Joseph Murphy

The Slow Release

At first, the prisoners were kept in their rooms. Then, they were kept in the halls. After a while, they were allowed to visit each other in other rooms that were not their own. Then the warden unlocked the gates, and they could sit with the guards and talk with them, smoking or playing cards with them at the folding tables someone had brought from home. When they were allowed to go outside into the prison yard, umbrellas were supplied by the warden's wife and the guard's girlfriends who came in by the truckloads to lather the prisoners with sunscreen so they would not burn. But every night, they returned to their cells, where they leaned back against the thin mattresses and thought about the day they had spent and fell asleep contently, though some of them had taken to staying up late to read or learn a language; some of them handled it better than others. There was a whole world out there—so they heard. In the summer, the warden had the device wheeled in through the front gate. The large, rusted wheel spun at the thing's center, set apart from the controls by a lever and a wire fence. And the warden and his wife announced, having climbed to the top of the machine, that no one was to touch it, not ever, not without permission at least. Then the inmates were all sent to their cots. That night, the first one of them snuck out into the yard and activated the device and threw himself into the center, cleaving himself down the middle. The warden and his wife were appalled that morning, severely disappointed in their trusted prisoners. How would they ever explain this? They wanted to know. And, yet, the machine was left there in the yard. From the windows of the cells on the eastern side and by mirrors from the northern and southern windows, the contraption was visible. At night, from a great distance, a traveler could see the light of the moon as it was reflected off the turning mirrors in the night, all those men watching the thing in the yard, seeing what it might do, and when they could arrange to meet it. And some of them still bothered learning languages of nations to which they one day might be released.

Joseph Murphy’s work has appeared on Prick of the Spindle and was nominated for Best of the Net and the Pushcart Prize in 2008. Recently, he has begun an ongoing column, which can be found at, entitled Letters to the Famous and Dead Composed at Work.

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