In Many Bodies, a Single Death

January 5, 2016

[AN ABSURDLY CIRCUITOUS AUTHOR’S NOTE: I once thought this story was particularly good. It formed the core for a performance and was going to be made into some kind of recording with an accompanying booklet. At this point these things could very reasonably be expected to never happen. Now I am presenting it for two related but ultimately distinct reasons. The first requires you to suspend all notions about the reasonable scope of an author’s note and allow me to say that I divide my adult life very generally into five distinct phases. Whatever else is true of them, they all represent fundamental changes in my relationship to suffering I experienced in childhood. This most recent phase I consider to have begun rather abruptly on the night of September 21st, 2015, when I experienced a surge of memories I hadn’t consciously engaged with since I was young.

This process has continued over the subsequent months. I will indulge in gratuitous understatement and say that it has been tumultuous. Projects are exceptionally difficult to complete. There are the actual mind-bending crises, but many calmer times when I am less mentally organized than necessary to engage a logical sequence. Things are initiated and forgotten. Posting this is a step I am taking toward changing my relationship with the work I do, towards something more stable and task-oriented.

Secondly, time has revealed an inadvertent dual level of meaning embedded in this story. The focus on a single identity being adopted by a lineage of different people was the initial theme from which “In Many Bodies” rather obsessively grew. Looking back I would say that this idea probably came to the fore of my consciousness as a precursor to the process of recollection and cognitive reorganization I was about to undergo. In the story, one’s own elaborate and horrible past is revealed in a number of unknown past identities: A month later my own horrible past was revealed through an unknown past identity. I even had to revert to my birth name of Arnold, acknowledging that Scott (snatched out of thin air at the age of 10) was an invention which largely functioned in the service of forgetting. I like very much that this text occupies these twin stories,  particularly because one of them takes place in flesh-and-blood reality. Writing is a strange task to which I am bound by my nature rather than out of any clear conviction it’s useful. One likes to think occasionally the words wander off the page and do something interesting.]

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In the fifteenth year of his reign and thus seven years into the great drying of the land, when the rain ceased to fall and the sun swelled red in the sky and burned crop land and wild land alike, sparing neither the haunts of men nor the haunts of beasts, in the month of the apple harvests, the month of fat bears crawling into the earth in search of slumber and of dull yellow, faceless moons, emperor Melanus’s army, strengthened by reinforcements from recent victories in the south, crushed the rebellion which had begun in the northern mountain districts and spread inexorably over the course of half a decade into the surrounding lowlands.

A certain fatalism, it must be acknowledged, often surrounds the making of revolutions—it is difficult to determine with any real certainty a date at which the rebellion’s defeat seemed inevitable because many of its participants knew it to be inevitable at the very outset. Anyone who has not chosen to give up their life for a cause they know to be hopeless likely has no ability to comprehend the experience of those who do, just as the tongues of the seeing falter attempting to describe color to the blind, and therefore speculation about the rebels’ last moments can be dismissed as futile. This is particularly true because none of them survived to provide us with any testimony, choosing ritual suicide over capture almost to a person, with one exception.

A relatively unknown soldier-poet, whose work otherwise consists of lyrical erotica addressed to a lover he left in a rural farming district juxtaposed with graphic descriptions of the horrors of war, a poet of little account even to scholars of the most painful obscurities, has left us the most thorough description of that day. His work can be corroborated from far briefer accounts provided by military records and imperial historians who had access to primary sources which have subsequently been lost to time, and these other sources correspond generally to the poet’s description of events.

The rebellion was nothing if not pluralistic, and thus the collective suicide was really a number of simultaneous collective suicides occurring in the same place, each one carried out in the manner required by the various deities of the various peoples. The mountain folk, the wildest of those people who had fought alongside each other, who consider the forest sacred, being disinclined to grow crops or live in cities, who worship the bear and whose priestesses are said to lie with bears, were each marked by a priestess with bear’s blood and told they would roam the sky that night with the Great Mother Bear before she cut their throats. Some of the valley people were wildly drunk from wine mixed with a slow-acting poison, believing drunkeness to be a form of divine madness and thus a means of knowing the mind of the Grain Giver who they were returning beneath the earth to reside with until the reunification of earth and sky, the event they believe will mark the end of time.

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When the soldiers made their way through the enemy encampment they encountered only corpses and earth stained redder, if we are to believe the poet’s floridly tragic account, than the red of battlefields—only corpses and a single man, who made no attempt to flee but who simply sat amidst his countless dead comrades staring down at a perfectly white daisy which he had plucked from the ground and which he now spun back and forth between his fingers, apparently absorbed by thoughts distant from the tragedy and peril that surrounded him. His birth name is a matter of considerable uncertainty, and perhaps of little consequence—he had come to be known by his compatriots in the course of their years fighting together as the Cynic, owing to his caustic humor concerning the hardships of war, and Cynic was the only name to which he would answer.

