The year 375, the third month. (The year 1886 Fallow by the Old Calendar.)
"My cell door swings out. Some one stands there – I do not know who – I do not care. Listlessly, like one in a dream, I pick up my cap and coat; and silently, wearily, move out and toward the bench where I changed my clothes last night. Last night! – a thousand years ago."
—Thomas Mott Osborne: Within Prison Walls (1914).
Images came, like flickers of a candle: Dark stones. Dark metal. Faint fire. A spoon in his hand, as someone urged him to eat. A stinking pit that he knew he was duty-bound to fill. A loom nearby that he vaguely remembered he had once known how to work, but which now stood as silent as the rest of his world.
There were breaks in the silence sometimes. Voices: bored, anxious, amused, darkly amused. The last one made him shrink into himself, made him seek a place to go where he might never hear words again.
He had been good. He hadn't spoken. Why wouldn't they let him go?
They wouldn't. One voice kept speaking to him over and over: the voice that helped him hold the spoon, the voice that sat beside him sometimes for hours on end, talking to him. He wished he could figure out a way to escape the voice. He was terribly afraid that, one day, he would speak back.
Silence, and time passing. He felt the season change: from the sweltering heat of summer to the killing chill of winter. His body survived somehow. That was another thing he regretted, though he had forgotten why.
And so it went, and it went, and it might have gone forever. But one day the new man arrived.
Silence was broken, not slowly, as though he awoke gradually from a dream, but with an abrupt shatter that left him gasping, as though he had surfaced from a dark pool and had been thrust suddenly into air and light.
"It's my cell, you idiots! Mine! Get out of my cell before I throttle you!"
There was more, profanity so powerful that it was like hard waves breaking against his body. His mind automatically shielded him from that by erasing the obscenities. But he could not erase the fact that the silence had been broken; the words were too loud.
"I don't care if I'm your prisoner! Get your disgusting carcasses out of this cell, and stay out!"
The images were starting to solidify. Dark stones were the walls of his own cell. Dark metal was the vertical barring across the doorway. Faint fire was a great open flame in the middle of the circle, upon whose rim was placed the cells. Thirty cells, all filled with silent men. Except one.
His heart was pounding now. Pain was coming. Pain and fear. He thought the pain would be for someone other than himself, but how could he be sure? He cautiously turned his head to see.
There was a man standing in front of the barred door. A man with a dark blue uniform and a dark blue cap. A guard. That was what the man was: a guard for the prisoners. He was turned half away, staring at a cell nearby. So was a younger guard near him.
The younger guard finally spoke. "May the goddess Mercy preserve us," he said. "What's going on in there?"
There was a screech as the barred door of another cell opened. A bearded man emerged. He was dabbing at the side of his mouth with a white handkerchief. The handkerchief was turning red.
"Sweet blood!" It was the first guard he had seen, and hearing the man speak, he knew something: this was his guard. This was the guard who had spoken to him over and over, who had held his spoon, who had tried to make him speak.
He shrank into himself again. He might have succeeded in fleeing back into the silence within, but at that moment, a bellow rent the prison: "Don't you come near me!"
"What in the name of all that is sacred is going on in there?" murmured his guard.
The bearded guard shrugged. "I guess the new man doesn't like guards. All I did was give Sedge some drink and smokes for his birthday, and the new man tried to kill us both with his bare hands. Don't worry, Milton," he added as the younger guard made a faltering movement toward the cell from which the sounds were emerging. "Sedgewick is taking care of him."
The name made him shrink into a ball. He whimpered. His guard turned toward his cell. "What's wrong?" he asked. Then, to the bearded guard: "Rufus, this is upsetting my prisoner. Can't Sedgewick take that new man downstairs before he punishes him?"
Rufus's reply was cut off by another bellow. This time, all the guards jerked round.
"Sweet blood," said Rufus. "That was Sedgewick."
A face appeared at the barred cell door from which the bellows had come. A strong face, an angry face. It had claw marks all down its cheek.
The face said, "Get in here, Rufus. I need help."
"Help?" Rufus stared. "Sedge, you never need help when punishing a prisoner!"
"Shut your mouth and get in here. And close the inner door once you're in." The face – no, the guard named Sedgewick – turned back, just in time to meet a ferocious attack from something wearing grey clothing. A moment later, both men were rolling on the floor as high-pitched snarls emerged from the man wearing grey. They disappeared out of view.
