The Penitent

Issue #122

No. 17596 woke in his cell in the pale glow of silent morning. He looked to the Eye of God above, the skylight which served as the cell’s only window. The sunlight was dim and indirect. It was early yet.

The morning air was cool and earthy, and the cast iron bedstead dripped with chilly dew. No. 17596 closed his eyes again and slowly took the measure of his body and mind. There was the ever-present kink in his neck from the sagging straw pallet. There was the stiffness in his knees from the mildewed cold. There was the parched, hollow dryness of his gums and tongue.

But worst of all, there was the swirling fire in his fingertips.

No. 17596 swallowed and pressed his knuckles to his temples. He had hoped to wake and find that fire gone, but it had lasted through the night. He would ignore it as long as he could, until he could take it no more. That was all he could do.

His food was on the floor near the cell door, as always. It had been pushed through the slot while he slept. For four years now, it had come this way—materializing only while he slept and never while he watched. Somehow, they knew. Somehow, they must have been watching him, though he couldn’t see them. He couldn’t even hear them—couldn’t hear any human sound, only faint and uncertain echoes.

The food was hardtack biscuit and cold tea, meager strips of beef jerky, and boiled dry peas. Rarely, books would come with the food—books of prayers of contrition, or the lives of saints, or the philosophy of remorse.

Water came from the spigot in the wall, and waste went down the drain in the floor. At the back of the cell was a small door that led to a private exercise yard—a tiny plot of dirt and grass five feet by ten feet, surrounded by tall, unclimbable walls but open to the air above.

Out there, at times, he saw birds. The wicked bluejay, the nervous cardinal, the high wheeling patrol of the buzzard. Out there, he could feel the rain, the snow, the sun. Without that, he’d have lost his mind long ago.

No. 17596 crumbled and mashed the hardtack into the tea. He drank it greedily, cold though it was. It had a leathery sweetness that stood in sharp contrast to the salt and dryness of the rest of his food. That tea was precious to him—but how it made the fire rage all the more in his fingertips. How it made his eyes turn to the door—

The door. It was made from heavy slats of dark wood with wrought iron fittings. It was small, not even five feet high—built that way to force the prisoners to stoop humbly when they went through. But No. 17596 had only walked through that door once, four years ago. Since then, he had only seen it open three times—and each time was immediately followed by strong hands on his arms, a sack over his head, and violent dragging of his body.

He sidled up to the door, his fingers practically aflame. All he had to do was silently push on it—just to prove that it really was still locked. He could do that, and nobody would hear him, and nobody would punish him.

But he knew he would never do that.

This fire—it was hope, and it was delusion. When he found that the door was locked, it would give way to rage. He would rattle the door and howl, throwing his pallet and stool and his own body around his cell until the door did open—finally, at last, thank God!—and the strong arms pinioned his and the sack came down over his head. It had happened exactly that way three times before, and it would happen again now.

No. 17596 pressed his fingers against the door. He took a breath and pushed—waiting for that unforgiving return pressure, the iron lock and the wooden bar, the smashing of his hope and the rage that would follow.

But instead the door gave.

It swung silently on muffled hinges. No. 17596 gaped. It was true—the door had opened.

No. 17596 stepped back. He sat on his bed and looked at the door. No longer a door—now a doorway.

Beyond, for the first time, he could see the corridor outside—its bare flagstones, a wall across the way. A cold sweat broke out across his body, welling up out of his temples, his neck, shoulders, arms. He could barely gather the energy to stand, but he knew he had to.

Slowly, slowly, with agonizing steps, No. 17596 approached the open door.  He looked down at his feet—one foot was now resting outside the bounds of the room he had lived in for the past four years. Even the air here was different now—cooler, fresher, faster-moving. It made the hairs rise on his neck.

No. 17596 grasped the door, his knuckles white. He could see down the corridor now. It ran down the length of the cell-block, dim and still, door after door after door, all leading into cells exactly like his own, until it terminated in a round guard room. There was a table and chairs in that distant guardroom, seemingly a thousand miles away.

But nobody was there. There was no sound except the pulse of blood in his own temples. Nobody was stirring. Nobody had seen the door open. Nobody but he.

No. 17596 pulled the door shut and went back to his cot. He laid down and curled into a tight ball, white fingers gripping and twisting the pallet as he trembled under the blanket.

