by Mary Renzi
I hope this letter will not cause you anxiety or suffering. I know that if father gets to it first, these pages will end up as thin paper streamers in the office shredder, and never find their way to you at all. Please let me know, by responding, that you have received them. My commissary is empty again, but that is how I prefer it now. Do not make any more deposits on my behalf. You should understand that I no longer have any material requirements. I am past that. What I am aiming for is simple. I wish to show you what I have become. I am not at all certain it will make you proud.
I need to tell you that I miss you deeply Mother. I have built up an image of you during my years at Wanatchee, resting hours on each detail, like the straight bee- line of your lips which you always held closed so tightly over your teeth, and the shape of your eyes like small ash leaves, the sleepy half moons of your lids, the white scar on your chin in the shape of a lightning strike, with your stern body below like the rod conducting it. And because I have built it myself, piece-by-piece, this image is much more special to me than any truer memory or photograph.
I talk with you and father each day of my imprisonment. In your absence from me I must address you both as ghosts. Your ghosts watch over me in this place from an absolute perspective as from an afterlife, and from that absolute perspective you both understand without judgment and I am not vile to you.
The guards here worry that I might find some way to off myself, so they have given me half dull pencils for writing this, and they keep an eye on me through a closed-circuit television system. My image is broadcast to a remote viewing room where they can watch the live feed. The viewing room is stacked up from floor to ceiling with salvaged video monitors. There are cracks in the convex screens that fragment my pale image into jagged halves, and an electron hum of static electricity that stands the CO’s neck hairs on end. They will watch me in shifts–all night long and into tomorrow–until I am through writing this.
Sometimes, I imagine the prison officials let you in, Mother, to show you by those screens that I am still alive. That secretly, you check up on me here. But that is beside the point.
The inmates of my wing are not allowed any interaction. We are the demons and the murderers. We are allowed out of our boxes for one hour each week, and for the remaining time they keep us sealed off in our hermetic cells like pinned butterflies, or the beasts of some exotic collector.
What I have instead of fellowship is four walls and a concrete floor. There is a wire cage like a catcher’s mask on the ceiling that protects a naked bulb that glows like a white-hot ember. There is a soundproofed door. There is a sink and a toilet and a showerhead. There is a small, metal grated drain situated beside one thin squatter’s mattress, and a camera angled down from the ceiling like an unflinching eye. There are half frozen meals served in small tin boxes that are shoved through the chuckhole at meal times. I wait for their noisy delivery three times a day when the food carrier slams into my cell like dynamite, the racket quickly absorbed by the silence of this place.
When I first came here I realized, this must be the clean and quiet architecture of Hell. I realized that Hell was this scrubbed box without distraction. Of course, I was sent here with the other damned souls. There was nothing to wrap my thoughts around, mother. There was absolutely nothing to fix them on. My mind became a jigsaw of words and images as illogical as any dream. You cannot understand the magnitude of that ugliness, or what it did to me. I sought out forms of physical pain as a type of buoy. The pain became the one thing that kept me grounded.
Near the beginning I broke my fists into the walls until I could no longer close them. I broke them until they became purple, swollen mittens. I remember holding them out in front of me in the silence, trying to calculate some kind of significance. They seemed like two horrible trophies, destroyed completely like that.
When my cell door opened that night, five men stood behind it. The man at the front of the gang switched off his small Motorola radio. He had a thick-boned face with a Neanderthal skull and deep-set eyes that burned green like just out of the fire. When he holstered the radio, he looked at the red walls and then at my destroyed fists and he told me, “We could have saved you all that trouble.”
I suspected the guard would be vicious, Mother, but he watched with his hands held together in a steeple formation as the others beat me down. Before I went unconscious, he bent over me and crooned, “When you act up here, you have to take The Treatment.” His voice purred with arousal and I understood, it made sense for the men in charge to hire such demons to police us. The other CO’s called him Lieutenant Swain.
You learn to sleep in a sitting position when you have broken ribs. Some fractures heal in strange patterns of raised bone like thick mineral sutures. I no longer think anything of my own body, Mother. There is no power in it now. I move around this small cell to the shower and to the head and then back to my mattress like a corpse that has just broke through the soil. When I leave my cell for that single hour each week it is in a wheelchair with ‘Property of DOC’ stenciled in slanted white letters on the back of it.