Rufus hastily threw aside his handkerchief and unlocked the barred door again. The moment he had relocked the barred door, he slammed shut an inner door made of black metal. Then there was a confusion of shouts, mingled with cold, steady instructions. "There – hold him there." "Stop wriggling, damn you!" "Your dagger – don't let him reach it." "I want you out of my cell now!"
The two guards who had been left behind exchanged looks. Then his own guard glanced in at him. He remained very still, staring at the grey cloth covering his lap, hoping he would be left alone.
His guard sighed and turned away. "I'm going down to the guardroom."
"But we're on duty now," countered Milton. "We come on duty when Sedgewick and Rufus come off patrol, and I think—" He stared at the cell with the solid door, from which shouts continued to emerge. "I think they're rather busy."
"I know." His guard took one last look at him, but he had already lain down and was pretending to sleep, with his eyes slitted to watch. "I know, and I'm not going to stay around for when Sedgewick reaches the point of punishing the new man. I've overheard enough of his punishments to last me a lifetime. My prisoner" – he pointed – "wouldn't be as bad off as he is if Sedgewick hadn't taken it into his head that my prisoner talking in his troubled sleep was a violation of prison regulations. Do you know how long and hard I'd worked to bring my prisoner back to himself? And Sedgewick destroyed all my work in a single night."
Milton scratched under his left ear, looking worried. "It's a muddled area. Do we punish them when they talk in their sleep? Or when they curse if they drop a work-tool on their foot? If we don't, won't they take advantage of us and deliberately break the silence?"
His guard said nothing for a moment, standing at the barred door and staring down at the apparently sleeping man. Then he murmured, "Oh, I hope so. I pray to Mercy every day that my prisoner will break his silence."
Then he turned away abruptly. "I'll leave the guardroom door open. Shout if you need me."
Images were becoming more solid now, like figures emerging from a black mist. He was lying on stone – on a stone shelf that jutted out from the wall. It had thin blankets on it. This was where he slept. Nearby was the stinking cesspit. At the far end of the cell was a trickle of water, running down the wall. He had lapped at that water with his tongue. It was the only water he received. There had been plans, long ago, to install water-pumps in each cell, plans that had never come to fruit—
Long ago? How long ago?
He rose slowly, feeling his disused muscles ache. He was emerging from a dream. He knew that now, but he wasn't sure why he had fled into his dream. There had been pain, and there had been fear.
Pain. Fear. Screaming.
He reached the bars of his cell and pressed his face against them. Milton remained nearby, but he was turned away, poking listlessly with an iron at the central fire. Faces pressed against the bars of other cells now: faces bewildered or angry or giggling uncontrollably. Men caught in dreams. Men caught further into their dreams than he was.
But he had one thing left in common with them: everyone was looking at the cell with the solid door shut, from which shouts and steady instructions still streamed.
"I said, Hold him." "He slipped away! Why don't you use your whip?" "I did. He— Aaugh!" "Get your filthy hands off me! I'll kill you if you touch me again!" "Aau— Aau—" "Let go of him! Let go of him, or I'll use my dagger!"
Some of the prisoners began to retreat to the back of their cells, made uneasy by this breaking of the silence. He ought to as well. A prisoner was speaking. A prisoner was shouting. No good could come of this. Nothing could come of this but pain and fear and screaming.
Tears were running down his face now. He gripped the bars hard, trying to figure out what to do. He had emerged from a dream, only to find himself trapped in a nightmare. How could he make it stop?
The solid door opened suddenly. The guard named Sedgewick stood there, breathing heavily. His hair was dishevelled; his jacket was torn; his neck was turning purple. "Get chains," he snapped at Milton.
"Chains?" Turning, Milton gaped at him.
"Chains. From the showers. The manacles on chains that we use when we give the prisoners the cold-water punishment."
"The chains are bolted to the shower walls," Milton protested. "They're attached high up on the walls, above the prisoners' heads."
"Pliers. Stepladder. Be quick about it."
"Sedgewick, it sounds as though you're killing your prisoner. If you kill him, our Keeper will be angry—"
"Go." As the shouts inside the cell reached a new high pitch, Sedgewick slammed the door shut.
Milton looked around the level uncertainly. But in all the cells he glanced at, none of the prisoners were moving. Swallowing hard, Milton retreated to the stairwell.
