Fall on your knees was the favorite line from my mother’s favorite Christmas carol. “Fall on your knees, oh hear the angel voices.” As a kid, I wondered if the angels could only hear you if you were kneeling. Is there any more vulnerable position than on your knees? Pain so intense it drives you to your knees. “Get down on your knees and pray the Lord will forgive you,” my mother would say when she punished me for misbehaving.
I needed God and I needed angels, so can you blame me for kneeling? It is what I was taught to do to show my contrition.
Kneeling is not natural or comfortable, especially when you are the only one on your knees. Any songs the angels may have been singing were drowned out by the relentless booing and heckling. We were not in church, but why should that matter? I was taught that God was everywhere and while by nine years old I knew Santa did not know if I was sleeping or awake, God most certainly did.
There was nothing original in my action. Others have fallen on their knees. Were they or was I more courageous than those forced to their knees? Is there a distinction between taking a single knee or kneeling on two knees? Although only a contortionist could kneel and stand at the same time, leg position did not figure into my act or the judgment of it.
Perhaps I was naive to believe in silent protest. The hymn might proclaim, “…was blind but now I see,” but I have yet to come upon a verse, “…was deaf but now I hear.” There is no absolution for tone deafness.
It was never my intention to be a martyr or a savior. I am more of a deflector of sins than an absorbent of them. Up until now, I cannot say I gave much thought to my personal sacrifice; I was trying to give voice to those who have been sacrificed, not being identified as a sacrificial lamb myself.
Few would consider my plight a sacrifice. Few understand how a kleptocracy works or how the oligarchs wield invisible swords or how effective they are at turning your courage into cowardice. They lured me in with benevolence more precious than money and cut me off at the knees through the most precious of relationships: mother and child.
I never knew my birth mother. I always knew I was adopted; it was obvious that I did not look like the other people in my family. And although my mother did not know how to cut or brush my hair or did not know how to protect my skin from the sun, she loved me with a fierceness that would make a mother bear proud. None of this was her fault, although she would be blamed.
Torture is nothing like what you see in the movies. It is not about pain and suffering. It is much more sinister. You can learn how to endure pain. I knew all too well how to deflect and absorb pain. My popularity and fame throughout school and beyond came from my proven ability to out run my adversaries and even when I was caught, hit hard, taken to the ground I had the uncanny ability to absorb the pain, jump up, and taunt my opponent again, and again and again. Those who are expert in exacting torture know it is the mind not the body that they must subjugate. They earn your trust, build up your sense of self, and put you on a pedestal—raise you up so that they can tear you down, leaving you in a heap of humiliation and spilt guts.
I was given a slogan imbued with purpose. It had a mantra-like quality so that people could repeat it over and over, and short and simple enough it could be worn on the sleeve. My picture and that slogan appeared everywhere: vincit qui patitur (the one who conquers endures). They let me believe I was the subject of the sentence—I had conquered evil and endured. If I had been paying attention, I would have realized that I had not conquered anything, that what I was protesting not only still existed, but was expanding. I became victim to my greatest enemy, that which had taken down those mightier than me: the ego. And once my ego was released, my overlords needed no other weapon.
I had promised myself that once my silent protest became noticed I would move into the shadows. I was naïve enough to believe all I had to do was light the match to ignite awareness. I did not comprehend that the arsonist is always revealed, that fire can be squelched but loathing smolders forever. Vincit qui patitur.
I no longer owned my image, I never owned the slogan, the oligarchs did what oligarchs do: get rich. In a matter of weeks, while their coffers swelled with profit, my image diminished, and the second stage torture was enacted—I was set up to fail. Insinuation is a scalpel applied to make almost invisible slices, drawing blood to seep not spill. It was suggested that I was stealing from those I was supposed to be helping, and that my initial action was a stunt, nothing more than a dramatically staged Ponzi scheme. The evidence was I had made more money in just a couple of months of the slogan promotion than I ever would have made from the career I was expelled from for kneeling. The whisper campaign was brilliant in its execution because it not only bolstered the beliefs of my enemy, it caused those who believed in me—the people I was trying to help—to doubt me and eventually turn against me too. No one was willing to risk their good name to defend me. I was isolated and although she never said so out loud, I saw the doubt and hurt in my mother’s eyes and knew that she doubted me too. That was a pain I did not know how to deflect or absorb.
The oligarchs pocketed the money they had made from vincit qui patitur and encouraged people to burn the merchandise they had purchased with their hard-earned money. A funeral pyre was built, and I was burned in effigy. Destroyed by fame and ego, there was nothing left to extract from me; banishment was my only option.
I was simultaneously dead and alive. I was ready to accept death, but my physical self would not yield. I foraged for food and fought off cravings that would have guaranteed my demise. I wore gray flannel and kept my head covered with a hood. Before long, the very thing that was meant to be my punishment, became my salvation. What had started out a couple of years earlier as an act of benevolence on my part I now realized was an act of folly. I did not know the people I purported to defend. I new nothing about the lives they lived. But now I did. I sat on front stoops, leaned against locked fences, and stood in soup kitchen lines. I heard stories of starvation and deprivation met with dignity and grace. I learned about forgiveness and over time, I learned how to heal. While I came to understand the resilience born of faith, I still had no concept of God. The deity seemed no more than wishful thinking—something devised for desperate people to hold on to and excuse for the cruelty of others, as if the victims deserved what they got in this life.
My second year in exile, I began traveling with a person whose ordeal had been much worse than mine, rendering my companion mute. This is the one who taught me telepathy, which is how I am sharing my story with you. I once was lost, but now I'm found; was mute but now I speak.
