The Threshers came suddenly in a white blur all bloodstained and righteous with a tramping of their black boots and a breaking of the silence like shattered glass and screaming guilt. A constant “tramp, tramp” that blended in with the flashing, red, lights, and the ice-cold shock of the ear-shattering alarm.
As he opened his door, Percival felt the population rise up. He was swept into a stream flowing with a fluidity all-together mechanic. An elbow here, an elbow there. Milling around and trampling underfoot, but all half-dressed and rubbing away the last remnant of sleep from their glassy eyes, and all being drawn like a bloodhound to the scent of guilt.
The bloodhound came to a sudden and awkward stop outside room 34C. They stood, panting and muttering, watching as two threshers threw themselves in an attempt to break the door.
Ho! The crowd rose up, their primeval instincts caught up in the coiled-spring tension of the moment. Percival felt himself rise with them, but for a fleeting second, he suddenly felt a million miles away. He felt like he was in a whirling cyclone, and everything became a blur. He looked around, and there were faces; gaunt and drawn, with eyes fixated on unseen things.
And then they brought her out, and the fleeting vision melted away like cotton candy on the tongue, and the taste all-together indescribable. She was dragged out between two Threshers, hanging limply in their arms like wet laundry. The white dress she wore clung silkily to her willow-like form. Her colorless hair was disheveled and her hands were caught there kneading it like dough and then falling limp at her sides. Her eyes stared wildly into the crowd. And what eyes! Colored like everyone else's, yet they shone with a feverish light, hysterical and dancing like a wind-blown leaf. And her hair; the same, but yet clinging to it was a leaf.
If there was ever a question of her guilt it was answered in that leaf which the Thresher contemptuously picked out and tossed on the ground.
The crowd surged forward with a roar as the thresher brought out the plant. A roar of hatred that such a thing could exist and thrive, and that such a person could harbor it. In this very place, behind these very doors, behind these stone-cold fortress walls. A roar that almost made the woman faint away. The Threshers holding her shifted uncomfortably as gravity and guilt drew the woman closer to the ground.
The crowd roused itself in a wild-fire fury, working itself into a frenzy. Frothing at the mouth and gnashing its teeth. The woman looked out into it with a haunting gaze, and not seeing anything familiar she looked in confusion at her hands as if she held there the answers. As if she held there all the broken glass of her life, and with those dirt-caked and guilt-ridden hands, shredded by the glass, she could put it all together again.
The Thresher grabbed its scythe taking a few experimental blows on the air. It whistled through the air like a living thing, singing a death song. The Thresher placed the plant in front of him and lifted his scythe. A pale, deathly, quiet lay over the crowd like a blanket, smothering their raging voices.
Shewww . . . thock! The crowd erupted into cheers as the Thresher took another swing.
Shewww . . . thock! First the base and then the top. Swinging it with an intoxicating fury and a cold, maniacal, hatred. Percival watched as the woman sagged lower and lower to the ground. Each time the scythe connected with the wood she shuddered as if she herself was taking the blow. The luminous light in her face slowly waned.
“No!” The woman screamed and ran to the plant but was yanked back by her hair. The Thresher slapped her hard on the face causing her head to snap back like a whip. Tossing her to the ground, he kicked her in the stomach till throw-up and blood covered the front of her dress.
Shewww . . . thock! Shewww . . . thock! The crowd jeered, laughed, screamed, and roared like a well-run machine. A constant laughing track that never wondered the reason why. The lady groaned and wept as she writhed about on the ground trying to avoid the blows and kicks being liberally rained upon her, and still, in the background, the whistle of the scythe and the sound of metal meeting wood.
Shewww . . . thock! Shewww . . . thock! Jeering, roaring, screaming! Shewww . . . thock! Jeering, roaring, screaming, screaming, . . . screaming. Slowly fading away, and then . . .
The woman lay prone on the ground, the plant chopped into small pieces beside her. The scythe was still poised in the air in glittering victory. A sickly leer, rejoicing in smiting down small things. An oppressive shadow reaching with claw-like hands and snuffing out life, like a wavering candle, and then; poof! Gone.
Percival needed life. It was the presence of another thing living and breathing. In and out, in and out. In the air, and the sudden exhilaration as it saturated his lungs. It was the knowing. It was, simply knowing that another thing was living the same life, and breathing the same air that he was. It wasn’t relieving, but it was . . . it just was, and it was better than not being at all. He would much rather burn and feel than be freezing and not know he was dying.
Then there was fire, and everything seemed to zero in on it. The fire burned everything, not just the wood and leaves, but even his perception of time and dimension seemed to melt away like wax under the imprint of flame. A single wavering candle, now a raging fire that ate like a ravenous beast. It left leaves fluttering like dying moths, slowly turning black and disintegrating like ash.
The Threshers dragged the woman away. Her eyelids were fluttering like butterflies, and she was deathly pale. The red droplight cast a hellish glare on the faces around him, like demons waiting to condemn her. They watched as she was dragged down the hallway and then they slowly melted away in groups of two and three. It was as if a switch had been turned off. The show was over and done with. The entertainment had been wrung out and left to dry, or die; not that it mattered to them. They would all go back to their dreary, dull, existence of spine-chilling apathy, but what made him any different? He couldn’t avert his riveted eyes from the blood spot on the floor. Was he any different? He shed a few tears, but wasn’t he just like everyone else? Standing, watching. Not taking a step forward, not taking a step backward. Just standing and. . . watching the show.
A sound in the hallway caused Percival to start. Standing six feet away was a Thresher. It stared at him, no, through him, with an animalistic curiosity. Percival glanced wildly around and found himself to be alone. As if by some unknown instinct Percival walked over to the blood spot, the cursed blood spot, and he spat on it. Turning away slowly, Percival ignored the tears running down his cheeks, ignored the Threshers' eyes glaring holes into his back, and he walked back to his room and closed the door.
* * * * *
Tiptoeing silently under the hazy, red, glare of a droplight Percival paused and listened. He breathed in the air tainted with uncertainty. Smelling his own sweat and fear. He crept slowly down the hallway, tentatively turning corners, tensing at the sound of his own heart beating like a tom-tom. Hunched shoulders like a rat, gliding stealthily like a specter born of the darkness and red-pierced shadows.
It was here, somewhere. Aha! Yes! There it was. Percivals’ hand closed around a cylindric object, somewhat knobby and sticky to the touch. What was that? A breath of wind? Percival looked around fearfully, his body refusing to respond to his screaming, panicking, brain.
Finally moving, Percival made his way back to his room and closed the door.