A new short story by James Wise.
No one knew why, a change in ocean currents off the distant coast perhaps, but the plateau had turned to desert. Where once were grassy plains, flower-cast meadows and rich farmland, now only were roaming dunes, white-gold sands and jagged rocks stripped bare of precious soil. Even the green playing fields surrounding the school had turned to dry, hard scrubland, before being overrun by the sands. Parents could no longer make the journey inland to deposit and withdraw their children as the terms passed by. The hard, grey-blue granite blocks the school was built from and the prominent outcrop it stood on meant it made for an excellent jail, however, and the encroaching desert only added to its effectiveness.
The prisoner convoys would trundle along old tracks, where once proud parents passed in their automobiles, with tan and leather trunks strapped to the boot and a lone child in the back. Chains around wooden wheels coped much better, now, with the unforgiving terrain. The marshals, sat atop their horses, handkerchiefs tied around their faces scanned the horizon for the dark, sand defying walls.
When the jailor heard the iron knocker clanging on the gates, he would go down to the courtyard to let the marshals in, usually two of them, and their convoy of rough wooden carts. They would dismount and dust down their green uniforms, clouds of dirt and sand falling in drifts on the flagstones. The jailor would offer them water, take the roster, accept payment (the weight of each leather purse dependent on the severity of the inmate’s crime) and lead the marshals to their quarters for the night. If it was very late, the jailor would leave the new arrivals in the carts until the next day, for fear of waking and disturbing the inmates, who would bang their tin cups on the bars and shout and wail. While the jailor was quite used to this, he didn’t want any disturbance to the marshals’ peace or any reason for them to doubt the orderliness or discipline of his jail.
When all was done, prisoners processed or not, the jailor would retire to his chambers. He used to occupy the Headmaster’s apartments in the early days, but even that had been given over to cells; the walls ripped out and bars installed. The jailor occupied a small cell now; a converted classroom, but distinct from the inmates’, with the doors rolled back to let in the dry air. He would sit at his desk, trim a candle and write in a ledger by its tear of light. He stopped periodically to dip his pen into the inkwell and blow on the page to dry the latest entries. There were only a few pages left before the ledger would be full. Leafing back to the earlier years, when his jail was just getting going, the inventory was almost empty, a frustrating irony and waste of paper, but there was no possible way he could make entries earlier in time.
The jailor sat back in his wooden chair and stroked his wiry beard. Many of the new prisoners the marshals were bringing him were only in for petty crimes and misdemeanours; while the jailor could always throw more into General Population, it was nearly full to bursting and only a matter of time before they rioted.
He closed the ledger and put it on the shelf above his desk. As he smothered the candle and turned in, he knew he’d have to step up the parole hearings. He rolled over, pressed his hand to the cold stone wall and felt the rhythm of his pulse as he drifted off.
He thought it worthwhile to have a hearing while the marshals were still there, so they could witness the proceedings and see rehabilitation was as much part of the jail’s purpose as incarceration. Although the marshals themselves might be ambivalent, he knew word would get back to their superiors, perhaps even the Governor, and so much of the jail’s success relied on word of mouth.
After seating the marshals in the parole chamber, which had once been the teachers’ common room, and serving them hot maté which they shared quite happily from a silver and gourd calabash, the jailor went to fetch the first parolee.
General Population was in the old swimming pool. Drained of water, its low, solid walls meant it needed less cage to cover it over and still give the prisoners room to stand. A metal sheet ran down the centre and separated the men from the women. The inmates, dressed in fraying sackcloth, paced, sat and rocked themselves on cracked and yellowed tiles.
The jailor shoved a vat of cold soup through a low hatch in the cage and watched as the inmates dashed in; dipping their cups into the vats and scraping out as much of the thin, grey liquid out as they could.
The prisoners were too busy feeding to pay the jailor much attention, but as he stepped up to the gate, a squat man with desperate eyes grabbed his trouser leg and yelled obscenities at him, ‘You slimy chupa pico! You fat hijo de puta! You eat okay, no?’
The jailor took out his baton and beat the man’s forearm and wrist, until he let go, clasping his arm and muttering curses. ‘Watch it,’ the jailor shouted, ‘or you’ll earn everyone a hosing down.’ As the other prisoners subdued the man and scolded him for upsetting the jailor, he called the parolee to the gate. ‘Step forward,’ the jailor commanded.
