Friday, January 25, 2013

Dedicated to a Brother

Rest in Peace

By Gerald Marshall

After a judge instructs you to stand up, then tells you that you will be handed over to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice until your sentence or death is to be carried out, you wonder about a lot of things. For me it was “when am I going to die?”

After being sentenced to any length of prison time in the Harris County Jail there is a normal wait period of 30 days and after that time you'll be sent to prison, or TDCJ where you'll start serving your time. After I was sentenced to death I figured I'd wait about a month to be shipped to death row, wherever that was. On November 11, 2004 an officer came in my cage through the speaker in the wall saying, "Marshall?"

"Yes," I responded.

"Pack your shit, you're catching chain."

Catching chain meant I'd be shipped to death row, TDCJ.

"Huh" I responded, caught off guard.

"Pack your shit,” he said confidently. "You’re being sent to death row today."

Twenty minutes later I was loaded into a white van after doing the normal humiliating naked strip search. I didn't know where I was headed. I just knew that I was defeated and I sat there shackled from my feet to my waist walking like an elderly man trying not to hurt himself. I was headed to Death Row. The van ended up taking me to Huntsville; it was my first time ever in a prison. In prison bars are everywhere, the prisoners all wear white, and the guards, grey. They even instruct family members and friends who visit to not wear white so they won't be mistaken tor a prisoner.

At the Huntsville unit, I was strip searched again, shaved and taken to be processed. The lady in processing asked me numerous questions, like where was I born, education, and family background, then a photo was taken to be used on my prison identification card and finally I was given a TDCJ death row number 999489. From there I waited to be transported to the Polunsky Unit where they house Death Row prisoners.

The guard who came to transport me asked me my number. "What number?" I responded,

"From now on you'll be known as a number, not by your name. You'll need to remember it; it's 999489. Got it?"

“Yes,” I'd respond so the conversation could end. As we drove to Polunsky he began making it a point to ask me my number.

No answer.  Instead I'd curse him out to myself, and start laughing hysterically. He looked at his co-worker and uttered, "He's crazy."

I knew nothing about Texas Death Row when I came. I figured in a few weeks I'd be executed like Gary Graham, even though like Graham I'm innocent.  Like him I thought I didn't stand a chance.  I was completely ignorant to any appeals process. I thought we‘d all be dead, and dead soon. When I was housed around the other prisoners, I'd ask when would they kill us only to be told, "they aren't killing me" by several prisoners. Not totally understanding, I'd next ask where were the TV's, and every one would laugh at me; there was no TV, just solitude and neighbors.

My first two neighbors on death row were Hispanic and Black. The Hispanic and I talked a lot. He was recently at Huntsville, on the execution table, ready to be killed, only to be told that he had received a stay of execution.

He described to me how the recreation system worked. Recreation was an hour in a bigger cage right in front of the dayroom. He explained breakfast, lunch and dinner, and told me that the food was trash. He said some guards were assholes, and some were just coming to work to do their jobs. Though I heard what he explained to me over the next few weeks I still couldn’t comprehend that I was on Death Row.

The neighbor to my other side was an African American named Beunka Adams. Beunka was short and stocky and we instantly clicked because we were both 22 when we came to Death Row.  He‘d been here six months before me and we were both still learning the environment. When prisoners are neighbors on Texas Death Row they usually become close. Until a year ago there were huge holes in the back of the cage walls. Two prisoners who were cool with one another could talk for hours if they choose to. Some holes were so big that you could fit food through them. Another way prisoners can bond is through the outside recreation yard. Outside there are only two prisoners, and you can talk about anything and be really private.

In 2004 the way they housed us was simple; you would be in a cage for a long time, some times you would stay in one cage for years, and you would be with certain individuals and wouldn't see others for years at a time.

While Beunka and I were housed around each other we would use this opportunity to get to know each other. We’d spend days outside talking about our crimes, how they came about and the regrets we'd have over our short lives. You could tell that Beunka was a country kid; he and I didn't share the same views on everything, but we came to know each other as brothers. Death Row brothers.

Beunka cared what other people said about him. On the other hand, I couldn’t care less because I was so talked about as a kid. I'd tell him, as long as they didn't put their hands on you, don't worry let them talk.

Beunka began suffering from paranoia, a symptom of being isolated for long periods of time. Beunka and I were separated for about a year, then when I finally saw him again he was visibly suffering, barely keeping his self up, asking guards and prisoners if they were conspiring against him, sending me messages on paper, called kites, asking me if this person or that person was talking about him. It had gotten so bad that I responded to him in a kite with an article I'd just read about isolation.

The article, titled “Annals of Human Rights” by Atul Gawande, talked about a professor doing a number of experiments on monkeys. It described how the monkeys reacted to being isolated for long periods of time, the symptoms and how these symptoms were found in humans who were isolated like the monkeys. The article made me look at myself and observe my own behavior to ensure I wouldn't succumb to my environment. I then sent the article to Beunka telling him that he needs to stop being paranoid because he was succumbing to being isolated, and if he couldn't I wouldn't be able to continue passing kites with him, the situation was just to serious for me.

I didn't get a response from him for some days, and then I finally did. In the kite he thanked me for showing him the article, and he realized he was suffering from being isolated. He immediately started to act like the Beunka that I knew when we first met.

Over the course of seven years, Beunka and I were best friends, brothers, fathers and prisoners together. We’d talk about his appeals every time we saw each other, and he'd brush it off saying that they'd kill him no matter what. Though I hated to hear my brother talk like this, the truth is, Texas forces us to live out our last days here within these walls.

Beunka was on Death Row under The Law of Parties. This law means that even though you don't kill any one directly, if your co-defendant does, then you can still be held accountable. Beunka was on Death Row never having killed any one himself, and on the 25th of April his last statement was: "I'm very sorry, everything that happened that night was wrong.”  You all may not know it, but he was a changed man who is now no longer able to bless us all with his smiles and great poetry.

