A Beginner's Guide to Hieroglyphs
"They had gardens, they had mornings in those days!" — “Souvenir of the Ancient World,” Carlos Drummond de Andrade, translated by Mark Strand
1. late summer
Light from the most distant galaxy reached us last fall—blue with silver-white and blue-on-blue stars blinking in alive on-off. As if light is made of voices, a chorus of call and answer. Surrounded by night: azure, turquoise, powder, true, electric, sapphire, cornflower, cobalt, aquamarine—so much blue, as if it comes from there. Some of the stars perfect crosses with globe centers; some fractured windshields, white slashed as if something is being crossed out. But the slashes just make it brighter. This light took 13.1 billion years to get here, to see this far away.
On the bay side of the prison, we’re not bricked in. At night, after dinner and before lights out, I can walk with my notebook from the main house through the woods to the shore. A clear view of the night sky. Above my left anklebone, a metal band with its embedded green blink. Dig my heels down into cool sand, draw the blue galaxy in navy pen. Press hard for some stars, shade others. Talk back to the light. Blue Galaxy is my first hieroglyph.
When I was a child, my father taught me to draw the old ones. Begin with the head of an Egyptian vulture. Draw the feathers fanned by a breeze. Then, a Flowering Reed. Arm including the hand, as if to shake. Water jagged. Mouth open slightly. Courtyard an easy labyrinth. The Placenta striated. Head of the Cobra raised. What word can I make with Cobra? I’d asked. First learn to draw it, my father said. The Heart is not romantic—tubular, palm-shaped. Animal heavy. Fence looks like a means of keeping score. The Life Preserver is made of papyrus and worn over the shoulder of the boatman.
We’re a model debtors’ prison. When I was brought here, the old almshouse had already been repurposed to house and provide on-site repayment plans for local student loan defaulters. My family has lived in this town, and the one next door, always. On my grandmother’s side, her great grandfather times three, died here in this almshouse at ninety years old. 1837. Almost three hundred years ago. Last of the South Yarmouth tribe. One disease after another, until an outbreak of smallpox killed every remaining full-blooded Wampanoag, except him. Bass River land taken in 1779 by a Writ of Ejectment. The last teepee gone. He became a self-educated lawyer, kept calling on the Selectman, asking for his land back. Tried just living on his land, too, but got fined. From here, you can see the losing game. I’m right back here, where he died.
Where he’s buried, no one knows. Maybe out here in the woods with me. Maybe the pond where he lived prior to the almshouse. Greenough’s Pond, named after him. Thomas Greenough, his name all I have of him. Maybe his children brought his body back to Bass River, secretly buried him on his land.
I like thinking he’s here with me. That I’m not alone. For my student loan repayment plan, I chose Old Tyme Justice Village. Living history, but Old Tyme Justice focuses on retribution. Crime and punishment/repayment. An offshoot of debt, but debt alone isn’t colorful enough to bring crowds. If Old Tyme didn’t pay, we’d have to choose a less pleasant repayment plan like working the Disassembly Line. Or worse, become an Animal.
Right now, I work in the subset of Old Tyme Truth-Telling (or True Lyfe Justice, depending on who you’re talking to). This Tourist Experience Production is called SWIMMING. Right here on the water where the blue galaxy light arrives. Invisible in the day, when I take on the role of Gretchen Thankful, suspected witch. She was alive when Thomas Greenough was young. I wonder if they passed on the street. Saw each other.
The first show of SWIMMING is at 10 a.m., another at 1 p.m., another at 4. It doesn’t really work after dark. We’ve tried it with floodlights, but it’s tough to see bodies in black water. Actors show up at 8 a.m. at the water’s edge—Townspeople (including Hestibel), Ancient Women, Two Men to Tie the Ropes, Chaplain, and Gretchen Thankful. I get more points toward repayment than anyone else in this group because I’ve got the main role. But I can tell you, it’s no picnic. I try to amp it up, improvise. We’re popular. But you’ve got to keep momentum.
