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Letting Forever Go
The wind trickles through my hair and curls around my neck, sending shivers down my spine. I glance up at the scarlet sky that hangs above my head, pressing in with the cold breath of the night. Not a single bird has taken flight this evening; I doubt that a single wing has brushed the air since I staggered through the city walls, tattered clothes barely grasping my thin frame, with the hard prick of a knife at my back.
I know why the birds no longer fly. It’s no mystery. It’s for the same reason that the city streets emptied within hours of my arrival. It’s for the same reason that the clouds crept in to cover the sky in an impenetrable shield. It’s for the same reason that the corpses lie rotting with the dirt, decomposing without even a burial to recognize their humanity, without a single friend to remember their names.
The birds? They no longer fly because they are gone. They had heard my chains rattle and smelled my stench. I imagine that was reason enough for their flight. And I know they had been glad to leave the land far behind as they flew across the desiccated terrain and saw, behind my path in the sand, Death’s own footprints. Death, whose black cloak had never left my vision from the day I claimed a man—until now.
It is only when this red dusk approaches that the black man, he who hears the final whisper, leaves me to a lonely vigil. I stand thinking of the lives that I have seen pass under his watchful eye. Their breaths had been swiftly snatched, strung together, and sung into endless echoes. Yet tonight, when the sun sets and my last whisper departs, there will be no black cloak waiting behind the executioner, and I will die alone.
I will have no whisper to weave into the song of the dead.
I will be forever bound to the man with the rope.
I have written my own song, and it is the song of a nameless soul.
The day that I was born, all illusions of the ascendancy of man were shattered. Perhaps the conditions I found in the city streets proved this to me: the crows picked on carrion, the torrential rain beat down upon weathered stone, and the earth ran black with rivulets of God’s blood. There was nothing there for man, nothing but the same cruelty that had led my parents to leave me there, shivering and crying piteously in the mud.
It was not so uncommon in those times for children to be left alone, never to see their parents again. There was little hope of a future beyond the grime and dirt, the fleas and pigs. Yet even in later years, I never could find forgiveness for my abandonment, because unlike the others I had been born without a name.
That night, when a homeless man stumbled down the alley and settled down with his blankets for an uncomfortable night, I watched as he rolled in fevered sleep for hours. At one point, a hacking cough seized his corpse-like body and left him gasping for shallow air. The night passed in a blur of our shared suffering, and when the white morning light broke the clouds, the man opened his bloodshot eyes and saw me for the first time.
“Just us, eh?” he croaked.
I stared back in response.
“It’s me or you, you or me,” he pointed out.
It was the lie of a dead man. Death would come that morning—and he would take either us both, or the man alone.
He sighed. “Just you and old Jack.”
He coughed again, weaker this time.
I envied him, even as he lay dying. He had a name.
“I should let it be you,” he groaned. “For what you’ve done to me.”
I didn’t correct him. I didn’t tell him that the disease that had brought Death lurking to the corner of the alley wasn’t me—although I was sure Death would gladly take me. I let him founder in his fevered lies and finally, he reached and lifted me with unsteady hands. He whispered, “Nobody will remember ol’ Jack, not”—he coughed—“not even you.”
I claimed him there with no remorse.
I claimed him knowing that he died with lies on his lips. The world would never forget his name, because as the life faded from his eyes, his name became my own. I heard the forever song for the first time, saw the folds of Death’s cloak as he lifted the man’s soul from the earth. And I knew my first name.
I was the scum of the earth; I was the one who killed Jack.
“How do you fly?” I asked the flies one day. They stared at me with fragmented eyes and buzzed away.
“Why do you fly?” I asked the crows. They glared down their cruel beaks before ruffling their feathers, flapping their wings, and soaring far into the distance to circle their next prey.
“Can I fly?” I asked the mosquitos.
“Do you have wings?” they replied to my dismay.
They flitted to and fro, without giving me a second glance.
“Then we will give you wings.”
And they showed me the way.
I walked for seven days and seven nights. I trudged in the deep mud, and I crossed the scorching earth that burned my soles. When the rain emptied the heavens, I slept with the pigs, and when the droughts cracked the earth, I bathed in dust, and when the eighth morning came, I walked on.