The Sunday before they executed Beunka, I saw him for the last time at a legal visit. During a legal visit,  two prisoners are allowed to help one another with legal work. It was an emotional visit, just thinking about losing a loved one in this manner hurt, and it hurt even worse to look at him trying to hold on despite watching others around him executed. We talked about the hope of his getting a stay of execution because of a case that was pending in The United States Supreme Court. His last hope was a stay on this issue. We then talked about how he would get married soon and how much he loved his future wife, and how we would proceed if he did indeed receive his stay.

The last few minutes we'd argue like we were accustomed to about some minuscule point only to laugh it off. Then we expressed our love for one another and thanked each other for seeing one another as people and not numbers.  It was the last time I'd near his voice, and the last time I'd see him.

When the state of Texas executed Beunka, I couldn't sleep, I just walked in my cage, waiting, hoping to hear if he received a stay of execution or not. It was sad then, and
it’s even sadder thinking about how I lost some one I knew better than my biological family. Then I heard on the radio that he'd been executed, I thought to myself, “we’ve lost a portion of the battle, but we must keep fighting on.” Not only for me, but for him, and the three kids that he left behind.

May he rest in peace.

Gerald Marshall

If I had one sentence to add to my tombstone it’d say, “He tried.” Every day I try to be a father, a friend, and some one I can be proud of so that if I am executed I can die peacefully.  I hope these words touch, as they come from my heart.  Any questions can be directed to me at:

Gerald Marshall #999489
Polunsky Unit
3872 FM 350 South
Livingston, TX 77351


The above is a painting Gerald did in honour of Beunka Adams

The Longest Hour

A tribute to Manuel Pardo, executed on December 11, 2012

By Michael Lambrix

It’s now been more than a generation since the Vietnam War ended and the troops came home.  But on Tuesday, December 11, 2012, another soldier lost his life because of that war.  Manuel Pardo was a young man from New York who proudly volunteered to serve his country and did so with honor, even when he found himself serving a tour of duty in Vietnam as a Marine, during the final months of that war.

I personally knew Manny for over twenty years, in ways that only someone living in close proximity to each other in solitary confinement can.  He never bragged about his service, as he was a modest and humble man who didn’t suffer the insecurities of character only too common amongst most prisoners.  But little by little I learned a lot, and I have no doubt that if not for the trauma he experienced in Vietnam, he would have never come to Florida’s Death Row and his life would be continuing today.

Manny was raised in a strict Catholic family and was a son any father would have been proud of.  In his Hispanic community, he was respected without exception and with good reason.  While growing up, he served as an altar boy at his local Catholic church, and it was no surprise when he announced that he had enlisted in the Marines so that he could fight for his country.

After coming home from Vietnam, Manny’s dedication to the service of his community compelled him to go into law enforcement.  He met his soon-to-be wife, and they started a family.  His daughter is the same age as my daughter, and through the many years we knew each other, we often talked about our children – even just before they signed his death warrant.  I would tease him, telling him that if his daughter didn’t hurry up and give him some grandkids, I would give him a couple of mine, just so I could see him out in the visiting park trying to keep up with the little rugrats…that always made him smile.

At some point, his quintessential American “dream” took a turn towards the dark side.  Back then, South Florida held the highest rates of homicides in the country, mostly attributable to the violent drug underworld that infested the area.  Working in law enforcement in that area put Manny front and center, and like most enlisted Marines, Manny wasn’t one to back down from a good fight.  He never denied killing quite a number of South Florida drug dealers, even having the audacity to tell the media that Florida should thank him for taking out the trash – that was Manny, and he gave no ground.

But what only few know is that Manny did not simply go on a psychotic killing spree.  There’s more to the story than what the State would have us believe.  Rather, these drug traffickers brought the war to him, threatening his family and causing him to respond as his military training had taught him to do.  Once that line was crossed, he was committed.  And in his mind, he truly believed he was doing the right thing.

The State of Florida convicted him of nine counts of capital murder and sentenced him to death.  The Courts refused to give any meaningful consideration to Manny’s military service, and Manny didn’t ask for any.  He was one of the very few I have ever known on Death Row who never once argued he was innocent, or that his life should be spared.  Instead, he accepted his responsibility and the consequences of his actions, and made it clear to his lawyers that he would allow only one round of state and federal appeals, and then would welcome a death warrant.  It wasn’t that he wanted to die, but that he had the integrity to accept his fate and was not afraid to face that fate, just as he did anything else, with stubborn pride and his chin held up high.

In October, the Governor signed a “death warrant” scheduling Manny’s execution for December 11, 2012. I was a few cells away from him when they came to get him and he was immediately transferred to nearby Florida State Prison, where Florida’s death chamber is.  Being only too familiar with that particular wing myself, I knew that Manny spent his last six weeks in that same solitary cell, only steps away from that solid steel door that led into the execution chamber – the same cell where I too had awaited my fate. (see: “The Day God Died”)

But even as much as I know that Manny was been at peace with his fate, I know too that he suffered greatly knowing what his ritualistic death would do to his daughter.  I know that he would have given anything to spare her that pain.

Nobody ever talks much about what execution does to the loved ones the condemned man leaves behind.  I have no doubt that his daughter has his strength of character and perseverance.  While children of any prisoners, especially Death Row, grow up with problems of their own, his daughter worked her way through college, and then law school, and Manny’s pride in her shined through like a beacon in his dark world.

But I also knew nothing could have prepared his family for what they would endure.  The warden had scheduled his execution for 6:00 p.m. that Tuesday night and as protocol dictated, Manny was prepared and delivered to the execution chamber, then laid down and strapped to the gurney, and the needle inserted into his vein.  And then they would wait.

Manny’s lawyers had filed numerous appeals in the weeks before his scheduled execution, primarily challenging the means in which Florida is currently putting condemned prisoners to death.  Due to previous legal challenges, Florida has changed its process numerous times in recent years – but refuses to publically release the protocol currently employed, leaving lawyers to speculate that this secret protocol may lead to yet another botched execution similar to too many others in Florida in which the condemned man is essentially tortured to death, slowly.

