The Underground Men

By Alisha Mughal

There is a dark little room at the end of a dim stone hallway, deep below the cobblestone streets of a grimy, old town. In this room is a thin, tired man tied to a large wooden board hanging high upon a stone wall. The room is cold, illuminated only by four fat, greasy candles in tall iron candlesticks cowering deep within each of the four corners of the room, the flames dancing slimily, sinuously. The man’s eyes are closed, but he is not asleep. His breath is slow. His mind is still. A rag, torn hastily from someone’s old shirt, is balled up in his mouth, but one ragged end sticks out with a button hanging loosely from it on a single thread. The rag tastes metallic.

The man’s ear pricks up; there comes to him, from far away, the sharp tap-tap of quick footsteps. They are getting closer. He holds his breath until the footsteps come to a halt outside of the heavy wooden door. He hears a man’s deep voice say a few words. Truman’s voice, of course. Truman’s words, a question, hang heavy in the air. They are met by a faint reply in a tinny, high voice. Then the chiming of many keys. Ancient bolts rattle as the door is opened slowly and steadily, Truman’s hand carefully pushing it inward, as though it would fall apart were it opened in haste.

A cloaked figure hesitates in the quivering spotlight cast by the torch mounted on the wall of the hallway, just beyond the threshold. The man opens his eyes sluggishly to see the hooded figure step slowly, deliberately slowly, into the room. Truman does not take his eyes off the figure for a moment, but the figure’s hooded head is bowed to the ground. The figure in the room, Truman pulls the door shut just as slowly as he opened it. The figure stands still. Water trickles down some wall very far away. A mouse scurries along the ground somewhere in the shadows.

The man on the board waits—what else can he do? Slowly, the figure raises a small gloved hand to remove the hood, revealing a young face. It is a girl—she has the tiniest mouth, the man notices, but her eyes are large, beady like a bug’s, even though she has them focused on the filthy ground. She has long black curly hair, more messy than curly, and how long, he can’t tell—most of it is stuffed into the cloak. Her skin is deathly pale, and her forehead round (if prompted enough, the man might say it is serene, this forehead). The pallor of her face is interrupted only twice: first by her dark, thick eyebrows, and then by her small rosebud lips. Her face is gaunt, but in the soft candlelight of the room, the ins and outs of the contours of her face make her look so beautiful. She moves from where she stands in front of the door to in front of the man on the board hanging from the wall.

She stands square in front of him, her small feet together, back straight, and slowly brings her bug eyes to meet his. Clearer eyes he has never seen before, and glazed over as though she is about to cry. The oily dance of the candles’ flames is reflected in her glassy stare. Her gaze moves over his thin, shirtless body. She sees that he used to be healthy, but now his stomach is sunken, his ribs ominously jutting out. His skin is shiny with sweat, and it seems pale, but she can’t be sure in this light—it is without any blemish, without any cuts or scrapes, save for a small scratch across the bridge of his nose. His hair is long, matted down on his scalp by sweat, dark brown or a dark red, she can’t be sure. His cheeks bulge with the rag in his mouth. His arms are raised above his head, tied at the wrists by a dirty and rough-looking rope hanging from a small hook on the stone wall above the board, the same kind of rope used to tie his torso to the board. She sees him looking at her; his eyes seem blue, and the skin around them swollen, from lack of sleep or crying, she can’t be sure. She stares at him for a while. Something about his meek face makes her want to weep, but she doesn’t.

She clears her throat softly, shyly, as though afraid to make a loud, jarringly loud, noise. She opens her mouth, but her voice fails her. She clears her throat again, a bit louder this time. The first word cracks as it scuttles through her thin red lips.

“My name is Anais,” she says. “I am eighteen years old, and I would like to tell you my story.” He looks at her with sad eyes that presently fill up with tears. The girl licks her lips warily and begins.

