by Frank Zuo
Art by Jennifer Xu
Issue: Kalopsia (Spring 2017)
With slow, agonizing movements, he undid the brittle chains weakened from the acid and venom around his red, pulsating Beat. After all these years of hiding, running, and doing whatever it took to survive– his liver, lungs, and stomach were charred a deep, eternal black by the fires from the Beat. Thirty-five years of torturous enduring had brought his body to the brink of departure, but it mattered not to him. Time had taught him that his dream was not his to realize. Bloodshed had taught him there was only one way in, and one way out. The pain inside had pounded into him that running away was no good; the flames would only follow. Yet he could do nothing else but run from the heat, like a madman running away from insanity, never gaining more than two steps in a lifetime.
Around him, the winter wind cried soft tears of white, whispering its deepest sorrows. Overhead glittering stars hung from the heavens like millions of woe-filled eyes.
He took in a deep, trembling breath. The conflagration in his chest roared with this intake, and a bit of his scorched lungs crumbled to ashes.
His feet were blistered and raw from his thirty-five year voyage through the hazy, dark mountains and valleys, where rivers gushed blood, and flowers grew sharp brambles of bone and teeth. Climbing over Black Needle Mountain as spikes of guilt pierced him, wading through Marrow River as liquids of madness drowned him; down the Path of a Million Graves he treaded. It had been a long, painstakingly slow walk, and solitary one too. He had trekked the endless miles alone, without hearing a single human voice along the way. When he had raised his head to look up, there had only been the dull, throbbing red sky glaring down at him. When he had looked down, there had only been the jagged black rocks jutting in and out of the earth like the angry jaws of a demon. He had drunk from the bloody rivers when thirst gripped him, and had eaten the strange flowers when hunger overtook him. Each day, he had watched the slow descent of the sun as he sat beside the countless gravestones dotting the path, contemplating his past.
His past had been like a beautiful dream. A golden dream, one that brought sweet smiles to the face of a sleeper. And only in dreams did the sun ever truly shine, for when he woke up in the night, it was forever dark and cold.
Now he stood up suddenly in the snow, and with a cry, tightly clutched his stomach. Bits of his liver began to crumble, like his lungs, as the fire in the Beat burned with more ferocity.
He remembered a time when he could feel a warm fire from the Beat, instead of the insane inferno it was now. Wasn’t there a time when the world seemed unlimited, with so many possibilities? He was the ruler of a vast empire; he had commanded the sun and stars, and all above and below his kingdom. The people had praised him, and he had shown them kindness and care as a ruler. Had he not his close friends, who had given him joy and happiness as he grew up? They had loved him and served him to their last dying breaths. Hadn’t there been a beautiful woman, with shining hair, faintly iridescent in the morning sunlight, and a smile that danced brighter than sunshine? He must have truly loved her, but she did not want the glory, fame, or riches of a queen. All of these things had set the warm glow of passion to the Beat, the heat of love to the Beat. Hadn’t there been time when he loved life, before the fires of frustration and despair and anguish had burned it all away? Indeed, there had been. It was the time before he had lost it all, to outsiders who had razed his kingdom and his people until the ashes mixed with bone.
A heavy sheet of white rested on the leafless branches of a great oak tree. The soft snow continued to fall, blanketing his tracks behind him.
Inch by inch, he pulled on the chains until the weakest link finally gave out. So much venom from the Beat had collected in these chains in thirty-five years. So much hate and despair had worked their way into the iron. All these years he had locked his own, red, pulsing Beat with these iron chains for fear it would break. He had tried to restrain the waves of self-hatred, but it had been impossible to do so, no matter how tightly he wrapped those chains around his Beat. He had been afraid he would be unable to take the blame, the guilt of knowing how he had failed his people with his own short-sightedness. Yet he also had no way of getting his revenge on the hundred and thousands of belligerent swords and torches.
Some days he told himself to seek lush paradise, to record his fall in crystal waters and the stone of civilization, to transcribe his people’s history to the beauty of the new. Some nights he told himself to return to the Path of a Million Graves with cold steel gripped in hand, and lie down beside his people with a slash across the throat.
A tinge of liquid ruby and sapphire began to spread across the sky. Night was fading; dawn was approaching.
“No one recognizes me now…” he smiled, bitter but without agony now. “Those who invaded are behind me, and those who loved me are long gone. All I have left in the world is the snow that mourns for my people, the sunshine that forgives me for my uselessness, and the Beat that burns me alive.”
Wrapping his rough cloak tightly around him, he treaded on, across the soft snow. Ahead of him, miles and miles away, a single golden ray shone, bright and radiant. Behind him, those chains that once bound his heart started to disintegrate as he treaded towards the new light. Deep within himself, he felt tranquil and weightless as he moved on. The Beat continued its rhythm, fainter and fainter, like the serene closure to rhapsody. Even if no one would remember his rule, even if no one would know this dying, frail man had once ruled and protected a kingdom, it would not matter. For the winter snow certainly remembered, preserving his footsteps in sheets of timeless white.
When warm spring finally came again, the snow would melt and carry his fiery Beat and his Story and his people, in fresh glacial waters, to wherever was lush and green.