The Pool of Ink
It wasn’t until the ninth lash that Fernán Sorel cried out, and he didn’t weep until the eighteenth. He had told himself, when they said he was to be flogged, that he would not beg them for mercy, not scream at them to stop. And he made it to the thirtieth lash with at least that much of his dignity intact.
After the flogging was finished they left him strung up by his wrists for several minutes, then a man came with a knife and cut the cords. Sorel looked over at him through eyes still blurred with tears, and it was a moment before he recognized him.
“Joanet,” Sorel said. “What the hell are you doing here?”
Gaston Joanet did not answer, but took Sorel by the upper arm and propelled him from the room, down a long hallway paved with stone flags, and then down some deeply-shadowed stairs.
“You are helping these bastards?” Sorel asked, and still Joanet did not answer. “You and I went to school together. You knew the rebel songs better than I did!”
Joanet looked over at him – just a brief glance, and their eyes met. He looked away almost instantly, and still didn’t say anything, but in that moment Sorel knew; Joanet had sided with the militia, with the men who had raped Sorel’s sister, struck his father in the face as he was leaving church, and taken Sorel himself from his home and given him thirty lashes simply for having been at the university, and he had done so out of nothing but fear. Joanet, for all of his size and muscle and bluster, was a coward at heart.
“You must get a message to my father, tell him I am alive,” Sorel said.
Joanet opened a wooden door with a ring set in the middle, and shoved Sorel through it. He stumbled down two more steps, then his feet touched earth and he fell forward onto damp ground.
The door closed behind him, shutting out every trace of light. But in the moment the hinges creaked as the massive wooden plank slammed shut, he heard Joanet utter three words, whispered as if he didn’t even want that much overheard:
“I am sorry.”
Sorel lay for a time on the cool earth of the cell. He was still shirtless, and his shoulders and back were lacerated and aching. He finally stood, and went to the door; he knew it was fruitless, but hope being what it is, he had to test it.
The door did not budge, and in fact seemed to have no handle on the inside. It was made as a prison, to hold a man until his captors decided otherwise.
Sorel placed his ear against the wood, but either it was too thick to hear through, or else there was no one nearby – possibly both. He then took a slow circuit of the room, clockwise, and found nothing but what he’d encountered at first – a dirt floor, stone walls, and complete and utter darkness.
He reached the door after a few minutes, and realized that he was exhausted. He had no energy left in his young body after being seized the previous night, awakened from a sound sleep, followed by the drumhead court that morning during which he’d been found guilty of collaboration and sentenced to be whipped. The worst was the waiting, from the time the sentence was pronounced until they took him to into the courtyard, stripped him to the waist, and tied his wrists. He had almost fainted several times from the sheer terror of what was to be done to him. The actual flogging, when it came, was almost a relief, when after a dozen strokes he thought, This is horrible, but I can survive it. I will not beg them to stop.
Sorel lay down on his belly, folded his arms beneath his cheek (his cut shoulders burning as he brought his arms up), and was asleep within minutes.
He awoke, who knew how many hours later in that unchanging night, with a full bladder. He stood, feeling the scabbed-over welts crack as he moved, and looked for a basin or bucket in which to relieve himself. Finding none, he peed in a corner, kicked some dirt over the wet patch, and went back to his spot near the door, still warm from his body’s heat, and sat down.
He squinted into the darkness until he had a headache, and finally closed his eyes, but phantom lights and shapes still floated in his vision. The silence, too, was unnerving. He had never been in a place so completely silent before, without even the rustle of the wind or a distant bird’s song to remind him that he was still in the world of men. Here, he might have been blind and deaf, and there would have been no way to tell.
After a time, he stood, and decided to take another walk around his prison, trailing his fingers on the rough stone. When he reached the door again, he found that someone had slid a platter with a cup of water and a large piece of bread through a hatch in the base of the door. The hatch, which was (like the door) only to be opened from the outside, was low and rectangular. Sorel pressed his eye to the edge, trying to find even a flicker of light, but it was too well sealed. He saw only the ghosts of his own memory of vision, and finally gave up.
A day later fever set in, and Sorel spent hours hugging his knees, moaning and shivering in the cool darkness. He raved for a time, imagining himself still hanging by the wrists, the whip still cutting lines into his skin, but had periods of sense when he knew that the pain was infection and swelling as his cuts tried to heal. Eventually the fever broke. One morning he woke, ravenously thirsty, and the throbbing ache in his back had finally subsided. He was weak, and drenched with sweat, but knew that he was not going to die, at least not from the flogging.
