His body twitched involuntarily. Not the light. His eyes squeezed even closer, eyelashes curling into a desperate mesh of barbed wire. Not the light. He wasn’t ready for it. His ears strained through the blindness. He never would be ready. Please don’t ask him to be prepared again. Another faint tingle clinked overhead, the tinny ring of a hard boot skinning metal. His muscles tensed, knotting into coils as he waited for the tell tail creaking, the dull thuds of hardened leather echoing on the empty groans of spliced steel.
The stairs were rickety. Despite its once shiny metal, the bitter bile of winter rain had seeped through the roof to eat the supports until they creaked and oozed reddish blood. He’d recognized the damage, familiarized himself with the sounds, the first time, the only time, he had used it; and now his brain was tangled in the turmoil of wanting to hear his own feet ring those notes again and the fear of hearing others get there before him. Crunch, twang, slither, slide, clink, ring, skid, the regularity of its groans had impaled a vision on his brain; each croak, sag, was trapped in slow motion on the film of his blinded imagination until he could envisage each move, every sagging print, the thirteen steps in his head. And then the two last paces across the wooden floor to his door.
Not the light. Crunched up in the darkness, fearing the vision of his hearing, he refused the thrill of sight: he’d seen too much to need any more; had imagined more than he could see; his ears provided more torture than he ever wanted to feel.
His back arched but he didn’t feel it: he was concentrating, stretching his ears to the roof, the walls, for a hint of what was to come. No more light. Never again. Nobody left to listen.
Not the light, he was pleading mouthlessly. Hunched over his knees his hands lay between them, resting uneasily as they twisted through fragile paper. Finger tips scanned the sightless words. He could read with the light. He didn’t want to read. He couldn’t stop listening.
Nothing. Only his own breath caught in a dry throat. The silence grew louder as he struggled to hear: they should have hit the switch by now, that vicious twitch of the light overhead. A chill of fear drew ice down his spine: if his ears had started tricking him, he had nothing left to trust.
He swam blindly in the silence. There were no noises but his own creaks, the solitary cramps of a tired body. Seeking condolence his fingers twisted between the ever looser leaves of tattered words. The paper crinkled, comfortingly cracking the air with a recognizable, self‑made sound. Tenderly they ruffled his finger tips. He rustled them aimlessly, then began flicking his thumb through the accordion of their history in a movement which gained its own blind rhythm. The paper flipped together obediently under the force. The evenness of its resolution hinted at peace. Not the light. Not the next click. He no longer needed it. This simple repetition, the click of his good fingers through gentle imprinted fiber was enough. He could read like this. Even in the dark, especially in the dark, the words could be heard through the grooves of his thumb. The pages trembled anew. A brief thump as they fell into place. His finger rose. another sip, flip, sap, the leaves fluttering beneath this unaccustomed gaze.
He knew the story by heart and the soothing hiss, the brief pulse of ruffled air as the pages flipped through groping nails was enough to retell the tale in the darkness. The words whispered as the pages folded like sea waves, one over another, separate, meaningless, until churned into the thumping ocean of a complete story. He leaned closer, down over his knees, to the source. His nose almost caught itself in the shuffling; and between the numbing comfort of the familiar characters, the chilling silence from the stairs, he knew there wouldn’t be a light. The sounds above had ceased. It was an accident, of his brain or of theirs. There wouldn’t be a light. He was safe for a little longer. Still forgotten. Still waiting. In the darkness he could remain hidden among those pages, waiting for the water to arise around his ankles. It would come, even thought it was still only tickling his toes. The smell of damp rankled his nose, heaved his chest into a dry cough. Rats skuttled over foot, the green slime of old moss squidged between the fingers of his good hand. He couldn’t be bothered to wipe them clean.
He hadn’t noticed the book at first. It had just been left there. No one had said anything. It was as if it had been dropped by accident. He had almost been afraid to touch it. In the panic of eating, forcing the dry soup down a throat parched with fear, all he had been watching was the light. It stayed on. It wouldn’t go off. He still wasn’t sure if it was a flicker of kindness or a flood of further submission. Did they leave it on to torture, take him unawares, or as a simple penance, a plea for forgiveness. Maybe they were they still human. He hoped not. Cringing in the hate of its glare he scrambled into the corner. Naked, the cruelty of the bulb inched through the room, along the floor, up his knees, through his slatting fingers, into his eyes. He couldn’t help but see. The plate rattled off his knees, half‑eaten. He stumbled for the remains, then left them smoldering into the dampening dust. He wasn’t hungry. He was praying for darkness so that he could no longer see. Or feel. He wrenched his hands out of sight beneath his knees and rocked back and forth unevenly, like a monkey, the caged animal he had become, dry throat chokig on coal, a dribble of saliva seeping down his neck the rasp of metal steps all vaguely familiar.
