His footsteps swish-swish over the concrete in an odd rhythm. A broken hip that never fully healed. He can barely lift his feet, yet we keep the shackles on his ankles. We have to. Those are the rules. We can’t allow any chance of escape. Or any morsel of dignity.
His lame shuffle slows us. I can’t keep a steady march at this pace, and my boots clunk randomly on the path. There’s no ice here—hasn’t been for weeks. A few weeks more and it will be frozen over again. Back to normal.
I hate my boots. Always have. They’re uncomfortable. Zima stomps beside me, somehow able to march in time. He was made for those boots. I’m sure he was born wearing them.
I can’t get used to mine. I hate them. Is that ungrateful? I am surrounded by men who would kill—literally kill—to have a pair of boots like mine, and here I am complaining. I don’t care. My feet hurt. That’s what concerns me—I don’t care. You have to stop caring in order to make it, but I always thought I could preserve something, keep it from them, deep down. Something they couldn’t take. Deep down I would still care—about something. But one by one I’ve forsaken my cares in order to make it. I don’t know what’s left. I tell myself I’m not like them, tell myself I can turn it all around, in a second, when the time comes. But it gets harder and harder to find something I still care about. I’ve seen men suffer in ways and to extents I never imagined, and yet I still hate my boots. My having sore feet is no consolation to anyone. I don’t care.
Zima slams his rifle butt between the prisoner’s shoulder blades—the old man lurches forward but keeps his feet. Zima went easy on him. Usually he would aim for the back of the neck or the head, but he is different today. He even seems not to hate me. He is always suspicious of me—of most people for that matter—but not today. He can sense it. Today is the day.
The prisoner shuffles on. Swish-swish go his canvas shoes—long overdue for the scrap heap, yet tomorrow some new prisoner will inherit them, and probably be grateful for them. The jingle and clink of the chain. The old man’s hands are chained too. Crooked old hands. I know he’s old. It used to be you could tell a man’s age by how old he looked. This one is like that. One of the few. I’ve seen men much younger look much older. His hands are gnarled and weak. I watch them and wonder—silently, of course. He was a painter. I remember studying some of his paintings at school. One even hung on the art room wall—red flowers at sunset. But then he was revealed to be an enemy of the state, and his works forbidden—it turned out we had never studied him at school. Then, later, we were told we did study his work at school —not for its brilliance and significance, but for its shallowness and vulgarity. You remember hearing he was a genius? No, remember again—his was a twisted mind of the old system, the twisted mind from which the revolution would free us. That was the story last I heard it. Who knows what it is now? It’s safer not to mention it.
And so Zima and I drive this artist before us, without ever acknowledging who he is. He is just another prisoner, chosen for “special work detail”. We know what that means. He knows what that means. Lots of people die on work detail. Accidents happen. What will his death certificate say? Fell beneath a tractor? Suffered a heart attack? Shot while trying to escape? He is one of the few who will get a death certificate. They’ll want to show it in the papers.
We’re nearly there. My heart beats faster. Apparently I do still care. I’m one of the newer guards. I’ve seen just about everything now, but have yet to participate in everything. Until today. It was either be a guard or be a prisoner. That’s how I justify it, anyway. A conscience gets you killed, and what does your death accomplish? I’ve watched the prisoners and I’ve watched the guards. Sometimes I doubt my choice. I wouldn’t change it though. Couldn’t if I wanted to. I’ve gone too far, I’m in too deep. I only hope I make it through with something of myself intact. Failing that, I’d just like to make it through.
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