An allegory told as though to an audience of individuals from my generation saturated in the gritty genre of graphic novels and surrealist computer enhanced cinema.
He arrived on a Sabbath morning when the ash was thick. It rained from the sky silently in those days, coating everything. The darkness of the roiling heavens shrouded the sorrow of our world below in a pall of not seeing or wanting to know. Willfully ignorant, too numb to even be grateful for our self-imposed blindness, we were a people so completely abandoned to horror that existence ceased to have any meaning for us. The very possibility of meaning had been ripped from our grasp by icy talons. And it rained ash. All the time.
I do not actually know the details of his arrival, but I imagine that he came on foot, his sandals dragging through the soot, shielding his face with calloused hands against the charcoal wind. He crested the rise outside our fallen metropolis, the sight of our burning barrio arresting his attention and drawing his glance into our squalor.
What he saw there I do not have to imagine, because I know all too well: a vast urban sprawl over a parched salt plain, a huddled heap of humanity vomited forth from the pitiless mouth of poverty. Our fair city was, in those days, one enormous and undifferentiated favela. The houses were literally stacked up from what was lying around: cardboard, plywood, corrugated tin, crumbling bricks and feces. No doors. No windows. No flooring at all. Earthen chimneys burning up and cracking in half before they fall. And everywhere there was visible a great mass of people. Households filled to the brim. The streets littered with flesh. It was as though the entire human race had always made their home in this place, but hardly one of this multitude could be seen doing anything. We sat in our illness not trying to cope. We gripped our pot sherds not daring to hope.
Seeing the misery of our people, he also could not have missed the axle around which this wheel of human suffering turned. The gaping maw of our swirling Charybdis was a black tower, hundreds of stories tall. It was made of four perfectly erect walls at perfect right angles to each other stretching endlessly into the clouds, like a column supporting the weight of the heavens. From a distance it looked completely seamless, though up close the individual onyx stones were discernible. The black tower was at once the anchor which kept the ship from drifting and the reef which sank it.
In my imaginary memory of his arrival, he looked down with an inscrutable expression on our city of shame, surveying it for a long moment, before trudging down the carbon slopes and into our world.
In those days there was not much spirit in anyone, either to cooperate or to resist. Most people simply lay where they woke, unmoving, uncaring, without even enough curiosity to turn their heads when a stranger arrived. And so he was seen, but not really, by many people before anyone took notice.
He was walking across a plaza of cracked flagstones beside a grand, but decayed, fountain clogged with ash, when a child came up and took him by the hand. Without uttering a syllable the young one pulled him over to where a group of people had gathered. The crowd was standing motionless, observing the scene that was playing out before them as though it came from a distant and barely remembered world.
A bushy head of red hair stood out strikingly from the grayscale background, bobbing up and down, shaking side to side and generally flying about. It framed a woman’s face and was mounted on top of a woman’s form, but in truth this figure was more like a ravening beast in feminine flesh as it strode about the clearing waving its fists and spewing impassioned charges from its chapped lips, castigating the crowd. Her clothes were in shreds, falling down to her waist, and all her feral movements were exaggerated by free-swinging, motherly breasts. Standing beside her in the clearing was a young boy with wide eyes and stiff posture.
“You heap of corpses!” she shrieked. “Who told you to lament our decrepit state? Weep if you can! Produce one tear of mourning for the death of this boy! Do not say to me, ‘we are beyond sadness!’ for if God exists then tears will pour from the very walls of this city. Weep! Tear your clothes in mourning or death has the victory!”
At points she punctuated her speech by scooping up a handful of ash from the ground and flinging it in the faces of the crowd. Tears ran freely down her cheeks, turning black with soot before dripping off her chin. She fervently stroked the shell-shocked boy, kissed his forehead and then turned back at the throng to rail against them like they were the bars of her cage.