The shouts from the battle-torn cell were so loud now that he covered his ears. He could still hear the bellow of the prisoner, who sounded like a bull let loose in a ring. "I am going to maul you so badly that you'll never be reborn!" the prisoner was shouting. "Just watch me!"
There was a loud crack. Identifying the sound, he flinched back, as though the whip had landed on him. The only response from the prisoner was another bellow, this time of profanity.
He bit his lip. He had no doubt as to the outcome of this struggle. The prisoner could not hold out against two guards armed with whips and daggers. It was a miracle he had done so already. How long would this last?
How long had it lasted? He glanced briefly over his shoulder at his cell, but it looked just the same as it had the last time he had seen it – had truly seen it.
Only the loom was gone. How had they taken the loom away without waking him from his dream? And how long ago had they done this?
He felt the bars under his hands. Bars. There had been no bars when he last saw this cell – only a solid door. The solid door was still there, but it was an inner door now, open. There were two doors to his cell now, one solid, one barred. The barred one must have been added.
How could they have added a barred door without him noticing it?
Sweat was trickling down his back now. He tried to read the time passed from the amount of ashes next to the fire. But for all he knew, the ashes might have been scooped out a dozen times or more. A whole month might have passed. Or two months?
He put his hand upon his cheek, trying to wipe away the tears that continued to stream there—
And froze. Were those wrinkles he felt next to his eyes?
He was twenty-one years old. How could he have wrinkles?
"K— K— K—" He heard his voice, faint under the shouting. He didn't know what he was trying to say. Whatever it was, it was important.
There came the sound of a step. He turned his head eagerly. But it was simply Milton returning, panting as he raced onto the level. "Sedgewick!" he shouted as he came. "I've got the chains!"
The solid door opened again. Sedgewick had a bloody welt across his scratched cheek. It looked as though it had been inflicted by a whip.
"Get in here," Sedgewick said in a tight voice.
Milton gaped at him again.
"Get in here," Sedgewick repeated. "Unlock this door and hand me the chains. Give me your keys."
"But—" Milton fumbled with the lock to the barred door. Sedgewick, impatient, took the keys from him, saying over his shoulder, "Keep hold of him."
"He's getting loose!" howled Rufus from somewhere inside the cell.
Moving fast as a striking snake, Sedgewick unlocked and opened the barred door, took the chains from Milton, pulled the shaken young man inside, locked the door, and threw the keys out of the cell. Then he threw out two more sets of keys.
"He has tried to kill us five times for the keys," Sedgewick explained to Milton, who was staring dumbfounded at the keys, now lying out of reach on the ground next to the fire. "Come help us."
"I— I can't—" Milton's protests were overridden as Sedgewick slammed the solid door shut.
One of the few prisoners who was continuing to watch gave a nervous giggle and then began to cry. Screams were emerging now from the cell.
He thought the screams were from Milton, but he couldn't be sure. He gripped the bars of his own cell harder. "K— K— K—"
Another sound of footsteps thundered up nearby steps. Two guards entered the level, followed closely by a third. "What in the name of Mercy is going on here?" asked the first guard to arrive, a man with tightly kinked black hair. He took a quick look around the empty area surrounding the pit. "We heard all that noise, way over on the fifth level – what is it? And where are the guards patrolling this level?"
"Keane is taking a break." The third guard to arrive was leaning over, bracing his hands against his knees as he panted. His hair was so fair as to be almost white, and his skin was as pale as the first guard's was dark. "We heard the screams on the fourth level too, in the guardroom. A few minutes ago, before the screams began, Keane went down to the first level to fetch something from his bedroom. I've left word for him to come up here when he returns." The blond straightened his back finally, standing upright. "Sounds like murder is taking place in that cell. How many guards are in there?"
"The Keeper would have any guard's back to his lash if a guard tried to kill a prisoner." The second guard, a redhead, had knelt down to pick up the keys. "These are guards' keys. Something's wrong here. Shall we notify the Keeper? Or should we just enter the cell?" He shook the keys in his hand.
"Wait!" The black-haired guard held up his hand, silencing the blond guard. All of the guards stood motionless for a moment, listening.
Listening to the silence.
He could feel sobs in his throat, which he dared not voice. Silence. Silence had returned. And he knew which man was paying the penalty now for having broken the silence.
