…tan cerca que tu mano sobre mic pecho es mía,
tan cerca que se cierran tus ojos can mi sueño.
–Pablo Neruda, Sonnet XVII
“You must understand, I had no intention of it ending this way.” Blue spoke to no one in particular, crushed the cigarette he had been half-heartedly smoking (or, rather, allowing to burn down between his disinterested fingers) out on an arm, a woman’s arm, though he hardly though of the arm as belonging to anyone in particular. In the world he embodied, matter was mere matter, detached from any ownership or agency. “I had no intention of it ending. But sometimes, as I’m sure you can understand, things can go a little sideways.”
She made a sound. It was a long sound. An observer might have called it a groan. Blue recognized it merely as a sound issuing forth from some place dark and bruised and hollow. He knew that it happened, the sound happened, in the time after the crushing of the cigarette, but he wasn’t ready to attribute cause. After all, he had been at this for weeks and had seen many strange things and heard many strange sounds. Not the least strange of which was this woman–whose skin, if it could be called that, was a deep brown, dappled, nay, brindled like a cow’s hide, with bruises and burns–begging to be released and murdered almost in the same breath.
The room was brightly lit, a combination of smart artificial over-head lighting and light from the outside world. One of the room’s four walls was made entirely of three-inch reinforced bullet proof plexiglass. During the course of their interview, Blue had heard a number of clapping sounds, as of things colliding with the glass at high speeds. And on his regular walks around the building–I almost wrote “compound”–he observed the corpses of many small finches, colorful indigenous creatures of the island, in orderly piles of yellow and blue and deep crimson on the ground under the eaves.
On one of his walks he came across a living finch, flapping wildly, spinning around in a circle, not unlike a cicada with one wing removed. He had seen the one-winged-cicada spin on more than one occasion in his life, and thought the analogy pleasant as he brought a boot down onto the body of the bird. An outside observer might think that there was mercy in this killing, but the truth is he did it because he believed that the boot coming down would silence the flapping noise, and after spending so much time in a room full of groans and howls and shrieks (the sounds of women shrieking brought him no pleasure at all anymore) he wanted a few minutes of silence.
There is only so much a man can take, after all.
The house was made of concrete. It was built by the woman’s husband before the coup, and since the time of its construction it had been occupied by a priest, a doctor (before they recruited, exiled or disappeared all the doctors), and then various military officers. The woman (who had a name once but what do names matter now?) had returned to the house to retrieve a small precious thing and had been captured in her clumsy intrusion by Blue, the current occupant of the house, a man skilled in the inflicting of pain and, as such, a great asset to the Developing Island Republic.
He had begun under the assumption that the woman had come to kill him, a not untenable assumption, since the Rebels had sent assassins of all shapes and sizes and sexes and skin colors over the years. In the early summer (it was almost October now, but what do months even matter for anyhow?) he was in the market, and a woman in her late 80s, walking with a cane, pulled a military issue Sig Sauer on him and would have surely killed him if she hadn’t suffered a mild stroke at the exact moment that she tried to pull the trigger. You can see then, can’t you, why Blue would believe that he was on a mission from God?
He proceeded under a series of logical assumptions, the deepest being that the woman had come for him. Then he spent a week convincing himself that she was not an assassin. Then he spent a week disabusing himself of the notion that she had come up into the high damp hills to acquire some information, information he assumed that she assumed he kept in his home, a foolish assumption. He never kept anything, save for a few necessary tools, in his home.
Having pursued these lines of inquiry without success, he reached a kind of crossroads. Having decided she was neither murderer nor marauder, he didn’t know what to make of her. He considered raping her, but he had lost his taste for pleasures of the flesh a long, long time ago. And anyhow, what would have been the point?
Blue proceeded with the questions anyway, as certain men return to certain dark street corners or narcotics or former lovers. He returned to the old questions–who sent you? What did you come here for? Who is Sebastian? Why don’t you have any weapons? How were you going to do it? Where were you born? Who were your parents? He was like a man lost in a familiar forest, traversing and re-traversing old hillsides, looking for water. He even considered asking her what she wanted, but at this point her mouth was mostly out of service, save for producing the occasional groan or crimson spatter.
Her hands were no longer fit for writing.
The previous morning, watching another steel gray Destroyer cluster in the harbor below, he considered unbinding her hands and legs, letting her go and then simply following her, to observe her like the animal she was and see what kinds of things she would do. Would she defecate? Would she run? Would she sing? What is this human animal about?
