The Ritual

A short story

The hooded man looked down at the prisoner at his feet. For four days the prisoner had travelled across desert to where both men met. They were in the back room of a rectangular desert compound. Yellow-tinged sand lapped against the outer clay walls on each side. In the middle of the compound stood a lone palm. The hooded man did not know how long the palm had been there.

The orders had been clear. Each night the hooded man was to visit the prisoner and beat him. Every morning he was to provide the prisoner just enough food to endure the long dry days. Even the strongest of prisoners only lasted a couple of weeks. At least for as long as the hooded man could remember.

However, the hooded man was yet to encounter a prisoner such as this.

Most prisoners became mute, resigning themselves to their fate. Yet the prisoner always made a point of looking into the hooded man’s eyes when he entered, as if to welcome him.

When the hooded man raised his bat over his head, as he had become accustomed to doing over the many years, the prisoner drew a deep belly breath followed by a long exhale as the bat made contact. Each night, before the final blow, the prisoner asked the hooded man –

“Where does it hurt, my friend?”

After a month had passed the hooded man began to lay awake at night thinking about the prisoner. Why was the prisoner asking him such things? For what purpose did he continue living?

The hooded man grew anxious. Concerned that he might be enjoying the company of the prisoner, and conscious of the effect this would have on his employment, he resolved to beat him with even more force.

The beating on the next night scattered the prisoner’s exhale. When the hooded man reached the final blow, faster than he had ever before, he paused. Catching his breath, he was expecting the prisoner to speak once again.

But in the depths of the pause the only sound to be heard was the slow puttering of the prisoner’s breaths.

A pang of confusion struck the hooded man. Was he longing for the voice of the prisoner? Did he want to be asked that echoing question?

For so long the hooded man’s life had been dangerously lonesome. Moving in and out of the doors of the compound. Passing his life by the turn of the night sky.

Now it was as though the glow of the desert sands were holding a mirror up to him. He couldn’t even bear the sight of his concealed face.

The skin under his hood started itching. His chest grew tight.

Then finally the prisoner spoke –

“There is a single palm in the centre of the compound, is there not?”

The hooded man could only manage a shallow whisper.

It was enough for the prisoner to continue –

“That tree was here long before this compound existed. Whether they were aware of it or not, the first people built this compound because of that tree. No matter how much pain there remains something within us that seeks a return to life, to nurture it, to feel that in some way we belong beside the wisdom of wild things.”

“This nightly ritual we have formed together has given presence to our pain.”

The hooded man ran straight out of the room and to the edge of the compound. Waking up to his life again near exploded his wounded soul.

He removed his hood and turned his head toward the tall palm, his eyes following its trunk all the way up to where it met with the stars. He felt a cool breeze blow across his face.

Bending above the compound was a fiery constellation, beckoning another spark to shred a tear in the tapestry of forgotten things.



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