Friday, March 2, 2012

We Lift

(I had this idea for a very long time (around three years at least), and it was difficult condensing it into a short story. I did so for a contest this year. Perhaps I might work with something like this again in the future.

This is how I came up with the whole 'levity' thing, actually. When I first learned the word, it became more than just my favorite word. It became a concept. This is what resulted from that.)


I will start here.

On the rainiest nights of the year, Kern would suddenly recall an obscure moment of his childhood and he would relay the stories to me, word by word, without a conceivable end in sight. He would hand me a damp notepad that collected dirt from the road and ask me to pen down notes, since he could never be bothered to write anything himself (though I gave him the benefit of the doubt; I suspected him to be mostly illiterate). The pens would almost always give out somewhere around fifteen bullet points in and he would become irate with me and abruptly cease his storytelling to sulk in the corner of his cart in disgust. He was such a burly man that I thanked the stars he never resorted to physically striking me; I knew he was capable of killing me. I knew Chief would never allow it—our numbers were too small and I proved too precious to them on multiple occasions—but I was wary. I guess I was always wary.

“Salmaj,” Kern began with his characteristically charming voice, his protruding belly shaking as he spoke, “was wherr it ‘appened. I mean, yah, I was liftin’ ‘eavy rice crates, you know th’ deal—just liftin’ them an’ I was probably maybe aroun’ a teenager at th’ time. I mean, I didn’ really know what was goin’ on, you know, I was jus’ followin’ all o’ th’ other men, an’ a marvelous thing ‘appened…” He spread his bulky arms out in front of himself, his expression vivid and genuine. “I saw ‘t! I saw a rainbow in th’ sky! An’ it was movin’, I tell ya! ‘T was movin’ across th’ clouds an’ it vanished, an’ e’eryone saw it, too! It‘s exactly what we’re strivin’ towards, I think. We want t’ be e’eryone’s rainbow ‘n th’ sky…” My mind drifted off somewhere around there and Gharen had the pen and paper this time, so I was home free. Tonight was particularly vicious; the storm battered our worn carts relentlessly, and the winds whistled mournfully into the dusk, almost as if it were eerily attempting to soothe us. My personal corner became especially damp, and I reminisced on a few months back—back when the government spies began their raids, and when Fen would cry and cower in terror every time it rained, he hated water so much. He was such a skinny little blonde thing, and he was always afraid of drowning. We worried for him often, and with plausible reason, too; but in the end, he proved expendable: La Cadena attempted to flood us out, and he fled straight into their capture. A wonderful, priceless distraction.

“None o’ th’ other men believed me, an’ I knew they wouldn’,” Kern continued, he story reduced to mere background noise at this point. I could not quite shut out his charisma, however. He made punching motions with his fists clenched as tightly as he could clench them, his knuckles nearly white, and this caused Gharen to recoil in caution until the larger man was finished with his display. Kern yawned and continued a detached piece of what I barely listened to the entire time: “I didn’ really punch them, o’ course, since that would ‘ave been a stupid thing t’ do, don’ you think? Oh boy, I wanted t’, though. They all made fun o’ me, an’ a few o’ them e’en stopped talking t me.” He frowned. “I mean, what’s so bad about a rainbow? Why ‘ave just one color when you can ‘ave them all, yeah?” I got a glimpse at Gharen’s face right then; he wanted badly to tell Kern that he was missing the point, but none of us ever had the heart to tell him that. Or the guts, really.

I dove further into the sanctity of my corner, despite its wetness. I hated feeling this way; the malignant nostalgia disguised itself as precious reminiscence. Tonight, I knew it would haunt me. I listened a little further to Kern’s booming voice before I slipped into a stupor, and I felt my willpower trying to coerce me to not fall asleep—we were almost to Ritandra, and I sighed, propping myself up against the mildewy wood. It smelled like grass. I habitually turned my head to the left as if I had expected someone to be there. I breathed in the misty air and reached out for the empty space next to me, and Kern’s melodramatic recounting suddenly became my own memories setting themselves next to each other like broken strips of film. My hands closed around something I could not see.

I wanted to tell the story about her when I knew that this would happen. I was saving it for the night it would catch up to me, and when I would finally be able to tell it. Until now it seemed almost as if she had never existed, that she was a dream that I never truly touched, that the months that passed were merely figments of my imagination, or spawned by drug-induced delirium. No one talked about her because she was never mentioned. No one, not even the Chief, even acknowledged that she once resided with the company. Perhaps deep in my heart and my fearful gut I had hoped for some sign that she truly had been here. I hoped for so much, and I lifted my arms now in the motion she used to do it, my eyes brimming with tears. I raised them so high in the air, my body trembling, the will in me fighting desperately to spark itself aflame until it was blazing, and I could hear her voice again. I did not know if this alone would suffice for that voice; I set myself down again and looked at my hands. She needed to be honored, and I had not an inkling where to begin.
U’areh Ka’ereh. My full name was often mispronounced by anyone that did not live in my native rice-thriving village of W’arkkha—‘Little Grain’ in my mother tongue. I never recalled what my real name meant because I loathed it. I loathed its very sound, feel, and taste in my mouth like something putrid and rotten, and I could feel my stomach lurch each time my mother called me by name. My father was not a worry in that department; it was an odd tradition in our culture that only mothers refer to their daughters by true name, whilst only the fathers referred to their sons as such. Respect, they called it (‘i-ahken’ in the grain language), and questioning where exactly it originated got travelers blank stares and silent disapproval. No one knew what respect really was—it could not be taught or learned. One simply understood it.

