American Sign Language (ASL) does not directly translate into English. Grammatically speaking, ASL is closer to Mandarin. If I wanted to ask, “What is your name?” in ASL, I’d sign “Name you?” Emphasis and tone stem from the vehemence of the signer’s expressions, the quickness of their movements, the animation of their eyes and faces. This story is therefore a crude approximation of the original version, which was recorded on video at the Saskatchewan Federal Penitentiary in Prince Albert from October 1987 to June 1988. The narrator, whose real name exists only in Sign, was part of a study produced by a now-defunct non-profit group on how inmates were treated in prison. Due to funding cuts, the study was never finished, so these videotapes formed part of a research archive that sat untouched for thirty years; small clips were used for educational purposes, but the interviews as a whole have not been seen until now.
While I’ve done my best to capture the narrator’s astonishing tale, which he told with a furious and beautiful physicality, the story needed numerous edits for clarity purposes. According to Charity Blanc, who originally interviewed the narrator, the narrator’s experiences, and especially the time he spent at his father’s house, severely damaged his ability to distinguish between time periods. He experienced everything in the present—nothing else existed for him. As a result, the story offered here is not in the order it was first delivered. Much of it had to be pieced together using different resources as guidelines: newspaper articles, court documents, arrest reports, journal entries, school records, prison records, and psychiatric reports. To help clarify the timeline, and to provide context to the narrator’s story, some of these resources have been included in this book.
The narrator completed his prison term in January 2005. He has given me permission to share his story, provided I do not give away his current location or occupation.
I made every effort to contact Felix Jimson’s mother, using both private and public channels, but I was unable to reach her.
Felix Jimson’s whereabouts remain unknown.
Make a fist. Tight. Thumb crossed over your fingers, like you want to punch someone. Drag it upward from your gut. Drag it slowly. As your fist nears your heart, arc it outward and open your hand wide like you’re spreading something, sharing something. That’s my name. Felix gave it to me. I’m not sure how long ago—I have difficulty with numbers. My parents never registered my birth, so I’ve never been sure of my age. No matter. I’m here. Whatever they tell you my name is here, they’re wrong. I don’t live on paper; I don’t exist on paper.
Neither my mother nor my father taught me language. My mother tried but gave up. She preferred smoking and lying on the couch and watching TV. Her face was always sad, even when she smiled. Her eyes never smiled with her. Whenever I ran through the living room in her house, she spoke to me with a mouthful of smoke. For a few seconds her words were visible. That was as close as I ever came to understanding her.
My father took me from my mother and kept me below ground. Everything was violent at his house. The way the cement floor was broken. The way the cement chips jabbed my small bare feet. The way the walls seemed to sweat like they ached to crush me. The way tiny nails twisted out from the wall around the entire doorframe. The way the door was always locked. The way my father and his people ignored me when I beat on it with my fist. The way the ceiling pushed down on me until my shoulders caved and my head hung. The way the light was always on.
I had to learn to live with that light pressing on my eyelids. Each night I turned over on my mattress and faced the corner. I learned to create my own darkness. Time meant nothing. All that mattered was what my father and his people did. All I knew was what I clutched in my hands or had ripped into my skin or seared into my eyes.
My first language wasn’t Sign. It was violence.
When they spoke to me—when anyone speaks to me—they speak in ghosts. That’s what words are. We don’t see them, but we feel them. My father and his people spat ghosts at me. They wanted their words to penetrate me, to fill me, to haunt me. But I was protected. The way I am saved me from becoming like my father. Preserved my heart like a steel box. That’s what Felix said.
My heart is safe, or at least clear. But my mind is not. All those years swirl and spill into puddles like water from a child’s glass. My thoughts drift. I can’t hold them still.
I began to think I’d die in that basement room. The thought sickened me, emptied me—toward the end I felt my backbone go hollow. No matter what happened, I had no choice.
My father never came to see me. The bigger man and the long-haired man were the ones who took me out of the room to wash me. I’d see my father in the metal building or in the kitchen or outside smoking. The more I saw him, the more I remembered a picture my mother used to have. The man in the picture had longer hair, but it was him. They were smiling, hugging each other. I had no mirror so I couldn’t compare our looks. Over time, I sensed in the way he rejected me, and in the way he avoided looking at me, that I was related to him. His anger toward me grew from something deep as blood. That kind of rejection, that kind of hatred, comes only from family.
I don’t know why he took me. He didn’t want me. Spite maybe, or power. Something to hold over my mother.
One night, I sat on the mattress, fingering the silver tape wrapped around my arm—I’d broken it the last time they’d taken me out—and my father and two other men came in, shoving the red drink in my face. I didn’t touch it. The two men held me while my father squeezed my jaws and poured the drink into my mouth. Their grim pink faces leered down at me. One man gripped my arm, which they had pressed a stick against and wrapped tight with the tape. My father’s beard clouded his lips as he spit ghosts at me. Fuggin. Urry. Riddim. I tried to yell but choked on the drink. The men let me go, and they all left.