Even as Manny was strapped to the gurney and ready to go, the appeals were still under review before the U.S. Supreme Court.  The witnesses who had volunteered to watch him be executed sat in their chairs just on the other side of that glass partition, probably growing uncomfortable as they too sat in prolonged silence, not knowing what the delay was.

Then there was the crowd gathered outside the prison, just across the road from the prison gate.  They stood in solidarity and prayerful hope that the delay would mean the execution was called off, just as it had recently been for John Ferguson when he too came so close.

Off site, Manny’s daughter and other family members gathered at a Catholic church where the priest who often visited Manny tried to comfort them, and they all anxiously awaited any word of what was going on.  At the prison, Bishop Snyder personally sat near Manny as he remained strapped to that gurney.

Nobody could imagine the trauma so callously inflicted upon Manny’s family as one minute ticked away at a time and they anxiously waited for any word at all.  And with each moment that passed, I have no doubt that another permanent scar was branded upon their soul.

It took one hour – the longest hour imaginable, before the U.S. Supreme Court finally denied Manny’s last appeal and immediately after that phone call came, the State’s executioner wasted no time in pushing the plunger down and sending that lethal cocktail of chemicals into Manny’s veins.  The next day the Catholic priest that stayed with them that last hour came to the prison to visit me and give me Manny’s last regards.  He was gone, but he died peacefully.  Now those who cared for him must bear the burden of that loss, as the pain inflicted upon his family will not soon fade.

Manny was a devout Catholic, even to his last days.  He was a man of extraordinary moral character and integrity.  As one can imagine, coming to prison with all the convicts knowing you were a cop can quickly make your life hell, but through the years, Manny gained the respect of even the hardest convicts.  He was as straight as any man can get in here, and stood his ground solidly as a rock when he had to.

Manny and I used to joke about what our first ten thousand years in purgatory might be like.  Other than the overwhelming pride he had for his daughter, Manny was fanatically passionate about his ancestral home in Spain, especially their football (which I loved telling him was not football but soccer, and he would always then go on for an hour about how Americans don’t know what real football was!), and the bullfighting and even the running of the bulls each year.

So, since Manny has taken the trip across the River Styx before me, I know now what to expect when I get there…when I get to purgatory, I’m sure I will find Manny there still complaining about his soccer team not doing what they should have done, while doing all he can to get the latest magazines covering his beloved bullfighting….I wouldn’t even be surprised to find him cornering the great matadors of the past, and picking them apart with never-ending questions. And all the while, he will have that picture of his daughter that he’s kept on his T.V. through the years there at his side. And when he sees me, he’s going to smile, and give me a brotherly hug, and say: “hey, amigo – what the hell took you so long?” That’s Manny.

-The End-

Michael Lambrix was executed
by the State of Florida on October 5, 2017


Friday, January 18, 2013


By Jeremiah Bourgeois

On May 25, l992, my life completely changed.  On that day, I was arrested for murder. I have been incarcerated ever since. I was never supposed to be released from prison.

On June 25, 2012, my life, once again, completely changed. Buried in the coverage on the U.S. Supreme Court`s decision upholding the Affordable Care Act (aka, ObamaCare) was the Court`s decision that mandatory sentences of life without parole for juveniles are unconstitutional. Since age fourteen, I have been serving a life without parole sentence. Twenty years later, at age thirty-four, my sentence, along with 2000 others across the country, was determined to be a Cruel and Unusual Punishment. I was elated. I truly believed that I would, in the not-so-distant future, be freed.

In the months preceding this decision. I did not sit around praying (but I was hoping). I prepared for the possibility that the Court would render a decision that invalidated my sentence. Countless hours were spent in the law library studying the rules governing the application of new legal precedents to old cases, researching how state law would affect the remedy that could be forthcoming, and exploring how mitigating and aggravating factors might affect a resentencing hearing. I wanted to know all of the possible variables that could alter my fate, and my mind would not rest until I found the answers to these questions.

I even went so far as to prepare a legal brief seeking the restoration of good-time credits, which allow prisoners to reduce their sentences based upon good behavior. Back when I was convinced that I was going to die in prison. I could care less about losing good-time. What did it matter? I would never get out anyway. Even after I learned the law and realized that DOC officials had acted arbitrarily when sanctioning me to the loss of good-time, I still had no reason to seek legal redress. I do now. With the possibility that I could be resentenced to a term that would allow me to be released, I wanted every day of that good-time back. Each day that I regained might equate to one less day that I would have to remain confined. With that in mind, I mailed off the petition and accompanying legal brief one week after the Supreme Court`s decision.

I was proud that I was so far ahead of the curve. Yet in retrospect, I realize that everything that I had done was based upon a false premise: namely, that I would have to be resentenced to a term that would allow me to be freed while I am still relatively young. That is only the most optimistic outcome. The bitter reality is that my new sentence could be so long that the end result is the same: a lifetime of imprisonment.

When the Washington Legislature`s regular session begins in January 2013, it is likely that a legislative fix will be enacted that brings our state`s Aggravated Murder statute in compliance with the Supreme Court`s decision. While juveniles will no longer be subject to mandatory life without parole sentences, a discretionary sentencing scheme could very well be enacted: one that still allows juveniles to be sentenced to life without parole so long as a judge or jury weighs all of the mitigating factors that might merit leniency before choosing whether to impose such a sentence. Alternatively, the legislature could pass a bill that allows my sentence to be modified to a term that keeps me imprisoned for another ten, twenty, even thirty or more years. With my fate in the hands of lawmakers, I have spent far more hours dreading what legislation might possibly pass than I had spent in the law library brainstorming my path to freedom. `

Another thing that I have realized is how cathartic all of that research and writing was for me. I was under the blissful illusion that my fate was, to some extent, in my own hands: that there were proactive steps that I could take to increase the probability of a positive outcome in my case. I should have known from the beginning that there is nothing that I can do that will alter the course of events. Over the past few months, disillusionment has led inexorably to anxiety and stress that constantly weighs upon me. The irony is that I am getting exactly what I had wanted for so very long. Several years ago, I had the opportunity to give a speech...

