Mercy is death in the arena.
A warrior must accept the weapons drawn against him. He must honor such an action with the drawing of his own weapons. He must look his opponent in the eyes, let his opponent look back, and let the best of himself rise to meet the challenges of battle.
A warrior mustn't show mercy.
Mercy is death in the arena.
The Colosseum is hot today. No clouds offer cover from the buzzing sun. The horses are not braying or bucking in their stables. Though I am a mere ten paces from the lion cages, I hear only an occasional low bellow. Even though the crowds' cheering sends rumbles throughout the corridors, the lions don't pace. The horses don't neigh. The other men sweat silently into their leather thigh guards and armored breast plates and try to breathe their fear away into the dusty air.
I pull my swords from their sheaths. When I lay the blades against my thighs, they are still cool. I do not sweat into the pads under my armor because I am not wearing any armor. I do not have a helmet to cover my head so the beads of sweat bubble up and run, unchecked, down my head and neck, down the ridges of my back and the rolling flesh of my chest and stomach. They roll over the scars from the slavers' whips, the scars from the African who ran his sword across my shoulder and face. They roll over the scars from the horseback archer's arrows, arrows he loosed before I brought him down with my spear. My flesh is a map of the roiling will of the gods.
My flesh is a map of violence.
It has always found me. From childhood, violence found me, only ever leaving for a short while, always returning again. It orbits me. My pull is too great. The constellations on my skin, wounds from sword and ax and arrow and spear, raised and discolored, circle my body. It is the night sky of my life, swirling in a dying universe.
As the sweat runs its course, tickling its way across skin and scar, down into my leather belt and the sand-colored cloth around my loins, I feel their weight. Each scar reminds me of those who gave them. Each scar echoes the cries of the dead.
To break my skin is to meet the boatman, to sway and bob across the river styx.
The weight of this is getting harder to hold. I never cared for armor. I never liked the feel of it. Mostly, I never cared for carrying the extra weight. The weight of my life was always enough.
On the farm where I lived before the soldiers came for me, my master tasked me with carrying tools for the soil workers. They tilled the ground for seed, sometimes by hand, sometimes with a plow and a horse, and I carried the leather strapping, the picks and posts for rock moving, and any smaller items my five-year-old arms could carry. I didn't share a common tongue with the slavers, or the master, but they usually gave me food at the end of the day. Sometimes they gave me more food than I'd ever had in my own house.
And they gave me my strength.
The things I carried got bigger, the amount of things more numerous. I moved from carrying leather tow straps to using them. Now, as I run my fingers along the straps of my belt and sword sheaths, I can hear the hiss of leather grinding across the calloused years. I remember the first time the leather pulled the skin from my hands into raised, shining blisters. My palms are thicker now, from plowing and moving rocks, and from wielding sword and spear. The splinters that once plunged into the skin and meat of my scrawny hands would shattered against the weathered skin now. It would take work to drive even a sharpened nail through them.
The other men are murmuring again. Another cart is making its way toward us from the arena. Will it be dead Romans, or Greeks? Maybe one of the Egyptian chariot drivers?
The cart rounds the end of the corridor. Workers are wheeling a horse out from the arena. It is on its side, motionless other than the heaving of its final breaths, and it stays still and silent even when a man tears four arrows and a spear from its flesh. One of the men across from me vomits between his feet. The men beside him try to ignore it, try to hold in their own vomit. One of the men laughs and slaps his back.
As the horse passes me, its eyes are closing. The black eyes shine like ponds in a desert. They seem to stare up clearly for a moment, seem to find me, but then the heaving of the chest stops and the horse is gone.
In my ninth year, the master's most trusted slave, Arlos, showed me how to drive a plow horse, how to guide it to keep the furrows straight, how to use the horse and plow to remove big rocks from the field without help. I plowed the smallest tracts. I was given the smallest horse. The other plow horses were stronger, faster, and easier to steer. The other slaves, when finished with their work, would hand off their horses to the stable maids and return to some other duty. Arlos made me do all of my own stable work. I didn't speak his language, and he didn't speak mine, but without a word, he showed me how to strip and clean all of the equipment. I washed the sweat and dirt from the saddle blankets, from the saddles, the bridle. I cleaned and dried the collar and the bit. He showed me how to mount them on my horse to avoid blisters and sores. He showed me how to hang them so they would dry properly and be ready for the next day. There are few things in my life I have enjoyed more than standing silently beside Arlos and seeing all of our tools and gear hanging, clean, in their proper places.
Arlos taught me about the horses. He showed me when to call out to them, when to use the whips, and when to be silent. He showed me how they liked to walk for awhile after hard work. They liked to calm down, walk free of plow or bit or rider, before returning to the stables. He showed me how to clean them, how to check for cuts or large bruises, and how to wash and rub them down. He placed my hands on the horse's hamstrings, squeezing my fingers and using my hands to massage the muscles. At first, massaging a horse seemed weird. It scared me. The second time I ever touched my horse's leg, Arlos pointed to the horse and then grabbed his own leg, massaging it the way he wanted me to massage the horse. The moment my fingertips touched the horse, the horse grunted and tried to kick me. Arlos laughed. After I picked myself up off the ground and realized I wasn't dead, I laughed, too.
Once the horse got used to me, I could tell he liked the washing and massages. His movements slowed. His breathing changed. Arlos placed my hand on the horse's chest. He brought my attention to the heartbeat. He made a sound with each beat, baboom, baboom, and made me aware of how the heartbeat would slow, how the horse would become calm. I would nod and smile. He would nod back. He showed me other signs of health or illness, in the eyes and nose, in the mouth, in the horse's piss and dung. He taught me to watch these things, to notice how taking care of things made them work better. He showed me how taking care of something else could make me feel better. I did notice. The horse always worked better the next day when I took care of him the night before. He kicked less, bit less, stopped less. Seeing him work better made me work better.
It made me feel better.
I didn't notice at the time, but I think Arlos made me do my own stable work to keep me out of the harder work in the field. I think he knew the cool and quiet of the stables would be good for me. It kept me away from some of the other, rougher men. I think he knew caring for a horse would be good for me, too.
But I didn't always do a good job. Sometimes I grew tired midday. Sometimes the work and the heat and the hunger were too much. Sometimes the memory of my family was too much. Some days, tired and angry, I would take the horse straight to the stables without a relaxing walk. I would rush through the cleaning processes and rush through the brushing and massage. The next day's work was never the same.
