HISSAC Highlands and Islands Short Story Association and Writing Competition

The House Of The Dead

THE HOUSE OF THE DEAD

I found him and he was younger than he ever should have been, but yet I knew him and I said to him, ‘Let me walk with you,’ an echo of the words around us, ‘Walk, boy,’ ‘Walk, boy,’ ‘Walk,’ the voices of the men encircling him,
to which I answered, ‘Soon,’ not much of a prophecy, only had to look at them, except my duty rested with the boy so that I bore the way men laughed and
he put out a small hand which I took but then released because the skin was unfamiliar, too taut across the bones, which meant that I could count all his caresses and the amount came to zero
a number that made me speak again, ‘I’m glad to be with you’ and the boy just
accepted, he hardly knew that I was there, because
the task upon him was to leave his cell, his one safe space, he had been happy here, tending the concrete walls, laying on the windowsill the petty treasures he had gathered, the boy had left
my side and returned to his memories, three years under the care of the Immaculada Corazon of Mary, so it had been called when they brought him to this place, it had been rebranded since, the Centre for the Enforcement of Consequences of Crime, someone was standing for election and sign-painting was cheap,
so the Madre de Dios had never heard his prayers,
and now the voices, ‘Walk, boy,’ ‘Walk,’ were covering the footfalls of two officers as they fought through the crowd, the boy remembered me , he asked, ‘Will you stay with me?’ at which I
smiled
and said, ‘I will, I will,’ wondering how I knew this child, who touched his pillow’s face which carried the dent of last night’s peace,
not now, the clamour of the men and officers with timetables to keep, they'd all been paid except for those who hadn’t yet but longed to be and they were loudest, trying to be noticed,
‘Tienes que ser hombrecito,’ I said, You have to be a little man,
spoken to his tears and had there been a poet here he would have gathered them and kept them, magic,
except this was
prison,
Mexico,
and just a boy and me,
a boy who staunched his weeping, a gift given by the door, the door that had for so long been his friend but now betrayed him, an officer holding it too open so that all the boy could do was brush its cold metal with his fingers and apply it to his eyes, grazing the officer as well and he recoiled and then he shouted, neither of which I liked, and so I said, ‘I will remember what you did,’
there was a narrow path, a mesh of ‘Walk, boy,’ ‘Walk, boy,’ ‘Walk,’ and men who jostled, needing to be seen when there was no cause for concern, they were seen by me and I do not forget a face, which made the boy a puzzle, for I should have recalled him,
bravely he walked that corridor of laughter, the officers ahead and I behind, the tier a metal web for storing poisoned men who yearned to matter but were famished and so sad
I was prepared to forgive them for mocking someone less than they were, the number of such people was very small,
against the press of men, the boy was clear-eyed, he was pure, in contrast to the faces of the men, all for sale, only one person was buying and
he, the man who blocked our way was different, comfortable, ignored the officers and spoke to the boy, ‘You understand what you have done,’ he said, every prison is a monarchy and he was king,
‘I do,’ the boy said,
‘Do you know your sentence?’
and the boy did know, would not rebel, the power of men was everything, prison had taught him that and while the officers were holding open the tier door, the voices calling ‘Walk, boy, ’ ‘Walk,’ were kinder than the dark silence ahead and
wait, dark silence was where I had met this boy before, and that was something to make sense of while the king held court and with a gesture calmed his audience to deliver his speech, propaganda and recruitment and excuses all at once and
I did not want to hear it so
I rattled, the sound of bones-to-be,
and the prison king had a bad heart in every way, so as we left he was clutching at himself and he was falling, this day would see a coronation,
the boy entered the corridor from the tiers to the gate, a space with garish dreams painted along its ochre walls by every man who hoped in his release, the promise that one day the door would close behind him, save the boy, he had no such ambition but wanted to return,
it was the saddest thing that I had seen in a long life of many griefs, instead he fell into a dream of painted houses,
wait,
I had seen that one before,
the officers had slowed, they had been paid for compliance and not speed, and so the boy recalled and so did I a time when he had trespassed, lost, alone, and it had crossed his mind to think that he deserved a roof more than a dead woman who lay stretched in a
painted house, rich, oh she was rich, the boy could tell that by the saints around her, that amount of prayer cost money and
a bishop, paid by the hour, I remembered the funeral, for he had conducted the obsequies without embarrassment, which I had thought an achievement and I had asked him afterwards, ‘How did you dare commend her to your holy ones when you knew?’
knew about the boy who cut the fence because the rich dead got protection, forced the door into the tomb, not the one lying ahead, which we were approaching, so that
‘Stay close to me,’ I touched him and
‘Thank you,’ he whispered, there were not many who had ever said that,
there was a new sound now of clacking keys, people at computers, they were writing the press statement, regret but no compensation for what is a boy worth, well, less than
a corpse, she lay on the slab, but there was room for the boy, he curled in a corner of that house of the rich dead,
I did enjoy a stroll in the gardens, my work done, I recalled the boy who made a home there, I was glad for him but
here, emerging from the typing, is a man who had once wanted to be good, the obstacles were many, and he was wearing a badge, ‘Director,’
there were no words to say, well, he could hardly wish the boy Good luck, it would have been a curse upon him, he knew that I was there and so he was not only good but also wise, did not unlock the door ahead because that would have been complicity, he wanted to sleep comfortably, much as the boy did in that house of the dead, and
I remembered how I saw him and I am not sure but I think we smiled at one another which, like thanks, is rare in my profession,
the door opened, protesting, as if it knew, the outer guards did, guns and body armour merely make-up, or did the boy say that to me, ‘Make up a future for me,’ because he knew how much he was about to lose, the weapons of the troops there silent with respect, it was opposite of
disrespect, the sons came to their mother’s grave and found the boy, why hold a country on the rack with drugs when this scamp can disturb Mamá, kill him now, no,
the law was on their side for they had bought it long ago, and it was understood that there would be two sentences, consecutive, and
they should not have been making the boy sign for possessions,
firstly there were none and
secondly he would never open the plastic bag, this was only
for forms’ sake, the pieces of paper, for form's sake too, so that an enquiry could name robbery as cause and
I was with him now and bearing him, wrapped within my arms, the men with guns could see but they were used to me, I was their business manager, La Santa Muerte, Death, so when the guards
turned back and shot the boy for
sleeping
in a drug lord mother’s tomb
I was holding him so that he had
nowhere to fall.