Upon initially encountering him, the soldiers took him for a magician of the mountain folk, as both his cheeks were scarred by bear’s claws as is the custom among magicians of those people. In reality, it would be revealed he was a religious exile. He had been chosen to be a magician when he was still in infancy, and the initiate who had claimed to see great power in him had taken him from his mother and left him alone in the forest for a night, claiming that the mountain’s bears and wolves would have to give him permission to live and practice his magic, so powerful would it be, or deny him permission by eating him, and absorbing his great powers for themselves.

He survived the ordeal, but never saw a member of his family again. He grew up being instructed in magic and preparing for initiation, and it can be presumed that in some manner or another his instructor inflicted great cruelties on the boy—if there is one fact that can be ascertained about Cynic’s nature with absolute confidence, it is that at an early age he developed a scathing contempt for authority, even the fairly minimal and disorganized authority that exists among the mountain folk, which would last his entire life and in many respects define it.

At the time of his initiation, when he was sixteen years old, he took his revenge on his instructor. With a ceremonial dagger he was to spill his blood on a bear skull, which would be secreted away in the canopy of a forest tree, a cedar or a fir, allowing him to ride the animal’s spirit into the sky when he went into trances and worked magic. Instead, he spat on the bear skull and cut his instructor’s throat with the ceremonial dagger, before killing the three priests who had come to bear witness to his passage into manhood.

In the society of the mountain folk, the killing of a magician, especially a magician with which one has a legitimate grievance, is a complex and morally ambiguous affair, but the killing of a priest is not—the sentence is death no matter what the circumstances, and every man and woman over the age of fifteen is required to avenge the murder if the opportunity presents itself. The boy fled, and his name, whatever it was before it was Cynic, became synonymous among the mountain folk with the betrayal of their most sacred codes.

He evaded numerous attempts on his life as he made his way out of the mountains. It is not clear how it was he was able, years later, to fight alongside the people from whom he had exiled himself—he would make vague statements after his capture to the effect that they no longer considered him of the mountains and thus were no longer duty-bound to kill him—nor is it any more clear where he went or what he did between that time and the rebellion many years later. He left the mountains a boy with the scars of a magician on his face but no bear’s skull erected skyward with which to perform magic, a boy without home or family, and whatever subsequently transpired, when he was taken captive he had acquired an extraordinary education encompassing a great breadth of topics, both common and obscure.

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Three soldiers encountered him initially, and as one raised his spear to thrust it into Cynic’s breast, he held up his hand and said simply, “Wait.”

When asked for what the soldier was to wait, he replied, “I have something about which I must speak with the emperor. It is not for me to explain to you as it is beyond your comprehension. I can thus only offer you the assurance that the emperor would find the subject which I must discuss with him of great significance, and he would be enraged to learn this opportunity had been denied him by a bloodthirsty soldier who had just won an effortless victory.”

The soldier again raised his spear to strike him, and Cynic turned and looked at the other two men for the first time.

You have two comrades with you. Do you trust these men so infinitely that you can strike me down without any risk that one or the other of them will inform your superior that you killed the sole survivor of the rebellion, who claimed to have an important matter to discuss with the emperor? Even if you all agree among yourselves here and now to be done with me and never say a word of it to anyone, are you all such sober and fastidious men that you trust one another to never betray your secret to anyone else, not to ever whisper in a lover’s ear or drunkenly brag to friends that you were there for the killing of the last rebel, in the month of fattening bears of the seventh year of the great drying? And finally, considering those risks I’ve just described, it must be asked: what do you risk in taking me to your superior?”

The soldiers acquiesced, and Cynic had a few exchanges with increasingly high-ranking soldiers, all variations on the same basic theme he’d presented to the three who had initially found him, before it began to seem natural to the military leadership that they should bring to their emperor the sole survivor of the rebellion, for him to do with what he pleased.

As the military made its way back to the capitol, they stopped in the coastal city of Nefar, and the imperial authorities of that city, which had lost many ships to the rebellion, condemned him to death.

