Wednesday, September 22, 2004

The Pit

Rajiv Subramanian

It was the loneliness that got to him in the end. The unending loneliness. Hour after hour of total and complete silence. He had long since become used to the filth and stink surrounding him. The space around him was surrounded with his faeces and urine along with his vomit. The stench was enough to smother even a sewer cleaners rugged nose buds. However, after six days in the pit, smell was only a fading memory and sight a luxury. The only light he got was when the guards opened the trapdoor once a day to lower slop that served as food and a glass of water, to keep him barely alive.

At first he had used some of the water to wash himself but had soon given up any pretences of cleanliness because he had only that small glass of water to quench his thirst for the whole day. He used the peripherals of the circular hole in the ground, which served as his prison, to answer calls of nature and he now sat cramped in the middle of the pit with his hands hugging his knees to his chest. His breath came in short, painful rasps and he had long since lost all feeling in his legs. In fact his whole body was numb with pain and exhaustion.

He had long since given up any hope of escape or redemption. In his weakened condition he couldn’t have made it to the top of the six-foot deep pit if someone lowered a ladder and whistled Dixie to encourage him. His mind had ceased to function rationally and had begun to wander. In his delusions he was back home in his ranch, raking the field and rounding up the cattle. In the beginning he had tried to keep his sanity by talking to himself - reciting nursery rhymes and Shakespeare, but with time his lips had become so cracked that it had become difficult to open his mouth and then his dry lips had stuck together. Not having enough water, his throat had become parched and dry until the only sounds he could make were pitiful croaks.

In a sense he had ceased to function as a human being merely existing, not living anymore. When he had joined the army he had been eager to prove himself, to lay down his life for his country. They had trained him well. He had become as immune to physical pain as he could get. Their rigorous training camps and tough sergeants had turned the boy rancher from Montana into a tough, capable fighting man. But nothing could have prepared him for the blatant indignity of living in his own filth in a cage unfit for a pig. In a mere week his life had been turned upside down from the prospects of making a sergeant to a life that was bleak and empty a nightmare stretching indefinitely into the future.

General Ralph Gibson sat up in his bed, sweating. He looked at the clock by his bed. The hands showed two o’clock. The dream that had been haunting him for twenty years now had never once failed. He couldn’t remember the last time he had had a peaceful nights sleep. He laid his head back on the pillow and relived the events of twenty odd years ago as if they had happened yesterday.

He remembered with startling clarity how he had staggered into camp, more dead than alive, the sole survivor of a whole platoon of soldiers who had been ambushed and taken to a concentration camp. Acting on his information a platoon of soldiers launched a covert operation against the camp but arrived too late. Except for the dead bodies of soldiers who had not been able to stand up to the torture strewn around, the camp was empty.

He had been hailed as a hero and had received medals for bravery and courage. He had recovered quickly and showed an enthusiasm for getting back to the battle which had pleased his superiors. The rest of his military career read like a novel and he miraculously came out of the war without so much as a scar. He had quickly worked up the ranks and had become the youngest major in the army. After that it had not been long before he had made General.

General Ralph Gibson woke up in the morning with his dream just a shadow in his unconscious. By the time he had showered and shaved, his maid had made the bed and his valet had laid his robe on the bed with the morning paper.After having gone through the papers he descended to the dining hall to have breakfast. He made an impressive figure in his red silk robe with a pipe clasped firmly between his teeth. The years had treated him kindly. There was no flab and his ruddy face was jovial with just a hint of red on his nose and cheeks showing his fondness for good wine.

As he opened his letters at the table, the butler served him breakfast. He told his butler to inform his chauffeur that he would be taking the Mercedes for a drive that day and would not require him.The General drove around in seemingly aimless circles before finally stopping at a park. He then got out with a suitcase and went to a bench occupied by a thin, emaciated looking man who had a foreign cast of features, reading a newspaper. The General sat down, setting his suitcase beside that of the man and for a while watched a bunch of kids playing nearby. He had a wistful look on his face as he saw the giggling and yelling mass of bodies tumbling all over the park. His reverie was broken when the man next to him asked him for a light. As he lit his cigarette the man looked up and smiled and he felt a chill go down his spine. For a moment he was transported back in time to that cold, wet and stormy night when he had been dragged before the commanding officer of the concentration camp. The officer had the same look on his face then. The look of a man who knew that he had won that he held the fate of another irrevocably in the palm of his hand.

The General did not hear the soft _thank you_ of the man and neither did he see him take up the suitcase and move off to a car. He was reliving that night when he had sold his soul when he had taken the decision that would never let him sleep no matter how comfortable the bed was or how many pills he took the night when he had signed the death warrants of men alongside whom he had fought the night when he had turned traitor.
He seemed to have aged all of a sudden. It seemed as if all those years had finally caught up to him. Then he squared his shoulders, set his jaw and picking up the other manes briefcase, walked towards his car. Reaching it he paused and then leaving the briefcase at the curb he drove off.

The next day the papers had two bits of sensational news. One was that the police had confiscated a briefcase filled with currency that apparently had been deserted near a park. The police had not disclosed the exact sum but unofficial sources put it around half a million dollars. The police suspected the hand of a drug mob. Interesting though this was it faded into insignificance before the news that was hogging the front pages in all the papers. It reported the sad and unforeseen demise of General Ralph Gibson who had apparently died of an overdose of sleeping pills. The General had been in good health and spirits and was reported to be of sound mental health. The police were looking into possibilities of foul play but the general view was that it had been an unfortunate accident.

And so the rancher from Montana finally got his good nights sleep.

The End


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