William Myrl Smitherman was awarded First Place in Fiction in the 2018 Prison Writing Contest.
Every year, hundreds of imprisoned people from around the country submit poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and dramatic works to PEN America’s Prison Writing Contest, one of the few outlets of free expression for the country’s incarcerated population. On September 13, PEN America will celebrate the winners of this year’s contest with a live reading at the Brooklyn Book Festival, Break Out: Voices from the Inside.
The shadow man first came to Richard on the day that he was raped. In memory, the two events conflate. So it is not that the shadows flowed out of the cracks in his spirit, like ants flowing out of a crack in the kitchen floor, or that what was done to him was done because he was already somehow ruined inside and therefore guilty. It was both.
It was Richard’s job to gather eggs in the morning. He wasn’t big enough to bring water in from the pump or do much else besides tangle in his mother’s night dress as she busied herself with breakfast. The coop was dark like the caves higher in the mountain where he wasn’t meant to be playing, dark like the secret places in himself and the echoing unknowns of behind-door adult choices. The coop was the mouth of a monster, stinking with a different stink in the dry and in the wet, clean with the filth of feathers and excess rubbish from the gentle raptors that resided there. He crouched to enter, though he was small enough to stand erect beneath the little door. He would try and surprise the birds, but he couldn’t. They clucked and bawked at him like they had seen it before and he was no one anyhow so why bother.
Acrid and acid with the straw in need of changing and the closed close air of the monster’s throat, warm despite the chill of night. It assailed him with all that was familiar and certain and safe. This was a thing both necessary and enjoyed, a prelude to the flaking half-baked biscuits with a drizzle of fresh honey. The birds looked to him and he to them as a sign that the day was soon arriving.
In the predawn unlight, he navigated by touch as rough wood gave way to yielding pulsing layers and admonitory clucks before his hand closed around the firm ovoid and grey black prizes. The sun had yet to pierce the slats of the coop and transform them into brown or speckled shells. He piled them in a basket. The birds knew him, and he had named them all—Fatbutt and No Bones and Charlie—and they responded to his coos and calls as he made his round in the warm throat of the beast.
Out of the darkness he came, bearing treasures into the kitchen where the slate wreath of dawn had just begun to penetrate. Daddy was asleep and would remain so until midday, and Uncle Fred, who couldn’t find a home of his own or a family to keep there, had gone out the night before and not returned. It was a perfect morning, and Richard washed his hands and face without complaining that one or the other would have been sufficient. Daddy had fashioned a chair so Richard could sit high at the table like the adults did. He had made the table as well and the cabinets and sundry other artifacts unbeautiful but clean and robust because he was a maker of things and not an artist, and there was a timeless difference between the two. Daddy was a carpenter, but today was Saturday and there would be no going into town.
How it was that birds took in feed and produced food was as miraculous and commonplace as the way seeds grew into saplings, into tender creaking giants into splintery play castles, into mulch, and seeds, and soil. These were facts of the world not to be questioned, as fundamental as mother cooking breakfast or daddy sleeping in or why he had to ride into town to go to school while the other children seemed to live there.
The eggs were fried beside the biscuits, an enormous plate wider than his outstretched hands. He ate it because he was a hero and would need his strength one day if he was going to be a man alone living in the mountain with the bears. When he was finished he helped his mother with the clearing. She ate standing by the stove because a mother’s schedule did not permit for chairs. He swept out from under her feet so he could sweep the porch as he did every morning as the sun warmed the gravid swollen earth, and he watched for black snakes. The dark beneath the house had given birth once before at his urging to a line of shimmering shade that vanished in the grass and made him gape with wonder.
The car, without its dusty roar, was silent in the open shed beside the house, beside the tools and rusted cans with their jags of wounding teeth. Richard used the broom to check beneath the car for snakes, stymied again for the dark was greedy and unwilling to create. Chores finished, the morning was still fresh and he knew the mountain would be coming slow alive.
He went ranging in the woods beyond his house, the gentle rise of moss-ribboned soil and stones exposed like bones of ancient and forgotten things. The trees were vast and immemorial ponderers of skyline that welcomed him with grazing leaves and the scents of rich decay. He crawled among the roots, a vole searching for a meal, a serpent birthing out of shadow, hungry as the nothing it was made within. In the forest, as in darkness, there were always some things darting in the corners of his eyes: animal, or man, or angels people prayed to. Birds unlike his cluckers raced riffing peals of song among the elder boughs. He has tried to catch them many times, no different than to try to catch their voices in his hands. Still he climbs, willful and uncaring of the danger, without courage but with glowing ignorance of evil and of wrong. His hands cling to rough bark and shaking limb, tug at shaking limb to draw him up as high as nests and dreams. He is not a fox or serpent simple in its hungers; he is a man who longs for ownership with all its viscous, vicious consequences. Steady till the branch below him cracks and he must shimmy backward out of reach of those most potent promises. He knows the eggs up high will one day hatch to singing wonders, while the ones he catches in his basket give life to his breakfast alone. He has planted them before in holes that the mysterious powers of dark and soil would raise a sapling from the egg. They never do.
