“Why do you look so upset?,” Fleshman said. “As if you didn’t know that in the beginning was the word.” And then the laugh. A cackle which sounded more like chains rattling against the ground than anything.
Moore didn’t say anything. In the two days since he has been in the Word Prison, he has come to learn that it’s hard to decipher much of what Fleshman said, let alone frame a reply.
“Why do they call you Flesh-man?” he asked, wishing to change the subject.
The Fleshman lit another cigarette before answering. The puff of smoke demonstrating its shape-shifting abilities. First, a mini-cloud, then a being with multiple tentacles all evaporating into the air-all except for one thin wisp of smoke which looked hell-bent on not dying, until that too was wafted away by the gentle yet cold wind which blew into the cell through the small barred window which offered the view of a small patch of the dark sky to the weary prisoners’ eye.
“You do realize this isn’t the first time you’re asking me that question, don’t you?” the Flesh-man said, depositing the spent match-stick on the floor already littered with a hundred spent matchsticks. “But,” he continued before Moore could say anything, “I think I’ll satisfy your curiosity this time.” He raised his nose in the air, sniffing as though he detected something other than the smell of cheap cigarette in the air.
He listened to the silence and his fellow-prisoner listened with him.
One , two, three, four seconds in which there was an absolute silence, moments in which even the wind dared not move. A dog howling from afar brought an end to it.
At the canine’s sound, Flesh-man’s face twisted into a grimace.
“I hate dogs!” he said, spitting out a spume of smoke as if the sound waves from the dog mixed up with the nicotine ti turn it bad. The sound apparently also broke the moment for him to answer Moore’s query for he said with a wave of his hand, “I will quench your thirst regarding the origin of my nick-name some time later.”
Flesh-man walked towards one corner of the cell- not the corner where there was the toilet bowl shrouded by nothing other than darkness.
Feeling disappointed, Moore lowered his face and rubbed his stubble-two days’ worth of growth. Two days. He was someone who used to shave every single morning.
The silence settled inside the cell again. This time, it appeared colder than before to Moore, for this time Flesh-man was facing against him, towards the wall, as he does sometimes.
As Fleshman remained silent, declining to answer his question, Moore had a premonition of a particular facet of hell that awaits anyone who ends up in a prison- the absence of new information. Cut off from the world, you rarely have any use of information-about the stock market or the latest cars that are being introduced in the market, about the newest things Google has come out with to excite you. For in prison, the only pieces of information that are of value are the ones which help you stay out of harm’s way- who are the bad guys, who are the ones who would screw you- literally or otherwise, the moment you have your back turned to them, and who are your friends.
Friend. He couldn’t say yet if Fleshman was his friend. He was his cell-mate. That much he knew. That, and the fact that his cell-mate was one of the most respected prisoners in the entire ecosystem, respected even by the vilest of inmates. It wasn’t just his domineering size which made him respected-which is almost always another word for ‘feared’ in the prison. There was something about the man which gave the distinct impression that he knew things that you have not even begun to imagine- facts that you must acknowledge one day if you are to stay alive but you are not yet ready to accept. Facets of existence too chilling to be digested in comfort by the mind of a mere mortal.
A raspy intake of breath. Moore looked up at the direction of the sound. For a second he thought that someone else has entered the cell-someone or something. But when he saw how Fleshman was coughing like mad, his assumption was proven wrong.
“All these cheap cigarettes,” said Moore, “You keep smoking them and you will cough yourself to death.”
This made the other laugh. Which in turn brought a fresh bout of cough, ending in him spitting out a wad of blood-mixed phlegm into the toilet bowl.
After rubbing his lips with the back of his hand-an action which made a sound like leather being grated against stone, Fleshman said, “That’s a funny thing to say, Moore, to someone on death-row.” In the near darkness of the cell, only the prisoners’ eyes shone. They looked at each other. “How old are you, Moore?”
“I am twenty seven,” Moore said it even before he could articulate the words in his brain, or so it felt to him, as if a question from Fleshman isn’t a request for an answer but a demand which must naturally be answered- like moon would answer the question of light once the clouds part.
“For someone that age, you look absurdly young,” said Fleshman in a matter-of-fact tone. “And your whiskers which you call a moustache make you look like a mouse.” He laughed.
Moore knew that Fleshman couldn’t see in the dark, that the mention of his whiskers/moustache was made based on what he has seen in day time. But that didn’t do anything to shake the feeling that Fleshman’s sight piecered the dark, the same feeling which kept him awake last night- the feeling that someone was looking at the back of his neck while he was lying on his side on the bed.
And the mention of mouse-maybe that was a coincidence. But the fact is his girlfriend used to call him, “My dear mouse,” sometimes- also in reference to his whiskers. Surely, Fleshman couldn’t have known it, surely that was just a coincidence? But darn if he felt that Fleshman’s wasn’t a knowing laugh.
“I know you are disappointed, Moore,” Fleshman’s voice boomed within the cell, like the cell itself was his vocal chord where Moore was caught in. “I am not good company for someone as knowledgeable as you. I don’t give you any answers that you seek, not even the one about my nick-name.” A soft chuckle- like the last rays of the sun falling on a dried leaf desperately clinging to the tree, before he continued, “But, as a compensation, I can tell you something. The answer to something you asked me yesterday.” He came closer to Moore, yet remained in the dark. Moore kept looking at those eyes which were the only visible focal point now.
