Men rush up and surround me. Hands grab at me, but I keep turning and striking. Hands grab their own wrists and arms. Around the tables more men are coming. I need a better place to defend myself, to protect my back. I see an opening between two men and leap into it. I slash the one on my right and smash the one on my left with my elbow. They fall back, and I charge through. Something crashes into the back of my head, and something trips me. I fall onto the paving stones. A boot stomps on my hand. "I've got his knife! Get him! Teach him a lesson, the murderer!" Kicks and blows rain down on me, but I feel peaceful and sleepy. It is happening to somebody else. I am drifting, drifting into a thick black fog.

Pain woke me. Someone was groaning. I tried to move, but my body felt torn apart. My tongue was swollen, my mouth dry and cracked. I tried to swallow but had no saliva. The groaning stopped while I tried to call for water. Only a rasping sound came out. Was anyone around? My eyes opened. A blurry dimness. After a while I could make out a wall and a ceiling and an opening high up on the wall. The window was dark. The room seemed familiar. Slowly I lifted my head and turned it to, yes, the barred gate at the doorway. A yellow light spilled in from the hall. I was in the prison cell, the same cell. A hope came: I have been dreaming again, as I had suspected. I did not kill anyone. I have not left this cell. I am waking up from being clubbed by the guard. Slowly I lifted my head again and looked down at my body. The hope went away. I was not wearing the ruffian's red tunic and black breeches, but my own clerk's robe. Did it really happen then? Did I kill someone? How can I tell about anything anymore? Remembering the medallion, I slid my hand under my robe and found it. I pulled it out and looked at it, but the medallion didn't tell me anything either.

A dusty light descended from the window. A distant door closed, and footsteps echoed down the hall. I struggled to sit up and succeeded. The guard appeared in the doorway, the same guard I had met twice before when I had visited the villain, the guard who had clubbed me, thinking I was the villain.

"Oh, so you're awake. I have some water for you."

I managed to push myself off the cot and stand up. The room swayed, but I kept my balance as I staggered toward the gate.

"They really worked you over, huh? Can't say I blame them, killing the duke's son as you did. What made you do that?"

I wasn't sure I heard him right. My mouth was so dry I couldn't talk. All I wanted was the water.

"And you a clerk. You've probably sat at your desk for years, copying documents, following orders, and then you go out and kill the duke's son. Why'd you do it? You quiet ones, you're the ones we have to watch out for, that's what I always say."

I reached the gate. He handed me the ladle through the bars. I swirled cool water in my scorched mouth. I couldn't swallow, so I spit it out against the wall. "You hit me with your club," I accused him.

"Me? I never hit you. You were all beat up before you got here. We never laid a hand on you."

"Haven't you seen me before? Twice before?"

"Me? I'd never laid eyes on you until they brought you in yesterday."

"What about the prisoner in the red tunic? The one who killed the priest?"

"Man, we've never had a prisoner in a red tunic. No priest's been killed. You're raving. Out of your mind. Delirious. The only one's been killed is the duke's son. And you did it! Oh, and you also cut up quite a few men who were trying to catch you. How does a clerk learn to use a knife like that? That's what I want to know."

"Can't you give me the water bucket?"

"It won't fit through the bars, and I dare not open the gate. You're a dangerous man. But here, have another drink."

The guard turned and walked away. The door slammed. I trudged back to the cot and lay down. The duke's son! First the priest, now the duke's son! But the priest had not been killed; the man in the red tunic had not been imprisoned--at least not so anyone else could remember. The illusion was staged only for me, to make me kill the duke's son. When he held his knife at my townswoman's throat, as the scoundrel had at his blonde companion's, I was impelled to act. The knife! I didn't know I had a knife. I thought I hit him with my fist. But the blood poured from his mouth. I struck at the men trying to capture me, and blood appeared on their arms. I must have taken his knife from him. Somehow I had acquired the ruffian's skill with a knife. I had never wielded a knife before. I had never fought at all, not even as a child. The medallion lay heavy on my chest.

Marble Knife With the passing days, my body healed. When the guard brought my morning and evening gruel, he told me about my coming trial. "It won't take them long to find you guilty. All the witnesses have come forward--all those men you wounded. I wouldn't want to be in your shoes. The duke is exceedingly angry. His son was a wastrel and a cad, but he's got no other heir. He wants your head. You shall surely be hanged."

Maybe I will hang, or maybe I am still dreaming. The scoundrel told me that forms didn't matter; they could be changed at will. But events were happening according to his will, not mine. How can I awaken from this nightmare? It seems too real. Could I count on my townswoman's testimony? She would say that she feared for her life. The duke's son was going to cut her throat. I saved her. And she would save me from being hanged. The duke's son had a reputation for carousing and womanizing, but my townswoman was supposed to love only women. Perhaps he attacked her when she rejected his advances. And I defended her. I turned his own weapon against him. Perhaps she and I would become friends.

