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If You Didn’t Kill the Cuckoo Bird

ISSUE:  Summer 2010
From one rooftop, the rooftop of an adjacent building can be seen. Silhouetted against the glow of city lights at night is the figure of a lone man, one hand on his hip.
Peter Masturzo

Years have passed since that dawn; I believe eleven years, eleven years from one moment. Yet, I remain in prison, deprived of any manner of free will and happiness, and what’s more, I have been forgotten. He had no one, and now I am the sole inheritor of this dispossession.

I wish I had a photograph of him or, to put it more realistically, of myself, from those lost times. It is not important for me to know which of us had a finer face; rather, a photograph in these confusing times can reveal much that has been forgotten or that has nestled in the wrong folds of the mind. There are memories in my mind that I am no longer sure are my own personal experiences.

Nine years is not a short time. I will disregard the first few months as an occasion for us to find one another amid the crush of alienation and for our inevitable friendship to form. The oldest memory of him that remains in my mind belongs to the recreation hours outdoors. In single file we would walk in a small circle surrounded by gray walls, our pace imposed by a collective in which none of us played an independent role. Still, in the midst of our same-colored clothes, our common smell, and our exasperating lack of individuality; the stateliness of his movements and eyes that instilled an unpleasant yet irresistible sensation in any observer made him stand out. As the circle of flesh turned and the familiar sounds of rustling clothes and scraping heels spilled over the small yard, I would involuntarily watch him. Depending on where in the circle we were on a given day, different angles of his face and figure would be visible to me. And then we became cellmates.

He hated snoring—as I do now—and among all those men, I was the only one who did not transform my dreams and nightmares into hoarse rasps in the crater of sound, and it was this that led to our coming together and his acceptance of me. Yet, there were times when we—he and I—in the blistering and leaden air of rage, would go at each other simply to quench our thirst for social interaction and fresh associations. When we beat each other—in silence, so the night guard would not notice—we would swallow our groans. Fists are silent, especially if they land on the hypochondria. Those in neighboring cells who became aware of our fights, with their shoulders shaking from stifled laughter and in anticipation of the gibes with which they would grace us the next day, would crawl under their blankets and from time to time listen to the muted, fleshy sounds coming from our cell. His fists were heavier than mine. When he punched me, my breath would freeze in my chest and I would hunch over and press my arms against my sides. Then, after air gradually penetrated the constriction lodged under my sternum, I would rise up again and strike him. I would grind insults between my teeth and pound my fists against any organ within my reach. When we grew weak and drained, we would collapse on our beds; it was then that we could talk.

During the monotonous prison nights, the mind, like a night crawler, emerges from its lair and begins to hunt. It hunts for every movement, sound, or even abstract instinct that will nourish it so that it can then slither into the cavities of the distant past. Of course, that is only on nights when at dawn they are not coming to take someone to be executed. On such nights, the silence of the cellblock grows deeper. Everyone stares at the ceiling with wide-open eyes. Sleep, filled with fantasies of sprawling meadows, of the winter-morning sun shining on crystalline surfaces, and of beautiful, docile women with longing in their eyes, flutters overhead like a weary bird that wants to land on a branch swaying in the wind but cannot. And we obstinately resist this pleasant sleep so that when at last we surrender to it, it will be all the more enjoyable. And then it is dawn and the footsteps of those who come, and we are one man fewer.

The game—a term he used so as to conceal the inner savagery of our pastime—was the only means by which we could pass through those tall walls. He taught me to play. The rules were simple. Yet, without exaggeration, we both suffered to master it. The game would embrace us like a magic cocoon; it would spin time around us. And inside the dark and musty warmth of this spun filament, the game would transform us from larvae. Fluttering our wings we would emerge, someplace else . . .

During the first five of the nine years that we spent reflecting one another like mirrors, we shared our pasts, our memories, and our thoughts, often filling in exact details that came to us at later times. Over and over again. At first, we would drift along the ordinary and even dull exterior of our minds. Swimming and floating in a shallow pond where the feet reach the bottom and repugnance from the touch of dregs and algae stains the point of contact. Commonplace memories of mundane relationships. We had plenty of time, so we crossed the pond. On its surface, the mysterious reflection of moonlight and the shadows of silvery young leaves lay before us. He would say, “Have you ever swum naked in the water? We are there now; it tickles. One must imagine it.” Gradually, with nervous tension and taunts, the unveiling of secrets and the thrusting of humiliation’s dagger into that ungular bulwark we call identity, we floated free in our abyss. It was vast.

