The man sat on the floor with his head bowed, leaning against the wall. His unkempt hair hung long, hiding his face in shadow. Flickering torchlight from the corridor made its way past the bars of the opening in the heavy wooden door, casting its gloomy light into the interior.
He shivered. The shackles on his wrists jangled as he hugged his legs tighter to his chest in an effort to preserve his body heat. His clothes, ragged and torn, did little to keep out the cold’s bite.
Something brushed up against his bare foot. Instinctively, he kicked out at it. A rat tumbled across the stone floor, regained its balance and scurried across the empty tin plate set by the door of his cell. The resulting clatter further spooked the rodent causing it to disappear into the shadows in the far corner.
The sound of the jailor’s squeaky cart caught the man’s attention. The squeaking stopped, and he heard the jangling of keys and the click of the locking mechanism. Then the door swung open.
He scrunched himself even tighter against the wall as the jailor, with his large protruding forehead, lithe body, and serpent-like eyes, entered the cell. The door clanked shut behind him. Jailor placed a steaming bowl of broth on the floor a few feet in front of the man. He pulled a pouch from his belt, untied the drawstrings, and rolled a small, shiny orb into his palm; gently, he placed the orb beside the bowl so that it would not roll away. Then, he seated himself cross-legged facing the man, the bowl and orb between the two. His actions were meticulous and done in complete silence.
The aroma of chicken wafted toward the man, and his stomach growled in response, but it was the orb that held his attention. It had the reflective sheen of polished silver. If you held it closely, you would begin to see swirling tendrils, blood red in colour, flit across its surface and in and around its centre in an alluring dance. His pulse quickened even at the thought of it. He tore his gaze away and focused on the jailor. “The orb marks you a tempter but you are not, are you?”
“No, my young friend, a tempter I am not. In that you are perceptive, for I am something more. I am not here to tempt you but to offer you a choice,” Jailor said with a soft, soothing voice.
The man snorted. “A choice? What sort of choice is there for me here?”
“You haven’t eaten in days. Surely, you must be hungry. The food or the orb, which will it be? Or is it possible that you no longer have the ability to choose.”
The man resisted the urge to look at the orb. “I can choose.”
“Really…” Jailor leaned forward, his eyes focused into vertical slits, his voice became hard. “Like you chose when the tempter first came. That was a long time ago.” He reached out and pushed the bowl closer to the man, sloshing its hot contents over the edge and onto the floor. “Go ahead. Take the food then, and I will leave you.”
The man’s eyes drifted from the bowl to the orb. A crimson streak fluttered across its surface; perhaps it was just his imagination, but he hated himself for the momentary thrill that it elicited from within nonetheless. “Why do you torment me?” he said, in despair.
Jailor leaned back and smiled. “Ah, it appears you have guessed what I am. A tempter I am not, but a tormentor, yes, for that is my name. But tell me, what are you? What is your name?”
The man hung his head, his voice barely above a whisper. “My name is Sinner.”
“Ah, yes, a suitable name it is, and that is all you will ever be. You weren’t actually fooled by the others, where you? Did you really think you could be something else—and a warrior at that!”
The stinging rebuke roused his anger, and Sinner lifted his head at the mention of the others.
Jailor continued, “Oh, but I see that you were indeed taken in by their lies. Pity, really, false hope is such a tragedy.”
“What have you done to the others?” Sinner demanded.
“What have I done to the others?” In one quick, fluid motion, Jailor lunged toward Sinner, stopping just short of touching him. So precise and controlled was his movement that he didn’t upset either the bowl or the orb. His eyes narrowed dangerously. His fetid breath assaulted Sinner as Jailor hissed into his face. “You accuse me when it was your love of the orb that was their doom. You betrayed them by your own selfishness.”
After the initial shock of Jailor’s sudden movement, Sinner recovered quickly. He strained against his bonds and lashed out with both his feet, but Jailor was too quick and hopped back and out of harm’s way. His kick knocked over the bowl, and it clattered across the stone floor spilling its contents.
Sinner screamed defiantly at Jailor, yanking on his chains. “Who are you to judge me?”
Jailor, now standing out of reach, suddenly looked curiously at Sinner. Then a wicked grin spread across his face. “Ah… so you have chosen. You really are a poor, wretched sinner, nothing more.”
Sinner looked down at his right hand in which he clutched the orb tightly. In an instant his anger dissolved, and he was filled with horror. He must have picked it up during the tumult without realizing it. Already, he felt its warmth spreading the length of his arm. The horror vanished as the orb pulled him into its frenzied crimson dance.
Hours later, the orb depleted, Sinner lay on the cold stone floor, shivering. “What have I become?” he said, “What have I become?” In his grief, he repeated the question over and over again to the empty cell.
To be continued…
© Peter Wiebe 2012
31 Look not thou upon the wine when it is red, when it giveth his colour in the cup, when it moveth itself aright.
32 At the last it biteth like a serpent, and stingeth like an adder.