We had all lived so long in the dungeon that we knew no other mode of existence. Suffering was our lot, and each of us in our own time came to accept it. Some of us may even have learned to admire the merciless hand of our tormentor, who came among us with clockwork regularity, masked and silent, to mete out lashings and incisions, to scald our skin or stretch our joints to their limits, and generally to punish us in accordance with our past crimes and our conduct as prisoners.
The justification for these punishments was never expressed, but we knew them well. With a long moment’s reflection, each of us could ascribe the proper meaning to our agony. In this way, we learned not to protest, much less to actively resist. And for our understanding we were rewarded. Despite his anonymity, we recognized our steadfast tormentor by his eyes, and we saw in them recognition of our compliance. And possessed of that keen awareness, there came a time when he loosed us from our chains, never to reattach them again.
The implements of our torture hung on walls of the dungeon, but we never imagined using our newfound freedom of movement in order to impede their use. In fact, we simply endeavored to never think of them until the appointed time, averting our eyes until the outer door creaked open and spurred us to readiness. Thereafter we practiced camaraderie by crying out in common, by gritting our teeth for one another as the recoil of the whip rang throughout the room. Each time the warden was done with his somber work, a tray of food was presented to each of us, and we ate to restore our strength so the pain could later resume without destroying us.
As I say, this all went on for long enough that the memories of an earlier time had grown clouded and devoid of identity. But one day, as we were taking our food, our tormentor hung his mask upon the wall beside his tools, departed the room with his characteristic silence – a thing we’d come to regard as a kind of comfort – and never returned. I cannot say how long we waited there. Up until then, the physical ordeals were the only things that had marked the passage of hours. But eventually, for the first time any of us could recall, the feeling of hunger began to overtake the all-encompassing, residual ache of former torture.
It steadily became clear that our warden was not to return. Neither, of course, was the food that had always followed him. It also became clear to me that one person among us would have to step forward to lead. Being of a stronger constitution and a keener mind than the others, the responsibility fell to me. Rising from my place within the dungeon, I walked purposively to that wall that had always been off limits to us. After donning the warden’s abandoned mask, I tried the door and found it open. And upon cautiously checking the hall, I steeled myself with confidence and ventured off to find food for myself and my comrades.
When I returned, still masked, with a tray for each of us, the prisoners trembled visibly and assumed the usual position. I gazed for a moment upon the frightful tools that adorned the wall, and it occurred to me that after all this time, I knew exactly what to do with them.