Thrown into the oubliette. Winner of SCREAMS!!! 5/8/2020 and Weekly Winner, May 2020..
I wake to darkness with my head throbbing with pain. My hand tests the pain and discovers a lump on my forehead where I must have been struck. I can feel no wound, just a bump tender to my touch. It seems I’ve been in a coma.
But where am I and why this darkness? Memory comes trickling back into my consciousness. The arrest by armed men as I returned from the fields, the forced march to the castle, the brief interview with the baron, and then being hustled into the depths of the castle, to be thrown into a hole in the floor of the dungeon.
Oh, God, no, not the oubliette. My blood freezes into immobility and my soul becomes one with the impenetrable darkness surrounding me. The fear and loathing of this ultimate of punishments seizes my being and, for what seems like hours, I cannot move. But life is endlessly adaptable, no matter how awful the circumstances, and my mind begins to surface eventually.
Oubliette, that dreaded French word brought to us by our bastard Norman masters, the word that stems from their verb “to forget,” the vilest thing they could do to a man. And now it is my fate. Bad enough to be forgotten by the world but the thought of the thirst and starvation to come is enough for me to wish that the fall to this floor had killed me. My mind scrabbles in the blackness, twisting and turning in its search for an escape, yet knowing that the oubliette has no exit.
I have to search the limits of my prison, to know the boundaries I must penetrate to get away from this fate. My eyes peer into the dark as I gather my strength to get to my feet. And then, with a burst of contained energy, I force myself upwards. My mind reels from the pain and I slip into unconsciousness again.
Awareness returns and, with it, memory of my circumstances. I lie still for a while, not wishing to tempt the pain again. How long have I been out? Carefully, I move a hand to feel my forehead. The bump seems smaller than I remember, so it may have been several hours that I’ve been unconscious.
It occurs to me that there is no urgency for me to explore my confines. In sleep there is forgetfulness and peace. I relax and close my eyes.
Again, I awake to darkness. I put my hand up to feel my clock, the lump upon my forehead. It has definitely shrunk. More hours of elsewhere, then. Wary of expected pain, I manage, with slow movements, to raise myself into a sitting position. The pain stays back, a shadow of memory in the depths of my mind. Encouraged, I attempt to gain my feet.
Success. I stand, a little unsteadily since the head is unsure of balance without sight, but maintaining the upright stance at least. I wait while full equilibrium is regained. Then, I lift my arms in front of me and take a step forward. Another step and my fingers touch a rough surface that blocks my path. My hands explore and confirm the stones carelessly assembled and joined with gritty mortar to form this barrier to my escape. I begin to move along next to the wall, feeling it as I go.
Three steps and I reach a corner where the wall turns abruptly. At the same time I hear a crunch as my foot steps upon something brittle. I crouch and feel around. There are hard, dry things on the floor, all gathered together in this corner. When my touch reveals a large, smooth dome shape, I realise what I have found. These are the bones of a previous tenant and my fingers explore the exterior of his skull.
I recoil in horror, both at my desecration of the dead and remembrance of my own fate. Shuffling my feet forward now, so as to avoid stepping on the bones, I continue to inch my way along the wall.
Even at such a slow pace, it is not long before I have completed a full circuit of the walls. My prison is about five paces by five in size and the walls are dry, rough rock, except in one corner where the stones are damp with moisture seeping through. I reason that this must be closest to the moat and water is able to penetrate through the mortar joining those poorly laid stones. I confess that I licked my hands to gain what moisture I could.
Having established the limits of the oubliette, I repeat the circuit, this time feeling the stones all the way to the floor and reaching as high as I can. The walls are without break or opening, offering no such hope as a loosened stone or crumbling cement. Bleak despair engulfs me as I return to the centre and collapse on the floor. The enormous weight of the castle above presses down on me in my closed womb of entombment. I close my eyes in search of the respite of sleep.
When I awake, I cannot stop myself from thinking of this as another day, as though I still had need of measuring time. It could be more than a day; I have no way of knowing. Thirst drives me to the corner where the walls are damp and I spend an hour or two, licking at the moisture collected on my searching hands. Eventually, I resort to licking the walls.
Now hunger asserts itself and I have to desist from my wall licking, to return to my central spot. I remember the farm and the pigs, the cow and the geese, how they must be wondering where their human has disappeared to. With no solace there, I try to think of the past, the times when I was happy in my youth and free of the cares of adulthood.
