A is for Alphabet, Z is for Nothing
by Jeffrey Hall
"A" is for Alphabet, as in the song I used to sing to you when you were nothing but unspoiled flesh, your mind still hinged and untouched, and there was still hope that you would end up being something else other than like your father. Over and over again I sang it, "A-b-c-d-e-f-g...," filling in each letter with a word, hoping that they would occupy that space behind your glaring eyes, roaring like bonfires as they looked into mine. You would smile when you heard my voice, and for a moment those fires would extinguish, and I would believe that it would work, that you would just be a normal child. Those were happy times.
"B" is for boy, the thing you once were, if only for a brief moment in time. "Mommy, Mommy! Look, dandelions," you would come running in from the yard, fists full of flowers, their buttery stain upon your nose. "Smell them," you would say.
I would take them one by one, inhaling deeply, catching your scent just as much as theirs, and tell you, "They smell like treasure." And you would laugh, a sound richer than any instrument, and I would be helpless. Frozen with joy. In awe of your happiness.
Maybe you wouldn't end up like him. Maybe my hope wasn't in vain after all.
"C" is for cat. Dead under your feet. Its fur gone. Its leg twitching as if the last of its life was too stubborn to leave.
"What happened?" I asked, even though I already knew.
You looked back at me without a single tear in your eye, your hands in fists as if aware that if you opened them other things might die. I could see in your face that you realized your power then. You were scared, yes, but the fire in your eyes danced. What boy wouldn't be thrilled to find out they could control the world?
I hugged you, not asking another question, hoping I could smother the blaze. I should have known from the warmth of your skin that it was already burning beyond my control.
"D" is for daddy, a man you never knew, a word you never spoke save for once when we sat upon the porch and watched the sun fall from the sky in a cloudy orange disaster. A perfect setting for such a question.
"Do I have a daddy?" you said, looking at your hands, rather than at the dusk.
I hesitated, unprepared to answer at such a time. "You do," I admitted.
"What's his name?"
"Daddy. Just Daddy," I said, afraid that if you knew his name that when you saw it in books or heard it in the stories that would eventually pass through your ears, that you would know what you were capable of. Perhaps I was wrong in not telling you. Perhaps knowing him would have filled in the holes of your spirit that your powers were already starting to rend.
Or perhaps you would have become something even worse. I think about that moment often and never have an answer.
We watched the sun disappear in silence. He was never brought up again, though I felt the heat of his touch every time my hand brushed yours.
"E" is for escape. Through the window. Eventually through the wall when you found out you could open it up with a flick of your finger.
"Why?" I would ask when you came trotting back home at night, sweaty and smiling, soaked in mischief, sticky with curiosity.
"I need to test the world," you would answer.
Test it for what? To see if it could stand you? To see if it would break? I never understood, but what could I do to stop you?
I would kiss you on your forehead as I welcomed you back and watch the damp press of my lips slip away into steam. The priests said I should have known by then that you were gone, but what mother will admit she lost her child? Every time I searched those eyes of yours, I still found my boy, I still found hope.
"F" is for fugitive, or maybe freedom.
The knock came at midnight. You had already been away for half the day. I had already been awake for half the night. I knew by the harsh thuds on the door that something bad had happened.
"You seen your son?" said the guards, their hands on their weapons, their eyes searching the house behind me as if the furniture hid demons.
"What happened?" I asked, and when they wouldn't tell me, I begged.
"Burned down the stable," admitted one of the guards, his face pale, his lower lip quivering. "Owner wouldn't let him ride one of the horses so he turned the entire thing into ashes."
"I am sure he didn't mean to. It was an accident."
But the guards had already made their decision. They walked away calling you a criminal, but I knew what you really were. A boy free of his mother's burden. A child no longer trapped by his home.
"G" is for goodbye. Each night I would say it into the wind, hoping that it would carry it to your ears, knowing that it was only for then and not forever.
And sometimes when it blew back, it smelled like dandelions.