Remarkably, he contrived to be sentenced at a formal tribunal, reminding the authorities of appropriate legal procedure, since it could not be claimed that they were any longer at war, and that tribunal acquiesced to forego his execution because of a lengthy and elaborate argument in which he managed to convince these coast-dwellers that the ocean, which he had perhaps never seen, could plausibly have many gods residing beneath its tumultuous gray waters in addition to the one they knew and worshipped, and that these gods may in fact war with one another, and this warring may account for the ocean’s notorious fury. The argument, insofar as it can be discerned, was apparently intended to illustrate some principle about multiple authorities presiding over the same domain, some principle which convinced the tribunal they did not want to risk incurring the emperor’s wrath. In any case, he came, in time, to the capitol, in chains but otherwise unharmed.

When he finally received his audience with the emperor, he had already become something of a legendthe one man who did not, among all his thousands of comrades, take his life on that fateful day the rebellion lost, who had managed to survive months in captivity by insisting he had something of great consequence to speak with the emperor about. Though it was winter, it was warm and rainless—the sea by the capitol had taken on a listless dull gray color, a color resembling stone more than water, and was moved by no breeze—and thus the emperor gave Cynic an audience outside, in the great pavilion in the imperial gardens, with a great retinue, curious to see what this last living rebel would say, in attendance.

When Cynic was brought before him in chains, the emperor said, “Certainly you have not come all this way, and troubled so many of my soldiers and magistrates, because you fear death? Certainly you have not come to implore me for mercy?”

It is as you say,” Cynic replied. “Certainly not. On the contrary, I have come to implore you not for mercy, but for exceptional cruelty.”

Explain,” Melanus demanded.

Very well, but if I am truly to furnish you with an explanation, it can only begin with the frank and unequivocal admission that I despise you and your empire—indeed, with my comrades all dead and thus with no one to argue with me for the honor, it could reasonably be conjectured that no one on this earth hates you with such fervor as I do.”

The people who had assembled in the garden collectively gasped, never having heard the emperor insulted before. The soldiers who stood on either side of Cynic moved their spears as if to strike, but the emperor gave them no order.

But it is for this very reason, owing to our profound mutual antagonism, that we have a tremendous task to undertake together, one which will not reconcile us but rather make our enmity all the more bitter, a task of the greatest possible significance.”

You speak cryptically and overly long,” the emperor said.

The essence of the matter is this,” Cynic replied. “I could not drink poison on that fateful day when my comrades chose to. I certainly could not have my throat cut by the bear priestess. I could not be beheaded with an implement of harvest. I could not do these things because I have no people, no god with whom any other man has had converse, no code other than my own. So I resolved that I would simply die by my own knife, alone among comrades, as I watched them end their lives in the ways they found most suiting. While the others performed their rituals, I thought perhaps to read a few pages from the one book I had in my possession at the time, which I had stolen from one of your imperial libraries some months before while we were looting the city of Crebus and redistributing its grain stores among the starving.”

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The fires of Crebus still anguish me greatly,” Melanus said.

Yes,” Cynic replied, “but that is of little consequence to the matter we are presently discussing.”

Again, the soldiers raised their spears, although this time somewhat more noncommittally, and again, the emperor gave no order to strike.

I could not take my life. I sat amidst this scene of what should have been, if the universe possesses sense or purpose whatsoever, great tragedy, a scene that would clarify what is truly essential within the human spirit and what is superfluous, a moment lacking contingencies, not haunted by uncertainties.

But everywhere I looked, little imperfections crept in. I did not see clarity in the eyes of my dying comrades. I did not see truth. I saw ugly little fragments of fear and indecision pollute their beings even as they put poison to their lips or bowed their heads before scythes.

The deaths of my friends began to repulse me. Not sadden me, mind you, repulse me. I began to hate these men for dying so imperfectly, for still having not quite, despite that their entire lives clearly and unequivocally had culminated in this one moment of revelation, comprehended the reality of the moment. They could not bear the tragedy of their deaths in their bodies. Their minds and their souls were not vast enough to encompass what they were in fact enduring. I saw their eyes glaze over and take on looks of stupidity. I saw the trivialities with which they’d obsessed their entire lives, their little lusts and petty fears and unthinking greeds, still consuming them despite that life had presented them with a tragedy so great as to purify them of these inconsequential concerns. In the end, they did not die greatly, or heroically, but feebly. I can not help but hate them for how they died, although I do love them as well.

And thus, my knife faltered. I came to believe my death would be ugly and ignominious as well, and began to realize it was my duty to seek you out.”

So you have come to implore me for a particularly cruel death?” the emperor demanded. “So that you will be forced to come to terms with the limits of your being, or overcome them?”

