The Testimony of the Late Arthur Young  by Blake Johnson

Flash Fiction, Poetry

Order. Order. The Dead Assembly will now hear

the testimony of the late Arthur Young—who claims

he found beauty in cowardice.

 

I paced back and forth in a small bedroom 

made infinite by midnight darkness

spilling through the windows faster than light 

ever had. The floorboards churned

while I stepped from plank to plank, wobbled

so much that I doubted their ability

to keep me from falling through the ground

into an entirely different hemisphere 

where no one knew not to call an ambulance

because my temporary insurance had run out

the day before.

 

Tin-can remedy in one hand, ballooning 

gut in the other, I sipped and shuffled—pausing

only at the bathroom threshold to imagine 

intestines flying out of my mouth like a can of snakes—

when suddenly manifold images floated  

out of the dark like phantom movie projections.

 

My fellow corpses, I confess, 

these visions unspooled all at once.

Yet I remember them all: 

 

Memories floated by—

the budget healer reiterated disregard

as I plead in pathetic tones. Help me,

it’s been a week since I’ve eaten, mend me,

or prescribe drugs. We’d only met the once,

but she spoke as if she knew me: are you sure

it’s not just anxiety? Maybe she was right

to ask the question. When a single word

defines a life, the word cannot be overlooked—

how could I rebut? I,

whose adrenal mechanisms had long been locked

in perpetual fight-or-flight; I, who flinch 

at the clatter of dishes and still dream 

of basement sanctuaries housing bearded men,

jabbing at the ground with pointed fingers, testifying

to flames forever lurking beneath our feet. She saw

me as I was. She shrugged and referred me elsewhere,

but there is no use lingering on that failed attempt 

at healing when yet stranger projections flared

up with absurd revelations—draped in a wool-

trench coat, cigarette dangling between amused lips,

a man stood gazing with the intent to keep

silent, occasionally gesturing at the smoke 

pouring out of his mouth, as if trying to illustrate

what ghosts looked like before dissipating

into stardust. Behind me, a disembodied baritone

claimed there was nothing

to be afraid of—when you’re dead

you aren’t aware of death or dying, so what

do you care? I turned to see who spoke

but there was only a desert stretch so barren

that every mile repeated itself in infinite

cycles of sunburnt earth. I did not embark. 

I did not move. I had once known a soldier

who spent years in such a place, how he spat

bullets—blooming pinpricks of light 

flung from the dunes like hurled stars—and laid bare 

the utter ridiculousness of war at the expense of himself 

and holy places. I couldn’t be sure

the desert was where all things ended, 

 

I couldn’t disbelieve in an afterlife, terrifying 

in its spectral secrecy; it suddenly seemed likely

God was displeased with me. His smoldering gaze

might reveal that he hated everything I had ever done,

just as the basement men had warned. Even the penitent

thief was presumably saved at the last moment,

so I, too, made a final gambit and cried out

for salvation and spent agonizing moments

guessing at the thoughts of my sudden patron

saint as he suffocated publicly, dangling above

crowds bored by the spectacle’s slowness. 

 

The astral projections faded

but I did not perish. Not then, not yet. I lived

past that fevered night, trapped beneath

the question of how to die without fear. 

In the intervening days, I crept quietly

among serene enclaves, courageous blowhards, 

and chaotic dreamers, observing their loneliest moments.

Before dawn, I stole into my city’s temple—

ancient in appearance for tourists’ pleasure—to watch

the monk’s pray. I hid beneath the floorboards;

light spilled through the cracks like planetary fissures

until bent knees and silent footfalls passed over

the light in prayerful eclipses. Chants spilled 

from throats like a rising mist, filling

the air with hushed precepts. Among these faithful

one had taken a vow of silence. Esteemed for his age

and devotion, he was called on to hold vigil

from sunrise to sunrise. The room emptied,

leaving him with no one to bear witness 

to his integrity save for a body unseen

beneath his feet. The ground rattled

as the monk slammed his fists 

over the very place I lay hidden,

and for a harrowing moment, I believed 

I’d been discovered, but he did not tear

away the floorboards and expose me 

to the enlightened air, only wept, then spoke

loud enough for me to hear. A terrible instinct

caused me to slam my palms over my ears—

still, I heard the first word of his broken vow: 

 

empty.

