They call fields. You wake up. Comfort yourself. Cuddle your sheet and pretend it’s a cat. Your cellie rushes to smoke a K2 stick (spice joint), to less feel the pain. Shit if you can. Sit. Get ready. You go outside, for the first time in months. It’s not that they don’t let you, but after walking in circles for ten minutes watching sweaty walruses try to dunk a basketball, it’s mostly downhill from there.
The sun is absurdly bright, breaking through the Texas cloudscape like Creation itself. Soon, you will learn to hate it. You march out the razor wire castle that is your home in “hoe squads” of a dozen each, stalked by guards on whickering horseback holstering revolvers. Cats ninja out of your way, under post-apocalyptic slop wagons brimming with kitchen scraps, like Cold War tanks growing cancerous lumps of rust. You vow, if ever released, to surround yourself with cats. With dogs and birds and pythons. Such would be your luxury. Prisoners around you have kept mice and frogs in jars, birds in mesh commissary bags, even bats in lockers. You have seen old men wrapping dead flies in toilet paper to feed their pet spiders.
Animals are a luxury. Trees are a luxury. Grass is a luxury. At age sixteen, you were transferred briefly to Terrell state Mental Hospital after four months of juvie. Four months of metal doors and concrete floors and fluorescent lights. While being escorted to your new cell, you passed through a lawn. Your guards let you touch a tree. You will remember the barnacled bark under your fingers until the day you die. The feeling of tossing aside your shoes at the first sight of that emerald rec yard, and laughing barefoot, staring unbelievingly at your toes. One day, I will walk barefoot in grass again, you think as you march, two-by-two, through hell. I will pet a cat again.
The gate opens. Angry cowboys scream “Walk it off!” Birds swarm to peck at green horseshit. Dawn glows on salmon cloud-bellies like a baby atom bomb. Hills everywhere. How long has it been since you’ve seen a horizon, lost in morning mist only, and not through bars or chain-link or razor wire? Bird ch-ch-chirp for mates; bastards.
You walk through Middle Earth. Dinosaurs could roam here, with real estate to spare. The smell is incredible; mostly the pig farm. You pass tractors; pass trailers, left there as if just to insult you on your way to pick beans by hand.
You pass a crossroad, and memorize the signs. You try to map out every hill and dip and sewer pipe in your mind, nicknaming them with battles from World War II. Because, you know, just in case. Just in case the moment comes, when the horses aren’t surrounding you on every side. When the inmate with the dogs stops prowling on a distant hill. That day when the gods are kind and your chance comes; when the enemy slips.
Cows low behind paddocks. Oil derricks. Cowboys spit. A trailer rumbles past, full of horses and barking dogs, mocking you. The pig farm is air-conditioned, but the prison is not.
You walk for miles, lurching on rocks. Taste the road-dust layered on your teeth. Rattlesnakes ch-ch-ch from the high grass. Weird bugs haunt your sweat thirstily. You eye the distant forest. Let yourself dream a little. Too far.
For years, you will dream of trees. You spent your childhood wandering desolate railroads, the scrubland, and imagined the wider world not as a glitzy city, not as people, but as trees. Now, for the rest of your life, you will wander empty industrial blocks, climbing chain-fences and walls, knowing someone’s chasing you, desperately running for the mist-cloaked frees–until you wake, weeping into your prison sheets, a feeling nesting inside you too beautiful for words. A loss too profound.
They pass out bags for you to fill. You bend and forage through blades of crabgrass and red spiders and black mud until your arms are pink to the elbow. Swing your bag through bean-less fire ants, moths fluttering. Your friend (an Aztec-mystic/philosopher prison-magician) hands up a lemon drop. You now understand the appeal of gangs. No one else is on your side, teaching you, taking care of you. Anything to not be alone.
Inmates beside you reminisce about the diamonds they used to have in their mouth, which tooth, while you work without gloves or sunscreen. This is your new value as human beings. Somewhere in this world, fellow Americans are spending eight billion dollars on Halloween costumes for dogs.
Two hours in, a water break. You stand silently, two-by-two, hats off, staring at the water trailer until its ass-pipe sputters. Now line up to suck the water down like horses. Like someone pissing in your mouth. Refreshing. Thirty seconds, and form up again, to pick okra, bare-handed. Itchy hairs. The plants are covered in white flowers. For some reason, ants eat these flowers. Thank you, God. “It’s like grabbing fiberglass,” an old man warns. “Wrap your hand in your hat.”
