Her fingers toured the burn of torn flesh of her cheek and shoulder and the hard cold of the cobble stones. Knocked down again, she reflected. She heard their unsurprising cheers and laughter.
Like a flag hoisted up its pole, little by little she rose to her feet, grounding to a current hers and not hers, and pushed away the strands of hair matted to her face. She towered above her feet, her legs gaining surety of place, her standing reclaiming elegance. Sighing replenished her breath. The burn from the injury cooled. The torn flesh repaired, the blood vanished, and the pain erased.
The standing, she knew, wouldn’t last long. As anticipated, someone, this time a middle-aged man spitting with abandon, tackled her. Swiftly she fell over. Her head struck a stone and a blackness moved in, a deathlike dream of a distant yet familiar place.
She remained in the stillness of the void briefly before her eyes opened to the crowd pushing each other for a glimpse. How much more of this, she wondered.
She rose to her knees, the spin of awareness finding its center, her hands anchoring her bruised body before pushing herself up. She stood like a cathedral, grand, spacious, and welcoming. She stood as sparks of light shot out from her eyes. Her fingers quaked. Tears formed. Blinks ushered in a tide of peace.
Soon enough, the rumble of the crowd erupted and turned en masse toward her like a wrecking ball and she crumbled yet again to the ground. A few descended upon her sportively to shatter any intact bones, hollering delight with the sound of their crush.
Whether she was down or up, men of every age spoke about her as liar, cheat, temptress, crazy. They cussed and yelled freely. They threw branches and stones, shot her with arrows and bullets, or set her ablaze. Men instructed boys how to aim or how best to ignite a fire. Although fewer of them, women participated too, competing against each other while vying for a man to compliment her throw or new level of brutality.
Throughout the day the men and women ranted and wailed until their throats turned hoarse. Some covered their mouths, not out of politeness, but startled by the strength of their voice. They did not look her in the eye nor speak to her face, but she felt the sear of their glare and every scathing word. Her ears were a miracle of decibels as were her other senses calibrated to magic and mystery in resonance with seismic rhythms.
Each time they brought her down, she rose up from their tortures. Wounds and breaks, regardless of severity, the splatter of her innards, the crush of bone and amity, healed as soon as she got up. Once standing, she turned her body all directions like an antenna but one that listened to clouds, rivers, oak trees, geckos, armadillos, no creature or material too insignificant to warrant ignoring.
Nobody knew how she listened. She was their shame, the source of anger, the reason their crops failed, algae contaminated water, and babies slid down the birth canal blue. They agreed she was not worth their attention, yet their actions betrayed them. Few nights or mornings passed without dozens of spectators creeping around eager to strike, bash, and crush, jubilant when brain tissue spilled from her skull or blood streamed from her belly. The precision of their strike, the speed of her fall, and how she writhed on the stones aroused and entertained them. They reveled in watching her struggle to rise, one arm wobbling as the other gathered her viscera like fruit intended for a basket. With great anticipation, they watched her recompose, their excitement building with each altitude shift and its promise of newly knocking her down.
They ceased asking why years ago, why they needed to bring her down, why their anger piqued near her, why she got up each time, her body unscathed. They forgot that why was a question.
With seasonal accuracy on the first of each month, she removed every strand of hair hanging down her chest to expose her breasts. Not one pair, but rows of breasts. To her waist front and back, breasts covered her torso, round, oblong, elliptical, some side by side like naked twins, others unmatched in every imaginable shape. Hoards of townspeople gathered to push their way in for a suck. Women held up their babies for an available nipple while men shoved and grabbed to gulp. When the milk slowed to drips at sundown, a fire roasted her or a gun blast toppled her to the ground and the frenzied, milk sodden crowd retreated to their homes.
There must be some sort of change, she thought, the constant change of her body not enough.
One day, her mouth swollen and bloodied, the stones pillowing her broken face and body, ribs jutting out from the landscape of her flesh, she decided not to get up. She knew everyone expected she would. They crowded around. They stood waiting, the cacophony of their rants and heat of their breath eventually giving way to nervous murmurs and the beginnings of a question. She knew it was time.
She hoped they might be further along. She hoped to create an opening, a pause long enough for a glimmer.
She lay prone for days, a pile of decaying flesh as more and more gathered to watch, eager to discharge their arsenal of words. They clenched rocks and other weaponry at the ready. Some waited through the night or a few nights, resenting the need to return home unfulfilled. Newcomers to the spectacle who never witnessed her fall and rise assumed the whole thing a ruse and left in a fury of disgust.
Her hope for a glimmer faded. One after another, slowly at first, clusters of townspeople fell over. For some a mere lean while reaching toward a chair lurched them to their demise. The power of wind caught some unaware to the growing contagion. Some lay down with hunger or thirst never to get up again. Fights resulted in fatal blows. Some let loose their firearms unintended into hapless bystanders. No one was safe. Hastily prepared meals caused E coli. Sneezes got misinterpreted as provocation. Walking alone made you vulnerable to an attack. One by one the weak and sick toppled to the ground as food for rats, maggots, and vultures. A plume of rot spread across the land, overwhelming fresh air and water. Windows and doors closed, double and triple locked, but toxic clouds easily slipped through cracks to claim victims.
Bodies piled up as far as the eye could see, if any of them were to look, if any of them gazed beyond the sores of their own body. No one did.
With the last of their cries and final gasps of breath, she got up to a confusion of twisted bodies, their wits gone, vitality extinguished, a quilt of decomposing corpses. A flood of tears streamed down her cheeks. So much loss, she thought. Then the tears dried. She did not need to worry, the fire of her life burning strong as always. She turned all directions before taking a step, careful to avoid the swollen, stiff bodies. She aimed for any space free of their suffering, an area of ground large enough to hold one foot, then the other.
Walking was better than standing, stepping over better than stepping on. She recognized faces, even those who never showed up in person to witness her fall and rise. The stars guided her, that and the hum emanating from within and from somewhere outside.
She was going where she needed to be. Without hope or despair, she followed her body, its shadows and the respiration and rhythm of the ground.
There is no camouflaging the heart.
She walked for days in sun, rain, and storm. She walked in hunger and without hunger. She walked until reaching a place as yet seen by only a few.
Cheryl Pallant’s recent books include Writing and the Body in Motion: Awakening Voice through Somatic Practice (McFarland and Co., 2018), Her Body Listening (Blaze Vox Books, 2017), and Ginseng Tango (Big Table Publishing, 2017). Poetry, fiction, and nonfiction have appeared in numerous print and online magazines such as Café Irreal, Confrontation, Fence Magazine, and New York Quarterly and in several anthologies. She teaches at the University of Richmond and leads her popular workshop, Writing From the Body, internationally and online.