The Prisoner (tf)

Peter looked out across the bay, seeing the island come into view through the mist. His hands and feet were bound, and his body ached. The warm seawater splashed against his face as the open boat slogged through the waves. It still hadn’t sunk in for him; where he was going, what it meant. First there had been the bogus drug charges, then the accusations of being a spy. It was all ridiculous, but someone in this third world backwater country had it in for him, no doubt about it. Since his arrest only days ago, his life had been an unrelenting string of beatings, threats, a mockery of a trial, and now this. Still, he was sure this would all be over soon. He, after all, was an American, the son of rich and well-connected parents. Some phone calls, some strings pulled, and indignant ultimatum from the U.S. consulate, and it would all be over.

As he looked to the Island, he saw the forbidding shape of the prison looming above the rocky coast. From his vantage point, the great pile of towers and crenellated walls looked more like a castle, which in fact is what it had been centuries before. But the others in the town jail had told him horror stories. For generations, the island had been legendary as a mystical, magic place, where the unexplained was routine and anything was possible. It was a lush rainforest, known as a haven for the most exotic of animals, a diversity of life almost unheard of elsewhere. Despite this, its primary fame now was for its prison. For this reason, it was nicknamed the Island of the Vanished. It was said that no one who was sent to this prison ever returned, no one in over 200 years. In spite of these stories, Peter refused to believe that this would be his fate.

The boat pulled to the dock, and Peter was dragged from it and tossed onto the shore like a piece of cargo. The boat’s pilot pulled quickly away, as if he didn’t want to risk the consequences being caught in this place for any longer than was absolutely necessary. Peter was left lying there, bound, his face pushed against the muddy ground. He hated the feel of his body pressed against the earth, it felt so inhuman, so undignified. All was silent except for the waves, the steamy air and jungle undergrowth seeming to close in on him. He was terrified. After what seemed like an eternity, he was startled by two men, who grabbed him by the feet and shoulders, and hoisted him upright. They dragged him up the hill, up dozens of worn stone steps, muttering to themselves in a language he couldn’t understand, no doubt grousing about having to carry him all the way up to the prison. The gate swung open, and Peter was immediately hit by the smell of 1,000 years of fetid, damp air. They dragged him through the dark corridor, and opened a heavy steel door. Then they threw him to the ground, still bound. He lay there in the dark, and rolled over to survey his new home. No windows. No furniture, just a cold stone floor and darkness. The only light came from a crack where the wall met the floor, large enough to put a forearm through, if only he wasn’t tied up. Peter fought against the ropes binding his arms for a while, to no avail, then fell asleep, exhausted.

When he awoke, he was no longer bound. He was starving, and desperately thirsty. He tried to stand, but was still in agonizing pain from his last interrogation. He sat, trying to comprehend his situation. All he could think of was his thirst. He could get along without food for days, but water, that was another matter. In the dim light he could make out a thin trickle of water running along the floor. No way, he thought. He would not drink that filthy water off the floor like some sort of animal. All that day, and most of the next, he resisted, trying to think of anything else, but it became an obsession. That trickle of water was torturing him. He stared at it, finally getting on all fours, crawling over to it, studying it. There wasn’t enough flow to get any in his cupped hands. He eased his mouth down closer, closer until he could smell its foul odor. Closing his eyes, he licked it. It was disgusting, but he swallowed anyway, feeling the moisture run down his dry throat. It was awful, yet he couldn’t resist it. He began licking it vigorously, pulling in as much as he could, feeling himself revive. He pulled up and sighed in relief. Almost as if on cue, a slot opened at the bottom of the door, and a bowl of food and a cup of water were slid into his cell. Shit, he thought, if only he could have waited another few seconds…he stood to get to the food, but crouched forward, still unable to walk upright. He lunged to the bowl, and poured its contents into himself. It was barely edible but it would have to do. He gulped the water down and sat. This was the new cycle of his life: sitting in the dark, waiting for sustenance, wondering when he could get more. Here he was, a PHD candidate, sitting there like some simple beast, waiting to be fed by his masters.

The days went by, and he began to worry. Surely by now his parents had made calls, surely the gears of justice were turning, he told himself. He tried to stand. Finally he was well enough to do so, standing full upright for the first time. Again, as if on cue, the door opened, and two guards stormed in and grabbed him. They dragged him to an interrogation room, screaming at him, and he tried desperately to understand their rantings. When he failed to respond, they beat him mercilessly, and dragged him back to his cell. Once again, he was unable to walk, forced to crawl across the floor.

Still more time passed, and the pattern remained the same. They withheld food and water until desperation forced him to lick from the floor, then food and water were provided. When he could walk they would immediately beat him, forcing back to the floor. It was if they were conditioning him, rewarding him for staying off his feet, crawling and drinking off the floor like and animal. He lost track of the days, which stretched into weeks and months. He had given up on his parent’s influence bringing his release. He had grown desperately thin, and his clothes were rags, too large to fit. He now sat naked in his cell, obsessed with food and water, nothing else. He knew that if this kept up, he would lose his mind.