"H" is for helpless. Stories of your life came to me through gossip. When I passed through town like a ghost and people's mouths would be full of whispers and their eyes full of horror as they bore witness to the person responsible for bringing you into the world.
"They say he's found companionship with bandits," said Marley Brown, unaware of my presence as I passed.
"How do you know?" I asked.
She shriveled as I scrambled to her side. Her lips pursed tight with her secrets.
"Please," I begged.
"My brother is the mayor's advisor. He says destruction riddles the countryside. Farms are not safe. Roads neither. He and his friends are having a violent ball out there amongst the wild."
He's only testing the world still, I wanted to say, but they wouldn't understand. So I kept walking, passing those bits of story without response, helpless in hearing you grow up from the horrified tongues of strangers.
"I" is for I. Me. Your mother. Or it could be for ignored. After a while they didn't try to hide their words from me. I would walk those streets, hoping to hear news, and they would gladly shout it, not even bothering to spare my feelings any longer. As if I was a creature unseen amidst your growing shadow.
"He's getting bolder," they said.
"He's amassed a following."
"He's attacked a village."
"They need to stop him. Hang him good and proper."
Didn't anyone care that you were my boy? Didn't anyone imagine what those words are like to the ears of a mother?
"I" could also stand for invisible, I suppose.
"J" is for June. The month when the air is sweet and thick like syrup. A month where even the sun fights against sleep for fear of losing the day. The time when the flowers would be at their fullest. Our favorite month.
The month they went to war against you.
"I hope they bring back his head on a spike," said someone beside me as I watched the soldiers march forward, their boots forming dusty clouds in the streets, the light of twilight catching their armor like lightning strikes amongst the sooty billows. I had never hoped for death before then, but I did for each and every man that walked before me, hoping they would fall before laying a finger on you.
Maybe I'm not as different as you and your father.
"K" is for killed. The world had failed your first test. You defeated them. Every last one of the soldiers, save the lucky few who stumbled back to the town with stories of the horror you wrought upon them.
"The fire," they mumbled.
"What god could have created such a thing?" they asked the priests.
But I was no god, your father neither, though men followed him like one when he was still alive.
"He's a demon," they said.
Nor were you that. You were still just a boy, I told them in my head, the only venue with an audience who would understand. But what did it matter what I thought? I was only a mother.
Word was sent to the king that very night. The entire nation was ready to descend upon you.
The world had failed your test, but it was eager to try again.
Love. What else could "L" stand for, but that? It drives us to do strange things, does it not? It forces us out of the person we once were and shapes us into something unrecognizable. I often wondered how it changed you out there amongst the world.
It made me barge in on a king.
"He's just a boy," I finally yelled through the clutching hands of the guards as the king and his advisors met with the mayor.
Someone in the streets had called you the apocalypse and I could keep quiet no longer. You? My sweet boy? The end of the world?
The king's eyes squinted, his pupils full of a different type of fire. "Let her speak."
I cleared my throat. "He's scared is all," I said. Though I no longer knew if that was true, it was something I had to believe. "A thing with that much power in a world like this? How would you feel if the world looked at you like the devil?"
The king pointed to his crown. "The powerful do not fear. They instead use fear like a weapon, and this boy of yours swings it without care. He must be stopped."
"Let me speak to him," I begged. "He'll listen to his mother."
"The time for talking is over," he answered, and with a raise of his hand I was removed from his sight.
If only love was more powerful than fear.
"M" is for march. I watched boots fall again. An army of a size the world had never seen, not even when your father brought down half the capital.
On and on they ambled down the road, an endless string of soldiers unraveling, winding towards you. Did you really deserve the emptying of the world's barracks onto your doorstep?
But even with the clumping of the soldier's feet and the weeping townsfolk answering yes, I still thought of you as a boy in a field collecting flowers.