One day, after a rushed night of halfhearted duties, we struggled at the plow. The horse didn't want to pull. He wanted even less to be whipped, and after three hard whips he planted his front feet and let his back feet strike out at me. His hooves caught the side post for the plow and snapped the wooden supports in two places. One of the jagged edges swung up and dug into my forearm, leaving a gash and a handful of splinters I would have to cut and pick out one by one.
It took almost an hour for the workers to calm him down and return him to the stables, and more than an hour for the men to repair the broken plow base. They hissed at me and, I assume, swore in their native tongues, and I caught glances from most of them I will never forget.
Arlos laid a hand on my shoulder and spoke words I couldn't understand. Even without knowing what he was saying, I felt comforted.
The next day, we returned to the field and set to work again. But again, the horse didn't want to work. He didn't kick the plow this time, but he raised up and stomped the ground before him. He reared up and stomped, again and again, and refused to move forward. When one of the larger men came over to whip the horse, the horse took the whipping without a sound. He would not move.
The next day, he did the same.
The last day, he did the same.
It was then Arlos taught me about the way of things. If a horse works, he is serving a purpose. If something has purpose, it has value. If a work horse won't work, his purpose diminishes. His value is limited to other things. One thing a good horse can be used for is breeding. My horse did not have such value. He was the smallest, weakest horse in the stable. He was not a quick learner or a compliant worker. This limited his value as a breeder.
A work horse could be sold off. But no one would want to buy a scrawny, stubborn horse who didn't like to work, and the master wasn't one to lie about a horse's worth. The amount he could get for the horse wouldn't be worth as much as the last option.
Food. Horses could be food. A horse who isn't a worker or a breeder can feed the people who are working. Arlos expressed this to me without words, that this was the way of things.
On the fourth day, two slaves came for the horse. They unhooked him from the plow and walked him on a light lead to the black house. The black house was a separate building, away from the barn and stables, where the hunters brought their deer and where the animal workers brought their pigs and birds.
Again, after some time apart, death had circled back to me.
Now, under the Colosseum, the horse on the cart will be sold for its meat.
It served its purpose, and now will serve a final purpose.
I return my swords to their sheaths. Two swords are the only weapons I will bring into the arena. I once wore heavy armor. I once used a spear, long sword, daggers, and mace. These things fell away slowly, piece by piece, with each battle I won. The people remembered me after my third fight. By then, I'd left the spear and mace behind, settling for my swords and daggers. After my third fight – after carving out the throat of an Egyptian – I cut the leather over my shoulders and let the massive back and breastplates of armor fall from my torso to the bloodied sand. Each time I discarded a new item, the roars from the crowd grew. They grew in volume and in admiration. They grew in fearful anticipation.
Once the armor hit the sand, an archer on horseback was released into the arena. I retained my thigh armor, which is where the first arrow struck. The armor slowed the arrow down but didn't stop it, and the sharpened point tore into my leg.
On the archer's second pass, his arrow sang past my neck, ripping through the air near my ear. My long sword deflected the third arrow. As he rode toward me for his fourth pass, I took the long sword in both hands. I didn't wait for him to come to me. I charged out into the horse's path and the archer was too busy lining up his shot to steer the beast in a new direction. The arrow ripped through the ribs on the right side of my chest, sending white hot pain down into my pelvis and into the center of my spine. I stumbled, but regained my balance as the horse was about to past. The arrow wound screamed as I reared back and prepared the sword for flight. As it left my hands, I knew it would find its mark.
The blade rolled end over end before crashing into the archer's helmet. The impact echoed in the arena and pulled gasps from the crowd. The archer toppled from his horse and fell headlong to the ground. The clatter of his armor covered the sound of his neck snapping, and the crowd gasped collectively again. I retrieved the long sword and the crowd murmured. I walked to the downed archer and the crowd sizzled with anticipation. I removed my helmet and threw it to the ground. The crowd was ready. When I raised the long sword above the archer's quivering body, the crowd was ready. When I brought it down into his chest, the arena erupted.
I wouldn't wear a helmet again.
I left the long sword buried in his chest and took the gladius from his belt. His short sword and my own would be my weapons. A blade in each hand and nothing more. I cut the thigh pads from my legs and laid them out on his chest. I could feel the blood running down my side from the arrow wound. I knew, under the chanting and roars of the Colosseum, that to leave myself unprotected would almost certainly mean death in the next battle. The people knew it, too. I could hear, in the center of their blood-crazed revelry, a disbelieving admiration. I could hear their pity and their pleasure. They were awed by my boldness. They hungered for my death knowing they would be saddened when it came. I could hear in their chants the desire for me to win and the knowing that I would lose.
I'd felt the same feelings. When the Roman soldiers came and burned the farm and killed most of the workers, those they didn't kill were pitted against each other in fights to the death. The soldiers placed bets. When I, the smallest male left alive, threw my sword into the face of my larger, stronger opponent, and stabbed into his unconscious body until two soldiers finally pulled my off of him, they saw in me what the Colosseum sees in me. They saw a wild animal. They saw insane desperation against impossible odds.
In each fight I became bolder, more reckless. I felt, at the same time, the desire to live and the desire to die. I threw myself at my opponents and tried, ferociously, to kill them all, but something deeper hoped in throwing myself wildly and recklessly forward that I would meet a quicker and more painless death for myself.
No matter how near I sat to the executioner, his blade ignored me.
No matter how loudly I cried for death to finally embrace me, his arms remained ever folded, his back turned.
The chants are rising in the Colosseum. Dust is rattling from the walls and ceiling of our holding room beneath the stadium. The people are stomping their feet. Their voices are a twisting, thunderous chaos. It sounds like the ravenous howling of beasts from the underworld. It is a noise that must anger the gods.
From the crazed screams, a word is emerging.
Two lines of soldiers approach me. Most warriors are marched out at spear point. Others are dragged, screaming, and thrown to the dusty ground in the center of the arena. For me, the soldiers line up along each wall and turn their backs. I take a position in their midst and we march to the entrance gate. The people seated on the far side of the Colosseum see us first. Their cries rise up and spread, left and right, until the noise has rolled like a wave around the entire stadium and back again. The ungodly sounds we heard beneath pale before the sounds that are now shaking all of Rome.
