Why some people think the self is a prison escapes me.
Dawn, May 13, 2017
Commenters say Song of Songs 4:12 describes the imprisonment of the divine presence in the material world. “A garden locked is my sister, my bride,” it begins. “A rock garden locked, a spring sealed up.”
The most famous prison in the Eastern Untied States is called Sing Sing, and Mark McCarthy was serving four consecutive twelve-year sentences there. This is not a coincidence because nothing is ever a coincidence.
“Look not upon me,” says the Song of Songs, “because I am black, because the sun hath looked upon me.” Mark McCarthy’s cellmate was black, but the sun no longer looked upon him. He was in for life. “My mother’s children were angry with me; they made me the keeper of the vineyards; but mine own vineyard have I not kept.” He’d gotten really drunk one night, then killed his brother in an argument over drugs. Now he slept, snoring like a freight train.
Mark didn’t sleep. He wasn’t very good at sleeping these days. The prison doctor had given him a wheel with seven scrolls of the Somnolent Name, but he wasn’t going to see the doctor again for a month. The old conundrum. Run through seven scrolls in a week and get no sleep for the following three? Or space them out and spend tonight listening to Moe snoring?
He knew the Somnolent Name. It was short, only fourteen letters. He could speak it. He could fall asleep right now. He could have the UNSONG agent in Sing Sing hear him and add another few years to his sentences. Four twelve-year sentences for killing four High Ritual Magicians. It was less than he’d expected. The judge had instructed the jury to take his past sterling behavior and apparently good character into account. No one had believed him when he said the past sterling behavior and good character indicated that he didn’t do it, that Dylan Alvarez had somehow infiltrated the American Board of Ritual Magic and then framed him for the killings. The evidence had been too overwhelming. The gun in Mark’s left pocket. The incriminating emails found on his account. His lawyer had tried in vain to convince the jury that Alvarez had planted the gun there when he hugged him goodbye, or that Mark and Dylan had roomed together in college and Mark had never changed any of his passwords. It was too far-fetched. Mark supposed even he wouldn’t have believed it, had he been a juror.
There was a thin line of salt outside his cell and some sigils drawn in chalk. The warden of Sing Sing had consulted with some of his remaining colleagues. How do you keep a High Ritual Magician locked up? No one had considered the question before, but some of the magic circles the Goetia used to bind demons got repurposed. Mark had never even tried to use his Art to escape. It just seemed too much like becoming the person Dylan wanted him to be.
A gap appeared in the line of salt.
It was the slightest change. If he had blinked at the wrong time he would have missed it. But a few inches of salt scattered, as if somebody had stepped on them.
The cell door began to open.
“Before me Michael. Behind me Uriel. On my left hand, Raziel. On my right hand, Gabriel,” Mark muttered, tracing lines in the air in front of him.
The cell door closed. Mark felt something touch him, grab him, constrict him, he couldn’t breathe –
“Mark! Mi compadre! Long time no see!” said Dylan, breaking the hug and his invisibility at the same time. He was wearing a ratty t-shirt that said THEY TRIED TO BURY US. THEY DIDN’T KNOW WE WERE LANDMINES. “What’ve you been up to these past few – ”
Mark lunged at him. He’d learned a lot about brawling during his time in Sing Sing, and now he always went straight for the eyes. No point in doing these sorts of things halfway. Poke a guy’s eye out, and sure, maybe that’s a year or two added to your time, but only if the guards can prove the other guy didn’t start it, and in any case people are going to think twice next time they want to bother you.
But Dylan picked up his boojumwood staff and blocked the jab. Mark felt a stab of pain run through his hand as it struck the solid wood. He clutched it to his chest and fell back onto the bed.
Moe snored peacefully.
“Mark! Is that any way to treat a – ”
Mark didn’t want to hear whatever annoying light-hearted prepared remarks Dylan had this time. He didn’t want to hear one of his monologues about how he was like a salesman, or a media executive, or a customer service representative, or whatever he was comparing himself to this time.
“You motherfucker,” he said – quietly, because bad things happen when you wake other people up in prison. “You did this to me. I had a family. Kids. I was happy. Have you come to gloat? Is that it? Fuck, if you didn’t have that staff I’d kill you right now.”
“Gloat?” asked Dylan. He managed to look genuinely horrified. “We’re friends, Mark! We went to college together. No one could be more horrified at your sudden change of fortunes than I!”
Mark thought for a moment. Dylan was always one step ahead of everybody. Try to kill Dylan, he’d have some backup plan. Try to call the guards, he’d have some way of getting away. Whatever he did would just make things worse. But God, he was annoying.
“I’m so sick of you, Dylan. It’s nothing I haven’t seen a hundred times before. Just tell me what you want. Please. No drama. No monologues. Just tell me what you want.”
For a second Dylan looked like he was going to complain, but then he laughed. “I want to remind you that the offer’s still open.”
“Join BOOJUM, Mark. You’re a good guy and a good magician. We could use someone like you.”