"N" is for night. The worst time for a mother. A time when there is nothing to distract you from your own thoughts. I spent countless of them staring into my pillow, singing the alphabet, searching those letters for a meaning, wondering if I could have done more to protect you from your own future, from what they said you had become.
"No," I would try to say to myself, even though I still saw the army marching when I closed my eyes and heard your name as synonymous with the end of the world.
"O" is for one, two, three, four... the days I counted, waiting for some word about the assault. For too long, nothing. And the counting became just numbers, things like letters, useless when dealing with the workings of boys.
Page for "P", nothing but a boy himself who came knocking on my door with a request from the king.
"Ma'am," he said with a dour face, "I've travelled from the frontlines to give you this."
I took the sealed envelope barely acknowledging anything else than the words frontlines. "You come from the war? How does it go?"
The page shook his head and I knew that you were winning. "Just open it."
I read, my heart stammering with each word. "Is this true?"
The boy nodded. "He's sent members of his own council to see that you are escorted safely."
Giddy. Numb. Terrified. I folded the letter and placed it in the pocket close to my chest, hoping the weight of it would slow my ever quickening heart.
"What do you say?" he asked.
The king had finally come to his senses, or you had forced him to. Either way, I finally had my chance to see you again.
I could say nothing, so I nodded instead.
Questions. "Q" would best stand for them since I fielded hundreds as soon I was stuffed into a rumbling cart with the king's own men.
"Who is his father?" said one.
"I don't remember," I lied.
"Why is he doing this?" asked another.
"I don't know."
"How strong is he?"
But to their anger I just shrugged my shoulders. They were questions meant to find your weaknesses. Did they truly think me a foolish enough mother to give up her own child? I deflected and dodged and lied until they were beaming red in their faces. Only when the page dared to speak up was there a question worth answering.
"The king said that you swear your son is still just a boy. How could you still believe that after all that you heard? After all this time away from him?"
I opened my mouth, ready to lie, ready to respond with nothing, but found that I couldn't. It was a question that I had been asking myself night after night. One that I decided I had to answer now that I was on the verge of seeing you again.
"Because what mother can admit that their son is an abomination? What mother can say that they failed their own flesh and let them become a monster? Show me one who can and I will show you a monster herself. I am not a monster. I sang to him, rhymes, hymns, the alphabet, and he smiled. What demon can smile? And the dandelions... He would pluck them so gently from the fields that it seemed he was afraid of hurting the earth. Tell me a boy like that is the devil?"
"Boys change into men," said the page.
"Boys change," I answered. "But they never die. A mother keeps them alive."
"R" is for ruin. The cart rolled through the warfront, parting a line through obscene sights. Men upon stakes rising from the ground, shriveled like overdone meats. Nature stood sapped of its color, a land of black and white, a field of charred remains and ashes. Weapons, carts, siege machines... the toys of war, broken and smashed like they were caught in a boy's tantrum.
"You still claim he is innocent?" said one of the king's men as I looked out the window, my eyes stinging from the sooty wind and my refusal to blink.
"S" is for sitting, standing and then sitting again. They put me in a tent surrounded by thousands of men meaning to do you harm and they expected me to be still?
At last the king pushed aside the flap and entered. The fires of his eyes didn't look as furious as they once did.
"You really think there is some shred of humanity left in him?" he said.
"I do," I whispered back, the words coming from my mouth much softer than I intended. Perhaps because they were harder to believe after what I saw on my journey.
The king shook his head. "Piles of my men burn around his camp to brighten his people's night. The ground between here and there squishes from the blood his anger has let loose. An entire generation will grow up without fathers because of him."
"What would you have me do?"
"Go to him. Make him remember the boy he once was, the person he still is. Reason with him. Help us make peace."
I smiled, overcome with the thought of seeing you, speaking to you. Saying hello to my boy again at last.
"T" is for time. It stands still when you don't want it to, and speeds up when you do. The morning I was set to go to you couldn't come fast enough, yet when it finally did, I found my nerves were almost too much to bear.