Indeed,” Cynic replied. “Not just a particularly cruel death, but the most unbearably tragic death that has ever transpired. I want to know that I am unmatched in this world for suffering. I want to perfect suffering. But I do not expect that you would grant me this solely for the sake of my own personal vindication, as my own personal vindication is naturally not a matter with which I expect you concern yourself terribly.”

Naturally,” the emperor said dryly.

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It was inevitable that at this moment I should have begun to wonder if ever men had met their deaths truly comprehending the moment, truly gazing on the wonder and the horror of it without flinching, without succumbing to mind-numbing terror or allowing the clutter of trivial thoughts with which life had preoccupied them to creep in and rob them of the naked totality of the experience.

And from this speculation, it was inevitable that I should further begin to wonder if anyone had ever done anything purely, in a manner that acknowledged the vastness and greatness and beauty and cruelty of the universe, or if every action, every gesture, every word, had always been undertaken imperfectly.

Retrospecting on my life, I confess I have never seen it. I have seen a mother shielding the body of her dead infant from a starving mob who wanted to eat it. I have been the guest of a sect of mystics who commit dangerous crimes as a means of knowing their god, a god whose only impulse so far as I can discern is the transgression of taboos, mystics who habitually eat copious doses of plants that bring visions for days on end. I have known kings in the eastern jungles who sit on living thrones of serpents.

And in all the faces of all these people I have seen imperfections, the blemishes of stupidity, vile tinges of small-mindedness.

Who is not disturbed by the subtle but all-pervasive sense that the world has grown weary somehow, that our faces and gestures and words have not grown somehow corrupted? Who does not long for a lost mythical age, whether of the distant past or in some imagined future? Is this not why so many religious doctrines teach of worlds other than this one, because we innately suspect that this world of blemishes and weaknesses is not as the world should be?

I ask you to deny these religious doctrines their stranglehold on pure, illuminated order, on action commensurate with the nobility and virtue of the principles that drive it. Because I am, inevitably—on this point I can’t imagine there is any possibility of debate—condemned to death, I can only ask for it in death. But I implore you, let us make a moment together that warrants the line it will take up in the page of a history book. Let us make a moment without trivialities or weakness. Let us make a pure moment together.

No one can claim that being executed by you would cause them greater anguish than me, because no one despises you more, no one wishes more desperately and fervently that they could instead be killing you. No one who will go on living is capable of creating this moment of unbridled anguish I ask of you, because none of them can truly invest everything in a moment—they will reserve some part of themselves for the future. No one is strong enough to endure the suffering I ask of you but me.

So you see, emperor, that although we despise one another, although it sickens me to stand here in front of you and waste my breath in speaking to you, although each word has the taste of poison in my mouth, these feelings of enmity are inconsequential when compared to the scope of the work you and I must accomplish, in our hatred, together.”

There was silence of a considerable duration. The emperor was an educated man, not only insofar as all nobility receive an education in childhood but to the extent that it would be plausible to imagine that were he not emperor he would have chosen instead to be a scholar. He had certainly read any number of doctrines which suggested the world had progressed into a state of deterioration, that the sun no longer burned the same lion-gold color as it had in days when the world was young and beasts spoke and deeds of great heroism were performed. Other explanations have been advanced for Melanus’s acquiescence to his captive’s proposal—that he was trying to demonstrate his sophistication to the imperial nobility, from whom he’d always been slightly alienated, having not been born in the capitol, being chief among them—but there is little evidence to suggest that he ever did anything to endear himself to the nobles, and any other explanation fails to account for the emperor’s legitimate philosophical inclinations. It is possible, in fact, that Cynic chose the narrative he did precisely because he knew of some system of thought which the emperor favored to which his story would appeal.

In any case, Melanus consented to find a particularly cruel way to kill Cynic. Before dismissing him, he asked him only two questions.

The first was, “You are marked by a bear claw on your face. Do you ride a bear into the sky?”

Bears are bears,” Cynic replied. “Men cannot ride them into the sky. But I will ascend into the sky on the pain you inflict in me.”

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And what is your name? I have heard it told you earned the soldier’s nickname of Cynic, a most curious appellation, but I have not yet heard what you were called before this.”

I do not have another name. Those who gave me a name at birth have unnamed me. I could tell you one of the other names I have used over the years, and while some are less overt, it is equally true of them all that they are criminal aliases and nothing besides.”

The month of the knife-moon, the month of bare frozen soil and bonelike branches bereft of leaves reaching up into the long night skies, transpired with Cynic in a cell and the emperor occupied with other matters. Finally, he paid the rebel a visit and told him that the next day he would begin dying.