You line up on barbed wire, facing a creek. “Bump down, bump down!” Cries the sarge. You squeeze “nuts to butt,” staring at each other’s necks. “Bump down!” Which way? “I’m doing this way.” A lifer gestures vaguely at freedom. Ha-ha. “Aggies up!” You raise your hoes in a thirty-man salute, facing liongrass, your mortal foe. Your blades will swing like a Spartan phalanx, inches from your neighbors’ faces. Guards adjust your position like battlefield commanders. One moves you up, one down. You once saw a YouTube video of thousands of Thai prisoners reenacting Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.” You are a poor imitation. “Man, fuck America!” laughs a black inmate, old cellie “50,” with fifty years.
Then you smell it. The creek. It hits you like a poison bomb: the “water” is solid dappled-green shit. A two-thousand man sewer. The horror of what you’re about to do sinks in.
Now you sing. “One!-We up, two!-We up, three!” You strike the ground like robots, and “fo’ step” forward, blades biting at your boots, annihilating everything in your path, anthills, orb-spider webs six feet across, wasp nests–towards the diseased water. “I don’t wanna!” Hit. “You don’t wanna!” Hit. “But we gotta!” Hit. “Fo’ step!” You perch on the perilous edge, and strike at the swamp grass in the shallows, averting your face from your jade reflection, as clods rain in this putrid River Styx, and pretend you don’t exist; that you were never born; that your body is just a tractor, a machine, and not a living thing with you in it.
“Now we gonna-fo’ step!” Now you will plow the wet bed of green shit.
Think of it like writing cursive in school. The point is not to actually cut grass. The point is to re-engineer you as a person. This is good for your soul. This is what you will be made of if you are ever released. This is the new you.
You were once cruel. You were once angry. You were a liar, a thief, a violent person. Now you are in hell, exiled from all that is holy. Now you are screamed at and manhandled. Now you have to lie and cheat every day to survive. Now every new prison you move to, you have to “fight, fuck, or bust a forty.” Now on your first day, three fellow prisoners come to “heart check” you, (i.e., to beat, rape, or extort you). This is your life. Stop trying to make moral logic of it, or even regular logic, it’ll go easier for you. Then someday when you’re old, you will be released. You will have no non-criminal friends. Your family will not recognize you. Half will be dead. You will be near-unemployable. With luck, you will be a burger flipper, or truck driver (these jobs will soon be eliminated by robots). You will be tech-illiterate (the prison college has a class about the internet.. .taught from a book). Women, children, cars, cash, self-control, freedom will all be alien to you. Everyone will treat you like a criminal anyway.
The point of prison is not to fix you (to teach you a lesson), but to destroy you (to “teach you a lesson”). Criminals must be destroyed as human beings: Bankrupted; Publicly humiliated; Socially exiled. Literally disenfranchised (lose your right to vote). You once read a fantasy novel (The Wheel of Time) where a deposed queen was forced to work as a laundry-woman the rest of her life. A dead queen is a martyr. A John Dillinger. A Bonnie and Clyde. A laundry-queen is utterly destroyed.
The sun is at high noon, gunslinger shadows. You march to a ditch-bottom, hopping wasps and fire ants, a wet rag around your neck. Your neighbor falls. “Man down!” Cries echo up the line. The pasty psych-patient, “Zombie,” squirms in the mud, white eyes rolling, joints locked. Just a minute ago, you were debating the merits of the old Gundam series against the new. Now you get to watch him die.
“Push on, push on!” Field laws sit in their saddles, shoulder to shoulder like a silent firing squad, pointing at the grass, the grass, miles of grass everywhere, stranded in the drought-yellow sea. “Call medical!” Someone else has had enough, tossing away their aggie; a hero. Not you. You watch, two inmates holding Zombie up. Briefly, heat haunts the air, the tingle of violence, and the distant trees.
Then they call a truck—not for Zombie to ride in, but to follow him as a friend carries him like a wounded soldier two miles home.
Now they take you back in. As the guard screams to shut up, two inmates begin to rap: “I’m a diamond in the dirt that ain’t been found, a unnamed king that ain’t been crowned…(Magna Carta. Holy Grail!)” Pass under the shadow of the sniper tower. Horses tethered to chain-link wicker at your passing. Now you get naked, barefoot on hot concrete. Open your arms as you pass a fan, the wind in your pubes. Dozens of naked men are normal now. You spin as they search you, open your mouth, lift your feet. Now stand in naked rows to enter a shower so angry, your balls will hurt, dreaming of sleep.
Edward Ji is serving LIFE in Texas for attempted capital murder in Texas.
Edward Ji #01575341
12120 Savage Drive