“Arlos! Arlos! Arlos!”
The slavers took my name. I do not now even remember what it ever was. They called me something in their native tongue that I will never know. The soldiers called me “puer ferox.” I have come to discover this means “wild boy.” This is what they called me but it is not my name. When they came for me on the farm and thrust their spears into the only person I ever loved, I took his name. I swing these swords for him. My hands do his work, my feet run for him. The only pleasure I feel in my life now is in this last moment before battle, as the soldiers turn and march back beneath the seats. My single, beautiful moment among all of the dark terror comes once a week when they shout his name to the heavens.
“Arlos immortales! Arlos immortales!”
Arlos, the immortal. I carry these swords for him. I carry these scars for him. I carry on his glorious name, and to hear it shouted by the farmers, the merchants, by sentries and Senators and slaves, and to see and hear it shouted, maybe loudest of all, by the Emperor himself, is the closest I will come to finding favor with the gods.
The men they have pitted me against today are slaves like me. They are men who were taken from their homes and forced to do things they never wished to do. No matter. If I must slay them to hear the name of my true father shouted before the gods, I will slay them. If the Emperor offers other men, I will slay them, too. His name will be shouted in this arena. His name will flow out along the endless roads of Rome until the empire's end. And if I have to kill every slave in every kindgom in all the world to continue the echo of his name throughout the entire Earth and all of history, I will. I'll kill them.
The men cry out, their weapons drawn. They run toward me on dead men's legs.
Arlos, the immortal.
I'll kill them all.
The boy watched his mother sleep. The sky was black, its stars hidden behind the rolling mists pouring into the valley from the eastern peaks, rolling down and away from the faint beginnings of morning light. The boy watched his mother breathe, as he did every morning, watched the flowing mass of wool blankets rise and fall like waves around her. He watched the whispers of light touch the edges of her, glowing and flickering at the outline of her legs, the rise at her hips, down to her waist and up to her shoulders. He liked the way her red hair glowed in the last faint firelight of their hut's one candle just before it burned out. Soon, Rezden would be at the door and the boy would be up and out, into the woods, until the sun reached its peak. Soon, the boy would be nocking arrows and arcing them into straw targets, then into the herds of wild boars in the lowlands, or into the scattering V's of the migrating geese making a quick stop in the lake before continuing South for winter.
For now, he would watch his mother sleep while he chewed on the wild corn husks he smuggled into his hut after last night's training. He found them growing in the forest of dead trees. Most of the corn had been eaten by the boars, but inside one of the hollowed out trunks, two stalks had managed to find enough sustenance to produce four small ears of corn, each. The boy knew he wasn't to eat unless instructed to eat by Rezden. He knew if he were caught with the corn, the penalty would appear in long, swollen stripes on his shoulders and the backs of his legs. It would also show in the deepening valleys of skin between his ribs, as he would be denied food for two days.
Mother stirred, turning suddenly onto her back and sucking in a terrified gasp. Her arms thrashed around her head and she cursed harsh whispers in a language the boy had never heard. Her convulsions caused the candle to wobble and hiss into its wax pool. The boy sat up, about to call out to her, when she stopped. Her arms stayed outstretched, as if caressing some unseen face. Her harsh whispers softened and her arms slowly lowered back to their resting place on her chest. The trembling flame bounced new light across her form, and now, lying on her back with her hands and arms at peace, the boy could see the firelight glistening in the tears on either side of her face.
It wasn't the first time. Her early morning terrors had happened yesterday, and the day before that. The boy considered the last time he watched her sleep peacefully through an entire morning.
The candle hissed a final time, burned to completion. The hut went dark.
He couldn't remember the last time.
The soft crunch of purposefully quiet footsteps brought the boy to his feet. Rezden. The corn husks were stashed under his head rest and he was already wearing his shoes. He grabbed his bow and quiver from their post and strapped his knife belt around his waste. He knew now which board to stand on for complete silence. He knew how to pull the handle on the hut's door so that it could be opened without the squeak of metal on metal, and he knew just how hard to lift the door while opening it to avoid any creaking where the wood and the hinges met.
He slipped through silently and closed the door again with a faint click.
Rezden stood before him, the mass of a tree trunk in his dark brown cloak. The boy could only see his outline, a black emptiness, like a hole in the world. Rezden was alone this morning. The boy was first.
Rezden turned without a word and the boy followed.
They made their ways silently along the worn paths of dirt between huts. The boy watched Rezden's feet, as he always did, and couldn't understand how that much mass and weight, and those giant feet, made so little noise in the dirt, across rocks or bark or grass. Or anywhere. The boy would hold his breath and soften his own steps and still could barely hear any sound from Rezden's footfalls.
Unless Rezden wanted to be loud.
Five huts marked the trail. Each hut produced another child, another boy and two girls, and the group made their way to the fifth hut. Rezden approached first. Once he was still, the four fanned out in a perfectly even line behind him, equal distance apart and by descending height order, and waited in silence. Rezden was silent, as well. The four waited to see if they'd been quick and quiet enough in forming their line. They would know if they'd made too much noise, or if their line wasn't straight, or if they'd been too slow, if Rezden's head turned back toward them ever so slightly. He wouldn't turn to look at them. He wouldn't say anything. He would turn his head and tilt his chin downward and the children would bite their lips and work to hold their breath and calm their accelerating heart beats. Move silently, show the simple discipline of straight lines, pay attention. Each child would lurch forward in their minds to what might be their penalty later in the morning for a misstep. Each child tended to anticipate the penalty they'd hated the most in the past.
One child tensed as she thought she saw Rezden beginning to turn his head. Her mind flashed to the water dragon game. That game entailed crawling down on hands and feet from the top of golden hill to the lake, filling their mouths with water, then keeping the water in their mouths on the crawl back to the top. The crawl down took a quarter of an hour. The crawl back up with a mouth full of water took longer. The children knew they would all need a complete mouthful to finish the task. To swallow any, or choke along the way, would mean failure.