I have decided on the manner of your killing,” he said. “From each of the districts where the rebellion raided and redistributed imperial grain stores, I will bring young women, poor women, girls from farms and cities alike, and I will bring them to the amphitheater, where you will be kept in chains, starving and thirsting. They will be brought before you, beaten, raped, humiliated. And then they will be given a choice. That either some piece of you will be cut off or some part of them. And do you know what they will choose, down to a girl?”

Yes,” said Cynic. “That I should be the one dismembered.”

Precisely,” said the emperor. “All those precious poor people you fought on behalf of, who you bled and killed to protect, will day after day choose your pain over their own, though with each passing day it will become clearer and clearer, as you become increasingly disfigured, that you have suffered far more than they. I will break your revolutionary spirit. Before you die, I will see in your eyes the realization that your cause was not just hopeless but also useless and ill-conceived, even had you any hope of victory. I will see in your eyes the realization that these poor filthy dung-covered masses you love so dearly are indeed loathsome and vile.”

Cynic listened to the emperor soberly and chose his words with great consideration. “I have been well aware that the masses, poor or otherwise, are loathsome my entire life. While the spirit of what you suggest is compelling, the dismantling of a soldier’s dearest-held convictions about the virtue of his cause, in my case I never had any convictions about my cause to begin with. You must understand I joined the rebellion out of a blind compulsion to attack the existing order, unencumbered by any preconceptions that it could ever be replaced with a better one.”

We will see if you feel such indifference with a few less fingers and ears,” the emperor hissed, and began to withdraw from his captive’s cell.

I will feel such indifference mutilated beyond all recognition,” Cynic replied, and the force of his voice stopped Melanus in his footsteps. “And you will lose all credibility.”

How is it you imagine I will lose credibility?”

People will cease to fear you if I do not die in legitimate anguish. Imagine it. I have just come before you, the only living representative of a rebellion which plagued your reign for years, and implored you for a death of such cruelty that I become absolutely and completely consumed by pain, so absolutely that no part of me remains that does not suffer. Your empire is based on fear. Your subjects obey you because you have the capacity to inflict harm on them. Imagine if it becomes known that this rebel, who openly insulted you in your own capitol city, to your very face, died indifferent to the suffering you tried in vain to inflict on him. From your most trusted generals to the starving masses, people will begin to wonder if what it is they fear you will do to them is really as terrible as they’ve imagined. You will quickly lose hold on this empire you’ve cobbled together out of a collective aversion to experiencing your cruelty.”

I will find a death so horrible that you will wish a thousand times over you had sunk your knife into your stomach when you had a chance. I will make you beg to forget the words you said to me in the imperial garden.”

That would be a beginning, emperor, but a mere beginning.”

Pages will be written about my cruelty in history books.”

No, emperor, pages will be written about my suffering. You will be a mere footnote.”

It is said that the esteemed natural philosopher Zahadek once attempted to trace the course of the great Milk River from its wide mouth where it empties into the sea, its water having wended its way through many distant lands, to its point of origin, and that he returned having concluded that the river had no origin to speak of, that the boundary between the river and the braided streams that converge to become the river is not clear—a hundred men, he said, would claim a hundred different places where the river begins.

Something similar could be said of the relationship between Melanus and his captive; at some point which can perhaps not be known, their discourse shifted. Locked in a lightless cell day after day, Cynic developed a perpetually weary affect, seeming less and less intimidated by the lurid cruelties the emperor described to him, and becoming increasingly preoccupied not with physical torture but with doctrines about the nature of the universe which would, if subscribed to, maximally incline one to suffering. Gradually, it became clear to the emperor that the work before them was not to devise the most painful death imaginable per se but rather the most painful perspective one could have on death, which Cynic would then adopt. This is not to say that the emperor might not have considerable work to do in carrying out a particularly cruel execution, but a crucial element would always remain of his victim having decided on a means of conceptualizing his torture which caused him more pain than anyone had ever yet experienced.

Once, Melanus was overheard to ask what would prevent the rebel from simply discarding the chosen belief system if it became unbearable in the course of death.

It is my purpose to endure this,” he was heard to reply. “I am a fanatic, and this is my cause.”

The first time he was released from his cell it was to consult with religious initiates who resided on top of a mountain outside of the capitol, whose doctrine maintained that it would permanently sever their relationship with the sky god if they chose to leave the heights and return to the lowlands for even a day. He was escorted by guards to their small sanctuary, where they live off of alms provided by the pious who farm the surrounding valleys, gazing from sunrise to sunset upwards in contemplation of the sky. He wanted to know if the sky god himself would be dismayed by their departure, apparently thinking to incorporate the pain of deities into his own death.

