The Prisoner

I absolutely had to write.

I had lost my freedom a few months earlier, in the November of my nineteenth birthday. Not that I was free before – only children are free – but I at least had the illusion of being free.

I had been a prisoner since then. My soul was fastened to my body which was chained to my clink. My room was dark and humid; in the last weeks, a musty smell had developed. A dormer window provided my daily oxygen intake, not less and not more. Every day, around 10 or 11 AM – I had lost track of time since the battery of my clock had died – a dim sunbeam deigned visiting me. Spiders and cockroaches pullulated everywhere. A thick layer of dust covered the small wooden table, which was lit by a candle. Baba, a black man, fetched me a new candle every two days. He was the only human presence in my abode, though I’m not sure “human” is the right word, since he had never pronounced a single word. His face was expressionless. My most precious objects were my pen and my reserve of dark ink and papers. Writing could make me evading prison; it was a way to express my feelings, to understand myself. Even though my existence was harsh, it wouldn’t have been softer in any other place of the world.

The air was saturated with love. The atmosphere was heavy, as if the molecules of love weighted more with respect to other gases. It was solid, liquid and gaseous. It was everywhere except in my heart. Its absence was burning and tearing my flesh. The wound was too important to heal.

‘Imagining and writing down what I have never been able to experience will soothe my pains’, I thought.

The yellow and empty paper seemed to constantly mirror my face, to be the physical incarnation of my imagination. When I tried to write, my characters lacked personality; they were as predictable as I was. I crossed off some sentences, replaced them with other words, and then crossed off the modification. This continued until the paper was covered by seemingly dark mud. At this point, I’d burn it with the candle out of desperation. Every day in the past two months, the same story repeated itself. I was struggling with the same characters who refused to come to life. They seemed to have all ganged up against me, secretly enjoying my misery.

“Why are you forcing us to live, if we’re going to die soon after?” the characters wondered once. “There is no possible heaven for us.”

“Quite the contrary!” I replied encouragingly. “If your love is pure, you are destined to live forever, to sit in the pinnacle of the literary world, not far from Romeo and Juliet.”

My self confidence in my writing was crumbling. It was maybe foolish to research love through writing, ‘another mistake’. My earlier conviction was that writing would have been honey for my heart, but with the passing of time, it was becoming a source of misery and desperation. It was rubbing salt into my wound.

I had often wondered about the identity and nature of my jailer. Reader, I knew as much as yourself about my crime. It seemed to me that I did nothing really wrong, but I couldn’t tell with certainty. I tried to search the cause of my captivity remembering my past life. It was maybe a divine punishment because I had been pitiless to my sister for years. Oh, how much I had been missing her. It could also be a consequence of my unsociable behavior, a “modern hermit” as my father used to call me. At the time, I couldn’t have imagined that my lack of courage was my jailer.

Before being imprisoned, I used to picture myself like a chivalrous hero. Losing hope to love acted like a poison upon me. It was my prison. I didn’t know how and from where to catch love. I ignored of what substance it was made. Yet, my heart craved for it. All my trials to create (reproduce) it in my writing were failing.

Dark ideas were constantly haunting me. They had always been quite familiar with me, but my past life offered me occasions to chase them away. I confronted them once before; after that, they slithered away from my mind with nothing to retain them. However, jail was a fertile ground and dark ideas began to root, draining away all the water from the earth. I had to confront them in a weakened disposition of spirit. I was completely suffocated, losing my appetite for life and writing. My days were paced by the most absurd existential questions “Why the hell do I exist?”, “Who am I?”, “Is there a God?”, “What is the so called eternity”, “Isn’t life an illusion, like Orwell’s 1984?”. Every time I found an answer, another problem troubled me. The questions were movable. And then the answer I found didn’t satisfy me anymore. Again and again, it had become a daily routine. And when I tried to write, my imagination was darkened and flattened by the most diverse anguishes. At heart, I found myself to be a God believer, but my very Cartesian mind was avid with scientific proofs and demonstrations. There was nobody with whom to discuss and confront all my obsessions. It was becoming a vicious circle. The dark ideas would busy my mind, impeding me from indulging my imagination, and the failure of my writings would sadden me, rekindling all my anguishes. I reached a point in which I thought that only death could end this infernal circle. Apathy succeeded to despair: ‘Nothing matters anymore.’

