Release

You sit in a crowded cell, among hundreds of other prisoners awaiting the same fate. It is hot, humid and very stuffy. You can feel your sweaty, clammy skin pressing against the sweaty, clammy skin of the people next to you. It feels as though your body fluids are trying to escape through your pores. You can feel the heat radiating off of your skin and mingling with the heat in the cell. Your eyes are nearly caked shut by dirt so you can hardly see. Your mouth is dry; you have not had a drink in days. No matter how hard you suck your tongue it remains as dry as a desert.

All around you is the stench of death and decay. It is the smell of a thousand unwashed bodies. You have not had a wash in what seems like an eternity. The dirt has caked your body. Your original skin colour cannot be determined, and neither can that of the people around you. Neither can anyone see for certain that you are a young girl. Months in such conditions have hidden the sex of many prisoners. Your hair has turned to lank dread locks, matted with dirt, blood and grime. You can smell your skin rotting off your body as you sit here.

As you take a deep breath in through your mouth you can taste the decay, the death and the rot. You gag where you sit. You can almost taste the dirt on the people sitting next to you. It reminds you of your childhood, running around with your brothers and sisters in the garden, throwing mudpies at each other, tasting the rich, earthy soil. But this dirt is not like that; this dirt makes your skin crawl with its lice infestation and its decomposition. This dirt mingles with the blood, sweat and tears of thousands of people, taking one person’s sickness and giving it to hundreds more. You know, with a blinding sense of clarity, that you will die soon. Whether from one of these sicknesses or by being taken away, you do not know.

You hear a grating sound behind you. You assume that the door is being opened, but you aren’t quite sure. For a fleeting moment you hear distant sounds of people screaming in both agony and excitement, and then the door is closed again. Around you, people are talking in hushed whispers. Voices unused to uttering sound come out harsh and uneven. You know that when the door opens someone always leaves, but never returns.

The person next to you leans over to you and asks you, in a rasping voice, who you think it will be this time. All you can manage is a shake of your head, your mouth moves but no sound comes out.

You sense movement coming closer towards you. Suddenly, there is a hand on your shoulder, and another pair undoing your manacles and helping you up. There is an audible sigh around you, as the tense people in the room express relief at not being chosen this time. Expressing relief at not being chosen…yet.

This has been the moment you feared since you were first chained up. You rub at your eyes, trying to dislodge the dirt holding them shut. Slowly, you open them. You wince slightly as you allow yourself to adjust to the light you had long since forgotten. You see that two, tall men in disgustingly familiar green and silver uniforms are escorting you down a long, dimly-lit corridor. At the end there is a small patch of light and you assume that is the way up to the world you forgot long ago. Looking up at one of the men, you watch his face closely. He, and the other, seems to do all that he can to not look at you. There is hidden sympathy in their eyes and you wonder exactly what fate awaits you. You see a glint at the corner of one of their eyes and wonder what it is that can make a grown man cry. You look down at yourself.

Your dress that was once the lovely colour of sunflowers in the summer is now the colour of mud and dust; it is torn all over and the lace had come off many months earlier. You wear no shoes or stockings on your feet, and your legs are covered in scars, scratches and congealed blood and dirt. Your once-white soft hands are now brown and calloused, the nails long since bitten down to nothing, covered in dirt and grime. You lost your rings when you were first captured. The man that took you had pulled them ruthlessly off your fingers, breaking one at the base. It still hung limply, having never had the chance to heal properly.

You have reached the end of the corridor now and are going up some stairs, one man behind and the other in front. You are waiting for the man behind you to slide his hands up your tattered dress, as so many of the others had done, but nothing happens. You wait for them to turn on you and use your emaciated body like so many others had done, but nothing happens. Nothing happens until you start to slow down and the man behind you merely tells you to hurry along, lass in a tired voice.

Finally, you step out into the world and get a glimpse of your fate. In front of you is a pile of wood. A stake is placed in the middle. Behind that is a jeering crowd. You hear them screaming at you, but no, they have not noticed you yet. You look in the same direction as the crowd and see they are throwing food at another two people, a man and a woman, tied to two other stakes and standing on piles of wood. You shiver as a breeze whips through your meagre clothing. You can smell smoke, and looking around you can see three torches held in sconces on the wall next to you. One of the men gives you a slight push in the direction of the unoccupied stake.