Once at the top of the hill, the dragons were instructed to breathe their fiery dragon breath over the entire surface area of one of the large, flat rocks on the ground. “Engulf the stone in your fire,” Rezden would yell. The rock would need to be soaked, from top to bottom, on every side, all the way around. If it wasn't, they would be told to try again, back down the mountain on all fours for a mouthful of water, and back up again. The worst day had seen the group down and up the hill four times before succeeding. They pulled splinters and small bits of rock from their palms and fingers for weeks.
The boy saw them all holding handstands for minutes at a time. They would be instructed to hold their handstands while Rezden brought a thumb-thick switch down on the bottoms of their bare feet. If they cried out or fell to the ground, they would be instructed to crawl to the lake below where they would do handstands with their heads under the water. The boy had taken enough water up his nose the last time they endured this torture to pass out. Rezden dragged him out of the water and left him there to choke and cough the water up, or die. The boy had choked up the water and, once mostly conscious, was dragged back into the water to continue.
Each child knew to be ready before first light. Each child knew to listen for Rezden's silent approach. Now, standing before the final hut, the four children wonder what is keeping the fifth, Porano, from appearing, and they wonder what penalty they will have to endure because of his disobedience.
Rezden is motionless. The children think, multiple times, that they see him start to move. They think they see the subtle twitch of a hand, the shifting of a foot, but he stands and watches and waits. His back is to them so they can't see his face, but they all have an idea of the look that is on it.
Porano has never been late before. He has never failed to appear, never made a mistake that cost the group in lost luxuries or endurance of pain. He has never felt the full force of Rezden's instructions in discipline. He has never needed it.
Rezden finally moves. He turns to his right and continues walking up the path, now away from the huts and toward the rising glow over the eastern summits. The children follow, each waiting for what they feel is the right time to steal a glimpse back toward Porano's hut. They each glance in turn when they feel Rezden isn't looking. The hut remains silent and still as they crest the hill and turn left toward the thickening of the forest. As the huts disappear from view, the boy wonders if he will ever see Porano again.
Rezden stops and his hand shoots up over his head. The children stop. Rezden extends his little finger and thumb out from the fist he made and all four children nock an arrow and prepare to draw. His eyes are tracking the upper tree line, above the line of sharpened log fencing that stabs into the air above the village at twenty-five feet. His eyes are tracking back and forth, following some dark and shifting shape, some wraith, just beyond the wall. Then he drops his head. The darkness and mist are limiting sight. He is listening. His head twitches to the right slightly, then suddenly left. The children strain to listen, too, and after holding their breath through ten accelerating heart beats, a distant branch cracks high up in one of the trees.
Rezden kneels and turns his face to the sound. His arms reach out and he points in the direction he wants the children to go. They move, fanning out into a curved line and converging in the direction to which Rezden is pointing. Once the children are on the move, tracking the source of the noise, Rezden lets his hands drop to his sides. He sits down, dropping his head and closing his eyes to listen.
The boy lets out a short whistle. The line spreads out. They run in aggressive bursts, stop and listen, then sprint again. They are nearing the barrier wall when another branch cracks under the weight of some unseen creature. They stop, bows ready and arrows aimed upward. This time, the crack of the branch is followed by another sound. It is high pitched, rough, gravely. They can see the branches trembling in one tree, then a moment later in another tree, closer now. The hoarse screeching is getting louder. The screeches are now punctuated by clicking sounds, like stones being smacked together.
The girl on the left side of the line, Arva, knows the sound better than most. Her eyes narrow to see it and she is too busy staring for the right sign of movement in the branches to notice her ready arrowhead trembling. She knows these beasts. She knows their powerful wings and their clawed feet and hands and the jagged teeth twisting through their long, narrow snouts. She's seen them up close. She's felt the rush of air blown about by their wings, she's heard their claws scrape wood and stone.
She's smelled the stinging rot of their breath after one of their croaking screams.
She's seen what they can do to a child.
“Karpie!” goes the cry. Before the cry is finished, the Karpie's wings close just before its feet and arms hit the earth. It takes a moment to steady itself after the impact. Then it rears up and screeches again, scraping large furrows into the pine needles and dirt and sweeping chunks of dirt and rock into the air in violent flurries. As the children fan out, the Karpie looks to each one. It chooses the nearest child. They always go for the nearest target.
One of the boys, Gome, is the nearest target. The Karpie doesn't wait to posture or try to intimidate anymore. It pulls at the ground, at a full run in seconds, and leaps at him. Gome knows the Karpie will leap and he is ready. He looses his arrow before sprawling onto his back. He flattens his body and falls on the ground in time to see the Karpie's front claws tear through the air above his face. The Karpie sails harmlessly over him and crashes to the ground on the other side. It slides into a tree and stumbles. But it isn't deterred. It turns back, its eyes even more wild with its violent hunger rage. But Gome's arrow found its mark. As the Karpie tenses for another attack, it can feel the strength leaving its limbs. It is receiving the message that it is wounded, that something is wrong. Instead of leaping again, the Karpie looks to the other children and hisses its poisoned venom to the ground in thin, sticky streaks. Another arrow whistles through the morning air and slips through the Karpie's neck, lodging in the tree beside it. The furry body shudders and a thick line of blood arcs from the neck wound onto the dust and stone at the winged creature's feet.
As the Karpie stumbles backward it fights to muster another scream. The noise begins in its throat, rises into its mouth, then stops. A bow twang sends an arrow into the Karpie's face, the broad head striking just below the Karpie's left eye. The arrow tip destroys the Karpie's skull and lodges in its brain. The impact locks the beast's legs into a toe-curled death spasm they will never escape. With its legs locked, the Karpie falls face first into the dirt. Three convulsions shake strange chirps from the body and then it is still.
The third arrow arrived from a strange angle. All of the children notice and they turn to see its origin. From the dark mist, Porano shoulders his bow and puts the arrow he'd had ready back in his quiver. The children watch him walk to the Karpie, slam his ax into its skull three times, and dig out his arrow. He looks down the shaft to see if the arrow has been warped or damaged. He wipes it off using the Karpie's fur and lets it join the others in his quiver.
The other four children watch this process, and then look to Rezden. Porano didn't appear from his hut when he was supposed to, and yet now here he is. Rezden is still kneeling where he spotted the Karpie. The children know there must be some penalty for Porano's tardiness. They know they will suffer in some way, even though he was here to claim the kill.
“To the portal,” he says.
