Standalone Story: The Courtroom

As could be expected, before my time on the stand, in the limelight, to fulfill my solemn duty in answering for what had happened, I was often alone. Regularly separated from others, protected from the world as much as the world was being protected from me. Protected from what I felt, from what I thought, from what I desired to do, and from the reactions that even just my presence elicited in others.

When others looked at me, I imagined that all they saw were echoes of what was. That they clearly remembered what had been not so long ago, and they yearned to return to it, to what was comfortable, to what they knew. That comfort would never come though, and looking at me was staring into the maw of a present which lead to the abyss of a hopeless future.

When I was not alone with my words and my thoughts and my feelings and the remnants of the past now left in my care, sometimes I was speaking to people who had questions. Some were wielding authority, like lawyers, doctors, officers, and some whose roles I did not understand, but whose questions demanded answers of me all the same. They all sought answers that I offered up meekly, only barely concealing my hopes that something I said or did could change the trajectory of the chaos I now found myself surrounded by.

"What had happened?"
"How are you feeling?"
"Do you regret going forward with this?"
"Was any of this talked about before?"
"Who did you make plans with?"
"How do you want to proceed now?"

The remaining times I wasn't alone were usually when eating food, because it was almost always either brought to me, or I to it. My meals were consumed under an aura of somber reflection and the persistent silence was filled with fleeting glances revealing the churning of thought just below the surface, yet betraying a lack of confidence and clarity for any of those thoughts to escape into the realm of the audible.

I had no real routine beyond the biological necessities, these terrible circumstances having forced all who were affected to interrupt their lives to now address what had happened. I was just the one on whom the largest burdens now fell, and whose life was most interrupted, though the way others talked and moved and looked it did not seem that they were ready to express any gratitude at the responsibility I now bore. I was expected to take responsibility, to step up. That was the right thing to do when these things happen, right?

Was it foolishness to think that my voluntary participation could change the outcome for me?

A seemingly random cycle went on for a week or two, till the time when I would take the stand as the first witness, the first suspect, the first whose words would be scrutinized and analyzed in an effort to correct the wrongs present before us.

There would be no jurors, only judges, and because of this my dread only grew the more I grasped that there would be no single sentence, there would be no final pronouncement from a collection of my peers, but an endless succession of judgments passed based on what I said, or didn't say. On how I framed things, or neglected to do so. On how I reacted, or didn't, under examination.

I wanted it to end, to be over, for the path I had to take to lead anywhere but what I could see coming. I wanted the circumstances that put me on this path to have been different, for the chains I now bore, the weights I now carried, to be taken on by someone else.

I didn't choose this fate, so why is it my responsibility to now own the consequences of it for everyone else?

I keep moving forward, making what I hoped was progress, because the horrors I witnessed before me on the path I walk did not inspire terror in my heart as much as the oppressive finality of everything I now had to face, the inescapable permanence of my fate, and because with every step forward the path behind me crumbled away into nothingness, swallowed by a different abyss from which emanated a stench of implied threats that inspired an aversion stronger than from those before me. There was then no "back" to return to, no place of rest, and also no frame of reference to measure my progress against, to cultivate even the smallest sense of accomplishment.

Even when I stood still, I could see foreboding cracks forming in the ground, and I would soon realize that the weights I could not escape shared in the responsibility for the speed at which the ground crumbled away underneath me. The weights that I could not escape, that deterred my progress away from one abyss and towards another, were also the reason I could not abandon progress, I could not stop, I could not wallow. I could only press on with an ignorant hope that I may yet find solid ground, that I may be freed from my burdens by some malevolent force that would greedily consume me to sustain itself, let alone take pity on me, or that the abyss before me with its lesser horrors than the abyss behind would bring respite in some manner or another.

But that force never came, the ground never firmed, the wailing abominations I saw never actually crossed my path when I drew near to them, and even my own mind eventually grew tired of attempts to fill the isolation with fantasies of how things might be after the next step. Every part of me ground down to simple acceptance and resignation to my fate, a morbid inertia moving me ever forward towards the unknown.

I was alone, accompanied only by the weights, the chains, and the Sisyphean task before me.

That is, until then the day came when the cycle was broken.

It was my time to speak.

I stepped up to the stand without any great ceremony, a hush falling on the crowd before me, silence welcomed like a warm blanket, and I was then greeted by the eyes of all the judges dressed in black peering past my flesh and into my soul. The looks on their faces demanding that I provide the answers I said I would, that I fulfill wholeheartedly my duties as part of this process, regardless of the outcome, that I had been so entirely swept up by.

I unfolded my statement, my testimony, written so that I might read from it instead of attempting to trust my wits and senses, those having been eroded by the burdens I had carried, weakened by my efforts from which I had found no rest. I felt tears build behind my eyes, the gathering waters behind a dam after a winter thaw, threatening to break loose, seeming to hold my composure at ransom yet remaining insidiously silent as to the terms on which this stalemate could be resolved.