All day, No. 17596 waited for the cell door to open. He waited to be hauled away with the sack on his head. They would take him to the Pit—a sandy, dirty, pitch-black hole under one of the buildings in the main yard. It was close and stifling there. When it rained, the water poured into the hole. During his long years at the penitentiary, No. 17596 had been half-drowned, half-baked or half-frozen there more times than he cared to remember. Down there, it smelled like homicide and despair.

The Pit was punishment. The rest of the penitentiary might have been built on the principles of moral reformation, but the Pit was retribution plain and simple. Retribution for communicating with other prisoners, for making too much noise, for not cleaning one’s cell, for sulking, for using a name instead of one’s number.

All day, No. 17596 waited, but the guards never came.

Several times, he heard—or thought he heard—muffled footsteps outside his door, or the distant opening or closing of another cell—but nothing more.

That was how it always was. Everything in the prison was kept as quiet as possible. Even the guards wore rags wrapped around their feet to keep the soles of their shoes from ringing on the flagstones. Above all, the prisoners must not be reminded of the world outside their cells. Above all, the prisoners must not be disturbed in their term of penitence.

Repentance was the one thing expected of him here, but it was also the one thing they could not force him to feel.

The next morning, his food was on the floor like always. As his eyes blinked open, No. 17596 saw that there was a book as well. Suddenly, he sprang to life. A book! Sinking back onto the pallet with it, he hungrily opened it to the first page.

No. 17596 read every word on the title page, searching for a date. The book had been published twelve years after he had been convicted. The author, at the time when he sat down to write this book, had lived twelve years longer in the outside world than No. 17956 had.

Surely, the author had absorbed something essential during that time. Surely, he had been changed in some way in those twelve years.  Some unconscious essence of those years must be in this book. No matter what the subject, no matter how dull or detached the author—this book must be different in some way than if the same person had written on the same subject twelve years earlier. And if No. 17596 read it closely enough, surely he must catch some hint of what that difference might be, and it would tell him—it would tell him—

No. 17596 let the book fall out of his hands. It would tell him what? It would tell him that the world went on—that somewhere, out there, men and women were carrying on their affairs while he sat alone in his cell, sentenced to ruminate in silence and isolation on crimes he had committed fourteen years ago.

What nonsense! Why search in dead pages for clues and hints about the outside? Perhaps even now he could step out and look for himself. He could see the world, see the people at their lives. The guards would drag him away to the Pit immediately, of course. But wouldn’t it be worth it?

Without stopping to think further, No. 17596 stood. As he pressed the wood of the door, he had a moment of doubt, but it passed as soon as he felt it once more open under his hand.

How long had the door been unlocked? How long ago could he have pushed on it and walked free? Not free of the prison, of course—there could be no escaping the high walls of the penitentiary. But free of his cell and free of this solitude he had borne for so long.

Stepping over the threshold, No. 17596 bowed his head to avoid the lintel. Looking down, he saw that one foot was over. Then he lifted the other and brought it out to its mate. He stood up straight. There he was—in the corridor. No. 17596 felt like laughing or shouting, but with a furtive glance around himself, he bit back his tongue.

The key was in the lock on the outside. It was curious—most days the guards had no reason to unlock his door. Food came in the slot, and nothing else went in or out except through pipes. Somehow the key had been forgotten there, but No. 17596 couldn’t think how.

Shutting the door softly, No. 17596 crept into the corridor. At one end was the round guardroom he had seen the day before, still empty and abandoned. At the other was simply a blank wall. No one was in sight in either direction.

No. 17596 moved to one of the cells next to his. He opened the slot at the top of the door that the guards used to look into the cells and peered inside. Empty. That didn’t surprise him. He had long suspected that when he had been put in complete isolation that they had left the cells on either side empty.

But moving down the cell-block, No. 17596 was surprised to find every cell was empty. He checked cell after cell, on both sides of the corridor. There was no one in any of them. Had the guards gone so far as to put him in a cell block entirely by himself? That seemed impossible. What could they possibly have feared to make them do that?

