Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Prisoner of Hope

Perpetua was woken, as usual, by the warmth of the sunlight slipping in between the bars on her solitary high window.  She rose immediately, and began to pace the perimeter of the round cell.  This was the best part of the day, and there was no knowing when it would end.  In earlier times, in the first weeks and months - years? - after she had arrived here, morning had been the time for prayer.  She still prayed, but now she paced as well.  Important to exercise.

It was only minutes before the heavy oak door opened.  As usual, there were two figures waiting in the doorway.  As usual, they were masked.  Perpetua remembered when they had not worn masks; she remembered human faces.  Now just blank masks, which made her wonder, in her few idle moments, how the people under them could see.  But she did not ask about the masks.  Any questions along those lines brought punishment.  Instead she rose and, as usual, followed the figures out of the cell, under the stone lintel which was carved on the inside with a single word: hope.  This, after all, was the doorway out of prison.

One of the two figures walked ahead of her, whilst the other took the usual place behind.  Perpetua knew the route and walked it without thinking.  She briefly wondered whether the figure ahead of her was not that of a woman, but about that too it was forbidden to ask or speculate, and she quickly killed the thought process.  Better not to think what she could not say.  She shuffled slowly - why did they always walk so slowly now? - down the dark corridor, noticing again the broken statues which stood along the edges in the deeper shadows.  They had no heads.  Perpetua knew what was coming.

The darkness of the corridor opened up into the light of the arena, and the silence was replaced by the murmur of thousands of human voices.  The first time she had been brought here, they had roared with anger.  Now the volume barely rose as she entered and followed her guide to the centre of the arena.  Why did they keep coming here to see her?  From the noise they seemed uninterested.  She wished she could see their faces.

Perpetua's two escorts retreated, leaving her standing alone in the middle of the sand-covered floor of the vast arena.  She turned to face the far side, where there was another opening to another corridor.  She knew what to expect now.  After a few minutes the first one appeared.  She did not know how they moved or by what mechanism they were made to speak.  They appeared to be half-carved statues, but she knew that they were really ancient figures.  When first she came here they had been complete, and colourful - some beautiful, some gaudy, images of animals and people and things.  Now they looked weathered and indistinct, as if they had been exposed to the elements for centuries.  How long had it been?  How could they have changed so fast?

The voices had changed too, but not the demand.  The first time - the first hundred times - she had been here, the statues had spoken with varied voices, one seductive, one commanding, one pleading, but all with the same demand: 'worship me!'  Back then, she had proudly defied them.  Now she did not respond at all as the first mis-shapen thing ground its way towards her and uttered its demand, in a broken, hissing voice that seemed as weathered as the statue itself.  After a few seconds, as usual, the thing moved away from her to the edge of the arena.  Perpetua waited.  There would be another, and another.  Hundreds of broken statues, all with the same demand.  She would not listen.

Soon the edge of the open arena was lined with objects, all hissing together: worship us!  Perpetua waited for it to end.  It always ended.  But today seemed longer than usual, and the voices seemed to be rising higher.  She knew that nothing was served by speaking, and she tried to remain silent, but the hissing, creaking voices...  Why wouldn't they stop?  A cry burst from her.

'How can I worship you when I don't know what you are?  Do you even know what you are?  Are you anything at all?'

There was silence in the arena.  Absolute silence.

And then the two masked figures were there, one on either side of her.  They took an arm each, not too gently, and dragged her away, back to the door from which she had entered the arena.  The spectators made no sound; the broken statues were still. It was over for today.

As they reached the door to the cell, Perpetua glanced upward, as she always did.  Here on the outside, the lintel was also carved with one word: surely.

'Even so' she muttered as she passed underneath, and the heavy door swung shut behind her.

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