Renegade of the Songbirds
A Testimony in Four Parts
It was almost as if I could reach out and graze my fingertips on the side of the tree; that grand old fir that sung your raptures as well as the birds'; that hissed your regrets and wept for your broken hopes. That tree where she tucked in her bruised, dented elbows, leaning against the primordial trunk and foolishly sealed her breath until she felt her lungs would pop. Where her pursuer would stumble up to, a rasp upon his lips as well as a goofy grin at the naïveté of his partner. The tree where two giddy, filth-ridden children tumbled over one another in a mocking game of chase, inevitably cheating using its spindly branches. Where he would scoop a snapping turtle out of the stream, and she would name it Sonya, and together they would craft it a nest out of the pine needles that drifted down from the clawlike fronds.
O, the breezeless summer evenings spent so foolishly on that hill, spilling over with ringing laughter and the melodious hum of the flickering fireflies. Where she, blue eyes ever so wide, eagerly pointed to the little nooks in Orion's Belt that were evident, blinking their gleaming smiles across the balmy and mistless dusk; knocking her head softly against his shoulder. Where two silly young lovers etched in their initials, just below that one branch you always pointed your toes on, spirits high and possibilities infinite. I could just sense the presence of that faint evergreen aroma; imagine the rough, splintering flesh that crumbled under your nails. The vision teasingly dances on the inner shades of my eyelids, and yet it’s almost as if I can grasp its presence more clearly than reality.
Just out of reach.
But instead of chipping bark ridges, the fingertips, knaught and split with those balmy nights, are met with dull concrete. They’re attached to my dangling hand, but those gnarled, wretched fingers cannot possibly belong to me. They sway ever so gently, skimming slightly across the shadowy tile below the skeletal iron frame.
Just out of reach.
I wonder what might happen if they arrive now, my rigid nails scraping for something there. Nothing, I think. It’s our doing, they would think. And maybe they would give each other a pat on the back and swipe out their cigars for Stolichnaya, the nice kind, and drink themselves silly.
Idiot men. Never knowing where reason ends and spirit begins. Constantly blurring that line until no one ever realized it once laid there, distinct, unwavering.
At many points, I contemplated whether those whom I saw were truly men; no one with any sliver of humanity could participate in their evils, I decided. Or maybe they had just given in to the raspy murmurs of the snow, the bitter musings of the cold. Maybe their feeble judgements were clouded by the sweet nothings of the city, depriving them of passion and empathy. This notion, as naïve as it may have been, was dragged through the unearthly wails that traveled through the stone.
I stare mindlessly at the fingers making lazy circles in their shadows below me, swooping silently above one another. Tiredness drums on the back of my eyelids, its temptation crawling under the deepest fragments of my skin. Perhaps, my estranged mind thinks, sleep will gently take my hand and lead me back home.
It is only at this point does she come.
A sharp creak spills over the room. Naturally, I am startled; extended confinement turns silence into your ally, friend. It, in a way, is the only thing that it guaranteed; it never escapes or betrays. The screech of the tray that slips to my side and the clatter of my fingers as their swerves roll its contents to my parched lips; they all lost their voices. Even the harsh pleads of the outside seemed to fall away with the passing of time.
My eyes tentatively flick ahead of me, where a sliver of light stands, only to be hushed by a silhouette. She is there, her skin shriveled and busted with the haunting promises of the city. She is cadaverous, angles crudely slashing across her figure like blades. She is aged beyond her young years, pale hands gnarled and fidgeting. Her hair is bright; although it is knotted and split, it is with lathered with a remarkable scarlet uncharacteristic of those I have seen. Yet it is her eyes that will remain in my memory. Their color is of no particular note; a sombre gray like twirled dust, dull. But they are encompassed by her expression: years of soft dents where freckles used to be, scars where smiles scrunched her cheeks, the way her lashes flit to and fro as if searching for something nonexistent.
I had never found such a beautiful girl so ugly.
A wet film veils her irises, her full lips trembling as if to speak. But for some minutes, silence wraps me in its familiarity, and a level of comfort arises, allowing anger to follow. Deep fury only owned by memories; this one shares roots with that grand old fir, the one that listened and cried…
Her sunken gaze brings forward a new version of it; a helpless, weeping trunk with withering branches and charred fingers. A tree that billows and crumples at a beckoning of the hand; a tree invaded, sundered. Where he ran his fingers affectionately through her locks as they waited for the inevitable. Where that foolish girl faced those same thoughtless grey eyes from the barrel of a pistol.
"I'm sorry, you know."
