In these last moments of my life, I wish I could understand.
I know these are the last moments, well enough. With my head pressed flat against the stone, I can barely move, and there’s nothing I can do to get away.
Above me, the old man’s bearded face holds a curious expression. I can’t say what it means. He seems almost excited, and yet at the same time disappointed, as though he had wanted to do something else, something which meant a lot to him and killing me is second best.
Not that it matters – I’m dead either way – but in these last moments I do wish I could know at least why this is happening.
I have no illusions about my life, I do not pretend it is important in any way or to anyone. It didn’t last long and it didn’t make any mark on the world, and I don’t think anyone will even notice it go. But it’s still all I have, and I would like to know why it’s ending. I’d say I have a right to know.
I remember well how it all happened. I had lost a fight, not the first time I’d lost, but I didn’t know it would be the last either. If I’d known, perhaps I’d have fought harder, because then I wouldn’t have been trailing despondently round the side of the hill. I’d been hungry and tired and hurting all over, and I’d been looking for something to eat.
I’d seen the pair of them on the hilltop, and not taken much notice at first. You don’t see that many people out here, and they don’t really bother anyone if they do come. But there seemed something different about these two. And, because I was curious, I ventured a little closer to watch.
The bigger of the men was quite old, with flowing grey beard and hair. He had a hand on the shoulder of the younger – a boy, thin and frightened looking – and was pushing him up the slope, shouting. The wind whipped his words away, and, besides, I would not have understood him anyway.
He pushed the young boy to the top of the hill and knocked him to the ground, and that’s when I noticed that the kid’s hands were tied behind him. Still shouting something, the old man took a leather thong from around his waist and tied the boy’s legs together, too. He then left him on the ground and walked away, gathering dried branches and brush from the hillside. Soon he had a respectable pile beside the boy, who was lying still and – I could see it – trembling violently. I heard him say something in a small voice, and the man replied loudly and angrily. The boy didn’t speak again.
By now I was very curious. I was still hungry, of course, but I’d been able to get my mind off it a little, and I’d almost forgotten my pain and the humiliation of my defeat. Obviously, something was going to happen to the boy, and it was unlikely to be very good. I wished I could help him somehow.
Far above, in the sky, a hawk wheeled.
The old man had finished his pile of wood, and now he returned to the boy. Lifting him up bodily – he was a muscular old man and the boy was young and thin – he put him down on a large flat rock, holding him down with one hand. With the other hand he fumbled at his belt and lifted out something which glittered in the noonday sun. Shouting hoarsely, the old man lifted his hand, the thing flashing back the light. I crept a little closer, for a better look.
It was a knife, and the old man was poised to bring it down on the boy’s neck.
Now I know life is brutal and pitiless, and I’ve seen my share of bad things happen. But I’d never come across something like this before, something so pointlessly cruel. I shied back in fright, instinctively. Right next to me was a thorny bush. My horns got tangled up in it, and I could not pull myself free.
Oh, given a little time I could have freed myself, of course. But I was frightened and struggling, and I did not have the time.
Then the hawk swooped downwards.
I can’t say why it swooped. Perhaps it was after some hapless prey animal. Perhaps it wanted to peck away at the corpse of the boy after the old man had killed him. But it flew down low above the pair, and the old man abruptly stopped his ranting and looked up at it. He cocked his head, as if listening to it, but I could hear nothing. The hawk swooped down, looped and flew by again, and then it soared up into the air and away.
There was a long moment of silence. And then the old man turned his head, looking around the mountain slope.
The first thing he saw was me.
Now I’m lying, legs tied together, on the same rock on which the boy had been lying only a short while ago. The boy, whom I’d wished I could save, helped the old man tie me and lift me up here, and then set fire to the pile of wood. I can smell the smoke, which is rubbing my throat raw. I can feel the heat.
The old man looks down at me and raises the knife. It won’t be long now. I shall no longer feel the sweet grass in my mouth, feel the nuzzling of a ewe, hear the bleats of newborn lambs, my children. I don’t know what I did wrong to deserve this. Perhaps, if only I could have asked, the old man could have told me.
Or perhaps he wouldn’t. Again, I see the curious expression in his eyes, and I know now that he would much rather have killed the boy. I, I am second best, my death not even having the meaning of any real value. Well, it was a small and meaningless enough life, and I suppose it shouldn’t matter too much, even to me.
I wish I could close my eyes as I wait for the blow, but I can’t. Try as I might, I can’t stop looking.
High up, past the upraised knife, past the smoke from the fire, a speck in the sky, the hawk is soaring.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2014
|Rembrandt, The angel stopping Abraham from sacrificing Isaac, 1635. Source|