Light Perpetual


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She was again aware of the confines of the prison, but this time she did not give away her awareness.  Memory flooded up like an incoming tide. The last time they’d caught her, had seen knowing flare in her eyes, they’d killed it somehow.  She remembered the acid bite of the needle, the impersonal uniforms, and then unknowingness again.

This time she’d be patient, be clever, not let them catch her. She kept her eyelids down, sealing in knowledge. She flexed her hands. Stiff still, but beginning to respond.  With infinite patience she crept one hand out and back and met no resistance. They hadn’t tied them down this time. A dull ache in her wrists told that she had been tied until fairly recently.

She moved one leg and discovered that the tube still taped to it.  They hadn’t given up, then—the awful burning tube was still in place, through which they would pump the stinging liquid. When it had been. inserted, she’d fought them; had wanted to scream but there was so little breath she barely made a noise.

Yesterday—last week—some time ago—they’d tried more tortures, stretching her legs past bearing with weights, trying to force her to walk for endless hours, but she’d been able to escape into a place where they couldn’t follow.  Her head hummed with pain. Why were they doing this? How was it possible that these people could take someone to this place, and no one stop them? Why didn’t Hal come, find her, get her out of here?  How many others were in this house of pain?

At first she’d tried to reason with them, tell the anonymous faces that she didn’t know anything that could be of use to them, but they hadn’t believed her. She’d come almost to the edge of sanity several times, tears salting her face, begging them to let her go, but they just laughed—they were great ones for laughing here—and tried a new torture.

My God, she thought, if only I knew what they want me to say, I’d say it.  I’m not brave; I’d tell them something if I knew what they wanted to hear.  But when she tried to find out, she only got more laughter and another injection.

Weeks…how many? had passed.  At length she came to the realisation that Hal wasn’t going to find her and that there was no reason behind what these people did here.  They just did it, like a business.  From that time, she had been silent.

Very occasionally they slipped up, and then she became aware again for a little while.  The first time it had happened, she’d been a fool, leaping up from the hard table, not realizing that she was strapped to it.  They’d come in a crowd that time, grim faces, looming over her, every hand with some shining weapon raised against her.  Later, a second chance had come and she’d been more careful, had managed to undo the straps and actually get to her feet, but the drugs made her body so slow, so unresponsive, that she’d only gone a few steps before being caught. The yelling and recriminations afterwards still echoed in her head.

God, God, what are they doing to me that makes it so hard to hold a thought? What makes my body so loathe to answer to my will? Why do you let them do this to me?

There was no answer, nor did she expect one.  In this place there was no God.  She had only herself to call upon, and if deliverance were to be found she must find it for herself.

A shadow passed in front of her. Even through shut eyes she could see it, for it was never dark in this place—another small refinement to the torture: everlasting light.  Never darkness; always light. How many times at funerals had she made the unthinking response “and may light perpetual shine upon them”?   If only people knew what it was like they’d never pray for it.  Light, white scouring light, dimmed only marginally during sleeping periods—it was nearly intolerable, but not quite—everything in this place was finely calibrated to the last thin hair of tolerance, so that no one thing should push the sufferer over the edge into the total eclipse of madness.

Two figures stood over her.

“She hasn’t spoken?”

“No. We’ve tried everything.”

“Well, keep at it; we need to get some results.  Got a reputation to uphold, after all.

Footsteps went away.  She allowed a small smile to tug free. She’d foxed them this time.  And she’d detected a note of near-despair in the voices. After everything, she was still stronger than they; despite the torture, she’d held out. And now that she was fully aware of herself again she’d plan very care-fully, and this time she’d get away.  She thumbed through memory and unrolled the layout of this room in her mind. The guard post by the door was always manned by at least one watcher.  That left only the window, a large one, high from the floor, but with a simple lift latch.   She would need to get up onto the broad windowsill, but that was surely a minor obstacle.  Speed, silence, and the right opportunity combined would bring success.  This time it was assured.

The light dimmed slightly.  “Night had come.  Outside, it would be dark, really dark.  There might be stars.  How long had it been since she had seen stars?  Memory would not give an answer. Darkness and stars, cool wind, and freedom: hers for the taking, when the time was right.

Gently she lifted one eyelid.  The watcher by the door was busy with a tray.  Light glittered from the cruel steel.  With luck it was being prepared for some other prisoner in this place.  She knew there were others; she could hear the moans and cries.  Oh God, let them think I’m unconscious; don’t let them come to take my awareness, my last chance for freedom.

The watcher went away from the guard post, out of her line of sight.  Muffled clinking indicated some task being done that might take a while.  Now, now was the time, get up, go!  She pulled herself upright. Biting her lip to stop the pain she knew would come, she ripped the loathed tube from between her legs and the one from her arm. Without waiting to check the watcher again, she slipped to the floor. Her legs felt so heavy, would they hold her? Move, damn you, move!

A shaky step, then another. How far was it? Twenty paces? fifteen?  Pain grinding her bones, she began counting in her mind: one, two, three, four—

In the middle of the room was a pillar, an ugly concrete thing, but it was a protection unlooked for. Now she was in its lee, she was cut off from the line of sight of the guard post.  

The window was directly opposite, only ten steps to go. She leaned her head against the pillar for a brief moment.  Greying cotton curtains cut off the sight of whatever other sufferers were in this room.  She must be quiet lest the other prisoners waken and give the alarm.  There was nothing she could do about that, except to think invisible thoughts, to efface herself as totally as she could.  Don’t see me, I am nothing, a passing breeze, an errant mouse, don’t see me, she thought, with a force that was almost physical.

Almost there, almost there.  One step, two, and at last the window sill, gritty and cold beneath her hands.  

How to get up to undo the latch?  The table: quickly now, move the table, it’s so small it won’t weigh much, not much at all.  Before you were here, you could move far larger things.  Inch by inch the table slid towards the window. God, don’t let it rattle or squeak against the floor!

The pain was like liquid fire now, and her sight was wavering.  Quickly, quickly, there’ll never be another chance like this: go, go, GO!

With enormous effort, she dragged her unresponsive body up onto the table, and with a rising wave of triumph felt the worn brass of the window latch under her hand.  She raised the latch and threw open the window. Darkness flooded in: velvet-flowing, lilac-scented, blessed darkness.  One step, one last step , up to the sill, face raised to the night wind and stars, a tremendous wrenching as she tugged free of the imprisoning brightness behind and with one last step flew out and upwards into the freedom beyond.  Goodbye to painful light, to the watchers, to the prison that had held her so long.

A breeze caught her and carried her out over the insensate trees, the drowsing hills, and up into the black fields of night.

From the open window light spilled over the grey walls of the run-down hospital, as accusing voices demanded of each other how an 86-year-old dementia patient with a broken hip and a kidney infection had been able to get out of bed and fall from a third floor window.


Karen Treanor's "Bitter Bones" is now out in print! (for e-version)