Then, blinking in the brightness, the fierce shrill of its gaze, he had finally felt the book. And as time grew endlessly yellow he reached forward, hesitantly, to draw it to his lap. Stumbling, he wedged it open, forcing the pages apart, slowly, squinting at unfamiliar words, the even curls of half‑forgotten letters.
He couldn’t remember when he had last read a book. As a child he vaguely remembered crude, water‑dampened pictures, scattered sentences and the hazy tales of godlike monsters with wild powers and illicit desires. “Your ancestors,” his father shouted through the roar of his own laughter. Everyone would laugh in a gale of confusion and, as a child, he would smile back, giggle in the warmth of his parent’s illusive humor.
“No?” he’d ask back, afraid of making a fool of himself, of them.
“That’s what you think!” and spurting further gusts his father’s eyes would swing lazily to involve everyone in the jest.
His father loved to laugh, to shriek away hardships with the gale force of his throaty humor. People came from kilometers away just to hear the old man rant. Even when he was serious, talking of the bad times, the doomed harvest or the crumbs they were left with after the great war, he always ended with a laugh as if the world was only meant to be funny, as if you had to make a joke of it to before it made a fool of you. Times had got better. Food was more plentiful and the conflicting battles had long gone, fading into the crinkled photos of dulling memories. Nevertheless, Sonnyjo himself had rarely laughed. Perhaps it was growing up under the ferocious cave of his father’s roar, but Sonnyjo had never managed more than an understanding smile, a grin of weak complicity whatever the turmoil surrounding them.
Old sounds echoed in his newly found silence. That faint clink upstairs had faded but he knew he would never hear laughter again.
The words stumbled over each other at first. It was so long since he’d read and all he used to read were the sports pages and a glimpse of the weekly headlines: there never seemed to be any need for more. At night he would listen, smile silently, as others, more verbose, would retell the news, dismember it, digest it, liquefy, re‑mould, until it took the form of the mythological Gods he’d read as a child; and under the same spell he remained unsure if what he was hearing was real of if all those characters from Reagan to Thatcher to Yeltsin or Lennon existed or were clever inventions to amuse the ignorant and simply provide cannon fodder for the cleverly manipulative who were too smart to allow their names stain simple wood pulp. Sonnyjo’s Old Man laughed, the centre of such weekly dissections, wise to the games the papers fiddled and the readers ruminated. Grinning, he created his own myths. To the acclaim of an adoring audience he spun physical words through the web of history, his own tallish quasi‑history until faces stared spell‑bound under the rhythm of ageing presence. His son just listened, and smiled, nodded and hummed to himself in the oblivion of the corner. Later, he sometimes missed the old man’s laugh, the alter ego of his thumping presence, the excuse for remaining to one side. But now, shuddering beneath the eye of a blind bulb, while missing an excuse, a shield, he was glad the old man was long gone: away before his laugh was wrenched to a sob, before even he too could only cry.
Hillstown was a sleepy village nestled away in a corner between craggy slopes, rumbling mountains and the gentle rustle of clear spring water. In winter, with the rain, the water ran in tides, gorging down the slopes, chomping pebbles, cutting corners roughshod as it swayed jelly‑like to over‑flowing between the trembling lips that attempted to bank it in. Often, with the encouragement of November storms, it spat beyond them in a teasing hiss of young life and occasionally death, although it had been many years since a serious flood had covered the valley: Sonnyjo could only remember his father talking about it in his childhood, about the time when the waters rose to the church spire and people climbed trees like squirrels; then his father had laughed and no one knew if it was a joke or not, exaggeration or mocking truth.
It was more normal, however, for the winter waters to ripple gently, tumble along playfully to refurbish the land after a long hot summer. Come Spring their thirst abated quickly until, through the increasing dryness of summer, they faded and the ruffled clay and pebbled spittle of the banks glowed shiny smooth through the summer sun. The kids swam then, letting the brittle water freeze them with its mountain breath. Shouts rang, screams of joy, before they had been washed away under a different current, the red tide of violent despair, the cries of the wounded.
The River Dubroc is up to seventeen meters wide by the time it curls into Hillstown in winter, a lot less in summer. It rises and falls in patterns regular enough for people to scarcely notice. Indeed, most things are like that, too subtle in their alterations to draw attention and, as with most rivers, many of those great facts of life, very few people in Hillstown were sure where the Dubroc began.
