As I stepped over the threshold of the inner wall, my cracked leather soles grinding on the courtyard's uneven earth, I looked over my shoulder at B-. He nodded and a smile meant to be reassuring crawled across his pulpy face. B- wore his ear-flaps down because the fabric and fur lining of his hat disguised some of his swollen cheeks, scarred red and white with disfiguring acne. A map of the moon, I always said. His eyes were blue and when he nodded he blinked and waved the butt of the rifle. Shooing me away like a stray cat. I looked down at the clay brick step I had just traversed for the last time. The square edges had been worn smooth from barely lifted feet scraping the surface three times a day, in and out, back and forth, from cell to courtyard to cell.
But that wasn't completely accurate. The cell - with a wooden slatted door that let in bats and mice - led to the hall with six other cells, mine at the end of the hall like a prince but with a smaller door so larger animals could get through the gaps. From hall to stairwell which connected a duplicate hall in the other direction, east of ours. The stairwell refracted all the manner of halls and cells from the center of the circular railing like a mirror. Captain always stood at the top of the stairs . . . not the top, but my top, the railing where I set my hand to feel the cool metal more than to guide my descent. There were several floors above me of course, though I had no idea how many, and had not bothered to count in the years I had wandered the courtyard, three times a day, every day. Seventeen years. From the stairwell down the five flights to the cafeteria, through the cafeteria to another hall, this one with the laundry and the doctor's office and the warden's at the top of a short flight of stairs, and finally this threshold. It led to the courtyard.
The courtyard held the gate and the gate held the world.
I didn't completely break the plane of the step. I let my shoe rest on it, let the loose clay grind on my sole, while I looked back at B-.
"I guess this is it," I said. B- made a noise approximating language, and I took it for goodbye. He hitched his rifle up, eyes watery and wavering on my foot on the step, on my face, on the open courtyard where the sun baked everything. Empty now though I'd never seen it empty, even if maybe I'd walked through it once, alone but with guards, seventeen years ago. Summer always cooked the grass to a soft brown dust that stained your toes the color of the clay. We cleaned our feet in the basin in front of the laundry, squeezing soap out of a hardened cloth, careful to pick out the stones that hadn't been rinsed away in the machines. They were from the war and you heard them all night - the only sound - vibrations riding up into your muscles as they rotated in the basement. It was worse on the lower floors. The rinse from the machines poured out into the basin as black water from our filth, stones and broken silverware littering where we formed a line to collect these rags when they were . . . clean. Once, Marble cut his heel.
Marble was the prisoner in the cell on my right. We could talk through the rat gaps underneath the doors. He'd only been inside for eighteen months when we first spoke. This is not a long time. Before that, the first thing I noticed about him was he didn't pick his right foot off the ground when he walked, instead he let it hiss in the dirt as it dragged behind him. We were walking in the courtyard – this courtyard underneath me – the steady shuffle and stomp of our feet had been interrupted by his singing gait, like a cymbal percussed out of time. He had sandy hair and was a foot shorter than the next smallest man, but he was very young, too.
"It was crushed by a cart when I was a boy. Layin' in the weeds by my dad's pond. He was coming with the dung and I'd fallen asleep." He told me, his voice coming like a ghost's from all directions as I lay in my infested cot. He had to come all the way to the door of his cell to be heard, a difficult proposition with his legs in irons, as mine were. If I pressed my eye to the gap between the door and the locking mechanism I saw his jaw moving in moonlight, about a foot from the ground as he leaned on his elbows. There was a knothole in his door where he'd stick his ear if I was the one doing the talking.
"Then he got what was coming." It was his father's murder that put him in.
The courtyard dust singed my throat as I inhaled it's air again, like a thousand-thousand times before, a chemical scour from the tonsils to the back of the tongue to the lungs. I almost spit, but I felt B-'s eyes. No spitting permitted. I put my hand on my bag, a cloth sack they let me take out of the laundry which had not been mine before – everything that had been mine had been ground to this dust at my feet or disintegrated around me. Now I had an extra pair of shoes, a coin purse with two pennies, wool underwear, and my cup. I massaged the bag to find the hard edges of its rim, sharp through years shaping it against the wall. I dug my fingers deeper into the cloth and it tore, the heel of one shoe following my hand as I withdrew. Hard rubber heel. It wasn't there. I'd forgotten my cup.
