He came to me in his prison scrubs, a fire orange jumpsuit, shackles around his feet and hands. He made his way down the hallway, chains clanging against the stone floor as the officers brought him to my office. My door was open.
“You ready for him?”
I nodded to the officer's tough, tight face.
The inmate stepped in the doorway, his head bowed, his hands cuffed and locked against his waist. He could have been praying.
“Come in, have a seat.” I got up to close the door.
“You sure you don’t want to leave it open?” said one of the officers. “He isn’t real nice.”
“Thanks, but I’m not worried about him. We’ll be just fine.” I closed the door without seeing his reaction.
“Why’d you call me?” he said as he sat down in the cold plastic chair.
“I wanted to see if I could help.” I said, as genuinely as I felt.
“With what?” I could see his body loosen ever so slightly.
“With you. How are you, A_?”
That was when he finally looked up at me with eyes I will never forget. Big, as intense and dark as the deepest sea, swirling with ache and fear and a desperate need for affection. He smiled. Raw. Like a seven year old told he was the smartest boy in class. And that was it. I had broken through.
* * *
A few days later at the same camp (State Prison) I was making my way back to my office from Medical where I filed my reports. I liked to cross the yard when Count was called because that was the only time all the inmates had to stay glued to their beds, not getting up until every inmate was accounted for. This time, however, it went faster than usual and suddenly over the loudspeaker, Count was cleared.
From one of the dormitories came an avalanche of inmates, their path coming straight for me. I was a twig in danger of being snapped and obliterated. But somehow, I kept my cool as I put my hand on the metal of the door knob knowing I would be safe in a mere second. I was wrong.
The door was locked. I tried it again, thinking I was imagining things. No, it was indeed locked. I knocked as confidently as I could, knowing the inmates smelled fear like a dog in heat, preying on it with sick humor. I was going to be ok. I was going to be ok. I was going to be ok.
A group of inmates started to crowd around me. I was in the middle of a huddle. They didn’t say anything just pressed in tighter and tighter, how many men deep I didn’t dare imagine. Suddenly, A_ squeezed through to stand beside me. He took those eyes and looked at me straight through, this time the kindness running the other direction.
“Don’t worry, Miss Brynne. Ain’t no one gonna hurt you. I got you.” He looked around at the others, giving them a look that only he could, brewing a smile deep within me that took almost everything I had, to hide.
And right then, the door opened.
* * *
We are all wounded inside in some way or other.
We all carry unhappiness within us for some reason or another.
Which is why we need a little gentleness and healing from
One another. Healing in words, healing beyond words.
Like gesture. Warm gesture. Like friendship, which will always
Be a mystery. Like a smile, which someone described
As the shortest distance between two people.
Ben Okri, from the poem
“Healing The Wounded Learner
or the Pygmalion Complex”