BYWAY by Noa Magen (grade 12)

The old man lay in his bed. His chest rose and fell slowly, growing more and more slow with each wheezy breath that shook his frail body ever so gently. His sheets were ragged and dirtied and moth-eaten, as was he. The rough cloths were stained with old blood, old spit, and old booze. They piled on him in uneven arrangements, every shroud a slightly different shade of various faded dyes. Some had ragged tassels, a number of which had been ripped away from the body of their covering with time, whose strings were damp and frayed. The thin fiber of a certain tassel hung by the old man’s finger. It swayed slightly in the wind of the cracked window, stroking the finger softly again and again as it swung limply from side to side. The finger was thick and ruddy, its calloused skin was numbed by labor of the past and cold of the present, spotted with age. The nail was dense and blue around the edges, discoloured throughout, and flaking at the tips. His face was heavy and fat. The wrinkles were set deep into his flesh, displaying a design not unlike a wave as it reaches the shore, worn and many layered, cascading down his face. His eyes, red and lined with gunk, waded in their own liquids which seeped out of their corners steadily. The tears ran along the creases of his face in the zig zag pattern of its meandering path, sluggishly covering his cheeks and running down his neck in rotund droplets. His eyelids fluttered closed, short, dark eyelashes batting against each other stupidly. He attempted, uselessly, to keep them open. Each time he pried them apart, the sludge separated into thin strands which broke and retreated into the mass on either lid. The old man did this once, and then another time, and then another time still, struggling, raging against his death, thundering against his final moments.

The man lay now in a different place, his head and stomach pressed against the cold, wet ground. The grass upon which he had woken was long and unkempt. Each strand was accustomed to shining in the warm light of the day, gold and green intertwined in each blade, collectively forming rolling waves which stretched out beyond the farthermost point the eye could see. Each strand would stand a soldier of a battalion, lanky and fragile as all soldiers are. Now, however, they stood less gloriously, the night having depressed their lengths and lowered them to the earth. The grass was damp now, damp with dew, and the dew moistened the young man’s face. His head flattened the turf on which it was resting. The rest of his body seemed alien to him, though not quite as alien as his surroundings. His dry lips were parted, parched skin peeling as they begged for water silently. A lowly trickle of water parted the dark and newly submissive blades of the lea like a snake. It was so thin and insignificant in the greater scheme of the complex world whose factories hummed on unawares that this dribble of accumulated moist would save a man’s life. It approached him leisurely in the fading light of dusk, and his muddled mind grew excitable as it saw its salvation. The pearly serpent twisted and became thicker as it hoarded what droplets it encountered. It glistened now in the dull gleam of twilight, mauve on silver, in the day’s fading luster, on the eve of the man’s comrades’ deaths, though he had not yet been made aware of this.

He heard the high clinks of a hammer hitting nail. He heard the grinding sound of a saw cutting into wood. He heard the crackling of the fire sending waves of heat onto his already sweat drenched body. He heard the rasp of a chair being carved into existence. He tasted the war and perspiration and musty stench of the room on his lips. He smelled the sawdust which covered the floor and the rusting tools being worked by the rusting men. He felt the tired, monotonous, rhythmic tune of the place, void of speech, a factory of fraudulent manhood. In its vacuous patterns, the shop was easy to tune out. He stood on his raw, aching feet, which throbbed and seemed to hum a jaded rhythm of their own. His rough tongue brushed the roof of his mouth back and forth, numbing it gradually. He would abrade it for hours until he could no longer feel either, at which point he would stop, awaiting the return of sensation, and begin the process once more. His mouth began to tingle and sting as if little eruptions were bringing it back from the dead. He moved the pudgy muscle on his teeth, beginning to detect each corrugated bone. A mouse darted out of a small hole in the thin wall and scurried across the floor, narrowly avoiding many a raised shoe and swung mallet until it was eradicated by a stout hobnail. The cracked edges of the man’s mouth twitched upwards, then frowned.

The man was seated now on the cheap plastic bench of the local children’s playground. The bench was a revolting shade of bright teal, rough with little bumps to prevent the children’s skin from adhering to it when they would, inevitably, fall upon it, so that their skin would not tear and bleed. The bench was built so that the children would not scream and cry, so that their parents would not have to soothe them and tend to their injuries, so that they would not have to hear their shrieks and hold their own heads and shout from the pain of their lingering hangovers which the teal only aggravated. The man rubbed his thumb on this surface and stuck his grey feet further into the cold, wet sand. His shabby sandals, made of flat strips of patterned rope which he had broken in so long ago, lay nearby. Grains of sand pooled in the imprint of his heel and became entrenched in the ridges of the shoe’s straps. He pictured the return to his home, where his wife would shout at him for bringing in the “mounds and mounds of filth” and screech like the children, his child, in the playground. He looked up and saw the bright, tawdry colours of the playground equipment. He looked out at his own offspring, the only offspring in the whole of the park. A child with golden locks and a fat, heavy face fell and began to sob as she attempted to remove the sand from her mouth, sticking out her little red tongue and wiping it frantically with her little red hands. The man’s gaze continued onto the swings, which seemed to be the only honest thing in the place. It swung, drab and grey and covered in rust, from one side to the other over and over again with a constant tune, a grating, melodic scrape propelled by the howling wind of late November. They were alone under the grey sky, utterly bleak and pallid, alone save the feeble, nondescript trees, having been stripped of all pride with their vibrant leaves long gone,  and the fake, gaudy jungle gyms, under the flat, ashen clouds so far above them: alone, without a soul as witness.

Thin sheets of linen billowed lightly in the wind of the outdoors. The gust was let into the room through the large sash window, propped open. The window was painted white, as white as his bedding. The paint cracked and peeled into fragile curls, like wispy, bleached cinnamon sticks. On the ledge of the windowsill sat a poised matte blue vase, and in it a single flower. On its inside, concealed to its owner, the vase had a layer of carefully building water stains, lines which made perfect, delicate circles of pale grey around the vessel’s body. A sliver of paint collapsed into the bottle’s murky waters. The water was lukewarm, though cooler on the side facing the breeze, where the glass was chilled. The flower, wilted and barren, hung limply over the lip of the vase, its petals hanging loosely and ashen and its stem dangling into its stale drink. The stem could faintly taste with some nostalgia the bitter taste of alcoholic residue which the old flask held when it was younger. If it could have, it would have remarked with some dismay that that would have made refreshment much more pleasing. The three remaining petals dangle despondently with clear view of their fellows’ fates. In youth they were smooth and strong and elegant. They were cream coloured, tinted with a dainty shade of rose in their past, for which they had no affection, now lusterless and bruised brown around their edges. Memories of days gone by are never more than caustic gestures of the present’s qualms. A petal tumbled onto the ledge’s dusty surface, and died.

And then the man was no more.  

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