All the blades had been painted to match the handle. Even as her eyes adjusted to the darkness, she was still constricted by the pitch black chrysalis. There was no telling what was blunt or what was sharp; what was welcoming or what was not, what to pull or what to ignore. Stuck at the entrance in tremble, she waited for a light, a door, a window, any grace to come her way. She stood stolid, her body shaking from fear but the rest of her motionless. Her mind was set on nothing. She felt no deep emotion. Her thoughts had ceased. This was instinct. Is this the ineffable meditation? She was resigned to a sudden phlegmatic state waiting for someone to open the door and tell her it’s a joke, to tell her it’s fine, to wake her up. She couldn’t think to pinch herself. She couldn’t catch her breath. She couldn’t move. Frozen in a final quiver, she realized she couldn’t discern the difference between a thousand knives pointing at her and the one handle she was supposed to grab. Like the doe letting paralysis sheathe her before the arrow hits, she made no move when the first bomb dropped.
It was the Earth that had to shake her from her statue; remind her this is life or death. The ground’s vibration forced her from freeze to tumble and she fell to the right. Something skewered her shoulder. The cut was quick and sharp and fleeting like a bee sting. You feel it, but the bee is gone. You scratch your leg at the sudden welt in shock. You didn’t get a chance to swat or run. You didn’t even get a chance to be scared. You just feel the bite, gasp, look–maybe it’s flying away and you catch it; it’s yellow and black vibrating body speeding away from you as you continue waiting in line for the snow cone. Spending the day poking at it, obsessively checking on the skin turning red all around it. Don’t scratch! your mother yells and this is how the end feels. It was a mixture of memories and now, a mixture of lessons and execution, a mixture of panic and acceptance all coalescing into nothing. In here, here; the worst place on Earth; here, somehow she had been gifted this curse, this labyrinth of swords; here, the bees stayed after they stabbed you. They were mechanical. They never tired, never grew bored, immortal. They all stood out at her with their chests puffed in their menacing and sharp glisten draped in shadow. Exposed, she may not have been able to handle it. In the dark, she could at least be free from the terror of sight. A trickle of blood made it all the way to her tricep before she could orient herself. She held her hands out.
What was sharper than that first spear were all of the things she was starting to recall. Not just her mother’s voice at the water park, but everything leading up to this moment and the finality of the moment before she was tossed into her pointy bee coffin. He had a sudden gentleness that struck her; a sudden recompense he wanted to give her. The way he carefully turned her around to take her blindfold off right before she walked in. The way his hands felt on her shoulders; soft yet utilitarian, letting his fingers feel up the back of her neck with both salacity and pique. He blew his hot breath at her skin on purpose. Within that breath, he contained a duplicity; a fervid violence that stopped her from moving anymore. To your left. Cutting the wire clamp with some invented urgency, at the time she heard murmurs brimming with contrition, some final show of commiseration– here look and he pushed her. She was standing at the front of a long hallway with no light coming from anywhere, no door or window and no choice but to feel her way out.
She kept her hands out. What she remembered first and how she was so acutely aware of what she remembered first was the weight she carried now. The bombs were dropping one after the other in a near distance and she was keeping time with her metronomic heart. Usually calm, pacified and accurate, it was suddenly racing. Without thinking, she reached her hand to her chest to stop it, to quiet it, to say remember to breathe. She felt the metal locket suddenly and shook as if she forgot it was there. They let her keep the memory of him until the end. He had examined the silver and sapphire urn around her neck, fingering it and looking at it closely, then back at her. His nails were dirty from the woods like hers. His eyes were light brown with a ring of green around the pupil like hers. He moved his sullied black fingers up the chain threatening to rip it off of her, not with his words but with his teeth that were gritted holding a phrase tight between them. The clunky silver heart bruised her every time she ran and she had been running all of the time. Your tenacity, he hissed and dropped the locket so it banged the deep bruise that had developed on her sternum, is what I admire. It was your low and persistent song that led them. You’re a fearless woman. I admire you for what you tried.
There were about two short seconds between her standing at the entrance and the first strike. She knew what had pinched her shoulder wasn’t the lever she was looking for. She was three centimeters from the blade that just cut her when the next bomb dropped. She hadn’t moved herself– the floor had continued to push her. Her heart felt a hundred beats in and she couldn’t keep accurate time. Everything was a rush of noise and tremor. She stumbled backwards and the heavy locket suddenly became airy and light, moving, swinging around her throat with ease until his ashes settled in their final betrayal. The chain hung loose then tight pulling her backwards onto the knife. It made a high tin sound as it was cut from her body and dropped to the floor. What is sharper are always the things remembered; noticed differently last, noticed differently in processing without the obsessive cage that keeps them. Death is a quiet examination. There is no urgency, no care in the world. You are acquiescing to ending as if you yourself had planned it. He had asked her with a smile if she wanted to keep it. He took her silence as a complicit yes and let the blindfold drop so she could see what had graved her.
