Old Mangles was still there. A shiver ran down my spine as I looked at him.
He was very tall, black where the pigeons hadn't been at him, looming over a small, circular park that was ringed by what had once been a cobblestone road. He stood in the centre of the circle.
One of the original builders in the neighbourhood had been an arms dealer, supplying weapons to both sides of whatever war he could find. Everyone said the statue was meant to represent the Universal Soldier. It was a man with his arms raised, bayoneted rifle in one hand, a grimace of pain/joy/revulsion on his face as he stood on a pile of bodies. His uniform was ragged, muscles glistening through the rents. He was triumphant and terrifying. To me, he had never seemed like an image of anything other than the ugliness of war.
I'd forgotten all about him until I was strolling through my old neighbourhood, trying to get a feel for how it was now and how it related to my childhood. The day was cool, overcast, smelling of dying leaves and car exhaust. All the old maples and oaks were full of colour. Leaves rustled, blowing around the streets. Time side-slipped and I was walking with all my memories, remembering who had lived where, remembering the things we had done and the wildness we had shared, not paying attention to where I was going, just going, rambling, wandering. It seemed natural to end up in the park, the old meeting place, the bench at Old Mangles.
None of us kids had known how he came to be called Old Mangles.
But he had been where we met up after school and on the weekends, an object of great fun and fear to all of us. We used to climb him, run around him, use him for target practise, eggs at Hallowe'en, snowballs all winter. Occasionally he would be hit with a baseball or a football or a hockey puck. He would be used as a threat to keep the younger kids in line - Watch it or we'll send Old Mangles to get you while you're sleeping... Even some parents used him for that. Even my own mother used that line. I had been a sleepwalker and she told me if I didn't stay in my bed at night, Old Mangles would get me. It must have worked. The sleepwalking ceased.
I hadn't been in this old part of town since I graduated high school with a college scholarship. The house where I'd grown up was gone. It had been a three room cottage built between two large rooming houses, demolished back in the seventies. My editor sent me here to do a piece about the evolution of a neighbourhood, about how it gone from high fashion to poverty to sand-blasted, acid-washed middle-class.
I sat down in front of the statue. He was stark against the bleak sky. I felt an odd sense of mutual recognition.
The flood of memories dragged me back to the present and this story I was supposed to be doing which I considered a dull, pointless thing dreamed up by a jaded, pointless editor. It wasn't the kind of writing I'd had in mind when I decided that was what I would do with my life. Mostly, I'd wanted to tell the truth by writing fiction.
I gazed at Old Mangles, faced my memories and felt like a cliche, the wannabe novelist who signs on with a newspaper in order to finance his writing. Well, there weren't any novels in me. I could live with that. But it was getting harder and harder to write about neighbourhood evolution and horticulture shows; to write insipid interviews with actors and mindless reviews of movies. I knew there was more to me than that, I just didn't know how to find it anymore. Once you have a family and develop a need for a certain amount of money, security, whatever, your sentence begins. You step into the cell they offer you. Mortgages, bank loans and credit cards slam the door behind you. Other people's expectations guard the prison.
The situation was getting more and more intolerable. I needed some sort of jailbreak change. But life's demands held me in place. The sense that there was no way out was oppressive. Moods grew black. The joy was gone.
In an ideal world, life doesn't happen like that. In an ideal world, your mate is a perfect complement to yourself and you both work together with whatever skills you have to create a life where you are both happy, content with your progress, two united individuals carving a comfortable life.
Too bad this isn't an ideal world.
How'd I blow it, old buddy? I thought, looking into the eyes of the statue. When I was kid, I never noticed how sad Old Mangles' eyes were. The saddest, most sorrowful eyes I ever saw. My own eyes grew heavy as I stared into them. Huddled in my coat, I slipped into sleep on the park bench...
Consciousness returned slowly.
I was cold and damp, shivering, teeth chattering. I opened my eyes and looked into an early morning sky, the clouds streaked with pink and yellow, shreds of lighter cloud racing beneath the ceiling in a hard wind. Gradually, I grew aware of sounds around me, strange, crunching sounds amidst snarls and sharp, hard barks.
Groaning, I rolled over onto my belly, getting to my knees. As I looked up, I found himself face to face with a vulture, its naked head streaked with gore. Spreading its wings, it eyed me, then hopped away to another potential breakfast. A flock of crows lifted and circled, protesting. A bloody-faced dog growled at me but backed away as I glared at it.
