In Prison: A Dream Vision
Copyright 2011 Paul Hawkins
Note from the author: This story came into my head almost completely whole upon waking. The only thing I can remember of the day before was that I had been trying to reread Piers Plowman.
The country had long since been ravaged by depression and by the asymmetrical attacks, we were told, of an unseen enemy. I had not worked for some time; no one I knew had.
I was riding my bicycle along the shoulder of a rural road not much used by anyone. It was high arid country, almost desert, but the temperature was pleasant. To survive, I scavenged. Sometimes, that is. If I saw something along the road that looked resellable, and it was already discarded, I took it.
As I rode I saw a phone laying off the easement in the gypsum gravel. I stopped and was surprised to see that it was on.
I put it to my ear but heard nothing. “Hello?” I said. I looked at the faceplate indicating a call in progress. “Hello?” I said again.
There was no answer, and I could not tell if I heard breathing, or static, or nothing.
I looked up and down the road and then out across the plains, but I saw no one who might be its owner. I pushed a button to turn it off. Surely it had turned itself on, I thought, when it was thrown or dropped to the road and landed here. Nonetheless I gently set it back down on the ground. Something about it made it non-scavengable - it still had an aura of life about, a warmth, as if the person it belonged to might return.
I rode slowly away, hoping its owner would find it. When I was about five minutes further down the road I heard sirens race up behind me then past me. Five dark sedans raced down the road in a wall of sound and wind. And just as quickly, they were gone, and I stared down the road in the direction they’d gone. It was a dangerous world, and I hoped that they would capture whoever they were after.
Three days later I was arrested at my shack that had once been a sharecropper’s house adjacent to a large farm, which was itself abandoned. The men took me away with as few words as possible, and I acquiesced because they seemed so official and deferential, as if it were a routine matter and that all would be resolved should I just comply.
I was photographed, cleaned, and renumbered, all with as few words as possible, and then I was added to a truck with other men. The next day I woke in a large white compound with wire fences and white sand around it. I had a clean jumpsuit on and the air was cool and clean, bracing at first but then comfortable in its purity.
There were many of us in prison. Going there was like watching the tattered backdrop of the current state of life in the country being rolled away and revealing a clean white efficient world behind it. It was nice to see order again. Everything had seemed so degraded out in the country, in the depression following and accompanying the ongoing war, in the citizens’ fight to secure their livelihoods one by one and one against one, one day to the next, all in the face of vigilizing against the ever-present unseen enemy that took down generators, sabotaged rail lines and water treatment plants, destroyed and decayed our infrastructure in a quest for some undeclared and unimaginable victory. But here it was tidy and neat, orderly, and in an odd way the air of paranoia that had hung over every moment in my life was lifted.
We soon found we could talk openly -- it was nice, quiet, clean - the most interesting and polite people were there. Even the guards were restrained and pragmatic if not amiable - quite the contrast to the way policemen had been on the outside. And their uniforms were a subdued gray instead of black.
But every day passed with a sense of purpose, of waiting. We all knew we were there for something, and no amount of tedium would let me think it had been forgotten. The day they called my name it didn’t surprise me. Me and a dozen or so other fellows queued up along a white wall. We looked at each other. We were quiet, almost like children called to the principal's office.
“I suppose this is it, then?” I asked the man next to me.
“Yeah,” he said. “I suppose it is.” He smiled but with the corners of his lips downturned like the least sliver of the moon.
But that was not the end. Instead, we were simply transferred to a different prison. This one was greener and more temperate. There were fewer of us, and there were no books anymore, but we had a tidy facility, guards as indifferent and inoffensive as before, and we worked on a farm. “Farm” is the idyllic term - it was a garden. Each man got to choose what to grow, tend it, harvest it. Part of our dinner each night consisted of vegetables harvested from the field. We each went out of our way to compliment whomever had grown them. We always knew who the owner had been, and the responsible person always accepted our thanks most deferentially, almost bashfully.
At night, when the lights went out with the setting of the sun, we replaced our absent books with conversations. We would sit in the common room in the dark, on benches along the wall, each a face chanting out in the darkness, maybe a glimpse of cheekbones or jawlines moving if the moon was bright.
“So this was not it,” I said. “They let us live. Why?”
“This is not the end. But it is close to the end.”
“But why do they let us do this? Why not just shoot us behind a barracks?”
“How do you know they won’t, finally?”
“Oh, I suspect they will. But this gap - this waiting. It’s odd.”
“Yes,” I said. “That’s the word.”
There was a guard in the doorway - one was always standing in the doorway - but we didn’t care. We had learned to talk in front of them long ago. There were no thought crimes here - everything was allowed. If anything he looked bored. We were probably the most polite, compliant inmates he had ever overseen. Only his uniform hinted of military discipline behind the facade of benign paternalism. That and his rifle and baton, neither of which had ever been unholstered and looked in fact, dust-covered. He yawned.
I saw the eyes of a man opposite me catch the moonlight. “What do they care what we do, or think, if they know we should never escape. What harm are we to society in here?”
