I met the bearded man three days from death, half-buried down the esophagus of a monster.
We called the prison The Carcass because it was – the entire compound had been built inside the fossilized corpse of a gargantuan beast, prison bars planted messily in bone and flesh. Chained to a dozen other women, our captors forced us to walk through the desert for days until at last the silhouette of the massive corpse slowly became visible, and we were led unceremoniously to our final home. Burnt, starved and depleted, each of us was deposited in our dark cell and praised the petrified floor as we collapsed into deep sleep. The next morning we learned what it was to live inside death.
But this was not my death. I began with the patterns, as I was taught: our captors’ schedules, the noise each made winding their way down the halls, the length of day and night in the desert, the character of their sleep. On top of this I layered my gradual sense of the maze of floors that spread from my cell, the map of organs and the rooms built out of them. This was mostly pieced together from snippets of conversation, or the echo of footfalls. Finally, I explored the softness of each captor, their empathy and torpidity. Nights I let all of my growing knowledge collect inside me, become reflex and intuition.
The real threat was the forgetting. Something noxious in the beast’s corpse wore away at the memory, indiscriminately erased prisoners’ pasts, reduced them to trembling bodies. The women in the cells beside me forgot their names, their history, cried out at night to no one at all. I recited my biography to the walls nightly, though it felt shorter and less my own each time. Most important was my plan of escape, which I repeated constantly, scratching it into the floor in my own language. This stayed intact but it cost me great tracts of my past.
Seventy two nights into my tenure I took my leave of the place. It was a simple plan but I knew it wouldn’t fail. Slinking through intestines I wound my way towards the mouth of the beast, ignoring the desperate whispers of my imprisoned sisters, knowing they would haunt me in the days to come. Food was hard to come by, but I found a pantry tucked away between cells. The skeletons we’d passed in the desert were reminder enough that I could not leave unencumbered. I resisted the urge to stop and eat right there, stuffing all that I could into a small pack on the floor and slinging it over my shoulder as I continued on.
The starlight at the end of the tunnel told me I had reached the esophagus, the beast’s fangs framing the opening, glowing against the night sky. I tempered my impulse to run and instead scuttled forward carefully, resisting my urge to scream in delight at the sight of the outside world. Halfway to the throat I could no longer wait, and broke into a mad canter. It was then that I tripped violently against a dark mass, scattering the contents of my pack across the floor. A curse, a scramble to gather the food and a look back at the cause of it. A man.
Unearthing him was more difficult than expected, but immediately I could tell that it was no corpse. Scraggly-bearded and nearly expired, I propped him up against the esophageal wall and fed him water from my pack. After a few moments he surfaced, coughing weakly, hands shaking, testing the reality around him. Soft-eyed, bearded and gaunt, he looked out at me blankly for a few minutes. Do eyes closed and close to death have to adjust to the dark? Or perhaps he was blind. Or resurfacing from the afterlife.
Finally they focused, and slowly his face assembled a look of deep recognition which seemed to breathe life into him. Speech was clearly days away, but the look he gave me was at once somehow comforting and deeply unsettling. It had been some time since he had seen a woman. A smile tugged weakly at his lips and he tried unsuccessfully to lift a hand and reach for my hair. And then the look passed and he gave into sleep again.
A short pause. A nod to myself. An unconscious decision to dash my own chances of escape by dragging this body with me. I pulled a blanket out of his pack, rolled him onto it, and dragged his near-corpse until the two of us were experiencing the starry night together.
It seemed an inevitable suicide the first night – encumbered as I was, we made almost no progress and I hovered on the edge of despair. By morning the beast still loomed far too closely, and I was sure my captors would find me. The man could sit up by himself at this point, and after our meager breakfast, he found the energy to trudge alongside me, mute with eyes still unfocused. We walked in silence through a world in two hues, at once hypnotic and hopeless. Given his clumsy shamble I knew we wouldn’t pass through the desert in less than a week, and even with my stingy rationing of our sustenance, I knew it wouldn’t last us.
The first words he spoke were the product of some minor somnambulism. Crawling in a circle around our camp late one night, he coughed some, recited others, as if he were reading a text in another language, or piecing together a demonic incantation. He was learning to speak in his sleep, teaching one side of his brain what the other side already knew. He was hard to decipher that night. But he began sleep talking every night. And soon the words were complete thoughts. On the fifth night they began forming stories.
We watched the caravan approach for hours before it reached us. Eight days in and down to our final bit of rations, I knew the next sunset would have been our last. That the caravan was made up of our captors hardly mattered at that point: they were traveling in our direction. When they finally passed us, we followed from a distance, catching up with them late into the night. My companion’s stuttered limp was hardly silent, but I have ways of not being seen, and we managed to bury ourselves in a supply wagon without incident. Muffling his unconscious storytelling kept me up until daybreak.
“You still cannot speak?” The captors were walking far enough ahead that we were out of earshot, and I tired of his daytime silence. “You are lucid asleep.” At this he turned to look at me. “Do you know that you tell me stories at night?” He answered with furrowed eyebrows. “You have been repeating them nightly. There are five.” At this he began forcing air out through his mouth and coughing quietly. “Who are you? And what brought you to the prison?” As I suspected, my questions coaxed out a labored whisper.
He began with too many consonants, but soon the word he repeated was intelligible. “Chronicler.” A few more coughs and he was onto sentences. “I am a chronicler. A cartographer of kin.” He motioned for the water, and I angled a few drops into his mouth. His throat ragged, he shook his head and instead reached into his small pack and produced a tattered book. He tapped it and, still coughing, handed it to me. I leafed through page after page of splotched ink and scratched-out text, shaking my head.
“This is entirely illegible. Do you always carry useless books with you?” At this he reached over and opened to the first page of the book. The first few pages were unsullied text – surprisingly delicate handwriting, small and thoughtful and precise. Tracing the first few lines, I nodded to him. “These are the stories you expectorate at night. Come closer and I will whisper them back to you.”