The old man ambled quietly down the street. Night had fallen and the streets were dark on this moonless night. The lamp posts had long since ceased lighting up the evenings and the old man kept his head down, mindful of his steps on the sidewalk, guided only by the soft glow of light emanating from the few households that were still awake at this hour.
A stray cat ran in front of him, chasing a rat that was much bigger than it. Hunger made you do the most reckless things. These were difficult times.
The clatter of toppling garbage cans filled the night air, shrill and metallic. The old man stopped and held his breath. He could see a silhouette outlined in a window above, a shadow looking out at shadows. Nothing to see here. The old man caught a pair of feline eyes glowing in the alley ahead. These were dangerous times. He let out a breath and continued walking.
The shop was only a couple blocks away but it took him over a quarter of an hour to get there. He reached out to grab the door knob and noticed his hands were shaking. He was too old for this line of work, too old for this type of life.
The door creaked as it opened and the old man stepped into the store. He looked up and his gaze met that of his oldest friend, Elman. Once known as Elman “the Poet,” his friend had “captivated the world with his vast repository of words and his deep understanding of the human heart”. He had spent a lifetime collecting sentiments and wrapping them in words that he then gifted freely and generously, satisfying all number of human emotions.
Now he ran a supply shop, satisfying basic human needs.
“You’re up late,” Elman said, as he stood behind the counter finishing up his books for the day. “And you?” the old man asked. “I have new stock,” Elman said without looking up. “That’s what I was hoping,” the old man replied and he walked towards the back room. Elman briefly glanced up to make sure nobody was looking in through the store window. One had to be extra careful these days.
The back room was actually a hidden closet that Elman had built with the help of a few friends, long before things got out of hand. Every one of those friends – with the exception of the old man – had since died, most of them having been executed for belonging to the Resistance, the rest from broken hearts. Ironically, the old man had survived a similar fate precisely because of this back room and what it had to offer.
Running his fingers over the bricks, the old man found the one brick that was slightly recessed and the button hidden below it. A door on the wall next to him softly opened, a sliver of a crack. He looked over his shoulder before quickly entering the room and pulling the door closed behind him.
He turned on the light and gave his tired eyes a moment to adjust. He let himself breathe, allowing his body to slowly relax as his mind began to unwind. He stood taking it all in. This was his favorite place, a haven from all that had happened and was quickly unfolding before him. He knew he wouldn’t live to see the current events through but he hoped his efforts would help bring about an end.
He smiled as he looked at all the bundles lovingly… and his heart skipped for a moment as he heard a sound behind him. “It’s ok,” he whispered under his breath. “I need to be more careful,” he thought to himself. “I’m too old for this life,” he added, for the second time that day.
The bundles that Elman had tied together displayed the attention to detail, focus and care that made Elman perfectly suited to this job. The old man smiled, a small pleasure he afforded himself in this sanctuary.
Each bundle was wrapped in brown paper and tied with ribbons of different colors. The colors represented a specific code that the Resistance had set up long ago. The bundles held the Words.
Elman organized the bundles by colors and in increasing level of intensity. The gentlest Words were at the bottom, small, delicate packages clustered together. The strongest, most powerful (most dangerous!) Words were at the top. Those bundles were covered in dust from years of sitting in a dark, dank, closet. It would be many more years before they saw the light.
The old man was a Scribner and a fighter for the Resistance. Words were his weapons and this back room was the heart of the operation.
Every human emotion that you could possibly experience was housed in this room, wrapped in brown paper and tied with a strip of color. Emotions had been banned for many years now and the words that evoked them had become tainted. All words expressing feelings of any kind were to be destroyed and anyone who traded in them was to be immediately executed.
At first, people found this hard to put into practice (in part, they didn’t believe this edict could be enforced). Sadly, the first ones to go down were children for it was impossible for them to separate emotions from their life. Mass graves were set up as a message to the people, this was serious business. Parents silenced their children, many cutting out their children’s little tongues to protect them. This city was full of maimed children. People learned quickly after that, the sorrow in the children’s eyes was hard to ignore. There were some slips here and there but within a month, emotions had been totally eradicated.
Elman was a poet, however, and his life was inexorably tied to the human heart. He preferred a death surrounded by sorrow, agony, and despair than a life devoid of feeling. So he began an underground resistance movement. Unwilling to waste words on a fight, they simply called themselves, the Resistance. Over the years, the Resistance had grown and every day new recruits found their way to Elman’s shop. Only a select few knew about the back room but all trafficked in the Words.
These Words were Elman’s only surviving legacy (his children had been part of that first massacre) and once a month, he would go into his backroom and wrap new Words, words that captured sentiments unspoken, feelings untold. He would mark the Words: green for anger, blue for sadness, yellow for happiness, orange for arousal, pink for beginnings, black for ends, and red, of course, for love.
There were other, more obscure sentiments, but those hardly ever got used except by Elman. In a box on the floor by the door were sheafs of paper, scraps and strips and notebooks filled with Words. This was Elman’s box of poetry. Poems that would never leave this room but that enabled him to get up in the morning and face this new dire existence that he led.
The Scribner was here to pick up a bundle that weighed heavy on his heart. For months he had argued against this, tried to convince the eventual recipient to change her mind. It would do no good to let this bundle see the light of day. What purpose would all of his efforts in the Resistance have if this bundle was allowed to exist? But in the end, he conceded. Deep down, he knew it was the only thing left to do. And now he sought the pacakge.
What he needed was actually a very small bundle and he spotted it instantly, sitting a top of pile directly at his eye level, as if it had been placed there just for him. His heart sank as he put the package under his coat. He took one last look around the room and then turned off the light. After pressing his ear to the door to make sure it was safe to open, he gently pulled down on the handle and opened the door a crack. Listening again for any unusual sounds, certain that nothing was amiss, he quickly exited the room and let the door close behind him.
Elman stood at the counter, looking at him. He lifted his eyebrows ever so slightly and the Scribner gave a quick nod. Elman turned back to his books. “Goodbye,” he said. “Thank you,” the Scribner said, stopping next to Elman. “Thank you,” he repeated. Even this small expression of gratitude could get one in trouble. Elman nodded and watched with a heavy heart as the Scribner walked out of his shop into the dark, silent night.
… to be continued.
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