Story by Jack Harte (Ireland)
Published in The Ofi Press issue 41
The Silent One
All day they have been streaming into my wilderness, assaulting my peace with their noise and their questions. I bolted my door and refused entry to the clamouring hordes, with their waving microphones and their sparking cameras.
When the Mayor of my local town appeared at my window, I relented and opened the door momentarily to let him slip through. I visited the town once a month or so to barter goods, so I was familiar with him. I had always done my best to sustain a non-hostile relationship with the townspeople.
The Mayor was almost breathless. He explained that the Silent One had been captured and summarily executed. During his brief interrogation he had remained true to his name and said nothing. Then, as they raised their guns, he said, ‘Ask Johnny to tell you what happened in the camp’.
Johnny is not my real name; it is a label of convenience in the global language, a word that has provided anonymity. But the Silent One – let us call him Peter in the global language – would have given my name in our native language. Otherwise they would never have identified me, or it would have taken longer than a week to track me down. Anyway Peter would hardly have known the name I had adopted in the global language.
The Silent One. A name that had transmitted fear across much of the world. In our Holy Wars he was the absolute holy warrior. He slaughtered and slaughtered and slaughtered. But never once did he proclaim his faith, never once did he, like the others, offer up his deeds to the god he served. Hence his name: the Silent One. They did not understand him, so they feared him all the more. No wonder they dispatched him with such urgency.
It might appear like a label of convenience concocted by the media to give immediate identification and concrete form to the shadowy terror he represented for them and that they loved to embellish for their audience. But he had always been the Silent One.
The Mayor explained that the media were pouring in from all around the world. They were prepared to pay any fees I quoted for my story. A stage was being assembled, right outside my hut, especially for my interview. It would be ready for nine o’clock. That was prime-time for broadcasting a news story. And the sun would be gone down so the stage would be looking splendid under lights; everything would be crisp and clear for the watching world. And he had assured the media people of my adequate command of the global language.
That was more or less what he said, and I let him slip out again. He had to get ready. No doubt he would dress in his finest hoping for an appearance on the stage at nine, a prelude to a breakthrough into major league politics.
All day long the big trucks kept arriving, their satellite dishes posturing self-importantly over the cabs. Other trucks brought tons of scaffolding and lights and electricity generators. They were assembling this stage at an incredible rate, and I had to marvel at their arrogance, their presumption, their unquestioning sense of entitlement.
What happened in the camp! How long ago was it – twenty years – more? But it felt like two hundred years ago. It seemed as if it had happened to others in another world, or in a particularly nasty nightmare. The passage of time had not dulled the memory, but had petrified the experience: it lodged in the soul like a granite sculpture, precise in every detail, immutable; yet I no longer engaged with it in a condition of trauma.
We were children then, confined to the camp. Our parents were dead or missing in the latest outbreak of the Holy Wars. Peter was of course referring to what happened to Lucy. Lucy was not her name in our native language but the name in the global language that best represents her for me, because her image always evokes light. She radiated light, attracted light, she simply was light.
She was a little older than me, not much older, perhaps a year or two. Peter was a year or two younger again. That is an age gap among children, and we looked up to her as if she were already an adult. To me she was the most beautiful creature in the world.
One day we were gathered in a corner of the compound where the barbed wire fence segregated our beaten earth from the pastured countryside beyond. We were particularly downcast in spirit and one little girl complained: how can God let so many bad things happen? Similar thoughts had no doubt wandered through the minds of the rest of us, but we were wary of articulating them. So we deflected the question towards Lucy who seemed to have read all the books in the Library before they burned it down.
There is only one explanation, said Lucy. God is dead. They have killed God.
Every one of us was shocked and even more downcast at this news. If God was dead, and we had every reason to believe Lucy, who then would come to rescue us?
She must have seen the despair in our faces, because she immediately lifted her voice. Listen, she said, and our heads bunched into a huddle with hers. I read that there is a people somewhere who believe that God sang the world into existence. Isn't it lovely to think that? Imagine God waking up one morning in good humour and beginning to hum. As he hums he creates the air and there is a fresh breeze to cool his face, so he hums louder and creates the sea. The wind and the sea begin to play with one another, and God is so happy that he hums the land into existence and gives them a beach to play on. At this stage God is excited and he breaks into song. He sings the sun and the moon and the stars into life. His song rises, and he creates the thunder clouds and the rain; his voice softens and he creates the flowers and the insects, the birds and the animals. By the time he takes a rest he finds that he has created a whole world. Sitting back admiring his creation, he thinks that it would be good to have creatures who would appreciate how wonderful this world is that he had created. So one final time he sang and brought human beings into life. He showed them his beautiful creation and asked them to mind it for him, to sustain it by singing.
That is a lovely God, said one of the younger children, and now they have killed him.
Lucy was quick to detect the new surge of despondency. Yes, they have, she said, but what if we can sing God back to life the way he sang the world into existence? What if there is a little spark of him left somewhere and we can fan it to life with our voices.
How can we do such a thing? We are not very good singers, and we do not have the songs.
We can do our best, said Lucy, and we do have songs. She started humming one of our skipping rhymes, then twisted the words cleverly to mean that she was bringing God back to life, followed by a litany of beautiful names for the God she was resuscitating. All of this was in our native language of course, so there is no point in my trying to recall the words, but everyone knows street rhymes, even those anaemic ones in the global language.
We all joined in, skipping to this incantation, and it lifted our spirits. Then Lucy took another rhyme we used for a street game - a game that was more difficult to play on the caked earth of the camp, as it involved hopping on one foot while kicking a stone to a target spot with that standing foot. This rhyme she shaped into a prayer that the reborn God would come rescue us and reunite us with our families.