I am not complaining, Mother, or looking for sympathy from you. I just want you to know, despite my physical condition, it is not over for me here. I am making my mark, like I always told you I would. I understand now that I had to come to this gimp state before I could envision something so much greater.
It is well over a year ago now that I began to immerse myself in the spiritual texts of humanity. What resonated with me most of all were the narratives of shamanism. The Native American Shamans were artists and priests not imprisoned by the constructs of ordinary perception as most of us are. Of course, I felt immediately connected to that lineage. I read about the ritual of Vision Quest, where the supplicant deprives their mind of all stimulation, and deprives their body of all sustenance, and once they prove themselves to be intent and worthy through their denials and meditations, then the divine comes through and fills that newly opened space. The divine comes through to transform and sustain and evolve those who prove devoted. I think you will be convinced by the end of this letter. I will make it clear to you.
The Great Spirit reaches you incarnate. It can come as a caribou, an antelope, a feral hunting dog in the amplitudes of an outside wilderness. Of course, I understood that some creativity would be needed to reach me here in Wenatchee, through all of the thick concrete and the razor wire. Still, I never doubted, mother, from that moment forward. Not even for one second.
In fact, if I had not known better, this cell might have been designed with the singular purpose of Vision Quest in mind. It was not a cage to me any longer but a monk’s solitary. There are just certain points where everything aligns. This was looking up from the Money section of the Sunday paper and realizing that I was surrounded by snow tipped mountains and cerulean lakes. This box came alive then. It was hued and electric and young. It was coiled with energy. Even my body, when I looked down at it, seemed to glow with a soft white radiance, somehow stronger. All of this and I had not even started on my vision quest yet. That power was sprung by my decision alone.
Swain’s jurisdiction seemed so much smaller after that. I knew that he could never keep me from this. I wanted messianic awareness through Vision Quest and I was certain that I would have it as a true acquisition even in this lock down.
The fast is step one of Vision Quest. The point of the fast is body purification.
I learned from my studies that if you wished to approach the divine– or what the Lipan Indians call Great Spirit–it had to be with the clean-blooded physiology of a gazelle or a forest creature. The fast is there to carve you down into something that is basic. It is there to whittle you down into something that is elemental and pure. But that transformation is not easy, Mother.
The hunger was brutal. It was a killing pain that radiated from my center in large and vicious waves. The hunger pain was so great I believed I was dying. Then after several days into my fast, the pain calmed and it was a drugged dizziness swimming in my bloodstream that ran my thoughts together into blurred sequences, like the theta trance you hit right before falling into sleep. I would wake up in a sweat every morning, pulling out of dreams with sweet, sugary fruits and pints of cold buttermilk. I would wake up with phantom tastes in my mouth of thick, warm breads and rich custards.
That is only describing the first stage. If I was a poet I know that I could communicate it better. (But like you Mother, although a fan of poetry, I have always been so analytic and literal.)
After only nine days into my fast, those hunger pains disappeared for me altogether. The dizziness that I initially felt turned into a physical lightness of being, so that I never seemed to fully touch the ground below me. With that rebirth, every riveted stick of furniture in this cage became fantastic. Every hard edge was just one small piece in a brilliant aesthetic. I was an astronaut in zero gravity, looking down at a perfect and geometric earth.
There was also a sharp-edged lucidity, Mother, at a level that I had never experienced before. That lucidity was like looking at every object in its blueprint. It was seeing all of the dimensions and geometry there, and knowing that somewhere in that math, there was meaning and essence waiting to be uncovered– a riddle that was planted here by God for me to find.
Of course, I cannot lie to you. That purification left a mark on me that you would find distasteful. I became anemic and slat-ribbed, and my belly was distended like a refugee’s. But I understood that I would never break no matter how desiccated. My body and soul was composed of an indestructible alloy, and I was able to cull the very air for nutrients.
Wanatchee is a brutal environment. There are other inmates here who study law books and compose long, handwritten letters to the state. They shout about the eighth amendment and they point at arthritis and diabetes. They point at heart disease and hallucination. They point at any chronic condition as evidence of cruel punishment, and they angle hard for their way out. I do not blame them. I know I am different to not care about these things. It is important to realize, Mother, that the world is full of political types angling for loopholes, but there are too few prophets. I have always known that I was meant for something extraordinary.
