From Ten Indians by

Madison Smartt Bell

Pantheon Books, 1996, Penguin pb 1997

Copyright Madison Smartt Bell 1996

All Print Rights Reserved 









Don't know I can say how it all started, but I tell you how it almost finish up. I was walking back to the block with the rest of them when I felt something touch the side of my neck. Didn't feel like as much as a bee sting even, more like a push of somebody's finger-- that all I felt. But it must of been sharper than a finger because when it pulled away my blood came following it, shooting out of some big vein like it blasting out of a fire hose. It was a neat little dark red ray of blood and out the corner of my eye I saw it blast through the bars of the cell I was passing and even dent back the blanket somebody had tack up there to try to give his scumbag self a little privacy.

But I already covered it up with my hand by then. I wanted to feel around the edge and see what kind of a hole it was but I knew I had to just cover it over and mash down hard. It wasn't much of a hole for size, but I could feel it pressing hard back against the center of my palm. Then I fell over against the bars, and when I turned I could just see Charlie Alcorn grinning over at me as he faded back in the line, a real big grin that wrinkled up his forehead where he decided to cut his motherfuckin Aryan Nation dagger tattoo. He already handed off whatever it was he used-- some kind of nail I guessed later on from the size of the hole. All he'd of had to do is pound it sideways through a scrap of wood to set it up like a push dagger. Used things like that myself from time to time. When you get done you can slide the nail back out of the wood and wash it off and it ain't nothing but just another nail.

The guys were stirring up all around me and some was yelling and then a lot of the hacks came running up and started thunking a few heads and herding people off for a lockdown, no doubt. I was already starting to feel light-headed and I was scared too. My pulse was beating right against my hand where I was trying to keep that fountain of blood clamped down inside me somehow, and I could tell my heart was going a lot too fast. If it didn't slow down soon it wouldn't take me three minutes to bleed to death right there where I was standing on the tier. So I started thinking about breathing deeper and slower and I started trying to get myself together.

One of the hacks called over to me then and told me the gates were clear for me to walk over to the infirmary if I felt up to it. He didn't want to get too close to tell me this. The hacks been real nervous of blood these days. My eyes were about half shut and I was trying to think... Devlin use to tell us to think our hands be warm when he want to send energy out through the body, so what I got to do is think my hands be cold. That would bring the blood back to my heart. Right? Cold like a dead man. Devlin use to say, concentrate on your pulse so you can feel it, and it wasn't no problem to feel it the way things was now. But I couldn't laugh because it gonna make me bleed faster if I did. I thought my hand be a big block of ice just chilling down my blood and making it run slower and sure enough I could feel my heart slow down right there where I was holding it in my hand.

Then came the big slam of the tier locking down. My head cleared some and I pick up my feet and started walking. I was all alone on the tier, what it felt like. I could hear a couple hacks talking somewhere behind me and I feel the eyes of the locked-down guys in the cells to the left of me but I didn't look over at any of that. I couldn't quite make out what people was saying but I did get the idea there wasn't nobody putting out no bet that I gonna make it all the way to the infirmary.

I came to the end of the tier and the gate slid open smooth as butter. Man, I thought, I got to try this shit more often. But my heartbeat jump like a frog in my hand and I remembered I couldn't laugh.

Then I was walking down the stairs toward the bottom of the tier. My feet was cold as lead, and heavy, with the metal mesh ringing wherever I set down my shoes. I was starting to get tired. I start whispering under my breath, light and sweet, light and sweet, which was what I used to tell myself back when Devlin had the school, if I get tired in the middle of practice. I'd think those words and if it worked I'd start to feel like I was floating in a cloud and my arms and legs don't be so heavy no more cause the cloud stuff holds'm up like I was swimming. I don't know why sweet, though. Why would I pick that?

At the bottom of the tier was a hallway I had to go through to get to the next block. A double gate went between the two and I had to stop for the first one to close behind me before the one ahead would open. That wasn't so good. Broke my momentum. But the second gate open easy-greasy and I picked myself up and went through.

Slow. Slow now. Truth was my mind in a big hurry to get to that infirmary if I could do it but I known I couldn't rush my body cause it speed up my heart if I did. I already been about five hundred years on this walk so far, just thinking about keeping my pulse real slow.

Not much light along this next tier but what they was kept shining over all those fine little threads of wire that criscrossed in the air up over my head. You take a wire and tie a soap cake or a chunk of wood to it-- anything for a weight-- and sling it out your cell bars and across the corridor to catch on a pipe or a stanchion or something on the other side. Make an antenna for your radio or TV or whatever. I looked up and saw the wires zigzagging all the way up the tier, six or eight catwalks high above me, crossing each other like spiderwebs and catching the light like a cobweb do. Most days I wouldn't of noticed them at all but this was different. Wasn't nobody playing the TV much or listening to the radio. It was quieter than it was supposed. I ain't seen nobody but I got the idea guys listening and peeping out they cells to see me pass by.

Two more gates and I came out into a square where a couple new dudes waiting to get took to they cells. I only took a good look at one that I remember. White guy with a pale bushy beard and had on overalls like a farmer. His hands were cuffed in front and he was staring up at the tier behind me like they all do when they first come in. The tier come hulking over you like a cliff leaning out the shadows of the ceiling, all those cages stacked on cages going up and away into the dark.... This one white dude didn't seem startled to see me come out of there-- it was like he expected a thing like me to be coming out of a place like that. But when I caught his eyes I could see myself like looking in a mirror. I saw how the blood was all pumping out through my fingers and soaking through my sweats there on the right side. For the first time now I felt the blood was squelching in my shoes. Then I almost lost it but somehow I kept walking. I passed the white dude by and went through two more gates.