I looked at him. Of course he was right.
Now and then others would be shipped off. Without ceremony, without tears. Sometimes they would just be gone. Other times they would know of their departure a day or two in advance and let us know. They never had an idea where they were going, and neither did we. But there would be one less one day, one more the next. We had a common cast to our eyes. It was an acceptance of a kind of fate, an acquiescence to unknowingness, with crisp starched white sheets and full bland meals spliced in between.
One day I was told I would be leaving. I gathered what few belongings I had - a toothbrush and comb, my shoes, a safety razor, a small tin mirror -- and put them in the canvas satchel I’d been supplied. The next day before breakfast a guard came and got me.
We traveled in a white van. There were no windows in it, but there was a small box of books on the floor. The guard sat on a bench opposite me in the back, each of us jolting now and then as the vehicle made its way.
“I suppose you have no idea how long the ride will be?” I asked.
“No idea,” he said.
I looked at the books. They were tattered, a handful of old Modern Library editions from decades ago. I picked up something but stared mostly at the Promethean figure on the flyleaf. The guard saw me looking at it.
“Ha - my kid plays baseball,” the guard said.
I was stunned by the intimacy of the revelation. “What’s that again?”
“That man on the cover looks like he’s diving for a pop fly.”
I froze for a second, then shook my head at him, put a finger to my lips. Immediately he understood. A look of something like terror crossed his face and he blanched like a ghost. He subsequently set his face in a scowl like carved granite.
And so we all transferred periodically from place to place. It proved to be the way of things. Besides creating disorientation, the goal of every transfer was to evaluate an inmate in this program or that, whatever the government or military was working on, to recalculate the security of the greater good from anarchy and subterfuge. And as such I endured various programs and regimens, sometimes willingly and sometimes surreptitiously, each designed to test the capacity of human endurance, or compliance, or else to test defenses against such capacities.
I won’t detail the tests save to say that many were boring but some were outlandish. Throughout all of them, however, I came to detect and appreciate the government’s knack for pairing quixotic savants with pugnacious bulldogs of efficiency. Every mad scientist was paired with a bean-counter. The mind-reading quack was romantic and hopeless and was paired with a particularly brutal pragmatist. I felt truly sorry that I could not concentrate hard enough to discern the shapes on the backs of the placards for him. I washed out of many programs.
And as we shuttled between programs and locations, in time a group of us came to recognize one another amongst the anonymous faces in the transfers stations, this man in line for this program and that man in line for that (the women always elsewhere - always), and one would greet the other with “How’s it going, organ bag?” as if the phrase held a succinct summary of our final fate, once we proved inadequate for anything else.
There was no way to know for sure how long all this went on. There were no calendars, no news, no holidays, no windows, no seasons. Once I was transferred to a place where I caught a glimpse of snow, and the next week I was in a place of steaming foliage that was in every way its opposite. And so it went.
And finally, after weeks or years of this, I walked to a guard looked at him. “I am tired of this,” I said.
He looked at me. In fact, it was the first time in ages I had been genuinely scrutinized in the course of conversation. He weighed my eyes with his own. Finally he nodded. “Yes, you look tired.” He said. “I’ll schedule everything.”
And so he did. I was moved to a smaller section within the same facility and life was grand the next few days after that. I had a nice chair in my cell, some heavily-censored nature magazines, a lamp to read by, and a softer bed. I had a piece of fresh fruit with every meal. Somewhere in the hall there was a window and I could smell the sea nearby.
The next day I was greeted early by my guard. For the first time in years I was handcuffed. He swept my body with some sort of hand-held detector and then led me away.
We walked down a maze of white halls until we came to a desk with a white door beyond. My guard exchanged mutterings with the bored man behind the desk, showed him his badge and my papers. The second man looked at the papers and then looked at me, nodded, and flipped a switch. The doors swung open and we walked through.
The halls continued white for a while, but then gave way to wood paneling at almost the same time the antiseptic smell of the air gave way to more florid smells of life: smoke and flowers, exhaust and wood. Along the walls I began to see framed commendations, pictures of government officials, and regulatory statements that started out bold but then trailed off into microscopic print.
Finally we came to a large rich wooden door with a bench beside it. My guard told me to take a seat. He went inside, muttered tense pleasantries with someone, as if they were from two different agencies and did not much like each other. Then the door opened again and he walked out and walked past me.
“Good luck, bud,” he said, and then disappeared back down the halls from which we’d come.
A moment later I was let in the room. The secretary directed me to a chair then vanished. I looked around: it was a well-appointed paneled office. The desk opposite me was of rich wood and expansive; papers were everywhere upon it. On the walls were gold-framed awards and diplomas; here on the desk were smiling pictures of a family. And beyond all these was an open window, and beyond that was the sea. Waves softly rolled onto a beach, salt sprayed and gulls cried.
For an instant my heart softened and I loved life in a way I had not in years.
