The warder was sitting at a crude wooden table, peeling an apple with his penknife, when there was a knock on the heavy oak door leading to the main section of the prison. “Enter”, he shouted.
The door opened slowly on its ancient iron hinges, filling the room with a sound like the gates of hell on judgment day. A tall, somewhat portly fellow walked into the room, carrying a tray laden with a large, frosted, stainless-steel cup, filled to the brim with pureed arugula and low-fat soy milk. Beside the drink was a pack of Virginia Slim cigarettes and a book of matches.
The warder paused in eating his apple and gave the man a searching look. “You are new here.” It sounded almost like an accusation.
The man attempted a smile, but the gloomy surroundings made it wither on his face. “Yes, sir. I have just entered into service with the prison staff today.”
“You know the rules? You are not to speak to the prisoner, nor are you to take notice of anything he may say. Set his tray down, empty his chamber pot, collect his bed things for washing and call me when you are finished.” The warder rose from his chair, wiped his hands on his leather vest, and unfastened a ring of keys hanging from the rope belt that held up a much-patched and very dirty pair of pantaloons. “Come this way.”
The new man followed the warder down a long, flag-stoned hall, on either side of which were barred cells; all were empty, save for the one at the very end of the passage. The warder unlocked the solid steel door, swung it open, and motioned the prison steward inside. “I will be back, directly. Mind you don’t talk to him” – his face broke into a loathsome grin – “unless you’d like to share his fate.” The warder returned to his station, and the steward entered the cell.
The room was windowless, save for a small shaft cut into the wall of stone and reaching to the outside at an oblique angle. This pitiful little tunnel – the width of a man’s hand – never permitted more than an occasional bit of gray sunlight to pierce the tomb-like cell. The air was fetid with the smell of tallow candles and night soil. The steward gasped on seeing the horrible surroundings, and the sight of the wretched human being quartered there made his shock complete.
Sitting on a three-legged stool, his back against the dripping wall, was the prisoner. He was wearing a t-shirt and spandex shorts, looking for all the world as if he’d been plucked by some demonic hand from a suburban bike path and thrown into a cave. One ankle was manacled and attached by a chain to a metal ring in the wall; the steward estimated that, while the chain gave him the freedom of the cell, it did not permit the prisoner to come within a yard of the door. But the most ghastly aspect of this poor soul was the iron mask that had been clamped upon his head. It appeared to be in two sections, and was fastened together by rivets. There was a hole that permitted him to breathe, and another that allowed him to take nourishment. His eyes, mad with despair, stared out of two holes, each the size of an old half-dollar. From long experience, the prisoner had grown accustomed to being treated with absolute silence from his jailers, so he gave the steward no notice.
The steward, glancing quickly over his shoulder, set the tray on the one wobbly table in the room, ran to the door, pulled it not quite shut, and threw himself at the prisoner’s feet.
“It is me, Sire! David Axelrod!”
The prisoner was slow to comprehend. The absence of human voices had immured him in a silent world of his own, and to be addressed directly was a thing that had fallen almost outside of the ken of his memory. “David…?”
“David Axelrod, Sire! Your trusty retainer!”
The prisoner’s hands reached out slowly, touching Axelrod gently on his shoulders, as if he were half afraid that his visitor was nothing more than a hallucination. But the considerable substance of the well-fed Axelrod quickly convinced the man that he was in the presence of a real person – and one, furthermore, who was a friend. His tortured emotions getting the better of him, the prisoner embraced Axelrod; he sobbed violently for a moment and then managed to collect himself sufficiently to speak.
“David! At last, someone has broken through the wall of my nightmare to let in a sweet draft of reality! David, why am I here?”
“It is my belief, Sire, that shortly after your victory in the election, you were kidnapped by agents of the Clintons.”
“Ah! Yes, it comes back to me now. I was leaving my hotel, and I climbed into the back of a limousine, and I noticed almost immediately that there were no interior door handles. And…and the driver! He was wearing a snake mask!”
