by Lauren Nguyen (Georgia)
Dawn rises over the ruins.
The soft, gentle light caresses the twisted spurs of metal, softening the edges of the snapped timbers and crushed bricks until the harsh lines seem almost rounded and graceful. Smoke rises in the ever-lightening sky, joining its fingers with the wisps of clouds lingering in the distance, soon vanishing completely as the full disc of the sun breaches the horizon. Shadows spring into definition, the last strongholds of the night standing tenaciously even as the light blooms.
Light creeps up the burnt towers, an echo of last night’s fires, and paints gold on the soot-darkened stone. Light illuminates the insides of abandoned houses, toying with the broken vases and toppled chairs. Light brightens the sky above the towers no longer lofty and topless.
Like the stumps of a giant’s fingers, the broken towers pierce the horizon, biting with ugly desperation into the clear enameled sky. The carcass of a horse lies in the distance, its knobby legs broken and its stomach flayed open; the thousand black-winged birds of war had long ago carried its innards away. Next to the horse, torches, their bright eyes quelled, lie quietly on the ashy ground. Flowers, bruised confetti, wither in the sunlight. The morning is silent—no cawing of crows, no screaming of soldiers, no moaning of the dying, no clashing of steel—but the silence is one echoing with vestiges of sound. Yells of victory and grunts of pain stir the rust-stained dust floating over the trodden fields stretching before the city. The battered walls rattle with the clangs of sword against shield and pike against helm. Screams ring through the fire-ravaged halls—screams of grief and mourning, screams of fury and anguish. Screams of madness fill the remnants of the temple, emanating from the few drops of rust-red adorning the pallid statue and mingling with the old incense smoke and musty scent of ancient flowers. Far above the upturned face of the effigy, a girl’s high, piercing, crazed cries float over the toppled houses and torn gates, resounding through the tranquility of the broken city.
Filled as the ruined citadel is with echoes and shadows, the smoke-darkened chambers and fallen colonnades are empty of any filmy memories of fine silk veils and golden hair, any lingering imprints of rich perfume and light footsteps. There is one voice absent from the cacophony of soundless murmurs and shrieks. No teasing whisper, throaty and seductive, remains hidden in the ragged curtains hanging above the splintered bed. No velvety voice floats around the ash-covered courtyard. No rattling of exotic beads fills the cracks between the paving stones, and no trace of alabaster skin graces the once-lofty ramparts.
Yet the voices mixed with the wind sigh of her beauty. The voices drifting over the fields strewn with dismembered arms and legs extol her fine silk veils and golden hair, her rich perfume and light footsteps. The voices in the empty throne room speak of her voice—throaty, teasing, rich, velvety, and seductive. The voices above the ravaged soil speak of her clothes, bespangled with exotic beads, and the voices wafting through the battered ramparts speak of her skin, alabaster and smooth. The voices everywhere—they tell of her. The child’s screams prophesy the ruin of the city to the lies she told and the fate she brought.
Perhaps her lies and fate did ruin the city.
She is a lie—the lie of the people who had once lived in the ruins. The toppled towers and fire-ravaged halls whisper this truth, baring their torn walls and burned houses to the searching light of the dawn, seeking to belie these voices—but to no avail. The voices crescendo, turning into a symphony each turning into truth the lies they told themselves as their city fell around them, decimated by the unmerciful blades of flame and steel. It is she, they shout. The most beautiful woman in the world—she is the one who launched the thousand ships of war and razed the topless towers of our city. It is she who ruined our lives and brought the downfall of our gods. She is the villain, and we are the heroes. Their cries drown the protests of the ruins and the objections of the dry, dusty wind; the clamor deafens even the silence, which soon cedes to the onslaught of bitter and desperate lies told by men seeking glory and women seeking retribution in the last hours of their lives—seeking to leave a legacy where none could grow in the ugly reality of war, seeking to evade the unrelenting knowledge of the pointlessness of bloodshed and death. These lies become the truth, and the fate of the ruins is sealed.
As the sun journeys ever higher into the sky, the ruins vanish.
A shining monolith of gold and marble rises in their place, a testament to the splendor of heroes and the power of gods built on the falsehoods of desperate kings who could not bear the inglorious uselessness of war and the self-deceiving testaments of dying men who clung to their wishes to be heroes to their last breath. No more blood-tainted dust—heroes never bleed red. No more bloodstained debris—wars never destroy lives. No more contorted bodies—bloodshed is never painful. No more withered, trampled flowers—death never comes. No more screams of pain-crazed children—innocents are never hurt.
And there she stands on the ramparts of the city glorious in war: the most beautiful woman in the world.