Susan P. BlevinsOleg sat on the floor of his cell and wept. The cold, the gloom, and the loneliness had turned him into a shell, afraid of his own shadow. His spirit was beaten down after being told every day, “You’ll never be released.”
He had been in a high security prison now for six years, part of a life sentence. He doubted he could survive. Oleg was a journalist with a scathing pen, and he spared no one, the Russian president included. He had always been careful to stay within the bounds of legality, but he had become a thorn in the flesh of the government, so they had fabricated a case against him which carried a life sentence. They paid a neighbor to inform against him, saying he had murdered two people. The charge was preposterous, but he could not fight the system.
He was allowed no books, and his cell was a mere two strides from wall to wall, with a fold-down bed that had to be up against the wall during the day, forcing him to sit either on the floor or on a narrow wooden perch. A metal bucket was his toilet. High above his head was a small barred window opening, no glass, so he was not protected from the forty degrees below zero temperatures in winter.
Corruption and violence were rampant within the jail, and zeks, as the other prisoners were called, were routinely murdered by their own cell mates in order to acquire privileges for themselves, or they died of tuberculosis or starvation. He looked down at his blue fatigues-clad body, emaciated by this point from a diet of porridge, black tea and manual labor. He put his hand up to his gaunt, stubbled cheek, and felt his teeth. Every day they were looser, and he had already lost four. They laughed at him when he asked to see a doctor or a dentist. Or they beat him over the head, to give him something to really complain about.
“I wonder what Tatyana is doing now, or even if she is still alive,” he spoke out loud to the cold, unresponsive walls. “Perhaps she’s already dead. She relied on me to support her and our two boys, and her health was never good.” In his mind’s eye he saw his wife’s sweet, innocent face and big blue eyes, and heard again her sobs as the police took him away in the middle of the night. He could only pray for her. There was nothing else. He felt sure that his faith had kept him alive this far, and he still dreamed of freedom one day, and a return to normal life in Moscow, sitting in smoky cafes discussing politics with other writers and poets.
“I think I’m losing my mind,” he mumbled into his chest, knowing full well that insanity was rampant inside the jail. “I have to stay alive and get out of this place so I can write about conditions here, and tell people what’s really going on.” He shrugged his weary shoulders at the futility of such a thought.
Instead, he let his mind wander back to his little house in the countryside outside Moscow, where he would go on weekends and holidays, and saw the towering birch trees and myriad wild flowers growing beneath them. He saw his patch of potatoes growing on either side of the path leading to the front door, and the simple still he had constructed in the back so he could brew his own vodka. All the gardens around him had potatoes growing in them for the same reason. Vodka was the only consolation they had in their bitter, harsh lives. It softened the edges, and everyone embraced oblivion when they had the chance.
Absentmindedly, he scratched himself as he waited for the night to descend. Only in sleep was he free. And in his mind. Nobody could take away his inner freedom. Lately he had found himself spending more and more time in prayer and meditation. it was his only comfort. He focused his mind on Christ on the cross. He’d lost track of time, but he thought it was about Eastertide. In his head he heard the sonorous tones of the deep male voices as they celebrated the paschal mass.
“Lord Jesus Christ, you suffered on the cross for all of us, and after suffering, you were free. I beseech you to set me free in whichever way you see fit. I have loved and served you my whole life, fighting with my pen for the poor and downtrodden of this country, and now I ask that you have mercy on me and release me into that blessed place where there is no pain or suffering,” he intoned with a surprisingly strong voice.
He went to the wall and pulled down his bed, lay on it, fully clothed, and pulled a thin grey blanket over himself. He stared at the small square opening high in the wall facing him, and in the sun’s dying rays he saw golden light expanding into his cell, and an angel floating down towards him, smiling and beckoning him to follow. The angel turned and pointed, and he saw Tatyana and the boys laughing and smiling, waving at him, also beckoning him.
So great was his joy that he never felt the severe pain of the sudden heart-attack, only ineffable ecstasy as his soul floated up the beam of light towards his loved ones, and towards the freedom for which had so earnestly prayed just moments ago.
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