Anastasis–Excerpt from ‘The Hangman’s Valley’
by Eland Robert Mann
The guards came for Robin. He held his breath to listen to their descent, and when he heard only the continued of shuffling of their feet, rather than the distant iron clanking of Peter’s cell door, he knew it was his turn to be summoned. They threw open his door and shoved a torch into the cell. Though this most recent spell in darkness had not been long, Robin was startled once again by the brightness of a single light.
“Greenbeak?” a guard bellowed.
“Yes?” responded Robin.
“You will come with us.”
The guards grabbed him under his arms and pulled him out of the cell. They pushed him down the tunnel and past the other doors. Robin thought the painter might call out to the guards, but perhaps the old man preferred others not to know he was alive after all.
They took the smoothed steps quickly, and after a time passed Peter’s door.
“Have no fear, birdy!” Robin heard Peter shout from within.
“We’ll come for you Peter!” Robin shouted back before the guards elbowed him in the stomach and he went silent from lack of wind.
Robin had no idea how long it took to reach the surface, but since he was at the bottom he imagined it may take a while. But even exhausting himself, walking through innumerable tunnels and up countless stairs, expecting light around every turn, or at the top of every stairwell, Robin still found himself with the guards, trudging along through dim, anonymous tunnels. He was beginning to get nervous, that the guards were lost, that this was a trick, that something horrible had happened above, that somehow, around the next corner, he would arrive back at his cell door, and be locked again inside while the guards went away cackling. He was caught up in these fears when the guard behind him grabbed him by his collar and pushed Robin into a very narrow corridor, as wide as his shoulders, with cold, smooth walls on either side, that ended abruptly at a dead end. Between the guards, in a single file, Robin was pushed forward through the constricted passage, and watched as the guard in front of him pressed a protruding stone on the wall. At first, nothing happened. Then a low, gravely grinding was heard, the sound of sliding stone, and Robin saw a sliver of light grow and fill the passage, and discovered he was at a hidden door.
Beyond the hidden door materialized a small, warm chamber, the walls covered in books, with a crackling fireplace off to one side that thoroughly heated the room and cast a warm glow. Though surprised not to have returned to the gatehouse Robin gladly stepped into the strange room, relieved to have arrived at such an inviting place after his long ascent. However, standing in a corner beyond the fireplace, initially outside the limits of his sight unaccustomed to darkness, Robin became aware of a robed figure, watching him.
“You two may go,” said the robed man. The guards exited the chamber, the secret door rumbling behind them. Robin discovered on this side to be a pedestal column supporting a marble bust, the head cast in shadows. Robin turned back and faced the dark corner, alone with the robed man.
“Are you…” Robin asked, his voice trailing off, betraying his uneasiness. The figure stepped from the relative darkness behind the fireplace and Robin saw an ancient, skeletal man with sagging skin, a hollow face, and a few last white wisps of spun hair. The man was smiling, though every last tooth was missing from his mouth; it was his eyes that seemed to glow with a rich smile, or an incurable madness.
“The Prince you ask? I do not have that honor,” said the old man in an ancient voice. “You will meet your Lord and Master momentarily—” the toothless man spat and struggled with his words before holding up a finger for Robin to wait. Reaching into the pockets of his robes, the old man procured what looked like a small golden box, which he shoved into his open mouth, pressing it to his gums. The ancient man smiled again, two rows of golden dentures, and resumed speaking with less difficulty.
“A gift from the Prince—a most exceptional being—to replace the weak teeth he took away from me as the result of a minor punishment,” said the robed man with a smile, his eyes glazed above the gold. “I will bring you to him shortly, but when I overheard your story I had to meet you first myself. You know, it’s not often that one gets to meet the Prince for the first time. I’d be overcome with excitement, if I were you.”
Above the fireplace mantle Robin saw a tapestry of the same red cross he had seen several times before.
“Are you a priest?” Robin asked the man in the brown robes.
“Ex-priest,” the man said. “We are all excommunicated out here. My name is Father Gaspar de San Borondon, and I have served the Prince loyally as his counsel since our arrival in the valley. And what is your name?”
“Just plain Robin.”
“Hello, Robin. You are aware of at least a handful of the magnificent truths or rumors of the Prince, no?”
“Well, I don’t know, sir—” Robin’s eyes flashed to a door next to the fireplace, then went again to the tapestry above the mantle. Father Gaspar saw the movement and stared at the cross for a moment before stifling a burst of emotion.
“You’ve seen that on the gun, no? That is the cross of Saint James, and it has meant many things to us throughout the many years. Some fear by now it means nothing, but that is not for them to decide.
