by Michael Dority
|[King’s Bench Prison, London—circa 1830]|
Let’s face it: we’re all worm food in the making. It’s more than literal. 99% of the population has no artifacts left of their lives after a scant fifty years of their death. The remaining 1%? They’ve carved out a historical legacy that can survive for decades, centuries, or even millennia. But that’s a caricature, a ghost in rough outline of who they were. Their genius, regardless of their endeavours, eclipsing personality, identity, lineage. In the end, it’s their inspired works that survive, not them.
Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Ecclesiastes and all that. Solomon coming to terms with his limited existence.
Then there’s me? I’m roughly fifteen centuries old, give or take. Remember the sacking of Rome in 410 A.D. by the Goths followed by the Vandals in 455 A.D.? The beginning of the leap year? And Arthur’s victory over the Saxons? Historians would love to interview me. I heard the tales straight from the elders’ lips. Those that survived the fall.
Who else can claim it? No one.
I watched the “Highlander” movies and tv series, too. Nobody comes chasing after me with swords looking to lop my head off. I survive as a person, but not because of anything I’ve said or done.
Not at all. After all this time, I’m completely ordinary. Except that I’m still alive.
I’m in Socrates’ dark cave watching shadows on the wall. What’s my purpose? Why have I been singled out for this torment?
Everyone I know dies, and dies, and dies again with each succeeding generation. All of them succumb to the Reaper.
Except me. So, I live in constant anguish.
Someone, tell me why or kill me.
Chapter 1—The Old Sadist
When you’ve gathered all the experiences contained in a 1,500-year life, not much surprises you. But it wasn’t always that way.
The Byzantine Empire was an interesting period in history. The moneylenders and moneychangers, who had always been unpopular, earned the total contempt of the populace. When they were already forbidden to hold public office, the empress Sophia in 567 A.D. summoned the moneylenders to Court and confiscated all agreements to, and pledges of, debt—a move that was roundly applauded by the masses.
The Old Sadist, formerly a practitioner of the aforementioned vocation, was out of work. Fortunately, he had other talents from which to eke a living.
Slavery wasn’t common, but lawful in that region until the beginning of the 7th Century.
Prostitution is still legal in many parts of Europe. Their reputation, however, was seldom favourable. They were part of the great underclass, the dregs of society.
Suffice it to say that a slave is also a sex slave, if anyone wants a piece.
The Old Sadist needed a new source of income; he also required obedient slaves to sell on the auction block in the market square. Young, healthy specimens garnered the best profits. Especially if they were pretty girls who knew how to arouse the prurient interests of a man or woman in bed.
I was one of his former debtors, and sometimes ran errands for him to winnow at the balance I owed him. One day, I saw him about to auction off a new crop of slaves.
“A hearty group you’ve got there,” I remarked. “They should fetch a handy profit.”
“Likely so,” he replied. “But it’s not all peaches and cream, this business. You’ve got to feed, clothe and house them. They’re not ready for the block ’till they’re housetrained. I sell mostly to heads of households.”
He winked and said, “There’s not much profit to be had if you don’t pare your expenses.”
A few days later, he beckoned me to his hovel in the woods. I still ran occasional errands for him, but was now paid in cash for my efforts.
His home consisted of three inner rooms: a small bedroom opening up on a kitchen and dining area, and a door presumably leading back to another compartment.
He led me to a chair at the table and said, “I have a business proposition for you.
“It’s similar,” he said, “to the errands you run for me.
“Yes,” he repeated with his chin in his hands, “like an errand.”
“How is it different from one?” I inquired.
“I need you to bring me people,” he flatly intoned.
“People?” I mused. “You live in a forest and I on the outskirts of Constantinople. I’ll need horses for transportation. One for me and another for each of your guests.”
“I will provide the transportation you need,” he agreed. “Deliveries will be made here roughly every two or three days, one woman at a time.”
I shook my head. “How do you expect to make a profit here with the brothels and bath houses still operating in the city?”
“I’m not running a brothel,” he said. “I’m breaking in houseslaves.”
“Why don’t you bring them home on foot after you barter for them at the marketplace?” I asked, confused. “Isn’t that the custom with smaller lots?”
“It is,” he responded. “But I don’t get my women from trade ships. I told you, I can only make a profit if I contain my costs. Other traders think I do, because it’s what they do. But I don’t.”
“Then, where do you get them?” Rephrasing, I said, “Where do you expect me to get them?”
The Old Sadist shrugged and retorted, “From the brothels and streets of the city, of course.”
