by Tom McMullan
They told me it was in the papers. They told me it was shouted from the rooftops, that there were articles, satirical drawings, reports, recipes, measurements, statistics, sizes, locations, books, magazines, plays, engravings, flags, commemorative plaques, designer sheets and symphonies. I was visited by the queen, the pope, the prime minister, philosophers, writers, gravediggers and the deceased. There were pictures of me in every country, on every ship, in every church and under every stone. My name was gold and it was dust. All this I was told.
I was told that my crime was the worst. I was a monster, worse than Grendel or Pazuzu. I was a creature of claw and scale. A river of ants would flow from my lips. A thick torrent would consume the skin of my enemies. I could control the sky, the trees and the sea. I was the devil himself, come to destroy the land, to bring about the final reckoning.
I was to be fed to a lion. I was shown a picture. A magnificent beast. Creeping through the night. Each stride lain down like a swift slice to the leaves and dirt. Eyes consuming every drop of light, ripping into the sound of the birds with a serrated knife. The thick air meeting his open mouth, screaming as it’s pulled inside, beyond the row of bone-white teeth and into a dead wet end.
Sat alone, deep underground. No more than a quivering lump of pale white flesh. I remember the lion. My fingers move against the cold stone and if I strain my ears I can hear the faint sound of wind, blowing softly through the cracks of the cell. But I can’t see a thing. Not a thing.
The stadium was planned. There would be helicopters in the sky and police in the crowd. Some called for my legs to be broken, smashed by a blunt hammer until the bones shattered inside my skin. There were those that wished for my eyes to be cut, sliced with a razor and scooped from my skull. They wanted my arms pulled from my sockets, my chest shot, my fingers boiled and my penis burnt.
The tickets sold out. It was a time of progression. The world had its eyes on the city; an example of economic and cultural superiority, of truly modern architectural planning. The designs were hailed as forward thinking. Transport links were increased, the infrastructure reworked. The surrounding area became a hotspot for business expansion. The mouth was open wide and the teeth were on show.
I try to scream but all that comes out is hot air and saliva. I haven’t stood up for years; my ankles have grown into stone.
A lion was chosen from a televised series of auditions. He became a celebrity. He was paid to endorse food products. He came to see me. I had never seen a lion before. He wore a shirt and told me it wasn’t personal, that he didn’t want to seem inhuman. I nodded and shook his paw.
News spread of an execution on the continent. A mass murderer was fed to a bear. He was photogenic; hairy, broad, a hit with the ladies. He released his own perfume, had an affair with a politician and published an autobiography. His claws were like knives and his teeth could cut the moon. The murderer died after seven hours of prolonged mutilation, a real crowd-pleaser. It was spoken of for weeks.
My arms have become string. I rarely lift them. Sometimes I stretch as far as I can, up into the dark, and try to feel the soft breath of a waiting figure. Or a gentle bird above my head; its hard beak like a nail in the stone wall.
The lion came back a year later. Tears in his eyes. He spoke a lot and I listened to everything he said. I think he had been drinking. His wife was pregnant and he was afraid. That he didn’t know who to talk to. He pulled out a tissue and wiped his cheek. I didn’t say anything; they cut out my tongue. His paws were golden. He let me touch them. I smiled and he cried again.
Work on the stadium had been slowed due to a miscalculation of funding. The dates had to be pushed back. No-one noticed. It had been too long. The debates had ceased. Every so often one of the guards might punch my broken nose, but it was more out of routine than anything. After a while I was an embarrassment; like a coffee stain or a forgotten relative.
When I sleep I dream of a mouth, raised above the city, its tongue like a wire, touching the ground, and people climb up, masses of legs and faces, all moving upwards. Their hands clasped around the soft red muscle, creeping up, away from the buildings and into the throat. The city left silent as wet lips smile over empty houses and forgotten parks.
The lion came again. He was wasting away. His wife had left him, taking full custody of the child. There was a messy divorce. There were pictures of him on every street-corner. She had written an article about their relationship; all the details, all the ups and downs. I held his paw. He wept into my side. I could feel the tears run down my skin, dripping into a puddle around my big toe. I pressed my hands into his fur; it felt good against my fingertips. I wanted to dive into his mane, to swim in the golden hair and wrap my body in the soft tender streams. I wanted to tell him how beautiful it felt, but I could only slide a guttural sound out of my torn throat.
More years passed. They forgot details of my crime. The records had been lost. I changed from the devil to a ghost; no-one remembered my name. I was whispered about in school-yards, church-halls, and sewing-circles. They would speak about me as if I were an ancient beast; a residue of the uncivilised past. The stadium was complete but nothing happened. It was left unlit, the surrounding area soon degraded, there was an increase in murders and muggings. The shops were all shut. The streets full of rubble. Soon the guards stopped visiting me. I was slid food through a hatch, sometimes I saw a hand, but most of the time I just heard footsteps, the tray entering and footsteps once more.
The city left empty, the mouth resting above like a thick red sun. Millions of television screens below; stood on two legs, walking between houses and shouting for action. The lips part slowly; a black hole in the sky.
I was told that the lion had broken down. He had lost sponsorship from the stadium. He tried to become an actor, but couldn’t get work. He was involved in a violent incident on a train from London Bridge. He spent a week in jail. He couldn’t go on. He spent his days walking around the city with a suitcase, but it was only full of paperclips and rotten apples. I heard he left weeping into the night, carrying a knife.
The open mouth sounds like a roar, slicing through the backbone, blowing people down to the ground. A tonality older than language; a pure sound, inhuman cinders, left from the burning. It spreads its hands over the city and howls in the dark.
On the headline news it was announced that an old celebrity who had fallen on hard times was involved in a murder. There was uproar. The public wouldn’t stand for it. They saw the state of the city and blamed it on him. The lion was caught up in the escalating sense of disquiet and anxiety. He was an animal. He was a monster. Something had to be done. It was revealed in the papers that this creature was once affiliated with the stadium; the eye-sore, the embarrassment, the waste of money.
An animal sound, blasted out from the lips, over every man, woman and child. Full of hair and teeth, they stand on all fours and shake their fists at the sun.
The last I heard, the lion was tied to a stake in the ground. A firing squad was instructed to fill him full of bullets until there was more metal than meat. No-one came to watch; miles and miles of seats lay empty. The strips of skin and bone were scooped into a bag and thrown in the river. The stadium was demolished; forgotten. The area renovated. They built new accommodation.
Now I can’t see anything, nothing at all. I’ve forgotten how big the room is, it’s all black. I just sit in this little patch and try not to move.