Soon, the Prince will reveal to us his plan. Others may have had different dreams brought with them from elsewhere; dreams that seemed finally attainable when the valley was first discovered. But to the everlasting contempt of those envious others, only His vision has flourished. And it has been for His glory and our salvation that we give Him our eternal souls. I speak of course, of the Prince.”
“You’re saying he can help me?” asked Robin.
“How I envy you. You, who does not know what greatness awaits beyond this door. What a gift you are about to receive, to behold this beautiful man, this divine creature, for the first time in your life. You will never forget this moment, and look back on it with complete joy in the later years of your life, as do I.”
“The Prince has saved us all, child; his providence has guided us through dark days and brilliant nights. You see, I owe my sight to the Prince, and my breath, and the sustained rhythm of my heart. Were it not for him, this valley would be a land empty of life, as would be my own body. Isn’t it wonderful?” the ex-priest implored, his eyes begging with impatience for an equally zealous expression from Robin, who nodded enthusiastically.
“You make him sound like a great man.”
“Yes, child; he is a great man. Good. Now, there are several things you must know before you are ready to stand before His presence. You will address the Prince as ‘My Lord.’ This you must not forget.” Robin nodded. “You must also never look the Prince in the eye, under any circumstances. You will show deference and respect.”
Father Gaspar was about to continue when a knock was heard on the door of the chamber.
“What!” hissed the ex-priest. The door opened and a frail figure in brown robes entered the room, a hood stretched over his head concealing his face.
“The others have arrived, Master,” said a timid voice from under the hood.
“Fine,” said the ex-priest, his upper lip twitching with dissatisfaction, “now put more logs on the fire; we don’t want to catch a chill.”
The hooded boy, recoiling at the ex-priests words, cautiously approached the fireplace, facing Father Gaspar and keeping his back to the wall the entire time, as if, from under his hood, the boy was keeping a close eye on his Master. After a moment lost in wide-eyed contemplation, Father Gaspar turned to Robin and continued as if they had not been interrupted.
“The final thing is, despite what you may have heard to the contrary, from those base tales told by our ignorant masses, the Prince is, in fact, human. It is his most beautiful quality. If he were a true god, he would possess neither friend nor enemy, and to him our existence would be meaningless. But behind his advanced and celestial nature is a human mind, extraordinary yes, but still human. Because he is human, his thoughts and actions become our ideal; we see in him and his mind all the potential for glory that exists in ourselves. It is his greatest gift. And in us, his sees everything. Good and bad, strong and weak, he understands it and it does not excite or terrify him. He only asks, since he shares himself with us, that we share ourselves with him, as his human form is shared by God. Do not forget these things I have told you, and maybe you will do better than those uninspired others, disappointments really, who have met ignoble and bloodless ends. How I envy you, this moment, on the brink of your spirit’s deliverance. You will be born again, and your soul will feel as if resurrected from an unseen death. Are you ready to receive his gift?”
The ex-priest finished and turned toward the novice stoking logs.
“Open it!” he barked to the novice, who ran across the room to open the wooden door. Robin saw a massive pillar and, behind it, a row of similar pillars forming a larger colonnade. Robin followed Father Gaspar through the doorway and entered the grove of ornate columns rising from a marble floor to a distant ceiling capped with a rotunda. Robin figured he was inside the domed building beyond the plaza at the northern end of Aquila. The immense structure had all the appearances of being a cathedral, with the aisles in the nave and cardinal transepts forming a cross with its layout; except, at its furthest end, in place of an apse and ambulatory, was a sunken stage and a towering red curtain; as if at some point in its history as a cathedral it had been converted into a theatre. Above the choir was a second balcony that extended back and above the nave that offered a high and dramatic view of the stage. Robin thought of the overgrown backend of the building and its buttressed foundation beneath the ledge and surmised changes were made when repurposing the structure to add the stage.
Robin was absorbing the features of this unusual building when Father Gaspar pushed him forward across the choir. If the stage was on the northern extremity of the mesa, the room they had come from was an antechamber near above the eastern transept. Father Gaspar hobbled toward the western transept, which was much larger than the eastern and dominated by a massive stain glass window depicting what appeared to be Saint James, holding his standard on a white charger in the midst of a battlefield. The enormous stained glass scene was set above a pair of relatively small doors, which opened outside to a veranda that jutted over the edge of the mesa. Beyond the veranda the sun was setting beneath the valley, leaving a red sky as splendid as the red of the stained glass. Between Robin and the sun stood the Prince.
