As the stone bit deeply into his flesh, he howled into the dark mountainside. Not in pain – oh wonderful pain, glorious sting, how he longed for its unforgiving touch, the rake of its nails shivering down his nerves – but in loathsome frustration at the lack of it. Again and again he pushed the rock into his skin, his muscle, even scraping on his bone – nothing but emptiness; the emptiness of enslavement. The bitter, wordless howl echoed off the rocks and returned to him hollow, almost mocking, as if saying to him that he would never again have his voice heard. His cage was getting smaller and smaller.
Not to say the howl itself wasn’t loud. The ground around him shook, and in the distance he could hear the tumbling of rocks down a mountainside dislodged by the noise. But for all its great volume, it was meaningless; it may as well have been a sigh. No, even a sigh could express some emotion. It could be a soft murmur of contentment, or a moment of exasperation. But he was cruelly robbed of both, and all he could do was let out another violent, animalistic howl that said nothing more than, “Look at me, I’m loud.”
The sharp stone broke against his skin, then shattered in his iron grasp,sending shards of rock and dust through his fingers and onto the ground, barely visible in the dim light that seeped into the dark sky over the walls of Coratka. The quiet hubbub of the city buzzed even in the depth of night, and only increased his loneliness. Gods, wasn’t he lonely enough, with only the dead for company? The dead didn’t talk though; but the voices did. If you could call it talking. More like spewing forth a toxic torrent of the thought equivalent of bile: bitter, vile, foul and sickening to the point he wished he could vomit the thoughts out of his brain. It’s this how the crazy felt? Ideas and voices so rotten, so hideous, that it would be a moment’s relief to scream them out over the tongue in the hope of purging them from the mind, if only for a moment?
And yet he could not even do that. His tongue was useless but to taste the foul rot of the meat of the dead – or sometimes a live rat if he could catch it. Or one of those he had bludgeoned with his stony fists. The thought made him gag – all of it together, it was all so disgusting. Yet he could still feel the torn flesh beneath his nails, hear the rattling cries of the dying, feel their blood staining his hands – there was nothing to wash it off with, no water among the crypts; not that he thought it would ever wash off anyway. It would remain a stain on his soul for the rest of his miserable life, trapped within the prison of his own body, and unable to gain any freedom or release. Despite his condition, he could not face death: not because he was unable to harm himself – the scars on his chest and arms and legs were a testimony to that – but because he was a coward in his heart of hearts, and he just couldn’t find the strength to end it. What an irony! He had strength enough now that he could lift a boulder and throw it like a ball, or crush it like an egg; but he could not have been any weaker in mind or spirit.
That thought brought with it another thundering howl, causing some stones to shudder and night birds to flee. And then he heard it, clear as a bell, ringing out from the city. It was a baby crying. A little boy, from the sound of it, no doubt awakened in the night by the bellowing of the wicked monster in the tombs, sobbing and weeping with fear at that awful sound, and now being comforted by the loving arms of daddy and the soft words of mum. Just a young boy, probably a year or so shy of Joshua. And with that thought came a flood of memories, as though a tap was turned and they could suddenly rush into his mind’s eye.
Memories of him and little Josh playing with a wooden spoon, or making muddy tracks in puddles, or telling tall tales and stories about who knew what; of his life as a word smith and scribe, copying works for those who would pay; works of beautiful poetry and verse, or somber importance and worth; of their little house by the wall in the Abraham district… of Shelly. Of her hair, her hands, her smile; her irritating family and her chattering friends; her youth and her verve and her cooking; her ample frame and her freckles and her steadfastness and her strength and her general wonderfulness. Then her sickness, her weakness, her fading; the temples’ unwillingness to help her; the cost of all those balms and ointments and potions, and their uselessness; the empty promises of the friends and family that things would get better, knowing that they wouldn’t. Her death. Her burial. It was all so unfair! She’d done nothing to deserve that. Nor had he. They had just lived their own life to themselves, earned their living, made a family. What was wrong with that? But the gods had forsaken them, and let her die. And when they were lowering her into that hole in the ground, he was so angry he just couldn’t take it. He lashed out, and struck the Qodeshi preacher in the mouth. Then he did it again, and again. Then he picked up a rock. Thankfully, Shelly’s family had some wits about them and ran off, and took Josh with them. He could still hear Josh’s cry, “Daddy, no!”
That priest had gotten away, but others hadn’t. They came with chains and shackles to capture him, but he broke them. They came with prayers and swords, but he broke them too. Sometimes they came with other bodies to put into the ground, and he broke them. Now there was just anger, and loneliness, and the howling, and the endless cycle of day and night. Often he would curl up next to Shelly’s grave – still open, as no-one had a chance to fill it in – and he would try to sleep. But they had even robbed him of sleep. Now there was nothing for him. No wife, no son, no voice, no pain, no sleep. Just the stones, and the dust, and the howling.
And the voices. Always the voices.