"It's Sedgewick," the redhead said wearily. "That's what I was trying to tell you. Sedgewick has charge of that prisoner."
"May he be damned to Hell's domain." The black-haired guard turned away. "There's nothing we can do for the prisoner, then."
"What did the prisoner do to get Sedgewick angry?" asked the redhead, looking uneasily over at where the silence continued.
"What do you suppose he did? He broke the silence." The blond guard kicked at the ashes on the edge of the fire.
The black-haired guard sighed heavily. "I am weary, to the point of rebirth, of this prison's Silent System. It's supposed to keep the prisoners inwardly focussed, so that they think about their crimes and repent of them. But all that actually happens is that prisoner after prisoner ends up here—" He swept his arms wide open, as though to embrace the cells. "The sixth level. The one level of the prison that no prisoner ever transfers away from."
He felt the words like a blow against the body. The sixth level. The reason he had no loom was that he was no longer on the third level of Mercy Life Prison. He was on the sixth level.
He was in the prison's insane asylum.
"K— K— K—" He felt desperation welling up in him. "K—"
The guards swung around to stare at him. After a moment, the blond guard, blank-faced, said, "He's speaking."
"He's trying to speak." The black-haired guard stared, appearing puzzled too. "What is he trying to say?"
Their reaction reassured him. They weren't angry. They were simply interested. He tried again. "K— K—"
"Keeper?" suggested the redhead, his brow puckered. "Does he want to speak to the Keeper?"
"Something that begins with K," murmured the blond guard; then his head jerked up. "Kill! He's trying to tell us that Sedgewick is killing the prisoner!"
"Fetch the Keeper," barked the black-haired guard at the blond guard. Then, as the other man raced off, he added to the redhead, "Are those the cell keys?"
"I'm not going in that cell." The redhead stared with a horrified fascination at the new man's cell. "If Sedgewick is enjoying his first dead body, I am not going anywhere near him."
"How do we know it's his first?" growled the black-haired guard. He took the keys from the blond guard's hand, but he too hesitated. "We'll wait for the Keeper. This is the sort of disaster he's paid to handle."
So they all waited. In the silence.
Mercy's Keeper, when he arrived, was not a fearsome creature. He was a relatively young man with a broad face, red from exertion. He was frowning. He planted himself in front of the cell with the solid door shut and cried out in a high-pitched voice, "Sedgewick! You disturbed my nap!"
There was a long pause. None of the three guards waiting outside seemed surprised by the Keeper's statement; they simply stared at the solid door.
It opened finally. The man opening it was Rufus, who was now jacketless and vestless and dabbing at a bloody wound across his chest. Nearby stood Milton, who appeared unhurt, but who was sobbing.
Between them – dishevelled, bruised, and looking utterly contented – stood Sedgewick.
He had a lit cigar in his right hand. In his left hand was a champagne glass. He paused to drain the contents of the glass, and then, without looking to the side, he handed Milton the glass.
He took a long draw from his cigar. Finally he said, "Sorry about the noise, sir."
"Sedgewick!" Mercy's Keeper shook his fist at the guard. "If you've slain a prisoner, I'll tie you to the whipping ring! You're supposed to keep prisoners alive until their natural deaths, so that their punishments will last longer."
Appearing unconcerned by the reprimand, Sedgewick blew a ring of smoke into the air. "I had a bit of trouble with my prisoner. He won't bother us again." He dropped the cigar to the stone floor of the cell and ground it underfoot. "No corpse, though." Sedgewick sounded regretful.
Mercy's Keeper let out a loud puff of a sigh, and then returned to the more important matter. "You disturbed my nap. I want to talk to you in my office. After I finish my nap," he added. He turned away and walked to the stairway, grumbling, "A fine state of affairs, when a man can't finish his nap."
The other guards made way for him. The black-haired guard was already at the barred door to the new man's cell, unlocking it. The door opened, and Milton stumbled out of the cell, still weeping. Rufus followed, muttering, "See if I respond to your next call for help, Sedge."
Sedgewick paused only to scoop up an empty champagne bottle from the floor and to retrieve his keys from the hand of the black-haired guard. "What a pleasant day this is turning out to be," he remarked to the other three guards, who were staring at him. "Anyone care for a game of dice?"
