Walking around the fence’s perimeter, another lap, another…quarter mile? I wonder if it really is a quarter mile. That’s what I’ve been told, but there’s no way to be sure, really. How many times have I made this particular journey? Hundreds? Thousands? I should know the distance by now, or, if not the exact measurement, then at least the number of steps. I suppose I could have counted the steps, but I’ve learned enough to know that counting is a bad habit to fall into in here. It’s dangerous. Sure, it could start with something simple, like steps, but it wouldn’t stop there. Next it would be…what would it be next? Months? Yeah, probably months, and then weeks, and then days. No, it’s better not to count. Better just to keep on walking.
I start into the longest stretch of the walk. On my right, about sixty, or maybe it’s closer to one hundred feet away, I see the long, tangled vines of what I’m guessing to be sweet potatoes. I hope it’s NOT sweet potatoes. They grew sweet potatoes the first year I was here, and that’s all we ate for months after the harvest: sweet potato bread, sweet potato pancakes, candied sweet potatoes, sweet potato pie. I don’t mind sweet potatoes; they’re okay. really, but…well, too much of a good thing…
Last year they grew cotton. The year before that it was soy. I wonder if there are rules about what the farm next door can and can’t grow. Corn might be a bad idea. Even tobacco grows pretty high. It doesn’t grow as high as corn, but it grows high enough that I can see where it might be considered a threat, a “security risk.”
I pass a sign hanging from the galvanized steel linkage. In sharp, red letters it warns: “STAY BACK TEN FEET.” I ignore the threat, like everyone does. The well-worn path that I’m hiking, the one created by the footsteps of thousands of men before me, is a mere two feet from the fence. The only time I can recall this close proximity being a problem was about six months ago. There was a new guard training in the gun tower. Poor kid. She didn’t know that this is the path we always tread. One of the guys was out doing his walk, this walk, two feet from the fence. She shouted down from the tower for him to “Get back ten feet!” He ignored her, of course. Must have thought she was yelling at someone else. She panicked and pulled the gun on him. Staring fiercely down the barrel of the rifle, she screamed, “I said get away from the fence.” Her shrill voice sounded more full of fright than authority. The whole yard broke into fits of laughter. Guys were hooting and hollering, falling off of the weight benches. The basketball game came to a standstill in order to watch the drama unfold. I don’t know how it ended. Bored with the hysterics, I walked back inside. I know she didn’t shoot him. Everyone laughed about that event for days afterwards: “She pulled a gun on him! Stupid. Can you believe that? She pulled a gun!”
What a riot.
Sometimes it frightens me, how easily I’ve adapted to this place. The language, my language itself, was the first notable change. Not just the semantics, either – though those have changed, too – but I expected that. No, what frightens me is the way I approach subjects now. For example, early on, when guys would ask what I was in for, I’d go into a long soliloquy describing the unfolding of the nightmare that landed me here. I’d carefully explain how a car ran a stop sign one evening, slammed into an on-coming vehicle, and injured someone. I’d tell how a group of people stopped to help, and then how I came over the hill too fast to stop, but then, I had been drinking, too, and…
These days, when someone asks what I’m in for, I shrug and say, “Car accident. Killed a bunch of people. I was drunk.” And I shudder inside at how easy that has become to say…”killed a bunch of people.” That should never be easy to say, but the guys closest to me over the years have grown bored with my despair. They have their own hells to face, so I’ve learned to shrug off my despondence out of…politeness?
A mockingbird lands easily, tauntingly, between the glinting blades of coiled razor wire that shrouds the top of the fence. She chatters at me angrily in some unknown tongue. The fence is what makes this a prison. The buildings are just buildings: concrete, steel, glass, bricks, tar – just buildings. The earth that the buildings rest on, cooled by their looming shadows, is just earth. In a thousand years, long after nature has had her way with mankind’s “progress”, this will still be earth. The mockingbird doesn’t know this is a prison, a penitentiary, a place for penance. No, what makes this a prison, what confines me to the point of suffocation, is that fence, that quarter mile run of metal mesh, tangled barbed wire, and accordioned razor wire. I can see freedom through it, but I can never reach out and touch it from here. If not for that fence, this wouldn’t be such a bad place; free food, free rent, and I’m only lonely when I want to be lonely.
If I could just saunter over there and pluck one of the leaves from a sweet potato vine, smell its fresh, green scent, rub its milky smoothness against my skin. If I could just do that, then this wouldn’t be a prison.
Dragonflies busily zoom here and there, across the yard, over the fence, to some unexplored water source, some mythological Xanadu. If I could just follow them to that magic fairyland, just hear the splash of water, smell the cool, damp earth, dip my fingers into that dark, liquid pool; if I could do that, then this wouldn’t be a prison.
What I really want, desire…CRAVE, is a day off. I want my innocence back, just for one day. I want to enjoy the quiet creaking of a porch swing, to chase fireflies in the twilight, to thump a watermelon under the blazing sun and listen for the telling ring of ripeness. I want to not know death. That would be freedom! But I’ll never be that free again.
It surprised me to learn, in here, just how malleable time can be. Get a steady routine going and the years fly by. Shave every other day. Lift weights for an hour or so daily. Read voraciously, because a good book is the closest thing left to actually living. So that’s the trick. Get a good, steady routine and watch the seasons melt into each other. Of course, the downside to that is that I’m aging faster, too. Well, it’s about time I grew up. I’ve been playing this Peter Pan thing for too long as it is, and it has cost too many people far too much.
Step after step, lap after lap, mile after mile, always watching the ground, watching the grass blur beneath me, I walk this fence, going nowhere, just walking, because the body needs motion.
Sometimes I imagine that I’m training to hike the corridor of the Appalachian Trail. That’s one of my dreams of freedom. I’ll march the twenty-seven hundred miles of mountain ridges and flowering valley floors, and I’ll remember prison. I’ll look on all of nature’s splendid perfection, and I’ll muse to myself that I’d never be able to complete that stretch of walking if it weren’t for the endless miles I’d laid down behind these walls. It’s important to dream.
Other times, I’m just walking to escape the ghosts that haunt me now. If I walk fast enough, or far enough, or both, then maybe they’ll give up and leave me alone. (They never do.)
Some days, I walk to feel the sunshine warming my bones, browning my skin. The sun is a shimmering reminder that the world will be okay. Life will prevail.
I walk in the rain for solitude. I revel in the drenching sky-water rolling off my face, baptizing me, healing me, renewing me.
I walk in the winter for the winds, which is another form of travel for me. I begin in the Arctic, move down from Canada, across endless plains, and blow out to the Atlantic. I’ve wandered with the wind many, many times.
Mostly, though, I just walk.
I walk towards some future, away from my past.
With countless miles to go, I walk.
It’s better not to count the miles. Counting can be dangerous.
A body in motion, I walk.