One fine day, Kosef J found himself released from prison. It all started with the rattling of the chains that secured the two locks on the elevator. Then the doors at the very end of the corridor were flung open. Lastly, there was some swearing followed by the creaking of the breakfast trolley. But only when the two elderly prison guards walked past Kosef J’s cell without even breaking stride did he realize that something unusual was about to happen.
In the first few minutes, Kosef J was deeply confused and somewhat offended. This was the first time that Franz Hoss and his deputy, Fabius, passed by his cell as if he, Kosef J, wasn’t even inside. He could tell that, as usual, the flaps on the food slots were being opened one by one, and that all the other familiar noises punctuated the very particular ritual of breakfast time. Old Franz Hoss kept on howling and smashing against the metal doors. Fabius, at the end of his rope, as always, carried on mumbling and complaining about the prisoners’ stench.
This was followed by about five minutes of silence. Only some stifled slurping and the rattling of someone choking on his food broke the silence.
Kosef J jumped out of bed and dashed to the door. He pressed his temple to the cold metal frame and listened. He felt queasy. All the other prisoners were having breakfast. All the other forty-nine prisoners in the other forty-nine cells were eating, while he, the fiftieth in the fiftieth cell, had been completely ignored for some mysterious reason. This was the moment when old Hoss reappeared at the end of the corridor.
The old prison guard had an unmistakable walk. He shuffled, and his steel toe plates kept scraping the concrete floor while the soles of his boots were scratching along the floor like sandpaper. Kosef J could hear these boots head toward his cell, as if they were two strange, slightly crippled, but nonetheless menacing animals. “Good God,” Kosef J said to himself, “I hope this isn’t going to turn nasty.” He stepped back, sat down on the edge of his bed, and tried to hold his breath for a few seconds.
Franz Hoss opened the door, slid to a halt on the threshold, and said with a smile on his face:
“Good morning, Mr. Kosef J!”
“What?” Kosef J started and rose to his feet involuntarily.
Franz Hoss entered the cell and began to examine its walls. He walked up and down, shaking his head a few times in disapproval. He placed both of his palms on the wall and waited carefully, as if he wanted to measure the dampness in that particular spot. Then he let out a sigh, and sat down on the edge of the bed.
“The weather is set to take a turn for the worse,” the old guard announced with sadness. “Yes, it is indeed,” he added, scratching his beard.
Kosef J thought he was dreaming. First of all, he could scarcely believe that old Franz was capable of showing such an unusual side to himself: tired and, as a result, calm, sad, and—due to the sadness—also very warm and human. Moreover, it seemed inconceivable to him that the rancorous guard would be capable of such a relaxed and even chatty tone, a tone that practically encouraged conversation.
“This rain is killing me,” Kosef J seemed to hear, as if in a dream. “It never used to rain like this.”
“What?” Kosef J muttered again, startled. This was his second shocked “what”, and he felt a little ashamed of being unable to cope with the conversation.
“No, no,” old Franz responded immediately, slightly invigorated. “We’ve obviously never had rain like this before.”
A terrible thought, unfolding at breakneck speed, started to blossom in the prisoner’s mind. “Maybe they want to kill me, maybe they are all mad, maybe my mother is here to see me,” Kosef J heard himself thinking, and for a moment he was convinced that he must have been thinking out loud. But no, he certainly hadn’t been thinking out loud, because old Franz remained seated on the edge of his bed and scratched his beard from time to time.
“It’s already November and soon it will be December," Franz Hoss mused and stared into Kosef J’s eyes, as if he wanted to read the other’s thoughts.
“But it didn’t rain in September,” Kosef J said suddenly, astonished at hearing himself speak.
“What do you mean it didn’t rain?” the guard snapped.
“It didn’t rain,” Kosef J insisted.
“What do you mean it didn’t rain?” the guard yelled, in a blunt yet still cordial tone.
“It didn’t rain,” Kosef J insisted, sure of himself. He would have liked to have added “simply,” but didn’t, considering that he had already gone too far. Nevertheless, he felt overwhelmed by happiness. He had managed to squeeze in no fewer than two “whats,” which meant that he’d had the courage to contradict the old guard twice. “Now,” Kosef said to himself, “he’s welcome to go ahead and hit me.”
