Elizabeth Barrette (ysabetwordsmith) wrote,
Elizabeth Barrette

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Poem: "An Ugly Shadow Cast by Myself"

This poem came out of the July 2016 Creative Jam. It was inspired by prompts from [personal profile] shiori_makiba and [personal profile] alatefeline. It also fills the "survivor's guilt" square in my 7-16-16 card for the [community profile] hc_bingo fest. This poem has been sponsored by LJ user Daisiesrockalot. It belongs to the Aquariana thread of the Polychrome Heroics series. It follows "Bearers of Witness with Justice," so read that first or this won't make much sense.

Warning: This poem contains some intense topics. Highlight to read the warnings, some of which are spoilers. The inside of Steel's head is still a pretty unpleasant place, although he's getting better slowly. Also this poem contains some spoilers for the end of "Bearers of Witness with Justice." It touches on traumatic grief, survivor's guilt, crime and punishment, restitution, mental injury, and other challenges. If these are sensitive issues for you, please consider your tastes and headspace before reading onward.

"An Ugly Shadow Cast by Myself"

Aquariana and Irene
visited the whales regularly
after the trial, keeping them
updated on developments.

Most of the Japanese whalers
had been deported as promised,
sent back to Japan in disgrace.

The one who had been too unstable
to stand trial was improving somewhat,
although nowhere near recovered.

Soon the whales came into view,
even Steel already visible on the surface.

"How are you?" Aquariana asked.

Better, Steel said, huffing a welcome.
Everyone is thinking about the news.
What is going on up there?

"The whalers who stood trial
have been sent back to Japan,"
said Aquariana. "Their government
put them in the town of Biei, which
is about as far from the coast as it's
possible to get in an island nation."

Good, Steel rumbled.

What about the broken one?
Moderato wondered.

"That's something we wanted
to discuss with you today," said Irene.
"His name is Ishigaki Susumu. He
is more coherent now than he was
earlier, but still having problems."

What kind of problems?
said Moderato.

"They are having a hard time
keeping him fed," Irene said.
"Apparently he can't eat meat
anymore, it all makes him sick now,
especially any kind of seafood."

It was Steel who gave a wordless ripple
of concern, ribboned with images of
unhealthy whales dwindling away.
Loss of appetite was a key symptom
of poor health for cetacean species.

"Yes, his doctors are worried too,"
Irene acknowledged. "They think that
it might help him to meet you, now
that he knows you are people."

"Only if you're willing, though,"
Aquariana hastened to add.
"You're not obligated to help with
this situation at all. We think that
it would work better to introduce
you and Siggy at the same time."

Steel submerged.

Moderato rolled thoughtfully
in place, one flipper rising out of
the water, its radio beacon flashing
in the bright tropical sunlight.

I would like to know whether he broke
on his own or because of something
we did,
Moderato said. I will help
if I can. It is not good to leave
anyone broken, they can cut you.

"That's true," said Irene. "We have
a saying, 'Hurting people hurt people.'
It sounds like that applies to yours as well
as to mine. We have a lot in common."

Steel resurfaced, making the Jeanne Baret
bob up and down in the wake of his arrival.

Why should we help? Steel grumbled.

"If I see a piece of broken glass while
I'm walking on the beach, then I pick it up,
because I don't want someone to step on it
and get hurt," Aquariana said. "It's one way
of making the world a safer place. The same
applies to people. I'm a superhera, I don't go
around killing bad guys, I try to take them where
they can't cause trouble and might get better."

"Steel, how do you feel about this?"
Irene said. "Just because Moderato
wants to help, doesn't mean you have to."

Where he goes, I go, Steel said instantly.
I feel ... There came a wave of crushing chill,
and a sense of foreboding like sharks circling.

"That's guilt again, mixed up with your anger,"
Irene said. "Have you tried forgiving yourself?"

Steel replied with helpless frustration.

"Sometimes that's easier said than done,"
Aquariana added. "At least it is for me."

Irene nodded. "You need to acknowledge
what happened -- what you did or didn't do,
how you feel -- before you can let it go. Then
you need to think about how you can move
forward. In cases like this, people can get
tangled together, so you may need to deal
with the others before you can start
unpacking your own baggage."

When I feel this, I swim in circles, or
I travel between the islands, hoping
that I can leave the guilt behind me,

Steel said. But it follows me as I swim,
racing along the bottom of the sea
like an ugly shadow cast by myself.

"Then turn and face it," Irene said gently.
"You won't be alone. We'll be here to help you
through it, whatever happens. When you know
what you have done, it's easier to deal with."

Aquariana could sense it, the old roil of
survivor's guilt snarled around the recent
feelings of failure to protect himself and
Moderato as well as Steel thought he should.

Smaller and newer still was the thread of worry
that he had broken someone's mind without
really intending it in the heat of battle.

Cetacean morality differed from
that of humans, but in this, there
was some similarity as Steel
wondered if he was evil.

"Evil is something you do,
not something you are,"
Aquariana assured him.
"You have been hurt ...
really a lot, but that doesn't
make you a bad person, Steel."

"What matters is how you choose
to respond," Irene said. "That is
something all survivors have to face.
What happened to you was awful.
Are you going to put more of that
into the world, or less of it?"

For a long time, what I wanted most
was vengeance,
Steel said. I hunted down
those who killed my family. I wanted them
to know that I was coming, to fear me.

"And now?" Irene said. "You've had
a chance to see what a fair trial looks like.
Has that changed anything for you?"

Steel's first response was more tactile
than verbal, a slow sense of moving from
cold, dark water to warmer, brighter water
as if shifting along some ephemeral spectrum.

