By Joel Allyn
|A famished prisoner descending into madness in a lightless cell comes face to face with his new cellmate, his worst fear, and his slow impending death.|
All he heard in the darkness besides his own breath was the steady sound of dripping water somewhere in the cell. He had difficulty remembering what the warmth of sunlight felt like upon his skin. Though he could still recall what daylight looked like, he could not figure out quite how long it had been since he last gazed upon it. Time loses all meaning with the absence of light. He closed his eyes often and thought of the times he ran laughing with his brother, the sun embracing him, and the wind stealing kisses as it passed. He used to at least be treated to firelight when the guards carried torches in with the weekly meal, but since hearing the flurry of muffled noises some time ago he’d been alone in the scattered silence. Well, not completely alone, not if you counted the spider, and he did.
The dark had bothered him at first, but he had quickly adjusted and decided he could use this opportunity to rest, recover, and clear his mind, and for a while that worked. He always did his best to try and see the upside of things, a talent he’d had many occasions to hone. This was at the beginning of his stay, long before he bit off a guard’s ear during a failed escape attempt, a desperate last ditch effort to avoid being left alone with his new cellmate. He hadn’t yet been put in chains and was free to explore the modest boundaries of his cell. No person would describe this stone cage as spacious, but it’s still far from the smallest Fortunato had been squeezed into – that honor belongs to ‘The Box’ down in Death Valley’s prison labor camp. The Box was barely large enough to allow you to sit in the fetal position, pressed against the iron sides which heated up like an oven in the desert sun – he’d once been confined there for just shy of a week. This cell’s ceiling is low, to the point he has to tilt his head forward when standing upright. When he walked the perimeter of the cell he counted four paces running the distance along each of the four walls, his fingers tracing the cold stones as he went.
Restlessness was the first of his troubles, and he discovered his mind was not one to be quieted so easily. He started singing to pass the time, then when he’d run out of songs he searched his memory and began reciting stories aloud. For some time he had been fortunate enough to be truly alone, and his primary concern was just keeping his mind busy. Then one day when a guard brought in some food (if you could call it that), as the door rested ajar on its rusty hinges he spied his new cellmate enter through the top of the door frame on eight legs and skitter off into the corner where the water had started to drip. The guard who brought food and drink seemed much more upset than normal and when the prisoner before him started raving about spiders coming for him he struck Fortunato, only once, but hard enough to knock the feeble man reeling against the wall behind. In his desperation to flee fear itself Fortunato attacked the guard, though in his weakened state he was subdued easily enough. That was when he was chained, and as the guard attached the second wrist shackle, the prisoner lunged outward and took a huge chunk of the guard’s ear in his clenched teeth, and then pulled back hard as he could. The guard screamed and belted him hard in the gut, leaving the Fortunato doubled over, chained to a wall, and gasping for air. Yet still his thoughts stayed on the spider. The guard then left them alone so they could get better acquainted, setting the mood by taking the light with him.
Though he was fairly certain the arachnid was only roughly the size of his little toe, and certainly no larger than his big one -more than big enough though, to him an ant sized one was too large-, but in that darkness it grew to monstrous proportions in his mind. And was that an egg sac, or maybe babies he’d glanced attached to the thing’s bulbous rear section? He hoped with all his will it was not. Not again. As his eyes flicked about, drinking in the darkness he imagined, nee’ saw, the only thing he’d ever truly feared first double, then triple in size. He felt he could sense it perched up in a corner waiting, peering down at him through the multitude of dark vacant pools which served as its eyes. Even though he was quite sure it was nowhere near him, he constantly felt the feather light tickle of those thin searching legs caressing his neck. He tried not to give in to it but more often than not he’d swat, only to come away with a running bead of sweat which had been the culprit, though more and more often he’d simply be empty handed. Of course, I can only be sure of that when the light returns. The problem was the light never did, nor did the guard, but at least he wasn’t alone.
