The Song it Sings
You are the conductor to my orchestra of pain,
Each note, each sound, created just for me.
It’s catchy, it’s deafening, it gets all caught up in my head
Until I couldn’t possibly hear anything else.
Even if I wanted to.
Slowly insidious lyrics start to creep in,
Telling me what everyone thinks of me,
And what I think of myself.
Telling me what I should do about it,
And that even if I don’t listen now,
There’s always the next stanza for that.
Tortured bows screeching across strings taken from my heart,
Pitiful cries echoing in the emptiness of my chest,
Sometimes squeezing out from my paralysed throat.
There’s no hope here, no way to hush the musicians,
Not while the conductor drives them on.
And what match am I for him?
Listen to the words they sing, I’m no match at all.
Timeless music robs me of time itself,
There is no past, no future, only the aching present.
It doesn’t matter that the last verse ended,
Because this one never will.
You let the music build to a crescendo, then drop your arms,
Slowly drifting to silence, but the song plays on and on.
And no-one hears it but me.
Tell Me Your Story
I finger my ratty blonde hair. It’s getting long again; I’ll have to cut it soon. I can’t keep it decent down here with just my fingers. I sigh as I hear the stone door grate open and closed and the harsh breathing of someone scared. I slide my fingers along the rough stone wall, checking my knife is still hidden in the small indent at the bottom of it. Then I go ahead and light a candle.
“Who’s there?” A voice calls. A voice that’s trying not to show fear but shows it anyway. I sigh once more.
“Just me. Come down the stairs.” I don’t say what I used to say, that I won’t hurt whoever it is. I got sick of lying a long time ago. I hear footsteps, light and slow, whoever it is they’re being cautious. I’ve noted with deliberate disinterest that some have come running down the stairs, eager for the comfort another person, while others have been mistrustful like this one. A couple have even been stealthy, rats he’s thrown in just to shake me up, to test me I guess. Eventually this one makes it down to the paltry light shed by the candle. I rake my eyes over him as he does the same to me. Not much for you to see, I think to myself. I can guess what I must look like after my years down here. Ratty, scrawny and blank. A stark contrast to him. He radiates life and strength, so much so that I close my eyes for a moment in regret.
“Who are you?” he asks and I open my eyes again. Another sigh and the candle flame wobbles in my whisper of despair.
“Subira,” I whisper. It’s not my real name, I adopted this one after my first few years down here. It’s from a story I read when I was a child, a story about a three-legged cheetah. The boy remains standing. I scrutinise him in the iffy light. Maybe not a boy, this one still has childhood hanging onto his coattails but it’s slipping away as manhood takes its place. Silence stretches between us.
“Why am I here?” he asks. I sigh again. I hate direct questions this early.
“That’s a bit of a long story,” I answer evasively. He shrugs at me.
“Doesn’t look like we have anywhere to be.”
I shrug at him as if in truce. “Alright, if you want the truth then.” I give him one more chance to back away from the ugliness I’m about to unveil for him but he just watches me with level eyes I can’t determine the colour of.
“You asked who I am, I guess I wasn’t entirely truthful with you. I call myself Subira nowadays.” He grunts, glances around and sits just inside the candlelight. He refrains from wrapping his arms around his knees as so many have before him. I force my eyes to meet his again as I open the door in my head and the memories come crashing through. “I’m the King’s daughter.” Before he can protest against my words I launch into the story. My story, I guess.
I’m twelve years old again. I never wanted for anything, being the Princess, never had to ask more than once for anything either. The loss of my mother was still recent enough to hurt but distant enough to not be crippling anymore. Her moral code still ran strong in my veins, which is why I was shocked and outraged when I stumbled across my father’s plans for the realm. I had been trying to catch a lizard I’d found in the castle so that I could release it outside in the sunshine and I’d found myself in one of the rarely used wings, in a dim and dusty room on my hands and knees behind a sofa draped in white when heavy hurried footsteps and urgent whispers reached my ears. I still don’t know why I froze that day, maybe it was something in the man’s voice that cautioned me this was not something I should be seen to be overhearing. I heard them discuss it all, a man I did not know and my father. Many times I’ve wished I had heard my father’s voice first. Perhaps then I would have let my presence be known. Perhaps then I wouldn’t have heard what I did; my father’s hand behind my mother’s death and the reason for it. She never would have stood for his plans to use a newly discovered drug-plant, brightleaf, to tighten his hold over the kingdom. One of his advisors had discovered the addictive plant in use in a kingdom overseas where it was used to keep the slaves used on their huge crop farms in check. If it was brought into our kingdom, my father could be in command of its growth and use. He planned to sow acres and acres of it, guard it fiercely and distribute it into the kingdom as a commodity. Slowly it would spread its roots in our people, and they would become complacent and docile, little more than slaves themselves. As the footsteps receded, I remained kneeling behind the sofa, until the lizard wriggled in my hand and reminded me of my duty to free him from the trap he had found himself in. I hurried to release him outside and then to confront my father. Naive. That’s the only word I have ever thought of to describe me at that point in my life. The man I had just discovered had ordered my mother’s death, and I thought to confront him with a sense of impunity simply because I was his daughter. That was my last day of freedom. Over the years I have found comfort in the fact that I released that lizard before I brought about my own imprisonment; one final act of kindness. My father was outraged at my defiance, at my discovery of his secret. I still remember the shock that coursed through my body when he first struck me. I remember looking up into his eyes from the floor, watching them switch from hot anger to cold and calculating fury. I remember that chilling smile breaking across his face. The hand he extended to me, that I didn’t have the time to take before he hauled me up roughly and dragged me to the dungeon. That first night in the dungeon, in the cold and dark, I wept. The very next day a small boy was shoved in with me, also weeping. He ran to me and wrapped his arms and legs around my torso, and I wept with him. Enough food and water was shoved through the door to keep us alive, and we stayed there for a week before a guard came for me. I was dragged before my father who handed me a knife. I stared at it blankly.
