The last glimmer of light left the dingy prison cell as the clock struck ten and an eerie silence fell over block number 3A. The convict lay on his bed, eyes wide open. He was not afraid of the dark, but the very thought of what he would see if he closed his eyes scared him to death. He ran his hand over the wall at the side of his bed, feeling the rough surface, all the markings, all the scratches, he felt like he could read all of them, like a blind man reading braille.
A thin beam of moonlight crept in through the bars of the window high above, illuminating a circular patch on the floor where the dried up blood stains of some past horror still reminded the convict of his mortality from time to time. That night, however he didn’t need any reminding. Death was close, he could almost feel her standing outside his cell, a long strand of rope in her hand, adding coil after coil, tying the knot with precision.
Somewhere in the dark, a hoarse voice started singing from another cell, the words unintelligible, but the emotion lucid as rain. The convict’s eyes adjusted to the darkness after what seemed like eternity, and that was when he felt someone standing beside his bed. In spite of the circumstances, his reflex hadn’t deserted him and he spun around, scanning the whole cell with his eyes, the moonlight aiding him. He rose up, and without knowing why, walked towards the tiny illuminated spot on the floor. He stared down at the bloodstain, and it stared back at him, but the chill rising slowly up his spine had nothing to do with blood. Blood was something he was familiar with, since he was a child; what was causing him to sweat profusely on that cold December night was the tiny invisible hand that was wrapped around his index finger.
He stood transfixed, his burly hands shaking furiously, but the tiny little hand held on. Then he heard her call out his name, twice. Her voice was lilting and sweet, like the sound of a river flowing through a rocky landscape; but at the same time it was familiar, so very familiar. Turning his head around slowly, the convict faced his untimely visitor.
He froze when he saw her face, then with a sharp intake of breath he stumbled backwards, his back thumping into the cold wall behind him. His shock subsided as the angelic face smiled at him. The face belonged to a 10 year old girl wearing a white frock, with long hair that fell down to her waist and a face that was the very essence of purity.
“You have nothing to fear. Nothing at all.” She spoke like an adult with her lilting childlike voice, and it made him flinch.
“You…you are not real. This is just a dream and you are not real.” The convict cried out, spittle flying from his mouth.
“Of course I’m real. Your past is real and I’m a shadow from your past. Don’t you know that?” The girl inquired, her deep blue eyes staring into the convict’s beetle black ones.
“My past is dead and so is my future. If you’re my retribution, you better hurry.”
The child laughed, her sweet mellifluous voice echoing in the prison cell.
“Oh but I didn’t come here to punish you, it’s too late for that don’t you think?” She paused. “Or perhaps too early.”
The convict stayed silent, a shadow of defiance fell upon his eyes and he sank down on the dilapidated floor, wishing the wall behind him would swallow him whole.
The girl walked forward and sat down cross-legged right in front of him, smiling sweetly.
“Yesterday my parents visited my grave, they told me that you were about to be executed and that my soul will rest in peace because of it.” She spoke, a forlorn look in her eyes. “But it made me sad you know.”
“Why?” The convict looked at her in disbelief.
“Because you took my life before the world could taint me. I never got to learn how to hate people while I lived, and death has taught me nothing at all. It’s so empty and cold here, so lonely.”
“And how is that different from life?”
“You get second chances in life, you can make things better. You can cry, laugh, and love…say that you’re sorry…say how you feel.”
“Not everyone is so lucky. We are deemed to be weak if we show how we really feel, that’s why we bottle things up, lock our feelings away in the deepest corners of our mind until it eats us up from the inside just…just like cancer.”
The convict spoke, his breathing ragged, his chest heaving as he recalled the day he first saw the little girl, playing with her pet dog in the garden, while he clipped the hedges that grew too long.
“Have you ever been in love?” She asked him, those deep blue eyes piercing into his soul or lack thereof.
A wistful cloud fell over his face, and for a moment he was not in that dark cell anymore. He was a teenage boy playing football in a muddy field, the rain pouring down upon him as he ran with the ball at his feet, while the other kids moved out the way, which was probably a wise choice given they were almost half his size. At the edge of the field, where the grass was overgrown, there stood a tree, tall and proud. Under this tree there was a wooden bench where the old coach would sit sometimes to rest his legs, shouting at the showboating winger to pass the goddamn ball while he was at it.
