S-21

by , under Fiction Prompts, What Pegman Saw

How long am I here?

An eternity.

There is no time but now, and now lasts forever.

There must be hundreds in this place, though I never see anyone.

I know from the screams that come through the walls.

I see only the guards when they come for me. 

Sometimes I am hooded and led to the gymnasium because my cell is too small for more than three or four of them at once.

In the center of the gymnasium is a cold steel table.

Shafts from the skylight bathe it with a silvery glow, like something from a dream.

A man on this table will confess everything he ever did, name everyone he ever knew.

A man will lie, bargain, beg.

And scream.

Giving information is something only beginners do.

The screaming is the only important thing, the thing they most want and need.

I believe it feeds them.

What Pegman Saw: Cambodia

S-21 was a former high school turned into the Tuol Sleng prison by the Khmer Rouge.
The Cambodians called it “konlaenh choul min dael chenh” (the place where people go in but never come out).
Nearly 20,000 people are known to have entered Tuol Sleng.
Only six are known to have survived.

  1. Lynn Love

    I read about this place just today Josh. Unbelievable, horrifying. And the atmosphere you create is extraordinary. You don’t show us any violence, don’t describe any torture and yet we know just from the need for more space, the table – the screaming – what terrible things happen there. It made me flinch, want to stop reading, to look away. Well done for doing so much just by suggestion

    Reply
  2. Nitin

    This is an agonising read and I mean that in a good way. I learned from this and the bleak portrayal without overdoing the violence moved me. I wonder why humanity resorts to the deepest depravity sometimes.

    Reply
    • J Hardy Carroll

      It’s a mystery. I think that one of the most horrifying things is that this cruelty becomes routine for the perpetrators. They are numb to the inhumanity.

      Reply
      • Nitin

        I don’t want to preach, but from experience I’ve learned that the Calvinistic notion of total depravity is true to a large extent. As to why some fall into the pits of cruelty and others keep some sense of morality, I don’t know. But deep down I don’t agree with Maslow. I don’t believe that humanity is innately good.

        Reply
  3. 4963andypop

    Such a powerful piece. So many good lines. The silvery glow of steel communicates the otherworldliness of such a place, the incomprehensibility of the experience. The cynicism of “only beginners give information” tells us how often he has been the screamer. The screams, themselves, communicate the extent of the slaughter, how many invisible co-sufferers there are. And the emptiness speaks to his isolation, becauses each of us suffers pain alone. The final line is like a bear trap snapping shut: all hope for his survival is extinguished. Well done!

    Reply

Don't just stand there.