In the corner he sat and waited. The cold stone that surrounded permeated his bare skin, raising goosebumps along his thighs and back. His head was buried in his knees and his body shuddered with each silent sob. Swimming through his mind, the screams of his daughter, those of his mother, and his wife, and before them his father, echoed, never ceasing. He waited for the moment the black clad figure would step through the door, having realised a pin had gone. He waited for his chance.
Each one had screamed differently. His father had been the first, at his home when he had been merely 7 years old. His screams had been of pain, drawn out and constant. The fire had cooked the skin from his muscle, and his muscle from his bones. Big globs of flesh had dripped from his body as bit by bit his life had been burnt away. He didn’t know if it was his imagination, or if it was reality, but it appeared that his smile, the mouth that had been creased with the joy of life, had been first to go, his kind face reduced to cinders as his brain had lived on and felt everything. The last things to go had been his lungs, then his vocal chords, and then his brain. The screams didn’t stop until he could see the spinal column through the burnt flesh. His tears burnt tracks down his young face as he had watched his father die, as his mother had held him back. He tried to close his eyes but it did nothing to stop him seeing his father writhing on the floor, consumed with flame.
He was taken to this place after the burning, with his mother, his only remaining family. He grew up here, fell in love here, cried and laughed and lived here.
He was forced to watch as his mother was taken next, thirteen years later. Her screams were silent. He couldn’t shake the images of her, bound to the bed that had been his place of comfort for the first years of residence here. The bed where his mother had cradled him, sung him to sleep, taken away the nightmares and the memories of his father’s death. Rocked him when he had awoken with his father’s screams on his lips. He was nearing 20 now. He had begun to forget. He had begun to take the lack of colour, the black clothes, the plain, dimness as norm. He hadn’t realised how the lack of colour created a lack of vitality, a lack of life. Then the Guards began to come to her room. They bound her by her wrists and her ankles, and tied cloth around her mouth, gagging her, holding in her screams. They had forced him to witness how to be a man. Made him watch the raucous men, cloaked in black so deep it felt cold, as they took their turns burying their vile flesh inside his dear, beloved mother. His young, joyful, loving mother, stripped of trust and dignity.Each man, once he was done, was to cut away a square of skin, no bigger than a thumb print. This, they taught him, was to show that she belonged to them, that a woman’s body should not belong to her and therefore, they must take it from her as she had tried to take her body from them. It was her fault, they taught him. She showed off her flesh, dared to try and take ownership of it, so they skinned her alive, bit by bit, until she could no longer take the pain, and the sheets upon which she lay were not white, but ruby.
This image he couldn’t remove, try as he might. No amount of time could stop that. Time worsened it in fact. The ticking of the clock made him wretch, made him shudder, as it brought the memories of the grandfather clock in his mother’s room. His wife held him for the tortuous months that followed. He was in a state of waking coma. He followed the motions that made him appear to function, and he took on a façade of life. He put on the clothes, provided by the Guards, the black trousers, the black shirt, the black cape. He slicked back his hair, he smiled to the people he had to smile at. He went through the motions of the living as he lived in the mind of the dead. He cried at night we his wife slept on beside him. The Guards gave him work, mending clothes, fixing shoes, making hats, providing for the town’s people. This they did to give him time to concentrate on the good lessons they had taught him. Time. Always time. He wanted nothing more to do with time.
On the eve of the Summer solstice, his wife told him of her pregnancy. He should have known, should have noticed her sickness, should have noticed her stomach’s swell as it cushioned their baby. He should have noticed, but he was not awake, not seeing. The moment she mentioned its kicks, his eyes opened for the first time. Seven months he had slept, constantly awake, never aware. He began to see again. He saw her happiness, her comfort. The safety she drew from the blankness, the black that surrounded them. The Guards, the Handmaids, all faceless, black cloth covering them head to toe. She loved the anonimity, and he learned to take comfort too.
This too, had to end.
