this is a blog for short stories and other things which we may call short writings. for now the writings are mine, but if you are willing to add yours short stories or comments, please do.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Bread heap and a dreamer

by:Hassan Bahri

He was putting together a number of the hardened bread balls. His movements were sluggish but careful. The faint light dimmed everything, but it was clear that he was determined in what he was doing.

He heaped them together against the wall behind himself, folded up his military blanket, placed it to cover the pile, and with painful convulsive movements he pressed his back against that structure. The packed balls pressed back against his lower back and shared his pain.

Everything around was silent, except the fragmented groaning and moaning that pierced the thick walls and ran around the complex labyrinth of narrow corridors.

He was swallowed deep in his thoughts:
- What to do? What’s next?

His eyes were transfixed by his swollen feet, starting a journey backward into his past years, trying to pinpoint those moments when it happened, when he had found himself cornered. Life had been generous with him from this point of view. But he had always been able to turn those bad moments into good ones, just with patience and meditation on the best ways to survive.

But now? This is a completely different experience!

Three weeks have now passed since he was pushed into this room, a little wider than a pauper’s grave in a crowded graveyard.

It was completely underground. He counted thirty-two steps down when they led him here, handcuffed and with a blindfold on his eyes.

There was a small, square gap in the ceiling. It had been barred with iron bars, but the light came through. It was a faint light, radiating from 30 watt bulbs scattered throughout the space above the cells.

On the cell floor there were a dirty mattress, a military blanket and many balls, balls of bread, very hard and old. At first those balls gave him still more gloomy thoughts. Who left them behind, and why? Had they given this person extra bread, and why? Were they trying to bribe him with the extra? Or was he just a refusenik who decided to go on a silent hunger strike?…

But later on he used some of them as a pillow to rest his head on, after putting them into his under-shirt and tying them into it.

The next day when the gaoler hustled him back into the cell after the ‘party’, as the interrogation session was called, and shut the thick iron door behind him, he played back the whole session and thought about what he had said and what he thought they knew.

- Use your head! Tell them what you think they know already. Never say an extra word; it’s a dangerous game and you are the weaker one...

Somebody shouts:
‘Number 14, take your food!’

A plastic bowl is pushed underneath the door.

The same food! Two or three chunks of unpeeled potato floating in thick concentrated tomato soup. Everything’s dirty, even the bowl...

- Stop thinking about food and your stomach! Whether it’s good or bad, eat it all! Don't give them a chance to subdue you through hunger.

When he had finished that day’s delicious feast, he began anew his foraging expedition over the walls and the floor, hoping to find any traces of the men who had carried the name ‘Number 14’ before him. He felt this cell was some kind of common mother for the Number 14s. After their ordeals in the interrogation yards, they enjoyed in it the pleasures of numbness, told their stories, and shed tears against its walls.

Number 14 was like a league uniting them in brotherhood.... This train of thought was encouraging to him. In reality he was doing what he did because of his fear of this new place, following an inner instinct that pushed him to get familiar with somewhere he was forced to be in. Maybe it was going to be his last resting-place.

On the lower part of the right hand wall he found some kind of hieroglyphic script. He looked at it round-eyed, trying to find the clue. He managed to decipher the first real name among the Number 14s: ‘Tarek’ was the name. Tarek was a lover. He had drawn a heart and arrow, and written the name ‘Seham’ on the other side of the heart. But more importantly, Tarek drew something like a calendar on the wall, putting marks for days, weeks, then months, on the chart. He had spent more than a year in this place.

- ‘I’m sorry for you, my Brother!’

Underneath Tarek’s chart many others had left their names and drawn their time lines on this wall. He looked round wondering how they had drawn all this, what kind of pencils they had used? Every ‘guest’ in this place would have been deprived of everything on him, except his own clothes without a belt, and cigarette packets without a lighter or matches, if he carried them.

He read all the stories again and again. At first there seemed no important information for him in them, just names and loved ones, and plenty of ideological symbols, from sickles and hammers to crescents. Every brother distinguished his identity by writing down his name and what he stood for.

But what struck him was that after they spent weeks in this place, their different identities started to wither away, making way for just one kind of human fear. And by the end one identity united them, that of fear, crying out for freedom and life.

- ‘This is the way I’ll go too!’...’No! I am strong!’…’I will beat them with my mind!’ But in his heart, he was aware that he didn't even know what was going to happen to him the next day.

He turned his eyes quickly away from his brothers. He did not want to be just a few lines and an unknown name left on an unknown surface in an underground cell, like the scratches left by bare nails on a slippery wall, telling nobody that somebody had made them trying to resist sliding into oblivion.

He couldn't resist. His hands continued eagerly searching the mattress and the floor for other clues.

In one corner of the folded mattress he felt something intriguing, hard and long.

Quickly he unfolded the edge of the mattress to find three things, not just one: one piece was like a knife made of bone, white and sharpened. The other piece was a real needle, something unbelievable! How had it arrived here?

The third item he couldn't identify straight away. A roll of metallised papers, compressed together in the form of a cigar, tapered at one end.

He held the knife and the needle in his hand, tried them on his bare skin. It gave him a kind of secret fear. A gloomy idea of committing suicide was always haunting him. He put them back in the folded end of the mattress, hoping he might forget their whereabouts.

He picked the roll of paper up, turned it in his hands several times and drew a line with it on the wall. A trace was left, as if drawn with a clumsy pencil, and then he understood how the Number 14s had left their lives on the wall.

With no intention to do so, he found himself writing his name on the wall, at the end of the queue. He smiled and shook his head: anyone would do the same.

