Thunder rumbles in the distance, born of the clouds which have stolen the afternoon sun and brought me night before its time. A gust of warm air brushes through the tiny window outside my cell. It fills the small round room for a moment, then disappears. The rain begins pounding overhead, like a thousand stones laying siege to a fortress. Soon the water will find the cracks in the defenses and drop to the floor triumphantly. Already, my eyes are blinking back tears.
Images swirl in the darkness of my mind; faceless figures holding out their arms. The figures come and go, sometimes pausing, never staying. They shake the bars of my cell, they rattle and huff and promise my release, then leave without goodbye.
Lightning strikes beside the tower, and my hair rises on end. The first sobs rip through me, electric, piercing. I gasp for breath I can’t catch.
One figure steps forward in my memory, hands outstretched, with a whisper I can’t hear. I reach toward the voice. Help me, I want to say, but the image fades.
In an instant, I’m lost to all but the cascade of rain and tears.
Sometime after, I’m lost to even that.
I wake to the sound of the old oak door screeching on its hinges. It clangs open, and I scramble to my feet.
“Hello?” The echoing voice is followed by a stranger.
I hold my breath, examining him in the faint light afforded by the lantern in his hand. His wayward hair is soaked almost black from the still-raging torrent outside. It only takes a moment for his eyes to rest on my rusty iron bars.
“Great heavens,” he mutters, rushing forward. He halts just before my cell. “Are you alright?”
I can’t bring myself to answer.
“Who are you?” he asks as I back away. He sets down his lamp, placing one hand on the cell. “Don’t be frightened. I won’t harm you. How long have you been here?”
“I don’t know,” I manage to whisper hoarsely.
“Why are you here?”
No one has ever asked. “I just…am.”
He leans back and shakes the bars, examining them. “Maybe I can get you out.” His voice is firm and hopeful, and he glances about the room. As he picks up his light, old scenes flood my memory.
Faceless figures coming, going.
I clench my eyes, hearing his footsteps scuff the floor.
Strong men, an old frail woman, young girls walking together. They come, one, two at a time, rattle my cage, promise to help, and…and…
He starts breaking apart a wooden chair, saying something about wedging the lock. After a quick apology, he slams the chair to the ground.
“Stop!” I shout, and the strength of my voice surprises me. He turns. Tears well in my eyes as I mumble again, “Just stop.”
“Why? What’s wrong?”
“You can’t.” I watch his brow lower, uncomprehending. “You can’t help me. You’ll try your best, but you’ll realize I can’t be freed.”
“You don’t want me to even try?”
I shake my head. “You’ll only leave.” Staring at my hands, I half-expect to hear him exit the room.
Instead, his voice cracks the silence. “Then I won’t try. I’ll just stay.”
I look up in time to see him sit on the floor. After a moment, I slip out of my corner.
“My name’s Ezra,” he says.
Kneeling in front of him, I ask where he’s from. He answers and asks me the same question. I can’t tell him. After watching me fidget uncomfortably a moment, Ezra asks if I’d like to hear about his journey.
I nod, grateful. Ezra smiles and clears his throat. “Well then…” With the ease of a practiced storyteller, he deepens his voice to recount all that he’s seen and done. It isn’t long before I’m drawn in completely, gasping at misfortunes and laughing at his exaggerated follies. After a while, Ezra mentions a songbird who followed him three miles. “Turns out my pouch had a tear, and I was dropping one by one all the blueberries I’d spent an hour and a half gathering.”
I laugh, “Reminds me of Robin.”
I hesitate. “My bird.”
Ezra waits, listening before I even speak. Slowly, my mouth begins to shape of its own accord, telling him of my life as he has told me his. Ezra pulls out a pouch of crackers and offers me some through the bars as I describe the bird who lives outside my window, the bird I never see, but who sings for me often. Then I keep going. I tell him of my nightmares, my dreams, and all the memories I can recall.
And finally, when my breath draws short, and I run out of words to say, I stop. Quiet fills the room, and I realize I can see Ezra without the lantern. Outside, the rains have passed, the night has ended, and dawn is chasing away the shadows.
I brush back my hair and notice Ezra squint.
“What’s that around your neck?” he asks.
“Oh, my necklace.” I’d almost forgotten the simple cord, the charm hidden beneath my dress. “It was a gift.”
He smiles, then asks, “May I see it?”
I nod, taking it off and holding it before me. I study the little iron charm.
“Is that…is that a key?” Ezra’s voice seems far away.
A faceless figure with hands outstretched.
He grows excited. “It is! Where did you get it?”
The figure steps closer, the key in his hand, then in mine.
“It was given to me.”
“Yes, but by who?”
The figure whispers something.
“A carpenter, I think.”
“It looks like it’s for the cell. Doesn’t it? It’s the right color, the right size.”
The key feels heavy. I rub its rough surface.
“Try the lock,” Ezra says.
How long had I had it?
The thumping of my heart drowns him out. It may not even work.
What if it does? I don’t know of anything beyond this tower, this room, this cage.
“Matri?” Ezra asks. “Can’t you understand? You can get out of here.”
My hands are trembling. A cool breeze slips through the room, drawing my gaze to the door.
There, the carpenter stands, waiting for me to follow. He nods at the iron in my grip. “Come,” he whispers.
Ezra is trying to get my attention. I meet his eyes.
“Don’t you want to be free?” he asks.
My fingers trace over the key, and I’m struck by murky realization.
“I don’t know.”
This short story was originally published in 2018, in the Write2Ignite conference Faith and Freedom anthology. For more about Write2Ignite, you can visit their blog here. For more short stories by Karley Conklin, check out the Fiction page of LitWyrm.