In the depth of the darkness, one thing was certain. The feeling of emptiness was here to stay. He sat into the chill breeze, wondering what the world looked like. He hadn’t eaten for days now… but of course, he had no means to tell the time, and so he had to assume it was morning when he woke up. Everything seemed so still in here. He still wondered where the breeze came in from.
That though was his smallest worry right now. He had to concentrate on exiting this cell he was confined in. He tried to look around, but the inky blackness stained everything. This was one of those moments where he wished he was a smoker. He would do anything for a light now. Even sell his soul to the devil…
The devil? Of course that would be for a much higher prize than just light…
Then his mind began to conjure up strange images… he dismissed it as an effect of the gnawing in his stomach… he had once read that hunger sprung up vivid hallucinations in the human mind. Whatever that meant, he could see it now.
He had to sit down on the rough ground. He felt around for a place to sit and found one. He sat down. He then cast his mind to what brought him here in the first place.
He remembered he was on an expedition of sorts in one of the coastal regions of Africa, in search of an ancient burial place of the Chief of the Mpololo people and everything seemed to go wrong. They lost vital equipment and decided to retrace their steps. A lot of incidents and accidents reduced the numbers drastically and left him as the last surviving member… till he fell into this black hellhole.
Then everything went black. He didn’t even know how much time he had spent in the hole. Everything was still… so still and quiet… but the place was damp though.
GRRRR! His stomach rumbled.
The weird happenings began again. Funny shapes dancing before his eyes. Almost real enough to touch, but a certain nerve in his malnourished brain kept telling him they were not real. He clung desperately to reason… to sanity… to life.
But the shapes began to interest him… their weird dances and metamorphoses were increasingly interesting. One of them began as a man, and increasingly grew smaller till it turned into a dog… a white one. Funny thing was that the dog seemed familiar. He must have seen it somewhere. It was gone now, so he couldn’t get another glance. Darkness fell again.
He let his eyes close gradually and sleep was a welcome respite. One that he welcomed with wide spread arms. He then slept.
He jerked awake. He woke from a fitful sleep.
He didn’t know how long he had been asleep. What he knew for certain was that the hunger was biting him even harder.
He felt the pangs even more this time… and he wished that his personal entertainment troupe would return from whatever area of his deluded mind he stowed them away last night. He desperately needed entertainment.
But none came.
He pushed himself to his feet. He wasn’t going to die like a lamb. He remembered having his equipment with him when he fell, but he had no idea where he had landed and where his gear might be. But he had to look. He had to look like his life depended on it… in fact, his life depended on it. He tried walking around and waves of dizziness hit him like little sledgehammers. He reeled but still kept his balance.
The ground was rough as he felt around, and the formations on the ground resembled that of a cave. It was damp too. He assumed it was a cave… that’s what scientists do, right? Assume. He continued feeling around till he had to sit still in order not to pass out. He sat down in his black hidden prison and cursed his luck.
He thought it was the hunger, but the voice came to him stronger still. He laughed.
‘I must be going insane’ and he continued in his weak laughter.
‘No. You are not going insane’
‘Who’s there?’ he said in a semi-whisper. ‘Show yourself’
A faint chuckle issued from the thick darkness.
‘You do not need to see me. You just know I’m there.’
‘How?’ He asked, looking around. ‘Who are you?’
‘Just refer to me as Old Nick’ the voice said. ‘Good Old Nick’
Another chuckle, closer now.
The world was as bizarre as ever, and his hunger was as potent as ever. Old Nick seemed to sense his pain and said with a deep, chuckling musical voice
‘The flaw of mankind lays in the maw… the insatiable maw. I see you are hungry’
He gasped at the voice in both a feeble attempt to solicit for food and to ward off further intrusions. He began to grow wary of this soothing voice that had begun to become more real than anything in this dark, dank cave.
‘Who are you?’ he asked again.
‘Is it not always in the place of man to ask wrong or irrelevant questions? Why do they want to know what does not concern them at the moment? How will my identity avail your desperate pangs of hunger at this moment…hahahaha… your question should be how you can get food for your body in this… hellhole!’