But Franz Hoss didn’t hit him. Instead, he lowered his gaze to the floor with the expression of a man worn out by toil and advanced age. All of a sudden, Kosef J felt sorry for the old prison guard. He almost regretted his insistence on “it didn’t rain.” What was the point of troubling an old and possibly ill man?
Some mumbling coming from the corridor caught his attention. Somebody was dragging himself along the row of doors. “It’s Fabius,” Kosef J realized, and an unpleasant thought stuck in his mind.
“It’s Fabius,” the old guard confirmed, as if he had heard the prisoner’s private thoughts and wanted to reassure him.
“Good morning Mr. Kosef J,” Fabius said as he appeared at the wide open door.
Kosef J nodded and stared into nothingness. Ultimately, prison guards could get away with whatever they liked. If the two old men felt like greeting him in this cordial way, there was no stopping them. By the same token, if the two guards wanted to beat the living daylights out of him and after each blow wish him “Good morning, Mr. Kosef J,” no one would have been able to stop them.
On this particular morning, however, deputy Fabius and his boss, Franz Hoss, seemed to have no such perverse intentions. Fabius continued to lean against the doorframe, looking bewildered, as if he wanted to enter but was too embarrassed to do so. A few moments of silence followed. Fabius fished out a pack of cigarettes and weighed it in his palm before handing it to Franz Hoss. The old guard pulled out a cigarette with an expression of profound gratitude.
“Would you care for a cigarette, Mr. Kosef J?”
Kosef J registered the question and felt as if he was in the grip of a hurricane with his head submerged under water. Something baffling was unwinding, something extremely unpleasant like a waking nightmare.
“It’s better this way,” he could hear Fabius’s voice.
The two guards lit their cigarettes and Kosef J realized that Fabius was about to put the pack back into his pocket. His bafflement must have been interpreted as a refusal.
“No, no,” Kosef J hastened, “I want one, too.”
“Smoking is a curse,” Fabius observed, holding out the pack of cigarettes. “Especially when it’s humid.”
“I agree,” Franz Hoss confirmed.
“Do you?” Fabius turned to his boss, smiling.
“I do indeed!” Franz Hoss endorsed his colleague, and Kosef J caught a glimpse of a fantastic image: the two guards smiling at one another in full agreement, which clearly made them both happy.
“Really good,” Kosef J said pointing at the cigarette, mainly because he felt obliged to share this moment of harmony.
“I have more,” Fabius responded. “Do let me know if you want another.”
The cell quickly filled up with smoke. The cigarette made Kosef J even dizzier and his legs started trembling. His heart was pumping faster and faster, yet still carried insufficient amounts of blood to his brain. This triggered a staccato beat, as if someone had been frantically chopping onions in a kitchen. Kosef J wondered whether his heartbeat couldn’t be heard a little too loudly in the cell. He would have liked to sit down on the edge of the bed, at least for a minute, but was unsure how to ask for permission.
Franz Hoss giggled. Fabius took two steps forward, stopped in front of Kosef J and patted him protectively on the shoulder. A second later all three were sitting on the edge of bed, smoking. Kosef J couldn’t recall ever having felt so relaxed and so protected. In fact, he would have preferred to die, to make this sensation last or hold onto it forever.
The first thing Kosef J noticed when he woke up was his cell door left ajar. He sat up and looked around carefully. The objects in the cell appeared in a blur yet he did his best to identify them. A terrible fear nestled in his throat when he realized how late it was. The light seeping through the narrow cell window indicated lunchtime. Kosef J jumped to his feet and rushed to the wall with the window. He hooked his hands into the bars and, propping himself up on his knees, managed to lift his chin above the lower edge of the window.
The inmates were working in the prison’s kitchen garden.
Kosef J got down from the window and rubbed his palms together, disheartened. Finally his brain decided to kickstart. If the detainees were working in the prison’s kitchen garden that meant, yes, that meant that it was Sunday. Because it was only on Sundays, during recreation hours, that the detainees were allowed to work in the prison’s kitchen garden. Kosef J came instantly to grips with the entire anomaly of this morning. He remembered vividly that he did not breakfast. Then he realized that he was now excluded from garden work as well, a work that the detainees loved because they were allowed to eat green beans and peas.