At that moment, as the three guards averted their gazes from Sedgewick, his own guard returned.
His guard took it all in with a glance: Milton's weeping, Rufus's sour expression, Sedgewick's unremitting cheerfulness . . . and the body in the cell they had departed, lying motionless on the floor, its grey uniform torn, its eyes closed.
Shaking his head and sighing, his guard turned away.
He gripped the bars harder. His guard was headed toward the stairway again. He tried to attract his guard's attention. "K— K—"
Sedgewick's gaze snapped over to him.
For a moment, nothing happened except that Sedgewick scrutinized him with narrowed eyes. Then, slowly, Sedgewick smiled. "Keane," he said, "your prisoner has broken the silence."
He stumbled backwards in his cell, panic fluttering in his chest, a scream beginning to form in his throat. His guard whirled around, took a sweeping look that embraced both his prisoner and the dark amusement on Sedgewick's face, and cried out, "Hell damn you, Sedgewick – stay away from him!"
He was whimpering now, trying to find a corner to hide in. Sedgewick, still smiling, turned away and walked back toward the new man's cell. He paused to break the bottle in his hand; then, holding delicately the jagged remains of the bottle, he entered the new man's cell.
Images were beginning to flicker again. Dark stones. Dark metal. Faint fire. . . .
"It's all right," said his guard, standing in front of the bars. "It's all right. He's not coming into your cell. Nobody's coming into your cell. Did you say something?"
"He said 'Keeper,'" offered the redhead. "He called for Mercy's Keeper before; that's why we fetched the Keeper."
The blond guard shook his head. "He tried to say something that began with K. I still think the word was 'kill.'"
"Kill?" His guard turned back toward his cell. "Kill. Yes. You killed people. Many people. That's why you're imprisoned here for life. I'm sorry." His guard's voice was soft with regret and pity.
He shook his head, frustrated. He knew that what his guard said was wrong, but he wasn't frustrated by his guard's lack of knowledge that he was innocent. The frustration came from his inability to voice the word welling up in him.
"K—" He tried again. "K— K—"
He walked slowly toward the front of the cell, drawn by his guard's stillness. The other three guards instinctively backed up, heading toward the stairway. Milton and Rufus had already left the level; Sedgewick remained in the new man's silent cell.
"What do you want?" his guard asked quietly.
"K— K— Keane." With relief, he heard the word emerge. "Keane."
His guard smiled slowly. It was a different smile than Sedgewick's had been: a smile filled with long patience. "Yes – Keane," he replied. "I'm Keane, your guard. I'm the one who takes care of you."
Tentatively, he put his hand forward, to where Keane was gripping the bars. His hand touched Keane's. His guard's only response was to continue smiling.
He flinched back at the sound of the voice. His guard's smile faded. "I'm busy," he replied, without turning his head.
"I need you here."
Keane sighed, then said softly to his prisoner, "I'll be back. I promise. Don't be frightened." His guard turned, took several steps away, and raised his voice. "This had better be important, Sedgewick."
Sedgewick was standing behind the bars of the new man's cell. The jagged bottle was still in his hand; its edges were glistening with something wet and crimson. "It might be," Sedgewick replied. For the first time, he looked uneasy – or perhaps he was simply annoyed. "I touched the prisoner" – he gestured with the broken bottle – "and he didn't move. He doesn't appear to be breathing. I think— Well, not that I have any experience in such matters, but I think I may have accidentally k—"
There was a roar, like that of a maddened lion attacking its hunter. The bottle shattered to the ground as an arm, grey-sleeved, wrapped itself around Sedgewick's neck. Gasping, Sedgewick staggered backwards, along with the grey-uniformed figure behind him, who was howling with triumph. They disappeared from view, into the back of the cell.
"Oh, blast." Keane turned his head toward his own prisoner. "I'll be back. I promise. Just wait for me. Don't go away again." He began to run toward the new man's cell, shouting for assistance as he did so.
Time passed. Silence was broken nearly every day now, and not only by the new man. The other prisoners in the insane asylum, taking their cue from the new man, began to hold conversations – soft or loud, depending on the prisoner – with themselves, with their guards, with the walls. Insults and quarrels were still met with the lash, but the guards, harassed by this united unwillingness of the prisoners to obey the law of silence, were increasingly inclined to overlook soft, civil conversations.
