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And So, He Said

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Personal Essay: Pessimism


A short story about two people meeting in an unspecified war. Fall 2009.

The guard named Davidson is sobbing openly when the new batch of prisoners is brought in. Leaning against the wall and wiping the tears off his cheek, he sucks in hiccupping gasps of air, sniffling miserably. The prisoners can only stare. Even when the guard that herded them into the cell slams the bars shut and saunters off looking mildly disgusted, Davidson is still sobbing quietly. Most of the prisoners grow bored of this sight after a few minutes and crawl to the cots at the back of the cell.

A handful of prisoners who aren't tired yet stay up to watch the spectacle. Ten, fifteen minutes. The crying tapers down and the prisoners trickle to the back of the cell to sleep. Eventually it's just one blonde young man standing by the bars and watching Davidson wipe the snot off his face. He stares, almost fascinated, watching this man's sleeve darken with tears.

After a few more minutes, the sniffles finally die down. The blonde prisoner is still staring. Wiping the last traces of saliva off his chin, Davidson turns and looks at the prisoner. "Oh," he says, smiling through swollen eyes and wet cheeks. "Hello." The prisoner backs off a step and makes to join the other prisoners at the back of the cell, but pauses when he hears the soldier press up against the bar's and ask, "Um, hey. What's your name?"

He's been asked a variety of things before by guards – what do you have in your hands? where are you heading? what the hell do you think you're doing? – but never his name. He stands frozen mid-step, watching the soldier cautiously as if expecting some twist to the innocuous question. But the soldier only repeats, lips still curved in that snot-stained half-smile, "What your name? I'm Davidson."

The blonde prisoner bites his lower lip in hesitation, then answers.

Eight thirty the next morning, the prisoners are awoken by a wailing siren screech. Rubbing heads and flexing limbs, they rise from where they've been sleeping three to a cot. Their jumpsuits – made of some cheap, synthetic material – rustle with each step. The guard holding the cell door open barks orders as they file past and the prisoners make no indication that they've understood – they simply trudge down the corridor in a single file, heading towards the mess hall where they'll be granted some semblance of food before being marched out onto the fields.

The blonde prisoner is the last to leave. Davidson is standing there with a clipboard, checking off the number on each prisoner's jumpsuit as they walk by. But he doesn't check off the blonde prisoner immediately. He looks up and gives the young man a little smile – much less snotty and tearful that the one from the previous night – and the blonde prisoner answers it with a small nod before following after the other prisoners.

The blonde prisoner, he's never been asked his name and he's never been smiled at either. Nor has he ever seen a guard cry. Now that he's experienced all three, he isn't sure if it's a good thing.

Each prisoner is handed a pickaxe upon entering the stone quarry. "Break these rocks," is the deadpan order from the head guard in charge. "We need these rocks to rebuild a wall by the east wing. Fill these carts, empty them by the wall, and fill them up again."

But the prisoners know, and the guards know, and the guards know the prisoners know that rebuilding the wall isn't an urgent task. With this many prisoners, two or three days should be more than enough time to gather enough rocks. But the jagged pile of rubble by the east wing has been growing for months without any sign of construction work. All parties involved know that this is just something to keep the prisoners occupied.

Davidson is appointed to watch over the prisoners and make sure they don't try to run away. The prisoners know, and the guards know, and the guards know the prisoners know that it doesn't matter of they slack off as long as they look like they're working hard. As long as they don't try to make a run for it. Davidson sits on a rock and watches the blonde prisoner halfheartedly chip away at a boulder. "Hey," he says. "You don't have to work so hard."

The blonde prisoner looks over briefly before going back to his work. When there's no response, Davidson goes on, "You can rest for a bit, I'll say when the commander is coming around. You can get to work then."

A chunk of rock falls to the dry ground in a puff of dust. The blond prisoner nudges at it with the tip of his worn shoe. "Why do you keep talking to me?"

Davidson looks hurt and rubs at the back of his neck. "—that was harsh. I might be a guard, but I still have feelings."

At first, the blonde prisoner doesn't see the point of responding. Swinging his pickaxe in a half-mood arc through the air, he just chips at the boulder a few more times. He breaks off another chunk of rock before answering in a deadpan, "Most guards don't bother talking to prisoners."

