The whip comes down on my back once more, but I can't feel it, having lost count of how many lashings have rained down upon me. In front of me, a crowd watches with blank yet solemn faces, not daring to say a word. Public punishments are nothing new and every time one occurs – which has been happening more and more frequently lately – the will of the people falters.
The loaf of bread I worked so hard to obtain sits on the platform beside me, covered in flecks of my blood. It is proof that my family will perish, waiting for me to return home. Everyone is hungry, so much so that three of the ‘witnesses’ to my ‘crime’ testified against me and received the gold reward for reporting offences against the State. One of them was my own brother, who refused to acknowledge me.
The guards standing around me have smirks plastered on their faces while doubt glimmers in their eyes. And yet, none of them do anything. I make eye contact with one of them, a man a few years younger than me. He tries to pull his eyes away, helplessness and guilt evident at the corners, but I hold his gaze until the next lash forces my head down.
Now I regret yelling myself hoarse when I was caught. I just wish to tell my family – my wife and children – how much I love them. How I long to sing to an audience, just once more. Memories from my days in opera float up from the depths of my mind, the blinding stage lights battling against the curtain of black that’s threatening to come down over my conscious.
Perhaps it is madness, strengthened by pain, but I start humming. No tune in particular, but in the silence between lashes, I hum.
It surprises the crowd and that hint of emotion swells my heart, so I open my mouth to release one single note, pushing it out of my throat with all my feelings of love, anger, regret. Pushing it into the cruel world that sits back and watches as I'm punished for feeding my family, for wanting to live. Pushing it out into the silent crowd and their hearts, begging for mercy or even just respite. The note grasps at the empty silence, finding purchase in the hidden corners of the square and the weary defeat that lives in each person.
My energy spent, I hang my head, my eyes closing in defeat. I don't see who acts first, but the crowd surges, grey faces blooming red. Red, the colour of the rivulets of blood they splash through. Red, the colour of the jackets of the guards who abandon their posts to join the riot. Red, the colour of the dress of my angel who cradles my face gently in her hands, tears running down her face as she whispers my name like a prayer, begging me to stay, just stay with her. Stay.
The ropes holding me up are severed and I fall face first into a puddle of my own blood, sweat and tears, as the grey of the dying world changes into colour as the people speak up for themselves.
But all I care about is my angel dressed in red, holding the hands of my children, who are old enough to understand that they are witnessing the birth of a new, living world.
“A man dies when he refuses to stand up for that which is right. A man dies when he refuses to stand up for justice. A man dies when he refuses to take a stand for that which is true.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.