You look to the right and see a small purple flower struggling to stay alive in amongst the churned up, dry ground. You pity the little plant and realise that it mirrors what your life has been over the past few months. You too have struggled to stay alive amidst the death and rotting corpses of others, with no idea why, only following the natural instinct of living beings. You wish you could run your hands over its silky leaves and one last time experience a little beauty in the world. The soldier behind you gently nudges you forward.

Your legs feel numb and heavy. Your brain is not working properly. Everything is going in slow motion for you. Another man, one you have not seen before, tells you to get onto the wood pile and stand in front of the stake. He is a mean looking man, with a scar down his left cheek. He is wearing a red robe with silver trim. You can smell his horribly sweet breath as he ties you to the stake. You twist your head away, but he pulls it back to face him and jeers at you, puckering his lips menacingly. He tells you that you are lucky that you are out in front of all these people else he would not be so innocent. You feel your lower lip begin to tremble, but you bite down and hold the tears.

He steps away from you and walks around behind your back to check on the ropes. His hand strays a little too long around your bottom. You can feel your face reddening from embarrassment and anger. The red robed man walks out in front of you and the other two people who await the same fate. You hear him talking to the crowd. You are not paying attention, but you notice he points to you and crowd laugh at what he said.

You begin to think back to the childhood which you should still be living, to your dear family who died protecting you, and to your friends who you will never see again. You think back over the last few months, how strange men in that repulsive green and silver uniform came to your farm house, burning everything on the property, raping your mother and older sisters and killing them before turning on you. You remember them killing your father and the brothers that fought with him, right in front of you. You think back on the long, dirty journey to this town. In this town, the ruling council is trying citizens for minimal, even no, crime. This way, the council acquires properties for wealthier, more well-bred landowners and is able to inflict fear into and attain obedience from the populace.

You remember the hard trek from your small farm to this sprawling town where the new council is trying to establish its rule. All citizens who are believed to defy the new council are punished. As far as you know, your family never opposed the rule of the council, but they came for you anyway and made an example of you. Now all that is left of your family is you to be killed as a way to scare others into obeying. You search deep inside yourself, inside the shredded remains of your soul, and find the courage to withstand your fate; knowing that you will see your family again when your trial is over.

You look back to the man in red; he is signalling to three men in green and silver. You try to turn your head to see where they are going, but deep down you already know. You look forward, above the crowd and there you see a lone, white dove flying towards the sunset. You believe that it is a symbol to you and to those sharing your fate, telling you to be brave. You set your face, determined not to let any emotion show, but already you are tired; the last months in a cell without adequate food, water or warmth have drained you significantly. Secretly, you are thankful that your pain and suffering will be ended soon, no matter how painful that end may be.

You hear a great cheer: you refocus on your surroundings and realise that the woodpile on which you are standing has been lit. It will only be a matter of time now before you feel its heat. You remember well the feeling of heat upon your legs and arms. How it scorched, how you could smell the burning; it was like sulphur. You could smell the acrid stench of your skin as it was blackened by flame. You could feel the agonising heat, as though you had stepped into a boiling bathtub, only much worse because you couldn’t free yourself. You could hear the sizzle, as your skin seemed to melt before your eyes. You still have the scars and near healed marks from the last time. But, you know this time will be worse. You know it will last longer. You know it will bring the end.

Finally, as promised, the flames begin to lick your bare feet. At first you can only feel the heat, and then slowly, it intensifies, as if it is trying to pull your skin off you. You bite down on your lip harder, holding back the cry of agony. You can hear the crowd cheering again; you need not wonder why. Slowly, you can feel the fire burning into your skin. Memories begin flooding your mind, memories of grief and pain. As the flame crawls up your body, slowly but devastatingly, you let go. You relax and ready yourself for the inevitable. You, again, think back through your life and your short twelve years of it. You look towards the heavens and smile, thinking of your mother and father, brothers and sisters, and prepare yourself to meet them again. Before the flames can do much damage, you let Death take you in his arms, the weariness of your long ordeal finally taking its toll on your tiny body.

The crowd sneers in disappointment, as the others faint from exhaustion as well. But, as the sun finally sets, you do not hear them. By now, you are safe in the arms of your family. You are happy for the first time in many months.

Elizabeth Stevens © 2004

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