This went on for some time as she gathered quite a crowd. Then, apparently, she had screamed enough because she began inviting people from the crowd to come forward and she stood on a heap of broken pottery. As the first person approached she grabbed a cracked amphora and used it to scoop ashes off the pile which she unceremoniously dumped on the person’s head. One by one the entire crowd moved forward in a line to have themselves showered with soot. Most people tipped their faces upward letting the soot run over their eyes, up their nostrils, and into their mouths. They would come again coughing and choking, fall down on the ground and begin a mournful wail so that the whole neighborhood soon sounded like it had been taken over by a pack of wolves. Many of the mourners touched the boy as though pronouncing blessings on him, then fell into their weeping again.
The little girl who had grabbed his hand and led him to this scene also pulled him now to follow the mourners. He did not resist, but he looked around in anguish mixed with wonder, stepping forward until it was his turn to be bathed.
The feral redhead saw him approaching in the line and all her muscles tensed. Those near her instinctively drew away. She had suddenly developed the aura of a powder keg in a spark factory.
“You!” the syllable rumbled from her throat like a distant earthquake.
He looked at her calmly without saying a word, but gently pushed the little girl holding his hand to the side, out of the way.
“You did this to us!” she shrieked the accusation as one unbroken sound, rising steadily in pitch until it was completely unintelligible.
Then she rushed at him, dropping her amphora, and raking her nails along his skin. She pounded and thrust at him wildly, using all her body, expelling all her rage and all the while he did not raise his hands from his side, but let her strike him. She beat and she growled and she wept as the people watched, and soon she was exhausted. She collapsed at his feet, talking incoherently through her wet hair.
“I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I can’t see my way anymore. Nothing makes sense. I just…” she broke into heavy sobs for a while unable to continue. Then she asked him, “Please, please pour the ashes on me. Help me lament,” she looked up at him begging.
He shook his head and for the first time I noticed that tears were on his face as much as hers. He grabbed the amphora, handed it to her and helped her regain her feet. Then he knelt in front of her and bowed his head.
“No sister. I have come so that you may help me mourn.” He waited, head bowed, for her to dump the soot over him.
Breasts heaving, she wiped the rivers from her cheeks, smearing blackness into her fiery hair. She bent and scooped up ash with the amphora. She pointed to the young boy still standing and blinking his eyes, “Lament and grieve for this boy is dead,” and with that pronouncement she poured out a gray cascade.
Once the ash touched him it crackled and smoked and began to burn in a bright blaze, as though it had never been in a fire. He was surrounded in a halo of coruscating flames, which diminished and disappeared as quickly as they came.
The crowd was amazed.
Standing once more he walked over to the boy and laid hands on him. He bent over the boy, and smiling, whispered something in his ear and kissed him on the cheek. Immediately, the boy disappeared leaving only empty clothes on the ground.
At first I was shocked. From the silence I gathered that everyone else was also. However, soon the implications began to dawn on us and we found ourselves leaping and shouting for joy. The crowd suddenly became a raucous mob, giddily laughing and screaming like children at the obsidian heavens. I was embraced by strangers. I might have embraced them back. Everyone was running up to him and kissing his feet and blessing him.
A woman with an infant in her arms approached him boldly and showed him her child. He kissed the baby and immediately it disappeared. The woman threw the empty swaddling clothes into the air letting out a mighty shout of gratitude. Never before or since have you seen a people as rapturous as we were.
Now the crowds began to press as people brought forward their children and spouses, parents and siblings. Each time he smiled at them tenderly and whispered in their ears before they disappeared with a kiss. He was walking through the streets followed by men, women and children from every household. Those he touched were transported. Some even grasped the hem of his garment and all that remained of them afterwards were their clothes.
As he moved through the streets, from the outer neighborhoods toward the inner city, he stopped for each beggar lying immobile in the street. He touched and kissed the lowest and filthiest of people with the same gentleness that he had done the little boy back in the plaza. People were shouting “Save us!” and flinging their clothes on the ground in front of him for him to walk upon. There was no part of the city now which had not heard of the great procession and people were streaming from every neighborhood to see him approaching.
It is no wonder then, caught as we were in our celebration, that we did not see the soldiers coming.
The black tower had not failed to see and understand what was going on in the favela. Hundreds of soldiers in the black and gold armor of the praetorian guard came pouring out of the tower like a river of crude oil. They oozed into the crowd, jostling aside the observers, the sick and the infirm. They closed in on his position. Their goal: simple. Their methods: surgical. Their motives: mercenary.
