Oak

The first arrow took a splinter of bone from the rib; the wound swelled, thickening with pus. The second provoked a spasm of the back. To those hearing the reports later, the imagination was kindled by the hope that such a pose, navel pining for the torturer’s aim, chest and groin arcing helplessly frontwards, represented defiance (“exquisite”) or seduction (“agonized”). But such a view was wrong, the thrust involuntary, the man’s consciousness vacant. Even his instincts for faith and desire were eradicated. Some pagan deity, resentful that the arrow, sacred to his will, had become a tool for transfixing the monotony of monotheism in history, intervened. Moreover, he loathed the confusion of the scene as it would be retold: the undeniable beauty of the suffering being mistaken, in the eyes of moist-eyed witnesses, bystanders, and torturers alike, for as grotesque an ideal as the beauty of suffering.

The arrows happened, by coincidence and exigency, to have been winnowed from a broken branch of oak. In holds of ships they travelled the circumference of the great central sea, patiently. Then they meandered into a stock of munitions. Now, grazing the hot, arid air, they fulfilled purpose, coming into their form as they entered the man’s flesh. The god had long shuddered at putrescence. He hated likewise, with a spleen that would even erupt amidst the most serenely orgiastic feasts, to think of anything coming to an end, be it purpose or animation. Here, then, are two more reasons for his doing what he did; there were four, equally good, in total.

Flourishing his hand, he brought about a change. But sudden and subtle in his cunning, he did not rest content with an alteration in the composition of particles in space. Though the man became oak, the arrows and flesh alike imperturbable, the god’s great feat was to reveal the change only after the fact of its taking place, and to reveal it only in the most obscure and uncertain circumstances. He had managed to effect an alteration in time.

A master, some ten centuries later, to whom I will grant the same anonymity as the museum where his works are now displayed, was surprised as he discerned in the block of oak, newly hauled from the dock, the possibility of a martyrdom in which he had no great faith; at least it would sell. As he set to work, scraping the sea-stained fibers, straining at knots, strewing the floor of his shop with scraps and shavings, he realized it was not a martyrdom at all–none of that meaning, and, at the instant of death, none of that carnal beatitude. Something else had happened, and knowing it, he became a part of the event.

Thus inspiration. He became the god. What he was doing there, in the smoky gloom of the afternoon, the angelus braying gently from afar, had already been effected a millennia before: a transformation that might have been called creation. But he did not think of it, or much of anything on such a level, at the time, aware as he was chiefly of the veins emerging on the figure’s calves as they flexed in pain, and his own fingers, purple from the pressure they exerted and received.

This way, the god thought, keeping half a mind to himself even as he worked through the master’s hands, the purpose of the event, of the man and his pointless punishment, of the arrows and the oak, would be forever incomplete. It would extend into all moments the statue was beheld, whatever belief, repose, or solace anyone found there. Perhaps some would believe that the statue pointed away, to a distant time when a man moved helplessly in pain towards something beyond the world. But, really, it would always be of the time of its beholding, whenever that might be; it would always, doggedly, be in and of the world, as the god liked things to be.

When the master was finished, he resumed his routine, forgetfully. When he died, however, his last thought was of the oak, an arrow in mid-air, and he thought he was holding his breath in hesitation, deciding where it would best fit the figure’s torso, but he was wrong; the breath had abandoned his lungs.

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