Every week I left this cell with a pair of CO’s for that sacred hour of “free-time”. There were lazy dialogues above me of baseball and pussy and wives as they wheeled me through the empty corridors, my diminutive form hunched over and perfectly still in my wheelchair, without spit mask or padded helmet or cuffs or chains, since I had long ago been crushed into submission. They would smack me on the shoulder now and tell me, I was alright. They’d tell me that soon I would have radio privileges. They said they could get me right with Lieutenant Swain. My role had changed over into the three- legged pet now that I was gimp.
The recreation area where they left me each week was enormous. It was high ceilinged with an oblong pit at the center of it like a drained swimming pool. I sat alone for my sixty minutes in that vast warehouse right at the bulls-eye and took deep breaths in the larger air. I watched the dust settling in the window light, and listened to the distant sound of vehicles on the state route outside, and on lucky days I could even smell rain. I felt revitalized by that thin life spilling its way in through the cracks and filling the vacuum. I know that it does not sound like much to you, but to me it was leaving the closet. The warehouse was my wide world and my Sinai vista, and I felt I could think in even greater terms there.
Every single night before lights out, I would kneel down naked in my box, my knees bruised by the concrete below me, and run my fingers along my slatted rib cage. I would stare at the distorted flesh reflected in the steel toilet. By my reflection, I looked like a dying supplicant who was begging for the miracle of bread. Then an angry voice would come over the speaker and I would have to put my clothes back on. One leg and then the other. One arm and then the other. Losing my balance and then regaining it. Watching my skin disappear under cloth.
There are simple forms of deception in the prison universe that echo back to childhood and adolescence. There are simple forms of deception that echo back to tricking the parents. I just sat on my mattress at mealtimes, and shoveled forkfuls of nothing into my salivating mouth, then mashed the contents of my meal box as well as I could into a type of pig swill for flushing. Three times a day I poured the gruel into the head right before box collection, when I knew that the CO’s were making their rounds.
It wasn’t until the forty -third day of my fast, that I woke up to five of them standing in my cage. Lieutenant Swain was at the front of the pack. The other guards cornered me and tied me down to my mattress using restraints that tore into my flesh, and they fed me opaque liquid nourishment from a skinny IV stand that was wheeled in. The feeding itself was handled efficiently by a dark-skinned technician wearing a bleached lab coat. He had on orthopedic shoes that were wet with white polish, and his face had a purple sheen to it under the light of my box that was iridescent, like insect wings. First, he touched me gently on the shoulder as if to reassure me in that nightmare. Then he stuck the needle in. The solution sent long spasms of river cold winding throughout my entire bloodstream.
Lieutenant Swain stood over me the whole time. He bit off the tips of his short nails as he watched us, and he spat them like husks onto the ground. Then he stuck two fingers into the back of his mouth, and he picked old dinner from out of his cavities, and he chewed on the loosened cud while he watched us.
He breathed, “Every day for the next two weeks.”
The straps were unnecessary, Mother. I was no more of a threat than a Ken Doll lying there. But the terror that I felt was more fantastic than anything that I had ever experienced. Imagine a devout pilgrim in the Gobi or Kalahari Desert who is subjected to such a surrealistic feeding. Then you might understand me. Imagine a pilgrim searching for divinity and purity in the desert solitude, but then the demon Swain emerges from a sand trap and spits his dirty fingernails at you. My heartbeat became arrhythmic. I couldn’t breathe properly. I believed I was dying.
But I came back to consciousness finally– a broken heap on top of the starched bed sheets– with dark bruises all along my wrecked body where the guards had ratcheted me down. There was no memory at first–only the certainty that something brutal had just taken place. That a stampede had just passed through. I could still feel the dust settling.
Everything in my cell was dead again. Everything had returned to ordinary matter–hard and bromidic and gray. I felt certain that Swain had somehow pulled this switch on me. I crawled over to the toilet and I vomited up a whitish fluid. I could feel the thin crescents of his discarded nails digging into my cheek when I lay on the ground afterwards. I might have stayed in that spot for eternity Mother. There was no ambition to even move. But one sound brought me back to my purpose here.
My heart began beating so much faster, and I could hear it clearly. There was a buzzing in my cage—a background vibration like electricity that would be so easy to ignore in any world with movement or noise. But that buzzing was dominant in this stone quiet. I had never heard anything so beautiful, Mother. To me it was the sound of life in a dead-zone.