The baby's breath is sweet. It has the smell the woman has come to love, the sweet remnants of breast milk suckled twenty minutes ago. Now the baby has had a second burp and is content. The woman knows part of what she loves is the sweet smell, and part of what she loves is the sweet silence of a baby finally pacified.
The sweet silence.
But the woman also loves the warm round mass squirming gently on her chest. The baby's breaths, the slight rise and fall, the occasional hiccup or twitch each remind the woman of the cold outside, the cold beyond the insulated windows and the steaming cups of coffee on the tables around her. She looks out and watches a man cower against the rain and wind. She watches him shrug his collar up higher on his neck. He shudders. When he gets to his parked car, he gets in, slams the door, and tries to shake off the rain and cold. The brake lights shine a blurry red in the fog of the coffee shop window, and the woman imagines the man's relief at being in out of the rain and feeling the car heater chase the chills into the dark corners of the car's cab.
The car pulls away. The baby kicks in his sling.
The woman knows the cold. She learned of it in second grade when her drunken step-father forced her out into the November air at Thanksgiving. He said she'd been bad again, said she was always being bad. “You're gonna learn, though,” he'd said, nearly crushing her tiny hands as he slammed the door, “you're gonna learn, one way or another.”
She didn't dare bang her freezing fists on the door and yell to be let back in. She didn't dare call for her mother, who watched silently from a living room chair. She knew her mother wouldn't voice opposition. She knew her mother would say nothing. No sense in both of them being locked out in the cold.
She didn't dare involve the neighbors, or child services, or the police.
She didn't dare.
She walked to the side of the house. She would have to wait for a few minutes. She would have to hold out. She crouched, tucking into a ball so she could blow her hot breath into the junction of pajama pants where her knees came together. There, the heat would help warm her legs, at least for a few seconds, before succumbing to the surrounding air, now near freezing. She would wait there, crouching, shivering, below the dryer vent. She knew if she waited there, her mother would pretend to put a load of clothes in the dryer. Her mother would make a good show of it, letting the buttons and zippers clink and clang against the hollow aluminum. Mother would dampen them, first, in case he checked the clothes. He never checked. He was too drunk to care.
Two minutes of sitting on frozen ground surrounded by frozen air listening to her father yell at the TV and her mother pretend to be transferring wet clothes from the washer to the dryer. Two minutes to sit and huddle and absorb her own breath. Two minutes cast out into the wild. Two minutes in a cold, lonely hell.
Two minutes until she would be bathed in billowing air and the sweet smell of fabric softener. There, she would wait until her father passed out and her mother felt safe to let her back in.
Two minutes was a long time.
The cold clawed at her feet and fingers, tried to burrow its way into her back, up the back of her neck, through her tangled hair and clenched teeth and tightly shut eyes. The claws went deep. The cold found its holes, found a way in every time. She wondered if she would be able to last through the cold every time. She wondered if her mother would turn on the dryer, wondered if she would take too long or forget, or even choose not to turn the dryer on. What if tonight was the night her mother was tired of dealing with all the trouble-making? What if tonight was the night she was tired of her daughter causing more problems than she was worth? Every time, at least for a few seconds, she wondered if this would be the time her mother would give up and let her die alone out in the cold.
But every time, moments after these thoughts, the wall would rumble to life and the vent at her back would begin pouring hot air out over her huddled body and into the cold night.
That first burst of warm air was renewing. That first burst of warm air was a rebirth.
She wouldn't feel that resurrecting warmth again until the first time she felt her son's tiny body pressed against her chest.
Now, watching the world outside darken under the cold rain, she shivers. She shivers, knowing she will never be made to feel that kind of cold again.
“Small hot chocolate for Reese!”
Reese braces the sleeping baby boy as she rises from the chair and steps gently toward the counter. She takes the hot chocolate and smiles. She returns to the chair, squatting slowly so the boy doesn't wake up. As she settles into the soft leather and the chair hisses, the baby twitches again. His arm jerks outward and grabs wildly at the air. Reese settles into the chair and holds her breath, slowly wrapping her palm and fingers around the baby's back. She shushes quietly. After straining for a few seconds, the boy's arm relaxes and falls back down onto Reese's chest. His tiny fingers scratch lightly at the skin over her collar bone. She can feel him slipping back into sleep as the rhythm of his scratching slows.
Before he stops, his fingers find the scar.
Above her collar bone, just to the right of her throat, his fingers find a scar, thin and a few inches long. He flicks at one of the scar's raised edges, follows the edge down to its end, then back up again. His tiny fingernails are sharp and without looking Reese feels the redness he is creating. She doesn't mind it. His scratching may inflame the skin a little. It may draw more attention to the area. Someone, like the older woman in line at the bank a few days ago, might ask about it. Maybe someone here in the coffee shop will notice and wonder. As Reese looks around, she realizes she wouldn't mind if any of these people asked about it. She could just lie.
She's lied about the scar many times.
To the woman at the bank, she said it was from a car accident.
People rarely followed up after disclosure of a major car accident.
To the man on the bus, she said it was from surgery.
A vague reference to surgery, she noticed, tended to shut people up, too.
To the woman renting her the apartment where she was staying, she said it was to remove cancer. A single mom with an infant and cancer? That got her rent lowered.
To the man who sold her his car, she said it was from a childhood bike accident. She told him it's why she needed the car, she couldn't bring herself to ride a bike again after that. He, too, lowered the price.
The scar, the fear, the tone of her voice, it all garnered the right kind of attention. The kind of attention that brings sympathy, and the kind of sympathy that brings favors.
Before that, she told a man she worked for that the scar was from a bully at school. She told a teacher once that it was a birth mark, that she'd always had it and would always have it. That would mean, in a way, that she got it from her father, so in a way, that version wasn't a lie.
She told people she loved it. She told others she hated it. She told people it meant a lot to her, that she enjoyed the imperfection, that it made her feel special, that it made her feel strong. She told people it was the mark of a warrior, of a survivor.
She told men she needed to manipulate that her boyfriend did it, or that her ex-boyfriend did it. Or that her father did it. She let them get angry about that, let them assure her they weren't those kinds of guys, they would never do something like that. They told her they would look after her, that they would protect her. They promised her they would never let that happen again.