My grandfather used to say: “Never despair. Sleep will soothe your pains; tomorrow is another day”. What happened next proves that his maxim is right.

One night, after having fought against insomnia for hours, I had the best over it. I dreamt my childhood‘s most recurring dream. I pictured myself on a sunny beach, close to a very quiet sea, collecting salty marbles. Not any kind of marbles. They were lost by kids and thrown away by the sea. At the beginning, I felt amazed to find marbles. But then, there were so many of them that I couldn’t pick them, for lack of place in my pockets and my hands combined. Some marbles were of glass, others of agate; each one had different colors and different shapes. Then the dream stopped abruptly. In the morning, I woke up thrilled and nostalgic. One of my childhood passions – kind of gold-diggers fever – was to search and collect salty marbles. It was very rare to find marbles on the beach. It reminded me of childhood, a time that was completely resolute, and a time when, it now seemed to me, I was really happy. I was about to cry, just like a child, asking for all the marvels back. The world was very simple at that time. My thoughts were drifting fast, from memory to memory. At last, I realized that I liked life, and that it was worth living. It was like a revelation, after months and months of struggle against invisible anguishes. Melancholy and joy mixed up in my heart. I felt the necessity to live. I filled my lungs with air. I was still alive. It was a wonderful feeling.

For the first time, the jail seemed a rather nice and cheerful place, with its candle and the uniqueness of its sun beam. I wondered how I could have tortured myself for so long, without seeing the end of the tunnel. Now that I was in the half of the world lit by the sun, it seemed that only a fool could live for so long in the dark and obscure world.

My light heartedness didn’t even last till the end of the day. The contrary would have been surprising. The dim surrounding was there to remind me of all my anguishes. However, I didn’t fall back at the bottom of the coal pit. I grabbed desperately a solid strain to avoid falling. I confronted all the questions as a whole instead of dealing with them separately, deciding that life was worth being lived at the only condition to love. It was only then that I understood the dependence of life upon love.

It is hope that saved me: the rekindled hope to love and be loved back someday.

The next morning, I began writing a love story. For now, only writing can give me the illusion of being free. I still didn’t have enough courage to confront myself with the reality.

“The abandoned railroad lied on a small hill. The hill was brown, covered by dried herbs, burnt by the long summer. Cicadas were singing merrily, in a deafening way with the illusion of summer lasting eternally.”

I was inserting loads of details because it reminded me of freedom, of fresh air, of Sundays. Writing allowed me to relive those feelings. That day, the world wasn’t empty anymore.

“Vittorio found his way through the nettles, and shaded from the burning sun under a tall and majestic cypress, which was growing by the railroad. His face was weathered, and his nose was disproportional with respect to his other features. A southwest wind was blowing insistently from the day before, a sign that fall would have soon superseded summer.”

By writing this sentence I felt almost burned by the sun and caressed by the wind.

“He was engrossed by reading a book of Tolstoy, and didn’t notice the slow metamorphosis that was occurring. The sunlight, which was radiant an hour before, was getting dim and faint. A white and heavy cloud obscured the sun, soon blown away by the strong wind. Then other clouds arrived, and in the space of a few minutes, the sky was completely gray. Threatening clouds were darkening the horizon, and the wind was getting cooler. The first droplet of rain fell on the page that Vittorio was reading, recalling him to reality. He closed the book in a hurry and retraced his steps. He usually loved the rain, but he wasn’t expecting it that day, and he felt nettled. He reached the end of the railroad. She was standing there. Silvia, a twenty-year-old girl, fair haired, was holding a white umbrella. Her blue and expressive eyes were unusually large; they seemed to smile mockingly when she caught sight of Vittorio. He was walking at a pace proportional to the increasing violence of the storm, in a rather funny way.”

