Jay’s uniform clung to his skin, pasted there by the thick sweat teeming out of his pores and running down his body. The heavy material stretched over the flexed muscles of his arms and torso as if it would tear any second. But he was not consciously aware of it. His adrenalin rush was too high, the highest he had ever felt it, pulsating currents coursing through every part of his body, culminating at his forehead and temples, detaching him from the reality of the ground beneath him. Unconsciously, he had waited for this day. His eyes did not swerve from the man who was falling less than 5 feet in front of him. His heartbeat raced. His breath was raw and wild. But his hands were steady. He knew he was good! Ten seconds ago, he had willed those hands to tense and squeeze, and his finger to press the firing mechanism. Almost imperceptibly, he had jerked and the explosive pop had hit his ears. He had watched the bullet enter the man’s shoulder, jerking him sideways and slightly upwards. And again, the other shoulder - and again, the abdomen, and again……six times, in quick succession. Just like target practice. All other sound and motion had lost their relevance, and only the pop, the flight of the bullet, the jerking man, the pop, the bullet, the man, the pop, the bullet, the man…..mattered. Jay felt high, almost giddy as the seventh bullet was charged. This time he had aimed for the heart.
Abruptly, in that moment, everything went dark, just for a fraction of a second, as if someone has turned the sun off and then on again. The bullet had emerged less than an inch out of the barrel. He could see it there because everything was frozen……stopped, like a film projector stuck on one frame. Nothing moved, and neither did Jay. No sound, utter silence, as if something had just…..swallowed it. Before he could even formulate the question of his sanity, reality shifted again and he was on a dirt road. Every muscle in him tensed. The world slashed into white lightning, like demonic shooting stars, ripping through the space around him. Armageddon?! He always thought it would be a glorious battle of righteousness, not…..a personal nightmare! The clapping thunder crashed into his ear drums till he thought they would erupt in his head. Jay had always been afraid of thunderstorms. They were, for him, evil, bellowing giants coming down on him. This one terrified him. Jay lost his balance, falling, curled up, to his knees. Looking around in intense fear, he looked for a way to get out of the storm, but he could see nothing, nothing but the sharp bolts that flung themselves in every direction around him, hitting the ground just inches from his feet, just missing him. He could feel their heat, the currents of electricity. He shut his eyes tight and tried to close his ears to the deafening noise, but it sifted easily through his fingers. He had to escape this place! He opened his eyes again and saw to his right a way out, narrow and treacherous, but less treacherous than staying where he was. He scrambled up and ran, hoping he might avoid what felt like his imminent death. Then, he was out of the storm. But he was……someone else……
He was crying so hard he could hardly breathe. And the minute he caught his breath, the screams would come again. He looked at his hands – they were dark brown and very small. He was 4 years old, almost 5. Sitting in the back of a wagon drawn by work horses, he was jostled every which way, his arm held tight by a man he didn’t know with white skin. He didn’t know where he was or where he was going. He had heard his Mama scream his name in desperation, had seen her trying to run for him, had seen the overseer hold her back though she fought him with all the strength she had, had heard her wailing voice call him long after he could see her, until he was too far away to even hear her anymore. With every cry of his own, he called and called, sobbing, “Mama! Mama!” over and over again. His face was streamed with tears and his body wracked with panic and terror. The wagon jerked to a stop and he was pulled down off of it. Voices talked. The man who was still holding onto him yelled at him to shut up and smacked him hard across the face. The shock of pain made him cry harder until the second one came. His cheeks seared as a third one battered his face, making the world spin around him. His panic and terror escalated and he was silent, his breath caught in his chest. He didn’t want to be hit again. Barely able to stand, he started shivering. He felt so cold and all he wanted was his Mama to pick him up. The man dragged him to a small house, into a darkened room with a cot and threw him on it. Finally released, he curled up tight, lay still and closed his eyes. When the man left, he opened his eyes and whispered again and again, “Mama…Mama…..Mama”, hoping she would come, until he could no longer speak. After a long time, the shivering stopped, a numbness overtook his body, his mind squeezed shut, and he just stared out into the room, seeing nothing.
Jay was back on the road again, as suddenly as he had left it. And though the storm continued crashing around him as before, it was the visceral anguish of loneliness and utter despair that sent shivers convulsing through his body. He wished it would leave, he wished the memory would go, but it was his memory now. A way was open to the left. His will to go on was drained, but he went on, and became again…..someone else…..
His eyes fluttered open. He was very high up, almost at the crest of the hill. He could feel his life draining from him, heavily and very slowly. Almost naked, his light brown skin was burnt and cracked from exposure to the sun, wind and heat. A putrid smell of blood, pus, urine and feces emanated from his body. The searing pain in his hands and feet that had sent him to the edge of unconsciousness, waned to a dull ache after a while, but returning again if he moved. And as his body lost strength, the involuntary downward pull slammed it back. Trying to remain still, his blurred vision cleared somewhat, and he looked around at the others. There were at least sixty like him, hanging on the t-shaped gallows erected for enemies of the state. He knew these men - some closer, some more distant, some by name, some by sight, some beloved friends, some not. But he recognized them all. They were freedom fighters, like himself. Whatever differences they had, and they had had many, their objective had been the same – an end to Roman tyranny and Roman domination, the right to be a free people without obstruction or interference. As these thoughts came, the passion of them lifted him up. But he was too weak. His body sagged, and the pain returned. They had pledged to die for their cause, and now they were. The Romans were relentless, heartless and blind. He didn’t want to die. Even now, he wished to God he didn’t have to. Life…….was desirable. Involuntarily, he pulled at his hands to free them, and grunted in pain, almost fainting again. He had sworn to himself not to cry out. His vision blurred to the point that everything ran together in a jumble of shades and colors. He so desperately longed to see his wife…….and he prayed she would not come. The soldiers harassed and ridiculed the women, and sometimes worse, shoving, kicking and some even raping them. Nothing was beyond the Roman soldier. “Don’t come,” his voice, hardly more than a whisper, was harsh and cracked, dried out. “I am here!” He heard her voice, though he didn’t know if it was real or in his mind. His vision, no longer focusing, was turning to darkness. But he reveled at the sound. She spoke to him, quietly, soothingly, and a lightness came gently over him. It was almost over.
The lightning storm had lessened slightly and the thunder was not as overpowering as before. But Jay’s mind, preoccupied with the memory, with thoughts of loss and freedom, of sacrifice and love, did not notice that his fear had eased and softened. He rubbed at the palms of his hands. The way out was clearer this time, but he went with wary hesitation, wondering who he would be, and where he would find himself, and if he would live. But he knew, his only choice was to enter…..