Yes, he said eventually. I still want justice,
but I no longer want to be a monster.

"Then come and talk with Susumu,"
Irene suggested. "You will see that
he's in no shape to hurt you anymore.
It will give him a chance to face you,
too, and own up to what he's done.
Maybe Siggy will be able to learn
how Susumu's mind broke and
whether it can be healed."

I don't like Siggy, Steel complained.

"Or you could stay out here
and keep swimming in circles,"
Aquariana said. "It's your choice."

I'm going to meet the man,
Moderato reminded him.

"Never mind what other people are doing
or how they might judge you," Irene said.
"What do you need to do in order to feel
that you're living up to your own standards?"

Steel's thoughts turned first toward Moderato,
like the ocean surging toward the moon,
and Aquariana understood that Moderato
was the center of Steel's moral focus,
providing guidance whenever Steel felt
uncertain about what was right or wrong.

Then the tide turned, and Steel
spiraled down and into himself for
a long moment before surfacing again.

I will come, he decided.
Let the man meet his victims
face to face -- and let me meet mine,
if it turns out that I have harmed him.

Thank you for coming with me,
Moderato said, his mind brightening.

Aquariana was impressed, and
from the look of her, so was Irene.

What is that? Steel said, his body
twitching as if to shake off a seagull.

"Steel ... that's respect," Aquariana said gently.

* * *


(New motive)
Steel -- A sperm whale bull, he is about 67 feet long and dark gray. His skin is covered with numerous scars from fighting orcas, giant squid, and most of all humans. He hates humans and refuses to admit that any of them might be decent people. His best friend Moderato, however, adores scientists and keeps trying to convince Steel that not all humans are cannibalistic, murdous monsters. ("The last time you tried to introduce me to one of your 'friends,' I almost got my fins stapled.") Of course, "Steel" is a human nickname. His real name is a series of harsh, barking clicks.
After surviving two devastating attacks from whalers, Steel set himself to studying human tools and materials. He has learned how to control the metal from which they make their great ships and weapons, along with manipulating other materials such as wood or plastic. Notice that a whale is much larger than a human, with a much bigger brain; so Steel's Super-Strength vastly outstrips that of a human -- and a human with Master Super-Strength can already lift a battleship. Whalers tend not to survive meeting Steel anymore.
Origin: His mother was hunted and killed by whalers when Steel was young. Helpless with terror, he fled and survived. Later on, his mate was also killed. This time Steel fought back, and the first of his powers (Super-Strength) emerged. He managed to damage the whaling vessel, but was too late to save his mate, and was seriously wounded himself.
Uniform: None. However, he has an old single-flue harpoon lodged in his back, and he refuses to try removing it despite his powers.
Qualities: Master (+6) Fighting, Master (+6) Tough, Expert (+4) Friends with Moderato, Good (+2) Tool User, Good (+2) Whaling History
Poor (-2) Volatile Temper
Powers: Master (+6) Super-Strength, Good (+2) Control Metal, Good (+2) Super-Intellect, Average (0) Immortality, Average (0) Telekinesis, Average (0) Telepathy
Motivation: Justice. (Originally it was revenge, but he did in fact manage to track down and kill the humans who butchered his family. So he broadened his scope. Then for a while it was to protect the ocean from humans. After getting a taste of genuine justice during the trial of the Japanese whalers who attacked him, Steel realized he wanted more of that.)

Siggy -- He is a spinner dolphin working with special needs clients. He helps people cope with difficult emotions or experiences, and also teaches about telepathy. Currently he has tutors come from the Maldives National University to teach him about human psychology and health. They are still debating the feasibility of a customized major in Interspecies Therapy.
Origin: Siggy grew up in a dolphin swim program so he has an unusually high familiarity with humans. His mother was one of several dolphins from an earlier experimental program so that may have contributed to Siggy's development of superpowers. When he heard about the cetacean superheroes in the Maldives, he came out of the fuse box.
Uniform: None. He goes nude.
Qualities: Expert (+4) Counselor, Expert (+4) Dolphin, Good (+2) College Student
Poor (-2) Bubble Artist
Powers: Expert (+4) Mindhealing, Good (+2) Telepathy
Motivation: To heal what he can.

(Character image is gross.)
Ishigaki Susumu -- He has tawny skin, brown eyes, and short black hair. Susumu is a Japanese whaler who was captured in the Republic of the Maldives while trying to kill Steel and Moderato. The experience shattered his mind.
Qualities: Good (+2) Follower, Good (+2) Japanese History, Good (+2) Honorable, Good (+2) Sailor, Good (+2) Strength
Poor (-2) Mentally Unstable

* * *

“I get up and pace the room, as if I can leave my guilt behind me. But it tracks me as I walk, an ugly shadow made by myself.”
Rosamund Lupton, Sister

Here is a map of Japan and a closeup showing Biei on the Hokkaido train routes.

Hurting people hurt people. This is what Steel has been doing for a long time, but he's getting tired of it now. Know how to assist victims. It is equally true that hurting people can help people. This is what Irene does. It is important to protect yourself while working with hurt people.

Forgiveness is a basic component of emotional competence. Think about when you should or should not forgive people. You don't have to forgive people who hurt you, and refusing to forgive can be liberating. However, forgiveness has its own benefits. Follow the steps to forgive people.

It's also important to forgive yourself so that you can move beyond guilt. Focus phrases can help you forgive yourself. In the 12 Steps Program, Step 4, Step 5, Step 8, and Step 9 relate to forgiveness. Even if you caused major harm, such as a death, there are ways to forgive yourself.
Tags: cyberfunded creativity, fantasy, fishbowl, poem, poetry, reading, weblit, writing
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