Axtonen's Arena
by Deb Thompson

(An empty arena holds promise. Sometimes.)

It was Punishment Day. It was his favorite day because everyone waited for his actions. It was one of those high days we hear about in distant lands, where life seems to have gone so far into tomorrow that it has come full circle and been transformed into a race of beings with primitive tendencies and methods. Serving these people in their ceremonial judgements, with dust under his feet and an autumn sky overhead, Axtonen stood confidently. All eyes were on him, or at least on the mask he had invented in his younger days. It was a rather scientific, but naturally-acquired, device. His general sense of it was somehow both inside and outside of its features, much the way one can both see, and feel, the bending of an elbow or knee joint. Using a deft shift of his head, he was able to control the complicated mask of faces. Today he stood behind the mask and sized up the day's task. The offending prisoner was younger than he, but bore a look of determination that might more than make up for lack of experience, and could just provide a fine show for the crowd.
Axtonen shifted his chin slightly, engaging the mask's sarcastic smile as he looked at his target. He spoke to him in an exaggerated tone, which was essential to the ambience that would bring his rewards.
"Unfortunate for you to be here today, stool," he told the subject, who had been freed of his chains and was standing in front of Axtonen. The staging of the pair was everything, though the subject meant nothing to him except by way of providing a foil for boosting his own significance and sense of being special. They would face off with each other while someone beat drums near the crowd and someone else sold food and trinkets. Axtonen could see the one to be punished trying to get a glimpse of him through the mask's barrier. It was impossible, of course. He had used the mask for so long that it mirrored typical moods of others in such a way that his own facial features were in perfect cadence with the mask's workings. It was splendid isolation and protection, and much better than mere armor might have been.
Axtonen was particularly aware today of the sweaty crowd's vicarious joining to the fight with their intoxicating mix of stupid mocking and calls for bloodshed. The community placed him in a position it hated, but envied, and passed to him the task of punishment it was too hypocritical to carry out without ritual and transference. He was looked upon with fear and awe by these beings with their mundane lives and dismal sense of destiny. They held onto one false hope after another and lived in fear, and he secretly laughed at them whenever they thought he was interacting with them on some equal level. Their looking to him gave him importance. Only he knew the mask's appropriate use, and only he would use it to manipulate them and anyone they sent him. Once he would finish with an offender, the people would shower him with glamorous peacock feathers and rare white laurel branches they had gathered just for him. These were special tokens in this particular place, and they were tokens of the attention he cherished. Attention was the most important thing of all, and something he must have at any cost. It was his meaning for existence. Spilling the blood of an accused was only a means toward his own life's blood, and a means to getting what he had to have in order to survive and continue.
The crowd was growing louder and more insistent. He reveled in the sound, and imagined a view of himself from all sides at once. He would shine with such brilliance that they would be drawn to him forever. The attention was the one thing that penetrated the mask enough to give him joy to the point of. intoxication. He was euphoric and glorious in his gift of uniqueness.
"Do it now or give it up," one female teased from somewhere near his left. He shifted the mask to include disdain and rage, and then turned his head proudly to look directly at her. She squealed and pointed at him. He fed on her focus the way he savored a fine steak.
"Do it now," she said. "What are you waiting for?" The crowd echoed her cries. He inhaled the excited atmosphere and shifted the mask in order to lessen the look of disdain and increase the look of rage.
"What do you want me to do?" he roared at her.
"Show him a lesson," she called out, twisting her torso at him and scanning him with a look that told him he could enjoy her personal attentions later if he wished. If she enjoyed his company she would brag to the others about how skilled he was at pleasing her. If she did happen to criticize him, he would dismiss her and move on to the next available object of desire. It was inevitable. He could never allow himself to think of it being any other way. Perhaps he would even live forever. If anyone could do it, surely he could. He had been given special abilities and a special purpose, much more so than other beings.
The young males in the crowd, who might have been his peers if they had been worthy, began to jeer.
"Is this going to be even worth standing around for? When do we see something happen?"
He felt himself fully in control of the mask's movement. He could show them whatever he needed to. He would give them their portion of violence when he felt the time was right. But first he needed to bask in the fever of their reaching out, in their giving up of themselves to request his unique talents. It was foreplay before the main event. He needed it, and they gave it to him willingly, even eagerly.
Caught up in the moment, Axtonen was startled when a sudden wind kicked up the dust, and the prisoner, having no mask, began to choke, as did the crowd. Axtonen resented this intrusion. It lowered his control of the situation and limited his ability to manipulate. He shook with rage, which was one emotion he did experience fully. He tried to shift the mask into something less dramatic, and he planned to step up its effects once the wind died down and was no longer distracting the crowd from his actions. But the rising wind began to scatter debris and whip clothing and hair, swirling and spreading the dust upward. The villagers began to cover their faces and turn away from him. He wanted to shift the mask, but no one would see him do that now. His fists squeezed air as if to crush the wind and stop its theft of his rightful place. His breathing quickened. Fear was useful, but only in someone else. He must not let it have him. And the wind must not take what he had always kept control of.
Watchers pulled peacock feathers and white laurel branches into their coats to keep them from blowing away. But the wind shifted further into an even higher velocity and began to shred the beautiful, perfect feathers and to tear leaves away from laurel branches. Peacock quills were jettisoned like arrows and laurel leaves pelted Axtonen's body until he experienced something like panic, but he was not accustomed to accessing that emotion, so he could not identify it. Resisting all that was painful, he turned on one heel to check on the crowd, only to find them moving beyond his reach, further and further away. Axtonen's heart pounded and he felt the inside of the mask wet with sweat, and then, maddeningly, with tears for some old sadness he had no name for. He had no mirror of faces to see how he looked, but the mask would have prevented that anyway. The one he was to punish had merely walked away from him under the cover of wind and dust. The crowd had fled him to find shelter. He had nowhere to go, of course. He was behind the only shelter and hiding place he knew, the one of his own inventing.
When the wind finally gentled itself to a lighter breeze it might have comforted the average man, but one such as Axtonen crumbled in the aftermath. Knowing he was surrounded by tattered feathers and empty branches, he sensed the full abandonment of those he hated and needed but could not love. He stood alone and covered the outside of the dusty, filthy mask with his hands and cried for some frightened child inside him he could not touch or even see anymore.
Copyright© 2004 Deb Thompson
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