She told people what they needed to hear, what they wanted to hear. She told people exactly the ways they could help her while feeling like they were in control, like they were helping themselves. She told them what they needed to hear to give her the money that fed her and the baby for the past six months. She told them what they needed to hear to buy the car she drove here, to buy the hot chocolate in her hand, to buy the handbag over her shoulder with the .357 Magnum and the box of spilled shells. She told them what they needed to hear to get her these things without a path to trace.
The baby's hand slides away from the scar and back against his chest as he sleeps. The scar sings and throbs from the abuse of his fingernails. She feels it must be shining and red, that everyone in the coffee shop must see it and wonder. She pulls her shirt up a few inches. She tries to cover it but the shirt won't stay. It doesn't matter, she decides.
Let them see. Let them stare at it and see. She thinks of a new story to tell the next person who asks her about it. She thinks about the girl who handed her the hot chocolate and what she would say if the girl asked. Dog attack? Gun shot wound?
Maybe I'll tell the next person who asks the truth.
She smiles considering this. What would little miss braided blonde hair behind the counter do if she asked about the scar and wasn't ready for the answer? What would she say? What expressions would ripple across that peaceful face?
I can see you looking at my scar. It's okay, I get it all the time, and it's fine. You're wondering how I got it, right, what happened? Well, I did it myself.
She'd never told anyone she did it herself. She'd never told anyone she pulled a steak knife from a kitchen drawer and slid it, twice, slowly into the muscles of her neck. She'd never told anyone about one of the coldest November nights and the icy chill in her bones and the look on her mother's face when she opened a side door to let her daughter back into the house after her step-father passed out. She'd only considered cutting his throat once she was at the hospital. Thinking about it now, she thinks she made the right choice. Cutting her own neck and hearing about the police kicking down the door and throwing her step-father to the ground and hand-cuffing him and taking him to jail made her smile then and makes her smile now. Seeing him prodded into a courtroom in chains made her smile then and makes her smile now. Hearing the judge give her decision, twelve years for first degree assault of a minor, made her smile then and she smiles now.
But this smile fades.
She heard he got out early on good behavior. Only a few months after she watched cancer take her mother, she heard he was out. She heard he'd been living in an Oregon town and working at a place called Castle Lumber. Even through the mist of rain and through the foggy glass of the coffee shop's front window, she can see the letters of the business sign directly across the street.
She scratches at the scar on her neck. She feels the heat from the other scars on her body. She made the one on her neck, but she didn't make the others.
Tonight, in the rotting apartment he lives in, her step-father will remember. Tonight, when he pulls in at 5:15, when his keys scrape the lock and when the deadbolt clunks free and he walks in and sees her, he will remember. Tonight, he will remember all of the scars.
Another figure appears, bracing against the grating rain. She knows the hunched back, the staggered walk, the way about him. He gets into a truck and the break lights shine to life and he sits and lets the engine warm and the heater do its work. She can see him cupping his hands, blowing into them, then rubbing them together. She can see him cold and shivering and struggling to shake off the chill. She smiles and finishes the hot chocolate.
The baby coughs. She puts her hand on his back, shushing quietly, and holds him close to her as she stands. She lets the truck back out of its parking space and pull away before she leaves the coffee shop and heads to her own car. The air in the car is cold but she doesn't notice. She catches up to him at a red light. He turns. She follows.
“You're gonna learn, though,” she says. “One way or another.”
Looking down, I can see the path of my drops of sweat. They fall from my chin and nose all the way to the floor. They fall to the dark rubber mats in wet splashes as tiny chalk plumes spread out in rolling white dust storms. The grooved edges of slightly rusted barbell metal cuts into my hands as I tighten my grip. I see chalky sweat, I see shining silver knurling, and I can hear my heart beating in my ears now. That is all I can hear, raspy breath and heartbeat, and a somewhat vocal part of me begging to slow down, begging for a few deep breaths, begging for lighter weights.
My mind begs in vain.
My grip tightens and the muscles in my back ripple into rigid formation. The erector spinae are reinforcing the vertebrae protecting my spinal cord, and are allowing me to brace the support muscles of the ribs, the rectus abdominus, psoas, the latisimus dorsae, my diaphragm, all keeping things stable down into my pelvis. It creates a solidly anchored foundation for my glutes and hamstrings. 135 pounds, power cleaned at this speed and intensity, is no joke. My hammies need all the support they can get to provide me with violent hip extension.
The barbell leaves the floor.
As the extension continues, slow smooth strength makes way for speed strength as the bar travels above my knees and toward my hips. My shoulders fight to stay back and down. They fight to stay stable, to support the weight while the bigger muscles do the lifting.
Once the bar gets to my hips, the violent extension really kicks in and I jump through my legs as hard as I can. I don't think it, but enough training has taught me to keep my arms straight during this process, even when they really want to help lift the bar by curling upwards. Despite the desire to help, they comply, and remain straight. They are unbreakable, sinewy straps.
I shrug and pull with the bigger muscles of my upper back. The transition sends pulling power from my feet into my hammies and glutes, into my lower, mid, and now upper back. Once my hip extension is maxed out and I can shrug no more, I re-bend my knees so I can drop slightly and get my chest under the now fast-rising bar. It will not be fast-rising for long.
Get under the bar, Jason!
I do, and the bar lands high, near my collar bones, cradled by my shoulders, chest, and finger tips. This is the rack position, my second favorite position in all of weightlifting. To power clean heavy weights and hit the timing so precisely that the bar floats in its weightless transition between rising and falling and settles, almost gently, into the rack position feels like Jedi force magic. It's the feeling of perfect contact on a fastball at the plate that sends the ball over the left field fence. It feels, not effortless, but graceful, like we were designed to do it that way. It feels right.
But it's one repetition out of the seventy or eighty I will complete in this workout, so I keep my admiration to a minimum.
“Let's go, buttercups!”
My voice, but not me. It's not Jason's voice, it's Gray's. Gray is my other name. It's what is yelled at practice. It's what coaches have yelled at me since I was a child. Gray is what the Freshman call me unless they like running what we call greyhounds. But nobody likes those. Greyhounds are a delightful conditioning drill that requires running on all fours around the bases, usually in groups of four or five guys, where winning means you get to stop, and losing means you get to go another lap, and another if you lose again, and so on until everyone is out. It's not a lot of fun to be that last guy huffing and puffing all alone through the last lap of dirt, wheezing harshly as teammates gleefully hop in front of you like Bugs Bunny.
