Counterpoint: Dylan’s Story (excerpt)

by Ruth Sims

Sentenced to five years at hard labor on false charges, the young Gypsy, only a short time before a promising violinist, now has no identity other than “B. Two-Eleven.” In this chapter excerpt, he learns how bleak and hopeless his life has now become.

counterpoint dylan's story

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The prison was never truly quiet. Every minute of every hour, the stone halls, corridors, and cells were haunted by sound. Doors clanged. Buckets clattered. Men moaned with the pain of cramps and diarrhea caused by the bad food. Shoes tramped. Warders barked orders. Prisoners cursed in answer and then often cried out in pain. Chains clanked. Frequently the voices of children, often sobbing, would echo through the halls. Sometimes faint screams could be heard from somewhere down below, and they always came late in the evening.

Six weeks after his sentence began, a nervous chaplain came into his cell and B. Two-Eleven dared to ask about the screams. Uncomfortably, the chaplain replied, “Why, that is some poor devil being flogged, more than likely.” He glanced at the prisoner and reminded him that he was required to stand at attention when another man was in his cell. When the prisoner was sufficiently stiff-backed, he asked briskly, “Do you study the Bible and prayer book left for you?”

“No, sir.”

“You must do so for the edification of your soul,” the chaplain said, looking severe. “Salvation is not found just lying about for the picking. You must earn it. You can’t become a Christian just by wishing it.”

“I don’t wish it.” The prisoner’s voice was level and cold. “Christians murdered my mother and my baby brother and an old man, then would not allow them to be buried in their churchyard. Keep your religion. I want nothing to do with it.”

The chaplain glanced behind him as if to be certain the warder was there. Quickly he placed a thin tract in the prisoner’s hand. “Read that. It will help you see the light.” He raced through a few texts, muttered a quick prayer, and left. A small, cynical smile touched the prisoner’s lips. It was a small, mean victory over someone who didn’t matter, but it was the first victory in a long time.

No speech was allowed between one prisoner and another. B.Two-Eleven thought it was strange that in the never-quiet prison the prisoners lived in silence. He found some relief in the required Sunday chapel services; at least there, he could hear human voices other than the warders’.

The sameness of the hours and days was nearly as bad as the silence. Each day began at dawn with the first of three searches where they were patted from shoulders to knees. A tray with breakfast of thick, rock-hard bread, vile cocoa without milk or sugar, and a cup of water was shoved without ceremony into the cell. Following breakfast they were marched in a file to get buckets of cold water and cloths, and with these they cleaned their cells. Once a day, small groups of prisoners were taken in single file to the exercise yard, where they formed a circle. There, an arm’s length from the man in front, they shuffled for an hour, accompanied by the clatter and rattle of the chains between their feet. At noon they received again the tasteless bread and a greasy gruel called “stirabout”. Once in a while there was a piece of stringy meat or suet, washed down with a cup of more cold, watery cocoa. The last meal of the day was the same as the noon meal, sometimes with the addition of a piece of overripe fruit. He was hungry all the time. He had sometimes been hungry as a child traveling with the caravan, but it was never for long and it did not leave him weak and trembling.

Except for the exercise hour, they worked in silence at whatever task they had been assigned. B.Two-Eleven was assigned to pick oakum. The first time he stared apprehensively at the pieces of tarred, club-like ropes that had been thrown into his cell, wondering what he was supposed to do with it. “Pick it apart,” the warder told him. “There’s two pounds there. That’s your allotment every day… to start with. Shred that junk until it’s fine as hair on a gnat’s bollocks.” He laughed until his face turned red.

B. Two-Eleven tried. Within an hour his fingers were thick with tar and the rope was as solid as it had been. Hour after hour he toiled at it and accomplished nothing. It was removed and returned to him the next day, when he was finally able to shred a small amount of it. By the third day he had managed a full pound. Sitting on his cot on that third day, he stared at his fingers. It had taken many minutes of scrubbing with cold water and lye soap to remove the tar. He tried to imagine holding a violin and pressing the strings, and tears of pain welled when he tried to curl his fingers. He hoped he had seen the last of the oakum. The next morning he discovered the futility of his hope. Oakum, it seemed, was his permanent assignment.