Over there, beyond the wall, a light glows blue and trembling. As I watch, it becomes brighter and suddenly I see that my mother is the source of the light. She looks at me and her mouth moves but I hear nothing. I get to my feet, intending to move towards her but the light goes out, leaving me in greater darkness than before.
A vision, I realise. The eyes playing tricks since they have nothing to do now. I sit back down and turn my thoughts to the nursery rhymes I remember. It is more comforting than I had expected and I lie down and drift off to sleep.
The next “day,” I do not bother to stand but crawl to the damp corner and begin to lick at the wall. It occurs to me that this is only prolonging my agony, that I would die much quicker if I were to drink nothing. But it is impossible to ignore the urge to stay alive, to cling on to something even though it pains you beyond reason.
Reason? How long will I be able to speak of reason when this black hole leeches the sanity from my mind? Just yesterday I saw my mother in the wall and was prepared to run to her, even though I knew she could not be there. She’s been dead for years, anyway. I cool my forehead against the damp stones and lie still. If I could but end it now while still myself. But suicide is not so easy when deprived of the means.
“Old Jeremiah Blaithwaite’s got the hump.”
The words come quite clearly to my ear and I start in sudden surprise. I still have the presence of mind not to answer, however. With grim determination I hold on to sanity and refuse to acknowledge the voice. I wait in the dark, expecting more words to be spoken. Instead, Uriah Newsmith, my neighbour, appears in the opposite corner, hunched over and scrabbling with his fingers in the dirt.
I cannot stop myself. “Here, Uriah, what be you messing with in here?” I shout at him. He ignores me.
“Have they thrown you down here like me, then?” This I speak in a diminishing voice as I remember that he must be an hallucination. I shut my mouth and watch him, expecting the vision to fade. For a while, he continues to meddle with the dirt then, as though he has found what he was looking for, he lifts something small to examine it.
At the same time, he turns into Polly, the girl found drowned in the river last year. She turns to me and says, “Mangelwurzels be late this year.” Then she disappears.
I awake the next “morning” with arms cradling something round. I realise it’s the skull of the dead man and I release it in disgust. Unable to bear my awful fate any longer, I spend a few hours raging and screaming abuse at the darkness. It occurs to me that I might even be able to make them hear in the castle above and I increase my volume.
In the end I collapse with exhaustion, voice reduced to a whisper.
Consciousness returns and I crawl to the wet wall again. I lick without considering my circumstances, as though I’d always drunk like this. A pig appears beside me and commences to lick with me. “Good stuff, this,” he comments.
I lash out at him and, when my fist flies through his body without effect, I shout, “Top of the morning to you, Sir Baddikins!”
The pig wanders off somewhere and I, with all my strength expended in my wild attempt to be rid of him, lie on the damp stones and think of weaving combs. Sleep beckons and I go with him happily.
I am seated on a throne when I awake. All around me are nymphs and dryads dressed in foliage and they pour out wine for me to lap at until I fall from the throne. I lie in the pool of wine gathered on the floor and my companions drift up to the ceiling, only to disappear.
My cheek is cold with wetness and I struggle to raise my head from the floor. Black night surrounds me as I struggle into sanity. My belly is a gaping wound of emptiness, my tongue swollen to fill my mouth, and my body aches from being thrown against the walls in my fits of despair.
Somehow I manage to roll on to my back and my eyes are once again staring into black nothingness. How long have I been trapped in this hellhole? I think of the dead prisoner and envy him. I shall leave a wreath on his grave this very day. Did I say “day?” Give me a burning taper and I’ll be a day for you. Tomorrow stirs the river afire. I wandered by the narrows of Erdington, greet thee, Parson, in the wailing mist.
“Hush now, William, comfort is near.”
My mother bends over me and cradles my head in her arms. I relax into her warmth, knowing that she speaks truth.
She turns into a hound of hell as I watch and I am breathing the hot vapours of its breath. I struggle to get away but the beast seizes my leg and begins shaking it. My hands are buried in its fur but I have not the strength to parry its attacks. It tears off my leg and begins to rip the flesh from the bone.
I laugh and say, “Chew away, Comfort, I’ll be off now for home.”
Word Count: 1,935
For SCREAMS!!!, Friday May 08 2020
Notes: An oubliette is a dungeon open only at the top where condemned prisoners were thrown and left to starve to death. The word comes from the French for “forget” since prisoners in the oubliette were simply forgotten.