2c – Prisoners of Conscience

They hurried to a second prison floor caked with dust and dragged their crowbar to its welded door.  Working shifts, they tried to bend clamps and hinges back, smacking, prying, and after rifling the guard’s closet, sledge hammering through the door, until giving up.  It was a different door from the first.  After a second sweat, they punched a hole through the moldy masonry and finally shimmied into a hallway.  Adding to the wasted prison supplies there were ugly stockpiles of stun guns, plastic rope, police clubs, and brass knuckles stuck in molasseslike mounds of rotten potatoes.  Reaching the cell, anticipating a group of dying inmates, or corpses, Rupert found the prison bars rubbed clean by human hands.  Dozens rustled to the tap of their cautious steps, rising from corners, grumbling, grumpy, and now, in emaciated silhouette, they caught a glimpse of one passing a tin cup, another combing a strand of hair to a friend’s scalp, another massaging a swollen foot.  Rupert watched one give up pondering a rival’s point, and a Jamaican leave off scraping a poem with a knife through the mold of the prison wall.  Aloysius, shuffling behind him, wary, watched a man struggle to sew up his boots with a modified corkscrew.  As they neared the bars, the inmates assembled, scarred by Grabmaler’s jailers, with broken ribs wrapped crudely with towels, smashed fingers, dislocated arms, clotted sores bandaged by rags — yet greeting them without fear — bracing for the worst, yet defiant.

“Who are you?”  A tall, scrag-haired bear of a man asked, grabbing through the bars at Rupert.

“We are here to open your doors.  To let you go.”  Rupert replied, stepping back.

Aloysius was already fiddling with the key to the cell padlock.

You will be our liberator.”  A black man mocked him, stepping up.

“What did Grabmaler jail you for?”  Rupert ventured.

“For? for? For being suspected of plotting against thee almighty him.”  A desperately thin, bare-chested, squinting Brit squealed to the delight of his fellow inmates.

“We were jailed for a conspiracy … of innocence.”  A young girl laughed toothlessly, propping herself on a lump of old newspaper.

“And why did Grabmaler let you down here?”

“Grabmaler is dead.”

“How?”  Several inmates limped now to the bars.

“I shot him.”

“What?”  The Jamaican gaped incredulously then laughed, “You shot a man so now you free me?.  Man, that’s justice!”

“What?”  Rupert asked.

“Look, you’re just a young punk who did something crazy.  Right?”  The Brit volunteered.  “There’s really no telling what this means.  Nor who you are.”

“I haven’t had the chance to atone … behind bars.”

“Whose ask’n you to?”  The Jamaican huffed.

“Ha!  Atone!  What a scream!  What for?“  The Brit squealed.

“Tell me, how did you ever get close enough to Grabmaler to kill him?”  The Jamaican asked.

“I was … I was his protégé!”

“Really?  Hey!  Call over Frank!”  The Jamaican shouted.  A young white, with a remarkable likeness to Rupert: black hair, blue eyes, with slightly narrower shoulders, but obviously malnourished, limped over, appearing to be in his mid-thirties:  “Frank was also a protégé!  Hey Frank, how old were you when Grabmaler kicked you down to us?”

“Fourteen, I think.”  Frank whispered, “I’m twenty-five now.”

Rupert shuddered.  He watched him behave as if he were proud of knowing his age, deprived of sunlight, clocks or calendars.  Indeed it did seem amazing.  But if Frank was also a protégé he must have been jailed just before Grabmaler adopted Rupert as a child.

“We’re behind bars.  But you should be the prisoner!  Even if Grabmaler was a monster.”  The Jamaican shouted.

“I’m not a monster.  I have a conscience.”

Oh, he has a conscience!” The Brit squealed.  The inmates clapped derisively, “Everybody here has a conscience! Except you were able to listen to music.  You could drink champagne!  Read books bound in leather!  Pet your doggie!  Have sweet conversations with kept women and eat wholesome food.  You were fed, pampered, probably traveled, had your teeth cleaned, your diapers changed.  Then you killed Grabmaler.  But what about Frank?  What about us?  And now, you generously bestow us freedom.”

“We’re his pets!”

“We’re his jailbirds!  His pigeons, and he’s setting us free!”

“Oh. Thank you!”

“Don’t just thank him, worship him!”

“Ha. Ha. Fuck you!”

Aloysius interrupted, squeakily opening the lock, pulling back the heavy door.

“Did you hear about the organization which infiltrated Tombstone?”  Rupert asked, changing the subject.

“O, yes, the Last Social Revolutionaries!”  The girl hissed, blinking her left eye, iris tinged by a spot of blood.