When the tourists arrive, they’re herded to stand in the sand with the Townspeople. Helps to create mob mentality. I’d risen at 6 a.m. to retrieve my get-up from the costume closet. Linen stay, stockings, cap, plain pocket at my hip for the keys I don’t have, underpetticoat, rust-colored petticoat, pewter short gown. Gretchen Thankful couldn’t have afforded an actual cotton dress, but I have one (dirt brown), as the crowd likes the extended striptease an additional garment affords. White kerchief thick as a diaper around my neck. I think it might be a diaper. We’re not totally authentic, but we make up for it in drummed-up bloodlust. Tie my heavy work apron. Straw hat on, buckle my shoes.
I’m the main tour guide, except when I’m drowning. “When the crowd came for Gretchen Thankful,” I declaim from my diaphragm, “she’d had no axe, knife, halberd, spearhead. No copper, turquoise, malachite laid into bronze. No bird language along the blade of an ancient Chinese weapon.” End of summer, sweat trickles under my gowns and coats. Faces in the Crowd shine. Sun halfway up the blue sky. Next stop on the tour will be Liquidations Cafe. “I went to school with him,” I say, pointing to the handsomer of the Two Men to Tie the Ropes. “Known him all my life. As a child, he burned his finger on an iron. High-stepped the pain away by running in circles around the room. Men had stopped hammering then to watch, laugh.” The Crowd of tourists and Townspeople chuckle. “But I never did.”
“Hmm…” the Crowd is murmuring.
“She took the high ground,” a girl says.
“The handsomer of the Two Men was among those who marched me down the town road, past the marsh and the woods, to this shore. Your women didn’t like that I wore pants in the field. They said I wasn’t plain enough, and therefore vain.” The Crowd, quiet, appraises her. Is she a temptress under those bulky layers of tablecloths? “You say your cows went dry on my account. That your men engage in secret and silent conversation with me. You say I read too much. That I turned into a cat and climbed into Hestibel’s window to claw her in the night.”
“Ooh…” from the Crowd.
“Witch, witch,” Hestibel hisses, touching her cheek. I’d suggested a light raking of nails on Hestibel’s face, for realism.
But the director had said, “More effective to keep the site/degree of maiming imagined.” The director, an unemployed theater professor previously employed by the local community college, was working off a delinquent rather than defaulted loan. He got to live off-site, and once we had our final dress rehearsal, left. On our own now, we wing it.
“When the crowd surrounded me outside my little farmhouse, and the handsomer man grabbed my arm, I could see bone black at the edge of my vision, charred animal bones. Ivory black, bone char, carbo animalis. I was a woman in a white gown shadowed in bones, bones in my opened palm, eye, nose, brow, upper lip, garroting my neck, nape twilit and glowing. My dark hair all bones, the divide invisible between those and the bones surrounding me, all darkness.” My bone riff. I raise my brows at the Crowd. Hold them high as if someone has scotch-taped my eyelids open.
“The Ancient Women make me undress,” I say, as five women hunching their backs come toward me.
“They look me over for marks of the devil. Black teats and so on. Also, concealed sharp implements I might use to cut my binding in the water.” My feet are nearly in the water, one of the colors of the blue galaxy. I fling my buckled shoes off, roll my stockings down as if I am my own bridegroom, toss them into the crowd. We need them back after the show, so I aim for one of the Townspeople. Apron, dress and petticoats, gown, and linen stay—the whole shebang. Sometimes I like to keep the pocket at my side like a holster, but everything else goes. I pretend my nakedness is an outfit (a birthday suit!) and just roll with it. Roll when the Two Men to Tie the Ropes tie my thumbs to my toes. I wonder what Thomas Greenough would make of it though. When he was in the almshouse, those who could work mostly sewed.
The Crowd handles the nudity pretty breezily—they’ve seen so much porn. But the combo of live nude woman with torture, a near-death experience, and irreconcilable moral dilemma, historically leads to high ratings on “The Old Tyme Justice Experience Evaluation Form (TOTJEEF).”
“They will put me in a grain sack and toss me in the river,” I exclaim. “The handsomer man will tie a rope around my waist, and give the end of it to the Chaplain who will canoe out with me into the bay. They will throw me in the water. If I sink, I’m innocent. If I float, I’m a witch.”