Despite his claims to the contrary, we all knew there was no freedom for him. A three-hundred-year sentence, regardless of the various opportunities that would qualify him for clemency, would claim his entire life. Yet, now he has gone—no, it is more accurate to say “escaped”—just as he had always promised he would, a claim that had often put him in the position of being ridiculed by others. At the time, he was forty years old, but now that eleven years have passed and I have turned fifty-one, he is in possession of my youth. This intensifies my feelings of having been cheated. To have years of one’s natural life span taken away in a single night is not an insignificant loss to bear. Of course, I did not face this fact with my current composure. I shouted—

I won’t deny that at first it was out of horror—and then, when perforce I faced the dreadful reality, it was out of rage and as testimony to what had happened. The prison psychiatrist—here they have psychiatrists, too—diagnosed my behavior as nothing more than the result of an illness I had feigned to gain sympathy and to pave my way to the prison infirmary for a break. Our exchange lasted only a few minutes, after which he threw me out so that the next patient, a madwoman, could lie down on the bed and allow him to lay the eggs of his inculcations in her mind like a cuckoo bird.

The details of what took place are as significant to me as any personal memory or memento of the past is to an individual. To avoid extinction or perhaps the disarrangement of my past, I tell my current cellmate all that I recall of my life, recollections that I am sure belong to me, and he commits them to memory: the date of my birth, the town where I was born, my father’s name, lists of places and times that are of personal importance.

When the cellblock lights are turned off and that particular prison silence, softer and colder than our blankets, wraps around the corridors, stairways, and lower floors; amid the hum of hushed moans and hallucinations in sleep, of the guards making their rounds, and later, of the yawns of the steel poles and doors contracting, digesting in the belly of this silence; I lie on my bed, close my eyes, and try to imagine a bright spiral at the point where my left and right visions meet. The spiral spins and splatters light; it widens; it moves closer and its brightness blankets the darkness in my eyes—the dazzling brilliance of a sunny day as I walk back from school. The warmth of the sun penetrates my skin and the hidden layers and cavities of my body; a numbness indicative of well-being creeps into my hands and feet. Our front yard had a fence separating it from the street. Ivies had coiled around its rusted bars and, half-grown, had dried up. They had strangled each other. I stand in the middle of the yard. I sense that the house is empty, void of life and deserted for years. The sharp angles of the building, its collapsed sections, and the height of its windows and the color of their curtains are unfamiliar to me. Have I been here before? I know this is a crucial moment. If I enter, my action will have forever chosen me and this house. Now I am inside the house. Someone is knocking, pounding an unyielding fist on the rusted steel. Nowadays, I can’t bring sounds to life in my mind, perhaps because sound is the most perishable trace of our existence. There are pleading cries behind the door and that man walks out of his room. He casts a reprimanding look at me and cautiously opens the door a crack. Someone wants to enter and pushes against the door, claws at it, and the man bars the door from opening with his shoulder. Then I hear a scream and catch a glimpse of a woman through the narrow opening. The pressure of the door against her cheek has distorted her face. The man shouts, “Get lost, you double-crossing whore.”

Now it’s nighttime. When the doors in the cellblock slam shut, their unrelenting echo sounds familiar to me. Perhaps that door closed with this same sound. And then there is silence and a clump of that woman’s hair remains stuck in the door so that it can later be disposed of. I was able to recognize the face that, contorted from pain, fear, and tens of other emotions, had for an instant looked through the narrow opening in the door. She saw me. She was shocked—perhaps that is why she weakened and was pushed back. It was her, my mother.

He would ask, “Was it wintertime?”

I would not open my eyes. The sun would revolve in the spinning spiral and silvery waves would ripple high above the rooftops. It was wintertime, I’m sure: the memory of the winter sun shining on a faded fence and a garden patch with flowers is enduring. No, there were no flowers; that garden patch never had any flowers; it had a thicket of dry weeds and ivies that had woven their way through the fence.

“You passed the garden patch, the ground was tiled. Then there were the stairs, the edge of the stone steps were worn.”

“Then there was the front door of the house, with flaking white paint.”

“That had a brass handle.”

“And in front of the door there was a metal screen, did you forget?”

