I started with traditional paint. Between a certain level of skill on my part and the long-time friendship of a gallery owner, I worked with the promise of gallery space, no small thing in the struggle against the regime. I gave the soldiers bright, cheery colors, their swords a glittering shade of irony. The children they slaughtered that day looked like monsters at first glance. I gave the nearest victims terrifying masks. Behind the masks, they were scared, though. They peeked out, knowing they weren’t the ones who put the masks in place. The plaza was shadowed but recognizable, the well-known facades of the buildings outlined within the dark shades.
I meant it to be clear where the sympathies lay, but it’s a tight trick, convincing viewers to side with monsters over the cartoonish protectors of society. I fear I failed at first. The painting was scarcely noticed. No one called for my head.
I took the painting back to my studio beneath the bridge. With just a few strokes, I changed the face of one of the soldiers to that of our illustrious leader. I added one more child, her mask broken at our leader’s feet while she begged for mercy.
The gallery is closed, now. Soldiers guard the doors, and the sale of artists’ paints is restricted. Canvas has become as precious and illicit as opium.
When the furor over the painting faded too much for my liking, I decided to try songwriting. My voice is a rough growl, but I know something of chord changes and can string words together. I wrote a song and sang it in the streets. A song about children and death, like all good songs. I improvised the verses, trying to vary which of our leaders I implicated in our communal suffering. For my grand scheme, I posted handbills all over the city, mentioning the song, inviting people back to that same infamous plaza for a performance.
For the event I wore my most revolutionary clothing, a bohemian hodgepodge of anger and hostility. I snarled the words out; I raved in full public view. The few people who showed up for the performance booed me out of the plaza.
So I brought the song to a friend, and she sang it as a sweet lullaby, making each note pure and each word perfectly articulated. I wondered where the anger was. But it was there, of course. My friend didn’t need to put it in her singing, because the anger was all around, throughout the city. She sang in the plaza itself and among the nearby shops and diners, her sweet voice piercing the noises of the crowds. Everyone who heard the song brought to it their own anger.
A mob formed and fought and added their numbers to the massacred, because the soldiers and politicos possessed anger, too, and couldn’t let someone else’s anger take command.
My friend is now imprisoned. Without me.
The night after her arrest I made my way into the plaza, smuggling in a bag of tools. There are two massive pillars there, monuments to some history I can’t recall. Bare stone, though, that was what drew me to them. The first night I cut many tentative lines into the face of each, though I daresay the lines resembled nothing by morning.
By the second night, the designs were fixed in my head, and I worked more quickly. I chiseled harsh lines into one pillar, softer curves into the other. They looked, at that point, like fire and water, anger and calm.
The next day I sat in the plaza and watched. Several streets cross there, and the crowds are always plentiful. Even the blood of history can’t stop people from passing through. The number of people who never so much as glanced at the pillars shocked me. Were so many of us truly that unaware? Have I ever been so unaware? I willed them to look, to see.
The soldiers saw. City officials came to examine the damage, as I’m sure they called it. They poked at the lines, looked around the plaza for the culprit. They didn’t suspect me, dressed beyond my years, an old man out for the sunshine on my feeble body.
More people noticed the pillars, then, drawn by the sight of so many officials. Passersby began to speak of the art—or vandalism, depending how they saw it.
That night the soldiers watched the plaza more closely. They waited for me to carve some more. Only just before dawn, as the early risers were already trudging to their jobs, did I make my way to the pillars. Leaning against the stone, as if to catch my breath, I managed a surreptitious slash on the water pillar before heading on.
Throughout the day I added new lines to the carvings when I could, when the crowds were enough to give me some cover, the officials over-worked and distracted. Each time I disguised myself and my actions. The grocer pausing to adjust his armload of goods? Me. The young mother carefully positioning her infant’s pram in the pillar’s shade. The messenger boy stopping to pick up a stack of papers that had fallen. The banker taking a post-lunch constitutional. All me.
True carving requires more time and care than was possible, the rock stubborn and the tools delicate. I made do, though, and gave the carvings the rough grace of a master’s sketches. Over the course of ten days, the lines took full form as the leader and the child from my earlier painting.
The regime covered the pillars in swaths of dark cloth, which only serve to remind people of what lies beneath. Where the pillars before had been ignored, now everyone looks at them in passing, and no one can fail to recall the reason for the dark shrouds; no one can forget the regime’s atrocities.
I wrote a poem. I daresay it was not the greatest poem ever written in our city’s hybrid dialect, but it was our own dialect. That was key. None of the official language imposed on us by our rulers and the random accidents of history. I used the familiar slang and bastardized my own new words according to our city’s patterns, making the poem entirely of our home. Not of city officials or soldiers, nor cruel leaders, nor any outside sense of propriety.
The poem was an ode, of sorts, to the blood-stained plaza, a celebration of its cobbles and a lament for an imagined family of monkeys killed by a passing wagon wheel. The wheel ends up punished, discarded in a distant field. Monkeys from all around come and take over the city.
