Tenderness


"I am not like my father," he told me once. He did not realize how much he revealed in those words.

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The very earliest memory I have is of standing in the doorway of a tent at dawn, watching the sunlight explode over a dune and turn the sand to diamond. In this memory I can feel rough canvas bunched in my small hand, feel the warm air from behind me flowing out around my legs and into the chill desert air, and smell that aroma of spice and dust that was the smell of my people (or so I was told many years later); all of this overlaid with a profound calm certainty that I was cherished and safe.

Of course, all of this may be my own invention, to fill my need to remember what it my life have been like before I was a slave.

I have no memory at all of the slaughter of my people by the Red King

, or even how I was taken to the home of Shido's father. (Did I ever know his real name? He beat me any time I neglected to address him as Master. In later years I referred to him as Fekka, a word used for freshly-dropped dung.)

Of course, when I say "taken to the home" I mean "imprisoned in a stone shed that had been built far enough from the main house that screams and begging could not be heard by the Master's family and guests." Did I scream and beg at first? I cannot remember. What child would not? To be bound, and beaten, and violated? To choke on swollen flesh, and be beaten again until I learned not to bite? He told me often that I should be grateful that he did not knock all my teeth out. (I know now it is of course that he knew that it would lower my market value when it came time to sell me to some other Master.)

What I do remember is every inch of stone wall and earthen floor, every crack, every splinter of the bed of two planks I slept on. I would lie for hours on my side watching insects appear and disappear, persistent and free. And though you may not believe it, I can still recall the exact sensation, the faint vibrations of the earth that warned me that he was stomping to the shed angry from some event in his house. The exact sound of the rusty lock. The yeasty, unwashed stink of his pubic hair. The taste of his shit when he forced me to lick his ass.

Such fond memories. In so many ways, Fekka made me the man I am today. He taught me how to hide my emotions, to play a part, to control reckless impulses. He taught me what true pain and humiliation are, so much so that I have been able to bear everything since.

Almost everything. Everything but Shido.

Even when I try, I can barely hold on to my memories of Shido. I didn't even know who he was at first, the solemn boy wearing so many clothes, or why he had Fekka's keys.

"Number 31," he asked from the doorway. "Are you all right?" And then he came toward me, holding out a jar. "I heard that you were hurt. I brought you some ointment. You should rub it on your skin." As if that had not been amazing enough he had knelt next to me, tried to pull my rags away (it was likely to look at my injuries, but I was too frightened or shocked to realize that at the time); when I clutched them tight to me, he reached a hand toward my face, not to slap me, but to brush the hair out of my eyes. "I brought you an apple, too. Here."

When I did not speak or move he put it into my hands - and then Fekka was in the doorway, roaring, "Shido! Don't waste your time with the slaves!"

"Father," the boy stood up and said firmly, "Please don't hurt the slaves. They're people too."

"No, they're not," Fekka said. "They're property. You'll understand some day."

"He looks like he's hurting. And hungry."

I looked down at the apple in my hands, glowing as if I held the sun, and though I probably did not understand at the time why, I knew that if I kept it, if I ate it, I might die: at the very least, two boys would be beaten instead of one. And so, because I was hungrier to live, I threw the apple against the wall. It split open, the white flesh falling to the floor in miraculous feast for the ants and beetles.

"See?" Fekka said. "Your efforts are wasted on the slaves. They have less gratitude than a dog." As they left he looked back over his shoulder at me and added with contempt, "An animal would at least whimper and run away to lick its own wounds. You do nothing."

Kind, simple, stupid Shido. He was still too young to understand that, when defying a more powerful opponent, choosing the time of confrontation is the key. One small dagger thrust may bring down a king when the mightiest armies cannot: but then subterfuge and pretense were never part of my Shido's nature.

(Yes, I say "my Shido." Pretense has been my nature for many years.)

If he came at first from curiosity, he came again from compassion (probably partly in defiance of his father.) At the time I was foolish enough to think that I was as special to him as he was to me; it was only later that I heard from others that he had been kind to many of his father's slaves because of the brand borne by his adored cousin Shuri, the future Red King.

"Come with me," Shido said to me many years later, wrapping me tenderly in a scarlet cloak before he kissed me. "I want you by my side as I lead armies to victory."

And that day I understood Shido completely. He knew nothing of me, for if he had he would never have wrapped me in red, the color of the armies that had killed my people. He wanted me at his side, not as his equal, not as his love, not even as an object of desire, but because Shuri wished it, as a symbol of the slaves that the Red King had freed, for what Shuri wanted, Shido took.

"I am not like my father."

No Shido. You were as tender and dispassionate as the Buddha as you sent thousands to heaven.

And I was not at your side.

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(04) 8 Mar 2010