Tuesday, January 4, 2011

The Secret Garden

I was studying abroad in Germany, in some small Dorf, a cluster of painfully reconstructed medieval buildings and cobblestones, beyond which the A9 sped past through the brilliant yellow potato fields. It was late spring, with the sun pushing on toward summer, but it hardly mattered, as the school was one great labyrinth of classrooms, student apartments, a gym and the cafeteria. There was no need to go outside - the whole world was contained in the institution. And besides, we were there to learn.

Each student had a tiny apartment, equipped with a small stovetop, minifridge, a couple of cabinets, a futon, and a low table. The doors had no locks, in order to foster a community of trust and honesty.

My boyfriend was there was well, and stayed in an apartment down the hall. I had never been to his room; he always visited me in mine. Our relationship was warm and muted, with an intense intimacy that left nothing hidden. Every mundane decision was part of the web, causing and effecting us to grow together, inward upon each other into the rapidly narrowing future.

When not with him, my attention was focused on Mark, another American studying at the institute. Slender and strong, with dark hair and bright secretive eyes, he began to consume my thoughts, my existence. I was in love, though I remained silent on that account, preferring to simply bask in the resonant glow of his eyes passing lightly across my face. But even more than the joy of his presence, I reveled in the fact that now, I had a secret, something of my very own that could not belong to any other. I nurtured it in my heart, letting it grow into a secret garden of dreams. Mark was the opening of a vast new world, unstable and shifting, the intensity and freedom of summer, with the constant threat of terrifying devastation. And, unlike the rest of us, he was not there to learn.

Mark had learned all he wanted to, in discovering who had killed his brother the year before. Pure justice was his goal, and the pursuit of rightful triumph his only one. He had followed the murderer here, a resigned, patient boy who looked to be barely 16. I never was to learn his name, but I will not forget his eyes - dark, tender, deep-set stones that peered into me and knew my thoughts, and my sins. Who knows if he felt any guilt, or if the desire to see into my own deceptive, faithless heart was driven by a need to know that evil was not only in himself. He was the only one who knew I loved Mark, and loved him indiscriminately and thoughtlessly, though I never spoke a word to him.

If he did, in fact, feel any guilt, he did not at all exhibit the fear that usually accompanies such a burden - fear of punishment, or the impossibility of salvation. Rather, he accepted that he was guilty, and that Mark would take his life as the required payment for the one he had taken. Their justice had been privately agreed upon - a simple, elegant, but unsanctioned execution. Mark had asked me to assist him, and I had agreed. What is summer, without love and adventure?

The execution took place in the afternoon free time after classes, in a small storage room at the back of the gymnasium. Several groups of boys were playing basketball as Mark led the convict across the courts to the realm of justice, while I followed a few steps behind. No one seemed to notice our solemn procession, though there was no real reason for them to notice three people passing through the well-populated gym. All was calm and orderly.

The room was mostly filled with sports equipment, and the crates of basketballs cast an orange glow. It was brightly lit, but without windows, and a single wide door opened into it from the gym. Towards the back of the room was a bare ping-pong table missing its net, across which Mark had laid a rope in preparation. After we entered the room, I went to close the door, as seemed appropriate, if only out of respect for the one who would soon be dead. Mark told me to leave it open - it would be less suspicious. But if this was justice, what should we be afraid of? Another secret was embryonic, and my world broadened still more, revealing a bottomless chasm.

Mark was helping his revenge onto the table, informing him quietly that he was to be strangled. I watched in awe at the calm, and the strange tenderness in both their eyes as they regarded each other. The boy lay back, flat on the table, and Mark affixed the rope around his neck, crossing it on the front of his throat so that it could be tightened from either side. He then bent deeply over the alleged murderer, gazing at him strangely with that intent fire usually reserved for love, and said, "Tell me when you are ready." This boy looked back sweetly with his dark eyes, and spoke: "Please, tell my family what I have done, and that I have willingly submitted to justice. And please, forgive me, and stay with me while I die." Mark replied, "I will stay, and I will comfort you. It won't take long, I promise."

