Killing Sisyphus
Candida Lall 2011

I could hear the click as the water bug fell back against the porcelain sink. Following each failure, he mustered his strength and launched a new ascent. What he lacked in smarts, he seemed to make up in determination.

Because I lay on a steel plank with holes the size of half dollar perforating it — holes my pelvic bones gravitated into whenever I tried lying on my side or my stomach — I was awake to listen to the fat brown insect. Having reassured myself that he couldn't escape the sink, I sank back onto the cold metal bunk and tried to sleep.

Our mattresses had been seized that afternoon. About as thick as a magazine, they had been taken in the ongoing power struggle between the Captain, overseer of the maximum-security unit at Parchman Farm, Mississippi's State Penitentiary, and us, the Freedom Riders.

Mississippi sought to intimidate us by throwing us into 6x9 concrete cells where we languished with nothing but a Bible, a toothbrush, and one stubby pencil. Only the toothbrush wasn't shared with the roughly thirty other women Freedom Riders.

That afternoon the Captain had stood before us with his minions — black trusties who handed out mops and pails so we could swab out our cells. We sang a song we knew would irritate him:

Paul and Silas were bound in jail
Had no money for to go their bail
Keep your eyes on the prize,
Hold on, Hold on

He ordered us to shut up and, perhaps out of shock, we did. The Captain, a portly man with a round face, stopped directly in front of my cell. It may be that if his eyes had not connected with mine and if I hadn't seen how he gloated over his pitiful victory, I would have remained silent. But he was King Midas, rubbing his paws together over another gold coin added to his stash. There are music lovers who would cross the street to avoid hearing me croak out a song, but I saw that I had no choice. I looked the Captain in the eye and bellowed

We're gonna fight, both black and white
We're gonna fight for civil rights
Keep your eyes on the prize
Hold on, hold on

I didn't get past "We're gonna fight for civil rights" before the other Freedom Riders drowned me out. The trusties began dragging our mattresses from the cells. We sung louder. Now, after a day of glory, I was enduring the sleeplessness of profound discomfort. The lights glared down as they perennially did, and the air conditioner iced the steel. With no blanket and no mattress, I shivered, trying not to feel sorry for myself.

I knew I wasn't suffering as much as the men in the punishment cells behind us. I knew this because a Freedom Rider had a conversation with one of those men, talking through the vent above the toilet. He told her that he and his fellow inmates wore only shorts, slept on cold steel, and got one meal daily, a slice of bread and a cup of water.

The Freedom Rider, a clever young woman, managed to rig up a pulley by which she could transport our bread to the starving men. Feeling virtuous (cornbread and biscuits were about the only edible food we got), we donated to the cause. She wrapped the bread in netting from a sanitary napkin, tied it up with string pulled from her mattress, and swung it up under the vent.

Sisyphus, as I had named the bug, kept on striving. Click. Click. Click. I sat up. Somewhere water was running. Night normally brought quiet, but now something was happening. I heard the other Freedom Riders murmuring. We were all waiting to learn the meaning of that running water.

Then we heard it. Thud. Scream. Thud. Scream. It went on and on as we sat helpless on the other side of a prison wall. I pulled on my hair to distract myself. Some of the women moaned. At last the water ceased running. A cell door slammed. We must've uttered a collective sigh before hearing our own cellblock gate open. "Man coming!" the matron shouted.

There he was, his trusties fingering brass knuckles and smirking. He wore a starched uniform and a happy smile. From behind his back, the Captain drew a small battered bag of crumbs. Then he signaled the trusties. Our cell doors opened and the men began dragging our mattresses back in.

With a tip of a nonexistent hat, the Captain saluted us. "G'night, y'all."

I turned to the sink, scooped out Sisyphus, and slammed the Bible down on him. Then I slid down the wall, pulled my knees up and hugged them. Down the cellblock, I could hear the sound of weeping.

Copyright © Candida Lall Pugh. 2011

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