The Flag

Amendment Literary Award Winner, 2021

by Rae Martin

When the monsters came, they were carrying torches. At least that’s what they told me. I had long heard the stories told to me by those who came before. Creatures of evil that walked among us looked like us but were not us. I read the poetry, watched the movies, and heard the tense  conversations that took place behind closed doors. I thought I knew these monsters. I closed my  eyes and saw their pallid faces, empty blue eyes, and hair drained of all its color. They were old  and decrepit, like the undead rising out of the earth.  

As a child, I feared them. My mother would tell me they lived long ago. That brave knights battled the monsters and sent them back to the shadows, never to be seen again. My father told me about the knights’ valor. How they sacrificed their lives to save our homeland. How the knights outwitted the monsters through tactics and military might. When I asked about the people the monsters massacred like cattle and why. My parents had no answers. I learned to stop asking questions.  

When the monsters came, they were carrying torches, but these were not the monsters I knew.  They marched in a line through my home, and I saw their faces illuminated by the flames. They  were not ghosts or ghouls or an undead army; their faces were young and alive. They looked like  teachers, soldiers, neighbors, presidents–some faces reminded me of friends and loved ones. I  don’t remember much more from that night, but I remember the boy holding the red flag with the  black cross. 

I had seen it before in the books and myths of old. Wisemen told me the black cross was once a symbol of good fortune, but the monsters stole it away from its home. They remolded it into  something perverse and dark. The Wisemen called it an equilateral cross, with its arms bent in  ninety-degree angles. They said it had another name, but it was one we shouldn’t say. Perhaps  they thought we’d find comfort in geometry, or maybe they were afraid of the power the name  might have. The monsters dyed the symbol black and bathed it in red blood. They placed in a  bubble of empty white to make their flag. It looked still and flat on the pages of my books, but the thing in the boy’s hand was alive. It smiled and waved, reveling in the warm light of the torches that surrounded it.  

I saw the flag consume the boy. It wrapped itself around the boy’s head and shimmied its way  down his throat. The skin on his body peeled back to reveal the field of red blood. Every scrape,  every scratch came together to form the familiar haunting pattern of the black cross. This boy  became the monsters’ flag. His eyes burned with hatred and rage, but a far-off glimmer of pain  twitched underneath the surface. I saw the flag smother the pain and mold it into hate, craft it into  a violent rage. I wanted to pity him. He was only a boy, but he had no such empathy for those  who looked like me. He saw brown skin and offered to burn it off. He spat in our faces and called out names I dare not repeat. He celebrated our fear with gleeful laughter. I wanted to pity him, but he welcomed the flag’s consumption. He coveted its power. He lusted for the pain it would soon bring.

The next day the monsters marched and murdered. I saw her face on the news first. I heard her  name, and how she died so many times, I can still recite it now. They murdered her in the street.  They ran her over with no remorse. “An equilateral cross, with its arms bent in ninety-degree  angles.” It’s what her body looked like on the asphalt. I saw her mother weep. I saw my home  collapse in pain. The more and more I looked, the more and more I saw the flag. It draped the  leaders who pontificated about both sides. It pored out of the mouths of friends with every half assed “thought and prayer.” It leaked out of my father as he blamed the woman with the broken  body and defended the boy carrying the red flag with the strange black cross. 

After the monsters came, the nation told me not to fear. They told me the monsters escaped the  shadows. They told me they would never stand for it again. But I saw them. I saw the red flag with the strange black cross billowing under their alabaster skin. I saw the flag painted on the walls of their hospitals, schools, churches, precincts, prisons. I saw the flag on every monument they so desperately clung to. I saw the words of laws and legislators arrange themselves into the  equilateral cross with arms bent at ninety-degree angles. I opened history books, and every page  was equilateral cross after god damn equilateral cross. I stared for hours at the folded American  flag that hung in my father’s office, and through the glass, the red flag with the black cross smiled back at me like it did on that fucking day. 

They told me when the monsters came, they were carrying torches, but they seemed to forget the  monsters carrying pens. They seemed to forget the monsters carrying pistols and badges. They  seemed to forget that the monsters always had fucking been there. They seemed to fucking forget  that the red flag with the black cross was on everything they hold so god damn near and dear.  They seemed to forget that the monsters’ fucking flag was waving under their own skin. They wrote and whined. They threw us a fucking concert. They pretended to care or change, but the red flag with the black cross continued to smile, continued to deport, dehumanize, murder, and rape. It smiled on August 12th, March 13th, May 25th, January 6th, and every day long before, in between, and every day long after. You told me when the monsters came, they were  carrying torches. You told me to keep you safe. To keep you in power. To make you feel good and to keep me quiet. You. Lied. There were never any monsters. There were never any knights. There is only the red flag with the black cross, and I can see it smiling under your skin. Look in your fucking eyes.