“You asked what’s the big deal in putting us inside a prison that’s made of paper. Anyone can easily break out of it. As you yourself said, there are only two guards here-and both of them are at the gate. Surely, there must be other ways of exit?” He touched Moore on his shoulder, softly, ever so softly. “And yet,” he said, no, whispered, “you are still here, still not tried to burn the cell down and make your escape.”
Fleshman fished his matchbox from his pocket, he rattled it once before pressing it against Moore’s chest. “Here, take it. Burn the place down.”
“But-,“ Moore began but the words died in his throat before they could find proper life, entranced by those gleaming wide eyes which looked out from Fleshman’s skull.
He wanted to say, I have seen how the cigarette flames you throw at the floor don’t make any mark, let alone cause a fire. That’s why I didn’t attempt at escaping.
But no, those eyes- and the voice, they meant only one thing and one thing alone- a command.
As if in a trance, Moore struck the match. The sight of the flame brought a memory to his mind, a memory strong enough to penetrate the trance in his mind, if only for a moment. “I don’t know why I am here,” he says to Fleshman, though still looking at the flame dancing on the edge of the matchstick.
He was about to cook-of all the things, he was lighting the stove in his apartment when the two cops barged in and had him handcuffed, after reading him the words of the law- words that indicted him, words that spoke to the effect that he being a writer, he has no reason to be in the land of the flesh. Especially not after he published his very first book.
He was breaking the law by remaining in the land of the flesh. It was time for him to go to Word Prison. That’s what they said.
The memory faded as the flame danced its way down the matchstick, very near the tip of Moore’s thumb now. Moore took the three or four steps towards the wall of the prison in no time. The glow of the flame illuminated the words on the paper walls- jumbled letters, but in this one moment as he stood with Fleshman in the cell, a radius of warm glow enveloping them both, Moore was convinced of what he has suspected since yesterday- jumbled they may be, but these are my own words.
For a writer to burn to ashes his own words is a tough thing to do. But Moore didn’t hesitate, not even for a second. For one thing, there was the presence of Fleshman, something he felt like a sort of weight on his back. Also, there was the thrill of discovery, for he was convinced-without anyone having told him, that by agreeing to perform this act of arson, he was also letting Felshman reveal the secret- this is the way and the truth.
The flame touched the paper wall. A source of power coming in contact with what Moore secretly prided as powerful words.
But nothing happened. For a second, the tiny portion of the wall touched by the flame appeared singed. Just for a second, after which that turned out to be a trick of the eye. He tried another place on the wall. Nothing happened.
“What? Why?” he turned towards Fleshman and asked, remembering too late that Fleshman was never too keen on answering any of his questions.
Yet, in the fading glow of the flame, he saw that Fleshman was smiling. A smile so radiant that it began to shed light on the entire prison cell. But those eyes..soemthing was wrong with those eyes, wheras they were bright and round before, now they appeared like slits. Is he going to sleep?, Moore thought for an incongruous second. The trance-like feeling that had come over him was leaving him.
He moved closer to Fleshman. He dropped the spent matchstick. That was when he saw that Fleshman actually had his eyes lowered, looking with a smile at his feet- Moore’s feet. The cell was still illuminated. Moore looked down and saw the source of light. His feet were on fire! And the golden flames licked their way up his thigh, making a path across his crotch, having for their destination his face, or so it seemed. But it was only when the flames began to burn his torso that Moore began to feel the pain, the effects of the trance now completely lost.
But raising higher than the sound of the writer’s pitiful screams was the voice of Fleshman, who with arms raised towards the heavens was praying in a thunderous voice, “In the name of all that’s unholy about the Word, I bring to you this new disciple- Mister Dennis Moore who has a love for words. I, your humble servant for eternity, requests that you make that love stronger in him and turn everything else into hatred. And I also pray to you, oh, Lord of all that’s dark and glorious!, you help him leave his flesh behind and enter the dark spirit!”
From the way Moore was twitching and screaming at the sound of his own bones being crackled with fire, the Lord in question didn’t seem to be helping him too much. But Fleshman didn’t seem much bothered by it as he continued his praying in much the same vein.
“Dennis Moore!” he said, looking straight into Dennis’ eyes which were wide with terror, the mouse-like whiskers long burnt, the flesh on his face turning black, “You have been called for this. Now, I beseech thee to commit your flesh to me and go forth and serve the dark spirit of the word!”
And with these words, the smoke from Moore’s burning body coursed their way into Fleshman’s nostrils. He breated it in with an aexpression of near-ecstacy. And even in his agony, Moore realized that this was the first time he was seeing such an expression on his cell-mate’s face. A look of accomplishment. The rasping coughs- the result of breathing in so much burnt flesh, the secret which he harboured behind those eyes- the secret of the sacrifice that will render the flesh weak and the spirit of the dark word stronger, and his mention that he’s a death-row prisoner, a silly joke for it was his calling to be the Fleshman-the one who consumed the felsh to unlock the dark words within-over and over again.
And with the weight of all this realization and with the faces of his parents and his girlfriend- she must be looking for him now, maybe even contacted the police?- flashing across his mind with a rapidity that was all too much for him, and with a scream that broke the silence one last time for the night, Moore gave up his body and entered the spirit-to be its servant scribe for ever and ever, to write dark deeds not on pages, but on people’s lives, a calling of the finest order.
The smile which now lingered on Fleshman’s face was one tinged with sadness. He must now be alone-until the next one.
He raised his arms once again, looked at ceiling though he was seeing the sky unblemished by the ugliness of stars.
“It is accomplished!” he said.