The Cockade and the City of Mud
written by: Daniel S. Liuzzi
Sirapbourg was once the city known for its production of top shelf liquors and lavish festivals earning its nick-name “The city of high spirits”. This was until last summer that’s now known as the Summer of Tears. The winter was unnaturally warm and dry, spring was even drier and when summer came the canals had dried up along with the wells. Many said the only way to water crops is if people weep over them using their tears. What came afterwards was mass panic that turned to insanity. Neighbors fought neighbors, cattle and pets eaten alive and murders in the streets. Because of a lack of water people had to turn to large stockpiles of wines and liquors to battle dehydration. A sight I never thought I would see, many people nearly driven mad from thirst now stumbled around the city drunk, children too. Either my fellow citizens of this once proud city were careless or hoped the distilled spirits would help make the crisis more bearable. At the height of summer, the Wine Wars began.
At the beginning, people would beg in the streets for money to buy wine but soon money had no monetary value to us Sirapians. Wine, liquor and beer became currency and the breweries were the banks. To protect their cache from would-be robbers and alcohol dependent mobs, these companies formed militias that would be paid in spirits to protect the production and storage of what spirits were left. Soon these militias and brewery-states (the city blocks these breweries stood on became independent states from the rest of the city it seemed) began to fight one another to lay claim on the others' horde of booze. The factions fighting are larger brewing companies like Javerson & Sons Port, a Winery with a force of around 15,000 and one of the most popular wineries in the city. There’s also Mad Monty’s Malt Whiskey Company. Mad Monty’s forces are said to be unknown but there’s been talk that he has around 500 to 1000 soldiers devoted to his brewery but don’t let the small numbers fool you, his men are vicious! Bibson Wines who produce a variety of wines as well as Lager have a force of 18,000. Tetchy Stout & Ale Brewery is Sirapbourg’s only official beer company with 22,000 fighting on their side. The Resolute Whiskey Company has 20,000 men under their flag. I’ve been approached many times by their “Recruiters” to join but declined. Finally there’s Silver Rice Distilleries Inc. that only makes rice wines and sparkling apple wines (a type of Cider), they had about 10,000 men on their side.
The fighting caused the City Guard with its forces of around 20,000 men to take action resulting in the entire city falling into lawless civil war. Its winter now, the fighting may have subsided but tensions are very high because of a newer problem. Since the start of the fall of Sirapbourg, many citizens have departed this life leaving us who linger alive envious of them. At the rate of the deaths and the lack of space, many people have begun to dump bodies into the sewers before deciding to dump the bodies in the dried canals. The canals were many meters deep but soon parts were nearly reaching half way up full of bodies! This winter is cold but the ground’s not frozen, it’s wet…water has returned but it was not pure, most of the moisture came from the corpses! Even thought it was cold it did not snow but rained heavily, corpse-filled sewers flooded before filling the dried canal mass grave and wells. With the wells filled with water from the ground, masses of people gathered at public faucets and wells to drink something besides alcohol. This mass wave of hope became a mass wave of death. The water from the wells and faucets was poisoned by the bodies in the canals and sewers. Overnight many have perished; their bodies joined the others in the canals. The fighting between warring breweries began again.
From my apartment I sip my wine and watch the street below, if I could still call it that. The cobblestone that my street was made from like many other streets in the city sunk into the gray mud. People sloshed through the mud, the splashing of the mud soon caked the walls of once colorful buildings, bright-colored lamp poles soon matched the color of the mud, people’s clothing as well as mine have turned gray. Workers have taken lumber from the homes of the deceased and placed them on the mud to see if it would ease pedestrian traffic, so far the boards have not sunk into the mud but they now shoot muddy water upwards as you step on the wood. I’ve stayed in my apartment for a couple of weeks now but my boredom has swayed me to leave and go for a stroll. Since the water is poisonous and no one can wash their cloths, I’ve decided to have two sets of garments, one I wear in the apartment and the one I wear while walking outside. After changing into my mud cloths, I made my way down the mud crusted stairs outside my room and out the door of my building.
