Steps to Freedom

 

Bill lay on the hard dirt floor of his primitive prison cell and stared into the empty blackness of the night sky. He could see nothing, yet he searched for a ray of hope. The muscles in his back and shoulders ached profusely and his neck stung from the weight that had been hung around it all day. The night was like tar, making his eight-by-eight foot earthen pit feel much narrower and deeper than it really was. He held his hand at arms length but was unable to see it. Slowly, he moved it closer to his face until he could feel his breath against it, yet he could still not see it. He saw a shadow of it. Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe it was merely the memory of it in his mind’s eye. The wind rustled the leaves in the thick canopy above and he peered intently toward the sound of it. Suddenly, he saw a single star gleaming through the forest ceiling. The sight lasted only a moment and then was gone. He continued staring until the wind opened another crease and he saw another pin-prick of light. Those small shimmers of light kept him from sliding into deep despair.

For the past thirty days this pit had been his world. He lived among the roots where it was cool and moist and where little sunlight reached him. Each second of his days and nights were identical and there was nothing he could do to make the minutes pass by more quickly. All he could do was look up and hope to catch a glimpse of blue sky or starlight shining through the ever swaying canopy. Twice a day a guard lowered a small bowl of rice and cup of water to him. They were placed inside a bamboo bucket tied to a rope. Seeing that bucket descend from eight feet above was the solitary variation to his day. Otherwise, he spent each eternal hour simply standing, walking in small circles or leaning against the clammy wall. Most of the time he sat on the dirt floor or lay curled in the fetal position.

On his first night in the pit, when he thought his guard was sleeping, he attempted to escape by jumping against the side of the pit and trying to vault himself to the edge of it. He tried repeatedly but always came up short. Early the next morning he heard commotion above him and saw two guards appear at the edge. One of them was holding a rope that was tied to a rather large stone. He looked sternly at Bill, motioned as if he was putting the rope around his own neck, and then threw the contraption at Bill, screaming at him to put it on. Bill couldn’t understand his words but he did understand his gestures so he picked it up and slipped it over his neck. It was heavy and the rough rope dug into his skin.

Two days later the same stern-faced guard returned. He berated his subordinate while pointing to the side of the walls near the top of the pit, showing him the marks Bill made with his fingernails in his continued attempts to jump to freedom. He screamed at Bill and threw another rope at him; this one was tied to two more stones. He motioned for him to put it on, which Bill did reluctantly. This time, however, the guards didn’t leave but continued to stare down at him. When Bill tried to sit, they screamed at him and made him stand for long periods of time, wearing both stone necklaces. The weight of them caused him to hunch over and the ropes rubbed abrasively into his already raw neck causing it to bleed.

At night, when his guard was sleeping, Bill slipped off the necklaces and gingerly massaged his wounds. Periodically he rubbed his hands against the earthen wall and placed the damp dirt on his burning neck, which helped ease the pain ever so slightly. Before going to sleep, he slipped the ropes back around his neck, making sure they didn’t touch his tender skin.

A few nights later he fell asleep before putting the stone necklaces back on and he awoke to the guard yelling at him. After several minutes he finally stopped and then disappeared, but he returned a half-hour later with the disciplinarian, who was carrying yet another rope necklace tied to two more stones. He threw it down at Bill and one of the stones grazed his head, causing a small trickle of blood to flow down past his eye and along his cheek. Bill was required to wear all three necklaces and stand for the entire day. The weight of them was nearly more than he could bear. The guards took turn watching him and would not let him take off even one necklace or lift the stones to provide temporary relief from the pain. He spent much of the day leaning against the wall, either with his back against it and the stones hanging heavy against his chest, or headfirst into the wall, with the stones dangling from his neck. Each position was equally painful, and each tiny movement caused the ropes to dig deeper and deeper into his shredded skin.

That night a deep feeling of hopelessness and despair washed over him and he was sure his life would end in this dank pit. Then he saw the starlight and had an idea. When he was confident his guard was asleep he slowly lifted each necklace from his aching body and placed them at his side. He stroked the stones, feeling their smooth texture and girth. He was amazed at the amount of rock that lay around him. He carefully and quietly stacked the stones on top of each other and then gently pushed against them. They shifted, making a cracking sound that echoed into the silence of the night. He lay still, praying the noise didn’t wake the guard. After several minutes he was at it again. He placed each stone aside and then carefully and meticulously restacked them until they felt solid. He gingerly stepped on the pile and stood there for several moments until he was sure they would support his weight. He took a deep breath to summon all the strength that remained in him and jumped. His hand cleared the edge of the pit and found something solid, a jagged rock in the ground. He swung up his other arm and grabbed the ledge and his arms quivered as he slowly pulled himself out of the pit. He could see his guard in the dim light of the burning embers of a nearby fire. His eyes were closed tightly and his mouth agape, snoring softly. Bill silently tip-toed past him and limped into the jungle. As he ran away he was amazed that the burden that had held him down for so long had become his steps to freedom.