He cleared his throat, and crawled his way to the door, feeling for the water and bread that his captors put there every day, always while he was asleep. He downed the lukewarm water at a gulp, and said – it may have been the first words he uttered since he’d been thrown into the cell – “It’s so good.”
And an answering voice from the darkness said, “It’s so good.”
Sorel whirled around, dropping the bread into the dirt, not that it mattered much. “Who is there?” he said, in a choked whisper.
“Who is there?” the voice said. It repeated what he said, but its tone was not mocking; it could have meant anything.
“I am Sorel,” Sorel said. “When did you come here? I thought… I thought I was alone.”
“Alone,” the voice said.
“What is your name?”
“My name…” it said, and then paused.
“Yes. I am Fernán Sorel. I have been here for…” He stopped. “I do not know. Days. Weeks, perhaps.”
“Weeks,” the voice said. “I do not know. Weeks. More.”
“But,” Sorel said, hesitating, “I have been alone. Were you in another cell?”
The voice did not respond for a moment. “They hurt you,” it finally said.
“Yes. I was flogged. But I am healing. I thought I might die, down here. I took sick with a fever from the whipping, but I seem to be healing.”
“Others have died,” the voice said. It sounded sad.
“Yes,” Sorel said. “Pernal and his brothers were hanged. They were imprisoned and finally hanged.”
“Hanged,” the voice said. “Terrible.”
“I am afraid that they might have the same in mind for me. Seeing how their first attempt to kill me failed.”
“You will not be hanged,” the voice said, sounding more confident than it had.
“How do you know?” Sorel asked. “And your name… you never told me your name.”
“Give me some of your bread,” the voice said, “and I will tell you my name.”
Sorel stooped and picked up the fallen loaf, and tore it in half. “Here,” he said, and he felt an unseen hand take the offered piece. “I would give you all of it, in exchange for the company. I have been here in this pool of ink, alone, for far too long.”
“Pool of ink?” the voice said, a bit indistinct because its mouth was full.
“I have come to call it that. Do you not feel it? The darkness… it is not like the ordinary darkness of night, where darkness is an absence, something that can be changed by lighting a candle. Here, it is a positive substance, like ink. Do you not have the feeling that if a candle was lit here, the darkness would snuff it, like trying to light a candle under water?”
“Yes,” the voice said. “It is so.”
Sorel shuddered, hearing his companion agree so flatly. While at the university, Sorel and his friends had enjoyed intellectual arguments, comparing one thing to the other, topping each other’s metaphors and similes to see who could construct the most absurd one. He had only meant, when he was alone (or thought he was?) in this prison cell, to create a way to think about the darkness around him, but he had been playing a game, until now. Now his companion’s simple acquiescence had made the metaphor a reality. He had the sudden unshakeable conviction that if he left his cell his skin would be stained black from his weeks of being submerged.
“What is your name?”
The voice replied, softly, “I am called Guilhemet.”
“And why are you here in prison, Guilhemet?”
“Why are you?” his companion responded.
Sorel shrugged; even that motion would have been painful a few days ago, but his skin was knitting back together. “Because I think wrongly, I guess.”
“Thinking wrongly,” Guilhemet said, “is no sin.”
“It was enough to earn me a beating from my captors.”
“Then the more fools they.”
“I suppose. But fools or no, they are in power.” He swallowed. "If they tie a rope around my neck,” Sorel said, and he felt a nauseating clench of fear at the thought, “and swing me from a tree, I don’t think it will matter much whether they are fools or not.”
“Maybe,” Guilhemet said. “But you are wrong about why they whipped you.”
“Oh? Why did they do it, then?”
“They did it for the same reason that all men do what they do; because they can.” Guilhemet paused. “And in this case, because they do not know what else to do. You are one man, and have opinions they don’t like. Because you are one man, they could flog you and no one could stop them. So they did it.”
“But surely they know that torturing me won’t change my mind.”
Guilhemet gave a dry laugh. “You think they care about that? This is not the university. They are not teachers or philosophers; they are fools who have guns and swords and whips. Ideas are only ideas, but whips can hurt you, and guns and swords can kill you. Learned men say an idea is more powerful than a weapon, but I think that is because few learned men have ever received a whipping.”
The days passed, then weeks, trackless and smooth and unmarked. Sorel slept and waked, ate and drank, and finally felt well enough to keep his strength up by running laps around the perimeter of his cell. Guilhemet shared Sorel’s meager meals, and talked to him sometimes. Sometimes he spoke wisely, and his words kept Sorel’s spirits up. Other times, he seemed to babble foolishness, singing snatches of songs that Sorel could remember from his childhood, telling tales of talking animals and wise foresters and lost princes, beginning them in the middle and then trailing off before the end. Sometimes he seemed angry or maudlin, and wanted nothing to do with Sorel at all.