“I am always followed by an invisible man who has a hold on my throat. He makes it hard for me to speak. His face is frightening. He has two pinpricks of yellow light where his eyes are supposed to be; it is as though he saw something a long time ago that made his eyes just burst out of his skull, leaving his yellow soul visible to all who dare to look. He is always whispering mean things into my ears, and he never stops, even when I want to sleep. I hit my head hard where I feel his words have grabbed onto my thoughts, trying to loosen their hold, but he always says more to replace what I’ve tried to beat off or forget. I cry for him to stop saying all these mean things to me, but he doesn’t listen.

“He says mean things about me. When I am around other people, he says such mean things about me that I feel I can’t move. He tells me that no one wants to talk to me, and that I am ugly, that I smell, that I am repulsive. That I am stupid, unbelievably stupid, that I ought to kill myself. And I know he is speaking the truth because every time I muster up the strength to speak to other people, to try to defy the invisible man, I say something dumb, and other people make faces at me as though I’ve made a horrible, rude blunder, said something very wrong and senseless. So I must believe this invisible, mean man.”

The man on the board tries to swallow, but has a hard time because of the rag in his mouth. The girl pauses and watches his torso as a red scratch runs slowly across the skin of his sunken belly, as though an invisible hand were dragging the sharp edge of some old costume jewelry across it. A tear rolls down one of the man’s hollow cheeks, and the girl’s heart begins to beat very fast. She takes a deep breath and continues.

“My father frightened me. He came home every night from work angry. A lot of the nights, he had about him this horrible sweet and pungent odour. When he smelled like this, I knew to stay away from him. He would get violent. He punched holes into walls, he yelled at mother. I hated him when he yelled at mother. She didn’t do anything wrong. Neither did I, though. Why did he yell at me and break all my things? The invisible man told me it was because I’m a horrible and dumb person, because I’m not doing well enough in school. My mother told me that my father loves me very much and that I should show him that I love him more. I tried, but I couldn’t. I was disgusted by him when he smelled of that smell. I didn’t want him to hug me and get that ugly smell onto me. And the invisible man told me that I was scum for feeling this way.

“Then my father got fired from his job, and he was very sad. It got to be that every day he would smell of that smell. One day, he slit his own throat and died. The invisible man said that this was my fault. I didn’t love him enough, so he killed himself. My mother said this, too. I thought so, too. And so I cried. I cried a lot.”

The girl looks at the man, and she is so sad, her big eyes seem even bigger filled with tears as they are. The man looks at her sadly with his eyebrows furrowed. He is in pain; he is now covered in scratches, as though someone had just been going at him with the ragged sharp edges of more old costume jewelry—tearing into his skin after every word the girl spoke. Some scratches are deep cuts that bleed profusely. His Adam’s apple quivers up and down in his throat as he tries to swallow. Tears silently stream down his cheeks to his chin, from where they dive to the cold stone ground, hitting it without a sound.

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“Everything is bad now,” says the girl. “My mother is always sad and won’t look at me. And the invisible man has such a tight grip around my neck that I have a hard time looking up from the ground. Before, there would be times, though few, when he would be quiet, when he would stop saying mean things to me. But now . . . now he never stops. Even my dreams he crafts. Before, I used to have beautiful, warm dreams. I used to look forward to sleep to get away from the ugliness of the invisible man’s words. Now I can’t sleep. I daren’t shut my eyes—he shows me such horrible things, such horrible people who want to do such horrible things to me. And he shows me how ugly I am so that I should understand that I deserve the other people’s horribleness. It all frightens me no end. The invisible man’s message is always resounding within me, echoing off my bones: I am the ugliest person. And so I am afraid. I am so, so afraid.”

The girl’s head hangs low below her shoulders as she says these last words. She seems tired now after all this talking. The man, despite his own pain, wishes someone would help her. The girl looks up at him with her big wet eyes and smiles a shy smile. It is a face unaccustomed to smiling, and she can’t hold onto the smile long enough. The corners of her mouth twitch anxiously, and then fall back down, as though spent from the effort. Noticing that her smile has failed her, she lifts her head high. The man can tell that she has a hard time doing this. He sees the cordlike muscles in her thin neck twitch and tremble as she holds her chin high, the defined line of her jaw parallel to the floor. The man shivers—perhaps because this small girl, in performing such a small task as raising her head, has effected such a colossal change in the air of the room, having charged it with the excitement of a resolution; or perhaps because the warm blood rushing from the millions of cuts on his body cools as it meets the stale, stony cold air.

