A S I N G L E L I G H T B U L B – Bill Whitten
February 9, 2021
Hung-over, Claudio slept late and missed the shuttle-bus conveying members of his delegation from the hotel to the airport. The concierge called a cab. As he sat in the back seat and gave the driver instructions, a coffee-colored Fiat pulled in front, blocking the way. Without speaking, a man in a black balaclava stepped out of the passenger side door waving a pistol and dragged him from the cab into the back seat of the Fiat. Another man, also wearing a balaclava, put the car in gear, pointed a gun at the sky and fired it.
It was the beginning of Claudio’s career as a hostage. It would last 443 days.
The car-ride terminated in a parking garage. The driver took Claudio’s watch, passport and wallet. Blindfolded, hands tied behind his back, he was pushed and pulled up five flights of stairs. A door slammed and he was forced to his knees. The blindfold was removed. The two men in balaclavas stood over him, illuminated by a bare lightbulb that hung from a frayed brown cord.
Crouched in a corner was man with a soiled grey, London Fog raincoat thrown over his shoulders like a cape. This was Rook, a tall, thin brunette with light blue eyes from Dorsett. He drew on the floor with the nub of a pencil as the men in balaclavas departed.
Welcome. Bony wrists jutted from his frayed black sweater. Rook spoke Arabic, Farsi, English, Italian, French. He’d been in the room for one year and six days.
If I am kept here another six months, I will never leave.
Claudio adapted quickly to the laws that governed the fragment of world lit by the 60-watt light bulb. Cloud-colored walls were stained with blood and excrement. Marauding mice and bugs came and went from crevices in the cement floor. The masked men brought meals. Occasionally they would point and dry-fire their weapons. Or mime the effects bullets had on the human anatomy. But, nothing happened. Starved and forbidden to bathe, Claudio and Rook were neither beaten nor tortured.
A certain Khalid paid periodic visits. His handsome, clean-shaven face was undisguised. Claudio assumed he occupied a position of leadership among the men in balaclavas. The first time Khalid spoke, Rook translated; the security services from your respective governments have begun negotiations. You will be released in a week.
Khalid departed; Rook puffed out his cheeks and sighed. Hostages, Rook explained, are a commodity like livestock or corn whose value fluctuates with the whims of the market.
The room was cold and smelled of sewage and car exhaust. One morning a book was thrown through the doorway: the biography of Johnny Carson, in French. Rook added this to a pile that included the poems of Paul Celan, The Secret History by Procopius, Don Quixote.
That same day Khalid questioned Claudio in English about his identity and his reason for being in Y——.
I am a Roman Catholic priest. I’m part of an ecumenical delegation who’s come to your country to assess the underlying causes of this…this…terrible conflict that’s afflicting…
Khalid interrupted. Why don’t you wear the vestments, whatever you call the uniform a priest wears? He pointed at this throat; the white collar?
Khalid closed his eyes and nodded, as if he’d gone into a trance.
After thirteen months of living without sunlight, living on a diet of rice, coca-cola and a bi-weekly shish kebab sandwich, Rook’s health began to decline, or more accurately resumed its decline. He had leukemia. It had been in remission before he’d taken the assignment that culminated in his abduction.
If I am kept here another six months, I will never leave.
Khalid reassured Rook: you will be out in one, maybe two months at the most. You have not been forgotten.
Before the fevers began to assail him, Rook would occasionally box-step around the room with an imaginary woman in his arms.
Mozart, Petrarch, Titian all lived in vain.
At dawn one morning, as Claudio was once again blindfolded and led to the no doubt disease ridden, medieval toilet, he heard a man crying. Perhaps, it was someone like Rook, who suffered from an illness. Or perhaps it was the sound of hopelessness, of a mind coming apart. He entertained the idea that there were hundreds of other hostages – that he was imprisoned in a vast dormitory for abductees. He found the notion appealing, but did not understand why he felt the way he did.
Rook tried to convince Claudio that a strict routine was essential to maintaining mental health. He proposed that each day they lecture one another on topics of their own choosing. For the sake of our memories, Claudio. Memory nourishes the great souls of artists and mystics.
Rook stood up to stretch and began pacing, occasionally swinging his arms. Have you ever been to London?
