I suppose the clock on the wall was meant to be a mercy. A last ditch attempt to humanize the scum of the earth. But their mercy is useless to us. Their time is useless to us.
Every hour, the soft hoot of a barn owl announces the time, and, every hour, I find that maybe I am a little more insane than I was before.
It was with the hooting of that owl that they dragged the new prisoner in. The beginning of something, I thought; the strike of midnight and they threw scarred limbs into the cell beside me. I am still awake; I can't seem to remember why.
I only see them leave, the remnants of light fading deeper and deeper into the blackness; I only hear the jingle of keys as they walk back to the world of life.
I can hear my neighbor coughing, wretched feverish coughs that hurt to listen to.
The dark is impenetrable again, deep and untouchable in it's shadows.
I sit up and feel the coolness of the air around me. The world has been purged back into silence, the barn owl turned quiet in the wake of midnight.
It is funny, I think, that the world could be so quiet.
But then my neighbor coughs, and the silence is once again shattered.
The shadows of broken glass litter the floor as my eyes slowly adjust to the dark again.
I can see outlines, the barest of darkness marking the bars of my cell, the ones that separate me from my neighbor, hunched over, a shadow in the dark.
They cough again and it still hurts.
There is a strike of mercy in my heart and I think about the world outside of here. What must they think of me?
Selfish? Brutal? Downright evil?
But I am none of those things.
I crawl my way across the cell, to the meger glass of water I have saved up, just hidden enough that they can't see it from the cell door.
Slowly, the silhouette looks up, wild hair, cloaked in darkness so much so that I can't see their face.
But they inch toward me as I do toward them, hand reaching out to receive the cup, the crawl a sort of stumble rather than real movement.
Their hands are so weak. So weak. Thin and frail, bones almost visible through hollow skin.
They drink, hesitant at first; something in me still hurts and my own voice surprises me, in the softest whisper, “Finish it.”
Their hesitation slowly dissolves and they drink deeply after that, until the cup is empty.
They let it fall to the ground then, hands bare, leaning against the metal bars like they could keep themselves from falling.
The voice surprises me more than my own, and I am even more surprised when I recognize it, dark and masculine, wry and intense.
“I am to die tomorrow.”
The hoot of the barn owl intones in us the next hour.
I don't want to remember.
“But that is not a problem to be fixed, you see. I am not a broken toy. A man unafraid of death; I'm a stereotype, we can't all be the missing piece, can we?”
He laughs at himself and it feels as though maybe he is just as insane as I am.
I don't want to remember.
His head jerks up, as if surprised to find that he isn't just talking to himself.
“How can you be unafraid of Death?”
“I find fear to be a nuisance.”
“That's too easy.”
“Not if you're fearless.”
“Then you have other things to worry about.”
“Yes, like death.”
“Ironic, then, that I am not the one dying tomorrow.”
He laughs bitterly at that and sits down opposite me.
Somehow I think I have earned his respect.
“It gets in the way.”
“Gets in the way of what?”
“Doing the impossible.”
“So you do the impossible, do you?”
“I am to die tomorrow, what's so impossible about that?”
I don't have an answer for him.
My head is resting against the bars.
He has gone silent, so quiet that the hooting of the owl echoes in the darkness.
It feels as if I am alone again, the shadows eating away at the world around me, light a long forgotten dream.
It is in moments like these that I think I really must have gone mad. Would the mad question their madness? Would they recognize it's presence and rejoice in it's company?
My own head hisses at me, taunting and insistent.
They want me to remember. They want me to remember the way it felt to be free, they want me to remember the feeling of wind on my face and the thrill of battle on a sunless day.
I have found, more and more, that I don't want to remember. I don't want to remember the way it feels to have a whole army at your disposal, I don't want to remember the rush of power through my veins when the world so needed someone to be powerful.
I don't want to remember how much I wanted that power.
Sometimes I wonder if I still want it.
The power to be free, the power to do with my time as I wish.
But there's something about how I don't want to remember, and why would I want to relive that power if it brings with it so much pain?
A sob softens the shadows and I don't know what to do. Does he seek comfort? Does he wait with bated breath for death? I can't quite tell.
“Don't let them hear you.” I say.
A sniffle echoes through the dark.
“Who?” He says finally.
“The guards,” I reply, “They like it when their prisoners cry. Makes them feel powerful. They'll beat you to a pulp.”
He laughs at that. “Lucky for me they've already gotten that over with.”
I don't know why I laugh with him.
“How do you know that?” He says when the silence overcomes us.