I can see the choices flutter over the faces of several in the Crowd, see them weigh the results. Innocence equals death. “Don’t be dismayed,” I intone. “If I’m innocent, and sink, the Chaplain will pull me out by the rope around my waist. It’s a win-win.”
The Chaplain and the second of the Two Men to Tie the Ropes push the canoe into the water. High tide. The Chaplain gets in, rocks the canoe a little too vigorously. I’m the only one who is supposed to drown. His costume even more layered than mine. If he falls in, all that swaddling will tangle him in seconds. The handsomer man binds my hands to my feet too tightly for my taste. Keep it loose, I whisper. I’d been freewheeling with my unscripted comment on his post-burn, high-stepping shenanigans. Trussed on the sand, I’m aware that I look like an animal about to be hung above a fire and cooked. Then they put me in a new grain sack, a puff of white flour dusts my skin.
Luckily, the sack top is gathered but unknotted, so I pop out and extend my arms from either side. Like a white star in the blue galaxy. Face the Crowd as the Two Men row us out into the bay. “I try to keep my lips from moving. Inside I sing a song that extends the possibility of the body. Even though they stand around me as in a hall of mirrors that makes me gasp. Touch my arm, leg as if evil frontiers. The Ancient Women have a keyhole view of my spine lonely as there is nowhere to wear it.”
A man in a garnet Florida State Seminoles cap turns to his windbreaker and white capris-clad wife, asks, “What is this? Poetry…?” The Chaplain and Two Men toss me overboard. I forget to close my mouth.
I imagine the Chaplain looks into the concentric circles of my dunking. Close your mouth, my inner voice says. The sun is turning a few leaves yellow orange green, the rest red brown shadow. Light falls and makes something new. Dogs bark in bloated scratches. Treeless leaves will absorb the dark quickly when it comes, black before the falling. Low horizon fire sardonyx red. Those who watch will stand before the trees, unaware of the darkness towering over them. That’s the 4 p.m. show, I think. It’s still morning.
Inner voice continues. They fix on the spot where you’ve sunk. Your sack is veil. Shroud. A room darkened as it fills with water. You close your eyes, see red low on the bag, blood dado encircling you. No no, open your eyes. Nothing cuts you. Water in a blue-green globe, you are the town inside, snow on the ground a child shakes to see fly. If you open your mouth, you’ll drown. I’m rising as planned. The second of the Two Men, surreptitiously slips over the canoe side to swim underneath my sack, hoists me to the surface.
The crowd gasps “O” mouthed like big, loud fish. The Chaplain says, “King James I of England wrote in his Daemonologie that water is pure and rejects witches. ‘God hath appointed, for a supernatural sign of the monstrous impiety of the witches, that the water shall refuse to receive them in her bosom.’ Only the innocent sink,” says the Chaplain, swaying side to side in his robes.
He rocks the boat as he reaches for a Large Print Bible. It’s larger than my hardcover college dictionary. “I’m going to tie this Bible around her neck,” he yells, his words loud and hot in my right ear. While I bob, he ties the rope like a necklace, palms of his fingers on my skin, cold wet hair. The Bible is the weight of a three-month-old baby. Or a bald eagle hanging from my neck. “Be cool,” he whispers, as usual humming, “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother.”
When the Chaplain lets go of the rope end of the Bible, the weight pulls my head down sharply, as if I am going to read it right now. Hundreds of ducks land on the shore, out of sight, loud and urgent. A watery, squawking choir of calls and answers.
The Two Men roll me over the canoe side. I splash, sink again. Hold my breath.
In one of my father’s books, I’d learned fede is “faith,” volo: I wish to. I wish to. Underwater, through closed eyes, I see everyone in broken gold, except the light garnet robes of two women with downcast eyes whose clothes become the ground. Women both human and landscape. I unknot the rope around my waist. Rub my thumbs as hard as I can against my toes. Right thumb tied to my left big toe, left thumb to my right big toe. The water helps. Rope slips off one toe. Then the other. I claw upward, feet kicking in a fast dance free of the sack. I have a fear of drowning. Of not finding which way is up. The Chaplain and the handsomer man pull me into their boat. My sack floats on the incoming tide—we’ll need to grab it later. They hoist me like a fish onto the boat bottom. My neck snaps slightly on the slick fiberglass, but I’m surprised to find it helpfully chiropractic.
