The assembly sat in judgement.
As deference to my age, I had my own chair, with a cushion. The younger men, whose voices filled the halls, sat on the long benches of the council chamber. From many lands, they were, speaking many tongues, but all of them loud with emotion. Most of them were not sitting down at all.
We had won the war. It had taken many years - too many - and far too many lives. My country had paid its share, in the thousands and the tens of thousands, and it is but a small country. Many nations had borne heavier burdens than ours. And ours alone had been enough to cause the greatest despair.
But we had held on to hope. We never gave in, through invasion and occupation and defeat, and we had fought on these many years, and now we had triumphed. The alliance of the nations had triumphed over the empire, had broken their power and their tyranny, and now they lay at our feet.
The question was, what to do with them.
It was a question that needed to be answered now, today, in this hall, by this assembly. The alliance of nations, that many-headed creature borne of necessity, was already fraying. We were breaking into our old patterns of amity and enmity, of support and mistrust. And the empire would not be prone forever. We had to deal with them as a group, before we had lost the power to do so.
That they would be disarmed was no question. That their leaders would be punished was agreed upon by all. These were the easy decisions.
But what of the nation? What of the people whose labor and whose hands had been turned so cruelly against us? What should be done with them? How could we fetter them, that they might not rise again?
There were those in the chamber who wanted nothing less than the empire's total destruction. Mass executions, deportations, starvation, and slavery. Cast down all their works and tear their cities to ruin. Break them so that they could never rise again. Pragmatism, they said. It was no less than they deserved. Had they not done the same to us? Had they not starved our wives and children, murdered our husbands and sons? Never again, the pragmatists said.
But we are better than them, others replied. We must ensure they never descend into evil again, yes, but we must do so by oversight and reconstruction. Rebuild them in our image. We're the good guys.
You might be, the pragmatists said, but we are not. We are realists. We must destroy them, for our own safety.
They argued all day, and into the night. I must confess, I slept through much of it. There were perhaps two others in the hall older than I, but certainly none more tired. And I had heard the arguments before.
I would like to claim that I saw my moment coming, but in truth I swam back to wakefulness to find the elbow of the man next to me gently pressing my ribs, and the assembly looking in my direction, to a man. Luckily, one of the things that I have lost with the years was my ability to become embarrassed. I cleared my throat.
"Yes?" I asked.
The young man - so young! - who was the agreed-upon director of the assembly smiled slightly. "I had asked, sir, if our most respected delegate would share his thoughts on the matter with the assembly."
"Hurm." I struggled to stand, and fought off the efforts of my neighbors to assist me. I may not have much shame, but I do have pride. "Well."
I took a moment to marshal my thoughts, while all these young men looked at me.
"This assembly is not... the first of its kind, that I have known. There are few of you here who remember the last great war. I am sure you are all, however, aware of the details. Of how the Easterners came to conquer all the lands, and how after many years of slavery, we fought them off."
"It was the empire that did so. For we, the nations, were too weak to defeat the Easterners. Only with the help of the empire did we throw off their yoke."
"The empire was our ally, then, and although not yet as powerful as it was to become, was nonetheless the strongest of us. And they suffered at the hands of the Easterners less than we, for they were farther away. The Easterners never touched the empire's shores, nor brought war to their cities."
"What you may not know, or understand, is that they did not need to help us. The Easterners' reach was at its farthest, here. They could not have conquered the empire. And the empire knew that - and came to our aid anyway."
There were murmers of objection, but I stilled them with a wave. "'It is not the same country', you say. 'Things have changed'. And indeed they have. It is perhaps the bitterest thing I have known, that such a nation has become so evil. But."
I was becoming fatigued, but it was important I finish, so I clutched at the rail to steady myself, and continued.
"When I was a boy, perhaps five or six, my country had lain under the thumb of the Easterners for years. For my entire life, we had been a conquered people. The forced labor, the murders, the disappearances - it was all I had known."
"And then the imperials - even now, I can remember what that name once meant, and it saddens me - then the imperials came. They invaded my occupied nation, and liberated us."
"The Easterners did not go easily. For every field, every road, the imperials paid in blood. My town, like most of our cities, was destroyed in the fighting, but we did not resent it, because it meant our liberty."
"I was in a basement when the fighting for my own town stopped. I had been caught away from home, stealing onions from a field, and on my way back the town was attacked. I found a basement, and hid in it. For eight hours, I huddled, hearing the fighting above me, near, far, near again. Finally, it ended."
"I waited well after the noise had stopped, until darkness fell. Then, when I judged it safe, I left my bolt-hole."
"It was a fine September evening. I remember how the moon looked, as I climbed out of the basement, and was shouted at."
"A soldier had seen me. He was filthy, covered in dirt and sweat, but his weapon gleamed with frightul purpose. I knew, that moment, that I was going to die, but I simply stood, dumbstruck, as he approached."
"It was an imperial, speaking to me. Of course, I could not understand. But to my surprise, he was smiling, and had lowered his weapon. When he reached me, staring open-mouthed at him, he patted me on the head."
"He reached into his pouch, and he gave me a candy. And then he gestured that I should go, and shouldered his weapon, and walked off."
I cleared my throat. The image of that young man, doubtless long dead, was as clear in my memory as if I were seeing him now.
"It took the empire two months to drive the Easterners from my nation. They fought in the fields, and the streets, and the forests. They bled and died in their thousands, and their tens of thousands."
"And then they went home."
I rapped my hand on the railing, and although it was a far cry from the pounding I had been famous for in my days as a leader and an orator, it sounded well enough in the quiet room.
"Then they went home."
"The empire is evil, yes. It must be disarmed, and those who lead it must be removed. But you who would murder them all to save yourselves pay too little heed to the nature of men. Men are weak, and foolish, and easily led into evil. But they are also generous, and self-sacrificing, and it is not so hard to lead them to good."
"There are few of us who remember the days when the empire was our friend and ally, who gave her young men for our liberty, and asked nothing in return. And though they have turned to wickedness and tyranny, and we have had to fight and die to stop them, it is as within them to be good as to be evil."
I paused, and thought of my sons. My oldest had died four years ago, fighting the imperial forces that had this time not come to liberate, but to enslave. My second son had died only a week later, in the desperate rearguard action that had gotten perhaps a third of our army to safety beyond our borders.
My youngest had died only last year, shot in the street by an imperial officer for not answering his questions quickly enough.
"I have suffered," I said, and had to pause to regain my voice. "I have suffered as much as any of you. I have as much reason to hate. And I do. But the same people who have murdered my people are the ones who, many years ago, freed them. And if I cannot forgive them their murders, I cannot condemn them all as murderers."
"I ask only that, as you decide, you remember that once the empire was our saviour, rather than our enemy. And that what lies in the future, no man can say."
I sat down. I could not help it, my legs had had enough.
There was quiet discussion for a while - the respect due an elder statesman - but soon enough, they were shouting again.
I listened for long enough. My words had had their effect, I could tell. My effect on the undecided ones had been enough. For good or ill, the empire would be spared the pragmatist's fury.
I slept, and dreamt of a young man. In one hand, he had candy.
In the other, he held a gun.
- Sun Ra
Columns by Sun Ra