Abelard and the Gate of Apollo
My name is Abelard.
I was born—a birth some later called miraculous—of a dead mother. She was one of several who had died the day before, trying to flee over the Wall. I was left to die in my dead mother’s stomach; on the wet pavement; beneath coiled wire; paces from polished boots marching by.
I did not die.
Instead, an old man—a great surgeon from before the occupation who had been cast aside by the new order—saw my mother’s swollen stomach as he slowly shuffled by on his way home. He stopped. Somewhere within his mind he remembered. He came closer. He kneeled down and felt my mother’s belly. An hour later he carried me, wrapped in his old, worn leather coat, back to his garret. There I grew and learned. Eighteen years later, at his death, I called him father.
After his funeral, I stood where he had found me. It was late afternoon. The polished boots still marched; the wire was still coiled; the Wall still loomed; and people were still being killed for trying to scale it. There, as I had done over my father’s grave a short while before, I mourned my mother, who had died before I was born. She had been a great actress before the occupation, my father had said; and he had showed me the picture of her that he had clipped long ago from a newspaper and had saved. Looking down at the pavement, at the spot where my father had told me she had died, I saw bars of shadow cast upon the cobblestone by the setting sun. The image of my mother’s proud profile stayed in my mind as my thoughts began to turn to the Wall and, then, to the Gate of Apollo beyond.
“The Gate of Apollo,” I had heard my father say to a friend, “is the gate to freedom.” I knew not this Gate; I had no notion of freedom. I knew, though, what it was like to live in a country where boots were polished with human blood; where coiled wire, like a garrote, strangled every throat; where, for trying to breath, thousands—tens of thousands—including infants, were coolly murdered, their corpses left to twitch on the glistening pavement; their eyes still open, seeing in their death throes the Wall which had crushed them. It was true. I did not know freedom. But I did know tyranny.
With only that knowledge, could I reach the Gate of Apollo? I asked myself. My courage wavered. I looked up. A faded poster on the Wall was momentarily illuminated by the last rays of the sun. I saw a muscular arm holding a hammer. The hammer seemed poised above the Wall, ready to break through it. To smash it into rubble. All that was needed to move the arm, it seemed, was conviction.
I had made my decision.
During the weeks and months that followed, I laid my plan for conquering the Wall. I would not scale it, as others had tried to do. I would go beneath it. I found a deserted building by the Wall, a crumbling remnant half destroyed in a past war. There I began my tunnel. I dug during the night. It was a slow and torturous labor. I had to dig quietly. I had to remove the dirt by myself and find a place in the building in which to hide it. I had to do all of this in the dark, for no light must show to give my work away. When I reached where the Wall should have crossed over me above, I saw that it had been sunk into the ground. Here, too, beneath the earth, the Wall imprisoned me. This gave the Wall the appearance of having risen from hell; a thing built not by man, but by Hades himself.
I was stopped. I went home. But I would return. I would not give up.
What happened the next night would later be called supernatural. Aid from the gods, the people would say. The next night, by the entrance to my tunnel, I found a mason’s hammer and a chisel used for breaking cement. The tools lay upon a map of the city that lay beyond the Wall. There were gold coins. A miner’s light, too. And a gun.
Touching nothing, I quickly left the building, thinking I had been discovered. Several blocks away, a soldier—an officer—stopped me in the street. He asked me why I was there. When I did not reply, he told me that no one, not even guards, traveled the streets in this part of the city.
“Along this stretch the guards watch from their towers set atop the Wall,” he told me. “They will kill anyone who comes near it. Keep away from here,” he commanded, poking my chest.
Then he walked on, the heels of his polished boots striking the pavement; echoing in the night; fading away down the street.
My hands shook as I undressed that night, thinking of the officer. His eyes reminded me of glass stones; his face, of granite. I had recognized his rank. It was very high. Then I felt something in the breast pocket of my shirt. I took it out. It was a small silver case. Inside it was a picture. The picture was of my mother.