No. 17596 crept down the corridor further, his bare feet numb against the flagstones. Coming to the guard room, he paused. He flattened himself against the wall and peered inside. The room itself was certainly empty—but stepping inside would mean that he would be visible from the other cell-blocks that radiated out from it. If anybody were in any of those cell-blocks, they would see him.

Calling on his courage, No. 17596 dashed forward into the room and then spun around. Nothing. He pivoted more slowly, pausing to look carefully down each of the six cell-blocks that radiated from the room. Still nothing. He could see no guards anywhere.

Was this how it always was? Did they simply trust isolation and the habits of long years to keep the prisoners quiet and well-behaved, while the guards themselves only made occasional appearances? Or was there some emergency that had just now called them all away?

Yes, that might be it. There was a book on the table, laid face down as if its owner intended to come back. Likewise, there was a napkin draped over a plate of cheese and a half-empty tankard of beer.

Everywhere that No. 17596 looked, he could see evidence of human activity only lately abandoned. How far did he dare to go? He peered down one of the other cell-blocks. To see another human, even if it were only a prisoner—yes, yes. Certainly, he must find and speak to somebody else.

It was a delirious thought, a forbidden dream. The warden and chaplain had used to visit him, before he was put in complete isolation. But now, he could barely even remember talking to himself, so long ago had he given that up.

But no sooner had No. 17596 started down the next cell-block when he heard quite clearly the clang of a gate ringing in the yard outside. At once, self-preservation seized him, and No. 17596 found himself creeping quickly and quietly down his own cell-block. Opening his cell door, he expected any moment to hear the cry of discovery.    But nothing happened, and he slipped back inside, apparently unnoticed, his blood beating loud in his ears.

The next day, No. 17596 didn’t even so much as look at his food or the door to his cell when he woke. Instead, he crept out the portal in the back of his cell to his private exercise yard. Barely big enough to pace in, the yard was not much more than a small rectangle of dirt surrounded by high walls. Except for the open sky above and the occasional snowflake drifting down, it might as well have been another cell.

Every prisoner had such a yard to allow them to exercise without exposing them to the temptation of communicating with other prisoners. But since No. 17596 was in absolute isolation, no guards ever entered his cell, and the door to his yard was left always unlocked. It was perhaps the only advantage that came with this enforced solitude.

After the previous day’s excursion, No. 17596 now knew that the yards next to his were never used. He had always suspected as much, but still he had furtively flung straws or stones over the walls in an attempt to communicate with his neighbors—or at least to make some impact on them, to make them aware of his existence. Likewise, he had meticulously examined his own yard’s dirt floor for similar signs.

But now it seemed there had been none. The gravel and twigs he had collected and cherished had been blown in by storms or dropped by birds. He had wanted to believe, and so he had believed. No. 17596 angrily flung the entire collection up over the back wall and into the main yard. Now they were gone.

Almost before he knew what he was doing, he was back in his cell, pushing on the door once again. Unbelievably, it was still unlocked. Growing bold in the familiarity of the situation, No. 17596 slipped lightly out into the corridor and made his way towards the guard room. Once more, he saw no one.

But just as he set foot inside the guard room, he heard the clang again. His heart stood in his mouth and he froze fast on the threshold.

Slowly, he rotated his head, taking in every block that radiated from the hub. The first was empty. And the second. And the third, the fourth, and the fifth. The sixth was the cell-block he had just come from. No. 17596 stole a glance over his shoulder back that way. Empty too.

The clang came again from the main yard. No. 17596 trembled, ready to sneak away in flight, when his eyes swept over the table in the guard room. He chilled as he saw the same book laying there, still face down. The same plate, covered by the same napkin. The same tankard of beer.

No. 17596 stepped forward, his chest tight. Looking into the tankard, he saw that the beer was thickly dotted with green mold. Lifting the corner of the napkin, he saw the cheese was cracked and dry, covered with its own white fungal rind. A newspaper lay nearby and No. 17596 picked it up, looking for the date.

No. 17596 had counted the years and even the weeks since he had been jailed. But to see the date in print, even one so close to his own private reckoning, was devastating. He felt something surge up from inside of him, and before he could stop himself a cry had escaped from his lips.

It was a wordless, shapeless noise—a simple overflow of raw emotion into sound. But it was loud, and it echoed through the silence of the penitentiary. But suddenly No. 17596 didn’t care. It would be better to be thrown in the Pit if it meant that he could see other people even for an instant. His balled fists shook on the ends of his trembling arms, and he bellowed as loud as he could again and again and again.