One time, Sorel heard Guilhemet weeping softly, and came to him in the center of the cell.
“What is it, Guilhemet?” he asked. “Why do you weep?”
He did not answer, but continued to sob softly.
Sorel went to him, knelt next to him, and reached out and found the man’s shoulders. Like Sorel’s own, they were bare, and as he put an arm around them, he felt raised scars – he had been flogged once, too, it seemed.
“Don’t be sad, Guilhemet,” Sorel said. “We will be free one day. Like you said once; free one way, or free the other. We will leave this cell and walk back to our homes, or we will walk to the gallows and be freed by death to what waits beyond. Either way, they cannot hold us forever.”
“Afraid,” Guilhemet said, rocking back and forth. “I am so afraid.”
“I am as well,” Sorel said. “Or, I was. I don’t feel afraid right now, but I have been. I surely will be again. Do not let your fear unman you. We can face it, whatever it is they have in store for us.”
“They have hanged others, many others, while we have been in here,” Guilhemet said. “Tortured men, raped women. It is evil here, it is evil out there. All is evil.”
“Not all,” Sorel said. “I am not. You are not. There is much that is bad, but there is much that is good; and the evil cannot triumph, not forever.”
But Guilhemet’s sobs became louder, and he would not speak again, for a long time. Finally he lay down, and Sorel lay next to him, one arm still encircling him, and they slept curled up together like two stray dogs, needing only warmth and a kind touch.
“Sorel,” Guilhemet said one morning. There was no way to know what time of day it was; Sorel had weeks ago become convinced that after he woke up it was morning, and decided that it didn’t matter one way or the other if he was wrong.
“Yes?” Sorel said, yawning. He went over to the door, but the day’s food wasn’t there yet.
“You will get out soon.”
“How do you know that?”
“Things are changing outside, out there.”
Sorel snorted. “How do you know that, being that you are in here with me, here in the dark?”
“The pool of ink. But I can see out.”
Sorel sighed. It was going to be one of Guilhemet’s less lucid days, he could tell that. “How can you see out? How can you see anything? And through stone walls? You have powerful magic, Guilhemet. You should use some of it to get us the hell out of here.”
“It does not work that way. But do not forget me. Promise me that; you will not forget me.”
“I promise.” Sorel shook his head in confusion. “Why would I forget you? You saved my mind, you made this bearable.” He laughed at himself. “Listen to me, talking like it’s over. You know, Guilhemet, when we get out you should become a lawyer; you have a way of making the most absurd statements sound absolutely convincing.”
Guilhemet did not respond.
“Guilhemet?” Sorel said, and felt his way forward.
At that moment, there was a searing light, like a lightning bolt across his eyes, and he cried out and fell to his knees, thinking that he had been struck down by God; but it was only the door opening, and a line of gentle light from outside appearing as it swung open. And as he knelt, unable to open his eyes, strong hands pulled him to his feet and dragged him up out of his cell and into the flagstone hallway and out into the courtyard, where the full light of the summer sun struck his face. He was propelled out through doorways and finally into the streets of the city, where he was left, shirtless and filthy and barefoot, and his captors fled back the way they had come before he could even see who they were.
He started back toward the fort where he had been imprisoned, but he saw people coming toward him – crowds of men and women and children, rich and poor alike, and there was gunfire. A man caught Sorel by the arm and said, “You! Beggar man! You’d better clear out of here, the rebels are about to take the fortress! You’ll be killed!”
Sorel turned to look, but there was the explosion of a cannon shot, and the doorway through which he had just come was blasted to rubble. Terrified, he turned and ran.
The rebels smashed the remnants of the militia that had held the town, and the men who had tortured and imprisoned Sorel were one by one rounded up and made to suffer the same way he had. Such is the way of the world, Guilhemet had once said, that sometimes it is hard to tell who is the hero and who is the villain, they look so much alike. Sorel went back to the fortress as soon as it was safe, and asked about other prisoners, asked if there had been a man named Guilhemet who had shared his cell. No one had heard of him. The cell itself was destroyed in the sack of the fort; if he had been there when it fell, his bones now lay mouldering under tons of stone.
But I will not forget, Sorel thought, not so long as I live. I will not forget what you did for me.
