Submissions open for Wingword Poetry Prize 2020

Silence

Sriharsh Bhyravajjula

I don’t expect anyone else to understand how the voices speak to me.

How they are born out of silence, seeping into thin air like a shadow, licking away at my skin like decay attending to a corpse. How they trickle into my ears and slowly intrude into my veins, twitching at the back of my neck before tingling their way deeper. How they break into thread-like tendrils creeping into my skull. How I’m transfixed in mute horror while they speak to me.

We’ll go away if you make them scream, they whisper.

***

Take it one at a time, the mayor told himself.

He signed the writ, and passed it along to his attendant. Then he looked down at the red-faced beefy merchant who was still scowling in the dock.

“Benjamin of House Gilbert, I have been presented with substantial proof against you to support the baker's protest. This - ” the mayor said, as he held up a parchment for inspection, “states that you took fifty gold coins from the baker a fortnight ago, and promised him these -” he paused and held up another yellow parchment, “- supplies within the week. Do you disagree, Benjamin?"

The merchant shook his head. The mayor continued speaking.

"This parchment, sealed with your blood, also states that in accordance with our laws, you are obligated to return the money in the event of any discrepancy regarding the order's contents or the time of delivery. Do you disagree, Benjamin?"

For the second time, the mayor peered down through his spectacles at the man in the dock, waiting for a response but not truly expecting one.

The merchant seemed to have something to say now, he was shifting uncomfortably. Twice he opened his mouth and twice he closed it. In the end, he just shook his head again.

“You took the poor baker’s hard earned money and gave him nothing. And when he came to you on the day after the festival, his wife tells me you had him thrashed and thrown out. Do you disagree, Benjamin?”

The merchant, still scowling, shook his head for the third time as a short skinny man in bandages seated at the far end of the hall looked on in anticipation.

“You’re a fat, heartless, miserly fool, Benjamin of House Gilbert, and within two days you’ll pay the good baker seventy gold coins for his losses. Within two days, mind you, or the guards will ensure you suffer a few broken bones, too.”

Benjamin, still scowling, nodded again while the baker rose and bowed before turning to leave, satisfied. The mayor absentmindedly waved them away.

"Give that man his writs, Delfus," he told his attendant.

"Yes, my Lord."

"Next!" the mayor called, a little weary from the day's proceedings.

Petty thefts, domestic quarrels, a man who'd accused his neighbour of stealing his goat - the mayor was fed up with Sunday court. He had better things to do for his town than playing judge: there was the trade of the cobbled highway coming up soon and he needed the favour of a mir-hasen.. Sometimes, he wondered why he'd never left Halgyre, why he'd chosen not to move out of this anonymous village in the middle of nowhere, a settlement just shy of five hundred strong. He could have packed up and left for the bigger cities of Asnodell, perhaps even to Kven Fojar. He could have plied his trade there instead of suffering through the banalities of this ghost town.

For now, however, he was the judge and jury here and the ghosts looked to him for order in their chaos. He leaned back upon his high backed velvet chair, and took a deep breath. Then he remembered who the next man was, and immediately sat upright again. This would require attention.

"Call in the murderer, Delfus" he told his attendant.

He would take it one at a time.

***

The inn was very quiet yesterday.

No crackling of a fireplace, no rattle of dishes, no clinking of glasses, no gossip of low voices. I called for the innkeep and tried to explain. You need to make the silence go away, I told him. He said he didn't understand, and that he couldn’t afford a bard in these times. I told him that if he didn’t make the silence go away, the voices would return. He looked at my knuckles, bruised and calloused, tapping away at the wood impatiently.

Tap-tap-tap. Tap-tap-tap.

The innkeep asked me where I was from, and I told him. His eyes widened, andI could feel the couple of men left in the inn turn to stare at me. The innkeep came closer, speaking softly so only I could listen. Leave, he said. More silence - and that was when I heard the voices again.

Remember the night when you found that stray pup? The voices ask softly.