One of the warders, a white-haired man whose name he never learned, went into the cell to talk one evening. He held out a nail hidden in his palm. “Listen,” he said, “I could lose my job and you could get into trouble too, but I think oakum is the devil’s work. You got a good face, a bit like my boy when I saw him last…well, take this. Use it to help shred the junk. Make sure they don’t find it, because if you get caught, I won’t help you.” B. Two-Eleven looked up at him, dumb with gratitude, and nodded his thanks. The warder slipped quickly out.

In the night silence, alone except for the bugs that came out to feast on human blood, he could also hear rats. The skittering of their tiny paws, unseen, was worse than the sight of them in his cell. To distract himself he carried on silent conversations with Schonberg and with Dylan. He sometimes heard music playing so clearly he felt hope leap within him, but soon his mind accepted that the music was only its own creation.

He realized that most of the warders were men doing what they were paid to do. He and the other prisoners were not men but dumb animals to be fed, herded, and penned. With few exceptions they were not abused, but neither were they treated kindly. The old warder with the white hair occasionally slipped B. Two-Eleven a second bit of bread or extra ration of stirabout. Once he brought him a book. In the few seconds they had when no one could overhear, he sometimes mentioned his son, Stephen. “Served Her Majesty in India, he did,” the old man said. “Died there of fever. My only son,” he added choking.

B. Two-Eleven whispered, “I’m so sorry.”

A new warder arrived during the second month of B. Two-Eleven’s term, a brawny man with cruel, pale eyes in a handsome face. Even the warders seemed to avoid him. B. Two-Eleven heard one of the other warders call him ‘Bill.’ B. Two-Eleven often felt Warder Bill’s pale eyes staring hard at him. One day the man tripped him on the way to the exercise yard, though it looked like an accident to anyone watching. As he did so, he leaned down so close his spittle sprayed the prisoner’s face as he hissed, “Take care, Didikko. That means Gypsy here. And we don’t like Gypsy scum.”

The incidents became more frequent. B. Two-Eleven was tripped, bumped, and insulted in a low voice no one else could overhear except for the warder who was frequently teamed with Warder Bill. It was plain that tormenting him was sport to them. Twice he broke and fought back as well as he could. The warders made official reports; punishment quickly followed.

The first punishment was a two-day confinement in his cell with nothing but bread and water. The second time it was three days. Each time he grimly resolved not to let them push him into fighting. But the goading and insults continued.

As B. Two-Eleven scrubbed his floor on his hands and knees one morning, Warder Bill stood just inside the cell one morning and kept up a low-voiced commentary about dirty Gypsies. “Especially the women, eh? They say Didikko women are whores from the time they’re six or seven. I hear they’ll spread for any man with a coin. I hear they’ll do anything, with anything — one man, two men, sometimes more, ponies, dogs. Hey, Didikko? Tell me. Is that true? What about your mum… she do it with dogs?” He laughed. “Be honest, Didikko. Do you even know who your old man is? Or if he’s got two legs or four?”

B. Two-Eleven let out a scream of outrage and threw the mop bucket and its contents at Warder Bill. An instant later the unemptied slops bucket followed. Enraged, his uniform soaked with dirty water and slops, Bill clubbed him, left him huddled on the floor half-conscious, with his arms protecting his head, and promptly reported him for assault. That assault upon a warder earned B. Two-Eleven four days in a punishment cell where he lived in complete silence and isolation, with no gaslight and no window. He emerged weak and staggering, temporarily blinded by the light outside the cell.

 

The doctor, John McAfee, was sympathetic as he examined him following his days in the punishment cell. “Son, you must adapt. Follow the rules. Stop getting into trouble. You’re going to be here a long time, and if you don’t learn to get along, you’re going to die.” B. Two-Eleven said nothing. There was no use trying to explain that no matter how hard he tried to stay out of trouble, Warder Bill and his partner made certain he couldn’t.