(Jeremiah speaks at 2:50 into the video)

... at an event that was held at this prison, and amongst the crowd of social justice advocates were several state legislators. I urged those lawmakers to change criminal justice policies so that sentences would reflect the fact that children are less culpable than adults who commit the same crimes. Three years later, the legislature is poised to do just that. Nonetheless. I am still terrified that the forthcoming changes will be so insubstantial that my rekindled hopes and dreams could never be realized.

I might actually complete my final year of undergraduate study on a college campus instead of through the mail. I might live with the woman I love instead of have our relationship circumscribed by my confinement. I might be mentoring at-risk youth to prevent them from coming to prison instead of mentoring young men who are already imprisoned. I might be working as a legal assistant making a decent salary instead of helping prisoners resolve their legal problems for free. Yet it is just as possible that none of this will ever come to pass.

Doing time was much easier for me before the Supreme Court gave me hope. Long ago, I had adjusted to the idea that I might never be released. I knew that the Court might one day invalidate such sentences. There was also a chance that my sentence would be commuted. Both of these outcomes, however, were so remote that it was impossible for me to become attached to them. Today. I am so consumed by thoughts of freedom that I can barely maintain my routine: working as a teacher’s assistant, completing correspondence courses, and exercising every evening. It takes all of my effort to stay consistent.

It is stunning how fast I went from guarded optimism (before the Court’s decision) to elation (when the decision was made) to guarded optimism (over the next several months) to ever-present fear (my current psychological state). Deep down I am frightened that at the end of this emotional rollercoaster is depression, a depression that will have taken hold because, in the end, my new constitutional sentence will result in my being imprisoned from the time I was a pubescent boy to a late middle-aged man: a man confined long past the point at which he could meaningfully contribute to society. Although I can rattle off a litany of reasons why such a dire outcome is unlikely, rational arguments do not hold sway in the recesses where my fears lie. I still spend my days and nights worried about just how long it will be before I am freed. I still fear that, in the end, they will ensure that I am never freed.

Jeremiah Bourgeois

Jeremiah Bourgeois #708897
Washington State Reformatory Unit
P.O. Box 777
Monroe, WA 98272-0777

Friday, January 11, 2013

A Confession

By Christi Buchanan

My first reaction to the news was “crap.”  Everybody in the wing was hugging and crying and praying.  Everybody except me.  I was mad.  I mean, pissed off.  And it was slowly boiling over into rage.  Watching all these people with their joy and excitement was making me want to slam a door.  I wasn’t buying any of it.  They felt the same way I did.

As the days dragged on and the news settled over the compound like some kind of NASA heat-retaining, solar-insulated blanket-of-suffocation (in my opinion), folks came together with a multitude of good will and decided to throw a celebratory party in the wing.  There would be food and speeches and good-natured ribbing.  All the old heads would have places of honor from which they could spew forth their wisdom and anecdotes about the last 25 years.  Even the officers were buzzin’ about the news and offering up their own experiences.

I, on the other hand, sulked around, avoiding the party-planning and overall merriment, generally just being an ass.  I didn’t have to say a word – people could tell by looking at me that I did not share in their festive mood and would not likely make it to “a place” where I could.  However, when the party finally came, I was trying very hard to be someone other than myself, which meant putting aside my feelings and being present in the moment for the sake of the moment.  I won’t say it was akin to some sort of terrorist torture because I have never experienced that, but it had to have been damn close.

The food, the joy, the endless tears- it was too much for my resolve and I began to feel, damn it!  People joked around and told seriously funny stories (there is nothing like prison humor!).  And there were moments that were profound and moving; the genuine goodwill nearly did me in as I sat there in silent judgment of those around me.

It’s no easy thing I am doing here, admitting all this so readily just a few weeks after the news first wrecked my day.  I am not proud of myself or my behavior.  I am ashamed and it’s like heartburn that will not go away. 

So I spoke to my chaplain about all this.  She said she thought about me when she first heard the news and wondered how I was reacting.  She was glad I got mad and struggled with jealousy.  To her that meant I still very much cared about my own situation and hadn’t resigned myself to this life.  She also said she felt it was a perfectly natural reaction for me since I had been waking up every day for 25 years, too, waiting for my own “news.”

Tee made parole.  She made parole (which is virtually un-freaking-heard of in Virginia) and I’m pissed? Are you kidding me?  I got totally peeved because one of my oldest and dearest friends was going home.  I wasn’t angry with her.  I was angry with Doug, and myself, and the lawyers, courts, and judge, and damn it, even my victims.  I am afraid I will never go home.

I am jealous, too, but this is less defined than my anger because sometimes I don’t know any more what the big deal is about going home.  There’s nothing there that I know now.  My family loves me but I’ve been gone so long…I’m so far out of the loop…

Life goes on.

I suppose to some degree I am institutionalized, too.  How can I not be?  I grew up in prison.  It’s what I know.  The world has moved on in terrifying ways and I no longer belong to it.

This is all compounded by the fact that me and Tee have been friends since the late 80’s.  She’d already been there over half a year by the time I rolled in.  Back then, the older inmates looked after the younger ones, tried to point them in the right direction.  I was only 21 and naive as hell.  Back then, I was one of the youngest women in the system.  And Tee just stepped in and showed me the ropes.  We developed an easy friendship based on shared interests and personality traits.

Our friendship has grown and endured over the decades.  We haven’t always seen eye to eye.  There have been lapses in communication, which spanned years due to the nature of prison living arrangements.  But we were always able to pick up exactly where we left off as if no more than a day passed.  I can’t imagine life without her.