The parolee, bowing slightly to avoid hitting his head on the bars above, pushed his way past the other prisoners and put his hands through the slot.
The jailor manacled his wrists, unlocked the gate and led his prisoner to the parole chamber. The marshals stood when he entered. He seated the parolee in a single chair in the centre of the room and chained his manacles to the armrests. Then the jailor sat at a large desk and rifled through some papers. After finding the relevant document, he looked up and announced, ‘Luís Molina. Theft of bread. Repeat offender.’ He sighed, ‘the worst thing… the absolute worst thing, Luís, is that I trusted you. You showed genuine remorse, or so I thought, but in no time at all do I find you back in the marshals’ convoy.’ He looked at the marshals, who nodded sagely.
‘Haven’t you anything to say?’
‘I’m sorry?’ he hazarded.
The jailor picked up his gavel and turned it over and over in his hands. ‘The thing is, Luís, I’ve come to a realisation. Trust is not enough to gauge remorse. Neither, it seems, is my instinct or intuition. I can’t have my good faith abused like this, people are doubting my judgment.’ Turning to one of the marshals he said, ‘would you be so good as to fetch Vidal please.’
The marshal stood and left the room. He returned with a black and tan shaggy sheepdog, who wagged his tail when he saw the jailor and sat by his desk. The jailor patted his head and scratched his ears.
‘Vidal,’ the jailor said, taking a paper bag out of a draw, extracting a treat and feeding it to the dog, ‘has been on loan to the magistrates in the city. He has a remarkable talent. Can you guess what it is?’
Luís eyed the dog. Shook his head.
The jailor stood up, took Vidal’s lead and walked over to Luís. He sat the dog in front of him, leant in and whispered in his ear, ‘he can smell if you’re lying.’ He straightened up. Looked Luís in the eye. ‘Now, let’s try again shall we? Stay!’ He went back to his desk, sat down and picked up the gavel. ‘Luís Molina, have you learnt your lesson and do you promise to return to society a reformed character, never to steal or commit any other crime again?’
Luís swallowed. ‘Sir, on my honour, yes, I’m truly sorry. Please don’t send me back to the pit—’
‘Apologies, I mean General Population, sir. Please, please let me return to my poor mother in the city. I will find work as a fisherman.’
Luís looked hopeful.
The jailor banged his gavel on the sounding block. ‘A bark means you’re lying. Parole denied.’
Luís’ face fell. ‘Wait, what does he do if I’m telling the truth?’
‘He whines,’ the jailor said. ‘It’s only happened once and the inmate in question… well, she’s living a free life now. You should take note.’
‘Estúpido de mierda!’ Luís swore, ‘You filthy, rotten concha!’
After the marshals had departed, the Jailor returned to his cell with Vidal by his side. He picked up the hoop of iron keys, hefted it onto his belt alongside his baton and slung a bag onto his shoulder.
He walked down the corridor, past other classrooms turned over to cells like his, where all was quiet (or at least it was while he passed by with his keys clanking), except for Old Kata, who yelled through her bars, ”ere comes the Screw, doin’ his rounds.’
At the end, he unlocked a heavy, rusty door with El Sótano still stencilled on it and descended a spiral stone staircase, Vidal bounding ahead. The stairs opened onto a long, low arched space supported by a forest of stone columns. Down each side, rows of store rooms had been converted to cells, a cast iron door set into each.
The jailor stopped at the first cell on the left and bought Vidal to heel. He examined the keys on his hoop, checking the bitings for tell-tale patterns which he could match to each door by sight. Selecting one with a shape like a capital “I”, he inserted it into the lock and turned it clockwise. He swung the door inwards. A grey haired man was sat at a table in the centre of the room, nursing his right hand. On the table was a wooden box with a brass winding handle.
‘Let’s see how you got on then,’ said the jailor, crossing over to the table and examining the box. On one side was a counter, like an odometer from an automobile. It read “10515”.
The jailor raised his eyebrows. ‘That’s a revolution every three seconds or so.’ He smiled at the man and sat opposite him, putting his elbows on the table.