I sat on my mattress. Clenched my fists. Waited for the drink to clatter in my blood and stir that familiar outrage that had bubbled up so many times before.
I grew sleepy. Peaceful. I lay on my side and let my hands roll open.
The walls and mattress and clothes blurred. They weren’t fully there. My body completely relaxed. Scars cracked across my arms like striations of ice across a frozen puddle. They shone in the light, and I traced them with my finger. They seemed distant, like they belonged to someone else. The world above me soon felt emptied out. This beautiful feeling was all mine, a slow soothing bloom in my brain. Everything was air. Nothing mattered. Total peace.
The two men came back and dragged me out of the room, through the house. My head grazed the ceiling. It didn’t used to—I’d been there so long. My bare feet knocked against each stair, my toenails poking at the wood. I still felt my broken arm, but the pain was far away, just a blinking light in the distance.
Outside, I saw blue sky for the first time in a long time, a small sliver just turning to black. Nobody waited by the cage. The men took me around the back of the metal building with the wide sliding doors, past the trucks. There was no light. The air was cool. I smelled the trees on the other side of the tall fence.
They dragged me between the back of the metal building and the fence, then stopped. Right in front of me, in the very corner of the property, the bigger man was digging a hole. I knew each man by his posture, the shape of his head. In the blackening sky, they were little more than shapes.
My father stood to the left of the hole, his gun at his side. I thought I could see the front gate, about five or six car lengths behind him. My feet sunk a little into the loose earth surrounding the hole. I squeezed it between my toes.
I tried to concentrate. The red drink had trapped me within my body. I felt I should be fighting, running, shouting. I tried to pull my arms away from the men holding me, but I had little strength. In the darkness my father’s face was a soft gray oval. He spoke to the bigger man. His mouth moved like a bat’s wing. Urryup. The bigger man stood waist-deep in the hole, tossing dirt over his shoulder. I slumped. The two men held me up. I knew what was happening, but I couldn’t fight it.
The bigger man climbed out of the hole. He hunched over and held his chest. He’d lost so much weight, his shirt sleeves swung off his thin arms furred with gray hair. I smelled his thick sweat mixed with the dirt. The two men holding me dragged me over to the hole. I made a small noise like a moth rising from my throat. My father stood on one side of the hole, the bigger man on the other. Their eyes settled on me like leeches. I wanted to scream but my voice was too heavy for me to lift. I hated that my father had drugged me and wouldn’t let me cry. Hated that he’d kept me in that room for so long. He smelled like metal. I tried to reach out for him, but the men held me still. They kicked out the backs of my knees and pushed me to the ground.
I stared into the hole. It pulled on me the way my mattress did at the end of a night of fighting. Another small noise fluttered up my throat. Tickled the roof of my mouth. I didn’t want to die. But part of me was tired. Part of me wanted to slip into that hole while I was full of that peaceful lazy feeling. I wanted to become part of that darkness. A soft nudge circled my mind, something like, Might as well.
My father walked around behind me. He squeezed my shoulder. To wish me well. Or hold me steady. The end of his gun settled on the back of my head. I took a full breath and searched the sky for that last sliver of blue. A click echoed through my skull.
Yellow lights swung toward us from the left. Something splashed onto my face. The bigger man stumbled back against the fence. He stared at my father, blood spurting from his neck. More blood burst from his chest; his arms and legs folded upward as he fell into the hole. My father took his gun away from my head, and the men dropped me. Some ran around the corner into the metal building, while others, including my father, ran back to the house.
Two trucks had driven through the front gate. The gate and the loops of sharp wire lay crumpled beneath their tires. Men stood behind the truck doors, angry yellow flashes obscuring their faces as they fired.
I struggled to stand. My father and the men disappeared. I finally hoisted myself up, but my feet slipped and I almost fell into the hole. More lights surged from behind me. Another truck rammed through the back fence. It stopped just in front of me, its lights burning into my eyes. I tried to amble around the side of the truck, but the door kicked open and knocked me backward, sending pain blaring through my arm. A man with a beard stepped out holding a long gun. He looked at me. He looked past me. He started shooting at the metal building. Holes popped through the silver. I got up and scrambled through the splintered fence.
Flashes from the shots followed me into the trees. I ignored the rocks and needles jabbing into my bare feet. I looked back once. Another man in a hat stood in the back of the truck firing at my father’s house, blowing out the windows and sections of the siding. The flash from his gun was bigger and sharper than the others—the force of his shots slapped against my chest. An outraged ghost.
I kept running. I couldn’t see the flashes anymore. The sky became completely black. I couldn’t see anything. Still, I ran. My toes beat the hard ground and stubbed against rocks and roots.
I stopped. My body shook. The red drink still swam in my blood—my brain was liquid. I felt around me and steadied myself against a tree. I waited for my eyes to adjust. They didn’t. I was too used to light. The world tilted beneath my feet, and I held onto the tree with both hands. I didn’t trust the ground in the dark.
