Dark as the dungeon.
- Sam Thomas
The prisoner crouched against the mortared back wall of a subterranean cell, just wide enough that a tall man could lie down in either direction without touching the arm-thick bars that hemmed him in on three sides. His eyes burned but he fought back sleep. He knew the dangers of unconsciousness in the tight space of the dungeon.
From his right a coarse voice cooed, barley audible beneath the moaning coming from the wretched mounds huddled in the other cells. They ebbed and flowed, washing away at his psyche, constant as the tide. It only paused when footsteps echoed in the room above and, once, when a captive had ventured too close to a neighbouring cell. The animal screams had ended with the wet pop of bones breaking.
When he was first stripped and thrown down in the dark, in the sharp stink of caged flesh and human waste, the prisoner had thought the wailing would drive him mad. But when the victor’s grisly meal was finished and the waves of misery had resumed he had wept with relief.
The Voice swam beneath it, breaking the surface to whisper for him to come closer, that it was hurt and needed help, that it knew he was there. The prisoner crouched motionless for an unknowable time until, finally, darkness became dark dreams.
The prisoner awoke disorientated. The stench brought him back to the present, making his stomach heave, and he threw out a hand looking for the safety of the wall. He scrambled to it, gasped heavily in relief then fought down the urge to wretch again.
He froze. Something was wrong. The cells were quiet. Even the Voice had ceased.
He started to sweat, ears strained towards the ceiling. There, the muted sound of boots through heavy wood. They paused at the first cell and a patch of warm light narrowly illuminated hell. Something fell through the beam and slapped heavily on the floor. The process was repeated at each cell. When they reached his cell the prisoner pressed closer to the wall, willing himself into invisibility. A small square opened, stinging his light starved eyes, and a lump of gruel dropped through. It barely missed the waste shaft in the floor. He eyed it hungrily in the disappearing light but, like the others, remained static. The footsteps carried on steadily and spun and retreated to the door, repeating their task with the mirroring cells.
Minutes after the sound had faded the first captive succumbed to hunger and fell noisily on their meal, the others quickly following suit. The prisoner rushed forward and scraped his own sad portion into his mouth with both hands, sucking on his fingers. When any tangible scraps were gone he licked the scarred stone, tearing his chin painfully.
Tears welled in his eyes as he threw himself back to his scant haven and with blood dripping down his heaving chest and over his sunken stomach, he howled at the empty darkness above. The call was picked up, and echoed down the line.
The cries of the dungeon faded to a dull hum for the prisoner. His hunger had become a dark and feverish thing, squirming through his insides, breaking him down one bite at a time. His skin was clammy with it. He lay sweating and still on the cold floor, everything else pushed back by the need to eat.
The prisoner couldn’t pinpoint when the scratching slipped into his consciousness. It seemed to have been there at the edge of hearing all his life. Or perhaps it was only a few seconds. He was struggling to identify the sound when something sharp pierced his earlobe. The prisoner squealed, jerking madly on the floor. His hands flew to his head and his fingers curled around an enormous rat. It fought to escape his grasp, sinking its teeth into his thumb. The man squealed again. He smashed his fist against the ground, the beast flailing and screaming. He kept punching a long time before he realised the rat had gone limp. Dropping it, the prisoner fell back against the wall with his aching hand held against his chest. He shook terribly, his breathing ruptured and uneven. He searched the darkness with his foot. It tapped the animal’s dead weight and recoiled.
Slowly the prisoner reached out and picked up the rat. It was warm in his hand and his mouth flooded with saliva. His mind emptied out and went dark as the pit. With tears falling silently over his cheeks, he tore into the animal with his teeth. His mouth came away filled with coarse fur and blood. It choked him but he forced it down and attacked his meal again with renewed desperation.
When he could stomach no more the prisoner threw the tangled corpse into the black. He tried to wipe the wet viscera from his face and only succeeded in spreading it further. As he sat there defeated, he heard a series of raspy clicks. Somewhere in his numbed consciousness the prisoner recognised that the Voice was laughing.
The footsteps were back. They paused at the first cell, hungry anticipation rising to equal the quiet fear emanating from the darkness. The prisoner’s stomach made the sound of a long forgotten door being forced open.
Soft voices penetrated the ceiling instead of the quick flash of light and slap of mush the prisoner had grown accustomed to. Above, the boots resumed their journey. Too many. Choked whimpers escaped from somewhere in the gloom. The prisoner listened as they neared in growing panic, eyes closed tight in prayer. They came to a jarring halt over his head. He felt piss run down his shivering legs. A heavy wood trapdoor shuddered open and the prisoner was splashed with light. He threw himself flat, wetting his stomach. He hid his face in his hands, away from the blinding return of sight.
When he finally peaked from cover the prisoner realised the glow only breached the edge of his cell. Turning his head cautiously he saw that it wasn’t his trapdoor that had opened, but his neighbour’s.
The prisoner’s heart jumped as he sought out the source of the coaxing, needling and threats that had plagued him since he was first abandoned in this hell. He inched away unconsciously when he found it. It was a man, hunched in the far corner of his cell. His bulbous body and sinewy limbs were pale to the point of translucence and covered in coarse black bristles. He was filthy, his dark beard and hair matted into a single solid lump. At his feet the cell floor was covered in cracked bones, including a few the prisoner saw were far to big for a rat’s.
A long pole with a noose at the end lowered towards him from the ceiling. The man batted at it and hissed, revealing front teeth rotted to green-brown stumps. He seemed to the prisoner a great white tarantula cornered in its burrow.
The sound of arguing drifted down and more nooses appeared in the air. The man let out another hiss and scuttled to the bars nearest the prisoner. He backed up to the far side of his own cell in fright, scattering the handful of skeletons that had accumulated in his own cramped space. A noose caught the man’s hand and pulled tight. He tried to pull free but, trapped as he was, it wasn’t long before another slipped over his head. The poles were dragged up and the man lurched towards the luminous hole in the ceiling. He growled and spat but didn’t have the weight to resist his ascension. The boot steps dragged him through the room above and his howls were cut short with the slamming of a door.
The room erupted in the usual cacophony of misery, but the prisoner hardly noticed. He crawled to the bars that had separated him from his tormenter. Sticking his legs through the gaps he lay flat with his arms stretched out. He wiggled his invisible toes with a smile. Then he fell asleep.
The prisoner sucked his teeth in frustration. The last one had been so trusting, so soft. He searched through his previous catches for anything with meat on it and slapped the floor in disappointment. He’s discovered that leaving a little of the carcass brought the rats and another meal, but the creatures seemed to have learnt to avoid his cell, and he’d already picked the last scraps from his collection.
He crawled back to the bars and with his hands floating lightly between the spaces in the cold iron, like a fisherman waiting for trout, began to hum. The sound of crying was his only response.
‘Come now darling, no need for tears. Are you hungry? Come to me, I’ve food.’ He cooed in a broken voice. He heard his new neighbour edge away. No matter, the prisoner was patient. In the darkness moans and screams ebbed and flowed, washing over him. Crouched and waiting, the prisoner hummed along.