All is lost. The natives gather outside the walls and though I cannot hear them, I hear the screaming of their captives. Tortured screaming. It howled through these stone halls, echoing, repeating their anguish back to me even after they had themselves fallen silent.
I have retreated. The cold silence of the basements allows me to listen to the only voice that matters and that voice demands penance. Of course I will comply. There is no doubt of that. The only doubt to be found is in my own head. Even as I carry out my ablutions I wonder. As the lashes tear my back to shreds I question the voice that handed down my sentence. Does my Lord really require this of me? My blood spatters to the floor first in droplets then in rivulets that traverse my buttocks and legs to pool onto the cold stone and I wonder when I shall achieve forgiveness.
Not yet. Not yet, for the whispered “scourge” that set me to this work now cries out “Penance!” I snap the whip faster, harder and I am beyond pain. I now feel only a numbing warmth on my back and a tingle in my fingertips as my wrist snaps the leather throngs over my shoulders. The snags of glass become tangled in my scalp and pull free a stubbled patch of flesh. I watch as it swings back, one with the scourge, to mix with the raw meat of my back…
I suppose in my weakness I gave up. I am on the floor now and having no light I know naught of the passage of time. I have fallen short, but some satiation has been achieved. The cry for penance is now but a dull bleating. “Scourge, scourge…” it chants, barely a whisper. I am sorry my Lord, if Lord is who you are, but the flesh is weak.
I stumble up dark stairways and down deserted passages until the darkness blends with weak sunlight, the utter black softening to a dirty gray. This is as high as I dare ascend, but it is high enough. The door stands before me and as the heavy plank swings on its hinges I feel a twinge of remorse. Remorse for what could have, and probably should have, been.
My head swoons as I pick up my quill and I steady it in my free hand. Tears of remorse fall as I scratch the last few words onto the parchment bound between slabs of wood before me.
Fear held us back, I write, my shaking hand fouling some of the letters, It has come to this, that I give myself willingly over to them. It could have been different for, as it is written, what have we to fear considering who stands for us? You who come after, know that we failed. But have the faith to at least try to follow the path of righteousness for success cannot be any worse than the fate you shall meet if you fail.
I sign my name to the page and wait a moment for the ink to dry. When it is done I close the book and spill the remaining ink onto the floor. All that must be written has been written. I don’t expect that the natives will ever enter this building now that we all are gone, so my only concern for the book is that the wind could somehow spill the ink onto the pages. Otherwise, assuming others aren’t too many years in coming, the volume should be quite safe.
They take me into their arms as I stumble through the gate into their midst. Their white painted faces show some degree of concern and the help me to a bed of leaves they’ve prepared. They place me prone upon it and to my back are applied salves of herbs which burn before they begin to soothe. I drift out of consciousness, the last sounds I hear are the cluckings of their tongues as they calmly converse in their odd language.
I don’t know how long I’ve slept, but when I awake my back is free of pain and some of my strength has returned. A man clad in a scant wrapping of skins notices my stirring and he helps me to sit up. He turns to the fire burning in the center of a ring of the strange men and as he walks towards it I become aware of four things. There is something steaming over the fire. This something smells delicious and causes many reactions within my mouth and stomach. There are familiar faces on the far side of the fire and though I do not see happiness in their faces, the faces are less haggard than they were before they were taken.
The native man returns to me with a bark bowl filled with some sort of stew. I reach for it with my left hand only to find that my arm ends in a stump above the elbow. I am at first confounded by this, my mind still muddled with the clouds of deep sleep. When I remember where I am I take the bowl with my right hand instead. I sip of the broth, slowly, and when my body’s reaction is not objectionable I shamelessly guzzle it, storing chunks of meat in my cheeks to chew once the broth is gone. When I do bite into meat, I gag at first noting that the flavor is sweeter than I expected. I almost retch it up, but a wind sighs from the jungle and on its wings floats a single, barely audible word, “Penance…”
My stomach calms. I swallow the meat, giving thanks for the strength it will give me. I spit out one of my knuckles. I should probably suck the marrow from the bone but I haven’t fully given myself over to it yet. Anyway, my captors will keep me healthy enough until the time comes that they have no other option but to kill me.
The man who fed me returns and refills my bowl. He collects my knuckle bone and puts it into his own mouth. When we have all finished eating he changes my bandages and lashes me to a tree. As the natives fade into the jungle I gaze at the faces of my brothers across the small clearing from me. They all have both legs and are only missing bits of arm. The jungle here must be providential. I sit as comfortably as I can and try to sleep, avoiding thoughts of how long it will be until they have nothing left to eat but my brain and innards.
I awake to the sound of screaming. The natives are taking a few of my horrified brother’s fingers to season their soup. I close my eyes and enjoy the smells and sounds of the camp until dinner is done. As I eat I ponder my brothers and when they will come to be at peace with our atonement. It cannot but hurt their minds to dwell on it all.