Standing there gripping the tree, I thought of going back. I knew that place. It had light, food, a mattress, faces I recognized. Death might almost be worth it as long as I could see it coming.
I waited some more, shivering. Then I started walking. My broken arm hung heavy at my side. I tugged at the tape, but it was wrapped too thick. My ear was wet and sticky. The top part was limp, folded down over the hole where sound was supposed to enter. Something had torn it down the middle. The pain crawled and spread through my head.
I sank to the ground and made a noise. I couldn’t face the darkness alone. I lay with my chest against the ground, hugging the earth to ensure it would stay beneath me. I rubbed my face against the dirt and the green fur growing up from the ground. My head swirled with their smells and textures. I squeezed twigs and dirt and pebbles. They filled me with beauty. But they were too different. I was too free. I dropped the twigs and dirt and pebbles and clung to the ground and cried.
I never slept. After some time a line of blue appeared in the sky. Up ahead, I saw fields of green fur beyond the trees. I walked toward them.
The cold awakened my skin. My body shuddered as my skin breathed freely. I wore a T-shirt and pants that stopped just below my knees. My feet bled. One of my toenails had snapped off. I smelled green. Fresh growth. As the sun rose, the prairie opened up to me. It stretched all the way to the sky. I squinted—my eyes weren’t used to seeing distance.
Soon the whole sky was blue. A field of yellow flowers spread all around. The sun’s warmth overwhelmed me. The first truly gentle touch I’d felt in years.
A few steps into the field I felt a breath on my neck, like someone had spoken and their words had brushed against me. I spun around. No one. Nothing. I stared at the trees. Waited. The shadows between them seemed coiled and about to burst forth. I picked up a stick and backed away, then turned and ran deeper into the field.
A white and gold bird circled in the sky. It flew down hard at the ground, carving a straight line on the air, and arose clutching something. A small tail hung from its feet. The thing wiggled in its claws, then fell limp.
The sun rose straight above me, and the yellow flowers ended. I kept looking over my shoulder. I stepped into another field. Wide and green. My tongue was dusty. I had trouble swallowing. I picked some tall green bristles from the earth and put them in my mouth. They tickled the roof of my mouth and I coughed and spit them out. I kept walking. Water formed on my skin. I licked it.
The first time I tripped, I landed on my broken arm and the stick-brace snapped. I cried out. I sat still for a long time holding my arm, waiting for the pain to settle to an ache. I tried flexing my fingers but couldn’t push the message through to my hand. I tried digging beneath the tape to remove the stick, but it still wouldn’t budge. Splinters from the break dug into my arm.
I peered around. No one was anywhere near, but I sensed something was following me. The green fur on the ground shuddered like something hidden within it had exhaled. I yelled. It was like the sky sucked up my voice. It held everything. Saw everything. It didn’t care.
I walked on, keeping my arm close to my body. Each time I tripped after that I made no noise. Just bit my lip.
The field ended and I turned down a dirt road, walking along the side to avoid the rocks. Bugs flew and skipped all over the road. A few of them bit me. I stepped on a few. I couldn’t help it; there were so many.
An orange sign with black writing on it blocked the road ahead. Behind it, a deep hole opened in the road. The dirt in the hole was darker than the rest of the road. For a moment I thought my father or the bigger man had made it. I ran, wincing with each step, my feet and broken toenails bleeding into the dust.
I turned down another road. My body filled with the chugs of my own breathing. Running felt so odd. My body wasn’t used to stretching, to taking up so much space. My broken arm throbbed, and I stopped to rest. I dug my toes into the warm dirt. Clenched pebbles between my toes. All around me there was nothing but fields. I stuck out like a pimple.
I threw rocks into the fields. I wanted people. It seemed impossible that in all that space, I couldn’t see another person. The prairie was hiding them, clutching them.
The sun beat on my back the rest of the day as the field gave way to more fields. Then the sky turned red, and the air cooled. I hurried down the road. I didn’t want the sun to leave me. Didn’t want to be outside at night again. I was tired and had nothing to eat or drink. My feet thudded on the ground, the impact of each step rattling up my legs into my throbbing arm. I wondered if my mother was close and if she’d want me back. I wondered if my father was still alive and if he was trying to find me. I tried to remember the path my father had taken the night he stole me from my mother. I recognized no landmarks, no swale of land, no arrangement of trees.
I yelled. Punched myself in the head. Hated my own ignorance. I didn’t know the path. I didn’t know where to find food or water. I didn’t know anything that could help me. My father had kept me that way.
The sky grew bruised. Then black. Stars were like tooth holes the dogs punched in my arms.
As I searched for a place to sleep, a heavy raw smell clogged the air. Flies bumped against my face. A large lump rose out of the ground. I stopped hard. Only its outline was visible, something meaty and hairy and swollen with death. I slapped the flies away and ran around the lump into a field. Tall bristles of fur tickled my knees. I kept wincing, expecting someone to hit me. I wasn’t used to gentleness.