As I dozed on the cot, it seemed the ruffian's dark eyes were looking at me. His white teeth smiled, framed by his black beard. "Why so glum after all I've done for you?"

"I'm glum because of all you've done to me."

"But I'm your friend. Or would you rather have me for an enemy?"

"What's the difference? You made me kill a man. And now I'm going to be hanged."

"Oh, you killed him by yourself. Now you can go to your trial and execution like a man," he laughed. "I'm proud of the way you handled the knife. I couldn't have done better myself."

"Life has no value to you, does it? You think it's a joke, you who can change forms at will."

"Ha, ha, ha! That's right. But that son would have oppressed his people fearfully once he succeeded his father."

"Are we above the law then? By what right do we take a life?"

"Hey, it's a fair trade, your life for his. It doesn't matter how long you live as long as you live with daring. Come, let's dance."

"No. Go away. Make yourself disappear."

"Ho, ho! You're becoming spunky. Would you like to disappear with me? Or have me change places with you? You could go back to being a clerk as if nothing has happened."

"No. You've done enough. I'll see it through myself."

"Oh ho! Well said. Come and dance."

He pulled me off the cot and whirled me around the floor. I planted my feet and shoved him away. His eyes flashing and his teeth set, he came at me. We collided and locked arms around the other's neck and tried to throw each other to the floor. We panted, glaring into each other's eyes, as sweat beaded our faces. I couldn't throw him, but he couldn't throw me. Eventually exhausted, our chests heaving, we relaxed our grips. He said, "See how strong you've become! How angry! How determined!" We embraced, and he whispered in my ear, "You're free. Free. Free."

A group of constables led me, manacled and fettered, into the courtroom. A somber light shone through the windows on the dark walnut paneling, above which hung paintings--historical and allegorical scenes and portraits of town officials and the Dukes of Warwix. Only when I sat down did I notice the room was full of people. My seat was so placed that I could see them and they could stare at me. Several men had their hands bandaged or their arms in slings. The furious red face of the duke glared at me from the front row. When he saw me look at him, he drew his finger sharply across his throat and spat on the floor. The three magistrates entered and sat down in richly carved chairs. The first witness was my townswoman. Dressed in black, her head bowed, she crossed the floor to the witness seat. She gave her testimony tearfully, wiping her cheeks with a black handkerchief. She said that the duke's son and she were "great friends... We've known each other for years... We were bantering, and he threatened me in mock anger... Yes, he held a knife to my throat, but he didn't mean anything. I wasn't afraid. I knew he was just playing. We were being very merry together... Then this man," she raised her eyes and pointed at me, "for no reason--it was no business of his... No, I had never seen him before in my life... He rushed over then stuck a knife in his heart. He killed him!" she shrieked and shook with violent sobs. They led her out of the courtroom.

I was shocked, bewildered. They had been playing, exactly like the scoundrel and his blonde companion. I acted as if compelled to redress my previous cowardice, to stop him before he hurled his knife at--whom? I had made a grievous error, had killed an innocent man. But how was an observer to know he wasn't really threatening her life? By what right did men press their knives to women's throats? The bandaged men testified to my desperate character and prowess with a knife. It did not take long for the magistrates to find me guilty and sentence me to "death by hanging." Everyone jumped up. A loud cheer erupted. The duke's teeth gleamed in a ferocious grin. He shook his fists triumphantly at me. The constables hastily surrounded me and led me out.

A clammy coldness woke me. In the dimness I hurriedly pulled on my robe and shoes. As the small window above my head glowed rosy with the dawn, the heavy oak door opened, and several pairs of heavy boots trod down the hall floorboards. A group of constables appeared through the gate. One unlocked it and swung it open. "Are you ready?" "Yes, I'm ready," I replied and walked through the doorway. Two led and two followed me up the gray stone corridor. More constables joined us on the other side of the oak door. Even more joined us outside in the street. We walked, they surrounding me, up the short street to the main square. I tried to determine the spot where I had stabbed the duke's son, somewhere near the statue of his forebear, but they wouldn't let me stop. We passed group after group of people, who shouted when they saw me and fell in with us. Someone started beating a drum. We processed down the street, the constables marching silently around me, the growing crowd laughing and singing, clapping and dancing around them. We passed slowly through the town gate, the guards saluting the constables.

