I don’t remember what you look like, he whispered to himself, nor do I remember the color of your eyes or the narcotic scent of your scalp but I do remember you speaking to me and your voice like carved from some small talisman made of pearl and time. He thought of her while in the cell surrounded by darkness and the harried breaths of the other men and he thought of many other things and then things that weren’t things at all. His thoughts helped him endure the rhythmic crash of dripping water in those vast stone chambers and he dreamed of her in the runaway void of his mind and sometimes when he woke her breath was on his tongue and her eyes, not the shape nor the color but the essence, the spirit, the story behind her eyes, was somehow burned cold into his mind. He would whisper her name and his voice was life incarnate and the guards would shout at him with the other detainees shifting in their rags upon the dried pools of their own filth before retreating back into their own stone dreams, and he could see pairs of eyes flashing at him from dark corners across the cell and he could hear the beating hearts of the starved, of the lonely and mad — mad with loneliness. The darkness was nearly total, is if he were approaching blindness. Every so often the sound of men screaming agonies through the chambers and down the hall or around the corner, he knew not which, for direction was time and both were lost, and the prisoners in the shared cell closed their eyes to those terrible sounds or otherwise peered through the darkness to meet and hold another’s gaze in a tacit bond of principle or shame. Men thinking about their wives or lovers or their children either juvenile and still novel or fully grown and autonomous, or men thinking about their former lives as journalists and the destined chain of events that brought them to these catacombs. Men with fire in their eyes smothered more by each minute but men married to principle and stubborn and unwilling to cede to the intimidation around them. And he sometimes thought he heard the songs of birds beyond those cell walls, peculiar in pitch and nothing like he’d ever heard before, as if the prison or bunker or dungeon or whatever it was had been visited by a strange or foreign migration of flying creatures from faraway, possibly other continents or worlds, or maybe he’d never heard the calls of birds before, he thought, the language so lovely but oddly coarse and incomprehensible and perfect in some unintelligible way, a microscopic view into the fragments of his dreams, and every day one of the prisoners would mutter in his sleep or try to speak to another prisoner and the guards would thunder upon the cell walls with their rifles or their hammers or their books of lies and shout at the captives to be quiet, shut up or we’ll kill you all, they said, journalist scum, and sometimes a guard or guards would walk into the cell the man shared with the others, the number of prisoners perhaps five or six but as many as twelve or even twenty, and the prisoners would awaken to the footsteps of the guards inches from their faces and the guards were there with rifles slung about their shoulder or sidearms clutched at the ready and they were tall and looked something like him but they were more like shadows of guards or the ghosts of guards there in the darkness rather than real armed men. They would not speak but abruptly drag one of the prisoners away seemingly at random and the prisoner would weep quietly as they carried him off, the scent of his shit and piss suffocating the man lying next to him pretending to sleep, and sometimes the prisoners came back to the cell quiet and subdued and walking with a limp but sometimes the prisoners never came back. The man would awaken sharply and bitterly from some pained dream he could not remember and he could hardly breathe for the intensity of his hunger. He still believed in love after all this time without food and he held steadfast to the claim that men were moral agents before they were social creatures and he knew his decisions were just despite the onset of madness and disease and the temptations therein curtailing him, toxifying his thoughts. He occupied himself by stretching his bony finger out to the stone ground and making shapes of words in the dirt and grime. He wrote messages in the dust, letters to his dead mother, lists of self-reassurance. He wrote to all forms of the self, the free self and the imprisoned self, the starved self and sated self, the clothed self of wealth and the naked destitute self, and the messages were different in tone and shape depending on which self he addressed, but with each note or letter or message or transmission he saw himself there on the ground scribbled alight in his own shit. He described his dreams in symbol and picture and he knew at that moment that the power of language was beyond reproach, even from god. Then he wondered what