They sat with their arms above their heads, the blood having drained from them weeks ago. Conversation had dried and their eyes hadn’t felt tears for months. Every crack of light was now a disruption of the darkness and no longer the desired contact with a world beyond the four walls. Every noise was an imposition on the silence, a silence filled with their comforting lists of hopes lost.
They had resisted arrest; they had fought against captivity but there was a moment when they weakened but they no longer remember the details. The barriers of self-preservation had crumbled once one brick of integrity had shifted. How quickly they had settled into routine! How easily they had embraced the chains that bound them!
Whilst the shackles found the grooves in their skin to make their home, the two men impotently discussed release, escape and freedom. This conversation became as mundane as asking about the weather and the reality of it became a dream, became a fantasy, became rhetoric empty of power. They no longer imagined life outside although the spoke of nothing else.
Days became weeks became months became years and the chains began to keep their wrists warm. The gloom was their natural habitat and their eyes were native to the dimness and still the poetic proclamation of liberty echoed in the emptiness of the cold, hard walls of their imprisonment. Cycles of conversation and expressions settled into a rhythm of seasons and they no longer measured Time outside of these recitals of exchanges of dreams.
Where he came from, neither of them knew. How he got past their captors; who could say? He was either a fraud, one of the warders provoking them for his own amusement; or their captors had fled leaving the cell unguarded; or it was a miracle. None of this mattered much as he walked over to them and spoke.
“Do you want to be free?”
His voice was soft. It was not a weak whisper but a powerful authoritative bass that seemed to hold all other voices in tune. It had no need to clammer to be heard or strain to carry any strength.
The simple answer became lodged in the prisoners’ throats, desperate to be released into reality. It remained, snared in its place as the silence enveloped and overpowered them. As muteness overwhelmed them, doubt took its grip and finally fear pinned them: What if it was a trick? How was this even possible? Where had he come from? Where would he take them?
“Do you want to be free?”
“How did you get here?” they stuttered.
“You have nothing to fear. I have been sent to set you free.”
By whom? For what? Why now and not before? Before they accepted any offer of liberty they wanted to know that where they were being led to would be better than this oppression. This stranger needed to earn their trust.
The two captives waited for him to make a move but he just stood there. There was no apparent rush, no captors running in to stop their release… where were their guards? Had they been overthrown? Had they fled? Or were they waiting outside? Their thoughts and questions were beholden on the condition of their captors but through all of the uncertainty bombarding their minds the stranger remained steadfast before them. His face showed no impatience. He waited for an answer. After a time he sat down.
“They can no longer keep you,” he said, as if reading their thoughts. “Do you want to be free?”
The word hit the walls of their enclosure and echoed on the stone cavity despite being released weakly from the cages of their mouths.
They had spoken of freedom so often but now it seemed so real. The visitor stood and walked towards the first prisoner and pulled at his shackles. To their amazement they slipped easily off their wrists. The newly released man gasped, in part in relief but more so at the ease at which his chains fell. How had that not been possible before? He had tried, in the early days, almost every night to squeeze his hands through but they were tight around his skin. In the hands of their liberator, however, they crumbled like sand.
Once he had been freed the other came just as easily and in no time they both were standing in the darkened room, free of their chains.
“That was the easy part,” the man said with a smile, “Shall we?” he gestured to the door.
Through the door a soft light spilt into the room. It was not bright and the prisoners thought it must be a corridor with little to no natural light or it was night time. Then they were struck by the realisation that they no longer had any concept of Time; they were so programmed by their oppressors, that life, independent from them and the rhythm and restrictions governed by them, was alien to the prisoners; out of tune. How were they to function now? They no longer remembered reality as free-men.
The enigmatic emancipator began to leave. As he passed the threshold he turned and held out his hand. His wrists were scarred, marked with the shape of fetters long since freed from.
“You can hold onto me. You must be weak on your legs.”
It was true, they were out of practice and they stumbled towards the door and the gentle man who stood in its frame.
Through the doors they saw their guards sleeping soundly. It seemed so strange – no – illogical that they could slumber during a rescue mission in the jail they were meant to watch. The whole incident was feeling so mysterious and implausible; a dream with no reason. Yet this man kept leading them down the corridor towards a bright light; the final exit to freedom.
As they finally reached the escape to liberation they turned back for one final sight of their home for the last years. They felt a fondness towards that place; the predictability, the certainty and steadiness of their life in the embrace of the enclosure. The two men had built a life together.
In the walk between their cave and the infinite unknowns that lay outside they began to consider the life they were about to embark on; a life they had talked and dreamt of for so long but never contemplated possible. It felt so scary and paralyzing now. Whilst salvation was a fantasy within their heads, it was guarded, protected, boxed in and manageable; in the stark reality it was vast, un-wielding and oh so debilitating.
As they looked back the guards began to wake and stand. They started to walk towards their prisoners. They seemed afraid, wary and disarmed. Their eyes were fixed on the third man who stood between oppressor and oppressed.
“Go. You don’t need to fear. Go,” he said but they could not.
They remained fixed to the spot staring at their masters as they came closer.
What happened next remains the most shocking and mysterious part of the whole story. One which I will never be able to explain.
My friend, companion and fellow slave turned and smiled. He said nothing but it was like he was pleading with me to stay. I stared back, unsure and helpless. His head dropped and he walked back to our cell. The guards embraced him and sent him on his way into the comforting darkness at the end of the corridor.
I called to him but he never heard me or he chose not to respond. My liberator faced me, looked me in the eye and said,
“I have come to set you free. Choose freedom.”
With that he followed after my friend. The jailers allowed him to pass but did not touch him. They showed no power over him and were clearly uncomfortable in his presence. Before the door was closed, the stranger turned and said words that echo in my head even today,
“Some people love their chains too much to be free. Others choose the chains of freedom and overpower all oppression.”