I didn't panic. I turned to B- again. He stepped out over the threshold into the light of the sun, staring at the sky above the wall, pivoting to capture the whole of it in his vision as it encircled us. I didn't realize it but I'd come three or four steps away from the door, which he had tired of holding open.
"I must get my cup!" I said. The iron crashed against the mortared stone and dust coughed down into the courtyard from around the bricks.
B- laughed, a sound like he was choking on his tongue. His face flushed, his scars becoming maggoty white squirms. You want to go back inside? He said. The door was sealed shut. The ring of keys on B-'s belt slurped against his leg as he waved at the gate with the rifle butt. The cup was lost forever. I couldn't move. The cup had been essential to my survival.
I'd taken it after first meal – it couldn't be called breakfast – one day five or seven years ago, when Captain was bedridden with a fever. The replacements had little interest in collecting dishes from the prisoners since J- had stabbed a guard in the stomach with a spoon. The guard had died after three day bleeding out. However many floors were in-between me and the infirmary on the top of the castle, they were insufficient to muffle his screams. All because of J-. That was why I needed the cup. Him.
J- lived two floors below me. An infamous spree killer who had continued his profession in an amateur capacity once incarcerated. The Captain had locked him in the dungeon once but he pretended to be dead after a week and the lower Warden had fetched two orderlies from the county morgue to dispose of his body. But J- was just waiting for his victims to be delivered. These he strangled, having no implement. So Captain now kept him in a regular cell in our block, wandering free among us, preying like a wide-eyed owl on the field mice that scurryied in terror around him. I reasoned the plan was that one of us would kill him. This is how he became my enemy.
"I saw your new friend." J- stood behind my chair in the rafter room where we ate our second, and last, meal of the day. We called it that because the stone roof had been repaired with huge wooden pillars crossing the space from about halfway up the thirty foot wall to the ceiling, dark stained grain obscuring the sky where the stones had fallen in. "He was alone in the stair yesterday. I could have pushed him and no-one would know."
"Everyone would know it was you." I slurped at the grease in my clay cup. It had a half-egg shape, with the edges uneven as if cracked against a bowl. The grease glistened on the silver almost blue glaze where my lifts met my lips. "Leave him alone."
J- had a plain face, maybe a little paler than the rest of us, with a scar on his left temple where his otherwise bushy black hair had ceased to grow. He leaned over me with his hand on the back of the chair, the scar which never had fully healed oozing pus at the holes around the red thread of the suture.
"You then. All right? I'm kill you next." He was so excited he couldn't form the sentence properly. I began to sharpen the cup that night, holding it in both hands as I lay in my bed, turning it delicately in my fingers until I couldn't feel the clay anymore, until I couldn't feel my arms pushing it against the stone.
The heat of the sun broke open my pores and sweat streamed out of me. B- held out his hand in an offer to carry my bag.
"Get away," I snapped. I worried about Marble for a moment, alone without me to protect him, but I realized: of course he was dead, J- had got him just last month. After he hurt his heel. The other leg was already so useless.
I held my hands to my chest intertwining my fingers to form a bowl that might have held the cup, my heartbeat thumping into the empty space, molding the shape of the thing, the icy slickness on my palms like the cold clay.
Someone had broken a bottle in the laundry. I was in the rafter room with a mop and three fingers of water in a bucket, expected to wash the entirety of the floor with this apparatus, when I heard him scream. It couldn't have been anyone else. His voice had become as familiar to me as my own, perhaps more-so than mine since he was much more effusive. It became the instrument of my memory and thought, like a pencil bound within a book that had rubbed its silvery dust on the page as it traveled in someone's pocket or bag. I heard it; a moan that rose from inaudibility to a blasting tone through the castle, and I thought it was my own. I leaned on the mop to keep from collapsing. The echoes receded, and I thought I'd survived. He screamed again, louder this time, as Reyes, the oldest living prisoner that I knew of, touched the piece of brown glass that jutted from Marble's heel like a fin. I'd dragged my mop with me down to the laundry, unaware of any operation of my legs that brought me to him.