Yes, I reply.

I remember that my father was drunk again, frolicking with another whore in the barn. I was sitting by the fireplace looking into the pup’s wide, pitiful eyes, trying not to listen. I remember how hot the poker was when I pulled it out of the flames, and how the pup whimpered and backed away from the heat. I remember the sizzle of iron against fur and flesh, and I remember how the pup leaped away and started howling.

Why did you do that, boy? They ask.

I did that because all I had to do to keep you away after that night was raise a rod to the mutt’s face, and he would start howling again.

Yesss, the voices whispered, almost in glee.

That dog was the closest thing I had to a friend - someone to keep them all away. I thought of those innocent eyes while I listened to the innkeeper’s words.

Don’t you want to see if he can howl, too?

So I grabbed the knife off my own plate and stabbed him between the ribs. He winced in shock, watching the bloody steel sticking out of his shirt in disbelief. Then the pain hit him, and he started screaming beautifully.

***


The mayor watched them leave quietly; the baker and his family, the fat beefy merchant and his lackey. And as soon as the merchant departed through the door, a set of guards walked in with a chained prisoner in tow. The mayor could sense a sudden tension grip the air and feel the small audience in the stands straighten up from their stupor. A man near the door suddenly stood up and started yelling at the prisoner, but the mayor lifted his hand for silence. The mutterings stopped, and the hall turned quiet as death.

The prisoner was a short wiry man with a thin moustache and a limp. His knuckles were unusually calloused and worn out, and there were scars all over his body. He had his head down, and was struggling to keep up with the guards around him, dragging his left leg along. The procession covered the brief length of the hall, and then one of the guards, a ginger-moustached man in a blue cloak, pushed the prisoner roughly into a chair in front of the dais. The prisoner fidgeted uncomfortably, and then looked up at the mayor. He had a fair, expressionless face, and a long crooked nose. His eyes were swollen, and his face was marked with fresh bruises. The prisoner was still a young man, but the guards had not been kind to him.

For a while nobody spoke. This was the first time most of the men in the courtroom had seen the man in person; he had been only a rumour for the past few days. The mayor noticed the prisoner squirming uneasily. Suddenly, he started shaking his chains violently, and the crowd gasped in fear.

Three of the guards grabbed him, and the fourth landed a deft blow to his head. The prisoner grimaced, and stopped fighting. The noises died away. Silence again.

The mayor watched him, trying to assess the situation. Surely the man wasn't contemplating escape? He had not stopped fidgeting though, and still looked very restless. The mayor wondered if it was remorse, fear or something more sinister. He decided that it did not matter. He started sifting through the papers in front of him.

Take it one at a time, he told himself.

***

I did not wish for the innkeep to die.

Why would I do that? I wanted him to stay alive so he could keep screaming, his anguish poetry to my ears. It was the farthest I had been from the voices since I had watched the dying mule bray itself to death by an abandoned well two fortnights ago. The trick is to not pull the knife out, because then they bleed and faint and the silence returns.

But there was a hand at my shoulder, yanking me away. The other men had rushed to the innkeep’s rescue and I was hustled to the floor, angry blows raining down on me. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw some fool make the mistake of removing the blade and panic at the sight of blood. The screams grew fainter, and there was a fist to my jaw after which I blacked out.

It was beautiful, wasn’t it?

***

The mayor paused at his papers and looked down at the prisoner in surprise, because the latter had suddenly started humming.

The mayor stared at the prisoner in outraged disbelief. Staring down at his own feet, he was unabashedly chanting The Old Hill and A Sun, his mellow voice echoing through a shocked chamber. But before anyone could react, the ginger-moustache guard grabbed the prisoner by the hair, yanked his head up, and drove his baton hard into the face. A dull thump and the prisoner was silent again. The mayor could see blood dripping from his mouth, and a few broken teeth. A servant handed him a rag. The prisoner shook his head and chuckled. The guard lifted his baton again, but was interrupted.