“Been here a while.” I pause, because I think I have, “And I used to be them.”
How many people did you beat to their last straw?
They still want me to remember.
“I take it you disagreed on something.”
That makes me really laugh. For the first time in a long long time.
“You could say that.”
We are both quiet for a long time after that. I don't know what to say.
There is something about the way he talks of death as an old friend, yet his voice still shakes. Something about the way his body trembles against the bars of the cell, like he's holding back another sob.
“It was never supposed to be like this.” He says softly,” I was not meant to die alone.”
How can his voice be so calm? How does one look death in the face like that? How can one be so fearless?
I don't understand and I think it has the power to drive me even more mad than I already am.
But then he breaks the silence with a heart wrenching whisper.
“Stay with me?”
I feel my heart harden in steely resolve. I will not let him spend his last night alone.
“Until the end.”
“When I was a child,” He says softly as the owl marks the hour, “I was afraid of everything. I used to run from bumble bees as if they were out to get me.”
I try to picture him as a child, it's easy in the dark, but his features are hazy and distorted and the colors in my mind flash of their own accord.
I am thinking about colors. About how maybe his eyes are green or maybe they're brown, his skin pale or dark, his features soft or angry.
It doesn't matter down here, of course. He could be the most beautiful being on this planet and I would hardly know because he will be dead tomorrow.
I tap on the bars between us.
“Why will they kill you?” I finally say, the ache that I had thought gone with my water cup has come back.
He taps out his own rhythm on the bar next to mine.
“Do you know that feeling? The feeling of having something that someone wants? Or knowing something that someone doesn't?”
I know it all too well.
I want to chase the memories away. That's what I do, forget.
But the delicacy of his voice seems fragile enough to break, and for someone who claims to be fearless, there is an edge to him that I think might shatter at any minute.
And so I tell him.
I tell him of the carnage set in my wake. Of the battles fought in my name. I tell him about the way I watched people as if they were toys on a map.
The realness of my own life comes for me, the brutality of my choices and the hardness of my own heart.
Sometimes I think I must be dreaming.
I was at the top once. I watched the world in my vision, watched as my words became the laws of the land.
And I watched as that world came crumbling down around me.
I want to rip the owl to shreds as it announces the hour.
My world seems to have tilted; I am alone, surrounded by the dark but alone, with the voices of the lost echoing through the shadows.
I am not him anymore, the person who conquered lands and slaughtered innocents is no longer at my heart.
I am unknown now. A fragment, and I don't know if I should miss the person who is lost, if I should mourn him, because I am still no better than him. I am still lost, still envious and brutal and angry. I would rip the world to shreds if given the opportunity. I am not good or bad, but I am not innocent either. Sometimes I think that maybe we were always the same.
The world sings of regret, but I cannot find it in myself to regret what I have done. Not in the way they all want me to. I am lost in quiet thought, and the world seems so far away, and his voice doesn't bring me back to myself in the way it should.
“And so the world thinks you dead?”
“Of course they do…”
“But you're not dead.”
He chuckles, but his voice is grim.
Why do I live?
I think of death often. I suppose we are old friends too.
But I don't want to remember and they keep wanting me to remember.
“Why will they kill you?” I say again, and his past words replay in my head.
Do you know that feeling? The feeling of having something that someone wants? Or knowing something that someone doesn't?
“What did you have? What did you know?”
In the dark I can almost see his eyes glitter.
The barn owl hoots it's hour. Five hoots in perfect intervals.
The sound rings in my head as the words of his tale circle my brain, the story capturing me like a vivid dream.
I am him, running through fields of wheat, living the carefree life of a child.
And it is me, years later, running through those same fields, barren from drought and wrought empty by scavengers.
I watch as the world around me falls into unrest; I watch as armies clash, leaving their dead on the fields I once ran through with the reckless abandon of childhood.
I feel the wind through my hair and the touch of sunlight on my face. I feel the claws of hunger and the brutality of cold leaking into my veins.
I am him, and I am alone.
I am him, and I wander this strange world without hope, without company.
Until the light finally shines again. Surrounding a man, tousled brown hair and eyes of the deepest brown bring the light back to my world.
I watch him speak. I watch the crowds grow larger and larger. Until they span streets and then cities.
I watch him breathe fire into the world again. He gives them the same hope he gave me.
And I am so lucky, because it is me he comes home to; me, who soothes his fears and doubts; me, who gets to feel his light against my skin and me, who gets to run my fingers through that tousled hair.
