Burn

The Gladiator Part Two

In the past once more… 

A fifth bucket is thrown over my head, coarse scrubbers scratching away the grime from my skin.

My washers prattle on in their cursed tongue, laughing and jeering in a haughty manner that sets me on edge. What do they intend to do next, I wonder. Brand me as property of the emperor? Throw me without ceremony into a ring with nary a weapon nor a clue as to my purpose beyond death.

I am not far off the mark, as it turns out. My washers leave my cell, are replaced by heavily armored men who hook my shackles to the stone wall, my back bared and at their mercy. The heated tip of a knife digs into my skin. I wail, but my attempts to writhe, to distance myself from the fiery torture is met with blows to my legs and arms, until my fear of their rods surpasses that of their blade.

When the grueling artistry is finished, another man enters to clean the wounds, and when I think my suffering is over, he smears ink in the crevices of skin. No longer a man anymore, just another of their trinkets.

I am silent once more, driven to my knees in a daze.

I register the man who shears away the tangles of matted hair from my head, shaving me bald. I register the man who measures my shoulders, my waist and my skull. Still, I am silent. I fear what may happen otherwise.

Periodic inspections are allotted for me. Check the brand on my back, force morsels of bread and sips of water down my throat. I will not starve on their watch, they will not let me.

A week of isolation gives way to a translator, one who speaks to me in my tongue.

“What is your name?”

I do not answer. My name does not belong to me anymore. You have stolen it.

“They would like me to inform you of your purpose here.”

What man is told his purpose? No, they would like you to inform me their orders, their expectations.

“You will be placed in gladiatorial combat in three days. If you survive your initiation match, you will be rewarded. Your only other option is death.”

I nod my understanding, not my consent. There is no difference to these men, I know.

In the days preceding my debut in the ring of hell, they released me from my restraints. They lead me to an open pavilion, let me wander its limited confines as if this taste of freedom would inspire a craving for its consistency. They want a show, after all, and what better way to incite desperation in a man than allowing him a glimpse of the rewards awaiting him should he emerge the victor.

My second day in the yard, they leave a wooden sword leaning against the gate, a remarkably unsubtle invitation. I regarded it with unmasked loathing before deciding it was better to play along with their games. My body is weak, but it remembers its teachings.

The night before judgment day, I sleep peacefully, knowing that whatever the outcome tomorrow, I will not be satisfied.

What satisfaction can be found in the face of my own demise, whether it be my body, or my spirit?

A question that weighs heavily on my mind, what is likely an afterthought to my captors: which will break first?

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I was writing an essay not long before I jotted this down. Somewhere in that mess of a draft, I had to ask myself, “Is it too harsh to call the idea of empire a two-faced devil?” I phoned a friend and she told me that yeah, that may be a bit extreme, maybe you tone it down Jesus Christ. Alright, those were not her exact words, but the sentiment is pretty similar.

I amended my statement to say something along the lines of “Empire is a multi-faceted concept” and I am sure there was something about jackals somewhere in there. I kept the “two-faced” part in the essay, because in the context of the novel we are reading, J.M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians, it certainly presents itself as such.

Quite frankly, I do not believe I was that far off the mark with the devil thing, at least regarding the roots and a few later interpretations of imperialistic ideology. The Romans had a decent strategy, and are probably the least heinous example in history, but the fact is they still took exactly what they wanted, whatever the cost. Sure, that was the popular mindset back then, but you cannot ignore the inherent subjugation of their defeated opponents, and you know, the genocide of certain people (Carthage, but you probably already knew that). Then you get to the actual devils of this story—the ones who flooded Africa and America, enslaving and murdering wherever they went. Somewhere along the line, conquest became pure carnage. Then it went a completely different direction and we started saying “big brother wants to help,” because it sounds nicer than “primitives need our superior care and attention (and also God)” when most of them were doing just fine before half of Europe decided it needed to stick its nose in everyone’s business.

But that’s a tad heavy-handed, and probably a little self-righteous, so let me roll it back. I’ll find another time to get angry.

For now, let’s return to the phrase “multi-faceted” because I really think Empire can be. Maybe not imperialism—the word alone is bitter in my mouth—but a system of hierarchies with real individuals running the show has the opportunity to be multi-faceted. Basic human decency allows it to be, and I have stopped buying into the idea of a singular conglomerate of evil whose units share the same scarcity of empathy. It is not realistic, it is a waste of time, and it only serves to disguise the fact that our morally upright protagonists are… well, they’re boring.