There is a deep and turbulent sadness that flows beneath the anger and jealousy.  I’ve met some of the most fantastic people in prison.  I’ve been blessed to find a handful of genuine life-long friends, too.  Tee is one of them.  She is also one of the first of us to make parole since Governor Doug Wilder left office in 1995.

Nothing is the same out there for her.  Family has moved…and died.  Technology has changed.  Even the seasons have changed.  And even though, after 25 years in prison, you get to a point where freedom under any circumstances is better than nothing at all, there is still a small part of you that longs for the life you lost.  Echoes of what could’ve been haunt us…and perhaps teach us.

The news of her release is still causing ripples here and there.  Most days I rise to the occasion with sincere happiness for my friend.  Most days.

Christi Buchanan 1003054
Fluvanna Correctional Center 1A
Box 1000
Troy, VA 22974

Friday, January 4, 2013

Bear Sign

By William Van Poyck

Before my son became a man I took him on a black bear hunt in a still-wild part of the Florida panhandle. He disliked hunting, hated guns.

Despite my best efforts my son possessed hands busy in the way of senseless delinquency, feet swift to heed trouble’s call. His latest arrest resulted in expulsion from the military academy. Before that, following his expulsion from public school, was a Christian academy — he lasted two weeks there. His actions bore the familiar scent of an indomitable will, (the psychiatrist used more clinical terms), and though I loved him I was determined to crush it. I could not help myself. It was all that I knew.

The day before, I had struck my son, not for the first time. On this occasion he did not cry out or recoil, but took the blow fully in the face, eyes glaring, countenance infrangible, while the slap echoed up like a melancholy refrain. In renewed anger I set to breaking his wild spirit, lashing out with closed fist and mind. He absorbed it all, stripe for stripe, blow for blow, until all that remained was my urgent breath laboring vainly for a lost cause. I hated myself for it. My son set his face with the determination of Magellan seeking the edge of the world, and in that singular moment I discerned a mighty move of his spirit, far away from me, toward I knew not what. It was then that I accepted that something definitive had to be done.

Rising early the following morning I took my son out into the autumn air and with measured steps escorted him through patches of scrub palmettos framed by moss-draped live oaks. The eager hounds pulled on their long leather leashes, urging us forward. Only their busy noses, occasionally offering up a muted snort or snuffle, broke the stillness. We both carried shotguns.

We moved in exquisite isolation, Indian file, deep into the dark woods. Puffs of condensed air clung to our faces with each exhale, like gentle kisses from a reluctantly parting lover. In the mocking silence of pursed lips we trudged across the dry leaf litter, each stride rising up like a silent accusation challenging the fragile bridge connecting our hearts. The apparent solitude allowed me to feel the contours of the bitterness that lay between us, to sense his naked spirit of rebellion. He was much like me. I suddenly recalled an image of his mother, before her mind unraveled, playing with him on a freshly made bed. He was all giggles, plump limbs and cornflower-blue eyes, displaying the unfettered enthusiasm of a precocious toddler, gliding from laughter to childish prayer with the naturalness of one still able to inhabit both worlds.

I stepped on a stout twig and the dry snap filled my ears, hurling me back to that night. I again heard that single, muffled gunshot, when we both instinctively knew, and I recalled how, in the heartbeat it took us to exchange glances he raced me to the bedroom door. I suppressed the memories, of her shattered face, all crimson and alabaster, and of his keening howl, like a travailing spirit. I yanked hard on the dogs’ leashes.

As the mounting sun prodded the shadows until they yielded to the new day we struck the game trail. Bears, I knew, came that way. There, I released the hounds.

A thirty-minute forced march, jacketed in mute tension, carried us to a junction of game trail and creek where, I suspected, any bear would flee. We could barely hear the dogs. Posting my son on a low, sandy hillock, I checked his shotgun, cautioned him to silence and retired to cover the flank. An approaching bear would be silhouetted coming over the rise before us. Jacking a shell into the chamber, I squatted with my back to a towering blue gum eucalyptus and waited. From my camouflaged position I could see my son, wearing bright hunting orange, but he could not see me.

The distant cacophony of the baying dogs rose and fell. They were trailing bear, and headed our way. I clicked off the safety. An opinionated scrub jay occupying a pine tree cocked its turquoise head, inspecting me closely, then cawed out in urgent warning.

I studied my son’s profile, seeing in it my own, the shared perplexity of growing up motherless, that familiar, terrible stubbornness given shape by dire necessity. I saw his mother’s eyes, flecked golden-brown, imbued with the same soft sadness of an unfelt life. Looking down I saw my own hands, strong, proud, unremitting. I saw my father’s hands, too, hard, callous, impatient. I squeezed the shotgun’s stock, feeling the checkered grip press its pattern into my palm. A sudden sadness washed over me, and though not a religious man I was overcome by an irresistible urge to reason with God over my son’s fate. Driven by an unmistakable certainty that victory depended more on praying than fighting I closed my eyes and bowed my head, struggling to compose a plea. Finally, of its own accord my heart opened in fervent supplication and I choked out an earnest prayer. I cried out with the desperation of Abraham, turning my son’s fate over to God. Tears streamed down my face as I begged God for some sign that my plea was heard. A whip-poor-will’s lonely call beckoned me to look up.

At that precise moment a small bear cub darted out of the bushes, tumbling, stumbling, looking back over its shoulder in wide-eyed terror. It scrambled through the low brush to within ten feet of me. The cub trembled, casting its eyes about wildly, bleating pitifully. Just then the barking dogs bounded into the clearing. The cub ran toward me and pushed its head between my legs, squalling a muffled cry of despair. I lifted the tiny thing to my chest, away from the leaping dogs with their frenzied, gnashing teeth. At that moment, as I spun about, I felt that the very hounds of hell could not tear away from me that defenseless, motherless cub which had so blindly placed its trust in me.

