[ [ [ [ - Build Your Own Prison - ] ] ] ]
By Mike Meginnis and Matthew Baker
mm: You wake on the concrete foundations of what will one day be your cell. You're drenched with sweat: the prison uniform you knitted by hand (dutifully following the pattern of black and white stripes) is too hot for the summer. You wear the uniform because it's what you have, because you'll need to survive the harsh winters, because it is unlikely you will die from the heat but almost certain you will someday die from the cold, even with the heavy uniform. There is a hammer beside you. There are some nails. There is a long saw, designed for two people. There is a bucket. There is a photo of your sweetheart, the only one you could find, where your thumb is on the lens -- it covers her face. To the north, the forest. To the east, the sea. To the west, the quarry. To the south, the tar pits.
mb: Shout "good morning world!" and wait for a response.
mm: Your voice is lost in the forest. Your voice escapes over the sea. Your voice falls into the quarry, where it echoes and re-echoes without ever emerging. Your voice is swallowed by the tar pit. The world is shrugging you off. No one has visited in months. No one has sent you any letters. No one has prayed for you.
mb: Hammer a nail into the world and wait for a response.
mm: The world accepts your nail. Sucks it into the dirt -- makes it vanish.
mb: Thank the world for this kindness. Take the hammer. Gather the nails in the bucket. Head for the forest while reciting the names of various enemies.
mm: The forest is thin at first, fringed with saplings and tall weeds, but it thickens quickly as you walk deeper -- you find trees heavy with ivy, stumps wider than your father's shoulders, with fat mushrooms growing on them. Twigs snap between your feet. There is a small, furry carcass in the leaves, busy with maggots. You do not know what kind of animal it was. Who are your enemies, and how did they wrong you?
mb: Gather the mushrooms in the bucket with the nails.
mm: The mushrooms are soft in your hands, almost like putty. They stick to each other in the bucket.
mb: Thank the world for this kindness. Roll sleeves of the prison uniform to elbows. Roll legs of the prison uniform to knees. Head for the sea while muttering the sweetheart's rhyme.
mm: The maggoty dead thing gets up to follow you as you go. It knows how to place its clever paws between the leaves on the ground and the fallen branches so that it does not make a sound as it walks. You still can't be sure what kind of animal it is, watching you though empty eye sockets. (The eyes, you know, go first.) When you arrive at the beach, you see the sea has grown more shallow still -- has evaporated several inches more, so that the water is far below where you stand, and there is little for the fish, so that they seem to slither over the seabed rather than properly swim. And some of them, the larger ones, protrude -- their dorsal fins, their tails. There are rocks also, of several colors, embedded in the slope of sand that leads to the water, and in the shallows themselves. (These rocks are turquoise, butter yellow, rose.)
mb: Hit the biggest fish with the hammer.
mm: The biggest fish is a long, wide thing, gray-skinned, almost flat, with white fins like lace, barely strong enough to move. The biggest fish dies when you hit it with the hammer: you know it's dead because its eyes become a pair of little Xs. You've seen all this before.
mb: Drag fish onto the sand. Ask maggoty dead thing if it has a name or if it would mind being named Stefan.
mm: The maggoty dead thing would be grateful for a name. For any name. The fish is beginning to change. It is becoming the victim's body. (Your victim's body.) You had thought today might be different, but no; just as it has been since you first came here, what you kill becomes what you have killed. The victim. Its eyes like little Xs. Its hands clenched into knots of hand. Its naked back and ass exposed to the sun. Its toes with sand between them. If you must hide the body then this will take hours. You know that it will. And yet if they come, and they see, what you have done, that you have done it again, they will take your prison away. (Or rather, its foundations, because you are so slow to build.) And then you will have nothing.
mb: Name maggoty dead thing Stefan.
mm: The maggoty dead thing is glad.
mb: Offer victim's body to Stefan. Ask Stefan to eat it. Make Stefan many promises about what will surely come.
mm: Stefan lays his head down on the victim's body. The maggots crawl across his nose and onto the body, and they worm into the skin. The dead, water-logged skin. Some maggots -- the especially smart ones -- head directly for the eyes. Stefan's body is limp and lifeless without them. It is just a pelt. A small, dark slick of fur.
mb: Order maggots to return to Stefan's body.
mm: The maggots will need a reason to do as you say. They have already eaten the best of Stefan's body. And here is this new body: this body with X eyes. This body with soft, waterlogged muscles and skin like cheesecloth. This body already a victim.
mb: Mourn Stefan. Gather the pelt into the bucket with the mushrooms and the nails. Avoid thinking about what can be seen beyond the sea. Head for the quarry while orating on father's misfortunes. Watch, secretly, to see if the victim's body follows.
mm: The victim's body does crawl to see you. (How strange, the way the maggots strain themselves to be near you, as if they know something we don't.) Its eyes are gone now, are shadows in hollows. You stand at the entrance to the quarry, looking on strata of earth -- a hollow like the victim's body's eyes, where clay and limestone were before. The strata are like a stairway where each step is several feet taller than you. At the center of the hollow, some hundred feet below, there are tools for digging. There is a tin lunchbox, closed, on a rock. There is a matching thermos too. You have not seen the men who work the quarry ever. You have not heard them, either. And yet who would leave his lunch if he did not plan to retrieve it?
mb: Examine own body, paying particular attention to hands, feet, and any scars.
