I must write quickly.
The darkness chokes, and though I know not how, its agency appears to extend to memory’s machinery. My mind, whose machinations I have never observed to cease, falters now and I find it increasingly difficult to recall the past night with any certainty. What I do remember I cannot order in any logical manner; chronological connection fails me.
Let us start then with a fact and proceed from its proper point: the Fool has been replaced by a Mute. On a brighter day, I may have found his replacement adequate—even agreeable!—had we but the call of the wind and a winding road to share our silence. Alas! A prison cell serves an ill-suited place for wordless friendship.
Without introduction she entered; and as I hastened to make myself presentable—the tittering tongue of a loose-lipped jailor I could not abide—a singular thought struck me when I gazed upon her: she must have been beautiful once.
In truth, most would consider her beautiful still—a mistake, one borne out of desire’s fatal rapidity; for all the abundance of grace and dignity in her possession could not erase the price she had paid for their purchase. She wore a lady’s dress, cut from white camaca silk, tailored in the court-fashionable short-sleeved style, but on her uncovered arms she wore only bruises. Their discoloration turned white under torchlight. She had a mouth made for laughter, and perhaps it had done so once, but the years had made it small; and she held it now in a little line fixed in contempt of itself. Her eyes too she controlled with this same furious tension, dispossessing from them their urge to wander, to explore. They stared directly before her and had it not been for the skittering movements of her hands, which flitted by her sides like baby birds, I would have been forgiven for thinking her an invalide.
Wherever her mental faculties lay however, her occupations seemed to me evident: mistress, prostitute, and for the moment, jailor. I found her dreadfully fascinating.
“Hello,” I said, almost offering her my hand before realizing the motion’s absurdity.
She ignored my greeting, giving it such little indication that I thought her deaf, and instead began to pace about the perimeter of the cell. She walked without hurry, without sound, and at each of the four corners of the room, where stone met stone, she would pause and run her hands across the joint, as if seeking to confirm its permanence.
I cannot say how long her examinations lasted, for after a few minutes of their repetition, when the prospect of conversation appeared less likely than my sudden release, I once again fell asleep.
I did not sleep well. Odd thoughts, twisted shapes invaded my thoughts, my dreams. More than once I found myself startled awake by sights and sounds of form so sinister I cried out in fear; but upon my eye’s opening I would see only the woman in white, always pacing; and at these moments, as I clutched wildly at the apparitions which haunted me, their knowledge would escape my grasp and dissipate into night’s silence.
I remember most precisely the last instance of this nightmare cycle. In it I stood atop a cliff, and below me, on a vast blackened black, howled men beyond count, whose skinless hands, ignorant of the great void between us, reached for my throat. This Malthusian world’s grip upon me bordered absolute and although I knew it to be safe where I dwelt (in the vague manner one knows things in a dream), I felt nonetheless a strange compulsion against my present state; a whisper in my ear which said only ‘jump’. The wind itself buffeted me forward, as if to give assent; I could not ignore its call. With a final look at the skeleton horde before me, I stepped into nothingness and toppled downwards. The crowd’s triumphant roar boomed across the horizon and as its first echo reached me in freefall, I realized the extent of my mistake and jolted awake.
I could not sleep again. Perhaps the woman understood this, because at that instant, as I arranged myself into a pose contrary to the possibility of rest, she stopped her cyclical route and regarded me for the first time. Her eyes held muted interest—like a historian examining a scholarly text for reference. No recognition, no commonality sparked in those twin orbs.
I had met others like her before: poor (in both meanings of the word) souls who, through actions and circumstances outside their control, find themselves at the mercy of a time ill-suited for their better character. Perhaps she had been born into royalty. I wondered what disaster had led her to this place. I felt for the first time some connection between us—not of blood, but shared experience.
She gave no indication of having reached the same conclusion, instead approaching me with the same measured steps that had marked her previous vigil. She stopped within arm’s reach. I must admit the notion of attacking her did not escape me but I felt it an ill-deserved action towards such a pitiable creature. Even so I listened with keen intention as she bent towards me, for a jingle of keys, a note of salvation, but heard nothing.
Only then did I realize our closeness; she smelled of winterfrost and incense. In these scents I found proof of the outside world’s continuation without me—a profoundly disappointing discovery. Our faces level, she stared, her eyes still fixed with the same maddening blankness, and then glanced at the pieces of paper at my feet. I grasped her purpose and gave it my blessing with a nod.
My day’s writing in hand, she retreated to the solitude of the jailor’s chair, a five-legged monstrosity, and without ado, began to read.
I experienced crushing insecurity as I watched her; the thought came to me suddenly. This woman, whom I had not known before this night (and did not know now), was to be my first judge? Impossible! The shout, which would carry with it the full righteousness of my indignation, was at my throat when I saw her smile. The action, so natural on others, looked so wholly unnatural on her face I could only but stare. Perhaps due to my agitated state at the time, or my knowledge of the woman’s bearing, I found the expression supremely false. As I recollect my thoughts at this later moment, however, its supreme truth becomes to me evident.
She read quickly and as the stack of completed pages grew before her, so grew her emotional repertoire. She smiled, frowned, cried, gasped—but did so in silence. Even in laughter, teeth glinting white in the cell’s gloom, she made no sound. Only her white dress, falling about her like gossamer moonlight, rustled, and only with infinite care. She captured, enthralled.
I cannot say when she finished, only that she did. She arranged the sheets, taking care that their order remain preserved, and placed them as they had been at my feet. I searched her face for something but she again wore her mask; and I knew I could do nothing to change this fact.
“Are you leaving?” I said to her.
She was at the door then, her back to me, and even in silence I knew the answer. Perhaps I asked simply to prolong the moment; I knew I would be alone again when her footsteps carried her away from my prison. She moved to grab the torch from its sconce.
“Can you leave that? It is difficult to write in darkness.” Another desperate request.
She paused, and though I could not see her face, I imagined upon it the briefest moment of indecision. She took the torch. I considered the hesitation a victory in itself.