Chapter 25: Redemption
It is the smell that wakes the prison. It drifts through the morning haze with an astringent glare, crawling up our nostrils and forcing every one to attention;
The smell of burning flesh.
The smoke burns the lining of my throat, and I find that no matter where I turn it is inescapable. I look out of the cell bars to see that Andri is already out, stood beside a blazing make-shift funeral pyre- our wooden crate we have been using as a cabinet is gone from the cell, along with several other lightable objects- the pyre throws hot flames up the canal of the pit's entrance, reaching up to the slumberous sun before drifting onwards in small, grey wisps of smoke. Ash falls lightly in it's place, dancing white upon the smoked air and hovering like twisted snowflakes on the shoulders of those who have gathered to pay their respects, or perhaps just for something interesting to do. Barsad stands at the head of the funeral pyre, so close that his hessian clothes are beginning to singe black; Carrieveau moves to pull him backwards, but Barsad steps back into his place, watching the withered dark flesh melt from the bones of his closest, and perhaps only, friend. His expression is empty, his eyes sullen.
Behind me, Bane has roused; he stretches and pushes his sleeves back, moving through the cell and standing awkwardly beside me.
We still haven't addressed that second kiss- with everything that happened yesterday, there has seemed to be no time. I doubt he wants to address it; but it happened, and I need to know why. He kissed me, and I need to know what that means.
"Poor Firdos," I say tightly, my head lowered a little. "And Barsad... look at him. He's heart broken."
I look up at Bane and suggest carefully,
"Maybe you should try and talk to him."
Bane looks at me uncertainly, and I defend,
"Not, like, right now. But just think- he's all alone, he hasn't got anyone anymore- I think you could help him. He needs you to help him."
Bane looks straight ahead coldly for a while, and I let him have his silence. I close my eyes and just listen to his breathing, trying to block out the sounds of the crackling fire and the dizzying whirl of the prison.
"I will go to them," Bane says, straightening his clothing and breathing in deeply. He moves forwards, and I notice something.
"Bane?" I alert him, and he pauses in the door, turning his head to me.
"There's blood on your shirt."
Bane looks down- a thick red smear is glazed into the hessian-like fabric, absorbed and blackened by the weight of the garb and the length of the night. I realize it must be Firdos', from when we stood beside each other last night, after Barsad had pushed me away with his blood soaked hands.
"Will you wash it for me," Bane asks, though it isn't quite enough to qualify as a question. I nod morosely, and he pulls the thing over his head; I marvel for a blunt moment at the sheer mass of him, somehow still lean through all the bulk and muscle, and he hands over the fabric. Bane slips from the door, back glistening with sweat in the burning sun as he walks over to the smolder of the funeral pyre, it's heat falling in waves and creating a haze over the mouth of the pit.
As Bane approaches Barsad's side, Andri turns and walks back towards the cell. I give my greetings to Bobby who has just woken up, and open the door for Andri to come back inside.
"The boy is lost," Andri says in Arabic, gesturing a hand over to Barsad.
"Why are they burning the body so early?" I ask, "surely we should have waited until it was evening- the sun is going to making it twice as bad as it could have been, and Barsad's got no privacy-"
"There is no privacy in the pit," Andri scolds me, "and there is good reason for burning the body at this time. There were whispers amongst some last night, long after you were asleep- they talked of eating the boy's body, as not to 'waste good meat'," Andri explains with a clear air of disgust. "This is why we shall see it burn now, before more start to loose their revulsion against the idea. The boy would not want to be cannibalized."
"That's sick," I say, holding my arms to myself tightly.
"Yes," Andri agrees. "This place makes sick men sicker, strong men stronger and weak men dead… I am no longer sure which of those suits me best."
I watch Andri, his handsome lines and his dark complexion, weathered skin taut as he frowns out at the embers of flame which now reduce bone to ash. This is a man who has known more hardships that someone like me could ever even consider, that I know. As I look at him, I realize he is an enigma to me. I do not know if he is a good man, a bad man, or simply neutral to everything, deadened emotionally by experience in the face of the realities of this harsh copper world. I know not whether to look up to him, to fear him or to pity him, but I know he would not accept anything resembling pity.
"I think you're a strong man," I say to him in my floundering attempt at Arabic, and he smiles at the effort. "'Quaiyya' is strong," He corrects me, "not 'Ca-wia.'"
I smile back at him, foiled by my own attempt at connecting.
"And what do you think of me?" I ask, feeling unusually open towards him. "Do you think me a sick, a strong or a weak man?"
