With permission from Lang.

The chance



Today was Katharina's great day. She hadn't had too many of those since three years ago, when she had been sentenced to twenty five years in jail on account of coke possession. Jail was actually more like a medieval dungeon in this remote part of Russia, she had found out that by now. After all, she hadn't left her cell in a tower dating back to the twelfth century just once since the door had been locked behind her so many days and months ago.

    When Katharina had traveled here, her intention had been to write an article on the private prisons of the world, and the regions and countries where convicts were sentenced to unusually long times in prison just to keep the state money flowing for the prison owner. Katharina knew that a foreign journalist sniffing around in domestic affairs was never a cause of happiness in those who had things to hide. But she knew that as long as she sticked to certain rules, there would be no reason for her to worry.

    Unfortunately, she hadn't stuck to those rules. Cocaine was something that she just couldn't go without, and in the hotel that she had stayed in, someone must have found something and called the police. In a nauseating speed, Katharina was arrested and sentenced. She had then thought that that sentence had probably been some kind of symbolic, that she would be sent back to Germany and that she would never again be allowed to enter Russia. Instead, she found herself in one of the very private prisons she had wanted to write about.

    The jailer, a woman named Orlessia, once told her that Kathraina's imprisonment had saved the owner from bankruptcy. The tower she had been locked up in was normally only in use for small time offenses as this was a small town with no big crime. People were brought here to sober out and locked into cells for one or two nights. Not enough to justify money from the state coming in. Then, with Katharina as a long term prisoner, money would flow – and as none of it was spent to improve prison conditions, the owner of Katharina's home could keep it all to himself.

    Today, a state official had been announced to visit the tower and see what the money was put into. Katharina was surprised that nothing had happened  so far, that her cell had not been turned into a hotel room contemporary to fool the state man. She was sitting on her straw, watching the mice running around and playing with her bare feet. It was a custom she had picked up over the years. The rags she had been given as clothing consisted of torn pants and a shirt, with the legs reaching as far as her ankles and the sleeves going down to her wrists. No shoes or socks were given to her, not even in Winter. For the cold days, she had a thick counterpane in her cell, warm but full of fleas and lice. The latter ones dwelled in her red hair as well, in that on her head as well as in that between her legs.

    Some of Katharina's daily diet was still spreading it's stink. It was a soup of rotten vegetables and foul meat, oozing in a wooden bowl. Katharina watched the mice as they were drawn to it, and then hushed them away as she wanted to keep some for later on. She wanted to keep it not so much for eating but for showing it to the state official. If he would see the catastrophic circumstances under which she was kept a prisoner, maybe things would change. Last night she had even dreamed of a pardon that he would grant, that considering the miserable prisoner's life she had let for three years now, he would probably set her free. „Three years in this is like fifty years in any decent prison“, he had said in her dream.

    Katharina closed her eyes, imagining herself on a flight to Berlin, a woman of 28, washed, combed, clothed, with shoes on. Barefootedness had become such a natural part of her life that she almost couldn't remember what it was like to wear anything on her feet. But she was sure it would feel great.

    There were voices outside. Katharina stood on her toes to reach up to the tiny hole that was her window. She clenched her fists around the iron gutter. She couldn't see what was going on roughly five meters below her, but she could hear Orlessia's voice and that of a man she didn't know. Katharina couldn't speak Russian fluently, but as it had been her major in university, she could understand the two despite their accents.

   „So, you have only that one prisoner here, that German woman?“, the man asked.

   „No, no, Mr. Trapotow“, Orlessia said. In her voice, Katharina could hear the fear of authority. She couldn't help but smile. To her, Orlessia was a voice of authority, as she was her jailer, who fed her, sometimes flogged her, and put her in chains if she felt that the prisoner had misbehaved. It felt good to hear the roles reversed.

    „We sometimes put drunkards in here, or thieves, for a few days then, sometimes a night only. It's just that Katharina is the only real long term prisoner here.“

    „Let's see her, then“, Trapotow said.