I cleared my throat, yet the sound was weak, ineffectual beyond serving as a reminder of the near perfect silence that I now spoke out into. I tried to take a breath, but it staggered and stuttered in my chest as the emotional weight of what I would soon admit hit me anew.

I tried to start reading, but found my words were captives of the same silent force that held my composure. I frantically tried to sort out the terms on my own.

Perhaps if I don't speak of what had happened, my fate has not yet been sealed? Perhaps there is yet another way? That what's done could yet be undone if I deny speaking of it just a moment longer? That the heavy doors to the courtroom would open and all would be greeted with good news that all is actually well?

These were impotent dreams though, hasty rationalizations made only to comfort myself, and neither my composure nor my words were freed by these thoughts which possessed me in a fleeting yet sequential order, each politely arriving and then abandoning me in short order.

I wondered how long I had been silent, and yet again longed for something outside myself to change my sorry state.

I was startled by a hand gripping my shoulder, and was at once filled with the dark hope that my morbid prayers had finally been answered, and yet terrified at what would come next. I turned to see the eyes that belonged to the hand, but was greeted with a weariness that mirrored my own. There was no malevolence, no pity, no offering of rest, merely the simple truth that I was not actually alone. I studied the elderly face, where tears had already welled and rushed down, following with my eyes where found their route through the wrinkled and grey contours.

My time was up, and the dam broke, the terms of those who held my composure at ransom were not yet met, and my own tears burst forth like faceless soldiers from a trench, rushing forward with murderous purpose.

The eyes I saw on the weathered face closed, and the head nodded at me. The eyes opened back up and compelled me forward just one more step. The mouth in the face formed no words, but the eyes continued on and reminded me of the ground which crumbled while I tarried.

I turned back to the stand, gripped my statement, and tried to blink away the tears which now clouded my vision.

A sound beneath me found me startled yet again, breaking the silence like a gavel declaring judgment passed.

I hadn't said anything yet! This can't be, I have prepared and struggled and it's already over? My heart raced as my eyes opened to look at the source of the sound. The statement was now spotted, the sound was of my tears hitting the paper, apparently content to amass themselves greatly on my chin before their final leap, their faint noise magnified by a silence that permeated to my bones.

I still had more steps to take.

My hands were now trembling, failing to hold the lifeless paper steady, but in looking past my hands to my wrist, and to the sleeve which hugged it, I was stunned to notice that it was black. I blinked my eyes rapidly, hoping to clarify my vision and validate what I saw, and it remained. I sheepishly examined the rest of me and found that I wore the same colors, the same clothes as the judges who now patiently awaited my testimony. They wore no flowing robes, but instead a collection of suits and dresses, of hats on laps and glasses perched gently on noses.

But why was I dressed just like the judges, and they like me? Looking even to the body of the hand that had gripped my shoulder, it was also similarly dressed, yet gave off no signs of condemnation.

It began to dawn on me then that what was on trial was not me, not what I had done, nor even my role in any of this. It occurred to me that this damnable fate I was experiencing, the escaping of one abyss in pursuit of another, was truly not one that I alone held.

What was on trial was the abyss before and behind us, and I was to be but the first of many judges to put forth their own ruling as to the fate which befell all of us. What these eyes before and beside me searched for, longed for, was not someplace to lay blame, for any sort of "justice" to be meted out, but searching a way to find peace, to understand what we all were now finding ourselves perpetually struggling with.

I was still alone, the burdens I carried were still uniquely mine to carry, but I realized that I was not the only one carrying burdens. I was not alone, others were paralleling the path that I walked themselves.

My eyes truly beginning to open, I thought back and realized that some of the apparitions I saw were these other judges now before me, grotesque and malformed by the horrors they suddenly carried, glimpsed in the ugly and weak moments of their own struggles, their gait as they shambled forth screaming of the resentment and anger and pain their mangled visages alone had already left few doubts about.

I realized why I then would have appeared so terrifying to them, because the particular burden I carried loomed over all of them, reminding them constantly of the approaching time when they would be brought together to witness intimately the rotted demeanor of those forever marked by a shared tragedy.

The only step left was to raise my own voice above the suffering.

At this, the unspoken terms had been satisfied. My composure was found, and my tears found reason to hide themselves again in their trenches, to cease their frenzied march if only for a time.

I took a deep breath and let it out. I looked at what I had written and realized that would be of no use to me. It was a confession, and that is not what was needed, desired, sought after from those looking to me.

I took another breath, and then spoke in a voice which went out clearer and stronger than I thought myself still capable of:

"Thank you for gathering here today to remember, to celebrate, and to mourn the loss of one we all loved dearly."