The last word was said with a hissing malicious whisper and there was an awkward silence, as if each of them was waiting for the other to speak first.
Old Nick chuckled again in his musical voice, and the man wondered at what he was hearing.
‘No!’ He said, shaking his head slightly. ‘Surely, this must be some trick my malnourished mind is playing on me. I don’t believe that I am down here with any person. I just need food. I need food fast.’
‘It seems you refuse to accept what your ears feed you. I will be gone… fare thee well, my friend.’
His mind wondered where the breeze came in from… a funny nerve told him that it issued from Old Nick’s nostrils. Then he remembered where he had seen the dog in his vision (vision?) yesterday. It belonged to little Lucy, a girl who lived with her parents across the road from his house. He had had some misunderstandings with the dog because it used to mess up his front lawn. He warned the owners to no avail until he had to…
The hunger pangs returned with even greater magnitude. He decided not to think, but memories of the dog drowning in a well bean to play back before his eyes, in some sort of freakish slideshow imaging. He shut his eyes. That didn’t work either. The breeze had to be coming in from somewhere.
He crawled, looking for where the draught was the strongest. It seemed the same everywhere. He rejected a maddening impulse to scream for food. He thought of Old Nick’s speech… if there was an Old Nick. He sat down again and thought of death. Was this how he was meant to die? Starved to death in Old Nick’s dungeon? Despair peeped over the corners of his soul. He didn’t want to die.
Not that it mattered to anybody. He was the product of a failed marriage, and a participant in another failed marriage, and all the other participants were dead. So, in a macabre way, the outside world was more like an enlarged version of his tomb… his prison… his home.
But he wouldn’t die.
But he was hungry.
He asked faintly ‘where can I get food?’
A familiar chuckle sounded in the thickness.
‘Have you been here all this while? Watching me grope in the muddy dirt?’
‘I am a lover of drama and I have witnessed this in many forms. But not quite like this. Now you need food. How do you hope to get this food?’ asked Old Nick.
‘Please, no more riddle. Help a dying man here, please, spirit or man, whoever you are.’
‘Now, the faustian legend is one of greed and outright possessiveness, is it not?’
‘What use is literature to a dying man? What help can poetry render a soul that so nears the end?’
‘The end is yet so far away, my friend. So far that you may not be prepared to walk the miles’ No chuckles this time. ‘How do you hope to get this…
‘How, I wonder. How do I even hope to gain an exit from this prison? This hunger for food will be the end of me!’ Despair was fast approaching.
Old Nick chuckled in his familiar method and seemed to be humming a song. The man was now convinced that his cellmate was not human. Or even if he was, his demeanour had been so twisted by the gloomy blackness that he didn’t seem to bother about the dying man’s plight.
‘I die for want of food. Please, give me food…’ he implored, his voice weaker than ever.
Old Nick’s voice came so close to his ear this time. No breath. Just the same hissing voice.
‘We all want something, we do?’
The man perceived this to be a sort of bargaining move and feared that he didn’t have any provisions to trade with this being.
‘I have nothing… I’m sorry’
Old Nick’s voice rose to an unearthly cackle.
‘HAHAHAHAHA! Let me decide for myself if you have what I want, mortal man! This is no market place!’
Mortal Man? His fears had been realised. Old Nick was not human.
‘In the meantime, follow me’ Old Nick cut into his thoughts again.
‘How can I follow you when I cannot see you?’
‘You humans excel in one thing, my friend. And that is faithful and blind followership. So follow my voice’ the melodious voice weaved back at him.
He got on his knees ad followed the humming of a tune he had never heard. He was crawling towards it and it still moved farther away. He had to go slowly, feeling all the earth before him. The tune appeared to be slowing down from a spirited trot to a slow melancholic dirge. Apprehension filled the man’s heart, but he had no option but to keep following the music. He sensed hope.
