There is a tracker in my heel that counts my every step. They don’t know where I am going, only that there are places to which I have gone. So in the middle of the night, when I should be sleeping, I sneak down the dorm stairs on tingling tiptoes to open the door where you balance on your own. You take my hand and we flee down the street, each step gentle but our interlocking fingers tight. You pull me up to the top branches of our favorite tree. You sit in the crook with feet dangling and I lay my head in your lap, balanced on the old, cold wood. You read to me by the light of the moon from a book of poetry that was supposed to be burned two generations ago when the world ended. You guess at words unfamiliar, and shift the book between shafts of light and shadows of the branches above us. It’s fall now: easier to see as leaves drift delicately down around us. I crumble one in my hand and let pieces follow the wind while listening to the words fall from your lips. After we finish the book, you tuck it under my head and begin, the most dangerous thing of all, to whisper poetry of your own. Your verses are filled with the restrictions, the burnings, the monitoring, the arrests, made sharper in art’s harsh abstraction. Your verses are filled with loved ones who have disappeared, taken from their beds, their trackers offline. Your verses are filled with my hair falling across the oak, the ancient and strong, the new and fragile. You try out rhymes, which ring insincere in your voice, but they make me smile and you brush kisses across my forehead. We sit in the tree until the stars begin to fade, then we tiptoe home our separate ways, slick in the shadows, habit keeping our calves tense so we don’t add steps to our day before anyone is allowed up.
A day of mindless work, carefully counted bites and breaths, one blink leading to the next until dinner, then back to the bunks. No one comments on the bags under my eyes: they have been there for years. Everyone has them because no one sleeps: any knock at the door, any change in the careful balance of the world can shatter our peace.
Again I slip out of bed, wrapped in a grey, uniform sweater over grey, formless pajamas. I sneak past the bodies in beds in dorms and make my way out the door. You are not there. Your smile does not catch me breathless; we do not stifle our laughter. I stand on the porch step alone, two inches taller than I am in the day, in the fog and stare out at the darkness of the night. I have never thought of the night as dark before: you have always lit it for me. I stand there, balanced on the step, until dawn. Until light fills the sky and the morning glories that insist on climbing the walls open, I stand past calf cramps and toe cramps and arch cramps because nothing hurts as much as facing a nighttime without you. A lifetime without you. Just before the morning siren blares its angry call through the streets, I turn and return to bed, still careful not to take a step. Every night, in fitful sleep, I dream of you.
In my dreams:
You are in a cell, bloody footprints track your steps now: the mechanical tracker has been ripped out. The books you had hidden away, full of forbidden secrets and rebellious thoughts, the books that had been passed down through generations of free thinkers and quiet revolutionaries, they are burning. Their ashes litter the air until all of the passion, fire and heat fade away. The first day, week, month, you pace in your cell, slowing until you are crouching in a corner, the constant florescent light turning your skin a sickly green. After some time in captivity—impossible to tell how long with lights that never change—you bend the end of a bedspring back and forth for eternity until it snaps, then use it to carve on your wall. No one comes to tear its sharp edge away from you, so you scratch and scratch and scratch at the wall until you have written out every poem that you can remember from that book we loved. You often have to replace words with guesses: was or is, he or she, but the end of the lines you always remember because you’re guided by rhyme. One of the guards finally brings you a pencil and old prison records because it is easier for them to burn the papers that you write on than to destroy the walls of your cell. The front of each of them dictates the sentencing for revolutionaries who have now died behind bars, the gruesome end of each life written out in impersonal statements. The back, you filled with lines you remember whispering in the dead of night: I go to seek a great perhaps, do not go gentle into that good night, because I could not stop for death/he kindly stopped for me. Each of these top a page, and under it you write stories and lines, trying to match the feeling of each original line, with very little to go off. Your favorite, To sleep – perchance to dream, takes up four pages telling of your dreams to return to the sun, to our tree, to somewhere with fresh air and tiptoes instead of concrete floors stained with blood.