The night she gave birth, her screams were added to his mind’s symphony. Hers were screams of labour, of love. She screamed as the Handmaids rushed to and fro, the blood pouring forth from her uterus, as the baby’s life was chosen over hers. She accepted, that was the way it must be. She died as the baby was cut from her, the loss of blood turning her once radiant face white, a tint of blue surrounding her lips.
He brought the child up until she was 2. That was when the Guards and the Handmaids came and took her to be trained. He had given up, he was to lose his last ray of hope. His only spot of colour in this damned world. The training he was forced to observe from afar. He was held against the window as he watched his child, his light, his Hope grow and change. They put her first in the Black, the head to toe cloth, with not a piece of skin on sight, then they showed her pain. Her screams were the worst. They were screams of innocence as day after day she was taken to the courtyard and taught first how pain felt, and then screams of joy as she learnt how to inflict it. He watched as his Hope tortured younger minds and elderly criminals, taking all she could from their pain. Finally he saw her reach the end of the pain. Each time she inflicted pain upon others, it was thrice as painful for her. A young girl had been brought in and she was made to torture her, to find the answer as to why she had stolen an apple. As young Hope was forced to beat her, she collapsed. She couldn’t inflict any more pain. She crumpled in a heap and died. That was when he ran.
He ran and ran through the castle, hurtling round corners, through the complex halls and steep staircases. He struck down three Guards, took the leather fighting trousers from one, the leather coat of another, and the sword from the last. He faintly remembered his father teaching him to handle a sword as a child. He ran through the hallways, blade in hand, leather creaking. He swung the steel this way and that, forming beautiful patterns of destruction as blood was sprayed along the walls, a dance of death issuing from his hands.
And then he was caught, bound, a collar around his neck and a chain attaching him to a wall. For months he saw no one, sat naked in this cell, pissing in one corner and sleeping in the other. He could no longer look out of a window and wish for a life in the village. He could do nothing but shiver. The only form of sustenance was the water dripping down the walls, and the algae growing between rocks. Eventually he was given a chance to do good, to start helping the people again. He made hats, and each one that was completed earned him one beating, instead of three were it not done properly. This was the only ray of light in the ever increasing darkness.
A year later, something amazing happened. He escaped. A Guard had taken off the collar that bound him, checking for hidden objects, and then he ran. Faster than before, taking the Guard’s blade, running and chopping. No dancing with death this time, he sliced and destroyed with lethal intent. He ran and ran, leaving trails of bone and blood everywhere he went. Out of the castle, into the streets. He ran to the woods where he had once played with his father. He ran and jumped and shouted, wearing nothing but the scabbard into which he slid his blade. Eventually he stopped at a house. A small house with a thatched roof and smoke billowing from a chimney. He knocked on the door.
An old lady took him into her home, blushing scarlet at his nakedness. Never before had he been so glad for colour. She wore colours of the sunrise, swathed in purples and blues and yellows, his eyes burned and his heart soared. She gave him clothes, and he vowed never to wear black again. He begged to do something in return for her hospitality, and her request was simply for him to sit down and drink tea with her. She missed company, her granddaughter had gone into the woods and not returned for days. Though not unusual, she was in her house alone. He insisted on doing more for her, he offered to make her a hat, the only thing he knew to do. He was by far the best in the land, though his name had never been attached to a single hat he had made. He couldn’t remember what he was called, and so made a deal with her. If he were to make her a hat, she would be able to give him his name. She agreed, with a smile on her face, her eyes crinkling at the corners as he shouted and danced, joy soaring into his heart for the first time in his memory. He worked on the hat for her for days, with flourish and vitality he worked and worked, dancing and singing and laughing. As he put it on her head, the finished product, he cried at her embrace, the first time he had been touched by kindness since he could remember.
”My,” she said, “it’s a work of art. Truly beautiful. Thank you, my Mad Hatter.”
He accepted the name, and embraced her again. The Mad Hatter.