I rolled over onto my back, and when I looked up at the ceiling I could see it–taking off and touching down on the bulb casing. Alighting then landing, over and over again in fuzzy micro-bursts of static. I was transfixed. I was absorbed to the core by the clumsy dance of a house fly. Can you understand me, Mother? It was amazing to me, the way that one small piece of life had found its way into such a fortress.
That’s when it sliced through me. I knew it like Abraham. This house fly. It was my Spirit Guide. Here to teach me because I had proven myself worthy.
House Fly whirred down from off of the bulb casing and then He settled onto my naked stomach. Even that small movement seemed like a miracle to me. That heat attraction of life to life. I reached down to touch Him. I reached down to stroke Him with my quaking fingertip. But He flew away, hovered, and then landed again. He stared right at me with lidless eyes. Those blind eyes were fixed on me without color or emotion like porous bulbs. Like honeycombs. Like an equation. Like fractals repeating themselves over and over again into infinity.
House Fly was intent and waiting.
The Lipan and the Yaqui shamans, lying on the dark earth, had no doubt inspired more impressive spirit hosts. It was not Coyote Spirit or Mescalito who had found me, Mother. But who was I to question the delivery? Swain might have ended my fast in his ugly manner, but now I knew with certainty that he had come with his punches too late. Perhaps it was not so surprising. I had forty-three days of fasting on him, after everything was said and done.
Christ, if you can remember, only did forty.
Everything in this box came back to life with perfect intensity. I stood within a city that had been frozen in stone, but was released from that witchcraft. This cold broom closet was breathing again. The walls were flowing arabesques. The walls were detailed scrimshaws, caroming and rebounding in the wide-open space of this cage like great swales of land. If I was a painter, I know that I could put it down for you on canvas. Everything here was interaction and connection. Everything. Interlocking meshes of dancing energy. The walls exhaled, and when I touched them, they recoiled gently, with the sensitive modulations of nerve endings. It was alive, and I could see it. The whole idea of fixity and separation was the worst, graceless sham. The pieces were coming together. House Fly would show me…
Just when it had all started to unwind, something in this box shifted again. The shifting was a heavy movement of underground plates, disrupting, and then locking back hard into place like the rough end of a carnival ride. A voice came over the speaker in this cage. But it was not the voice that I was used to. It was not any voice of authority, Mother. The new voice talked to me, very gently.
It told me, Lights out, Number 27671.
It was a considerate but inhuman voice, like HAL from the Kubrick film, pre-recorded for an automated system. When it cut out everything here went deep black. I imagined whole city blocks going out along with the light in my cell like a great smothered flame.
On reflection, I reconsidered. The voice that had called me, it was not gentle at all, as I had first thought, but mildly chiding, like just barely keeping back laughter. They had never told me that before. They had never told me, Lights out.
It was easy to see it now. This was a type of subtle game that they were throwing at me. Swain was hoping to break me in a final way. After that, he would discard me like medical waste at the bottom of his backwoods trash-heap. Did he really think he could fool me so easily? You might already know, I have always seen quickly to the heart of any situation involving angles.
I could remember the needle now in the darkness–glinting like a polished blade–and everything inside my cell was flooding. I could feel the wet air all around me, Mother. It was moist just like the back of eye-lids, the way that it glistened. I clutched onto the sides of my small mattress, cramping my fingers with the exertion, and biting in the best I could with my short nails. Everything here was in motion. It was oceans without Dramamine. I could hear the clicking sound of crustaceans or beetles scuttling around me. They were trying to escape from the rising tide. I understood that if I fell asleep, I would drown here before the morning, thrown right over the bow. But I knew somehow–that if I could make it through the night, when the lights came back on, and when prison routine came back to illuminate this small cloister like a rising sun, I knew that after that, they would never be able to touch me. I knew that after that, they would never be able to take me down.
And I made it, Mother. Somehow, I did.
Now I am something new. I am something that you have never seen before. I feel myself blend in to the gray composite of the walls, and my anatomy bends in hard right angles like the cold metal of the riveted furniture. I am an animal of this particular environment. More so that any native on any vision quest who hugs the earth and speaks its language. I feel the muscles of my back blending with the stone wall as I lean back into it. The wall opens to take me in, cradling, and then it closes gently around me, the way that a baby’s gums close around a mother’s finger. There is an umbilical chord that attaches me here and it nourishes me on fine bits of stone ore. But I am not trapped. My arms and legs can still move freely. I can get up when I please. The wall releases me with a schlupping sound.
