By Ben Miller

Their new stone cell had a hole in one wall about a foot wide and three feet tall. Through the hole the lush unfenced meadow which surrounded the prison could be seen — blue blades of grass rustling in a slight wind, pink and red and purple wildflowers arcing over the grass like fancy plumed hats. The woman bolted away from the guard in the blue cap and reached her hand out and cradled the head of a daisy between two trembling fingers. Her husband, the teacher, stood next to the guard, arms firmly across his chest, blinking. They had spent their first five days in rat infested darkness.

Prior to this moment the guard had spoken only to his bayonet…

The woman had her whole arm out now, straining to reach a purple flower with a powdered gold stamen. The zinc-stained stones the wall consisted of were very old and when her shoulders shoved against them dust sifted out of cracks and onto her torn pink evening dress. The guard turned toward the man so their eyes met. Prior to this moment the guard had spoken only to his bayonet so it was a great surprise to get this attention.

If you get through you are free. Nobody will stop you.

The guard’s voice was firm and philosophical.

It’s a very small hole.

Yes. But I thought you should know.


This was the woman. She had yanked her arm in and held her pollen stained fingers close to her throat. The guard went over and touched her head in a serious, priestly fashion.

Nobody. You have my word.

The guard was very thin. The fattest thing about him was his uniform. He lifted a few strands of her brown hair and watched them fall. He seemed to be thinking very deeply as he exited. The woman turned back to the hole. The man got on his hands and knees in front of it and the wind touched his face and he saw blue, sailing sky.

They lay on the stone floor and watched the sun sink lower and lower on a horizon fringed with tree covered mountains. The stone frame around the scene made it less real and thus more wonderful. After a long silence the woman spoke.

I think we can do it. If we don’t eat very much we can fit.

The man had not been thinking that way. He had not taken the guard seriously. The guard was crazy. He had brought his bayonet close to his lips and whispered to it like a lover.

I don’t know.

We are small people naturally. You are not that much bigger than me. I think we can do it.

He turned his head to look at her. The brown hair lay crooked on her head, twisted in all directions. She saw no reason to comb it anymore and this made him look down on her. He still combed his every morning with wet fingers. He wished to feel closer to her in this time of crises.

We could live a long time in here. Long enough to get out some other way. This isn’t so bad.

We can do it but we must start tonight.

Somebody will get us out. They got that other teacher out. Remember him? We shouldn’t panic. Rafael will make publicity. He and others will plead our case. I have many friends. I am sure of it. This is an outrage. They will not get away with it for long.


Rafael is not afraid of making publicity.

Rafael can do nothing. We must start our starving tonight.

The guard is crazy. He is having an affair with his bayonet. You saw that didn’t you? He whispered a sonnet to the blade.

He may be crazy. But the hole is there.

The teacher did not respond. A few minutes later his hand wandered into the pocket of his dress jacket and he discovered a pack of matches from the steak restaurant where they had been moments before they were dragged away. He looked at the brown cow on the cover. The cow was white and black and had big gentle eyes. It was like seeing a beloved friend again and the man lifted his hands and covered his face.

In his minds eye he saw the little house where they had lived since they were married three years before. A teacher’s house, her father liked to say. Brown shutters beside the windows for decoration only. A garden with room enough only for her tomatoes. A chair in the kitchen where he had left it, pushed carefully in under the table bearing the salt and the pepper and the brown plastic napkin holder.

He took his hands from his face. She was reaching out the hole again trying to obtain another flower to add to the bouquet she was constructing. In the other cell he had felt closer to her than he did now. They were right up against each other in that dark cell. They had whispered of things. They did not whisper now. They did not hardly look at each other. Was it the imprisonment destroying them or would this have happened even if they were not here? Like all couples, they fought. Was it just that they were due for a fight? The mere question disturbed him deeply. The concept that he might not only have to deal with being imprisoned but also his regular life and its complications. In all he had read of imprisoned people, he had never heard this mentioned.

She pulled her hand in. In it was a daisy. She added it carefully to the black high-heeled shoe that had become a vase.

He lifted his face from his palms and got up and went to the door. In the middle of the door was a barred window. He gripped the bars and a few minutes later found himself staring at a huge hot platter of meat and potatoes.

The guard holding the platter was a different one than the guard who had brought them here. He had a patch of hair on his chin and no cap. A hard, loud voice.

Are you hungry?


You are sure you want to eat?


The guard opened the door with a free hand and shoved the platter into the hands of the man. The meat was the color of caramel and the potatoes were flecked with herbs. All held together with a thick, fragrant brown sauce.

I am glad you are hungry. Would you like some bread too?

Yes! Bread!

From a pack on his back the guard took a long loaf of brown bread and laid it on the platter. The man felt a tingling in his legs and arms.