    Katharina's heart was beating fast. This was her chance. As usual, she heard steps on the outside coming up to her cell. When the keys unlocked the door, she stood up. Orlessia and Trapotow came in. Orlessia gave Katharina a look that said „Watch your mouth“. Trapotow protected his nose with a handkerchief from the prison stench.

    „Good day to you, prisoner“, Trapotow said.

     „Katharina“, Orlessia commented.

    Katharina bowed her head. A bug fell out of her filthy long hair and on her toes.

    Trapotow went through some papers and made an impressed face. „How are you serving your sentence so far?“, he asked.

    Katharina swallowed. „Well, actually it's not very nice“, she said.

    Orlessia and Trapotow laughed. „Well, life in prison shouldn't be too nice“, the state official said. “It's punishment, my dear.”

    „I haven't left my cell in three years“, Katharina said.

    Trapotow shook his shoulders. He looked at his papers again. „And you won't for another twenty two years. What's so unusual about that?“

    He's not here to grant you a pardon, Katharina thought. All you can do now is to try to improve your conditions. She picked up her soup and showed it to Trapotow. Orlessia gave Katharina a blow with her stick. „Don't come so close, Katharina. I don't want Mr. Trapotow to catch any fleas.“

    Trapotow made a sign with his hand to show it was okay to him.

    „This is what I get to eat twice a day“, Katharina said. „Sometimes it's so bad, not even the mice touch it.“

    Trapotow didn't show any emotion.

    „This place is full of mice. And vermin. And this food is … it's rotten, and foul. Sometimes, there's maggots in it.“

    Trapotow took the bowl from Katharina. He smelled the food and made a disgusted face. „This is awful“, he said.

    Katharina couldn't help but smile. „Let me explain ...“, Orlessia started.

    „This is my only clothes“, Katharina interrupted. She knew that Orlessia would later put her into heavy chains for doing so, but then maybe if she did everything right now, Orlessia would never again have a chance to beat her or lay her in irons. „Other prisoners who come here come and leave in their won clothes, and they are not kept barefoot, so why am I?“

    Trapotow nodded. „I see“, he said.

    „Sometimes, I'm put into chains for weeks. Up until last week, i had been chained to the wall by my neck for months, just because I had complained about this awful food. I'm often whipped, sometimes with no reason at all ...“

    „That's not true, there's always a reason“, Orlessia said, but again, Trapotow gave her sign to shut up.

    „On my back, and on the soles of my feet“, Katharina said. „This is a hell hole, and the only reason I'm here is because her boss wants the state money“, she shouted and pointed at Orlessia.

   „That's enough“, Orlessia said. „You'll wear ball and chain for three months, Katharina.“

   „Really?“, Katharina asked with a cynic tone.

    „Six months!“, Orlessia shouted.

    Trapotow held up a hand to make the women stop.

    „I don't want you to get into any further trouble, prisoner“, he said. „What you are basically telling me is that the food is rotten, that you're clothes are dirty rags and that you're feet are bare, and how you're occasionally whipped and put in chains?“

    Katharina nodded, happy that Trapotow had understood her.

    „Well then, I'm sorry to say so, but you're a prisoner in a dungeon, and I can see nothing unusual there. The other prisoners keep their clothes because they only spent a night here or two, while you are locked in this cell for two and a half decades. How many steps is this cell ...“

   „Four by three“, Katharina said. She had tried that out many, many times.

   „Four by three“, Trapotow said and nodded. „Is that a distance you need shoes for?“ Orlessia laughed.

    „But ...“, Katharina said.

    „Enough“, Trapotow interrupted. „You've already earned yourself the ball and chain for three months. Don't anger your jailer too much, prisoner. A nice day to you”, he said and left the cell.

    Orlessia smiled at Katharina. „Ah, Russia“, she said. „People are so nice. He only took a very small bribe. Sit down and show me your soles, Katharina.“

    Katharina knew what this meant, but it would only bring her the ball and chain for some more months if she hadn't fulfilled Orlessia's wish.

The End.