I understand real life is not a novel, but why should we hold it to lower standards? I expect to hear both sides of the story. I will tell you both sides of the story. Hell, I will tell you any side you want because these are people and I intend to write them like such. Empire can be dark, it can be insatiable, it can even be evil.
But Satan was an angel once, so maybe there’s some good to be done here before power goes straight to their heads.

Okay, I admit that was a bad analogy (and a horrible joke), but I’m sticking with it. It worked for Milton, after all.

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Listen…

In the past…

My gait sways like dying pack mule.

They look at me, look past the scars of pursuit and crusted blood. They do not see like men. They see like hunters; I am the boar impaled on their spear. A demon born of the steppes, felled by the power of numbers and brought to their gleaming city weighed down by silver chains. I must march alongside them or face the metal rods they brandish. No more swords—now that my spirit is broken and my hands bound, I am a prize for their entertainment. Thinking me wholly ignorant of their hideous tongue, my captors revealed my fate to me in their arrogant fits of taunting. I do not understand all, just enough:

Gladiator. Combat. Arena.

I am no war prisoner. My father told me of their practice, told me it is better to die in the escape than be captured alive.

I have been captured alive. I know what waits for me. I have heard stories from travelers able to walk inside those looming white walls—a beacon of misery amidst the empty plains. I will be fitted with armor if I am lucky, sent for judgment under their watchful eyes. Who will be judged depends on the victor—either my opponent or I. Cheered on by gods whose mercy wanes in a face that does not reflect their own.

The last stretch of road appears before our party. My eyes strain as they drink in the sight of the walls, sunlight bouncing off their surface, as if the gods themselves cannot touch their majesty. I recall the moments preceding the raid, the crackling fire blazing at the hub of our temporary settlement. We were at peace. We secluded ourselves in the steppes. We heard of the armies marching through the plains, and like complacent fools we dismissed the threat.

Their numbers overwhelmed us, swarming as locusts do through our camp, throwing spears, perched atop their stallions like the Pale Rider come to collect our heads. I lost my family in the scuffle, a fact weighing heavier than the chains wound round my neck. I will shed tears in private, not in front of the monsters whose greed robbed me of everything.

Commands are screamed all around.

Gates. Open.

And they do, screeching on their massive hinges and exposing to me the gilded cage in which I will live out the rest of my days.

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You know, I never really enjoyed having information thrown at me. Those huge blocks of text always used to irritate me, because they were always very detailed, dumped a lot of information on me, but they rarely gave me a reason to care beyond “This happened, so you should.” I don’t mean to say I didn’t find a way to care about them, I just found myself relying not on academics, but people sharing their stories. Sure, they don’t drop fancy words that give your ego a boost every time you recognize their meaning without the aid of a dictionary, but I found the subtle glimpses of their lives and their struggles more rewarding.

So, I present an idea. Analyzing and critiquing is fun and all, and you will probably see a lot of it here as well, but I would like the focus to be on something more worthwhile to me. I don’t have access to a lot of diverse individuals, being the introverted homebody that I am, but I do like to think myself a halfway decent writer of original fiction. That is what you see above. An installment, one of many stories I have planned to convey what Empire means to me.

When I hear that word, I remember pictures I saw in history books of gladiators and maybe Nero playing his lyre as Rome burns, but to say those two images encompass the whole of its connotations would be narrow and probably a little stupid of me. That cannot be all Empire is, after all. That is why, when I think of Empire, such words as imperialism, conquest and glory claw their way to the forefront. To me, that seems to sum up the concept pretty well, except I risk excluding the deeper workings of the system, and worse I risk being called out on it. This is where the whole story bit comes into play. I could just talk about Empire. I could lay down the facts, pick them apart, give an opinion and call it a day.

Yeah, I just don’t see the fun in that. Inevitably, it will happen, but for the most part, I want to tell stories. These idiosyncratic tales will draw on Empire’s influence, obviously, otherwise I will miss the whole point of this blog. Some will connect, others won’t, but that is my failing as an author with the attention span of a dog in a room full of toys.

I can only hope the reader will enjoy them anyway.