“They’re organized …  Trepov was assassinated by their leader at a party just now.”  Rupert muttered.

“What?”  The mocking Brit spoke up, “Are they in charge now and not you after you killed Grabmaler?   Ha! Yea, they approached me too, and I told ‘em to stuff it.  We all did.  Though there was nothing we could do from here, anyway.  We knew their laundry list, the ABZeds of making everybody a prisoner for their grand regression.  Black leather dinosaurs!”

“You weren’t interested?”  Rupert asked, helping up three other prisoners, avoiding Frank.

“Why should we be?”  The Jamaican nudged forward.  “We were imprisoned because we revealed our conscience in something small we did.  Grabmaler knew it or suspected it.  Conspiracy is a way of life for the paranoid, for the lazy.  And if it were as easy to save the world as it was to wreck it, there’d be no Economic no Gov’mental Collapse!  We’d all have a home and a pretty lawn in the suburbs!”  He spat, bitterly.  “Tell me.  If you killed a man … don’t you feel nothing?  Aren’t you just a shade guilty kid?  And how are you go’n to carry that burden, that guilt, around without trying to disguise it?”

“How did you kill him?”  Frank pleaded, clutching the bars out of habit, breathing in Rupert’s face

“It makes one ineligible,” The Jamaican interrupted, “to open anybodies’ door.  If you know what I mean … ”

“No, I don’t.”  Rupert admitted.

“I mean, unless you examine yourself, and stop projecting what is right, and either crawl behind the bars of your guilt or let it burn out its corruption, your soul go’n die!  Why should we innocent prisoners feel guilty?  We peaceably opposed Grabmaler.  You shot him!  You could destroy yourself and everyone around you, without an inner trial, depend’n on just how your corruption, at what rate, it burns!  And you’ll either be eating the ashes and squat in the shit, eyeballs devoured by flies buzzn up your ass for lunch — for what you’ve done, or you’ll know, you’ll understand.   I know, I was in a position to kill once.  I’ve mulled it over … I had little else to do here.”

“When?”

“Before I was captured.  I was just a kid but I caught on.  I jerked a flame-thrower away from one of the Blunts working for Benedict.  I coulda fried him!”

“Benedict is also dead.”

“How mad!  We were jailed for noth’n, and now we be freed and benefit from murder!  But you see, kid, I didn’t kill, mine is the reverse of the guilt buzz’n in your skull.”

“Not every head handed on a platter is mute.”  Aloysius interjected.

“But you also did nothing!”  Rupert challenged them.

“And who is this funny guy?  Did he kill someone special too?” The toothless girl interrupted.

“Why didn’t you do it?”  Aloysius echoed Rupert.  “It’s a good question!”

“I can’t speak for anyone else here.” The Brit spoke up. “We’re all individuals.  Walking to the bars, you see, may be the first time we really acted as a group.  Even when one of us was dragged out for the stun guns or beaten here, in our cell, we would turn our backs.  We sank into our pain, but we’re still here.  We’re all still alive.  It was better not to provoke the guards against our friends by trying to defend them.  By yelling or kicking or fuck’n with ‘em.  Believe me, we all felt guilt not doing a thing.  I just said that.  But isn’t it true — confronted by evil, it can make you evil, and so evil wins?  We chose to endure pacifistically, not to comply nor kill.  We still feel guilty.  If it wasn’t for these bars — maybe we would escape our island.  We will be prisoners now all our lives when we breathe daylight, walk the street, bed down, die.   The whole world is a jail for the crimes we share.  Don’t you agree?  But it’s wrong to kill a man in cold blood, be he Grabmaler or this emperor stoogehead in Prague … Right?”

“Right.”  Rupert answered, and they could see he meant it.

“Besides, how do we know that Vera isn’t under someone else’s hire?  There’s nothing revolutionary about retro-Commies, you know. When people speak of justice like that … they mean to instruct while they rob.”  The Brit pressed him.

“Whose mirror you been lookn into anyway?”  The Jamaican scoffed.

“Will you take the offer?”  Rupert asked respectfully.

“Yes, of course … “  He said, turning around.

“What will you do now?”  Aloysius asked all of them.

“First, if I can assume to speak for us we accept this chance to return as individuals to our freedom only if don’t owe our freedom to you.”  The Brit said.

“Of course.  We never said you would.”  Rupert said.

“Good.”

“Where will you go?”  Rupert asked.

“Where will you go?”  The Jamaican winked.

“To the City of Light!”  Rupert smiled, and Aloysius and he raced for the elevator.