Outside people moved along to get to their destinations as fast as possible before freezing in the rain. I’ve worn my leather overcoat this day with the hopes the rain would wash the mud off the leather. Some people have tried collecting rain water to drink but it resulted in their deaths when desperate neighbors tried to have some or jealous neighbors reporting them. It became enforced that only the breweries could collect rain water to produce their bounty. I walked by one of the few churches that remained open. The doors were open and I could see that inside the huddled masses cramped inside the candle lit interior. These poor souls are not seeking salvation for their souls but salvation from the cold. Many people have rationed their firewood for cooking small meals only, if you wished to be warm you had to go to one of the churches where the large number of warm bodies actually warm up the building. I’ve been fortunate enough that my apartment holds a lot of heat after I cooked my meals, either that’s the truth or I’ve convinced myself that it was, so I feel not as far off as the others in this city.
My stroll took me to the canal that’s thick with corpses. With the water being cold, many of the bodies have shown no sign of decaying. Some of the bodies of men were nude, they were most likely soldiers from the city guard who died and their clothing was stripped from them and redistributed among their living compatriots. Ice has slowed the waters current in the canals causing the bodies to bob around like ice cubes in a glass of water. When spring comes, the canal's current will push the bodies to where the canal empties into the ocean and hopefully they will find peace at the bottom of the sea. As my mind wandered, something colorful in the water caught my eye. A Cockade, a ribbon worn in the hat, this one was round, white on the outer rim, light green was the next color to encircle it with a blue center.
In months this was the first colorful thing I’ve seen. I must have it, I don’t know why but I must. As I crawled down to the water’s edge I kept my sight on the floating cockade while coming up with a plan about how to retrieve it. The cockade was not far from my reach by the time I reached the water’s edge; I laid on the muddy stone walkway by the water and stretched out my arm. The rain striking the icy water’s surface showering me, I could feel my beard and hair stiffen as the water from the river began to freeze them. I pulled at the water hoping I could create a current that would pull the cockade in my direction which to my surprise was working! My fingertips tapped the silky surface of the cockade, pulling it into the center of my palm. Just as I was about to pull my hand away, the bloated body of a dead citizen broke the water’s surface causing me to let out a short cry as I rolled away from the water’s edge. My hand clenched in a fist against my chest as I lay on my back in the mud. I lifted my head from the ground and brought my fist meet my face slowly before gently opening my fingers revealing my prize. I gazed up at the cockade as if I was a father seeing his newborn for the first time; how could I be as awestruck by something as simple as this woven ornament?
By evening I was back at my apartment and sat in the candlelight in dry “clean” cloths admiring the cockade. Since the fighting started in the city, the skies were always overcast; no one has seen the sun let alone a single streak of blue sky in months. Months without rain caused many plants to die, trees made into skeletons, grass turning into dirt. The lack of color in the world got worse when the mud came and turned Sirapbourg into a mud pit fit for an army of pigs, the constant rainfall has not helped matters any. My attention shifted to my window as I heard the rain strike the glass, the wind has picked up, the coals from my cooking fire for dinner are almost out but thanks to the size of the apartment, the residual heat will stay till tomorrow afternoon. Many people who live in the same building as me I’ve noticed don’t venture out like me; I believe all the apartments in this building were blessed like mine with the ability to hold heat. I looked over to my wood pile satisfied to see that it was still pretty well stocked and will last me into the middle of next month if I keep rationing like I have.
I wrapped myself in a blanket before putting on a pair of fresh socks while the ones I wore hang near the fireplace to dry. I looked to the fireplace and stoked the coals before deciding that it was a special occasion of my invention, I looked to a wooden crate full of empty wine bottles before dumping the empty containers to the floor with a clatter and setting the box right on top of the coals which instantly began to smolder before bursting into flames. As the wine box crackled and popped I retreated into my bed admiring the guest of honor of this celebration, the cockade. The lamp by my bed glowed yellow but the cockade’s color was still bright and magnificent, I now believe I know why on impulse I crawled through corpse infused mud and icy rain to retrieve this item. Its bright colors gave me a feeling of hope, as small as the feeling was I felt as if for the first time in months an eccentric optimism in spite of current events. As the burning crate popped and crinkled and the rain on the tin roof of my building grew louder, I was hit with a thought as my eyes grew heavy…escape.