I know that I could hide here if I willed it, Mother, in this mostly empty space. I am a brand-new kind of chameleon. An old man sits in the viewing room and he strokes his tabby cat as he watches me on the closed circuits. To him, looks as if I have simply vanished. He sets his soda pop down and puts the cat off of his lap. He scratches at his liver spotted head, and then hits the monitor on its side, three times, like a broken television set…
I will admit to you, Mother, that I do not have all the answers yet. And at times, it is hard to process all that I can see now. Sometimes, it is much worse than others. The Gods give me glimpses, but of course it is all in cipher. There is a needling voice in the back of my head, daring me to take things to the next level, but I am not sure what they expect from me. I am only certain that I am being tested again in some way. It exhausts me, and on most days, it is easier just to sleep.
House Fly has still not returned, mother. He has not left any clues for me that might suggest how I am supposed to take all of this. He has left no clues to suggest, exactly what all of this is supposed to mean.
I have searched every square inch of this box for any signs of His small, insect corpse. I have gotten down on my knees. I have slithered on my stomach like a snake. I have climbed the walls like a spider. I have seen his track on the light cage, mother, where he first landed on a thin blanket of dust. I have combed this box with the slow deliberation of a police force, dragging some District lake for the body of a missing Senator.
It seems that He is gone without one trace.
Despite all of this, things are not as bad as you might imagine these days at Wenatchee. Swain has left for an assistant warden position in Florence, Arizona, and there are small amenities they allow me now that make things livable. For example, I have access to the prison library again. I can order a book, and the guards will bring it here to me in my cell, where I can read it comfortably, and safe. If they do not have it on the shelves at Wenatchee, they will order it in for me, on loan from the county library.
So maybe you can tell, there is some amount of freedom here with Swain gone.
Now I am breaking up this writing to you by speaking passages from a slim volume of illustrated poetry that I have on loan from the county. The volume was written by an anonymous Sufi mystic. The acoustics in this box are perfect for verse, and the words wash over me from the air just like cool river water. It is a comfortable feeling like sinking, or like closing your eyes.
These passages make me think of you, and how you enjoyed Pablo Neruda.
Do you still read his poetry?
When I open to page twenty-three, there is a beautiful white flower with brick red veins like delivering heart-blood. It is framed by an intricate and illuminated border. But the flower is not there as part of the illustration, Mother. The petals are thin and pressed into a soft, satiny skein, and the perfume has long ago expired, replaced by an attic smell of old paper. Still, I can imagine the sugary scent. I must wonder how far this flower has travelled, to end up at such an unlikely spot. I should wonder, considering everything that has come before, did House Fly place this between the pages for me to find?
I can remember strange things when I stare at it. Things that I might have ignored at one time. They were discarded details, but are resurrected now from deep inside of my consciousness.
I can see a dominant sky that threatens rain and wildfire. It is framed and viewed from out of a moving car window. When the engine is turned off, I can hear the sudden whine of cicadas, singing like chalk out of a muggy quiet. Now I see two small wrens hopping towards me as I sit cross-legged on the sidewalk, holding a piece of green chalk in between my fingers. They stop short to fly up and perch gently on shallow grooves in the rough oak bark. And there are orange, leached ores that dribble rusty puddles into the dry creek bed on Grandpa’s farm in West Virginia, and that foul smell of compost. I am seven years old again running in pollen smeared jeans, stained bright yellow from those large fields of grasses and wildflowers. You watch me the whole time from the doorway, mother. Your face is tight and expressionless. You are holding a sweating glass of sweet-tea in your hands.
And now I see myself from a distance, as if through a distorted glass window, being pushed along by gorilla guards to the Warehouse, my greatest freedom here at Wenatchee. My diminutive form is hunched over and still in my wheelchair, without spit mask or padded helmet or cuffs or chains. I am a brand-new kind of monstrous saint.
About the Author
Mary Renzi’s latest fiction can be found in Hypnos, The Overcast, Space Squid, The Molotov Cocktail and other places. You can check out some of her nonfiction on occult topics over at DIRGE Magazine.(www.dirgemag.com)