The Prince stared west, as Robin was wont to do, his front away from Robin and his hands clasped behind his back, as if he fought to contain a great energy within him. He was dressed in an outfit that seemed to Robin both very out of date and as if it had never been worn. His hair was black as night, darker even than Alfonso’s, and long enough to reveal a gentle, soft curling. There was a great deal of youth in the way the Prince had his shoulders retracted, his spine arched and chest thrown out. The man was not muscular, but he made up for that by appearing excessively nimble, as if he could stand on top of wooden post as easily as the wide tiles of the veranda. He appeared not to have heard the approach of Father Gaspar and Robin, as he stared manically at the setting sun. The Colonel and the Captain, however, also stood on the veranda looking west, but were closer to the doors and noticed them; their silence was signal enough that Father Gaspar and Robin must do the same. As the sun sank further into the horizon, the Prince’s body seemed to quake and boil, the grip on his own arms seemed to tighten, and Robin feared an explosion was imminent. Yet, the moment the sun disappeared into the horizon, the Prince relaxed, and the men gathered there breathed a deep sigh of relief. The Prince turned from the dusk and looked at Robin for the first time. His eyes were strangely yellow, as if they betrayed the accumulation of years. Robin, looking away just in time, let the Prince examine him. He tried to stand as the Prince had been doing, chest out and back straight. Seeing without looking, Robin noticed the Prince had an extremely youthful face, appearing hardly older than Robin; his one sign of age was a dense, pointed mustache he kept above his lips. Those lips parted for the first time in Robin’s presence, and his interaction with the Prince began.
“So we continue our existence in the Valley of Death of the Sun,” the Prince said in a voice of smooth perfection, burning his gaze into Robin. “Child, I see when your sun dies you die a little as well.” Robin fidgeted, feeling the Prince’s yellow eyes on him. “The sun sinks today and tomorrow the sun will rise; and I can see, day by day, moment by moment, it is you who is dying, while the sun goes on. I see it as if I was blind to all else in the universe. You would have me believe you are younger than me, that your mind is sounder, that you are not corrupted, that the sun and your God give you strength. But what are any of these things when they leave you weak? These things take from you time, and give you only death. You cannot see it, how could you. But I possess this curse, this ability to behold with clarity the continuous act of human decay, and so when I see you, one so young… I see only Death. Your eyes tell you I am immortal. How is this possible? Do I possess some secret of nature undiscovered by the rest of humanity? Your eyes believe that to be true, too. I see you are on my side, the side of curiosity and ambition. This is good, very good. You may accept my gift. It is knowledge of me, the knowledge I exist in the universe—as a polar opposite to the realm of mortality. Now you may speak. You came west from the Keystone Pass?”
“Yes, My Lord.” Robin stammered, trying not to forget. “A little town a week’s ride from the mission.”
“The Mission of Saint James the Greater?”
“Yes, My Lord.”
“It has been many years since I have seen that mission. Tell me; is the forlorn sound of its bell still as beautiful as I remember?”
Robin paused a brief moment. “I’m sorry, My Lord, but the bell has fallen from the tower, and now sits turned up in the grass near its entrance.”
The Prince looked from Robin to the Colonel, who gave the briefest of assenting nods, before returning his gaze to Robin. Reaching into his red and gold-laced doublet, the Prince removed the silver revolver from an inside pocket. Robin avoided eye contact as the rubies of the hilt sparkled in the Prince’s yellowed eyes.
“Did you fire this gun?”
“Yes, My Lord. Once to save a man back home and twice in the Keystone Pass; at a phantom that appeared to me and at the armored cavalier.”
“What did you feel?”
“Well, I felt a great burning sensation in my firing hand, very painful. The rubies felt like they buried themselves under my skin. I have scars, my Lord.”
“That’s because this gun does not belong to you. Do you know who it does belong to?”
“To you, My Lord.”
“And how could you know this, being an outsider and having never before heard of the valley?”
“A man named Alfonso told me.” At this the Prince let out a deep breath and smiled contentedly to himself.
“And how did Alfonso die?”
“He was hung way up in a tree, in its tallest branch; and when before he seemed young and spry, in the tree he looked gray and withered.” The Prince and the Colonel looked at each other. Robin blinked as he kept the guilt from resurfacing, a movement unnoticed by the Prince.
