Hel

It’s hard not to feel bad for the prisoners, but I guess that’s because I don’t know what they did to get in here. When they turn doleful eyes to you or say they miss their family, you don’t think about what the prisoners broke in order to end up in here. It’s really a lot easier to imagine a hypothetical dining room table with an empty seat in some faraway place than it is to imagine some heinous crime in progress.

I asked my sister if she felt sorry for them, and she said, don’t you watch the news? I don’t know what that means. I guess she means I should be looking at the horrific headlines and thinking about justice and how we keep those headlines from happening again. But that’s not really true, is it? Most of these guys committed crimes I’ll bet you’ve never heard of.

***

My sister and I were recruited out of high school. I still remember the day that the recruiters came into my class. They hadn’t said they were recruiters, then. They’d said they were there with the Department of Health and they were going to give us all fluoride to gargle like they did every year. Then they set down the tiny paper cups on each desk and waited. Ms. Tepke had tipped hers back first, then frowned at the front row of students until they did the same. I was all set to do the same.

But the cups were empty. I had glanced up to see if mine was the only one, but no, they were all just little hollow paper cups with crimped edges, looking like so many tiny cupcake wrappers. When Ms. Tepke saw that mine was untouched, she asked is your mouth too clean for fluoride, Gillian? When I’d told her there was nothing in it, everyone in class had stared at me. I was sort of used to that.

Ms. Tepke had told me I could at least come up with a fake allergy if I didn’t want to drink the mouthwash. I offered to drink it as soon as they filled it. They never did.

***

There is this one prisoner in the south wing who doesn’t ever seem to eat. He’s a big guy, and the first time I saw him, I thought about what it would be like to try to hug his giant barrel chest. It’s not that his face looks particularly friendly — he’s all jaw and frustration — but sometimes, I get an almost unbearable urge to touch someone to see what they feel like. Like, I’ll be sitting next to a stranger on the bus and she’ll have pouchy eyes and very violet lips and I think about putting my finger on the skin under her eyes to see what it feels like. Of course I don’t. But I think about it. Sometimes I worry that I’ll be sleepy and distracted and I’ll actually do it before I think to stop myself.

But I won’t forget myself with the prisoner in the south wing.

I don’t really understand his sentence. Every morning we are to bring him a tray of food. He pushes heavily to his feet, chains jingling incongruously, his stride dutiful as he approaches, as if he thinks that today will be the day he gets his pudding and fruit cup. But every morning we’ve put it just out of reach. His finger tips almost brush the edge of the beige plastic tray as his hand sweeps hopefully out. Sometimes they can actually touch it, and when he reaches for the tray, the act of touching it pushes it completely out of his reach.

That’s when we get the doleful eyes. He asks for just the fruit cup. He says he has never seen anything as nice as that pudding. He touches his ribs and says, it hurts just here. He asks, have you ever been hungry?

Of course everyone’s been hungry. The question is really too obvious, too clearly a plea for sympathy. I feel worse for the ones who talk about their kids. That’s still pretty clearly an attempt at manipulation, but you have to remind yourself it is when sympathy begins to sting.

Still, I wonder what the burly man did.

***

After I refused to drink the empty cup of fluoride, I was taken from the classroom and made to sit by myself in the nurse’s office. The office was a depressing place. The only color in the room was a poster describing the school’s policy about sexual harassment. Our all-girls’ school was a bit psychotic about it; no male staff member or visitor was allowed to touch a student, even to shake hands. I stared at the poster until the words didn’t make sense and wondered if I was really in trouble for not pretending to drink fluoride. After awhile, Ms. Tepke and a man came in. The man placed three smooth rocks on the table in front of me. He asked me to hide one of them somewhere in the room, somewhere he could never get it.

But he didn’t close his eyes for me to hide it. I think he meant for me to believe that he did, but I could see he was still looking with one eye. When I thought about it, I didn’t think he’d ever been actually focused on me with the other eye at all — I think maybe he was blind in it.

Under his one-eyed gaze, I picked the stone in the middle — it was flat and smooth, like a piece of gum squashed under your tongue — and put the stone in my mouth.

The man sounded contemptuous when he told me that he knew where I put the rock and that he could get to it easily and was that all the better I could do?