It was a breath, a rasp, an afterthought. I tighten.
“I did not think it would end like this.”
The fingers’ paths become sharp, distasteful, geometric. Why can’t I look away? Why?
I squint my aching eyes, narrowing my vision down to a slit. Only the eyes stand, wetness refracting the day’s young light. Did I deserve this torment? To relive every moment of anguish and agony? Why hell? Why her? Iridescent tears patter on the linoleum, and I’m not sure whose they are.
She murmurs something in a tongue I vaguely recognize; the speak of the allies. The girl turns and sees the faint recognition in my face, crestfallen.
“They did not let me fight--” her accent is now obvious, her words shoddy and broken, “--and I come to help win the …war in…”
She fumbles over the translation, but eventually pronounces “East” shakingly. I avoid her gaze and force my eyes shut, begging silently for sleep. For death.
“They laugh when I say ‘woman fighter’. Instead they say…”
“…‘Women cannot kill.’”
I freeze, tentatively opening one eye. She doesn’t cry anymore; she just looks aged. She’s bloodshot and crumpling and fragile. She’s tired. Tired of herself, tired of the war, tired of the world. Her plump lips part as if to scream, but instead she whispers in a language I know; one I’ve seen in the lips of men, men ten times her corruption.
“It’s …intoxicating. To be respected. To be feared. To be powerful when no one will give it to you. To have equality, riches. It’s hypnotic.” She’s speaking in a creole of greed and mindlessness. I don’t understand her words, but they are eloquent and ruthless.
And then she pauses. The tears have returned, muffled and muted as they spill over her hollowed cheeks. She slowly lets her face drop into her hands and sobs. It wasn’t a cry of grief or even repentance; it was the expression of exhaustion. Hell hath borne on Earth, and its weight rested on her shoulders.
“I’m sorry. So sorry...”
I stare as she scrambles up, brushes off her ragged dress, and leaves wordlessly.
My fingers sway to a halt.
The tree wails, as does she. When the blooming promise of spring wavered with the howl of the ancestral branches. When her solemn blue eyes, so very so bright, were like the dawn as they faded into lifelessness. The boy, so young, cradles her like a child, but they have both aged so much within a minute. They had watched them come, the boy and Blue-Eyes, on that very hill. Saw the small army shifting and stomping like a colony of bears amongst the snow. They seemed almost frigid, despite their wraps of head-to-toe Motherland mink; that is, except for the Grey. She had never been fazed less, locks of auburn wisping out of the scarf that was pressed against her lips and snowflakes clumping her lashes.
Turncoat, they seemed to whisper, hum, emanate. изменник.
And they saw the little army stifle their gasps as the little, strong-jawed Blue rose. Saw her give a simple nyet, staring straight into those dusty, hollowed eyes. Saw sullen Grey finger her pistol.
The charges need not be read.
---- * insert cool transition here
Grey returns every day. The tears have stopped rhythmically pattering off the floor, but occasionally a defeated sob rings out, shattering our comfort.
The men, to my chagrin, have taken notice. They peer in, strut after her, murmur distractedly behind their hands as she exits. She pretends not to notice, until she cannot ignore it anymore. I can barely see the silhouette of the man, the one who talks first, through the small window. But he’s gruff, blunt, built like a bear.
“Dearest comrade.” His words were laced with venom.
“The cripple. You’ve been visiting him for some time...”
Her response is swift, unrelenting, sharp.
“That is none of your concern, comrade.” Her language has expanded; it’s flowing, almost native. He makes a sinister grab for her wrist, which she easily bats away.
“The rule of the game,” he hisses faintly, “is that all are equal. I have no less authority than your commander in the eyes of our Union. Or shall I say my Union?”
She flinches at this comment; he seems to have struck a nerve, and smirks at this.
“I have been interrogating him, per our Union’s request. Much has been told,” she replies coolly, although her boldness has shrunk back slightly.
“Could it trouble you to be more specific?”
“We caught him early. He was working for the British, as we thought. He didn’t reveal anything inherently exclusive to them: you know, the famine and such. Nothing really--”
“Might I recall that you have previously assured us of the prisoner’s importance? That he was an imminent threat for the nature of our society at hand? That we wasted our rations and labor resources… on ‘nothing really’? That we saved his life over ‘nothing really’?” His tone was increasingly furious, his brassy knuckles curling into scarred fists. “I see you and the cripple in there, comrade. I haven’t seen him as much as part his lips as you whine at him.” Grey meets his gaze, courage increasing with each tremor, ignoring his comment and murmuring stonily.
