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When we first meet our narrator, he's not feeling so hot. "I was sick," he tells us, "sick unto death with that long agony" (1).
Of course, he's got a good reason to feel bad: it seems he's just been sentenced to death by a group of black-robed, white-lipped judges. Yikes. Their lips, he tells us, are "whiter than the sheet upon which I trace these words" (1). We know, then, that he's survived the ordeal that he's narrating (that, or he's a rather talkative ghost).
Now we find out that these judges are part of the Spanish Inquisition. Their voices merge together into an indistinguishable hum, then all goes silent. He can see their lips form his name, but he can't hear it pronounced.
He notices all around him the waving of the black draperies that cover the walls of the room.
Seven candles, placed on the table in front of him, seem for a moment like angels who have come to save him.
Suddenly, he's overcome by nausea; the candles turn suddenly into specters (spirits) with heads of flame.
He is overwhelmed by the thought of death, by the "sweet rest" that must come with it (1). The thought washes over our narrator, gently, but as soon as it enters his mind something strange happens.
The judges disappear from view, as do the candles; he's plunged into total darkness, silence, and stillness.
He had fainted, the narrator tells us, but he can't begin to describe the state he was truly in; he compares it to a dream.
He tries to remember what happened after that – he can call up dim memories of "tall figures," a dizzying descent, and then a sort of total stillness, accompanied by damp flatness. (Sounds like some dudes carried him down a flight of stairs, right?)
Suddenly, again, he's overcome by thoughts of madness.
The stillness is interrupted by the beating of his heart, and all his senses begin to return to him. And then he regains consciousness, thought, the desire to understand his plight. But just as suddenly, he has the desire to lose sensation again. Yikes.
His memory of the preceding events returns – he remembers the judges, the trial, the nausea, and the fainting. What this all about? A trial?
Still, he hasn't opened his eyes. He can tell that he's lying on his back, that he's not bound. He reaches out and feels something damp and hard. The narrator sits that way for a while; he dreads opening his eyes, not out of the fear of what he might see, but out of the fear that he might not see anything at all. Eek!
Quickly, he opens his eyes: all is darkness, as he feared. He remains on the ground, lying quietly. He attempts to figure out what's actually happened to him.
Despite the darkness and the strange circumstances, our narrator knows that he isn't dead. He decides that he will not die any time soon – usually the condemned are killed at the "auto de fé," and he's sure that one was held the day of his sentencing.
What's an auto de fé, you ask? Well, let's dig in to a little history snack. Basically, auto de fé was the public execution (i.e. burning at the stake) of a heretic during the Spanish Inquisition. The phrase literally means "act of faith." Wait, what? Burning someone at the stake is an act of faith? Not so much: the auto de fé was actually the moment when the heretic essentially apologized to everyone for his sins. Then, of course, he was killed for spectacle, so the phrase now implies the execution more than the apology.
Back to the story. Our narrator knows, too, that his cell isn't typical: most have stone floors and a bit of light streaming in. His place has neither. He worries that he has been put into a tomb instead.
He moves slowly forward, arms extended, hoping to catch even the smallest bit of light. After walking for a bit, he decides he has not been sealed in a tomb, at least.
Our guy doesn't calm down, though. He begins to think of the rumors he's heard about the Spanish Inquisition – plenty of stories of strange deaths. Creepy.
He worries about how he will be killed and when death will come.
Eventually, he comes to a wall; it's made of stone and it's smooth, slimy, and cold. Mmm. He decides to follow it along its length.
He realizes, though, that, in the darkness, he'll have no way of knowing when he's come back to the place where he started – the wall is simply too uniform.
After thinking for a while, he decides to tear a piece of fabric from his robe and place it perpendicular to the wall at his starting place. (Smart guy, trying to figure stuff out.)
He begins to move forward, but soon is overcome with fatigue. He falls to the ground and is soon asleep.
When he wakes up (who knows how long he's been out), the narrator sticks an arm out and finds a loaf of bread and a pitcher of water next to him. Score! He eats and drinks quickly.