 

When I emerged, shoving aside the loose planks,

fleeing like a spider over whom a boot hovers, 

the monk merely wiped his eyes and pointed 

at my heart with a tear-stained finger. Two days

later, still having not slept, I drifted 

through downtown, in and out of bars

wedged between tenements past redemption,

where a grizzled traveler wearing rags

as filthy as my own spun around in his stool

and offered stories in exchange for anything

fermented. He laid a bizarre memento

on the counter—a fang as big as my thumb.

He claimed that he had been slain by dragons

         in a past life,

all for the love of a king who did not know

his name. No terror in the now, he claimed,

thumping his chest. Not when you have fallen

as I have fallen. And yet, as his trembling

fingers clutched a drained glass, I saw 

his eyes clouded by dragon’s breath, pluming dread.

I knew then he had nothing to offer beyond life

already lived, and that my burden was his own.

Who was left to turn to if not heroic reincarnations?

I snatched the fang from the counter and hurled

the trophy over the heads of brooding patrons

and morose dancers. The traveler sighed and disappeared

into the bar’s shadowy fringes to retrieve the relic—

I tried to follow, or at least I remember trying to follow,

 

but past this moment, I lost my grip on time’s passing.

I drifted like vapor from strangeness to strangeness,

unable to distinguish hours from days—how long

did the buildings shake like quivering limbs

until I collapsed in a street gutter? So many

faces hovered over me like confused constellations

doubting their portents. I do not remember 

their features, only their arrangement 

as they held a frantic debate 

over how to cradle the body of a stranger. 

Blink once and surge through garish tunnels

where disinfected air scythes through every breath.

Cords, incessant beeping, dapper gentlemen

radiating cold. Blink again and the glare of neon

crosses at your back will paint the raindrops red.

 

Admitted, discharged, admitted, discharged—with no end

in sight to the senseless shuffle. My eyes turned inward

and gazed at my guts, shriveled coils and broken tubes

carrying nothing but the faintest traces of virulent blood.

Yes, my vision darkened, or perhaps was renewed; I believed

shadows cast bodies and that all light was an illusion

perpetrated by the self. I prayed no longer, but screamed

their inverse, shouting at streetlamps spilling lies 

all over the road in flickering pools, hoping God

himself would meet me on the nighttime road, if only

to shut me up with all the searing brightness I disbelieved in,

 

but there was only the necropolis, emerging out of nowhere

like some long ignored promise. Surrounded by gravestones

poking through the earth, the tomb I now know is no tomb,

but an entrance to your hallowed undercity, sat moldering

like any other I had wondered at as a child. 

I would have ignored the crypt 

had it not been for the cloaked figure crouched

in front of its iron door, pouring over a heavy tome,

incanting deep-throated syllables. Creaking,

the door swung open, and the figure stood, arms outstretched

as if to receive an army. And you did come forth, 

not to obey any spell-weaver’s summons, but to avenge

the presumption that any among you might be controlled.

 

The magician did not think to stand his ground.

He fled from the tattered mass 

surging from the tomb’s mouth, cloak billowing, escaping

with his life. 

I did not move so quickly. In fetid hands

you carried me off, where we roam

underpasses and catacombs, discussing 

grim histories, as if all life amounts to demise. 

 

Now my memory meets the present moment.

My late friends, I’ve heard so many testimonies 

in the name of fifth-stage acquiescence—noble,

dignified, many of you exemplify strength

of spirit, but I will not remain with you. I reject

unlife below. I will call out the hated ones

           lurking in this pallid crowd:

Hades and Hel, I defy you, death-driven

harbingers in the lowest spaces, I defy you,

clamoring voices shrieking let go, let go,

I defy you. 

 

No monk or hero or waking vision

healed my fear. Only the spell-weaver

made me understand that I sought fearlessness

as if it were an escape hatch, that my disease 

was in seeking a cure. Have I gone beyond

simile and metaphor? Has speech failed, at last?

Then I will show you what the magus taught me.

 

I will show you the beauty of a coward

pivoting on a heel, fleeing to the surface

of his beloved earth.

 

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