Eventually I slowed down, holding my arm tight against my body and stroking the thin ridge beneath the tape where the stick had snapped. I’d sweated all day and the tape had loosened a little, but I had no strength to unravel it.
Another breath, another ghost brushed past my shoulder. I winced and slapped the air, my way of telling it to stop. I shouted several times. The prairie offered no answer. I was missing something—my father and his men had understood each other when their mouths moved and their breath plumed up and their words dug into each other. They could find each other, direct each other with their words. I couldn’t tell where I was the way they could. I scanned the prairie for light or movement and found none.
On the far edge of the field, a large black shadow squatted in the distance. Blacker than the sky. Neither a tree nor a hill—its edges were too straight. I ran toward it. The shadow slowly grew bigger. My leg snagged on something, and I fell hard onto the ground. My broken arm caught beneath me, the splintered ends of the stick jabbing into my skin.
I reached down and pulled part of a wire fence out of my leg. A long bloody rip zagged up my shin. I got up and limped toward where I thought the shadow was.
I squinted in every direction. I made a sound through my dry throat, forcing my voice up like unwanted food, hoping it would bounce off something. The blackness had thickened, holding me like a womb. I smelled sweat and blood and dirt and green growth. My head filled with churning smoke. I heard nothing. My voice haunted no one. I stood in the center of perfect nothingness. I tried to sense walls. Walls were what I knew. They were built into my skin.
Another warm breath skirted across my neck. In the dark the soil seemed looser, as if the ground would cave in and swallow me with any move I made. The blackness made the entire prairie seem to open up into an enormous hole. More breaths swiped past me, pressing my clothes against my body. I cringed and covered my head. Ghosts seemed to close in from all directions and circle around me, poised to batter against me, dozens of them in the shape of my father and his men, whipping down from the sky and seeping up from the land and aching to worm their way into me, the prairie spouting everything it hid during the day.
I shut my eyes and screamed at the ground, hating my helplessness. I stumbled one way, then another. Every direction felt like a mistake. Blood slipped down my leg and I felt dizzy. I dropped to my knees and felt my way along the ground, yelling into the dirt, the ghosts pawing at my shoulders.
My hand closed on splinters of wood, pieces of glass. The black shadow loomed before me again, and I crawled toward it until the front steps of a house emerged. Gray and unreal in the dark. I scrambled up the steps and pushed through the broken door. It snapped off and fell onto the floor.
The house was even darker inside. I knocked on the wall and called out. I placed my hands on the floor to feel for footsteps. Only my heartbeat echoed up at me. The house smelled like old blood. Cool air blew through the door and the windows, as if the house were speaking to me. I felt my way over to the left-hand wall and stayed close to it as I inched my way along to a doorway. A floorboard snapped upward when I stepped on it.
My hunger dug at me, my stomach a fist grasping at air. I couldn’t think straight. My body quaked with fear and the fevered hope of safe rest. A few of the ghosts still clung to me and I tried to quicken my movements as I searched for food and water. In the first room I stumbled on a hole in the floor. Splinters brushed my skin. I punched the wall. In the next room my knee bumped against something solid. My hand sloped down a cool porcelain wall and settled on a metal valve. I tried turning it, but it wouldn’t move. None of the light switches worked. I kept moving to the kitchen and tried the faucet in there; it spun loosely, emitting nothing. My foot stubbed against something, a set of stairs. I followed them up slowly, keeping my hand on the wall. The steps were narrow, each one a different height. The darkness was so thick that someone could’ve been standing in front of me and I wouldn’t have known. I kept knocking on the wall in front of me as I climbed. With each step I felt the ghosts sloughing off me.
I reached the top of the stairs and stopped for a moment. If I stood still, I felt like I was floating. I held my broken arm against my chest. I touched my torn ear. My pain seemed diminished in the dark. Less real.
I moved along the wall and entered another room. Hard paper stuck out from the wall in tattered curls. I felt my way over to a window. It was still whole. I kept going until my hand jammed against flat wood, which moved a little. I made a fist, knocked on it, then pushed it—a door swung away from the wall. I moved around it into a new room. I touched my leg. My skin had rolled all the way up to the top of the rip and ended in a small bundle just below my knee. My finger came away slick. I licked it. My tongue loosened a little.
Through my bare feet I felt the vibration of something scrape along the floor ahead of me. I stopped and caught a smell of baked hair. Something was right in front of me. I blinked. My blinks made gray marks on the black air. I waited and took even smaller breaths.
I took a step. Another step. The thing pattered on small feet along the floor. Whatever it was had waited for me to move too. I shouted at it.
Part of me thought it was a dog. Maybe one I’d fought before. I made myself small and huddled by the wall and waited.
Whatever it was didn’t move again. I moved further into the room and sensed nothing near me.
The air felt looser. The window in the corner was broken. Something soft greeted my feet. The edge of a rug or blanket. I picked it up and, as soon as I felt how soft and heavy it was, I was tired.