I pointed to the poster on the wall.

***

I think of the south wing of the prison as the bloody wing. The prisoners here all tend to have gruesome sentences. One of them has a split tongue that never heals. Another lives in a cell constantly searing with heat. Another one balances a rigid, storm-colored weight on his blistered back.

One of the prisoners cries all the time. In his defense, one of the wardens cuts his liver out every afternoon and he has to spend all night re-growing it. I think about him every time I get a bruise or paper cut. It should make me feel less sorry for myself. Sometimes it works.
 
When I first came to the prison and saw the bloody wing, I asked if we had a medical staff, and they laughed at me. It took me a while to realize that no one ever died here. Sometimes I think that’s part of their sentences.

***

I spent so much time in the nurse’s office that I missed Geometry, and the day that the fake Department of Health people came, we had a test in Geometry.

The one-eyed man left the office with the remaining rocks that I hadn’t hidden and returned with my blank Geometry test. It had a big F on the top of it. I do not get Fs. The one-eyed man told me I hadn’t attended Geometry, so I had failed, and what did I think about that? I took a moment to remove the rock from my mouth and I confessed that I thought it sucked. He said, do you think they should give you another grade? I didn’t see how that could do that unless they made one up, and I told him so. Maybe I should get another chance at it, but it didn’t change the fact that this geometry test was blank and clearly worth a zero. The one-eyed man said that was very fair of me.

I resisted reaching to touch his blind eye. Even if it didn’t see, it could probably still feel, and who wanted someone to touch their eyeball? I told the man it wasn’t about being fair. It was just facts.

That was when he told me he had a job offer for me.

***

The most horrible sentence that I’ve seen at the prison belongs to prisoner S. His room is the largest in the prison; the entire east wing. It’s one long, echoing room, all cinder blocks and concrete floor and, in the middle of it, a boy sitting cross-legged, paint spattered and smeared across his grey jumpsuit. Prisoner S.

Every day we bring him a pan of paint and a roller and we undo his chains and he thanks us in his polite way. Then he begins to paint the walls with the new color. Orange over yellow over blue over white. If he can paint the entire room with his daily ration of paint before we come to chain him again, he has served his sentence and he can go.

He never complains, Prisoner S. Every day he picks up the roller as if it is the first day he’s seen it. With his foot, he pushes the paint tray beside him as he progresses along the wall. The cinder blocks stretch out in front of him. He is like the prison clock, the edge of the paint marking the hours of the day.

Of course he can’t paint the whole room himself. The walls are rainbow striped studies of impossibility.

I’m not certain why I feel the worst about Prisoner S. Certainly his sentence isn’t the most physically painful — he, at least, gets to keep his liver. And he’s never told me about his kids or his home. He’s never cast a single doleful look in my direction. All Prisoner S. does is thank us for his paint, weigh the roller in his hand like he needs to test its balance, and get to work.

And I think that’s what makes it the worst. It’s like he thinks he deserves it.

Maybe he does.

***

I asked my sister if she knew what Prisoner S. had done to get his sentence, but she didn’t know. She said she was sure it was fair.

Of course I agreed with her. If I didn’t, I couldn’t work at the prison. The fact that our work was fair payment for foul deeds performed was what made us the good guys. And I was okay with that, most days. It was only the days when I had to walk across the long, long room to Prisoner S. and unchain him that I faltered a bit.

One day, when I went to uncuff him, I noticed his palms. His hands were lined; older than the rest of him, somehow. The palms of them looked leathery.

Without thinking, I reached to touch them.

Prisoner S. didn’t move as I ran a finger along his split life line. His skin was every bit as rough and cool as I’d expected. I swallowed quickly and turned to get the paint.

He said, thank you, ma’am, and picked up the paint roller. I didn’t need to stay behind to know that he was weighing it in his hand, looking at it with consideration, as he did, every day. 

I wasn’t sure that fair was good enough. Just because you deserved something didn’t mean you had to get it in full measure, did it?

***

I had been working at the prison for ten years when I came quietly into Prisoner S.’s cell with my breath coming out in fast puffs. He looked no different; neither did I. The wardens only ever seemed to age when we left the prison, and our work weeks were long.