“Guilty,” the Chaplain proclaims, lifting the soaked Bible from my neck. “Take her to the Courthouse!” We don’t have an actual Courthouse. Instead, the handsomer man and Man Two row us to shore, and as they de-boat, the Chaplain supplies an Epilogue to the life of Gretchen Thankful. The wind picks up. Crowd members who have hair have it blown back from their faces. Forty-five minutes have passed, and some tourists shift foot to foot. They want Liquidations and shade. One man is bending over to touch his toes. He seems stuck there.
“Speed it up,” I whisper.
“Gretchen Thankful, found guilty of being a Witch, was imprisoned for nearly nine years. But after that time, she was allowed to return home to her little farm if she promised to cast no more spells. Gretchen agreed.” I nod sincerely. “However, a family now boarded in her farmhouse, to help pay her legal fees and keep up the farm during her absent years. There was a dream Gretchen once had, the inner dress. Oh too late now. Too late. There will be no great feast, no wedding guests, no dowry. Okay, fast forward to the year 2014,” the Chaplain says with a sweep of his right hand, as if wiping a counter. “The Governor of Massachusetts pardons Gretchen, and recognizes her as a good-looking healer with a handy knowledge of plants and herbs. There is now a statue of this remarkable woman next to the Stop and Shop, with a little garden surrounding her, and a plaque summarizing her tale.”
The tourists in the Crowd look a little blank, blinking and licking dry lips. “Try sucking on a small stone,” a young man says to another, “it helps stimulate saliva.” As the Townspeople herd the Crowd toward Liquidation, I stand statue-like before them. Chastened, pardoned, and petticoated at the speed of light. I nod at each passing tourist. With a light pat to arm or shoulder (eye contact and touch greatly increase the individual’s perception of a positive experience, pg. 71: “The Old Tyme Justice Experience Evaluation Tip Sheet [TOTJEETS]”), I murmur, “It’s a lot to take in, I know.” The Blue Galaxy gleams.
2. one winter
I wonder if you could will a fire. Just by staring at the pine walls, floor, day in, day out. When Lombard Farms was still an almshouse, a woman fell into the fireplace, burned her eyes out. Like the Animals in the West Barn.
The fire truck was stuck in the marsh. Armory System burning. The Disassembly Line. Rubble stone of the main house untouched. But flames visible in the East Barn windows. On arrival, I’d been in Room 1-A of the house, fireplace opening sealed. As if I could get out that way. Or set the place on fire. I’d watched the plaster and moulding as if it were a coastline. Quarantine. Forty days. First floor.
In the years before I was caught, the country’s student loan debt tripled annually. In the trillions, it continued to rise. Sextupling, octupling. Right through the New Depression following the Great Recession. When the delinquency rate topped 50%, the Victory Banks Alliance nonupled interest rates, anticipating the duodecupling of student debt. Debtors’ prisons were reinstated for all defaulted student loan holders not employed in technology or legal fields (sure sources of healthy income). Government no longer had the funds to maintain many services—postal service, social security, Medicaid, long gone. Roads degraded, potholed. City employees cut to a two-day work week. In smaller towns, the police force was reduced to sheriffs and deputies, as in the Old West. The Victory Banks Alliance put laid-off police officers to work rounding up defaulted student loan debtors. Cash bonus of 15% of the student’s total debt for each successful capture.
I was in line at the grocery store, buying peanut butter, bread, unsweetened almond milk, when my debit card was declined. Try it again, the cashier said. I slid my green card in the machine. Declined. I had a bad feeling. Left my food on the black belt. At home, I called my bank. There’s a lien on your account. A Victory Banks debt. My account, all my money, frozen. The Police Collectors were at this country wide. Freezing money in the name of Victory Banks.