The ill-tempered old man was not there that day, however. In fact he would never sit under that tree again, having narrowly missed the first rain of the monsoon as his heart gave out while he slept. That day, his place was taken by someone else, someone much younger and full of life, someone who sat on that very bench watching the game, her blue umbrella swaying in the wind as she held on to it with all her strength. After the game, the boys gathered around in a circle, their heads bowed down. No words were spoken. It was a strange way to honour a man who had so much to say all the time.
The enormous teenage boy jogged over to the tree, which was busy creating its own little rainfall even after the clouds had passed.
She smiled at him.
The convict was awoken from his reverie by the voice of the little girl, which seemed to be coming from far away, each word echoing inside his brain and filling him with a sense of longing.
“What happened to her?” She asked him, her eyes a melange of childlike curiosity and compassion.
A sudden look of rage flashed in the convict’s eyes. He snarled at the girl.
“Why do you even care? Leave and let me die in peace!”
He shouted out the last part, his gruff voice echoing among the grey walls of the prison, drawing angry protests from the inmates, many of whom hurled obscenities in their sleep-laden voices.
The girl bowed her head, then she stood up and walked over to where the man was sitting. He flinched as she approached, raising his hand to ward her off, but as she touched his face, his apprehension dwindled. The convict looked up at her, a broken man with a sunken hollow face adorned by scars. His eyes were not the frosty, distant ones that the inmates of block 3A were terrified of, nor were they the malicious ones that glowed with a hellish fire as he squeezed the life out of a little girl all those years ago. Instead they were the eyes of a teenage boy who had suffered every day of his wretched life and had everything that he loved taken away from him, until one day he couldn’t love at all.
The girl looked at the wall behind him, where etched against the hard surface with inept hands was a tiny umbrella, out of which the colour blue bled out like raindrops. The girl pointed at it as she spoke.
“Does that remind you of her?” She asked, as the convict turned back to look at his handiwork.
“Yes.” He replied. “But so does everything else.”
“Did I? Is that why you took my life? To wipe away every trace of her memory, everything that reminded you of her, everything that was good in you?”
The anguish in her voice was palpable, almost physical, and the convict felt like if he tried he could touch and feel her pain, and maybe even realise the torment that she was suffering from even in death. He wanted to ease her suffering, to tell her that he was sorry for what he did, but he was afraid it wouldn’t suffice.
“I killed you because it felt good.” He said. “It felt like I was killing her, and in turn killing a part of me that held all the wrong notions about empathy, forgiveness, love and justice. I killed you to feel stronger, to feel like God.”
“While you were strangling me to death, I was praying for God to help me, he was nowhere to be found. He didn’t even say sorry afterwards.” She replied with a sardonic smile on her face.
“Look at us, dead people, mocking God like we have no fear of Him.” The convict laughed.
“One of the many privileges of death, I suppose.”
The darkness inside the cell was fading gradually, as was the voice of the little girl, and the convict had to strain his ears to listen to her words. At the same time, he felt the inevitable was approaching. Time was a luxury he didn’t possess.
“It’s time for me to go.” He said, his voice shaking.
The girl took his hands in hers and smiled.
“You’re not going to see me again.” She said. “I’ve lingered too long.”
“Have you forgiven me?” The convict asked hopefully, the tears of years past welling up in his eyes.
“No, and I don’t think I ever can, but we’ve shared our pain tonight, and you’ve accepted what you couldn’t all this time. Now it’s time for you to move on, just like me.”
The girl embraced the convict, and in that epiphanic moment, he was rendered speechless. All he could do was to gaze at the window high above, through which the first light of a new day crept in and kissed the floor. The bloodstain was gone.
At 9AM, two guards escorted a scrawny looking man to that dull prison cell. They shoved him inside and locked the gate, leaving without a word.
He uttered a curse and sat at the edge of the bed, when his eyes fell on the wall facing him, where a tiny blue umbrella was flawlessly etched across the surface, like the work of an artist.
He thought it was beautiful.