“Imprisoned with the Dead” by Alan Barstow


Angula rarely thought about the man he killed. Instead, he thought about the nights he shared his cell with a dead man.

It was in the weeks before the rains, when it was too hot to talk, eat, or sleep. Angula and the other prisoners sat as still as possible with wet rags over their heads and waited for the rainy season, when the prison yard would become a tapestry of blue and pink African flowers and cloud cover would allow for exercise.

Angula and the other prisoners had heard the man’s breath wheeze for weeks. One night, the man’s breath became drier, chortled, ragged, and then they heard it no more.

Each of the prisoners lay awake in the new silence. “He’s dead,” one finally said.

Angula rose from his mat and went over to the man. He held his hand over the man’s nose and mouth, feeling nothing. “Yes,” he said, answering what had not been questioned. Had he thought a guard would have come, Angula would have called one to remove the body.

They told the guards about the dead man in the morning during breakfast. The porridge was so thin they drank it out of metal cups. The coffee—so stale it tasted like dust—was served in the same cups. Too hot to exercise in the prison yard, Angula and the others sat in the shade of the tower, smoking tobacco rolled in last week’s newspaper. When the shade vanished, the guards took them back to the cell.

The dead man was still there. Angula and the others complained. “It’s unlucky,” they said. “It’s not sanitary.”

The guards shrugged, touched the clubs at their belts, and said, “What can we do? The hospital doesn’t have a truck today.”

By late afternoon, the heat had eased up enough to allow soft talking. They watched the flies land on the dead man’s open, unblinking eyes and crawl into his nose and mouth, seeking what moisture could be found. That night, the dead man’s presence made them restless.

Four guards and a nurse came to collect the dead man the next morning. The nurse was a woman. The prisoners made no sound, but they all watched her. Feeling their eyes, she said, “I’m sorry about your friend.”

A prisoner with a scar on his cheek—the result of being stabbed with a sharpened toothbrush when he first entered the prison—said, “We didn’t know him.” Angula knew he was lying: they had all known the man, but none wanted to be associated with the dead. It was unlucky. To do so was to admit their crimes, acknowledge their punishments.

The nurse repeated, “I’m sorry.”

Angula thought her plain looking. But he soaked up all of her features just as the flies soaked up the moisture in the dead man’s nose. The armpits of her white blouse damp with sweat. Her braids unraveled. A mole on her left cheekbone. She bore her weight on her right leg.

Two of the guards picked up the dead man, scattering the flies, and placed him on a gurney. The flies returned. The nurse pursed her lips and shooed the flies away, and then gently laid a sheet over the dead man’s face with both hands.

Angula remembered his mother’s hands. He had had malaria as a boy. For what seemed like the whole rainy season, he had lived in a world of fever dreams juxtaposed with the waking world. A cook pot that belched fire like a dragon. His brother’s purple, hyena face. Rain that fell like hot oil.

His mother had sent for a truck to take him to the clinic. Angula didn’t have the strength even to swat the flies from his eyes then. He lay there watching his mother as the truck bounced down the sandy two tracks through the bush. With her long fingers, she kept the flies at bay. Angula thought this gesture meant his mother would never stop loving him.

In prison, even years after he saw the nurse scatter the flies for the dead man, he thought about it often. He’d conjure up the image of the nurse. Sometimes, he’d imagine that it was he who had died and was lying on the gurney. Other times, the nurse had his mother’s face and hands. During the hot season, it was not just the heat that kept Angula from sleeping.

He’d never tell the other prisoners that he lay on his back with his eyes open. He’d imagine a hand entering his vision, the fingers balled up just so, and then the hand opening, fingers flaring out, scattering the flies from his dead eyes.

Alan Barstow worked as a Peace Corps volunteer in Namibia in southern Africa and has researched the effects of HIV in Namibia’s rural areas and prisons. He is at work on a memoir that explores how the village he worked in lives with the AIDS pandemic. A recent graduate of the MFA program at the Univ. of Wyoming, Alan has had work appear in American Literary Review. He currently lives in Redondo Beach, CA.

This story was selected as a Notable Story from storySouth Million Writers Award Notable Stories of 2009. 

Notes from the desk of K. Anne Unger, Editor

We selected this story for publication because for a flash fiction piece there are a lot of nice things working in it. Arguably, flash fiction can be one of the most challenging approaches to storytelling, working within 1,000 words to develop a protagonist we can sympathize with and a story, or a moment in time that transports readers. This piece accomplishes both.

We know right away our protagonist killed a man; he is a criminal and there are no excuses or apologies for it. What we see and feel are the vulnerabilities of a human being suffering from isolation and a longing for the maternal love he once felt after being forced to share a cell with a corpse. He is reminded of his own mortality and realizes he’s imprisoned with the dead, not just the deceased man but also his cellmates. Essentially he is dead. Despite the pain and suffering, it’s a tender story. We are also drawn into details that bring the environment alive, details that only seem possible through actual experience: the taste of the coffee, the consistency of the porridge, the tobacco rolled in last week’s newspaper in addition to the flies crawling in the nose and mouth of the dead man.
Comments on this story by Craig Greenman, author of “The Church in The Next Town Over”

In “Imprisoned with the Dead,” Alan Barstow confronts abjection – that is, the utter degradation of the human being.  The dead man’s “open, unblinking eyes,” covered with flies, see nothing; they reflect the absence of any loving gaze directed at him.  The dead man is also, himself, like a fly, crawling on the other prisoners’ eyes – his stiffening body (lacking the moisture that would make it live) is something they don’t want to see and can’t see with love – but, crucially, also can’t not see.  The dead man is the most visible thing in the cell, because he is invisible to love; he has been reduced to a mere thing that nobody wants.

The prisoners themselves, meanwhile, are also in an abject situation.  They are invisible to the world, shut away from it; yet they’re also radically visible to it, as its criminals.  They are marked only to be put away and forgotten.  The dead man is thus a reminder of their situation:  Like him, they are prisoners in a “House of the Dead,” as Dostoevsky called it. 

The dead man’s abjection ends only with a loving gesture, by the nurse who covers him and shoos away the flies.  With this gesture, Angula, the prisoner we know best, is able to overcome his fixation on the dead man and remember his mother.  The final words of the story, beautifully rendered by Barstow – “the fingers balled up just so, and then the hand opening, fingers flaring out, scattering the flies from his dead eyes” – describe a gesture of love, by Angula’s mother for him; and with the memory of this gesture, Angula can briefly escape his abjection and feel human again.  Someone once cared for him; this is locked in time, even if it’s gone; so Angula, now and forever, is a human being.  He returns to this humanity at night, eyes open (an echo of the dead man, but this time seeing), in his memory of being loved.

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