ABOUT THE BOOK
A hopeful amnesiac abiding in a brutal prison seizes an opportunity for freedom, but the struggle to survive may cost him his sanity… or his life.
A desperate man has forgotten his own name — along with everything else from his past — as he struggles to stay alive in a brutal prison in the desert mountains of ancient Persia. But when a chance for freedom manifests, matters grow worse than ever, and he must confront his worst fears, or lose himself forever.
The Rat Tunnels of Isfahan
Alejandro de Gutierre
It just stood there, a living statue, of onyx along the back, and the color of desert sand in the legs and claws. Its tail, of linked amber blocks with the aspect of unpolished jewels, tapered and grew darker along its length to the last segment, which glowed dull red as if it held a ruby inside. It looked hard, its shell unbreakable, its soul impenetrable. Suddenly senseless, I felt myself drawn toward it — drawn by some perverse instinct to tempt Asi — Lady Fortune. Was I? I was: leaning my head in just a little, the scorpion’s perfect stillness pulling me in closer. I drew some air and allowed my better judgment to prevail, pushing myself back from the scorpion. I questioned my senses then, because I felt sure it had taken a few tiny steps toward me. Where were the guards?
The scorpion had wandered into my cell several minutes earlier, under the door perhaps, or through the narrow slit in the wall, high overhead. I didn’t see it enter; I only noticed it as it stalked to the middle of my cell. While its legs rose and fell in a coordinated haunt, its body, tail, and dangling ruby stinger seemed to glide across the ground like a leaf floating down a gentle river. Smaller than a man’s palm, with its eight legs flexed at sharp angles, it stood unmoving, its stinger poised and impossible to miss. This little khrafstra was known to all desert dwellers: the Red Scorpion of India, author of the three-day death. I had to keep it in my sights, but I had to look away from it.
Shifting my gaze, looking past my unwelcome visitor, I glanced at the filthy bucket in the far corner of my cell. Behind it, I had in my possession a precious stash comprising one large rock and three small ones — for self-defense, not against the guards of course, but against other prisoners. Stones were hard to come by; the basalt walls and floor didn’t chip easily. But having them, especially a big one you could smash with, often made the difference. So I was glad to have them. And my big rock was just what I needed right then, but the capricious Lady Asi had to have her little joke; she must have guided the scorpion right between me and my filthy bucket, and the precious rocks it concealed. Where were the guards?
The guards always came for us when there were clashes outside — tribal clashes, over pillaging and raiding rights along the trade route that connected Isfahan to Yazd. Tribal clashes like the one that raged in the desert valley below. The horses, the chariots, the burly men and women flinging themselves at each other, laden with armor, swinging axes and swords… a pleasure to watch; our sole diversion in this forsaken, starless prison, this waiting room for death or madness. Streaming through a narrow vertical gap, carved at twice my height, a sliver of white light blasted the inner wall of my cell, telling me mid-morning had come. Where the sun hit it, the stone glowed silvery blue, while a dull, dark grey pressed in from all sides, and deep shadows haunted the corners. My cell had no bed; the filthy bucket was my chamberpot. The ceiling was high, and the cell measured seven paces by five, so there was ample room, but the tedium of staring at those stone walls from daybreak to nightfall was a yoke around the neck, fixed too tight, always squeezing the throat. On the hottest days, one struggled to draw breath. At night, the darkness in our cells was oppressive, and terror frequently set in; one heard screaming most nights.
I felt like screaming just then, my guts heaving and my chest constricting as the scorpion repositioned itself, tapping its many legs two or three times quickly and turning in a half circle. It felt as though my skin was shrinking and shriveling all over my body as it shifted from facing the door, to facing me directly. Was it watching me? Did it know I was watching it? I glanced away and strained to listen for the sounds of cell doors opening, or of guards in the hallways, but kept the beast in the corner of my vision. A man wailing, the sound of the wind in the hall, tribal men and women ululating outside and far below… but no guards. I looked back at my bucket. I could trap the scorpion underneath it, or I could try to smash it with my rock, but I would have to get past the scorpion first. How fast could a scorpion move? Would it beat me there? Would it attack me as I passed it? I was beaten and I knew it. I wasn’t crazy.
I wasn’t crazy. Not like most of the tortured souls I shared the prison with. Some wandered, muttering and bumping into walls. Some sat unmoving for hours, staring into a darkness even the desert sun couldn’t penetrate, their eyes seeing but not seeing, ears hearing but not listening. And a sad few would break; they would weep, and rock, and cry out. These were the broken: shuffling from place to place, barely eating, barely drinking, numbly watching the flesh drip from their bones, oblivious to the blood slowing in their veins.