The actions that follow our thoughts are truly meaningless. As humans, we are simply reacting to the pure chaos of universal movement but the meaning we make of them in the end is what cradles us. We make meaning of everything and nothing. Her brother’s ashes had fallen but she was still chained to the wall. As her body was drawn backwards by gravity, her neck curved to enfold the weapon and something thudded at her coccyx. It didn’t sting the way the tear at the shoulder stung or rip the way her throat was ripping open. It didn’t pierce her. It didn’t mutilate her. It announced it was there so she would know I am lever, touch me and walk through my wall of knives unscathed.
You will know it because it will not pierce you, he said. She settled on the handle and let out a long sigh. It lasted only half a second but thousands of heart beats: a long, embarrassing half a second and thousands of heart beats of relief released in breath as if she had found the exit. A pond began to form at the bottom of her throat. There were two seconds between her standing at the entrance of the doorway and one second between the next two strikes and her throat hanging on a knife. To your left and you will know it. Beneath her gallow, her tailbone knocked the knob that swung the door open and as her body settled and every sword started up her calves and thighs like vines of thorns were climbing her. The pain removed all cognition. She became sensate.
When his voice filled her: to your left and you will know it because it will not pierce you, it came from a well inside of her that was not of her mind but of her ruptured guts. Veins opened and her blood rushed to freedom. Arteries spilled out of her propped open mouth.. Red, viscous streams ran down her chin and dripped onto the blade that had torn through her stomach. Her senses were acute, sharpened. It was not what she imagined. She felt no real pain but she felt everything flood at once and she could hear her own drops of blood hit the metal like a drizzle of rainwater slowly falling from the roof.
“Come on!” he yelled.
She was running behind him but her eyes were focused on the stick in her hand, the one she picked. She made sure to always pick her own.
“HA! YOU CHEAT CAT!” he growled.
It was a small twig. It had one tiny branch sticking out at the top right of it so she could remember which one it was and keep an eye on it but the current was fast. She didn’t account for it being flipped over and over dozens of time. There was no top right immediately upon entering the stream. It was all brown blur and rushing with the rest of the tiny leaves and sticks in the gutter. The only way she could keep an eye on her stick was to run right next to it and follow it the whole time.
“That one is too small, lion,” he said again.
“No way, it’s a race anyway; the smaller the better, the faster.”
“Whatever.” He tossed his branch and ran ahead.
“Hey! Hey!” she screamed and tossed hers in the gutter and began to run.
He was already halfway up the block near the stop sign and going to round the corner before she got there. He was also right. The rains had been high and so had the winds and the current was taking her stick faster than she planned. Keeping her head down, she didn’t even notice the blue sedan swerving around the corner, her shoes slipping on the slick black asphalt beneath her and her brother, suddenly as if resurrected inside the neighbor’s bush, grabbing her by the elbow to toss her out of the way of the oncoming car.
She was a river becoming boundless, becoming lake, becoming rising flood in body. In the darkness, she could barely make out the machete-lined tomb but as the wall began to move, a tiny sliver of light bounced off the tips facing her. She could see that every knife pointed at her from only about three feet away. The wall was opening to another hallway. Eyes heavy, spent and fluttering, were desperately trying to shut but she willed them to stay open long enough to see. It was like fighting sleep on Christmas Eve. Let me see Santa Claus. Let me see what I won.
The only weight she carried with her were the last two words he said: his prediction, not his warning but his knowledge and mercy, a mercy she hadn’t trusted until her final half heartbeat. And fast. He had said To your left and you will know it because it will not pierce you. And fast. The things you remember last, you carry these with you as you pass. And fast. The trauma of being stabbed to death with ingenuity that far exceeded her power, she could leave that. The tackle to the ground as he pinned her, she could leave that. Dragging her through the last mile of woods to imprison her, to taunt her, to smile at her with lust and longing and his fucked feelings of entitlement as he recounted her earlier betrayal. You are a sly bitch. She didn’t even try to explain herself to him. They understood each other the way predators understand each other; the way lions kill only with hunger and need, using war for territory and feast, killing in wilderness is not a sentimental thing. She understood him as the predator understanding herself as the predator. She didn’t fault him. Murder was a word created by humanity to press morality onto us, but animals kill with great speed and precision and there is no sense of guilt or mourning. Killing is a very natural need. In fact, the world demands it. Neither she nor him mourned this passage. This was not sentimental. Yet, there was a feeling.
The way he held the blue and silver heart in admiration and removed her blindfold to show her the trap, she held that in esteem like it was the agape promised by god. You are a sly bitch. The necklace had fallen somewhere on the floor and she was free. You have to be more careful, lion, her brother squeezed her skinny arm so tight in that moment it left a handprint. He dragged her back home and she was wailing about the race and her stick. It’s over, Alex said. I’m taking you home. She was a brat that day, like every day, immediately forgetting her brother just saved her life. She was kicking and screaming and demanding a do-over, another game, another victory. Fine! He let her go and walked home alone. She stood listless by the giant puddle at the entrance of their court and began yelling his name.
But he didn’t turn around.
“Alex! Come back!”
The wall had turned all the way around and she was facing another wall of swords hundreds of feet long. She would have never made it. Her eyes shut and she held a tempestuous hazel gaze in her heart; a gaze marked troubled, starving and promising return.
“The Woman Who Saw Her Own Death”