I handed out the poem in the streets. I printed handbills and posted them on walls. I stood on a hidden balcony of the cathedral’s steeple and shouted the words into the streets.
When the opening line of the poem was banned, people began quoting other lines to each other at random. I can cross the city and hear nearly every line I wrote, quoted back to me. All but the first line, which I speak aloud to myself whenever I return to my studio.
I danced through the streets naked. Well, not entirely naked, but unclothed, wearing only the straps and shackles of a slave. My dance was slow, a halting waltz, a stumbling parody. I crossed from one side of the city to another. The next day I crossed again, intersecting the earlier route at the plaza.
Each day I chose a new route: some that twisted in kinking curls; others that knifed straight across. My dance could take me all day or only a single hour. Each route, though, took me through the plaza.
I refused to speak. People questioned, shouted at me as they covered their children’s eyes, offered me lewd suggestions. Our honored officers tried to accost me, but I danced from their grasp, and fearful of appearing silly, they didn’t pursue me.
Soon others danced with me, a parade of rag-wearing indigents and revolutionaries. Finally, our leader ordered our arrest, and we ceased our dances, joining once again our clothed comrades. The dance is over, but not truly suppressed.
The facades of power began to crumble. I gathered the evidence of this, images of the regime’s decline. I found a discarded police badge washed up beneath my bridge. From a lamppost I tore down two papers, one announcing a new edict and a second, subsequent one that had been placed beside the first, a notice that immediately rescinded the edict after public outcry. I gathered what small weapons I could find, weapons that might have come from anywhere but certainly called to mind those of our soldiers. At first I was unsure what to do with these symbols.
Only when the debris covered every bit of free space in my studio did I come up with a plan for using it all.
I had an artist friend who had worked in collage. She’d stopped, opened a cloth-dying shop when the city’s officials started taking more interest in her work, but she gave me the recipe for the cement she’d used. I tweaked the ingredients, adding some luster and gloss to what had been unobtrusive. Then I took the cement and debris out to the plaza, piled high in a child’s wagon I had salvaged. The guards no longer bothered to watch the area so closely, once they’d covered the pillars with cloth.
On my way, I broke a chunk of the grand old courthouse off one corner of the building and laid it in my wagon. I had to walk backwards and strain to bring the wagon with me, but at last I arrived. I started with the piece of the courthouse as my base. Then using the cement mixture, I glued the other debris onto the base: the badge, the weapons, the handbills, old stationary, devalued currency, the characteristic hat of a city tax collector, its brim jutting out with a sense of fatalistic nostalgia.
I didn’t get far in my labor. Crumbling though the regime might be, that only made it cling more tightly to its rigid rules. The soldiers came, and this time I had no disguise, no partner to take the blame, and no dance to shame them. I want to say I stood defiant before my creation as they dragged me off, but the truth is that I crumbled beneath the first blow and felt nothing after the fourth. Now I am imprisoned, as I always imagined I would be.
Imagining prison and experiencing it are not the same.
I toyed with the mud in the corners of our communal cell, but I couldn’t turn it into art. I tried to picture the cobwebs as art, revolutionary and incendiary, but the regime didn’t fall and the jail didn’t burn.
It took the art of the other prisoners to bring me back from despair. Stories. Tales told in the dark—it was always dark in our cells—and whispered where no guards could hear. Soon I joined in with my own stories to add to theirs, tales of the regime’s worst atrocities, pleasant memories of acts of protest and anger. Most of all we reminded ourselves of the plaza, of what the regime had done there and what it meant to us, even there in prison. We were sure, or at least I was, that our words would bring about the overthrow of our leader simply by their sounds and rhythms. The resonance of stories, told and heard and imagined, must send out the shock waves of change.
When it did not collapse, our certainty dissolved. Stories, what were they? Mere fizzle in a world of violence. Our voices grew husky and ragged.
Slowly the regime did fall into ruin. We were not yet free, but the rumors came to us, and we told stories of the days to come, of the just society we would build on top of the ashes. We crafted our future out of words, and in those stories, words like regime and plaza and atrocity only existed in the past tense and conditional future, a subjunctive that must never be. Our stories today ensure that the conditional never returns to present usage. It is, admittedly, an unwieldy language, one forever tipping into the past, a frail language built from the shards of events we wish had never happened. I cannot say if it will last, but I tell stories as if it will. By paint and song, carving and poem, dance and sculpture and story we craft, however briefly, today’s city-that-is-not-a-regime.
Daniel Ausema officially denies any involvement in overthrowing regimes. He has, however, been a journalist and alternative educator and is now a stay-at-home dad, any of which might qualify. His work has appeared in Daily Science Fiction, Penumbra, and Three-Lobed Burning Eye, among many others, and he is the creator of the Spire City serial fiction project from Musa Publishing. He lives in Colorado, at the foot of the mountains.