Crumbling to Dust: An Emulation of "All the King's Men" - Tarika Narain

            As always, he had come home to my lifted cheek and a sputtering fireplace, and, as always, I had avoided his gaze as he kissed me. There was no need—never any need— to look. I’d memorized him since he was a tiny thing cross-legged on the rug beside the fire, a livelier fire, as the Scholarly Attorney in a Scholarly Coat leaned in to place a piece of chocolate in his outstretched child’s palm and I watched from the kitchen. And he had raised his face up to the Attorney’s shadowy figure and the flames had cast his features into sharp relief and transformed his baby bird nose into a crescent beak like a beautiful, awful hawk’s, and then I had looked away for good because if I didn’t I would never stop looking.

            But there was something new this time in his kiss on the hollow of my cheek, something new and thinly veiled like an insult or a secret that isn’t really a secret at all— those secrets that are inevitably discovered in the end, by you and him and all the neighbors, but you have to make the weakest attempt at hiding it, even just at first, so when it’s all out and the veil’s been ripped to shreds you can sink back into the shadows and say you tried.

            As he pulled away from me, an impulse washed over me and I had to look into his face, because that was what the impulse commanded and I was a slave to it. I saw the eyes, pools of shadows beneath heavy eyebrows and a forehead like a shallow cliff, with the cruel beak—ravishingly cruel, the most magnificent piece of incriminating evidence in the world—jutting out as the Stanton girl’s voice sang “Jackie-Bird, Jackie-Bird” in my head.

            Then he stepped out of the light.

            I should have guessed, I suppose, but by then my mind had already flitted to the polished new mirror hanging by the doorway—a mirror with engravings that curled like the tips of yellow braids and licked at the sides of the gilded frame. I had recently purchased that mirror at an auction to replace the older, wooden mirror, a mirror that I thought had been lying to me all these years. But I stared past my son into the mirror, and this one told the same story as the last. Surely, surely, they were both liars; surely I was staring at someone else’s reflection, for that frail woman with the old, greyish face could not be me. The woman’s eyes were blue and glittered like the sea she used to marvel at every morning at dawn, but they were watery like the sea too, and her arms and legs were thin and paler than the house she had haunted for all those years. Her hair had turned from spools of gold to a less remarkable silver, and she had coiled it and worked it until the silver blended into the gold to form a bland yellow.

            But her cheeks, the hollowed, famished cheeks were mine. Oh, the cheeks that had enticed droves of men—men who believed they could somehow fill those hollows with money or power or fame or youth. Sometimes I believed it too, bringing them home one by one until I tired of them and they tired of me and we tired of ourselves. Then I would replace them as I would replace a chair or a table or a mirror by the door, and I would get back into bed and wait until the next man came along, and the next, and the next. And finally, my dear Monty would call, but by then I would be too tired from waiting or too hollowed out or too married to respond. He never failed to call at precisely the wrong time.

            And those memories flooded back, the memories of the precious few times when we would finally meet in the dark of night—memories of whispers among shadows, shimmering promises and the dim glow of firelight in shuttered rooms, and silent kisses beneath a silver moon—and threatened to drown me in sorrow and the regret of lost opportunity.

            When I first met the Judge, I wore a gingham dress, two thick yellow braids hung down my back, and my little black shoes were covered in dirt from the path outside the Judge’s house. My hand was nestled in the palm of the Scholarly Attorney named Ellis Burden who had stolen me from the steps of an Arkansas courthouse and brought me back here to Burden’s Landing and had taken me to meet his good friend and neighbor, Monty Irwin. My gaze had met the Judge’s and lingered momentarily, and I had taken in his big beautiful hawk’s nose and his hair of metallic steel and he had admired my deep beautiful famished cheeks and my hair of metallic gold. And that was that, everyone thought it was over, but they didn’t know about the whispers or promises or kisses or any of that, and they sure didn’t know about the baby either.

            Little Jackie with the baby bird nose. Little Jack Burden, who wasn’t a fully-fledged hawk, but he wasn’t a Burden either. 