I was jolted awake by a thunderous clap that shook my apartment, it was not thunder. I looked at the only window in my apartment and saw a faint gray light, it’s just barely daybreak. I hopped out of my bed and shuffled over to the window and could see beyond the tops of other buildings an orange glow several blocks away, if I was correct the glow was coming from a whiskey brewery, The Resolute Whiskey Company. As a large orange fireball shot up into the sky and another thunderous clap shook the building, it was obvious that the brewery was under attack and the list of who could have done it was short. As I opened the window, the cold air rushed inside along with the sounds of commotion from the outside. People on the opposite side of the street opened their windows and called over to neighbors across the way that had their windows opened and ask what they could see. In the distance the popping sounds of muskets and rifles filled the air. It looks like I will be staying in my apartment for a while now.
After closing my window I walked over to my bookshelf and pulled out the books I’ve already read and don’t plan on reading again. I stepped out of my room and in the halls were my neighbors with books as well. This little occasion is one of the rare times my neighbors and I interact with each other, when the fighting begins everyone in the building exchange books to occupy ourselves since many of us won’t go out for fear of our safety. During this rare social gathering I was able to trade three books I’ve read for three new ones, with these three plus the others I still own that I have not read yet I’m set for entertainment. After returning to my room I decided to go to my storage loft above my room, each of the rooms on the top-level like mine has one. I pulled out a chair and pushed on the panel on the ceiling that leads into the loft. I have nothing stored up in this small space except for a couple of buckets. It was deafening in the loft since right above me was the roof being hammered by rain. I lit a lantern and began to look for the old wine cork that was in the roof, though collecting rain water is dangerous, some like me collect it in secret.
After finding the cork I placed one of the buckets under it before pulling the cork out. The water poured into the bucket from the cork sized hole as if it was a faucet. As the one bucket became full, I switched it with the other empty bucket to fill as well. As the other bucket filled with water I took the full one back down to my room and poured it into a caldron before hanging it in the fireplace. After returning to the loft I corked the hole in the roof and brought the other bucket down. I’m not the only one in this building that performs this clandestine chore, I’ve heard my neighbors in their lofts doing the same thing at times, one of them actually collects water for the people on the ground floor who can’t collect rainwater. I started a fire under the caldron to bring the water to a boil; I’ve decided to do some laundry today for the cloths I wear while I’m in the apartment. By the end of the washing I nearly ran out of room around the hearth to hang damp cloths. Luckily I just had enough room for all my washing. I set the bigger caldron aside to let the water cool as I heated up a pot of water so I could wash myself.
After I washed myself, I set the pot to cool with the cauldron, at night I'll pour the water down the drain outside my window, keeping the water cool will prevent it from steaming in the cold night air that could draw unwanted attention. What water that was left in one of the buckets I’ll use to brew myself some tea. As I put on cloths I’ve not worn yet, I put the cockade on the collar of the shirt I’m now wearing. I’ll wear it around the apartment for the time being. Seeing the colorful ribbon made me remember the last thought I had before falling asleep the night before, escape. I sat at my table sipping the tea I’ve made and thought more about the notion my mind gave me before sleep overtook me. I’m not questioning whether or not it’s a good idea to leave the city, it’s a great idea but how and where would I go? The nearest exit of the city was a couple of hours to the east of my apartment but I would have to cross the canal to make the trip quicker, my other option was to the south which was a four-hour walk on a “Good” day.
For the rest of the day I read one of my new books and enjoyed the rest of the tea I’ve made as the weather outside turned stormy. As night fell I dumped the water I used for my laundry and bath out the window under the cover of darkness before retreating back to my bed. As the coals burned in the hearth I lay in my bed whose back touches the wall behind it which worked out fine since my bed was a canopy bed, I untied the curtains on the three sides facing out into my room blocking out the light of the glowing coals and muffled the sound of the wind and rain. On the wall above my head was a hook with a lantern that illuminated the inside of the cozy tent-like bed with a warm white glow. I sat under the sheets reading but soon my reading was distracted by the cockade. I sat and listened to the rolling rumbles of what I pretended was thunder but in reality was the roar of artillery and gunfire. As I looked at the cockade whose colors represent my city, I realized our meeting was fate. To conserve what was left of this city, I must leave it and return someday when the fighting stops and help heal this city so it can move forward. Tonight, I plan my departure.