Gray, team leader, catcher, and captain of the baseball team.
Pick up the bar, Gray! Pick it up, now!
“Get back on the bar, guys! Three second rests and go again... GO!!”
As team captain I also program and coordinate many of the workouts for the team in the off season. Two years ago I stumbled upon a new training methodology called Crossfit. I tried it myself for a few weeks and got hooked, as thousands of people did before me, but I was the first to bring it to my school and to the team. The coaches were thrilled within a couple weeks, our team's progress left no room for discussion about the program's efficacy. We immediately started implementing the training to compliment our baseball-specific work.
One of the best things about the Crossfit model was its competition applications. The workouts were done either for time, or for maximum reps, or maximum weight. The ability to compete with each other in different aspects of fitness, and compete in a new aspect every day, was perfect. We needed to all be challenged in different areas of fitness, and we all needed to be immunized to the stresses of competition. Crossfit was perfect for all of that, and more. The reason it took me awhile to bring the training to the attention of the coaches was I wanted to be sure it was effective, that is would be right for the team.
And I wanted a head start.
Back then I wasn't team captain yet, and if I was going to cement that position, bringing a new highly effective training method into the Juniper High School baseball program would be the best way to establish myself as a good leader. If I could bring it in after having trained with it, honed it, and becoming relatively good at it, that would be a bonus.
Getting a couple month head start made it all very easy. After only a few weeks of watching videos on technique, practicing those techniques, and hitting a few dozen workouts, I was leaps and bounds ahead of where I'd started. I made a few strength gains in the big lifts by focusing on certain breathing and positional cues. I felt quicker, lighter, and stronger. It was magical. I knew I'd found something new, something important that would raise the level of the entire team and place me at the head of the pack, and in the coaches' good graces.
Once I felt decently established in the movements and methods, I brought it in. The coaches heard my pitch and let me try some things. In the beginning it was no contest. I, a lowly freshman, was teaching strength and conditioning techniques to seniors and then dominating them in the workouts. Some of the bigger guys had me in the raw strength events, but I dominated in speed, endurance, agility, and all of the high skill moves. But no matter who you were athletically, you got smashed. The weaknesses came out in a big way.
It kicked everyone's ass.
Nine months later, Sophomore year, I was team captain, the first Sophomore ever to hold the position. It was beautiful.
“Come on ladies, four minutes left, seventh inning stretch! This is the time to push!”
I say it as my own heart feels like it wants to explode. The workout this morning is a 12 minute AMRAP using pull ups, power cleans, and burpees. It's easy, seven pull ups, seven power cleans with 135 pounds, and seven burpees, and don't stop for 12 minutes.
Most rounds wins.
What is a burpee? A burpee is a delightful creature comprised of a jump to the ground, a push up, a jump back to the feet, and a jump and clap in the air. They sound easy, and doing one is easy. Five are easy. Ten in a row are pretty easy. But the way they can make everything else in a workout suck is not easy. Burpees jack up your heart rate, make your arms heavy, and make your legs feel like you are borrowing them from Danny Devito. They make everything worse. Much much worse.
“Let's go, Josh!”
Joshua Crowley. Josh. He's a guy who should have been named Brock. He is a monster, he just doesn't know it yet. He runs the 40 in something like 4.3 or 4.4, squats around 400, dead lifts over 400, and can still run a sub six minute mile. This strength and athleticism, coupled with his throwing arm and his presence at the plate make him a baseball superstar. He could be leading the team, even leading the league, in home runs and RBIs, not to mention leading our team as its captain. He is stronger than I am, faster than I am, and a better baseball player than I am. He could be running things and on his way to whatever college team he chose if he wasn't being torn down psychologically on a regular basis by his team captain.
A few months ago, he sprained his right knee sliding into second. It wasn't a bad sprain, but it was definitely a setback. I advised him to play it safe with his knee. I told him he shouldn't come back too soon or too strong, that to play it safe now would help ensure a better future after high school. In some ways, that is true. In many ways, I told him the same things the trainers and his doctor told him. I just kept telling him these types of things long after they would have given him the green light to return to his normal full throttle.
He is the best athlete on the team, probably in the state, and he could crush me in most workouts if he didn't allow me to constantly undermine his confidence and destroy him psychologically.
I blame him for allowing someone like me to get in his head and continue to make him think his sprained knee would still be unstable six months later. The coaches are trying to get him to let the monster out and get back to full tilt training. They are probably confused as to why he isn't, why he is still being tentative. It's almost like someone close to him, like his teammates, or his team captain, are telling him things that would lead him to believe he should be constantly wary and never commit fully to a workout. It's almost like someone is keeping his injury on his mind so much that Josh is actually starting to limp on that knee after tough training sessions.
Why would a fellow teammate do such a thing?
I actually feel like I'm helping him, like this experience will make him stronger in the long run. When he realizes the pain and the doubt and the distrust of his knee were all in his head, he will realize the importance of staying mentally tough and being positive.
But for now, there will be one star on the team.
One star is plenty.
I positioned myself near Josh today so I could watch his progress and stay close to him throughout the workout. I don't want him to get ahead of me, but I want to stay close enough that he feels like he is hanging tough and has a chance to beat me. He doesn't. I created this workout and anything that has pull ups in it is going to favor me. Throw burpees and relatively light weight power cleans into the mix and I'm unstoppable. With this time domain and movement scheme, I am in control.
My barbell is behind Josh. He can hear me picking up the weight and dropping it. He can hear me doing burpees. He can see me peripherally when I transition to the pull ups. Being behind him allows me to watch him working and get a feel for his speed, count his reps if I need to, and be ready when he turns to get a look at me and my progress. Every time he glances back, I make sure to look fresh and strong, to smile at him, and to use the opportunity to call out to the rest of the team.
“Three minutes, pick it up!”