Just then a saturnine man came in from a side door and shook my hand.
“Busy busy,” he said. “Sorry for the delay.”
He had a big once-athletic frame with a big round face and a bushy moustache. In time he would be a walrus of a man, but he was still a decade shy of that. He exude filiality if not exactly friendliness. I suspected he must have been a coach at one time.
He sat on the edge of his desk and flipped through my papers.
“Oh yes, oh yes,” he mumbled as he turned from page to page. “Damn awful business we’re in. Tough times. But it looks like you’ve done more than your part.”
“Thank you,” I said.
He put down the papers and looked at me. His eyes under thick brows were soft and paternal.
“You are one of the more interesting cases,” he said. “It’s a shame the way things transpire.”
“It is,” I agreed.
“Of course we know you weren’t involved in that. But the point is, we’ve all done something,” he said.
“Yes,” I said. “I’m sure of that.”
He got up and paced. “Some people worry themselves sick, once they get in here. But I say it’s not worth it to scrutinize your conscience. Everyone’s done something. In theory, everyone could be in here.”
“That does makes sense.”
He stared out the window. “And we live in an age that’s too dangerous for second chances. Once people are in here they have every opportunity to continue serving their country, but in a more controlled way.”
“And you did pick up that phone.”
“Yes. I realize now that was a mistake. We had been warned. We were always being warned.”
He waved off my rote apology. He turned to me and his eyes suddenly gleamed. “Would you like to hear what it said?”
I felt my eyes widen in surprise. “It said nothing.”
He spread his lips in a smile. He was pleased by my reaction. “What you don’t know is that we had it intercepted. Analyzed. A message had been delivered through that phone just seconds before you arrived. Would you like to hear it?”
“Yes,” I said. I felt myself beginning to tremble.
He leaned forward and pushed a button built into a walnut panel on his desk, and then he sat back. A slight crackling noise filled the room, coming from everywhere and nowhere. Then, in the midst of the static, something fuller and quieter opened behind it, an absence that indicated vitality, like a patient pause or a held breath. Then, from out of the nothing came the whisper of an ageless male voice, as measured and dispassionate as a bone bleached in the desert.
“How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings glad tidings.”
And then the warmth behind the nothing tapered off, and static dominated once more.
The man switched off the speaker. The room filled once more with small, calamitous, officious noises. He looked at the end of his finger. I felt my knees shaking.
“You see what we’re up against?” he said. “They speak in code.”
But I only looked at him. “He was there,” I said, as if I didn’t believe it myself.
“Well yes...he’s a fox and a sly one.”
“Why wouldn’t he talk to me?”
Tears streamed down my face. “All my life...” I began but could not finish. I found myself restating facts again. “I held the phone - why wouldn’t he answer me when I held the phone?” My shoulders shook in sobs.
He looked at me. I could feel his eyes take a measure - then, beyond my reckoning, move almost to pity.
“There there,” he said, “We almost had him. The tide is turning.” I felt him put a hand on my sleeve. “Time is on our side now. He is, or he knows who is, the enemy.”
I tried to stifle my emotion, and he stood and walked to his window to avoid looking at me.
“You have been here too long, been through too much,” he said. “I knew we kept you too long, but we had to try...”
He stared out the window at the ocean. Then, quickly but gracefully, he pivoted and pressed a button on his desk. He swallowed, paused, and set his jaw.
“Bring me a dismissal form,” he said.
There was a pause on the other end.
“Yes,” he said. “This man has done enough.”
And I felt him end the call and move slowly, ponderously in the office behind me, and I didn’t dare speak another word - not gratitude, not anything - for fear it might change what he had decided. But in another moment I was escorted back to my cell, and the day after that was a flurry of bus rides and transfers in windowless vans. But in another day I was free.
I went back to my home, and it was exactly the same as when it had been abandoned. Nothing in it had changed. And now I roam once more in the near-desert, and I survive, and I watch. I have no doubt they’re watching me, that whatever grain of mercy I was granted held within it some mercenary aim, perhaps to cast me back and watch me, like a fishing line and bait, but to me it does not matter. When he comes they will be able to do nothing about it. And so I watch and I wait, and in my mind I replay that day I found the phone, and in my mind I fancy I notice rising clouds of dust from footfalls, out in the brush but not far off, a hiddenness but not a hiding, a watching and a waiting. And I do not cry that I did not speak with him, for I will speak with him when the hiddenness ends, and the fury comes upon the earth like cleansing fire, and sackcloth trades itself for armor and a sword and a torrent of rain, and a green earth is reborn from a scorched and wasted one.
About the Author: Paul Hawkins lives and works in Norman, OK. He has three young children and therefore has no time for hobbies, but if he did have time, he would paint and garden. His home page is http://www.phawkins.com. There is at least one other author named Paul Hawkins out there but I am not him (or is it 'I am not he'?), and so someday I might think up a pen name, but it will still be me. And in any case it will have to be a pretty good name for me to part with my given one, and I have not thought up a good enough one yet.