|The Field of Cloth of Gold
Author: Guede Mazaka
Black earth, rich and sweet and fertile. It stains his hands with wetness, browns his bones to the color of the oldest oaks in the forest. When he walks through the fields, the dirt sinks slowly beneath him, soft and spongy with pent-up life.
Gold wheat, pushing its thin fuzzy heads up from the ground. It ripples for as far as his eyes can stretch, whispering with the wind. Midas may have lost the secret of his asses' ears to the river and reeds, but the fields have kept the secret of his wealth, and kept it well. They grow endlessly, falling to the reaper and then resurrecting in a continuously renewing bounty of riches.
Maximus carried these colors with him, his own private banner, through all his life's travels. Into Rome, that whirlpool of brilliant corruption and petrified heroism. Into the cold north, where the world shaded to greys and dull browns, the too-liberal splashings of war doing nothing to relieve its unrelenting wastes of ice and death. Back into Spain, land of his heart as Rome was the city. Back to the farm where his feet, crusted in dark dried blood and bronzed by the sun, finally gave out before the sight of limp feet hung high in the sky.
There, he'd thought he'd lost them, his hues of himself. But Africa was a revelation. Tan ring-grounds and yellow livers and glowing blue-black men, their outsides matching his insides. There would be no marble statues for Maximus, no gagged watcher forever despairing of the sucking mire rising up at his feet. Head still in the air instead of underground, and hating every minute of it, he crouched and nurtured his revenge, dreaming of falling sculptures and crushed laurel wreaths. He found heat and fight-lust to replace his heart, cunning and parched stinging hatred to replace his mind. He needed nothing to replace his soul.
He was offered something anyway: the shared remembrance of loss, turned to charcoal in the devouring fires of fate and opposition. The knowledge of earth. Africa's dust, Juba had told him, true dust of the land, was not the pale fine sands of the ring, or the rotting blood-soaked clumps littering the floors of the jails. It was dark silk and light granite, smooth and soft when rubbed the one way, and tearing-sharp when stroked the other. It would lie quiescent for years, refusing any master but the best, and then it would yield, ever so suddenly, its great bounties of fruits and grains
It was like nothing Maximus had known. War was a career, but this, Juba told him, was work. Was life, was something to take within and swallow, and to keep close-tucked to the ribs when swimming across the rivers of the Roman Underworld.
And Maximus did. He took the proffered black steel of vengeance, the golden strands of friendship, and he took the black of Juba's skin, the shade of Spanish soil and of African wood, and the gold of his wife's skin, clear as memory and clouded as defeat. Drinking and eating, he took all that he was given and more thereafter, melting it into his bones. Tempering it with crimson lifeblood till it forged itself anew into a sword, bright and gleaming.
He brought that blade with him to Rome, returning not as son but as savior, and he sank it deep within its rightful sheath, that trembling bone-enameled thing he hated when it sat above him, and pitied when it staggered in the coarse dirt before him. Content at last, all of him reconciled, Maximus watched with open eyes as the world shifted quietly around him to endless black fields clothed in gold.
Burnished black, like the man he's left mock-dueling with his son, and polished soft gold, like the woman that he's left sifting the wheat. Maximus knows not how he has earned such treasures, and he cares not, thinking only of hands. Hands that soothe away nightmares that still chase after him. Ebony hands that know the battlefield, and understand the lingering shadows of soldiers' cries and scorched earth. Golden hands that weave together the simplicity of home, and cradle life into full growth.
Maximus still walks among the fields every morning, searching for his banners. And every morning, the paths always lead him back to the same place. Back to his niche between them, unquestioning and unquestioned. He has found eternity, and it has been kind to him.