W’arkkha located itself a mere few miles from Salmaj, where the company first originated and also where both Kern and Chief were born. Together they loved all of the younger children of the small grain village as cherished siblings, including myself. I grew up listening to Kern’s displaced ramblings, as well as admiring Chief’s stoicism. I do not remember exactly when Chief formed his company, nor do I remember first leaving home; the fact that Chief became one of the first to take a stand against the Government became the most important thing. “My people will build up slowly,” he once said to me as he stroked my hair lovingly, “and soon there will be no more room for these restrictions, because everyone in the region will know what they do.” He crushed the butt of his makeshift cigarette in the palm of his left hand while squeezing my arm with his right, and whispered, “They ground us, and we need to fly.” I never forgot the way he slurred those eight words. “Levity of the spirit,” he told me the morning before we departed from Salmaj, “is one of the most vital things we will provide for these people.” According to him, the exact look in my eyes when he declared this was what earned me that very nickname—levity. From that point on, I never used my real name again.

The true rise of the company officially began nearly seven months ago. We lived in the intimidating industrial city of Hedlock, and we hid in dangerous places. La Cadena just began announcing Chief’s band as malicious and unpredictable; I never saw the headlines or what exactly they fabricated to frame us, but Chief was furious, and he stomped out of the door often to disappear for entire nights without any prior warning. We never learned what he did on those particular nights, of course, but I did learn something on one certain night: the world is full of curious people who don’t follow the rules.
“Hey, Lev, I’m going to hit the sack here in a minute.” Fen Alcurda’s soft and lilting voice upon my ears became its own special lullaby, and I chuckled as I set my book down. This seemed to annoy him. “You always laugh at me,” he huffed, yanking the pillow from under my elbow. “I was going to ask if I could borrow this since Kern stole mine again, but I’ll just take it.”

“I don’t mind.” My brain was still torn between reality and the novel I abruptly stopped reading, and my response was halfhearted and breathy as a result. “Just remember not to let Kern hang onto yours for too long. He’ll tear it up in his sleep.”

“That’s not even fair,” murmured Fen, his expression dropping, “He’s always taking everything.” He pressed my pillow close to his face before he drifted off over to his side of the musty room that we shared. "Blow your candle out. It bothers me.”

I smirked, letting the cheap wax smother itself on its own. The nights Chief left would leave Fen worried and on-edge; he was still fairly new at the time. I plopped myself down on the questionable mattress and forced myself to sleep. In my mind I thought about being safe and sound in Salmaj, drifting off to the soothing smell of warm rice pudding. Kern’s snoring made it difficult to dream properly but after more time passed it, too, became a rhythmic dance, and I reveled in this strange sense of security. The irony of this safe feeling soon painted itself across the lawn and the bricks and the doors, and one of the only things I could recall before the irate flames began to engulf the back entrance was Gharen’s angry voice shouting from the hall. I could scarcely hear him.

“—One of—your candles?”

“No!” I called back. In mere minutes we were the only two in the building and I scrambled to find the fire stairs when I spied the shadow towards the shattered window by Fen’s space. There were others behind it, immotile as this single figure swooped in directly through a burst of flame. Gharen did not hear my screams; little did I know he was already gone, and so was I. Something embraced me fully and dragged me helplessly towards the wall. I hit and kicked the apparition as hard as I could as my lungs began to draw in more and more smoke. I looked up, but there was nothing. The gray and the murkiness and the appalling fire mercilessly surrounded us. I had no voice or sense of self.
They arrested me that night. The whole of my arrest was a dream to me. To this day I am unaware of what they drugged me with, or what all I told them. I remember their incessant laughter as they whipped me across the back in the frivolous moonlight, and I came in and out of various shady rooms (I might have been hallucinating). I do remember, however, the shadow. He stood over me and did not interrogate me; he did not hit me or scold me, and he lay me back gently as he whisked me into another hazy spool of thought. I had never been this servile to anything before in my life. I know that he attempted to speak to me, and that was when I first saw her. She was unconscious and she could not see me nor hear me, and the shadow’s footsteps approached closer to my ear. She opened one eye and gazed into the confines of my soul, and she smiled. When the company eventually came to my rescue, they found me with her, and the shadow was already gone.
“Lev-an-ta-mos.” The woman made an unusual gesture in which she made a group within the company stand in a circle, and she would compel everyone to take each other’s hands and lift them up high in unison. We met the fortune teller in Hedlock that offered his services to us; he could speak Spanish, and he told me specifically that ‘levantamos’ meant ‘we lift.’ This woman repeated the word often, and Fen was the first one who deigned it her alias; he got along the most with her. I do not know if she actually had a name, and I knew not how to ask her; it quickly became evident that Spanish was her only tongue. Communication issues alienated her from a lot of the company and I surmised that perhaps this was why it was hard to mention her amongst one another; often we quoted who we talked about before springing into full story (Kern being the exception)—I considered everything!—but this strange characteristic did not impede her, not even slightly. I felt powerless to her might, and every time she and Fen sang together at the bonfires I felt my attention slowly sinking away from her direction. My intrigue did not end, and yet I let my usual caution wane. I became used to having her around. I took it for granted. The shadow’s words suddenly became clearer.

