What is it about death that prompts such abject hatred and fear from us? Why does the sight of blood, a throat slit so only torn flesh is visible or a body motionless in the dirt of a battlefield,have so tormenting an effect on us? I suppose that apprehension differentiates us from the insane –although I must contend that I have my reservations about the arbitrary use of that label– but the question is no less warranted. Is not death just the cessation of biological activity, and as such is only just as process, and little more? It is so, yes, but it is undoubtedly more. To relegate death to a position of trivial inferiority is a pernicious act, and one thoroughly faulty, for while it takes into consideration death’s aspect of functionality, it negates the forces set around it, those of emotion – a driving force so intrinsic to our life as a species I can hardly conceive of life without it. I would even deem it impossible for the human race to survive without its emotion, not out of some grossly romanticised view of emotion, but out of established knowledge that humanity’s survival is inextricably linked to the feelings that drive us, and the convictions that result. I have not had many encounters with death; indeed in my years I have been fortunate enough to encounter it only a few times. But today I was in death’s presence once more.
I have found it to be true that as one grows older, one is driven to care less about what in youth seemed imponderably important. In my younger years, before the bones of my back started to feel as though molded out of water and before it became –oftentimes– an insurmountable chore to command my legs and push out of my bed, I had cared about my birthdays. I would feverishly await the days I would be referred to as one year older, and thus more mature and worldly, as if by a single day’s passage I would inherit some previously concealed knowledge that I would boast to friends and family as my age-given right. The day itself, naturally, would, in what little way I could manage to make it, be majestic and festive. My families, both old and new, could scarcely spare the coin for gifts, and so if I couldn’t make my own, I would reward myself with something – frequently, something beautiful. A young boy likes nothing more than a thing of beauty, and in that young boys and men are not much different. I cannot recall a day when I didn’t have the most sincere and awed appreciation for the beauty of nature, natural life, and, if it isn’t too outrageously romanticised a statement, life itself.
Out of the fishing village where my old family lived was, at one end, extended a muddy walkway that I was sure (though now I am less sure) was moistened by an underground waterway of some sort. At the very end of the walk of mud was a small shrine of mossy earth where the mud stopped and small flowers peppered the ground. “Small” here is no exaggeration: the flowers were scarcely bigger than the division of a finger, and were predominantly a bright scream of blue, although some rebellious reds and whites shared the space too. I spent a few of my birthdays there, drenched to the ears in my adoration of the scenery (insubstantial to the objective observer as it was) and the false greatness of my now slightly older self. Oftentimes, at the muddied patch where no one treaded, I sang: there was no one around to criticize my less-than-good singing voice, and there I could overcome my debilitating shyness. That was before my mother’s death. After that, I could hardly find it in me to sing to myself, or to sing at all. Her death stripped that blithe stupidity from me, and I found myself speaking less, and inspecting the elusive threads of my thoughts more scrupulously. But I might be wrong to think that. My newfound profundity of thought might have only been a result of natural progression: merely an effect of growing older, only this time it wasn’t an imagined effect. I cannot say I am grateful for her death, but I acknowledge that it might have had a favourable effect on me.
But I was only just a boy, and boys grow older and suddenly what enraptured the imagination and enamoured the mind isn’t so amazing any more. At the age of twenty-four, in the city where I took reside with my new family, I found another object of beauty. I believe I make no indiscretion or err of the overly emotional kind when I say that my wife’s beauty is like that one nothing other, and has not yet failed to wholly captivate my interest despite our long years together (if anything, the time has only made my love for her more animated, and my appreciation for her more profound). Beauty is a word that has had its meaning savagely defaced and now carries artificial and incomplete connotations of the physical: beauty is not just that of the skin and face and body – that is both outrageous and erroneous. I see beauty in every one of Sara’s little quirks, in every way she is the person she is, in the way that, however much she tries, she can never keep her hair from her brow and has to brush it away, in the way she sets her spoon on the very edge of her plate once she’s eaten and the game of concentration she makes of that, in the way , in the way she often laughs when I wear my shirts backwards (often because in my absentmindedness I so frequently do), in her childlike excitement that hasn’t waned with the years like I fear mine has, in the way her kisses now are as vibrant and full of life and love as the first one she gave me.
But I find I have digressed severely, and strayed from what I originally intended to write about. Today I paid witness to a hanging. Three men convicted of treason had been tried, condemned, and set to hang. I am of the habit of subjecting myself to the unpleasant, perhaps out of some masochistic inclination, but more likely motivated by the promise of inner growth from the trauma that ensues. On the self it surely isn’t the kindest of methods of self-improvement. It was that tendency that saw me stand a small spec made invisible by a jeering crowd after whom the wretched three were to be executed. The sound of the crowd’s collective derision filled the air as if a thick smoke stretching everywhere and in all directions. To my right a boy barked insults and exclamations of love for king and country with equal vehemence, in a voice as crass and insolent as he was. I watched as the men, shivering with fear and sweaty, were recited religious consolations of redemption, to which the boy laughed incredulously.
“Why are you laughing?” I asked him.
“There’s no redemption for them. Not for these men. They’re bad men.”
Soon after the men fell. They swung silently below the thick stretches of rope, and the crowd dispersed having watched the scene to completion. The boy scurried away harmlessly with the crowd.
Perhaps it is all about the beauty. Perhaps the power of death emanates from lost beauty. Perhaps by dying, the potential beauty of the person, the beauty that could have adorned them if only they had not died, is effaced from existence. Perhaps in lamenting death we lament the possibility of great beauty lost, that we are continually searching for things of beauty, and that one death is one less chance that we will succeed and will find our want, our need. Perhaps once that potential beauty is killed, death loses importance, and we can then call for the death of bad men.
“Hang them!” they cried. “Kill them!” they shouted.
“They are bad men.”