The next morning I filled as many empty wine bottles with rainwater as I can carry, I’ve decided to use my collection of liquors as a bartering items if I’m stopped by soldiers or have to pay a fee to enter any of the other districts in the city. I loaded the bottles of water in a rucksack and the liquor in a haversack slung over my shoulder. In the rucksack I stored fresh cloths and fire making material along with some old smoked meats that I’ve had stored away for an emergency. I’ve melted down a couple of candles and put the wax on my boots to make them more watertight along with my rucksack. In the pockets of my coat I stored small tools for whatever situation may arise while on my own. Finally I pulled out from the chest at the foot of my bed, my bicorn hat which I now affixed the cockade to it. I stretched my arms once I equip everything before sliding the hat on my head and walking out my apartment door for the last time.
Outside the rain battered down on me in large drops, luckily the coat I’m wearing insulates me and keeps the water from soaking me through, thankfully my wax covered boots are holding up as I slosh through the thick grey mud. I trudged through the muddy soup that used to be a cobblestone street and made it to the wooden planks that now act as its substitute. As I stepped on the wooden planks the sky grew darker though it was mid morning and it began to rain harder. The plan is to reach the canal to the east of here and from there I’ll move to the next phase of my journey providing that I’m correct in my theory as to how I would cross the canal to the next district. As I passed through what was a market place, I saw two boys, not older than ten years old, drunk and wrestling in the muck for the entertainment of older men who laughed as they gulped down cheap homemade gin. I glared over at the group with disgust, one of the men saw me but the look on his face showed curiosity, I believe it was because of my cockade.
I passed under a network of wooden archways and alleys, at time escaping the rain just to enter back into it. I finally came across an alleyway that’s completely roofed but the buildings on either side are packed saloons, a greater risk of encountering members of The Resolute Whiskey Company who wear cinnamon colored outfits and yellow armbands. As I walked the alleyway that’s only lit by small kerosene lanterns, the saloons were empty…except for a sight I was hoping not to meet, Mad Monty’s men. There they were sitting at tables wearing their dark green outfits and black armbands that have an image of a flame on them. I continued to quickly walk trying not to attract attention to myself but at the end of the alleyway there were two of Mad Monty’s men standing guard holding onto chains that acted as leashes for two large wolves. I reached into my haversack and felt around before pulling out two wine bottles. My movement attracted the attention of the two guards who looked at me with concern till I held up the bottles.
Confusion was now the look on their faces as I told a fib that the wine was from some of their compatriots at the saloon. Each man thanked me and took a bottle, one of them shouting at his wolf that was growling at me before yanking it away to allow me to leave the alleyway. As I passed by the men I tipped my hat at them and kept a calm face to them but as I walked away and knew I was far enough away my expression changed to complete astonishment and excitement that my impromptu performance worked! The leg of this journey continued without any more excitement till I got to the canal. I made my way down to the edge of the water and looked upon the sight of the densely packed corpses that clogged the canal that stretches to the other side to the next district like a revolting bridge, which I plan to cross. I looked at the pale and multicolored faces and lumps of torsos as I paced back and forth on the stone landing at the water’s edge working up the courage to at least attempt to test if I could even stand on them.
After a couple deep breaths and a quick prayer I gently stepped on the closest corpse before putting my whole weight on it…it held! With a light chuckle of macabre relief, I continued to slowly step on corpses. With the number of bodies stuck in place under the water and the bodies I’m now walking on made the surface firm and with the cold winter air froze the bodies stiff, with the exception of at least two or three corpses that my foot was actually able to penetrate through the soften flesh and innards. I cursed and apologized to the remains before continuing on trying to convince myself that my foot did not pass through a human torso. I’m now part way over this “Bridge” just a bit passed the halfway mark it seems when I heard a deep rumble and felt a vibration in the air. The source of this new sensation came from the other side of the canal where I just came from. I slowly turned my head and saw a church that was near the canal quiver as it began to look like it was slowly lowering…not lowering, SINKING! The church was sinking into the mud, as the building sank what looked to be fifteen feet, a wave of water and mud rushed down the street and poured into the canal with enough force to start dislodging parts of the corpse bridge!