It was then that the strangest thing happened. Time itself seemed to stand still as I was telescoped upward, seemingly through the top of my head, and the earth in all its fullness fell away. At the speed of thought I was hurtled high into the uttermost heavens. All about me was a pure, radiant white light, more brilliant than anything possible on earth, yet soft and pleasing to the eyes. I felt no fear, only a sense of waiting, as if for an appointment. Then, I felt something strive with my heart with the fervor of Jacob wrestling with the angel until suddenly a great weight was lifted away and a most profound sense of peace filled me completely, as water rushes to fill a vacuum. Never had I felt, nor even imagined, such overwhelming, unconditional love. The most wonderful celestial music filled my being, stunning me with notes and tones of such divine perfection that I was humbled in awe at being privileged to experience them. The very cosmos itself sang out in joy in a language of such beauty that its utterance on earth is most certainly a physical impossibility — and yet, I knew, it was my true native tongue.

My spirit itself was opened up and pure knowledge, pure wisdom, from the ever-flowing stream of life itself, flowed through me. I was shown that time is an illusionary construct by which we measure our progress and that all life, every atom, every living cell, every creature, past, present and future, is forever interconnected by an ineffable, inviolable bond that we know as love. It is, I was shown, the one absolute, universal law, the first cause. I knew with absolute certainty that I was home and I wanted nothing more than to stay forever in the presence of that light, for to be absent from it is to be absent from all that is all.

Yet, in the next moment I was back under that eucalyptus tree, cradling the now-purring cub, sunlight streaming upon my face. The dogs had slunk away and were cowering in big-eyed wonder. My son ran up, his expression questioning. I dropped my shotgun, set the cub down and hugged my son, weeping freely and without shame.

I cannot fully explain or understand what happened in that clearing and I am left certain only of one thing, that the truth of that day so burned itself into my bones that it changed me utterly. I never hunted again, nor did I ever again strike my son. Instead, I took pen in hand to set down what I saw and heard, determined fully to record the experience before time’s sure passage could dim the memory and make me doubt it ever occurred.


(Please note this story is a work of fiction)

Bill Van Poyck

William Van Poyck  #034071
Florida State Prison
7819 NW 228th Street, 
Raiford, FL 32026-1160

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

No Mercy for Dogs Part 9

By Thomas Bartlett Whitaker

Part 8 can be read here

I woke up early the following morning, earlier even than the congregation of chickens living next door. Having recently learned that "pollo” was Mexican slang for an immigrant, I drowsily contemplated that perhaps I should have claimed a birth in the stall belonging to the "king." One whiff of the stench emanating from their den was enough to convince me that I had chosen wisely when I moved in with Blackie. I suppose from a certain snobbish perspective, one could still say that living in a roofless barn with 120 lbs. of frisky Labrador was hardly any better than rooming with a bunch of fowl, but, as George Orwell said, some animals are more equal than others. I was pretty sure, all things considered that Blackie was not going to kill and eat me in my sleep. Who can say what exists in the scratch-and-peck mind of a bird? The collective racial memory of several billion KFC value meals, that‘s what. If you have ever seen what happens if you place a speck of red paint on any member of a flock, you will understand why the avian mind is not to be trusted.

The ice-cold well water was proving to be the most ruthlessly efficient alarm clock I had ever experienced. I was still not quite sure what to make of the impotence of Montezuma's revenge, however. I had by this point, been drinking Mexican well water for several days, not to mention bathing in it for weeks. If microbe-induced misery was lurking in the shadows, I had no explanation for why it had not struck yet. The cold water made my emerging beard itch annoyingly, but as cliché as it seems, I felt safer obscuring the sharp and perhaps identifiable lines of my jaw. Exactly how long I intended to let it grow or what I could do to mask the patch of white eyelashes that grow naturally above my right eye, I hadn't decided yet.

My first mission of the day was to tether the three horses to something stable in the pasture. All night I had fretted about how I was going to tow, drag, or otherwise coerce them to leave the comfort and safety of the ranch. In a land where basically nothing had conformed to my expectations, I should have guessed that the trouble was going to be in keeping them from bolting all at once.

Aside from lugging water out to their trough, I hadn't had much contact with my equine neighbors. I had seen them grazing in the back pasture since I arrived, but having had little experience with animals of their size, I kept my distance. Still, I enjoyed watching the carefree rhythm of their gait as they ran, and the way they flicked their ears to (presumably) dislodge insects. Observing them now from the safety of my cabin, I decided that I would try to divide and conquer, and that my first target would be the largest of the lot, the huge white stallion, which I assumed to be "El Blanca." Even for a person totally devoid of even the tiniest vestige of the cowboy gene, I could tell that he was an impressive beast. He looked like the sort of thing that a knight would ride to the Holy Land, draped in shining mail. I reasoned that he was probably the leader of the pack, and that if the others saw me dominating him, they would be easier to control. It was a nice plan. It was also a stupid one.

Once I had gathered several long ropes from the supply shed, I started walking towards a group of mesquite trees under which the herd usually slept. Three different heads came up in unison and looked my direction as I approached. Before I had gotten within 50 feet of them the smallest of the three trotted out to meet me. This creature was pretty much the perfect antipode to the big white: short, squat (actually, he was kind of dumpy, to be honest with you), and covered in a pastiche of unattractive shades of brown fur; his face was the ugliest part of the whole package, with a set of downturned brows that made him look like he was always squinting. I wasn't sure which he was supposed to be - he could easily be El Marrano or El Bastardo - but considering how stocky he was, I suspected the former.

Since he had intercepted me and basically barred my path with his girth, I reached out tentatively to rub his nose. He shook his head violently, and my hand fell away quickly. Ok, I thought, screw you. I moved to step around him, but to my great surprise he once again moved to block my way. Um...ok. I paused, thinking that maybe he had changed his mind about a rubdown, but when I extended my hand he again whipped his head to the side and simply stared at me again.