Vidal sat by the prisoner.
The man looked from the dog to the jailor, hope in his eyes.
‘So, do you have anything you want to say to me?’ asked the jailor.
‘That’s five hundred and fifteen over target,’ the man said.
The man shook his head.
The jailor reached across the table and tightened a screw on the top of the box. Then he pressed a button on the side, which reset the counter to “00000”.
The man sank in his chair.
‘Tomorrow, eleven thousand.’
‘Impossible!’ said the man, ‘and my hand…’
‘Twelve thousand,’ said the jailor, ‘left handed.’
In the next cell a woman sat at a large desk against the far wall, her back to the door. Piles of paper were stacked to one side and she was hunched over, writing furiously. Fair hair escaped from her bun and fell in clumps down her back.
The jailor approached and leant on the wall next to her. Vidal sniffed around the corners of the cell.
‘Almost done,’ the woman said without looking up.
‘What’s this one about?’ the jailor asked.
‘I said I’m almost done,’ she scratched the paper harder as she wrote.
The jailor unpacked a pewter inkwell and some dip-pens from his bag and put them on the desk.
She finished writing, stacked the papers, handed them to the jailor and sat back in her chair, as though out of breath from climbing many flights of stairs. ‘It’s about a dung beetle,’ she said eventually, ‘told from his point of view. He lives in the forests of Hunan. One night, when the moon is full, he is lured – along with all the other beetles – by the stench of rotten flesh. The beetle and his brethren tumble in and are trapped by the huge, stinking corpse flower. The beetle, naturally, thinks he’s done for and we see him reflect on his life. Then, at a quarter past midnight it rains pollen. Great yellow clumps of it fall on their black, chitinous bodies; so much so they start worrying they might drown in it. Finally, the pollen-fall ceases and the beetles are released.’
‘Interesting,’ said the jailor, ‘I’m sure they’ll love it.’
‘Any word?’ She asked.
‘The marshals didn’t say anything,’ he said.
‘What if I told you I don’t really send your manuscripts to the publishers in the city?’
The woman looked up at him with horror.
‘That, in fact, I read each one and then burn it?’
‘You wouldn’t… you can’t,’ the woman’s voice was close to breaking.
‘Tell me,’ he said, ‘tell me what I want to hear.’
‘It wasn’t my fault! I did everything I could, there was no neglect on my part. This sentence, the length of it, it’s a complete joke.’
Vidal growled and then barked at her, barked and barked.
She shrank back from the dog’s bared teeth and flashing jaws.
‘Oh don’t worry, his bark is worse than his bite,’ chuckled the jailor. He put the latest manuscript in his bag and turned to leave. ‘This will keep me entertained tonight. And warm.’
‘Can you remember them?’ she pleaded as he left, ‘can you remember all the stories I’ve written?’
The key to the next cell along looked like a dollar symbol on its side.
‘Ah, Mathias,’ the jailor said, ‘how are we today?’
Mathias, a heavy set man with hairy arms, only grunted a reply. He was sat cross-legged on the flagstones, surrounded by columns of dull coins. In front of him was a small heap, from which he counted more coins and stacked them on top of each other.
The jailor reached into his bag and took out the purses the marshals had given him and poured their contents, one by one, onto the pile in front of Mathias. Then he crouched in front of the man. ‘No richer than yesterday, I see.’
‘Very funny, Che,’ Mathias said.
‘Come now, we could have been rich together.’
‘Me hay visto las weas? I’m in here aren’t I? Isn’t that enough for you?’
‘Maybe we still can be,’ the jailor continued.
Mathias was about to say something else, no doubt involving the jailor’s mother, but stopped, stunned. ‘What are you proposing, Che?’
‘All you have to do is say it.’
Mathias sighed. ‘Che, why do you hound me like this? It was just business.’
Vidal emitted a series of half whines, mixed with low growls in his throat.
‘Interesting!’ said the jailor, ‘I think we’re getting somewhere, but… no. I think you’re sorry you got caught. You’re definitely sorry you ended up in here. Isn’t everyone? But you aren’t the least bit sorry for what you took from me. Why, you’d beat me over the head and take all this money with you if you could.’ The jailor stood up, and kicked columns of coins at Mathias.