Startled, I declared, “You expect them to be sold into slavery by their own choosing?”
“Certainly not,” he chortled. “That’s why you’ll need rope to bind the harlots, and a horse cart to deliver them.”
Aghast, I cried, “That’s not legal. I’ll be arrested!”
He shook his head. “You won’t be accosted by the authorities. The welfare and whereabouts of these whores are of no concern to them.”
Sitting back in his chair, he continued. “Listen carefully. You will roam the seedier parts of the city after dark, searching for prostitutes. Make sure they are young, in good condition and lusty. Do you understand?”
“I’m afraid so,” I said, “Go on.”
“At the opportune time you will subdue them, tie them up in ropes and bring them to me in the cart. I crafted it myself; it will serve its purpose well. I’ll equip it with two horses for greater speed.
“Your risk of arrest is small, and your chances of being detected even smaller. I myself, however, can’t risk it anymore. It would mean the end of my slave trade in Constantinople.
“I will pay you well for your trouble.”
He named his price and I was tempted. I could buy a good plate of meat, fresh bread, gravy and plenty of strong mead for that price.
At length, God help me, I decided to take him up on his offer.
Prowling the alleyways of the city, I captured a young woman emerging from a brothel for an evening stroll. I bound and gagged her, and threw her in the cart.
Upon returning to the Old Sadist’s cabin, I carried my prize into the living area and deposited her writhing form onto a wicker chair.
“I trust you had no difficulties with the abduction,” the Old Sadist inquired.
“She struggled a bit at first, but the job was clean,” I replied.
He bent over the woman and grabbed her roughly by the chin. “Let’s have a look.
“Comely enough,” he appraised, prying her mouth open. “And good teeth. That’s important.
“Let’s commence her training immediately,” he said.
The Old Sadist snatched her out of the chair and carried her like a piece of firewood to the door across the dining area I’d noticed during my last visit.
He took out a key, unlocked the door and we entered. It was very dark.
In the dimness of the compartment, the Old Sadist found and lit a wall torch.
We stood in a torture chamber.
A rack and stocks stood side by side. Ropes and chains littered the floor. The thickest chain was bolted to the ceiling. A small iron cage hung suspended from it at eye level.
Some of this equipment predated me; It has been used on me, and I had used it on others. I knew what it could do.
“What kind of ‘training’ is this?” I cried, pointing to the rack.
The Old Sadist rolled his eyes. “In addition to good manners,” he said, “houseslaves must be docile and compliant. It’s obedience training.”
“B-but,” I stammered, “These devices will break her. Or worse!” I was struck by the maliciousness of his plan.
The Old Sadist unceremoniously dropped his captive on the rack.
“They will not break her,” he countered. “I am skilled at causing no serious damage to my merchandise. I can’t sell damaged goods. She will be trained for the purpose she is intended.
“Besides,” he sneered, “she’s nothing more than a gutter wench. Now help me secure her to the rack.”
I was shaking with indignation. “I will NOT! How do you know what purpose she’s intended for? How can you countenance such cruelty?”
“I don’t just get a profit out of it, you know,” he hissed.
“What else could you possibly get out of it?”
He craned his neck back and breathed a long sigh, as if in ecstasy.
Leering at me from sunken eye sockets he answered, “Satisfaction.”
I was raised a Christian, and could not allow such an abomination to live under God’s sky.
I always carried a weapon. Before he knew what was happening, I pulled a dagger from my frock and thrust it in his belly.
Then I twisted the blade.
The young prostitute still lay on the rack, terror in her eyes.
Reaching down, I cut the ropes I’d bound her with—God be merciful!—before I delivered her unto this monster. She tore off the gag and ran screaming into the woods.
I had to flee again.
It’s necessary to move every few years anyway, since I don’t age anymore.
If I like a place, I can always go back after fifty years or so. At first, I took the added precaution of changing my name. Eventually, I realized it wasn’t important.
Chapter 2—Work Like the Dickens
In industrial London, human life wasn’t worth much more than it had been in Medieval times. Charles Dickens wrote vociferously concerning the plight of the labourer, the poor and the disabled. Still, few cared or had time to.
Nearly a hundred years before Dickens’ birth, the “Workhouse Test Act” established the mechanism for the rapid expansion of parochial institutions. The earliest foundations were in the East End; Limehouse and Whitechapel established houses in 1724.
About four decades before Dickens’ death in 1870, slavery was abolished in the British Empire. In part, this was due to his adamant and vocal opposition to the practice.
