This fable is a continuation, of sorts, of this one. Read that one first, if you haven’t.
Many years ago, a man was arrested with less than a quarter-ounce of substandard marijuana. Although he was a nonviolent drug offender, it was his third conviction, and so he was given a long prison sentence. While he was unhappy to be incarcerated, and very much looked forward to his eventual release, he tried to make the best of his time; he used the library, and the weight room, and did little meditations, and wrote little songs.
One evening more than halfway through his sentence, the jailors came to his cell door and unlocked it. “Got a new cellie for you, pal,” said a guard, and ushered in an old man.
The old man was unlike any cellmate the prisoner ever had. He was very old, with skin like papyrus. His skin was all white, whiter even than the skin of prisoners coming out of solitary confinement. His eyes were pink and very bright. He wasn’t wearing a standard orange jumpsuit, but instead a finely bespoke suit and hat made of pure white unmarred fabric. He carried a large white rabbit in his hands, and he walked into the cell and sat down on the bottom bunk, making eye contact with the prisoner the entire time, and stroking the wide-eyed rabbit in his lap with one gnarled hand.
“Hey,” said the prisoner.
The cellmate did not respond, and continued staring at the prisoner and petting the rabbit.
“What’s your story, man? What you in for? How come you get to wear a suit?”
The cellmate scratched the rabbit behind the ears with his long white fingernails.
The prisoner went to the bars of his cell and called out to the guard. “Hey, who the hell is this guy? Why’s he get to wear his own clothes? Why’s he get to bring a pet?”
The guard calmly walked over to the cell. “Temporary arrangement. For his safety. He ain’t like you, he’ll be gone after tomorrow. You were just the only one who had a vacancy. Don’t do anything stupid.”
“Okay,” said the prisoner. “This is fucked up, though.”
“You’re tellin’ me, pal,” said the guard.
The prisoner leaned against the bars for a minute, then turned around. The old man was still staring at him.
“Well, that’s my bunk,” said the prisoner. When the old man didn’t respond, he said, “But hey, that’s cool. One night, you take that bunk. I’ll sleep up top.”
Eventually, the prisoner lowered himself and sat cross-legged on the floor across from his new cellmate. He stared back, and counted his breaths, and kept quiet. He fought down his deep sense of unease, and rubbed down the hairs on his arms, which had all risen of their own accord.
The sun eventually went down, and the cell darkened. Neither man spoke, and after a time, the lights in the cell went out, leaving only moonlight streaming through the bars of the cell’s only window.
The old man raised his free hand and held up three fingers (pinky, ring, and middle). “Have you ever been on a deserted island, with no way back and no place to sleep, and watched the sun set over the mainland?”
The man paused and remembered an incident from his past, when he was young, and made many mistakes. “Once, yeah.”
The old man dropped his middle finger and nodded. “Have you ever been alone in a house at night and seen a herd of cows gathered at the windows to look at you?”
“How the fuck you know this shit, man? I never told anybody about that.”
The old man nodded again, and dropped his ring finger, leaving only his pinky raised. “Have you ever seen a pack of wolves bring down a stag?”
“What? No. What the fuck are you even talking about, man?”
The old man smiled, not unkindly, and lowered the remaining finger, making a fist. “It’s quite a thing to behold. A single wolf could never do it alone, not a big stag, full-antlered. But a pack could, if they work together. If they’re hungry enough. They start by tearing at the legs.” He scratched the top of the rabbit’s head. The rabbit chewed something unseen. “Go to sleep,” said the old man.
Hesitantly, and not unafraid, the prisoner climbed up into the top bunk and rested his head on his pillow. He had every intention of staying awake all night in order to protect himself, but found himself almost immediately asleep.
His dream was dark, and full of shadows and swirling black mist. The prisoner tried to move through his murky blindness, but found that he could only move slowly. He heard a rhythmic thrum, the persistent desperate knocking of an unwanted and dreadful but ultimately ecstatic revelation. The prisoner turned around to run from it, but he could not tell one direction from another, and the pounding got louder and closer no matter which way he moved.
The prisoner awoke as the sun was rising and the first rays of the day peeked through the bars of the window. Although he’d slept all night, he felt more exhausted than ever. He groaned, and lowered himself slowly to the floor, and made his way to the steel privy in the corner, where he relieved himself.
The old man still sat on the lower bunk, one hand folded over the other. “Good morning,” he said, and smiled wide, revealing a set of small red-stained teeth.
“Morning,” said the prisoner softly. The lights in the cell slowly flickered to life. The guards unlocked the door and led the old man away, leaving the prisoner alone once again.
Art by the incredible Dragan Bibin. Used with permission.