‘Concha tu madre!’ Mathias shouted, trying to scramble to his feet but falling backwards.
The jailor stood up and left, Vidal trotting by his side, tail in the air.
The cell after Mathias’ was empty. The jailor sat on its narrow cot for a while, counting the days scratched into the stone.
Another cell was set into the end wall of the cellar. Its door had heavier hinges, reinforced plating and a larger lock. The jailor didn’t have to look through the hoop to find the key, he could tell which was the right one by feeling its size and weight between his fingers.
This cell was larger to accommodate the machinery. A thin man was arched over a contraption, his head upside down facing the door. His beard was so long, it fell up over his face like a scarf; black and ginger streaks resembled the colours of a school soccer team. His arms and legs were chained to wheels either side of the machine, at unusual angles.
‘Jailor! How good to see you, still upside down I see,’ the man said cheerfully.
The jailor walked forward slowly, stood by the machine.
Vidal stayed by the door, growling.
‘So, have you caught him yet? The maricón who did this to me?’ The man asked, light in his eyes.
The jailor gripped a handle on the side of the machine and turned it. Cogs creaked and gears groaned. A wheel turned.
The man screamed, his left leg stretched up and out in a new and interesting way.
‘I’m not here to talk about his crimes, I’m here to talk about yours.’
‘How can I be sorry for something someone else made me?’ The man asked. ‘And what has it made you, eh? It is you, I think, who will be sorry.’
The jailor laughed but there was no humour in it. He turned handles, pulled levers and twisted dials.
Between screams, the man yelled, ‘you’ll be sorry, you’ll be sorry,’ over and over.
Vidal cowered by the door, whining.
The jailor sat with his back to one of the cellar’s central pillars. His heart beat against the stone. He took a length of chorizo from his bag and sliced pieces from it with a paring knife. Occasionally he threw one to Vidal.
Vidal tilted his head to one side.
‘It’s not working is it?’
‘Why are they not sorry? I’ve tried everything.’
The jailor threw him another piece of chorizo.
The cells on the other side of the cavernous space were set against the outside wall of the jail. Up high, they each had a small, barred window like a raised eyebrow between the top of the wall and the ceiling. They mostly let in the desert glare, dry air and occasional sand flies.
The first key’s biting was a circle with a cross through it. Furniture inside the cell was used to demarcate it into separate “rooms”. A row of low cabinets separated a makeshift kitchen from a living room area, where a man was sat on a dog-eared sofa reading. A woman in an apron stooped by a fire on the flagstone floor, stirring something in a pot hung over it.
‘And this,’ the woman said, ‘is why we got divorced.’
‘There goes the old ball and chain again,’ said the man.
Vidal bounded over to the woman, who caught his face in her hands and stroked his ears.
‘Hello boy,’ she said, ‘haven’t seen you in a while.’ She gestured for the jailor to take a seat by the man on the sofa. ‘ I was just brewing up some maté, dear.’
The jailor sat down next to the man, reached into his bag and pulled out the manuscript. ‘Here’s the latest one. It’s about a beetle.’
The man took off his reading glasses and looked at the jailor. ‘Thank you hijo,’ he said. He took the manuscript and put it on a pile of others by the sofa. ‘I quite liked the last one. It would be a fine thing, I think, if we could get a radio in here.’
‘I’m not sure if you’d pick anything up this far from the coast,’ the jailor said, ‘but I’ll see what I can do.’
The woman came over and served the maté in three copper calabashes. ‘So, how are we?’ she asked.
‘I don’t know, the harder I try the more stubborn they are. I’ve tried everything.’
The jailor looked away to hide the tears welling in his eyes.
‘Here,’ she said, putting a bundle wrapped in a cloth in his lap, ‘I made some empanadas. Why not hand them out on your rounds?’
The jailor tried to speak but no words came. The woman took his head in her arms and rocked him gently.
‘There, there,’ she said, ‘it’s for the best.’
A breeze blew through the high window, blowing smoke from the fire around the cell and rustling the pages of the manuscript.
When the jailor emerged, the cellar smelled dank. He felt something he hadn’t in years – a chill in the air. Even Vidal’s breath condensed in a fine mist as he panted.