Five hundred years. It wasn't far now, though. But I had to go up some stairs now and I didn't like that. It was a closed stairway, all bricked in, and they might be somebody laying for you at the turn, or some nasty sex business going on you wouldn't want to have to look at it. I never liked that stairway at the best of times. It was worse now because I was so tired I just wanted to sit down, lie down, go to sleep, give up. My eyes not working right. My sight keep closing down like a shutter was turning across it, I'd see it fall across my eyes and it would go dark for about half a minute, then the shutter turn past and it was light for about as long. Roaring sound between my ears like wind blowing in a cave. Out of the roar I heard voices coming, sometimes Devlin, or Gramma Reen, or my own voice even. The voice say: don't stop, don't stop, keep moving, break on through. Breathe. Keep walking... you don't need to see. Just walk. Which it appears I must of done.

I don't know how I got up the stairs exactly. Wouldn't been nobody hiding there no-way because of the lockdown. On the corridor above it was lighter and the walls were painted yellow to a tape line about my chest height. Seem like I just float on down that yellow line till I see my fist falling on the infirmary door. No sound come back to me though. That was strange. Clearwater jerk the door open and I saw his mouth come open but I didn't hear what he had to say because right then I fell over on the floor and I died.

I could look back from somewhere and I seen my body twisting and jerking on the floor. My hand come loose from my neck and the blood spraying all over the joint again until Clearwater slap his hand down over it, kneeling there beside the body and hollering for a hemostat. Didn't make no difference to me though, I was gone.

That's one way to get out of the Cut, I guess. Which was about the last smartass thought I had. Cold wind blowing behind me and driving me down a long dark hallway full of stars, and as I got more further along I started to pass a lot of people I used to know who was dead now too. They wasn't none of them smiling or happy or glad to see me like you hear about from them other bullshit artists who claim they died and then come back. It didn't look like they was gonna be no welcome party in my honor. Everybody heaven be different I guess. In mine, people didn't even look halfway pleased that I shown up. Not only that but I got the idea that they was something bigger, somebody in back of them, who wasn't very happy at all about the way I been handling myself.

But I never seen this mysterious dude. Instead, everything switched back in the other direction and I was slipping back down that hall like getting sucked feet-first down a vacuum cleaner. Next thing I know it was three days later and I woke up lying on an infirmary cot all stuck full of needles and blood bags dripping into me and everything like that. All the Aids guys making they usual death rattle noise trying to suck a little wind through they pneumonia and TB and shit, and over that I could just barely make out the radio playing the news.

Rosa Parks, the radio say. Rosa Parks, the lady who kicked off the bus boycott which set my people free if that what you want to call it, been beat up and robbed in her Detroit apartment and everybody all upset and she under police protection.

Only thing I can think-- what about all the others? Who bugged about them? Where they getting protection at? Shouldn't of happened to Rosa Park. Shouldn't happened to Gramma Reen. Shouldn't happen to any old ladies or anybody at all. But I knew in the time it took me to think it probably two or three old ladies get they neck broke over whatever they might have in they purse.

What it is. I ain't know if I can change nothing. Nobody bringing those dead folks back. But I figure I might better try. Shine what little light I can. Maybe I can turn my heaven into a friendlier place, come time I got to go there and stay. Like Devlin would say it-- clean your own house.

Only I wasn't in the mood to hear all Devlin sayings run in my head. Out of all them dead people Devlin the one I was the maddest at. Because the others, they didn't have much choice the way I seen it. But you, Devlin, you were free to choose. You been to college, got a good-money job, house in a nice neighborhood. You were white. People cared for you. So why did you go and waste yourself and leave the ones that loved you all alone like I left mine? Yeah, you a stone fool to do like you did, Devlin, you dumb motherfucker, I like to drag you back and kill you all over again just to show you what a dumb motherfucker you are. You just thrown yourself away. Nobody made you-- you did it for nothing. It was stupid and reckless. It didn't get you nothing. Got nobody nothing but misery. It-- (what was the worst thing I could say to Devlin?) --it was unnecessary. UNNECESSARY! You hear what I say you sonofabitch?

Which of course he didn't, but Clearwater did, cause it appears I was shouting out loud, along with crying and all that shit. Clearwater just raise a big hallelujah and come over and start talking about what a miracle it was I woke up at all, when the hacks wouldn't ship me out to a regular hospital and all they had to work on me here was staples and tape and shit like that. Probably true for what it was worth.

Then I calmed down, and Clearwater calmed down, and I closed my eyes and made like I was asleep. But I was still hearing the Aids guys fighting to breathe, and I was thinking over one thing and another, Devlin and the others, and Rosa Parks, and things I'd be having to do myself after however long it took me to get able to stand up off of this bed. Deal with Charlie Alcorn somehow, that was be one thing.

But who knows how you suppose to live your life? All I know was I definitely fucked up the first time I tried it. Might be I had as many lives coming to me as a cat, but I still thought I better play this next one like it gonna be my last.