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The prisoners
The prisoners

Every Friday, at 7 p.m. sharp, a group of men used to meet in the little park close to our home. Whenever we were to pass by the gathering, coming home after a visit to an aunt or after a matinee at the movie theatre, I was told, in hushed tones, to walk faster. Of course, I couldn't help looking at the strange fellows, who would stare back at me until I had to turn away. Both frightened and excited, I longed to be home.

My parents never allowed me to observe the ritual up close. Few people did that anyway, though I don't think that something ever happened to the occasional onlookers. The little park soon cleared up and the men had the place to themselves, alone with the stray dogs and the squirrels. From the vantage point of my bedroom, using the family binoculars, I never missed what happened next.

The men were all different. Tall or small, fat or skinny, young or old, bald or hairy, clean or dirty. They covered the whole spectrum of skin complexions. But they had something in common, an uncanny, preternatural calmness when they should have been rowdy and loud, like men always are when in a group. They talked little, with muffled voices, bowing their heads. Some of them brought faded garments, uniforms of some sort, grey-blue, orange or even striped ones. They drew them out of plastic bags and pulled them over their normal clothes.

When all the men had arrived, and when they were all ready, they turned and formed a circle, each man following his brother clockwise. They stood up like this, motionless, for a while.

Then someone blew a whistle, a series of short shrill blasts. It never failed to make me jump, because I could never see it coming. More than once, I dropped the binoculars and nearly broke them. The men started walking. They dragged their feet in short little steps in a shuffling, weary carousel. An uneventful ceremony, it rarely longed less than half an hour. Though, I always wanted to see the whole of it, lest I missed a surprise ending that never came. My mother or my father, after calling me a few times, used to storm into my bedroom, stole away the binoculars and pushed me not too gently into the dining room, telling me that I surely didn't want to end up like them.

Them who?

The prisoners, my mother told me once.

What prisoners? They?re free. They can walk the streets, I said.

Not in their heads. What they have done, it's not nice. But what has been done to them, it's not nice either, my mother said.

This circle, she continued, is their only moment of