it would be like to be blind for good, his eyes shorn or plucked from his head by the guards just as they set him free to wander the world. He imagined he would learn Braille and read continuously, and he wondered how it would feel to be blind, reading in the darkness. What it must be like to feel the words as you read them, he thought. What it would be like to touch your way through a story. Reading would become a physical experience, even more intimate than reading with the eyes. Imagine what it would be like to have a favorite word to touch. The guards fed them each a biscuit and a paper cup full of water each day. The man always woke to the smell of his biscuit somewhere near his face, and he’d sit up and eat the biscuit in two large bites. Sometimes after he ate he knelt with his eyes closed and his hands outstretched to the fetid air and on his face his tears were dried and renewed again to his cause. For what does it mean to cry in this place, and is there ever any deliverance for our tears when we cry them in solitude? He thought about his life before prison, the newsrooms, the road, the chain of days like questions upon his lips, colleagues and subjects, loves and lives passed, and his heart was fortified by his memories, strengthened by his woe. He dropped his hands to his sides and stretched out again there upon the muck in the room with no dimension and he slept. He dreamed of long meandering rivers flowing up mountains, frothing white and replete with life and in each river he saw his reflection pure and shimmering and distorted only by the sparkling ruse of the sun. To be blind and reading in the darkness, he thought, embracing the words, feeling his way through a story. Imagine how abrasive some words must feel. Imagine what it would feel like to reach out and touch my favorite characters, those select souls I’ve seen so much of myself in. It would be like feeling my own reflection. To be blind and reading in the darkness, repeating words and phrases, feeling over them again and again, the rote tactile experience of living through great things. Living through great things. To be blind and reading in the darkness, rain pounding the attic roof, smell of fecund earth creeping through the open window, breath of crickets and worms out in the fire shower of their universe, flashes of lighting opening up the broad mysterious horizon. You scan the pages rapidly, your hands trained and possessed upon the text open and virginal before you, and there is no wind, for the wind’s nature is to unsettle and there is no light save for the flashing sky. This would be something like tranquility, he thought. Or to be blind and huddled beneath the ground in the city sewers and reading with the sounds of running water and the visceral rumblings of humanity above and the scent of rot and plague, the lick of death upon your cheek. To hear the echo of your heart beating there in the tunnels, tunnels just like these, the dream vocabulary of the miniature, and there is storm and malevolence above but down below you’re impenetrable, deciphering treasures. Nothing matters but the story and you emerge upward back into the world once the story is finished. Hatched back into the center of madness like some ripened fetus, more enlightened and shrewd than before your submersion. And somehow the air tastes different than you remember it. The people all talk and sound the same as before but you learn to see them differently in your mind. You imagine they’re more aware of you in their own movements, their furtive glances. They wonder how a blind person could see so much. A guard enters the cell, Where is the Yankee, he says. There is an American here, where is he. There are two Americans here, says one of the prisoners. No, says the guard, there were two but one of them is dead. The man sits up and studies the blurry silhouette of the guard. Right here, he says, and stands. His body shudders with exhaustion. Come with me, says the guard, You’re going home. I’m not going anywhere, the man says, Unless we all go. You’re coming with me or everyone in here dies, says the guard. The man looks into the dark corners of the cell to the eyes peering back at him and he nods to each of them and all of them and then he follows the guard out of the cell into a long stone corridor lit by sunlight at the far end. Hold it, says the guard, and another soldier appears and ties a blindfold about the man’s filthy head and they all three walk toward the light and into the chaotic embrace of Earth’s resplendent lithosphere.
Published by TJ McAvoy
Primary influences include, in no particular order, Chandler, Voltaire, Saramago, Borges, John Coltrane, Nietzsche, Ricardo Piglia, Emerson, George V. Higgins, Manuel Puig, D.F. Wallace, Cortázar, Denis Johnson, Michelangelo, Italo Calvino, Cormac McCarthy, Juan José Saer, Keith Jarrett, J-Dilla, Roberto Bolaño, and Don DeLillo. View all posts by TJ McAvoy