The gravel crunched underfoot. In the meadow ahead stood the two posts and cross beam of the gallows, like a doorframe through which I would swing. A crowd, already gathered around it, greeted our procession with a roar, and the two groups merged together. The constables forced a path through to the stage, from which I would be raised to the audience's applause. It was built near the road, before the meadow sloped down to the river. The constables led me up the steps to the hooded hangman holding the braided noose in his hand. I shivered as I approached him. He turned me towards the river. The crowd below grew silent. Behind them was the spot where the altar had been placed, where the villain had killed the priest. As the hangman placed the noose around my neck, I saw that the seven willows along the river had leafed out. He yanked the noose tight. I was choking, suffocating, and he had not yet pulled me off my feet. The willows' bright green canopies were gently swaying, swaying...

When I came to, I found myself slumped over my desk in the office. I straightened up on my stool and looked around. I was alone. Through the windows the black curtain of night had descended. The lamp on my desk cast its circle of yellow light on a manuscript I was copying. My copy had trailed off and was smudged at the end. My quill was lying on the floor. So I have finally woken up. It all has been a dream after all. But I could not remember what I was copying or why I was working late. Looking at the document, I saw it was a description of the procedure to follow in hanging a felon. I shuddered and decided to go home.

I met no one in the building and went out through the archway. The streets too were deserted. As I came to a corner, a man suddenly lurched out from behind a building into my path. Thinking he was drunk, I paused, preparing to go around him. But he turned, faced me, and drew his hand out of his sleeve. It held a long, hard blade. I froze. He leapt on me and pressed his knife to my neck, his fist on my throat choking me, the blade extending to my ear under the line of my jaw. He grabbed my robe in his other hand and shoved me against the building. He tried to knee me in my private parts. I was more angry than frightened and tried to push him off, but felt the knife pressing into my skin. I stopped struggling. "Now it's your turn," he hissed. "Give me all your money." I fumbled with my belt and untied my bag of coins. There wasn't much, certainly not enough to lose my life over. He grabbed it. "And your jewelry too." "I don't have any." He could see for himself I wasn't wearing any. What did he think I was, a merchant or nobleman? "You don't have any bloody jewelry? Damn you!" he cried and punched me in my side. Then he was gone.

Since it wasn't a particularly hard blow, I was surprised to find myself on my knees, growing weak and dizzy. Then I remembered the hand held a knife. I reached under my robe and drew out my fingers thick with blood. I felt cold and started shaking. I tried to get up on my feet to find help, but couldn't. Instead, I lay down in the street on my back and helplessly watched the red tide soak through my robe, ooze down my side, and collect in a widening pool. This became gray and indistinct. I felt myself drifting away...

When I came back, the sky was blue between faces looking down at me. Below the faces, the dark blue tunics and white breeches of the constabulary. Beneath their black boots, a plank floor, on which I was lying. "He's coming around now, the lucky devil." I sat up. The hangman was holding the rope, gesturing furiously, and retying the noose, as he hoarsely exclaimed, "Look, I tied it as I always tie it. I have hanged scores of men and some women too, and the knot has never slipped before. Here, test it yourself. I know my job, and I am not to blame. It was a miracle, I tell you, and you know the law on that."

"He's right," said the head constable. "The law says that when the knot slips, and the condemned man falls, still alive, from the gallows, it's divine intervention, and he is not to be rehanged." He stepped to the edge of the platform and announced to the crowd: "The gods themselves have judged him and found him innocent. He is free to go." There were cheers. "Yes, yes! It's the will of the gods!" But there were also jeers. "Justice! We want justice for the duke's son! Revenge for our wounds." The head constable turned to me. "You're a free man. But there are some angry people here, and I would not vouch for your safety with the duke's men. I recommend that you leave this town and never come back. We'll try to hold them off as long as we can, while you run for it." I nodded and stood up. I was still dizzy and my heart was pounding. The crowd was shouting. Some cried, "He's blessed by the gods!" Others cried, "He's a murderer! Kill him!: Several men with bandaged arms bent over and picked up rocks. Others started fighting with them. Men wearing the duke's crest drew their swords. The duke himself, his face purple, screamed for my head.

"Let's go. Let's get out of here," the head constable said to his men. Pointing their spears outward, they descended the steps with me in their midst. Reaching the ground, they walked rapidly through the crowd, as it fell back, and stopped at its edge, forming a line between it and me. "Now run," the head constable hissed to me. I took a last look at the crowd and beyond it at the walls and roofs of the town in which I had lived my whole life. A rock whizzed by my ear, and another grazed my shoulder. The duke's men were running around the ends of the constables' line. I turned and fled up the road and into the forest.

I ran for a long, long time, until my legs wobbled and my lungs burned. I stopped and listened. Birds chirped and leaves rustled, but no sounds of pursuit came through the forest. I was free. My life as a clerk was over. Now I would need the lessons the ruffian had taught me, for I would live no longer by the law, but by daring. I set off at a brisk pace through the forest.

This article was featured in Obsidian issue 3.

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.

Festival of Knives, Part 1 Festival of Knives, Part 2