As time dragged on, the food they’d brought – he couldn’t even remember now what it had been- started to rot and filled the dark cave with a thick sour odor. Despite his efforts, Fortunato hadn’t been able to bring himself to eat. Every potential bite that touched his mouth in the dark was accompanied by the repulsive sensation of the spider crawling across his lips. As usual they had also left him with a small cask of water which, thanks to the cork, he had still been able to enjoy. He had managed to do well with rationing it, since hearing the noises that night which had brought on the endless tormenting silence. For fear of the spider, his other foe had become sleep and he was convinced by now that the two were colluding to get his defenses down and take him out. Not without a fight. And he did put up one hell of a fight, but even if you somehow managed to break all previous records and survive one hundred rounds, The Land of Nod will always win by knockout in the end. It was a light and restless sleep which came to embrace him, and despite all the violent thrashing it was sleep, and he needed it.
The nightmare was the same as it had always been. In his memory there had been more or less only a dozen of them, in his dreams the spiders were legion. The vision that replayed again and again was an embellished version of the real thing, but not outlandishly so.
He had been sharing a pile of straw as a bed with his older brother who lay fast asleep behind him, beating him at this race like he did most others, when he heard a strange noise from somewhere above him he could not identify. Their fire had long since burned down to embers, so he had to make do with the faint pale moonlight, which offered little in the way of help. When he felt something brush lightly against his cheek, soft as a feather and light as a raindrop, he wiped it away assuming it was a fly or something equally harmless. At the second, third, and fourth touch against his face he became more alarmed and shook his brother awake. He used an old trick that had always guaranteed quick results.
“Lawmen! Get up, it’s the law!”
His brother shot up beside him, realizing almost at once –as he usually did- that no law was apparent. He found his younger brother’s shoulder with his left hand, and then swung hard with his right, extending the middle knuckle in the closed fist.
“Enough with that, it’s getting old.”
“I’m sorry. Light…please.” The last was usually enough for his older brother to abide, but not this time.
“Go back to sleep baby, you-”
In the time this quick brotherly exchange took place two more somethings had landed on his head and arm, and panic took a firm hold. He could still manage to talk but was stunned to find he was actually frozen with fear; something he’d only heard of in his brother’s stories and had always found unbelievable. With an angry grunt his brother rose, sparked up a flame and brought the flickering light back over to that evening’s bed space. As the glow from the firelight danced over the frightened boy and the wood rafters above, his mild panic escalated and morphed into full-fledged terror and hysteria. On his arm was a small black ball making its way up towards his shoulder and as he shook it off something touched his head. He turned his attention skyward again and his mouth dropped open in horror. A mother spider had apparently chosen this very spot to leave her egg sac full of offspring, and had been wise to do so. The spiderlings had developed undisturbed until they had grown strong enough to break out of the sac and start descending like paratroopers. As he watched with horror, the gang of newly spawned arachnids dropped on thin lines of spun silk. He looked to his brother for help but found none, the most helpful advice he could muster up at the moment was, “Jesus Christ!” Fortunato turned back just in time to see one of the descending horde just above him, that spider was the one that dropped into his gaping mouth. He screamed so loud it cut through the thin veil of memory, overflowed his nightmares and filled his ears. He shot back awake in the sightless cell, alone with his new friend, his old friend.
There in the silent blackness there was no brother to provide a helpful light, there he simply felt helpless, and hungry. He remembered when he tried to tell his brother later; how he’d taunted him and told him you couldn’t hear spiders. Yet Fortunato knew he had heard them, he certainly hadn’t seen them, not at first. There in the black void filled with fear, he heard it again, somewhere below the sound of dripping water, that quiet menacing skittering noise. The sound was a mixture of a high squeak and a small clicking noise, one he’d tried unsuccessfully to forget, then tried in vain to emulate to his brother by pressing his tongue against the back of clenched teeth and sucking in. That had given his brother quite the laugh of course, but the sound haunted Fortunato all the same. He found to his own ire he couldn’t help poorly mimicking it from time to time despite its clear annoyance to those around him, it had become a sort of nervous tick. After that first incident Fortunato killed every spider he encountered. The way he saw it, they had struck the first blow and he had waged war in return. He took no prisoners and took a special satisfaction when, during one of his one-nighters in a cave, he’d find a plump one with eggs -or better still, actual spiderlings- and feel that pleasing small crunch underfoot, putting an end to that infernal squeaky clicking noise, at least for a time. Many years later his brother had died of a poisonous bite, naturally Fortunato saw what all those calling it ‘a tragic accident’ could not; it was simple retribution from a loyal soldier in the army of arthropods.
