Noon. Hot. Oscar took his place, alone, in the center of the prison yard, in the center of the desert, in the center of the sun.
He clasped his walking stick in both hands. He walked backwards, dragging his stick along, leaving a worm-thin line in the sand. The line punctuated with ‘E.’
With reference to this line he drew a map of the world as far as he could recall it. The continents and their orbiting isles. The peaks and ranges, rivers, roads and metropolises, his city in its supremacy, a generous ‘X’ by a lake in the middle north. And when there was no place left in his memory, no place left to advance the landscape, he marked with stars the places he thought a desert could be—such a vast and lifeless, unfathomed place as this.
The places he picked disobeyed logic. Too tropical to be this desiccating. Too arctic to sustain this heat. Figment deserts in the middle of industrial centers (no stacks to mar this sky) or ringed by forest (no timbers to block the directionless wind).
Still he looked for his location, so he could look for his escape—mapping, mapping, in the only place he could be alone, getting as hot as he could possibly get. Else the others would come and try to wean him from his plan. Else their leisurely manner would sap his will.
There was nothing to stop a prisoner from leaving—no concrete walls or electric fences. Even the guards were mainly there to provide clean clothing, to break up fights if there were any, and to sanction small requests; they stayed inside most of the day. What stopped anyone from trying an escape was the manifest fact of there being nowhere to escape to—the desert stretched for miles in all directions, no sign of habitation or relief. Oscar was not highly educated, but he was smart, and he liked to succeed. He would learn where he was and where he could get before setting out. He would not consign himself to death by the wastes. But neither would he forget that escape was his goal.
If his prisonmates had ever had the initiative to escape, the desert must have killed it, the sand in shoes in ears in mouth. Afternoon: They sat lackadaisical, sipping homemade fermentations in the shade, or throwing hand-cut playing cards onto makeshift tables. Bored into becoming model citizens, they read books from a meager library or did useful tasks, like carrying rain barrels to the vegetable plot or building lean-tos to shield the heat-sick from the sun. It was odd to see them cooperate. It was hard to believe they were, all of them, terrible people.
Then again, it was hard for Oscar to believe that he was a terrible person, and he had been there.
Dawn. Hot. Today Oscar was given blues to wear. There was no regularity or rhythm to the changes in uniform—the guards brought what was clean. There was no way to mark time save for rough seasons: The days of unbroken heat, and the days of little sun, partnered with a chill, angry wind.
Oscar’s fellow prisoners called this latter season winter, and they feared and hated it. It was the only thing they would badmouth. The rest of their talk was infuriatingly positive, lacking discernible subject matter—long winding conversations about tent riggings, sleep schedules, suntans. Oscar wanted them to talk of everything else: their dialects and their songs and their holidays and their governments and their gods, their traditional houses, weavings, hats, their literature and their animals and their flowers and their childhoods, anything that would give him clues to their geographies. They revealed none of it, almost studiously avoiding any show of culture; even their games were made from nothing, entirely new and unsatisfying, full afternoons of trading shoes to determine whose holes were biggest, whose toes had the most room. Today they yammered about lunch and the various shades and fades of their uniforms, and Oscar scrawled a map of all the islands he could recall at his feet, simple as a schoolroom’s, the rote children’s shapes for territories: carrot, boot, mitten.
Today Oscar was given off-whites. Today the others harvested the community garden. Today the first warning wind from the north. Today the prisoners took his spot, made a hopscotch court. He found a new spot next to the guards’ small house at the edge of the prison yard. It didn’t matter if anyone saw what he drew. No one would approach to puzzle-piece his intention. The rule, just passed by the democratic council the prisoners had set up, was that no one asked anything about you that you didn’t first give up.
Oscar debated revealing what he wanted to do. The bunch of them were so aggressively cooperative they might help. But what if they staged an intervention like they had when the red-haired one had pulled the needles off the holiday bush and tried to smoke them? The idea of them, armed with good intentions, citing caution at him, made him sick. In the lee of the guard house he stayed, alone, unbothered, his maps safe from the blasts of wind, the blowing sand that seemed to herald the winter.
Fifteen years Oscar had conducted himself in this way, apart from the other prisoners, drawing and refining his maps in hopes of making an escape. Fifteen years into an indeterminate prison sentence. Oscar might have begun to feel some futility had it not been for the appearance in that year, in that season, of a stray dog named Kurt.
Kurt had a hobble in his step and one floppy ear, the other bitten to shag. Kurt’s fur felt bad to pet; it was like petting the ground, and besides he did not like it. He was more of a dog for bothering and wrestling; the prisoners thought of him as scrappy. They had him fetch bits of planks from the crumbling guard houses (there had used to be more guards, and presumably more prisoners). They tossed coins for him. He would give chase, nose down, as they rolled on top of the hard sand; he would bark at their winking in the sun. Sometimes he picked the coins up in his teeth, shook them and then the coins were missing, possibly swallowed. He had an iron stomach. The prisoners had a game of making a circle to spank his bum, working him into an angry cyclone. Sometimes he bit and hurt someone, but the prisoners had learned that he would bark his warning first. His bark was rare, choked, and sounded from some faraway place inside, as if from the bottom of a jar. Kurt was a good dog and cheap entertainment, and the prisoners loved him, save for Oscar (but this was Oscar’s problem, and not Kurt’s). Kurt was a good friend because he did not need anything that was hard for the prisoners to give.
What no one but Oscar seemed to notice was that Kurt must have found his way to the prison from somewhere. Thus Kurt represented a hope that there was a place one could go that was not the prison, that there was some town or outpost close enough to risk an escape.
Which was nothing Oscar hadn’t already believed. But he was emboldened for the confirmation.