Stunned, I looked around.
I was in a wide, deep, grassy valley. There had been serious fighting here. Recently. The bodies, and partial bodies, of men and horses were strewn from side to side and as far down the valley as you could see. It was a slaughter house floor, the grass churned up by hooves and feet, the soil stained dark red. Armour and weapons glittered where the early sunlight touched them. A soft mist writhed and swirled along the ground like wraiths amongst the dead. Here and there, a horse raised its head weakly, blowing dry air through quivering nostrils, crying in pain. Mortally wounded men groaned and moaned. The scavengers, the vultures and crows and wild dogs and insects, fed.
From my knees, I looked around.
Shakily, I stood up. I was naked, shivering, swaying. I turned in a circle. The dead would number in the thousands. Around the fringes of the battlefield, there were people moving, looting through the corpses and the near-dead. The ground was still damp with blood. This battle had happened yesterday, ending in the early evening. I wiped crusty blood from my forehead and gradually remembered the desperate fighting, the slash and crash of swords, the flights of arrows, the cavalry charges.
Near my feet, a severed head grinned. From the man's braided black hair, feathers woven into the braids, and his gold earrings, I recognised him as an enemy warrior. I did not recognise the valley, but black slate on the hillsides suggested I was in Wales, which had been our destination. I remembered the ambush then, those naked tribesmen charging down the hillsides.
A knot in my belly doubled me over, dropped me to my knees as I vomited, gagging again and again as dry heaves racked my body. Finished, I gasped and leaned back on my heels.
Knees weak, stomach aching, I stood up. I would have to get out of here soon before any of the Welsh came back.
Face dripping, a dog raised its head from a corpse and growled at me.
As I stared at it, it took a few steps towards me, muzzle wrinkled up away from its teeth, hackles raised.
Then it charged.
There was no escape. I was too weak to run and the dog would be on me in seconds. Frantically, I looked around, grabbed a bloodstained, broken sword and swung it as the dog launched itself into the air. The blade slashed deep into the animal's neck. I was sprayed with warm, fresh blood, then bowled over as the dog crashed into me. It smelled strong and foul. I heaved its body away, struggled to my feet, panting, still clutching the sword.
The autumn air was cold and I stripped a dark green cloak from a corpse, wrapping myself in it. Barefoot, I picked my way through the field. I found a man whose feet seemed about my size and claimed his boots, bloody black leather. Then I found an unbroken sword and took that.
Before leaving the battlefield, I surveyed it again, the stench of death strong in the morning air. It would be a long walk home, if I made it at all. Cursing, I picked my way through the corpses, boots slipping in the red mud. I had never wanted to go to war, had never wanted to be soldier but, as the youngest of seven boys, there hadn't been much left over for me when it came to dividing the family estate. And besides, it was expected that the youngest ones would be fighting men...
Something kicked my leg. I looked down at a pair of black boots, then up at a cop who said, "You can't sleep here, sir."
"Sorry, I, uh, I must've just dozed off."
"Move along, please."
I did that, remembering the dream, remembering the feel of it, the smell of it, more real than any dream I'd ever had. It didn't fade as I travelled home but stayed with me like a memory. It was troubling and, somehow, significant.
After a noisy family dinner and an evening in front of the TV, my wife and I retired. Somewhere in that shadowland between awake and asleep, I heard a strange mutter of voices and remembered Old Mangles and saw his lips moving, his eyes wide and glaring. Then I was asleep.
And awake again.
Viking raiders were charging up the strand. The villagers were running away but a few of us, the younger ones who owned weapons, were expected to make a stand, to give the others time to flee to safety. Looking into the faces of those grinning raiders, some of us broke and ran. Only a few of us remained to fight. The Vikings tore through us as if we were children. An axe chopped down on my shoulder, cutting through the muscle, through my collar-bone, stopping just short of my heart. As I fell, the warrior put a foot on my chest to hold me down, wrenched the axe from my body, leaving me there to die. Numb from the pain, I blinked up at the sky where gulls were circling and clouds were tumbling. Blood pumped from my body. I felt very light as my eyelids grew heavy. I gazed at the world through a thin dark slit until my eyes closed completely. Life drifted out of me. I faded into deep darkness...