Thick beautiful brown bread slathered with butter. The teacher could help himself no longer. He shifted the platter into a crook made by his left arm and grabbed with his newly freed right hand. Crammed an end of the bread into his mouth.

He was still chewing when the guard left, tongue electrified with taste.

No more, she said as she stood up and approached him.

Why not? It is good.

We have a good start. We have already lost some weight. Let that be your last bite.

He shoved more bread into his mouth and eased the platter onto the stone floor.

Tomorrow, I’ll start starving.

Tomorrow is too late.

We have plenty of time.

We don’t know how long we’ll be in this cell.

I will start tomorrow. Tomorrow is as good as today. I can’t let this go past. When will they give us food like this again? It is smart to eat. It will give us energy to starve.

You are not making any sense. Give me that. Give it to me now. I’ll throw it through the hole.

She held reached out. He turned so that his body shielded the plate from her shaking fingers.

It’s you who make no sense. Eat some of this and you’ll feel better.

He tore off a piece and held it out to her, careful to keep the plate safe. She pushed the crust away. He fell into a squat and stabbed the piece into the platter on the floor, soaking up just as much gravy as he could.

You are making a mistake, she said.

No, you are making the mistake.

Late the next afternoon another big plate of food arrived. Eggs the color and texture of butter, crisp bacon, more of the wonderful thick-crusted bread. He thanked the guard and laid the platter on the stone floor. The place he now considered their dining room table.

You said you would start today.

I’m hungry. I’m going to eat.

It’s what they want you to do.

It’s what I want to do.

He sat down next to the platter. She went back to the hole in the wall. Next to the meadow there was a tree-lined creek bank. She imagined what the water sounded like. This was her dinner for the night.

A week later the prison warden came by and asked how the food was and if they would like bigger portions. He offered Lobsters. Scallops. Things that would not have been available even in the city they had been abducted from. Would you like some steak tonight? With my special pepper sauce?

The man was beside himself with joy. He grabbed the warden’s hand and shook it very hard. After a week of good meals he felt like himself again. He refused nothing.

When the warden was gone he turned and looked at his wife sprawled against the far wall. Her legs were open and he could see the curly dark hair high on the insides of her thighs. It made him want to be with her, to touch her, to have that back too.

He walked over to her and sat down beside her.

I am doing the right thing.

She said nothing. She had not spoken to him since the second night the food had started arriving.

You should eat some too. It would be the right thing for you too. I’m starting to see your bones. It’s stupid….

You are stupid. You will be here forever.

Her voice was soft now. A whisper.

He made an effort to be patient, thinking of those hairs and where they led, their honeymoon, all the good times they had had in all the different places. He was not lying when he put a hand on her neck and rubbed.

We might as well make the best of things. If you could feel as good as I do now you would understand. I feel very, very good. Like myself again.

It is what they want you to feel.

It is who I am.

You think you are in control but it is they who are in control. What kind of life is that? I say it is no life at all. They own you.

They do not own me.

If the food does not come, where will you be? You will not be yourself. They have arranged it so that you cannot be you without them. That is called being owned.

You think too much. Forget about thinking and eat with me tonight. The food will come and then we can eat together just like we used to. It will be beautiful. The stone is hard but the food will be good. You will get your strength back and things will seem different.

She slowly lifted her head and looked at him, her lids fluttering like the hems of tiny summer dresses.

You are a stupid man. You will never get out now.

And where will you be? In the ground with the worms. Because you can’t do it. You won’t be able to do it. Nobody could fit through there.

She moved away from him and he did not follow.

You are like a madwoman, he shouted.

You are like a madman, she muttered.

She went back to her corner to stare at the sky. He went back to his corner to wait for the food.

She was so slender now that she had begun to look like somebody he didn’t know. He wondered if this was why he was not able to reason with her, consider her, like he might have if this argument had happened at home. He wished he could go back to the moment they walked in. But he could not think clearly enough to know he would do differently.

That night, as she slept, he crawled over and softly pushed some meat and bread in her mouth that he had smashed soft with his own teeth. He stroked her throat to try and get her to swallow. Outside crickets could be heard making their music. The skin of her throat was soft and cold. Some food seemed to have gone down. He lifted his hand to his mouth and took out a bit more. Not much. He knew he couldn’t give her much or she would get sick. He felt triumphant as he parted her lips again and gently pressed the food in. It had been days since she had eaten anything. He could do this every night and save her. Suddenly her eyes opened wide and she looked at him like he was a killer. Warm food in his face. Spit. And he screamed like he hadn’t since he was a very little child.

He didn’t touch her or try to speak to her again for more than two weeks. Most of his time was spent either eating or sleeping off a huge meal of chicken or turkey or beef. He had discovered he could get more of anything he wanted and took advantage of that. He also took advantage of the fact that wine and cigarettes were now available.