“That was no mask, Sire. It was the very face of James Carville, whose physiognomy is like that of a pit viper. He must have arranged with the Clintons to bring you to this terrible place.”
“But why, David?”
“From what I have been able to glean, Majesty, the old Party stalwarts feared what you stood for.”
“But I didn’t stand for anything! Why should they fear that?”
“True enough, Sire; however, the one thing you manifestly didn’t believe in was consolidating the power of Clan Clinton, and no one was strong enough to resist them. They have cunningly planted an imposter in your place. Yet, you must not lose hope. Everywhere, the suspicion grows that the Pretender is not, in fact, you. The discrepancies between his actions and your promises are too great to sustain this fraud much longer.”
“How so, faithful servant?”
“For one thing, his executive appointments. The Clinton puppet has chosen Arne Duncan for Secretary of Education; even many conservatives like him. And…” Axelrod paused, unsure as to whether Obama’s delicate constitution could absorb the shock. He felt, though, that the news had to be relayed. “And then there is the …the choice for Secretary of State.”
“What, then? Have they dared to deny this position to John Kerry?”
“Would that it were only that, Sire! The imposter has picked Hillary Clinton.”
Axelrod stared anxiously at Obama, not knowing whether this news might fell him like a blow from an ax; yet, to his relief, it seemed, rather, to galvanize him, to revive his spirit. Obama rose from his stool, with his fists clenched; the rattling of his chain only served to heighten the sense of a magnificent defiance which not even durance vile could eradicate.
Axelrod spoke quickly, aware that time was running short. “And then, Sire, there are the changes in policy. There is serious talk, now, the import of which is that we will not cut and run from Iraq. The impostor even pays heed to the butcher, Petraeus. And more bad tidings: you remember the Muslim cleric you lined up to give the prayer at your inauguration?”
“My old mullah from the school in Indonesia? What have they done with Yez-vir Khan?”
“He has been deported as an undesirable alien. The protestant evangelist, Rick Warren, has been substituted in his place.”
“But I must fly, Majesty; otherwise I will be caught out and my efforts on your behalf will cease.”
“Stout fellow, David! But tell me one last thing; how did you discover that I was here?”
“In the usual way, Sire. One of our agents lured Bill Clinton into a sexual encounter, and he talked to her in his sleep.”
“Who else knows that I am buried in this fiendish hole?”
“Only I, Majesty.”
Both men were startled by the sound of the cell door being slammed shut. A panel built into the door at eye level was snapped open from the outside, and the hearts of both of the cell’s occupants sank as the revolting face of James Carville materialized. His eyes gleamed with a reptilian iridescence, his thin lips drew taught in an evil smile, and his tongue darted from his mouth once or twice. Carville spoke in that drawl which marked his origins as a creature of the bayous. “Only you, David! And your agent, of course; but we’ve already bought her off with a cushy position at the Democratic National Committee. Well, boys, looks like ya’ll gonna be roommates for quite a spell. We’ll have another cot put in there, and maybe provide you with something to keep you occupied. Ssssee you later – as in 'never'!"
* * *
The prisoners sat at the one wobbly table in the cell over a game of scrabble. Obama accidentally dropped a piece on the floor – the valuable ‘Q’ tile – and as both men bent down simultaneously to pick it up, their respective iron masks collided with a loud *Clank!*.
“I beg your pardon, Sire.”
“You were trying to palm the ‘Q’ again, weren’t you, David?”
“No, Sire, upon my honor.”
“Well, it doesn’t really matter. I can’t use it right now anyway.” Obama studied the board, and finally picked up a ‘Y”, an ‘N’, an ‘E’ and two ‘S’s. He laid them down next to the word “HOPE”, which Axelrod had spelled on his last move.
“It is a legitimate word! Of, pertaining to, or having to do with ‘hope’”.
Axelrod emitted a long sigh. “Yes, Sire.”