Then he resumes his walk around the chamber. Having counted fifty-two paces before falling to the ground, he counts forty-eight more before encountering the piece of cloth. He guesses that the chamber is about fifty yards in circumference. (If you don't know what circumference is, well, don't bring that up in math class.)
Now, he decides to travel across the room in as straight a line as possible. After about ten steps, though, he trips on his torn robe and falls to the ground. Oops.
Upon getting his wits about him again, our narrator realizes something strange: though his chin is on the ground, his lips and the top of his head touch nothing. He feels a damp vapor and smells something like decayed fungus. Uh oh.
Reaching his arm forward, he realizes that he's fallen on the edge of a circular pit of unknown size. He manages to knock a piece of loose masonry from the edge of the pit and listens as it falls into the depths – taking seconds before splashing into the water at the bottom.
That's a long stinkin' drop.
Suddenly, he hears what sounds like the opening and closing of a door up above and glimpses a faint gleam of light. Light!
He sees that, had he moved one step farther, he would have fallen into the pit. Guess it's his lucky day… or not.
At this point, he totally loses it: his nerves are shot, and he trembles at the sound of his own voice.
He crawls back, shaking, to the wall. He'd rather die there than in the pit; after all, he has no idea if there are other pits, and he knows – having heard stories – that the inquisitors have no desire to give their prisoners a quick death.
P.S. The inquisitors are the guys who carried out the Spanish Inquisition.
Anxious, he stays awake for many hours, but eventually our narrator succumbs to sleep again.
When he wakes up, he finds another loaf of bread and another pitcher of water.
And once again, he eats and drinks quickly. No need for manners in a torture chamber.
Soon he becomes drowsy: the water, he decides, must have been drugged.
When he wakes up – after who knows how long – he can see the dungeon for the first time. He realizes that he estimated the size of the room incorrectly: it's actually about half as large as he thought. He wonders why he even bothered trying to figure out its size at all. (We were thinking the same thing.)
The narrator also realizes it's a totally different shape than he first guessed. It's a square room, not at all strangely angled. Hmm, how'd that happen?
The walls are covered in strange carvings of fiends and skeletons and other frightening things, although he has a hard time making out distinct shapes.
In the center of the room is the one-and-only pit.
Now the narrator finds himself on his back once again, tied down to a wooden frame by a single large strap. The strap is wrapped around his body in a strange and convoluted way, leaving only his head and left arm free.
This small bit of freedom lets him reach a small plate of heavily-seasoned meat and another pitcher of water. Lunch.
Looking up, he sees something thirty or forty feet above his head: on the ceiling above is a painted version of the figure of Time. Instead of carrying his usual scythe (you know, the thing the Grim Reaper carries?), Father Time seems to hold in his hand a huge pendulum.
Gazing up, our narrator realizes that the pendulum is in fact in motion. He watches for a few minutes before turning away.
He hears a small noise and turns to see a few huge rats on the floor; they've just come up from the pit, he realizes. As he watches, they continue to emerge. Gross.
He attempts, with much effort, to scare them away from the meat.
Some time later – a half an hour, an hour, he can't really be sure – our narrator looks back up.
The pendulum has begun to swing faster, and in a wider arc. He also realizes that it has descended from the ceiling. Uh oh. This pretty much can't get any worse.
Oh wait, yes it can! The narrator notices that the bottom of the pendulum is formed by a razor sharp crescent of steel (20).
He can hear it hiss as it passes through the air. Oh. Crap.
He realizes that, having escaped death once, he has been condemned to suffer a different kind of punishment by the inquisitors. He considers, for a moment, that perhaps this punishment is milder, but then he smiles at the absurdity of this thought.
Now, he waits and watches for hours as the pendulum moves slowly down. Days seem to pass while he waits for it to take him; he prays that it will descend a bit more quickly. The worst part is knowing that it's coming.
For a moment he is overcome by a feeling of calm; he descends into insensibility, but he recovers just as quickly.
The poor narrator is overcome with nausea once again: he's sick and weak and, oh yeah, about to be killed.
Still, he craves food. He stretches out his arm and grabs the small bit of food that the rats have left behind.
Suddenly, just before popping the food in his mouth, he has a thought. He is filled, for a moment, with a kind of illogical hope. What does he have up his sleeve now?
