A rooster woke the men that morning. It’s true that they had been sleeping, though they had each secretly sworn they wouldn’t. There were eight of them in all. Only eight, though it felt like more, piled on top of each other in the twelve by fifteen foot cell.
The cell seemed cruelly, intentionally designed, though in reality its designation as a prison cell was only by chance. It was originally part of an old barn that stood about twenty yards from a neighboring farmhouse. The farmhouse was in good condition with comfortable beds and chairs. The officers were camped there and the prisoners listened most evenings to the sounds of their music, drinking and laughter that escaped from the windows late into the night.
The cell that they were in had once been part of a tack room attached to the stables and stalls where animals were still kept. The roof slanted downward at an angle, so the men who were lucky enough to be near the front of the room were able to stand up fully. The rest had to stoop over if standing was to be attempted.
Most of the stalls in the barn were filled with the officer’s horses. The floor was covered in soft dirt and straw that was cleaned out daily by one of the officers, Hector, who had a great affinity for the beasts. And they were truly beautiful creatures; well-fed and sleek, with arched necks and long beautiful legs and hinds. Hector, would come in several times a day to brush and wash the horses after taking them outside for exercise.
Unlike the horses’ quarters, the floor of the tack room was made of stone. This was unusual to find in a barn, especially in that part of the country. The prisoners had discussed it, posing conjectures as to why and how the stone came to be placed there. But that had only lasted the first few weeks. By now, after a month or more (time was getting harder to track) in this tiny room, the men had left off with supposing, and occasionally would only mutter a curse to it as they lay down to sleep.
The room itself was small, and dark. The wooden door had been replaced by metal bars that had been bolted into stone on the floor and walls. The bars let light in from the larger section of the tack room that carried the officer’s supplies and that had three windows facing the east. The cell itself had only one small window right in the middle of the wall where the ceiling was lowest. This window faced the farmhouse, and the men would take turns staring out, at the weather, at the chickens, and at the lights that came on each evening in the house accompanying the sounds of laughter and merry-making from within.
The officers took rotating turns attending to the prisoners. Food and water were brought in twice a day and dispersed among the men. A pail for defecation was cleaned and replaced in the cell every night. Very little talk occurred between prisoner and officer. The men regarded the soldiers with tired, lifeless eyes. The officers mostly avoided their eyes all together, doing their duty as quickly as possible and returning to the farmhouse.
For the first few weeks the men talked often. They had been rounded up, most without explanation, during the raids that happened frequently that summer. The prisoners were strangers to each other, and cautiously they would wait for the soldiers to retire, before questioning one another.
Comrade, friend where do you come from? Me, I am a farmer, from the western valley. I grow beans and maize. I have a small farm. My father was killed last year. In arms. Yes, in arms. I too am in arms. And you? You too? I am a soldier. I fight these monsters, these dogs, I spit at their name. Their mothers are whores and I would rip each of their throats out. No, me? I am just a school teacher. I was to teach. They took all my books and burned them, in front of my face. Fuck your books, they burned my house in front of my face, and my wife, my beautiful wife, right there in front…
Many days passed in this manner. Stories were exchanged and compared. And there was a fear and a silence that followed every exchange, and hung in the air like a thick heavy fog with no where to go except to be inhaled into their lungs.
The general came into the tack room that night, with an orderly trailing behind him. The orderly was a thin, wiry sort of man with a nervous air and a bit of a limp. He had a leather-bound notebook in his hands and was hastily writing down the dictations of the general. The general was obviously an important man. The prisoners had never seen him before and watched intently as he surveyed the room, making notes, stroking his thick moustache and puffing out his heavy-set chest. He walked up and down the tack room several times making notes on supplies that the orderly wrote down in his thick notebook. The general sauntered over to the cell and looked at the prisoners. He stared at them intently, looking each of them in the eye. For the first time the prisoners found themselves unable to return the gaze of one of their captors. Instead they found themselves involuntarily pushing back further in the room, away from the general’s stare. There was a cool, disdainful look in his glance, and the prisoners instinctively felt it and feared it.
“Men,” he said after a moment’s pause, “I have come to inform you that your cases have been reviewed by our Gracious Commander. He has found you traitors to the nation and has ordered your execution for your crimes against the state.” He paused, as if for effect. “His Graciousness hopes that your souls will find peace and you will repent of your sins.” He waved to the orderly who left the room, hobbling quickly on his bad leg. The orderly returned moments later with two trays heaping with steaming, rich food. He slid the food under the bars of the cell, and then quickly exited the room trailing behind the general.
The men stared for several moments at the food; its smells mixing with the heavy urine and must of the cell. No one touch it. A small man in the corner, frail and old with a bent back from years of labor began softly weeping. “Mio Dio,” he moaned, “ah, mio Dio.”
The men stared at the food. One man spat in its direction and then one by one they all slumped down and stared into the darkness. In their minds, each swore they wouldn’t sleep. Each recollected his youth, and his mother, his lover, and his friends, and their minds turned numbly to the thought of death and each wondered different things. Some thought of regrets, some thought of God, some thought with desperation of saving himself; flinging himself at his enemy with murderous intention and desperation. Some sat numbly and thought nothing at all. And each swore he would not sleep, and each eventually slept, overcome by exhaustion or delirium.
The rooster woke them the next morning. They woke with a jump and wondered if it had all been a dream. They gazed at the trays of untouched food that stood there as a bitter reminder of their fate. One man, the teacher, sat in the corner slowly rocking himself and humming softly a tune that his mother had sung to him as a child.
