Everything about him is a mystery

You are a child playing with your friends on a hot summer day. Bored with your usual games you decide to go explore in the woods, a dark and scary place well away from the prying eyes of parents. After wandering through the green maze of the Nymphs for hours you come upon a tree with a corpse hanging from it. Once you get passed the terror and the urge to flee back home you children become fascinated by him. You’ve never been this close to death before. You stand there, holding your breath, staring up at him, fearful that he might suddenly move, but also kind of hoping that he does.

Eventually one of you decides that it’s not right to just leave him hanging there. He climbs the tree, draws out his knife, grabs the rope with a trembling hand and begins sawing through it.

Without warning the last strand snaps and the body falls to the earth and bursts open, releasing putrid stenches into the air. You hardly notice; everybody is staring intently at the knife still held up by the boy. You revere it like a proper object of worship for it certainly has power after coming into contact with the body like that.

It’s getting late and you grudgingly decide to go back before the adults come looking for you. The whole group swears a vow to tell no one of what they’ve seen. The dead man will be your secret so that no one will take him away from you.

Days pass, but he remains all you can think about. Everything about him is a mystery. Who was he? What was his name? Where did he come from? Why was he here? How long had he hung before you found him? Was he murdered or did he die by his own hand? You can’t stand not knowing, so you start to tell stories between chores and late at night, when the children are by themselves, out of earshot of the others. The stories swell with each telling, becoming more elaborate and fanciful and thus more entertaining to contemplate afterwards. Rival traditions emerge among the children, become more solidified through conflict, until the different sides can’t even stand to be in the presence of each other.

You dream one night after a bitter screaming match with your sister that was broken up by your confused and angry mother who beat you and sent you to bed without any supper. (But what does it matter what either of them think? They don’t know anything about the dead man so their opinion is worthless.) You dreamed that you were back in the woods and the body was just like you left it that time only now it was covered in worms and centipedes and spiders and there is a buzzing of flies so loud you fear it’s going to make you deaf. You wake screaming. The dead man is mad at you for how you and your friends have behaved!

The following day you gather everybody together and lead them back into the woods to make amends. What you didn’t notice is that you were being followed. The adults had observed the strange transformation in their children’s behavior, how withdrawn, moody and contentious they’d become of late, and it concerned them. Their worst fears were confirmed and then some when they tracked you to that old ash tree and the fruit it bore.

Horrified, they destroyed the body and brought in mendicant religious experts to perform the ceremonies of purification and ghost-laying that Orpheus invented. They interrogated you, tortured you, tried to get you to deny and forget all that you had seen. They lock you away, forbidding you to have anything to do with your friends until you learn to mimic the behaviors they expect of you. Play nice. Eat all your dinner. Smile. Smile. Smile. And never, ever bring up the dead body again, even to your friends once they let you play together after all of you have been properly re-educated.

Inwardly things were different. You nurtured the memory of that day, secretly but reverently stroking the blade that the boy had been forced to discard and you were able to retrieve from the trash heap. Time passes, but you never forget. And when you are old enough you go to a different village to tell the people there about the dead man, somewhere far away since a prophet is never believed in his own home. You’ve got so many stories to tell about the dead man; you’ve worked out this whole mythic chronology for him and it’s even more real to you than your own history.


4 comments

  1. Wow! That’s a very powerful piece. I think you are right when you wrote “a prophet is never believed in his own home.” It seems like prophets do have to move away from their homes to be heard (e.g. Melampus).

    Like


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