"Are you ready?" came the same page that had brought me to the warfront.
"Yes," I said, and though I had been ready to see you ever since you left, I found it difficult to begin that journey, afraid that when I came to you I would see someone else and not my boy.
I left with the page and another group of the king's men under a white flag, a sign of peace, a sign many of the men were afraid you would not honor.
We crossed the land between camps, a place more hideous than I had seen before. Did you really treat the world with such disrespect now, or was it merely a product of your fear? I could not answer.
I saw the edge of your camp exactly as the king said I would, by the stacks of corpses burning like cook fires. We were welcomed by your people, your followers. Men with blue flames tattooed around their eyes with raised weapons. They had more piercings than a woman, more scars than a general.
"What do you want?" they asked.
"To meet your commander," answered the king's men. "To talk of peace."
Your people laughed.
"We have his mother."
Suddenly all eyes fell on me, and time stopped again. It started up once more with a shift of your people's eyes as they glanced at one another. A runner went to speak to you, and I waited with others in violent silence, an exchange of piercing looks and vicious scowls.
At last there was a response.
"He will see you," said the runner.
And then time sped up again.
"U" is for useless. All of my thoughts, all I had done to prepare myself for that moment did nothing to help me. I stood outside the entrance to your tent, my hands shaking by my sides, waiting to be allowed in.
The page tugged on my sleeve and put something in my hands. I looked down. It was a bouquet of dandelions.
"If that boy is still in there then maybe this will help him come out of hiding," he said.
I squeezed their stringy stems, not knowing what else to do. A moment later and the flap was pulled aside. Darkness engulfed me. The flicker of the torches did little to help at first; but bit by bit, the black pulled back like an oily curtain.
A stained carpet ran through its middle. Heaps of junk lay stacked on either side of it, the spoils of war perhaps, or just the laziness of a busy mind. But between those piles I saw books, shelves of them, old leather tomes with titles written in languages I would never hope to know. My heart swelled then. Words had found you after all.
I kept walking, and there, at the end of it, sitting upon a wooden chair, a boy's proper throne, was you.
"Mother?" you said, in a voice I had never heard.
I blinked, sure that I was looking at your father. By my calculation you were barely eighteen, but the world, the hard experiences of your life, had quickened your aging. There was the architecture of a man constructed atop the boyish frame I once knew. Your eyes looked sunken, as if they had fallen deeper to hide the flames now roaring incontrollable in your face. But worst of all, I could not see your smile.
For a moment, I could not say anything, do anything, except stare. You rose from your seat and your shadow seemed to stretch on forever.
"What are you doing here?" you said.
"I came to see you."
"For their purposes or for yours?" your eyes shot towards the entrance as if you were aware of the predators lurking outside it.
"Mine," I answered, and it was the truth. I did not care about the war or the men behind it, I only cared about you.
Your brow furrowed. "This is no place for you."
"And it is for you? The things I saw on the way in here... Why are you doing this?"
"You wouldn't understand," you said, sitting back into your seat.
"It's because you're still trying to test the world, right? It's because you're scared. It's because you're alone."
You shook your head after each response.
"Then why? At least attempt to explain why my boy is out here, a hundred miles from his home, washing his hands in blood."
"Because that's what they want of me!" you screamed, and the torches quivered beside us and the tent threatened to fly off its stakes. "I tested the world, not to see if it would be acceptable to me, but to see if I would be acceptable to it. And I failed. I quickly learned there was no place in it for someone like me other than to be a monster. So what else can I be but that?"
"You can be my boy," I begged.
"Your boy..." you laughed, but I did not.
"I heard the tales of you. The townsfolk whispered them. The children lost sleep because of them. The king and the politicians rallied behind them. In them they named you the devil. But in each and every story I did not hear the workings of a monster. I heard the deeds of a scared boy acting out. One whose mother had failed him."
Your eyes dropped for a moment and I knew I had found some truth. That look gave me strength. I walked forward.