Perhaps word had spread he had a vendetta or perhaps they had jointly declared a ceasefire as a ploy to get him to relax, or more likely it was simple luck, but it had been nearly a year since he’d last spied the bane of his existence. Then that sneaky beast crept in here, he thought, as a sly smile crept across his face. And just like the rest, she’ll die, like my brother did.
More and more his concerns turned from his external foe to his internal enemy. Hunger had been fought back over and over but proved in the end as powerful a fighter as sleep and thirst, and it seemed to finally be gaining the upper hand in their conflict. After what surely must have been more than a week -perhaps even two, he no longer had any idea- he was utterly famished. He still had some water in the cask but drank it only when he had to, for water on top of an empty belly made him ill and caused tremendously painful cramps. On days they couldn’t seem to nab any bread, Fortunato and his brother would drink from a nearby stream but soon after each instance developed the pain they dubbed ‘water belly’, and at the moment he had quite an awful case of it. In short he drank because he knew he must, but it brought him no pleasure, only a mild and brief quenching sensation as the liquid filled the barren crevices of his mouth and throat. Shortly thereafter, the pain came.
He became so desperate for sustenance that he swallowed his fear, and forced himself to take a bite of the stinking gruel-like meat he’d been brought. By then of course, it was far too late and bravery and fear were non-issues, for the food itself was so badly rotted that even after managing a large moldy bite and somehow swallowing the putrid mush, his stomach contracted almost instantly and he lost most of the water he’d forced down along with the gruel. He swore he heard the spider laughing somewhere, or was that his brother? Both maybe?
It was at this moment of weakness and desperation, as he hung limp with bile dripping from his lips that he finally felt the spider’s surprising weight touchdown for landing on the nape of his neck. He absently grabbed at what he actually expected by now to be no more than another rogue bead of perspiration, but his hand instead fell upon a firm round object the size of a large egg. Instead of brushing it, he recoiled in horror, and revulsion. At the man’s touch, the spider darted up behind his right ear, its many limbs seeding goose bumps as it moved. Then as if taunting Fortunato, it began whispering its squeaky clicks, which seemed to explode and echo in the prisoner’s ear. This was sufficient to break the spell which had frozen him, filled his limbs and extremities with stone, and replaced his heart with a hummingbird. He reached up again and after he had hold he felt the thing’s legs twitching wildly in his grip. So before it could bite him, he flung the nasty little thing as far and as hard as he could. He spat curses at it and rubbed his hands all over his body, for when he touched the hairy little egg sized monster he felt a flurry of smaller movements on its large segmented body, and now felt them all over his flesh like goose bumps. He could not be sure whether they were even there or not. I should have crushed the son of a bitch! Of course it was too late for that now, and after several hours of hearing the spider off and on, his mind naturally returned to the more practical concern, the hunger. He would not have guessed then that the elimination of the spider and his aching hunger could have a common solution.
Only a day or so later the cell was void of human tenants and Fortunato never again had issues with his nemesis. During the brief interim, which to him stretched out forever, he tracked the sounds of the soft scuttle of the eight legs movements, until he could be certain they were close enough to be within his grasp. He would have just walked around the cell if not for the chains. As it was, he had to wait in silence with his head pressed against the ceiling, waiting for the wretched thing to come to him.