Every day Lucy had adapted another rhyme for the purpose of singing God back to life. We rapidly learned each rhyme and chanted it with enthusiasm and a growing confidence in our endeavour.
Then one day a man was passing and paused to listen. Peter was nearest him, so he asked what the curious rhymes were that we were chanting. Peter enthusiastically replied that God was dead but that we were going to sing him back to life. The man enquired whose idea that was, and Peter proudly declared that Lucy had composed the songs for us.
The man, like all the men in the camp, gloried in being a fighter for the cause of religion, and was clearly horrified by what he heard. He grabbed Lucy by her long hair and dragged her with him, cursing her with words like 'whore' and 'slut'. I followed at a distance. He dragged her into a house of one of the elders. Within a short time I could see men arriving and understood that it was a hastily assembled tribunal. When they were all inside I went to the door and listened. They were accusing her of blasphemy, of being an agent of the devil, and calling her all sorts of nasty names. All of them agreed that this illustrated the mistake of teaching girls to read and allowing them access to books. They lauded the wisdom of burning down the Library. And they condemned her to be burned to death in the Square the next morning.
I followed wherever they brought her. After the sun went down they dragged her to a tent in the quarter where the fighters were billeted. Surely they wouldn't do anything to a child, I thought. But I feared the worst. Although still a child, Lucy was on the threshold of womanhood, and I remembered the way the men glanced at her with a mixture of lust and loathing in their eyes.
I heard Lucy screaming and moaning in pain, and imagined the unspeakable things they were doing to her in the tent. A queue formed, and the men took turns going inside as if they were using the latrine. After a while I heard no more screams or moans from Lucy.
I sat on a low wall outside the tent. The fighters ordered me off several times but I didn't budge. One of them threw a stone at me and, even though it hit me hard on the shoulder, I didn't wince. Eventually they left me alone. I was determined to stay as close as possible to Lucy so that she might sense my presence, however unlikely that might be.
All night I kept vigil while that obscene queue of holy warriors snaked its way to the door of the tent. As soon as the first ray of sunlight glinted on the horizon they dispersed, as if their deeds would not bear the scrutiny of daylight. I continued my vigil until two fighters emerged dragging Lucy's already half dead body between them to the central square where they chained her to the granite column.
I sat on the ground in front of her. So battered, so mutilated, she was barely conscious. Just then I was aware of someone else at my shoulder and turned to see Peter. The expression of absolute despair, absolute suffering, on his face was terrible to witness. I put my arm around his shoulder to assure him that he was not to blame for this savagery.
I said something to Lucy to catch her attention, to alert her to our presence. She did not reply but focused her eyes on me. I said something else. She raised her hand to her mouth and with two fingers miming a scissors she indicated that they had cut out her tongue. Then she waved her head to indicate that we should go lest we should witness the final horror. Again I didn't move, determined to face whatever horror they were going to inflict, and to share it in so far as I could.
When Lucy saw that we were determined to stay, she became calm. She even broke into a smile. At first I thought it was at us she was smiling. Then she nodded her head to direct my gaze. At the other end of the square the traders were beginning to set up their stalls. A van was delivering milk and bread to a shop. Children were squatting on a doorstep. She nodded again to show I had not detected what she was trying to indicate. Then I spotted it. At the base of an abutment, squeezing out of a crevice, was a flower newly blossomed. I remember that it was yellow, but no more than a weed, the kind that grows defiantly on any wasteland. When she saw that I had spotted it she smiled again. She obviously saw some significance in it, because she kept her eyes fixed on it while the men arrived with a can of petrol, doused her, and set her alight.
It was a horrible sight to witness, but I did not take my eyes off Lucy until she was dead. In so far as I know, neither did Peter.
A couple of years later an attack on our camp was imminent and we all scattered. Once I was outside and on the road, I kept travelling, scavenging for survival. I had travelled a great distance from the camp when I came upon this shack, obviously abandoned in an earlier campaign of the Holy Wars. I settled here, and here I am still, in this hut in a forsaken wilderness.
Peter joined a band of fighters, on a random choice it would appear. And he became the most feared fighter of all in the recent campaigns of the Holy Wars. He was renowned as the Silent One. Unlike the others who were always boasting their religious allegiance, bragging of their great deeds, beseeching God to favour them in battle, the Silent One said nothing. He just slaughtered as many of the opposing warriors as he could.
Now they have assembled this magnificent stage right here in my wilderness. The world has come to my door. They expect me to give voice to the Silent One. The Mayor has arrived, prancing around like a peacock. As he obsequiously ushers me to the bank of microphones and the battery of cameras, I am blinded by the lights but nevertheless notice that the backdrop is peppered with sponsors' logos. This is clearly major entertainment. The War is the world's entertainment, more chilling than the nightly fictions they watch because it is real. They have not come to enquire, to learn, to understand; they have come merely for the story.
Nine o'clock, and they tell me the world is watching. Waiting. They ask questions, barrage me with questions about the camp. But my mind has wandered back to the flower that Lucy watched so intensely as they doused her with petrol. Did she see it as a message from her God, a message that, no matter how rampant was ugliness and hatred, beauty and love would triumph regardless. Was that why she was smiling? I want to go back to my hut, to close the door, and to think about this, so I get up to leave. They are going frantic with their questions and their frustration, but I am getting impatient too and annoyed with them. I took none of their money, I owe them no explanation, not as much as a word. Do they not understand that I too was called the Silent One? All of us who were children then were dubbed the Silent Ones.