“It seems it was the Padre. A nuisance for us is all, really.” The Prince sighed. “I do see you are telling me the truth. That is a beautiful thing, to be able to recognize the truth in someone else. I see you are dying and I see there is truth to be found in you before your death comes to pass. Yes, this gun is mine; if ever there was a gun in history that belonged to one man, this gun belongs to me. You will notice no scars on my palms, because the rubies cannot burn my blood. My blood contains equal parts of each son of Noah: Shem, Ham, and Japheth. This blend is perfection, and it has given me every ability I desire. I live in a land of infinite wealth, a man with infinite time. I have power over life because I have power over death. You desire this as well, I have seen. I was staring into the red sun a moment ago and that is what I saw—I saw you staring into it as well, wondering whether the flaming solar discus was the truth or a lie, whether it brought you here for a reason or not. It appears that part, at least, is up to you. You are here to give me the revolver as a gift?”
“Yes, My Lord.”
“But now, unfortunately, that very gift has come from another. Do you stand before me now without a gift?”
“No, My Lord.”
“Then what is your gift?”
Robin paused to collect the courage he needed to speak. “My Lord, as you said, your gift to me was knowledge of your existence. It is a wonderful gift. I hope what I bring you is something equal. It is the knowledge of another’s non-existence. You know Alfonso is dead. What you may not know is he revealed to me he sought your destruction.”
“Of this I know,” interrupted the Prince. “But such knowledge is not a gift.”
“No,” said Robin. “But Alfonso told me before he died he sought to stay alive, ‘as long as Our Heavenly sun rises and sets, to ensure the Devil spends a portion of God’s gift everyday looking over his shoulder.’”
“My life,” the Prince spat, “was not gifted to me by God nor any other being but myself.”
“As you say, My Lord. But now you no longer have to look over your shoulder. Alfonso is gone. My gift is the freedom granted to you by the news of his death. You no longer have to think about him. I hope it is a worthy gift, My Lord.”
The yellowing of the Prince’s eyes seemed to increase in the deepening night, until they glowed with a fiery fervor. “It has been too long since a slave has given me such a magnificent gift. Yes, it is worthy. For returning my gun and bringing me this news, this gift, I feel you are owed some recompense. I understand you spent the previous night in the dungeons. A matter of protocol. Henceforth you are my guest. You shall receive my hospitality.”
“Thank you, My Lord.”
“Before I let you go,” the Prince said casually, “I have but one question. Of where are you from?”
““I’m from a country I think you have some understanding of, it being the United States of America, your neighbor,” Robin replied.”
“A false country of the blind. Born blind at that, without even the courage of Oedipus to do it themselves. But that is not the origin of your journey. Where did it begin? Where do you define the origin of who you identify as yourself?”
Confused at his meaning, Robin thought it over a moment. “I guess I see myself as a child of Manifest Destiny.”
“The disease of Saint Amaro—the Occidental Obsession,” said the ex-priest with a knowing nod. “We have much experience with this disease ourselves.”
“I’m more than aware of it, Gaspar. But the audacity a people have, to believe these lands are for them? Unspeakable. No god ordains a people’s destiny. It must be created out of the mud of our own tortured consciousness.”
“Sir, there are many who believe like I do. It is a shared belief of our people. And our country is powerful—perhaps the greatest power the world has ever known—and the stirring of the hearts and minds and bodies of every individual on the continent seems to originate from God. I look around and I wonder if the isolation of the valley may be in danger.”
“If you think I fear a threat to my power then you are a fool. My power does not come from being one amongst an isolated few. The entire population of the earth could be removed to this valley and I would still have nothing to fear. I am one amongst the infinite. I am defined, where others are not. The fears I have are not of this earth, or of mortal men—or mortal men’s gods. We have experience with Saint Amaro’s disease and we have experience with Americans moving west to seek gold, and both of these situations are to our advantage. The civil war of your former country was to our advantage and the end of the civil war was to our advantage. There is no threat I consider that comes from such trite and plebian happenings. But you have not answered my question. Of where are you from?”
“I haven’t given you a reasonable answer, My Lord?”
“Do not question me. When I ask of where are you from I do not mean a vague country, or a vainglorious dream. I mean a place, a time. A town. I mean to know the origin of your identity.”
“A town?” Robin asked as his heart erupted into his throat. “I…” Robin was unable to continue. The name of his town stuck in his mouth behind his heart.
“You are loathe to say the name of your town? Here I truly understand you,” the Prince nodded. “Some things are best left unmentioned.” The Prince looked past Robin toward the east. “We must silence our enemies” the Prince continued, “and keep them nameless from the universe. That with a name is the greatest threat to our self.” The Prince shifted his gaze back to Robin. “So. You are unable to explain to me your origin. That is fine. Perhaps I can help. From which location was your person taken, once you arrived in the valley?”
