The prisoner is reliant on the givens. He cannot control or alter them even as they change. It is his task to resist by making inferences. Combining inferences, he makes a picture of the world and a reason to believe in living. He seeks within constriction the free expanse of space.
Nightly, they lay him on the smooth white bed.
He wriggles, resisting slightly. "Shhhhhhh. Shhhhhhh."
Strong hands stroke him gently.
He looks up. No matter how often this happens, he does not understand.
Particularly puzzling: they place a ball of soft white cotton in each hand.
They pull the upper sheet to cover him. He is now held down beneath a restraint sheet attached to the mattress, a U-shaped opening for his head.
Hears the hissing of the zipper. He arches his back. Hands press him down. It closes the sheet across him to just below his chin. The smooth fabric stretched against his skin is somehow comforting.
He can barely move.
For a year and a half , every night, as the light dims, they put him thus in this bed.
They smile, say prayers. A cool hand strokes his forehead. They say good night. They say: "We love you."
Lights are turned off. He lies powerless in the dark.
He hears men and woman talking far off. He hears the clatter of china plates, the clink of glassware. Conversation rises and falls, then burst of laughter. Whispered: "Hsssh. Hsssh." There is, even more faintly, the smell of roast meat.
Lying in the bed, he cannot sleep. It is hot, and he is sweaty. Outdoors it is still light. Dusky gold outside the window. In the room, the lavender shadows slowly move up to the ceiling. Their shapes change. He hears the grinding buzz of a lawn-mower, smells the vegetal life of cut grass. As it fills his mind, he floats up onto an expanse of green.
Trial and error. He learns how to turn over. He wriggles it as far as he can to the left side of the opening for his head, then turns his head to the right. His body feels dense and inflexible. He rolls onto his right side while pulling his right shoulder as far as possible behind him, then rolls onto his stomach. He exhales. He will never forget the first time he did this, the feeling that it is possible to accomplish something.
Whether on his back or his stomach, he can move his arms and legs in the plane determined by the mattress. A two-dimensional existence.
Lying on his back he rolls his head back and forth, at first slowly, then with increasing speed, almost violence. This whipping of the head produces an airy floating sensation throughout his body.
He stops. Now he holds his body rigid and completely still. These are the actions available to him.
He begins to feel his body ceasing to exist. It is becoming a porous substance through which light, heat and cold, sound transmit themselves.. Through him the sheets make contact, light from the window touch the pillow, sounds go from inside the house out into the night.
It is still light. He is in bed but has not fallen asleep. He hears someone enter the room and looks up. A black man, sweating with bloodshot eyes stares at him. "Shhhh. Come out of there," a voice whispers. The man staggers against the bed, looks down, puzzled, turns slowly and leaves.
In the early heat of summer, they take him outside. They put him in a crib with screen siding and a wood-framed screen top. Towering white clouds hover far, far above this cage in the deep blue sky.
Outside the window, bright sun falls on the trees. The room is in shadow. The bed has high rails. Holding on, he can stand. He cannot get out. A small, very wrinkled old woman is standing by the bars peering at him. She smiles.
"Look," she says. She holds out a gold bracelet to him. It has a soft glow and many dents.
"Bite it," He doesn't understand.
""You see," and she points at indentations. "This is your older sister's tooth mark, and this one is your father's, and this one, your aunt's, and this your grandfather's. Bite it." She smiles encouragingly.
The bracelet is cool, he puts it in his mouth, looks at the old woman. There is a faint metal taste. She nods and he bites down. It is strangely soft. She takes the bracelet back.
"See," she points at the mark he has made. "This is you."
He dreams he is naked, dancing to music from a little record player. Around him, other naked people, all wearing Halloween masks, are dancing too.
He cannot sleep. They read to him softly. It is a story about a mermaid living happily in the sea. On the far shore, she sees a man and falls in love. She weeps with longing. She finds a sorceress who transforms her fishtail into human legs so she can walk on land. In exchange, the witch demands her tongue and insists every step will be excruciating. The mermaid accepts, and staggering on land, finds herself looking at a wedding where the man she has loved is getting married.
He cannot stop sobbing.
He is penned in the front yard. In the street, a robin's egg blue convertible swerves towards the curb, screeches, stops suddenly. A sudden flash of white light reflected from the chrome bumper. An animal screams. The car has hit the dog they own. They carry the dog to the house. It is writhing, baring its teeth. He is not afraid but they don't want him to see. They lock him in his room.
Later they tell him the dog died.
Months pass. Slowly the world shapes itself around him.
Years pass and he is released. New ensembles of sensations and inferences emerge to encircle him. He begins to realize they have neither evil nor good intentions. He begins to sense in each moment a final and complete absence of meaning.
With this, a new claustrophobia emerges. He whips his head back and forth on the pillow and his body begins to feel light.
Years later, he is traveling alone on a train. It smells of dust and sweat and hair oil. He looks out the window. A florid pink and yellow sunset fills the sky. Next to the tracks, the train is passing through battered tenements. Men are smoking cigarettes on the fire escapes. Women are chatting and hanging up laundry. He feels a vast expanse of unknown lives surrounding him. He feels hidden bonds that keep him from entering the world. Beyond the senses there is a life he cannot reach. He crosses his arms at the wrist, consciously holding his hands as if wearing handcuffs.
About the author:
Douglas Penick was a research associate at the Museum of Modern Art and studied with Tibetan teachers for over 40 years. He wrote the Canadian NFB’s series on the Tibetan Book of the Dead and libretti for two operas: King Gesar and Ashoka’s Dream. He received grants from the Witter Bynner Foundation for Poetry to write three book-length episodes from the Gesar Epic. His short pieces have been published around the world. He has also authored several novels including: A Journey of the North Star and Dreamers and their Shadows.