I ask myself, “Who is Mother Worser”? And time and time again I answer: “I don’t know.” Yet I can say this of her— she’s worse than worse and better than worst, and, of course she has tales to tell—read from the worn pages of a weighty tome titled: “The Book of Inverted Tragedies”.
When we consider a famous tragedy, take Shakespeare’s “The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark,” for instance, we know that Hamlet is a dead man walking, whose death is simply a matter of “how”. The word “tragedy” implies death, but inverted tragedy, on the other hand, implies life. Tragic life, the travesties of which (these are numerous) make death seem a blessing by comparison and the hero’s fall is un-catastrophic. Imagine if Hamlet had continued living, now that would have been a tragedy—a never ending continuation of our hero grunting and sweating through the whips and scorns of time under a weary life— hence an inverted tragedy.
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The fighting had ground to a halt, and the war died down.
“I shot you!” shouted Collin. “I shot you! You’re dead!”
“Nah uh!” Sean cried back at Collin, who now aimed the business end of his broomstick at Sean once again and fired: “RAT-TAT-TAT-TAT-TAT!”Sean hoisted his length of dirty PVC pipe onto his right shoulder and dropped onto his left knee and dialed the target-locking mechanism on the side: “Beep-Boop-Baap-Boop!”
“I shot you, Sean!” Collin yelled again. “You’re supposed to die!”
“Nah uh!” Sean said. “You missed!”
Sidney sighed. “Here we go again,” She said and dropped the length of cindered aluminum that had once been a piece of post holding upright the old chain-link fence surrounding the playground and then started walking away.
Troy threw his old hose nozzle across the battle field barely missing Phillip’s head. Phillip screamed: “Jerk!”
To Sidney, Phillip called: “Where are you going?”
“As far away from those two idiots as possible,” she answered.
“Wait! I’m coming with you,” Phillip ran after her.
“See what you did!” Collin scolded.
“I didn’t do nothing!”
“Everybody quit because of you!”
“Come on, y’all,” Phillip beckoned. “It’s a stupid game anyway.
Collin, along with Sean, followed Phillip and Sidney, and dragged his pouting lip across the hardpan.
To the youth a playground seems endless. It is a world that encapsulates them so that if they were to walk far enough in one direction, it seemed, they would end right back where they’d started—or fall completely off the edge down into oblivion. The equipment plotted about jutted from their microcosm like weathered sarcophagi, with the rust and wear of ages passed, memorializing such an age that felt the warm touch of the other children who once played upon them—the ones who had now already grown up: the lucky ones (or unlucky; it’s all relative, really)—they passed the monkey bars. The swing set. The slide. The seesaw. The carousel. The rocking horses. All have seen better days. All, has seen better days.
Phillip sprinted and tagged Sidney with a playful clap against the back of her shoulders, “TAG! YOU’RE IT!” and darted away, scaling up the side of the jungle gym, giggling guiltily all the way to the top. He looked down at her. She had not given chase, only continued moping deliberately. “Sidney?”
“I’m not playing,” she said. She moseyed pass Philip and the jungle gym not far onward to a tiny area where a number of waist-high poles had been stabbed into the ground. Skewered on the tips of each was its own stuffed animal. The Teddy bear, disemboweled of the fluffy cotton that once had filled-out its body stuck on it, utterly emaciated, cast dead eyes with the bronze sunlight wrought on their scuffed surfaces. Kneeling before them, the little girl saw her reflection. “Look, Casey.” She said, taking from the pocket of her dress a lovely forget-me-not. “I found this for you.” She set it meticulously at the base of the pole atop the loose soil.
“He can’t hear you,” Philip shouted.
“I know,” she replied. “But I like to pretend he’s alive.”
“Well, he’s not.”
When the electronic school bell chimed as it had daily for as long as the kids had been there and long before, the sound reported stoically until midway through when it whirred sickly and disgustedly from its long-lived clarity into a dying, dissonant note… and then silenced abruptly. Forever.
“Hey!” Troy ran shouting from the direction of the cafeteria. They all looked and saw him dashing. “I caught a Spade! I caught a Spade!” When he halted himself by the other four he slid, kicking up a cloud of dust that the hot breeze carried away, his hands on his knees, his ribcage bellowing in and out. “I caught… I caught…”
“We heard you already, Troy,” Sidney said.
“Yea,” Collin agreed. “Besides, we’re not playing anymore. Thanks to Sean.”
“I’M SERIOUS!” Troy yelled. “Y’all have to come see this.”
“You’re lying,” Philip said, but Troy had already started back in the direction from which he had come. “Hey, where are you going?”
Troy didn’t answer. He only kept moving.
“He’s lying—hey, now where are you going?” to Sidney, who followed.
Next went Sean. Then Collin. And finally, Phillip.