This was not going according to plan. I had no idea that horses have personalities just as well-developed as dogs, but I was starting to suspect that this one didn't particularly like my kind. I thought about attempting to rope him first, but I really wanted to get to the big one before they got spooked and ran off. After pondering the situation for a moment, I began to move to my left towards a large bush. At the last moment, I dashed right, slipping past my foe. Yeah, I thought to myself smugly, that's homo sapiens sapiens, horse. That means two times the "wise." El Blanca did not try to run as I approached, and let me slowly rub his neck and haunches as I tied a thick rope around him. I was aware of El Marrano sulking behind me, but I was mostly fascinated with the feel of Blanca's skin and hair and paid him little attention. This changed immediately when he bit the back of my left thigh.

I think I must have jumped about three vertical feet in the air, spinning around mid-flight. I am absolutely, positively, 100% certain that I didn't shriek like a girl. Completely, totally certain. Anyone who says otherwise is a lying liar. The horse that had decided to take a nip out of my suddenly-less-than-two-times-the-wise thigh stepped back from me, the look on his face one of total shock. If I didn't know better, I'd swear that he was trying to broadcast the idea of "who, me? I didn't do anything."

"Ok," I murmured, rubbing the back of my leg gingerly. "Two things: you are going to go first from now on, and if you ever do that shit again, I will find a glue factory to ship you off to, me entiendes?" He seemed deliriously excited to have me tying a rope around his neck, and it dawned on me that I had probably gotten the labeling catastrophically wrong from the very beginning: if this wasn't El Bastardo, I'd eat my hat.

Once I had the three roped securely, they all started towards the main gate at once, practically dragging me in their wake. They seemed to take a perverse sort of pleasure in crisscrossing their paths, and, try as I might, I could not keep the lines from tangling. By the time we reached the gate, the mess of them looked like a bird's nest.

"You are the worst freaking Texan in the history of humankind, you know that, Whitaker?" The horses mostly agreed with my assessment, stamping impatiently while I disentangled the lines. It took me 90 minutes longer than it had any right to, but eventually I managed to get the three attached securely to the toughest shrubbery I could find. Since pretty much every plant native to northeastern Mexico comes replete with a healthy provision of thorns and otherwise pointy appendages, my fingers and my forearms were soon able join my thigh in the growing list of body parts which were not happy with the current management.

A touch weary before I even began, I returned to the ranch to grab my satchel and dictionary. I had only a general idea of Cerralvo's layout, but I felt fairly confident that I could locate the cement plant, from which I ought to be able to see the town's main radio tower, which sat right to one side of the Plaza Grande.

This is pretty much what happened, though the journey took me half an hour longer than I had expected. I arrived at the door to Pallas Athena's temple sweaty and exhausted, which is perhaps the proper attitude to have when searching desperately for a deus ex machina. To my great surprise and pleasure, the air that greeted me upon my entrance to the library was blessedly cool and artificially crisp. Even if I learned nothing today, at least that nothing would be toyed with and sifted through in the embrace of air conditioning. I had, indeed, come to town. I cannot imagine what the librarian must have thought of me on the day of my first visit. I doubt very seriously that she had many gringos wash up on her little stretch of coast with any frequency, especially ones barely capable of stammering out half-memorized requests for children's literature. I can only hope that an American librarian would be half as kind to a Mexican as this Mexican was to me. Somehow, I seriously doubt it.

Once she ferreted out my intent, she led me past an orderly front desk to a short hallway, which in turn led to the door of the library's main chamber. This space was not large, consisting of a few thousand books laid out in sequence on wooden shelves that lined the walls. The entire area of the room was perhaps 50 by 75 feet, and the center of this space was taken up by several rows of wooden tables. Halogen lights bathed the entire room in clean, white light, and I recall thinking that all of this seemed somehow shockingly modern. You lose civilization far faster than you realize, as uncomfortable a thought as that may be.

The librarian led me first to a bank of books on the far wall and began speaking in an extremely slow cadence, as though talking to the mentally retarded. The initial wave of shame and embarrassment only multiplied as I realized that I hadn't really understood a thing she had said. Suddenly flooded with a desire to be a thousand miles away from another human being, I thanked her with as much proficiency as I could muster, and moved towards the stacks to my left. She stared at me for a moment with a confused smile before walking off. I think she paused to look back at me when she neared the door, but I pretended not to pay attention. As soon as I was certain she was gone, I closed my eyes and leaned my head against a shelf. My head ached, and I wished the moment would pass. Books over people, imagined worlds over real ones, I thought. It's always been like this. How could a person get this irredeemably broken in so little time?

The shelves supporting my entire universe turned out to contain books far too advanced for me, and it took me several minutes before I found a series of racks lined with the most rudimentary titles imaginable. I took several of these to a table near the back corner and sat down facing the door. From my satchel I produced my dictionary and a notebook, and began the laborious task of translating the Spanish equivalent of Go Dog Go.

Over the next six hours, I returned to the stacks numerous times, beset with the conflicting emotions of frustration and cautious optimism. It didn't take me long to figure out that this was going to be tougher than I had imagined. I had only the faintest concept of the task at hand, as if sensing more than seeing a great body of water through a thick fog. Perhaps I had taken a step or two closer towards this immense presence, and whatever clarity I had gained had shown me that what I was approaching was not a lake but a sea. That I would have to, one day, walk the entire shoreline before I could feel safe in this place was terrifying. And I had so little time to become once again hypnotized by language, so little time ....

For starters, it appeared that there were two bloody Spanish verbs for "to be." One, ser, seemed to hold sway when dealing with enduring situations, like origins, relationships, physical attributes, date and time, and possession. The other, estar, dealt with short-term situations, locations, and the results of some action. Verbs seemed to come in infinitive forms of three varieties, differentiated by -ar, -er, and -ir endings. Once you mentally selected the verb you wanted to use in a sentence, you had to conjugate it to fit the tense needed. Had I known then just how many tenses exist in the romance languages, I probably would have gone home and never returned. As much as I have come to hate it, sometimes ignorance is all that stands between us and a very well-reasoned suicide.