“And when you entered, there was the hallway that was always dark.”

“Most of the time. During the day it had no sun, and at night, its lamp . . . I don’t know. I don’t remember it ever having a lamp.”

“When was this? Exactly when? How old were you?”

“Twelve, thirteen, around then.”

“And she was your mother.”

“I saw her, her eyes, the color of her hair. There was a strange look in her eyes.”

“So she wasn’t dead.”


“You said before that she died before you started school. You spoke of her funeral, you remembered the white flowers and the black clothes. She taught you the names of the different colors.”

I would shout, “She was not dead! No, that woman was my mother. I’m sure.”

“She was your mother and she was not dead. You did not witness her death. Then she should still be alive, and even that father whom you despised.”

“He despised me. He couldn’t stand the sight of me. He wanted to kill me. I told you. He took me to the edge of the cliff and told me to look down. I looked down. I was terrified. I turned around and saw his hands ready to push me. I ran, and he called me. He called me and ran after me and I ran faster. It was windy, raining; the tall weeds kept twisting around my ankles.”

“This must be one of those dreams you wanted to have but never did, you just wanted to so that they would feel sorry for you like they would for a puppy.”

At night I would speak of her during our game, of the words that her eyes had spoken after the guard in the meeting room had yelled, “Time’s up!” Standing in the doorway, she would turn and look at me; she would push the cascade of her thinning hair behind her ear and her eyes would become her entire face, and her eyes would be all words.

“I didn’t need that.”

“A helpless little puppy caught in the midnight rain.”

“So that I could hide my ugliness, just like you. So that I could make little girls cry and then flirt with them when they took my hand to comfort me.”

That uniform brightness is no longer behind my eyelids; darkness has come. I open my eyes and half rise. He is still lying on his bed with closed eyes and confident breaths.

“You broke the rules of the game, stupid. You lied. Lies that you have always spun for yourself you are now spinning for me.”

I would get up and beat him. Fists are silent. He would claw at my hair in the dark and throw me against the wall. I told you that he was big and strong. He took care of himself, always exercised, and when others would wake up in the middle of the night and masturbate he would make fun of them. We shouldn’t empty ourselves; energy must be preserved. He would exercise, wildly and with some deliberate masochism, and then, exhausted and drenched in sweat, he would fall onto his bed. The strong smell of his body would flood the cell. And by the time he had caught his breath, his eyes would be closed and he would be imagining that bright spiral spinning around and filling the darkness behind his eyelids.

He would sprawl out like a drop of oil that drips onto a pool of water and blossoms with the one-dimensional rainbow that appears when light glides over a greasy film: greens, yellows, and reds that are inseparable, borderless. And then the lines would appear—glassy lines that were visible from behind one another and reflected on each other. The lines would connect and create faces and objects. Together with his voice, which like the squealing of the mice scurrying across the cement floor would creep into every corner and cavity of the cell, the contours of his words would pour into my eyes and create images. Whatever he saw, I saw. Him, as an eight-year-old, a thirteen-year-old, and then, later, his entire life. And by the time we had finished recounting our lives, that which had been private had become public—a shared ration ready to be re-masticated and remade by trivial inaccuracies and personal perceptions. From then on, memories that once depended on my existence would reconstruct themselves in my mind, as though they had found an independent existence through him and his interpretations. They gained this ability during the final years of my first sentence and at a time when I was growing more tense and nervous by the day. How slowly time passed when I focused on the seconds. And when she would come, when she could, with a few flowers, time would pass even more slowly. At night I would speak of her during our game, of the words that her eyes had spoken after the guard in the meeting room had yelled, “Time’s up!” Standing in the doorway, she would turn and look at me; she would push the cascade of her thinning hair behind her ear and her eyes would become her entire face, and her eyes would be all words, and the moment she was gone I would crush the flowers in anger.

I close my eyes.

He asks, “Is she beautiful?”

“To me, very much so.”

“It depends on one’s taste.”


“The flowers are from the garden at her house. All that distance. She gets on the train holding the flowers and comes.”

“There is a willow tree in one corner of her garden.”

“She wears dark clothes. Ever since you ended up here, you have never seen her wear brightly colored clothes, the ones that women fancy, that make them look like flowers.”

“No, she doesn’t. But she always wears her gold necklace. She leaves it hanging outside of her dress. I bought it for her. A bird in flight, on her chest.”

