A Talk in the Dark
I awoke again to darkness. At least, I think I awoke. Light, definition, shape and texture have begun to fade for me. All I know is I move my eyes because I can feel my lids and lashes. Like all the other times, I reach out to my right and touch the wooden bowl and jug of water. Someone puts them there when I sleep, I guess. I’ve tried staying awake to at least hear the sound of someone else’s breathing or a footstep—anything. But so far, nothing. I reach back in my memory to try to assemble the sequence of events that brought me here, but even that has become difficult.
I was a soldier. Just a ranker with a spear and shield. Nobody important. I’m not sure why I’ve warranted such special attention.
Or is it special neglect?
There are times in the dark when I talk to myself. I natter away with my memories to dispel a little of the nothing with noise. I can tell my eyes are open, can feel the dryness when I’ve bugged them out for too long, striving against the Nothing for a hint of Something. I have to actually tell myself to blink.
But all I have are tactile sensations and the monotony of my own voice, and even that pales over time. I can tell I’m dirty. My hair has grown long. I do not know for sure how long I have been here, whether I am young or old. I can stand and move with relative ease but only cautiously. In this absence of landmark, I inch about more careful than a truly blind man, toes and fingers hyper-sensitive to any change, any alteration in the air currents caused by my breathing that might suggest…something.
Change. I keep reaching for it; I can’t say looking because I have all but forgotten what shape is other than my own limbs and body. I know I hug myself constantly, as though I were some catatonic holding on to insanity.
Or sanity. In this place I do not think there is much difference.
I have memories of light, faces that I still recall as family, and others I vaguely remember as friends. But more and more I find the images harder to conjure. Mostly now all that comes easily to me are the sounds of fighting, cruel faces in strange garb thrusting spears and blades, leering faces, bearded, sweaty, disfigured by tattooed designs and ritual slashes. I remember the smells of burning wood and flesh, the choking, retching horror of defeat and displacement.
And then a spear butt smashing into my forehead, followed by darkness.
This same darkness, unchanged, ever since. And the silence, which I break with my hesitant breathing and snatches of odd conversation with my terrors, rubbing at the slowly healing scar, which is the only tangible tie I have to what went before.
I walk out of habit but afraid of what I might bump into, and I talk in a whisper, which still seems loud to me, out of fear that someone or something might be listening. Oddly enough, I never come up against a wall, or a pit, nothing.
But as for that, I cannot make out why. I have all but forgotten who I am. Or was.
And that is what terrifies me the most and keeps me huddling and whispering and dry-eyed in the darkness: who am I that I should suffer so, and who are they that would do this to one so insignificant? Such thoughtless power serves to intensify the dark and make my gibbering all the more hapless.
In a dark such as this, it is difficult to maintain pride and dignity.
“I’ve had enough!”
The sound of my own voice, croaking and broken, scares me back to silence and I crouch down, waiting for a blow.
But nothing. Nothing ever responds. At least, nothing that doesn’t come from inside me.
I wonder if this is what death feels like, then I catch myself. What if this is what death IS?
“Then who keeps feeding me?” my faltered self asks. “I’m not dead. That much I can claim. I smell my own excrement and sweat. The dead don’t eat and drink.”
“Ah, but who is to say?” responded my better self. “You’ve cracked too much to reason it out, admit it.”
“I will admit no such thing!”
“It doesn’t matter what you will or will not admit. You’ve no choice in the matter, anymore.”
“Because your side lost.”
“Don’t you mean ‘our’ side?”
“Don’t try that old game. You will just make it worse.”
“But how can you live without knowing?”
“How can you know without living? Answer me that, why don’t you? Perhaps if we could draw some conclusions, ha, ‘draw’, that’s good, as if we’d be able to see them.”
“Stop it with your stupid irony.”
“Why don’t you stop it with the crouching and the whining? You make us smell like a savage.”
“But I am, ‘we’ aren’t savages! Oh, blast you! I remember a city of white stones on a hill above the sea. Flags and towers and song drifting on the breeze.”
“Fine and pleasant illusions.”
“But you knew them, too!”
“Yes. I knew them. We knew them. Everyone knew them. Can you see them here? Smell them? Hear them?”
“No,” my faltered-self quavered. “All there is here is nothing.”
“Yes, like I said, all pleasant illusions.”
“I cannot accept that.”
“I know, but we both know we are out of options. Defiance means nothing in the Nothing.”
“I hate it when you make sense.”
“I don’t do it to anger you. It is who I, ‘we’ are, what they have made us—those painted, bearded victors. We never had a chance once they broke the wall.”
“Don’t tell me you’ve forgotten that part, too! Are we so fractured, then?”
“No, I remember now. We’ve had this talk before, haven’t we.”
“Many times, one time, doesn’t really matter now. Time is not for me, ‘us’.”
“You think you know something, don’t you. Tell me. You know something. You remember more than I do. Tell me!”
And then silence, as though in my madness my better-self thought better of the answer. I blinked, waiting, hugging my dirty, scrawny limbs. I felt small. So small.
“Tell me,” my faltered-self whispered.
“I think I am,” came the answer, final, sepulchral. “ Or ‘we’ are, culture, all but forgotten save by the scribes and keepers of records. We are the words of the poets fallen on all but deaf ears, recalled as an afterthought, shelved.”
“So what are we to do?”
“But this is the Nothing!”
“Yes, it is the Nothing. We might wait long…”
The Poets of Pevana
The Poet King
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