By the time the echoes faded down each of the six cell-blocks, No. 17596 knew that nobody was coming. He knew there was nobody in the cells, nobody in the guard rooms, nobody in the yard. He knew now that he was alone.

No. 17596 stumbled into the main yard in a daze. There, he could see the clanging gate, swinging desultorily in the wind. The dirt of the yard was covered by a delicate dusting of new-fallen snow, but nowhere was it broken by any footprint. Not even the outline of a cat’s paw or bird’s claw marred the powdery white covering.

Shielding his eyes from the open space around him, No. 17596 called again—more articulately now. “Ahoy!” he called, his voice cracked and weary, sounding strange after all this time. “Ahoy, out there!” But again his voice merely echoed off the ramparts and towers of the prison yard.

No. 17596 shuffled to the main gate of the penitentiary and gripped the wrought iron latticework in his fingers. He clutched the gate as though hanging on for life, and gazed for the first time out the penitentiary door and to the streets of the city beyond. He could see houses, a stable, a public house. Nobody stirred in any of them.

Laundry hung stiffly from a clothesline outside one of the houses, frozen shirts and breeches flapping like cardboard in the cold wind. Every door was unlatched, every window unshuttered, and every chimney cold and without smoke. Not even the swallows stirred—nor the robins, nor chickadees, nor crows.

His head buzzing and his steps unsteady, No. 17596 at last pushed open the penitentiary gate and stepped out onto the bare street, smooth cobblestones worn from centuries of hoofbeats and footfalls and the rumbling iron-rimmed wheels of a hundred thousand carts.

He looked from side to side in blank amazement—the crossroads that ought to have been crowded with people stood now cold, still, and silent under the grey winter sky.

All day, No. 17596 had wandered the barren streets. Nothing stirred anywhere except the wind and the sparsely falling snowflakes. Carts piled with rotting fruit, still in neat pyramidal piles; piers abandoned and empty of sailors and stevedores alike; out in the harbor, a few ships listing and groaning under half-set sails; and the silent church bells in every steeple, ringing not a note as the hours crawled by unmarked.

There were no bodies, no birds, no dogs fighting over scraps. No rats scuttling in empty pantries, no lines of ants carrying away the countless abandoned morsels of food. Whether the frogs still slept under the river ice and the wasps in their paper nests, waiting for the spring—he didn’t know. But this winter world, at least, was vacant and silent of every man and beast.

Even now, No. 17596 couldn’t think of himself by his own name. He couldn’t shake the discipline and routine of the penitentiary, and as darkness fell he turned his feet back to the prison again. Here, at least, there were footprints in the snow—even if they were his own. And here at least, once he reached his own cell again, he was meant to be alone.

On his way back, in the failing light, the newspaper in the guardroom caught his eye. The date was close enough to his own reckoning—he had believed it should be two weeks later or so. Perhaps he’d been wrong, or perhaps it was an old newspaper.

But it was also the latest date for which he had any evidence that anybody else was still in the prison, or the city—or the world. No. 17596 sat down and tried to focus his eyes, to read the headlines. Perhaps there was some explanation here.

No. 17596’s eyes fell almost at once on an etching of a two-masted merchant ship. She was called the Henrietta, or so said the newspaper. Three months earlier, she had reached the city after crossing the ocean clipper route from the east.

She’d been found drifting silently, darkly, strangely, outside the harbor—sails set, heading true, cargo and effects in place, on a placid sea. But there was no sign of the people who had been aboard—captain, crew, and passengers—and no clue to their fate recorded in the log.

This had only been the beginning, it seemed. As No. 17596 read on, he found that two other ships had suffered similar fates while sailing the same route a week later. Then five more the week after that. Soon, ships on other routes were affected as well. Commerce across the ocean all but stopped.

The day before the date of the newspaper, lighthouses and lightships beyond the harbor had fallen dark. Any boats that went out to them did not return. Instead, they simply went dead—bobbing listlessly in the waters beyond the breakwall, their decks intermittently visible to a spyglass through the shifting mists. And empty. All the men on them, somehow suddenly gone.