“I’m not sure the name of the place, My Lord,” Robin said.
“My Lord, if I may,” interrupted the Captain, “we picked him up with Peter the Pilgrim at the Hangman’s Rock, beg your pardon.”
The Prince nodded and smiled at Robin, who squirmed at the memory of the day at the Hangman’s Rock. “You’ll remember the name of that place now. You’ll never forget it, in fact; for that is now the place where you were born—where you became my slave. This is the origin of your true self. You have told me of your former country, and the perverse faith of your people. But I will tell you a story of my own. When I arrived in the valley I was told of the Seven Cities belonging to the Seven Tribes of Cibola. Of all the tribes, I was told—by our half-breed guide named Estevancio—the most fearsome was the tribe that inhabited what the Captain just now called the Hangman’s Rock. I will not speak the name of this tribe, as it is in my power for history to forget them; you see, I am the last remaining man on earth who remembers the uniqueness of their existence, and I desire them to be forgotten.
“This tribe lived in the caves up in the cliffs, like sparrows, you may have noticed. Millennia ago, they had relocated to these caves out of fear; a natural fear of their enemies, of the wild, and these cliff dwellings provided security. By the time I encountered them, they were living in the caves out of habit and tradition. Nature no longer posed the threats it had in the past, and they had no enemies, being the most feared tribe in the valley. Even the stories they told themselves began to lose the edge of fear their ancestor narrators once instilled, and they began to describe themselves as invulnerable. Their city flourished and their people prospered, and they subjugated their neighbors with threats and tributes. Tribal wars became tribal games, and over a surprisingly short period of time these people became a bloodless people. They fought no wars, committed no crimes of blood, and lived one with the earth. But the earth was deceiving them, waiting for the moment—with the patience of a rock orbiting a lonely star at the edge of the universe—when it could pull down the curtain of human pretensions and erase the tribe from existence.
“By the time I arrived in the valley, disputes, always of a trivial nature, whether between people or tribes, were settled with sticks. The two parties would approach each other delicately and whoever was touched with the stick was, as the game dictated, ‘dead.’ The one so touched was either forced to pay its tribute or was banished, having lost the war game. After generations, this laughable tradition had become the word and the law of the land. The first meeting between this tribe and I was encouraging, for both parties, and we resolved to meet again soon. On our second meeting, however, I made some trivial mistake in decorum, and the sticks were brought out and I was touched. My half-breed guide intimated to me that I was now dead and banished, and they could never see me again and vice versa. This notion baffled me. I retired away from the rock and the next day sent my guide in my place, to continue my negotiations. He came back at the end of the day and told me they asked him how it was possible I had anything to say, as I was dead? On the second day I sent him again, and when he returned he said they had struck him as well, as he must be a witch to be able to communicate with the dead. On the third day I returned to them, resurrected; a living man once more in their presence. They were astounded. They saw me as the three apostles saw Christ; it was beyond their comprehension that I had returned to their world to stand before them in flesh and blood. My half-breed guide and I approached their chief; and as we had no sticks in our hand they saw no threat in us and so allowed it, observing us as corporeal phantoms. I had no stick in my hand, true; but, I did have a rope, which I tied around the chief’s neck and used to suffocate him to death. The tribe stood in collective shock at the suffocation, confused to see their chief laughing or engaged in some inner struggle. When the chief collapsed and they saw he was dead they attacked me, their sticks raised and lowered on my body again and again, ever so delicately. I suffered not a bruise while I proceeded to suffocate every last man of that tribe. They had neither the muscle nor the mental locomotion to defend their persons. Over countless centuries, they had bred the strength out of their bodies and mind, until they were truly weaker than an infant. These games they had created, though the height of civilized development, served them for nothing, in the end, except to be more easily eliminated from their environment and history. After the men were hanged to the last, we captured the women, who possessed at least a small iota of animal memory to realize we were the stronger men, and they were to desire us. Their descendants populate the valley to this day; but of our seed, and not of the extinct men who played with sticks.
“To me, all the peoples of the world are as this tribe, playing games with sticks, awaiting their inevitable extinction. If there is a destiny for this valley it is not that the peoples of the earth will invade it as their right; it is that the people of the world belong to the valley, and someday the valley will spread to encapsulate ever corner of our flat earth, with me at its heart. You see it. I have already taken you. Your origin belongs to me. I am immortal, and a threat is posed to me by neither nature nor man nor army nor country. It is those things that must be threatened by me. And, in time, I will be the origin of all creation…”