I asked all 38 prisoners in here a single question: “Would you rather be executed by lethal injection by the Bureau of Prisons, or fed to the lions in the coliseum?”
The criminal prisoners overwhelmingly opted for lethal injection. On the other hand, all but one of the political prisoners, myself included, said they’d prefer the lions.
Interestingly, the criminal prisoners would ask a few questions, weigh their options, think about it for a few seconds, then settle on lethal injection and announce it as their final answer. But the political prisoners had zero hesitation and took no time to deliberate. They’d just blurt out “Give me the lions!” I couldn’t even finish asking the question before they’d give their unwavering answer.
Ponder this. Option one: the needle.
I stare blankly at the painted concrete ceiling of my little one man cell. I don’t know what time it is. I don’t know if it’s day or night or summer or winter. There are no windows, no sky, nothing to even remind me of the natural world I left so long ago. That world is such a distant memory, that now I’m not even certain if it was real.
The fluorescent light clicks from dim to bright. It’s a high pitched “tink” sound, as if a tiny glass is being broken. This sound happens once a day at 4:45am. I know it well. It marks another day, another shift change, another cycle. But it’s not a new day. It is yesterday again. Or the day before that, or the day after tomorrow. When there is no difference to set yesterday apart from tomorrow or today, there is no time. I am just here suspended in my mind by the weakening strings of memory. And as hope for the future faded, so did my fondness of the past, until all that was left was this ticking of a cycling lightbulb, like a second hand on a clock that counts days as seconds, but doesn’t count days at all.
I hear the buzz of a sullinoid opening a security door far away. It’s too early for a breakfast tray. I know what this means. I sit up and move to my stainless steel sink where I bend down to take a sip of heavily chlorinated water. As I swish it around in my mouth, it reminds me of water from a hot tub at a hotel, or public pool. I used to hate it. But I stopped fighting it a long time ago. Now I just swallow it. It’s just part of the environment that I’m fading into, that’s fading into me. It’s the same as all the other things I used to hate: the steel doors, the droning whistle of the vent, the smell of industrial cleaners, the feel of scratchy blankets and baggy prison clothes. Somehow over the ages, it all soaked into me, and now there’s no way to fight it because it’s the only thing that’s left of me. I’m like a shipwreck that’s more reef than ship now.
I hear the second buzz of the second security door. I hear a cop’s radio beep. His keys jingle as he approaches. I stand by my door. There is a familiar rasp as his key slides into the lock in my tray slot. I can not see his face. The window on my door is covered by a thick magnetic cover. But even if I could see him, he would not look at me. They never look at me.
“Got your ID?,” an empty voice says. I push my little red ID card out the tray slot. A moment later an 8 1/2 x 14 envelope is stuffed through the slot followed by my ID. I look at the envelope. I know what it is. But I pull the stack of papers out anyway and begin to read it. “In the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit Court…” I skip to the back until I see the words I knew I would find: “shall proceed as scheduled…”, “The defendant’s motion to stay execution is DENIED.”
I don’t read the rest of the order. I know what it will say and how it will say it. Over the past few decades, I’ve gotten hundreds of denials. In the beginning, I would open letters hoping for good news. Then, as the years dragged on, I learned to dread and fear orders from the courts because they were never good. Then, eventually I got so tired of the fear and dread that I was all used up and couldn’t feel any feelings at all.
This was the last denial I’d ever get. I slipped the papers back in the envelope and set it on the stack of similar envelopes at the foot of my concrete bed.
I straightened my sheets and laid down, crossing my arms over my chest. Perhaps an hour passed like this. Then I heard the security doors again, and lots of keys. A crowd is forming outside my door. A voice tells me to back up to the tray slot. I bend down and stick my hands out the slot to be cuffed like I have a million times before.
The cold steel ratchets around my wrists. It’s a sound etched into my memory. It was the last sound I heard as a free man, there pressed into the snow when they arrested me.
I’ve forgotten the people I loved, the dreams I had; I’ve even forgotten who I used to be. But the sound of ratchedding cuffs must be stired in some different part of the mind, or maybe it’s not my mind at all that’s attuned to that awful sound. “Crickkkk” that’s the sound of a soul being crushed. I’ve heard it enough times to crush all the souls that came before me or will ever come after. That sound is all that’s left now. My bones remember it.
“OPEN Z-3” the voice yells into the radio. My cell door pops. As it opens, the droning whistle of my vent changes pitch. I back out and feel two hands on each elbow. They point me down a long brightly lit hallway. I walk forward in my shower shoes. I don’t look back, but I hear the crowd of keys walking behind me. I pass the shower, the law library, computer room, then the cop’s office. This is the furthest down this hall I have ever been.