I unchained him and I pushed the paint towards him. Today it was the color of the sky without rain.

Prisoner S. looked at the paint tray and the two rollers laying beside it. There was confusion in his expression.

“One for me,” I said.

He told me that if they caught me helping, I would be punished.

I was sure the punishment would be fair.

***

Author’s note: Greek and Norse and Roman men behaving badly.

image courtesy: JDhyre

109 thoughts on “Hel

  1. I think this one might be my new favourite. I love the slow slide into mythology and the way the pace of the piece is so measured. And I loved the part about the mouthwash and poster.

    Simple and perfect, really.

  2. THANK YOU. I was really uncertain about this one; sometimes we cross over the line into weird and I’m never sure how far over the line is TOO FAR for people to follow.

  3. You know, I think it’s why I like it so much. It’s weird…and it leaves you wondering but kind of scared to at the same time….

  4. Oh, wow. I really like it and I’m dying to know what Prisoner S did. There’s just something so… appealing about someone who believes they deserve to suffer.

  5. << but sometimes, I get an almost unbearable urge to touch someone to see what they feel like. Like, I’ll be sitting next to a stranger on the bus and she’ll have pouchy eyes and very violet lips and I think about putting my finger on the skin under her eyes to see what it feels like. Of course I don’t. But I think about it. Sometimes I worry that I’ll be sleepy and distracted and I’ll actually do it before I think to stop myself. >>

    shit, i do this all the time. being tiny and adorable gets me out of a lot of trouble, but i still get into plenty.

  6. One’s personal hell can be seeing others in theirs.

    You pulled me right in with this one.

  7. I really really enjoyed this story! I didn’t think it was weird so much as dream-like. It seemed sort of ethereal to me, if that makes sense. Almost as if, like the MC, if you tried to reach out and touch it, the whole world might disappear. Really quite beautiful.

  8. I never know what kind of story you’re going to come up with next, but I love that! You have this beautiful ability to switch genres, and this way of making me love whatever you write! I love the modernized Greek mythology πŸ™‚

  9. Fabulous. And now, I’m trying to figure out who is who.

    That is the deliciously naughty thing about Tartarus or the Inferno chapter of The Divine Comedy–the punishments dealt out.

  10. Wow Maggie – this one scared me… right until I was pleasantly surprised… reminds me of Gaiman in a way… love his writing too!
    Jill ( with the hamster named Sam who should be named Cole )

  11. to be honest, i’d really love to see what you write when you don’t worry about the line.

  12. I really love how she chooses to help him,and the characters
    way of thinking.Your very awesome.

  13. It would be dystopian, I would imagine, and probably involve Musicians Behaving Badly with Random God/Goddess Appearances.

  14. My kid’s teacher says that she “touches people’s heads.” I suspect I know where she got this from.

  15. It’s one of the things that I really like about Merry Sisters — no boundaries, here, and short format, so we can really pull out the stops and play and not have to worry about doing 80,000 more words just like it.

  16. i’m 29, i’m pretty certain that “tiny and adorable” will stop saving me very, very soon. whoops.

  17. Oh, I can see the Gaimanesque — he has a way of doing cameos with Important Figures, much like Diana Wynne Jones, another favorite.

    So wait, you have an egotistical self destructive hamster? I demand photos. Or video.

  18. i’m sure i’d dig it. every single time i’ve seen any of you comment along the lines of “i was worried this would be too weird”, it hadn’t even started to delve into weird for me. i’d adore seeing where it could go.

  19. Love this! Still deciphering some of the mythological references – definately worth a reread.

  20. I like the voice in this one – soft, determined, not quite detached enough. It makes the ending perfect. I went to the Dante place right quick, then realized you’d covered more territory than that, but it was all familiar, comfortably uncomfortable. The last line is killer.

  21. Having just finished reading the Inferno (and the epic poetry it was based on), I can appreciate this so much.

    Love!