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Eventually, the emperor, preferring not to travel to the stinking prison, began having him brought from his cell when they met, and they would walk the imperial gardens together, the guards nervously watching the captive for any indication of flight or attack, discussing doctrinal obscurities. The animosity between them, if not diminishing, took on fewer overt expressions, and eventually their relationship developed the quality of a collaboration, of a great work for which they both increasingly felt they were born.

The rebel’s trips to centers of religious devotion and to imperial libraries grew so frequent as to warrant him being permanently released from his cell, and he was given quarters, funds were put at his disposal, and a guard detail was assigned to him. Thus, he became a distinct personage in the capitol, perhaps vaguely akin in social position to a diplomat visiting from a hostile territory, and he passed the years in contemplation of the horrors which men conceive of to enhance life’s already considerable measure of suffering.

His inquiries were eclectic in the extreme. He grew intimately familiar with various doctrines concerning the relationship between this world and the afterlife, such as mutilations of the body persisting in the world beyond, or the provisioning of graves with horses, gold, and even human slaves in order for the deceased to exploit these riches in death, thinking these conceptions might reveal some suffering he could anticipate even after death. He practiced techniques of illumination that involved rigorous, painful self-discipline, imagining he could very slowly and painfully kill himself over the course of many years.

Nothing availed. He became despondent, and began making statements to Melanus to the effect that he was unable to conceive of the most terrible death that had ever been endured, and that he moreover no longer felt with any certainty that he could indeed endure it should he conceive of it. It was more than two years since the emperor had first granted Cynic an audience in the imperial gardens, and he had become deeply invested in their project—indeed, although he would never have confessed it to anyone, he had come to see this killing as his most important legacy, the thing which he would be remembered for when all the logistical trivialities of imperial administration were long since forgotten. He implored Cynic to find his resolve.

Look out over this empire I rule,” he said to his prisoner, gesturing vaguely over the walls of the city.

What does it consist of? It consists of farting cows thoughtlessly chewing on grass, of old men making crude jokes from their toothless mouths as they drunkenly idle their days away, of imperial administrators lazily dispensing cruelties to the populace in order to grow fatter. Look at the guards who are standing right here behind us. They stand straight and tall, their shields emblazoned with eagles, their cloaks bright red, their swords at their sides, but look in their eyes and what do you see?

Not the great principle from which their duties derive—no, rather one sees equivocation, a poorly disguised boredom, stupid fear from hearing me say these words that some harm will come to them, and lurking beneath all their other thoughts and gestures, a vague but ever-present desire to be done with their duties so they can forget themselves in drink and find something warm to put their cocks into.

Nothing in my empire is worthy of the grandeur and nobility that is attributed to the notion of the empire. Nothing but this great work we have undertaken together, this death of such extreme cruelty and tragedy that nothing exists save the suffering of this death. We will transfigure the very world with this suffering. We will make the world pure and golden with anguish. We will free existence from its chains, set the planets on their true orbits from which they have strayed, make the hearts of warriors beat with the red blood of lions, make the swords of warriors so fearsome as to slay the very sun.

We must carry on. We must endure whatever the costs, whatever the hardships. No more important work has ever been undertaken. You must find your fortitude.”

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And Cynic only nodded, silently and pensively, looking west out at the formless sea which no sailor had ever found the limit of as it burned a deep crimson beneath the sinking sun.

It was the month of apple harvests, the month of fattening bears and faceless moons, of the tenth year of the great dryness. As starvation spread, small uprisings had occurred in several remote districts. Trees in the great forests of the mountains to the east of the capitol had begun to die of thirst. The emperor was preoccupied and thus had not come to discuss the execution with his captive for weeks, and finally Cynic requested an audience with him. Two nights later, they walked their familiar route together through the garden, the late hour scented with the night-blooming jasmine which clung to the garden’s stone walls and columns, no sound penetrating their vigil save those of their footsteps and voices.

The work is done,” Cynic said. “It is accomplished. I have conceived of it. I have finally conceived of it. Our hopes for the nobility and the grandeur of this effort will all be vindicated. Though the time it required was great, our endeavor will prove to be well worth it.”

What is the manner of the death you have conceived of?”

It is a simple death. I must be the one to bear the knife. It is made more painful than any other death only by the manner in which it is conceptualized.”

And how is that?”

Beyond the borders of your empire, far to the east and north of here, in the great cold desert, there are men who live on horseback and hunt with eagles, men who consider cruelty and valor in battle to be the only virtues, whose religious observances are severe in the extreme. Their blood feuds are constant—virtually no boy is ever born among them who is not already duty-bound at the moment of his birth to kill someone when he comes of age in retaliation for the death of a relative—and thus a great cycle of perpetual revenge killings defines the lives of these men. On occasion, when a truly great transgression has occurred, a transgression as great as the one I committed against the people I was born to when I came of age, killing is deemed insufficient.