The only difference between these institutions was that debtor’s prison inmates were paid a paltry sum for their labour. Theoretically, the wages went toward their accumulated debts. In practice, tenants were often charged room and board, and seldom departed in a vertical position. Naturally, the poor residents were blamed. After all, weren’t they lazy and shiftless by nature?
I was such a ne’er-do-well from 1827 to 1838, when I was incarcerated in King’s Bench Prison. Living conditions hadn’t improved there since the last century I’d lived in the city. Sentenced by the court for delinquent debts, I lived in squalor and deprivation with hundreds of other wretched souls, one of whom was a woman of twenty-two named Tilly Brach.
Tilly was good-natured and attractive, but it was her sharp intellect that arrested my attention. She was self-taught, but highly educated. There were a few books in circulation at Whitechapel, and she’d read them all repeatedly. Because of her scholastic aptitude, she was permitted to attend day school, but was also forced to work at night. I considered myself somewhat of a writer then, but she was better at it than I was (1,300 years old at the time).
One day I noticed her trudging up the stairs of the North building, exhausted from the day’s activities. I offered to carry her books for her; curt but friendly introductions followed.
Her free time was extremely limited, but we eventually spent almost all of it together. Meals, short walks in the prison’s courtyard and, of course, communion. Within a few short months, we fell in love.
The parish did not allow fraternization, or even marriage between inmates. We determined to escape. And on October 28th, 1838, under cover of the night and with only the clothes on our backs, we succeeded in our attempt to break out.
We stowed away under the tarpaulin of a fishing boat and crossed the English Channel, then travelled on foot to Hazebrouck, France, nearly freezing to death in the process. We were married in St. Eloi’s church, and temporarily relied on the clergy’s charity by working for room and board. Within a few days we converted from the Anglican faith to Catholicism. I secured work as a clerk at the local newspaper and she was retained as a schoolmarm’s assistant at the parish.
We spent the next year living in a cottage on the edge of town. Hazebrouck was then a small market town with a population of less than 8,000. This was before it became an important stop for the French railway systems.
We browsed the market shops, scoured the beautiful French countryside and made love when and where we could.
Then in 1840, Tilly got pregnant. I built a cradle for the baby out of excess wood from the parish, which also supplied us with enough second-hand clothing to keep the infant warm in the winter months and cool in the summer.
We decided to name the child Charles (we were sure it was a boy) after my favourite living author… and we waited.
On November 2nd, 1840, Tilly went into labour and I sent for the midwife. That evening, Tilly miscarried. Little Charles was buried in St. Eloi’s cemetery the next day.
Tilly went hysterical, then turned sullen. Three weeks later, I found her hanging from a rafter over our bed. She must have stood on the bed, tightened the noose and jumped.
There was no suicide note.
Only the deafening silence of the cabin.
It wasn’t the death of my son that devastated me. My children don’t live forever; they all die before me. It’s a terrible burden to carry. But this was worse. This poor child, my baby, didn’t even make it out of the womb. I promised myself never to have more children.
Many years later, I was to break that vow. In a sense, I’d also come to regret it, given my choice in marital partners.
In hindsight, I was partly to blame for Tilly’s death. I’d fallen into a deep depression due to Charles’ death, and was of little solace to my dear wife in her misery and grief. That stain doesn’t wash out with time.
After the funeral, I immigrated to the United States…
Chapter 3—Christmas Lamentations
By 529 A.D., after Christianity had become the official state religion of the Roman Empire, Emperor Justinian made Christmas a civic holiday.
Now, 1,500 agonizing years later, it was December 25th, 2014.
I stood outside my office the day after Christmas, flicking the ashes off my cigarette and ruminating over the holiday and the influence it’s had on my life.
I realized that, in some ways, Christmas was the same it has always been since I was a boy. On the surface lay the exhilaration of the holiday season in general: memorable visits from and to loved ones, wonderful home cooked meals and plenty of lively conversation. Concealed just beneath the surface were a variety of mixed emotions.
Despite my age and having been raised in a religious home, I knew I hadn’t been immune to the commercial aspect of the occasion from the onset.
But gradually, as is often the case with family men, the gifts I gave and received became disassociated with any enjoyment I might derive from Christmas. My days of sleeping uneasily on Christmas Eve anticipating the brief flurry of commercial self-indulgence early the next morning, after which immediately followed a stifling sense of malaise, were behind me. Eventually, I required only two ingredients to make the experience a satisfying one: Getting into the spirit of things and dispensing with the chore of buying and wrapping gifts as quickly as possible.