The town lies at the end of a valley, slouched lazily amid foot hills and sloping plains of fertility. The gentle curves of the hills to the north lap beneath the outer houses, then stretch back under scattered farms until they creep up in height, loosing their soil through the forests until they form the rocky peaks of the Sugar Mountains, many meters above the town. Hunched, sulking, in the distance, those mountains guard the town with a surly gaze, a mixture of benevolence and bad grace: they offer shade and protection yet always appear full of gloomy threat as the rains pile up to smother their summits or the fog leaves them faceless. It is up here, where few have wandered, that the river begins.
In delicate springs, melting snows, the dribbles of constant rain, the River Dubroc gathers its strength from every direction, sapping each drop dry, until they run together, speed down the mountains to arch delicately into the valley that gives the town its name.
Gurgles building as they join forces, the river is soon racing along its roughly hewn bed, bulging gently around a corner, before swiveling briefly out west in a slow lap around some low hills. Then the land forces it south again, slowing now with a middle‑age paunch, across the plateau, swelling, gorging with pleasure as it eventually, kilometers away, further south than Hillstown and most of the other villagers had ever travelled, meets the sea in a smacking hiss of bliss: it has come home.
The town is sited, just there, at the edge of the valley, around the corner, as the river interrupts its generally north south flow to slice the town from east to west. It is a perfect setting. Behind, to the north, the valley sweeps away upwards, fertile, vibrant through the seasons, the years. Its hills roll with pastures, wheat, the low moan of a cow for her calf, before stepping up into goat ledges, hunting forests and the protective shadow of the mountains themselves. Sternly, they overshadow the village from their distant height, bestowing gifts of rain while blocking the worst of winter storms and the wind.
To the South, the land sweeps away in more even furrows, the roaming pastures of open space interrupted only briefly by the binding strap of a road which, like the river, eventually led to the coast, the cities, what the people down there called civilization. The town is perched in the centre of this picturesque tranquility its arched roofs etching fairytale postcards, the smoke of its lank chimneys messages of beauty to the skies. Passersby used to pause and breathe deeply, before the impatient engines of their BMW’s jerked them forward along the motorway. There were few BMW’s in Hillstown itself, and mainly on the Aouth side as people had been quick to point out.
Through the centre of the town, like an equator, a visible stroke of mathematical splicing, the River Dubroc diverted its course to swing westwards across the village, cleanly idling North and South before returning to its north‑south path. The river split the town and the division had only ever been timidly bridged.
Sonnyjo remembered his father’s stories of before the great war when there had been three bridges. He himself had been too young to see them. He had only ever known two, the metal one down the west end of town and the great stone arch which squatted immovable, impassively, across the eastern entrance of the town, its hump guarded silently by the towers at either side and by what remained of the old fort on the southern bank. The Holy stone it had been dubbed long before the present was born; The Holy Stone in memory of its unshaken hulk, its unseeing judgments. Sullenly, uncaringly, impartially, these carefully hewn blocks had withstood six centuries of wandering wars, scattered armies and flattening threats. Even the great war hadn’t left more than vacant scars, scratches and chips which barely damaged the appearance and which had never reached the foundations.
Sonnyjo had never analyzed his town, the farm, the mountains or the river. There was no need. This was where he lived. He loved it and didn’t need to think about it in any more general, mystical, terms than the constant calculations of day to day survival; and now, in fleeting grips of crude, untrained philosophy, his only wishes were that other people had done the same, had left the place in the peace it surrounded them with.
Nevertheless, even Sonnyjo was vaguely conscious that more than the river spliced the town into two sides, opposite banks, opposing tribes only weakly linked together by artificial bridges. Taking confidence perhaps from the solidity of The Holy Stone bridge within sight of his front window, Sonnyjo hadn’t, however, considered the fragility, the shabby subsoil on which their community was balanced. Nobody had. Sonnyjo heard the stories, listened to the scattered comments, splattered anger and his father’s tales of what they had done during the great war, but such tales were like the news in the paper, wild echoes from past midnight, myths in the fog of dawn; Sonnyjo listened and smiled, and next day had forgotten as he left at dawn to work. There were more important things to take care of, to care for.