The hands stop me at the last door on the left. It is unlocked and swings open as I gently push it with my toe. Inside is a table with half a dozen seat belts dangling from it, and Velcro straps on two arm rests that extend out from the table at an angle. Everything is clean, new, and sterile.
The hands begin to remove the cuffs. If I spun around and attacked the crowd of strangers behind me, I could do some harm. If I really went for it, that would mean I’d be charged with a new crime. I’d have to go though a trial, and appeals, and all of that. It could take decades. This would perhaps allow me to live out my natural life. But then I think of my life in my cell, with the “tinking” lightbulb and chemical water. There is nothing natural about that life. There’s nothing natural about me. I’m just here. And I’m not even sure of that anymore.
This is when I realize that I am not contemplating attacking a cop to get a new charge. I am only remembering that I contemplated it long, long ago. But not now. Today, I’m here for the same thing the crowd of keys behind me are here for.
As I step into he room, I catch sight of a hollow faced prisoner in a two way mirror. Moving side to side I realize it is me. I have not seen myself in a mirror for over 7 years. I am transfixed. I watch as the prisoner walks to the table and sits on it. He lays down and I see him no more. He is gone. Like the memory he once was, like a reflected ghost of myself.
The hands buckle the straps over me loosely. I don’t look at the cops and they don’t look at me. The only one who looked at me was the prisoner in the mirror. And he felt like a lost stranger.
The needle bites my skin. I smell the tape that tapes down the pick line. The keys make their way out. I smell them too. It is the smell of clothes washed at home with laundry detergent. It is shaving cream, perfume, leather shoes, sweat, and fear. It’s the smell of a nervous group.
The keys close the door and it is back to me and the whistling drone of the vent, the fluorescent light, and the absence of time. I do not know if the straps would hold me if I fought them. And I will never know because I won’t fight them. I feel the liquid slither down the tube and into my body. I am perfectly still on the outside. Now I am perfectly still on the inside. My lungs start to burn. My tongue starts to tingle. My ears are ringing. My palms itch.
And yet, I know what is happening to me is of little consequence. They aren’t killing me; there’s nothing left of me to kill. They are just snuffing out the possibility of me remembering what it was like to have hope, a long time ago, before all of this. I stare at the ceiling until I forget what it looks like, and all that remains is the whistle of the vent. So I listen, until I forget what the vent sounded like. And with that, my last memory is gone. And so am I.
Option Two: The lions.
“FORWARD!” Yells the burly soldier with a hammer and awl in his hand. I shuffle ahead, keeping pace with the 7 other men on the chain with me. On my right ankles is an iron shackle that the heavy chain runs through. I walk in step with the man in front of me. His name is Baramus. He is a fisherman from the city of split. For the past seven months we have either been in a cage together, or on a chain together. Today, we will fight for our lives together.
When I first arrived I was beat down and bruised. Baramus showed me kindness. He treated me like a brother. And in many ways, he reminded me of my two brothers back home. He is fiercely loyal, like my middle brother, and deeply conscientious like my younger brother. I don’t know how he came to be sent to the coliseum. But I know he was not a slave, sold into this fate. And I doubt he was a criminal, sentenced to this fate. He has a look in his eyes that somehow assures others that he knows something no one else knows. It isn’t that he is fearless. It is more like something stronger than his fear carries him through, like a heavy ship cresting dangerous waves, with a steady handed captain at its helm.
In the political climate these days, the surefooted self ownership that Baramus exudes is enough to prompt the local governor to snatch him up and send him to the lions. The senate gives local governors great leeway when it comes to getting rid of natural leaders. They know all too well the catastrophe one man can cause an empire.
Courage spreads like fire from man to man. And once it is a blaze, not even death can quench it. Baramus had a courage that smoldered like a burning coal. And I was drawn to him because of it, everyone was.
I knew he had a wife and two sons. He spoke of them often. They would be proud of him if they could see him now. And his sons, no doubt, would carry his fearless blood into many a battle long after their father was gone.
I thought of my own son, of the sound of his voice and the smell of his hair. He was only 3 when they came for me in a dawn raid. I knew what it meant when the blacksmith fitted the iron around my ankle and hammered the rivet through the clasp. As that hammer rang out, I knew I would never see my son again. This filled me with sadness, wrath, and pride all at once; sadness that my son would have to grow up without a father, wrath at the self worshipping evil of the Roman system of government that sacrifices whole families and human dignity its self on the altar of the state, and finally pride that they hadn’t captured all of me. So long as my blood was int he veins of my son, a part of me lived free. I could see the makings of a lions heart in him, even at such a young age, and I was proud of what I knew he would become.