Returning B. Two-Eleven to his cell after the doctor released him, the white-haired warder whispered, “Certain parties has got a wager on how long it will take to make you end up in punishment again, worse this time. Be careful.” B. Two-Eleven mumbled his thanks for the warning and promised himself, No matter what they do, I won’t crack again. I shall not give them the pleasure.

 

For more than a fortnight, he remained silent and cooperative despite the whispered taunts and subtle physical assaults. And then one morning while taking daily exercise in the silent circle of men, B. Two-Eleven saw Warder Bill herding a manacled and shackled young boy across the exercise yard. This was unusual; the prisoners all knew there were children in that place, but they were unseen. Even in chapel, they were kept behind a curtain. The boy appeared to be twelve years old, perhaps younger, perhaps older. B. Two-Eleven paused for an instant, struck by the resemblance between the dark-haired, olive-skinned boy and himself at that age.

When the child drew even with B. Two-Eleven, he chanced to glance up. He was obviously frightened; his face was pale and streaked with tears. B. Two-Eleven smiled without intending to. The boy smiled hesitantly in return, tripped over the chain between his feet. And fell heavily. B. Two-Eleven stepped out of line and stooped to help him. Warder Bill barked, “Get back in line, B. Two-Eleven.”

“He’s only a small boy,” B. Two-Eleven said. “Can’t you at least unchain his feet? He can barely walk. He’s no threat to you.” He put his arm around the child’s shoulders. Through the man-sized prison shirt, he could feel the jutting shoulder-blades.

The warder chuckled. “Knew you couldn’t keep it up, B. Two-Eleven. But I give you this: you lasted longer than I thought. You just won me a quid. Now let go that Didikko thief and get back in line.”

B. Two-Eleven stood up but he did not move toward the exercise circle. He looked levelly at the warder and said, “No.”

Grinning broadly, the warder blew a whistle. Within seconds B. Two-Eleven and the child were surrounded by uniforms. B. Two-Eleven removed his arm from around the child; a warder pulled the child out of reach. The surrounding warders moved closer. “He threatened me and attacked me,” Warder Bill said. “You all saw it. And now he’s resisting orders. Okay, Didikko. One last chance. Get back in line.”

“Go to hell.” B. Two-Eleven said, knowing he might not leave the exercise yard alive. He no longer cared. Suddenly he was knocked down, kicked in the ribs and the back. Two of them seized his arms. He went limp, making them drag him every inch of the way to the lockup.

Q

Governor Ploth studied the prisoner. “I know you’re aware of the rules, B. Two-Eleven. No talking to another prisoner. No stepping out of line. No… well, you know the rules,” he repeated. “You also interfered with a warder in performance of his duties.” He tapped the report on his desk. “You physically attacked a warder who was assisting another prisoner. And you shouted threats and obscenities at him. That was witnessed and has been attested to under oath by one other warder.”

Francis Ploth was not a cruel man. He was, in fact, a good man, and in his capacity as governor of the prison, he did his best to be both strict and fair, and was often frustrated in his efforts to make small improvements for the prisoners. But in truth, he could do little. He had to adhere to rigid regulations and was subject to frequent inspections by the Commission. Something about the prisoner before him called to his sympathies, but he knew he had to resist that impulse. The penalties for each infraction of the prison rules were clearly spelled out.

“I feel I’ve gone the extra mile with you, B. Two-Eleven. Confinement on bread and water had no effect. Even the punishment cell had no effect.” As if hoping the printed words had changed, he looked again at the report. The prisoner’s other punishments had been for relatively minor infractions, but they added up. “This is your fourth offense and a very serious one. Much more serious. Prisoners must not be allowed to defy or threaten the warders.” He hesitated. The punishment dictated was very severe, and he hated it. The governor made himself look into the prisoner’s face. “Twenty lashes,” he said, “to be administered after sundown on this day.” He saw the young man grow deathly pale at the sentence and sway a little.

