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Till the Shadows Lengthen, and Evening Comes

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They tell him he died already.

They tell him a lot of things--that no one is looking for him, that his country abandoned him, that his friends betrayed him, that his friends are dead--but they keep coming back to that one.

He fell, he froze, he bled to death. They recovered what remained of him, and it belongs to them.

He knows that dead bodies don't bleed or breathe or scream. Corpses' eyes don't fill with tears when they hear again and again how alone they are. Dead men don't piss themselves when they're kept bound for hours that might be days or years for all he can tell.

He thinks it should be obvious that they are lying. He cannot be dead when he can feel his own heart beating and the ache of every unwilling breath in his lungs, except that he cannot pray.

When he is not strapped down in a chair or on a table he is left in a chilly cell, and although he does not remember his own name, he knows that this is the time to pray. He has been in other cells, not unlike this one except that they were crowded with other men, and within earshot of yet other cells filled with yet more men. And he knows that in the dark and the quiet of the night, before the men settled down into the farting and snoring and furtive noises of men chasing sleep or already escaped into it, there was a time when prayer spread like a contagion through the cells.

Prayer was something like a reflex, necessary as sleep. Prayer welled up out of them under pressure, like blood from wounds: when they reached the quiet time where the anticipation of the next day's horrors began to loom larger than the relief of surviving the day just past, there was prayer. They would whisper together--men near enough to hear each other and lucky enough to share the same pattern of words might fall into unison, but differing prayers simply twined with each other into a chorus of hushed desperation, the last hope for the last escape.

He can no longer recall which words he spoke in that cell.

He knows that they were the same words as the man who sat to his right. He knows that they said them in a certain numerical pattern: five sets (one for each finger on the left hand) of ten prayers (one for each finger of both hands). The counting was done in a series of finger touches and finger-crooks, making the hands hold the pattern of the praying. The prayers themselves were words in the mouth, channeling the heart's hunger for something to cling to.

He has no left hand to count with anymore. A stump remains of his arm, a stump that still bleeds when they strap him down and investigate it with scalpels, with needles, with implements he cannot bear to identify. His left hand has died already and the dead cannot pray. The rest of him, still here, still bleeding, must be alive.

But he cannot find the hunger in his heart anymore, no matter the pressure applied, and his tongue will not form the words.

Still, when the night gets quiet, before he seeks sleep, he tries to pray. Prayer is necessary to a man in a cell, to a man who has suffered and awaits more suffering. But nothing comes out. He has no words to say that they have not taken from him.

He closes his eyes, weary with the futile effort, and discovers that this is one of the times when he can feel his left hand, as long as he doesn't look at it and remind himself that it isn't there. He tries to bend the fingers of that hand, to find the place where prayer resides. He ought to be able to do it. He can feel the hand. But that hand is dead. Its suffering is already over.

Prayer, he knows, is about believing that which is not seen. Perhaps it is also about not believing that which is seen. He must not believe that his hand is gone. He must not believe that he has been utterly abandoned.

Despair is a sin.

He opens his eyes when that thought comes to him as a pattern of words, forceful and exact. Despair is a sin.

He is required to believe, then. To believe that God, like his left hand, is there with him if he just closes his eyes and lets himself feel the truth that will shatter when he opens his eyes again. He must believe in the prayers though he cannot remember the prayers. He must keep faith with the only words he remembers.

Despair is a sin.

It is not a prayer, not the cadence of words that once would have poured from his lips to give form to his need, his hope, his fear. There is no comfort in it, no promise of rescue. There is only the fact.

He has died, but he still bleeds and screams and sits alone in his cold cell awaiting another day's torments in a place that is not Hell and offers no hope of Heaven.

His arm is gone, but he still feels it when he closes his eyes though it will not obey him.

He cannot pray, but he must pray. Prayer is the only escape, even when there is no escape. Especially when there is no escape. To cease to seek the escape is to forfeit it entirely.

He lowers his right hand to his bare feet. He has ten toes and one hand left to count on. Ten prayers, five times.

A dead man cannot pray, or hope, but he can still feel what he does not see, and he can still count. For now, until they are taken from him like everything else has been taken from him, he has these words which are not a prayer but lodge in the place where prayers belong.

He tries to flex the fingers he does not have at the same time that he tries to believe that something is listening, that something will come for him. He touches his first finger to his smallest toe as he whispers in a cracked, rusty voice, "Despair is a sin."