They surrounded him, beating away any in the crowd who tried to get close. A few resisted, but not for long. The soldiers wielded their swords heavily, taking personal delight in the pain their weapons caused. They formed a circle facing outwards, preventing anyone from approaching him or being touched.
The soldiers made me agitated. I wanted to see him, maybe even to get touched by him, but the whistle of a sword before it opened the side of an old woman’s skull frightened me. Seeing this woman lying in the gutter, twitching spasmodically, blood running down the street, made me nauseous and angry. Knowing that the soldiers would not treat him any less callously made me livid and the more my fear prevented me from doing anything at all, the more my anger turned against myself.
While the crowd was being quelled he was pleading with the soldiers, touching them on the shoulders, urging peace. He stepped between a soldier’s sword and a fallen child, receiving a vicious beating for his audacity. But no matter how he tried the soldiers pushed him out of the way and continued their pacification. I am ashamed to say it did not take long. Hopeful as this new man had made us, we were well trained in our low expectations. We knew better than to resist over long.
As the beatings had their effect, the tumult died down, and soon the only sound that could be heard was scattered weeping and nursing of wounds. He stood in the middle of a circle of his captors, hemmed in by a ring of black mail, a livid welt on his cheek. He looked over the shoulders of the soldiers at the injured and he smiled at them and whispered comfort. He promised healing, he promised freedom, he promised we would see how this ended and take hope from it.
Though the crowd was now docile, the soldiers remained on edge. They were greatly outnumbered and they distrusted every leprous beggar, every pregnant mother, and every malnourished child. Still waving swords about threateningly they proceeded to march, carefully, toward the tower. They pushed and prodded him along in their midst, though it was unnecessary because he walked with them quite willingly. Indeed the whole procession resumed where it had left off and continued, just as it had been, toward the eye of the hurricane, only now it was under guard, tense and somber.
I followed along, quaking with rage because I was trembling with fear. I dared nothing. I had seen what the black tower was capable of and because I was paralyzed with fear, I was also boiling with anger.
He was led to the courtyard directly before the massive gates to the tower. The courtyard I say, but I mean killing field. This space was kept clear of shanties by patrols specifically so that no one might approach the tower without being seen. Anyone arriving from any direction would have to cross half a kilometer of arid featureless plain to get to the onyx gates. As always, the worst inhabitants of our municipal morass were to be seen out here in the open spaces where the ash blows hard. Some pitiful souls were chained to poles, out in the elements, their flesh dry and cracked. Others simply had no feet or were beaten so badly there was no strength in them to move.
The procession passed by these outcasts, forgotten even among the forsaken. The soldiers instructed everyone to stay away from the “criminals” lest we interfere with their “punishment”. The knot of acrimony in my bowels tightened and a wave of guilt washed over me as I watched fellow sufferers, citizens like me spit and throw dirt at the criminals as they passed.
The soldiers stopped before the gates that never could or would be opened and forced the crowd back, creating a barren space in which only he stood, facing the tower. This near the base of the black tower it loomed like the whole of reality. Craning my head back on my neck I grew dizzy and the cold ebony edifice threatened to topple over and bury me in a sea of night. The crowd was hushed. Everyone waited expectantly.
From a narrow opening in the gate a tinny voice issued, “We have been expecting you.” The voice addressed the stranger, but he showed no reaction. “We have been expecting you and expecting you to come breaking the rules, but you will soon learn who is really in control here. We can do to you what we like and you can do nothing to stop us.”
“I will not try to stop you.” The man replied with a shrug.
A soldier nearby took offense at his casualness and struck him on the back of the head. He fell forward into the soot, scraping his face on the hard ground beneath. The soldier put a foot on the back of his neck.
“You cannot do anything even if you wanted to. We can and we will do whatever we want to you,” the tinny voice repeated.
With difficulty breathing he managed to force out the words, “You have no power over me, but I will not try to stop you.”