The whole reason that he had come to this country was to seek enlightenment. He had come to study with mystics, to learn meditation and seek a higher level of consciousness. The irony was not lost on him, of seeking enlightenment and living now like a lowly beast. Still, he realized the training he had received could now help him. He knew that his only hope was to adapt, to use the power of his own mind to find a way to cope. He began meditating. He cleared his mind, trying to place himself above the pain, the hunger. For hours at a time, he would lose himself, drift away from this place, and live inside his own mind. Let go, he told himself. Adapt. Do whatever it takes to survive. No, they think they can break me, he thought. But they won’t. I can, I will survive…He found that the light from the crack in his wall was a source of hope for him. He stared at it for hours, using it as a focal point for his meditation. He dreamed of being able to pass through it, of simply drifting out into the jungle, escaping his cell. He smiled as he stared at the opening, its representation of salvation. It became like the light people spoke of in near-death experiences.

As time passed, Peter came to be at peace with this existence. He thought nothing now of drinking on all fours, of devouring his food like a hungry dog. He relieved himself as animals do, moving to a corner of his cell and simply letting it go. His body may be broken, but his mind was sharp. He would never give up. Then, as if sensing that they had to go further to break him, his captors upped the ante.

They dragged him to another endless, meaningless interrogation. As he watched them rant, Peter felt an odd sense of detachment. Not only could he not understand their language, he couldn’t understand their very existence. Was he like them? He wondered. No, they were strange looking, standing upright, gesturing with their hands, hairy, sweaty, odd smelling. He could no longer relate to humans. This did not bother him. In fact, it was a source of comfort. After all, humans were all about hate, rage, and violence. Humans kill for sport. They torture. They wage war. He had no use for them, and in is effort to cope with his base existence, was gradually separating himself mentally from the human race. When they had finished beating him, they bound his hands behind his back, and tied his legs, then threw him to the floor of his cell. Just like the day he had arrived, he found himself face down on the ground, the cold damp stone against his skin. This time, though, he didn’t mind it. It felt natural, somehow. He lay there for hours. Again he felt his thirst getting the better of him. The trickle of water was several feet away. He couldn’t move his arms or legs. How could he get there? He twisted and writhed, pulled awkwardly from side to side. After an eternity, he managed crawl on his belly to the water, and lick it up. His tongue was becoming adept at taking in the water. Again on cue, food was slid through the door. Again he wriggled on his belly, making his way to the food. Now, he had no hands to hold the dish. He pushed himself so his face was on the food, and pulled it in with his tongue, gulping it in. They wouldn’t win, he told himself.

For days, he struggled against his ropes, but his arms had become numb. First there was a tingling sensation, then nothing. He waited in vain for them to remove the bindings, but no one came. It had been days, too since his last feeding. He could get by on the trickle of water, but now they weren’t feeding him much at all any more. His stomach ached constantly. He was so thin now he could feel his ribs rub against the stone floor as he crawled.

In time, he found that he could swing his legs gently from side to side, using his stomach muscles to propel himself forward. His legs could only move as one now; they had been bound for so long that they felt almost as if they had fused together. He had nearly forgotten about ever having arms. Crawling was undignified, yes, but it was the most effective way to move now, and Peter told himself that it was that way things had to be. Anything to survive. It felt good now to simply lay with his belly against the cold stone floor, resting between feedings, avoiding complex thought.

His feedings became less and less frequent. Then one day, he saw a rat sitting in the corner, just staring straight ahead. He couldn’t believe his own thoughts, but all he could think was, “food”…He was repulsed. No. No way would he resort to that. The rat became a frequent visitor, tormenting Peter with his presence. The rat seemed well fed. Somehow, he was doing just fine. Peter felt envious of the rat. He became obsessive. He would raise himself up, arching his back so that his upper body was nearly upright, swaying gently from side to side to hold himself up, watching the rat’s every move for hours, salivating.

The next time the guards came for him, they didn’t bother lifting him to his feet. They merely dragged him, his limp body draped between them. As they dragged him into the interrogation room, he caught a blurry glimpse of himself in the reflection of the dirty window. It was startling. Not surprisingly, the lack of nutrition left him rail-thin, but his hair had fallen out too, leaving his head smooth and round. His face and chest were also smooth and hairless. The shape of his head seemed different, too, smoother somehow, his nose and ears flattened against it. His neck muscles had grown stronger, while his shoulders had sagged and shrank, leaving very little definition between head; neck and torso, all seemed to be merging into one smooth shape. His arms had been bound so long that they were shriveled, limp and lifeless. He couldn’t even remember how to make them move. His captors placed him on the table, and he felt relieved to be curled up there, no strain on his body. This time, they weren’t ranting at him, they merely talked to each other, gesturing towards him, as if studying him. They poked at him here and there, examining and commenting on his condition. They were actually gentle with him, stroking their hands along his smooth body. At one point one of them lifted his head and pried Peter’s jaw open, and tugged at his teeth. He could feel the man’s fingers tugging on his incisors, which seemed huge now. Their eyes widened and one of them nodded approvingly and grinned, as if to say this was exactly the way things ought to be. As his captors chattered, he simply stared away, unconcerned with the gibberish of the humans, and unable to grasp the profound changes coming over him. Soon they would take him back to his cell, and he would quietly wait for his next feeding. Nothing else mattered.

