Book Club: The Enchanted
An inmate on death row in a maximum security prison awaits his final fate. As he sits he hears the story of York, the prisoner in the next cell, and of the female investigator looking into his past. The Enchanted pulls no punches, death row is far from romanticised, as one of our booksellers reviews points out.
"This was a read in one sitting book as once I started I just couldn't put it down. At times it is dark, bleak and brutal it is also utterly beautiful, wonderfully lyrical and has the ability to stir one's soul. If the synopisis appeals to you at all I highly recommend reading it."
- Penelope, Waterstones Lancaster
As Penelope says, if the synopsis appeals then it's certainly worth reading. Or, to go one further, the extract below:
This is an enchanted place. Others don’t see it but I do.
I see every cinder block, every hallway and doorway. I see the doorways that lead to the secret stairs and the stairs that take you into stone towers and the towers that take you to windows and the windows that open to wide, clear air. I see the chamber where the cloudy medical vines snake across the floor, empty and waiting for the warden’s finger to press the red buttons. I see the secret basement warrens where rusted cans hide the urns of the dead and the urns spill their ashes across the floor until the floods come off the river to wash the ashes outside to feed the soil under the grasses, which wave to the sky. I see the soft-tufted night birds as they drop from the heavens. I see the golden horses as they run deep under the earth, heat flowing like molten metal from their backs. I see where the small men hide with their tiny hammers, and how the flibber-gibbets dance while the oven slowly ticks.
The most wonderful enchanted things happen here— the most enchanted things you can imagine. I want to tell you while I still have time, before they close the black curtain and I take my final bow.
I hear them, the fallen priest and the lady. Their footsteps sound like the soft hush of rain over the stone floors. They have been talking, low and soft, their voices sliding like a river current that stops outside my cell. When I hear them talk, I think of rain and water and crystal-clear rivers, and when I hear them pause, it is like the cascade of water over falls.
They are so aware of each other, they don’t need to speak in complete sentences.
“Heading now?” he asks.
“Room,” she says.
“Aren’t they all?” Again I hear the rain in her voice. The lady hasn’t lost it yet—the sound of freedom. When she laughs, you can hear the wind in the trees and the splash of water hitting pavement. You can sense the gentle caress of rain on your face and how laughter sounds in the open air, all the things those of us in this dungeon can never feel.
The fallen priest can hear those things in her voice, too. That’s what makes him afraid of her. Where can that freedom lead? Nowhere good, his pounding heart says.
“Which one?” he asks.
The lady is one of the few who call us by our names. She says her new client’s name. It drops like a gem from her mouth. She has no idea how precious it sounds.
“York.” The man in the cell next to mine.
The other men on the row say his mother named him for a slave who traveled with Lewis and Clark, or after his royal English father from some fabled city overseas— only in prison can you get away with a lie that big.
York knows the truth doesn’t matter in here. Inside, the lies you tell become the person you become. On the outside, sun and reality shrink people back to their actual size. In here, people grow into their shadows.
I press my face against the crumbling wall. The soft rocks absorb their voices, but I have learned how to listen. I pick their words off the moss and stone.
He is warning her that this case, above all others, will be tough.
“Ready and prepared,” I hear him say.
“Soon?” the lady asks.
I can hear the pleading in her voice. How can he not hear it? But he doesn’t. He is too busy being scared of her. The fallen priest doesn’t hear the whipping in his own voice when he talks to the lady. He doesn’t hear the longing and desire. He doesn’t feel the wonderful wildness of the world. Though he lives inside this enchanted place, he doesn’t see the enchantment in the lady; he doesn’t see the enchantment in here or anywhere.
For me, being taken to this dungeon was like landing in sanctuary. For the priest, it was worse than exile. He came here not long ago, with his face dejected and the fluorescent lights shining on his thinning hair, the wrinkles drying around his eyes.
This place freezes you. Then one day they thaw you out and take you to the back of Cellblock H, and you are dead.
“Catch you later,” he says.
I drop my head from the wall.
The Lady walks past my cell. I slide along the cell wall toward the bars, careful not to let her see me. If she turns, I will jump on my cot and hide under the blanket. Instead, she keeps walking.
I creep closer to the bars to watch her walk. I catch a triangle of shirt at the bottom of her narrow back, the back of her heel. I have become practiced at this game, so sometimes I catch more: a tendril of shining black hair, a glimpse of a seashell ear.
I listen carefully as her footsteps recede down the row, savoring each tiny, muffled clop, saving it for later.