"That will do-" the mayor said," and you are?"

"Giovane of the Blue Cloaks, m'Lord."

"My dear man, you will await my word before you manhandle a prisoner next time, do you understand?"

The guard looked at him, puzzled. His moustache twitched in surprise.

“My Lord?”

“Tell me you understand, you buffoon!”

"Beg your pardon, m'Lord, I understand." the man bowed, " He keeps gettin' louder. He 'as been doin' that since we took him into custody, m'Lord. He won't shut up till we break somethin'. Nasty one, ‘im."

The mayor eyed the murderer with contempt. The man was showing no fear of pain and no remorse for his crime. The devil is a dancer, and the piper a madman. Behind the prisoner, the stands were getting loud again.

"Did the healer say he was sane, Delfus?" the mayor turned back and quietly asked. He couldn't afford to make a mistake.

"Yes, my Lord, here are his words - " Delfus said, as he handed out another parchment.. The mayor briefly ran his eyes over the yellow paper. He turned to the prisoner again.

"Do you understand, young man, that you have taken an innocent life?"

The murderer looked up. "Yes," he burbled, his mouth a mess. A bubble of blood burst at the corner of his lips. The low mutterings of the audience had now become a loud hum. Then he smiled, his blood-stained lips stretching wide in grotesque humour. “We wanted to hear him scream.”

The stands burst into a cacophony of protests, and a stone came hurling through and landed at the prisoner’s feet.

"Enough! " The mayor lifted his hand, and silence returned.

The prisoner twisted back in his chair to take a look at the people behind him, a sea of hostile furious faces glaring back at him in silence.

"Let them shout, my Lord," he asked earnestly. "Please, let them howl."

The mayor did not understand. He did not want to. So be it, he thought to himself, making up his mind. "Lock him away," he told the guards, and then called for his attendant. "Make sure he's not kept with the other prisoners, Delfus. We don't want more trouble." The attendant nodded and hurried away to meet the guards.

There was a sense of expectancy in the stands now. The mayor could sense it. They were all waiting for the verdict.

***


I feel uncomfortable in this makeshift prison.

The air is musty and reeks of apple cider, and the walls are damp and empty. I don’t think the old farmer who owns this house wanted me in his cellar, but the mayor seemed to think otherwise. Here, in the middle of nowhere, perhaps he thinks I’m harmless. But here, in the middle of nowhere, silence creeps up on me like a storm upon the sea, and the voices will soon climb aboard.

You’ve been here long enough, boy, they whisper again. Are your fingers not tired of tapping at doors?

No, I tell them. Please, go away.
Tap-tap-tap. Tap-tap-tap.

If you yell again, the ginger guard will come down and break your other arm, too. Do you really like the pain?

I am tired, I tell the voices. I am tired, and I want to die..

Soon you will, boy, when your neck breaks at the noose tomorrow. But tonight we are hungry. You know that, don’t you?

The trapdoor at the back has a rusted lock and a missing screw, and the only tools I have are my wooden spoon and dinner plate. The wood is tough and the rim is sturdy, though. I think I could use it to undo the other three screws on the lock, before prying the metal apart from the door with the spoon. I must be quiet; the cook usually sleeps in the kitchen above me, and I know she keeps her window open at night. I saw her this morning when they were taking me down, chopping meat with a broad shiny knife. While they were hustling me down into the cellar, she looked at me with wide pitiful eyes, the poor old thing. She adds extra cheese to my breakfast, and second helpings of boiled peas.

She speaks so softly, young one. It reminds us of a song. Don’t you wish to hear her sing?

I hope the cook is not sleeping in the kitchen tonight, because I know as they know - the guards are sloppy when they change shifts. They hang about on the porch and talk in loud bawdy voices. I’ll lock the door from the inside, so if they’re close to the kitchen and not too drunk tonight –

Then yes, boy, they might get to hear her beautiful screams for hours.

***

 

This work has been published in Beetle Magazine's August 2020 Issue.


Leave a comment