They followed Troy to the loading dock of the cafeteria, where many other recesses were spent protecting the neat milk truck fort from enemy encroachment. The foul smell of sour milk permeated intensely inside, but the children enjoyed playing in it all the same. Troy led them between the truck and the elevated platform running along the side of it. “Look,” he said. There on the ground, a blood trail meandered through the tiny space.
At the red trail’s end the kids stood before the Spade, gaping in disbelief at the discovery.
“Is he dead?” Collin asked.
“Of course he is,” Phillip answered. “ Didn’t you see all the blood?”
“No, he was still alive when I last saw him.” Troy said.
The Spade’s eyes jerked open. They were horribly red and caked with mud. He saw the children looking down at him when agony flared trough him as he regained full consciousness. Clenching his teeth and grasping desperately at the hole in his gut, trying to keep his insides inside him, he moaned hopelessly as the children pointed and laughed at him. “Em ratam,” he pleaded, barely louder than a whisper.
“Speak English, dirty Spade!” they all teased.
“Ahbehkon!” the Spade said. And again muttered the same Spadish expression, which was foreign and meaningless to the merry children—detestable: “Em ratam! Em ratam! Em ratam!”
“What do you think he’s saying?” Phillip asked.
“Who cares?” Answered Collin, who pushed passed his playmates to confront the dying Spade. A gleam touched Collin’s eye and a smile formed at the corners of his mouth. “Look at his decorations! He must be an officer,” he said, eyeing the three silver stars pinned to the lapel of his tattered, blood-stained uniform. “I think three stars means he is a Captain.”
“How would you know that?” Sean questioned doubtfully. “You’re making it up.”
“Shut up, Sean!” Collin.
“Ewe!” Sidney gasped, pointing the rest of their attentions back toward the Spade, who had removed his hands from their securing places in front his all but fatal wound. She saw the red-soaked lumps of displaced gore that festered there and reacted as a skittish little girl might when a pesky boy sneaks a wart frog unto her shoulder. The boys poised themselves as if to seem impressively indifferent to the awesome sight; impressive to Sidney, they each hoped subconsciously, especially Phillip. His mangled hands worked laboriously in unison beneath his overcoat until finally he drew from underneath it a silver, heavy tool, which he sandwiched between each of his palms like a pincer. He offered the object to Collin and, the grave countenance of agony never leaving receding, repeated: “Ahbehkon, em ratam, ahbehkon.”
Collin stepped forward to inspect the offering and recoiled. The thumb and index fingers of each hand had been severed.
“What is it?” Troy asked.
Collin ignored him and approached again, getting closer than before, and for the first time that day the wind whipping through the corridor between the platform and the milk truck held its breath and allowed the weary stench of death to choose its own way through the atmosphere. The alkaline rot swarmed into Collin’s nostrils and eyes, gagging and burning. “My God!” Collin whispered as he covered his face with his hand.
“It’s a gun!” Collin exclaimed. At this, his friends’ exultations matched his. He snatched it away and held as if he were prepared to fire, stared down the sight, and appreciated the weight of the weapon in his hands. “Wow!” he said beneath his breath.
“I want to see it!” Sean whined.
“Be quiet!” Collin said. They did. And they all focused again on the Spade who continued repeating his eerie mantra. The boy tuned to the gun’s heavy, cold weight in his hand and finally understood beyond all doubt what em ratam must mean, and the silence of his compatriots seemed to suggest that they all knew.
“Plug your ears,” Collin warned, looking back at them. “The echo.”
Troy covered his ears. Phillip tuned his head away and lodged his index fingers deep into the canals. Sidney balled into a fetal position and covered her head with her arms and wept quietly. Sean did nothing, only prepared for the unadulterated crash of the kill-shot.
Collin turned to the Spade and spat on him. “Ready for what’s coming, you lousy Spade?”
“Ahbehkon,” he replied.
The boy chambered a round, relishing the smooth action of the machine. Stepping intimately close to the Spade, his stench welled up again, but this time Collin welcomed it. “See you in hell!” he said and aimed the business in of the pistol toward the Spade and fired: RAT! TAT! TAT! TAT! TAT! TAT!
Each of their ears rang. Gun smoke floated on the still air. As their senses returned, they looked shyly at the aftermath and Collin, who stood cackling at the Spade.
Dazed, or perhaps believing that he had finally died, involuntarily muttered the mantra, again and again: ”Em ratam!”
“How can you miss with five shots from point blank, Collin?”
Collin smirked and tossed the empty gun to Sean and said: “No mercy for dirty Spades.”
They all joined for a laugh as they left the loading bay and the Spade.
As soon as the children returned to the playground, the Squall of air raid sirens rang for miles. The stampedes of infantrymen thundered in the distance. The rattling discourse of machine gun fire laid their deadly arguments out upon the air. Jets rained down bombs over the land as they sonic boomed overhead. Firestorms flashed sporadically against the west horizon. The fighting had resumed. The war had resurrected around them.
The children fled from the playground and went back from where they had come, into the fallout bunker beneath the ruins of the old school house.