"I should have spoken to you about what you were. I should have held your hand as you went into the world. I should have told you again and again that you did not have to be what your father set in you. But I didn't and I failed you. But I won't again."
I came so close to you that I could feel the heat radiating from you. You would not meet my gaze anymore.
"I still remember the way you would play. The way you would laugh. The way you would tell me you loved me before bed. The way you would smile when I would sing you songs."
Your eyes fell to my hand. You reached for the flowers and I gave them to you gladly. "Dandelions? Like the ones I used to pick from the field," you said, the look of remembrance upon your face.
"See? My boy is still here and I still have a chance to save him."
You looked at me with watery eyes and put the flowers to your nose. "They still smell like treasure."
I smiled, hoping you would do the same.
But you started to choke. Blood slipped from your nose. I watched helplessly as the fire went away from your eyes and the dandelions fell away from your hand, their golden petals rubbed in a poison that even your infinite power could not detect.
You fell to your knees, reaching for me, enraged, cursing. I took your hand, calling out to you, and felt the last flicker of warmth before it left you. I helped the man before me die in those final seconds, running my fingers through his hair, shushing him as tears ran from my eyes. And when he died and the anger went away from his face, a smile emerged as you looked into my eyes.
And there you were at last. The boy I had always known still lived, finally coming out from his hiding. I held your hand, clenching tighter than I ever had before even as it grew cold and limp, knowing that all along I was right, knowing that I would never again let go.
"V" is for victory. Your people dispersed after they watched their great leader fall. The king and his men rejoiced. They danced around your corpse, proclaiming the world saved. Whose world saved? Surely not mine when it lay at the bottom of my feet. They eventually pried my hand away from yours and took your body away.
"W" is for wordless. What I was when the king named me a hero. Everyone shouted for me. Everyone celebrated my existence. I was no longer the invisible creature. As a reward I was given one request.
"What do you ask of me?" said the king, his teeth stained from the celebratory wine.
For him to die, I wanted to say. For him to admit that he was a coward who would use a boy's own mother against him. To remove that ridiculous crown upon his head and give it to me so I could use it to lock away all those who had ever called you a demon when all along you were just a boy costumed as a man, dressed in the garbs that the world threw at you. Exactly as I thought.
But a coward would refuse such requests. So instead I asked for one more appropriate for a man of such courage.
"Bury him," I said. "Don't hack him to pieces as your men have requested. Don't put him to the flame. Don't give him to the pigs. Put him in the ground as a person deserves. As a mother would want of her son."
"He wasn't a person. You put him in the ground and he'll rise from it the next day," argued one of the king's men.
"Afraid that he will haunt you?" I snapped.
The man rose to speak, but the king raised his hand and his subjects fell silent. "The powerful do not fear the dead for they have already been defeated and can be again."
And with that lie, my request was granted.
"X." It was always the hardest one, wasn't it? Excuse? Exit? Exhausted? No, those all started with E's, didn't they? Then let X be a shape. A marker. A reminder. Let it be the crooked cross they put over what would be your final resting spot. A imperfect symbol they used to show that you were unfit for the gods. A sign I would later straighten. Who were they to make the decisions for deities?
"Y" is for yesterday, the day I watched your body put into the ground. I stood over it, not weeping, for tears would mean that you were dead. And boys, they never die.
I kissed your forehead again and this time the dampness of my lips stayed. They shoveled dirt over you and I wondered if you would feel my lips forever.
And "Z." What could Z stand for after all of this? Zenith? Zip? Zero? No. None of them will do. Z is the last of it. The final letter sang. The end. And in the end what I am left with? Nothing.
So "Z" is for nothing.
Then this is the part where I ask you to next time sing with me. But when will that next time be? In another life? Another time?
So in the meantime I stand over your grave and sing to you over and over again, hoping that the letters, that these words will find a way to you, wherever that may be.
A place I like to imagine that doesn't require your testing. A place where the fields smell like treasure.