            But then the Judge had married twice, to the invalid then the girl from Savannah, and I had married more than twice, to the Attorney and to the Tycoon and to the Count and to the Executive and then he wasn’t married and I was married and I wasn’t married and he was married. We were trapped in this rhythmic cycle and we grew comfortable in this rhythmic cycle, and then when the opportunity arose we ignored it because of the rhythm and the cycle and the comfort. We each had our own separate patterns by then— our own individual selves. Our lives were distinct spools of thread, unraveling parallel to each other; his was silver and coarse, mine grayish-white and frayed. They occasionally overlapped to weave stolen moments of dark shadow and orange firelight and the one constant, completed masterpiece that was our son, Jackie-Bird Burden.

            And there we were, our lives about to overlap for the final time, because Jack stood on the carpet before me and before the woman in the mirror and he had come for the Judge. That night, I dreamt of hawks and silver stars winking furtively in the night sky, and I dreamt of the flourishing Roman empire and the empire’s deteriorating ruins, layer upon layer of dirt and ash and sand, and I dreamt of all people and all places and all things emerging from dust and then inevitably crumbling to dust too.

            I awoke at noon. 

            By that time, my son had already gone over to the Judge’s house, and everything had happened and ended before my eyelids had even fluttered open. The silver thread had stretched to its limit under the opposing tug of corruption and honor and the strain of endless guilt, and it had snapped while I had dreamt of lifeless civilizations and the sensation of choking on ceaseless clouds of dust until the dust had invaded my lungs so that it was within me and without me and it was me. I had escaped one nightmare and entered another, because reality is just a well for your fears and ravaged hopes. A well where you toss in a coin and you make a wish and all you get in return is a bucket of sorrow and disappointment, and reality was one broken thread and another fraying, unraveling spool, never to embroider another kiss or furtive embrace again.

            I was still in bed, blinking away the last fragments of sleep, when the telephone rang. Its chime mirrored the piercing caw of the hawk from my dreams—the hawk, its proud head surveying the ruins of a once-great empire, its neck arched and its wings outstretched, soaring through the swirls of dust and sand and ash—the hawk that I had thought would be the one exception to the inevitability of death and destruction. But I was wrong, as always, and I let the telephone ring several times before I gathered my quilts around me and alighted on the edge of the bed, my feet dangling and barely reaching the ground. I felt like I had perched on the lip of a great precipice and I was staring down into the yawning mouth of a crater and preparing to leap. And then I leapt. 

            I leapt, and I stretched out my trembling fingers to pick up the phone, wrapping the cord tightly around my thin wrists, willing my blood to halt its serpentine path through my veins as the voice on the other line burned its unforgettable, wicked words into my eardrums. The dust had swallowed my noble hawk, just as it had swallowed Caesar and Alexander and Brutus and every other person who had ever lived and who ever would. 

            The scream, bright and silver as the moon and the stars and wedding rings and glittering promises, tore its way through my windpipes and hung suspended in the air. I began to moan uncontrollably as my eyes glazed over, and I could see the still form of the Judge, the only man I could ever truly love, sprawled on the leather chair among his library of precious books, a gaping wound weeping blood from his precious heart, a gun trailing from his limp, precious hand, and me, suddenly all alone but for the one piece of precious evidence that was our son. The last piece of evidence of our entire relationship—all of the secrecy and guilt and lies and ecstasy and elation, all of it—was Jackie-Bird Burden, who had gone over to Monty’s house just that morning with a strange look in his eyes and a strange yellow envelope in his fist, and who was now framed in the doorway to my bedroom, his face engulfed in shadow and his eyes glinting from beneath the darkness, and that was when I really understood. The snow-white telephone clattered to the floor as I raised a quivering finger and aimed it directly over his heart like a weapon, and I could feel the anger and misery rise in searing waves to emanate from my famished cheeks and my manic eyes as I wailed, “You did it, you did, you killed him!” 

            His face froze, and he stepped out of the shadow, and I could see from his eyes that he knew, but he didn’t know that he knew. The truth had always been lingering over him, just waiting to be discovered; it had never truthfully been a secret, but only just a thinly veiled magic trick, the illusion of a secret, hidden in plain sight. He questioned my accusation because he didn’t yet want to understand, but I continued to condemn him. My finger did not move an inch from his heart. I remembered the crisp white shirt soaked in blood, honorable blood, the blood of a Judge and the blood of a father.

