The soldier lets out a grunt, gathering a burst of strength and energy in his hands to dislodge the mandible… a simple popping sound and the prisoner’s jaw is separated. All of the condemned, robbed of their final words, are then led through a concrete tunnel to the center of a playing field that is still pock-marked from the last game of football played by sons of the same mother, their cleats a government issue.
Some of the condemned struggle to speak as they are led in a procession, thick drool like a braided whip hanging from the chins of the most courageous, those final words, ugh, ugh, still there in their hearts and minds.
It was Percy’s duty to stand perfectly still in the players’ locker room as each prisoner was prepared. Percy the soldier, the son – ornamental in his crisp uniform and wide cap, his gaze averted, focused on the big pot lights hanging overhead.
But this next prisoner was different. He’d allowed her to touch him with her tired eyes, this dangerous woman who’d meant everything to him as a child in his mother’s arms. He’d heard she’d been captured. Knew it was her as he felt his gaze being drawn down from the big pot lights. It was as if he and this prisoner were blood kin and he’d been looking out for her all his life.
Estelle would clear her throat at the start of each broadcast, sounding so much like Percy’s mother, a miner’s wife, coughing up the dust from her husband’s work shirts. Except Estelle hadn’t been a miner’s wife. She’d been hellfire and brimstone for the government instead, a simple woman, a mother, a sister, a natural ally for the mom who loved Percy dearly. “Listen to her words,” Percy’s mother would tell him, as if Estelle were speaking for the both of them. “Listen,” a pain in her eyes.
Estelle would ease herself into their home through the radio, her familiar voice full of humanity even as she pounded on what must have been a rickety table. “Estelle is angry for us. Sit up!” his mother would bark, her tone full of reverence, Estelle’s pounding fist like a carpenter’s hammer from a distance.
If Percy didn’t always understand what this dangerous woman was saying, he would look up at his mother and she’d whisper the meanings lovingly down into his ears. Others, in other apartments, would listen as well, some through walls. His mother would look up now and then, her ears perked for Percy’s well-being.
One soldier held Estelle’s head back as another, stockier soldier, manhandled her face, his thumbs on her cheek bones, his fat fingers probing, messing the graying hair at her temples as he searched for that perfect spot just below the ears.
Percy heard the click of her jaw as it unhinged, the same click that followed the end of her broadcasts, his mother patting his behind, telling him to go out and play, and then her finger at her lips. “Shhh.”
He felt Estelle’s pain enter through his heels and then rush through his body. He broke rank, reached out with both hands as if they belonged to someone else, his fingers splayed, wanting to put back the gentle lines of Estelle’s face.
Once as they cuddled listening to Estelle, his mother started to weep. He asked her what was wrong. She must have read his worry because she immediately rubbed her face with her hands. All was well, child, in her smile. And in his creative mind, Percy saw something else… the end of things, that brilliant piercing of light, a spark just before the cave walls cover everything in absolute darkness. But he smiled back at her instead, solidifying their connection, mother and son forever.
When the baton connected with Percy’s forearm he dropped to the ground, cradling his own pain as if it were an excuse for allowing them to do what they had done.
“Mother,” he cried out in a child’s voice, both he and Estelle reaching out through their pain, “they’ve broken my arm.”
“She’s on,” one of the boys would motion and they’d all leave their games, clear the streets and zip into their homes so they could wind the crank on the radio real fast. Some of the boys made a game of it, seeing who would enter their building first. Still others like Percy moved with a determination, as if it were mindless like breathing, and essential, like eating or sleeping.
At the first z-z-zing of the crank, Percy would look up, ready for his mother to come rushing into the room, her skirt ballooning as she dropped down before the radio and swept him up onto her lap. Frantically, she would soak in all the words, explain whatever she was able to explain so she could send him back outside and then pick up her chores where they’d fallen. She didn’t want her husband coming home from work and finding them listening to the radio, listening to dissident speak. He’d make it a point to hide the old radio, or scold them for stupid things: supper was cold; Percy was a lazy child with girlish shoulders; Mother was unkempt. She would owe him something extra for his not reporting them to the authorities, a smile on his face, a churlish grin at the breakfast table the next day, Percy as silent as ever.
Estelle’s words, her lessons, a lifetime’s worth, had already darkened the cinder-block walls of Percy’s cell, the same locker room she’d been in moments earlier, her words overpowering the simple grey of the place with a charcoal black – swords and scythes – letters to chop up all things solid as the blades formed words like love, and honor, and peace, and equality—blackbirds, swarming gently into a hum, a static electricity to close his eyes, a crackling voice so full of love, her words splashed across the walls. This is how you shall live your life. Yes? He nodded, their big eyes meeting in a kiss. He’d been raised right, so the pain of his broken arm began to subside to a throbbing numb, a simple toothache.
When it would be his time to march out to the center of the field, he’d try and will his broken jaw to form words, swords and scythes, for his mother, for Estelle, for himself, a release of the blackbirds people feared, a dark omen of all the bad still to come.
He flung some imaginary pain killers like peanuts into his mouth, his lower jaw heavy and resting on his chest. The other prisoners forgot their own pain momentarily, smiling grotesquely with Percy. A finger, and Percy had them all looking up at the big pot lights hanging overhead. Listen, he said.
“Where is she?” Percy asked.
“She must be in a cellar somewhere,” his mother whispered. “She could be anywhere.”
He tried to understand, waited patiently for the whistling pop, the end of Estelle’s transmission when they could finally turn the radio off.
“Why is she so dangerous?” Percy asked.
“Because she is,” his mother shot back, startling him.
When Percy opened his eyes, he expected the stadium, all the people he’d ever crossed in his life, the footballers, their mothers and fathers, aunts, uncles, the childless people, the very old, the very young. He expected a deafening roar from the stadium seats as a bullet was slamming into his head, but heard the soft shuffling of Estelle’s papers instead—a gentle sound easily recalled from his youth, his mother’s hot breath as it parted his hair, tickling his lashes, the scraping sounds of Estelle’s chair legs on a cellar floor. He’d seen her there in countless dreams, his father leading the way with his brilliant head lamp because he, too, was ready to embrace Estelle. There! I see her, boy.
“Her back is sore,” his mother says. “She’s just catching her breath.”
His mother is staring at the radio, and so is Percy, both of them trying to see what that dangerous woman must be seeing—the cold wires tied together, snaking their way across a damp floor and up wooden steps.
“Poor woman,” his mother says, finally. “Her bones must ache, always hiding like that.”
It might have been the snap of a bullet through Estelle’s head that Percy heard, and then the roar of the crowd—
“She speaks for me,” his mother adds, wiping her sweet face with the back of her hand, “because she knows I have you in my arms.”
—or the frantic clicking of his own jaw unhinged, the roar of Estelle’s words escaping all at once.
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