“Kill him,” he said simply. I shifted my blank gaze to him. “Kill him, or I’ll have it done for you and you will watch and wish you’d listened.” It was that moment I realised he was mad. The thought left no room for anything else. My father was mad. That knowledge was the key that unlocked the door my rage was hidden behind. I flung myself at him, trying to sink the knife into his flesh, screaming with rage and anguish for my mother’s death. He deflected me easily and I was dragged back to the dungeon, sobbing and clutching the knife. I don’t remember how long I sat at the top of the stairs in that cell. The little boy tried to make me talk for a while but eventually my silence overwhelmed him and he retreated. I was still trying to assimilate this monster with the father I had always known. True, my mother was the one who raised me, but I was always under the impression my father was too busy running the kingdom to have much to do with me. I had never suffered lack of attention from him, he was kind enough when I saw him. This man seemed a different man entirely. My mind kept trying to reject what he was, but the cold stone under me dragged reality back time and time again until I stood and, with a scream, threw the knife as far from me as I could. Then I ignored it for days. I’m not sure to this day how many days I had with the boy down there. We got to know each other and I did my best to keep hope alive in us both. Then the guards came. I recall all of the hideous details of that first execution. They held me and made me watch, telling me it would only be worse if I looked away. So practised were they in their art that the little boy, whose name I feel too tainted to utter, wasn’t even granted the mercy of fainting during the ordeal. It was unspeakable what they did to him. What I caused to be done to him. They left the torches burning in the brackets and the body on the floor when they left. A reminder of what they would do next time. I knew there would always be a next time. The instant the door boomed shut I scrambled across the floor, desperate to find the knife I had been offered before. So desperate was I to find it, I sliced my hand open when my fingers closed around it. I numbly watched the scarlet run from my hand, seeming so clean compared to the blood I had already seen shed that day. I slept curled around that knife for days after that. Again, I lost track how long before the next one was put into my prison. I do remember that it was three deaths before I forced myself to take the first life quickly. I turned the knife on myself after that, rationalising that if I no longer lived, these lives wouldn’t be sacrificed. It didn’t work. The knife pierced my flesh, I felt the searing agony, bled and bled, but didn’t die. I tried again and again and again over the years, but I could never die. I finally accepted my father must have had a spell placed on me, and I guessed he had paid handsomely for it; magic was rare and expensive by then. Not like in the stories my mother’s father had told me when I was small. Instead I got through my days as best I could. I killed a few the instant they were shoved in with me, but decided I could live better with myself if I learnt their stories. With nothing to do with my time I began memorising the lives I was taking, as a way of trying to compensate for my actions, and a way of memorialising those who I was sending on to the next life. It was also a way to pass the time.
“I promise I’ll make it quick,” I say. The boy has said nothing this whole time, but neither have his eyes left mine.
“How long?” he asks, voice tight and husky.
“Fourteen days,” I say softly and he looks confused then startled for a moment.
“No, how long have you been down here?”
It’s my turn to look puzzled. The first question everybody but the rats have asked is how long they had to live. “I think about nine years, it’s hard to keep track.” He nods slowly, his eyes dropping for the first time as if he’s thinking.
“Alright, we’re going to get out of here,” he tells me, still frowning at the floor.
I bark out a harsh laugh. “You think I haven’t tried?” My response seems to break the brittle spirit in him, his shoulders fold in on himself and I try not to feel too ashamed because of it. I take a deep breath and settle again on the cold stone. The words come out like a ritual now, my little ritual. “Tell me your story.”