Lives Lived III: The Prisoner

by MJJ

The light was grey. He could see his hands as they moved. That meant it was day, though the fact itself mattered little to him. He managed just as well in the blindness of night. By now he knew where everything was and no longer needed to see. The pallet was behind him. The latrine bucket was beyond that, in the other corner of his cell. To his left was the door through which food came at intervals. And before him was the stone whose mortar he was filing away, little by little, with a jagged piece of pottery. The pottery had once been a bowl that held the half-warm half-liquid stuff they sometimes fed him. When he needed a new tool he feigned a fit of madness, screaming and throwing his food at the wall so that the bowl broke. After that they wouldn't feed him for a space, and his stomach contracted even more. But it didn't matter. Hunger and cold, dirt and darkness -- he no longer even had names for them in his mind. All that mattered was the sharp-edged shard in his hand and the growing groove in the ancient mortar of the stone in the wall. All he had to do was rub one against the other, and that was what he did.

He had no thoughts as he worked. He'd long since abandoned any idea of time. Sometimes as his hand moved back and forth brightly coloured images would come to him - men in scarlet cloaks waving swords, low blue hills under a hot sun, loud roars and cries. He put no names to those things, indeed barely noted that the pictures were in his head. His attention was on his task. He rubbed his piece of pottery back and forth, feeling it crumble away against the hard mortar. His eyes grew heavy. That meant it was time to sleep. He put the thin little fragment down, rolled onto the pallet, and slept. When he woke it was dark again. There was the smell of food. He reached out past the foot of his pallet and found the bowl where it always was. He took two mouthfuls and put it carefully back in place. He always took two mouthfuls of his food when it came, then another two when the next grey period happened. It was a reflex he no longer thought about, any more than he thought about relieving himself in the latrine bucket when his bladder made him uncomfortable. All he thought about, if 'think' is the right word, was the deepening groove in the mortar. The pottery shard was so small he had trouble holding it. Then it was gone, gritty dust between his fingers. Time to get another from his hoard under the pallet. He ran his hands across the stone, and then froze. There was a noise where no noise had ever been - a scraping noise from the other side of the wall. Muffled and dim, but there - a regular 'rek rek rek' sound with a high-pitched whine in it somewhere.

The sound gave him a feeling of discomfort, not physical but mental. It was as if his mind was a caged prisoner newly set free, who finds the sensation of movement painful. He listened to this noise that had invaded his noiseless world, unable to find an image to attach to it. Then a revolution happened in his head, and he realized what it was. Another prisoner on the other side of the wall scraping at the mortar. Like himself. He put his hands on the stone - his stone - put his ear to the stone, and listened. Vibrations, on the other side of the wall, however thick the stone was - two spans? three? Over there, in the adjoining darkness, someone else was scraping at the mortar of his stone.

He frowned. The idea disturbed him. Someone tunnelling into his cell as he tunnelled out.... Someone trying to reach him? That was all wrong. But then he saw that with two of them working, the stone would move all the sooner. And then he could tell the idiot next to him to start working on the opposite wall, where he should have begun in the first place.

Irritated but invigorated, he reached beneath the pallet for another shard and began rubbing it against the mortar.

The noise grew louder. The rek rek rek seemed to be happening under his hand. Then there was a dry scrabbling sound, and mortar ran from between the stones. A thin golden knife-edge of light cut through the gap, hurting his eyes. He recoiled instinctively, shutting them tight.

When he opened them again, the light no longer hurt. He put his eye to the thin slit and saw another eye, a blue eye, looking at him. He jumped in surprise. Then the eye, or what he could see of it, was gone, and a voice came instead.

'Your Excellency - Don Pedro-'

Don Pedro? Who was that? He put his own mouth to the crack.

'Who are you?'

'A friend, my Lord. Come to free you from your prison.'

'I'm not a lord. You have the wrong man.'

'You are, my lord,' the voice said. A young voice, melodious, almost caressing. Something within him rose in resistance to its soft persuasiveness. 'Remember. You are Don Pedro de Guzman, commander of the King's armies, lately wounded at the seige of Salamanca....'

'Fool, I tell you I am not! Stop babbling and help me move this stone.'

There was a small silence. 'Ah well, no matter,' the voice said. The rek-rek-rek noises began again, at the top of the stone. He began working his potsherd against the bottom layer of mortar, angrily and unhappily. Before, there had been a self-contained peace to the work, but now - now the stone had another side to it, and on the other side was someone else, some soft-voiced babbler with blue eyes. It was all wrong.

More mortar sifted down onto his hands. The blue-eyed idiot worked faster than he could. That fool....

'My lord,' the voice said.

'I told you, don't call me that!'

'Then what am I to call you?'

He stared at the thin crack of light. His mind was still as a balky horse that refuses to walk. My name. He prodded his mind like a man spurring his horse, but there was no response. My name. What need had he of a name? He had his task to perform. He knew what he had to do. That was all that mattered.

'What am I to call you?' the voice repeated.

'Call me what you please!' he yelled, 'But get on with the work!'

'I think this stone will move,' the voice said, 'if we both push on it together. You on your right, I on mine.'