Sonnyjo lived for the land. It received even more attention than his beloved family because, as he well knew, without it there would be no family at all. The hours of the day were spent working it, harrowing, thumping it into submission, coaxing it to production, patting it down afterwards in praise before walking home to drag it in on his boots. In August the wheat ran gold, wafts of glittering chaff sweetening his nose, perfuming the air with a wrinkle of itchy feet; in spring hay fell, sweated, dried until fluffly as they piled it then tugged it home for the winter; and throughout the year his hard‑collected sheep called to each other over the hills, their tones muffled by the mountains, dampened by early morning fog. Rain, sun, a flood, a storm, could tear them all to pieces, and did, until you started again and put the jigsaw painfully back together. There were good years and the bad but somehow, through them all, the fear of hunger or the arrival of color television, Sonnyjo had always trusted the land itself. It had never betrayed anyone; in soggy wet or crusty dry, it held firm deep down while all around changed shape, faith, as beauty was terribly mangled with each new birth, the raging whims of weather and people.
The early leaves of his book reminded Sonnyjo of that temperamental stillness. Cringing, cramped on the cold floor of his cage, he could smell the damp mountain sides, feel the haggard protection of their rocky clay slinging to his boots, and later, back in the homely light of warm wine knocking out the bite of the night. Across the trembling pages he learned to smell again, see anew as memories briefly brushed reality from his mind. He recognized the conversations also, the gutted fears of half‑mumbled intentions; but he left them to one side to focus instead on the countryside. Huddled in the cold light of his windowless box, through the stamped letters, he re‑created what had only recently been locked away from him outside. With nothing else to turn to, or hope for, he sucked the strange words from their pages, gulping them down to recapture a peace, the soothing tinkle of cow bells, the rustle of the ferns, the darkness of the woods, the chimes of Sunday morning across the fields. For Whom The Bell Tolls, read the title. He hadn’t yet finished the book to find the answer. He hoped that one day, the would allow him to.
Sonnyjo’s own house lay at the edge of the town but he never say himself as a real townie. He was a farmer. The town was an accident. Their house had been there first and his instincts lay not with the mild teeming of country village life growing nervously all around, but in the ageless restlessness of his own small plot of land. The sagging of the buildings vaulting slates testified to its age, and his own carelessness when it came to anything apart from the land: he had never got them mended. Sonnyjo liked it that way. The tattered wood of its windows hinted at the weary wisdom of eyes that had seen time itself pass by. His grandfather’s father had put the first stone down: or so Sonnyjo had been told as a child. It had been one of the first houses on the north side of the river, close to the hills for shelter and ease of attending the goats. Progress had meant fewer goats. They retreated further up the mountains as their shepherds moved down. The land grew prosperous under determined cultivation and quickly others moved in until the north bank was teeming with small farms, animals, and bawling children. But Sonnyjo’s ancestors, he had been proudly told so often, were the first to reach the river and settle there; the first to brave the briefly open plain beyond their traditional mountain shelter; the first to face the waters and those who dared to cross, the first to test the wrath of the fort across on the southern bank.
The fort had been built to defend the old river routes inland. Over the years the tiny hamlet which had struggled in its shadow expanded and contracted like the river itself until, inevitably, lured by the sheltering twist of the Dubroc, scattered if expanding wealth, it grew from passing bartering into a genuine center of marketing. It wasn’t only the northern banks which were developing. The open land further south had also blossomed with farmers rearing cattle along vast schleps of the plains, others wheat or beet until quickly the whole area was divided into large tracts of land closely mingled through blood and marriage. The town grew proportionally. Fed by the river, then the new road, it became an important provincial pivot. Spurred on by the prospects, money to invest, the southerners brought their commerce, fine houses, banks, and complicated paperwork from the cities until the town swamped the old fort and managed to erect two new bridges.
The locals, as the northerners saw themselves, grumbled. They saw their privacy soaking away; and their jealousy grow as they watched farms twice, triple, four times their size gulp up land to the south, then pour it into buildings and banks until they owned them. Prices and political weight were decided on the other side of the river: even as the town expanded on all sides, the banks, the big businesses and stores remained safely to the South, closer to their origins, removed slightly from the danger of boorish, mountain tainting. Yet, despite the mumbles of discontent, little was said. There was no need. Times improved for all in the area. If business bloomed on the Southern bank, efficient trades blossomed to the north; if there was a bad winter to the North there would always be some work found across the river. Mutual dependency kept the floods at bay, the river running smoothly and money flowed in quantities scarcely ever imagined fifty years before. Sonnyjo’s great grandfather had been among the first to recognize the possibilities. Whereas others in the mountains wouldn’t dare trust an Outsider from the flat south, he ventured forth to cultivate, then sell, and make more than ever before. With the proceeds he extended the outsheds; with his courage others sallied forth until the town grew on both sides from a handful of shacks around the old woodenfort to a straggling rabble of fine merchant houses on one side and an equally impressive, if more ragged, array of farm and tradesmen’s houses on the other.