Somehow the soil knows the nature of what is hid within so that it makes seeds into trees and eggs into birds but not all eggs. The soil watches him like the birds do. It knows him like they do. The trees are friendly even when they scratch his hands, and they love him and he them because they are his friends and they would tell him if there was something wrong. The shadows flitting in the corners of his eyes want to tell him something different. He doesn’t listen to them. The smell of good decay is not so different from the smell of bad, and sometimes poison germs inside of sweet raw eggs make him sick, so he doesn’t eat them raw no more except when he is hungry.
He has lived this way forever, and it will never change.
A fox was in the woods today, or he thought he saw a fox. He had to climb to see it clearly, and it flees when he comes near. The shadow underneath it flies farther than a hair in the wind, and it looks back at him as if to ask why he doesn’t follow so he does.
The fox is sure and quick, and him, with the handicap of human hands and feet, stumbling over rocks and tearing through unhappy brambles. The fox and the boy have not met, but they are not afraid to meet because the cracks in the clay of their spirits that make strangers horrible have yet to harden into permanence.
The fox escapes when the forest breaks, vanishing into grass. It has led him to a place he knows he should not be. There is a massive stump in the clearing, with a lid fashioned by his father’s hand, serviceable, durable, without flourish. There is water in the stump that makes his daddy and his Uncle Fred sick, though they drink it anyway. His uncle is lying on the ground beside the stump, and he looks dead like an egg from the cluckers.
Richard goes to him.
Uncle Fred doesn’t move when Richard comes near, so he looks inside the stump. The lid isn’t all the way shut, and he can smell the poison of decay and sharp cool liquid that he knows he should not touch.
“Wanna try it?” His uncle is still on the ground with his eyes open and glassy and his mouth moves like a corpse’s mouth releasing gas. “Nobody here but us.”
Richard didn’t say anything, didn’t leave either, and that was choice enough. Fred dipped a wooden mug into the still and brought clear liquid out of the darkness. He pressed it against Richard’s mouth and grabbed his shoulder so he couldn’t twist away. The liquid was cool, and it burned his throat so bad he coughed and spilled it.
“Look what you did,” Uncle Fred said. “You’re a damn mess.” He made Richard drink it until he started to cry and his head was hot with fuzz and bees.
“This isn’t what you wanted?” Uncle Fred smelled like the bad sort of decay. “Why’d you come out here then?”
He drew Richard to him into the enveloping pungency of drink and stale sweat. Richard was afraid to move. His uncle seemed to sleep again, with his arm around him as immovable as the earth beneath reminding him that he was a child who was powerless when adults chose to make him so. Then a hand was on his leg, and the hot breath on the back of his head was telling him to lie still.
Once, Richard had touched the stove while it was hot from cooking and burned his fingers so they swelled and filled with liquid clear as that in the still. So it was true that the darkness inside of him was the same as the darkness of the stump in the woods, because they made the same things. He remembered that flame, how bright it had felt like a flash of light that filled his whole body with the spark to run and how he had cried because he was little then and it was alright for little ones to cry. Touching fire may have been his first memory; and it was converging with the present instance, which was a future memory, like a scar in the wet lightning of his skull.
His pants were down. The fire filled him and tore him, and he could not pull his hand away this time. When it was finished, Uncle Fred said he was doing it to punish Richard for being willful and drinking from the still when he knew he wasn’t meant to, and he wasn’t to tell his mom or dad because if dad found out he would have to punish Richard just like Fred had done and mom would tell dad he knew because she always told if he pushed her or hit her she would tell him anything he wanted. But he could tell them, Uncle Fred would, so they understand he had already been punished enough and didn’t need no more. Wait a while and come on home and everything would work out fine.
His uncle left him beside the still, laying in the grass on his side with his pants crumpled around his feet, and he continued to lay there waiting for the burning to stop but it was worse than the time he had touched the stove because it didn’t stop and he couldn’t even see that part of himself to know if it was blistering because it was supposed to be dark there.
One of his shadows was standing at the edge of the clearing plain as if it were a man. Why he could see it now and not before when it had always been on the edge of his eyes was a question in want of an answer. But when he looked away and back it remained, and he knew it would follow him home.
Richard was sick beside the still. Then he felt himself, and there was blood. So he rinsed in a rill that ran above the house where he had caught a minnow once by letting it swim into his hands. The day was changing, and its strength was like the strength of adults in that there was nothing you could do about it and you had to make adjustments. This was still his mountain, and his life was in the earth. He thought about burying himself somehow so that he would be like the eggs that he had buried, dead and sick inside with no roots growing because the soil knew what was good and meant to grow, like seeds, which he wasn’t.
It was afternoon when he made his way back down to the house. The trees would not speak to him. His father said nothing, but cuffed him hard so that he stumbled. His mother looked at him and shook her head and told him to get washed up and go to bed without his supper. Minutes later, or maybe longer, he was laying on his side again with a rag for the bleeding. He didn’t want to make a mess of his bedding and be in more trouble. The darkness welled around him with a heavy mass of bitter shadows, comforting and comfortless. They had seen it and they had not saved him because he deserved it. Because he was guilty, they could show him what they truly were—the shades of his own sin, the missed prayers and stolen eggs buried in the ground, the curses he’d repeated, and the thoughts he wasn’t meant to have—and they told him it wasn’t over. Because he had been punished meant he would be punished again. He had not changed, he would not grow, he was the thing that died when it was born and hid beneath the shadows of the porch and vanished in the grass.