Andri stares ahead, his eyes falling colder again.
"You are no man, Imi Dashur. Your fate is a mystery, even to me."
I wash the weak blood from Bane's shirt as the morning falters, and sing to myself as I work through more of the clothes which have been left. I argue with one costumer, who insists he paid when he delivered the clothes to be washed, and I explain to him that has never been the arrangement and that he will not see his clothes until he pays what he owes, which, by my records on the back's of Andri's old medical sheets, amounts to half a vial of hooch liquor. He calls me a bitch and tells me he'd rather have his alcohol than his clothes, anyway, then storms off in a fit.
"Idiot," I mumble under my breath, going back to working at the clothes.
Not long after another customer approaches the bars- a young, slender man with striking effeminate features, a clean shaven face and eyes like coal; he is immaculate compared to everyone else down here, including myself; though he moves quickly, as though he doesn't want to be seen. He has visited only once before, I remember, and that was some months ago. His thin hair falls past his shoulders and is braided to the side of his head tightly. Under his right eye I notice a faded purple-grey bruise, where knuckles can be seen imprinted into his dark skin- he doesn't strike me as the fighting type. I smile lightly at him, and we talk business for a few minutes before he quietly says in a voice like velvet,
"I am sorry about the boy."
I nod my head gratefully, thinking of Firdos; we were never close, it is true, but any relationship is to be mourned when I can establish so few down here in these pits.
"Heds!" Andri calls in his own language from Bobby's half of the cell, quickly reverting back to Arabic spoken so fast I can't understand it, but it's quite clearly hostile.
"Ibn haram, yakhereb beytak. Kekhri gahba, akroot yabdulh barboog, ya kwahl inta sharmoot. Heds,"
The man behind the bars says something quietly back, then hands me his payment timidly with a delicate call of thanks and shrugs away back the way he came, avoiding everyone in his path.
"What was that for?" I say sharply, seeing how wounded the other prisoner was by whatever it was Andri said to him.
"Don't concern yourself with that," Andri says darkly, wiping a hand over his thin mouth and frowning.
"Andri!" someone shouts up the hall sharply, and I raise my eyes to get a closer look, recognizing the voice as Bane's; he is shunting a slight figure- Barsad- forward, who is resisting weakly whilst jabbering away in unintelligible Arabic, flashes of red spattering the dirt floor as Bane forces him along by the tops of his arms.
"Oh god," I breathe, realizing that Barsad has slashed his wrists- the blood leaks from either arm like a macabre stream, and it takes Bane a good while to get him close enough to the cell; I open up the door in a hurry, hands still rung wet from the laundry, and Bane shoves him down on the bed. Barsad, hysterical from the loss of blood, continues to flay and jibber, tears of frustration and sheer hopelessness leaking from his ducts.
"What happened?" I gasp, hunting down the med supplies, though it is clear exactly what has happened."I went to speak with him," Bane explains, "like you asked of me- when I got to his cell, this is what I found."
It takes me a few more moments to register that Andri had not moved; Bane demands that he does and the man rolls his eyes.
"Why save one who longs for an end?" he reasons, staying back from the bleeding Barsad, "the boy wished for death, and you would take it from him. He will see that as cruel. You think he will be happy to have recovered if I treat him?"
"You can't let him die, you're the doctor!" I reason, fumbling for the small amount of first aid products we have to hand while Bobby takes a firm hold of the boys bleeding wrists. Bane stands back a little, a stern expression knotted into his face.
"He will only do it again," Andri reasons, telling Bobby the same in Arabic, "and will most likely succeed- why waste bandages on a patient who does not want to be healed?"
Bobby says something to Andri which makes his cold expression falter, Swallowing hard, Andri moves forwards, muttering under his breath, and unrolled a leaf of bandage. He lifted one of Barsad's wrists and said,
"Bane, hold him. I cannot work if he is flaying about so much-"
"I'll knock him out-"
"No, he has lost a lot of blood; he might not wake back up again, not that that would sadden the boy- keep his wrists elevated, like this," he tells me, and I hold them both.
"Stupid boy was not clever enough to cut vertically," Andri tells us, "so the flow is not as extreme as it might have been- secure the bandage. When the outer cloth starts to turn red, remove it and replace it. Keep firm pressure. I am going to fetch more water."
Andri disappears to the bathroom for a few minutes, filtering the water quickly and returning with it. Barsad has begun to moan, and Andri orders Bane to keep him still as he starts to clean the wounds; the blood seems to clot considerably after a few repeats of this cycle, and eventually Andri gives the all clear for us to make the final bandage. The procedure is swift, and not long after Barsad is allowed to sleep undisturbed.