“Stop that immediately!” cried Silvia, cutting my writing flow. “It is clear like the sky in a starry night that you know nothing about love. You don’t even know yourself! How could you think to write about a feeling you haven’t experienced? You risk quashing this magical moment.”

“I created your so called magical moment out of ink and paper. You should show a little more respect.”

Despite my surprise, I was thrilled by my little victory. At last I had created a character that had its own personality and an opinion about something.

“Don’t stop!” snarled Vittorio threatening. “I have been waiting for this moment for a very long time. You can’t pretend to interfere in my life, you fool.”

I smiled, happy to have broken the morose daily grind, conscious of my own superiority over Vittorio. I stopped writing to think of which turn I would give to the course of events. For the first time, I didn’t burn the paper. All the night, I searched for a way to get rid of Vittorio. I didn’t want him to encounter Silvia. It was jealousy.

It acted as a diversion from my gloomy ideas. At last, I found a solution. I could do a flashback in Silvia’s life. It would give me some respite to find a way to keep apart their fates.

“Silvia had lost her mother very early. She had indistinct memories of her mom, mixed with what her father had told about her. She grew up quite lonely, her best friend was her father, and that has made her different from the girls of her age. Her interests diverged completely from fashion and gossip: reading and studying history were her passions.” I stopped writing abruptly, dissatisfied. Her character was getting too similar to Vittorio’s.

“I know how you’re feeling.” Silvia said. “You thought to have the situation under control, to be the architect of my own life. You’re a puppet with a pen in the hand. You’re not writing a story, you’re telling a story that has already been written in golden letters in my heart. Your imagination is prisoner of my love for Vittorio.”

Infuriated, I passed the paper above the flame. Slowly, the paper began to darken.

“Are you thinking to kill our love? You’re disappointing me. I thought you were above these pettinesses.” She added. “In killing our bodies, you will immortalize our love.”

She was right. She was absolutely right. It was low to act suchlike. I hushed up the smoke on the paper and saved its remainder.

The next morning, I sat on the wooden stool and continued to write.

“Silvia and Vittorio were walking by the unchained sea. He was murmuring in her ear the most beautiful sentences ever pronounced. Their hands seemed to be made for each other. The vitality of youth and the thirst for love were glittering in her eyes. She kissed him shyly at first, then passionately after gaining confidence.”

I put down my pen satisfied. A writer simply has to create characters, and let the characters to drive him. It is very simple, yet very hard to understand. At that moment, Silvia would have wished to be left alone with Vittorio. I had the courage to leave them alone, abandoned to their fate.

Weak love weakens the lovers, however between Silvia and Vittorio, love was strong. It was an indestructible tie. They completed each other. I wouldn’t have been surprised to see them accomplishing some heroic deeds. I could read it in Silvia’s deep eyes, that seemed to rebel against all the unfairness of the world.

‘I will find my Silvia someday.’

At that instant, for the first time, I saw things clearly. I had been prisoner of myself, of the love I didn’t believe in anymore. Prisoner of my anguishes, of the novels I wanted to write, of my aloofness, of my happy memories. I wrote down in capital letters: FREEDOM IS A STATE OF MIND. My lack of courage had been my own jailer. I used to be overwhelmed by difficulty, instead to fight it with determination. For years, I waited arms folded for love to fall from the sky. It was wrong, wrong. I had to work on myself and become actor in my own life. Before writing successfully, I needed to see, experience, and feel.

It was time to jump from the cliff in the dark-blue and deep water, called future. I felt like a seagull would feel before flying for the first time. I was beginning to learn knowing myself.

I opened shyly the door, and blinded by the sun walked slowly outside. I filled my lungs with nippy air. The sky was of a unusual blue. I had obtained a first victory over myself. Henceforth, nothing could have resisted me.