Today’s Nightmare Fuel prompt turned into something a little different. It’s not as suspenseful or scary as some of the others, but has more of a serious feel, I think. The first line came to me and wouldn’t leave me alone, so even if it seemed a little strange, I had to go with it.
Think happy thoughts. Imagine rainbows. Intend kindness.
These were the messages scrawled in the wood of our crowded bunkhouses, behind the wood where only a prisoner might see. I had no idea what they meant at first. Who in their right mind could follow such instructions in such a dreadful place?
There was no end to the horrors enacted upon us in that place. There was no end to the pain, the hunger, the brutality. At first, my thoughts were focused on hate. The guards stood over us on a kind of deck that overlooked the yard. Strange devices like small tubas sprouted from their heads. As they watched us, I thought how angry I was. I wanted to be up there instead, watching those men squirm in wretched, muddy nakedness below me.
The men smiled as I imagined their torment.
I was the last one delivered to the camp. When I arrived, I wondered if the other prisoners still had tongues or if they’d been cut out at some point. No one spoke. Every so often, someone would hum a quiet melody, but otherwise, they made no sound. It seemed to be a kind of tacit agreement between everyone imprisoned there. I wondered if it was because of the devices on the guard’s ears.
On my first night, one of the men pointed out the scrawled notes behind the bunk. He placed his finger there and looked at me, commanding me to read.
Think happy thoughts.
It boiled my blood, it really did. That type of wishful thinking was just the opposite of what the men needed. They needed to understand the reality of the situation. They needed to find a way to escape, find a way to win, find a way to fight back.
I imagined escape routes. No one spoke to me, so I planned them out for myself. There was a loose piece of chicken wire in one corner of the fence. I thought about digging under it during the middle of the night and running for my life. I told no one, just planned in my mind how I would get myself out. The next day, the wire was repaired, replaced with a row of fencing dug deep into the hard earth. I know how hard the earth was, because I was the one forced to dig the trenches. The other men, too, had to help build the new fence. No one spoke. They just hummed quietly to themselves and did the work. I daresay they seemed cheerful. The guards watched us and scowled.
In bed that night, one of the men came over and pointed at the scrawled letters in the wood again. There was meaning in his gesture. These are the rules, he seemed to be saying. Follow them. Obey them.
What a ludicrous phrase to write in that dull, grey place. Nothing had color anymore. We were caked with grey mud, our eyes gone black with hunger and grief for the ones we lost before. Even the wood that built the bunks was faded grey with age and sadness. I tried to remember what color looked like, but it was too easy to listen to the lulling sounds of the rain dripping through the roof and onto the floor. Drip. Drop. There were no rainbows here.
The guards made us dig a grave the next day for one of the men who had died in the night. The rain made the ground slippery, and filled the hole as quickly as we could dig. I looked at the guards, smiling down on us with their grim satisfaction. They enjoyed our misery. I hated them. I imagined burying one of them in our water-logged hole. One of the guards looked right at me and grinned maliciously. That look made me shiver even more than the cold rain.
One of the men started to hum. It was a pleasant tune, one I remembered from before. Before the war, before this camp, before the guards. I was instantly transported to another time, to a place where there was color and warmth. I looked at the humming man in my astonishment, and the man smiled at me. It was more than a smile, more than a baring of teeth. It was more of an embrace of souls across that rainy, muddy hole. I glanced up at the guards again and saw them staring on in disgust. I smiled back at the humming man, and watched as the guards turned away.
The humming man had done me a great service; he had scoured clean a memory. As I stood in muddy water up to my knees and shoveled heavy dirt until my arms ached, I mulled over that memory in my mind. Soon, I was there, in that dance hall, dancing with the girl who would become my wife. I could see the bright blue of her dress, the red reflected in her dark hair under the lights. I heard music that made me want to move. Before I knew it, the job was done. I had escaped, at least for a moment. It was brilliant really.
As I went to bed that night, the humming man came with a determined look, and pointed at the scrawled words.
“I get it,” I said aloud. “I understand.” My voice sounded loud and alien in the sanctuary of the bunkhouse.
The humming man shook his head and stabbed his finger at the third phrase.
What was I missing? I had escaped today. The happy thoughts, the rainbows. I got it. I understood. What more could be gained by this final commandment? Besides, I had always heard that the road to hell was paved with good intentions. We should take action.
I woke to the sounds of struggle. No words were spoken, only grunts and cries and the horrible hollow thud of boots against flesh. I rose from my bunk and dashed out into the yard to see what the commotion was. The guards were on a rampage. They had come down from their tower and were in the yard, brandishing long pieces of metal as weapons and using them against a pair of men crouching on the ground.
I ran out to the yard. The guards stopped and looked at me, ready for my attack. They had some sort of energy about them, as though they were excited I had come. Sick, that’s what they were. They were sick monsters. They grinned as they turned their weapons on me.
Think happy thoughts. Imagine rainbows. I went back to the memory of that dance, the memory of that song. I tried to hum a little. Still, the beating continued, and not even the memory could take away the pain.
Intend kindness, I thought. How could I intend it when I was being beaten bloody, when my body screamed out against it? I tried to concentrate. I thought kindly of the humming man, who had given me the song to help me escape. But it wasn’t enough. It wasn’t enough to think of it, I knew. I had to intend it.
I thought of the monsters above me, in their murderous rage. I could tell they didn’t want to kill me. They only wanted to hurt me. I looked up at them, and wondered where they had come from. What a wretched job this must be for them, to watch us grow thin every day, to eat the same tasteless gruel, to order us to build fences and dig graves, to watch us in our silence day after day. What had happened for them to deserve this job? Did they have wives, children, families somewhere waiting for them? Or were they prisoners like us, prisoners of the system of war? As I considered the guards, they stopped and stood very still, their horn-like machines sticking out from their heads like mouse ears. How uncomfortable they looked, in their stiff uniforms. The more I thought about it, the more I came to pity them.
The other prisoners began to gather around, and I stood. The guards watched us warily, backing away. I felt sad for them, these lonely, angry young men who had nothing but their fists. Did they even have happy memories to look back on? I imagined them at that dance, the music playing, the guards in comfortable civilian clothes, smiling into the faces of some lovely young women. We could have been friends once, in another life.
The guards stared at me, horrified. Were they understanding this? Is that what the devices were for? Could they read my mind?
If I had food, I would give it to you right now, I thought as loudly as I could.
One of the guards put his hands up to the device on his head. I looked at the men gathered around me. I could tell by their faces that they had similar thoughts to my own. We would feed you. We would clothe you. We would take care of you and teach you our songs. You wouldn’t have to be afraid anymore. You wouldn’t have to be angry anymore. Some of the prisoners held their hands out to the guards in a gesture of offering.
The guard with his hands near his head suddenly started shrieking. With a great heave, he pried the machine from his head. Blood poured from the place where his ears should be, and he ran screaming from the yard.
The other guard knelt in the mud, tears filling his grey eyes. I dropped to my knees beside him and wrapped an arm around him. The other prisoners followed suit, until we were a single mass of intertwined humans in that dirty yard.
All of us escaped that day. We took the guard with us, and after having his mind-reading device surgically removed, we hid him in our basement until the end of the war.
Thanks for reading. I’d love to know what you think if you feel inclined to comment. 🙂