They starved him, withered the detainee down to one hot breath under a cloth hood. He whimpered, then confessed a lie even he needed to believe, if only to see the bucket of excrement, the scowl of a guard, anything but nothing. Yes, I delivered the letter. No, I did not read it. Yes and no over and again like a cut reopened. “That’s better,” a guard said, “now we’re getting somewhere.”
It went on like this for weeks.
In delirium the detainee babbled about the woman he loved, how he wooed her over the telephone. He called daily and hoped each entreaty would grind the woman down to the dust of yes. He rained and hailed and shined. He exhaled and let every wind inside him blow and blow over the statue of no. Finally, she toppled. He told a guard about the pigeons outside their favorite café, their absurd brown-headed bobbing, the shit he bent down in to propose months later, but the conversation always came back to that letter the detainee didn’t even know existed.
After two months a soldier entered the detainee’s cell in the middle of the night. “Phone call,” he said. The detainee crept slowly, moving like a child afraid of broken glass. The soldier pressed an empty tin can against the man’s cracked lips then ordered him to speak. The man cried and cried and asked May I go home now please and the soldier moved the can up to the detainee’s right ear and someone on the other end whispered “no” and the no traveled the length of the string like a bullet into the sobbing man’s ear.
Yes, no. Yes, no. Like a light switch flicked on and off. Days and nights gone in minutes. The detainee tried to pass the time by singing popular songs from his childhood, but nothing came out in tune. Sometimes he thought his brain was being worn down by sand, rubbed smooth of memories. He opened his mouth and released static, the gargle of pigeons. He choked out the name of a woman like a petition to the void.
“Well, what did she say?” a voice asked through the string of a tin can, and the detainee wailed into the hood yes and no ring, yes and no witnesses, yes no yes no like marching in place and never reaching the altar.
The mannequin had lain in the middle of the village for as long as anyone could remember. At first the children were allowed to play with it, to pose its long white limbs in absurd ways: arms outstretched, legs splayed. Often a child would sneak a colorful accessory from a parent’s closet. For weeks it wore a purple boa, a wide-brimmed hat with lime-green feathers, and the children danced around it, shout-singing.
Then one morning a young girl discovered a mask on its face. Now the mannequin, featureless before, looked like an elder of the village, vaguely disappointed and weary. No one sang. No one danced. The children were scolded and told to remove the boa and hat. Men and women lumbered in with rags to wipe it clean. He shouldn’t be naked, someone muttered, so someone donated a flannel shirt. A woman sent along a pair of black work boots. Soon, the mannequin looked like the rest of the adults so the adults brought what they thought he would like: a chair to sit in, a nightstand with a thick book about famous battles.
When one of the children noticed the mannequin wasn’t breathing, the adults began to weep. They carefully removed the mask. They said a few words about the elder’s calm presence, his love of history. They spoke highly of his work ethic, dying as he did with his boots on. Before the children could sing again, another mask was placed on the mannequin. This, the adults reasoned, was to show death where to go next. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief; it wasn’t their face yet. They looked into the eyes of the mask as if looking at a friend for the last time.
Michael Schmeltzer is the author of Elegy/Elk River, winner of the Floating Bridge Press Chapbook Award. His honors include numerous Pushcart Prize nominations, the Gulf Stream Award for Poetry, and the Blue Earth Review’s Flash Fiction Prize. He has been a finalist for the Four Way Books Intro and Levis Prizes, Zone 3 Press First Book Prize, as well as the OSU Press/The Journal Award in Poetry. He helps edit A River & Sound Review and has been published in PANK, Rattle, Brevity’s Blog, and Mid-American Review, among others.
Photo by Horia Varlan