I returned to my tunnel the next night. Picking up the hammer and chisel, putting on the miner’s light, I crawled into the darkness of the hole I had dug. As I crouched before the concrete, my arm raised, holding the hammer, I saw the shadow of my arm cast upon the Wall. My arm was like the arm in the poster. Then I brought the hammer down in an arc, striking the chisel. The vibration of the chisel in my hand felt like an electric shock. Like electricity traveling a circuit, my hatred of tyranny was traveling from my mind through my arm to the hammer to the chisel to the concrete and back. In my mind, with every blow, the jagged concrete took on the shape of the face of the officer. The officer who had let my mother die; who was part of what had killed her.
The concrete exploded under my hand, chunks flying like shrapnel, striking my chest, my cheeks, my forehead. I felt no pain; I tasted my own blood; and I swung the hammer harder. I would kill this Wall. I would find the Gate of Apollo. I would learn freedom; then, I would return and kill that which had built this Wall. Beginning with that officer.
Three weeks later, I crawled through the hole that I had made and, crossing the threshold of my tunnel’s exit, entered another reality. Instead of gray cobblestones, I saw lush green grass. Instead of searchlights and coiled wire, I saw a fountain lit by colored lights, with streams of water arching through the air. Instead of polished boots, I saw only my own worn shoes.
I was alone.
Tired as I was that night, I quickly left the city of the dancing waters. I took the gold coins and my mother’s picture. I left the rest. I found a road and made for the south. I continued walking throughout the next day. As twilight approached, I found a large meadow in which I could spend the night. I was exhausted. But I was too hungry to sleep. I had to find some food. Wild berries were growing nearby; and beneath the berry tree was a small stream.
I did not see the snake until it had struck. Picking up a fallen branch, I crushed its head. If it was poisonous, I was already dead. But I recognized its markings. Just a Garter snake, I said to myself. And so my first foods in this new reality, this garden of freedom, were berries and snake meat. Afterward, I found a tree and went to sleep beneath it—the soft earth as my pillow and the star strewn sky as my blanket.
Days later, perhaps a week, I came upon the sea my father had shown me in the Atlas, which he had kept by his desk. The water was so clear that it seemed to disappear. Boats looked as if they were suspended in the air; and beneath their hulls, turquoise rocks sparkled in the morning sunlight. Nearby I saw a young woman carefully digging amidst a mass of very old ruins. Looking up suddenly, she saw me. I watched her as she got up and walked over to me.
“No one is allowed here,” she said, kindly but firmly. “It’s an archaeological dig,” she went on, seeing my quizzical expression.
Her eyes, I noticed, quickly took in everything. I could see a keen intelligence in them. They are honest eyes, too, I thought. Perhaps she will help me.
“I am looking for a boat to take me to the Gate of Apollo,” I said.
She laughed—not unkindly—and replied, “Me, too.” Noticing my expression, she continued. “It’s a joke. My name is Amy,” she offered, holding out her hand. “I am an archaeologist.”
I shook her hand and said, “I need a boat to travel west, across the great ocean, to the Gate of Apollo. Will you help me?”
Amy must have felt sorry for me—an unshaven young boy, worn like a tramp, wearing old-fashioned clothes. For she did indeed help me find a boat that afternoon. And better clothing and some food.
My good-bye was shabby. “I wish I had more time to know you. Where are you from?”
She smiled. “West, across the great ocean. Perhaps I’ll see you there.”
“I knew there was something … so this is what freedom can look like on someone. Bright eyes and a take-for-granted pride. And very smart. Thank you, Amy the archaeologist. Maybe I will see you there. I would like that. Very much.”
I smiled, turned and walked up the gangplank of the boat.
My journey over the sea was harsh. On the first night I had to fight off a man who tried to rob me of what little I had. Several days later, I noticed a pair of polished boots walking the deck. They were like the boots that walked beside the Wall. I had to kill him when he discovered who I was. I threw his foul body overboard late at night.
Then, on the second week of the voyage, a terrible wind blew the waves, making them like mountains. Several of the ship’s crew were washed away. The captain needed help. So I volunteered to work the pumps in the hold. Three days the hurricane blew. The ship came close to floundering many times. But this trial of my quest soon passed, too, as had the others.