Months have passed and I have been moved from the pill-packaging floor of the factory down into the underground workforce. The river runs through this massive, dark room and we pull buckets from it to heat up and wash clothes with. There is a rhythm to the work and the river is loud enough that the overseers cannot hear our whispers. The workers around me recite forbidden lyrics, stories that have been passed along the black market imaginations, and, most painful of all, they share poems. Ones that they have written, ones that they have heard. Occasionally I hear a line that sounds like one of yours and it stops my heart and I can once more feel your fingers between mine and I feel the bark of the tree against my spine and the scent of cool night air and the beginnings of dew at the corner of my eye. I cannot remember most of your lines any longer, or hardly anything that you read aloud to me: I was not raised on banned books like you were, but I remember the way your words soothed my sore muscles from each day’s work, and filled me better than the standard issue food so I could stand the next day. Now I slam my hands into the burning water and let them scorch away the patterns you traced on the backs of them. I scrub the rough clothing against itself, against the rough sides of the tub, against the rough memories of you teaching me to walk on my toes. I haven’t cried since the day that you left; no one speaks your name. There is no room for the past here, and no room for you rebellious ideas. But your breath mingles in the steam rising from the tub as I listen to the subversive stories, and I whisper your name back to the world.
In my dream:
Every surface of your cell is scratched with words. They are rough against your feet on the floor, and they imprint your back when you lean against the walls. There are stacks of paper everywhere and pencil stubs. The guards are fascinated by your madness: they bring you new paper every day and take a few pages that you have written, sharing them throughout the lower prison staff in amazement. The overseers do not know: they are simply waiting for the prisoners to die. Guards and prisoners read your work, at first in mockery, but soon hungrily. People come by to peek in the lock to see the chaos, the artist. They whisper stories to you about their loved ones, their brightest days, things to inspire your writing. You make no sign that you have heard them, but every day brings new images and creations about people you’ve never met and things you’ve never seen. You have not spoken since the last time we said goodbye, but you are not silent.
There are whispers of uprisings in the prisons, rebellions that I hear of over my scalding laundry tub. You would hate this place: they have ruined the river. There is no life in it now, not like the clearings we used to read about filled with fish and flowers. It doesn’t chirp along over the top of stones, it slides blankly and angrily across this brick shaft so that we can scoop the clean water that we need out, then abandon the dirty, sudsy water back in.
You are in the prison that has been overthrown. Your guards fight on, killing overseers and tossing their bodies onto the piles of papers that you have written. These papers obscure every corner of the offices and cells in the prison, and now their pages are covered in blood. It takes only a few hours before the prison stands free. You are let out of your cell and your face breaks into a smile as you step off your carved floor onto smooth, cold tiles. The other captives greet you with smiles and handshakes and they recite their favorite lines back to you. Everyone knows your poetry, knows your passion, and knows your mind. You grin back at them and make your way toward the final guard door. Your untamed hair frames your face and falls across your forehead. Scars across your bare skin spell out the story of the day that your parents were taken from you, but today you straighten your thin shoulders and walk free. Every step is the rhythm of my heartbeat, bubum, heel toe.
I desperately seek news of the fallen prison, to hear if they have managed independence from the state or if they remain a stronghold, an island in deep waters. There is nothing new for days, no sign of safety or salvation. I stand at the dorm door every night on my toes, waiting under the stars for your return. You used to tell me stories about the stars, most of which I think you made up, drawing from one light to another to create pictures, characters, inspiration. When I look at them now, I cannot find your pictures, but I hope that they form a path for you to return to me under.
After silence from the prison walls, the gunshots are shattering. They happen four days after the riots, and we know what they mean. Within an hour of the shots, smoke rises from a large fire and the horrible scent of burnt flesh and ashy paper fills the streets. I fall to my knees, (two steps), and tear at the asphalt.
You walked at gunpoint with your eyes tracing the missing constellations on the bright blue sky. You knelt in front of the firing squad with defiant arms wide open, showing the lines of poetry carved onto your skin. You did not beg, did not falter, did not cower, but embraced the death that was handed to you in punishment for the world that you created and inspired. Your blood painted the wall behind you, offering one final artwork to the world in defiance of the silence. Your body was burned on a fire lit by your own dangerous words.
I spotted one of the only guards that escaped with his life, although severely crippled by his punishments, limping past the tree we used to climb, leaving bloody footprints. I followed them after he disappeared and found four pages tucked into a scar in the bark of the tree. Handwritten in your quick, sure script began: To sleep—perchance to dream.
Alana Hollenbaugh is a writer and poet from Colorado. She frequently escapes to her local mountains and National Parks for inspiration. In her spare time she knits and reads King Arthur literature and theory. She was most recently published by Beyond Words Literary Magazine.