It was the four-hundredth week, or perhaps the four-hundred-first. Sten was still in the hole.
Through a rough iron grating, he could hear the sounds of daylight. Birds. Occasional footsteps. Often it was only quiet. Sten counted the footsteps with infinite patience, waiting for his moment. Waiting for the pause.
There, now. One-two-three-four…
No stopping. Light, skipping steps. A child on an errand. Perhaps they had been warned away from him, but such things, he knew, rarely even slowed their curiosity. He knew it hadn’t his.
Another. Plodding. One-two. One-two. A laborer, perhaps carrying a load. Would be considerably less sympathetic to his predicament than if he were sans load. Sten let it pass.
And now laughter. Sten’s body ached with it. He had trained himself, in all his time in the hole, not to miss certain things. This was to protect his sanity as much as it was to lessen the impact of their punishment. Let them lock Sten away from the outside, he would be girded against it. After the first week he no longer sprawled in the stripes of daylight that lingered in the floor of his prison for half of the year. After twenty, he forgot the taste of anything but the clear, cold well water they brought him. After that, it was exponential.
He no longer dreamed of women. This freed up a considerable amount of time, which he repurposed for philosophical matters. But some instincts were hard-wired into the brain, he knew, and not so easily severed.
They paused. They halted. There were whispers.
Sten did not hope. This was a pastime among the young women of the nearby village. They would whisper and giggle and dare each other—but they would never get farther than a few steps, he knew, before they would shriek and titter and fly back to their village bower.
He spent an hour contemplating his wall.
A lesser man might have marked the surface, a great mural to mirror his mind’s process, or give himself over to an exhaustive essay whose writing grew cramped and miniscule the closer it got to the floor. But Sten left it an empty canvas, projecting his mind on it, leaving it fresh and blank each new day.
There were more footsteps. One-two-three… the pause.
Sten shook himself to stand. He called. “Hullo!”
Silence. A soft, tentative, “h-hello?”
“Can you hear me?”
“Yes?” firmer this time. It was a child, perhaps nine, perhaps ten. Concerned, but reserving further judgment. An age when reality lay somewhat nebulously between waking and sleep. Willing to accept a man in the ground with little suspicion.
“I’m trapped here. I have been for a very long time. Would you be so kind as to let me out?”
He was not sure of the exact mechanism that held him here, but the child could examine it, shout description back to him, and maybe, together—
Ah. They were not always so quick to that line of thought. He should not have assumed.
“Long ago, they called me a criminal. They locked me up here to never see the daylight again. Please, let me free.”
“What did you do?” the child’s tone wavered between skepticism and horrified fascination.
“Because I loved my country, more than any other. Is it truly a crime, child, to hold such pride? For that they locked me here.”
“That’s terrible,” said the child, “love should never be a crime.”
Sten sighed, relief beginning to find him.
But then—“you must have done something else.”
Sten clenched his fist. “I assure you, I did nothing but love my country to the detriment of others. They did not approve of the shape it took.”
There was a long moment of silence. Sten debated further coercing the child, pleading reconciliation. But children were all too familiar with the plea of “I’ll never do it again, honest.”
Then the child spoke. “I had an uncle. Great-uncle. He came to live with us. My sister was only a few years older than me. We made him leave in the middle of the night. Your love was like his…wasn’t it?”
Sten stayed silent.
“If you’re sorry, then you’re sorry. But I can’t let you out. You might do it again.”
Sten managed to restrain himself from shouting and throwing his mug at the grate.
A long day passed. Night descended and he was afforded the luxury of sleep to pass the time. But then in the middle of the night, he woke suddenly and completely. He cast about for what had woken him, for he had always been a sound sleeper.
There, again. A rattle. Someone was at the vent at the entrance to his hole. He waited in silence, waited for more.
Then the rattle turned into a knocking. He decided to risk a greeting tap. Someone returned it.
“You know I’m here?” this was a silly question, but safe. The villagers knew he was here, he could tell by how studiously they avoided his place.
“Do you want something?”
There was a pregnant pause. Sten readied himself for a tirade.
“Do you want out?”
Sten’s mouth fell open. This had to be a trick. He proceeded with caution.
“I would like to be out, yes.”
“You want me to do it?”
Sten could not tell from their short, terse replies if the speaker was angry or not.
“If you would, yes.”
“And you are sorry?”
“You are sorry?”
“I think you know what.”
Ah. This was an apologist. They did not want to let his punishment lie. There were those who had insisted he be put to death, rather than to the hole. If he ever got out, they said, if he ever got out…
“I am truly sorry. For every one.”
“And my sister?”
“My sister. She was among the many you killed when you ascended to power.”
Sten rolled the words around on his tongue, calculating. If the speaker was smart, he would simply shoot Sten in the head while he climbed from the hole. If he was vindictive, he would wait until Sten was free of the hole and attempt to kill him face-to-face. Then Sten would have a chance. He would proceed with caution.
“If your sister was among the many, I assure you, then, there was nothing personal about her death. I did not hate her. I bore her no ill will.”
“She was just in the way?”
“Ah.” He cast his eyes to the corner. “That cannot be helped. I have no power over what people ultimately decide to do with their lives. If she was in the way, then yes, I may have caused her death. But killed? Not directly.”
There was a long span of silence. Sten began to imagine trees, trying to picture the white village at the foot of the mountains where he lay. How it may have changed in the intervening years, if anyone there would remember his face.
“Are you sorry?”
“For her death? Of course. I am sorry for all deaths, sorrier still for those I’ve caused.”
“You did not kill my sister. She was just one of the many in the way. You gave her no special treatment, am I correct?”
“Then,” the speaker continued, “I cannot show you any favor. I will not let you out, because a common criminal deserves no special mention.”
Sten felt heat gather behind his eyes and now he shouted, now he threw his tin drinking cup so that it hit with a terrible clang and he buried his face in his hands and wept and wept.
The sun rose on his four-hundred-first, or was it four-hundred-second week? Sten was still in the hole.