In such cases they possess an elaborate and exceptionally cruel practice which is overseen by a priest, or rather, by generations of priests, for you see, the condemned is made to understand that his sons will all be killed, and their sons, for the next century. They believe that the souls of men migrate from body to body down the generations of a given lineage and thus they are in effect killing the man repeatedly, in the many permutations of his being, encompassing different bodies, through the years. So his progeny is made to watch the man’s ritual execution by the priest, and to understand that they will suffer this same death in time. They live as captives, but a unique class of captive, allowed to marry and to beget children—indeed, required to do so—in order to carry on the condemned man’s lineage, so that these children may in turn watch their fathers die, and so on, for one hundred years. By the third generation, the victims have never even met the man who committed the crime for which they are suffering. Then, at the termination of the sentence, all his living descendants are executed, and his lineage dies.

I know my soul will not migrate into another body when I die. My soul will wander this earth aimlessly, deformed by pain and contempt. I have no progeny to witness my execution. Nonetheless, these horse warriors have revealed to me the path to the ultimate death. It is in the lifetime of suffering inflicted on the innocent. It is true I spit on all icons, true I bow to no man, true I hold noble and common folk alike in distinct but equal contempt, but for as much as I may despise humanity I have no greater aversion than to inflict harm on it.

Thus we must achieve a death that reverberates down through the generations. A death which continues in other bodies, innocent bodies chosen for the express purpose of suffering for my crimes. But it is notand this distinction is crucial—enough to simply know that you will elect some other poor fool to suffer in my place when I am dead. I have every confidence that you will continue to brutalize your subjects according to whatever whim strikes you. That knowledge is not a unique anguish, not a world-forming suffering, it is the baseline misery with which all who you rule must all live out our days.

No, the critical distinction is this: I must choose. This is where the anguish unmatched in scale by any preceding anguish is produced. At the very foundations of my being, in my very core, there is horror at the cruelty with which people treat one another, a profound love of justice and a profound desire to attack injustice wherever it is encountered. Therefore I wish to stand in your imperial gardens and choose to die, to cut my own throat as I could have done years previous, but before I do to apologize for fighting your empire and implore you to find someone else who hates injustice as I do, find them young, as I was young when I first tasted cruelty, and to raise them in the knowledge that they will be broken, made to apologize for my crimes and to take their own lives while imploring first you, and then future emperors, to find subsequent victims in whose bodies I may continue to die.

But do not coerce them. The suffering resides in the choosing to abandon one’s dearest principles, in the choosing the path of the oppressor rather than the liberator. The suffering resides in self-negation: the most precious things a man possesses can be taken by no other man. Make those who love justice choose to negate themselves by denying this love. Select my victims carefully. Find that one rare soul treading this earth at any given moment who will see the appalling senselessness of this absurd sequence of suicides, which grow more cruel and unreasonable each time they occur, but who understands that this cruelty is greater than any that has preceded it and who will come to see in time that it is a precious flame which they can allow no wind to extinguish, a flame that must dwell within them, an act of the greatest self-overcoming imaginable progressing down the generations, growing ever more heroic and severe as the suicides continue and their original context grows ever more irrelevant and obscure, until this sequence of self-negations becomes an entity unto itself, freed from its original impetus altogether. Make of me the founder of a great lineage of exalted desperation.

But always let them choose. They must always choose. Only then can it be a perfect death, a perfect and unending death.”

The emperor was motionless for a long while, his hands gripping a vine-covered railing in the garden, looking out at the moon’s dead face shimmering dully in the black ocean. Tears silently streamed down his unmoving face.

Finally, he said, “It is as you say. It is the perfect death. It is the greatest thing any man has ever accomplished.”

Then I suppose this is the last night I will know the fragrance of your imperial garden’s jasmine.”

It is,” the emperor replied.

sst-Gallonio_Tortures_1591_p44

The next day Cynic was brought to the amphitheater, where a massive crowd—the largest the capitol could recall—had gathered. Religious specialists of every variety had arrived to observe his death, curious as to whether the manner in which Cynic conceptualized his killing would confirm or contradict their own doctrines. The nobility was all present, having been scandalized for years by the rebel’s presence in the city and eager to see a harsh sentence carried out to suppress the nascent uprisings occurring throughout the empire.