She had fallen silent almost immediately. He believed that all human creatures could be make to speak, that speech–that language–was the most important of all human attributes, and that if you push the human machine correctly somehow, someday, words will come out of it.
Blue had interviewed hundreds of men, dozens of women, several teenagers. He was a man of great accomplishment in his field. Fellow interviewers, many of whom he had trained for just such works in developing republics around the world, spoke of him with reverence and awe. In his time he had become a kind of Bishop of the church of human suffering, and there were those who turned to him when they saw nowhere to turn.
And in this moment, perched on the side of a mountain, a woman bound and gagged and seeping and suppurating on the floor of his living room, he began to wonder if he had anyone in the world that he could turn to. In short: he did not know how to proceed. His learning up to that point had brought him to that point, but he could proceed no further. The last blow had rung hollow in his fist, usually filled with electric light and a buzzing sound, as of a saw paring dark wood. How he loved to hear the crack of a skull, a tree falling into a forest, that dark wildness coming into line.
This, gentle reader, you might not be able to bear.
Blue, having reached the end of his interview, left the interview room, walked out to the damp hot hillside, dropped to his knees on the side of that mountain, turned his back on the woman, who had taken recently to staring absently out into the forest through the plexiglass, blinking occasionally, Blue assumed, to wet her one unshattered eye. On his knees, Blue crossed his arms in front of his broad chest, listened to the sounds of the artillery drills in the valley below, watched the little missile cruisers in the harbor speeding around the large hulking destroyers and the lone aircraft carrier, the pride of the Developing Island Republic’s little navy, it’s 12 Z27 Jumpjets like little white birds in a line on its massed deck, and he prayed.
He prayed to God, prayed for guidance.
Minutes or hours passed. Time had a strange way of moving on the island, seeming to flow backwards and forwards at once, the way water at points in rivers can run upstream for a while when confronted with certain features of the stream bed. Darkness fell around Blue, and the woman, who had begun to watch Blue’s silent revery, moved a little, first her less-broken arm, then one of her feet. She stuck her tongue out for a moment and tasted the air in the living room. A brief wetness descended on her lower lip.
She could see Blue’s profile against the horizon gone orange, unchanged for what felt like a day and a night and a day.
Blue was waiting for an answer, and he had decided that he would wait for an answer for as long as was required of him. Blue was a man skilled in doing what was required of him, and since he had no direct orders at this point, since his last three official interviewees had been rendered non-communicative, and the Commander wasn’t expecting any more until they took Palomas, he would wait. He could do that. Things had been moving quickly for a while, but now it all appeared to be slowing down, falling into place. This was a familiar, happy feeling: of things falling into place.
So Blue waited, the sky darkening, his eyes closed, the drills in the valley below ending, the boats returning to their harbors, and he took part in that great evening stillness on the nearly dead island. The trees lived. And the finches,they lived, at least the ones that weren’t dead below the eaves. And it was believed that a few wild pigs still trampled in what remained of the former National Forest (back when there was a nation, so to speak), but the people’s hunger had driven them to eat anything that flew or crawled or slithered or dug in the earth, and the humans that remained survived on slim rations, tinned food, water gathered from deeply secret wells.
The woman was a part of that stillness, too, and becoming more and more a part of that stillness every second.
Though it seems hard to fathom, the earth rotated in a vast blackness.
Brace yourself for a dramatic shift, but do not expect some sort of deus ex machina. After all, this is a work of realism. Keep in mind, I know you, gentle, kind, compassionate reader. You are a humanist. You believe in the ultimate redemption of humankind. You believe that everyone can be saved. You feel for the woman; you want her to survive, perhaps to stand, perhaps to hobble down the hallway, leaving perhaps a bloody smear on the walls rendered smooth by her husband’s skilled hands. You want her to look with cool desperation through the rooms for a weapon, to seek some manner of justice or retribution. You are perhaps too young or naive or foolish to understand that such things do not exist in the world occupied by the woman and by Blue. What you want most of all is for the woman to enter Blue’s room, to find the small pistol he keeps on the bed side table. You want her to pick it up, to feel its heavy coolness in her burning hands. You want her to slip through the house, with strange stealth despite the severity (the mortality of her injuries), to line up the barrel of the pistol with the back of Blue’s head, her arms shaking, but somehow all the angles working out, her pulling the trigger and the bullet flying precisely through the air, parting the molecules in Blue’s brain, giving him the answer he had been waiting for and the justice she deserved.
