Hello. So far, I’ve tried to write something about stories or in some way related to fiction, whether my own or others, for these every-other-monday posts. However, sometimes I just can’t get myself to write any decent nonfiction. So here’s a bit of flash fiction.
No, it doesn’t have anything to do with any of the holidays celebrated in many places around this time of year.
Maran stared up at the darkness. He would not know if he blinked or not. The torch had guttered and gone out – he did not really know how long ago.
He did not know how long ago the one in the hallway outside the bars had gone out. He knew, even less, how long ago the one in his own life had gone out. The life he lived. The hope he had to live again.
He got off his back and scrounged around the bare confines of the prison cell, hopelessly. Hopelessly. He needed something to do, or he would go crazy in here. He was not sure why that was a bad thing, or if it was. But he needed something to do. Something other than laying on the hard floor, breathing the stale air, hungry, thirsty, aching. In darkness. Remembering everything that had been, everything that he no longer had, would never have again. Reliving the hope he had lost, the loss of hope.
Remembering how much he could not remember.
He would never get out. Ten years or a hundred. It did not matter. Either one could have been infinity. There were no voices, no whisper of wind, no light. Nothing to make the time pass. Even the pain rarely reached that pitch.
Sometimes, the torch flickered on the walls and bars, summoning a thousand shadow shapes. Sometimes, he could see things in them, find the faintest echo of life in the life of a flame. But when the flame was out … there was nothing. Nothing.
And he needed something.
His hand caught on an irregularity on the floor. A tiny shard, he wondered how he had missed it before.
Perhaps it came from the last time the food-bowl had been dropped. He might not have noticed that it had chipped.
He ran his fingers along the shard, discovering its shape in the darkness. Was it – could it be – he would have to find out. He dared not hope. Though could even hope hurt him now? Could imagination reopen wounds that never closed or strain scars that never healed?
He smiled, the motions strange on his face, though he could not remember how long he had been down here. How long it might have been since he had smiled last. Gripping the shard tightly between his fingers, he scratched its tip into the stone, forcing it to arc in a gentle curve.
Again. Again. Again. The scratching sound was monotonous, but it was something. This was something.
No one counted the years. At least, not for what mattered.
Ilkel fell to her knees for the seventh time that day. She’d counted how many times they dropped her like this, though not for a reason she knew. It hurt a little more every time, if she was not expecting it, as the bruises grew.
No. No. No. The wailing voice in her head was too strong to let the wails come out her throat. At least not yet. She had not meant it. Had not meant it. Had not meant it. Yes, she’d been warned. But what that really such a great offense? Other people called out behind their backs that the tax collector’s faces looked like rotten oranges. And they lived to be seen by others day after day. There was no real harm in it.
Thinking about it did not matter. She was lost. Lost in this hole. Buried alive.
She crawled forward into the darkness. Sat and pulled her knees up to her chest, as if that could somehow help.
How long? How long until she died?
Time did not matter. The world was gone. Life was gone. And she was trapped.
She stretched out her arms, stood to her feet, as if to prove to herself that she still could. That the walls were not rushing up to crush her. To bury her. Suffocate her.
It was cruel. Cruel to bury anyone, alive or dead. She had always thought so. You should not trap someone, suffocate them, just because they no longer breathed.
Her fingers brushed the wall. She panicked, set her feet against the slippery floor as well as she could, pushed, pushed, pushed. Her feet slid out from under her, and she hit the floor.
She got up again. She could not let it crush her. Her fingers brushed against the wall.
This time she felt them. Ragged lines, sometimes thicker, sometimes thinner, sometimes deeper, she thought, though it was hard to be sure. What were they?
The tales of some prisoner marking the days until his release? Or the days until he died?
No. She was tracing them now, with both hands, all eight fingers and two thumbs. That was the sun she had felt at first, a sun with seven rays, long and sure, and thirteen more, shorter and thinner.
Her hands spread out, tracing the world carved on the cell walls. Clouds. Mountains, cut deep into the stone and speckled with more shallow scratches. At least, she thought they were mountains. It would take her a long time, learning to see by feel, to understand what was written here.
Her breath caught with something that might have been hope. Or it might have been life.
It might have been so long ago, decades past or more. Or a few non-existent weeks before.
Maran surreptitiously stuffed the shard into his underwear. One thing he had learned was that the guards were often dazzled by the light of their own torches – and he had learned to see as one blind, so it did not matter to him. The shard might cut into his skin, tucked there – it had before – and there was no telling what would happen to him if it were discovered.
But all of that was worth it for the chance to keep it wherever he was next. Not to be alone with nothing to do.
Carving the walls into the semblance of the world of the living was a very little thing. Sometimes, he wondered why he did it. It could not return that life to him. But it gave him something, however small, however big, even if he did not know what it was. He did not know what it was, but he was very slowly learning the shape of it.
Time would never unite them. But it would not separate them, either.
She cried. Silent tears that she would pay for later in agonizing thirst. She had no idea why they moved her, or to what purpose. Torture – execution – she did not think her sentence was execution, but she could no longer remember whether it was five years or fifty.
The carvings did not let her tell time. They only told her – that she was not alone. That the world was real. That she could remember the sun and the starlight. It still shone. That – none of that sounded comforting when she said it to herself, and there were times when there was no comfort. When the carvings did not matter, and all was black grief and blacker despair. Or was it grief?
Nonetheless, she panicked at the idea of being thrown into another cell. One that surely would not be filled with carvings of the world. To remind her that she was. Maybe that was what it was. A reminder that she was a person. She could not do without that.
This time, she still stumbled and fell on the floor, for all her determination that she would not. She was too weak. Too weak. Could she survive even the five years? If it was five years? Or had it already been most of that.
Ilkel had no idea.
The guards stuck a torch in a sconce. They did that, sometimes, for no reason that she understood. Its light flared, casting the shadows of the bars against the walls.
At least, she knew where the waste hole was, and it did not smell like this one had clogged. Small things that did not matter.
The light caught in a scrawl of lines. It took her a long time to make them out, and in the end, she had to use her fingers to help with the task. Stars clustered around a crescent moon.
Smaller things that did matter.
But then her hands reached the end of the carvings. Just a constellation finished and one begun.
She sank to the floor and wept.
Something dug into her knee, and she moved her hand to feel what it was, to rub the ache away.
Her finger struck on something sharp enough to draw blood. Gingerly, she picked it up.
Was this what whoever it was had used to make the carvings on the walls? It might be.
Hers would be nowhere near as fine. But it was something to try. Something to keep her personhood alive. But she would start on another wall. And what to try?
That question took a long time for her to answer. But that occupation may have been the greatest hope of all. The greatest reminder that she had a soul. She had a mind. And she had a life.
She had a choice.
It was not a small choice, or a large one, for size is relative, and there was no relatively here. It was choice, solitary and pure, and it reminded her she had a self.
With a weary, aching smile, she pressed the shard into the wall.
Shards of Hope, Copyright © 2022 Raina Nightingale