As time mingled, the river banks drew closer. Another bridge, then a third, were slung across. Shops scattered across both sides, then school children, churches and farms themselves, until, like a mist over the river, a fusion united the huddled town into a prosperous landmark high at the foot of the hills. A mist, which, like a fog, was often little more than a blinding illusion, a convenient snooze, blurring headlights and the shining paths straight ahead.
Thus, while historically Sonnyjo’s family were the conquering spirit of at least half the town, Sonnyjo kept himself apart from it. Physically a resident, his mind remained tangled in the woods from which his illustrious ancestors’ originated.
It was possibly his father’s fault. A big man, full of loud mirth, Sonnyjo’s Old Man was at home in the town, he would have been a haunted loner anywhere else. Having spend his childhood sighing silently to isolated flocks of sheep, Sonnnyjo’s Old Man quickly took advantage of age‑brought position to establish himself back at the house; and anyway, times were better, he could afford someone else to wander the mountains and shepherd the woolly nightmares. In his own parlor or down the cafes, Sonnyjo’s Old Man held the centre corner. Stuffed into an armchair or crammed down on a stool, his throaty laugh ploughed red cheeks full of stories, bawdy jokes and homespun lore. Everybody listened, or pulled his leg, or threw him a line, a bait to get him started, force the party to begin. He loved it. Wine bottle by the neck, fist thumping the squealing table, grey whiskers trembling his laugh would fill the room, any room, shaking it until even the glasses grinned, the word wood of the table sagging, fire crackling shadows on the wall, coal fueled smoke cutting throats, itching for more, casting an odd tear through a semi-closed eyelid.
His father thrived on company, the bonding that existed, he created, between the men he knew. Together they were invincible, a knob of oak which could scarcely be battered apart by even their wives’ nagging: Sonnyjo’s own mother never had a chance. Frail, worn down by the years of struggling, silence in the shadow of the giant she loved, she died when Sonnyjo was fifteen.
Sonnyjo loved his father in that fumbling, unframed manner of hard generations who were never taught to express familiar passion. Nevertheless, after his mother’s death he was forced to shy back even more, to retreat from the magnetism of the older man’s charisma as he glimpsed a streak of cruelty behind the boisterous laughter; it was as if such immense joy couldn’t be natural, as if it had to be hiding a sorrow, a deep scar of tender, still‑white pain. Unacknowledged, a seed took root. Sonnyjo unconsciously recognized a link between laughter and death, pain and joy. In the unsought bowels of his mind Sonnyjo saw his mother crying over a lewd joke, the company of men who didn’t know she existed.
With his mother gone the full responsibilities of the land fell, to grow, on Sonnyjo. He’d always been working, school had long since faded in a haze of misspelt dates, but he had never realized how much his mother had done, the time it took to replace her. Still a child, he had suggested finding someone to help out, to cook, or wash or whatever. His father snapped. He’d never done it before. Sonnyjo was shocked, caught frozen; between childish tears and the approaching manhood of anger, he succumbered sheepishly. There was no money. They couldn’t afford it. So, before his aunt took charge, they lived on potato stews, shakily washed cloth and the son’s dedication.
Later, Sonnyjo recognized that his father had been right. Times had become harder. They still had a living but prices were falling: they were getting the same for a ewe as they had three years earlier; fertilizer kept rising but the price for corn was lower than ever; sheep grazed as they always had but no one wanted the coarse wool of the mountains anymore; there were quotas for everything and the small farmers on the Northern bank had been lost between the demands, neither big enough to benefit or small enough to claim subsidies from centrally run government. The big buyers were fewer, their lorries scarcer and harder to please. The highway down South led to other places now; Hillstown was just one more hamlet caught in the indecision of decreasing prosperity and unknown future investments. A shoe factory was opened on the South side which brought grumbles of protest from the farmers in the North: the land had lost its value, gone out of fashion, only the fleeting fads of industry remained. Mumbles rose in pitch when the woodlands above them were bought and turned into paper for more dealers to the South; even the river cried under the strains of progress, the sweat of chemicals from a modern gleaming complex few understood. In return, across the bridge, faces shouted about old fashionedness, miserly landowners living in the past, sitting on their gold as land rotted unproductively all around them: if they only had the guts to move forward and stop holding everyone else back.