That’s what you want most: to give her power, the power to give back to him what he had taken from her.
The existence of Blue flies in the face of your pacifism, your love of learning, your belief in the ongoing development of the word and world. That you bring your own bags to the grocery store makes no difference to Blue. That you have, on several occasions, given largish sums of money to charitable organizations who do work in developing nations, building roads and hospitals and wells, does not change Blue’s capacity to use those roads to walk into those hospitals and abduct political dissidents, to use water from the well to water-board those dissidents. That you believe in progress and development and the overwhelming power of God’s love and human kindness creates the world in which men like Blue and women like the woman exist.
The woman is bleeding out on a floor. Blue meditates, waiting for God to answer. The country around her is developing according to plan. Loans are being processed, goods bought and sold. Lumber from the hillsides (trees, they were once called trees, but who remembers names?) is harvested. Bauxite and copper are pulled from the sullied earth. The harbor is scraped clean of fish and clams and oysters. An oil platform sucks black milk from the earth, its rusty lips leaking. Refineries churn, their eyes burning. The barefoot children of the market pick at the scabs on their feet. A mudslide somewhere on the island buries a squadron of soldiers on patrol. In the high hillsides, a group of rebels dig in, are dug out by a precision guided munition.
Up in the hills here, every hole is a grave.
That is what Blue waits for, that revelation: that all plots push toward death. His knees are weak from prolonged kneeling, but his back and his arms are strong. He feels the alignment, the power of posture, as he rises, moving past the finch pile, his hand on the door. He knows what what must be done. It is time to move on. There are other men and women whose silences demand his attention, and he has spent too long in this one place, still on the mountainside.
He waited for God, and God answered: let go. Move on.
As he entered the room (how many such rooms had he entered?) he sensed something had changed. The sun had set. All was darkness. She was no longer breathing. He kicked the body of the woman, but his heart wasn’t in it. Nor was hers. Her heart was elsewhere, out there with the finches, those buried soldiers, the old lady assassin (who Blue had dispatched with a syringe in her hospital bed) and, at last, her husband, who was buried in several places in these hills.
It was the end of a long day, and Blue felt the weight of the house closing in around him. It was loneliest for him in the night time. He lifted the body of the woman in his arms. It was almost gentle, the way that he lifted her, as though something inside him had softened. But do not be fooled: nothing had softened. It was merely a trick of circumstance, some inherent tenderness in a man leaning down to pick up a woman in repose. That the man was the woman’s torturer and murderer is a mere trick of the context. The image itself is timeless.
Blue carried the body of the woman to the bedroom. He placed it on the bed, lay down next to it and went to sleep.
And that, then, gentle reader, is the ending of our tale. The murderer sleeps, comfortably sleeps, beside the body of his victim, and our lives go on as if that pile of dead finches outside the window were as natural as the towering columns of cumulo nimbus clouds gathering just outside the harbor. The image may disturb you somewhat, his rock hard arms and stone hardened soul wrapped around the soft, sleepless body of the woman, herself a kind of symbol of violation, but do not be fooled: what he has made there is by no means abomination.
The existence of Blue, his posture, the way he slips into an easy spoon with her body, undisturbed by the rise and fall of natural breath, is predictable, more predictable even than the rain, which is coming down now in great gusts, as though the heavens were wounded deeply, pouring blood down into the dry earth.
It may even surprise you to know, elegant and patient reader, that your capacity to read and understand Blue’s story is predicated on Blue’s existence, because at the end of the day (and it has been a long, long day, hasn’t it? For Blue and his kill, for you and whatever creatures surround you, whatever birds you keep caged up inside your apartments, whatever dog scratches at your backdoor) without Blue and the faith that gave him power, you would not be sitting where you are, your pupils dilating at the screen’s electric light. Understand, I am not merely suggesting that you (that I, yes, I) killed the woman. I am suggesting that we (that I and you, that all of us, together) made both Blue and the woman.
That his hands on her throat were my hands. That his foot on her chest was your foot. And that when he crawled into bed with her, and that when his breath fell hot on her cold cheek, that it was our breath as well. That he was not alone when he carried her into the complicit bed and rested, at last, in peace.
Gil Gallagher lives in Eugene, Oregon, where he is pursuing a Master’s degree in Teaching. He has taught literature and writing to high school students. His poetry has appeared in A Clean, Well-Lighted Place, and he posts poems regularly on his blog: gilgallagher.blogspot.com.
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