I stood mutely, helplessly, to the side of the table, near the boy's head. He nodded to Mark, my beloved, the executioner, and he tightened the rope.

I had seen strangulations before, but this was vastly different from any of them. This was not the bulging veins and wild eyes and contorted mouth - the purple struggle yearning toward collapse. This was calm, peace, redemption. The dying boy made neither sound nor movement, except for the gentle blinking of his eyes as he gazed sorrowfully out of himself. Mark was still bent over him, murmuring to him that it was alright and the pain would soon end. The whispering and crooning continued, and I began to grow impatient. Occasionally, a basketball would bounce dangerously close to the open doorway. We could easily be caught, and there was no hiding the fact that someone was dying in here; I could feel it pounding in my own head.

I began to pace nervously, abstractedly, and every second of the boy's decreasing but clinging life doubled my agony, again and again and again. I stood momentarily by the open door. One of the basketball players dribbled up, and said, "What's going on?" I saw my ruin. "Nothing." Or we could kill him too - kill them all, and keep silence. He shrugged, and dribbled back toward the center of the court. It was so simple, lying. If this boy had been able to lie, maybe he wouldn't be lying choking on a ping pong table.

By this point, it had been a few minutes, and the pain and desperation of fast approaching death were setting in. His legs and hands twitched, and he tried to shake his head back and forth. Impossibly, low moans began to rise from his crushed throat. Mark's comforting refrain pressed on, as did his beautiful, tender hands. "It's almost over now, and then there will be no more pain."

This boy, he was accepting punishment for his sins, but not I. I would carry mine around in a little box for years to come, while all around me, others would willingly die so as to be rid of theirs. Nothing follows in death, not even guilt. But I had my first secret, finally, and I could never expose it! I had never had one before, and the feeling was strange, ecstatic and heavy. It consumed me with its own weight, and made me know: I was a liar, a whore, and a coward. For I could not face death, and preferred the burden of my own self-created horrors. I could not even face this death anymore, happening right outside my eyes. His immanent freedom terrified me, and I crouched to the floor beside the table, sobbing and choking on my guilt, my sorrow.

"It's over," Mark said, quietly. Wordlessly, we prepared to hide the body; we took the precautions of criminals despite our conviction of justice. He looked the same as in life, except his dark eyes were gently closed, and there was a slight raw mark on his neck. We wrapped him in a faded quilt, and carried him nonchalantly through the gym and the winding halls to my apartment. No one looked askance at us, though we passed many familiar faces along the way. We put him under my futon, and a bit of the blanket showed at one end. "No one looks in the obvious places," Mark said. "I'll be back to get him in the morning. And thanks." He left.

I was alone, with a second secret, a cooling body. I must keep this secret, keep it for Mark, and let it grow cold unnoticed while nearby my love for him burns on. And this dead boy, in him was my shame and my cowardice, my perverted justice, but he was also a promise, that Mark would return, and a sign, that he trusted me. A dead murderer, keeping my love alive and making my heart brim with devotion.

I was cooking when my boyfriend came over. Sure and familiar, he watched silently, steadily, as I poured soy sauce into the pan. "I thought you didn't have any left." I shrugged.

We sat on the futon to eat, with the body just inches below us. I was terrified he would notice the end of the blanket sticking out, the edges of my infidelity leading to the unraveling of and entire future, but simultaneously knew he never would. We had no secrets. We talked about class and studying, while I thought about tomorrow morning. What if Mark didn't come? Would I be left to bear the dead alone, to bury my secret? There was already so much guilt and horror, the vast instability of his presence, or absence, had opened up, and his precarious power over life. What would he do with mine?

But inside my heart, deep inside, beyond the place where my secrets had begun to grow and form, I knew they would remain secrets. No matter how they ripped at my imagination and destroyed my peace, I would never expel them, never allow they nausea to rise to vomit, never let them be suffocated. They would form the vibrancy of a vast and unknown future, while out here, the web continued its placid intricacy. He was saying goodnight, and I knew I would be hearing him saying goodnight for the rest of my life.

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