I felt the bodies under my feet quake and loosen from each other. Without hesitation I broke into a full sprint completely forgetting that I was treading on remains. The rain slapped my face with stinging force as I saw the stone landing coming closer and closer as the surface under my feet began to give from under me as the bridge was nearly gone. With one last boost of energy I pushed off and dove at the landing, my legs still in the icy water, I began to kick frantically as pulled myself out of the water and sat looking back at the canal. I slowly stood and cursed a couple times before taking off my bicorn and run my fingers in my hair and breathed deeply before putting the hat back on. The city is sinking, the ground must now be beyond saturation, before I’ve thought about what if I decided to go back to my apartment and forget my mission but seeing that church partly sink into the mud enforced the proverbial thought that there’s no turning back now. I climbed up away from the canal to the street level and saw it was empty, even though the noise of the sinking church was loud, no one came outside to see what the sound was, instead I could see curtains in many windows pulled back with pale emaciated faces gazing out in shock at the sight of the now teetering church steeple.
It became apparent that because of the scene behind me on the other side of the canal, I was invisible. I took advantage of this and pushed through the mud streets for several blocks till I found a stoop I was able to sit out of the rain and rest my legs from pushing through the ever thickening mud. I pulled out one of my water filled wine bottles and took a couple swigs from it before putting the bottle back in my rucksack, if anyone saw me drinking from the dark bottle they would assume it was wine and not water. I looked up at the dark-colored sky; from this angle the falling rain had a strange beautiful look to it. This observation soon gave way to another observation that the building this stoop belongs to was vacant, there’s no smoke coming from the chimney of this building or any other buildings around this area. This section of the city I’m in now must be what some call the “Ghost” districts that are near the ways out of the city. Ghost districts are the districts of the city that during the Summer of Tears many people from the outer parts of the city left for the countryside. As soon as the Wine Wars started many more if not the rest of the people living in these areas up and left the city before the fighting got worse.
Realizing that I was almost out of the city gave my body a sudden burst of strength, it was now late afternoon. Sloshing my way through the mud and pooling water I began to see the buildings becoming smaller and loosing height, this was a good sign which was uplifting while it lasted before I stopped short. Before me was a makeshift wall made of piled up carriages, tables, chairs, beds, desks, shelves, barrels and just about anything else that could be used to make a heavy fortified blockade. Looking at it, there’s no way I could climb this crude wall unless I’m willing to risk causing an avalanche of the components that make up this blockade. The walls were set up in between the houses and buildings were the “Cut off” line to where the city ends and the suburban areas begin. I approached the closest building in front of me and checked the front door, maybe I can go inside and look from the upper floor and see if I can get out from the other side of the building. The door was not locked, I pushed it open and stepped inside only to be met with a familiar smell, a smoldering fire; the building was occupied. Or so I thought. There was no sign of anyone being in the building at the moment, if anything they were here a while ago and left the fire to smolder.
I slowly checked the first floor and found no other signs of life before moving to the second floor, if anyone was in the building they would have made some noise by now. On the second floor I found a room that had a curtain nailed over the window blocking all light from passing through, with a strong pull I ripped the cloth from the window and flood the room with light and dust. From the window I could see that it faced out of the city, outside the window I could see that if I do so carefully I could climb from this window onto a landing and into a tree that looks strong enough to hold my weight where I could then slide down to the ground. With a plan now thought out, I tried to push open the window only to find that it’s been nailed shut. As I realized this I felt something jab me in the back and a voice telling me to turn around slowly.
I did as I was told and came face to face with a man pointing a rifle at me. The man looked familiar. He had dark eyes behind round glasses resting on the bridge of his slanted beaklike nose. A thin face with a pointy chin with a well groomed salt and pepper colored beard. The man’s face almost resembles that of a bird…I now remember who this man is, Crane. Crane was a school master but after some controversy no longer is one, whatever position he held before the fall of the city I can’t for the life of me remember so it must not have been that important but the man’s reputation was well known and not for the best reasons. The man is beyond arrogant, vindictive, spoiled and though he acts of refinement he lacks immense social skills. In a city the prides itself on distilled spirits the man has a weak liver making him an irritant drunk. Thankfully I said all this in the back of my mind because he was the one with the gun and the fragile ego. Seeing the dark purple armband I now know that Crane was with Javerson & Sons, I’m shocked that one of the larger forces in the Wine Wars would take a namby-pamby like Crane in its ranks.
