The Prison

by socalledstories

A couple needed advice as to whether they were suited. They raised money for a fee in order to consult the wise woman of Tildey who understood such things. She had persuaded many against their intention but was reputed never to have given poor advice.

The couple approached the woman of Tildey but she flung down their money when she heard what they wanted. ‘You need no advice from me,’ she hissed. ‘Ask anyone for free. I will not take your money.’

The couple were not surprised. They walked slowly from the village, side by side, muttering comforts to each other, occasionally touching hands shyly, never clasping. Then the one who had suggested the consultation suggested another. A young doctor in Perdose was said to have made a study of relations between his patients. He had scored the significant factors and published his predictions, inviting case histories from the wider public. The couple wrote to him with their names, ages and other significant factors so that they could be scored. They received in return a long and serious reply explaining why their relationship could not possibly flourish. The simplest calculations showed that they were incompatible.

The one who had written the letter laughed angrily and set fire to the reply, watching the flames surround and consume it. But the other turned away, wiping her face and saying: ‘why should we open ourselves to humiliation this way? Why must we know what they think?’

The other said: ‘I want to know. And I want to find some person, just one person, who can tell us truly what we need to know. Someone who can forget for long enough what they do not understand, in order to tell us what they do.’

They hugged each other but did not smile.

Other consultations followed, but the couple met with no satisfaction. The reluctant one grew angry and then withdrawn. She stopped trying to please her lover and felt that her lover could not please her. Where once she had felt the confidence of being two alike among strangers, and the defiance of it, now she felt betrayed by the outward vision of her partner.

The other saw what was happening and yet could not refrain from pursuit of judgment. ‘We cannot rely on what is special about us. That will hold us together through adversity when crisis demands an heroic response. But what of the quiet years when the clock ticks and the blood flows slowly and we have only our own familiar selves to struggle with? Something prevents me from seeing how we will be, whether our disputes will be real ones, resolved in heat, cooling into the comfort of understanding. Or whether we will irritate each other through false agreement, too fixed in our perceptions of each other to concede that one might not know the other’s thoughts. Familiarity can be a blessing or a burden. How will we carry it?’

And will I still have moments when I catch my breath to see you in a certain pose? Will I still wonder that you agreed to be mine? Or will I resent it, struggling in vain to recover that old, slight vision of you that I clung to between our early meetings? Some things cannot be known but for living them. But others can be pricked in their yoke by the trained hand of the outsider. I want to know what can be known.

So, this one continued to look for the person who could give a proper answer. And the other continued to sulk in the corners of their home, resenting that she was not accepted as she was.

In the autumn the first woman heard of a man who languished in a prison, caring nothing for the world since he would not see it again, save through bars. It was said that the man amused himself by giving advice to those foolish enough to seek it. People said the seekers were foolish since the man failed to take a serious interest in their questions, wanting only to pass the time and knowing that they could take no revenge that would touch him.

The first woman wrote and asked for an audience. The second protested as had become the norm, but at the last hour agreed to accompany her lover because she feared what might happen to her alone in the gaol.

They left at sunrise since there was a distance to cover. On the way they discussed what had happened between them since the woman of Tildey thrust them aside.

‘I know you’re angry,’ said one. ‘I know all the things you want to say to me. And yet you hold back. You don’t speak.’

‘Do I need to if you know what they are?’

The first woman looked at her lover and saw in her face the challenge that should have been her own. The echo of her own fears raged through her body. She clasped her ears, then looked again at her lover, seeing a new, unfamiliar anger that was self-directed.

‘Maybe you should tell me,’ said the other. ‘I’m not sure that I know myself.’

‘You were angry because you thought I doubted your love?’

‘Perhaps. I’m not sure.’

‘You were angry because you thought I doubted my own?’

‘Because I thought you no longer loved me? I don’t know.’

‘Were you angry because I exposed our love to others?’

‘To others who would defile it? I suppose so. But there’s more.’

‘What then? Where did this anger come from?’

‘It’s fear, perhaps, rather than anger. I was afraid because you opened me to doubt. To my own doubts, I would guess. Doubts about what is possible; what we will be allowed; what we have a right to; what we should fight for. I felt we couldn’t afford to ask these questions. We need all our energy to remain as we are. We need to keep out the opinions of others, not welcome them in. What you want to do is crazy. Yet, I suppose it is in human nature and so ultimately can’t be denied. You want the approval of the outside world. Continue to search for it if you wish. I’ll be here to comfort you. I have decided that.’

