That prisoner dreamed that he was in prison. Naturally, the dreams had details and patterns. For example, on the wall of the dream there was a poster from Paris; on the real wall there was only a dark water stain. Running along the floor of the dream was a wall lizard; looking at him from the real floor was a rat.
The prisoner dreamed that he was in prison. Someone was massaging his back and he was starting to feel better. He couldn’t see who it was, but he was sure it was his mother, who was an expert at that. The morning sun entered through the wide window and he welcomed it like a sign of liberty. When he opened his eyes, there was no sun. The small barred window (sixteen by twenty-four inches) led to an air shaft, to another wall of shadow.
The prisoner dreamed that he was in prison, that he was thirsty and was drinking an abundant amount of ice water. And the water was immediately streaming from his eyes in the form of tears. He knew why he was crying, but he wouldn’t confess this even to himself. He looked at his idle hands, the ones that before had constructed torsos, chalk faces, legs, bound bodies, marble women. When he awoke, his eyes were dry, his hands were dirty, the door hinges were rusty, his pulse was racing, his lungs had no air, and the ceiling was leaking.
At that point, the prisoner decided that it was better to dream that he was in prison. He closed his eyes and saw himself with a photograph of Milagros in his hands. But he wasn’t satisfied with just the photograph. He wanted Milagros in person, and she appeared with a big smile and a sky-blue nightgown. She approached so that he could remove it, and of course, he did so. Naturally, Milagros’ nakedness was miraculous and he was observing her with total recall and complete joy. He didn’t want to wake up, but he did, a few seconds before the dreamlike, virtual orgasm. And no one was there; no photograph, no Milagros, no sky-blue nightgown. He accepted that solitude could be unbearable.
The prisoner dreamed that he was in prison. His mother had stopped the massages, among other activities, because she had died years before. He was overcome by nostalgia for her look, her singing, her lap, her caresses, her reproaches, her forgiveness. He hugged himself, but it wasn’t the same. Milagros was waving good-bye from very far away. To him it looked like it was from a cemetery. But that couldn’t be. It was from a park. But there wasn’t any park in the cell, so that even though he was inside the dream, he was aware that’s what it was: a dream. He raised his arm to wave good-bye also. But his hand was only a fist, and, as is well known, fists haven’t learned to wave good-bye.
When he opened his eyes, the familiar old cot gave off a stark chill. Trembling and numb, he tried to warm his hands with his breath. But he couldn’t breathe. There, in the corner, the rat continued to look at him; it was just as cold as he was. He moved a hand and the rat moved a leg forward. They were old acquaintances. Sometimes, he would hurl a piece of his horrible, despicable food toward it.
Despite that, the prisoner missed the green and very agile lizard of his dreams and fell asleep to retrieve it. He discovered that the lizard had lost its tail. A dream like that was no longer worth dreaming. Nevertheless, he started to use his fingers to count the number of years he had left: One, two, three, four, and woke up. It was six total, and he had completed three. He counted again, but now with his fingers awake.
He didn’t have a radio, nor a watch, nor books, nor a pencil, nor a notebook. Sometimes, he would sing softly to precariously fill the void. But he was remembering fewer and fewer songs. As a child he had also learned a few prayers that his grandmother had taught him. But now, who was he going to pray to? He felt deceived by God, but he also didn’t want to deceive God.
The prisoner dreamed that he was in prison and that God would arrive and he would confess to Him that he felt tired, that he suffered from insomnia and that that exhausted him, and that sometimes, when he was finally able to fall asleep, he would have nightmares in which Jesus would ask God for help from the cross, but God was preoccupied and wouldn’t render it.
“Worst of all,” God would tell him, “is that I don’t have a God to entrust myself to. I’m like an Orphan with a capital O.” The prisoner felt pity for that very lonely and abandoned God. In any case, he understood that God’s illness was solitude, because His unwithering and perpetual fame as the Supreme frightened the saints, the regulars as well as the substitutes. When he woke up and remembered that he was an atheist, he stopped feeling pity for God, and instead felt pity for himself, confined, lonely, and immersed in filth and tedium.
After countless dreams and vigils, there came an afternoon when he was shaken awake without the customary abruptness and told by a guard to get up because he had been granted his freedom. The prisoner convinced himself that he wasn’t dreaming only when he felt the coldness of the cot and verified the eternal presence of the rat. He greeted it with pity and then went with the guard so that he could be given his clothes, some money, his watch, a pen, a leather wallet, the little that had been confiscated from him when he was jailed.
No one was waiting for him upon his exit from the prison. He started walking. He walked for about two days, sleeping on the side of the road or among the trees. In a bar on the outskirts, he ate two sandwiches and drank a beer which had an old, recognizable taste. When he finally arrived at his sister’s house, she almost fainted from the surprise. They remained in an embrace for about ten minutes. After she cried for a while, she asked him what he planned to do. “For now, a shower and sleep, I’m very exhausted,” he replied. After he showered, she led him up to the attic, where there was a bed, not a filthy cot, but a clean bed, soft and decent. He slept for more than twelve hours straight. Strangely, during that long rest, the ex-prisoner dreamed that he was in prison, with a wall lizard and everything.
First published in Buzón de Tiempo: Cuentos (Buenos Aires: Seix Barral, 1999). Copyright 1999 by Mario Benedetti. By arrangement with the author. Translation copyright 2007 by Harry Morales. All rights reserved.