Sonnyjo’s father spoke of the great war, how great it had all been. Heads nodded, others just nodded off. A long way away now, becoming too close again for comfort. Sonnyjo ignored them all. Prices were falling. People pressurized him to borrow money, clear the land, sell trees, dig drains, plough then plant new crops, change to cattle, then to arable. He ignored them. They didn’t know what they were doing. Even his father, despite his more recent neglect, knew that the land wasn’t for sale, that it was all they had, all that anyone had. Sonnyjo felt an ache in his bones. Prices were down. They could no longer afford hired help; but they weren’t in danger. The land would take care of them. He could care for it and they would have, if not wealth, anything they needed to live, which for Sonnyjo was luxury enough, the peace he had always pruned. Later, his wife would object, but by then Sonnyjo’s logic would have gained a momentum of its own and wider economics and politics would have decided that just to live was a luxury in itself. Sonnyjo buried himself in the peacefulness of the soil, oblivious to the external demands, shifting loyalties.
It may have been his father’s fault he preferred the noise of the country to the company of the town; or perhaps it was simply Sonnyjo himself. He may have always shied from the light, from his father’s exuberant shadow because of his own silent nature, that gentle simplicity which blended in smoother with the calls of the wild than the man‑made, less tame, jumble from the village. Whatever the reason, it was nature in the form of his beloved land which was Sonnyjo ’s only drug, his true obsession. He sang to the land, enjoyed its enchantment as his father lived for the cafes down the street.
From the crisp crack of dawn to the sluggish dull of evening fall his shadow and gangling limbs stirred the soil in a steady storm of rhythmic movements. “A great worker,” was what everybody said, almost all anyone ever said about Sonnyjo.
They liked his smile, it was harmless when in company, reassuring amidst the uproar; but he would never be more than a hard worker and his father’s son, even after the older man’s death. When Sonnyjo did join the others for the odd beer, scattered card games in winter, he was always welcomed. He didn’t disturb anyone and they were often glad of the reminder; his father would laugh again as they mimicked, re‑told, his old jokes and thumped Sonnyjo on the back as if he was a ghost, a living appendage of his dead ancestor.
Sonnyjo didn’t mind. He was happy. He missed the old man but didn’t think too deeply, didn’t need to as the simple daily world around him taught him everything he had to understand: he’d lost sheep before and he knew they were always replaced. It was hard, they were never quite the same, but that was what farming was all about, the ups and downs of living nature itself.
A hard worker they dubbed him but when his wife would sigh a groan and wave her arms wildly in protesting response, Sonnyjo himself knew she was right: he didn’t see the work either. The sheep all had names and he talked to them as he herded. The soil spoke to him as he mangled it, then softened it out, beat it lovingly back into shape like a pillow before bedtime. Then there were the trips through the woods, higher up to the mountains, old shotgun on hand for the rabbits, the occasional pigeon, something nice for dinner. And in the long evenings, or a quiet day, he followed the river, admired its curves, then the ripples, the sleek sheen of its elasticity broken only briefly with the whip lash of his fishing line, the lick of iced fog tickling the back of his throat. Through the silence of the gurgling, a bird, an unseen rustle behind him, he would sit and hum patiently to himself, watching, listening, senses open to the slightest air. It wasn’t work. He was always in the fields, but he never saw it as hardship, as anything other than enjoyment. His wife had said once that he was simple, in the head, and she’d laughed. Sonnyjo wasn’t there. He hadn’t heard her and wouldn’t have cared. He had everything he wanted out there, through the rain or the sun, death or a birth, he found his own personal comfort. All he had to do was sit, or walk, or just listen and look, feel the tenderness beneath the harsh sheen of his crusty land.
His senses were all that were left. They were taking them one by one. Blinded by the darkness he huddled in his attempts to roam again through the woody tracks of his mind. But they were clogging. Brambles strangled with blood specking spikes and a bite he’d never felt before. The book had worked briefly. That flashing glimpse the words created of another country, more land, gingerly re‑created his own as it burst briefly from the pages to spark an ember in his brain.
It was fading now. He kept his eyes closed but knew he wasn’t asleep. A jerk. A shudder of fear. His body twisted. His hand hit the ground. Pain stabbed driving his eyes open, pointlessly dragging a screech through his parched raw throat. His feet scraped, groping wildly for a footing. He pushed himself to a slouch, shoved himself to the corner, lurching against the wall until he found a balance. Shoulders jammed into the stone, he sat, dragged from his dreams to nightmare.
