I pulled the prisoner through the damp hallway ignoring the intermittent cries of pain from my grip that had clamped around her bicep. When her feet began to drag my grip would tighten spurring them into a half-hearted shuffle. Her questioning eyes clung to each empty cell we passed, but I had a special place in mind for this one.
I drug the condemned deeper into the darkness until we reached the last cell. After opening the door I threw her in with all my might. She tumbled like a rag doll and lay unmoving against the back wall that stopped her roll. Her long brown hair covered the bruises that I had left on her face. Only the rise and fall of her tattered black shirt gave an indication of life.
Light was an unwelcome visitor in the tiny room. There were no windows or lamps to be found in the three barren walls. Everything that could offer a respite from suffering had been removed. Her bed would be the cold ground. Her toilet would be the corner of her choice. Her only companion would be the thoughts of her trespasses and the disease the filth of her new home invited.
I watched her for a moment in the darkness before closing the iron door. A loud clang echoed down the hall as the door vibrated back toward me. I pushed the door closed again and again it returned to me. Anger welled inside me as I gripped the cold steel bar and swung it with all my might. The bars rang out like a bell as the door bounced back to me once more.
“There does not appear to be a lock on my new home.”
My prisoner pulled herself up to sit with her back against the wall. Her voice was a broken whisper, but a hint of joy at this development tinted the edge of her words. She made no effort to pull the matted hair from her face and I was not sure if she could my face.
“I don’t care!”
The words exploded out of me without warning. Her continued rebellion fed the fire of my rage like gasoline. It was this choice that had brought her here. Had she still not learned? There was no doubt in me that I would do whatever it took to break her of her rebellion.
“Then I will stay here and make sure you suffer the full penalty you deserve.” I said with a measured detest.
She made a weak sound that could have been a cough or a laugh.
“So you will suffer as I do.”
“I can make sure you have a full understanding of the word ‘suffer’ if you would like.”
My hand wrapped around the knife in my belt to emphasize my point.
“It is true that in here you can punish my body, but apart from that we will suffer equally. As long as you stay to keep me from leaving, you also are kept from leaving. Every minute you keep me in the dark, you keep yourself from the light.”
“It is a small price to pay to see you suffer as you deserve!”
I spat back at her, but her words had disabled the lock of my conviction.
Her hands searched the floor around her and came to rest when they found a loose stone. I pulled my knife clear of its sheath, but she only turned and began to scratch at the wall behind her. The sound of that scratching would become as familiar to me as my own voice.
Time held no meaning down in the near darkness. I watched her whither away from a diet of stale bread and cups of dirty water, but I could not ignore the similar effects the same diet had on me. Each attempt I made to humiliate or demean her, she turned back on me. I would mock her squatting in the corner to go to the bathroom and she would ask what kind of man would watch such a thing.
The weakening of my body only fed my hatred for the rebel. I began a habit of daily beatings, each time with more anger than the last. She would always speak to me when I finished. Maybe she knew that I was at my weakest after I had given myself over to punishing her.
“Do you know why your anger still grows?”
She spoke in something that was below a whisper. Still, I was amazed she could speak at all after what I had just done to her. I did not have the energy to play her game and sat slumped outside the cell in silence.
“It is because your anger is not for me. Each day you torture me you become less like the man you wish to be. You hate yourself for who you become with each blow you reign down on me. It’s a cycle with no end.”
I could not deny the truth of her words. I was tired of this darkness. Tired of holding a prisoner captive without seeing any change in her.
“I have no other choice.”
Her hand moved slowly to her face and pulled away the hair that covered her face. In the darkness her eyes met mine for the first time. My heart threw itself against my chest. Memories of the love we had once shared captured my thoughts. Her voice caused my hands to shake uncontrollably.
“There is always a choice. Let me go.”
Anger and pride were all I could feel. They blinded me and cast out every thought would lead to her release.
“I cannot! It was your actions that brought you here. I am willing to suffer if it means that you will too. You do not deserve freedom!”
Her eyes filled with tears.
“But you do.”
In that moment I knew that her tears were not from the pain or for her suffering, but for me. Those few tears swept me away from the place I had stood for so long. They washed over me and stung me like a healing ointment in an open wound.
“I don’t know how…”
“Start by opening the door.”
The idea of stepping back into the light of day fed my legs strength and I pulled myself up along the wall. I had opened the door to her cell each day to give her food and beatings, but my hand seemed to sense a difference and shook wildly as I reached out. The door felt heavier and was slow to move. My other hand joined the fight and together they dragged the door open.
I met her eyes once more. The love I once had for her seemed so pure, so right. I fell to my knees in shame.
“You are free. Go.”
She laughed a gentle laugh and again I knew her joy was for me alone.
“It is you who has been released. I have always been free.”
As she spoke her body melted into the darkness and disappeared. I rose and moved into the small cell, but it was empty. My foot kicked something and I looked down to see her stone. I picked it and held it as if to convince myself that something was real. One edge had been worn smooth from the scratching.
I moved deeper into the darkness to find the place in the wall this rock had been used to mark. My fingers moved over the indentations and I realized that she had carved words into the wall. I could not see well enough to read them so I slowly traced each letter until like a light that pierced the darkness of the cell I knew and understood what she had scrawled.
There are no captives in the prison of unforgiveness, but the warden.
Copyright © 2012 Adam Drake