Friday, May 12, 2017

The Man Who Lived Michael Shammas

A Roman slave fleeing persecution after falling in love with a priestess decides to return and face the people; by Michael Shammas.

"I was dead before I died," says The Man Who Died. "But now I am risen. Now I see."

The thought calms him. He stops rowing, sighs, reclines, looks up at tonight's glistening spectrum. Even so bright, the laboring stars cannot defeat a moonless night. So aside the fugitive's boat there is the sea and there is a darkness, a deep darkness, a still darkness, a blackness rendering him completely at nature's thoughtless mercy, and yet the notion does not frighten him, for yesterday against the blood-stained cross he was at the whim of a more dangerous force - Man.

During his first encounter with the priestess when he moved as she moved and breathed as she breathed he realized that he is nature, not above it, not below it; that this is a most beautiful thing, this which the priestess shared; that the essence behind this thing moves life.

Suddenly the outcast feels very lonely. He thinks of how the priestess came at night, her olive face tinted white by the moon; he remembers how she heaved him off the crucifix with all the strength of her small body, of how her tears stung his wounds as she nursed him to health and carried him to this boat in which he now lay.

"With her help I escaped death," he says. "Yet if I run I escape life."

And just like that he knows: He rows back toward the peninsula, yearning for and reaching backwards for the only worthy thing, this priestess with her swinging hips, with her full breasts and her fuller eyes. Before entering her body - and thus her mind - he had lived like others, mistaking shadows for reality, existing but not living.

Yet now he understands. Truly.

So he rows until his heart rages against his chest, until his arms burn with a thousand bitter fires. His laboring body is weak, yet he cannot stop for fear of death. For if he stops he will die in a worse way than before.

Eventually the narrow wooden boat scratches sand. I can rest, he thinks; I can rest. So he rests.



He wakes to a cock's crow.

Before him: Judgment - the Iberian slaves who desire violent vengeance for the forbidden pleasures shared with their priestess; the Roman soldiers, swollen with the pride of youth and muscles and - as unthinking swords swung by thinking men, their Senate - not doubting for an instant the man-made laws they daily enforce. They are nothing more than instruments, these men, for they allow themselves to be used; they do not suspect that they could replace their users.

Abreast the soldiers: She who was called priestess, whom they now call whore. She bends to the dirt, mendicant, as if worthy of scorn instead of praise, lower than the others though she is higher. Tears leave her beautiful glistening eyes like water from a spring. He knows that she does not understand why he now returns when he had before escaped. That she cannot understand that this - only this - is redemption. But that is okay.

The Man Who Died realizes he is on his back. He stares, listlessly, at the mirthful crowd. Still he cannot believe how they hate him so, these people who scarcely know him. Still he cannot comprehend why their bodies kindle such resentment.

And now he feels again the horrible feeling - the stinging burning holes in his hands and feet, the stinging burning straining in his chest, the stinging burning stretching of his arms and legs. Not again, he thinks; no, no. Not again. And then his confusion turns to rage - rage that they do this to him now when he survived the last crucifix, rage that they are this full of humanness. Oh, "humanity" - how ironic that the word connotes mercy, for its fruits are so different! During this hot madness, as they heave his cross-strapped mass upwards, he sees the world clearly. He sees the outline of the human spirit. He sees all its degraded ugliness.

Yet looking down from the cross he sees human beauty, too.

He sees her.

"Do not cry," he implores the fallen priestess, for he cannot bear that his arrival brings grief, "their hatred cannot erase our past. Inside you grows what before lived in me. They cite their laws to mock us, to undo us. They think their law legitimizes their violent impulses, worse, that it makes that violence good. They burn with rage - how dare I, a slave, sleep with you, a priestess! My fellow slaves feel it even more keenly than their masters, resenting those who touch what they do not. But death is nature, and nature is beautiful, and so death is beautiful. Death is, ultimately, the one real thing. And so it is the best thing. We mistake it for the worst."

"Quiet now," says a Roman centurion, one of these new yet presumptuous occupiers of Iberia, whose consciousness the slaves have adopted fully. "You defiled the priestess; you revealed her as a common whore. Your punishment is just." At the soldier's confidence the priestess cries the harder. Tears cleave her cheeks, little rivulets.