When it did, he steadied himself, held his breath, until he heard the squeaky clicking noise again directly behind him. It had used the dark to its advantage to sneak past and was climbing the wall behind him. She’s trying to get the drop on me again, finish what they started. “Not this time you little shit,” he whispered, as he swung around and grabbed at the wall where he’d heard it. His hands gripped only cold stones. He barely registered the haunting sound getting louder and moving closer to him, whizzing through the air. It jumped?! He couldn’t believe it, but certainly did away with his disbelief in a hurry when he felt the all too familiar feather-light legs moving up his sternum towards his neck. He grasped the large spider and felt something gently tickling his palm; it was the babies moving around on her back.
In the perpetual silence he’d had plenty of time to think of how to end the spider’s life, in truth he thought of little else. To simply crush it underfoot had been his initial plan, he then debated squeezing it in his fist and feeling that crunch as the guts oozed out and the life left it, but during all that time he had been distracted by his rising hunger. Even now on the verge of his victory, he was so damn hungry. Then in a flash of inspiration, the solution came to him, and he shoved the twitching monster into his mouth and chewed. He was not mad, in fact the way he saw it he was simply a famished man who was being realistic about his options. Waste not, want not. After his teeth closed down the first time around the abdomen something burst inside his mouth like a rotten grape with a puss filling. It filled his mouth but he ignored that the best he could, and despite the overpowering urge to violently throw it all up he did not relent, and chewed a second time. Yet as his jaw opened around the legs he felt its legs beating violently against his tongue and cheeks, and then felt a sudden sharp pinch in his cheek and the squeaky clicks raised in volume, with the fury of a battle cry. He knew instantly what had happened; it was oddly enough the one thing which had never happened to him before. The venom coursed quickly through him, but he kept on chewing the body that was really not much more than mouthful of hair, eyes, and surprisingly thick legs. And baby spiders too, of course.
He had expected to flail around as the venom took hold but there was so much of it, and it took hold so fast, that all he felt was his jaw grow heavy and clumsy. Yet still he went on gnashing spider bits between his teeth. He barely even felt it when his legs gave out and he collapsed face first against the ground, cracking his skull and splitting his forehead against the hard stone floor with a sickening thud. Still he kept chewing, because something was still moving in there. His last conscious physical act was to try to swallow what had been his only meal for some time. He tried swallowing before and after collapsing, and failed both times, but he had succeeded in taking one more of his tormentors down with him, and though his body was now fully drained of feeling, that filled him with satisfaction. He lay there content, unfeeling in the pitch black silence, and waited to die.
He heard his long forgotten hope sometime shortly after – the sound of approaching footfalls. Had he been able to move, he would have laughed. Great timing, assholes. Torchlight was visible in the crack under the cell’s door and the sound of the lock being unlatched filled him with a cruel hopefulness. As the door swung open the orange yellow glow filled his cell and for an insane second he expected to see his brother, he expected he would be a boy again and find his rotten life had been a child’s nightmare he was now free of. As he was unable to even squint away from the blinding glow, he saw through blurred vision a shadow move across his eye, then he spied some movement on his cheek and nose. Oh god, the little ones!
“Oh god,” The light-bringer echoed aloud.
“Is he dead?” A second voice inquired without concern.
“I hope so; does that look alive to you? Look there, at the rotted food. He obviously hasn’t eaten in weeks.” The man then picked up and shook the cask, and when he heard the water, Fortunato’s belly ached loud enough for both of the men at the door to hear it.
“What the hell was-?”
“Just death noises, won’t be the last you here if we don’t hurry. Check for a heartbeat if you like, I’m going to check the other black cells for live ones. The Owl only wants live ones and we can’t be wasting time.”
Yes, check! Please for the love of Gan, HELP ME! He screamed inside his head, and then tried without hope to scream the message aloud, to whisper it or even to cry, but even his eyes were now motionless. The other man looked over the naked emaciated figure considering. With a blanket of spiders exiting his mouth in droves and covering his face, Fortunato knew what the verdict would be before the man spoke, death, and it would not be too far off.
“You’re right, let’s go,” the soldier said.
Before the torchlight faded away altogether the dying man’s vision was blocked out entirely by a shifting sea of darkness, and the legion of spiders from his nightmares spilled from the prisoner’s mouth, and filled his ears with the sound of torment.