As his Modus Operandi suggests, when Crane began to speak to me he was not speaking TO me, he was talking DOWN at me as if I was some servant whose sole purpose was to be spoken condescendingly at. He kept shaking the rifle at me as he spoke on and on about rules set up in this district by Javerson & Sons, I was ignoring him and kept my hands in the air while my mind wrestled with different ideas as to how I would get out of this, freedom was close but I have this hopefully last obstacle to face. As the man kept chirping like the avian creature he resembled I remembered the oldest trick I learned back in my youth whenever I was cornered…I looked over his shoulder as if I had a friend coming up behind him. Not to my surprise, it worked. As Crane’s head snapped around I pulled the rifle out of his hands and aimed it at his head and pulled the trigger.
The weapon was not even loaded. Crane lunged at me and tried to pull the weapon out of my hands but I refuse to let him have it. Both he and I slammed against the walls and what furniture that was left in the room. I knocked his glasses off his face, he knocked off my hat, he made me bite my own lip and I made his nose crooked. The wrestling continued for a few more seconds before he began to pull with all his might on the rifle and I just simply let it go sending him stumbling back into the window. With the glass shattering and the window frame breaking, Crane dropped the rifle to catch himself from going out the window. In the confusion I grabbed the rifle by the barrel and swung the butt of the it into Crane’s face sending his limp body out the window and splashing face first into the mud below.
I slumped against the wall to catch my breath and found a cartridge pouch that Crane left; I opened it and found it had plenty of ammunition. After checking my supplies and seeing if there was anything in the building I could take with me, I continued with my plan. Once I made it out the window I slung the rifle over my shoulder and jumped to the tree and wrapped all four of my limbs around its trunk and controlled my decent down to the muddy ground. Seeing the ground will now be under my feet I let go of the tree and turned and looked at the face down corps of Crane and slowly shook my head. Crane was far from Sirapbourg’s finest but not it’s worse either; the saddest part was I knew that there was no one back in the city who would care that he was gone from this life. All I could muster up was simply saying Sorry to the corpse, I was not sure if I was sorry for defending myself or sorry that this whole hell of a year happened but then again I was not the one pointing a rifle at a complete stranger for no reason.
I walked through the mud away from the walls signaling that I was now out of Sirapbourg; I’ve made it out of the city and now into the unknown. I know for a couple days there will be farmlands that were part of the city. That night I slept in a barn of one of the abandoned farms and continued on my walk early the next morning. It was hours into my walk before I finally realized that I’ve been walking on solid ground for miles since leaving the farmlands. The air was still cold and the skies full of clouds but no rain, I’ve also noticed the air smelled different, the putrid smell my nose grew accustomed to was no longer present. The air was fresh. At times I would stop and make a small campfire to warm my feet and dry my socks while enjoying some drinking water. Sometime after my last stop I came across a stream that was flowing in the opposite directing of Sirapbourg, this water most likely would be safe to drink if need be but if this water is drinkable then it means out here people are not killing each other for water or liquor. I followed the stream for a while before it led me to a road that looks used quite often.
That night I camped on the side of the road and awoke stiff with a layer of frost covering me, thankfully sleeping under a pile of leaves with a couple of rocks I have heated in a fire helped keep me warm during the night. After eating what was left of my smoked meats I followed the road in the direction of what the latest tracks have made recently by a horse drawn cart. Either this road leads to a small town or to another set of farm fields that was not affected by the drought. My optimism was kept suppressed with caution as I followed the road until in the distance I saw someone walking on the side of the road as well. As I came close the person was several yards away and I could see they were wearing a hunting smock and a smile on their face as they gave me a wave…a wave, the first friendly gesture I’ve seen in a while. I began to slowly wave my arm just like the hunter was to me but soon I waved my arm faster as I smiled with tears rolling down my cold cheeks. My gestures were both a Hello to a new friend and a wave of Goodbye to Sirapbourg, the city of mud.
Daniel had two poems published in the June 2011 issue of the Taj Mahal Review and in the past contributed to Far Horizons E-mag.
Daniel is inspired by the works of Franz Kafka, HP Lovecraft and Vince Flynn.