By Benjamin Basham
The torches have still not been lit; no one has even checked on us in who knows how long, and the torches were dark long before that. Rats in a sewer; would you show much affection for rats in a sewer? At least they still remember to feed us, although even food arrives less and less frequently. Not that it matters; pigs eat better. Death will just as likely come with the food as without it.
Someone is fumbling at the lock. Ah, yes; that is what sound sounds like. I had forgotten. The great iron door is opening— I cannot see! Blasted torch is too bright.
“How do you fare?” I heard a man smirk. Indeed, he audibly smirked. I cannot place the voice, but it sounds proud and secure in its pride. He is down nearer the door, next to the cell of the only other prisoner.
“Better than I deserve,” I heard my fellow captive croak. I inched open my eyes, just barely catching a glimpse of the scene before the light slammed them shut. The visitor was royally attired with enough gold to purchase a castle adorning his robes, every nail carefully trimmed and his hair veritably shining; he stank of cleanliness. The other prisoner was lying in the cell’s muck, much of it likely his own, the torchlight unable to touch his grimy face. He might have been smiling, but I think that was a trick of the light.
“Indeed,” the visitor said. “We should have placed you in less comfortable lodging.”
The voice and attire clicked in my mind: it was the king himself, come to taunt his little rodents. I should have guessed earlier. You could hear it in the way he walked: with just enough force to squash any insects in his path but not enough to leave any stain on his boots.
“You still have time,” the king said. “I am not without mercy. Renounce your king.”
“Can a man renounce himself?” the prisoner replied.
“Bah! Do you style yourself a king now?” The king laughed, his vigorous booming voice filling the prison. It was frightening; I have not heard laughter in years. “You have two days. Remember: I hold your future happiness in my hand. Choose wisely.”
The king is gone. I can see again (not that darkness is much of a sight), and it is silent once more. I have come to like the silence. When it is silent, you cannot hear creeping and crawling things, nor the dry rustle of Death’s cloak as he anxiously waits to harvest another soul.
Then a sound shook the air, rattling the bars and setting my teeth on edge. I leapt to my feet, wheeling about, breath coming in short gasps. Was a man having his soul painstakingly torn apart?
I finally remembered what blasted my ears: someone was singing.
“Are you mad?” I demanded of the prisoner (for no one else is alive in this slice of hell) once I dredged how to speak out of my memory.
“That depends on what you define as ‘mad,’” he replied, and dare I say it, he sounded cheerful. Cheerful, sitting in the remains of last week’s meal and who knows how many others.
“A man in love is mad, and aye, I am a man in love,” the prisoner continued. “A man who would give his life for another is mad, and I have done that too; it is why I am here.”
A half-formed philosopher. Lovely.
“How can you sing in this place?” I said, waving my hand at the surroundings, too dark to notice any waving hands in.
“When a man has a song in his heart, he must sing.”
“That almost makes you sound happy to be here. You cannot be that, I know; even madmen have limits.”
“If I cannot be happy, all the better to sing, to remind myself what happiness once was like.”
“Fool!” I cried, collapsing back on the floor to return to my living death. “Even memories of happiness die here. Your search is futile.”
And though he did not sing again, I could hear him humming.
The thunder of a turning key awakened me. Someone was at the door again. I closed my eyes, but still felt the glare of the torch assaulting my eyelids.
“My friend,” the arrival said; it was the king again.
“We are not friends,” the prisoner said, an unexpected steel in his tone.
“Perhaps not,” the king allowed. “That would imply that we were on equal footing.”
“Indeed,” the reply came. “I would never dare stoop to be as low as you.”
I opened my eyes just slightly. You would have thought the king’s face chiseled from diamond it was so rigid. A young, handsome face, though it did not look so much now, frozen in rage that it was.
“Renounce him,” the king commanded, leaning in close to the bars, his sharp whisper slicing through the stale air. “My mercy stretches thin, but you still have this chance.”
“For a man to deny whom he serves, he must first give up his integrity, then his loyalty, and by then he has lost himself, renounced himself,” the prisoner replied, creaking to his feet and standing just across from the king. “And why would you want a man who no longer knew who he was?”
The king scoffed and stepped away, waving dismissively at the prisoner.
“You have one more day. You will have freedom and a good life if you but abandon him.”
The iron door swung shut behind the king, taking with it the light, the warmth, the sound, and my vain hope for food. Well, maybe not the sound; the other prisoner was humming again. All this precious silence for so long now destroyed by this madman; it was almost like the king’s visits were giving him a sort of strength. That was it: his mind had finally broken, which is now why he sang away the quiet.
“Why do you not reject this king?” I said. “You are dead anyway if you do not, and he probably thinks you are already lost.”
He laughed, actually laughed, as if this was the most ridiculous thing he had ever heard.
“Can a man renounce himself?” he echoed. “You heard my explanation.”
“Then hear mine a second time,” I spat. “You. Are. Dead. If you accept the king’s mercy, you can at least live!”
He chuckled, and I heard him shuffle near the side of his cell closest to mine.
“Some men live for yesterday, hopelessly lost in what has already happened and will never again be. You, my friend, live for today, every instant hoping that Death will stay his hand a little longer. The king lives for tomorrow, always grasping, always wanting, never at peace.” He paused, as if his next statement deserved a prelude of that precious silence. Indeed, when he spoke, the dust and years of the prison seemed to fall from his voice. “But I live for hereafter. I live for seeing my king once again, no matter how long the wait, no matter in which life.”
I snorted. What was it with this man? Such happiness in his voice; I was correct. His wits are befuddled.
