It was as miserable a night as any the ragged man had seen. The dark cold reverberated outside of the white-cobbled walls of the Black City. The wind roared across the bleak countryside and whipped through the old man’s tattered jacket, chilling the gray skin beneath. He wrapped his twig-thin fingers around the neck of the half-shattered wine bottle—an almost useless weapon given how well equipped his enemy was—wielding it as a resolute knight would their sword. He pushed the squealing shopping cart forward with his free hand.
Hobbling along next to the sprawling walls, as he did every night, the old man looked for any weakness in its foundation that could be manipulated and used. This had been the song he’d sung most his life, the story rattling on, endlessly revolving as he circled the city.
It always had the same ending; just where it’d begun. The cart’s rusted wheels creaked, and his knees echoed. Footsteps followed above him along the walkway that ran the length of the wall. Moisture hung in the bleak night. His breath frosted the dark.
One of the cart’s wheels broke off, causing the whole thing to tip over, hundreds of useless little things spilling out onto the snow. The hungover guard, who’d drawn the short straw in keeping an eye on him that night, panicked and readied his rifle. They both stopped walking. Silence as they waited for something to happen. The wind howled, dark clouds rolling across the small moon. Eventually the tension calmed and the two began to walk once more, one outside the city, the other safely in. The old man left the broken cart behind.
Thirty years had passed since the walls went up. They’d been celebrated within the Black City. Each white brick laid was one step closer to safety. Fools, the man thought, as he had countless times. They hadn’t realized that the city wasn’t building the walls to keep others out, but to keep their citizens in. The old man, young and courageous then, wouldn’t allow his family to be locked in like a zoo. He knew that once those gates closed, they wouldn’t open for the likes of him any longer. He took his family and fled to the countryside.
He hadn’t been the only one to leave before the last brick had been laid. Thousands had streamed to the countryside, running from the Black City, not willing to trade their freedom for the safety promised by those that held the guns. They wouldn’t be herded like cattle, well fed and pampered until the time of slaughter.
They claimed land and farmed it. He’d worked hard and honestly to support his family. Soon the country folk were prospering, and the Black City didn’t like that. Food had run out soon after the walls had gone up, too many mouths to feed, and the wells ran dry. The starving citizens didn’t feel so safe behind their walls, now. Riots ensued. When you take a man’s sickle and replace it with a fork, what do you expect to happen? No one wants to produce when they’re already promised the goods for nothing; and when there’s nothing left to give, the people take.
The Black City found its solution in more taxation. It demanded crops from the country folk, who kindly—gun in hand—declined. The old man still remembered that winter the clearest. He was young then, hadn’t thought it at the time but he was. His children sledding down the big hill. His wife, Liza, pressed close to him as they watched from the bay window. She’d slapped his hand away when it had become too presumptuous, but then had taken his callused knuckles and kissed them fondly. It was sunny and warm for January, the melting sun twinkling in the rays. Then the ground trembled, and smoke rose and blocked out the sun and he couldn’t find Charlie, six years old, amongst the flames.
They came in their tanks, with their missiles and fire, sweat and blood. They took the grain, the cattle, and the lives of thousands. He could barely remember the emotionless faces of all his dead friends. They all melded together into one, like clay beaten, broken and reshaped.
There was nothing left in the country. The survivors, few that there were, had only one choice. He had only one choice. They had to return to the Black City, or face watching their children starve. He and Liza took Rosie, his only remaining child and very much his everything, and walked down the red road that led to the white wall that surrounded the Black City.
They trudged through the ashen snow with hundreds of other refugees. It was still January, but there was no more sun, no more anything bright and lovely except little Rosie’s cheeks. She buried her face in his chest against the cold, against the shoving of the hungry, people he’d called friends who were now his bitter enemies, all fighting for their place within the white walls. He lost Liza in the crowd.
The gates were closed against them. People pushed, screamed, cried. The gates shook against the weight as people went crazy with hunger, longing for the assumed safety they’d once ran from. He’d seen a few of the soldiers laugh from the other side. The man stood stoically quiet. He wouldn’t be laughed at, wouldn’t be broken more than he already was.
