—with thanks to the Columbus Zoo
We find Hay-Zeus on what we think is a Sunday. He is in Cruciform. He is missing below the chest, his neck gnawed away. His fists clench fur. Shame, another says. He is our cook and we have not eaten since what we think was Friday. Not fish nor frog nor worm. Here, knowing what will come, we cannot harbor a small roasting fire. But we do. We cover Hay-Zeus’ eyes with mud and grass, lay a flank along his lips. We pick at him, grateful he has given us another last meal.
You can die, they say, strapped down, or you can die tango en masse au-nat-ture. We had read of the hanged, the electrified, the burned and shot, those lacerated, those blindfolded at stakes. We have studied the injection, and we say we’ve never been fond of sleep; even there, we knew what waited upon waking. So we choose exile. So we choose the tiger. Because there is hope, we say to the cameras. There is chance. There is freedom. And because, we say, some of us rather the pain.
Our choice is to bind but not to bond. Together, we’ve built huts on higher ground, on the steeper of the foothills. We’ve taken to sleeping in the trees. If we walk north, one faces south. We hunt as we are hunted, and when the tiger feasts at night, a boat will arrive in the morning. Upon it, another life foregone, another name to forget.
We have lost our arsonist, so we have lost our fire. In the past, he had killed sixty-three, and ever since he went foraging alone, he has doomed fourteen more.
The tiger knows the innocent, says Alma, while our jury of peers does not. Judgment, we say, does not come from those like us. You are the cotton, we say, sopping up the guilt the jungle has washed from the rest of us. The blood once under our nails is now yours. The tiger smells this and has for miles now. So stand there, we say, and return to tell us how hunger is stymied by the righteous.
When Grigori takes ill, we tell him letting had always worked, it’s only that everything else worked better. Now, we say, we have no everything else; what we have is leeches. One to the ankle for returned balance, one to the temple to draw this sickness through the mind, and one to the sternum so that they may know their god. Let the others go where they will, we say, as we have. You will grow weak, we say, but your strength will return with sleep. In that time, we will not abandon you. When you wake from the fever, you will see us here. You will know us as the trees.
In one more stand-off, Lélek breaks the tension by collapsing and vomiting mud and water. We pull him up, say, we do not bow to death; we face it. Stand here with the wronged on your breath, with their voices whispering your sins; stand here with what pride remains and wait for her decision. Open your palms and join us in saying, Well?