by Michael Robert
Everything in this place keeps time with the tattoo of the drum. The groan of the oars, the rattling of chains, the crack of the lash, all of it in the same cadence. I even find my climb to the deck above matching the tempo of the rhythmic pounding.
No one knows where the metronomic sound comes from. I have long grown familiar with the shape of my prison over the decades of my captivity; combed over every inch, memorized the grain of every wooden plank. There is no drum here, no unoccupied space within which it might be concealed. But the beat impels us all the same.
The ladder I scale is treacherous. By design, the slender rungs are difficult to find purchase on, slickened by moisture and the slime of mildew. The fetters binding my ankles barely allow me enough slack to lift my foot from one rung to the next, and even then only with much discomfort. A fall from this height wouldn’t kill me, though. That would be too great a mercy. The contours of our existence here are marked by our enduring pain.
Up on deck, the sound of the drums is lessened, but not absent. The gray, weather-beaten planks are rough, threatening to shed slivers into the soles of my bare feet at every step. My partner of the day waits for me beneath the foremast and its flaccid sail of rotted canvas. I don’t know his name. We have no need of them here, and without use, they are the first part of us to wither and die.
Naked, hunched, and broken, his wrists and ankles are chained together, the same as the rest of us. There’s no telling how old he is, how long he’s been on board. We are all bent toward such wretchedness over time.
I hold up the token of my lot assignment as I draw near. “You’re late,” he tells me as he shows his matching piece.
“You should appreciate a moment of rest.”
He shakes his head. “You know as well as I do that there’s no such thing for us. We’ll be made to pay for it, one way or another.”
“At least we’re not rowing.”
He shrugs his crooked shoulders. “Trading one drudgery for another, then. Come on, may as well get started.” I follow behind him toward the prow and the waiting pile of corpses.
The ship slices through the black waters of the river, propelled by hundreds of oars undulating to the relentless phantom beat that rules us. The shores are visible on either side, lost to impenetrable fog only a few yards past the stony banks. Inscrutable human forms of various sizes stand there in silhouette, flickering in and out of existence in the mist. For each that disappears, another appears elsewhere. The river is endless, and the hordes of ephemeral voyeurs witness our collective suffering in silence, every stroke of the way.
“Don’t pay the ghosties any mind, you know better than that,” my partner says. “It’s just another way to hurt us. Trying to make us think that maybe we could have had some other fate than this. But everybody rows.”
“Everybody rows,” I echo.
We haul the first of the corpses off the top of the heap. The height difference between us makes it an awkward task that wracks my back with pain. The lots are drawn randomly, but somehow the pairings always work out to make a given task as difficult as possible.
I hunch over to remove the leg irons from the cadaver’s ankles while my partner takes the wrists. The rusted shackles spring free of their own volition, and I set them aside for later reuse. “Look at this poor bastard,” says my partner. “He died with a smile on his face.”
The dead man looks like sallow leather stretched over a skeleton malformed by lifetimes of torturous labor, his skin more scar tissue than untouched by the cat o’ nine tails. True to my companion’s word, there is still a ghost of a smile on his cracked and blistered lips.
“He probably thought his suffering was at an end. But he ought to have known better. Help me heave him over.”
The railing of the boat is exactly too high to allow us to lift him up and over without overexerting ourselves. The body isn’t even particularly heavy, but our own physiques aren’t far removed from that of our burden.
“How do you know it’s not over for him?” I ask between huffs of breath.
“The river won’t let us off that easy.” He groans when we finally heave the body over the rails. There’s a feeble splash as it sinks out of sight into the inky depths. “At most, it’s just a temporary reprieve before it spits him back out somewhere down the line to get picked up by a different boat. A worse boat.”
“You have no way of knowing that,” I say before we haul down the next corpse and remove the chains.
“Of course I do. He dared to hope, nothing around here goes punished so harshly as that. And there must be other boats. Ours is long, but it’s not that long.”
Judging by the expressions fixed at the moment of their expiration, the next several corpses lacked the audacity to go out with a warm thought in their mind. My partner still insists that their fate is the same, though. That they’ll be hauled back out of the river, conscious once more, and pressed into service on a galley that puts our nameless vessel to shame in its depravities.
It’s easy to imagine he’s right. That the cycle is endless, and only grows worse with each iteration.
We continue in silence, falling into the rhythm of the drum despite ourselves. A woman, so drawn and gaunt that the only differentiating feature between our sexes is the lack of a shriveled cock between her legs, hobbles toward the hatch, dragging a battered metal sop bucket behind her.
“Hey!” my partner calls as she passes. “What about us?”
She shakes her head and tilts the pail toward us. It’s empty of the stale bread soaked in sour milk that passes as our rations. “Nothing left,” she says. No sooner do I think about the prospect of food--even food as unappetizing as what we’re forced to subsist on--then my stomach twists itself in knots in an attempt to sate the void of hunger within.
“Told you we’d pay for it,” my partner says. A shadow of something passes over his face. Hatred, perhaps? He knows me to be responsible for this fresh pain, and there’s no sense in my denying it. He’ll get over it, in time. There’re worse abuses it could have been, and there’ll be ample opportunity to someday return the favor with interest.
We finish dumping the rigored cadavers into the waters of the river, our bellies reminding us of their emptiness the whole while. I don’t know how long our chore takes us. There’s no sun here, no way of measuring the passage of time. There’s only the unchanging fog around us, the abyssal waters below, and whatever vagaries the drawing of lots may bring.