The night I was told by the ship’s navigator that on the morrow we would see land, I lay in my bed in my small cabin. I thought of all I had seen and done. I had been told I would need to get permission to enter this new place. I thought of how I would get that permission. I thought of my father—and my mother. Surprising myself, I thought, too, of Amy the archaeologist. As the boat rocked gently on the water, I slipped off to sleep.
The next morning, I was on deck, watching the sun come up from the sea. I was first to see the Gate of Apollo. It was not an actual gate, but a narrows. Connecting the land on either side of the narrows was a great bridge of slender threads and curved steel. I looked up at it as the ship slowly passed beneath. When I again faced forward, I saw a city rising up to touch the rays of the morning sunshine, the tops of the buildings ablaze with an orange-red fire.
Then I saw her.
She look like a divinity—her face solemn; her stance proud and honorable, with a golden torch in her upraised hand. I shall never forget that moment. In my mind it is holy. And as the ship slowly sailed into the harbor, I knelt before the city of the sacred fire and the goddess who watched over it.
I was given permission to enter the great city, but I had to work very hard to become worthy of being its citizen. And I did. I learned the lessons of freedom. I gained the knowledge of liberty. I earned the pride of independence.
Then, shortly before I was to become a citizen, I saw the face with the eyes of glass stone. He was coming off a boat like the one I had traveled on two years earlier. Many people with pencils and pads and cameras gathered around him when he stepped onto the pier. They were what was here called, in this city and the country to which the city belonged, the press.
Our eyes met.
I was startled by how he parted the mob of reporters as he walked toward me. I felt the hatred within me grow. I saw him coming closer. I looked around for a weapon. When I looked back, his arms were around me.
“Before you kill me,” he whispered into my ear as he embraced me, “know that I have killed the man who shot your mother; who shot my wife. I have come here to give this nation the means to kill that which made the Wall. I ask your forgiveness for ever being a part of it. I love you … son.”
My feelings tore me in two. I was angry, surprised and confused. I could not move. I could not decide. My father put his arm around my shoulder, spoke to a man in a suit, and we were swiftly separated from the crowd, walking toward a limousine with a small flag of stars and stripes on each front fender.
In the coming days I would learn that my father had worked, almost from the first, against those who had built the Wall. My mother had not even known. One night she left their home, and my father never saw her again. He learned of her death later. He thought I had died, too. Then he saw me standing by the Wall that afternoon, the day I decided to flee the concentration camp that my country had become.
“I knew you were my son immediately,” he told me. “You looked just like your mother. I followed you. I learned what you had planned. It was I who had left you those things. When I saw you come out of the building so quickly after having entered it, I knew you thought you had been discovered. I tried to tell you—and to show you—that you were safe. I could not acknowledge you as my son. I could not leave just then. I had to stay. I had sworn, long ago, to kill the Wall and those who had built it.”
Thus, in my father I saw myself; and we were reconciled.
A month later, my father watched proudly as I took the oath of citizenship. I was truly free. I had found the Gate of Apollo. And now it was inside me. I recited the words from Badger Clark’s poem, The Westerner, to myself as I walked down the courthouse steps.
For I lean on no dead kin,
My name is mine, for fame or scorn;
And the world began when I was born;
And the world is mine to win.
I had achieved the ultimate prize: my self-respect.
Hours ago, I stood before the sealed door of a jet airliner, waiting for it to be opened. After what seemed like a magical flight, I had returned to the city of the dancing waters. Now I am standing before the Wall. There are crowds of people around me. My father is beside me. The Wall is being torn down. Someone hands me a sledgehammer. I raise it above the Wall. My shadow falls across the now pitted and smashed concrete slabs. I bring the hammer down, and the concrete turns to rubble.
The people around me cheer. I turn to look at my father. He is holding the small silver case, with the picture of my mother, against his chest. He walks forward and takes my hand. Together we cross the ruins of the Wall and return to the country where my mother—and freedom—had died before I was born.
We are bringing back the Lady’s fire within us; and with it we will kindle a nation into freedom.
©1999 Steven Brockerman. All rights reserved.