  22. Ahhhh, I definitely love the Merry Fates. Excellent story, Maggie! I couldn’t stop reading.

    -Bea

  23. Ooh, interesting! (And not just ’cause I’m a sucker for mythology.) I couldn’t help but be drawn further and further into the story, trying to piece everything together and figure out exactly what was going on. I love how all the elements pulled together in the end like they did. πŸ™‚

  24. That’s fascinating. I really like the narrator’s voice; it’s so matter-of-fact and logical, in the face of all these strange people and strange things. Wonderful use of mythology. Thank you!

  25. wow…this is not weird at all, that’s the beauty of it the weirdness worked! I was so drawn in that although it sounded familiar, i didn’t make the connection to Greek Mythology until it was very very obvious…this kind of reminds me of Angela Carter, where she retells tales but makes them her own…it’s a real talent and i admire you for that! Have you ever thought of releasing some of the stories from here in an anthology? Not just you, but the other sisters?

  26. The fact that our work was fair payment for foul deeds performed was what made us the good guys.

    This is just chilling!

  27. Thanks! There was a point in the writing where I wasn’t entirely certain they WERE all going to pull together but then I wrestled it to the ground.

  28. Why, yes. And I’m very pleased to think there might be at least one person who will read it!

    Now I have to go look up Angela Carter . . .

  29. Angela Carter is one of my favorites and thank you for pointing that out Sarahjane.

    I love!! the story. I enjoyed the myth telling in a different ways and especially enjoyed the way the mouthwash storyline was weaved into the prison storyline.

    The narrator’s voice was also a great balance between a child’s voice with limited knowledge but very introspective so she could say with authority.

  30. Wow. Just… wow.

    Love Greek mythology so much, and I haven’t done much reading on Norse, but still. This was amazing. Just… alskhdf;alkdjfal;kdfj

    It made me really happy when I recognised some of the myths and punishments.

    I don’t know. This is just awesome.

  31. Brilliant…and I personally think tons of people will read it. I mean if an anthology was released i would reccomend it to almost everyone i know, if only to reinforce the point good literature doesn’t have to be 100,000 words long.

    As for Angela Carter, she’s a little like Neil Gaiman. (I think thats a good contemporary comparison)But yeah, she takes… fairy tales mainly, and rewrites them, like Gaiman, in a way thats feminist, magical realist, picaresque and science fiction…to paraphrase wikipedia. I kind of don’t want to say anymore in case you are interested and i ruin it. But if you are if you are I reccomend her collection of short fiction, The Bloody Chamber….. and if not, you can just completely ignore this comment.

  32. Thank you for this. It was a joy to read, and puzzle out, and amazingly written. Very nice work. πŸ™‚

  33. Ahahahah!!! This wouldn’t be so funny if I hadn’t been thinking that EXACT SAME THING as I wrote it.

  34. I love the way she passed the hiding-the-rock test. For a second, I didn’t get why she was pointing at the poster, and then it clicked. Very clever!

    I also like how matter-of-fact the tone is, and that you don’t explain what kind of world/future this is — you let the facts speak for themselves, and let the reader piece the facts together as they go along. Even by the end, the lack of a full exposition doesn’t bother me — I feel like I’ve gotten as much information as I need to understand the story.

    Random note: As soon as you introduced the man in the nurse’s office, I couldn’t help thinking of Smith from The Matrix. I can imagine his monotone voice sneering, “I can easily get the rock from you. Is that the best you’ve got?” LOL πŸ™‚

  35. Oh haha, Smith.

    I was playing with the info withholding game in this one, like one of my favorite authors, Diana Wynne Jones. The question is HOW MUCH CAN YOU NOT SAY and people still go along with you?

    So thanks!

  36. Ha! Like I will tell you! (although there is a full Wikipedia entry on it if you know who he is).

    Also, thanks.

  37. I didn’t realize I was holding my breath until I said “wow!” at the end of the story with whoosh of air!
    I liked your description of “he’s all jaw and frustration” that fits most typical criminals and their antagonistic attitudes. The rhythm and the unknown direction of the story was tense and engaging. Her willingness to do her job for so long and then deciding to make a stand with her actions and her ending statement reminded me a little of Katniss from Hunger Games.
    I loved it and I think you should always push “the lines” Maggie, even if we don’t like it, I believe it will keep open your mind to new possibilities.

