[Click here to expand for trigger warnings][Click to hide trigger warnings]
This section is for readers who want to be prepared for the possibility of content they might find upsetting or triggering. If you don’t feel you need this kind of warning, please ignore this box to minimize spoilers.
This story contains themes of incarceration and death, and contains brief aggressive behavior.
We include trigger warnings to make or work as accessible as possible. If you notice elements of the story you feel should have been forewarned and weren’t, or if there’s anything inadequate or misleading about the way we presented the information, please let us know so we can get better at giving adequate warning.
About the Author: A. Gislebertus is a writer living in the Five College area of Massachusetts. She comprises one half of Gislebertus hoc fecit artist collective with Nicole Brown. As a writer, she grapples with concepts of isolation, growth, trauma, queerness, and subversive aggressive femininity. Art-as-activism and prison abolition are core parts of her life-view, and are increasingly part of her approach to writing literature.
by A. Gislebertus
Sadie rolled over and felt the warmth of the sun on her face.
Birds sang, dappled shadows of leaves danced, and the breeze sighed. Phrases from the most recent letter echoed in her sleepy head.
What about a world without hate?
She pulled her hands out from under her blanket and looked at them. She traced each line with her eyes, surveyed the callouses and old scars which created the unique topography that spoke so strongly to her identity, her history. Every struggle, every hard fight. Every tender moment, every piece of art.
What about a world where no one is disposable?
With a gracefully uncoordinated roll, she pulled herself out of bed. Her blankets pulled away from her body like petals from a wilting rose. Approaching the mirror with slow, cautious steps, she looked up to meet the familiar face, her face. Her face full of roundness and resilience and a long story of sights, scents, tastes. She rearranged a few trailing braids, her black hair mixed with an endless kaleidoscope of color strands, woven in seamlessly with the tight braids. Cocking her head to the side, she smiled at the way the sunlight played tag with her features.
What about a world that tried to heal trauma instead of perpetuate it?
She got the first letter two and a half years ago.
It came in her mail slot out of the blue. The envelope was lavender and smelled like adventure and mystery. The return address was foreign to her, but the name on top was intimately familiar. An old partner, Paisleigh, someone who she had loved while they stuck around and smiled warmly at as they left to continue their search for something -- something they couldn’t articulate yet.
Emails would come in every few weeks. Every one of them started with the same cheerful greeting – Dearest Sadie – and brimmed with some kind of overflowing optimism which couldn’t be hindered by the tar-like quagmires of oppressive encounters they steered through. No matter the letdowns, no matter the height of the mountainous work left to be done, they signed off every email with a Love from afar and a new quote that she’d later write out in alphabet magnets on her fridge.
The letter wasn’t much different in its optimism, in its warmth and welcome, but this time Sadie recognized a drive and a goal which had before eluded them like a wisp of smoke in an open field.
There was one word, the one item out of a nearly infinite lexicon, that set her heart on fire.
She returned to the window by her bed and gazed down at the garden she helped tend on the roof next to her apartment building. No order but symbiosis structured it -- the plants were all placed where they could rely on their neighbors and aid in each other’s survival. But they did more than survive – they flourished. Sadie examined the poetic complexity of the many species. Some bore edible fruits and vegetables, others did not. Colors and shapes abounded, but none became most important. Each was beautiful in itself and beautiful in concert.
By the time Paisleigh wrote her that letter, the community they had found had already grown to include a considerable number of people. At their suggestion, Sadie had looked into it in the parameters of her own city and found that an expansive network already existed. It was decentered and without a distinctive figurehead, but it was a purposeful ambiguity which spoke more to their collective interests than any singular mission statement ever could. The community grew up from the cracks in the concrete, radiated out from the murals on walls, blossomed in the streets where voices clamored like a symphony for the clouds.
Familiar faces. Comforting voices. Strength built from anger. Solidarity breathing life from bodies in communion.
She stretched her arms. Maybe today she’d go to the community center to practice piano.
It was a husk of a building, a ghost from a time that was simultaneously ages old and fresh enough that the wounds hadn’t healed around it.
Sadie opened up her picnic blanket and spread it out. The grass in the field was too tall to sit there, so she sat on the road. Her motorcycle stood as a sentinel on her other side just in case any stray travelers came that way, though she doubted it. Barely anyone came this way anymore.
The community organizing board discussed extensively the prospect of using the building as another place for housing, or even just a farming facility. They even talked about using it as a museum and educational space. The distance was a bit of a point for dissent, but it wasn’t the main problem. No one wanted anything to do with it anymore. It was a hulking mass built on the ghosts of too many lives to count, the peeling paint a reminder of every mangled dream and lifeline that got consumed by that place. As much as they all hated it, they knew tearing it down wasn’t an option either. It needed to remain standing – a testament to its own history – until it collapsed under its own weight.
No one came within several miles of it these days, and they were all genuinely happier off for it. Sadie was the only one who visited.
She pulled out a photo album from her bag. The pages inside held sketch after sketch, some of them including vehement scribbles which wound around the pages like threads in a tapestry. The handwriting reminded her of times long since gone, the echoes of the past rippling through her mind and finding a home in her chest where they settled like a weighted blanket, both heavy and comforting.
Next, she pulled out a sketchbook which she had hand-made, crafted each page of paper, handstitched the binding for. It was about half-full already. Pulling a pencil out of her knotted hair, Sadie met the raspy paper surface with the dark lead tip.
And so she spent another few hours imaging a world where the sun and stars shone freely, imagining it for her mother who hadn’t seen them in a long time.
