Forty Years of Prison
“I don’t yearn for freedom. I have forgotten how lights feel like. If only someone could find me an ounce of light, I’d be honoured.” He said.
He was a desperate act, a prisoner of war; rotting in his cubicle cell for almost forty years. Perhaps, he could’ve been the perfect story to resurrect my career. It had been a long time my firm had been paying me for nothing but drinking and gambling. I felt I owed them something if not everything.
The questions I asked about his existence, his feelings and his desires wounded up in a blind alley. His existence was worthless; his feelings didn’t exist. And forty years is a long time for a man to keep his desires alive.
“Forgive me for being uncivil and impolite. Forty years of prison does that to you. You wouldn’t happen to know about the curse of the forgotten Pharaoh, would you?”
He was a man of fortitude; a man of prison; yet his weary old eyes; old enough to be born again, didn’t resemble the eyes of a man who’d impart wisdom. Maybe, his mother had told him about the pharaoh. The dust on the books on his shelf called for him to touch them. Forty years of lying restlessly on the same shelf in the same prison does that to the books.
“Do you ever think about getting out? Start a new life, maybe?” I hopelessly worked to change the subject. I had enough on my mind. The Pharaoh’s curse didn’t seem like the right way to go.
“The Pharaoh was sentenced for a crime he didn’t commit. It took them decades to realize and when he finally ran free, he couldn’t bear the freedom. It was like the love he never wanted. The lights burned him and his soul. And so, his curse has travelled across many centuries to be whispered in the ears of men like me. To answer your question, No! I don’t wish to get out. The curse follows me now.”
“Don’t you have a family or friends?” This ought to break him up, I thought. What better way to break a man and have him spit out his story to satisfy the lust of the people on the greener side of the grass.
“I have a daughter. She’s forty-two now and my wife would be around seventy if she’s alive.”
Not a single drop of sweat on his forehead and no tears or emotions; Common, old man! Give me something!
“Your daughter was two when you were taken as a prisoner?” I scribbled on my pad. I did that, not because I had to write down his misery, but because that is what all fancy journalists did back then.
There was something people might have liked. This had to gain their sympathy. A man separated from his two-year-old; it wouldn’t be entirely ethically incorrect to exploit that.
“Don’t you want to know if your wife is still alive? I am sure you want to meet with your daughter.”
He took a long pause and kept staring agelessly at the bars. Delayed reactions to the stimulus; forty years of prison does that to you. He could’ve been drugged for all I know! I couldn’t help but notice a strange smell in his cubicle.
“My wife used to visit me in here. My god, she was beautiful. I remember telling her that I’d be out soon. I told her that she need not trade her body for money to keep our daughter fed. Not a lot of jobs in my country for women, you see. She’d come every day and wait for me to give her some false hope. Have you ever had to give false hope to someone you love more than your life?”
I kept scribbling in my notepad. That has to be a rhetorical question, I thought.
“Do you fear death, woman?”
Again, a rhetorical question, I thought. Why else would somebody ask someone the most obvious thing?
I was a forty-year-old journalist who had no family and no children. I was divorced and my husband had left me a long time ago; probably, because of my excessive alcohol problems. Yes, I was scared of dying, of dying alone.
“I died every single day I had to live without them. Then one day, she told me that she couldn’t wait anymore. She told me that she loved me, but she had lost hope in the false hope. She married another man and said that it was for our daughter. The man had promised to raise her like his own. I wanted to tell her to wait and that I’d be out soon but then, I had no more false hope to give. I had given up on the thought of leaving these walls. That day, young woman, my fear for death took a stroll down the yard and never came back. Isn’t it amazing how a man can overcome and ignore the idea of death if you take away everything he holds close to his heart?”
“I think so. A man has to love to live.” I could hardly speak. My hands gave up on the scribbling and my mind gave up on the thinking.
“It has been thirty-seven years since I last saw my daughter. She was five then and could barely spell Ethiopia. Do you want to know what she said to me before she left?”
“Ah yes! Please, tell me.”
“ She said, Daddy, can I come in with you? I don’t want to go home. I don’t like the friends mommy brings home every night. They are evil and they don’t talk to me. Some of them even hit mommy.”
Okay, old man! Stop the descent into the abyss. I won’t come along with you. I just wanted a story, a beautiful story.
“Why don’t you just hang yourself and die? What more is left? Why bear all the suffering?”
I realized that what I had just said was heartless and inhuman. But I believed in the things that could lend a man some peace and the best of them all; Death.
“Cowards commit suicide. And I told you, I am not afraid of death. Only a man who fears death would think to embrace it soon, for the possibility of an unexpected death, kills him every moment he lives.”
“What happened then?” I started to scribble again. I knew I had to write something, for without it there would be no line between him and me; without a family and without a respect for death.
“For once, I gave them the right hope. I told her that she’d be just fine with her new father and he won’t be cruel. And then I kissed her a final goodbye. Do you know how much it hurt? Nothing has ever been so painful, not even the next thirty-seven years.”
No more questions, no more emotions. I didn’t want the old man to think that he made me cry because of his misery. I gathered my belongings and headed out without a word.
“Do you think I can get out if you publish my story?” he held my wrist. I resisted, but I couldn’t leave.
“I don’t know. I am just a journalist, not a cop. I cannot promise anything. Let me go.” I tried to sound like a firm, strong woman. Although, I was not.
“Here, take this with you. I’ve had this for thirty-seven years. I don’t think I can hold onto it any longer. And if I die, the guards will just sell it for a corn-dog.”
“A necklace? Why would you give me a necklace?”
“It belonged to Sana, my daughter. She gave it to me when she last visited me. She thought that if the men on the other side of the bars knew how much she loved her daddy, they would let him go.”
“I cannot accept any gifts.” I have never been a fan of jewellery, not the cursed one at least.
“No, you misunderstand me. If you ever find out about my wife or my daughter, give it to them. It will bear relief to aching ears when they know that I have not forgotten about them, yet.”
“And what if I can’t?”
“Then, you may keep it. Consider it as a blessing for talking to an old man. You are like a daughter to me.” He said and resorted to his bed staring at the bars, infinitely.
I gazed at him, and I could see what a man would go through all these years. I could see my own father in the backyard of my house telling me all about the great things in life. I could see the Pharaoh reincarnate in a prison, again.
“Before I leave, I want you to know something.”
He stared at me with blank eyes. No drug can do that to a man but forty years of prison.
“You would’ve been a great father.”
He smiled at me, and then at the walls around him. The books remained untouched for quite a while.
“May the Pharaoh bless you.”
Two years later, I visited his cell again. He wasn’t there anymore. He had decided to take a stroll down the same yard, with death. I gathered his belongings and his books. I’ve never read them, though. Why would a man keep all these books for so long and never read them?
I guess, forty years of prison does that to a man.
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