A pause. Davidson laughs, speaking earnestly. "Well, we're both in awkward positions and I think it would be best if we tried to make the best of it."

After hours out in the broiling sun, a siren screech signals the four-thirty call for the prisoners to get back into the mess hall. A piece of bread, a canteen of water is all they've been given since their breakfast of watery porridge and most prisoners bolt down their rations of dried meat, hardened bread, slimy soup.

Sitting at the end of one of the long tables, the blond prisoner idly twirls his spoon around what's left of his soup, wondering what the chunks of blue-green can possible be. He's already gulped down most of it out of hunger but now that he's paused to take a second look, the soup doesn't seem very appetizing. The other prisoners are speaking in quiet voices about nothing in particular and the blonde prisoner is half-listening to this babble. He doesn't notice Davidson drawing near until he's standing right next to him. Guards are scattered around the mess hall, armed with carbines to make sure the prisoners don't attempt a riot – but they're all stationed against the walls, near the doorways. Davidson's standing among the tables and the blonde prisoner gives him a hard stare that says, 'what are you doing here?'

Davidson's features are crinkled into a half-smile when he slips an extra piece of dried meat on the blonde prisoner's meal tray before sidling off, hefting his carbine over his shoulder.

The blonde prisoners pockets the piece of meat, ignoring the stares that some of the other prisoners are giving him. He's hungry, but he also knows that he'd had the bad luck of being given a bad pair of shoes. They're already falling apart. Maybe he can bribe some hungrier prisoner to trade shoes.

"Don't you get bored?"

"Of course."

The blonde prisoner's sitting on the cell floor with his back against the bars, and Davidson's sitting on the floor on the opposite side, legs crossed, head canted back against the wall. He lets out a thoughtful sigh. "I wish I could do something for you, but the last time a guard gave some guys a deck of cards, they used the cards to try and saw through the cell bars. Or something, I only heard about it so I don't know the details that well." The blonde prisoner nods, and Davidson perks up as if even this simple response makes him happy. "You know, I heard that somewhere, some guys escaped from a prison cell using dental floss. Isn't that crazy? They used toothpaste to coat the bars, and then just sawed through the steel with floss. Makes you think about what floss can do to your teeth."

The blonde prisoner gives a noncommittal grunt, dragging a fingertip through the pile of dirt on the floor and drawing meaningless little circles.

"Hey, do you know any interesting stories about that kind of stuff?"

"Not really." Chin resting on his knees, the blonde prisoner draws a triangle, then a square, then smoothes out the dirt. "—well, I did hear about these people who made a submarine out of scrap metal in their spare time."

The next morning, Davidson slips the blonde prisoner an extra hunk of bread at breakfast. The blonde prisoner wordlessly put it in his pocket. The other prisoners give him vaguely dirty looks.

A few hours later, out in the fields, Davidson ambles over him and asks, "Was the bread alright?"

"I didn't eat it," the blonde prisoner answers in between swings of the pickaxe. Davidson looks crestfallen until the prisoner continues, "I'm going to trade your food for some shoes. There's a hole in mine."

"Oh." Davidson brightens back up, fidgeting with the strap of his carbine as if mulling over these words. "That bread is pretty bad, though. Sorry." He bobs his head while speaking. "You know, I worked in a bakery before the war. An apprentice, but I could do really nice rolls and buns." The blonde prisoner can't spare the breath to say anything so he only nods. Davidson seems to take this as a cue to go on. "I could probably make better bread than the baker here. He just ended up in the kitchen because he lost an eye. But they wanted any able men to do guard duty at least. Sorry. I could have made nicer bread."

"It's alright." The blonde prisoner pauses to wipe the sweat off his brow and toss a dislodge chunk of rock onto the growing pile in the cart. It feels ludicrous that Davidson is apologizing for something so trivial. "The food we get is edible."

"What were you? I mean, before the war."

The blonde prisoner considers not answering, but Davidson looks at him expectantly, staring like a dog. "Teacher," he eventually admits. The pickaxe bounces off the hard surface of the boulder. "I taught middle-school math."

Davidson looks impressed.

