He ran fast, so fast his lungs were seared. He ran blindly. He ran like a stag hunted by hounds. Night drew him on, tugging him with urgent hands. He tripped on a root, stumbled, fell, heard shouts, then rose again while the full moon swept his path with a searchlight’s beam.
The shouts increased, lights probed, as he weaved in and out of the grasping brush, the looming trees. His heart raced, faltered, raced faster, as he drove his body forward to escape, to reach what he could not see.
The rattle of keys in the heavy steel door tormented his mind with abandoned hope, with expectant fear, as he covered his head with a single wool blanket and pulled tight the thin grey tunic that covered him.
‘Stand up, Prisoner 4538!’
A boot kicked him in the side and he collapsed to the concrete floor, raising his hands to resist,
‘Try that again and…’
He never got to say anything else. The two men staring down at him, like two schoolboys ready to the tear the wings off a fly, kicked him again, once each, then the one with the tattooed hands shouted,
Strong arms reached down to grab him. The floor was cold and his feet were bare.
‘Who are you? Where am I?’ Why am I here?”
He was answered with a shove to the back, then manhandled down a long grey walled corridor, half-stumbling, half running, trying to keep ahead of the men who tormented him, blinded by the arc lights that lit the way.
The three stopped at a closed door on which was written the single word, “Interrogations,” stencilled in black on the grey paint. One of the men knocked. There was the sound of a muffled but sharp voice. The man who knocked swung the door in, then with the second guard, hustled the prisoner into the room to make him stand before a man in a dark grey suit, white shirt and black tie, seated at a black metal desk who and received the salute of the two guards with a nod of his head and observed the prisoner with calm interest.
He waved his hand at a single wooden chair placed a few feet in front of the desk. The guards forced the prisoner down onto the chair, then took several steps back to stand, legs apart, arms behind their backs, looking straight ahead.
4538 tried to sit upright in the chair but the seat was oiled and slippery. He kept slipping down lower than the man in front of him. He tried to grip the armrests but they were oiled too. He gave up and rested in a state of precarious imbalance while the man across from him sat in silence, watching him squirm.
‘Do you know why you are here 4538?’
The prisoner looked around the room, that was otherwise bare, and replied, “Why don’t you tell me?’
‘To accept. That’s all. Are you ready to accept?”
‘Your condition. Your place on the road of life; bound to the wheel of things.’
‘I’m not bound to anything. I choose my own path, my own life, my own way’.
‘Your way? Is that a good life? What is this way of yours except an illusion?’
The interrogator leaned forward. ‘How is a good life possible without acceptance of the way things are?’
‘Maybe I don’t like how things are, and I don’t want anything to do with your wheel of things. You’re lost in illusion, not me. What am I supposed to say? Who are you?’
‘I’m your mirror. Are you afraid to look?’
‘You’re talking in riddles.’
4538 slipped in his chair again, tried to sit back up, but only slipped further down. ‘Let me go.’
‘Oh, we can’t do that, not until you accept. It would be irresponsible. The new world requires it. Everyone must accept, be transformed.’
‘You sound like a priest.’
‘No, not a priest, you’re friend. I don’t offer salvation, only awareness, and transformation.’
‘Transformation into what? ‘
‘Into that happy being who is happy because he has accepted the reality of the world as it is.
The man stood up from the desk and motioned the guards to step back. He walked up to the prisoner, looked straight in the face, then moved to stand behind him. He leaned down and whispered in his ear,
‘There is no other way.’
Prisoner 4538 moved his head away from the voice but it followed him,
‘Will you accept?’
The interrogator moved away from the prisoner, then turned to look down at him.
‘Take him away. We will talk again tomorrow. Think about what I said. Accept and be transformed or lose yourself in your maze of illusions, each one leading inevitably to another.’
Prisoner 4538 was hauled roughly to his feet and half carried back to his cell by the two guards who said nothing but breathed hard the entire way. The hallway seemed to stretch out in front of them forever, the end lost beyond the point of perspective, beyond the endless doors on either side.
They came to a door with his number on it, already opened. He was thrown back onto the cot without a word from the guards, who walked out and quickly slammed shut the door.
He heard the keys turn in the lock as he lay still, listening to their steps moving away, the silence of the space around him. He lifted his head. The cell was bare except for the single weak bulb that cast macabre shadows on the walls, the cot on which he lay and a bucket in one corner. He lay back, puzzled, feeling sorry for himself and afraid. He lay quiet and, as the hours dragged by, began to drift in and out of sleep until he was again running, breathing hard as he ran, away from the shouts, from the searching beams, towards a place he could not see but knew was there, somewhere. He ran, as only the desperate can run, until he disappeared into the night’s dark womb and the shouts became distant, faint, and confused.
The doctor ran his hand through his hair as he walked over to the window, reflecting on the question. The leaves of the trees on the hospital grounds were turning. Reds and golds glittered in the autumn sun. Late flowers still blossomed and squirrels played in the branches as nurses walked patients along tree-lined paths, enjoying the warm autumn light.
He paused as he reflected on what he was about to say. The he turned to the group seated in his office, the senior resident, his junior, the psychiatric nurse, all three looking at him, waiting for him to speak.
‘You asked my opinion of this patient. He is very interesting in many respects. I have examined him a number of times and it is clear he has suffered a deep psychotic break, but of course he cannot accept that, it would shatter his world view.’
‘Patient 4538 is still suffering the delusion that he is a prisoner here. His delusion even extends to dreaming that he is escaping from a prison; that he keeps waking to be taken for interrogation. He thinks his delusion is reality, his dreams his conscious state. But without any identity it is going to be difficult to treat him. We have no history.’
The junior nodded, ‘Since he was found by the police a few days ago wandering the streets, looking for the good life, he told them, our investigations and theirs have produced no information on who he is or where he’s from; totally disoriented. Said he had to keep running until he found the way, that he won’t accept, won’t be transformed.’
The doctor looked reflective, then replied, as he sat down in his leather chair, ‘A sad case, thinking he can find the good life by running after it, by escaping everything, by refusing to examine himself. He certainly won’t accept our treatment. His delusion could be permanent. Perhaps further interviews with him will lead us somewhere deeper into his mind so we can help him. But his is a severe case. I fear he will never recover. ’ He turned to look out the window, reflecting on patient 4538, as the others looked on in quiet agreement.
The sudden buzzing of the telephone on the doctor’s desk broke the thought-filled silence. He reached for the receiver and put it to his ear. His face expressed surprise, his jaw tightened. He listened intently then said, ‘All right, you had better call the police,’ then put the receiver back, turned to the others and said,
‘He’s gone. The door to his room was locked but he’s gone. Just disappeared. Like he never existed. Well, I’ll be damned.’
And, as the doctor sat back in his chair, to ponder how the patient could have escaped, Prisoner 4538 kept desperately running, whether from reality or illusion, he did not know, and did not care, so long as he could escape.