You’ll have to call the Police Collectors, my bank representative said. I was subpoenaed by a Police Collector to a meeting in Lawyers’ World. A mall devoted to legality. A deposition. The young lawyer turned on a tape recorder. He asked me to list everything I had of value. I had a twenty-two year-old green jeep with a dented fender, salt-eaten paint and headliner attached by a mix of thirty-four multi-colored push pins and silver tacks. I owned it outright. I owned a lot of books. Some clothes. You’re a poet, the young lawyer said. You must own a computer. He eyed my blue ring, a gift from my brother. I realized then, they would take everything.
My original debt had been $35,000 but with the unfettered progression of sextupling, octupling, and nonupling interest rates, plus Obstinacy Penalties for Default (or Running), my student loan debt had grown to $465,290.18. By the time the young lawyer and the Police Collector were finished with me, I’d agreed to a Consolidation Loan, and they’d added another $75,000 in fees.
I missed my court date. What was the point in showing up? The Police Collector tacked an eviction notice to the door of my pink apartment. I couldn’t pay the rent anyway. I’d already lost electricity. When the water was shut off, I walked outside into the carpeted hallway. The Police Collector arrested me then, took me to Lombard Farm.
No one lives out here, except Debtors and Caretakers, the Overseer. The north side of town only one and a half miles long and mostly marshland. Lombard Farm built on a combination of salt and freshwater wetlands. Ancient salt water bogs. Vernal pools. Tidal flats. Marine invertebrates. Interdunal swales of saltmeadow cordgrass. Rushes. We’re almost entirely surrounded by marsh and bay. Ocean further out. I tried walking it once. Crossing the marsh, the small creeks and panes, seaward. Up to my knees, and I kept going. I just wanted to get out, to be free. But this direction, freedom is drowning. I didn’t want to drown. I turned back, aimed for shore. Now, the bay is covered with chunks of ice, snow. Cold as the glacier days. You’d die in that water tonight. Draw a bird in the palm of my hand, so I can say tongue.
There’s one narrow road in through oak and pine forests. A thick understory. The trees grow so high competing for sunlight that it’s a claustrophobic drive. You can’t see anything but the sand road and the trees warped into a wall on either side. I’ve only been on it once, when I was brought here.
The Debtors’ Peninsula on top of a Moraine. Glacial and granite rock left over from the last ice age Twenty thousand years ago. A growth of red maple took root in an old cranberry bog. Blueberry in the woods, poison ivy, cranberry, and pitch pine. The creek full of blue crabs. Sometimes herring, alewife, white perch. Striped bass more rare.
The Victory Banks Alliance employed a variety of buildings to imprison and rehabilitate debtors through repayment. Thousands were needed. Nearly every town had at least one. Abandoned nineteenth century poor farms and workhouses were popular locations. Individual cities and towns benefited, too, receiving a percentage of the inmates’ repayment as it accrued. Inmates were charged an additional fee for their care as well, room and board. A portion of which also benefited the town. So the towns often looked to conservation land as a suitable location. Lombard Farm existed on land bought by the town for conservation during the Great Recession. To keep someone from building a McMansion on the Bay, the Town Accessor said.
Lombard Farm had been built here in 1722 as an almshouse, predating conservation status. In the face of octupling student debt, it had seemed good business to revive the Farm as a Debtors’ Prison. Right there at the water’s edge. Salt air. Bay breeze. In another age, it might have been a resort. Though even in 1722, the rich avoided the coast, built inland. Protection from bad weather.
There was some backlash. “Education Made Bad for Young,” read one headline. When you trap people in a system of debt, they can’t afford to think, Noam Chomsky said. But the more consistent headlines, “Student Loan Debt Will Bury Us All,” or simply “Student Debt Pandemic,” with its disease associations, created a general panic. Gave the Victory Banks Alliance carte blanche to salve it with the spirit of indenture. In news photos, there was often a father and mother on a couch, one of their children hovering in the foreground. Perspective enlarged the child’s looming face. Caption: “Family Ruined.” The fatal mistake—parents taking out student loans for two or more children, when at best, they could only repay one.
I didn’t take it well, my arrest, my Quarantine. When light came through an open door at the end of hall, I ran. Across the marsh, the little creeks, and panes, out into the bay. But you know that. That’s how I wound up in the West Barn, chained in a pen for animals. The original security features used for almshouse inmates considered insane or dangerous hung from the walls. There had been six of us in there, each in our own pen. A half door at the entry of each, so an animal, a horse for example, could lean its head out. Women seemed to have the most trouble with incarceration at Lombard Farm. I remember thinking even then, these walls and floors are pine: they’ll burn.
