Transfixed on the unfolding horror, your heart freezes in your chest.
Once such a great, proud symbol of sanctuary and hope, the castle is engulfed by the raging inferno. Even from your vantage point here across the harbour, so intense is the heat that you fear your own flesh will burst aflame. Even worse is the screaming. Long, pitiful death wails rise and fall from the blaze, mingling with the startled cries of seagulls to create an eerie, otherworldly chorus of anguish.
Your legs refuse your commands. Although you attempt to will yourself into motion, mentally urging yourself to run into the flames of your burning home. Perhaps it still isn’t too late? There could still be a chance your family haven’t yet roasted to death… You could reach them, save them, if you could just move!
But nothing happens. You are as mobile as a statue. Eyes wide and blurry with tears, forced to bear witness as everyone and everything you’ve ever loved is slowly incinerated before you. Here you remain, frozen in place until long after the last lick of flame burns to a smouldering ember, and all that finally remains are swirling, wind-scattered ashes. Only then do you find your body released from the invisible hold.
Something happens. Your consciousness shifts.
You awaken with a jolt. Eyes wide, choking for air in the semidarkness. Gulping down frantic lungfuls of oxygen, you will your heart to slow its jackhammering.
Reality begins to reassemble itself before your blurry eyes as the scalpel-edged claws of nightmare slowly retract from your mind. A sharp, familiar pain scythes through your lower back, and stiffly you struggle to change position on the small wooden bed.
The dreams come every night, unstoppably and without mercy. Despite the passage of time, they only seem to have increased in lucidity. This morning you’re certain you can still taste the sickening, fatty reek of burnt flesh in the back of your scorched throat. Because they’re never the same, you always dread whatever horrors your next slide into hell will bring. It’s always worse than you imagine.
You realise that you’ve wet yourself, and lay in cold, wet shame until I come to you, and you silently curse the useless malformed stumps below your hips as I change your clothes, bathe and re-dress you. Oh, you are well beyond shame humiliation. Those emotions are for people, and you are just a broken thing trapped inside a shattered shell. The dreams take their toll on the body as well as the mind.
I feed you a bland, thin broth and wipe your mute lips when you are done. Sometimes I give you meat stew and a little wine, and on those days I remind you that it’s your birthday. You try to smile then, because you think you’ve made it another year closer to the release of death.
I come to you daily, and you love me for it. I am the last beacon of sanity that still illuminates the lonely mockery of life that you endure.
Your broken body cannot speak to me, but my words make up for your silence and my words nourish your spirit even more than the food does your body. I don’t condescend, or patronise. And when I leave, somehow you have forgotten that you’re nothing but a broken stub. For a while, at least. Then, alone in the candlelight, you think about me. You imagine my home, my existence beyond the daily handful of minutes we share here in this small room, and the perfectly unbroken person I surely share my bed with each night.
And you weep, until the nightmare steals you away from your waking hell to plunge inexorably back into your fiery hell, alone.
One day your punishment will be done. As certainly as decades will slide into centuries, all those imprisoned here will be freed eventually. Regardless of what the old religions say, nobody deserves infinite punishment, no matter how depraved their crimes have been. Everyone’s time is up eventually, whether it takes days or millennia.
My task alone is never-ending, for I must read you all. Countless billions of minds, each one broken open and spread out. Every joy, every obscenity on display. As I feed the feeble bodies, I delve deeply into the splayed-out consciousness. Always reading. Sooner or later, I find a change as a balance is tipped. Enough has been enough. I open the door, and fold closed the fabric of the mind. Their expression when their mind is restored is what I live for. It’s poetry. Beautiful. Another proof of the sheer power of suffering. I live for it.
And you, oh, my old friend. A billion stars born and died since you came into my care, and you have no idea. Yet still your time has not come.
You awaken with a jolt. Eyes wide, choking for air in the semidarkness.
I know two things with a crystal clarity: you will not be my guest forever. But I will be taking care of you for a very long time to come.
Today I bring you meat stew. You smile.
Copyright Ben Knight