I sat against the wall and pulled the covering up over my legs. Dust rose into my face; I coughed and rubbed my eyes. My head swayed—I’d never been on the second floor of a house before.
The thing pattered again. I searched my imagination for something that might match those small feet, tried to give it shape, but it remained a loose form in the darkness.
I pulled the soft covering tight around me, covering my legs and feet so the thing couldn’t bite me.
I knocked on the floor. Shouted. Waited for the thing to move again.
The last of the ghosts slid away, and I fell asleep.
ACHING FOR DIRT
Two people carried me through a long white hallway. Maybe three people. The air smelled like it was trying to hide other smells. Made me sick. They sat me up in a white bed. The walls were white. Everyone wore white. Their gloves were white. Even the lights were white. They all stared at me. Tried to talk to me. They showed me words on a piece of paper and pointed at my ear, my arm, my leg. I yelled at them. I didn’t like that they were talking about me. I pointed to my mouth. My hunger clawed at my belly. They touched my shoulder, and I pulled away from them. They reached out for me. I punched a woman in the face and tried to run. Many people grabbed me. I elbowed a man in the chin and kicked another in the ribs. Someone stuck a needle into my arm, and I felt some of that floating feeling from when I last drank the red drink.
When I woke up, I was lying beneath a large machine that lowered from the ceiling. Wires looped out of it like stray veins. It narrowed into a large unblinking glass eye. My broken arm was laid out flat on a table beneath the eye. The tape and the stick were gone, but pink marks lined my arm where they used to be. Two men stood near the wall. I pulled my arm away and tried to run for the door. One of the men grabbed me and hauled me down and sat on my back while the other stuck another needle into my arm.
When I woke up again, I lay in a room by myself. My arm was wrapped in something like warm hardened snow—I tried to rap my knuckles against it, but my good hand was bound to the bed with a brown leather strap. I jerked on it. My leg was bandaged. My skin had been washed. I leaned forward just enough to feel my torn ear—it’d been sewn shut. My clothes were gone, and I was wearing a white shirt with no back.
A woman in white came through the door. I pulled on my leather bonds. She held a tray full of food and picked up a plastic fork.
I stopped pulling. I grabbed the food and started eating. Fast. Spilling food on myself, leaning forward and straining against the strap. White meat. Watery potatoes. Grey-green salad. Cookies that crumbled as soon as I tore open the package. A yellow apple that I ate whole, seeds and all. I banged on the tray. I wanted more.
The woman offered me a glass of water. I drank it. She picked up the plastic pitcher to pour me another drink. I strained against my bonds and opened and closed my hand. She gave me the pitcher of water, and I drank it all. She put her hand on my shoulder. Her soft mouth gently opened and closed, forming shapes, forming words. Her teeth were straight and white.
I finished the water and dropped the pitcher on the floor. I sat in my bed shaking. I pulled on my bonds again and made a noise and looked at her. She looked at me like she didn’t know what to do. She picked up the pitcher and the tray and walked away.
The floor glinted. The blanket was stiff and fresh. Everyone who passed in the hallway wore perfect white clothes. Their shoes made no tracks. The cleanliness disturbed me. I had lived my life in filth, wearing old clothes either too big or too small, sleeping on a stained mattress with my piss and shit festering in a bucket in the corner. I didn’t belong in such a clean place. My skin ached for dirt.
Everything swam together in my belly. The meat knocking into the lettuce. Apple seeds floating in the water. My stomach lurched hard. I tried to clench my body, clamp myself shut, but I threw up over the side of the bed. Chunks of yellow apple and gray lettuce spread on the floor. I stared at them. I grew hungry again.
The same woman who’d brought me the food passed in the hallway and saw the puddle. Her face tightened. I pointed to my mouth. She nodded, waved at me, and began cleaning up the puddle. I had to piss, but I didn’t see a bucket. I made a noise and pointed at my thing between my legs. The woman shook her head and walked out of the room. I yelled. Other people passed in the hallway, but no one listened.
I pulled away my white shirt and pissed over the side of the bed right where the vomit had been.
The same woman came back. Her mouth shaped hard words: Jeezusriest. She picked up a metal bowl, dropped it on my legs, and jabbed her finger at the bowl. Then she cleaned up my piss from the floor.
At night, the hallway outside my room darkened. Everyone moved slower. I yelled if they passed my room and didn’t come back right away. I couldn’t stand it when they left my sight.
I didn’t sleep. I kept thinking my father would show up. I wanted to ask about my mother. The shape of her face, framed by wispy hair, filled my head, but I couldn’t remember the details of her face. It was like her face was made of mud and someone had wiped her eyes and nose and mouth away. I had to see her. Had to fill that shape with details.