You could stay in the West Barn by becoming an Animal. This was one form of repayment. Four of the women had chosen this repayment plan. Or by not choosing, this is what they’d become. Even during the Rise of the Victory Banks Alliance, animal testing remained outlawed. The four women Animals almost never left their pens. Bars were constructed on the opposite wall, so that the Animals could be monitored at any time. Students sometimes came on a tour of Lombard Farm. The Victory Banks Alliance encouraged it, scaring students straight about student loan debt. Tough love, they called it.
These women had entered into an Animal state. They didn’t speak English. Even screams were minimized as disturbing to all. The Animals were gagged unless their mouths were necessary for the day’s test. Their clothing, unnecessary, deteriorated. They were expected to take care of their bodily needs in the straw. The women Animals and stalls hosed down once a week. One woman Animal at a time was unchained, held by a Caretaker near one of the nearby outbuildings. The Caretakers said it was unfortunate, but two of the women Animals had gone blind, testing a new green detergent and a lengthening waterproof mascara.
When they were held outside, the blind Animals could sometimes feel the sun on their faces. Also unfortunate: if a woman Animal repaid her delinquent student loan debt by submitting to the predetermined number of tests (this had yet to occur as increasing interest rates caused the total amount owed to rise ever higher), she would no longer be human.
The tough love worked on me. Repayment was also possible in the main house and the East Barn. The outbuildings. Old Tyme Justice Village. The West Barn was the only repayment option that allowed one to sit down. Handcuffs were used in other forms of repayment, but these were less punitive than chains. One was not in a pen.
After several days in the West Barn, I received a Visit of Mercy from the Stated Preacher to Lombard Farm. He invited me to repent of my attempt to avoid repayment of my debt. My Promissory Note had originally stated that only death released me from repayment. I’d planned to get as much education as I could, then kill myself or go to Ireland. It seems crazy now. Really crazy. But the future was so far away, dreamlike. In a movie, I’d seen a beachside cliff in Ireland. A little cave beneath. Thought I might go there.
Then the internet was invented, and a teacher told me, They can find you anywhere. Insane that I’d thought of suicide as a solution to debt. Had I really imagined that was a good idea? Or was it unreal, a posture of procrastination? Hyperbolic pity party.
Still, it had been a terrible fantasy. Perhaps instead of getting three degrees in English, I could have just gone to the library, when there were still public libraries, and read books. Before Amazon bought them all, charging reading fees by the minute.
The lack of options—Debtor’s Prison or Death—resulted in a high suicide uptick. As early as 2013, The Weekly Citizen headline announced: “Suicide is Second Leading Cause of Death for College Students.” As this did nothing to reduce the quintillians in student loan debt, the Victory Banks Alliance decreed that death no longer released one from debt. Family members would be pursued by the Police Collectors, sentenced to Debtors’ Prisons, forced to select repayment options. If no family was available, suicides were sent to the Disassembly Line.
With suicides right and left, each Debtors’ Prison had a Disassembly Line. At Lombard Farm it was familiarly known as the Slaughterhouse. Disassembled, the parts of a healthy human body were worth $125,000. This was often more than enough to pay off the student loan debt. But organs don’t last long in a dead body. Lungs and heart need a blood supply. So the Victory Banks Alliance created the Clean Slate Program.
Clean Slate offers the student debtor a painless, assisted suicide and wipes his or her entire student debt clean. Lombard Farm was a program participant. Organ removal and transfer done by Medical Personnel, but Debtors could also work toward repayment in the Disassembly Line. The facility was in one of the large outbuildings, with nonprofessional tasks such as packing and shipping, hair removal and debris cremation accomplished by debtors.
When he visited, the Stated Preacher said to me, Caroline (though my name is not Caroline), you must know that I feel deeply interested in your temporal and eternal welfare. You should be sorry that you have wronged the Victory Banks Alliance. You have done evil in this affair. You are a woman too well instructed. It is with extreme regret that we have witnessed the failure of your pecuniary resources; however, I am your friend who would be your preserver from misery and hell. Repent and select a repayment plan.