The first woman was moved by the decision of her lover. But she was as shocked by the misinterpretation of her search as she was at her own misreading of her lover’s anger. She sat heavily, placing her head in her upturned hands and thought about her hopes and their possibilities.

‘The approval of the world is not what I want. That I let pass me by many years ago. What I want is something else, something that defies precise description. Perhaps I will not be able to give it a name until I see it before me.’

By midday they had reached a bridge town that gathers around a broad and slow moving river. They ate on its banks and continued their conversation over the gentle rippling of the water.

‘I didn’t realise,’ said the first, ‘that I made you doubtful and afraid. I thought that I hurt you. But I also thought that if I told you I loved you enough times the hurt would crumble away. The hurt was unfounded, but perhaps the doubt and fear were not.’

I thought the fight had died in you. Why else would the nod of the outsider become your most urgent desire?’

Why indeed? But this is nothing to do with the fight. This is beyond the fight.’

Is there anything beyond the fight? I think not. We are defined by it. Where we deny it, we are unseen. Where we proclaim it, we are set apart. Either way we are never what others see. We can exist only within our own walls. Our walls are the castle or the gaol. They lock us in, we keep them out.’

I made you angry because you thought I was attempting to kick down the walls?’

Neither one of us could do so much. But I saw you weakening their integrity. You were worrying away at the mortar. I heard whispers from the other side. I began to be infected by them. Anger was my defence.’

I know I won’t win approval. Perhaps we’ll be endorsed by the banners of a few. But the approval of the world will not follow. Not while we still live, in any case. But there must be something between that and total siege.’


‘I don’t know: I feel it. Somehow it’s within our capabilities. If we fight as hard to stay inside the prison as they do to keep us there, then we are all working to the same ends. We have to reconsider what we do.’

At last they reached the high wall of the prison town. The gates swung behind them at dusk and they knocked on doors for lodgings, claiming to be sisters. The prison was built into the mountain where it merged with the wall at the far side of the town. High above its door single beams of light escaped through tiny squares cut into the immensity. Looking out into the growing oppression of the night, the first woman thought she could see a face floating in the brightness of one of the squares. Then it went, as so went all the brightness: lights out.

In the deepest absence of the night she lay beside her dreaming lover and stared out through the gun grey at the place where the light had been. How is it to be without freedom, squeezed in a lonely room with scarcely the space to fall out of bed? And how to see tiny figures running in the street below, to know that you will never be able to chase after them? Can it be borne? Whether or not, there is no other choice but madness.

In the morning, her dread of the prison loosened enough for her to enter it. She was glad that her lover was beside her, close enough to touch, though that could not be. They followed instructions reluctantly, removing shoes, sharp objects, loose clothing. The women waited while the prisoner met with another delegation. They ignored the cold and cobwebs: terrified, beyond all else, by the keys. Keys, heavy with use, rusty only where the locks did not engage, hanging on hips that thrust them forwards in the dense and dusty light. Keys that spoke what tongue need not articulate: teeth of metal, gnawing metal, grinding stone into the slow groove of time. Turning their faces away they became aware of their hearts beating like a coward’s quiet challenge against the stillness of the cosmos. Then a warder passed them clanking at the hip and they shrank from the surety of his motion.

The first woman had all but lost her desire to consult the prisoner and she looked at her lover, showing in her face the change in her heart. But her lover had come far enough not to turn back, whatever her original doubts. So they followed the warder when he came for them and they asked their question of the prisoner.

‘But you are two women,’ he snorted. ‘You have no hope.’ Then he laughed and the first woman could tell he was laughing most at her expression. She decided to explain it to him.

‘We walked for a day to get here. We came to be told the obvious. That’s clear now. You would expect me to be angry, wouldn’t you?’

‘Depends on the perspective. I crave the chance to walk for a day and be told the obvious. Frankly, you could tell me the obvious, or you could make the most profound reflection on life. It’s all the same to me, so long as the walk comes first.’ He laughed more and the woman heard it as the laugh of a man whose only freedom is the strength to name the lack of it. Hopelessness filled her and made her buoyant. She looked across at her lover, feeling for the second time that she might have been right.