“Holy shit, Dylan, you put me in prison for ten years and now you want me to join you?” Mark had really wanted not to let Dylan surprise him, let Dylan surprise you and you were done for, but this – really took the cake. He started to wonder whether maybe it wasn’t an act. Maybe Dylan really was crazy.
“Well, of course I put you in prison! Mark, remember back at college? You were in the Young Democrats of America club. The Young Democrats! When I heard that I cringed so hard my jaw almost fell off.”
“What does that have to do with – ?”
“Can I give one monologue, Mark? Please? Just one?”
Mark sighed, resigned.
“You’re…you’re a typical middle-class American, Mark. There’s nothing wrong with that. Middle-class Americans are great people, invented the light bulb, the airplane, and the cheeseburger. But you guys have this…this thing, where you think the world is basically fair. Sure, you hear about some poor kid who got beaten by his abusive parents, and you say yeah, that’s terrible, that’s unfair, but you think of it as this blip, a local deviation in the general atmosphere of niceness and fairness. So you hear more things. The Vietnam War. Race riots. The fucking Holocaust. And you’re always properly upset about them, and you hope that one day all of the nice people will get their act together and spread the blanket of general fairness over Vietnam, Watts, and Auschwitz respectively, and then those little fires will be all stamped out. You go to your Young Democrats club and debate over which little tiny tweaks in the system will fix whichever little puddles of unfairness remain. A little more welfare there, a few reforms in this or that law, and there you have it! The future!
“And the thing is, nothing can ever convince you you’re wrong. I can recite atrocities at you until I’m blue in the face, and you’ll frown at every one of them, maybe you’ll cry, but deep inside you something will be thinking ‘That’s too bad, I hope our generally responsible government and society fix it quickly.’ If I tell you the government’s hopelessly corrupt, prove my point with the itemized bank account statements of every member of Congress and a big line saying ‘BLOOD MONEY’ on each of them, that same part of you will be thinking ‘That’s too bad, I hope that our generally good electoral system leads to a better batch of candidates next time.’ Well, I grew up in – ”
“If this is going to lead into another damn story about your childhood in Mexico – ”
“I made all those up. My childhood in Mexico was fine. Right up until the Drug Lord took over. He got the mainland first. Didn’t make it to Baja. But we all knew he was coming. A guy came to town to warn us. One of the druggies. He’d run out of his stash early and gotten his mind back. Told us what it was like. Not to have control of your body. To be a puppet in your own head. Everybody panicked. My mother. She had a baby, she wouldn’t go. She told my father to take me and leave. We got in the car and drove to the border. It was all fenced off with barbed wire. There were hundreds of us there, people from all over the peninsula trying to get out. We screamed at the guards. They were California Republic men. Told them that the Drug Lord was coming, fate worse than death for anybody stuck there. They told us no hablo espanol. But they knew what we were saying. They didn’t care. They were safe behind their fence, our problems weren’t their problems. Well, my father wasn’t going to have any of that. He waited till night, then he took me a couple miles out, to the naked desert. Fished out his most precious possession, something he’d kept for an emergency like this one. An old scroll with the Cavernous Name. Don’t think that one’s even legal these days. Ripped it in front of me. The ground collapsed and the fence collapsed with it. We crawled through to the other side. Of course, we got arrested about half an hour later when Border Patrol came to see what had happened. Ended up in a detention center. My father, he was an alcoholic, he told them he was going to go into withdrawal, they just laughed and told him it was a nice try but he wasn’t getting any drugs. He went into DTs and died in front of me. Me, I was eight years old. I was there for a year. After a year, California government says in retrospect they shouldn’t have enforced their immigration restrictions so hard, declares general amnesty. But that’s what I think of when I think of the system being basically fair. I think of me and my father and everyone else I knew banging up against that barbed wire fence screaming that they were coming to violate our souls, and the guards just sitting on their tower doing guard stuff.”
“But – ”
“But what? But the Californians were afraid that the Drug Lord had people there at the fence and if they let them through he would take over California and millions more would die? Good point. Reasonable. Or were you going to say but prisoners probably claim to be going through alcohol withdrawal all the time in order to con the system out of some free drugs, and it’s hard to blame the guards for being skeptical? Also a good point! Also reasonable! And when UNSONG says that enforcing copyrights on the Names is the only way to protect innovation? They’ve got a good point too! They’re also reasonable! But somehow there are always happy well-fed people in nice houses who have reasonable explanations for why the system is just, and there’s always everyone else starving or dying or rotting in prison. Well, when I was eight years old I placed everybody’s reasonable explanations on one side of a balance, and a hundred people screaming in front of a barbed wire fence in Tijuana on the other side, and the explanations weren’t heavy enough, Mark. And I decided I am not on a debate team. If you want to argue all of the good reasons why you should have seven yachts and everybody else should starve to death, I will nod along pleasantly, admit that I cannot refute your points, and then, when I get home, I’ll mail you a letterbomb.”