Sorel found what remained of his family; his father had survived, as had his sister and older brother. They had come off better than many, and still had a house and land to farm. Three years after his release, he fell in love with a girl from a neighboring town. As he was making love to her for the first time, she ran her fingers across the ridged scars on his back, and his skin quivered a little, like a horse’s skin when a fly lands on it.
“Does it hurt you?” she asked, as they moved together in the dark.
“No,” Sorel said. “There is no pain. In all the world right now, there is nothing but sweetness and pleasure.”
And the pleasure was very great, so they married the following year, that they might have more of it whenever they desired. Sorel moved to his wife’s town, where her father had need of a foreman for his vineyard. And Sorel became the vintner after him, and did not return to his home town for many years.
Sorel came back the year after his wife died, in his own 77th year. He was still healthy and strong, his only concessions to age a cane and a pair of eyeglasses that he needed in order to read. He felt drawn to the town where he was born, now that his wife was gone – he saw his sons and grandchildren often, but without her there was time to think, time to remember, although the scars she had caressed had healed to fine white lines, like a spiderweb on the tanned skin of his back.
So he had come home. The central square was quiet now, with families and merchants and pairs of young lovers; there was a fountain in the center, and a small garden with benches. The old fortress wall had been rebuilt, but now housed shop fronts. There was no trace of the building where he had been flogged and imprisoned.
All for the best, Sorel thought. I wish that all evil could be so quickly, and completely, buried.
And also buried there, somewhere, Sorel thought, are my friend Guilhemet’s bones. Perhaps they are beneath this garden, nourishing the flowers, as my bones soon will as well. It is good that things take such paths, that the world turns and light comes and goes, and all comes around once again.
“Sorel?” a creaking voice said, a little incredulously. “Is that you? Fernán Sorel?”
Sorel squinted up against the light at a man who stood, leaning on a cane, next to him. “I am Fernán Sorel,” he said.
“Can you not recognize me?” the man said. “It is Gaston. Gaston Joanet.”
Sorel’s heart pounded in his chest. “Joanet,” he said.
Joanet moved stiffly toward the edge of the bench. “May I sit?”
Joanet sat down heavily, and then looked over toward Sorel. “When I saw you,” he said, “I could not believe it. But you have not changed that much, you know.”
“Nor you,” Sorel said, “now that I see you properly.”
The two old men looked out over the city square without speaking for a moment.
“I am sorry,” Joanet said. “For what happened to you. When I saw you, I knew I had to say at least that. Now, if you want to tell me to go to hell, I will not argue with you.”
“Why would I do that?” Sorel said. “You could not have stopped what happened. You simply would have shared my fate.”
“It would have been better,” Joanet said. “I could have endured the whip. I know that now. It would have been better than spending the last fifty years knowing that I am a coward.”
Sorel shrugged. “It is in the past, my friend. We will have a glass of wine together, and it will be over. Who is the coward, you or I? I would have gone mad had it not been for Guilhemet, you know. I was terrified that I would be hanged, or worse still, left in that cell to starve.”
“Guilhemet?” Joanet said. “Who is that?”
“The man who was in the cell with me. He was imprisoned shortly after I was, and died during the siege of the fort. At least I presume he did, as the fort was destroyed hours after I was freed.”
“Sorel,” Joanet said, “there was no man there with you in the cell.”
Sorel looked at Joanet as if he were mad. “Have you lost your memory, Joanet? He was there. I spoke with him, I gave him comfort when he despaired, as he did to me. I shared my food with him. He spoke with me every day, until the day I was released.”
Joanet looked at Sorel, his face a study in astonishment. “I swear, Sorel,” he said. “I swear by the holy blood of Jesus. You were alone in that cell. I brought you the food and water – as much as I was allowed. I was commanded not to speak to you, on pain of flogging, and I did not – I was so afraid to suffer your fate, I dreamed of your ordeal sometimes, I thought I would go mad if they did that to me.” He shook his head. “Sorel, you were alone. The whole time. Four months, and there never was another man there.”
Sorel looked at Joanet, staring into his wide, amazed eyes, eyes that looked more than a little frightened. “I speak the truth; nothing less than the simple, honest truth. There was someone in the cell with me.”
Joanet crossed himself twice, and kissed his fingertips. “Sorel,” he said in a hushed voice. “I think you were visited by God.”
Sorel looked up at the clear, blue sky, filled with the warm light of day. “I tell you, Joanet,” he said finally, “if you are right, then part of what the priests have said is true – that God is good. However, what they have never told us is that God is also mad; and the world is, as well.”