I repent, I said to the Stated Preacher, to the accompaniment of muted wailing from the Animals in nearby pens.
Then, I had to select my plan.
The options included one of the Assembly Lines: Armory, Magneto/Flywheel, Village, or “Hymn to the Flowers.” Armory was military, Magneto/Flywheel transportation-related. The Old Tyme Justice Village involved playacting. But the “Hymn to the Flowers” final product was kept secret. As each debtor in the Hymn Assembly Line handled only one piece, none of the inmates knew what they were making.
It worried me, not knowing, but Hymn is the repayment plan I chose.
In the East Barn, each Hymn worker wore a long blue jean gown. Men and women. There were thirty-seven of us. The piece I handled on the assembly line was the serial number. I stamped it in on small metal plates. While the conveyor belt ran freely, Hymn workers were separated in narrow stalls. I could hear people breathing on either side of me, rhythmic chinks. But I couldn’t see a thing.
We slept in the main house. Almost no trees nearby. Just four on the west side. Clustered together as if planted. Reeds and cattails in the wetlands. But treelessness circling the main house made it look abandoned, out there beyond the forests. Especially at night or against the early morning white sky. One hundred and eighteen people lived in the house. Nine rooms on three floors, in addition to the pens in the basement. Overseer and Caretakers’ rooms, along with kitchen and dining on the first floor. Medical personnel commuted. Delinquent debtors not yet in default could also commute. For the time being.
Unlike the Animal pens in the West Barn, the basement pens were purely punitive. When one entered there, the debtor’s interest rate reverted to its highest form. Centupling, in an effort to either reform the Defiant or entice him or her to enter the Clean Slate Program. Clean Slate erased the debt regardless of size. The Defiant occupied a large wooden box or iron crib. The cellar’s darkness, lack of air and drainage, its collection of quieting instruments, often led the Defiant to shift into the category of Insane Poor. Visits of Mercy from the Stated Preacher were almost always necessary to effect a profitable transition.
Twelve of us slept in most rooms. Our beds were parking spots outlined in black on the pine floor. Each the size of an average adult body. A stack of plastic blue pads were stacked by fireplace. At night, we’d each grab one, find a spot. Men and women segregated by room. Seven Defiants in the basement.
“Lombard House Rules” were printed on a long scroll hung beside the door. Every morning and evening we were required to attend a Reading by the Overseer, which included practical discourses from the Victory Banks Alliance. No person shall Neglect to repair to their Repayment Stations. No person shall profane Victory Banks. No person shall presume to beg money, directly or indirectly, from any Visitor, on penalty of being denied their next meal. At their Weekly Meeting, the Caretakers and Overseer had the power to punish all breaches. Punishments included stints in the cellar, but often related to the breach itself. Profaning Victory Banks resulted in gagging: an iron collar or cage around the neck, iron tongue pressing down the profaner’s.
I don’t start the fire. Gable roof shingles still untouched. But the rubber tires on the fire truck churn deeper in the muck made worse by days of rain. The driver attempted an off-road shortcut direct to the burning barn. Hit swamp. Weight of the truck sinking it like a stone. Boots squelch in the dark. As if a black hole has opened beneath their feet and will swallow all of them. In the East Barn a ladder leads to the loft. Climb it, is what I hear. Jigs and gauges blackening. The rifle works. Reapers, sickles. Planers, lathes, the boring machines—all a forge.
I wonder if our constant gaze can be a match. I don’t listen to the voice. Don’t enter the East Barn or climb the burning ladder.
We are all outside in the dark waiting for the fire truck to come or not come. Snowflakes hiss. Caretakers unchain Animals. The solution is only short-term. With the East Barn destroyed, I’ll need a new repayment plan, will eventually shift into Old Tyme. But for now, I will the fire to burn, a chant. As if it is a flower I am trying to keep alive. Fan the flames, contribute to the blaze.