The fallen priest is also there, on the other side of my cell, watching her go. Slowly, he turns and walks the other way. His footsteps sound leaden. An inmate calls to him—that would be Striker, on my other side—and the priest moves reluctantly to the cell bars, ready words of comfort on his lips. He has sweat under his oxford shirt from talking to the lady. Sweat rolls down his calf and falls from his bare ankle under his loafers to the porous stone. It seeps down below to the underground caverns where the golden horses run, but no one sees.
The lady doesn’t look back at the fallen priest. She strides away, her back straight and firm. She thinks of the priest and twitches the thoughts away. She needs a clear mind for meeting her new client.
The men watch her pass silently. No one catcalls the lady.
At the far end of the hall, a narrow set of ancient stairs rises out of the gloom. We are buried here in the dungeon, deep under the cellblocks above. The cells here have never seen sunlight, and the lightbulbs in the stairwells are old and flickering.
The tight dungeonlike stairs are dark corners and spittle-drying places that a wise man avoids. The lady takes a deep breath and plunges up them. Claustrophobia has always plagued her. It has taken her years to get used to entering this prison, with its loud slamming gates and shocking claps of metal locks and her own deep memories of knowing what it is like to feel trapped. She got over her fears in the way she gets over everything—she pretends they don’t exist.
Still, the stairs in our prison disturb her. Once she happened to glance up at the wall and saw a torn fingernail dangling from a crack in the stone. She knows about the crimes that take place in our enchanted place; the brutal acts that the outside never hears about, the gougings and rapes and killings. She knows these crimes occur not just against inmates but against guards and people like her.
The stairs are so old, they slope at the middle. The stone is porous and absorbs blood. It is true, ancient lettings have left pink stains. The stains have soaked into the margins of the old stones, the lady thinks.
She gets to the top of the landing and lets out a sigh of relief. The door leads down a silent hallway. Now she is at least on the ground floor. She turns down another narrow hall and climbs another short, steep set of stairs.
There, finally, at the top of an old alcove, is the room they call the Library of the Guards.
It is a large open room lined with shelf after shelf of huge ancient leather books. These are the ledgers of the dead, kept back before the days of computers. The guards sometimes pull down the old ledgers for visitors, to show them the archaic names and the spidery writing. A great-uncle of mine is in one ledger, though I would never openly admit to that. Elbert James Knowles, the faint handwriting says, and the date of his death. My own death, I figure, will be written in invisible ink, wound into the secret channels of the walls, where the little men climb with their hammers. Of computers I cannot say. I have never seen one.
In the middle of the Library of the Guards is an old scratched desk. A guard sits bleakly in the too small chair. He is large and looks heavy with discomfort. He is having his meal break. He eats from the blue regulation lunch box that all the guards carry, with an accordion lid and sections that can be flipped open easily to search for contraband. Every now and then they bring in a drug dog to sniff the lunches, though really, there is no way to stop contraband altogether, at least not in this prison, where the temptations are great, the stress is high, and corruption is common. When a guard can sell a pack of smokes for a hundred dollars inside, you bet the temptation is there.
The guard waves at the lady with a handful of squished sandwich. She is free to enter the door at the far end of the room.
Inside this door is the death row visiting room. The death row inmates jokingly call it the parole room.
The death row visiting room is small. There is a beautiful old yellow glass fixture on the ceiling—not just a bulb in a metal cage but a real glass fixture that throws a warm light. There is a real wood table, too, and you can pretend it smells faintly of lemon even if you know that no one here cleans with anything beyond sudsy gray water.
The important part is the window on the far wall. If the inmates strain hard, they can see the sky through that window. The clouds might be fluffy and white one day, traced with pink and mauve the next, or lit on fire from a sunset.
The window is the reason the death row inmates go to the visiting room to see their lawyers and investigators. The lawyers think their clients want to see them. No, they want to see the window. When the visit ends and they are led in chains back to the dungeon underground, where they spend their days trapped in a six-by-nine cell with no window and no fresh air, a flat cot and open toilet with an endless circle of dark brown in the bowl and a flickering lightbulb in a metal cage, they can remember that scrap of sky. They might go months down in the dungeon between visits, even years. But on those rare days when they are summoned to the visiting room, they know they will see the sky.
When they return to the dungeon, they can tell the others. “It was reddish today, and the clouds were the color of plums,” they might say. Or “I saw a bird—so pretty.” No one will dispute them. There are some things people lie about in here—okay, people lie about most things in here. But there is one thing on death row that no one lies about, and that is what they saw in those scraps of sky.
York is already in the cage, waiting for the lady.