While God might be a fairytale, gentle giants are real. My companion was the last of a forgotten tribe. They were tall, muscular, golden, and kind. That kindness became their demise and caused them to become enslaved. Those who exploited them would reject the notion of slavery, because they were paid for their sacrifice, but in the end, what their bodies and brains had to endure led to them becoming addle-brained and sterile. The cocktail of performance-enhancers caused their minds to rage and their tongues to shrivel up in their mouths. Most took their own lives. The others, unable to control their outbursts were killed—all accused of resisting arrest. My companion was the only one still young and strong enough to run.
We were spotted on the outskirts of a border town. I was sure everyone had forgotten about me by now. My companion’s tribe had been decimated more than a decade ago. I think most who saw us assumed we were parent and child, and while we were both large, we were not considered threatening, just a couple of people down on their luck. We did not need to speak and rarely made eye contact with others. What we did not know is that bounty orders never expire, and the payment for captured fugitives grows 10% every year. The bounty on my companion was a healthy amount. The bounty hunter who apprehended us was an expert in old cases and the only person who did not take for granted that my companion had not died years ago.
“Halt,” he yelled, and when we ignored the command a bullet grazed my companion’s left ear and blood began to trickle down the left cheek to the chin. A hand went up, brushing at the ear as if swatting at a bug.
“Halt,” the command came again, and we heard the pursuer’s boots crushing the dried leaves. I anticipated the shot and dropped to the ground just as the bullet whizzed over my head. I turned my head and saw the boots and the rifle butt pointed at my cheek.
My companion had developed a rudimentary form of sign language, which was primarily used to try and procure food, grunting at the bounty hunter and making a gesture of a question mark.
“Oh, you’re deaf,” the bounty hunter assumed. He looked down at me, “You too?”
I stuck up my thumb to indicated yes.
“Well, I’m glad I didn’t kill you just because you couldn’t hear,” he looked back at my companion “You’re worth more to me alive than dead.” He began to laugh, “Oh yeah, you can’t hear me. Never mind.”
The first thing I noticed when we entered the city was the new coliseum. The oblong stadium was almost 150-feet high and covered almost seven acres. It could hold almost 100,000 people. Tickets were coveted and passed down to survivors in estates and wills.
I assumed we would be turned over to the prosecutors, but that was not the case. Behind the stadium a golden tower had been erected. It was now the tallest building in the city. The team owners had their offices in this building. While they were fierce competitors on game day, they were actually a cabal and had arranged the competition such that no matter which team prevailed, they all won. The fans did not know about the arrangement and proclaimed their allegiance to the various teams bedecked in costumes and face paint, the tribal colors of their cohorts. The cadre was assembled around a large table of polished ebony when we were pushed into the room.
One of the owners pointed at me and said, “Hey, I know you. Vincit qui patitur,” and everyone around the room began to laugh.
“About my pay…,” the bounty hunter began.
“Of course,” an owner said, and each owner placed a gold ingot on the table. The bounty hunter circled the table, picked up each ingot and nodded to the person seated in front of it. His bounty collected, he crossed the room to the door and was about to leave when he heard an owner say to my companion and me, “Take off your clothes.”
“They’re deaf,” the bounty hunter said.
“Is that so?” the owner replied, and they all laughed again.
The bounty hunter shrugged and left the room.
“Very clever,” an owner said to us, “convincing the bounty hunter you’re both deaf.”
He looked at us for a reaction, but we remained still, our eyes downcast so as not to convey any hint of recognition.
“But that’s a lie isn’t it?”
“I bet your mother would be sad to learn you’ve lost your hearing.”
I did not take the bait. I had not thought about my mother in a long time.
“Not your adopted mother. Your biological mother, your real mother.”
My head tilted up ever so slightly. My companion yelled at me telepathically, No, but it was too late.
“Oh, so you can hear,” the owner said.
“She came to see me,” another owner began, “soon after you left. She thought you had been treated unfairly.”
My heart skipped a beat at the thought of the woman who gave birth to me caring about my welfare. I raised my head but did not make eye contact.
Don’t…, my companion tried to warn.
“She was concerned you had been cheated,” the owner continued, “there was money owed to you. She demanded that money…for herself.”
I thought I had endured all of their torture years ago, but the oligarchs were not done torturing me. The biological ties between mother and child hold steadfast over time and are not easily severed. The pain exacted even from trying was well known to the people seated around the table.
“We listened to what she had to say, and did give her money, to tide her over for a while. But we also made it clear that we would not succumb to blackmail. She tried it only once and learned not to try it again.”
I winced wondering what they had done to her.
“Poor woman,” another said, “if there was only something you could do for her.”
Three days later, I was led into the colosseum. I would like to think I was given a choice, but I knew that was not the case. My companion and I were separated as soon as the owners were done talking at us. I refused the food and drink they offered me because I assumed it was laced with drugs and enhancers I did not want to ingest. I spent my time meditating, breathing, and flexing my muscles. I allowed myself to go into a trance until the moment they came to retrieve me.
The stadium was packed and banners proclaiming Vincit qui patitur rippled throughout the stands. I looked up and saw them, seated next to each other, shoulder to shoulder: my two mothers. The two women stared down at me and my heart swelled from the love they radiated over to me. I stood taller, shoulders back and gave a slight nod of my head. The faith I had in their love allowed me to believe I could accept whatever happened next. Then I looked across the stadium and saw my competitor, the person chosen for me to battle: my companion.
My fasting and praying did not match the sacrifice my friend had made. Whether my companion chose to ingest or was forced to do so, I will never know, but the rage was clear. The rage was not focused on me however. The anthem was played, I steadied myself on my feet, we crossed to the center of the stadium and lifted our swords above our heads. Before I knew what was happening, my companion’s sword moved in one swift moment entering the chest just below the sternum. The blood from my dear friend’s wound spurted over my face in a single warm gush.
In that moment, I fell to my knees and for the first time in my life heard the angel voices.