Some people have a hard time hiding the fact that they are out of breath. I never had that problem. My heart rate could be jacked up near two-hundred beats per minute and my lungs could be on fire, and I could still yell a command without sounding out of breath. When I do this over ten minutes into a nasty workout, and Josh sees and hears me do this, it crushes him. It is beyond demoralizing. I'm sure that he is hurting in ways that most people will never understand, both physically and mentally, because the last thing you want to feel when you are exhausted and fighting for breath is hopeless. When he sees me, still seemingly strong, still able to bark commands to the group and still ahead of him in the workout, he breaks. It happens at least once a week. I'd like it to happen at least once a week. If he gets broken every couple of workouts, he stays hungry and that fire to push forward and improve and beat me burns hotter. That is where I need him, burning to improve. I need that fire to drive him into peak condition for the start of the season. At that point, he can take out all of his pent up frustration towards me out on the rest of our league.
God help those poor bastards.
Josh is our starting pitcher. He doesn't have the classical long, lean body of a pitcher, but he manages to overcome his relative stumpiness with ferocious power. He pitches the way I imagine Mike Tyson would pitch. Top form Mike Tyson, late 80's Mike Tyson. He pitches to kill you, to blow a baseball-sized hole through your bat if you dare to swing at his pitches. When he is really fired up, he grunts as the ball leaves his hand. Well, something between a grunt, growl, and a death snarl. It's almost religious, like he is speaking a lost, forbidden god language. It is truly unsettling, for those people who don't know him, and maybe more so for the people who do know him. It is the same sound he would make if he were digging a battle ax into your skull on some ancient blood-soaked battlefield.
He is a valuable weapon.
Especially when he is fired up.
Doing this many power cleans and pull ups together is destroying my hands. The central section of a barbell is crosshatched knurled metal, made rough to help you maintain your grip. Grooved metal is great for gripping as its tiny, hard edges tear into your flesh. In round eight I started to feel the dull, pulling pain of a blister on my right palm. Once the skin starts to pull free from the flesh below, there is no stopping it. No amount of chalk can paste the layers back together. You just have to grit your teeth and pray for the end to arrive before you leave too much of your palm on the bars.
My prayers held up for three more rounds. Once back on the pull up bar in round eleven I knew. Each pull up tore a new couple of millimeters of skin free from the flesh below.
One... two... three...
“Last minute, guys, everything you got!”
“Don't hold back, don't hold back!”
I know that if I can finish this last rep, the clock will run out before I get back to the pull up bar. Hold on hand skin, just hold on a little longer...
As I pull for number seven I feel the rip. It's a pretty bad one. Sometimes when you tear your hands, you know it isn't too bad. This pain is different. I think when a certain amount of skin is ripped your brain suddenly alerts you, very urgently, to a serious problem on your palms. Your brain wants you to know you messed up, you messed up in a big way. Sometimes the tear is small, not too deep, no big deal. Those rips are a nuisance.
I immediately knew this rip was a bit more than a nuisance.
Even as I'm calling out the forty-five second warning, what I'm yelling in my head is shit. Shit, I have to get on the bar now and pull 135 pounds seven more times with a ripped palm. Shit, then I have to do more burpees. Shit, then I'll have get back on the bar and sprint like hell to cushion my lead over Josh. Shit, then I'll have to patch up my hand and try to heal it quickly for the workouts over the rest of the week. Shit.
Shit, shit, shit.
I wanted to do some batting practice this week, I guess I could tape my hands up. As long as I don't go too hard or for too long, that would work. Shit.
Most people don't realize how much a palm rip can affect your daily life because most people never tear the skin off of their palms. If they did, they would realize it makes showering, washing your hands, writing, typing, opening things, and picking things up, a lot harder. Everything is a little more painful. You remember it when you grip a steering wheel, and when you hoist your twenty-five-pound school backpack. You remember when you shake someone's hand. Everything you do reminds you of the tear and restarts the quiet throbbing of your body trying to patch it up.
For athletes, ripping hands is infuriating. For me, it is harder to catch and throw a ball, harder to swing a bat, harder to slide into base, harder to do everything required for playing baseball.
I should have taped my hands better before the workout started.
“3... 2... 1... Time! Time's up, guys, good job!”
Along with my grip, my shoulders are toast and my legs are a bit wobbly. I stumble to the white board on the wall and grab one of the blue dry erase pens. We use blue for all of the times but the three fastest. The three fastest times or best scores get written on the board in red.
“Alright guys, whatcha got?”
One at a time they begin shouting out last names and scores; Porter, 9 rounds plus 12 reps; Jackson, 10 rounds even; Harrison, 9 rounds plus 19 reps.
I try to hide my shaking hand. The tear is throbbing now, red hot pulsing nastiness, and it is making it hard to control the marker.
Booker, 10 rounds plus 14 reps.
“Nice work, Booker!”
Chris Booker is a quiet killer, one of the hard-working silent badasses that every guy wants on his team. He lets a tiny smile flash across his face at my adoration, and just as quickly extinguishes it.
Felton, 8 rounds plus 18 reps; Barlow, 11 rounds plus 5 reps.
“Yeah Barlow, think that's going to be top three. Getting in the red today, rock on!”
The last few scores come in. They are good scores, solid 9 and 10 rounders. Then I get to Josh. He hit the second best score, and improved from a month ago by more than a full round. He should be stoked.
He is not stoked.
Crowley, 12 rounds plus 3 reps.
Gray, 12 rounds plus 14 reps.
Josh gets a few high fives, consoling high fives. The team is full of respect for the guy, he is a monster, but they feel sorry for him being so good and having to chase me. They congratulate him on his performance and praise his effort, but their words are tinted with pity. Their “good job, man,” sounds to me more like “it's okay, man, you'll never beat him no matter how hard you work.”
Time to rally support.
“Bring it in guys. Really quick, batting practice on Friday, if your hands are up to it after today. And by the way, put those raggedy hands up if you beat your score from last month.”
Hands go up. All of them.
“That's what I thought. Now, put your hands up if you didn't. Any pansy ass slackers in here?”
No hands go up. The guys look around and see that they have, all of them, improved over the month. They are all stronger, faster, tougher. In Crossfit terms, they are fitter. They are more ready to deal with whatever their sport, or life, throws at them.
Realizing this for themselves gives them a sense of accomplishment and pride.
Seeing that every single guy improved shows them something I need them to see.
“You see that, guys? Any doubt that what we're doing is working?”
No doubt, they shake their heads and smile as they realize their leader knows what he is doing and will lead them on to victory and glory if they listen to him and do what he says. They have experienced improvement under my training. They have been reminded that they can, and should, trust me.
“See you monsters on Friday.”