Most of the lashings took place in the new man's cell. Sedgewick visited there every day now; sometimes he emerged looking victorious, sometimes he emerged looking cross. He always emerged with new bruises. The other guards were beginning to keep a tally of the wins and losses of the matches, which increased Sedgewick's ill humor.
He found himself wondering when it would occur to Sedgewick to take out his ill humor on the rest of the prisoners.
He was the quietest prisoner on the sixth level now, speaking only when asked a question by his guard, and then only in a garbled manner. It still frightened him, to be near guards, with their long whips and their sharp daggers. His guard, though, was his only source of information he desperately needed.
One day, his guard turned up at his cell, holding something flat that was covered with brown paper and string. "May I enter your cell?" Keane asked.
It was the first time Keane had made such a proposal since he awoke. He felt his heart pound. Finally, he said, "G-guard," and pointed at his guard's keys.
"Yes," said Keane quietly. "I'm a guard, which means I can enter your cell." As he spoke, he unlocked the barred door. "I won't do so unless you want me to, though. Will you grant me permission?"
Something touched him lightly then. It was still too early for him to identify what it was. He nodded, and Keane quietly entered the cell. His guard did not bother to relock the door, though he wished his guard would. Sedgewick was still on patrol, his right eye blackened from his latest encounter with the new man, his expression frigid.
"Shall we sit down?" his guard proposed, and so they both sat down on the bed-shelf. He still had dagger-sharp memories of what Sedgewick had done to him on that bed-shelf; he sat as far away as possible from his guard.
If offended by the distancing, his guard did not voice that thought. Keane unwrapped the package and handed it to him. "I thought you might like to have this."
It was a mirror. With his hands shaking now, he looked into the mirror.
A stranger looked back at him. A stranger who looked much like his father, when he had last seen him.
"How l-long?" he asked finally.
"Twenty years." As always, Keane's voice remained quiet. "You were insane for twenty years, since a few months after you arrived at this prison. You're forty-one years old now."
He tried to take it in. His parents would have reached old age. His younger brother, who had been an underage youth at the time of his arrest, would be a man – would perhaps be a grandfather by now.
His body suddenly felt unfamiliar to him, as though he had been reborn and was adjusting to his new life. He touched the wrinkles next to his eyes.
"You're in the prime of life," his guard assured him. "You still have decades to live. Though perhaps," he added with a grimace, "that's not what you want to hear."
He looked down at the mirror. Broken, its edge would be jagged. He could cut his wrists with the mirror.
He handed the mirror back. "Want to l-live," he assured his guard. He was not sure how to voice his motive for living: that he had become strongly interested in the outcome of the battle between Sedgewick and the new man.
"Good." His guard smiled at him. Then, as he chewed on his lip, his guard added, "Is something else wrong?"
It took him a while to explain. Finally his guard grasped the full meaning of his brief, stuttered sentences. "You think the new man might have attacked Sedgewick because he wanted to die? You're worried that you made matters worse for him by calling for help?"
He nodded. His fingers twisted the cloth of his uniform as he awaited judgment.
It took Keane a minute to hand down that judgment. Finally his guard said hesitantly, "I'm not sure what to say. Many prisoners here do goad guards to kill them because they want to be freed from this prison through death. But I know one thing: If that particular prisoner had died, he would have gone at once to the domain of hell's High Master, to be tortured eternally. He's an evil man who hasn't repented of his crime. But thanks to you, he will have the opportunity to do so." His guard smiled again. "Don't ever regret having spoken. Your words saved a man's soul. Your words may save other men, in the future."
He thought about this, his mind travelling into the years ahead as his guard waited, as patiently as always. Then both their faces jerked toward the entrance to the cell. Sedgewick evidently had entered the new man's cell again; an unending stream of profanity was gushing out of the new man's mouth.
"Oh, dear." Keane looked as though he wasn't sure whether to frown or to laugh. "Well, you won't have to put up with that for much longer. For one thing, Sedgewick and his prisoner are both being transferred down to the second level. Mercy's Keeper decided a few days ago that the new man was too violent to be kept in the insane asylum. For another thing . . . I talked to the healer about you."
"H-healer?" He was still absorbing the shock of Keane's news.
"Yes, I wanted him to examine you. He was too busy to do so, but he said that, if you're speaking again and are aware of your surroundings, there's no reason to keep you on the sixth level. I've arranged for you to be transferred back to the third level." His guard patted his shoulder reassuringly.