He looks up at the pendulum. It's positioned in such a way that it will hit him right across the heart. It will, he realizes, move with such steadiness that, for a while, it will merely tear apart the cloth of his robe.
He wonders at this reality for a moment; he thinks about it super hard, as if by merely thinking, he might stop the movement of the pendulum. Hey, you never know.
Still, it continues to get closer. He watches it, fascinated by its wide, swift sweep, and the hiss of its movement through the air.
He laughs and he howls. He really is going nuts, huh?
When the pendulum is only three inches away from his chest, he begins struggling to get his arm free. He thinks of grabbing the plate and using it to stop the movement of the blade. He quickly realizes that this is just plain dumb. It would never work.
And so, he continues to watch the blade's descent.
Death would be a relief, he thinks. His eyes open and close at random. But then he starts to quiver – with hope, he says. Hope? Seriously?
Now he realizes that the blade only needs to make a dozen or more sweeps before it will touch his robe…
Suddenly, he has a thought. It occurs to him that he might be able to untie the strap that binds him with his left hand. Still, he worries that the blade is now too close.
He lifts his head to get a good look. He can see that the strap crosses his body everywhere except where the pendulum is meant to cut him. Hmm.
Now he has another thought, however ill-formed. The frame, he tells us, has been swarming with the ravenous rats. He's pretty sure they're waiting until they can munch him up for dinner.
He also notices that the rats have gotten so used to eating the spiced meat that they've started to nibble at his oily fingers. Ew!
So, he takes the meat he has left in his hand and begins to rub the bandage that's tying him up. He then lies totally still. Wait, what's he doing?
A couple of the rats, feeling super confident because of the narrator's stillness, hop up on him and smell his now-spicy bandage. Yum, spicy bandage.
Suddenly, the rats – hundreds of them – jump on him en masse; they cover the narrator's body from head to toe. In a moment, he realizes he's been freed, cut loose from his bonds by the bandage-hungry rats.
At this point, the pendulum has already begun to cut into his robe and the linen underneath. He can feel pain in every nerve. We're freaking out just thinking about it.
Still, he manages to spring free from the bandage and out of the blade's reach – just in time. Phew.
Almost immediately, the pendulum's motion stops, and the whole machine is raised up into the ceiling. Interesting.
When this happens, he realizes that he's being watched. He's pretty sure, then, that he's jumped out of the fire – but will soon end up in the frying pan. (I.e., he's still going to die, just not by razor-blade pendulum death.)
For a few minutes he's lost in thought. (Now's not the best time for that, buddy.)
But soon, he notices the source of the strange light in the room. It comes from a break in the walls, about a half-inch in width. He attempts to look through the slot, but he can't see anything. He realizes, then, that the walls themselves are totally separated from the floor.
He notices, too, that the figures on the wall, once blurry and indistinct, have become intensely brilliant. The demons and fiends take on a devilish glow.
The whole scene becomes unreal. And, we might add, super creepy.
Suddenly, he smells the scent of heated iron. (Does that smell like when we burn our clothes with the iron?) The walls begin to glow brighter. He realizes, then, what's happening. (We're pretty sure the walls are going to push him into that pit. Yeah.)
He moves away from the glowing metal walls toward the center of the room, to the very edge of the pit. He shrieks and buries his head in his hands. All the while, the heat continues to increase.
He looks up and notices another change. The shape of the cell is beginning to shift. The room, once square, is now deformed; the walls bent into the shape of a diamond. They continue to move, rumbling ominously all the way. The Inquisition, he decides, wants to make doubly sure he'll perish this time.
Our narrator considers clasping the walls – "any death but the bottom of the pit!" he tells himself – but just as soon realizes that that's exactly what his captors want.
The room continues to collapse upon itself until he has barely an inch to stand on.
Teetering on the brink, he lets out a final scream and prepares to fall.
Suddenly, he hears the hum of human voices, the blast of trumpets, and the rumbling of thunder.
The walls recede and an arm reaches out to grab our narrator.
It is the arm of General Lasalle, he tells us. The French have entered Toledo and ended the Inquisition.