I slipped off the side and lowered my feet to the cold floor and stood up straight. My arm twisted. The leather strap held me in place. I pulled. The silver bed rail didn’t move. I planted my foot on the edge of the bed and hauled on my bonds. The rail gave a little, slowly separating like a loosening tooth. I took a breath, then pulled again. The rail tilted toward me. A shadow moved at the edge of my eye—someone from the hall coming toward me. I planted my foot and put all my strength into hauling again.
The rail snapped, and I stumbled back against the wall, sending the rail whipping into the person’s face. They fell down. I ran past them out into the hall, dragging the rail with me.
Two men coming up the hall grabbed for me. I dodged them. People lying in rooms and sitting in chairs watched me run. I pushed through a door into a hallway with many other doors. I ran straight. A woman walking down the hallway saw me and hesitated. I held up the rail like I would hit her, and she stepped back out of my way. I felt air on my ass. I ran hard and shoved through another door.
The air smelled fresher. One of the doors had a window looking out onto a darkened sidewalk. I headed for it, but someone tackled me from behind. I landed on top of the rail. A few other people landed on top of me. I couldn’t move. I felt a small sting in my ass.
When I woke up, I was in a new bed in a new room with a window that had white bars on it. Both my legs and my wrist were bound. I couldn’t move. My ear itched.
A woman spooned food into my mouth each day. If I yelled or jerked against my bonds, they injected me. I pissed in my sleep once or twice, and they had to change my sheets. Two large men held me while another man put fresh sheets on my bed. They put a metal bowl under my ass, and it was hard to get comfortable. People in white coats pointed at me. Talked about me. Talked at me. Showed me pieces of paper covered in black writing like neat lines of ant corpses. Stared at me like I was an animal. I slept all the time. Woke up with welts on my good arm from trying to fight in my sleep while the strap dug into my skin. Red lights flashed on the wall at nighttime. They were the only real color I saw.
One time, the woman who fed me put down the spoon and took out a pen. She drew something on the white substance wrapped around my broken arm. She took her time. Drew long loops and tight curls. Filled in the spaces with blue ink. She kept stopping and sitting up straight to look at it. Watching her calmed me.
When she finished, she nodded her head and put her pen down. I turned my arm over and studied the drawing. Circles within a circle. All of them full of arrows and swirls. I’m not sure what it was, but it was beautiful. The lines all came together in unexpected ways. She had filled in all the right spaces. She smiled. I smiled back. She picked up her pen and wrote something at the bottom of the drawing. I cried out. She’d ruined it. I turned my face away when she tried to feed me again. She left my room angry. I searched for her pen so I could draw something—a monster, maybe, like I had in my father’s basement—but she had taken it with her.
One day, three men came in. One wore a white coat and held a needle. The other two held me still while he injected me in the arm. Then they tried to shove someone else’s shoes onto my feet, but they were too small.
They tossed the shoes aside and undid my bonds. I tried to keep my eyes open. They put me in a seat with wheels on both sides and steered me into the hallway. I think people watched me—all I saw was shadows crowded together.
A door opened, and light fell onto me. I smelled cold water and cigarette smoke. A white van stood in front of me with its back door open. The whole back of the van was a cage. I tried to stand, but I could hardly move. The men lifted me out of the chair, sat me in the back of the van, and strapped me to the wall. The back of the van smelled like armpits.
The cage was blue and spread across all the windows, darkening the van. I squinted to see through the bars. The trees outside looked trapped.
The man in the white coat and the other two men who’d brought me outside walked back into the building. It was light brown on the outside and had many small windows. Now that I saw it, I didn’t want to leave. I wanted to peer out each of those windows, see the world from their views, wander in and out of the rooms on my own like I had back at the empty house.
I’d explored every room of that house, searching for food and water, fingers probing the walls, pulling back paper and splintered panels. I’d tried eating leaves off the tree in the back. They were bitter and I spat them out. I thought about leaving but wasn’t ready to give up my safety.
One day—I’m not sure how long I’d been there—I saw someone digging a hole in the field in front of the house. I stepped out the front door and shouted and waved at them. The person turned toward me. It was my father. His face and clothes were soaked in blood. He pointed at me, and his eyes flashed through the blood and his teeth gleamed through his beard, and I ducked back inside and ran upstairs, staying away from the windows. I picked up a long piece of wood and hunkered down in the corner of the room I slept in and waited for him to come. Something shifted behind me. I yelled and swung the wood into the wall. Someone had been there, hiding in the wall, breathing onto me. I crouched in the corner by the door, gripping the wood.
The house darkened. I peered out the window toward the field and saw no one. I put down the wood and tugged the mattress I’d found up onto the metal skeleton. Then I pulled the blanket around myself. My good arm ached from the work. I lay on my side, hugging my tightened stomach.
As it got darker, my hunger hardened. I hit myself in the belly to try and silence it. The fist in my stomach kept clawing for food. I wished for a sandwich, a banana, a bite of apple. All my food had been brought to me. Now there was no one to bring me food, and I didn’t know where to find it and didn’t want to leave the house.