To the assembled crown Melanus said only this. “The rebellion has been crushed. Here is its last living representative. You are about to witness a death more painful than any preceding death has ever been. You are about to witness a man discard, in the most extreme and irrevocable manner, everything which is at the essence of that man’s being—not to have it taken from him, but to discard it, and that is what will cause him the greatest pain, the voluntary nature of this divestiture. Guards, furnish the captive with a knife.”

Cynic took the knife from the guard. “It is as you say, emperor, exactly as you say. On this day, with this knife, these people will witness a death which is chosen, and in that choosing, more terrible than any death which has ever preceded it, a death which negates the core values on which the life it ends was premised, and that death will be yours.”

There were indignant murmurs in the crowd, and hands tightening around spears among the guards, but the emperor sat silent, as if stricken by a blow.

For certainly, the death I described to you last night cannot be carried out by me. I said there must be a choice, that the element of choice, of electing to abandon one’s identity, is crucial. And did you not agree? Did you not agree that there was indeed no more important work any man could undertake than this death of unprecedented tragedy? Did you not say to me that your empire consisted of nothing worthy of the grandeur and nobility attributed to the notion of empire, that it consisted only of drunken idiots and stinking cows? Certainly, then, no business of ruling this empire could be so worthy an undertaking as the dying you must do today.

Who here among us today has any more freedom to do whatever he wishes, despite what anyone else wishes of him, than you? Certainly not me. I am a prisoner of war, condemned to death. What matter if I choose to cut my own throat or you do it for me? What matter if I ask you to choose a victim to carry on my legacy or you simply elect to do this of your own accord?

But you there, safe on your throne, you have every choice in the world. If you commanded it, everyone assembled here today would jump up and down on one leg until you told them to stop—or in any case, everyone but me; I bow to no one. Who on this earth possesses more power? Who on this earth has less reason to listen to the command of a nameless soldier who was years ago captured in a hopeless war? Who on this earth sacrifices more, discards more, negates more of his identity, which is based solely on power over others, on the capacity to force others to do as you wish, than you when you obey my command—for it is a command; I am commanding you—and stand up from your chair, at this very moment, walk down those ugly stone stairs, down to the level of the ground where the rest of humanity dwells, take this knife from this rebel’s hand, this rebel who has openly held you in contempt all these years you foolishly fed and housed him, this rebel who freely confesses to the killing of your soldiers and the raiding of your stores, and cut your own throat?

You must act now, emperor. Even a moment’s hesitation will destroy the absolute perfection of suffering you are about to experience. Walk down those stairs to me. The perfect death lives in you. In your blood the world will be reborn.”

Wordlessly, the emperor stood up and began making his way down the stairs to where Cynic stood. The crowd watched in silent horror. The guards looked at one another but did nothing—it is sacrilege to lay a hand on the emperor, who is thought to be descended from the gods. A great silent resolve had come over Melanus as he approached his captive. In his eyes one could witness a thousand thoughts of recoiling, a thousand desperate questions, expressions of betrayal, but he suppressed them all, believing they would pollute the pure moment fate had afforded him.

When he took the knife from the prisoner’s hands, Cynic said, “Pardon me for my crimes.”

With the gravest face, heavy as if the terror rippling underneath it could not find expression in the features because they had been carved from stone, in a voice laden with grief of a depth he imagined no other man had previously experienced, he said, “The prisoner is pardoned and not to be harmed.”

Then, he cut his own throat.

The emperor’s heir was far to the north, gaining experience in leading troops which would be essential when imperial duties fell on him, and thus no one present in the capitol had the authority to contravene the emperor’s final command, and no one dared to violate it. Cynic departed the amphitheater, and when darkness fell went to the imperial gardens to smell the night-blooming jasmine a final time, where it was noted that he had never, in all his years in the capitol before that moment, been seen to smile.

The ensuing shock and controversy surrounding the emperor’s suicide was adequate to undermine the ever-tenuous network of political alliances and subjugations that comprised the empire, and thus in subsequent conflicts it began to splinter into progressively smaller territories. While their overlords quarreled, the masses, long accustomed to a feeling of impotence and hopelessness so deep and absolute it seemed an innate feature of the universe, suddenly developed an invincible courage, and fierce uprisings began throughout the lands Melanus had ruled over.

Some of those who revolted sought after Cynic, thinking to enlist him in their fight, but he was not to be found. He traveled north and east alone, in the direction of vast mountains which comprised the northeastern boundary of the world he had seen thus far, thinking that despite that he had invented the story of the men who live on horseback and hunt with eagles for the sake of deceiving the emperor, he would now journey beyond the mountains to see if such people might, in fact, exist.

 

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