A Wisp of Smoke

Dust is everywhere. On his clothes, in his eyes, inside his throat. He hunches his back until his gaze meets the rocks in the valley down below. The round ought to strike his brain stem, he will tumble down and that will be the end of it. There is no thought of escape: his soul surrendered to the wretched circumstances of his capture long before his body did. His hands, tied behind his back, are beginning to ache. The plastic has melted right into the underlying flesh, leaving him with throbbing wrists that smart at the slightest touch. They smart, yet they suffer the pain with poise. Years of swinging a sledgehammer and knocking down buildings have strengthened his bones, they have toughened his muscles. Years of showering in dust and debris—an ablution that the destitute are made to perform so that the wealthy may carry on living.

Of the accidents of birth that make up his identity, none is particularly auspicious. Not his means, nor his bloodline. Passed from house to house, unwanted, unloved, the lack of a family is an ignominy he fears his daughter too will have to endure. That and her father’s peculiar features: a face that is mostly forehead and a nose that is grossly disproportionate to its surroundings, perched as it is on a slab of bone that extends from one cheek to the other. It is by virtue of these qualities that he has come to terms with his present predicament. Perhaps it is for the best that he moves on, he thinks. That he submits to the rifle, his fate, with as much grace as can a bound man sitting on the edge of a precipice, awaiting a bullet to the head.

A sharp pain tears a path through the right side of his head, from the very back to his temple, flooding his sinuses with the smell of burnt charcoal. The dust he is inhaling is exacerbating his condition. He had been meaning to go into the city to get it checked, but an unexpected call from the commander’s office forced him into the back of a truck late one night and took him up north. News of an imminent rebel onslaught had struck fear into the mayor's heart, and try as he may to protect his town, the mayor was no match for this group that had seized five contiguous towns in an afternoon and was continuing its eastward march. The Emperor's response was to call up three thousand of his reserves.

“When do you suppose you’ll be back?” his neighbor had asked him on that fateful night.

“I’m not too sure. A week. Two weeks maybe.”

He spent his evenings in the company of an upstairs neighbor, sipping on a dark, intense drink—a brew of tea and sugar in equal parts. A superbly caffeinated concoction made palatable through the integration of an agent. Integration, a fitting word no doubt. He enjoyed its subtext.

His wife and only daughter had recently left and moved to the other side of the river to stay with family. These were tough times, and he had found it difficult to make ends meet, what with a paycheck that was no more reliable than the capital’s power grid. It did not matter that he knew by heart all that the poets of the poor had ever put on paper, nor the speed with which he could summon a verse from their oeuvres. In the end, none of that made up for the meager dinners and the decrepit home. So he gave her reason to move out. He planted the seed in her head and the rest unfolded as planned. That is how much he loved her. That is what he tells himself.

Truth be told, he had hoped for a more dramatic demise. The Nazarene at Calvary, dragging a mighty empire to its knees with his gaunt face and shattered ribs. Lumumba’s lifeless body, striking fear into the hearts of his colonial captors, forcing them to douse his limbs in acid before grinding his bones in a mill and scattering them to the wind. Tyndale burning at the stake, Wallace roaring from the gallows—what a shame that his captors have come between him and that line of bookshops. Bookshops by the light of whose halogen lamps he would read about the outer world, past and present: shrines that he would visit with a fervor no less intense than that of religious zealotry.

It is not to be though. No ceremonious departure, no glorious end. No infants crying a river of tears to carry him into the brightest corner of history, for posterity to marvel at. No clergyman reading him his last rites while silently lamenting the loss of a great scholar in disguise. A beautiful mind tasked with menial jobs due to circumstance.

None of that. His lot is to die here, in a desert, amongst several thousand other men, and then be dumped into the river or a hole in the ground. Either way, a week from now he will be nothing more than an indistinguishable muddle of bones and apparel. What a waste. If only he had possessed the presence of mind to respond more cunningly to his captors. To have recognized their set of inquiries for the inquisition that it was. He had begun by stating his name. “Army?” they had asked. “Yes.” What else could he have said? His third answer though, that was probably their casus belli.

With a rifle in place of a scythe, and a veil in place of a hood, a man clad in black approaches. He is a scrawny figure, a weakling, emboldened by his position, no doubt, by the firearm hanging from his shoulder, by the contempt he holds for the prisoners before him, by the promise of a lush paradise in the life to come, from someone who in all likelihood has seen neither. As though on cue, each of the bound men to his left twitches, collapses forward and then rolls down a hundred or so feet into the valley. A solitary shot to the back of the head is all it takes for the curtain to fall. The orphan factory is in full swing.

It is now his turn. He does not feel afraid. Anxious, yes. Afraid, no. Knowing his captors, he would much rather depart by way of a Soviet-engineered assault rifle than a blunt butter knife. An apparition: she waddles to him and embraces his torso, then looks into his eyes. “Did you buy me a present?” The knot in his throat robs him of the ability to respond. How foolish, he thinks, to worry about saving for the morrow when the present is more than a man of his fortune can hope for.

The rifle lets loose. His heart skips a beat. His vision swims. The world around him goes silent, as though he were submerged in water. He does not twitch, nor does he feel anything piercing his skull. All the same, he pushes himself forward and closes his eyes. The raging furnace in his heart goes quiet. The wisp of smoke is no more.