“Naturally, he did reveal things, obvious things. That the army was so weakened out on the Western front that we had to take measures of protecting the Homeland. Hiring women to join the army. Guard the camps. To do the work men were too bothered, too important to handle, because we are surely all equal.”
She explodes upon this point, her frail stature seemingly gleaning by the minute; she’s set defiantly against him. “Because this society is perfect, that we don’t torture and murder and pillage innocents every goddamn minute behind a curtain of equality.”
His nostrils flare, and he grunts in absolute fury.
“изменник! American! They rave about you, you know. But you pose no greater worth than a songbird in a coal mine. Выродок!” He spits at her feet, but she simply smiles. He wrathfully seizes her, shakes her, throws her, and she still doesn’t remark. He clamps his fists around her rags and slams her about, and she finally lets out a whimper, but that doesn’t stop him.
I desperately want to move, to leap out of bed as that silly loving boy would have done- how I would have done- and snap that bear’s meaty little neck. Anger pulsed through my veins, a power I had not felt since my capture, and I tried so hard to fling my useless body onto the linoleum, to will it to open the door and save the one who had saved me. She screamed now, wailed; his thick fingers closed over her plump mouth, and she is shoved out of my sight.
Soon enough, she returns. Her wounds are deep, emotional, connected. Blood soaks through her little ragged uniform, her bones poke out of her shabby, scathed skin, her hair is missing in patches, and bruises march up and down her body like ants to a picnic. But that is nothing compared to her eyes; her pupils are large, as if still adjusting to the light, their crimson almost blotting out her grey irises. Her hollow look heightens beyond any standard that could be reached; she is wraithlike, transcending emotion and life. She slumps against the wall, shuddering and dry heaving. Her lips tremble, but she breaks the silence in no time at all, in an eerily calm tone.
“I know what must come.”
Grey seems happier now, almost peaceful. The usual slurs bounce off her as she returns, standing right above my skeletal bed. To my shock, her lips curl in a sweet smile, and she tenderly strokes the hair off my head.
She unsheathes her pistol, the same one used on Blue. On me. She eyes it warily, almost lovingly.
“Nearly time,” she chirps. “Nearly time.”
For the longest period, the time doesn’t come.
But one morning, frozen and blustery, I am awoken by screams, not uncommon. However, this time I can tell it’s not the scream of an innocent. I perk up, straining my ears as more shots ring throughout the howling winds. Another shriek, almost familiar. It is almost a roar, like a lion.
Like a bear.
More screams follow; a rush of confusion, of almost suspicious glee. More roars, and I hear a stampede of merriment thundering down the dark corridor. I flick my gaze towards the window, towards the buzz of the city. To my shock, people- haggard, gaunt, barely crawling- rush like a tempestuous tide out of the barbed wire fences. They climb, hauling their loved ones up and out with ease past their starvation, screaming with utter happiness in the blustering snow. Guards are either absent or easily overpowered, trampled by the weak masses. I stare unbelievingly. It-it can’t be true. No way in hell-
The door burst open for the final time.
She’s there, in her ragged old dress, with happiness pouring over out of her grey eyes. Her auburn hair whips freely about her face, and her scars almost appear absent. I’ve never noticed her freckles before; their lovely uniqueness standing out among the scratches. She could never, ever look more beautiful.
She, in a frenzy, scrambles over to my bed. She hovers over me for a second, our gazes meeting, and she bends down and plants a kiss on my forehead. To my protests and confusion, she scoops me up by my chest, feeling my bones and nooks and crannies, much like those old little silent movies. She tearfully grins, whispering a faint “Trust me, it must be done” into my ear before marching to the window, cranking it open, and dropping my limp body into the unknown.
The tree; I spot it. I lean upon my cane, limping uselessly up the hill. At least my legs and arms have regained their movement, although stiff and limited and practically null on this stoop. It was so much steeper, so much better than I could ever have expected. I reach it, and it’s everything I imagined, more than I remember.
I see where two silly young lovers etched in their initials, their faint letters still crooning slightly out of place in the rotting bark. Where she tucked in her bruised, dented elbows, leaning against the primordial trunk and foolishly sealed her breath until she felt her lungs would pop. That grand old fir, that weeping loyal trunk. And I finally see them; Red hair and black, grey eyes and blue. They grin and swing and embrace one another as they play below the branches, laughing and crystalline and gorgeous. They’ve never been lost, they’ve never experienced pain. They are finally, I think triumphantly, at peace.
And I turn to the twinkling night sky, noting the crooks in Orion’s Belt that are no less faint, and smile towards the heavens.