The soldiers came in at noon. The prisoners could hear their footsteps in the barn and tensed. Twelve men entered wearing the bright coats of their guard and the man in front pulled the heavy keys from his pocket and opened the cell with a deep metallic clank.
The officers grabbed the men, forcefully tied their hands in front of them, and led them from the room. The prisoners stumbled on their legs, soft after weeks of sitting in cramped quarters. A few of the men struggled to hold their weight and the soldiers pulled them roughly along. Their eyes squinted at the sunlight, and they raised their hands to shield their faces.
Outside the men were lined up by the order they were pulled from the barn. They were tied to a fence post and the orderly they had seen from the day before limped up and down the line, squinting at each of them in turn and making notes in his book. The general emerged from the farmhouse. He marched to the front of the men, and pulling a scroll from his large breast, loudly and slowly began to read the following proclamation:
Our Benevolent Father, Commander, and Gracious Leader is saddened in his heart by the events of today. He mourns for the children of his country who reject his ways, and so is left with no other choice but to cut them off and to wish peace upon their souls. May God have mercy on you.
Placing the scroll back in his jacket, the general motioned to his orderly, who in turn, motioned to two of the soldiers to untie the first man. The man was cut loose and dragged by his feet to the side of the barn. There he was tied to a post in front of a pit, freshly dug that morning by the soldiers.
The first man stared mutely at the three officers who stood opposite him with guns poised. The general gave a count.
Bang! The man’s body slumped and the officers rushed forward to cut him loose and toss him into the pit.
The second man was led forward. He screamed as they pulled at him. “No, pleeeeeaaase! I beg you! Have mercy!” His cries rang through the valley.
The third man cried, quietly, softly, mumbling something under his breath over and over.
The fourth man said nothing, but looked around with wild, confused, eyes. The officers hesitated for a moment. He looked so harmless, so little, like a scared dog.
The fifth man wept for his mother.
The sixth man swore murder and vile oaths.
The seventh man spat at his captors and tried to scratch at them.
The eighth and last man stood quietly and watched each of his brothers fall. He was silent, perhaps resigned to his fate. The soldiers untied the man and hurried him forward, avoiding his eyes and looking instead at their feet as they walked. They tied him to the post and nodding at the general, quickly got out of the way.
The general raised his arm to give the count. He felt tired and sweat was beginning to drip from his brow into his eyes. He let his thoughts linger for a second on the bed that was waiting for him upstairs. “TRES! DOS! UNO!” he shouted, dropping his arm.
Bang! Bang! Bang! The shots rang out.
The soldiers paused and looked at each other. The man was still standing, staring mutely, confusedly at them. He appeared to have not been hit.
“Idiots!” Shouted the general. “How could you all have missed him? FIRE!”
Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! The soldiers shot frantically. Still the man didn’t fall.
“HAULT!” The general shouted. He walked over with several officers and cautiously inspected the man. There was not a single bullet wound to be found.
“What…what?” stammered one of the officers. The general, saying nothing, took his revolver from his side and pressing the gun to the man’s stomach fired a shot.
The sound from the gun was deafening. The soldiers took a step back and looked at the prisoner. He was stood with the same confused look on his face staring back at them. No wound. The bullet had simply dropped and fallen to the ground.
The general’s face turned pale. With a look of horror he slowly began to back away from the prisoner. “Sorcerer, wizard…” he gasped. The other officers turned and fled, without pause to grab their bags. They saddled the horses and fled from the farm, not daring to look back.
The man stood there, tied to the post for several moments after the officers left, a look of astonishment on his face. He slowly began to rub the ropes that bound his hands against the back of the post. They eventually split and fell from his arms. The man slowly passed his hands over his body, checking it, feeling it for injury. Finding no wounds, he dropped to the ground, tears pouring from his eyes. “Why do I live?” he wailed, “why do I live?” He beat the ground with his fists, clutching at it one second and then throwing it loose the next. He searched himself, and could find no reason for his living. His mind poured over everything—his youth, his family, his work, his children—nothing could he find that would explain why he still lived. But that he did live he was certain. He felt his breathe heave in and out, and listened to the sound of his heart pulsating deep in his throat, in his chest.
For hours he lay moaning softly on the ground, choking on the tears that flowed from his eyes. “I am alive. I am alive,” he cried out over and over. Eventually the man stood up. He had become aware of a deep pain in his stomach. “Hunger! Ah, it is hunger,” he said to himself, awe struck at the familiarity of the feeling. He picked himself up and slowly made his way over to the farmhouse, noticing the world in minute detail, as if seeing it for the first time. Inside he found a pot of beans, still on the stove and bread on the table. He helped himself to the food, eating it slowly, carefully, as if it might be taken away at any moment.
When he was finished, he took a long, deep drink of water. Then, walking upstairs threw himself onto the bed and slept without waking through the night. In the morning when he woke, it took him several moments to recollect what had happened. Having not bothered to undress the night before, he did so now, bathed, and changed into some clothes the officers had left behind. He returned to the barn, and picking out a horse that had also been left, he saddled it and headed away from the farmhouse down a road that he guessed to be in the direction of his home. “I am alive, I am alive,” he muttered the entire time. “I am alive. I am alive…”
| COPYRIGHT 2006-2011
Portland Fiction Project
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED