By Ekari Mbvundula
They say great things are achieved in the dead of night. Montague hoped it was true as he hammered in the next nail with all the life that was left in him. His only illumination was the slice of moonlight shining through the window of the wretched dungeon which had been his home for the last five years.
When the nail was in place, he gripped the piece of metal which was once the corner of a tin food tray, and used it as a wood shaver to smooth out the rough edges of his creation. The sound of the slivers of wood being hewn off seemed to mimic the sickly tones of his wheezing lungs. He paid no attention to that, not now. Now he was fighting his fiercest adversary – time.
“S…S’il vous plait…” He pleaded quietly to no one. A great cough built up from the bottom of his chest and erupted from him. He crouched helplessly as uncontrollable shakes caused him to drop the makeshift tool; he reached out a shaky hand to hold the edge of the work table. As the cough finally receded he eased open his watery eyes. A mist of blood had speckled the bench.
He cursed himself to his feet, using the most colourful profanities he knew to shock his expiring body into action.
Montague glanced at a charcoal sketch on a yellowing sheet of paper that lay amongst his tools. He never kept it far from reach, and now he drew strength from it again. He forced a deep breath and wheezing, he pushed himself up on one arm. He dragged his leg up for support and growled as he was reminded of the cold heavy iron on his ankle.
The sketch portrayed a young woman, proud, bold and stunningly beautiful, gazing ahead with Montague’s eyes – the only things he had ever given her. Her afro hair was twisted into intricate dreadlocks and pulled up in a magnificent bun, like a crown. In her true homeland, he knew she would have been a queen. Perhaps with his final invention she would, at the very least, be freed.
The worn-out prisoner picked up a table leg-turned-mallet, raised it up slower than before and brought it down with less precision, every motion becoming increasingly more difficult to control. He was puzzled when his vision began to blur, and it was only when he blinked drops onto the smooth wooden surface that he realised they were tears. He smeared them away with the back of his hand. He had to finish!
His frustration threatened to overwhelm him but he didn’t stop.
When he put the mallet down he was panting. His whole body pulsed with each breath cut short by the mine dust that had built up in his lungs. The pain meant nothing. He tested his work, gripping the base, the first of three wooden components. It was shaped like a window frame, except there was a gap on the left side, leaving the square incomplete. A wheel was attached to the top right end, which when spun controlled the mechanisms that made his invention work, and a handle was attached to the top so that it could be lifted.
Montague’s wheezing slowed to a sigh. His fingertips ran along every inch of it, the fine precise holes and grooves he had drilled to insert the unique mechanism, and the corners he had spent days smoothing down… which had in turn rewarded him with splinters so imbedded they had become a part of his hands.
Now one more attachment was left, the most fragile component. Even with the risk that it might finish him, he would have to use magic… Over the years he had developed his own brand, some Bantu mysticism he had learnt in the Homeland, long before he and his countrymen were taken, mixed with French alchemy which he had imbibed from his second master.
Moving with care, he straddled the bench, first dragging the chain so he could place his feet on either side. He put his right hand on the bench in front of him, palm facing up. The moonlight had shifted, and now it only lit the edge of the bench. Sweating, he firmly pressed his left thumb into the open palm, and felt the largest splinter at the base of his right thumb. He pressed into the skin, and his head felt lighter from the pain. He feared he would sink into unconsciousness – and perhaps never wake up. Closing his eyes he continued to press along the length of the splinter within his flesh.
His fingers slipped, and he bit down on his cracked bottom lip, focussing more than he had ever done in his life. He was vaguely aware of the familiar tapping of footsteps faintly approaching – the guard rotation. Guards would have questions… questions about how he had obtained the tools and what he was building. They wouldn’t ask him for the answers, they would simply punish him. And he knew he may not survive that.
Montague didn’t allow those matters to concern him just now. He began the incantation, spoken in a grinding mix of French and Chewa. “You who were once a tree became this bench. You who were once my bench became the tool in my hands. Now you will change… from mother tree to father silver. Your life of wood is no more.”
His thumb kept still over the splinter and he concentrated, barely breathing. He felt coldness spread through his capillaries from the back of his head. He willed it to flow into this left hand, willed it to accumulate on his thumb, then into his palm. He felt a sharpening pain but he struggled to maintain control. He gasped and slumped forward using his elbows to support his weight.