“I know what to do, and I will do it,” she says urgently in a faltering voice. She breathes in deeply and goes on more evenly. “I don’t want to hurt any more people. No more. I am sorry I am such a bad person. I didn’t mean to be so bad.” The man looks at her with such sad eyes, knowing very well what she will say next.

“I crossed the bridge to get here, and I will have to cross the bridge to go away. There are a lot of people walking along it today—it’s warm out, though the water flowing beneath the bridge will be very, very cold. I suspect it will be frozen in a few days. I can easily jump into the water. I won’t be noticed in the crowd, I am small. Quiet and small. I can’t swim, so that will be good.”

The man wants to scream, to speak to her. He can’t. His saliva has moistened the rag so much that with each swallow, the rag threatens to slip deeper down his throat. The girl has her big, sad eyes focused on him and sees that blood is now surging from a fresh wound right above where his heart should be. She looks at him with very sorry eyes, tears now pouring down her cheeks unabashedly.

“I am sorry, really,” she says in a small voice that is very used to saying sorry. Her weary, moist eyes and tear-streaked face make her look like an ancient woman who has been crying since the beginning of time. She shrugs a bleak shrug, wipes her nose on the sleeve of her cloak, and says, again, for the final time, “I am so sorry.” The veins in the man’s neck pop as he lets out a scream that is swallowed up by the rag in his mouth. The wound on his chest grows dark red as warm blood gushes from deep within him. His breathing is fast and uneven through his small, too small, pointed nose. The girl turns to the door and raps on it with one tiny gloved fist, putting her hood back on with her other hand.

For a brief moment, as she is yanking on her hood, her hair parts to reveal the back of her small neck, and on it is a yellow and blue bruise in the shape of a mighty hand. This is the last thing the man sees before he dies.

Truman opens the door slowly, and the girl walks out, leaving behind her the thin dead man tied to the board mounted on the wall. Truman looks into the room while behind him the sound of the girl’s tiny footsteps grows faint, following her away to that busy bridge. Truman sees the still man and sighs.

“Boss won’t be too pleased,” he mutters under his breath and goes to take the dead man down from the wall.

 

A fat man with rosy cheeks and a nose-crinkling smile walks up to Truman, who stands at the end of the dim stone hallway, in front of the door to the dark little room, deep below the cobblestone streets of the grimy old town.

“Hiya, Truman. Nice day,” the fat man says with a twinkle in his small, beady eyes. “Nice but cold—the river’s frozen over.”

“Bet getting your story off your chest will make you see only the sweetness and light again,” muses Truman, sifting through his key ring. The fat man stares guiltily down at his brand new leather shoes—a gift from his wife. Truman slowly opens the door, and the fat man steps in. He looks up at the wall, then back at Truman, then back at the wall, then again at Truman.

“A new one already?” the fat man asks, astounded.

“Yes. There was a girl in here yesterday, a bit after you left—her story killed the poor bastard. Took no more than fifteen minutes. Got him right in the heart.”

“Well, must’ve been one hell of a story.” The fat man pauses in the doorway, thinking. “Say, do you think her story was responsible for the city’s settlement with the student rioters?” Truman looks at him pointedly, eyes narrowed, not saying anything. “You know,” the fat man muses on, “I think it was.” He claps his hands together, the sound crackling far through the stony veins of the underground. He rubs them together for a while thoughtfully, then chirps back up. “Well, the fewer bad feelings above ground the better, I always say.” Truman nods with a warm smile, but a darkness settles over both their eyes, a dark thought they both share casting a long, bleak shadow. The fat man gestures solemnly into the room with finality and goes in.

Truman gently closes the door on the fat man.

 

Alisha Mughal was born in Pakistan in 1993 and raised in Ontario, Canada. She currently lives in Markham, Ontario, very near to a farm. She graduated in the spring of 2015 with her undergraduate degree in Philosophy from the University of Toronto. She has never had anything published before. She reads, passionately, and writes, passionately.

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