He could see nothing and was glad. The light was a double bind, untrustworthy in its aims, rubbing him coarse along the blade of hope and despair, pain and release. With nothing but the gloom of indistinct shadows, he forced his sight closed again and thought of letting his fingers gently ripple through the book; with nothing to see it provided the only visions he was allowed, the only hint of remaining life.
He could hear nothing either, but his own rasping breath, the husking heave of strained lungs, encrusted coal shards blocking his nose. There was the faint dripping of water in the air, but no river yet. No birds. No sky. No bleat or chirp, no boot to shrug from the mud. Only half conscious, his left arm moved lazily, fingers tapping the musty floor boards. Attempting to shuffle forward from the hip, the hand reached further. He slouched back in pain. Later. Tomorrow. Or yesterday. He’d lost count, but soon he would search again for the tattered pages. Not now though. He was awake and for the moment their reminders seemed weaker, crueler, like a photograph of the dead. They had taken away even his dreams.
Without the courage to steady itself, his head fell sideways to his shoulder, cracking off the wall as it slipped. His eyes swiveled into knots of pain. His left hand fumbled for the right, to cradle it in a gentle attempt at smothering the searing heat. He could feel nothing else. Only the numb pain, the throb of sickness. Behind closed eyes, sparks of light collided in agony. His eyeballs cringed under the force, scrunching tighter, until they were specks; but the explosions continued ripping the blood cells to shreds. His whole arm was trembling, burning from the tip of what was no longer there to the roots of his shoulder socket. His neck cramped in a spasm of shooting torment. Nerves bent backwards, twisted out of shape. He could smell burning, dead flesh, the rot of his own limbs. He could hear his own screams, distantly as if they were someone else’s, as if he was someone else. He sagged further into the wall. A spider slipped to his nose, ran away from the wheeze of foul rasping breath. Teeth grinding. He could take it no longer. In one final explosion of pain Sonnyjo collapsed, lost consciousness, eyes staring blankly, through the rough brick that propped his torn cheek. His right hand sagged, fell back to the ground. Not a sound. The brutal contact went unnoticed. He felt nothing any longer.
Bleating as he swung their necks beneath his shoulder, locked in the hook of his elbow. He was quick. The scissors swept through the woolly hoard, flaking it off in one dry piece, a single fleece, almost immediately wearable once washed. Golden, shiny, his own Iliad, one eyed giants conquered with the slash of a well aimed blade, lambs to the slaughter. Sonnyjo knew his sheep, how to keep them on track. He’d never imagined been herded himself.
He had fainted before, before they left, before they had switched off the light, after they had turned it on.
When they’d first brought him here there had been no light. Darkness had tumbled outside, falling quickly over the town in shame or mourning. They’d dragged him unseeingly into a truck. Too shocked to move, to worn to watch any more, Sonnyjo had paid no attention, had blocked out the journey hoping it would be short, his last. He was wrong. There was no end. He had to continue when all he wanted was to leave, to refuse the horror of survival which would forever haunt his future.
Stumbling, legs too exhausted to stand the pace, they dragged him inwards, flung him through doors. Then the now familiar clink on metal steps. His own boots rattled as they pulled him face first down the hollow metal steps. Door slam. Boot knock. Metal rap. Frame jam. Voice rave. Rifle snap. Shot clap. He was left in the dark, on the cold dirt floor, weeping, the tears caking in the dust until they dried, ran out until he would never cry again, no matter what they did, because beyond physical pain there was nothing more they could inflict.
In the dark, the stillness of emptiness, time disappeared. It no longer existed, was needed no more. Fetus, Sonnyjo curled where they’d left him. He kept his eyes open in the dark, to concentrate on nothing, to maintain his mind blank, numb to the sorrow which would kill.
The room was two by two meters. It had been a coal cellar, until the fuel ran out. Sonnyjo could smell the dust. It crept up his nose, delved into his lungs. Crawling around the floor he still found coal, isolated pieces, like himself, that had hidden from the pyre. There weren’t many. It had been a long winter. There was little left that hadn’t been burned.
Lying on the floor, huddled up, bolstered by the roughly hewn stone walls, Sonnyjo rocked himself aimlessly. He was glad it was dark. He couldn’t see himself: the smell was bad enough. They’d thrown him a bucket. It sat in the corner overflowing, his own stink rising to surround him. He could choke himself to death if he had the strength left to take another decision.