I had known only one god in all my years, and he was the one who never strayed far from my shadow. He was the one that leaned in on wintry nights and whispered why wait?, the one who had told me only why he came, not why he stayed. My black god tipped his hat at strangers but never greeted them; he loved only those who feared him, not us who believed in him. So when I saw the old man kneeling at the altar for the first time, clean robes shining in the white light of stained-glass windows, I almost dared to believe in another god.
A better god.
The Lord is merciful, the old priest murmured in reverence, and He is kind.
Some nights, the priest would pray for salvation.
Show us your light, Lord. Show us your grace.
Other nights, he prayed only for love.
Your love is all I need, Lord. We are forever yours.
But he never prayed for Death. Not once, not even as he wove tales of woe, hardship, and the last sleep, did he pray for the end that would greet us all.
Instead, Death prayed for me.
“It’s love you want? Let me claim you, and you shall have my love.
“No? It’s grace? Mercy? Heaven?
“Have you learned nothing? I give mercy to no man who asks for it. I give no pity to the man who binds himself to eternity. I am eternity, and no man has bound himself to me.
“But it’s none of these reasons, is it? No. You want to live.”
I wanted to live.
His prayer stunk of ash and blood.
“Teach this man there is no salvation, teach all men there is no salvation, and you will learn mercy.
“Learn mercy, and you will live forever.”
The priest was my second name, and when Death stole his soul, I saw him smile.
I had no wings, and yet I flew. It was under my soaring shadow that the earth quaked with fear, and the cities trembled with fleeing feet. The crops withered, the locusts gathered, the clouds darkened, and the people scattered.
I preached my message to the world, and in turn, they listened.
They listened, and when they died, they no longer begged.
A swing hung from the branches of an old oak and creaked in the stirring wind. The peeling pink paint had long faded into a stain of the past, and the ropes had frayed in the weather and time of disuse. The man that stood with me, under that grey sky, brushed his fingers against the old seat. I imagined that he, too, could still envision a time when the grass grew lush and green, and peals of laughter struck the air.
Now, the click of a turning lock echoed in the empty fields, and I was again alone.
I had watched his girl on that swing for days on end, coming back to visit, just for the melody of her voice. It was such a sweet voice—and so I claimed her for my own. So many had followed. A score, a thousand, and millions more; and yet, after all the faces that I had watched wane, I always promised that I would come back to visit the swing, to remember her voice one last time.
A cough again, and the cracking sound of phlegm.
I had claimed Annie. I had claimed her brothers, family, neighbors, and country. I had claimed them all, but I had inexplicably left her father behind. And now as I returned to hear her voice, I started to finish what I had begun.
I had claimed the beggars, the desert men, the priests, the scholars.
I had claimed the widow who mourned her twisted heart, the blind painter who burned his art.
I had claimed the students, the children, the uncles, the old.
I had claimed them all—the meek, the weak, the brave, the bold.
I claimed them all and handed Death their souls.
Yet that day, I learned mercy.
I didn’t turn to see Death’s face as I left. He was no god. No god could be thwarted as he had been that day, when I left Annie’s father with the gift of life.
He was just a black man in a black cloak.
I never learned the name of the man I let live—only that he hunted me. That he hunted me with sharpened spears and arrows blunted from hitting the target home. I wasn’t quite sure which name he knew me by, but I was sure it wasn’t my own.
I had so many, I barely knew my own.
I had so many that I had forgotten—
I had no name.
Now I stand upon the gallows, while the man searches for a rope. The dead are piled outside the city walls. The earth weeps. The black man wanders somewhere far away, but I know that it is not out of fear, nor regret. He hasn’t left because he wonders what he has created, or what I have become. He has left so that I may stand my vigil alone.
I am the one soul that will never be his own.
The man returns empty-handed. He has hunted me this far, to the red horizon at the edge of the world. Now he has no rope, and he has no courage, so I silently hand him a noose. Even as he places the rope around my bare neck, he doesn’t understand—that I once showed mercy, that I am no captive, and that he is no executioner, only a man with a rope.
Soon, he will understand.
The names—they are my chains.
When the man with the rope claims my life, he claims them all.
And when I let forever go, I will be free.