Mauricio had not slept well; he played with the collar rubbing against the skin on his neck. He had shared his small cell with three other men for the last week. It wasn’t the first time, but his body was bigger now and he occupied more space. The muscles in his legs were aching. He needed to stretch them, but there was no space to walk between his bed, a narrow plank of wood, and the wall. Three snoring bodies were fighting for comfort on the dirty floor.
He raised his arms over his head and stretched his neck. He flattened his back against the wall and then pressed down to hug his legs. “How can this be so painful?“ he asked himself. His calves were in knots. Not a cramp. It was his left foot. Not again, he thought and then swore out loud.
“Stop making so much noise; it’s impossible to sleep,” one of the men complained.
Yeah right, because you were resting so comfortably before I spoke out loud. Mauricio almost laughed. Almost. Then his right foot cramped too, and he didn’t think it was funny anymore.
“Silence!” the guard outside his cell ordered. She had a screeching voice.
I’d give anything to shut your mouth once and for all. “And if I don’t? What?” Mauricio knew better than to antagonize the guard, a woman who held his future in her bony hands. But he couldn’t help himself.
“Get out.” The guard opened the cell door and pointed her gun at him.
Mauricio noticed that she had a whip ready in her other hand. “Right away,” he murmured under his breath.
His legs weren’t steady enough and the hesitation in his movements earned Mauricio a taste of the guard’s spitefulness. He managed to suppress a scream when the whip lashed his chest, but a tear escaped his eye. I hate you with all my heart. He turned his head to hide his pain from the guard. The three men remaining in the cell were silently fighting for the empty bed. To Mauricio the sight was more painful than the whiplash. He was aware of his condition as a slave. Sometimes he wondered if the other men were.
“You worthless excuse for a slave should thank the Heavens the Priestess seems to think you could be of some use in the Temple. If it were up to me, I would have put you out of your misery already,” the guard said.
Mauricio didn’t utter another word. He walked through the dimly lit hallway with the point of the whip pressed firmly against his shoulder blade. His legs straightened with each step he took on the hay-covered dirt floor. At least I’m outside my cell; maybe I’ll get some sleep after all, Mauricio thought, satisfied by the turn of events. The feeling didn’t last long.
“Here, spend the rest of the night in better company.” The guard pushed Mauricio inside a dark cell that smelled of rotten fish. She laughed loudly at her joke while she closed the door of the isolation chamber.
“Thanks,” he said, grinning. He could have done without another set of fresh bruises. Still, defying women was one of the pleasures of his young life.
He sat on the crude floor, letting his eyes adjust to the darkness. He knew the place all too well. Normally after a few days of total isolation, he could make out shapes. The prolonged starvation produced images to keep his brain occupied while his stomach was painfully empty. He smiled. He could sleep undisturbed now.
“Wake up. You’re wanted elsewhere.” The guard’s voice echoed inside his cell.
Today we have brutality with a side of loud banging against the door, he thought, his eyes still closed despite all the noise.
The woman barged in, the stomping of her reinforced boots waking him completely. Nothing says ‘good morning’ like the fear of being beaten. He directed his thoughts toward a happier place. This kind of mental reasoning was his lifeline. He occupied himself for hours with this endeavor. Right now, it helped him to look ahead and filter out the barrage of insults bestowed upon him. It was a wonder he hadn’t gone mad. The guards weren’t smart or creative. After eighteen years, he had heard all the possible variations of how worthless he was. There weren’t too many of them.
“Idiot, listen to me.” A crack of the whip on the floor accompanied the order.
The crack against the floor and not his skin made Mauricio suddenly aware. Why haven’t you given me my morning whipping yet? It was a first. Firsts of any kind made him wary.
“Behave yourself,” the guard said with another crack of the whip. She aimed closer, but refrained from hitting him.
Mauricio followed the woman through a long hallway he had never seen before. It had a high-vaulted ceiling supported by brick walls. Mauricio noticed the bricks because the hallway was lit by a myriad of sconces. He walked along with growing fear. He had heard stories. Young men disappeared from their cells and never came back. Nobody knew what happened to them.
“Stay put and wait your turn.” The woman left him.
The white room was barren of both humans and furnishings. The light was too intense for Mauricio’s unaccustomed eyes. He shielded his eyes with an outstretched hand, but the white glare seeped through his slim fingers. A new smell assaulted his nose. It was crisp and cold, leaving a citrus aftertaste on his palate.
“You, come here,” a voice called; then a woman’s head emerged from a door he hadn’t seen. He realized that there were several white doors concealed in the walls.
“Hurry up.” She was getting annoyed.
Mauricio moved right away. In his experience with women in general, he discovered it was wise to jump to orders immediately. He went through the door and into another white room. This one was warmer and more humid than the former, a pleasant surprise—Mauricio was always cold.
“Remove your clothes, shower, and don this gown,” the voice commanded.
Mauricio looked around and discovered that he was in a room covered from floor to ceiling with white tiles. Blasted tiles, he thought, sliding in his worn slippers despite his attempt to control himself. He stripped to his underwear and moved to one of the shower stalls lining the wall in front of him.
“Remove everything. When you’re done, you’ll have a new set of clothes,” the woman said in a bored voice. Mauricio reluctantly tossed his underwear on the bench by the pile of clothing. Although he didn’t possess anything, not even those clothes, he had been wearing the ragged garments for some time now and had formed an attachment to them. He thought of them as his.
“Scrub your skin with the soap.” The woman didn’t look at him; she was giving instructions while dialing numbers on her cell phone.
Mauricio did as ordered. This isn’t bad. The water was hot and the soap had the same citrus scent he had smelled in the other room. He turned toward the wall to gain some privacy. The idea was silly, he knew that, but it made him feel better as he washed his private parts. Mauricio enjoyed a few more minutes of unspoiled happiness. He closed his eyes and opened his senses to the experience.
“Don the gown.” The woman’s voice intruded on his moment of peace.
Mauricio reluctantly turned off the water and hastily dried his body with a small towel lying on the short wall separating his shower stall from the next. The towel was already wet; someone had used it before him. His body barely dry, he reached for the green gown hanging from a hook and finished drying his skin with the rough fabric.
“You are done here. Go to the next room.” The woman opened a door next to her and rushed him away without interrupting her phone call.
Mauricio went from the steamy warmth of the room where he showered to the freezing cold of an icy-blue chamber. He couldn’t fathom what this room’s function was. The door closed behind him and he was left to stare at the activity before his eyes. He wasn’t the only slave in the room. There were several young men, probably around his age; some he recognized from the working room. All of them were wearing the same green gown. They were also standing in a line, waiting their turn to be inspected by an older woman with white hair sitting at the end of the room.
From his corner, Mauricio couldn’t see what the older woman was doing to them. They weren’t screaming, though, which was reassuring. He stepped behind the last man in line.
“What is she doing?” Mauricio whispered to the man in front of him.
“I don’t know,” answered the man, whose voice revealed he was nothing but a scared boy.
Mauricio thought it wiser to wait for his turn and not say anything else. He did as the others did. Finally, he was in front of the older woman. She opened his mouth, looked at his teeth, muttered something unintelligible, and scribbled a few notes on a pad sitting on her lap. She patted his legs with uninterested hands and wrote another note. Then she yanked open his gown and gave him a brief look. Several notes followed. When Mauricio thought he was through with the procedure, she groped his genitals with two cold fingers. What are you doing? With wild eyes, he recoiled at her probing.
“Fill this and take it to the last room at the end of the hall.” The older woman gestured toward a tray with transparent plastic cups. Mauricio picked up the cup and left.