Some days he hated being a prison governor. Too many prisoners, not enough money, harsh punishments… but felons were felons, and prisons were prisons, and prison was intended to punish. He liked to hope the punishment could also change a bad man into a good man, but judging from the number of repeated faces he saw, he doubted if it ever worked. He was still busying himself with papers as B. Two-Eleven was led from the room. He didn’t see the desperate, pleading look the prisoner threw over his shoulder. But he felt it, all the same.

Q

Dr. John McAfee drew up a chair beside the bed in the Hospital Infirmary where B. Two-Eleven had been dumped without ceremony by a pair of hospital orderlies. He gently treated the bloody stripes on the prisoner’s back, frowning as he did so. In the years he had been there, he had seen only a half dozen floggings. In the beginning they had been done with the cat o’ nine tails. The prison reformers a few years ago had succeeded in having the cat replaced with slender rods, but he saw little difference in the amount of damage that was done.

He noticed that the vertebrae and ribs were more visible than they had been the last time he’d examined him. And the scale bore it out; the prisoner was a full stone lighter than he had been the last time. He also noted the prisoner’s mouth and jaw were streaked with fresh blood and one eye was swollen and turning black. “What happened to your face?” McAfee asked tersely.

“I fell.”

“Obviously you were beaten. By whom? When?”

“I told you. I fell. Just now. Coming from the punishment room.” Speaking was obviously painful.

“You don’t need to lie to me. I’m your doctor. Can you identify the men who beat you?” When there was no response, he persisted. “Why did they beat you?”

“Because I’m a Didikko. It’s entertainment for them.”

The doctor had been there long enough to know that Didikko was prison slang for Gypsy. He also had suspected for some time that the dozen or so Gypsies in the prison were singled out by certain warders for mistreatment, but he had no proof, and the prisoners were too afraid to talk. “I’ll personally be certain the governor is aware of this,” he said.

B. Two-Eleven said, “They said the governor knows. They said it is done by his orders. They said if I name them they will write a report saying I attacked them and I’ll be flogged again, next time harder.”

“I assure you,” McAfee protested, “no beating like this is done by the governor’s orders. Nor does he know. Would you be willing to talk to him about this?”

“They said they would kill me. I believe them.”

McAfee did not press the issue. Under the circumstances he would answer the same. “Let me see your hands,” he said.

He took B. Two-Eleven’s hands in his and turned them palm upward, then palm down. They were raw and swollen; the nails worn to the quick and black with embedded tar and grime. “I understand you were a musician before you came here. A violinist.”

The doctor released him and the prisoner slowly and painfully curled his fingers. “That was long ago. I’ll never play again.”

The doctor made no comment as he swabbed, cleaned, and bandaged the wounded hands. Familiar with the violence oakum did to a man’s hands, he sadly expected B. Two-Eleven’s prediction was correct. “I’ll see if I can get you transferred to less harmful work,” he said.

“It doesn’t matter,” B. Two-Eleven replied, and repeated, “I’ll never play again. I’ve not seen a violin since my arrest. My muscles, my fingers, my ears… they’ve forgotten what they once knew.”

“I’m going to admit you to hospital for a few days. You can rest, and your hands as well as your back can heal a bit. Here.” He held out a small glass. “There’s laudanum in this. It will help the pain.”

As he drifted to sleep, curled up on the small cot in the ward, covered over with warm blankets, B. Two-Eleven’s voice came slowly, his words slurred. “I’ll die… in this place.”

“Not if I can help it,” McAfee said.

 

End of excerpt

 

Counterpoint: Dylan’s Story

By Ruth Sims

Publisher: Dreamspinner Press

Publication: July 2010

Trade paperback and electronic

978-1-61581-533-3      Paperback

978-1-61581-534-0      eBook

One Response to Counterpoint: Dylan’s Story (excerpt)

  1. Pingback: Ruth Sims | wildeoats

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