His ears were alert to the progress of the footsteps on the stone floor… 15 steps away and counting. They would patrol his floor more frequently than the others, as was necessary for criminals guilty of the most heinous crimes – Les Mechants Hommes. He shifted his hand into the moonlight, examining his palm. There, just the tip of silver protruded from his palm. He pinched it between his thumb and forefinger and drew it out. His own blood trailed along its slender length, but he let out a sigh of relief. It had retained its perfectly straightened form, as he needed it to be. He held it tightly as if his life depended on it. As he slowly moved it towards the machine, he breathed in and out heavily, his whole universe now focused on the end of the needle, his own heartbeat loud in his ears…
Five steps more and invasive eyes would peer through the small grating in the heavy wooden door. Montague cursed under his breath and abandoned his attempt to attach the pin to its mechanism. He picked up the machine while stifling a painful groan, placing it under the workbench, and moving carefully to ensure that the links on his shackles did not clang together. Once he gently placed the machine onto the stone floor, he positioned himself across the tools and debris as if he were slumped asleep on the table. He didn’t dare to breathe as the footsteps fell silent at his cell door.
The metal shutter snapped open with a reverberating clang. Heavy breathing interspersed with loud chewing filled the quiet chamber. It was Pierre, the head guard whom he loathed as much for his pungent breath as for his tendency to spit at him for personal entertainment. Pierre mouth-breathed into the gap for a moment, then, after a lazy glance, shut it again. This was what Montague had hoped for.
He waited until Pierre’s footsteps were far enough to mask the sounds of his own laborious tasks. He pushed himself up again and the pain in his chest grew tenfold. He groaned aloud, as he clutched his chest, uncertain whether or not he had been heard. He reached under the bench for his precious invention and placed it on top. His watery eyes sought out the pin once more and he pressed it against the table, rolling it to the edge and pinching it close to its sharp end. He ignored his throbbing head, fluttering heart and wheezing lungs. Now there was only this task.
The magistrate who had sentenced him to this dungeon had said there would be no redemption for what Montague had done. Only death, and hell. That was truly all he deserved after what his terrible machines had done to countless children… their blood was his only legacy. Montague’s guilt drove him now. Building this last machine meant he might be spared from that fate. He only prayed he might finish it in time…
In a moment where time itself stopped, Montague’s prayers were answered. Tilting his head low and close to his newest machine, he twisted the pin clockwise then anti-clockwise in the groove he had prepared for it. It clipped perfectly into place with his first try. Afraid to believe it, he tested it, pulling it one way and then another – it stuck firmly to the mechanism.
He fell back, gazing wearily at the completed machine. Its components, including the pin, were wood from the window sill and a bench leg, and metal from the food trays. It had been hammered together using a second bench leg and shaped using a corner of a tray and his bare hands. The remaining pieces of the bench he had torn apart were discarded in the corner furthest from the door and his tools were behind a stone in the wall. His hands were cut and bruised but it did not matter. The last of his duty now was to conceal his invention…then embrace death.
Moving arms that were as weighty as lead, he grasped the handle and placed his other hand on the side of the machine. Just as he had shifted its weight a centimetre off the table, with his joints crunching against each other like dry stone on wood, he heard it. The footsteps of the same guard were now growing louder instead of fading away.
Panic gripped Montague, and he yanked his invention to remove it from sight. Over-calculating, he lost grip of the side, and though his right hand still had purchase of the handle, as weak as he was, he failed to stop it from crashing sideways to the floor and he screamed out as it dragged his arm down at the wrong angle…
His worst nightmare. The steps quickened their pace, someone shouted a call of alarm, and hands and keys started scraping at the door. Panting, Montague made sure he was positioned between the machine and the cell door, concealing his secret, then he allowed his body to fall the remaining distance to the floor with a bone-crunching thud. He pulled his right arm out from under his body and stretched his hand over his creation. In a hurried whisper, he began to cast a concealing spell on it.
“You who are manifested from my mind, shall be revealed to no one else, but one.” Then he spoke the man’s name.
In the same moment, the heavy door was shouldered open by two guards, with a third quickly approaching. Pierre’s snarling face came first, glancing around the cell before seeing Montague lying on the floor – not on his designated sleep bench. This alone was a punishable offence. Stick in hand, he strode to Montague, jabbing him in the stomach.
Montague gasped and doubled over – but then his hand shot out to grab the stick. Coldness spread from the back of his head.
Pierre’s eyes flashed in anger. “Disobedience is still a game to you isn’t it, Dog?” he said in his crude French, twisting the stick deeper into Montague’s stomach. It was Pierre’s smirk that Montague hated most of all. It came with the confidence that he had complete control over his prisoner.