“I am your willpower.”
“Today.” Chief threw the worn newspaper on the desk irately. I did not have to ask what it was; my stomach dropped and my hair was still wet. Levan had not yet awoken from her troubled nap, and I stood up from my chair and faced the inescapable reality that was to come. “Fen’s public execution is today. Does Levan know?” he did not wait for me to answer his question, “I can’t believe they cheated like this. They’re only afraid because we’ve almost won!” He smashed his fist against the wall and I cowered in fear. “And there’s nothing we can do. What do they think they accomplish? The people do nothing! They lie and say they’re hanging a terrorist today. We’re not terrorists, are we? We don’t kill for popular entertainment!” I reeled back as he toppled a chair over in his uncharacteristic rage before he stormed from the edge of the room. I yet heard his resolve loud and clear: “We’re raiding them tonight, and then we’re leaving this trash pit, mark my words.” I found myself unable to speak when my willpower slipped into the den unannounced, staring straight into my eyes.

“¿QuĂ©?” She rubbed her eyes drowsily and set one hand anxiously on the dusty table where the newspaper lay. Though it was in English, she understood each and every word and I could not pull it away from her in time. “Necesito un momento,” she muttered before dashing back through the rear exit—I sprinted out for her and reached out desperately, albeit before I even knew what I had, she was nowhere to be found. I need a moment. Little did I know that these would be her final words; if I had known, they most certainly would not have been. Fen’s execution drove her to recklessness I did not imagine.
Chief’s decision finally marked the beginning of a revolution. Levan’s disappearance pushed his anger to limits I had never seen. It both fascinated and horrified me the most that this woman whom he barely interacted with prompted his gunfire with such passion and determination. It was true—through the short time she stayed with us, she lifted us all. We lifted together. With this single victory we raised the people to triumph and lifted them to limitless vigor and success, and our company evolved in such a way we never saw before. It all ran through my mind as we worked our way through each room in our endless distress, exacting revenge on the tyrants that destroyed our freedom: sometimes one person out of numerous people and countless friends, out of all of the people one can know, simply cannot be described. She could not be described. Ironically, the most precious of treasures can be the ones so easily lost.

Kern and Gharen kept repeating terms that Fen would have recited with us as I silently cursed myself for knowing only English; just in that moment, we located the jarred door. Instantly Chief leapt in first. They interrogate people in these rooms, I thought to myself, and a sickening stench permeated the atmosphere around us. Tark and Oren left to vomit, and Chief’s arm gestured me into the room. Only me. I hid behind my veil of black hair and my eyes trailed reluctantly to the heap on the floor. I approached the two and the dying girl choked hopefully; she had been gut-shot a few times and left to bleed out there, alone and forlorn. The rugged man spoke as if it were to himself only. “The man in here took off. Said that he separated the sheer willpower and the risk-taking that you trapped inside of you because you did not use it. Lev, you are both caution and recklessness. Ignoring that potential… leads to this. He did this because he knew it would teach you a lesson; apparently, you are not his only subject. The head executive committed suicide and I don’t know if he’ll be next, Lev, but this is a favor that he did for all of us.” He did not need to say more; I kneeled carefully down to myself and I lied next to her there for as long as the company had patience for. Levan carried no more strength with her, however I felt her last shallow breaths sync with mine before finally she shuddered and she was no more.
The last act I could do for her was lift her body up to the stars as the fortune teller managed to merge us again, and the intensive dream I experienced before returned to me once more. I saw everything: the bonfires, the protests, the marching, the merging of all of the people along with myself. I suddenly knew myself. And even then, even now, I knew I was going to miss her. She would forever be a part of me now, and I did not even know her name. Truly? Perhaps names were not even important, not in the grand scheme. I know mine was not.
I smiled.

Kern’s monotonous blathering still did not cease, and I stood as upright as I could in the cramped space of our traveling carts. I sauntered towards him swiftly, and I offered my hand. He gazed at me skeptically.

“Eh?” His volatile glare at me quickly softened when he spied my convivial expression. “What ‘s ‘t?”

“… Lift it with me.”

And Kern comprehended my intentions instantly. After so many years, I realized just why he wanted his spontaneous memories written down. He knew before anyone else how to face his past with dignity.

And with this, I end.

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