With trembling hands, No. 17596 set the newspaper aside. There was more, but he did not wish to read it. It was clear enough where the tale had been leading—if not how or why. Neither did No. 17596 understand why he had been spared.

His isolation, perhaps? Was this disappearing condition some social disease? Was it communicable, like leprosy? Someone, at the last moment, had put the key to his door. If they had succeeded before they too vanished, would he also have shared the same fate?

As No. 17596 re-entered his cell, he stumbled in the dark over his food tray. For a moment, he paid it no mind—then he froze.

What did it mean? His food had not stopped coming. If every resident of the city had disappeared two weeks ago, how could that be? Had he finally lost his mind after all?

No. 17596 bent down to pick up the scattered remnants of his food, putting them back on his tray and pushing the tray back out the slot into the corridor again. Yes, of course—he was mad. He had gone mad at last, alone in his cell. The world was full of people, the door to his cell was locked. All of this—his secret excursions, the empty city, the tale of the Henrietta—it was all just a mad man’s delusion.

Relief washed over No. 17596. There could be no other explanation. No other, at least, except that he was his own jailor. That he, in the dead of night, while he slept, rose and prepared his own food. That every night he played the somnambulist and then returned unknowing to his own cell to awake in the morning.

But such a solution was unbelievable. It would mean that he was free—but alone. That he could go wherever he liked in a world utterly depopulated. It would mean that his door really had been unlocked. It would mean that he really had been outside.

Slowly, with heart beating, No. 17596 patted down his shirt. While he had been out—no, while he had been fantasizing, while he had been having mad dreams!—he had picked up several biscuits and put them into his shirt. His hands patted down his body. Of course they wouldn’t be there now. Of course—

No. 17596 froze.  Standing, he ran to his exercise yard, flinging the biscuits over the wall—flinging everything over the wall, even his shirt. Then he went back to the cell door and pushed against it. It was locked of course—but no! It opened. No. 17596 removed the key from the lock and pulled the door shut. Locking it from the inside, he threw the key over the wall of the exercise yard as well.

Then, No. 17596 sat down on his cot. He picked up the book that had come in with his food two days earlier. That was real enough—a kindly gift from his jailors—not a cruel trick on himself! No. 17596 opened the book and began to read. He would continue reading through the night, by whatever light he could find. He would not fall asleep.

He would not.

As many days and nights as it would take, he would stay awake. For if he fell asleep, then the tray must either come or not. If he were mad, the tray would come—pushed in by his jailors. If he were not mad, then it would not come—the now-locked door barring his own way out. And then, of course, there would be no more uncertainty.

One way or another, he would know.

And so No. 17596 read on and on, all through the night, until morning.


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M. Bennardo's short stories appear in Asimov's, Lightspeed, and others,  as well as multiple times previously in Beneath Ceaseless Skies. One of his stories was selected for Jonathan Strahan's Best Science-Fiction and Fantasy of the Year Volume 8. He lives in Cleveland, Ohio, but people anywhere can find him online at www.mbennardo.com.

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Comments & Scrivenings
5 Comments on “The Penitent”

5 Responses to “The Penitent”

  1. I like it – particularly the moment when he throws his biscuits over the wall. I thought for a while that it ran a risk of being predictable, but the ending was mysterious enough to be satisfying.

  2. I loved this story. One of my favorites for 2013.

    As I mentioned on my blog, it is incredibly gripping. I can’t believe that he managed to pull off a great ending to the story.

    I also enjoyed his “The Herons of Mer de L’Ouest” in Lightspeed earlier this year.

  3. Amanda Larson says:

    This is such a fabulous psychological exploration and use of the open ending.

    I particularly like the slow buildup in which I didn’t initially question the presence of jailers, followed by the impression that they’d only been gone for a short time before the later reveals. It makes the truth seem plain while still leaving that lingering doubt.

    I also liked the presentation of what happened to the town – just enough info to clearly explain the situation while preserving the mystery.

  4. Sylvia says:

    I’ve only just discovered this story but it had me gripped. Perfect ending.

  5. […] “The Penitent”. Beneath Ceaseless Skies: http://www.beneath-ceaseless-skies.com/stories/the-penitent/ – “Water Finds Its Level”. Lightspeed Magazine: […]

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