  38. Well done!

    I should try that — it sounds like a great way to avoid over-exposition (one of my biggest pet peeves is awkward exposition, especially expositioney dialogue). And I hear so much good about Diana Wynne Jones! I’ll have to read more of her stuff, especially Howl’s Moving Castle.

  39. Thanks for the reminder to push the boundaries. I KNOW MF is a “safe space” to experiment but it’s easy to forget.

  40. Ah! Thank you! So tessagratton and I were discussing Angela Carter and I swear that I’ve read The Bloody Chamber, so my ignorance was unfounded, apparently . . .

  41. I definitely have read The Bloody Chamber, now that I’ve looked it up, and one of her Beauty and the Beasts, but I’m not sure how I read those and missed all the others!

    And thank you re: the anthology. That means a TON.

  42. My favorite of hers is Fire and Hemlock, but it’s very much a cult sort of thing — either you love it or you just scratch your head and say “I had to have been there, I guess.”

  43. “I pointed to the poster on the wall.” Loved that line. Very clever girl.

    I smiled when you mentioned the prisoner with the liver sentence. I like subtle hints and that was the first one I connected, lol! πŸ™‚

  44. This sounds like something I would do. πŸ™‚ The idea of whether or not punishment is fair is definitely food for thought and I absolutely loved reading this.

  45. I love this. So much. It as simple, the writing style was clean, and I really liked the Β¨factsΒ¨ and the recruitment. The ending made me smile very big, and, seriously, this was beautiful. πŸ™‚

  46. I felt like it was waaaay too obvious, but that’s my big fault when writing . . . hiding things from readers!

  47. Ah, thank you! It was hard to get the structure to seem obvious, so I’m very pleased that it did.

  48. If you hadn’t mentioned the liver (Prometheus is one of my favorites) I probably wouldn’t have connected the others(well, maybe Prisoner S). It might be obvious to someone who knows mythology a little better, but I thought it was plenty subtle. πŸ™‚

  49. I know what you mean! I read some of Angela Carter’s stuff ages ago, decided to do a paper on it and i keep finding new books…my book store loves me at the moment, my shelves don’t though.

    Do you have any plans to re-tell fairy tales?

    As for the anthology, well you say that now. I bet a lot of people read your anthology comment and are now thinking “woo!”…which will mean more work for you guys. Although you all obviously love writing ( I understand the appeal, it’s part of my degree, a way to do something i loved, in the guise of work) so hopefully it won’t be too much work writing, and hopefully the selection process won’t be too bad either…if it is, well, i’ll be willing to buy a follow up if it helps your decision making?!

  50. Just had the opportunity to read this as a break from the almost-Sisyphean task (oh, my wit!) of working on end-of-semester tests and projects. Very nice and unsettling. Though I know it’s about the mythology, I also can see the story eliciting discussion about our penal institutions and what we define as just punishment for certain crimes.

    Now back to the boulder, errr, grind. πŸ™‚

  51. Maybe .52 seconds for Sisyphus and a bit longer for the others. πŸ™‚ In case you ever want a fun and nerdy mythology-based gift for someone, check out the Sisyphus watch from the Unemployed Philosphers’ Guild. They also have a clock version.

    http://www.philosophersguild.com/index.lasso?page_mode=Product_Detail&item=0261

    Almost everything in their catalog is HILARIOUS. I gave their Shakespearean insults mug to my sister and the disappearing civil liberties mug to my father one Christmas.

  52. I loved this! I was on my way somewhere else on LJ and it sucked me straight in. More please?

  53. Thank you! A double compliment as it assumes that there have been MORE than one brilliant one. πŸ™‚

  54. This is a great story!
    And I adore the end! You should keep writing stuff like this!
    πŸ™‚

  55. Your narration style never ceases to amaze. There’s something matter-of-fact (and kind of sly) about your presentation of these fantastical scenarios that deeply appeals to practical-headed me. I just can’t get enough.

    If I could come up with the stories, I think I’d write like you. πŸ™‚

  56. I’m going through and reading some of the older stories on the site since I was a bit of a latecomer, and gems like this are exactly why! Maggie, I love it when you cross the line of weird, and you know just how far to go. The narrator’s voice was almost intoxicating; I could read her all day. I loved getting lost in this world!

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