I hated feeding the men in the Pit. Hated it. It became a sort of surreal ritual that sucked the life out of the whole day, filling the time preceding it with awful anticipation, and the time following it with nightmares.
The Pit was a simple thing, really: about five meters in diameter and dug so deep that you couldn’t see the bottom, even with the corridor lights on. All you could make out was movement; shapes and shadows snuffling around.
We fed them once a day, around noon: usually two loaves of bread, but never any water. I heard the other guards saying that the things in the Pit (could you still call them men?) licked the condensation off the walls and the floor. Sometimes the guards pissed on the bread before throwing it in. I never did this. The walls were sheer, and made of brick. I could see that whoever had built the Pit had gone to some lengths to make the sides as smooth and formless as possible; no chance of handholds, no chance of escape.
“They don’t deserve any better,” said Dom to me once. He’d been a guard there for years and I listened to him. “You know what excrement is, boy?” he said.
I nodded. It was practically all I could smell next to the Pit.
“They’re the excrement of humanity, down there: rapists, murderers, child molesters, guys who beat up their wives. This is where they end up.”
He threw a couple of loaves into the abyss and I heard the ghoulish cries of joy as the shadows moved, as the things descended to feed.
“How do they survive?” I asked him once. “It sounds like a lot of them down there. How do they survive on two loaves of bread a day?”
“They eat each other, boy. The strong ones eat the weak ones, like in nature.”
“And people know about this?”
“People? I don’t know about people. A judge sends some sick fuck away for life and who knows what happens to him then?” He scratched his nose. “We do, boy. We know.”
I used to have nightmares in those early days. As guards we were used to shift work, and many nights I would end up sleeping at the prison on a small, lumpy mattress. I’d dream they were coming for me, those things in the Pit. I’d dream that they found a way to climb out and were shuffling through the corridors like zombies, chittering in the dark, getting closer.
Some of the older guards, the ones who had served there for years, used to tell stories about the men in the Pit.
“They forget language,” said old Brooks, one day over lunch. “That’s why they screech and gibber like that. They’ve forgotten how to talk properly. They’ve forgotten words. All they have now are sounds, and maybe that’s their language. Maybe they can understand one another. Who knows? Most of the old ones, the survivors, they’ve been down there so long they wouldn’t know who they are or what they did any more. Nothing escapes from the Pit,” and here he pointed his fork at me, “not light, not life, not humanity, and not hope. People go in, and nothing comes out.”
Except the smell, I thought. And the nightmares.
I don’t know where the order came from exactly. Dom just tapped me on the shoulder one day and said, “Come with me. Got a job for you.”
We pulled the prisoner out of his cell, shackled at the ankles and the wrists; a huge man, with broad shoulders and a shaved head. He glared at me as we hauled him up.
“Where we goin’?” he asked us.
“To the Pit,” said Dom, flatly.
The effect was sudden, and dramatic. The man flung himself on the ground, prostrate, and tried to grab the wall. “Please no!” he screamed. “Please I’ll be good I promise. I’m sorry I’m sorry! Please–”
Dom hit him over the back of the head with his nightstick. Then he hit him again. And again. It made a horrible wet sound and I saw there was blood on the man’s neck. He was groggy after that and we had to drag him through the double doors and down the long corridor that led to the Pit. Now his cries were pitiful. He started to whimper.
We hauled him to the edge. The things down below must have noticed what was about to happen because as one they started screeching and crying in that foul half-language. The prisoner heard it too. He begged and cried and pleaded with us to let him go. But Dom hit him behind the knees with the nightstick, then kicked the falling man out into the void.
I watched him fall for a long, long time, watched those frightened eyes (like a child’s eyes now) getting smaller and smaller, until they were swallowed up by the darkness that lives in the Pit. There was a crunch as the body hit the floor, then silence…and then a scream. Pure. Undiluted. Animal; the sound a rabbit makes when it’s caught in a snare.
I heard his clothes being ripped away, then a squelching noise and a crack. And still the screams went on. In my mind I saw it all; the dirty fingernails digging into soft flesh, the teeth filed to points, biting and biting, the hands, so many of them, all over his body. Like flies. They’re eating him alive, I thought to myself. Down there, in the dark. Feeding time.
And still the screams went on.
I remember throwing up against a wall. I remember Dom taking my arm and leading me out of that god-forsaken room. I remember a small bed and a lumpy mattress. I closed my eyes.
They say nothing escapes from the Pit. Not light, not life, not humanity, and not hope.
But they’re wrong.
And still the screams go on.