“You think the most beautiful birds are golden.”

“And there are none. There is no golden bird in the world other than hers.”

The two bright dots of her pupils appear in the center of my eyes, but now they are opaque. A gray light spawns from the black, from the grayish black—fruit of an ancient contrast. And the cloudy color of a rainy day, the color of dawn on the sea’s horizon, forms in my eyes. The sand is wet. It rained the night before and ours are the only footprints on the sand.

“I said, ‘We will get married on a rainy day so that we can come here when there’s no one around.’”

“Her voice. Did you say her voice is delicate?”

“Like the chime of an exotic oriental instrument. Although I can’t hear it now. I’m incapable of imagining voices.”

“It is gray everywhere.”

“I told you: everywhere, the rain is waiting in the sky.”

“I see it. You took her hand.”

“But first she blew on her hands. They were ice cold. The waves come close to our feet and I take her hand in my hands. My hands are warmer.”

“You had given her the gold bird the day before; you wanted to say it, but you couldn’t, you were afraid.”

“I was afraid that maybe it was just a long dream, that if I said it, it would turn into mist, until the next day when I just blurted it out.”

“You said, ‘We’ll get married on a rainy day so that we can come here when there’s no one around.’”

“No. I said, ‘When there’s no one here and we can come.’”

“She laughed.”

“She didn’t get angry. She looked at me and laughed. Then she blew on her hands because of the cold and I took her hand, and together we watched the fog looming over the sea. If she didn’t agree she would have pulled her hand away and asked that we leave. We didn’t leave. She said, ‘I want to sit on the sand.’”

“The sand was cold and wet.”

“But we sat down, facing the sea, and the fog that didn’t rise from the water but instead descended from the clouds on the horizon glided in on the surface of the sea. Like a dancer on ice wearing a white lace dress.”

The fog closes in on us. I get up and sit on my bed. My head is about to explode. Sweat is streaming down my temples. The air feels heavy and an old stale fog has swept across the cell. He says, “Let’s go all the way to the end. It’s not over yet.”

“I can’t. My head . . . My head is about to burst.”

“You didn’t let go of her hand, and when you sat down you kissed it and squeezed it. She was looking out across the sea, at the dancer gliding toward you on one leg, with open arms and a smile as wide as her face.”

“I wanted to kiss her lips. I leaned forward, toward her smooth, damp hair. Her perfume and the scent of the sea had mingled in it. She pulled her head back and said . . . she said . . .”

“When we get married.”

“Yes, when we get married, on a rainy day when there’s no one here. Until then . . .”

“She didn’t say anything else.”

“She laughed . . . The air is so heavy, I have to splash some water on my face. I’m burning up.”

“What else, after her laughter?”

I shouted. I shout, “No!”

I don’t remember if she said anything else, and then we left, and . . . It is so warm. I feel like I’m suffocating. I get up and walk toward the door to call the guard. He is lying motionless on his bed and the reflection of a pale light, the source of which I cannot see, glides over his sweaty forehead and into the hair on his temples.

I tell my new cellmate, “This is how it was. Will you remember it?”

And in the dark, after he kept his silence all night long, I don’t see him nod his head in confirmation. Sweating, I pace the length of the cell. In my mind, somewhere in the unreachable distant corners, lurks the fear of falling asleep and being robbed. The slightest movement or noise other than the usual nightly sounds wakes me up with a start and instantly a cold sweat lines my spine. I look around with wild eyes. The shadows, the glow of the night-lights, the footsteps of the guard moving away, and I think . . . What do I think? It’s not important.

A rooftop only slightly taller than the vantage point of the photographer has two figures silhouetted on it. In the darkness, one is blurred by movement, while the other is still, sitting on the side of the roof.
Peter Masturzo

I believe our final night together bears as much weight as the entirety of those nine years. On that last night, I knew I would not be able to sleep. I lay staring at the ceiling like all the other men in the cellblock who, restless and secretly jealous of my happiness, tossed and turned in their beds, smoked and blew the smoke up in the air. And when silence frothed in the corridors, if I were to say anything, if I were to start the last round of the game, it would all be about her. And I would see her on a sunny day wearing a brightly colored dress and her golden bird, and I would fill the emptiness of all the years she spent waiting at the center of her life.