But the lover was staring at the convict’s lips. ‘You didn’t say what my friend thought you said. Tell me what you mean.’

‘I don’t care where you stick your fingers. Do you think I haven’t played at home, living in this place so long without comfort? You are two women, I said. No wonder you think you have no right to stand on this earth and be seen. I’ve watched you lot long and hard. I don’t miss the side step of the wife on market day when her husband rushes to greet his rival; or the little girls who cry but yield their toys to their brothers. You are feeble creatures who will not take the space allowed you. Does a man waste his shoe leather to ask leave to love his angel? Does he doubt his right, though stones are pitched at him? You think you are not people. That is the centre of it. What are you then? Empty moulds? Silhouettes? Amateur players? Violin cases? Go pluck yourselves. I’ll not do it for you. And, sad to say, they wouldn’t let me anyhow.’

The women left the world of keys, the face of the jeering stranger glowing in the dark behind them. They stepped out of the shadow of the sheer prison wall and sank back down by the well in the centre of the town. The first woman was amazed to see her lover grinning through a fall of loosened hair and sunlight.

‘Do you believe what he said?’ she asked, still ragged with anger.

‘He’s not right about Man and Woman: that question is unfathomable. But he is right about us. We don’t believe we have a right to our own space. Look at the way you crawl the earth seeking the permission of others to love me. Look at the way I resist their opinions, hiding or fighting by turns, as if people cared about us to more that two minutes a month.’

The first woman would not accept this. She could not quieten her disappointment, as yet, and it shouted out all else. Her lover’s words seemed tangly and forlorn. ‘But we have to fight, we have to hide. What space do they allow us? Why can’t I get a proper answer? I have learned that I was a fool to seek one. That is my only achievement.’

Her lover saw that it was too early to speak, so they continued in silence, listening only to the sound of their boots marking the gravel as they walked. The second woman looked back at the trail they had left and stepped firmly, adding bright, wide footprints into the noonday sun. But the first scuffed and shuffled, fetching up the dust in coughs of dull brown, staring down at her feet not seeing their progress.

Again they stopped by the river to eat. The boots came off and the toes drank the water. ‘You are right,’ said the second woman. ‘It is your achievement to see that you won’t get your answer. But you don’t understand what you have learned.’

The first woman smiled. ‘Perhaps not, but I know you’re going to help me.’

‘We want the secret of being acceptable, or being normal. But there isn’t one. We want others to accept us as normal. We don’t know it so well, but we want to accept ourselves as normal. But it doesn’t matter. There are those who stuff themselves with normality. Men, according to him back there – although he would not interpret it that way. There are those who feel themselves empty of it. We, especially, have that feeling. Because of it we expect too much as the prize of being filled. If we could find someone who would accept us, then we would gain the prize. So we think. But it’s not true. For being normal is less than we hoped. Being normal is merely a question of self-reference. The illusion is many levelled: those that are wrong to think that they are acceptable; those who are wrong to think that they are not; and all combinations in between. To jump from the ladder of illusion you must forget that it exists. You must walk among people, not below or above them.’

‘Grand words.’ The first woman jumped up from the river, shattering the surface of the water and slashing her lover with its shards. She had sought enlightenment while the other had turned her back. Now this other woman, shaking drops from her blood-warmed arms, wanted to be her guru. She turned on her, gripping the arms, demanding: ‘Speak plainly!’

‘I just mean: you think other people have something that we don’t. Something we shouldn’t be denied. It’s true that we are denied many things. But this isn’t one of them. This no-one has.’

‘So, what do we do?’

‘Please ourselves.’

‘That’s an obliging message. We could have done that in the first place.’

‘No. That’s the point. No-one could have stopped us. But we thought they could, so we stopped ourselves.’

The angry woman picked up her bag and looked towards the road, her feet turning slowly to follow her eyes.

Her friend waited for her smile and then asked: ‘So: we return to the question you wanted answered in the beginning – and we conclude?’

‘Who knows? I suppose we have some power over the answer after all. Some small power. Not to know what it is, but to try for what we would like it to be. We could start with a kiss, I support. And see what follows.’