'Very well.' In truth there was a huge reluctance within him at the thought, but he took a deep breath and put his hands on the right end of the stone.

'One, two, three - push' the voice said, and resentfully he pushed. There was a small grating sound and he felt the cold stone give.

'Again,' the voice urged, and again they pushed in unison. The stone protested, but turned a fraction more. There was a space of two hand-widths between it and the neighbouring stone. More light than he would have thought possible came through it. Stronger than a candle - stronger than torchlight even....

'My lord-- Sir-- are you there?' the voice asked.

'I'm here,' he said, eying the oblong of light with suspicion. His hackles rose like a dog's scenting an enemy.

'Can you see me?' the young voice asked. 'All is so dark where you are. Can you see me?'

'I could see you if I looked,' he allowed.

'Then look at me.'

He said nothing.

'Please,' the voice said, soft, entreating. 'I beg you. Look at me.'

He snorted in contempt and brought his eye to the space. Sunlight. The room was full of sunlight. The prison cell next to his held sun, and huge blue walls with great clouds floating across them, and a floor of deep green grass dotted with little white flowers. And sitting next to the wall was a young man with golden hair falling in curls to his breast and eyes as blue as the blue skies over his shoulder.

'My lord,' the young man said, bringing his face close to the opening. 'Don Pedro. Come out. You can come out now. You're free.'

'No-' he said, breath caught in his throat.

'Come back, my lord. Those who love you are waiting for you. Your wife, your kinsmen - they have been much grieved at your absence.'

'I have no wife - no family - What would I do with a wife? A silly chattering woman - And my kin are fools.'

'They love you and want you back. Come back, my lord.'

'No,' he insisted, 'it's not true - it's a trick-'

'Your children wait for you,' the voice said, the gentle persuasive voice. 'Your castle and your lands. The soldiers you led to victory and the servants in your house. They love you and they miss you....'

'No,' he said again, 'no. I have no children, no men. I have been alone all my life. There is none who loves me, none. I am alone-'

'-not alone,' the young man said over his words, 'not alone. Come out and see. There are many who love you. Come out of your cell into the sunshine and you'll see. We're here.' The young man slipped two slender fingers into the narrow opening between them. They touched his lips. Warm fingers, soft, alive, touching his mouth, caressing him-- He recoiled in horror. The promise of warmth, the promise of sunshine - a world below an open sky where flowers bloomed and a beautiful man reached out to him, promising-

'No!' he cried. 'It's not true! You lie - you lie - you lie-' Desperately he pushed at the stone, pushing it back to where it was before, cutting off the lying sunlight and the sight of those blue eyes. In the returned dimness he rummaged under his pallet for the shards of pottery and rammed them into the cracks where the mortar had been, filling them up until all the light was gone and he sat again in the grateful blackness. He shook violently, like a man who has escaped mortal danger by a hair's breadth. After a bit his trembling stopped and his breath came more easily. A while after that he sat up, sighed, and felt about him. His hand found a piece of pottery. He relaxed. Crawling over to the opposite side of the room he began to rub the earthenware fragment against the mortar of the wall.

Dona Ana de Guzman clutched her hands together and watched the still form of the physician. Baruch Mendoza seemed to be asleep in the chair that had been placed next to the bedside of her equally still husband, Don Pedro. Don Pedro had been unconscious for days, knocked from his horse by a last cannon blast as he led his victorious army into Salamanca. The greatest of the King's doctors, dispatched in haste by his Majesty, were unable to revive him. At last they could only recommend her to this famous Jewish doctor from Burgos. And now he sat here in her husband's chamber - strangely blond and blue-eyed for a Jew, she thought, but the Jews are after all a strange and wonder-working race - and did she knew not what. Dona Ana could only wait, lips moving silently in an Ave Maria, and hope for a miracle. There was a groan from the bed and she started to her feet. Don Pedro turned feebly to one side and then the other, like a man in a nightmare. Then he lay still again. Heart beating in hope and fear, Dona Ana watched for another sign, but all she heard was the deep sigh of the physician. The young man sat up in his chair and ran a weary hand over his face. He stood up. She knew what he would say even before he spoke.

'I am sorry, Dona Ana.'

'You cannot wake him?'

'He has no wish to awake.'

There was nothing to say to that. Her husband had always been cold and remote, seeming to finding joy only when risking his life amid the roar of cannons and the sounds of slaughter. She loved him but had never known his heart. The silent sleeper in the bed was not in fact so very different from the husband she had known awake.

'He will die?' she asked, preparing to let go the last of her hope. She had thought perhaps in age he would grow more like other men, with thoughts of his children and grandchildren taking the place of ambition, and willing to confide in his wife. But it seemed that age was to be denied to him.

'Yes, I think so,' the physician said, gravely and simply. Her heart closed within her breast, even as half her mind took absent note of the physician's extraordinary beauty. Strange that anyone would resist when that one called.... 'Don't grieve, my lady. He's not unhappy where he is.'

'Where is he?' she asked, wondering.

A shutter seemed to close across the young man's expression, so briefly she wasn't certain it had happened. Then he was looking at her again from his frank blue eyes.

'A place he's chosen for himself,' he said. 'A place he wants to be in.'

 

MJJ Nov/99

 

Eroica