I got up and packed my things. All my belongings amounted to one duffle bag that I placed at the head of my bed. I don’t know why, but I felt depressed. His eyes secretly followed my every move, most of which were purely meant to kill time. I could have quietly hummed a common song, a song from years ago that people on the outside had probably long forgotten. I could have finished knitting my small pouch so that at the final moment I could offer it to someone as a memento. I had procured the yarn by unweaving a pair of old socks—in those days, this was customary in our cellblock. But I did none of these things. As I stood staring at my neatly made bed and that duffle bag, he said, “So you, too, are leaving.”

I preferred not to speak. I didn’t want anything to cloak the nakedness of those final moments. He went on: “She will definitely be at the prison gate tomorrow waiting for you. With flowers and the golden bird on her chest . . .”

Then, with that same resentment and rage that would drive him mad whenever a prisoner was about to be released, he growled, “Someday soon, I too will escape from this prison, just as I have promised everyone.”

“Make sure to look me up when you get out. You know where to find me.”

He laughed. He understood my gibe and laughed and dropped down on his bed. He folded his hands under his head and stared at the ceiling. I had no patience for him. Perhaps because I knew he preferred that I remain in that cell with him for eternity, and in that damned leaden air walk behind him every morning in that circle and gaze at the tall walls and the guards’ boots that stand on free ground. I said, “I will come visit you. I promise.”

Again, he laughed. Perhaps he sensed sarcasm in my voice. Quietly, he said, “White cloud. The reflection of a patch of white cloud on the river.”

I turned my back to him and moaned, I really moaned, “No!”

“The river’s twenty-third autumn.”

“Stop it!”

“When the cloud moved away from the sun, it went to stick to the mountaintop. Coins of light, silvery coins spread on the river, like the reflection of the sun on a slippery fish that has jumped out of the water . . .”

I stuck my fingers in my ears. I looked at my duffle bag, it was blue. I was waiting, waiting for the sound of steel doors to open one after the other and the heavy footsteps of the guard who would come, who would indifferently call out my name, and I would leave with him. I preferred to talk about something else, even, if he wanted, about women and our most private moments. I said, “Stop it.”

“It was autumn.”

I had closed my eyes. I felt dizzy. I wanted to walk so as to neutralize the effect of his words with the sound of my feet. I wanted to think of her, of the fluttering wings of the golden bird on her chest as she walked on a rainy day. I wanted to, but I couldn’t. The sun, the sunshine in his mind penetrated my eyes. A yellow autumn sun reflecting on the leaves.

“You sat down. There, where the water was calm, it flowed gently and tiny dark fish aimlessly wandered after each other in the shallow waters. You thought, ‘What a waste . . .’ The razor blade was in your pocket.”

“No!” I shouted, but my voice drowned in the commotion of the cellblock. The time for silence had not yet arrived.

“You had come all that distance with a razor blade in your pocket. You must have taken it from in front of the bathroom mirror.”

“No, I found it. I was holding it.”

My palms were sweaty. It wasn’t hot, but it wasn’t cold either; it was desensitized autumn weather, but I was sweating. The razor blade was wet in my hand.

“You see the sequins of light on the water. The water’s gentle murmur fills your ears. You wonder why the river is not deep.”

“It wasn’t deep at any point; it flowed with a gentle slope.”

“And it wouldn’t have made a difference. You can swim. People who can swim can’t drown themselves, unless they tie a heavy weight around their body and fill their pockets with rocks. Right? You thought . . .”

“I had found it, on the ground, like the symbol of an inescapable fate, and I had immediately thought, ‘Why not . . . ?’”

“You had already thought of it. That’s why you came to the river. You said so yourself.”

“Yellow, there was yellow everywhere, a yellow and burnt crimson strip along the river’s edge as far as the eye could see. I sat down.”

“You thought about the drops of blood that drip into the water—they stretch and run in every direction. Thin red lines in the clear water that expand and disappear.”

“The fish would have to escape. They hate blood, don’t they?”

“I don’t know.”

Exhausted, I fall back on my bed; my eyes close. The sun shines on the razor blade. The left hand or the right hand?

“Do you think it was the left hand or the right hand?”

“I can cut better with my right hand. I bent back my left wrist so that the veins stuck out and I held it over the water.”

“Funerals. They are the most conventional and comical ceremony we humans have. Those seemingly sad faces, hands that their owners don’t know what to do with, and time that passes so very slowly.”