I spot something ahead of us and elbow my partner. There’s only one thing to ever be found floating in the river. “Get the hooks,” I tell him.
The body bumps against the hull of the boat in time to the drum, already integrating itself into the rhythm before we can even haul it aboard. The hooks are made of black iron, attached to the ends of broken oar shafts. We attempt to fish the naked figure out of the water, but it stays in our grasp only long enough to ensure that it keeps pace with the boat before it slips away again. Finally, when our muscles ache and our lungs burn from effort, the river grows bored of toying with us and allows us get a hook under each arm and pull it up.
We lay her out on the deck. She still has meat on her bones, curving in all the ways I’ve forgotten a woman should. Still has her hair, too, though I can’t remember the name of the color. Red, I think.
She sits up and gasps, looking around in wild-eyed confusion. “Where am I?” she asks.
“On a boat,” my partner says, extending his hand to her. She accepts it with a guarded expression on her face, but allows him to help her to her feet, as ineffectual as his efforts may be. “Welcome aboard.”
She tries to cover her tits and sex, as though any of that still matters. Her cheeks turn the same color as her hair. Definitely red, then. “I don’t understand,” she says.
I kneel down and fit the manacles on her ankles. The iron bands clamp shut of their own accord, just as the chain between them shortens itself to accommodate the difference in stride from that of its previous owner.
“No!” she cries, forgetting her modesty and tugging at the bindings, trying in vain to pull them off. “No, you can’t do this!”
Despite her struggling, my partner has no difficulty in securing the chains about her wrists to match those on her ankles. The restraints seem to move of their own agency, the open shackles like the gaping jaws of a predator lunging at its prey. She just screams louder and falls to her knees.
“You can’t do this! I’ve always loved the lord God with all my heart, what did I do to deserve this? What did I do?”
“Ah, but which God?” asks my partner. “One God’s church is the chapel of the devil to another. If there’s a one true faith, none of us know it.”
“What was my sin?” she sobs. “What was my sin? What did I do?”
“You were human,” I tell her.
I haul her to her feet. I should lack the strength, but once more the chains exert a force all their own. “We were all human.”
She continues wailing as I drag her over to the hatch leading below deck. She collapses again the second I release the irons. “Climb down,” I instruct her. She just sits there and weeps uncontrollably.
She doesn’t move.
I plant the heel of my foot on her face just below her eye and shove. There’s the muffled impact of soft flesh against hard wood as she lands at the base of the ladder. Her grief-filled bawling turn to howls of pain and terror.
She’s still lying in the fetal position when I climb all the way down. I seize the chain hanging between her wrists, hauling her to her feet once more, and leading her further into the dark belly of our shared confinement. The air down here stinks of sweat and effluent, filled with the sound of wooden shafts grinding against their oarlocks. The beating of the drum pulses in my skull.
“Please!” she shouts as we pass row after row of impassive prisoners with dead eyes. “Please, someone help me! Help me!”
I shove her into the first open seat I find. The iron loop on the floor snaps itself shut over the chain between her ankles like the springing of a trap. “Please,” she begs me as I force the oar into her hands. “Please, you don’t have to do this! There’s no one making you do this, things don’t have to be this way! We’re all--”
The rest of her sentence evaporates into a scream as the lash of the cat digs into her flesh. An octet of scarlet lacerations blossom on her back as she bends over the shaft of her oar and shrieks in agony and despair. I can’t remember the last time I saw blood of such vivid color.
It’s not until the second lash that she starts to make a half-hearted effort to work the oar, and the fourth before she’s doing it in earnest. I step aside to allow the flagellant to continue his circuit, while she resumes her mindless begging, sitting at the center of a growing puddle of blood, piss, shit, and tears.
“What did I do?” she asks. Her words are almost unintelligible, broken into fragments by the irregular breathing born of hyperventilation. It’s only by her mantra of repetition that I derive meaning them. “What did I do? What did I do?”
I seize her face in my hand and clench it tight, holding her gaze to mine. I say some of the same words spoken to me when I first arrived, so long ago that I cannot remember, the edict levied against all those who unwillingly join our number.
“It doesn’t matter what you did or didn’t do,” I tell her. “This is forever. This pain. This degradation. It will fill your memories until you can’t remember anything other than this existence, only knowing that it wasn’t always this way. And then, one day, you too will find yourself standing over someone with a flail in your hand, someone who never did a goddamn thing to you. But you won’t care. All that will matter is that you inflict even a fraction of the suffering you have endured.
“And who knows? Maybe the key to our release is for someone to be the first to lay the lash aside and decline to take their fury out on someone who bears no responsibility for it. To take the first step of penance to atone for our collective failings. But it sure as all hell won’t be today, tomorrow, or any time soon.
“So in the meantime, everybody rows.”
I turn and leave her there. Already, her pleading cries are finding time with the incessant beat as I hobble deeper into the galley. By some signal I don’t consciously recognize, I know my assigned task is complete and that I need to return to my station, lest I feel the bite of the cat myself.
I find a vacant bench and seize the oar. The iron loop at the floor ensnares the chain about my ankles and springs shut. And I row.
The drumming no longer only reverberates inside my head. It fills my mind, suffuses me. It echoes my heartbeat, the intake and exhalation of my lungs, the knives of pain stabbing through my body without end. It is as much within me as without, now.