“Well, keep living in your little dream world. Oh, wait,” and I allowed myself something akin to a laugh, “Even that will not be possible because you are going to die soon. Your ‘hereafter’ matters little in the face of Death.”
“And Death matters little in the face of Eternity,” the prisoner replied.
Lost. Lost in his fantasy. I would give him no more satisfaction in indulging such madness, and so turned away into the silence.
I wish they had brought food. I think I would not hunger if they did, but I am not sure. Starvation is more a state of being now; I am alive, I am hungry. There is little difference between the two.
I am waiting now. Waiting for the breaking of the silence with that turning key. Waiting for the banishing of the darkness by that burning torch. Waiting for time to start again.
The thunder of the lock once again heralded the coming king. I braved the torchlight this time, squinting against the blaze. The king stood before the other prisoner’s cell, as radiant as the flame, the filth of the prison seemingly scattering from him in deference. He almost shone; the sun come to earth. I scooted further into my cell, afraid his light might touch me.
“You know why I am here. It would be folly to refuse me.”
“I believe that the folly lies in you returning to me with the same demand and expecting a different response,” the prisoner replied, sitting at the back of the cell where the king’s light could not reach.
“You have no hope for tomorrow except my proposal,” the king said, his tone a peculiar mixture of astonishment and amusement. I did not blame the king, but he had not yet come to the revelation that I had: the man had not only lost his freedom, but also his wits.
“Then I have no hope for living past this day.”
The king stood there, mouth open in bewilderment. I just shook my head.
“Then you will not know tomorrow’s dawn,” the king snarled. “The failing of the day will take your spirit with it.”
The door closed with a thud and darkness was once more my world. It would have been quiet too, but the prisoner was humming again. No more, no more! I wanted to shout. He is the least sensible person I have ever met, and he is interrupting the silence.
“Have some respect for the one of us who is sane,” I called from where I lie. “It is just not wholesome to hum in this place.”
“Not wholesome?” he replied. “How not? What a better place to hum, to remind it that it has no power over me.”
“No power!” I exclaimed as I struggled to my feet, a wasting stomach attempting to drag me back down. “Then command those bars to bend and break! Order that door to open! Do you know the name of iron in such a way that you are not truly imprisoned? Do you think this false?” I slapped my hand against one of the bars.
“If I was limited to but flesh and bone, then indeed I would be powerless,” he replied. “But you are once again thinking only of today.”
“And at the end of ‘today’, you will be dead. Do you not understand? You will be gone, your body dust, the memory of you soon forgotten.”
“Yet when I die I will be at peace, for I have no fear of death. Can the same be said for you?”
I harrumphed and slumped back to the floor, my legs unable to uphold me any longer.
“You fear becoming a part of yesterday,” the prisoner continued. “Because you only live for today, you are terrified of Death, of it destroying you. But why should I fear him? Death is a creature of tomorrow that comes to today to place all in yesterday, but I live for hereafter; he has no sway there.”
We wait in the darkness, his insufferable humming grating at my ears, his remarks stabbing at my spirit. I can hear Death pacing in the shadows; why can that blasted prisoner not keep quiet! I need the silence back. I need that timeless peace again.
Finally, the iron door scraped across the floor. The king passed into the room like a ray from the sun, torchlight enveloping him. To my horror, he glanced across the cells and to me, his light casting itself across my fallen form.
“There is another down here,” the king said, mildly surprised. “Who are you?”
I did not respond. I could not. A name is something I have not had for a long time; I am just a rat in a sewer.
“Well, I suppose it is best to wrap up all loose ends,” the king said when I remained silent.
And before I quite knew what was happening, I found myself outside in front of a crowd. I could see for the sun; its rays speared through my closed lids, lancing my head with agony. The sound, I could hear sound everywhere! The flames of the sun’s gaze warmed my flesh.
I can see, I can hear, I can feel! I hate it! Just take me back to the prison; I need the darkness and silence back.
The king is saying something about the prisoner, who has been led up to the pyre. They will burn you; smile now when that same smile is melting off your face.
They set the wood alight. I force open my eyes to witness this spectacle. The prisoner’s eyes are clenched shut, pain chiseled into his face. The fire is at his feet. Then somehow he found the strength to open his eyes, and they are clear and free. And he begins to sing.
The song, the same tune as that which he had hummed, soared up to the clouds and back down to the earth. In it were mixed the chords of pain now assailing him, but they only enriched the music. Though I had not been able to stand his humming in the prison and little more could tolerate his singing now, his expression, glistening with joy and pain, filled me with wonder. As I listened, I realized he was singing the praises of his king.
The fires consumed him, ending his song. Now I am led to my own pyre. The king is saying something about me; either he found my crime listed in some old papers or he is making it all up. I cannot remember what actually happened anyway and it hardly matters now.
As I am bound to the central post, I look across to the still burning pyre of the other prisoner, now freed. The way he had so willingly gone to his doom for that king of his; it is something to marvel at. A man in love indeed. Perhaps he was not so insane, or perhaps he was, but in a way that was truly enviable. I can only hope that, though it be in the next life, I might find a king to whom I could be so loyal.
The heat of fire is creeping up my legs. I hardly notice it; I suppose all the sun and sound has dulled me to it. Besides, how could it compare to the pain of living? All these people watching me die, they are all slowly burning. One day even the king will die, and what will his grasping, his power, amount to then?
The flames are now at my thighs. I am not screaming; it must be strange to see. Of course, they did just witness a man sing his way into oblivion.
And as I remember that song, I find myself to be humming.