The blonde prisoner puts more strength into the next swing of the pickaxe, hoping that will put an end to this pointless conversation.

The commander comes by later that evening. Davidson's barely had the chance to tell the prisoners, "Get back to work, hurry!" when there's the crunch of gravel under boots and the commander comes sauntering up to the edge of the quarry. The prisoners have all gotten straight to work, pounding at the boulders as if it's the only thing they know to do. Davidson stands at ready, ramrod-straight, and salutes as the commander walks by.

The blonde prisoner watches Davidson's other hand twitch while the commander sweeps a long, condescending gaze over the prisoners. A moment passes in silence before the commander turns and leaves. The blonde prisoner notes that Davidson seems to hold his breath for a moment longer before letting out a long sigh. "Okay, it's alright now," Davidson says, sitting down on the nearest boulder.

Most of the prisoners also sit down to get a breath of air.

"That was close, wasn't it?" It takes the blonde prisoner a moment to realize that Davidson is talking to him specifically. He only shrugs in response.

The other prisoners are suspicious. Why is he being nice to you, they ask, shoving the blonde prisoner during their evening march to the mess hall. Why is he being nicer to you than the rest of us?

The blonde prisoner shrugs. "I don't know."

The other prisoners snarl at him, "For all we know, you could be selling us out somehow."

To be honest, the blonde prisoner doesn't really care – he just wants this annoying confrontation to be over – but he still half-shrugs and nods. Asks Davidson, later, when they're back at the cell, "Why are you nicer to me than you are to the others?"

And Davidson gives the blonde prisoner a confused look before shrugging. "I dunno. You remind me of someone. – but I'm not mean to anyone else, am I?" A brief pause, before a sudden look of anxiety crosses his features. "I'm not the bad guy."

It's abrupt. The blonde prisoner frowns at how suddenly Davidson looks alarmed.

"I'm not the bad guy, I'm not."

The blonde prisoner looks to the back of the cell where the other prisoners are staring at this scene. They look away once they catch the blonde prisoner's glance – turning away as if to say, 'It's not our problem. You deal with it.' The blonde prisoner sighs and turns back to Davidson. "You're not."

Davidson is wringing his hands, tugging at the hems of his uniform sleeves. "I'm not."

"You're not. I was just asking. You're nice for a guard."

"No, I mean – I'm normally not a bad guy. Okay? This is just my job."

"I know."

"And I'm not trying to be mean to any of you, okay?"

"I know."

Davidson is still looking lost for words when one of the other guards down the hallway calls for him. He looks like a startled deer as he starts down the hallway, still wringing his hands.

The blonde prisoner watches Davidson leave – nodding helplessly at whatever the other guards are telling him – and looks to the other prisoners. Asking them silently, 'Are you satisfied now?' They don't seem to care any more.

Davidson is missing the next day, but suddenly shows up at the cell that night and gives the blonde prisoner a pencil and a scrap of paper. "For a little entertainment," he says with a smile.

The pencil is terribly soft, the lead crumbling easily – probably to prevent it from being used too effectively as a weapon – but it's still better than drawing in the dirt. The blonde prisoner appreciates the gift, and shows his appreciation with a wry half-smile.

"See? I'm not a bad guy." Davidson looks as happy as a child who's just been praised. "I'm really not. This is just my job, okay?"

"Where were you today?"

"I got in trouble." Davidson looks sheepish as he rubs his cheek. "The commander doesn't like me much because I'm sort of a softie. He yelled at me."

The prisoner turns the pencil over in his hand as he asks, "Why don't they just give you a position in the kitchen?"

Davidson shrugs. "I'm too fit. They need all the guys they can get."

"That's too bad." The blonde prisoner says it like he means it.

He really does.

The blonde prisoner manages to make a trade with a prisoner from a different cell the following morning. The other guy's newer shoes in exchange for his own worn-out shoes and the extra food he's collected. His little toe is no longer exposed when he wears the new shoes. It feels nice.

"Thanks," he tells Davidson out at the stone quarry, speaking in between swings of his pickaxe. "For the extra food. I have proper shoes now"

Again, Davidson beams, and scratches at his cheek somewhat sheepishly. "Just tell me if there's something little you think I can do for you, okay? I mean – I'm a guard, but I still want this to be as painless a job as possible. I'm really not a bad guy." His words trail off, but Davidson still looks happy as he gets to his feet and makes his way to the edge of the quarry to check if the higher-ups are coming around any time soon.