"Fool of a boy," Andri delivers, shaking his head, as Bane leaves to wash the blood from his torso.
"You can't blame him," I say to Andri, "he's lost so much- look at him. He's-"
We say it at the same time.
"He has nothing left," I continue to defend, "he has lost-"
"He is no different to you or I," Andri argues. "All of us here have lost. What do any of us have left?"
I watch him, and say slowly,
"We have our lives."
Andri scoffs, looking across at me suddenly. "Life? What is the worth of life. Life is what a person claims to have when they have been stripped bare of everything... Look at this boy and you will see just how much life is worth."
I watch Barsad's heavily breathing form, feeling a cold sadness in my heart. I look over to the funeral pyre, which still smokes faintly although there is barely anything left, and look up to the burning sky above, turned blue by the cool of evening.
"Bane should had left him to die," Andri says coldly, throwing his head back.
I remember my first day down here, that terrifying day when I was thrown down into this pit, and reminisce. Where would I be, without Bane? It doesn't bare thinking.
"He never told me why," I say to Andri quietly. "Why he saved me."
"Would you call it saved?" Andri muses, biting away a loose roll of bandage as he packs away the menial supply of medical gear.
"I would," I tell him. "Better this than- than what could have happened."
"What would have happened," Andri corrects, closing the wicker box. "You value you life more than many who have been thrown down here."
"Do you know why?" I ask Andri, wanting nothing but honesty from him. It is a question I have tried to ask Bane many times, but I feel I would never get an answer from him, with all his pride and his distance.
Andri looks over at me, ready to tell his tale.
"Before you," he begins in a drawling voice which grates on the smoke-filled air, "there was a woman."
I stare at Andri, startled. He has told me this before- that I was not the first- but a woman? Something about it felt threatening, and I feel an unwanted flounder of red jealousy curl deep within me.
"Eastern European, from the country across from my own. Beautiful and dark-haired. Her name was Molina."
I nod, taking it in.
"She was a prostitute by trade," Andri went on, "sent down here to silence her mouth. You see, she was the mistress the royals' son. She had threatened to tell his wife and the newspapers of their affair; It would have caused a scandal their monarchy could not afford, not with mistrust rife amongst them already. So he got rid of her in the cruelest way possible; condemning her to a life down here, a single woman amongst many men. Much like you."
Andri shifts a little on the bed.
"She kept to her trade," he tells me, "and she lived well for it, as well as a person could possibly hope to live in such a place as this; it is amazing all the wonders a woman can receive if she is willing to open her legs. But these men grew tired of waiting, of compromising, and of most of all, the paying. One day a group of them ravaged her beyond repair, and broke their toy. The woman died even before Bobby could try to treat her- this was only two years before you came, and the old man's sight had not yet deteriorated."
I take this in, eyes wide in horror mixed with disbelief. Poor woman, I think, imagining her fear; would she have known she was dying? To think of it is unbearable.
"...and Bane?" I ask, not yet sure how he fits in.
I fear Andri will say he loved her. I do not know if I could hear those words.
"He may have used her services," Andri muses, "he may have not. For you see, Bane then was not the man you see today- he was a boy, shy and uncertain. He was not unlike Firdos, though how many years he had been down here already I cannot say; I did not even know of his existence until the Sharmuta woman was killed."
I listen intently, hanging on to each of Andri's words. The idea of Bane being anything like the timid Firdos seems unfathomable; his strength and willpower now indoctrinated in me, his erratic desires and his angst. The idea of him being near another woman is even worse.
"They say he saw it happen, and did nothing," Andri goes on, "though it would take a braver man than I to ask him if that is true. They say that is the reason he became how he is; guilt ate away at him and he turned his guilt into strength, his strength into skill, and his skill into fighting. I only met him as he began to wait outside my door for wounds to be cleaned or splices to be stitched, which became often, as in the beginning he was no master of fight. He carved for himself a chiseled man from the ashes of that cowardly boy who watched the Sharmuta be torn apart."
"And that's why he saved me," I say bluntly, the revelation sweeping over me. "Guilt."
"No," Andri says. "Not guilt. Redemption."
Andri looks out of the cell doors, where Bane can now be seen returning up the far corridor.
"You are his redemption."
AN: Building up Bane's back story makes me happy :D
GUESS WHAT?! We hit 100 FOLLOWERS! Same week I hit 50 on my second fic, tears of joy :')
Thanks for all your support guys! Please review if you liked this chapter, they keep me going XD