THEY STAND together, shivering in the damp, dark cell. Well, most stand; some cannot–some of them are too tired, too weak, too frail, too maimed to stand. Those people huddle in corners, shunted away from the anticipation of the standing ones.
There’s little light, just a small window set into one wall, too high to peer out. A little illumination also peeks out from the crack in the door across from the large cell, the door which will open in a little while. No one’s sure when, but they think it will be soon, and those that can stand are pushed together against the bars, jostling each other, jockeying for a position closer to the door.
How long they’ve all been in there, none remember. They all came separately, found themselves imprisoned together against their will. Some have convinced themselves they did something wrong; more are certain they didn’t but the others certainly must have.
The people huddled on the ground in the corner, for instance–people in the cell think there must be something wrong with them. Some are too sick to stand, some are malformed and unable to use their legs. Some are blind, some talk loudly to unseen voices. Some have illnesses and disease, and some complain of pain no one can actually see.
But the others–why are they there? A few of them are quite healthy, have bodies obviously taken care-of, well-fed and groomed. Some seem just naturally hale, endowed with great skin, good looks, perfect bone-structure. They don’t really look like they belong with the rest of prisoners, but they’re here, too.
Some of them also look really healthy, but different. Their skin color’s different, dark and light browns. A few of their fellow prisoners are certain they must have done something to get themselves in here, something criminal, maybe drugs or theft. Those same prisoners of course couldn’t have done anything wrong to be in here with them, though, right?
The commonalities across skin color aren’t complete, though. Some of those with white skin were obviously really poor before they came to the prison, much poorer than the really healthy looking ones. And the same with the other groups; some had more money, went to college, had ‘real’ jobs, while others never finished school, never could get a job, grew up without shoes.
There are other differences, here in this cell. Some of the people who say they are women have penises, some of the people who say they are men have vaginas. A few arguments happened over this, ending in one of those woman being killed. It reminded people a lot of the arguments that happened when a guy told another guy he was attracted to him–he ended up dead too.
Those dead people? No one knows what their names were. But that’s not so strange, because no one actually uses their own name in the cell. Instead, they go by what’s sewn on their shirt, the little patches they made to identify themselves. No one really remembers who came up with that idea, whether they’re supposed to wear them or they decided to wear them. Some wear them proudly, others not so much. Some tear them off or hide them, at least until others make them sew them back on. Everyone’s got them, some of them have several.
The only person who actually has a name is Bill.
THEY HEAR Bill coming before he’s at the door. They’ve all learned how to listen for his footsteps, to divine from the changing shadows under the outer door that he’s nearby. Everyone gets excited, and nervous. Some get aggressive, push closer to the bars, while others back away.
The handle of the outer door turns slowly, and Bill enters clumsily, weighed down with the heavy white buckets of food he’s hauling. There’s a clamour in the cell, he sets them down, shuts the door behind him, and turns to face the prisoners.
Everyone’s got an opinion about Bill. Some like him–he’s a nice guy to them, doesn’t hurt them. They made up stories about Bill. They think he might have been one of them, a prisoner from way back. Or maybe a jailer who took pity on them and makes sure they don’t starve. Others really don’t like him at all, hate him actually, suspect he might be the reason why they’re all in there in the first place.
Bill is staring at them all from the other side of the bars of the cell. They stare back. No one says anything for a little while, until Bill finally speaks. He doesn’t talk to everyone, though, just a few of them, all of them wearing the same patches. The cell’s so crowded that no one really hears what Bill says to them, but they know what happens next. There’s a sudden push, a moment of force and violence, and only the people to whom Bill was talking are close to the cell door.
Bill opens the door, passes the buckets through, says a few words, and leaves.
What follows is always messy, and long, and very contentious. Bill gave the buckets to a small group of men and women, and it’s their job to pass out the food to everyone else.
Why is it their job? No one’s really sure, but it probably has a lot to do with Bill. Some of the guardians of the food think it’s because they’re special, or not as criminal as the others. Some believe them, some don’t. A few think that it’s just Bill playing favorites. Bill looks a lot like the people who gave the food to, after all, and always gives it to them to distribute. They think he might be related to them.
There’s never quite enough food to go around to begin with, but the way it gets distributed is really unfair. Most of it immediately goes to the people in the group that got the buckets; they take a lot, more than they can eat. They can’t store the food, though–it goes bad quickly, and is already close to rotten.
Why they take extra is pretty cunning, once you think about it. Everyone’s hungry, and hungry people want food, and so they can get other people to do stuff for them in return for food. Often, this goes to people who look like them, but not always, and the stuff they have to do to get to earn the food is rather insidious.
Some women who want food have to perform sexual favors, or clean up the cell and take care of the guardians of the food. Other women have to do the same thing, but not for the original people, but the people they gave it to. The people wearing certain patches often have to work a lot harder for the food than those wearing other patches.
Really, the worst of it all goes to the people in the corner; they can’t really do the same things for food, and are almost always forgotten or even abused by the others, even the ones who have it pretty bad already.
Occasionally, people try to change the way the food is doled out. It never really works the way anyone hoped, though. Whenever people try to make things more fair by pointing out that some people with certain symbols get more than others, there are fights. People with one color of symbol tried to convince the people with another color symbol that they were being unfair; some of them agreed, but the guardians of the food didn’t. They didn’t want to lose their extra food privileges.
Other groups tried, made alliances. Some of these worked for a little while, but never for very long, because the well-fed group was really good at dividing people. Worse, so too were those other groups: some of the people who tried to make things more fair wore the same symbols as the people who got all the food, and no matter how much they showed how they fared no better, people couldn’t get past the symbols.
In fact, what began to matter more than anything were the symbols, those patches on their prison outfits. They’d all been in that cell for so long that it was the only thing they knew, the only way to understand each other, the only way to distribute food.
To fix this, some tried adding extra symbols. That didn’t work. Some tried removing their symbols so they could all be treated equally, but this made people in all the groups really angry. The patch is who you are, they’d argue. The patches matter. And some even say, the patches are all we’ve got.
NOTHING EVER changes, really, in the cell. They eat, they shit in buckets, some starve, some die, some get beaten, some get more than they need to eat, some get to enjoy being taken care of by the other prisoners.
Occasionally, some prisoners will get an idea in their heads. Why not kill Bill and leave the prison? This is always shouted down angrily, though. Usually, no one likes the idea because Bill is the one that brings them all food–what would they do without him? How do they even know there will be food outside the prison, or even anything out there? The people who get the food directly from Bill are the most adamant about not hurting him. They sometimes even tell Bill when another prisoner suggests leaving, or kill the person themselves.
Just as often, though, the arguments don’t even get that far. They devolve into fights about the patches. Sometimes it’s because the person suggesting escape wasn’t wearing the right patch, sometimes it’s because the people suggesting it think the whole matter of the patches is a sham. They don’t trust those people, because they don’t respect the patches. No one’s allowed to leave until we get these patches sorted, many say in return. The patches are who we are.
Meanwhile, Bill comes every day with his buckets of food, talks to the people he always talks to, hauls out the dead bodies, brings some fabric to make more patches, and leaves. His job is pretty easy, when you think about it. He even recently stopped locking the cell door. He doesn’t need to, now that the prisoners are too busy arguing about the patches.
Rhyd’s a co-founder and the managing editor of Gods&Radicals. He writes here and at Paganarch, or you can also read about his sex life on Fur/Sweat/Flesh, or read his near-daily “Anarchist Thought of the Day” on Facebook. He lives nomadically, likes tea, and probably really likes you, too.
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Rhyd is one of the co-editors of A Beautiful Resistance: Left Sacred.