"It's me," I said, coming to his side. The wash water flowed over the cast iron basins and my knees were soaked in moments.
"It hurts!" Blood dripped in a steady stream from his heel, which Reyes held up under one arm to keep it from wallowing in the black water. "Take it out!" Marble reached for his leg and I had to bind his arms over his chest with my hands.
"Don't touch it."
Reyes was already picking at the shard again.
"We have to take him to the kitchen." There was fresh water there; some. It would be essential to keep the wound clean. Infection would kill him faster than J-. He, at least, could not get in through the blood.
The guard on top of the gate stepped into view from behind the yellow bleached wall. He appeared as a round, incandescent blot against the pure undifferentiated white swath of sky and blown out brick behind him. He held the long gun, its barrel leaning on the edge of the balustrade like the neck of a thin insect. The guard on the gate always wore a black cloth as a mask because the wind over the top of the wall carried grit and dust into the atmosphere from the barren bowl below. No-one ever knew which guard was stationed there, never knew with any certainty at least. Every day during exercise they'd played a game. The inmates tried to account for every guard and by eliminating those, determine the identity of the upper guard.
"Saw Potts. He's making round the latrine. Can't be him."
"There's a passage under the wall from the warden's office. I saw S- with him before roll. It must be him today."
"B- is about that wide, don't you think?" I'd said, holding my finger and thumb up to the guard in my vision, squeezing his outline gently. The sight of the rifle trained on me. You could always tell. The afternoon sun peered through the tiny round glass at our slowly circling forms, the beam piercing hot as it was pointed on your forehead. No-one ever fired. The fear of it on your body, ready aimed, was like a wound itself.
"We have a bargain." J- sat in the corner of the courtyard. He picked at the bark on a dead bush, peeling back the black scabs. The gray shoots of wood looked like a bird claw perched on his knee as he fondled the branches. He sat there often because it caught the shade. No guard dared to rouse him and keep him in the line.
"What are you talking about?"
He scratched his face with a piece of the bark, staining his flat pale cheek with a black line.
"One day I'll make you run, and he'll be ready." He pointed at the guard on the wall, the flash of golden light from the scope blinding me for a moment. "They are so impatient to use it, you know."
The guard on top of the gate that morning – now it was almost noon – did not train the gun on him. He let it lean upward into the sky, his elbow propping his chin next to it like a hunter asleep in his blind. I was free to approach the gate. The shadow in the corner wouldn't have covered J-'s lap if he had been waiting for him, caressing his dead bush, promising death. He had the same kind of care for his dismantling of the thing's branches that I had for Marble as we carried him to the kitchen in search of clean water. The cook passed out when we came in, Reyes under one arm and me the other, blood spattering in a delirious tempo.
I'd performed simple surgeries like these before. I already had my cup, tied to a string inside my baggy pants hanging next to my knee. I extracted it.
"God!" Marble cried. "End it!"
"Bring me the water."
Reyes nodded vigorously and brought a bucket from the sink. I dipped the cup in, the glaze merging as it broke the surface, becoming one. I lifted it up quick, a clear trail shining in the air as it poured over his foot, a trail in opposition to the black path that led back to the laundry. His toes were clammy and slick as I firmed his foot in my grip.
"You'll feel this," I said. The wound was cleaned. I sewed it with the remnants of the hidden string.
The gate began to open; I was close enough now. The warden saw me from his office window to my left. Did he raise his hand? Was he saying goodbye? The gate was made of wood and iron; thirteen planks to each of the inward swinging doors, forty-four bolts securing the iron to the planks. Wood and iron that had worn to the same dull, blasted gold color of the dust at my feet. The doors ached at the hinges, rusted orange knuckles the size of my arm, cracking the accumulated shell of the months it had remained closed. The last shipment of inmates had been in March and it was now August. The guards always came and left by the warden's office. That's where visitors came as well. I'd had none. I expected none. The people in here were the only people in the world. The door's edges peeled away at the center as they swung free, worms and insects that had made the rotted core of the wood their home scattering at the exposure to sunlight; this part flesh colored as the varnish had been eaten away by years of infestation.
