The prisoners lay in the dark. They would have been side by side if it weren’t for the thick stone wall between them. Their cells were hardly bigger than a coffin. No light got in- No way of telling what time of day it was. No way of knowing the season. No sound from the outside world got in either. No hint or suggestion of where in the world they might be.
They had almost nothing. They had little food and just enough water to keep them alive. Their names had been taken away and replaced with numbers. They had no clothes of their own and nowhere comfortable to lie.
What they did have was a secret. A small hole had been chipped away by the people that had lain there before them. Maybe even before that. Maybe generations of prisoners had chipped away at it and now it was a tiny tunnel between the cells. Not wide enough to fit anything through, but wide enough to carry a voice.
That tunnel gave them the only thing they had- each other.
They rarely spoke about the things the masked men did when they came for them. They never spoke about the bones that were broken, the flesh that was burned, the finger nails that were pulled out or the cuts that were made. They would return and lie in the dark, half drowned and catching their breath.
“Prisoner 579,” 642 would say when he had recovered well enough to talk. “Do you endure?”
“I endure,” would be the laboured reply. “Do you endure, Prisoner 642?”
And that was as far as they would acknowledge it before they talked about home and the families they’d had before the War. Prisoner 579 would talk about the farm he’d shared with his wife and sing an old country song he had once sung to his daughter. Prisoner 579 would tell the story of how he’d met his wife at University where she’d beaten him in every exam, every essay. This was the routine that their lives slipped in to. Until the day that Prisoner 642 called out, “Prisoner 579, do you endure?”
The reply was far more strained than usual. “I am not sure I will endure.”
“Of course you will!”
“No… they’ve cut too deep this time,” he said. “The bleeding won’t stop.”
“It will. Give it time.”
There was a silence.
“Tell me about your wife again. How you met.”
“She was smarter than me,” he began. “I wasn’t used to that. I had come from a school where I was the smartest to a University where she was. She saw me struggling. She offered to tutor me and I realised she was by far the kindest person I had ever met. As well as the smartest. And by far the most beautiful.”
He waited for the happy, contented sigh that Prisoner 579 always gave. Nothing came. He waited for stories about his daughter and the farm lands. Still nothing.
“Prisoner 579,” he called. “Do you endure?”
He waited for the answer. But none came. And that was an answer in itself.