My eyes flew open as I jerked awake.
I was sitting on the park bench beneath Old Mangles, wearing only an overcoat. I had been sleeping warm and naked beside my wife. Now, I was cold, shivering and stunned. In a panic, I stumbled towards my car, which was parked on the circle road with the lights on and the engine running. Heart pounding, mouth dry, I had to get away from there. I knew that if I looked back, Old Mangles would be staring at me. Hadn't my mother said he would get me if I didn't stop sleepwalking?
I didn't look back.
Trying not to think about it, trying not to think at all, I drovehome and crawled back into bed, weary, the way you get after a surge of adrenalin subsides. Sleepwalking. Damn.
Of course Old Mangles wasn't coming to get me. That was ridiculous, scare tactics laid on by my mother. But I was afraid to go back to sleep, not because of the statue but because sleepwalking itself was scary.
I had to sleep, though. I had a full day of work ahead of me tomorrow.
My editor expected me to turn in the neighbourhood piece.
To forget about waking up by the statue, I began to compose the article in my head. That put me to sleep...
My hands were tied behind my back. Hundreds of people were yelling, cheering, as I stood at the bottom of a flight of wooden steps. I looked up them, fighting the fear, as they rose to a platform and a scaffold. A noose hung there, swaying gently in a summer breeze on a perfect day with a perfect blue sky, not a cloud in sight. Someone prodded me from behind and when I turned to him, I had to look up to meet his eyes, which was when I remembered I was eleven years old.
He prodded me again and said quietly through his black hood, "Come on, now, boy, walk up there on your own. Don't make me drag you. Don't make a fuss and I'll be sure to get the knot right, eh? We'll break your little neck instead of making you strangle."
I started up the steps, knees shaking, muscles watery from the fear. When I reached the top, the crowd cheered even louder. I looked out at the blurry faces, unable to see any individuals as I tried to remember what I had done and why I was here. Then the hangman announced the crime, theft of a leg of lamb, and the sentence, death by hanging. And I remembered when my mother sent me out to steal some food for the family. I had gone to the market and had taken the meat when the barrowman wasn't looking. But someone else had seen me. A chase had ensued through the dirty streets and alleys of east London. Dozens of people had joined in the chase but they wouldn't have caught me if I hadn't tripped in a pothole and skidded headfirst into a lamppost.
Battered and bruised, I was delivered to the peelers.
The court appearance had been brief.
I closed my eyes as the rope was settled around my neck, the knot set just below my ear. Then the trap opened and I felt a rush of air, a hard jolt. There was a loud, painless crack as my neck broke...
I skinned my naked knees on the driveway as I fell beside my car.
I rolled over onto my back, looking up at the cloudy, night sky. Fear and surprise made breathing difficult. I gasped, then cursed, realising I was completely naked.
Back inside, I dressed in jeans and a tee shirt. Throwing on my overcoat, I hurried out again. If I'd taken the time to think about what I was doing, I might have hesitated, but I didn't. It was obvious that, for whatever reason, whenever I went to sleep I would start sleepwalking towards the park and the statue. Being arrested naked in a park in the middle of the night was not an attractive proposition. It would be better to simply go there awake and try to figure out what was so alluring about it. Perhaps there I could figure out why I was sleepwalking again.
Driving, I pondered the nature of the dreams that had been haunting me. A war I hadn't wanted to fight but had been expected to join. A rearguard action that had killed me because I was expected to provide protection for the other villagers. A death by hanging because I had been expected to steal for my poverty-stricken, hungry family. Each dream had been a misadventure brought on by other people's expectations. It was easy to see that the details of my own life were inspiring those dreams. But how did Old Mangles fit in?
Leaving the car on the road, I approached the statue from the front.
Light from a streetlamp gave it a halo and glistened on its shoulders and upraised arms and along the rifle.
I sat down on the bench, looked up at Old Mangles' shadowed face and thought, well?
The statue was silent.
It seemed ridiculous to be sitting there in the middle of the night, thinking that a guano-stained, bronze statue was trying to communicate with me. Obviously, seeing it had merely freed my memories. The memories were inspiring me take stock of my life.
But the air here felt charged with something. I sensed, or imagined, an awareness that originated outside of me... Imagination, I thought, licking my lips, closing my eyes...