“This isn’t right,” Kosef J said to himself. The smell of cheap cigarettes in his cell made him sick. His whole mouth was a wound, his lips were burning, and on the tip of his tongue he could detect a few loose leaves of bitter tobacco. Yet he was allowed to sleep straight through Sunday morning, something that had never happened before. The latter thought brought some calm to him, together with the feeling of being well rested. He had never felt so well rested and so lucid before. And he had never felt a greater urge to work in the kitchen garden.
He walked to the door left ajar and surveyed the part of the corridor within view. The entire floor was deadly silent. Utterly perplexed, Kosef J waited for a few minutes in front of the door left in such a careless state. He didn’t have the slightest idea what he was supposed to do or not to do. After a while he decided to open the door a little farther, so he could get a better look at the corridor. He stretched his arm out and pushed the door gently. He found it beyond belief that the door didn’t display any resistance. He got to look down the corridor, like he wanted, but he couldn’t see it in its entirety. After a while he decided to open the door properly and try to take in the whole corridor.
The corridor was deserted. At its end, the door leading to the elevator was left ajar, too. Kosef J thought that after all, if things were the way they were, he could perhaps allow himself a short walk on the corridor. He slid past the walls, looking into the other cells. Nobody, nowhere. He got to the end of the corridor, where the elevator was. Once there, he stopped, changed his mind and turned around. He found himself in his cell again, more confused than ever. Once more he clenched the bars on his window and gazed outside.
The detainees were still working briskly in the prison’s kitchen garden. It was a sunny day and some had taken their shirts off.
Kosef J experienced a sense of envy, even begrudgement. His stomach gave clear signs of unease. A skipped breakfast was almost catastrophic. Hunger was grinding him not so much in his stomach but in his brain, unleashing a chain of queries and a sensation of total discontent. Kosef J was overcome with profound sadness, especially because there was no one to tell him what to do. It was obvious that something new was happening, something concerning him and his future, but he didn’t know what that was.
“Mr. Hoss!” Kosef J shouted, standing in the doorway of his cell, hoping that the old prison guard would hear him from wherever he was, such as the elevator tower, for instance.
No one answered, so Kosef J placed his palms around his mouth to form a trumpet, and shouted again:
“Mr. Prison Guard! Mr. Prison Guard, it's me, Kosef J!”
He would have liked to continue: Mister Prison Guard, what the hell, this is me, you know me.
“Mr. Hoss, can I go to the kitchen garden?” Kosef J asked again, delighted that it occurred to him to ask for permission.
No response this time either. But Kosef J was suddenly feeling more confident. The fact that he did ask for permission gave him the conviction that he didn’t do anything wrong. Basically, he wasn’t formally forbidden to go to the kitchen garden on a Sunday. He had been carrying out Sunday gardening duties for a few good years now and always proved to be a conscientious and diligent fellow.
Sure of himself, he headed toward the elevator. He had never used the elevator unescorted. He checked out the six or seven buttons corresponding to the various floors. He pushed the button with the arrow pointing upward and the elevator rose to him. He entered the elevator cage, which reminded him of his own cell, closed the safety railing, and pressed the button marked zero. The elevator jerked into motion. Kosef J felt sick. He squeezed his stomach with his fists and huddled in a corner. He was disgusted with the thought of throwing up in the elevator and tried to suppress the urge. He held his breath and tightened his jaws. The elevator came to a halt, but Kosef J didn’t dare stand up. His stomach felt suddenly very heavy. Something was poking him from within, filling him up with a gluey and poisonous liquid. Kosef J closed his eyes, clenched his teeth even stronger, and huddled up even more. He was shaking all over and his muscles tightened.
The elevator door was suddenly propped open and Deputy Fabius’s head appeared in the doorway.
“Do you need to puke?” Fabius asked, unperturbed, as if the elevator’s sole purpose had been to transport people about to get sick to the ground floor.
“Yes,” groaned Kosef J.
“Come with me to the lavatory,” Fabius said, helping Kosef J to his feet.
