There were entertainments, of course, at the arenas. Relentlessly the Trump Youth rooted out books and paintings that still polluted many of the buildings. These fueled their great bonfires after the Feedings. Artists were kept on hand in miserable cells until a show at the arena where the large animals from the forsaken zoos would finally get to satisfy their hunger. The writers were the first to go. Not just the journalists, but all writers, even poets and songwriters.
All eyes were on the pouncing tiger. Only the poet saw the single ashy page fluttering aloft on the wind.
Sprawling from the impact of the tiger, the poet grasped at more loose pages from a half burned book of poetry among the bone littered ash. The tiger nudged and pawed her. The bloodthirsty spectators thundered with taunts for the poet to get up and fight. Knowing that fighting for her own life was futile, the poet would fight for theirs. Even as the half starved tiger ripped into her flesh, delighting the crowd, the poet stirred and clawed at the ashes, releasing ninety-nine ragged edged poems unto uncertain winds that carried them over the walls of the arena.
The artist had witnessed many fires, many Feedings. Peering through the crack between two stones, he watched the poet stride purposely to where just the night before there had been a tremendous blaze of paintings, books, and the remnants of bodies.
Then came the tiger.
He had seen many struggle desperately for their lives, but this poet was much stronger. She conjured hope to rise up from the ashes.
He would go out in a blaze too. He prepared for his exhibition. Finding a small sharp rock, he began an outline of a phoenix on his chest and torso.
“Did you enjoy the Feeding?”
Marlie straightened, startled. “Yessir.”
“Disappointing, the lack of fight in that cowardly poet.”
“Oh, yessir, very. Disappointing.”
“Well, Marlie, you’ve got cleanup detail tonight.”
The officers weren’t supposed to call Youths by their first names.
“I should patrol outside the arena as well. Wind took some litter from the stands.”
Hoping the lieutenant hadn’t noticed her anxiousness, Marlie began methodically clearing the bleachers of dropped napkins and cups.
She worked her way out around the gate, gathering litter, steadily edging her way towards a singed piece of paper lodged against a bush.
Beneath the bleachers, Marlie furtively looked at the paper. Clumsily she sounded out, “Die Ged-an-ken sind fre-i…”
“Die Gedanken sind frei. It’s German.
Thoughts are free, who can guess them?
They fly by like nocturnal shadows
No man can know them, no hunter can shoot them
with powder and lead: Thoughts are free!
And if I am thrown into the darkest dungeon,
all these are futile works,
because my thoughts tear all gates
and walls apart: Thoughts are free! ”
“It’s so beautiful.”
“Yes, it is”, agreed the artist.
“What’s this?” The lieutenant tore the paper from Marlie’s hand.
“It’s mine”, said the artist. “This Youth took it from me.”
The lieutenant looked from one to the other.
“Yessir”, said Marlie. “I heard this one reading and confiscated his poem.” She wondered that the officer did not hear her heart pounding. “I was about to burn it.”
The lieutenant looked relieved. “Yes, we should burn it. And this pathetic artist here will be the next Feeding.”
The lieutenant watched the flaming paper curl into smoke. “Ha! Your precious poem is gone.”
Marlie noticed the artist’s blood etched shirt. They exchanged knowing cautious smiles.
Thoughts are free.
“It was good work, Marlie, but you aren’t supposed to be down here.”
“And you should not call me by my first name. Sir.”
The lieutenant stammered and blushed.
“Sir, I was wondering. I would really like to work with the cats.”
“It’s dangerous, Mar- It’s dangerous… usually done by older, male Youth.
“How I’d love letting lions into the arena.”
“I’d worry about you…” The lieutenant’s soft eyes never left Marlie’s face. “I’ll see what I can do. I’ll have to get you a set of keys, get you trained with the gates…”
“I would be so happy.”
The artist had stopped his work when Marlie approached. He was shirtless, little droplets of blood magnifying the added details of his phoenix, the blood tipped shard of stone in his hand.
“What are you doing?”
“I think you know. What are you doing down here again?”
“The lieutenant feels the animals are too dangerous, so he let me guard the artists and writers instead.”
The artist smiled. “But we are a danger to society. Aren’t you afraid? Of me?”
“You’re to be in the arena tonight.”
Marlie unlocked the cell.
“Come with me.”
“Okay.” Marlie didn’t hesitate. “Come, this way.” Before leading the artist away down the opposite corridor, she sent the keys clattering against the bars of a cell. “There’s a back way out.”
They squeezed through a narrow passage and waited. They would still need to go through a small opening and then out past the gate where a growing throng was filing in to see the Feeding. Suddenly there was chaos. People were screaming, turning and pushing back desperately through the crowd. Gunshots sounded from the bleachers. The big cats had been released from their pens.
“Let’s go. Now!”
They easily got absorbed by the crowd, which swept them out into the parking lot. They kept moving, breaking away from the crowd as they got to the fringes of the lot. They looked quickly about before climbing the fence and scrambling into the bordering scrubby woods. Here they finally stopped to catch their breath.
“The key… I didn’t think they’d let the cats out!”
“I told you artists were a dangerous type.”
“Well thank goodness for the distraction.”
“I’m Adam, by the way.”
“Where we going, Marlie?”
“The last Feeding… those pages…”
“We’ll follow the wind then.”
Lingering day gilded the trees.
“And shall it be said that my eve was in truth my dawn?”
“More”, entreated Marlie.
“So, you like Gibran.” The artist continued. “Long were the days of pain I have spent within its walls, and long were the nights of aloneness; and who can depart from his pain and his aloneness without regret?… It is not a garment I cast off this day, but a skin that I tear off with my own hands. Nor is it a thought I leave behind me, but a heart made sweet with hunger and with thirst.”