“But you made that whole story up, because you told me freshman year that your father died before you were born, and also – ”
“And that, Mark, is why I had to put you in prison. I thought, maybe, after ten years in Sing Sing, you’d stop being so fucking Young Democrats of America, you know? As long as you’re a Lord High Ritual Magician and making a name for yourself and living with your happy family you were never going to get it. You’d try to be good, but you’d do it in your stupid middle-class American things-are-basically-fine-but-let’s-reform-the-tax-code sort of way. Well, now you’ve been in Sing Sing for ten years. So, tell me. Are you ready to pour petrol on the world and throw a match on it?
“The world didn’t do this to me, Dylan. You did.”
“I didn’t invent Sing Sing. I didn’t tell your wife to divorce you. I didn’t tell your kids to like their new daddy more than their old daddy. I didn’t beat you up three times in the exercise yard – yes, I looked into your prison records, are you surprised? I didn’t kill your old cellmate with a makeshift knife right in front of you and give you such bad PTSD that you can’t get to sleep on your own, then patronizingly tell you that you can’t have more than a week’s worth of copies of the Somnolent Name because the budget is low and there are other inmates with real problems.”
Mark looked uncomfortable.
“So let me make you an offer. I break you out of this prison right now. Together we kill Malia Ngo. Then if you’re still angry, I give you a false identity, a free ticket to Europe, and you never have to speak to me again. Or you can sit here for another…hmmmm, twelve times four minus ten….thirty-eight years. Your choice, senor.”
“How do you know I won’t try to kill you as soon as I’m out of here?”
“As if you could.”
“Seriously, what’s the catch?”
“Catch? None. I learned the secret of invisibility yesterday, Mark. It’s got me feeling all…what’s the word…ambitious. I want to do something big. I need the right team. And the right Narrative. You, compadre, are both. Last living High Ritual Magician in the world, once my best friend, then my worst enemy, now my reluctant partner. Between you and Erica – ”
“Erica, be a dear and show yourself to Mr. McCarthy.”
Erica coughed and broke her invisibility. Of course there had been another person here all along, Mark thought. And if he’d made any sudden moves, tried to attack Dylan in a way the latter couldn’t handle…for that matter, how many others were there? Since when had people discovered how to become invisible? Was that common in the outside world now? What could Dylan do with that kind of power – God, what couldn’t Dylan do with that kind of power?
But instead he just asked “What happened to your hair?”
“Style,” said the girl. “Style happened to my hair.”
“Miss Lowry is the newest member of BOOJUM – second newest, I should say, now that you’re on board. I wanted to see her in action – well, not literally see her, so I invited her along for her first official mission. Oh, and the best part is we can talk to each other with our minds!” He stared at Erica as if sending a thought to her. She started cracking up. “Some ritual she taught me, sacred kabbalistic something-or-other. Oh yes, Mark, things are starting to heat up. There’s never been a better time to work with BOOJUM.”
Moe gave a loud snort, then started kicking ineffectually in his sleep. “Don’t…” he murmured to no one in particular. “Don’t make me – ”
“I will join your organization,” said Mark McCarthy, “because it’s better than dying in prison. Then I will take your ticket to Europe and never talk to you or think about you again. But I want you to swear to me that you’re on the level.”
“Level as Kansas,” said Dylan.
“No. Fucking swear it. Say I, Dylan Alvarez, swear that I am telling the truth and that I don’t intend to hurt or betray Mark McCarthy and that I’ll help him get to Europe, and if I’m lying, may all my luck dry up and everything I’ve worked for come tumbling down.”
A magician’s oath. Reality works by spectacle and narrative. Swear a magician’s oath and break it, and the universe has it out for you.
“I swear it.”
“No, say the words.”
“So many words, so long, can’t we get just get out of here now and later we can – ”
“Say the fucking words.”
“I, Dylan Alvarez – oh, how should I remember how your stupid phrase went – I swear I won’t kill you, make someone else kill you, cause you to die in ways that may not technically count as ‘killing you’, betray you, injure you, emotionally devastate you, turn you in, use you as bait, fry your eyes in vegetable oil, feed you to an alligator, trick other people into feeding you to alligators, cause you to be consumed by an alligator in ways that may not technically count as ‘feeding you’ to it, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera, if by some bizarre fluke you make the terrible choice not to continue working with me, get you safely to Europe, or may my luck dry up and my head turn green and my liver explode and everybody die, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all. So help me God.”
Then Dylan stared at Erica, and Erica started laughing again.
Mark stood up, stretched, started collecting his things. “One day, Dylan, you should teach that telepathy ritual to me. Let me show you what I really think about you. You might be surprised.”
Dylan laughed, slapped Mark on the back. “Only good things, I’m sure. Compadres para siempre, right? Anyway, half an hour in this dump is enough for me. Time to make like a guillotine and head off. Erica, remind me how the invisibility Name goes again?”
A few minutes later, three invisible figures walked right past the guard and left Sing Sing prison in time to catch the first morning train to New York.