The two men dragged themselves along the corridor, hanging on to one another. Fabius, limping and gasping from the effort, and Kosef J in pain and just about to explode. This was the first time Kosef J set foot on this corridor, yet he was able to figure out that Fabius was taking him to the lavatory reserved for prison guards. He felt overwhelmed by a strange pride, which spread all over his body despite the fact that he was shivering in pain and feeling quite nauseous.
Fabius helped him to throw up, holding him by the nape. Kosef J had the impression that he was pouring all his guts out, one by one. Sweat was streaming down his neck and face, while tears borne by the effort mingled with sweat. Fabius tried to calm him down:
“Almost there, Mr. Kosef, almost there.”
But Kosef J continued to throw up over and over again, and kept on groaning until his groan began to echo, absolutely convinced that he would be vomiting like this until the end of his days. This was the moment when Fabius, holding him by the nape and shoulders, advised him that, as of that morning, he was a free man.
Kosef J announced that he was feeling much better and asked Fabius to allow him to be on his own a little. Fabius got out a handkerchief, wiped Kosef’s face and mouth, and, gently forcing him to keep the handkerchief, responded:
“Yes, of course.”
Left alone, Kosef J calmed down little by little. The prison guards’ lavatory was spotless; he could almost see himself in the tiles. It smelled of quality disinfectant and Kosef J breathed in the air with delight. Then he tried for minutes on end to remember the exact phrase Fabius had told him. He was not sure of its wording. He was trying to remember it, rummaging through the memory. His brain echoed something along the lines of “Be brave, Mr. Kosef, you were freed this morning.” But no, this was too long, Fabius used other words. “Take it easy, take it easy. From now on you are a free man.” Not this either. Fabius used an official term, something like “your period of detention has come to an end.” Still not there. What Fabius told him felt like a piece of information conveyed with great concern: “Beware, as of today you are free as a bird.” No.
Kosef J would have liked to feel something really special, to be blissfully happy or moved to tears. But he didn’t experience anything like this. He was given the news, his brain made a record of it, and that was that. All he could feel was a stomachache and a terrible hunger. What Fabius told him would certainly explain all the strange behavior that morning. He was allowed an additional three hours of sleep because he, Kosef J, was entitled to it. In his capacity as a free man. Yet he was not informed of this fact, of being a free man, straightaway. He slept his first sleep as a free man without being aware of this freedom. The two prison guards were rather strange, and, to be fair, they behaved nicely but strangely. Perhaps it wasn’t their job to tell Kosef J that he was suddenly free, and this would explain everything. But if it wasn’t their job to tell him he was free, whose job should it have been? Kosef J gave up thinking about all this and made a real effort to be pleased. He tried to be pleased with his stolidity, and concentrated on this with all his might.
“This is the most beautiful day of my life,” Kosef J whispered to himself, hoping to get a little emotional.
He waited for a few moments to savor the impact of this sentence, and then, disgruntled, he repeated it much louder:
“This is the most beautiful day of my life.”
“Did you say something?” Fabius asked, and Kosef J had to make use of all his strength to prevent the guard from opening the door.
“Do you need anything?” Fabius asked again, checking whether there was a need for him to pull the door open.
“No, nothing at all,” Kosef J answered in a soft voice from within the lavatory.
Except for hunger, nothing bothered him anymore. He glanced at his reflection on the tiles and smiled. The tiles were white and his skin gained a pearl-like glow. He noticed, mounted on the wall and in a marble frame, a ring-shaped toilet paper holder. He instinctively felt the urge to roll down as much paper as possible, and stash away a few sheets for later. His sense of superiority held him back from this urge, though. He pulled his pants up, pulled on the golden chain of the water tank, and stepped out of the lavatory.
In the meantime, Fabius had disappeared. Kosef J no longer felt awkward. He took his time washing his hands and face in a sink he spotted on the corridor, right under a window. After savoring the cool water on his face, Kosef J looked out of the window.
