Degenerate | Teen Ink

Degenerate

May 22, 2014
By claireoftheproblematique BRONZE, Henrico, Virginia
claireoftheproblematique BRONZE, Henrico, Virginia
1 article 10 photos 9 comments

Favorite Quote:
"Inside my empty bottle I was constructing a lighthouse while all the others were making ships."


When I was five years old, I, along with the others of our class, was called to the city courtyard for the execution of a man who, a slave like ourselves, had performed a supposedly terrible, unforgivable crime. The word for this crime, which has since entered my lexicon, had been removed from our vernacular about six hundred years ago. It, along with the behavior it describes, was purposely extracted from society by laws imposed at the birth of the new regime. The act had been an innate human concept; consequently, it took several generations for the word to leave our tongues and for the motions to leave our fingers.
The city’s death toll would reach its peak during those first fifty years.
I was cold – at least, my teeth were chattering. I remember I was wearing my hoodless wool jacket with moth holes and only two buttons, the one that always smelled like dust. It was the only jacket I was allotted for the season so I wasn't allowed to complain. Snow was falling not in flakes, but in flat chunks, as if to cloak the city in a clean, white blanket. However, the snow failed in its quest, only serving to dampen the ground and later turn to ice. It never touched my skin, or if it did, I didn't feel it.
It was impossibly silent outside that day. They had the accused man on his knees on the pavement. He was unrestrained but showed no resistance. Displayed on his face was the most unrepentant expression I had ever seen, and, though my impression may have been overblown from the novelty of this expression, still have yet to see again. The white crystals from the sky collected on his head, ephemerally forming a halo that melted into water droplets, dripping off the ends of his now-bedraggled hair. I remember wondering how, when the air was so bitter, the man didn't even shiver.
We all knew why we were gathered in the square. We, as the slaves, the lowest, the vilest of citizens, had historically been accused of more crimes than anyone else on the social hierarchy. It had been a decade, at least, since any member of our stratum had been granted a fair prosecution – trials had purposely fallen out of practice. Public executions like the one I beheld that day were orchestrated for the purpose of teaching the slaves a lesson, as if we were the only people who would ever sin. We were all well aware, though, that both the middle class and the working class committed similar crimes as ours and were similarly murdered. We speculated that the “higher” criminals were killed in private, or at least when we, the slaves, were locked away. The lawmakers couldn't bar everything from our knowledge but they always tried, of course.
I was only five years old at the time. I evidently had no idea, really, what I was witnessing, so I was very impressionable. This spectacle was teaching me nothing except that people who commit crimes get killed – but this was obviously little help when I didn't even know what the man was getting killed for. The fatal misdeed was only ever specified as “Act 304,” a “high crime.” Everyone was warned against “Act 304,” but what good was this public warning if we didn't even know what it was a warning against? I often feel now as if laws like these were put in place so the government would have an excuse to lower the population.
Three towering men, the law enforcers, stood behind the criminal, each holding a gun by his side that was at least twice as big as I was. They, like their prisoner, remained oblivious to the white flecks coming from above. My attentions were concurrently affixed to the prisoner and to keeping warm, so I really could not care less about the precipitation either. My mother tugged me in against her leg, letting me share her warmth, although with this gesture disturbing my gaze. Peering back through the shifting gaps in the crowd, I met eyes with the convict, but this connection was instantly destroyed by the three sharp pops of the executioners’ guns, and a collective flinch and gasp of the crowd, an ample eruption of sound.
I believe, in a half-second moment, I saw myself in the martyr’s eyes.
I blinked and he was lying on the ground. Out from under his bullet-strewn torso he extended his arm, placing a blood-covered finger on the pavement. The movements of his finger were ones I did not understand. They were organic and seemingly random, not resembling any script I had seen. I thought I recognized the curve of an S, a C, or a G, but I was mistaken. Suddenly the dying man’s marks transformed themselves and I thought my eyes were deceiving me as the streaks of blood became a bird. No, it wasn't a bird but rather some configuration of one, coming from the hand of man. He must have had so much power, I thought. He must be a god. Maybe this world can only handle one god. I found myself wishing he would finish the creation so I could watch it emerge from the earth and fly towards the sky, away from the crowded, walled courtyard. I yearned for it to release itself, and maybe I was reflecting onto it my own desires for myself, but I knew for certain that birds were meant to fly.
The victim trembled, and finished a final sweeping motion in time for a bullet to pass through his skull. His hand dropped, limp and still, as the snow began to finally accumulate around the growing, viscous red pool under the poor man’s head. The bird disappeared in a matter of seconds, mixing with the now-ruddy snow, but its image had rooted in my mind. I had never seen anything like it before and neither had any other slave in the square that day. We had all just witnessed the high crime formerly known as “art.”


The author's comments:
This is a piece based off of an idea I had for a graphic novel that I abandoned a few years ago, but I still thought the concept was interesting so I wrote this. Since this is backstory, I thought it was an appropriate scene to single out. "Degenerate" is meant to refer to both the social status of the slaves and the value of art.

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