Montague tightened his grip on the stick against his abdomen.
“Not a game,” he snarled, shoving it forward and making Pierre’s hold slip. The handle struck up into the guard’s midriff, hard. Pierre doubled over and recoiled; his eyes shut tightly, his arms over his belly.”It is a way of life!”
Montague pulled the stick with both hands, fully claiming it, and struck Pierre’s left kneecap. The guard’s eyes opened wide as he shrieked. Montague looked up at him and grinned, reminding his opponent that he too could revel in another’s pain.
Pierre held his wounded knee and stumbled away from him, hurriedly whimpering orders to his men. Jacques, the thin one with the potbelly, and François, the short one, immediately dove into action. Against one man, when Montague’s eyes could pierce into the soul and convince him he was nothing, but two men with sticks… He was not young or healthy anymore; the magic he drew on for strength was now weakening him more than it was helping him.
He dropped Pierre’s stick as the blows came raining down, striking his head, chest and stomach – each one a drumbeat closer to death. In the madness and pain, he rolled onto his side and immediately feeling a kick on his back. Unheard by the guards, he said with a broken sigh, “I lived as Montague, I die as Imamu.” His birth name would be his token in the land of the gods. Through squinted eyes, he saw the place under the bench where he had put the machine, then tore his shirt and flung the piece over it, just as they dragged him to the open floor.
Jacques raised his stick high, but Pierre grabbed it before it came down and wrenched it from him. He shoved Jacques back and struck Montague square in the head then pulled up for another blow.
“Stop!” shouted François. When Pierre glared at him he pointed at Montague. The prisoner was still. Pierre looked at the limp body in disbelief. He let the stick drop from his hand and wiped his brow, panting.
“Tell the master that the slave,” Pierre murmured, “is no more.” He limped towards the door in disgust. “And make sure the undertaker collects him immediately. I don’t want his stench in here!”
“I am the undertaker,” said a voice just outside the door. It was coming from a large robed man in front of them.
Pierre frowned at the mysterious figure for a moment, but he decided he didn’t care how the undertaker had arrived before they had sent for him.
“If only the living were served so quickly…” Pierre said as he brushed past the man. He was eager to distance himself from the remains, and any inconvenient sense of guilt that may want to follow him. The other two guards followed with brief sideways glances at the undertaker.
When the guards left, Barthélemy Thimonnier the undertaker entered the cell at a brisk pace and began his search. Grim-faced, he stepped around Montague’s body, giving it just a brief glance. He moved silently from one end to the other, looking all over the floor, until he finally came to the bench. He lowered himself to one knee and peered under it, and a dirty cloth caught his eye.
He lifted the cloth and tossed it aside. In the poor light, he could not tell what it was, but he knew it was what he came for. As he picked it up he felt a slight tingling vibration. Raising his brow he gazed at the contraption, but it drew no more attention to itself. It was small enough for him to hide it, and carry the slave’s body out as well. He placed it within his robes, wrapping and securing it within using a length of cloth.
He began to rise, but then spotted a piece of paper on the floor amongst the makeshift tools. It had been pinned underneath the object. He picked it up and held it up to the moonlight. It was a coal sketch of the woman who was the slave’s daughter. The undertaker turned it over.
There were words written with smudges of dirt and a darker smudge which experience told him was blood: “Pour Elle.” Below that was scrawled: “Je suis deso.”
“Je suis desolé…” the undertaker read quietly, filling out the missing letters. I am sorry. A fitting final message, he thought. From what he had heard, the slave had much indeed to be sorry for. Rumour had it that on his master’s orders, the slave of the house of Montague had kidnapped the children of his master’s rivals and brought them to the underground chambers, to his nefarious machines of torture. As deep underground as they were, the screams of the innocent could still be heard across the moorlands on a quiet night. When they were discovered, the châtelain himself was charged a fine and 3 years imprisonment whilst his slave was thrown into this dungeon for the remainder of his life.
Barthélemy looked at the paper for a moment, rubbing it between his fingers, before stowing it in his robes together with the machine. He rose from the floor and went to the barred window, feeling along it. Before he dealt with the body, he had one final, most important collection to make. Jammed between two stones he found what he was looking for: two silver coins. Lower than his usual fee for smuggling contraband, but he was impressed that the slave had gotten his hands on these at all.
The undertaker pocketed the money, turned and shouldered the remains of Montague, closing the cell door behind him.
Weighing down the undertaker’s robes was the world’s first sewing machine.