A war for freedom rages deep within my soul. The battle sends a violent tremor through my body and shivers race to cover every inch of my flesh. My skin rises into bumps that make my skin raw, my nerves scream. My face remains impassive — no lips pressed tightly together, no jaws clenched, no pain visible in my eyes. To the more serious watcher, perhaps a slight narrowing of the eyes, or the occasional flair of my nostrils might catch the watcher’s attention. To a casual observer, however, there would be no facial expressions to alert the watcher to the war ranging within me, they’d see nothing but a blank expression on my face, a mask of neutrality that’s only removed in the lonely dark of the night.
The struggle ends as quickly as it began, leaving my body limp with exhaustion. The war is not over. There is no victor. There is simply a pause for rest, a chance to regroup and restrategize.
In the deepest recesses of my being there are hostages. There is a child howling with a rage born of years of imprisonment, and anger at being locked away before he had the chance to grow old. Another child huddles in a dark corner, mourning the loss of dreams long since buried, the illusions of What Might Have Been haunt him, taunt him like some bully from school days long past. Still another child shakes with fear, and bangs at the bars that have held him prisoner for so long. Each blow he rains down on the bars seem to bend them past their point of endurance, yet they do not break. As I walk down the corridors of my soul, I encounter cage after cage, each painstakingly constructed to hold The Children of Fears: the child afraid of the dark; the child scared of being abandoned; the child frightened of growing up; the child who is terrified because he doesn’t know who he is.
Down another hallway, just there, is yet another child, this one is not caged, but he’s chained by Time Past. He sits listlessly in a corner, wrapped in a black coat of loneliness, silently staring into the mist of memories. This child is thankful for the darkness, as the blackness hides the tears that scald his cheeks, allowing him to cry without being noticed. As I walk around the cellblock full of children inmates, I give no more than a passing glance to each. I know each child intimately, but each one is best kept at a distance. Our time of familiarity has long since past, our chance for reacquaintance is remote.
I’m not sure where I am headed, but my footsteps propel me assuredly forward. The corridors twist and turn with no particular reason, like a maze, designed to keep people from getting out. My pace quickens, and, after several turns, my eyes catch a door at the end of this hallway, and, I know that this is my destination, though I still don’t know why I’m walking faster and faster towards the door.
I realize that unlike the barred cages that line all of the other passages, this passage is barren, except for a heavily padded door at the very end. It feels as if my steps have stopped, and that I’ve somehow been whisked down the long corridor, as if my thoughts alone carried me, and am now standing in front of the door.
I have reached my destination.
I stand before the padded door, observing the padding, the thick bolts that hold the door shut, and the small barred window in the upper part of the door. The window suddenly lights up from inside, and I am compelled to stand on tiptoe and peer into the room.
The room, like the door, is heavily padded, and though it’s brightly lit I realize that there is no lightbulb in the room; instead, it is the thick cloak of darkness swirling around the room that creates an energy which lights up the cell with an eerie, flickering glow. Against the far wall of the room, a small child, tightly bound in a straightjacket, sits there. His head is bent forward, almost as if he’s dozed off, but sleep is not possible for this child. I stare at this lovely urchin, and wonder why he’s been so cruelly imprisoned. He seems too young, too small , too innocent to have warranted such treatment.
The sympathy I feel towards the child takes control of my mind, forcing all thought from my brain, and, in an instant, I find myself standing in front of the helpless child, looking down upon him. I have no memory of opening the cell door, but, I look back and notice the cell door is open. The black energy swirls around us, the child and I, and my thoughts of the door are disrupted, almost as if I’m being told not to think about the door. My thoughts are turned back to the child at my feet. As I stand there, staring down at this child so evilly confined by the straps of the jacket, a humming starts in my ears. I realize it is the voice of the room, of the swirling darkness. No. It’s the voices of the light that emanate from the darkness. These voices swirl around my head, chanting an odd siren song, and suddenly I’m overwhelmed with the desire to release the child — no child should be confined in such a manner. A compulsion seizes my thoughts, and I have no choice but to obey its commands.
I kneel down to begin undoing the clasps of the straightjacket and find that my hands are trembling. The sight of my hands sets off the voices in my head, shrieking for me to stop, to not release the child, to flee the room. The thoughts are muddled and confused. Seemingly, in response to the shrieking voices in my head, the whirling light’s song gets louder, drowning out my own voices. The spell of the light and the room turns my hysteria from shrieks to whispers so low I cannot hear them.
I again start to fumble with the straps, and in my haste to release this child, an edge of the strap’s buckle catches the side of my fingernail, and rips a piece of it off. The pain shatters the spell of the room, and, at that moment, I’m filled with the certain knowledge that I cannot release the child — only some other has that power, though I do not know who The Other might be. I glance at the urchin, who still has not moved, rise to my feet, and turn to go.
I almost reach the door of the cell, but a howl from behind me freezes every muscle in my body. The howls grow louder, more animalistic. I whirl around in time to see the child launch himself at me, knocking me to the floor, forcing the breath out of me. This animal-child lay on top of me, howling in my ear, kicking wildly and trying to rip my face and neck with his teeth. I roll over, kick him away, and struggle to my feet. Only the fact that he is strapped into the jacket has saved me from mutilation, saved my life.
He howls in frustration, this beastly child, like an animal denied his prey. He is struggling to get to his feet, hindered by the fact that he cannot use his arms. I know I must leave before he gets back on his feet. I race for the door, pulling it closed behind me, and I hear his body slam into the door. His shriek of rage echoes down the hall, and, as the air leaves his lungs, the howl becomes a hideous lament.
I take a deep breath, stand on tiptoe, and peer into the cell through the barred window on the door. The creature stands in the center of the room, head thrown back, as the heinous lament rips from the depths of his blackened soul. His breath finally runs out, leaving an eerie silence after the echoing stops. He takes a deep breath, as if to begin the moan again, but he stops as he senses my gaze upon him. He turns towards me, and I can finally see his face. As our eyes meet, goosebumps race across my body, and the hair on my neck stands at attention. Standing there, peering through the bars, I realize I am looking into my own face. The urchin may have a childlike body, but the face is mine, the grownup face that I see every morning in the mirror as I shave. He has the same mouth, the same hair, the same nose — all me. But the eyes, staring into his eyes, I see that it’s not my eyes that are staring back at me. My eyes are blue, and I am staring into eyes of the darkest shade of black I’ve ever seen.
I want to turn away, but his gaze holds me. I look into those eyes, and I see the deepest, blackest pits of hell. Then I see the burning fires of rage that are bottled up inside this child. In those eyes I see things too terrifying to explain in words. Finally, I see the most horrifying image of all, and I realize why this child is confined in a straightjacket and bolted into a padded cell. This child is no longer human. This child is the violent, murderous part of my soul, the part that can never be set free, the part condemned to eternal confinement and torment. It is his struggle, his war, his battle to be free that sends the silent tremors through my body, and that I attempt to hide behind the mask of impassiveness.
I turn and walk away from the padded door, relieved that, for the moment, the child remains confined. As I walk down the hall I realize that looking into the child’s eyes, I saw the full meaning of hell. Hell is not the place of eternal fire and damnation for the souls of the dearly departed. Hell is a reality that lives inside. It’s a place we struggle to keep confined, to keep in control, while we try to avoid the spell it casts: The Desire To Be Free.