The Lieutenant’s polished, oiled black boots echo in the cell.
“Where are they hiding!” The Lieutenant barks.
His impatience makes its mark on the Prisoner in the form of bloody, brutal lashes that leave welting in rivets of crisscrossed violence. It is a statement, not a question, for in his mind there exists no possibility that this prisoner can be innocent. The screams of innocence for any mercy fell on deaf ears.
From beneath clotted hair and matted tangles of filth, the Prisoner gazes through his scraggy cut hair and unkempt beard at the Lieutenant as though the man holding the cavalier whip is the one being interrogated.
This incites the Lieutenant to a frenzy, and the resounding staccato strikes of his whip echo through the chamber and consciousness lapped at the end of delirium.
“You can’t!” A second voice intervenes, a bespectacled man that seems to shrink against the stoic Lieutenant even as his protest fades. Ignoring him, the Lieutenant continues unabated for some time, exhausting his frustration at the stubbornness of this prisoner via his bestial instrument. “He is too weak, he has not taken food for days.”
By now the prisoner was barely conscious, a mockery of a being that was once a man. In indignation he has refused food, and now his body has began to cannibalize its own health. The Doctor orders the guards to lower the man and quickly examines him.
“What good will this do?” He carefully questions his officer. “Dead men tell no tales.”
“They always talk in the end,” The Lieutenant answers, cleaning the blood off the tip of his whip with a cotton handkerchief.
The Doctor turns to his charge and they both wince as the Prisoner is laid on the filthy, yellow straw.
“Take this man to his cell,” he commands the guards, “and give him water.”
The Prisoner lies on his straw bed, too exhausted to even move. Above him, a solitary source of light beams into the cell. Occasionally, a gust of wind blows familiar scents into the dark dankness of his imprisonment and he is uplifted by the memory of fecund fields, sublime mountains, and the wild, wall-less spaces of the exterior. His fever burns crackling hot, his wounds ached, he dared not move as the pain was excruciating, and he slips into another world.
Years ago, he was a man. He owned an acreage that ran beside the Rue-Saint-Germain. It had been in the family for as long as he cared to recall. He grew up here with his brothers, tending the rows of orchard and assorted produce. Life was harsh but bearable, their fates toss and turned with the change of seasons, the droughts of summer, the silence of winter, and despite the backbreaking labour of farm work, he had been a satisfied spirit. Beautiful and terrible was the mistress of seasons, and they lived according to her whims and desires…
But then the hungry wolves come at night. The revolution spilled from Paris and into the surrounding lands like a plague. Men shouting “Liberty!” and “For the King!” rioted and looted through the countryside in hungry packs.
First they took his eldest brother, who wanted to fight for liberty and left the farm for a greater cause. Then they took his elder brother, who was drafted into the imperial fusiliers. So he abandoned the farm, now an empty looted husk of its former glory, and threw himself into the savage embrace of wild nature.
Oft he would sit on the lone hillside and watch the smoke rise from the distant cities. This high in the mountains, where the tree-lines kissed the touch of snow in winter, there were no other beings that interested him, or were interested in him.
When he was thirsty, he dug through the soft loam until a small pool of clear water would form, there he would lap gently, as a beast would, the bounty of collected rains that had long since passed.
When he was hungry, he found and recognized wild orchards of apples, pears, and even the occasional root vegetable, if he was keen enough to unearth them.
As the days turned to weeks, he busied himself by clearing wayward branches and pruning his flock of fruit trees and waypoints of trickling streams, returning each day with a bounty of fruit that nature had provided.
The intrusive smell of black powder made his nose twist in agony, brought memories to the fore that reddened his eyes with grief and regret.
“Who are you?”
“What are you doing here?”“Where did you get all this food?”
The questions came in a barrage, an artillery of accusations.
He stared them down his nose, which by now had started to swell from the beating he had received without warning. One of the men had struck his nose with the butt of his musket, and the blood was making it difficult to breath. His nose broke, and his breath came in shallow, coarse gasps.
He wanted to answer, but the sheer indignity of answering these animals in blue and red enraged him so. Thus he kept his mouth sewed, and glared at their leader.
“We are taking this.” The Leader stated as a matter of fact.
He watched the men collect his bounty of a week or more, fruits both ripe and raw. Some of them began to eat immediately, lavishly, and thoughtlessly. They bit into his spoils like jackals, laughing and leering, the delicious juices running down their unkempt, bearded chins.
“Tell anyone we were here and you are a dead man.”
As if for good measure, they placed a boot at the based of his neck and pushed. He could feel the pain tearing like a savage dog into his neck and down into his spine. Instead, he focused on the wet, fertile soil that his face was thrust into, focusing on the scent of wet loam and earthen spices that filled his nostrils, filling his mind with the fecundity of nature. Then at last, the indignity was over, and the jackals left.
A leathered fist connected soundly with his jaw, and he felt his world shatter. “Where did they go?” The Lieutenant demanded. “Where were they from?”
“How many were there?” “What did you supply them with?” Barely conscious, he heard the barrage of questions strike as physical blows. He noted with distaste and frustration that they, too, were looting his home. Yet again a stash of nature’s bounty was uncovered, some dozen or so apples and a small cache of root vegetables. “Are you stocking food for the rebels?” The Lieutenant demanded. “You are stocking food for the rebels.” It was now a statement.
“Lieutenant!” A soldier snapped his heels expertly, before presenting evidence that this area seemed inhabited, there were trenches of roughly dug aqueducts, and well-worn tracks throughout. Another blow struck the Prisoner in the face. The Lieutenant produced a laced white handkerchief with his moniker in the corner, and wiping the blood from his black leather riding gloves, he yelled, “Take him!”
That was the last the Prisoner had seen anything other than the decaying walls of the Bastille.
“You must eat.” The Doctor begs. “You must tell him.”
Yet what was he to say? That they took an innocent man from his farm, that they took an innocent man that lived a solitary life untouched by the hyena politics of the revolution? His eyes meet the doctors, and the doctor cannot help but look away guiltily.
“Tell him anything.” “Please…”“Tell him there were twenty, thirty men, tell him that you confess.” “Tell him that they were hiding, and tell him where they went.” Yet the Prisoner can say nothing. Wants to say nothing. How unprofitable was this world if falsehood was truth? How like the Lieutenant he would become, whose world was as false as water.
“You will die.” The Doctor says sadly, “You must tell him.”
“I brought a broth.” He adds, hopefully.
As the doctor opens a canister of steaming broth, the rich smell of beef permeates the cell. Even his cellmates, walls apart, seem to stir with agitation at their unknown stimulus. It is a beef broth, for the prison impossibly rich, impossibly luxurious, voluptuous chunks of beef in thick gravy.
Yet it revolts the Prisoner, and despite the wounds that scar his face, his back and his limps, he hurls himself like an ancient oak shuddering and strikes it away from the doctor. The soup clangs and spills along the floor, polluting even more of the stale prison air with its sweet delicious smell.
Then he spoke, a tortured but majestic protest that had been his only words for as long as the doctor could recall, a soft whisper that turned into a roaring thunder in the doctor’s ears, dashed his hopes to dust, and gnashed his conscience.
The riche sauce seeps into the stone works as the last gasp of breath escaped from the Prisoner, the final gasp of resistance flowing out with a single syllable. Then all was silent, no sound but the snail crawl of gravy into the ancient, blood seeped stones of the Bastille.