I looked. It was my last look at the surfaces of life, the burnt red and yellow leaves, the sky that seemed deeper in the distance and of a darker blue, the river’s bend, the patch of cloud that was floating toward distant mountaintops.

“The sounds. The sounds of life.”

“There was a rustle, a faint rustle, in the trees, on the wet ground blanketed with leaves, and in the fern bushes. Perhaps I also heard the sound of a bird flapping its wings.”

“Your hands were shaking. You thought, what if the razor blade is blunt? What if it only cuts the surface of the skin and . . .”

“I thought, why not with electricity, wouldn’t it be easier? Or plunging off a tall building so that I sprawl out in the middle of the street and all the cars have to brake.”

“There they wouldn’t find your body, it would stay and swell and decompose; your hand would fall into the river and you would collapse on the riverbank; the light would bother your eyes and the last of the red drops would fall free in the water. You were frightened, frightened of the loneliness of your corpse, of the last remnant of your existence being ravaged . . .”


“You were frightened, frightened of death.”

“It was useless.”

“No it wasn’t, it was fear.”

“Death would have come on its own, why should I have hurried it along?”

“No, you got scared, you probably thought life still had a few measly alms to offer that you could snatch up.”

I drop the razor blade and I run.

“The razor blade floated for a few seconds, it glistened like the sides of a fish rolling in water and then it sank and you could no longer see it.”

A branch was floating by. A hand had broken it off, spun it around, ripped that dreadful howl out of the air, and then carelessly thrown it in the river. I got up. I was drenched in sweat. Was it from fear? Or perhaps I really had changed my mind. Anyway, these reflections are now useless. Here, I am not threatened by any unexpected incident. Sometimes I think an earthquake and a subsequent fire may destroy the prison and all of us in it, but fortunately the walls and ceilings are so solid that they eliminate this possibility too. Prison is eternal. I like the poetic nuance of this sentence and I sometimes repeat it to myself.

But I digress. I should instead carefully arrange the pieces of this confusing puzzle, starting with the outer edges and working my way in toward its center. At times I am incapable of such concentration. I have to strain my mind until the desired result—the truth—is revealed. I remember that, contrary to my expectations, he was not sad. When I looked at him, his eyes had their usual lively glint. His final reactions are of great importance to me because they are the only evidence with which I can prove that everything had been prearranged and that in no way did chance have a hand in this incident. In any case, I thought, perhaps he is happy. I wanted to go to bed early that night. Sleep liberates us from time—a threadbare coat that we take off. He was quiet. I could feel the weight of his eyes—eyes that slyly kept me under watch. We lay down on our beds. I could smell the revolting stench of roach poison. I had grown accustomed to it years ago and no longer noticed it, but now my sensitivity to it had been revived. The same was true of the coarseness of the blanket that bore my scent, the squeaking of my bed, and the rustling of my clothes. And then we switched beds. He suggested it.

I stretched out on his bed and immediately sensed the strong smell and warmth of his body. I preferred to not say anything lest I reveal my excitement. When he started to speak it seemed as though his voice were coming from someplace far away, far from me, from behind the bars, the steel doors, and the dark cement walls. He said, “Tomorrow, when you walk out of the gates, she will definitely be there.”

“The last time she came she said she would be there.”

“With flowers?”


He smirked. He always laughed mockingly when he was angry. Then, without warning, he asked that for our final game we move forward. I am not sure whether he used the term “forward” or “future.” And then he added, “to a destiny that exists only for you, things that you will do.”

“We will get married, without delay.”

“You’re not going to wait for a rainy day?”

“I’ve been waiting for nine years. Tomorrow, perhaps, we will get married, and go to a place where there are no people around.”

“She is standing there, I see her, wearing a brightly colored dress and the golden bird on her chest. You see her when the great gate closes behind you. Is she laughing?”

“I don’t know. I walk toward her, or she will walk toward me. But first, I turn around and look back at the great gate and the walls. When they brought me here I paid no attention to their other side. What color are they? How do they affect the colors outside? She will walk toward me, definitely.”

“You walk toward each other. Will you hug her?”

“I think so. I want to.”

I feel lightheaded. The dense shadow of a deep and untimely sleep hovers in my head. I see her. As far as I can remember, there is a wide street in front of the prison’s main gate, and as she stands across the street, the passing cars etch lines across her image. Then she sees me and laughs . . .