At half-past-three my quiet little cocoon was stepped on by the arrival of at least 15 elementary aged children. They came on like a swarm, their uniforms crisp and clean and probably the nicest thing most of them owned. All in all, I decided that they were probably far better behaved than my friends had been at their age. It didn't help matters that they were taking books off of shelves that I had already deemed to be far too advanced for me.

A short time later, as I was engrossed in the exciting travails of a pink bunny rabbit named Carlos, I felt a slight tug on my shirt and looked to my left to find a child of perhaps 9 or 10 staring intently at me. I didn't understand her first comment to me, save for the word "ninos," which I knew to mean children. I looked down at the book opened in front of me, and decided that she was probably asking me what I was doing with a book made for little kids.

Ok, let's try this out, I thought, before opening my mouth. " No hablo espanol, y...y..." I stumbled, trying to recall the verb for "to learn". Instead of waiting for me to finish, she took of running back towards the other group of kids, some of whom were looking furtively in my direction. Shit. Did I say something offensive, I wondered quickly, trying to figure out what I would do if the child summoned the police. Instead of bringing the heat, she raced back to me lugging a large book on English grammar, which she plunked down on the table next to me. She settled into the chair to my left, one unbroken chain of verbiage pouring from her tiny mouth. I couldn't help but marvel a little at how confident she seemed, how un-self-conscious. Had I ever been so carefree? I didn't think so. Tugging on my shirt again, she pushed her book towards me and pointed at the open page. I looked around again before reading the sentence out loud.


She stared at me for a moment before trying it on for herself.


"In Spanish?"

I was able to pick out "I don't know" from her response, so I started trying to find each word in the dictionary, pausing to write each down as I went along. She paid special attention to my handwriting, though I couldn't say why


"No, no, tonto," she interrupted me. "Sheerlee ya a la tienda."

I started to laugh at her nerve for having called me a dummy.

"Tonto?' I smiled, somehow totally disarmed by this little creature. "Tonto? Yo soy un tonto?" She laughed at this, nodding vigorously, and it didn't escape me that she was pretty much correct in her assessment.

We went through her book for about 45 minutes, pausing for me to look up words and have my mistakes corrected. I would, at times, hold up my hand and correct her pronunciation. The librarian eventually entered the room, and seemed surprised to see the two of us sitting together. I instantly worried about how this might look, but an immense smile lit up her face, and she came over to listen to us for a spell. She fell into the program herself after a few minutes, correcting some of my mistakes as well.

This entire scenario was beyond my wildest imaginings, and I was bathed in the strangest sensation of being genuinely cared for without reason, as if something immense had caught me up and had begun to weave me into a galactic weave beyond my conception. It felt wonderful, but at the same time I couldn't shake the knowledge that none of these people would consent to sit in the same room as me if they knew what I had done with my life.

Still, in America the sight of a little girl befriending some random adult male in a public place would have been met with suspicion, to say the least. Whatever its flaws, I think it was at this moment that I first came to love Mexico, to feel more at home there than I ever did in Texas.

Eventually, our little trio was broken up by the arrival of my pseudo-brother Pedro. He was obviously a fixture here, because the younger kids all crowded around him vying for his attention after he walked in. He approached our table with a confused look on his face, and I quickly explained what was going on. He, in turn, told the librarian who I was and proper introductions were finally made. The librarian was actually a part-time teacher named Rosa, the precocious child the daughter of the owner of the hotel found on the Plaza Grande. Her name was Alicia.

Pedro explained to me that these kids were part of an after-school program, and it was his responsibility to walk each of them home. It was such a relief to be able to communicate with someone that I agreed to go with him. The kids lined up in what appeared to be a very specific order, and called out numbers starting with "uno" and ending with "catorce."

I could see parts of his father in Pedro, such as in his serious, this-is-not-a-game way of looking at the world. At the age of 12, he was already touched by a deep spirit of wariness, a quiet man as well as a shy one. I saw much of myself in the lad as well, and it did not surprise me in the least that a bond formed between us. He had developed a route through town that seemed totally optimized, and each child was placed in an order such that the leader was always the next to arrive at home. He would wait until each was safely inside before moving the group along, and traversing a major street, would watch over the crossing like a hawk. `

As he moved through his circuit, I would pick out objects for him to translate for me. His English was really excellent, he explained that his mother had lived in Texas for years, had required him to be bilingual from the very beginning. His bane, it seemed, was mathematics.

"What are you studying in school?" I asked, out of curiosity.


"Ah, now you are speaking my language."

"I thought English was your language."

"No... I mean, yes,'s like a saying. It means I'm good at math." I replied, adding "smartass" to the end of my sentence when I saw the crooked smile forming on his lips. That, too, reminded me of his father. "You want me to help you with that, or what?"

In response, he invited me to dinner, and though I was pretty exhausted by this point, I accepted. I felt that any time with Pedro would be vastly more informative and educational than time spent studying by myself. On top of that, I was actually pretty desperate to do something nice for someone, for a change. This is a real desire in all people, I am convinced, though we forget it for various reasons.

Beyond that, his offer would also present me with a different type of information, what in times of war might be called "high-quality human intelligence." In addition to the language, I needed to learn all I could about the Hammer, and who better to fill in the gaps than one of his mistresses? This was playing with fire, and I knew that he would find out about my visit. But he needed to know that I had abilities, too. Hopefully, he would see my ability to worm into his life as a useful commodity to have in an associate. If not, then some piece of data I learned that night might be useful in escaping the gravity of his dying star.

Thomas Bartlett Whitaker #999522
Polunsky Unit
3872 FM 350 South
Livingston, TX 77351

TCADP 2013 Annual Conference
“Changing the Conversation”
Saturday, February 23, 2013
St. Edward’s University 8:00am - 5:30pm
3001 South Congress Avenue  Austin, Texas

Click on the link to download the flyer and registration form!