I passed under the threshold of the wall. A curtain of moisture made my steps slow and heavy. I pushed the rubber heel of the shoe back up through the hole in my bag. I understood there was a cafe two blocks east of the prison where someone who'd fought in the war for the losing side might get a free cup of coffee. Perhaps with a finger of whiskey. The ports were still closed.
A woman stepped from around the corner of the wall. She wore a brown coat, perhaps tan, buttoned with polished wood chips from her ankles to her breasts, where the coat opened on her blossoming scarf, red and green and dark blue silk – ratty at the edges with threads trailing around it, like her colorless hair which should have been gold, wiry under her gray cap. She had a suitcase in front of her, the bottom damp with the moisture from under the wall. Her round Irish cheeks were red with the effort of moving the suitcase. I took the handle from her. She stepped back, opening her mouth in surprise but deciding to say "Hello" at the same time. Her eyes were dark and troubled.
"Olive." Olive had been her sister.
"They said you'd be released at ten. It's eleven thirty."
"I'm sorry. I forgot something . . . I didn't expect anyone to meet me."
Her hand remained on the leather strap of the suitcase, next to mine. It was cold.
"Are you ill?" I touched her fingers. We'd already gone three, four steps away from the gate - which was not fully open yet having to retract completely before it could close again – I counted by the cobblestones, cracks infused with dust, feeling every contour of the ground through the impossibly thin, decomposing leather of my shoes.
Olive shook her head slightly, only enough so I'd notice she'd made some movement. She looked straight-on down the street, her dark, frowning eyes seeing something significant at the intersection. An older woman sitting with a young man at the table of that cafe. The youth stared at us with the same look that Olive had: If we can make it there, we'll survive. A cart had been parked at the opposite corner of that street, selling tomatoes and summer squash. It's horse had been tied to a hydrant as a monumental pile of feces collected it's droppings. I should have smelled those things. I could only smell the dust from the courtyard.
I'd striped naked before the lanterns were put out that night. All day I'd felt . . . things . . . crawling on me. I had to inspect myself in the reflective surface of my cup to ensure I had not been attacked by parasites. After I'd ascertained that no, it was just the welts from when Captain had me whipped, I crouched by the gap in my door.
There was no response. I repeated his name. Many times. Louder each time. I called for him until my throat was hoarse and my lips were cracked and bleeding as I screamed with my mouth on the gap between the wood and stone. In the middle of my hysteria the guards came and held me down. They must have injected me with something, because when I regained consciousness I was in the infirmary. I tried to sit up, but I was bound to a table. A man in a bloody white smock - it might very easily have been the cook's smock - stood over another table, his gloved hands hovering over a hole in a lump under an equally filthy white sheet.
"Who's that?" I tried to say.
"J-'s handy work," the doctor said without looking at me. "You'll be out of here in no time."
I'd seen the crutches leaning against a wall, next to a shredded pair of prison coveralls. One was broken in two, a smattering of blood on one jagged end. He needed them when he'd cut his one good foot.
The young man stood up as we came closer. I stopped. Olive had to stop, since we both were dragging the suitcase over the rocks. His legs were perfectly fine. Strong even. He had obsidian black hair that made the black jacket he wore appear as poor and badly dyed as it was. His eyes were tired. He had an even mouth that betrayed no emotion or hint of his mind. I recognized him immediately.
"Mother will take you in for now. Until Jack can find something for you."
Finally I looked at her. I let go of the suitcase. Her jaw was set and her lips trembling with what she wouldn't say.
"No," I said. I turned and saw the guard on top of the wall. He had his rifle in his hands, barred across his chest, but he had not turned it on me. He seemed to be part of the sky, a planet caught by some invisible net, buoyed by the mortar and stone. I wanted to feel the sting of the scope's heat on me. I felt the rocks beneath my feet and they seemed bigger and more dangerous than the dust in the courtyard. I stepped back towards the gate.
I stopped. She had my wrist now. Her cold finger's embrace led me back home.