Leaves crackled around me. In the distance, a rush of air moved through the trees, approaching rapidly, making the branches creak and groan. As it neared, the sound became a roar. It reached me, reached Old Mangles, in a swirl of leaves and ragged newspapers, then died with a sigh. Hundreds of leaves and shreds of paper settled with quiet, rustling sounds...
My horse stumbled, a musket ball through its chest. It pitched me to the ground in front of a line of pikemen...
The arrow went through my neck and a man grabbed me by the hair, slicing my scalp away before I died...
The spear arched through the sky and I tried to dodge it, miscalculated and felt it enter my back, explode through my guts and nail me to the ground like a bug on a pin...
The executioner made a bad first stroke and hacked into the back of my head, getting his blade stuck in my skull. He wrenched it back and forth to free it before he could take another swing...
The red-coated soldiers were marching towards us in perfect formation, firing as they came. A lucky shot skidded across my cheekbone and smashed into my brain through my left eye...
The wound in my leg was putrid. I knew what death smelled like and what real pain felt like as the surgeon started to saw through my leg above rotted area, cutting through soft flesh, towards the bone. When the artery was severed, it bled me dry before they could cauterise it...
We faced each other in the dusty street and I thought, people just don't do this sort of thing, they just don't face each other and draw their guns and try to kill each other. I was faster than him, but it didn't help. The bullet that killed me came from behind and punched a little hole through the back of my head, tore a larger one through my face...
That's enough, I thought, fighting to open my eyes. I don't want to do this anymore. I don't want to go through this anymore. Let me alone. Let me go.
The policeman raised his heavy gun and pulled the trigger. The bullet thudded into my chest. It smashed a rib and burst my heart and I watched my blood trickle down through the cracks in the cobblestones, raised my eyes to look into the park, realising there was no statue there...
Please let me go, I thought.
Something took my spirit as it rose from my body on the cobblestones. It grabbed me by the throat and stuffed me into the body of a bronze statue that was being delivered to the park...
Let me go, damn it, I thought.
I REMEMBER YOU.
What? I thought.
I REMEMBER YOU. YOU WERE THE ONE THEY CALLED SANDY.
Ya, so? I remember you, too. I hit you in the nose with a snowball once.
I NEVER MINDED. I NEVER MINDED ANY OF YOU. EVEN WHEN YOU WERE AFRAID OF
We weren't afraid of you, I protested.
NOT COUNTING THIS NIGHT, HOW OFTEN WERE YOU HERE AFTER DARK?
CORRECT. BUT NONE OF YOU HAD ANY REASON TO FEAR ME. I WAS PLACED, SORT OF SENTENCED TO BE HERE, AS A PROTECTOR.
HIS NAME IS LONG FORGOTTEN. HE DIED TRYING TO FORGET ALL THE GRIEF HE HAD CAUSED AROUND THE WORLD. THE DAY I DIED, I BECAME PART OF HIS PENANCE. SINCE HE PUT ME HERE, NO ONE HAS EVER DIED IN THIS PARK. NO MURDERS, ROBBERIES, RAPES... NO CRIMES AT ALL HAVE BEEN COMMITTED IN THIS PARK. EVER. AND NONE WILL EVER HAPPEN, AS LONG AS I AM HERE.
This is crazy, I thought, still trying to open my eyes.
YOU ASKED ME A QUESTION YESTERDAY, he thought at me. HAVE I
ANSWERED IT YET?
Those dreams are from you?
MY SOUL IS OLD AND TIRED. THOSE ARE SCENES FROM MY LIVES.
My eyes opened then, all by themselves. Old Mangles still loomed
Scenes from my lives, he had said.
Just thinking it, I asked, Who are you, really?
But he didn't answer the question, not even when I closed my eyes and asked it again.
I sat there for a very long time, taking stock, considering solutions. I tried not to think about the implications of a statue with a soul. Or the implications in believing a statue could have a soul. But I think I understood the point. This life wasn't a test run. It was the real thing. It had to be lived to the fullest. Every last drop of everything good had to be wrung from Time itself and enjoyed completely.
The sky was getting light as I crossed the park towards my car.
Trying not to question my own sanity too deeply, I knew what I had to do that day. It didn't include writing about the evolution of a neighbourhood.
Fraser lives in Burlington, Ontario and can be contacted at: email@example.com
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