How Does It Feel to Be Free?

AFTER the usual breakfast he was taken downstairs, given a bath, a fresh suit of civil clothes, and brought to the office. Here he was presented with several documents and a five-dollar bill.

The warden got up from his desk. ‘I see by your papers, Joe, that you have been here twelve years. Well, you have been a good prisoner; good-bye and good luck to you.’ They shook hands.

He was led through the yard to the gate. The moment, had come. He stepped through. Again they shook hands before the gate was closed behind him and locked — locking him free.

He carried his hat in his hand as he started along the road and down the hill. He was confronted by a fresh, bracing breeze and a most bewildering sense of vastness — a vastness bathed in light. His eyes blinked, and his steps were short and hesitating.

On top of the high gray wall a guard, rifle in hand, walked in the same direction. ‘Good-bye, Joe,’ he shouted. ‘How does it feel to be free?’

How does it feel to be free? To be confined, bottled-up, held in check, restricted, controlled — and suddenly turned loose upon a dizzy world!

A gray mist has surrounded it all. Imagine yourself completely enveloped as though your life had been becalmed by a fog. A fog through which it is difficult to see. Only overhead can you see a tiny circular opening through which the bright sky shines like a sparkling jewel. Soon you discover that the mist has hardened about you. The fog has encased you completely, except for that far-away opening overhead. You examine the walls and find that they are composed of long narrow ribbons of gray celluloid hung from what appears to be a small hoop in the sky. No — you have more space than that. Your walls are round, but you have ten feet from side to side. And every side is alike. From the sky to the ground your life is encased in a celluloid tube made of cold gray ribbons, and you are unable to see what is outside of yourself.

But when you examine the walls closer you find that the strips are made entirely of little squares, and each square has a queer design. You had not noticed them at first, but everywhere you look and as far up as you can see you find the little squares. Then on examining them closer you discover that each square is a separate little picture in which you yourself appear! Each square a frozen moment of your life. Each picture a tiny recollection dimmed and made gray by that rapid piling-up — that multiplication called the Past.

Frozen memories in miniature. As though the ribbons were discarded cinematographic records, — records of your discarded past, — complete and shameless.

There are different scenes of long ago; some are comforting and some are horrid. At some you tarry, but others you are happy not to see at all. Those high up are hard to see, though some seem clear and fairly distinct. You make vague guesses at what they are, and some you are sure you recognize. It is like a game. The forgotten past hangs over you as high as you can see, and a circle of light comes through from the sky.

The whole thing is quite natural, and at first you see nothing very strange about the affair; a little odd, perhaps, or maybe like a dream; but it does not seem very startling until suddenly you discover that the sequence is wrong. Why should it be wrong? Why do the scenes not follow one another as they happened? Why is this thing all helterskelter?

You try to select and arrange, but the task is enormous. Here and there and everywhere are pictures that you have not included and some that you would like to — if you could only cut them away with a penknife. Yes, cut little toy-windows so you could see clearly outside— the outside world — the real world that at present you can see only by looking through your own experiences, and see dimmed by the shadows of past images. But you have no knife that could sever. And it would not help.

Oh, how tired you are of it all! How dreary, how oppressing, how monotonous! Days are gray and nights are gray. You are tired of yourself — the constant repetition of yourself. If you could only run away. But the cylinder is light, airy, and nimble. It rotates as you run. You are imprisoned in this strange thing called life, — life dreary and gray, — surrounded by cameos and smudges of black.

The sequence is wrong. You try to escape. The walls are pliable, and with pressure could yield. You wedge a hand through, and another; you work a foot through, making still another opening, but at no time can you manage to get your body through. Then, too, where would you go? You give it up; and in time you are resigned and engage in that restful ploy of thinking back and of looking out at the real world through the lightly tinted squares.

You see the world — the real world that is made of kisses and snow. Of fire, milk, dreams, straw, water, tobacco, and children. You watch the real world that is built solidly of things that do not last — built firmly of vital sparks that cannot endure.

Every now and then you discover a new square or two added to your walls. Something that happened only yesterday; but what was in its place before you are unable to tell, try hard as you may.

In a year many different pictures have presented themselves. In three years a fair number are new; in six, three quarters are added pictures; but in twelve hardly any of the old remain and these seem greatly dimmed. A comforting dimness. Time makes all things restful.

In the outside world you can see children playing. They are playing with matches, lighting old brooms and paper, and running across the fields with trailing flames and shooting sparks. They had never done this before.

You watch closely. They are putting fire to the whole business! Suddenly a flash, a puff of smoke, a blaze of light, and there you stand on a hill confronted by real colors and a free, bracing breeze. In the distance the frightened children are running and you hear one whimper, ‘I did not know it could burn.’