He returns a while later and looks around to make sure the other guards aren't around before handing the blonde prisoner another piece of meat.

The blonde prisoner takes one hand off his pickaxe to take the piece of meat. "I already have proper shoes."

"Yeah, so you should eat this one. You look hungry." Davidson bobs his head as if waiting for a smile.

But the blonde prisoner only frowns and asks, "Why are you being so nice to me?" The meat is dry as jerky and crackles in his hand when he tightens his fingers around it.

Davidson pauses and tugs at the shoulder-strap of his carbine. "Um." His voice is earnest, as if he'd been waiting to tell this to someone. "I had this friend I worked at the bakery with. You remind me of him. Blonde hair and kind of skinny." The blonde prisoner doesn't answer. Davidson goes on. "You remind me of him a lot."

"Is he a soldier here too?"

Davidson pauses again, wringing his hands briefly. "No," is what he eventually says after a long inhale. "We had a fight and he called me a bastard. And then stuff happened. It was bad. Mostly for him. Kind of for me too, but mostly for him. I haven't talked to him since."

The blonde soldier waits for Davidson to go on, but it looks like the conversation is closed. Davidson picks some dirt off his uniform before looking back up at the blonde prisoner with his usually doggish smile. "I should go. Check on the other guys."

Davidson lumbers off before the blonde prisoner has a chance to answer. Despite the carbine hanging off his shoulder, he looks about as dangerous as a heifer, and the blonde prisoner stares at Davidson's retreating back.

The blonde prisoner doesn't ask any further. The next day, he acts like they've never had that conversation

Just as he apparently reminds Davidson of an old friend, Davidson reminds him of a mousy student who's too eager to please. 'It would be mean to inquire any further,' he tells himself to ward off the temptation to pick at the issue further. 'It would be cruel to doubt him.'

The order comes in three days later, late in the evening. The current batch of prisoners will be transported to facility BK929 the next morning. The speakers repeat the message three times, with three slightly different permutations of words, then go quiet. Some of the prisoners are pleased by this news – maybe this new facility will be a little nicer! – and some are displeased – who knows, it might be worse, at least the guards here are pretty lax – but either way, there's nothing to be done about it. The blonde prisoner knows that there will probably be very little difference between this facility and facility BK929.

Davidson seems to think otherwise. "Be careful, okay? You're still a prisoner. You need to be okay."

The blonde prisoner shrugs. "They'll just give me more manual labor. It won't be anything bad. The same as here"

But Davidson is wringing his hands again. "But they might be cruel. I was nice to you."

"Don't worry." The fact that Davidson is worrying about him is almost comforting, and the blonde prisoner gives him a wry half-smile. "Yeah, you were."

"So you'll be okay, right."


The prisoners are taken away early, herded into the back of a truck and packed in. Told to sit down and stay still, the ride won't be long. Davidson isn't there, the blonde prisoner notes. Maybe assigned to a new batch of prisoners already. He sits with his back against the steel wall, waiting as a guard walks through the cramped truck and checks off jumpsuit numbers against a clipboarded list.

The guard pauses when he gets to the blonde prisoner, though. Laughs. Taps his pen against the clipboard. Eventually tells the blonde prisoner, "Don't worry. He'll probably find a new pet to pander to. He finds a replacement every time – picks from the bad batch every time, too."

By the time the blonde prisoner realizes that the guard is talking about Davidson, the truck door's already slammed shut.

Davidson is watching this, actually, just out of sight, around the corner. Holding his breath and watching as the truck winds down the dirt road, rumbling along for several moments before reaching a fork. The right-side path leads to facility BK929, where prisoners with class, money, or bargaining value are held as official prisoners of war. The left-side path leads to the shooting fields, where prisoners deemed to be of no value are executed.

The truck turns left.

Davidson flees the scene, stumbling away with his breath coming in harsh pants. A truck with a new batch of prisoners is rolling into the dusty yard, and even as his vision starts to go watery, he searches for a blonde head that might be familiar.