He had crawled after the voice for about ten minutes by his judgement when a flicker caught his eye. He thought it was his mind playing tricks on him, so he ignored it and moved on. There it was again and he was sure this time. It was light, concealed by rocks and the music was coming from behind it. Hope not only glimmered this time. It burned. Then he could pay attention to the rumblings in his stomach once again.
He approached the light and saw that the enclosure was a sort of room in the rock. It had smooth walls and was square and it was roughly 25 feet each way. The light came from a bronze candle stand that held 7 candles. It was on a table that was spread with….FOOD!!!
He rushed to the high-backed chair and began to dig his teeth into the closest drumstick he could find when the familiar, musical voice came from behind him
‘And you did not even bother to say grace’
He flipped around so fast that he nearly hurt his back to see the speaker and was met with empty air. He sat down again to eat and then noticed a gleaming handsome figure sitting at the far end of the table looking at him with two coal-like burning eyes. Aside the eyes, the rest of the face was very handsome, long, with a slim nose and a firm jaw, overlooked by a slim mouth, parted in a smile to reveal teeth that seemed to have a light of their own.
‘Old Nick? Surely I am. Were you expecting a wrinkly old man with an equally twisted staff?’
‘Not exactly. I didn’t even know what to expect.’
‘Go on with your food. I hope it is good enough for you’
‘Are you kidding? This is a king’s feast you have here’
Just then, a huge white cat came into the room. It was as big as a dog, if not bigger. It had big white fangs that it showed when it growled rather that mewed. It moved on to Old Nicks side and sat down. The man shuddered to think that he had been in the darkness with such an animal prowling around.
‘Please do not mind Oberon. Despite his size, he has quite a good minded spirit. He let me know where you were’
‘I have to thank him for my rescue then’ said the man. Just then the cat looked at him. The same eyes. Scary red orbs. It regarded him for some time and the lowered its lamps. He continued with his food.
The food was indeed tasty and he wondered what chef might have put together such a delicate feast. His brain began to regain its normal functionality and he began to eat slower, not at the initial ravishing pace he had attacked the feast previously.
His host regarded him with those fiery cold eyes that were set in the exquisite face and he wondered what Old Nick might be thinking. He also wondered how he (Old Nick) came to be in such a desolate place such as his prison.
When he was done eating and was settling his intestines with some fine wine, he thought it wise to venture into discussion with his host.
‘How did you come to be in such a place?’ he asked suddenly.
Old Nick allowed a smile.
‘Questions are the things that have kept us wanting to go on. Wanting to see the next thing we do not know or understand. We need to venture into the unknown. Our devilishly curious nature always yawning for more information and tries to cover the yawning chasm we call life. Indeed, curiosity has led to a great many woes and we still indulge it, to our own eternal peril.’ He shook his head, ‘your position today was brought upon you by your sheer insatiable inquisitiveness.’
The man quietly watched and listened to the handsome figure across the table.
‘The secrets of the ages past are of no direct importance to you, yet you sought to discover what Father Time, in his unfathomable wisdom, concealed from your eyes, and now you are in this… hellhole’
The man noticed the same malicious hiss in the last word.
He had to inquire further.
‘How do I leave this place?’
‘Leave?’ chuckled his host. ‘You have not even been here for long and you want to leave. Such a flagrant show of ingratitude to you host, think you not so?’
The man made to say something but Old Nick cut him short.
‘Ah…! No need to apologise. It’s natural that you want to get back to your kind. I understand that. There is but one catch though. You will take me out with you.’
The man was as puzzled as ever.
‘Take you out too? Why don’t you leave on your own? You do know a place out of here, don’t you?’
‘Yes,’ countered his host. ’I do know a way out of here, but we will speak on that later. I am tired and you are tired too so we should both get some rest.’
The man, though still puzzled, had to agree with the handsome being that he was tired too. So he settled down in a corner of the chamber with his back to the wall and as far away from Oberon, the huge cat, as possible and managed to shut his eyes.
He immediately went blank.
He felt a slight tapping on his left foot and a soft voice calling to him.