Darkness curdled, black and dense. I strained my eyes but couldn’t focus. I couldn’t even see my hand in front of my face. I bit down on my knuckles to fend off my hunger, but the ache scratched in my belly.
White lights swung onto the wall. Steady and thick, not flashes. I ducked beneath the blanket and watched the door through a small scratchy hole. My nerves branched out, scanning the air for changes, footsteps, breaths, like I was part of the house.
The lights fixed on the far wall. The long piece of wood was lying on the floor across the room, and I crawled out from under the blanket to go pick it up. I waited for someone to come and point a gun at me or scream at me and shove me down the steps. I took small breaths to hide myself. The lights never changed. I slowly pushed up off the floor and backed up against the wall.
From where I stood, the back end of a truck was visible from the window. Red lights glowed then went dark. Slowly, I crept closer to the window. I still couldn’t see who was in the truck, but it might be one of my father’s men. The truck’s front lights were focused on the house. I tensed, ready to fight.
Both truck doors opened at once, and a woman and a man stepped out. They were young, not much older than me. The woman carried a small bag with a strap hanging from her shoulder. My mom used to carry one like it. They came together in front of the lights and hugged. They smiled, said soft words, then pressed their mouths together. I hadn’t seen anyone do that since I saw it on my mother’s TV.
Should I show myself? What if they knew my father? They might know someone who knows my father. They might hurt me. But they were young. They might help me. They might have food.
I made a sound. The man went still. He glanced around. The woman pressed her mouth to his cheek. I edged closer to the window and made another sound. The woman’s shoulders jolted. They both stared up at the house. I stepped fully into the window frame and waved down at them, making more sounds. The man pointed up at me. Wuhdefugg, the woman said. They ran back into the truck and got inside.
The truck backed away from the house. I yelled at them and ran out of the room and down the hall. The lights from the truck scraped along the walls. I stumbled down the stairs, my toe catching on a board. I burst out the front door, my hunger pushing me onward. The tires kicked up dirt and the truck almost drove into the field before it turned sharply and sped away down the path. I ran after it, waving my hand and choking on dust. The truck veered one way, then another, then straightened and sped on. My breath snagged in my chest. My eyes filled with water. The back end of the truck got smaller. Soon all I could see were its red lights, like two glowing eyes in the darkness. The lights turned onto a new road and slid softly across the prairie, then they disappeared.
I stood there breathing hard, focused on the point where the lights disappeared into the fields. Bugs landed on my arms and neck. I swatted them away.
I wiped my eyes. Looked back toward the house—a hard black shape in the shadows. The same black as the hole my father wanted to put me in.
My stomach had hardened into a shell. I limped down the path. I felt the rocks and weeds more now than when I had been running over them. The bugs kept coming, but I’d grown tired of swatting them away. My arms and legs and neck itched.
The moon was a small white dent in the sky, offering no light. The fur on the ground grew claws in the dark. I focused on the path. The more I walked, the less real I felt. Not dead. Just empty. Though it was too dark to tell, I was sure my feet left no prints in the dirt. Like I’d never existed. I kept squeezing my broken arm, reigniting the pain. It reminded me that I was there taking up space. So did the tear in my ear and the empty fist in my stomach. The last time I’d walked so freely, I’d been much younger. I’d seen so little of the world, and the world had seen so little of me. Even in this wide-open place where anything and anyone could be seen from a long way away, no one knew me. No one wanted me.
Something scampered across the path in front of me, snapping the solidity of the darkness. I walked faster. Whatever it was made me think that more living beings may lie ahead.
I came to a gravel road and turned left. When I came to another road made of concrete, I turned right.
Lights arose behind me. I turned and waved at the oncoming car. It passed me. I followed it. Another car passed. White signs with black words and numbers rose from the side of the road. I walked fast to beat the cold out of myself.
An orange glow emerged. I started jogging, and soon small buildings began blooming up from the earth. Houses planted in rows. Orange lights at the top of tall poles. Behind me, the edge of the sky was blue. I shouted. There was no one around. I sank to my knees. I thought I should go to one of the houses and knock on the door.
I lay in the dirt, staring up at one of the tall lights. I shut my eyes and breathed deep, my eyelids a comforting red.
Two different men walked around the van and sat in the front. Both had mustaches. One of them drove while the other read a book. Neither of them looked at me.
As the van turned a corner, I rocked against the cage wall. My hair kept swinging into my eyes, and I kept pushing it aside.
We drove past more buildings and houses and people walking freely. I hadn’t seen so many people before. They looked unreal, like puppets. I felt like I could reach out and knock them over with my finger.
The buildings and houses and people soon fell away and the prairie began to roll past us. Flatlands, brown and scruffy like the chest of a dead dog. The sky flat and gray. I kept seeing flashes of my father’s house. The basement. The hose. The cage. Felt the breath of the ghosts on my face.
I strained to lift my hand and knocked meekly on the blue cage wall. Neither of the men responded. I lifted my foot and dropped it on the floor. The man reading a book swung his fist backwards and pounded on the cage without looking up.
