Short Story – Final Theft

The Final Theft

I still remember the drums on the day the thief died. The incessant pounding. The distant thrum and reverberating echo that trembled through my bones. I still feel it now, so many decades later.

When I awoke that morning I came aware of myself not to the sound of those drums, but to the jarring accompaniment of the sound of dozens of marching feet on the streets outside. Laughter, and jovial noises without name passed between friends drifted through the walls. The town was alight with life and energy and fervor, a vibrant contrast to the calmness of the ocean’s soothing harmonies that usually greeted me.

I rushed down the stairs three at time, unconsciously skipping the last, broken step. My mother sat at the table, but I didn’t pay much attention to her then. I wish I had, looking back now. But my young mind was too enthralled with what was going on outside the walls of my own home. I ran to the window and peered out through the muted glass at the throng of people making their way down from the docks. The whole town was out in force, rising with the sun.

“Momma, come see.” I said, turning to face my mother.

It was then that I noticed the way she sat, hunched over the table, hair unkempt and splayed around her face like seaweed splashed upon the beach. There were bags under her eyes as large and as blue as clams. One hand absently caressed the silver draoi pendant that hung from a chain around her neck, the pendant father had given her. Even then, as a child, I found this odd.   She always wore the pendant beneath her smock, never taking it out. She said father had worked long and hard to get it for her – many long, sleepless nights at work. It was their little secret, and she kept it close to her heart.

I never saw much of my father.   He worked at night, so the few times I did see him, it was as a huddled form beneath blankets or else blearily making his way to the table for food in the morning. But that was ok. He brought mother and I such wonderful food to eat and kept us with a roof over our heads. I didn’t know any better at the time, though it often left my mother ragged, stressed, and prone to episodic depression.

“What’s wrong?”

Her fingers turned a small circle over the little reptilian pendant, the only response I got from her. I pushed around her to the other side of the table, trying to meet her eyes, but it was as if she simply couldn’t see me. As if she saw right through me. One of her episodes. She and my father must have been fighting again while I slept.

“Mother?” I asked. Again, I got no response.

As young as I was, I didn’t recognize the agony and despair. I didn’t see the depression sinking in leaving leaving behind a shadow of my mother’s former smiling self – a broken shell, a clam that had been eaten, normal appearing on the outside but hollow and empty within.

“I’m going out, momma. I’m going to go see what’s going on out there.”

Silence grew on barbed wings between us. I edged away, one foot out the door. Maybe I could stop by the apothecary on my way down to the docks. The old lady that ran the shop, her face as wrinkly as an old, dried grape, frightened me, but she was the only one in town that knew anything about sicknesses. And she and mother were friends. So I slipped through the door and out onto the street, my young mind filled with the surety of youth, that even though my mother was sick, I could make her better when I got back. It is a pity that the surety of youth is so often a false hope, clouded with ignorance and naivety.

Outside, the street was packed as tightly as the fish barrels carted down from the docks to the market each morning. People in all sorts of clothes and dress and shape and size pushed their way down the street, forming a schooling pool of moving flesh. I had never seen so many people, except maybe when the Draoi dueled. The throng must have come from the other islands or else there were simply that many merchant ships in the harbor. One man, big enough to have difficulty going through a door, pushed me aside as he waddled through the crowded streets. Another man, small and thin but with a thin beard and bright yellow hair cut close to his scalp, hurried after him carrying several bundles in shaking arms.

The waddler moved quickly for a fat man.

As I ducked around legs and booted feet, I followed the tides of moving humanity, delighting in the energy and strength of life pulsing through the town. Like a turtle in the Archipelago current system, I rode the throbbing, pulsing throng to the Draoi Cliffs. Part of me grew chill when I realized where we were going. The cliffs were where criminals were tried. Where, according to tradition, the innocent condemned the guilty.

Innocent. What a ridiculous concept. A better description would be naïve. The naïve condemned the guilty. They were those who cast the stones.

As I neared the cliffs, passing the glassblowers’ shops at the town proper’s edge, I overheard some of the crowd describing the man on trial. He stood tall and proud atop the Justice Stone, his back straight, bound hand and foot at the edge of the cliff. But his eyes were closed. A proud man ignoring the shouted gibes as the youngest in the crowd pushed toward the front. Rocks were already laid out for them. I worked my way toward one of the groups, glad that my mother wasn’t there to see me. She kept me away from these things. I’d secretly always wanted to take part, but mother never let me.