One night the guard brought two bottles of wine instead of one. The man drank one bottle with his meal and the other he saved. A cold, energizing wind came through the hole. He lay against the place on the wall that was his couch and felt the wine coating his throat like velvet.

His wife was in her usual corner. Hours went by now when he didn’t see her. Why, he asked himself. Because there’s not much left to see, he responded. He laughed and lifted the green bottle again.

Rafael had not come through. The teacher decided they could now officially be proclaimed long-term prisoners of the regime determined to degrade those who denounced the degradation of others. He slapped his knee to mark the moment. Too much time had passed. Raphael might continue to try and help but no good would come of it. There was a way these things went. The tools were limited.

A crust of moonlight lay on the floor. He felt wetness on his pant leg. He looked down and saw that the bottle between his legs had tipped and spilled.

He mopped the wine up with his shirt. This struck him as funny also. Now everything was funny. Using one part of his clothing to clean another part. Was he better off now? Had their marriage been doomed anyway? Might imprisonment merely have speeded up an invisible process already in motion? He believed that all things were connected. He just didn’t know enough to connect them any longer, except through laughter.

He was taking another slug of wine when a skeleton began dragging itself across the stone floor.

She was naked now and he stared at the unearthly quality of her skin, the way it sagged, the white angel color.

She lifted her legs out first, one then the other. The torso followed and when she angled her hips through, just nudged them through, he heard a soft steady sigh and could feel her excitement. She would make it. She was almost there. Almost. Nearly.

Only now her stupid head caught. In her excitement she had taken it through a bit too quickly and gotten the angle wrong. The free part of her felt the sweet evening breeze and the wetness of the grass. Stone viced her temples. She put her bare feet against the outer wall of the prison and pushed with all her might. There was a tiny bit of movement and then her head stuck fast again.

A terrible panic overtook her. Her breath came so fast it was as though she was another species. She tried to fulcrum herself free again. No.

Her bare feet slipped off the outside of the prison wall, knees burrowing into the wet grass. A black bug began a timid crawl up her bare leg. He laughed.

He laughed.

She could see only his wine splattered woolen pant legs. The pant legs took a few steps forward, a few backward and to the side.

Almost. But not quite. Ha! What’s that old saying? Close only counts in cigars and chutes and ladders!

He fell to his knees and leered up at her.

So close! So close and yet so far! Just wait…

He started coughing. A terrible hacking sound.

Ah! Eh! Just wait until Cappy sees this. He’ll invite the prison painter down. There will be wine and cheese. In or out? In or out? That’s the question. Quite philosophical.

More coughing. Staircases of phlegm flew out of his mouth and onto the floor. When the fit was past he rubbed his mouth his sleeve.

I wonder…. Be a shame if Cappy doesn’t get here soon because this is a target too good to resist. How can I resist? Take aim and fire. Yes! Take aim and fire! What could be easier…. We could have had so much fun in here. We could have! Good, good wine. And we were together. Why’d you have to… Forget it. That doesn’t matter. Yes, it does! Yes, it does! Things could have been better.

She believed he would do it and that made it worse. The pant leg backing up, the boot touching and retouching the stone like a bull preparing ready to charge. It seemed as though it took forever for the heavy boot to get to her forehead, the lumbering steps coming with spaces between them that left plenty of room for thoughts of what it would be like when the bone met leather. She clenched her eyes. Shut her mouth. And for the first time since she had been there, wished she was dead.

He connected well. Her head was still then gave all at once, shooting out of the prison with such force when her eyes opened again she was on her back some distance from the wall.

On her back! In the field of little sleeping hats!

Somehow she stumbled through the darkness to the brook. Her head was pounding and bleeding but she got there and doused her face in cold night water. Somehow she got to the Avrigon. When the humble village women saw her, this girl as thin as paper and pale as the moon, they carried her into a house, bathed her, and then began to try and get her to talk. Who are you? Where are you from? Did you fall out of the sky? What happened to your head? And if she did not answer she certainly appeared to listen, fingers clenched to the armrests of the simple chair, feet hard against the dirt floor, like one of those trees in a forest that’s been struck by lightning, rended to bits, yet will not loosen its grip upon the earth.

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About Ben Miller

Ben Miller was born in 1986 in an Amtrak train pulling into Grand Central Station. Two years later he received an M.A. in English from New York University. His prose can be found in recent or forthcoming issues of Notre Dame Review, Raritan, The Common Review, Quick Fiction, The Yale Review, and Prairie Schooner. His essay "Bix and Flannery" appeared in Best American Essays 2004, and other honors include a creative writing fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. UPDATE: Ben is author of the memoir "River Bend Chronicle: The Junkification of a Boyhood Idyll amid the Curious Glory of Urban Iowa (Lookout Books, 2013). Find out more about Ben and his work at the link below.

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