And then suddenly, it is me who must watch everything fall apart.
As I once screamed at the call of his body, I now have to watch it drop to the floor.
As I once ran my hands through tousled hair, I now run bloodstained fingers through bloodstained hair.
As I once relished in his every word, I now have to watch as he speaks his last ones.
Don’t. Tell. Them.
My world is without hope again.
He sobs into his hands, the fingers, I now know, meticulously broken in a brutal search for information that he would not give.
I have fallen out of his story like a lost bookmark. The world comes back to me, and it is dark and empty. Gone are the familiar shadows of my life imprisoned.
I beat my fists against the stone floor and the pain feels good. It's like I can feel something again.
I am so angry, and I don't know if it is at him, for making me feel this way, at the way his words took flight in my mind, or if it is at myself and my symphony of regrets and lost causes.
There is something about how his cries rock through me that hurts in a way I haven't in a long time.
Is it so good to feel pain? Is it a curse wrought on us by vacant gods?
I can't answer my own questions and there is something about that that wrings at my very soul.
He coughs again and I can hear the blood in it.
The darkness is getting to me, I think, for the first time in I don't know how long.
But as his voice breaks through my disaster, a spear into a hurricane, I'm thinking about how he is so fearless and I think I finally understand.
“You're not scared.” I say.
“Not scared of what?”
“Of Death, of pain.”
“They are very different, those two.”
“So you fear pain?”
His voice is so defeated.
“I don't fear anything anymore.”
“Because fear is a nuisance?”
“Because it's useless!” He's almost yelling now. “Because you always end up beaten and broken. No matter who loved you or what cause you fought for. What is there to fear in death, in pain, when life has taken everything from you anyway?”
I don't have the words to convince him otherwise. I'm not sure I have the words at all.
“Why are you so fixed on death? Why are you so scared of it? You should know it as a mercy. Have you never thought of that?”
There is nothing but cold flesh, nothing but empty eyes.
They keep wanting me to remember.
“Death is so empty. I don't want to be empty like that.”
I am realizing for the first time that I might be losing.
Memories keep knocking at my head, and as I turn them away they buzz in insistence, swarming my ears like little bugs. I bat away at them like they are flies and get to my feet in unnecessary hurry.
Who is so insistent to remember?
Who wants to remember the fields covered in bodies, the emptiness of their eyes and the coldness of their skin? Who would want to remember the way it felt to drag them away? Who wants to remember the smell of burning flesh on a hot day?
I do not.
And so I pace my cell, old and familiar. I know the shadows that mark the stone wall at the back, I know the empty dark that is the iron bars at the front, and I feel the hooting of the owl clock in the space beyond those bars.
I am thinking about the world.
What must it look like now?
Is it anything like mine was? Littered with bodies and bathed in blood?
The hours have all blended together.
I find that the morning is coming fast.
And I don't know whether to look forward to the light.
Or to dread the death of my neighbor.
“What will you find?” I say, my head in a haze.
“On the other side. What do you suppose waits for you there?”
He is quiet for a long time.
“I have someone waiting for me.”
“But how do you know?”
“Do you not seek solace in the afterlife?”
“I seek solace in life.”
“No. Much too grim.”
“How do you know he will be waiting for you? How do you know that there will be anything more than nothing? How do you know it will be better than this?”
He laughs at that.
“It's not hard to be better than this.”
“It's not hard to be worse.”
“What is it you're really afraid of?”
I laugh because I don't know what else to do.
I am surrounded by fear. Fear of the emptiness I see in dead eyes, fear of the torture of punishment for my crimes. I am scared that death will bring with it more pain, and I am so fragile now; I don't think I could handle it.
We sit in silence for so long that it's only after the hooting of the owl clock that I realize he is asleep.
I can hear his soft, labored breathing through the iron bars and I can't stop thinking that in a few hours that breathing will have ceased.
In the end his heart will give up and his lungs will let out their last puff of air. In the end, his eyes will stop seeing and the blood through his veins will run cold.
They still want me to remember.
They keep reminding me.
Of spilled blood, of the freedom of having the world on your side.
Of the look on a young man’s face as you killed his lover right in front of him. The devastation, the disbelief, the pain that hits slowly at first, but then explodes in shattered agony.
I want the images to go away. I want them to blend back into the darkness like lost shadows finding their way home.
But there is something about having company in my life of loneliness that makes the sudden quiet scream at me.
It arms the silence with claws and teeth that rip at my heart, at my head.
They keep reminding me and I think I am starting to remember.