Nonetheless, it was a hit-and-miss arrangement. Each year, I struggled to extricate myself from the anxiety that invariably jaded the holidays for me. Work related concerns, relationship issues and the unceasing logistics of everyday living always seemed to intrude on the peace and joy the season offered. Even when I was able to suppress my worries by temporarily submerging them, they weren’t necessarily displaced by warmer, more agreeable sentiments. Just as often, a void appeared in my life and a foreboding chasm opened up under it into which all feeling quickly drained.
This year, I’d been lucky. I’d spent the holiday with my pre-teen daughter who still believed in Santa Claus, and had responded to the child with an empathy that greatly encouraged her and, in turn, thoroughly delighted me. Yet, the experience was not an altogether pleasing one…
(Last year, I hadn’t been so fortunate. On Christmas Eve, I’d returned home early for the holiday. I could hear the familiar slap-slap-slap of coitus before I reached the bedroom door. It was wide open. There she lay with a total stranger, engaged in vigorous sex. She looked up at me and said, “Here for a few pointers?” Then they both laughed.
I thought to kill them, but no. The last thing I needed was more blood on my hands.
So I turned around, collected my daughter and left. I never went back, nor did the shrew bother to apply for custody of our child. She moved out of state and we haven’t seen or heard from her since.)
…Christmas, I pondered, comes at the same time every year without regard for the adversities of life. It doesn’t stop in the face of personal tragedy or disappointment to allow us to gather our wits. Often, events are flung at us faster than we can respond to them and feelings visit us for no apparent reason—even when the unexpected reversals are taken into consideration.
I ruminated over two of my closest friends, neither of whom had had a merry Christmas. One, my daughter’s babysitter since her infancy, had recently lost her husband of thirty years. It was her first Christmas without him and she was terribly lonely. I resolved to visit her again that evening. The brief company seemed to lift her spirits.
My other friend was slowly destroying himself with alcohol abuse. In his dissipation, his health had gradually deteriorated to such an extent he could only work at odd jobs. He had been waiting several months for the Social Security Administration to approve his application for disability. In the interim, the mortgage company began foreclosure proceedings on his house.
I rubbed my chin and shook my head. I knew life wasn’t fair. I’d outgrown that childish notion centuries ago. It was the law of unintended consequences that perplexed me. Every human interchange, I mused, has mixed and uncertain results. In our limited capacity to understand, we are compelled to make choices whose outcomes are unknown to us. But choose we must, if we wish to live.
…And in the choosing, in the living, we unwittingly inflict pain on others. How many times, I thought, had I inadvertently hurt or slighted someone? Even a person of the most amiable nature can’t unerringly predict whose sensibilities he or she might offend. Moreover, it seemed to me it was my own friends and family (those I loved the most) who suffered the most. I did not exclude myself; I knew all too well the similar injuries others had inflicted on me. This saddened me.
Invariably, I concluded, we hurt the people we love, the same poor souls who cherish us in return. I could not say whether this was reciprocation or recrimination. There was an inherent baseness in it that appalled me, and I could not understand why such a thing should be.
But there were many questions I couldn’t answer, and still more with each passing day. I sighed, ground my cigarette butt under my heel and returned to my labours. There was a certain comfort and solace in work. At least there was the illusion of passing the time industriously, of performing a service of alleged value to society. Although, if pressed, I couldn’t have identified precisely who or what was better off on account of it. If it was all a high-minded delusion, a product of 21st century megalomania, it was still a very predictable one. Predictability, after all, has its advantages.
Ultimately, I’m the quintessential coward. The horror of living isn’t as dreadful as the fear of death. It’s not dying that terrifies me; that’s only the last stage of life. But as Hamlet explained in his soliloquy, what comes after?
Is it nothing? Of that I could bear foreknowledge. My life is like a shallow sea: vast but without depth. What does it mean?
Is the afterlife a paradise? Isn’t this our fondest hope? But is it fiction? A mere daydream without form or substance?
Ah, but what keeps Shakespeare, Hamlet and I up nights is the last and final possibility. Could eternal torment await us? I don’t mean in a retributive sense as Shakespeare did. But what if the afterworld is an indifferent underworld even more treacherous and visceral than earthly existence?
Aye, there’s the rub.
As bad as life’s been for me, it could be worse.
Even so, I can’t stand it anymore. I want to die. To exercise the only option I have left. To end this meaningless farce even if it’s to endure an even worse fate in the hereafter.
Won’t someone kill me? A person doesn’t live this long without accumulating property and assets. I’ll pay you handsomely. Consider it a favour. Come unexpectedly, in the middle of the night.
Make it quick.
I’ll be waiting.