The centurion's confidence does not surprise The Man Who Died. Along with man-made political law, ersatz spiritual law legitimizes his body's breaking. For most men fear uncertainty, and so they ache for The Answer to The Question: Why? The Romans and these slaves exalt a religion emphasizing purity as the solution to their Why - as their Meaning of Meanings. Although their use of religion to answer "why" inflates them with false confidence, their religion comforts them in the same way that submitting to their Senate comforts them. It means they no longer have to ask that needling Question - Why? By sleeping with the priestess, The Man Who Died injected uncertainty into their false religious certainty. He robbed them of the solace their religion had previously given them. He subverted their Answer to their Question - and only his death could right that wrong.

How sad: Religion means that they do not know that humanity - humanity's very existence - is the reason for and The Answer to The Question: "Why?" Drunk on religion, they abuse humanity - the real Answer - to sate religion - the Lie.

The Man Who Died looks at this soldier. "I will be silent soon enough," he replies. "Your cross assures it." The rage within him is so hot and raw now that he cannot quite believe his body contains it. "You think that because you wield a sword you wield power, that because you wield power you wield authority. But you do not see. You are blind to the world and to its beauty. You are naught but a tool that our rulers, your Senate, uses to blind us to nature and to the real purpose of things and to the injustice wrapping itself around everything like a viper. But the flame of truth and its cousin, justice, cannot be extinguished no matter the darkness you heap upon it; no amount of your fake morality - laws - can change real morality. For there is only one true thing: A single thing. A simple thing. Nature. Laws crumble before nature. Nature will kill me, yet in doing so it will steal me beyond the reach of your law. All is illusion before nature, which, at last, triumphs. Nature is The Answer, and we humans are nature. Don't you see? We are the answer. We - our lives - are sacred! What you do now in the name of religion... it is profane!"

"We deliver you to justice!" shrieks the old widow, the priestess's mother, who discovered him entangled, mid-thrust, within her highborn Roman daughter, within the "vestal virgin" whom The Man Who Died had supposedly despoiled. Her hands shake in anger at his apparent lack of suffering; oh, she wants him to suffer desperately, she needs him to cry out and to repent and then, simply, to die. Only then would the world make sense to her. Only then would the anger stirring her soul - her futile yet understandable rage against old age - cease. "We demand justice."

He looks at her; because he understands her, he feels only sympathy. He says: "Again: I am dying. You will have your petty justice soon enough. But I will not apologize, and by apologizing give you more than you steal."

The Man Who Died surveys the crowd aside the outraged widow. Dozens. They curse his name, bitter poison on their tongues; they curse his ideas, too alien for any slave. All do this save one - the priestess, the high Roman they once exalted, whom they now call whore. Impulsively he nurtures rage: The hypocrites! How unjust, how monstrous, that the worst amongst us should judge the best! But the priestess is immune to the judgment, for she has borrowed his strength. A smile forms on her face, a smile and a slight glistening in her eyes rendering all better.

She's collecting her will now to give him this gift. This chance to die in a place where there is at least one whose eyes do not flow with malice and torment and pleasure from human pain. This opportunity to experience the human love of love, rather than the human love of hate. The Man Who Died can die like this. Better - he wants to die like this. Just so. Right in front of her, the priestess, the beautiful manifestation of The Answer.

First he wants to live.

The Man Who Died shuts his eyes and the angry voices are shadows. He lets his senses run free. His flared nostrils grasp the scent of sea-salt, his parched lips feel the moisture caressing the air, his back scrapes against the splintered wood assaulting it - and even that feels good. It all does, as one's body approaches its end. It's the body's final gift: Goodness.

Soon his heart will stutter past a few more beats. His chest will rise and fall for one last time. Yet just before he dies The Man Who Died does something few ever do.

He lives.

2 comments:

  1. Mystical and mythical with haunting beauty, many thanks,
    Ceinwen

    ReplyDelete
  2. haunting is most certainly the word. beautifully written with a powerful ending.
    Fine piece of work
    Mike McC

    ReplyDelete