Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Pit and the Pendulum: Part I

Edgar Allan Poe isn't one of my favorite authors, but I've always marveled at his ability to tap into the dark recess of human emotions. His writing is somber yet intimate. When I was younger, say high school, I didn't understand many of the feelings Poe described — for example, in The Tell-Tale Heart, the narrator is paranoid, insane, murderous. I never fully appreciated how someone could be insane or murderous, but I understood those feelings were real.

As we creep toward March 5, I've had Poe's works floating around in my mind. I'm not sure why. Maybe because he was a sad man who experienced a great deal of loss and pain. Maybe because now I understand some of the dark moods Poe evoked in his stories and poems. His writing reflects his fascination with death, and honestly, these past couple weeks and the weeks to come, I too will be focusing on death — how it changed us, how it leaves a hole, it's ability to redefine whomever it touches.

The Pit and the Pendulum is one of my favorite stories. For some reason, this story, with its prisoner who continues to hope in the face of certain death, reminds me of what CJay and I went through during Isaac's poor prognosis both before and after his birth. I hope I'll be able to convey what has been circulating in my brain these past few days. If not, at least I can stop thinking about it.

The narrator is a prisoner sentenced to death and being held in a dimly lit dungeon. After investigating his surroundings and discovering the room contains a deep pit, the prisoner falls asleep. He awakens to find he's been strapped to a wooden board. Above him hangs a pendulum, shaped like a crescent and razor sharp. The pendulum swings back and forth progressing slowly toward the prisoner's heart.

While I gazed directly upward at it (for its position was immediately over my own) I fancied that I saw it in motion. In an instant afterward the fancy was confirmed. Its sweep was brief, and of course slow. I watched it for some minutes, somewhat in fear, but more in wonder.

What boots it to tell of the long, long hours of horror more than mortal, during which I counted the rushing vibrations of the steel! Inch by inch — line by line — with a descent only appreciable at intervals that seemed ages — down and still down it came! Days passed — it might have been that many days passed — ere it swept so closely over me as to fan me with its acrid breath. The odor of the sharp steel forced itself into my nostrils. I prayed — I wearied heaven with my prayer for its more speedy descent. I grew frantically mad, and struggled to force myself upward against the sweep of the fearful scimitar. And then I fell suddenly calm, and lay smiling at the glittering death, as a child at some rare bauble.

There was another interval of utter insensibility; it was brief; for, upon again lapsing into life there had been no perceptible descent in the pendulum. But it might have been long; for I knew there were demons who took note of my swoon, and who could have arrested the vibration at pleasure. Upon my recovery, too, I felt very — oh, inexpressibly sick and weak, as if through long inanition. Even amid the agonies of that period, the human nature craved food. With painful effort I outstretched my left arm as far as my bonds permitted, and took possession of the small remnant which had been spared me by the rats. As I put a portion of it within my lips, there rushed to my mind a half formed thought of joy — of hope. Yet what business had I with hope? It was, as I say, a half formed thought — man has many such which are never completed. I felt that it was of joy — of hope; but felt also that it had perished in its formation. In vain I struggled to perfect — to regain it. Long suffering had nearly annihilated all my ordinary powers of mind. I was an imbecile — an idiot.

Our pregnancy with Isaac was like this. We waited for the pendulum to fall. We hoped. We chided ourselves for hoping. Some days I prayed for it to end quickly, for the pendulum to descend.

The prisoner doesn't die. The rats in the dungeon chew through the strap holding him to the wooden board and he is free — in one sense of the word. Much like Isaac's birth set us free. We were free from watching the swing of the pendulum (the ups and downs of our many doctor appointments). We were free from our hope that felt in vain. We weren't freed from what lay ahead — the agony of grief.


This post was going to be too long, so I'll post the second half later. I hope I didn't bore you readers with my English lesson. :)

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