Everything is sky and land. You are surrounded by a vastness bathed in light.

You blink at the glamour of it all, as with hesitating steps you wander down the road to — The station is a mile away. Here a train comes from somewhere and can take you to — exactly where you do not know, but it can take you there. You must go !

That is how it feels to be free.

At the station Joe changed his fivedollar bill to buy a ticket and a plug of chewing-tobacco. The train carried him home—to the city of his former life.

Here the streets are paved with stone. Square next to square, with hardly a crack between. Cruelly mortised by man for the benefit and convenience of his fellow men. Long lines cemented together so that mud and dirt are not tracked about — tracked into the little pigeonholes called homes.

Joe reached home all right. His wife had been dead a number of years and his children had all grown up and married. Old memories were quite dim. He hardly knew them, and they certainly did not recognize him; but it was all very pleasant.

In the evening they all had supper together — that is, after the babies had been put to bed in one room. The table was dressed as in a movie, the room was bright with lights, and everything was merry.

A steaming chicken was brought on and the oldest son stood up, removed his coat, and rolled up his cuffs before carving. ‘Now, dad, I’m going to cut for you this-here leg, first and second joint,’ and, pointing the knife at him, ‘also a good big chunk of the white meat. Mollie, dish the gravy.’

They spoke about the comic strips in the illustrated newspapers, about recent screen-dramas, about dance records for the phonograph, about everything that amused them. The checkered past was carefully avoided. They were all quite intelligent and they said they understood.

Joe had a nice home. He could stay about the house and just ‘rest up.’ The children had seen all kinds of reunions in the movies, and would do their best to make him happy. They gave him a room to himself, a warm pair of carpet slippers, a pipe with a yellow stem and fancy gold band, a pair of cotton-flannel pajamas, razor blades, and everything that a male mortal needs for comfort.

But Joe spent a most uncomfortable night. The large meal did not agree with him and kept him awake. The rushing light of morn came blaring into the room. He looked about. Small photographs hung on the walls. There were scenes of Niagara Falls, Yellowstone Park, and of big trees in California. Little gray squares dotted the walls — views that Joe had never experienced.

It was all very natural that Joe should be a bit uncomfortable at first. The children said that they understood, and that it would take a little while for him to feel really at home.

Joe proceeded to make himself comfortable. He tried the carpet slippers, but found them loose, soft, and uncomfortable. The pipe was a nice thing, too, though he did not really enjoy smoking. The pictures he removed from the walls, and then he drove nails on which to hang his coat and pajamas. He greatly distrusted the closet, where it was dark and where mice perhaps were free to wander.

He amused himself by collecting old bits of wire that he found on old picture-frames and in the basement of the apartment house. It gave him great pleasure to send the wire down the neck of a bottle and watch the odd twists and coils it would make in the bottle — as though it were life itself going through its many painful convulsions. He kept the bottle on the open fire-escape in front of his window.

Just as soon as Joe found that the friendliness of his children was quite genuine he proceeded to make himself really comfortable. He brought up some thin boards to slip under the mattress of the cot. This made it much firmer. He nailed up the closet door and painted the rods of the fire-escape black, under the pretext that its former color showed the dirt too much. At night he had several times been bothered by a notion that there might be rats about and that his cot was too low. This he soon fixed by bringing up some old wood from the basement and raising the cot so that it resembled an upper berth in a cabin. He was careful to eat very little meat and kept closely to a diet of soup and hot cereal. Day by day he was feeling more comfortable. Now only one thing more needed his attention. The room was too large! Too large for one person. This he remedied by rigging a pole across the room and hanging down a heavy curtain dividing the space in half. It also divided the window. Now all seemed cozy.

By this time the bottle on the window was packed tight with bits of wire. He carried it down to the basement and broke it over an ash can. The heavy wad of iron wire was freed from its container. It was nothing but a rusty solid mass, the same shape as the bottle that now was scattered in fragments.

He turned it in his hand and examined it closely. Was it an experiment that had failed? Did he imagine that the tough springy wires would jump back to their former state once freed? No. It was a rusty solid mass, brown as a cough mixture and shaped like a bottle. If he had a label he could paste it on and mark it — ‘Free!’

He brought it back to his room and carefully put it in its place on the window. Then he climbed up on his cot.

Outside it rains, and outside it snows, and then the sun sings forth and dries up the long lines of pavements made of stone cunningly mortised. From his cot he can see a tiny bit of sky — a small bright opening far away. Now and then a figure walks across a neighboring roof and reminds him of the man on the high wall who held a rifle in his hand and shouted, ‘How does it feel to be free?’ From his cot he can see glimpses of the outside world — the real world that is made of kisses and snow. But between him and the great outside is the window-ledge upon which stands that rusty, packed-together wad of wire, shaped like a bottle.