“What did he do?” My young voice was eager, excited.

“He’s a thief and a liar,” one of the boys said, “He sneaks into people’s houses, into their stores, and takes things from people who need them. Look at that smug face.” He spat to the side, though I still couldn’t see the man. “It’s because of people like him that we starve. It’s because of people like him that we’re a poor island.”

I felt something well up within me then, an emotion that I had only experienced in passing up to that point in life, like a fleeting glimpse of an iceberg’s tip though its main mass lay hidden from view beneath the waterline. Images of my mother’s gaunt, hungry face bounced through my mind. Memories of the gnawing agony of a hunger that had passed beyond the normal grumblings of an empty stomach assaulted me.

My young mind ruminated over this man’s sins. How dare he take from others and leave them poor and hungry. How dare he leave the worry lines upon my mother’s face? How dare he leave her like she was now, a broken, crying shell?

The Arbiter stepped forward to the edge of the Justice Stone, purple robes lined with orange fluttering in the seaside breeze there at the cliff’s edge. His staff of office, a large polished affair of wood and metal scrollwork with a bright red stone set at its top, was held in one gnarled, ancient hand. He held up a piece of parchment bound between two sticks.

“The accused stands charged of multiple instances of theft.” The crowd shouted and jeered, a piece of rotten fruit striking the man in the face and falling to the Justice Stone with a wet plop. Reddish-brown juice dripped off his chin.

“The first grievance is brought forth by the baker. Four loaves of bread were taken from his window as they sat cooling. The crime took place on the third day of Shashaleh. Let him now be judged.”

The Justice Stone flashed red, testifying of his guilt. I saw the light flash around the figures of the boys in front of me. The crowd yelled, my thin soprano voice joining in with the angry jibes.

It made my anger swell to know that this man – this thief – had taken the pleasure of eating that warm, hearty bread away from some other child. I got to eat bread so infrequently that the thought made me sick. The man stood so proudly, back straight, head up, posture relaxed, but with his eyes closed. Why was he so smug? My knuckles whitened on the rock.

“The fishery brings forth the second grievance. Several herring and parts of a tuna were taken from the storage room on four separate occasions, the tenth day of the Shasheleh, the twenty-first, the twenty-third, and the twenty-eighth. Let him now be judged.”

The Justice Stone flashed red. Guilty.

I readied my rock. I remembered the taste of those two kinds of fish. It had been such a welcome relief to the rice and flour gruel that normally graced our tables that the memory had stuck with me. And they were expensive fish too. But mother said my father had worked hard those nights, hard enough to afford the rare and delicate meal. Even as young as I was though, I noticed how she wouldn’t meet my gaze when she said it. As hungry as I was, and as delicious as the fish smelled, I thought that she was just ashamed of the fare that had come before. I did my best to assure her I was grateful for the regular gruel as well as the fish. The gratitude was likely lessened somewhat through the mouthful of steaming fish.

“The final grievance, brought forth by the Arbiter. A pendant of great worth was taken a fortnight past. This pendant, a silver draoi granted to him by the governors of the Archipelago, has a worth greater than that of the entire village. Let him now be judged.” The crowd slipped into silence. The Justice Stone flashed red once more. The Arbiter’s eyes reflected the light, seeming to glow with an inner devilish fire.

I blinked. Mother’s pendant? The rock in my hand lay forgotten as my brain tried to process the seed of realization that was budding within my mind. I shoved my way forward, ignoring the angry words shot at me as I passed.

“The thief stands judged. He was caught this morning while trying to steal bread. Let him now be judged for all his crimes. And let him be condemned.” The Arbiter brought his staff down against the Justice Stone, the sound of the impact a striking, staccato note.

The Justice Stone flashed red, dimmed, and then flashed red again. I broke through the crowd.

The magistrate rolled up the charges, his face hard, as the group of children raised their rocks high. The condemned man opened his eyes and met my horrified, angry, emotional gaze.

It was my father.

For an instant, his eyes locked onto mine and filled with cold, terrible recognition. Then they flashed to the rock in my hand. His shoulders sagged and his head drooped into the familiar, tired posture of the man I knew. The rock slipped from my fingers as the Arbiter raised his hand.

“Let him now be condemned.” Drums began to pound.

The children formed into a line and drew back their arms, rocks clutched in white-knuckled grips.

The Arbiter dropped his hand. Rocks flew.

I still remember the drums on the day the thief died, the day he completed his final theft.

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