            My son, the Judge’s son, had never even known his own indescribable significance and had unwittingly destroyed his own father in the name of his Boss. The irony of it all struck me as terribly hilarious and I began to laugh hysterically. He ran to my side and tried to grab me, to caress me or to suffocate me—in that moment I wasn’t sure which—and I clawed at his face and his foolish baby bird’s nose, which he had stuck into the pages of the past and which had guided him to the putrid stench of corruption, where he had dug out that strange yellow envelope and used it to turn his father to dust. 

            The laughter continued to well up from my core as I fought him off, and suddenly I was choking on my own hysteria. My gasps mingled with the high-pitched squeal of the white telephone begging to be replaced in its holder and suddenly I remembered my own yearning, a yearning that had lasted for almost my entire lifetime, a yearning that had drained me from a bright-eyed, golden-braided young girl to the ghost of a woman that gazed miserably at me from the mirrors of Burden’s Landing. I remembered the yearning to be embraced and loved and cherished by the regal judge from the house next door, and I remembered the feeling of finally fulfilling that great desire, the scent of pine needles pervading our senses and the light of the moon softening our features until we were unearthly, passionate phantoms in the silence of the night. 

            By that time I was mumbling out loud, random snatches of words and laughter like the frenzied sound of bells in a storm intertwined into a stream of noise that bubbled out from between my pale lips, and, as usual, I avoided looking at my dear son’s face for fear of choking again. But then sweet old Jackie-Bird, the son who had always been quiet and loyal and who had stroked my fine golden hair as I lay in his lap and who had kissed the hollows in my cheeks each time he returned home, that same sweet son of mine grabbed my shoulder and spat, “Shut up! Shut up!” 

            I turned my bulging blue eyes to his face for the second time in two days and the second time in countless years and finally noticed his terrible transformation: the once trusting, innocent eyes were wild and furious, and the sweet face of baby Jackie-Bird Burden had hollowed out and reddened to a color deeper than fresh blood and the blazing earth beneath a courthouse in Arkansas and hotter than rancid betrayal. His grip on my shoulders was firmer than his father’s—too firm, too insisting, too violent—and the time had come for me to finally unveil the secret, pull back the curtains on the illusion, explain the magic trick that had only partially deceived him for all these years and cry “ta-da!” as he applauded.

            “You killed him,” I said clearly, my voice low and softer than a young girl’s yellow hair. “You killed him.”

            “Killed who?” he hissed at me. But of course he knew.

            “Your father,” I responded. And oh, that was the truth, and the truth had finally stepped out from the gray shadows where it had been lurking all these years and the truth was standing beneath the harsh light, blinking innocently at us like a newborn child with its big eyes like bottomless pits. My son had killed his father. That was when I crumpled into a pile of frail bones and gray skin and filmy lace on the foot of my bed, and the only thing alive about me was the endless fountain of giggles and words like “love” and “murder” and “father” and “dust” that spewed uncontrollably from my dry mouth.

            A lot of that time was dark and more terrifying than a nightmare—or maybe it was a nightmare, for who am I to distinguish between one reality and another? The funeral felt real; the black dress that flowed past my feet and pooled around my bare feet, and the collar that coiled around my neck and threatened to choke me felt as real as anything, and everything, else. The sight of my lover’s body, his face in death almost as pale as mine in life, his beautiful hawk’s beak now just a soft, transparent mass on an ancient face, and the ornate coffin, nestled beneath the oak tree coated in a thick layer of mossy down, felt real too. And finally, inescapably, the Judge was lowered into the churchyard soil where he would decay into dust like everyone else, for we are all equal in death no matter how magnificent or how repulsive or how just or how cruel we are in life.

            In death, good and evil mesh into a single idea called “nonbeing.” In death, corruption and virtue both crumble at the same rate, and the decaying corpse of a great ruler is indistinguishable from that of his subject. The remains of a father, a governor, a doctor, a husband, a lover, a bystander, and an entire civilization intermingle, and, no matter where I run or where I hide or who I hide with, when I finally die—if ghosts can ever truly die—layers and layers of earth and sand and ash and bone will bury my frail body among the ruins of the great Roman empire and the ruins of the one man I ever loved.

            We are all born of dust, and to dust we must always return.