mm: Your hands are flawless, apart (of course) from the missing ring finger on the left hand. The skin is also on the verge of cracking, but it hasn't done so yet. Your feet are bare, and thickly callused on their soles and toes. The scars you want are on your knees, from when you fell to kneeling on the glass (the broken Christmas ornaments). And these are as you left them. Pale, thin, and swarming, like worms risen underneath the skin.
mb: Unbutton uniform. Examine chest.
mm: Your chest is fine. If you want a scar here then you'll have to make it. If you want something gone, then you'll have to cut it out. (Self-harm is explicitly prohibited by the warden's rules.) (There is no one here to tell the warden, unless you were to report yourself.) (But you might; you have done it before.)
mb: Shout, "Where are you Warden?" and wait for response.
mm: Your voice echoes in the quarry. The warden is not watching or listening or even thinking of you. The warden is at home, with his family, not thinking of any of his prisoners, not wondering what they are up to, not planning any visits. He believes that he should manage his life, and you should manage yours. And this is why, he explained at the assembly, you must build your own prison: the community must be able to rely on you for that much. If nothing else. (Still, you feel watched, though the victim's body has no means of watching.)
mb: Thank the warden for his wisdom, despite that the warden isn't listening. Re-button uniform. Cheer several times. Leap from strata to strata into the quarry. Drink whatever's in the thermos without examining it or sniffing it or even testing it with the tip of the tongue.
mm: When you regain consciousness, night is fallen. Your head is pounding. The victim's body has come down beside you, but the maggots have eaten everything good, and now squirm in the skin -- the hollowed skin -- and plead silently for help, for food. They should be flies by now but they are not. They are stranded in the body. Your mouth feels dry and bitter from the drink. The air is cool, at least, and pleasantly damp, as if a rain has come and gone while you were sleeping.
mb: Offer the maggots the food from the tin lunchbox.
mm: Inside the tin lunchbox there is a spoiled ham sandwich. There are four chocolate chip cookies, bite-sized. There is a plastic bag full of celery. The maggots make do with the sandwich. The rest is yours if you want it. Your victim's body is like something a steamroller would leave in its wake. There are glow-in-the-dark bones in the strata. Fish bones and lizard bones, people bones. Victims' bodies' bones. All of them an eerie green.
mb: Eat celery. Eat cookies. Using digging tools, dig a grave for the victim's body. Ask maggots if they have ever known happiness.
mm: The maggots enjoyed being Stefan. They miss him. (But they refuse to starve.) The victim's body requires only a very shallow grave. Do you have something to say to your victim?
mb: Toss victim into grave. Tell victim that it is impossible to forget what happened in the hayloft, the coalshed, the mayor's cloakroom. Swear to victim the victim will have vengeance. Bury victim in grave. Offer maggots a ride in the bucket, if the maggots promise they won't eat Stefan's pelt. Make the maggots promise they won't eat the mushrooms either, which are needed for that thing. Search for the mouth of a cave.
mm: You find the cave quickly -- just like the scars on your knees, you knew what you wanted when you started searching, knew where you would end up. The mouth of the cave is like the open mouth of a waiting fish, with stupid eyes on either side. (Holes, that is, in the rock face.) The mouth always seems to be inhaling; it pulls air in, and tugs at your hair and the cuffs of your uniform, and makes the bucket sway on its handle.
mb: Head for the tar pits, through the cave, while singing the nation's anthem.
mm: The national anthem echoes on the cave walls as you pass through it, as you walk deeper in and down, and these echoes build until it seems the whole nation is singing with you, all full of national pride, you can imagine them with their hats removed, their hands on their chests, on their hearts, and the children moving their mouths without making words because they do not know the words, perhaps humming or perhaps not making any sound at all, and you can smell the fireworks, and you can feel the press of national bodies on your skin, and then you are climbing out of the cage, and their voices are falling away, and you have emerged from the tail end of the fish cave, and you are at the tar pits, and it is just you singing, alone, and the sound of your bucket's rusty sway.
mb: Send the maggots to find a corpse that the maggots can inhabit.
mm: They go quietly, without making a fuss about the fact they will not find such a body here, they will not be so lucky again -- they will die on the rocks, and shrivel up, become hard.
mb: Step into tar pits, carrying bucket.
mm: Do you sink to the bottom of the tar?
mb: Sink to ankles in tar pit, which as shallow as the sea, and which, like the sea, has creatures swimming about in it.
mm: Tell me about the creatures. What they are and what they want.
mb: The creatures want what the maggots wanted, want what everything wants, want a body to inhabit. The creatures have Xs for eyes, the creatures whisper with the victim's voice, the creatures whisper with all of the victims' voices, the father's, the sweetheart's, the voice in this body. The creatures knock against these ankles. Watch the creatures as these creatures rise from the tar pit, to stand there, in those bodies, with this body. Inhabit bodies together.
mm: What can you offer them now? What do you have left? (The unfinished foundations. The bucket. Some memories. Some wounds. An empty thermos. A pelt named Stefan. The mushrooms, the hammer, the nails. An anthem. What is in you.)
mb: Offer them your prison. Offer them the prison you will build together. Give each of them the mushroom that will bring wind to their lungs. Make many promises to Stefan about what will surely come. Head with the creatures toward the prison's foundation. Then betray them.
Bio: Matthew Baker translates the interlinked novel The Numberless and translated the randomized novella Kaleidoscope. His own fiction has appeared in American Short Fiction, The Kenyon Review, Ninth Letter, Meridian, and Denver Quarterly, among others.