“If timidity permits. You are both good people, but after all this time . . . You kiss her. And then you think your smell bothers her. You move away from her.”

“I take her hand and we run to get away from this place.”

“Fresh air, sun, rain, lovemaking and . . .”

Shimmering sparkles floated in my eyes. A sense of wellbeing coursed through my body, a sort of pleasant fatigue that craves stillness. Behind my eyelids the image of her smile became eternal, and then sleep, deep sleep, spread across my mind. That was the last time I saw her, but for a long time her voice continued to crawl around in my ears. And in the darkness that spread layer upon layer on the slippery surface of my eyes, the lines of light faded, and during a slow and endless descent, I heard confused sounds that no longer made any sense. And I thought, there is no escape from noise, not even in sleep . . .

Time in a confined space has strange characteristics. Despite the sluggishness of its moments, some sort of speed and movement is concealed in its totality. These eleven years and all that has happened to me since his escape are now buried somewhere in the incredulity of my thoughts like the continuation of that night’s sleep. To awaken from a sleep that is not substantiated by the presence of nightmares or dreams; and that mirror, that mirror with its rusty surface that has always been there, hanging on the wall. My new cellmate—given all that I have said I will call him “new,” although he has been with me for eleven years—continues to be surprised by my interest in the mirror. Perhaps he is even irritated by what he perceives to be my vanity. Although I have told him and continue to tell him the entire story—as I have told everyone—he has only pretended to believe me. But at least he has been consistent in his dishonesty. Despite my frequent and unwavering attestations, he, like everyone else, has not entertained the slightest doubt that perhaps I am telling the truth. They laugh—the most common human reaction when faced with realities that we do not have the capacity to accept. They all laugh, just as they did on that morning when I forced my face through the bars and yelled:

“He has escaped!”

When I woke up from that deathlike sleep and glanced over at my own bed, I saw that he was not there. My duffle bag was not there either—this I realized later. It was perhaps only moments after he had gone. My heart sank. I thought I heard the squeaking of the cellblock doors closing. I called the guard. I asked him why no one had come to release me. He laughed. Others who overheard me laughed too, and then the entire cellblock laughed. I thought perhaps I had miscalculated the days. When I asked, “Where is he?” they laughed even harder. Imagine a prison filled with laughter. It is terrifying. And then I caught sight of the mirror.

I called the guard. I asked him why no one had come to release me. He laughed. Others who overheard me laughed too, and then the entire cellblock laughed. Imagine a prison filled with laughter. It is terrifying.

The entire incident ends here. I still have not grown used to this body that has been imposed on me. It remains foreign to me because I have no memories and no personal reminders of its limbs. I look at it. I look all over this which represents a sentence in a different prison. I hate the smell of its sweat, I hate everything it excretes, I even hate its primal needs and habits. My sensibilities are not compatible with it, they resist it, and this constant friction produces restlessness and confusion in me. Yet, I take good care of it. Just like him, I exercise it every day; I feed it when it is hungry, and when it gets sick I attempt to cure it, as if it were my own body—the one that on that morning walked out of the prison gates and recognized her waiting with flowers and the golden bird on her chest, and before walking toward her turned to look at the outside of the tall prison walls and planted the image of his smirk on them for more than three hundred years. And at that very moment I shouted, I recoiled in horror as his eyes stared back at me from the mirror. It was not me in the mirror; it was him, his face . . .

My new cellmate wipes his sweaty forehead with his sleeve and when I have no more to say, leans back on his elbows and mutters, “Perhaps he’ll come visit you.”

“He won’t. He’s afraid.”

And I will not say why he’s afraid. He stares scrupulously at the lines on my face and tries to detect spasms of insanity in them. But he will find nothing other than the wrinkles and gauntness of my lost years, years when he was older than me, years in which he alone had lived and I only know his memories of them, memories which I now share with my current companion. My cellmate has a good mind and has promised to remember everything that has to do with me, so that he can help me if one day I fail to distinguish myself in the two pasts that have formed in my mind.

At night, in the familiar silence of the prison, I fold my hands under my head; I close my eyes and talk. I know that if he doesn’t think of the two years remaining in his sentence, if it is not his turn to speak, he will not be able to sleep, even if he is tired. His eyes will close and a shining spiral will appear in the darkness of his eyes. The sun. It’s a sunny winter day and I am walking home from school . . .

To David Quigley, with deep gratitude


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