Outside the window, the ground was moving too fast. Every ridge and pebble and bump in the road rattled up through my body. I became sick and vomited. The toast and juice I’d eaten that day spilled onto the floor and gathered in the narrow runnels in the van’s floor.
That woke me up a little. I kicked at the cage, rapped against the windows. The man shut his book and turned to me and pounded on the blue wire of the cage again. His face was red. His fist was thick—the wire trembled when he hit it. I made noises that I hoped asked why he was doing this and told him that I didn’t deserve this and wanted out. The men held their hands to their noses as the vomit sloshed along the floor.
The van curled onto a thin dirt road. On both sides, skinny trees chopped up the sky. White clouds heaved up from behind a building at the end of the road. Red brick. Small windows on three levels. Wide doors that looked hungry. As we got closer, the building widened out and seemed more like many buildings spread out and stuck together. I battered the cage. Split my knuckle open on the wire. I kept punching. Both men shook their heads, and their mouths and teeth formed hard shapes.
The van stopped. My vomit washed past the wire into the front. The men quickly stepped outside. Couldn’t get out fast enough.
They jerked the back door open, and I swung at them. Behind them, a path rolled out from the building doors like a concrete tongue. A woman with black curly hair and a blue shirt stood by the doors talking to a man in a white coat and glasses. She was wiping her wet eyes and jabbing her finger at the building. The man in the white coat smoothed back his thin white hair and nodded, holding up his hands like he didn’t want to listen to her. She bent forward and hurled her voice at the building, her cheeks blooming red. Blue lines jumped out of her neck. The man pushed his glasses further up his nose and showed his teeth in more of a growl than a smile and pointed the woman away. The woman’s eyes stretched so wide I thought they’d drop out of her head.
One of the men grabbed my arm and held me tight while the other removed the straps and seized my legs. The men carried me toward the doors. I tried to kick free and hit them with my hardened left arm. A few people looked down on me from the windows above. I called to the woman by the doors. Her hard eyes quickly melted, and she started toward me with her hands spread open, but the man in the suit stood in her way.
When we reached the doors, the man carrying my legs dropped them—my heels smacked on the cement. He pushed a button on the wall, and I peered back at the woman. She was still fighting with the man in the white coat. Still staring at me. Still reaching for me with her long pink fingers.
Above the doors was a sign full of carved words, old fashioned and jagged, like they’d draw blood if you ran your finger across them. The doors themselves were also carved, showing people with smiles like hooks and flat eyes that stared out at the prairie. Their hands reached out and grasped for colorless flowers. The carvings were stained with dirt and slashed and dented all over.
One of the doors opened. I smelled dust. A small woman wearing green stood there. One of the men gave her a piece of paper. She studied me. Spoke to the men. Shook her head at me.
Behind us, the man in the white coat was trying to push the woman with black curly hair away from the door. Whatever feelings she’d been hurling at the building were now focused on me. For some reason, her fury was beautiful.
The woman in green stepped aside, and the men carried me in. The woman with the black curly hair and I reached for each other, straining until the closing door cut us off.
Two sets of stairs—one on the right, one on the left—led up to the next level. A man with a beard was sweeping them with a broom. The two sets came together on the second level, and on the ground floor between them was a wall bearing an enormous painting. Not in a frame—the wall itself was the painting. A golden field lined the bottom of the painting, and the rest of the wall was blue sky and clouds. A round orange sun peered out of the top corner like it was shy.
The woman opened another door onto a hallway seething with people. They all turned their heads—their eyes gripped onto me like mosquitoes. Some had white hair and cracked skin. Some had dark hair and oily skin. A few wore suits. Others wore pants with strings hanging from them. A few smiled and spoke.
The men shoved me into a small empty room with pink walls, and the woman pulled the door closed. I turned the doorknob, but it spun without catching.
In the corner was a small window crisscrossed with metal bars. It inhaled dull gray light that made the pink walls look like rotted meat. Outside, I saw a square yard covered in yellowed fur instead of green, with a narrow dirt plot and a small spot of concrete with a metal circle standing atop a pole. A young man was trying to throw a ball into the metal circle. The red brick walls of the building rose on all four sides of the yard. In the dirt plot, a few people were digging small holes and setting plants into them.
I moved to another corner of the room. The pink walls made me want to vomit, but I had nothing left in my stomach. I pictured the people in the hallway crowding outside the room and had a feeling that I’d have to fight them all. This building was another cage, and I’d have to show my strength to stay alive.
The door opened, and the man in the white coat and the woman in green and the two men who drove me all came in together. The two men reached for me, but I swung at one of them with my broken arm. He ducked and tackled me, pushing me into the wall. The other one grabbed my good arm.
The man in the coat held a needle. I yelled. My arm had become bruised for all the previous jabs. His glasses made his eyes look empty. I jumped up and kicked at him, but I missed. I cried. I was so tired.
Copyright © 2023 Adam Pottle