From the floor, back to the wall, Claudio looked up at Rook. I have hazy memories of standing outside the Marble Arch Tube Station as I searched for Langham Street, for the location of the Yorkshire Grey, a nineteenth century pub Arthur Rimbaud once frequented. I never found it.
Rook’s shoulders bounced. Hmmm.
The love affair between Verlaine and Rimbaud has long been one of my obsessions.
Rook stuck out his lower lip. I never thought much of Verlaine.
Here are fruits, flowers, leaves and branches. Here is my heart which beats only for you.
Sounds like the sort of thing a priest would like.
I like the word ‘decadent,’ all shimmering with purple and gold, the brilliance of flames, the carnal spirit, the unhappy flesh, the violent splendors; the breath of the tamers of animals, the collapse among the flames of those exhausted by love. Decadence is Byron lighting a fire in the midst of his women, it is Seneca declaiming poetry as he opens his veins, it is Napoleon masking his agony with flowers.
Like I said – the sort of thing a priest would like.
God reveals himself according to each person’s mental capacity.
Rook blew on his hands, rubbed them together and continued to pace. All I know about priests, Claudio, is that they are meant to serve the poor.
I love the poor, Rook. I love to fuck them and get high with them. Only in the black eyes of a day laborer can I find anything approaching a god.
My memories are like films made by different directors in different styles. Am I the star of these films?
Claudio lit a cigarette. They were rationed three cigarettes a day. Rook didn’t smoke, so he gave his to Claudio. Six cigarettes a day was somehow even worse than three.
Rook sighed. After this our lives will be divided in two: ‘before’ and ‘after’.
Yes, it’s true.
Claudio closed his eyes. Sleep came easily to him. He could fall deeply asleep in seconds. Night after night, on the soiled, pestilent, odiferous mattress he slept like a baby. Better, in fact, than he had in years. He was not surprised. He’d known men who’d spent years in prison. They spoke of sleeping 14 or 18 hours a day. When they were paroled they looked even younger than when they’d begun their sentences.
As Rook’s health grew worse, a blonde hostage from Berlin, claiming to be a doctor, examined him. The ‘doctor’ wore a kippah and a black striped sweat suit. He recommended a regime of red meat and vitamins.
Immune system in free-fall, sores appeared on Rook’s face, his hands. Diarrhea besieged him. He couldn’t eat. If Claudio lit a cigarette he gagged. One day Claudio imagined, he would hear Rook’s ragged whisper in his dreams.
They are not merely grinding their boots in our faces, Claudio, they’re stepping on our hearts as well.
The Church sent me to rehab and then after that to Nairobi for a year. I mainly stayed in my rooms, drank beer and kept to myself. I could not risk living as I had in Rome. Shooting up at the pinnacle of the Scala Sancta, giving blowjobs to migrants in the Coliseum. Africa was no place for me, a gay priest who loves drugs even more than sex. If I was not careful, I imagined that I would be accused of witchcraft or chased by a mob through the streets and skinned alive like Hypatia. On the other hand, the nice thing about that part of the world – they believe, Rook. You can’t imagine. Christ does indeed walk among the black Africans. Prior to arriving there I’d only known phonies like myself – people, who, if they ever believed to begin with, stopped sometime before leaving the seminary.
On the day he died, they were moved. Rook was stuffed into an empty refrigerator and loaded into the back of a van. Claudio lay blindfolded and bound on the floor next to the refrigerator. Anything he felt about Rook was overridden by his fear of the refrigerator toppling and crushing him as the van sped erratically through an active warzone.
After an hour, perhaps longer, the van stopped. Claudio heard the refrigerator being dragged from the van. He heard it hit the ground. The doors of the van were closed; it resumed its journey.
Once again the van stopped and Claudio was taken out and put first in the trunk of one car and then the backseat of another. Again and again, like a piece of luggage, he was moved.
Behind the blindfold he slept. Hours passed. He felt no fear. Finally, someone was shouting at him in Italian: ”Italian intelligence. Wake up! Wake up!” His blindfold was pulled off and he discovered he was sitting on the curb outside of a hotel. The Italian agent pulled him to his feet.