The Testimony of the Dead

The Testimony of the Dead

The Emperor’s mother

Something, some spirit took him over. He was a beloved child, cherished like all my children. When he was young, he wanted a wagon. He wanted to fly, he said. His father made the wagon with his own hands, but it would not roll on unpaved roads. My son lay on it on his stomach but he could not fly, of course. He dissected a monkey to look for its soul. He thought his sister’s pet, smart and playful, would certainly have a soul. And, not finding it, he barbecued its liver and forced his young friends to eat it. Then he thought the soul was too small in a small monkey and he hunted a chimpanzee, but he grew tired of butchering it in the heat and the flies. He told his friends he found the soul and placed it in a carved box, which he consulted from time to time. He packed it in his suitcase and moved to the capitol. I hanged myself from the plum tree where he butchered the monkey.

The Emperor’s general

I was his lieutenant from the beginning, his boyhood friend. He protected me from the taunts of the others. My left eye was blind. I made certain that his orders were carried out. He had roads built, fortifications for securing the Empire. Everybody tried to kill him, so of course he became wary. He offered me the province on the Empire’s border and his sister for a wife. I stood in front of him and took a bullet for him. I saved his life.

The Emperor’s corporals

We were orphans from the slums and the farms, and he promised us an empire. He was good to us; he let us pillage and keep what we earned. We loved the man: we said we would die for him. We did die for him.

The Emperor’s father

I died in a raid against the enemy–evil tribesmen who encroached on our land and worshiped a false god. Long live our motherland!

The Emperor’s sister

He wanted me to marry his general, a one-eyed, bandy-legged, balding sheep-fucker. I told him I cared more for my pet monkey than for his general. When he threatened me, I spat in his face. He impaled my lover and banished me. I caught typhus and all my beauty wasted away.

The Emperor’s third wife

He had one stillborn son from his first marriage and one sickly child from his second. He smelled of sweat, and I was raised in a palace. I made sure he bathed before he entered my bedroom. I made sure I had three sons to carry on my name. The Emperor was besotted with me–I was thirty years younger, thirty times smarter, thirty times healthier than he with his wounds and tumors and sores. I died bearing my fourth child, a daughter. She was as beautiful as a plum tree in bloom.

The Emperor’s doctor

The Emperor died in bed, at the age of seventy-eight. I did not poison him, as it is rumored abroad. I kept him alive as long as my bosses wanted that. He was a jolly old man, and he left me thousands of gold coins, which I willed to my children.

Will the Emperor speak? Will he explain his motives and achievements, his feelings and actions? He turns away and walks to the river, carrying a rifle and pulling a child’s wagon.

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  1. Steve Ramey says:

    What an eloquently told tale, and from such an interesting place. I really enjoyed it. Our Emperors never do speak (though, these days they usually have a book ghost written for them). I suspect they exist only to give us something meaningful to say.

  2. Sue Ann C. says:

    Haunting tale, well-done.

  3. Gay Degani says:

    Cezarija, I like this a lot; it has the feeling of a folk tale but the lessons work for today too, I think.

  4. Liesl says:

    Splendid writing. A metaphor for Zimbabwe today.

  5. G. K. Adams says:

    What a unique and forceful way to tell a story! Great insight into power.

  6. Mary Ann Back says:


    I love the fable like quality to this story. You have an engaging way of wrting – this piece and others you’ve written. Lessons are woven in the texture of your stories. So enjoyable!

    Mary Ann

  7. Cynthia Miller says:

    “Haunting” is a good word for this, I agree. Good story. Like a tiny Rashomon. I wonder about that first evil impulse to kill the monkey, not so much where it came from, but why it could not be turned around, before the slide down the slippery slope. It makes sense the mother hangs herself from the monkey tree.

  8. Cezarija Abartis says:

    Thank you so much for your kind comments, Steve, Sue Ann, Gay, Liesl, G. K., Mary Ann, and Cynthia.
    I wanted to thank the artist too. Tom Fewings did such a lovely illustration! Those watchful, sad monkeys and the dead toy-people in the wagon! And the emperor withthe blunderbuss and that spearlike crown walking away. It’s a lovely interpretation.

  9. Not sure about it, Cezarija.

  10. Frankly, for me, the brevity of it works against it. I feel severely underinformed by the end. And the small views of the emperor fail to provide me a complete picture. I don’t know if I can say this – but 300 more words would have worked extremely well in the fable’s favor.

    I like the theme of describing an emperor through others. But apart from the mother’s description – which seems to be the significant moment, or paragraph, that came to you and made you write this – the rest is fairly disappointing.

    Actually, as I read it a second time, I’m certain this is not an amazing piece as others have lauded it as.

    Apologies for the severity, but I think the custom of mutual congratulations needs to be punctured here and there.

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