He started awake and his eyes slowly adjusted to the light in the place and memory did him service. He wondered what nature of sleep he fell into. It was akin to being knocked over in the head or fainting. He saw Old Nick standing a little distance away, with his cat slowly pacing about close to him, with his twin red orbs perpetually focused on him.
‘You are quite a sleeper.’
The man struggled to his feet, shaking off the remnants of sleep from his brain and smiled at Old Nick who seemed to be so sombre now.
‘Good …whatever time it is.’ Old Nick seemed not to catch the joke and went back to his seat. The action was infectious. The man sat opposite him.
‘Back to the old business of departure… I trust you slept well.’
‘Yeah. I did’ the man replied.
‘Good. Good. Great. Now back to what we were saying, I will show you a way out of here, but you have to take me along with you.’
The man didn’t hesitate in replying
‘Sure, as long as I get out of this place.’
Old Nick smiled and the man suspected something afoot, but decided to play it by the books, provided he left this place. At least he had the hope of returning to the world in one piece.
‘Do you want to leave presently or do you still enjoy my company?’ Old Nick asked with a mischievous smile. He already knew the answer and went on, ‘It is about five minutes walk from here’.
The man’s heart leapt for joy.
‘Let’s go now, please’
Old Nick gestured for the man to follow him and led the way. Humming that arcane tune once again, he vanished into the darkness, followed by Oberon and the man. He wove a path through the labyrinth of darkness with such a sure speed that it seemed as though he designed the place, and the man did his best to keep up with the music. They got to an area with an oddly familiar smell and the music stopped. The man stopped too and he heard the growl of the mighty cat, Oberon. Half afraid, he asked
‘Are you there?’
‘I am here’ the voice of his erstwhile host countered.
‘Ok. Why did we stop? Are we there yet?’
‘Do you want to go on?’
The man was puzzled by this question but decided to reply
Just then, a creaking sound was heard, as if someone was opening an old wooden door.
Yes! It was indeed a door and it opened into sunshine, and cold air and that oddly familiar smell. The man was jubilant. Old Nick looked at him with a queer distant smile on his long, handsome face. The man proceeded to step forward into the light and Old Nick said
‘Remember our agreement?’ and extended a hand as if to shake the man. The man smiled and took the hand in a warm shake. He felt a burn in his palm and withdrew his hand sharply and looked at it in the light. A weird tattoo in the form of a bird in circle was on his palm, and Old Nick disappeared back into the darkness with his cat and a nerve chilling peal of laughter. The man, nursing the burn in his palm, wondering at this occurrence, still feeling happy to see the source of the draught of air, stepped through the old, crumbling door.
As soon as his feet crossed the threshold, he swooned as though hit by shattering wave, and dropped to the floor in a heap. His eyes closed involuntarily and he prayed he wouldn’t wake up in that dungeon.
TO END THE TALE
The first thing he felt was sheets. He felt the soft material and heard the sounds of wheels. Then he realised what the oddly familiar smell was. It was the smell of a hospital. The smell of the drugs and the antiseptics used to wash the floors and equipment. He smiled.
He thought of the dream he had had in the night before. He opened his eyes and was momentarily blinded by the bright light. He winced and shut them back. When they had adjusted, he looked around.
He knew who he was. His name was Nicholas O’Toole, 35, an Irishman, married with a kid and he was a car salesman. He was no explorer and he laughed at his dream. In the midst of the laughter, he remembered why he was in the hospital. He was test driving a vehicle and the prospective buyer, a young lanky man named Oliver Dickens rammed into a parked bus.
He didn’t know about Dickens, but he had minor head injuries and he cut his palm, losing a lot of blood. He cut his right palm and it was still bandaged. He looked at the palm and just then, a ruckus at the window caught his attention. Scared pigeons were scared away when a black cat, who was obviously not interested in them, jumped onto the window sill. The cat sat down and looked straight at him.
A chill ran up his spine. He looked again at his bandaged hand. The TV was on, and it was playing a familiar, though strange music. He began to peel off the bandage.
He had to see.
He had to be sure.