Ash falls like snow. Bits of black shingle tar sticks to my face, my blue jean dress. Only now does its length, scoop to my collarbone, remind me of the outfits of women in fundamentalist cults. A health food store clerk once said to me, Don’t buy into the perceptions others have of you. A cheerful, teenage Medusa. I had pressed the lever for spelt cereal. Held a plastic bag over the opening as it poured out of the bin. The crunchy rocks looked as if they might crack a tooth. Medusa said, Try to maintain your own sense of self. She took my plastic bag of spelt, tenderly secured it with a twist of wire wrapped in paper. I’d have to climb the burning ladder to get that kind of perspective. The Animals pant nearby in the smoky air, oxygen depleting. I blink away the tiny cinders landing on my closed eyelids. Little campfires.
There must be another way out—not fire or water. Not death. Maybe Medusa was wrong. Maybe I need to create a new sense of self. Everything in me says, Run. A man approaches, my height, nearly bald. He has the dimming tan of a constant surfer. The fade only slight, he’s not been here long. Hey, he says. Behind him, I can see the halogen lights of the fire truck through the trees. I don’t want to die in the quicksand marsh. Mud filling up my mouth and throat as if stuffed down by a homicidal hand. But maybe if I don’t run alone, maybe I can find solid ground. The surfer man stepped closer, face to mine. Eye to eye.
What are you in for? I ask.
English Literature, he says. Shakespeare specialization. Shakespeare and music. Couldn’t get published though. No tenure. He looks a little like a gnome because of his lack of body fat (like zero) and prominent nose.
Run, I say. His eyes are big, kind of sparkly. I don’t know why. Not happy sparkle. Just alive with something. His chin falls to his chest, and he looks up at me. As if flirting, but not.
I feel myself grow as we jog together, become safer. Like a child who opens up a big umbrella to make herself appear larger in the presence of a bear, mountain lion. You name it. Scaring off the danger.
We sidle toward the main house. Avoid fire light. I keep to his left, in his shadow. Predators hunt the middle person, but we have no middle. What’s your name? he asks. Flecks of burning wood in the air enter my mouth when I speak. Burn the back of my throat, tongue. I don’t mind. Swallowing fire.
Not Caroline, I say. What’s yours?
Not a dead Civil War general, he says.
As long as we are being honest, I say, I could use a wetsuit. Do you have one? Maybe I can still swim out.
Nah, they got me at the bank. I couldn’t withdraw four dollars and fifty cents from the ATM. Had to go inside. Teller matched my thumbprint to the Default Student Debt Database.
I can see the stone foundation of the house, hear the intermittent clang of the Defiant. Distant lights of the fire truck still unmoved. Let them out, I say. Just go down to the basement. What if the fire spreads? He nods. We run toward the house, slink around back. I pull open the tin doors. Like the entrance to a bomb shelter. If anyone’s restrained, find the key, I say. Lombard Farm’s pretty low-security. I’ve seen keys just hung on a nail. Who would disobey for long? And even if you did, where could you go?
It takes longer than I’d hoped—fifteen minutes max—but he sprints up the stairs. From the darkness, other bent figures move toward the open air.
Fire, I yell down to them.
Run faster, I say to the Surfer. We head toward the trees and swamp, the road out. My lungs embryonic at first. Breath cut with shale. But then the old memory of running kicks in. Of being a runner. Hours at night through the empty factory town. Alone. Tell me a sonnet, I ask the Surfer.
Let me confess… let those who are in favor with their stars. He’s breathing hard, though the fire sparks are behind us. Let not my love…is it thy will? The Surfer shakes his head side to side, as if he’ll shake a bird off his head. I know this. He looks like he’s crying.
Or, just think of one poem quietly, I suggest. The trees are close.
I should have studied a contemporary poet, the Surfer says. Someone from Palo Alto, with a good platform. Then I’d have had an audience.
The blood in my veins feels reblended. My body a pallet of straw shaken out. Limbs looser. Traction on my rubber Walmart Runaways a little slippery. But I concentrate on each foot as it hits the ground. Slap of our shoes in synchronicity. My lungs expand. The bird drawn in my palm is flying, says I can disappear. Elbows bent, held low, the forward motion makes me feel I’m carving the air out of my way. Like clods of dry ice, handfuls. Like I can carve this world away.