No light at first. Very few sounds. The muffled scrape of a chair far above. A cough in the silence. Then a clank. A foot. A definite step on the metal grill. Coming closer. One. Two. Down. Click. The explosion of blindness threw his head between his knees. Arms swallowed his neck as he hid from the shock, pleading for the end. The light was hit from step three he would come to know all too well. Down. Step. Four. Five. Thud. Pound. Six. Seven. Eight. Nine. Bang. Scuffle on the stone floor. The door creaked, swayed. Clatter as the lock swung back. Chink as key searched. Rattle. Bang. Thud. Step. Step. Fading. Up. Silence again.
Slowly, peeping fearfully from beneath his fingers, his head rose and eyes accustomed themselves to the harsh watts of a single bulb. In the blackness of his hole, glinting off the remainders of the coal, the feeble bulb shone out of proportion. Like the sun at night or the lightening across a storm, it hinted at danger as well as clarity. Still shaking beneath its gaze, it took Sonnyjo minutes to see the plate. He didn’t know if he was hungry or not. It had been hours or days, months since he’d eaten. He ate. Not hungry but he ate, anything to fill the emptiness inside.
Then the steps again. The sharp clink of rubber scraping metal stairs. Door slip. Sonnyjo’s head bowed instinctively, afraid to look, not wanting to see, to recognize. Hand spun, grasped the plate. Bang. Closed. More echoing metal thuds. Seven going backwards and then they’d reached the switch again on the way back up, out. Switch. Blackness regained. Sonnyjo puked. He hadn’t even time to reach the bucket. He’d worn a mask. Sonnyjo recognized the trousers, the slender scar on his hand. He’d known them all his life, had seen them over his own wife. Retching, his guts clasped in horror, twisting helplessly to expel the sorrow.
The rhythm was established. Once a day. Twice. A rat trapped in his cage, Sonnnyjo reacted only to the rythym of familiar sounds replaying off the metal steps, the stone floor overhead. The flick of a switch and his world went on and off. On. Off. Steps. Door. Food. Light. Gone. Black. He would hear the first step, the click and mask his eyes for the shock. He no longer looked as the plate dropped in. Door closed and he ate unseen, unseeingly. Click. Black again. Sonnyjo lay huddled, cramped, sightless, wishing he were senseless.
Reduced to the minimalistic responses of an animal, Sonnyjo wished later it had stayed like that.
One night, or day, the click brought more than food. The clanking on the stairs reverberated, echoes into multiple steps. The door swung wide. Still shying from the light Sonnyjo was given no time to adjust. Hands clasped his hair, jerked his head back. Eyes raced, closed again, as they were forced to stare to the ceiling. Dragged to his knees they forced him forward. Someone grabbed his left arm.
“The right,” another shouted.
“Yeah, fuck the bastard.”
“One fucking Northie who’ll never need it again.”
An arm clung around his throat, long and strong. Sonnyjo knew the trousers that trapped him from either side, knees jamming the sound from his ears. Heavy breath swept his neck. A voice in his ear. He recognized it. He’d heard it so often.
“Fucking bastard. Took my land. Show the whole fucking lot of you.” The knees pressed closer in vengeance, urged together by the enflamed hatred of spoken thoughts.
Choking, spitting for breath, Sonnyjo’s neck was held backwards in the other man’s groin. Someone tucked his left arm behind roughly until the shoulder socket cracked in agony. Another of the strangers wrenched the right arm forward. A wrist held Sonnyjo’s, thick fingers embedding in his flesh. Someone had brought a chair. They forced his arm up and out, then down. His wrist was pressed to the hard wood, jammed on the edge, his hand flattened to the soft sheen of the seat. Through the arch of his neck, across the bitter light, Sonnyjo caught the glint of the chisel. Terror shaken from stupor he screamed a throat wrecking plea as instinctively his hand folded into a fist. Someone else’s clattered across his jaw. “Shut up you fucker.” Blood seeped through his lips. Stunned by the blow, unthinkingly, his grip relaxed. They held it there, fingers splayed, locked in the vice grips of their anger. He fainted to a slump as the blunted metal sought a wrinkle, above the knuckle of his index finger. And the mallet rose to cut out the light.
He came to as the chair clattered out the door. The familiar trousers were the last. Still masked, but Sonnyjo knew who it was, knew he also knew; but recognition was somehow easier to avoid, for them both, beneath a mask, a hood, a frivolous disguise. Sonnyjo was glad of its fake anonymity. The smell of burnt flesh rose. Sonnyjo kept his eyes high. He couldn’t look. Then the pain returned. Shock seize. He faded away again