As we neared the opening of the dark, cool passageway, the warm air hit my face. The smell of hay and animal musk was strong. Slowly, the light of day and the clear, clean, blue sky opened up above me. The brightness hurt my eyes. But I forced them wide open and drank in the sight of that glorious sky.
“Shackles on the block,” said the soldier with the hammer and awl. “All together now, ready, go,” I said, prompting all 7 of us on the chain to lift our right feet onto a rough hewn timber beam about knee’s height. The soldier knelt next to the first man and skillfully hammered the awl through the clasp, forcing the rivet out. The heavy thud of the hammer ended with a musical ring as the final blow caused the shackle to spring open.
“Well B,” I said after the deep breath, “once that shackle’s off, we’re free.” Baramus smiled a deep, reassuring smile as he turned to look at me. “How do you figure?” he thundered. I knew he knew what I meant, but he wanted, perhaps needed, to hear me explain it. “Well I can’t speak for how the day will end, but we will never wear shackles again,” I replied. Baramus nodded his head approvingly, as if to acknowledge a small victory, then he turned to the soldier. “How about it soldier? Have you ever put shackles back on a man who went to the coliseum?” The soldier paused, looked up into Baramus’ face. “I never have,” replied the soldier, in a tone that seemed too reverent for a man in his profession. The burning coal of courage in Baramus’ eyes was turning into a flame. And as with all flames, it beckons us to gaze upon it. Still locked in a stare with the soldier, Baramus asked “has anyone ever survived the lions?” Not looking away, the soldier answered, “one or two.” Baramus then looked away, releasing the soldier from his intense eye contact.
The next logical question-one or two out of how many-hung in the air like smoke. None spoke. “Sounds good to me,” I said, clearing the silence and giving my fellows permission to not care about the odds. In the end, it’s not about the odds. It never is. We don’t fight evil only when we might overcome it; we fight evil so that it may never overcome us.
The soldier moved to my shackle. Two initial taps followed by five heavy blows sent the rivet skipping into the dirt below the beam. I rubbed my ankle, then held out my palm asking for the rivet. “Please, I want to keep the rivet, ” I said. Confused, the soldier looked at me. Beckoning with my hand, I explained; “I’ve sailed to every shore that wind and tide could take me to. I’ve climbed mountains that tower above the clouds. I’ve trekked through the dessert under a billion stars. And, every place I’ve gone, I’ve knelt down and picked up a pebble to take home to my son. He has a little boy, with a little pebble, from all the places his father has returned from. They’re about the size of that rivet. If I return from this place, if I survive the lions, I want to give my son that rivet.”
I held my hand steady. The soldier softly said “so be it,” reached down for the rivet, blew the dust off of it, wiped it on his sleeve, and handed it to me as if it were a diamond ring.
“Thank you,” I said, tucking the rivet into the pocket of my belt as the soldier freed the last two men from their shackles. And with that, the heavy wooden doors opened in front of us to reveal the wide open floor of the coliseum.
“Is there such a thing as a good death?” Asked Baramus as we moved toward the opening. “No,” I replied, “Death is the enemy. But if you can be alive when you die, that is good enough.”
The 7 of us moved forward, fanning out into the center of the arena. We no longer moved as a single chain. We were individuals again, each making his own decisions and forming his own strategy.
I looked up into the crowds of revelers here to gloat at the deaths of those who didn’t worship their filthy joke of a government. I saw the absurdly festooned bueaurocrats in the best seats. The men wore make up and had a sort of prissy aloofness that seemed to bask in their it vicarious power and imagined safety. Rather than be men, these degenerate sycophants chose to be gold digging whores to the state. And like whores, they were all make believe and lies. They didn’t have the balls to confront czar with manly power. So they tried to seduce him with feminine charm.
The common men in the cheap seats were less prissy, but still a bunch of reprobates who had betrayed their nature. They were slaves to their comfort. With bread and circuses, you could pay these men to live an unremarkable life of meaningless labor. No dreams, no pride, no dignity, no cause greater than their own belly.
