The Prisoner (Short Story)

The prison had existed for the sake of the prisoner. The prison had not been for life but life itself, for the prisoner had never known any other. We admit it had been bare, that the prisoner had been a little thinner than his mattress: but because the prisoner had never known the infinitude of the outside world it should have been sufficient. If the prisoner had been capable of putting words to his feelings, he may even have said that the prison’s routines were comforting. We can imagine that, when on Monday his tray had filled with mushroom soup, three slices bread on side; on Tuesday, spaghetti bolognese; on Wednesday, chicken curry; and on the remaining days the corresponding meals, the predictability must have been considerable. Lucky man. Of course, we can only judge by appearances: how his meal was eaten with relish no matter what had been served, how afterwards his hands would dangle by his sides, languid with satiation, a fork and knife sucked clean limp between his fingers – the simple states of a simple prisoner, happy as a well-kept lamb. The people outside are prisoners to the future, unsure of its direction, anxious if their actions correspond to its plans; but the prisoner had been free of such doubts, his future had been secure, predetermined by the wardens, his actions guided by the daily timetable day on day on day. We remember how the prisoner’s vigorous young hand would point to his tray after the meal, asking for more. Most people don’t get something for nothing, but the prisoner always got his. We cared. That hand, when wiped clean by the other, would then tap the table in triple time: triple time, a sure sign of happiness and content. Restlessness? Impossible, he got his exercise. Thirty minutes a day, jogging on the spot: no wonder he had such an appetite.

It is such a shame I have to write this report, for he had been a model prisoner: a clockwork model. He should have been happy. With so small a grasp of words, he should have been free of higher thoughts; free of higher thoughts, he should have been free of negative thoughts, beyond the occasional awareness of a lack of warmth or food, all of which we granted him during his remaining existence. As for the profound misery caused by a belief in higher ideals, always higher than the reach of humanity, we had assumed he had been free of their self-imposed shackles! But the prisoner must have become captive to their metaphysical utopias, which he must have believed existed outside his prison; although he was treated no differently than the others, he must have become dissatisfied.

We remember. Oh, ideals without thoughts, thoughts without words, words without meaning, how they must have made his youthful hands jig and dance up the stones of our prison’s walls, our solid walls, grabbling at their crevices, now forever to be grabbling dissatisfied, up, up, to the vertiginous heights of human freedom – our model prisoner, oh! He had fallen, almost breaking his wretched neck on the other side; but off he rushed, restless with ideals, he knew not where. Freedom, a world without walls, millions of choices made from millions of possibilities day on day on day. Regrets and claustrophobia! We made the bars straight, we made the cells small: we tried to protect you, prisoner!