To remember the way it feels to fall apart, the way it feels when the world is against you.
Claws and teeth rip apart my soul.
My world is crumbing in on itself, piece by piece, hour by hour, and I don't know whether to celebrate or resist.
I grip the iron bars of the cell. Just to feel something real.
The cold burns into my hands, a deep unending cold that tries to bring me back to myself.
I can't quite tell whether it succeeds.
The hooting of the owl clock wakes him. He nearly jumps and I have to stop myself from jumping with him.
When I open my eyes the world is still dark, and I can't help but think that maybe there was never any light in the first place.
I can hear his breathing, rhythmic and soft as he comes back from the world of sleep.
The clock is still hooting, throwing its voice into the echoing prison for nobody to hear.
Remember, the owl seems to say, each hoot calling out to me with their echoey breath.
In the darkness, it feels as if I am nowhere and everywhere. As if the world has ended around me and it is just me now, alone in the rubble.
Remember the way it felt to watch the world fall apart?
I am on a precarious ledge, and the drop is long and deep.
Remember how you knew freedom like an old friend, an old enemy?
I don't know what I'm waiting for, I feel as if I am floating. Like the world has lost it's anchor, and I don't think I want to go back to how I was before. Tethered, stuck.
Remember how you toppled empires and brought worlds to the ground?
I want to fly away from here. I want to leave this place behind.
Remember how you sent ripples through the lands and brought the powerful to their knees?
I remember what a blue sky looks like, the freedom in it, on a cloudless day when the sun is just warm enough and you never want the sunset to end.
Remember how you looked death in the face and saw it's emptiness in front of you?
When they come in the dark I forget that the light is real. It blinds me, bright and stunning, so much so that I only catch his eyes at the very last second.
And they finally get me to remember.
The guards hustle him through the halls of the prison, dragging him up stairs and into the blinding light. His eyes burn from the day, the light bursting into flames behind his eyelids.
As the fires calm, sputtering and dying, I come to realize that this is not his memory anymore, because where he is on the floor beneath me, frail and weak, I sit on a tall throne, glittering gold and encrusted with jewels, glowering as if just the sight of him turns my stomach.
“Did he tell you anything?” I had said on that day, “Anything useful?”
“He would not break, my lord.”
“Yet he is not dead?”
“You wanted him publicly executed, sir, we were not authorized to kill him.”
I scowl at them for following my orders.
He is young, not more than 22, his dark hair plastered to his forehead with blood.
He sneers at me from the ground.
“You will rot in Hell for this.”
“You betrayed me, Jack, not the other way around. Don't you remember? This is what we do to traitors.” I smile cruelly at him.
He screams at me from the floor, but I ignore him, his nuisance is no longer useful to me.
“He will hang for this. And until then, he will tell me what I want to know.”
The look on my face is nothing short of evil as I unsheath the knife from my belt and spin it in my fingers. I had looked him dead in the eyes.
“Won't you now, Jack?”
And what does that make me? Am I a villain rotting away in the devil’s dungeon?
Am I the conquered prisoner soon lost to time?
I can't say which I would prefer, because somehow I am both and neither, sometimes I rot and sometimes I blossom. And neither is worth it.
Neither will cure my fears, neither will take them away.
When they tell someone to rot in Hell I don't know if they really mean it.
And it is hard for me to put into words, the idea of death, the idea of dying. Of foregoing this world for the emptiness of another.
I fear I would not fare well in Hell. I fear the loathings of my past and the uncertainty of my future will doom me to eternal suffering, eternal emptiness, and when I see those bodies, when I see those memories, people lost to the vacancy of their own death, I find that I could do nothing worse than experience that emptiness myself.
There is nothing but cold flesh, empty eyes. My cold flesh, my empty eyes.
Maybe this is my punishment.
I suppose the clock on the wall was meant to be a mercy.
But time doesn't matter here, not when the world is long since faded and the darkness is your only company.
It was with the hooting of the owl clock that they dragged the new prisoner in.
The beginning of something, I think.
The light is blinding, a dizzying mess of brightness that stuns me for a moment before my eyes adjust.
The guards are clad in darkness, but their eyes burn with the fires of Hell and they hiss at me with the fury of a demon.
My neighbor slumps into the cell, close enough for me to hear their breathing, soft and labored.
As the guards disappear, the light with them, the voice echoes in the prison, in my head, bright and feminine, deep and angry. And I recognize this one too.
“I am to die tomorrow.”
They keep wanting me to remember why.