One of the soldiers, though, he hadn’t found anything funny about the situation. He was frightened of the thin, ghoulish faces that stared at him with large, wanting eyes. He’d been young, too young for soldiering, and he’d fired into the crowd. An accident, the old man thought, but a lit match can start the whole world ablaze. The soldiers, in unison, fired.
The old man was one of the few that crawled out from the bodies, but he’d died along with the rest that day. He’d rose a different man, an empty shell with no soul or mind, just a resolution for revenge. But he was lost, a man with hammer and nail but no material to build with. That’s when the sun came rolling out from behind the smoke of the gunpowder, its rays shining down on the wall like a beacon. The man had asked, and he’d been given his purpose.
So, like the biblical Joshua, the man marched around the Black City as if it were the ancient Jericho, demanding that its white walls come tumbling down. Over the years he’d been questioned, mocked, shot. He never responded, never even looked his oppressors in the face. He continued to circle the city, waiting for his moment, for his purpose in life to bear fruit.
He heard snickering from above, and then a stream of urine plopped down on his worn leather jacket that still held the blood stains of his family. He wiped his face and continued on. He was calmed by the empty promise of redemption, sure-footed with the gleeful thoughts of vendetta.
The infamous red road that led to the barricaded city came into view. Like someone slit the throat of the countryside wide open. His round for the night had almost come to an end. His feet were numb from the cold and excursion. His fingers shook uncontrollably, his breath labored and wet with blood. He knew, right then, that this was his last march. He wouldn’t see another morning. The walls still stood; his mission had failed.
He winced as his calf cramped, falling to one knee. Broken glass in the snow pierced through his jeans. Rosie had skinned her knee the summer before the massacre. She’d fallen from her bike on their gravel road, much too courageous for her first-time riding by herself. He’d heard her cries and was out the front door and running, running to his little girl. He’d skidded on his knees and grabbed her little body up in his arms, saying, “It’s okay, honey, I’m here. Daddy’s here. I know it hurts, but daddy’s here.” He’d said the same thing to her the night of the massacre. He hadn’t had a chance to say goodbye to his wife, but Rosie had died in his arms. She’d taken the bullet meant for him. He’d held her close, as tightly as he could, one last cuddle before he laid her down to sleep, and he wanted so much to go with her, but the sun was shining on those damned white walls and daddy’s work wasn’t done.
A dusty tear ran down his cheek. No, he couldn’t rest, not yet. His family would have to wait a while longer. The wall must fall. He’ll breach their securities and show them what beautiful works of art, colorful insanity painted with blood, could be inspired by a weeping father’s grief.
He lay on his crooked back, coughing out the fumes of the Black City, staring up at the endless dark where stars used to shine. That’s when his hand brushed something rigid and coarse. His weak fingers closed around a single white brick.
He chuckled to himself, swallowing the blood that tried to escape, and crawled through the snow to the wall. His fingertips ran across the wall like a blind man, searching for the hole that he knew would be there. He found it; a single, square hole. He looked at the puzzle piece in his hand, let the wine bottle drop from the other. The brick was heavy with purpose.
He heaved one steel-toed boot into the hole and, through gritted teeth, pushed himself up, a spasm roaring through his spine. The guard, who’d followed him countless times along the wall, looked down, more confused than frightened. The old man flung the white brick, hitting the guard straight on his bald forehead. He screeched before falling backward off the wall and into the Black City, screaming as he slammed into the ground, dead.
The old man had done it. He’d scaled the crumbling rubble and had taken on the Black City, all on his own. He’d shown them that he remembered, that someone remembered. The old man fell from the wall and slammed into the ground, his head buzzing from the blow, and looked for the light that would guide him to his next mission, but there was only one light he wanted to see now: the glow in Liza’s smile, Rosie’s flushed cheeks, Charlie’s little giggle. Another guard rushed along on top the wall, shined a flashlight down on the old man. He found his next and final mission at the end of a barrel of a gun.
A shot rang out through the dead night. The Black City was safe, for now.