Tuesday, August 09, 2005

The Escape

When they handed him the gun, that first time, he couldn't believe it. One long year of the most horrifying tortures and then this? It was impossible, it didn't make sense. Yet there it undeniably was, the weight of it resting heavy in his palm. He sat staring at it for a while, trying to wrap his mind around it the way he had wrapped his fingers. Then it occured to him that he was being watched. Any moment now one of them could reach forward and take it away from him. The thought sent a shudder through his spent frame. Without a second's further hesitation, he lifted the gun up, put the barrel in his mouth (the taste of the metal cold and a little greasy), shut his eyes, took a deep breath, and pulled the trigger.

It was a moment before the sound of their laughter got through to him; a moment before the ghost of the explosion cleared and he realised that the bitter taste in his mouth was not death but deceit. As the enormity of the trick they had played on him sank in, he felt a panic rising within him. Desperately, like a man searching his wallet for a note he knows he doesn't have, he broke open the gun, checked for bullets. There were none. He started to cry helplessly. A guard came over, still chuckling to himself, and took the gun out of his hand. "Did you really think we were going to let you get away so easily?", the warden asked. "What do you want from me?", he screamed, the tears running down his face, "I've already told you everything I know". "Ah!", said the Warden, "then it's the things you don't know that we'll have to find out, won't we?"

The second year he was better prepared. He had a plan. He didn't even bother to check if the gun was loaded. The minute they handed it to him, he took it by the barrel and swung it into his face with all the power he could muster. There was a sharp crunch, like an apple being bitten into, and his face exploded in pain. He could taste the rich, sweet flavour of his blood, could feel it pouring freely from his almost certainly broken nose. But he was still alive. He looked up at the guards anxiously, to see if they would try and stop him. They hadn't moved - they just stood around with an amused expression on their faces, like a group of fond uncles watching a child at play.

The second swing was harder, and aimed for the head. This time the impact was more of a crack, like a plank of wood snapping into two. The pain blotted out everything for a moment, the world spun; then, slowly, like water rippling to stillness, his awareness of the room returned. A part of him was frightened now, was straining against the leash of his will like a frantic animal. He tried to think clearly. He must use more force, he must get his arms to obey him. He gathered up all his strength and swung a third time.

When he woke up he was still lying in the cell, but the gun had been taken away from him, and the blood had caked over his mouth so that his lips wouldn't open. Not that there was anything to say. The warden stood over him, smiling down. "Very good", he said, "keep this up and we won't have to beat you anymore. You can do it yourself". And the men laughed.

The third year he knew better than to try using his own strength. Instead he used gravity. He tossed the gun up as high as it could go in the cloistered cell and then let it come falling down on his shaved head.

When he came to this time, they told him that he had managed to fracture his skull, but it was a hairline crack and the doctor said it would mend. Meanwhile his neck and head had been bolted in place so he couldn't do himself any more damage.

The fourth year they put a helmet on him. He still went on hitting it with the gun (he couldn't think of what else to do) but all he achieved this time was a minor headache.

The fifth year he came up with the idea of attacking a guard. After all, he had a helmet on, he had a heavy gun to use as a club, he could do real damage. Not that he had any hope of escaping. But maybe if he got to a guard they would have to shoot him. He hadn't reckoned with their tasers though. He'd barely reached the nearest guard when the electricity jolted through his body, turned his bones to water. As he lay on the floor, feeling his muscles slowly twitch back to life, he could hear them laughing.

The sixth year he tried dismantling the gun and choking himself on the pieces. But he couldn't seem to get one stuck in his windpipe. The first one he tried he gagged on, and couldn't get it to go down. The second one was too small, and he ended up swallowing it. Screaming with frustration (the guards were laughing themselves silly by now) he tried a third one and thought he'd finally managed it this time, but the warden came over and gave him a heavy pat on the back and the piece flew out. Then they prised his teeth open and took it away from him.

The seventh year he started to pick the gun up but realised he had no idea what to do with it. He put it back on the table, shoved it away. Then he broke down and started to cry. This time there was real satisfaction on the warden's face.

The eighth year he didn't even try reaching for the gun. He just sat there, staring at it as it lay on the table, clear-eyed and resigned. There was the atmosphere of a temple in the room now, with him standing calmly in the centre, a humble priest, rapt in his admiration of the gun-metal god, and the guards like acolytes in their grey, hooded uniforms, watching him closely, trying to learn.

The ninth, tenth and eleventh year the same thing happened. He would sit there, perfectly placid, staring intensely at the gun as if trying to will it out of existence, as if without it, without the false hope it offered, he could finally come to terms with his fate. These cermonies of his slowly acquired the dignity of a mass - off-duty guards would come to watch him, would leave his cell with a nagging sense of peace.

The twelfth year he reached out, very slowly, to touch the gun. The watching guards drew in their breath, wondering what would come of such sacrilege. But at the first contact with the gun he shuddered back, as if appalled by his own presumption. The gun was still there. He lowered his head in defeat.

When he entered the cell in the thirteenth year, there was a light in his eyes they had never seen before, and for the first time the warden felt genuinely frightened. But the ceremony had to go on. At first the prisoner paid no attention to the gun. He sat staring at the light that was filtering in through the cell window, as though gathering the stray dust of his thoughts into a sunbeam of resolve. Then, when he sensed that his time was almost up, he turned at last to the gun, lifted it from the table with all the ceremonial grace of a knight receiving his sword, placed the barrel in his mouth again, just the way he had done that first time. The guards were puzzled. What could he mean by this? Surely he knew by now that the gun was never loaded. For a moment he sat there with the gun stuck in his mouth like some monstrous animal he was trying to swallow. He was smiling now, and his whole body seemed relaxed. Then, gathering himself together in one great breath, he shut his eyes and fired.

They all heard the click of the empty trigger. They all heard the clatter of the gun falling from his hand to the floor. They all saw his body slump suddenly in the chair, like a bag of old, defeated clothes. They all felt the breath going out of the room, that sense of a sudden vacancy.

For a while nobody moved. Then, very slowly, the warden reached over and felt at the prisoner's throat. After a moment he looked up, a bewildered panic spreading across his face. There was no pulse. The prisoner had escaped.


Itineranting said...

Graphic, to say the least. And very well written.

J. Alfred Prufrock said...

Dark. Vivid. Well-crafted.

But why once a year? The hopelessness of time passing?

Next time, please make us laugh.


Heh Heh said...

Nice. But why did you let him escape?

The ramblings of a shoe fiend said...

brilliantly written

Dethroned Rice Eating Champion (DTREC) said...

Very nicely done. I see you are preparing for Kafka already by paying homage to Penal Colony!

Falstaff said...

IT / Shoe fiend: Thanks.

JAP: Needed a long time gap because wanted it to be an 'event', something he had to wait feverishly in anticipation for, imagining what it would be like and whether it would come off. A year seemed the right choice - both long and 'literary' enough (I mean I could have done quarters or something, but these are jailers, not financial analysts)

HWSNBF: It must be my naturally sunny disposition, my innate optimism :-).

Falstaff said...

dtrec: Actually, the text I had in mind was Sartre - this story called the Wall.


Also, of course, Nabokov's Invitation to a Beheading (see my review on Considerable Speck) and Koestler's Darkness at Noon.