After they took him back to his cell, it seemed as thought they had forgotten him. It had to have been more than a week without any feedings. Peter’s hunger was intolerable. Finally one day, he could take no more. He saw the rat, sniffing and puttering in the corner. Go ahead, he told himself. You are a predator. Hunt. He crawled slowly over toward it, his heart pounding in anticipation. He felt almost as if instinct was driving him, moving ever closer towards his prey. He slowly arched his back, and with lighting speed pounced forward, sinking his teeth into the animal. Immediately he pulled back, repulsed and what he had done. To his surprise, the rat just sat there for a moment, began twitching violently for a few seconds, and then was still. How could that be? He thought. He couldn’t have killed it so effortlessly. How could a mere bite be so deadly? The instincts coursing through his mind now were beyond his control, and he lowered his head and slid toward the animal. He got so close that his face was a fraction of an inch from the rat. He opened his mouth. No way would he be willing to bite into this disgusting thing. If only he could just swallow it whole…he thought. His face was burning, and an intense pressure was pushing against his nose, his skull ached. He felt the muscles in his jaw and neck tensing involuntarily. He opened his mouth as wide as he could, then felt a snap, as his jaw opened impossibly wide. To his amazement, he could pull his entire mouth over the animal, and a strange new sense of muscle movement began pulsing through his jaw, drawing the animal in. As he did so he felt his eyes pull apart from one another, as if drawing to the sides of his head. When he pulled the rat in further, the muscles in his neck began to throb, rhythmically flexing to continue the pull of his prey into him. The rhythmic muscular sensation continued through him, as if his whole body was becoming a single set of muscles meant for swallowing, pulling inward. His whole body was tingling now, and he was consumed with the effort of swallowing. He was amazed at how good he felt, for the first time in ages, he felt in control, in absolute control of his existence. All thoughts of family, friends and humanity, were evaporating from his mind, as the desire for food shut them out. He found himself eagerly embracing his new existence as a machine for hunting, eating, and survival with a sense of pleasure that was almost orgasmic. He felt the rat sitting deep within him, a huge lump that filled him, stretching his sides. Then he slept.

When he awoke, he was disoriented. The room looked different somehow. It seemed larger in a way, but he couldn’t make out detail. His vision had deteriorated badly. The lump in his belly had vanished, digested now. He must have been asleep for days. He turned his head slightly, towards the light coming from the crack in the wall. The crack seemed huge now. What had happened? He moved towards the opening, expecting to exert the usual clumsy effort to crawl across the floor. Instead, he slithered effortlessly, finding himself face to face with the opening. It was huge, large enough for his entire head to fit through! He was puzzled, but fearful. He strained to understand the opening, but his sight was too poor to discern detail. He had no hands to feel it, but instinctively he flicked his tongue out, using it to feel the sides of the opening, feeling the rough stone. He was amazed at how much information was being transmitted through his tongue. It was a delightful sensation. He pulled forward into the opening, knowing that though it was large enough for his head, he would never be able to pull his shoulders through. He pulled slowly forward, waiting for the inevitable feel of his shoulders stopping him. Further still he went, yet there were no shoulders to stop him. He was excited now, feeling the fresh air from outside blowing against his skin. It all felt so different. All at once, he was entirely outside.

He had escaped! The hot sun baked his skin with an intensity he had never felt before, and was relieved to feel the cool grass on his belly to counteract it. He made no attempt to stand, as that ability, and the desire to do so, had long ago left him. He arched his back and looked around, feeling the tall grass with his now forked tongue. As he turned, he caught a glimpse behind him of a long, scaly brownish tail, tapering to a point several feet away from him. A snake! He felt a sense of panic. To get this far, only to find himself done in by a deadly snake, no! He writhed about and pulled away as fast as he could, only to see the snake’s tail follow him in perfect unison. Then he stopped, the reality of the situation sinking in. He gently lowered his head, pulling in close to the body of the snake, and flicked his tongue against its scaly side. He felt it. It was part of him. Even his new, simple mind now understood.

The sun was far too hot for him. He needed shade. He slithered forward into the cover of the jungle, and pulled down the hill. Effortlessly, he moved along the jungle floor, until he encountered a small pool. He arched his back to get the best view of himself possible. His reflection in the water was that of a fully formed snake. Amazed and excited, he felt a hood flare at his neck, the majestic hood of a King Cobra. He opened his mouth, exposing great fangs. He was not frightened, but rather, profoundly pleased with his appearance, a beautiful snake now rather than a hideous human. With his last sentient moments he admired himself briefly, then felt the pull of his instincts wash over him. Hunt. Food. Mate. Survival. His mind was now that of a simple beast. He was content and free. The jungle roared with the noise of countless beasts, birds and insects, former prisoners all, as if they were welcoming him to his new home. To survive he had renounced his human existence, and the animal world had embraced him and rewarded him with this new form. He slithered deeper into the jungle and disappeared forever.