He kept the paper pencil handy. After that, he used it to add a stroke and a number every day. He felt in control of the chain of time. Every stroke meant a day had passed by. When there was no stroke, no day passed by. It was his world and it was he who decided if there were a day to pass or not.

A few days after that incident, he heard a quiet knock on the other wall, the one opposite the one with writing on. He knocked back. The other’s knocks were somehow rhythmic. Several knocks, pause, then knocks again.

It was Morse code, he knew that. He wasn't able to answer. He remembered reading about it before. A former ‘guest’ of a similar place had written about it, written how cell-dwellers exchanged information using this language. But everything from that time was murky in his mind now.

He spent most of that night trying to remember how it worked. The next day on his way back from the interrogation yard, where they had asked him again about his friends and his activities, suddenly a light flooded through his mind, and the whole riddle of the knocking language was solved.

As soon as the door was shut behind him, he took a deep, very deep breath, two or three times. Then he repeated to himself the whole knocking code. He recited to himself the alphabet of his spoken language in order, and then he repeated the seven groups formed by regrouping the alphabet into subgroups, each subgroup containing four or five letters.

He started practising straight away, tapping out the code with his fingers on his knees. His right hand fingers tapped out the group number, and his left-hand fingers number of the letter within the group.

He spent all his spare time that day practising typing his name, his city’s name, and why he was in here, with a view to telling all to Number 15 that night. He had great hopes, and serious things to achieve. The coming hours would bring more than whips and dirty food.

The night was slow to come that day, but when the shadows of silence reigned, he could not bear to wait for Number 15 to tap. He knocked twice on the wall and awaited the response. Soon the answer came back. The other was eager to speak, and he spoke so quickly that Number 14 couldn't understand. But he assumed that as in ‘real life’ and with normal people, Number 15 was asking him to introduce himself, his name and charge.

He began knocking out slowly, but with great precision, all the information he assumed the other had asked him for; the only thing he could do at that stage. Number 15 was listening silently. When he finished, or the words he knew were exhausted, the other was vehement in his answer, but Number 14 still couldn’t understand anything…. After this one-way exchange of information, mixed feelings stormed him. He exulted in the cell and his soul revived anew. For the first time he flew in his dreams that night, hugged his mother, stood in a deep valley in his village and yelled out a long shout, listening to the echoes of those shouts rebounding again and again….

He woke up with new hope and a strong determination to beat the interrogator. Every spare moment he recited the new language; he had no time to think about anything else, he even forgot to mark that day’s passing, and it chose to remain in his mind, not to hang on the wall.

He began to understand Number 15 and his ‘talking’ speed improved quickly. Every night there was something to discuss.

Until that day when he knocked, but nobody answered.

He felt lonely and down; he could not do anything. But he consoled himself, saying:

- ‘Maybe they released him! Why I am sad? It means I will not be here
forever, either. Some day… ‘

The next night he knocked again at the same wall. The other wall faced onto the corridor, and Number 13 would be in the other block of cells. His knocks were answered. A new guest, but he was illiterate and several days passed before Number 14 could talk with him easily.

A new prisoner made a difference, and he felt better. Number 14 asked him about Number 16 and the other numbers. Soon he had a whole picture of his neighbours and their charges. He drew a portrait in his mind of every guest around, compositing each one with somebody he knew before, when he still could walk in the street and ride the bus. In his dreams he met their outside counterparts and lived a surreal life. He met them in imaginative places. Sometimes he carried his cell with him, at other times the cities were inside the prison. He met long-dead relatives. He met women without names; flirted with them and even lived whole sexual adventures with some. His morning mood was always dependent on his night’s experience and his imaginary escapes…

He pushed aside the heap of bread balls from behind him, lay on his side and tried to seduce the sleep to come.

That night he dreamed of another woman. She was exotic, assembled from many women he had met in his life. He tried to touch her, but she was elusive. Every time he felt she was close enough to touch she was quick to re-establish her distance, with grace and mystery. The two of them were walking in a city very similar to cities he had known, but it wasn’t any one of them. They ran through an empty street, a long one, dimly lit. There were shops around; it was early evening. They entered one of them. Its entire staff were gaolers he had met in the prison. Gaolers as cashiers, gaolers as assistants and on security. He stood, surprised. All of them raised their eyebrows, slowly, even mischievously. He turned back, took his girl’s hand, and they ran as quickly as they could. The shop workers ran after them. Suddenly he and his girlfriend were at the end of the street. The street ended in a very deep drop, so deep that he couldn’t see the bottom of it. He stopped there. She disappeared, the gaolers were right on his heels….

He woke up, sweat on his forehead and a heavy thumping inside his chest, not on the wall where it normally arrived.

- ‘Why didn’t I jump, stand my ground, push through to the end…. I always need five minutes too long… This time, come what may, I won’t retreat’

Next morning in the interrogation yard he took a stand, as if he were continuing his grotesque nightmare. He was clear in what he told them, strong in the presence of the gaoler with the whip, his head was higher this time and his eyes were blazing with pride. When they led him back to the cell, he was quick to strike out that day with a slash on the wall. This slash was darker and longer than the other ones.
Sometimes the fear of pain pushes us to give up some of our convictions. We compromise them with betrayals, hoping to escape the physical pain. But it never works. The pain of conscience keeps us awake for more nights and haunts steadily our souls right to destruction.
So the mark on the wall declares:
‘No more retreats. Physical pain will fade, but remorse lasts. I will stand for what I believe.’
His journey of defiance had begun. He would bear the consequences.


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