One cell along, the jailor selected another key with a “U” shape. It wouldn’t turn in the lock at first, he had to wiggle it back and forth until it started to give and finally came unstuck. He shoved at the door, which groaned inwards on rusty hinges.
A shaft of light from the high window fell on a bare table in the middle of the cell. Plates of rotting food lay stacked under it, crawling with sand flies. A thin woman, all skin and bone, sitting at the head of the table was staring at him with wide eyes.
The jailor took a few steps towards her.
She stood up.
He took a few more steps but she backed away, until she was against the grey stone wall.
‘I only wanted to see how you were,’ he said.
She said nothing, just stared.
Vidal let out a low whine.
‘I bought you something.’ He unwrapped an empanada from the cloth bundle and put it on the table.
The woman sank to the floor, put her head in her hands.
‘Come on boy,’ the jailor turned to go, but Vidal wouldn’t move. He sat panting, looking from the woman to the jailor.
‘Look, I tried,’ he said to the dog.
Vidal turned and padded out of through the door.
The jailor couldn’t face the next cell. Outside the last one, back by the stairwell, he stopped and took a deep breath.
The door swung in on a cell painted all around in bright, swirling colours. The east wall was scattered with yellows, hints of wheat fields, hay bales, circles, stars and curving lines. The south wall was a forest of broad, red strokes; suggestions of antlers and eyes peered between the trees. The west wall was black, traces of squares and rectangles perhaps, or maybe it was just outlines of the underlying stones. The north wall, in which the window was set, was white. The apex of triangles emerged in light greys; pyramids or mountain peaks perhaps.
A girl in a green dress stood on a stool, reaching her face up to the window. She jumped down to the floor, yellow curly hair bouncing about her shoulders, a few light raindrops on her face. ‘Can you feel it?’ She asked.
The jailor crossed over to her, took paints and brushes from his bag and put them on the stool.
‘El Niño has returned,’ she said.
The jailor said nothing.
She put her paint-splattered hands on his cheeks. ‘I want you to know,’ she said, ‘I’m in a happy relationship now. We’re getting married and…’ she danced away from him, twirling around barefoot; green dress flying, ‘despite the years you’ve kept me here, I forgive you.’
Vidal, who tried to join in with the dancing but only managed a kind of lolloping lope, whined.
The jailor stared at her, ‘but I’ve never apologised—’
‘It doesn’t matter,’ she danced over and kissed him lightly on the cheek, ‘it doesn’t matter.’
Vidal stopped, sat on his haunches and howled.
She reached into her dress and pulled out a silver key that hung around her neck. She took it off and handed it to the jailor.
The jailor, tears in his eyes, took the hoop of keys from his belt and gave it to her. ‘Take it,’ he managed, ‘I forgive them. Set them all free.’
To the sound of Vidal’s howls, the jailor burst out of the cell and ran to the cellar’s entrance and down the stairwell. At the bottom he fell on the floor, curled up in the foetal position and cried and sobbed and pushed Vidal away when the dog tried to lick his face.
Eventually the jailor sat up and rubbed his eyes with his sleeve. He was in the lower basement, the hole, el hoyo. In front of him a great metal vault was cut into the bedrock. A huge, circular door was set on massive hinges and large bolts connected to a metal wheel in the centre.
The jailor looked down at Vidal, who was sat panting, tongue lolling. ‘It’s time I guess, eh boy?’
The jailer inserted the silver key into the centre of the wheel, made a quarter turn clockwise, then half a turn counter-clockwise and spun the wheel. The bolts slid back to a boom that echoed around the chamber.
Barely anything but shadows and the merest outlines could be seen inside the vault. The jailor lit a torch on the wall. Orange flames licked the darkness and illuminated a body chained to the floor. A little boy. The jailor crossed over to him, knelt down and unlocked his chains, the ones around his wrists and then those around his ankles.
The boy stood, took the jailor’s hand and led him out of the vault, up the stairs and past the cellar where cell doors were standing open. The rest of the jail stood empty too. Rain and wind blew through the bars, scattering papers and blowing tin cups across the floor.
They crossed the courtyard and opened the gates. The desert had bloomed, stretching as far as they could see were millions of pink mallow flowers.
As one, the jailor, the dog and the boy stepped into the light.