Most people have heard of Alfie Evans. I realize that most two-year-olds are not well known. Sadly, Alfie is. Or was. The circumstances of his death point to the worst in human nature. And, while one way to make sense of the senselessness of the manner of his passing is to analyze its politics and the grimmer consequences of socialism, I found myself considering a slightly wider context.
Which I could only make clearer sense of in a poem. A rough, unmetered, unrhymed thing, because life has no meter or rhyme on occasion.
Witness (to the Short Life of Alfie Evans, aged almost Two)
Not many saw him finally die.
In a nearby office, several of his murderers updated their spreadsheet and discussed income and expense.
His parents’ sorrow was sharper than a surgeon’s lancet.
The agony was enough to momentarily cut the veil between what is and truly is.
Light shone through the rent, so bright that it could not be seen by human eyes.
In that radiance stood a vast crowd without number, a cloud of witnesses gathered to watch and listen. They engraved those things upon their memories so that when the final court is convened they might take the stand and speak of what they saw.
Stern sea captains, faces weathered by sun and wind and salt, gazed with unblinking eyes that had once seen the furthest shores of the world, the strange lands and distant archipelagos that were hard won for king and country. Here, Hudson in quiet conference with Raleigh muttered, “Ice took me and my men, but never would I have dreamed it for a future such as this.”
And others there looked on the scene, at the little, silent bed, lords and ladies, kings and queens, bishops, footmen and scullery maids. There, Henry V with ghostly archers by his side, every hand still callused from bow and string, their king unconsciously reaching for his absent sword. “For what country, Hal,” said one such soldier in disbelief, bold and equal in death, “did we spend our lives?”
Churchill glared from beneath his lowered brow, for once silent and unable to find a fitting word, beside him, Thomas Becket and Alfred the Great, dismay on their faces.
Wellington, Nelson, Allenby and a vast cadre of officers, stood watching, their postures rigid with outrage. A voice spoke clear and clipped from their midst, though it could have been any of them, “A thousand thousand bloody deaths and countless even more, by sword, axe and rusty pike, by bolt, arrow and cannonball, by bomb and bullet and poison gas–all for this misery.”
And there, alongside these nobles, just as honored despite their lowly rank, a vast host of the common dead, those who fell in battle in distant foreign lands, who fell under the shadow of death far from their homes on the fields of Europe, in India and Africa and on long forgotten islands or under the tossing waves of the oceans the world around, they all stood staring aghast.
A group of writers, professors and chimney sweeps conversed with Queen Elizabeth in a drift of ethereal smoke curling from Tolkien’s pipe. “Did I not say life’s but an accursed walking shadow?” said Shakespeare. Chesterton sadly shook his head in response, “Yes, but this matter, Bill, shall be heard once again at time’s end, and our words shall be full of truer sound and truer fury, more than we were ever able to write.”
“To think I cleaned chimneys in good content,” said the sweep sadly. “In good content, sir, for I was an Englishman!”
“We are no longer,” said the Queen.
Beyond them, even more, the figures of bakers and butchers, tailors, innkeepers, peasant farmers and farmer lords, matrons and midwives, shopkeepers, miners and fishermen, bankers and barristers, children all of a nation long loved, each figure etched with light, each of them gazed on that scene with wiser eyes than the most august judge to ever sit in bewigged glory upon the bench in London’s courts.
The voices of all this great crowd rose, finally, joined in clarity of sight, murmuring and mingling and rushing, like the sound of many waters hurrying down to a single sea, a single thought, a single truth.
“Witness,” they said. “We witness.”
And then the rent between what is and what truly is closed to leave the dimmed and normal sight of an empty bed, an empty room and a softly closing door.