I have been the death of better people than me.
When Trinity kisses me, I don’t just see her face, but theirs. All I can think of is how I’ll betray her, too, and all the others, until eventually there are none left. The resistance is beautifully diverse, but there are archetypes: the visionary young leaders; the down-to-earth mothers; the anti-war veterans; and, always, the spitfire creatives who approach art like action and action like art, who burn too bright for the obeisance the regime demands, who I’m inevitably drawn to.
When no one knows who will be here tomorrow, love is urgent and bright.
But I know.
It was only supposed to be once. I was a coward. They laughed when I tried to argue the second time. “I did my part of the deal,” I said. But the only deal with cops is that you do what they want, or you disappear.
Trinity is a poet, and sometimes when she finishes a piece, she has an urge to perform it. In the days before, she’s told me, she spent her weekends at poetry slams and open mic nights with her hair dyed neon green, but it isn’t safe to be so open now. So she performs for me, as if I were any safer.
When I die, give my body to the moths.
Let them draw the nectar out of my veins
And be drawn in turn to the still-burning flames of my unfallen comrades.
I don’t always understand her poems, at least not the first time, but I love the sound of them. I love the rhythm and passion of her voice, the way she can make the words coalesce into powerful, precise feelings, whether you understand or not.
I can feel the people who have disappeared for me multiplying. Twenty-six at least, and two were my lovers first. I was with Gracen for three months; Andra, three years, since back when we could still pretend that maybe it wouldn’t come to this. I don’t believe they would’ve made it anyway — none of us will in the end — so what does it matter what I do? But I still break down crying for them, and when Trinity wraps her tattooed brown arms around me, it only makes me cry harder, knowing it’ll be her, soon, too.
I hate myself for loving her, but this is the only chance I have to love anyone. The world is so, so lonely now, and loving another woman is just as dangerous as sharing poems about freedom.
I’d like to think that the cops aren’t privy to this, to the way Trinity holds me, to the nights Gracen and I shared cigarettes on her balcony, to the mornings I woke up to find Andra sketching me in fast, rough lines and strange colors, and I didn’t move until she was done, as if her pencils had pinned me in place.
I would give so much to be pinned again by love instead of fear.
Give me to the moths, the bystanders,
The unwilling citizens of this long-drawn night
Who don’t want to fight but can’t help but be drawn to fresh blood and bright light.
I will show them how to ignite.
When I hear that Gracen has reappeared — after months, only the third of my twenty-seven to return — I want to call her and hear her voice.
I want to never show my face again, because maybe they told her I’m the one who betrayed her.
In interviews, she says they tortured her. There’s something hard in the way she uses that word — defiantly, knowing people will balk. With fearful incredulity, the thought comes: That doesn’t happen here. But what else do you call it when agents of the state deliberately inflict pain? Brutality was a code word all along.
The regime looks for ways to discredit her. She has no injuries, as if we don’t all know that bruises heal, that water and tear gas leave no scars. She says she didn’t confess or give up anything, and with the same anxious, baseless reflex that insists it doesn’t happen here, this too is rejected. Surely they could break her, if they wanted. They could break anyone.
But I believe her.
So do others, moths flocking out of their hiding places to the scent of her blood. It’s in our nature to attend to pain, to drink it in and be moved.
I have nightmares of the things Gracen talks about. I ache to know if Andra endured the same, is enduring it now, if she’s even still alive. The knowledge of what’s inevitably in store for me settles like a chain in my stomach.
Trinity lays soothing words in my ears when I wake from those dreams, but I know she’s afraid, too. Her fire is trembling and catching on me.
The cops find me rushing down an empty street at dusk to get home before curfew.
This is just how they do it.
They don’t call you or schedule a meeting; they catch you alone in the dark and surround you. They growl their hunger, weapons drawn.
They want locations, times, names, crimes.
There are moths flickering around the streetlamp, flashing reflected light off their wings.
Let them bear witness before I am gone
And carry my truth ‘til the inevitable dawn.
If anyone is bearing witness, they’re doing it from shadows, through invisible gaps in curtains and blinds. They won’t come out, but they’ll drink this in.
Whatever I give them.
Gracen didn’t break. She survived the night.
If I don’t, the moths can catch my embers.