Something shattered, and the sound of glass raindrops spraying out on the concrete sidewalk was the opening note to a long silence.
Scowls weren’t something old or forgotten, and neither was anger or rage, or even pettiness. Sadie had just gotten off her motorcycle to make a quick trip into her favorite tea shop. Her eyes gravitated to the two people who were at the center of the commotion. Something lay shattered on the ground between them and she could tell that one of them – grim face, clenched brow and jaw – had just knocked it to the ground in a purposeful passionate moment of action.
Sadie was closest to the pair, and it seemed like everyone else was too startled to move yet. But she could sense by the increasing tension in the shoulders of the person who had just had a glass vase knocked out of their grip that things would escalate without proper attention. She stepped forward in a smooth sweep, avoiding jerking movements. She gently put a hand on the shoulder of the vase’s owner.
“Is something the matter?” she asked them both, making eye contact with the person she had her hand on, then shifting to look at the other person.
“He knocked the vase I was carrying out of my hands,” the first person said, trying somewhat to restrain their voice but sounding painfully constricted. Sadie could see the anger in their eyes.
“You should have heard what they were saying!” the other person shouted, widening his stance slightly.
“But arguing like this isn’t going to help either one of you,” Sadie reminded them calmly. “You’ll both just get angrier and end up hating each other. That won’t make either of you feel better.”
Sadie made eye contact with the man who had knocked the vase down. After a moment, the coal hardness in his eyes shifted and gradually softened.
“I’m sorry I let my temper get so out of control,” he said after a long pause. “I’ve been having a difficult week and it’s been eating away at me. But I was deeply upset by the comments you were making. I wasn’t in the wrong to be angry, but I was for acting like that. It was thoughtless and I regret acting violently towards you.”
“I’m sorry that I was upsetting you without realizing. If you feel okay with it, could we talk about it so that I know better? So I know how I was being harmful?”
“I can’t do it with a level head right now, but later I would like to.”
Sadie stepped back. The two stepped forward and continued speaking, more softly now. Someone came out of a store nearby with a broom, dustbin, and trashcan. A few people helped them sweep up as the previously conflicting pair spoke with them and apologized for the incident. She made eye contact with an older woman looking on from a window. The older woman nodded at her, and they shared a smile.
Sadie wondered if she imagined it or if the woman really had been crying.
Sadie made art.
It was her great passion as a child, and she carried it in her heart every day she lived. She would draw and paint and sculpt and collage, work with any medium she could find and mold it to work with her. As an adult, she would write and act and dance, too, for her endless infatuation with expression. Once, she even choreographed a dance that incorporated paint on a vast fabric stage. Paisleigh had suggested the seed of the idea and she had cultivated it to fruition.
She had been enveloped by art because she had been stifled with expression. She turned to art to fill in the blank spaces of conversations she never had. Art could be brave. It could forge a whole new world where the wrongs in this one were healed and undone.
Her mother gave her her first sketchbook. It was a simple, small book, bound with a stiff black cover. There was a ribbon bookmark glued into the binding, royal purple. It was the last thing her mother gave her before life started to unravel at the seams.
Sadie was 12, and she had a close aunt who took care of her. Her aunt’s apartment was tiny, just like her and her mother’s, but her windows let in plenty of sunlight. She taught Sadie how to garden. They spent Sunday mornings potting new seedlings or volunteering at the community garden.
Back then, the gardens around Sadie were limited in scope and always felt like they were a teetering oasis at the edge of a crisis. Sadie planted every seed with the hope that her heart would grow with its leaves, would bloom into a flower whose smell would delight passerby, or a fruit which would nourish a hungry stranger.
She wanted to bring her plants to her mother.
But back then, plants wouldn’t grow from the concrete.
So Sadie drew. She carved pages with the black lines of her pencil. Studies of her plants filled up the pages of her sketchbook, the precious item her mother gave to her. When she finished it, Sadie asked her aunt if they could finally visit her. She wanted to give her mother the sketchbook, something with all the sunlight in Sadie’s heart written into the pages. Something to shine out from that restrictive space and illuminate her days.
They did visit her mother, but it was brief and distant. Nothing felt like home there. Nothing reminded Sadie of her memories with her mother. Her mother was an artist too, and a poet. But in those walls, her mother’s lyrical poetry couldn’t lull Sadie to sleep like it used to.
What about a world without prisons?
Paisleigh’s letter haunted Sadie’s imagination just like that prison haunted her childhood dreams.
What about a world where Sadie’s mother hadn’t been taken away for criminalized poverty, criminalized single motherhood, criminalized blackness, criminalized womanness?
Sadie and her mother sent each other drawings back and forth. Until Sadie’s mother got sick and hadn’t been treated timely enough.
There are plenty of people in the world who believe in what we do, who care about what we do. And I’ve found a community of them. A whole community of people committed to this, just like I am, just like I know you are. Change doesn’t start far away, it doesn’t come from the top. It comes from the way that we treat each other, the way we prefigure the world we want to live in through every action we take. It comes from a hope that we believe in, knowing that we’ll fail along the way, knowing that we can be angry and bitter and cynical but still fight as hard as we can for something better.
Changing tides, signs of changing times. And Paisleigh wasn’t wrong. Sadie found the community alive and well around her. And they weren’t alone. And it was there, in that collective effort, in that way of prefiguring the world they all wanted to live in.
Now the prison Sadie’s mother had been incarcerated in was just a shell, just a place she looked at when she made drawings once a month.