Sunday, May 11, 2014
The Scent of Fire and Lemongrass
Two figures sat side by side atop a high cliff in the Sonoran desert, watching a small city walk on legs fifteen stories tall across the flat plain in front of them. Robby, the bigger of the two, let out a rattling cough as he leaned down and drew his eye near the scope of the sniper rifle that made up the third shape on the hill, itself hardly dwarfed by the shadow that coughed or the other that spoke.
"What do you see?" Pointer asked as he leaned against the wall and ran the tip of a hunting knife uselessly beneath his fingernails.
"Same as you," Robby said, "The city's alone out there."
"And you aim to keep it that way," Pointer said, his grin gapped and drawing tense, uncertain breaths.
"I aim to keep it that way," Robby repeated, missing the joke as it died in the air like a bird under blighted rain. Robby wasn't a man for puns. He was a man for shooting.
He knew to alternate between the scope and his naturally adept eyes, to watch movement, to breathe. Out there in the desert he might see a mangy rabbit clinging to the shadows as it leaped from rock to thirsty bush. If he saw it, he knew he'd be able to hit it. But the thing on his mind now wasn't anything out in the field, it was the man sitting with his back against the rock slowly sprinkling tobacco onto a sweat damped piece of cigarette paper.
"They say it'll happen today," Pointer said as he deftly rolled the paper into a thin tube and put it between his dry tacky lips, "They found a few of the rebels. They've been singing like gulls up there on the plate."
'He means torture. We've started torturing now,' Robby thought, trying to keep his upper lip from twitching up over his teeth in a reflexive snarl of disgust. He said,
"You believe the talk that the king's lost his mind?"
"We don't know they're being tortured," Pointer said, as if he could read Rob's thoughts. He paused as flame sprang from his lighter and started dancing embers on the end of his cigarette, "Maybe they suddenly found their loyalty."
"You believe it, though. You believe the king's crazy."
"Mm-hm," Pointer hummed around his cigarette, lilting his voice up at the end to signal the affirmative, "Oh yeah."
"We're lucky to be on his good side," Robby said as the crosshairs of the scope traced up to the blinding white tower where the king's window rested. It was high up, even higher than the rest of the city plate that sagged on that ancient whimpering carapace.
"That we are. Still, I've been hearing some nasty talk about the whole affair. Some say we should switch leaders, move away from the status quo into something a bit more democratic. Like the old days."
Robby made himself snort, hoping the sound his throat made was adequately derisive,
"It would never work, though," Pointer said, "No one with the king's history would expose himself to the will of the people. Not everyone is as loyal as you or me. And you're no rebel, right my friend?"
Robby could feel muscles in his hands twanging, starting to shake. Was it possible Pointer had listened in on the wrong conversation? Had he and a host of the king's other men sniffed him out as a rebel sympathizer? Pointer was better with words, more adept at picking up subtext.
'Maybe,' thought Rob, 'I just thought the wrong thing at the wrong time. That alone might have alerted him.'
"Rob," Pointer said, his hand curling slow as a snake up his leg to where a knife rested in its sheathe, "I notice your rifle has traveled a bit high. Can you see the king through your crosshairs?"
"I was checking for assassins," Robby said as the scope plunged altogether too fast down at the ground once again, "Perhaps someone slipped by without our notice, started climbing the outside. Perhaps someone is in the window right now ready to strike at his back."
"Or maybe," Pointer said as the knife blade started pulling out soundlessly, gliding across well oiled leather and dripping slick globs along its serrated edge, "Maybe you were looking at the old man's back, thinking about the consequences, the possibilities."
"Pointer," Rob said, "Stop talking now. The king does alright by me. I've got three meals a day and a house and a wife to call my own. A man knows where his security lies. If he dies, I lose all of it."
"Still," Pointer said, "I know how you like to drink. And you like to talk."
"Name me a man who doesn't," Rob said, trying to hide behind a gust of laughter, but finding it just wasn't in him. This was it. This was how he was going to be found out. That bastard Pointer had been coming out with him on guard duty for years. And in all that time, Rob had been perhaps too generous with his complaints, his own hatred for the king's brutality. From day to day that wasn't dangerous. But on a morning like this, a morning when men were cloistered behind steel walls dropping every manner of name into paranoid ears...
"Your first wife. She was shot as a sympathizer, yes?"
Pointer's words lit a fire in Rob's chest, and it hungrily crawled outward, like the glowing tobacco spiders at the end of a cigarette. He turned his face away from the scope to stare Pointer down.
Two shadowed pairs of eyes met on that desert cliff to the tune of a cool breeze from the southeast. After a moment of searching Pointer's face, Rob found nothing. It was blank, possibly amused. Rob turned back to the rifle to hide the reflexive fog invading his eyes, nodding silently as he hid in the scope once again. He said,
"And you never even suspected her rebel sympathies," Pointer said, "Not even a little. That's bad luck for someone as suspicious as yourself."
Rob was in his own head now, safely locked away in the unchanging footsteps of history. He was standing over her in the town square, a gun weighing heavily in his hand as she tried to smile one last time.
"You were mad. I could see it on your face," Pointer said.