One of these, called Jangi the Brave (a joke by the guards) struggled to eat on his own, and was at times prone to fits of abject fear and panic. They were cruel to this one. I used to help him eat, placing bits of food on his tongue, tilting his head back and massaging his jowls until he swallowed. I tried carrying him water in my cup, but a guard who hated Jangi struck the cup from my hands and then struck me in the gut for good measure. I was refused a replacement for the cup, but when they weren’t looking, I brought Jangi water anyway, carrying it carefully in my hands. In rare, lucid moments, he told me about his life in the court of the cruel prince Shapur, who forced him to visit all manner of cruelty upon enemies.
“However did you come to be in this place?” I asked him once.
“The prince declared as his enemy a small child,” he replied, speaking cautiously, searching, pausing after certain words. “The son he was, of a nomad who followed his Sheikh into battle against us.”
“What did he order you to?” Jangi only shook his head. “You refused to carry out his order,” I added. He lowered his eyes and lifted one of his gnarled hands an inch or two from his lap. The hand shook as he tried to make a fist. Jangi opened his mouth to speak, but only a pinched groan issued from his throat, which I knew to mean that he was fading from his thoughts again.
The guards stopped letting me help Jangi. One day, he spat up a bit of rice, and it landed on a guard’s foot. They took him to The Pit for punishment; I never saw him after that.
I wasn’t crazy, but my mind tricked me in other ways. Often, my thoughts were interrupted by a sudden sense that I had forgotten something, left something behind of critical importance. I would wake from my dreams crying out, reaching for something or someone. Always I was haunted by the vague notion that some unfinished business remained to me — that some crucial task needed my attention. What task needs the attention of a prisoner without a life outside of four basalt walls, without even an end to his sentence? And yet the feeling was a frequent plague; a blight that shut out other thoughts, so that I could think of nothing else but the question: what have I forgotten? So persistent was the sensation that I began to question my sanity.
A tiny fraction of our number still clung to our minds and hearts, though it was dangerous to do so. The guards seemed to have well-tuned spirit-noses, trained to sniff out any hint of resistance. How they loved to hurt the men who dared yearn for freedom. They starved us. To those of us who still thought ourselves temporary guests, they would throw khrafstra like frogs and lizards, and that forbidden fare would be our meal for the day. Kinder days found them giving us rancid meat from the rats they’d killed days before, bones of crows or moles already picked dry by the other prisoners, human limbs they’d collected from the battlefields outside. How they delighted in watching us fight over these. We would squabble and punch each other, we would horde and guard the bits we could get our hands on (having a good rock was essential here). The human flesh was always the last thing to go, even if it was only hours old. You never got used to that creeping, bubbling feeling from inside of your guts that spread throughout your body and caused your skin to creep and crawl. Biting into the flesh was revolting. The little hairs tickled the roof of your mouth and glided between your teeth. They stuck in the back of your throat and choked you.
Of all these conditions, it wasn’t the solitude that threatened to break me. It wasn’t the oppressive heat, bearing down from every direction, nor the cold nights stretched out on a stony floor with only the jubba I wore. Nor was it the abuse the guards inflicted — bruised ribs, swollen lips — nor the days full of empty bellies. It was two things:
It was the human flesh I couldn’t stop myself from eating.
It was the loss of time.
You see, I couldn’t remember anything before that place. Time and memory were adrift in a sandstorm in my mind. In fact, aside from some half-remembered images, and a hazy silhouette of what might have been my mother, the prison was my only recollection. When I tried to remember life outside, life before, nothing specific would rise to the surface of my memory. I would sit for hours, trying to think back to my first day there. Was I a young man, or a mature one, when I arrived? I once asked the head guard: what was my offense? How long was my sentence and how much of it have I served? It will not surprise you that he didn’t tell me. It will not surprise you that he responded only with disciplinary action: bruises and blood, and then detention in The Pit. It was the loss of time that threatened to break me. Even now I don’t really know who I was, before. I believe that I must have been a merchant, because I know things. I know weights of things, and distances, different kinds of stones, and how to cut and lay them. I know trade routes, and I know how to load up a camel. But the personal details are lost: my name, where I’m from, the shape of my mother’s face.
I do remember some things: The passage of time while in that prison is not entirely lost to me. My time in The Pit — a deep excavation with high stone walls, concealed in the winding tunnels that wend away from the cell block, into the bowels of the mountain — that time I remember keenly: fear and hunger and desperate thirst tend to linger in the memory. Fear especially: for any prisoner disciplined in The Pit (if he survives) is permitted to return to his cell only once. No prisoner ever returned from a second internment in The Pit. Another thing I remember is the first time I ate human flesh — the agony of choosing between prolonging my already desperate hunger, and lowering myself, debasing my life even further — the pain of that choice left an indelible scar. You see? I do remember some things. But lo, time — and any life I had before that prison — escaped and confounded me. And now, stripped of them, I felt I may never have had any time that was my own. I arrived there with nothing, so they ought to have had nothing they could take from me. But I did have something, something very precious. If I had known it could be taken away, perhaps I could have guarded against it. But so much time had passed, and the time within that time muddled together, and everything before my time there had faded, washed away in the blood of rats, pulverized in the sinew and bone of dead men.