Neither mercy nor imagination defined the next week. He saw Annette once a day for about three hours, when she would painfully and painstakingly go over his behavior. She described it as ‘pulling teeth’, because every bit of obedience she beat into him was hard won.
She kept her instructions clear and simple, training Phillip to eat from a bowl on the floor, face down with his mouth in the bland mush she served up and licking the bottom of the bowl like an animal, to keep his defiance bottled up, and to wait as he listened to her, sitting on his heels with his hands on the back of his head. Despite the simplicity he would lose control and back slide, shouting out his real name and his hatred for her and everything she represented, and then she would punish him again, with more pain and hooding, and denial of his one meal a day to soften him further.
Now food was a few feet away from him, chunks of beige and red just out of reach. His arms were tied behind his back, winched so they were pulled up uncomfortably behind him. He’d missed yesterday’s dinner for his defiance, getting nothing but water. His weight was still dropping, though he figured out the daily orange pill was a multivitamin. Phillip looked at the meal in front of him. He was hungry and even with the limited flavour he was drooling at the thought of pressing his face into the bowl. But the restraints were holding him back and Annette held him in place, her hand on the release for the rope.
“You want it? Learn gratitude, Adam.”
He bit his lip. She didn’t punish him for silence, so far. He imagined taking the prod and holding it to her, just holding it down until she stopped breathing.
“No? Well, Semikovic, clear it away, he’s not hungry today either…” Annette gestured, hearing no response.
Phillip’s resolve wavered again. “Please, my Lady?”
“Please, what?” Annette raised the prod, pointed at his exposed flank.
“Please, my Lady!”
“Better. But be clear about what you’re asking for.”
“Please, my Lady! Don’t take the food. Let me eat!”
Hot with shame, as soon as Annette gave him some slack he buried his face in his meal. Make a man hungry enough and he started acting as pliant as gutter trash in a slum.
“From now on, before you eat, remember your manners.” Looking down at her charge, Annette let her usual impassive expression crack, and permitted herself a lopsided smile. She was deeply afraid she’d fail, feeling responsible if she had to return her ‘Adam’ back to the cells and the killing yard at the back of the prison as surely as if she’d been the one to sentence him to death. But as far as she could tell he was starting to melt, a thaw of necessity. For all his bravado, Phillip didn’t want to die. That was good, if he was suicidal he’d die and there was nothing she could do about it. But instead he was brave and honourable, and if she broke through those two aspects she’d have him.
Phillip knew enough of nutrition to guess his skimpy meals were a starvation diet, even without the constant ache in his belly. He nosed the bowl, trying to lap at it with his tongue. Annette had asked no further questions about fellow rebels or new crimes to confess and he was starting to think this was not some lengthy ploy to make him give the regime new targets. What, if anything his captor intended was incomprehensible.
A human face wasn’t meant to eat face down without hands, and with no hands to help the bowl scraped along the floor. There were a few more mouthfuls of mush within reach, and he was so hungry it made him tired, so tired that moving the dish into range was almost insurmountable.
With the monotonous boredom, neglect and hunger, Phillip began to be eager to see Annette and her daily lessons. Only when she was there, they took him out of his room and he began to associate her with food, salivating at the pok-pok of her shoes on the cement floor. She had begun to teach him a ritual. When she entered the room he would kow-tow on the floor, and when she clapped her hands, he would leap to attention with his hands behind his back. Then some stupid task, awkward limbed lumbering to bring back a ball to her in his mouth on all fours or placing marbles into a cup with his lip, then begging for food and a bowl of mush he’d bury his face in and then thank her profusely.
Then one day, maybe a week later, the guards left him in the room, chained to the radiator, past the usual meal time. As he got hungrier and hungrier, he strained to hear her footsteps and the key in the lock, and nothing came. He didn’t remember her assigning a punishment and he began to genuinely panic. What had he done wrong?
He hadn’t said or done anything to offend her. Maybe she was delayed? As the light in the window faded this explanation felt less and less likely and he became certain that there would be no dinner or respite.
Morning came, thirsty, ignoring a slight pressure on his bladder. He woke up to the door opening and there she was. He slid into a fearful kowtow as best he could with one wrist locked up.
She lifted his chin up with the toe of her leather pump, looking at his face for a moment before she crouched and slid something around his neck, snapping her fingers for the guards to come. Unchained, they didn’t go their usual route down to the basement, but down a different hall and a set of unfamiliar stairs. Progress was slow on all fours, and Annette patiently led him on a lead to her quarters.
The plush carpet felt good under his perpetually bruised knees, soft pinks and cream floral wallpaper giving the private study a luminous effect. There was an unconcerned maid watering a spider plant in the corner, standing on an upholstered chair in stocking feet so she could reach it with one hand pressed to the wall for balance.
“Maya, tell Hesta she’ll need to bring breakfast in an hour.”
The girl curtsied and hopped down, slipping into her shoes and silently sprinting out.