The window overlooked a side of the prison Kosef J had never seen before. He realized that he was facing the administrative building, comprising offices, storerooms, and the guards’ own bedrooms. An alleyway covered in pebbles led to one of the side entrances to the prison. The alley was flanked by a few old poplars that Kosef J liked immensely. The gate at the end of the alley was less commanding than entrance Number One, which he had known for so long. Two lanterns placed on either side gave this entrance a discreet, intimate and inviting feel.
The thought that he was now finally free sprouted again in his mind. A tremendous urge to run toward that gate flanked by lanterns had suddenly awakened in his whole being. Good God, what on earth could freedom actually entail? Would freedom mean that he was allowed to walk on that alley flanked by poplars? Would he be allowed to return to the window after nightfall and check out the light of the lanterns for himself?
Feeling helpless, Kosef J bit his lip. He practically knew nothing of what his life would be like from now on. Someone should have certainly told him a thing or two, but that someone hasn’t yet come forward. The two guards appeared a little uncomfortable, too. Perhaps it was up to him to ask a few questions, to ask for more precise information. After all it was him who got freed. Yet he found it quite difficult to imagine that old Hoss had never granted anyone else their freedom before. “I’m an idiot,” Kosef J said to himself, and headed to the kitchen garden with determination.
He could spot the two guards from afar, sprawled over a bench, enjoying the few sunrays that had managed to miraculously break through the clouds. The two were eating sunflower seeds and Franz Hoss had his eyes closed.
The detainees were busying themselves happily among the cabbage and tomato patches. They stopped work when they caught sight of Kosef J, and, with astonished yet respectful expressions, started whispering to one another. For a moment Kosef J felt guilty that he slept all morning instead of coming out to work alongside everyone else, as usual. He got over this quickly, though, saying to himself that he was now a free man after all and had other responsibilities. As he was heading toward the bench where the two guards were slumbering, Kosef J decided to ask for no less than to be escorted as soon as possible to the main prison gate.
“How’s it going?” Franz Hoss probed, opening his eyes just before Kosef J could get close enough to engage them in conversation.
Fabius rose to his feet for no apparent reason. Kosef J’s breathing stopped and all his plans to ask a few questions suddenly evaporated. The detainees resumed work.
“Fine,” Kosef J said, realizing that the old guard was clearly awaiting a response to his question.
“Would you like to sit with us?” Fabius asked and Kosef J said “yes.”
“It’s a miracle that the sun still breaks through,” Franz Hoss muttered.
Fabius handed a bag of sunflower seeds to Kosef J.
“Here, have some.”
Kosef J accepted gladly. He was extremely hungry and would have been able to eat just about anything. He would have liked to dash to the garden and pick a few peapods, but for some reason he was embarrassed to do this.
“Look at these sluggards,” the old guard croaked again, “they haven’t made any progress since morning. They’ve filled their bellies, that’s what they’ve done. They filled their breadbaskets. That’s all.”
Kosef J blushed suddenly, fingers frozen in the air. He managed to spit out a few shells and, with his mouth open, was waiting for air to somehow penetrate his lungs. Was this a veiled reproach from Franz Hoss?
“What a shame that today’s Sunday,” Fabius said resting his gaze on Kosef J, but the latter failed to grasp the actual meaning of this sentence.
For a while all three kept quiet. The break in the clouds was about to come to an end, to the regret of Franz Hoss. When the last ray was abruptly severed by an avalanche of clouds, the old guard jumped up and issued a command. The detainees lined up immediately. It was mealtime and everybody was awaiting their return to their cells.
“So that’s that,” Fabius said to Kosef J, wrapping up a conversation that had never really taken place.
The prisoners fell into formation. Franz Hoss was shouting down the line, issuing all sorts of commands and insulting someone or other. Fabius shook out the shells from his beard and followed Franz Hoss.
All of a sudden, Kosef J felt incredibly lonely. A hard and oppressive loneliness, veiled in an almost unbearable sadness. He had never felt so abandoned, had never experienced a greater state of confusion. Of all the contradictory impulses that had tried him, Kosef J chose the most natural one. He decided to re-enter his cell and wait for lunch there.
So he ran to catch up with the inmates.
From Domnul K. eliberat (Bucharest: Editura Cartea Românească, 2010). © 2010 by Matéi Visniec. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2016 by Jozefina Komporaly. All rights reserved.