What you are about to read is NOT fiction, it is real. This is the ONLY non-poetic piece that I have ever written, it was published in a college English class collection at the demand of one Mr Turner who challenged us all to write about a true life event. My choice, though completely origio\nal among my classmates, was fostered out of a need to relate something of a time that should have been the lowest point of my life.... but turned out to be a high point instead as I encountered internal freedom amidst the external chains & bars of prison. All of this took place over 8 years ago. Everything in here is true & nothing was changed to protect the innocent.... for none of us ARE innocent.
Only one other thing needs brief explanation; My treasure, the thing that I valued above life, as I say in the narrative, was one wallet-sized photograph of my family... the only one I had. It was thrown away by one of the attendant guards because I had had it laminated by a kind Library worker in county Jail. (as I have Always laminated my photos before & since.) Because that is one way some drugs are smuggled through prison... my photo (though drugless...) was tossed into the trash in front of me without care to my feelings. Hours later, & without prompting, one of the inmate attendants came to our holding pen & asked who this picture belonged to.... it was my treasure. I have that crumpled picture still to this day, a sure reminder of Mercy in Hell.
Prison: An experience of Dante's Vision.
It was already a cold dreary January day when they tried to turn off my sunshine. The snow lay clumped on the ground like forgotten piles of dirty cotton, like the stuff of a prison mattress. I cannot recall a time more rife with expectation & fear. Everything I'd ever heard rumored, seen portrayed by Hollywood, or read in cheap novels was about to be proven true or fales, & I was about to gain a front row seat to the movie of "The experience of Hell". "Dante walked here..." was spray painted in the lines of anger on several men's faces.
The months of preparation necessary to appreciate this moment had failed to give me even the slightest inkling as to what I was to feel. Going in bound by chains, hand & foot, chafed wrists & sore ankles, only added to the overall feeling of tension. The humiliation of becoming a number instead of a person. The fear of the completely unknown. Even anxiety about how to respond to the enevitable questions, all served to counterpoint the overall sense of freedom that had replaced what was once my heart. Like Dante, I knew what they refused to tell; the truth.
Sure, dark greys crossed my mind, how could they not? Embedded into every step was the futility of escape; Jim Morrison of the Doors claimed that no one here gets out alive, how true. Yet I knew that what I was doing was right, & that I had promises that I would never be deserted even in the Valley of Death, this brought me comfort. I suppose that one point was driven home over & over, that I was never so far as to be deserted. This was the source of my sunshine, my hope.
Were I a weaker man, as some, I guess that bitterness would have crept in like the rancid poison that it is; spoiling & defiling every positive reminder that as harsh as this reality seemed, even it was merely temporary. It was all as brief as the fog exhaled as breath on a cold January day, like the terror that binds you down for a split second & then is gone. The could never steal my sunshine.
The walls proved to be barren of anything save the years. Try as they may, they could never paint over the stench of men's wasted lives, the men society had put here. Dante was right to say "Abandon hope all ye who enter....." & yet it was this very place that had first brought me hope. I suppose that just as Dante had to climb the very back of the Devil in order to escape the torments of Hell, so too should I be sent to Hell to attain to Heaven. Is there truly any other way?
I remember the lines. Desperate men lined up for one long silent conga of death. No talking was tolerated, & even the quiet whispers were likely to bring wrath. Naked at one point, we went through Auschwitz's famed showers, man after man, lucky to escape the fiery hot acid that spewed forth from the spigots. I burned my scalp later trying merely to rinse away the filth of that place, the water surpassed hot & gave new definition to the word "scalded". Clothes were bartered for, in lines. ID pictures taken, in lines. We were even given a complimentary sack lunch. Let it not be said that Hotel Hell doesn't have a sense of our "needs".
When the lines were over, we were left to our cells. 8 foot by six foot crumbled concrete pockets of misery that were to be our temporary "home". These cells had not seen repair since the Roosevelt era. Windows were useless summer & winter, the glass so thick that one could not see sufficiently through it & the broken panes left that way so as to provide the barest draft necessary to keep the cell frigid. The cold, hard steel of what was to be my toilet & sink echoed the cruel intentions Hell held. Having been issued two blankets in one of the lines, it became mandatory to use both just to keep from freezing. Whoever thinks that Hell is sulfur, brimstone, & fire hasn't experienced it like Dante & I.
Even in the midst of all this hate, I remember an episode of purest love. My one lone possession had been taken from me, "You'll not be needing this here..." & then it was gone. I valued that prize above my life, it was a link to the other world that I was once a part of, & now it was viciously torn from my cold fingers. What could I do??? They were the authority, & I, a mere prisoner to them. I clung to the promise I knew & held my breath & tears.
Much later another lost soul like myself came forward, in his hand the crumpled remains of my treasure. It wasn't much, but it was a reminder that even here in the frozen wastes of Hell, I was watched out for. In my cell that night I cried over that act of kindness; I had not been forsaken. Even here HIS mercy extended, received like the precious jewel that it is.
They really don't have to wake you up on the morrow. Dread tends to steal sleep, & although I had some comfort, & thus some rest, I was still up LONG before I needed to be. As I understand it, this is true of everyone. I used my time to seek out the memory of the face of the ONE I loved. This ONE had been the source of my hope of redemption from this purgatory, & also the author of my promise. To HIM I'd given my most sacred vow; to never despair past hope, to never let the mist of sorrow enshroud me & enclose my heart, & to remember HIS love for me despite the prevailing dark gloom that sorely tempted my heart. Though I did sometimes fail that vow, HE always forgave me.....
Somewhere past what would have normally been dawn they allowed us some respite from our cells. A quick meal, a breif glimpse at other lonely faces & then pressed onward to even newer "homes". Processing through Hell means never knowing where you'll lay your head next. The shifting is meant for disorienting you, even though they call it "orientation". The ID's we'd been photographed for earlier were passed out & thus we lost our real identity. Henceforth I was "B39881", a designation without any meaning; an impersonal way to say "you're unwanted". Hell doesn't want you to be too individual, since personality breeds discontent.
They tried every way imaginable to break us. Many thousands were broken, & yet through terrors present & future, I held my hope. They could never turn off my sunshine. I knew the thing that they wouldn't tell us, the thing they dared not to mention, namely that it was all merely temporary. All men survive, it is of human nature to do so, but very few come through unscathed by the bitterness, hopelessness & pain that Hell fosters. I only have HIM to thank, HIM & HIS promise. "Lo, though I walk THROUGH the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for YOU are with me." & indeed, for Dante & I, HE was.
Copyright 2000 Wayne Shuman