A few cracks to the ribs followed and the soldier pressed his face down into the soot sending him into a coughing fit.
The tower boomed, “You have transgressed the laws of this place, which do not permit life. You must renounce your way or you will be punished severely.”
Before he could even speak the beating commenced again, this time several soldiers joined in, kicking and stomping on his body. I clenched my fists until my nails cut into my palm, but I did nothing. When they were finished he was coughing and spitting up blood, which mixed with the ash turning the ground near his face to a mire.
“This can go on indefinitely, and we have worse things than this.”
Wheezing, unable to speak he merely shook his head.
The beating now was so severe I could not bear to watch. I knelt on the ground, with eyes closed and pounded my fist against the stone until my knuckles cracked and blood coated my fingers. I moaned and I heard others around me wailing. We all began to burst into tears and songs of woe as the soldiers struck again and again. For hours, perhaps days the violence did not cease and though they continued to escalate their attacks and make their methods even more perverse he said nothing, but only cried out in agony.
I began to believe that in fact it would never end this time, but there was suddenly a loud crack and an overwhelming silence which followed it, washing over the whole crowd.
After a time the tower hissed again, “If you refuse to recant then we will kill you and be done with it.”
A fragile groan came from beneath the soldier’s feet. So weak I wasn’t sure I had heard it. I stood and peered over the heads of those in front of me to see his bloody and destroyed form. The soldiers backed away from him a few feet as he feebly struggled to rise. His limbs were broken and would not support his weight. His extremities trembled. His face was unrecognizable. It seemed impossible to me that he should still be alive, but he valiantly over the course of several minutes pulled himself to his knees.
Nearly in a whisper he said, “This you cannot do.”
Waspishly the tower shot back, “What do you mean, of course we can kill you! Who here has the power to stop us?”
He slowly raised his arms and first with one hand and then the other peeled back the sleeves of his garment, which were matted and clinging with blood. In each wrist large holes were visible.
“You cannot kill me,” he said, “Because you have already done so.”
And when he finished these words the gates of the black tower cracked in half and fell apart revealing a brightly lit interior with a long ladder leading up into obscurity.
Everyone stood still, completely unsure what to do or how to respond. I rushed into the clearing and helped him regain his feet. My tears mingled with his blood and he winced because there was no way for me to hold him that did not rub against a wound. He asked me to help him to walk into the tower and I began to do so, slowly, in complete disbelief.
The voice from the tower was shrieking and people around us suddenly began to wake up. Some fell to the ground immediately and began praising heaven. Others just wept inarticulately. A few of the soldiers rushed to line up in front of us and block our path, but as we approached them, they too began to weep and fall on their knees. They thanked him, and begged him for forgiveness. Feebly he reached out to them and kissed them, smearing blood on their cheeks. Each one that his lips touched disappeared leaving behind only his clothes.
When we passed into the interior of the tower the light was so bright I could not see, but I continued supporting him and walking with him to the center where he laid ahold of the ladder for support. I was crying profusely and trembling, partly for joy, partly for sadness.
I felt his fingers brush the tears away from my eyes and before he ascended the ladder he told me, “I am going to open the way. Go back and tell the others that they may come behind me for no one will block your path anymore.”
With that he ascended and all that I had left was the wetness in my palms from his many abrasions. I stumbled back out of the tower, where I could see once more. The crowd had exploded into complete chaos, yet somehow the random sounds combined together in my ears to sound exactly like the Sanctus. I stared at the stains in my palms, still in shock, beginning to wonder if any of this had really happened. The blood mixed with my sweat, pooled and ran down to my elbows where it dripped onto the ground. I followed the droplets. They landed on black and gold armor, now crumpled in a heap like the discarded skin of a snake. Seeing the empty armor I felt the knot of rancor dissolve leaving a warm uncertainty in its place.
It’s been a while since the day he arrived. Many things have changed for us since then. We no longer fear the black tower, and we’ve learned how to mourn properly. He arrived and departed suddenly, but he took away our paralysis and left us with uncertainty. We’re uncertain where he came from. We’re uncertain why he came to us. We’re uncertain where he went, but he said we could follow. I intend to try.