Happy Halloween, all! Yes, it’s not really celebrated here in Australia, but nonetheless, I thought I should commemorate the occasion by posting a never-published short story. I hope you enjoy it!
“The War On…”
(c) Martin Livings 2013
We lay in our narrow bunk beds, thin green blankets bundled up at our feet, sweating in the humid Cuban heat; thirty men to a dormitory, sorted and categorised, assigned to one another’s company according to our status in the grand scheme of things. The room is pitch black, the windows covered by steel shutters, turning the dorm into a sauna from hell, stinking of hot sweat and hot breath. And fear, of course, cold fear. That’s our raison d’etre, our stock in trade. It’s what we do. It’s what we are.
How could it happen? It’s a question that we’ve asked many times during our incarceration here in Gitmo, both of ourselves and each other. How could it happen? One tiny step following another, lines crossed, no looking back, a malicious whisper in the ear of the most powerful man in the world, and the next thing we know we’re rounded up, labelled troublemakers, scaremongers. To which our response was, of course, damn straight we are. You don’t use a spoon to cut a steak. You use a knife, a big old scary knife. The tool has to suit the job. Form follows function. You don’t like it, go fuck yourselves.
That didn’t go down at all well, of course, and we ended up here. A chain gang of horror writers.
The first few weeks were okay, almost like a holiday, a fantasy themed vacation where deprivation and abuse are included in the rack rate. But they’ve taken away the things that make us what we are, our typewriters and notepads, our pens and pencils. And, as much as we whined and complained about it in the real world, we live for the act of creating, of setting our imaginations free on paper. It’s not just an addiction, which is how the government is comfortable in labelling it, putting us through cold turkey withdrawal to get us clean and clear. No, it’s an utter necessity, more like defecation, shitting out the toxins and wastes inside us, smearing it onto the pages of our books, finger-painting with our own filth. It’s what we do. It’s what we are.
After a month or so, my fellow inmates began to fall apart.
Steve was the first, which is only fair, as he’s the king. One night he didn’t go to sleep, and he hasn’t slept since, screaming about devil cars and dark towers. They sedate him, which quietens him down, but he still doesn’t sleep anymore. His eyes are red and shining, filled with the blood of his visions; sometimes, even through the drugs, he’ll have long garbled conversations with people who aren’t there, priests and vampires, gunslingers and dead men. I love to listen to that; I find it soothing, like the murmur of the ocean.
We generally find Shaun in the tiny garden behind the dormitory, digging at the dirt with his hands, since we’re banned from using any tools. He’s looking for snails, you see. I’ve seen what he does to them, cracking them like they’re dark brown hard-boiled eggs, peeling away the shell until they’re naked to the world, grey balls of muscle and slime, then stretching them out, trying to flatten them, making them into the creatures he sees slithering in his head. If anyone tries to interfere, he eats them. The snails, that is. So far, at least.
The one I’m most worried about, to be honest, is Clive, god bless his Liverpudlian heart. A few weeks back, he chewed through his own wrists and began to work on a whole new book of blood on the dorm walls, tracing spirals within spirals, words and letters jumbled up and back to front like a dyslexic Da Vinci. They keep him in a straitjacket pretty much all the time now. He still tries, though, biting his tongue and spitting on the floor, divining terrible meaning in the random Rorschach splatters he creates.
That’s all we want, you know. To create, to express ourselves. It’s what we do.
Me, on the other hand, I’ve been a model prisoner. No screaming, no fits, no bloody outbursts of imagination. I eat my meals, I do my chores, I exercise regularly, and I sleep like a baby. The guards use me as an example, proof of their theory of addiction. They believe I’m on the path to good mental health. I smile, I nod, I agree. I let the weeks and months slip past. And, whenever I can, I work on my own creation, silent, unseen.
As I lay here on All Hallows Eve, my sweaty head on my inch-thick foam pillow, I can feel the bulge of the machete secreted beneath that I’ve so lovingly built, in the seconds and minutes of every day when I’m alone, unobserved. A moment to add the handle here, an instant of sharpening there… my patience is matched only by my determination. This work has been long in the making, but soon it will be complete.
A key rattles in the lock of the door; time for the midnight head count before shift change, same as every night. Almost the same, anyway.
I have this great idea for a story. It’s about a prisoner who lulls his guards into a false sense of security, only to slaughter them all one hot Cuban Halloween night. I’m not sure exactly how it will end, but isn’t that part of the joy of creativity? The surprises?
I reach under my pillow as the door creaks open. I hope the guards like surprises too.
I have to express myself. I have to create. It’s what I do. It’s what I am.