November 1999

Kelly Cherry

Kelly Cherry Kelly Cherry's recent books include The Society of Friends, Augusta Played, Death and Transfiguration, and Writing the World.  She is Eudora Welty Professor of English and Evjue-Bascom Professor in the Humanities at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.

Diana Awaiting her Death in the Colosseum    Click to hear in real audio

The body would be devoured and ravened by lions just as she had satiated her appetite with fish from the Tiber, quail's eggs, pig. The creatures would dismember her. She would be pierced by fangs, torn, swallowed, taken in and absorbed. It was what it meant to be a body. It was only the body, not the spirit.

The stadium seats were crammed to capacity with a jostling crowd. Shouts, hoots, jeers, laughter. She noticed, among the thousands of spectators, a couple who appeared to be paying no attention to what was going on in the arena. They had their heads together as if small winds, blowing at their backs, pushed them into each other.

She noticed, too, that the sky was blue, unblemished by clouds. She tried to imagine the blueness as foundational, the ground floor of God's kingdom. If Christ could walk on water, a city could fly. There would be a room for her there, in His father's house. A small, private room with tile to walk on, cool as a pool to the bottoms of her bare feet and inlaid with a mosaic of semiprecious stones in the shape of fish, which was His sign. Fish from the Tiber.

A spray of blood brushed her cheek as softly as if someone had touched her face with a rose. Her father had tended the roses at home, coaxing them out of the hot ground.

She swiped at the thickish wetness with her hand, getting blood on her fingertips.

The crowd roared. Like a lion!

From the corner of her eye she could see the iron gates opening, more of the beasts, starved into rage, entering the arena. It was not God who had ordained death but humans, with their willfulness and lust to possess and accidental cravings.

She could not bring herself to look around for her parents, for their bodies, broken like bread.

Body was not spirit.

She had selected for herself a line of sight through which she could see the blue sky. And there was the young couple, so intent on each other, so engaged.

She could smell the blood, and it was slick on her fingertips; it was silken as rose petals. She could hear the screams and prayers, the agonized hollowness of them, as if they reached her from a distance, fogged and echoey with travel. Blue ribbons of screams.

There was such a heaviness to it all as well: the huge animals, the human carcasses, the clapping and stomping in the stands. This mayhem, this circus. The stadium seemed to be shuddering.

She fitted her hands together to pray, and the hand with blood on it imprinted the other. Looking at her hands clasped like that, she remembered her sister, Julia. Julia had died of fever so long ago that Diana wasn't always sure she had had a sister, except for the way they had held hands when they ran into the water on vacation. "Oh!" Julia cried, seeing the ocean for the first time at four. "It's full!"

Diana knelt, then, and began to pray, planning that the last words she would hear would be those of the Lord who taught us to pray, "Our Father, which art in heaven." And so many others were in heaven as well. Would Julia be there, she wondered, with red hair and pretty, smiling mouth open with pleasure—how vividly she remembered her little sister now—and had she been there since she was a little girl, waiting for her? Would she catch up with her parents in the same place, later this afternoon? "Mother, Father," she would cry, leaping over stars to reach them, "I'm here too!" The thought of how happy they would be to see her made her start to cry. It was all she ever wanted: for them to be happy. Why was she crying? Was she not grateful to God for this gift He had conferred on her, this opportunity to please her parents? She smoothed the tears from her face with the heels of her hands.

Little quail egg, she said to herself, squeezing her eyes shut tight now, a blackness surrounding, descending, blue sky burnt to blackness, piglet, fishling. For you, such an adventure is about to begin.



Kelly Cherry: Fiction
Copyright 1999 The Cortland Review Issue NineThe Cortland Review