"Mad," Rob said. He was running over the dialogue from the event again, monitoring his own lips to ensure he didn't start mouthing what his wife had said.
He had caught the spectacle by chance, walking home with a bundle of freshly picked lemongrass in hand. She loved the smell of lemongrass. That's when the blur of white silks fleeing from men built like himself had stumbled out of his home. She stopped, standing in front of him with hard dignified breaths passing between her lips and it was clear. She had been discovered.
The town guard would schedule an impromptu trial to take place three days after her capture, after they had a chance to gain her compliance and give up the other sympathizers in the city. But Rob had taken the gun right then and there.
He had taken the gun and shot her in the street. No trial. No public hanging. No interrogation. He heard the word traitor, and his hand had done the rest without him.
"Such loyalty," Pointer said as he twisted the knife around and jabbed it deep under his own fingernail, trying to draw out the deep muck and grit that had lived there long enough to tattoo his cuticles a perpetual black, "I thought about that a long time."
"Think about it quietly," Robby said, "It's not an easy thing to do no matter. I don't think about it. The sun set that day like any other."
"Your honor restored, you were given a new wife and the king's commendation. But I wonder what we might have learned from her. It might have been even better to keep her alive."
The knife was pinging, tapping against Pointer's long fingernails.
"You know you can't trust a traitor," Rob said, "They will always lie. That you can count on."
"If traitors always lie," Pointer said, "then if I asked you if you were a traitor - and mind you, you were a traitor - what would you say?"
The king was pacing in front of his window now, looking over his shoulder uncertainly toward the hidden spot where his door stood. It didn't look like an event happening in real time through that scope. It looked like a picture, impossibly defined and rendered in full living detail.
Rob watched, listening to the silence, searching it for signs of movement. Pointer already had the knife out. And Rob's back was turned upward toward him, facing danger like a man who had nothing to fear, nothing to hide.
"Same as you in that situation," Rob said.
"What did you think of her?" Pointer asked, "Your wife."
"Don't ask me that," Rob said. Even now he knew the answer Pointer would be looking for. It was that final cynical proof his conscience would need to collect before deciding to kill Rob or let him live.
Say you hated her, curse her memory, and then there might still be some doubt.
Pointer was daring him to speak treason.
Those words were a gentle wind on the fire in Rob's heart. He watched through the scope, nodding imperceptibly long before he would answer. The king in the window walked away in his room, out of sight, out of Rob's crosshairs. There would be no execution today. Of that Rob was certain. No execution but his own.
Because he decided then that he had said enough.
"Pointer," Rob said, "It's none of your goddamn business."
The sun was starting to spill over the rim of the mountain above them, drawing their shadows backward slowly. And as Pointer moved, Rob could see it even from his prone position at the edge of the cliff. He cast his eyes right and saw a hand and a knife drawn in sunlight. Pointer was standing now, having moved out of sight while Rob was watching the king. And he had drawn the knife out, but not to clean his nails.
"My peace of mind, Rob. For our continued friendship. Please tell me."
There was an impossible smell on the morning breeze, overpowering the scent of men and weapons. It was familiar, but distant. And yet it was what Rob noticed as he lay prone on the cliff's edge, dropping his eye from the scope once again to look at the sunlight creeping across the ground.
"Pointer," Rob said. This was it. Die an honest man, or live.
His life had already started to flash before his eyes.
He had never joined the king. He had been born in the city. And when he had sworn his fealty day after day as a child, he hadn't understood the terrible cost.
Rob would be his own man now, if only for this last instant. In his mind he cut every bond tethering him to a lifetime of deception. It was natural, like a ship cutting its anchor. He was smelling lemon grass now. Drifting on unfamiliar water.
"Pointer," Rob said, "I'll tell you now. Men like you can't understand what love is. The answer is yes. I did care about her. And if you need so much to erase that to satisfy your king, then do it the only way you can. The truth is, I hate you all."
There was silence then. It lasted a long time as the two of them passed the moment. Pointer said,
"Something just dropped off the side of the city. A banner."
He was right. It was being held by a dozen specks of hands. Pots were being banged by heavy spoons as men in the background raised rifles overhead rhythmically in chant. Rob lowered the rifle down to read the words on the banner.
DO IT, POINTER.
But he wouldn't have needed the scope to read it. Not if he'd known ahead of time what it might say.
"What do they mean?" Rob asked.
"They mean do it. Kill you," Pointer said as he holstered his knife and leaned his hand on the pistol at his side, "They'll be expecting to hear my gunshot."
"But how could they know?"
"They don't," Pointer said, "They know who I am. They don't know who you are. Not yet. Look up at the tower again."
Once again through the scope, Rob looked up at the tower. The king was hanging out the window by his hands, purple silks blowing in the wind as he ran felt shoes raw on the tower's ivory exterior. He was trying to pull his own weight up, back into the window, past a man with a rifle.
"This changes things," Pointer said, "I would have slept easy if you'd said you hated your wife. As it stands, I might have to let you live."
A strange purple shape was diving to the ground from the tower. In the distance on the city's plate more gunfire was echoing. It wasn't the rattling exchange between two opposing forces. It was the ecstatic rumble of celebration. The king is dead. Long live the king. May we live forever.
There was a scent like fire and lemongrass.