"Th-third?" His heart was drumming now.
"That's right." Keane continued to smile. "You'll receive many more privileges down there: you'll be able to walk in the prison yard, and you'll be able to work alongside other prisoners. And—"
"Th-third." He was too upset to remember that he mustn't interrupt any guard.
"Yes?" His guard merely looked concerned.
He pointed toward the new man's cell with his shaking hand. "S-second."
"That's right," Keane replied. "You'll no longer be on the same level as Sedgewick."
"S-second!" He tried pointing again, frustrated by his inability to communicate. Another string of profanity emerged from the nearby cell.
"And you won't be around the noisy new man," added Keane, frowning now.
"S-second," he said, reaching over to clutch his guard's jacket. "S-second. M-me. S-second."
"You want to be transferred to the second level?" His guard, placing a hand over his clutching hand, seemed yet more concerned. "No, truly, you don't. The second level is where the most violent prisoners are placed. You won't be able to visit the prison yard. And Sedgewick will be on the second level—"
"S-second!" He tugged at his guard's jacket, like a child tugging at his mother's skirt. "S-second. P-please. N-new man." He pointed again. "T-talks. T-talks. T-talks."
"Oh." A quirk of a smile travelled onto Keane's face as his guard eased away his hand from the jacket. "Yes. He does talk a lot, doesn't he? And shouts and bellows and nearly brings the roof down. You like listening to that?"
He liked knowing that, if he fell silent again, there would be one man – one man in this entire prison – who could bring him back to himself. He nodded.
Keane sighed, running a hand under his cap and scratching his head. "Very well. I'll see what I can do. But whatever happens, I'll make sure that you receive a decent guard to look after you. Not Sedgewick." His voice turned flat.
It was the one thing he had not thought of when he made his request. His chest felt suddenly hollow. "Y-you?" he asked forlornly.
"No," Keane said softly. "Not me, not even if you stayed on the sixth level. I'm sorry, but I've been planning to move west for many months now, so that my wife could live closer to her family. We wanted to move last autumn, but . . . well . . ."
He understood then. His guard had remained here for his prisoner's sake – had remained because Keane wanted to witness the outcome of a different battle.
"F-fine." He tapped his heart. "F-fine. F-forever. Th-thanks." He reached out and took Keane's hand.
Keane squeezed his hand, then rolled his eyes as another bellow emerged from the cell nearby. This time the bellow of pain came from Sedgewick.
"Gods alive and dead, I'm glad that you enjoy overhearing that, because it would drive me mad," Keane said as they both rose to their feet. "Do you know who it was that finally convinced Mercy's Keeper to lift the rule of absolute silence from the prisoners? Sedgewick."
"S— S— S—" He stared, unable to voice the name.
"I think Sedgewick has met his match." Keane began to smile again. "He told our Keeper that he knew ten times ten ways to disable a prisoner, but under no circumstances could he think of a way to shut the mouth of that new prisoner." He grinned and touched the brim of his cap in farewell. "I'll go see about a transfer to the second level for you. Don't worry – I'll visit you again before I leave this prison."
Then his guard departed, and he was left with the same touch of that something he had felt before, something that was not quite ready to happen.
He was proud of himself. He had spoken without stuttering. He had spoken his own name, for the first time in twenty years.
And he had spoken to a man who was now widely considered the most vicious prisoner in Mercy Life Prison.
The new man glanced at him, then looked away. He was nearly half of Harrow's age; unlike Harrow, he was shackled at his wrists and ankles. Sedgewick, standing nearby as the final arrangements were made for the prisoners' transfer to the second level, had both his dagger and his whip in hand.
The new man finally replied, "Merrick."
He struggled to think of what to say next. Keane – hovering protectively nearby on this, his final day of work at Mercy Prison – smiled at Harrow, then gave Merrick an uneasy glance.
Finally, with a great deal of effort, Harrow said to Merrick, "New?"
This time, Merrick did not even bother to look his way. His only reply was, "You chatter a lot."
He was taken aback. He was tempted to step back into his cell, to retreat to safety. Then, unexpectedly, the sweet irony of the reply enfolded him, like a warm cloak. And it was only then that the thing which had touched him before fully emerged.
"Yes," he whispered as he began to smile. "I suppose I do."