My nose itches. It has itched for about a decade now I would guess, though I'm not entirely sure. There is no date here. The itching comes in fits and spurts. Sometimes it is barely more than a slight tickle, sometimes it is an agony of prickling and the only thought screaming through my mind is scratchscratchscratch in one long litany, the syllables blurring into one another until it no longer makes a cohesive word but is just a song of constant consonants streaming through my mind and I think I am going insane.
Of course, I can’t scratch it. I can’t even twitch a solitary finger in the direction of my nose, let alone give it a good raking with a fingernail. Sometimes I imagine I am scratching it. I never close my eyes, of course, because I can’t, but I try to block out the world of that musty little cave and just picture myself moving.
In my mind, it starts with the tiniest twitch of my forefinger. Just a breath of movement, so small that even I am not sure it is real. But then it happens again, a bend of the knuckle, a crack along the grey granite skin. In this fantasy, my whole finger bends as if it is beckoning me, splinters of rock zigzagging like lightning at the bends, flaking away, revealing soft, clean skin underneath. The other fingers soon join in, encouraged, perhaps, by their friend’s success, and soon my hand has become a fist. Then an arm is free, a shoulder, my chest, the grey streaking away like an avalanche through my dreams, racing itself up my straining neck, my half-turned face, my open, screaming mouth—perpetually frozen in that last, shameful no. I imagine that I close my mouth for the first time in the gods alone know how many years and my tongue moves, wet and free and human. I spit out phantom mouthfuls of gravel chunks and I scratch my damn nose. Then I wrench my feet out of their frozen position and crawl away, out of the cave, to freedom at last. In my mind's eye, all the other statues watch me go. They must be jealous. Perhaps they are screaming at me to help them in the frozen recesses of their own calcified bodies, but I can’t. I cannot even help myself, really.
I don’t think I would have come, if I had known the truth. I don’t like to think of myself as a coward, of course, but the stories get it all wrong. She can turn you to stone with a glimpse of her eyes, they say, but they never once tell you that you will still be alive within your sarcophagus-skin. I had assumed, as I suppose we all did, that you would die. I don’t mind dying, everyone dies. But this? To be alive, forever, impossibly trapped inside your own body? I can’t even blink. I have tried, strained with everything within me to shut my eyelids just once, but nothing in me moves. I am consciousness embodied in a rock and it is haunting me.
I am not even sure that she knows we live still, actually. She talks to us sometimes, and sometimes even talks back to herself with the funny little voices she assigns to us. Pats the heads of her favourites fondly, or strokes their cheeks, her hair hissing around her head. She calls me Erocles, though that is not my name, and has made up a story about my life, pretending I was coming to claim her monstrous head so that I could win the hand of the king’s fair daughter. She does not know about my wife and children back home, who will never now see their father return. The youngest, Marcos, was only three when I left. He must surely be a man now, grown into adulthood without a father to show him how. I wonder vaguely if Ariadna has married again. If some other man brings home the bread and salt for the dinner table.
I think she is lonely, actually, our captor, surrounded by all her creations. She does not often leave the cave, but she will venture out of the darkness now and again. There is no way to tell how long she is gone for. She could be gone for hours, days, weeks. Time is meaningless here. I am always afraid that this time she will not return. I hate her, but she is the only living thing in here. It is the sound of her breath that fills the emptiness, her voices and her stories which stretch through the darkness, her movement, like the dancing of stars, swaying between her endless masterpieces. Without her, I know I am mad.
When she returns, I am always filled with relief and self-loathing. I wonder if the other fallen warriors feel things as intensely as I do, frozen in their last tableau. The only thing left for us to do is think and feel. I wonder if even that will fade eventually.
But for now, I like it when she returns. She talks to us then, tells us what she has seen. Small things, but they linger.
It was cold, today, she might say and I will picture it, feel the winds chilling against my skin, tangling in my hair as they once did. Perhaps a slight drift of snow will tickle against me. Perhaps it is winter, and the trees have all mercilessly abandoned their leaves, or perhaps it is late summer, and the cold has taken everybody by surprise, sending them scrambling for the shawls and furs they didn’t think they needed yet.
There was a beautiful sunset, tonight, she may mutter and I picture the streaks of blood and gold tangling with the last clouds in the endless horizon.
These are the best times. The times that I remember that there is still a world out there, even if I am not still a part of it.
Sometimes I dream that a hero comes. I don’t know if these dreams are nightmares or wishes. Perhaps, my foolish, hopeful heart whispers, the curse will die when she does. Perhaps we will be released from this prison at last. Perhaps we will even be allowed to die. Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps.
Condensation drips from the cave’s ceiling, landing on my face. It trickles down my cheek as if I am crying and I wonder if eventually it will wash me away completely—and if my nose will finally stop itching if it does.