The women were the most pitiful sight of all. They were like lost cats, turned mean by the dangers of life. With all the men turned into homos or work zombies, the women were left alone, abandoned in an ugly world with no one to love them, protect them, and fight for them. Of minimal utilitarian value to the state, the women felt more like refugees from a broken down humanity than anything else. They couldn’t fight or work as hard as a man, and their natural needs were widely resented. Even their seductive sexuality had no place; the ruling sissies resented its power, and the working zombies could not draw it out. Even motherhood was seen as a competing allegiance to the state. Czar wanted the children while they were still young, before their mothers could fill their little hearts with useless sensibilities like love.
I stood and turned slowly as I took in this grand spectacle. “The real circus is in the stands,” I muttered to myself. My heart mourned for this vandalization of humanity before my eyes.
I thought of all the things that had value in me, here at the end. It all had to do with humanity. I remembered my childhood, and being taught how to be a man by my father. I remembered my first dog as a puppy when I was 9 years old. I remember the day I buried him under the cherry tree as a grown man. I remembered my brothers and sisters, how we had a forever bond, and all the times we’d spent together. I remembered my mother, so beautiful when I was a child. I remembered her tears when she realized she’d lost me. I thought of all the places I’d gone, people I’d met, and things I had learned, of arctic sunrises, and afternoon rains in Africa, of storms at sea, and springtime in my garden. I remembered the summer I became fearless and decided to live a life worth living. I thought of all the times I’d almost died, but didn’t. I thought of love, of all the rough and wild urgent sex I’d had, then of the tender intensity of delicate lovemaking. I thought of my wife’s blue green eyes, and the feel of caressing her face, of how pretty she was when she slept in my arms, how she brought out the man in me. I remembered my son, his tiny hand wrapped around my little finger, his first laugh, and the love and trust in his voice. I thought of his little box of pebbles, and wondered what kind of man he’d grow into. I didn’t know. But I believed in him. I was proud of him. And one day, I knew, he would be proud of me.
One after another, doors were dramatically raised, releasing lions. I had expected a handful, but no this many. They spilled out of the doors like hornets out of a beehive. There were too many to count. It was a swarm of lions.
Instinctively, Baramus and I ran together and stood shoulder to shoulder. Two men were already torn limb from limb. A third was disemboweled, but not quite dead, as a growling, flurry of lions fought over him. It was a gruesome sight. My heart pounded powerfully in my chest, my legs were humming with energy, my breath quickened, and my fists were hot like fire.
I made eye contact with a small male lion as he bolted toward me. Moments before he leapt on me, I lunged toward him with all my might, my shoulder and two fists hitting his neck and chest. The impact was astounding. It felt like diving into water that was too stiff to splash. The lion slammed my head into the dirt, and for a moment I lost my bearings. Then he was gone, but Baramus was being dragged by his foot by one lion as another lion tried to take him away from the first. He was motionless.
I ran and dove on Baramus’ leg, ripping it from the lions mouth. I shielded his body with mine and looked into his bloodied face. His eyes were open, but caked with dust and dirt.
In a fraction of a second, a thousands words of gratitude, reverence, and admiration silently raced through my mind, as if spoken to his still departing soul to give meaning to his life and purpose to his death.
Like a bolt of lightning, a pair of powerful jaws seized upon my thigh and flung me into the air. All I saw was sky. Clear, clean, beautiful, beautiful sky; the kind of sky that makes crops grow, flowers bloom, and girls get tan. Then as I fell back to earth, I saw the rivet tumbling through the air with me, knocked from the pocket of my belt. I grasped for it. I fixed my gaze on it. The impact of landing knocked the wind out of me. Still, I moved on my hands and knees to grab the rivet. I reached for it with swift determination, and clutched it tightly in my bloody fist. At the same moment, a lion grabbed me by the back of the neck and ran forward with me held high, so that only my feet scraped the ground. I felt the roughness of his tongue on my neck, and the blunt power of his teeth. His breath was in my ear, and I shook as he walked with that proud feline trot that only cats possess. I reached back to fight my attacker, but my arms were heavy and slow. The blood streaming down my leg was flowing like it was being poured from a pitcher. The world went black, and my body went numb. The lion dropped me to the ground. I could still hear the heavy feet of the lion around me, and his panting breath. But only for a moment. Then, the world fell silent as my body gave up my spirit. The sound of lion’s breath was gone, but I would remember it for all eternity.
I’ll hold off on my comments and analysis of these two stories. I want to hear what it means to you and what sort of introspection it stirred up. Send me your thoughts by mail at:
Francis Schaeffer Cox
US Penitentiary CMU
P.O. Box 1000
Marion, IL 62959