The Vault of Gratiot Street Prison
We hear the roil. Through the crumbling walls, through the straw pallets of our bedding, through the sound of clinking chains and muffled screams that echo across the six stories of cells where we pretend to sleep, where we hold our palms over our ears and close our eyes. We hear it from here, regardless of weather, a sun we sometimes see through the warped panes of the windows high above our cellblock. We hear it regardless of a blue St. Louis sky that eludes us, whether it shines or sheds rain, regardless of how the humidity of the Mississippi River burrows into our bones like the swamped heat of the South we once knew.
A storm is coming.
We hear it churning from our cells. From the mess hall. From the hollowed corridors of the claustrophobia we share. We listen above the barks of captains and majors, beyond the slosh of the communal washtub, over the metal clang of the waste buckets distributed to our cells to contain the slow spread of disease.
We are listening. We hold our ears to the bars.
We are listening for a storm beyond rain, a storm we’ve seen and felt and tasted in the lowermost corridors of a vault where we have gone for days in solitude, where we have sat for sometimes weeks in darkness, every one of us after mouthing off or starting fights, after hiding stolen cigarettes or bottles of gin beneath the thin straw of our pallets.
We know what we’ve heard. We know the roll of thunder.
We know the folly of ignoring, of turning away from lightning. We await the flash, the strike. What lurks in a darkening of clouds.
Louisiana Jax was the first to hear. The first of five of us to be thrown into the vault for spitting in the face of a Union officer. For days Jax crouched in the dark against the limestone walls, slick with runoff and the piss of rats and the droppings of mice before he heard the first low moan, a sound all of us in time came to hear. He heard a faint growl, a sound like a sigh, so low it could have been wind. But there were no windows, no tunnels. There was no passage to an outside world where wind rattled and a war pushed on. There was only a moan, a sound that grew to a howl and then to a presence Jax felt in the unrelenting darkness, a presence that so thoroughly filled his mouth with the taste of blood that he thought he had bitten his tongue until he scraped a fingernail across his mouth and felt it parched as a summer drought.
We have all heard that howl. Louisiana Jax. Tennessee Edmond. Marvin Tarkington from Gulfport. Henry McGinnis. We have tasted the metal of blood. We have pulled our hands to our tongues, expecting a pool of red if light could be caught, only to remove our fingers and feel nothing but cracked skin between them. We have stooped our bodies, bodies we once considered fierce, into the walled corners of those lowermost cells. We have waited out the night in the dark, holding our breath still, and we have gasped relief, our lungs at last free, when a sliver of light at last appeared beneath the cell door and the footsteps of an officer approached.
We remember the shape of what holds us, the eaves of Gratiot Street Prison.
We remember the last rays of stark Midwestern light, nearly blinding, before each of us was taken in separate arrests and shoved across the threshold, into the shadow and damp of St. Louis’s city prison while the war raged on all around us. We remember an enormity of doubled brick corridors, two wings joined by a spiraling tower. We remember our dread as we stepped from the light, how the threshold formed a jaw. How so many of us knew the shapes of prisons as Confederate soldiers, a war we’d known for two long years, and how the shape of Gratiot was nothing of what we knew. How the sky disappeared from our vision, swallowed by the black of musty halls and broken light, and how our hearts fell as the sun sank beyond the looming bulk of a three-storied tower. How we fell into the ranks of spies, Union deserters, guerrilla fighters, even the criminally insane. How we found one another regardless, five Confederates with no remaining ties to bind us, nothing of common faith and cause for a failed country but only one lingering ache left, our hearts separate magnets pulled always toward home.
We speak nothing more to officers who’ve told us the howl is our own stupid brains, the same hogwash of the bastard South, Union officers that refuse us, that think the Confederacy are an alliance of fools. That we are dim-witted, slow. That we are defending a dying empire, a corrupt land, a land to which none of us tether ourselves by politics but only by birthright, and by need: of serving this army to live. They believe that beyond the southern border of Missouri the river runs backward, that superstitions are heeded, that ghosts live in the floorboards, that haunts howl on the breath of southern wind.
Some of us believed them. Tennessee Edmond questioned the vault’s wail. Marvin Tarkington, the copper taste of blood. We might have ignored our intuition if not for Alphius Mays, hailed from Arkansas, and how his way with words earned him an apprenticeship in the prison’s small library. How his best behavior won the officers’ trust with the prison’s donated books, small tomes brought by concerned St. Louisans from a divided city, alongside every other book that by their dust Alphius knew had occupied the prison long before we arrived. How Alphius’s talent with letters led to his alphabetization of the entire prison catalog.
How in the catalog Alphius unearthed everything we already knew.
How Gratiot Street Prison held buried a history, one hidden in its dusty books, one we sensed when we crossed the prison’s threshold and saw its medieval corridors. How in the mess hall, while the officers ate, Alphius leaned in close and told all of us what he’d determined from the college’s old books, from the ledgers and records he found hidden in their pages: We are living in an abandoned medical college. We are living where bodies were broken apart.
What he spoke was confirmed by Missouri inmates, men we learned over time to trust. Inmates from Alton, from Jefferson City, from every other part of Missouri where Confederates were fleeing. Inmates from St. Louis who sympathized with the South, who were guerrillas or bushwhackers or who had simply misbehaved. Inmates who had once lived in the city along the Mississippi River and knew the college before the war came, who watched it quickly become a prison when the Union moved in and took over.
Alphius told us who founded the medical college. Joseph McDowell. The man who built the tower we now inhabited. We rolled his name over and over upon our tongues, a mantra to block out the echoes that rattled every cellblock as we tried to fall asleep. Joseph McDowell. The man who created a college hospital, a dissection wing, a dungeon housing the specimens of 3,000 birds and mammals of North America. Joseph McDowell. The man who kept a pet bear, a crocodile, a statue of Satan in the college’s crypt.
The man who after dissection subjects grew scarce began snatching bodies after midnight from the streets of St. Louis. Who eventually garnered a thundering mob for his practices, a pack of St. Louisans storming the walls of the college. The man who unleashed his bear upon the crowd until the citizens of the city at last subsided.
Where do you think he kept the bodies? said Marvin Tarkington, a whisper above the clang of cutlery.
Hell with the bodies, said Tennessee Edmond. What about the bear? Where did he keep the goddamn bear?
No one answered. We ate our salted pork. Our portion of cornmeal and pickled beef, a third-pound of each per meal. We didn’t answer but we knew the locus of lightning: what vault would hide a statue, a bear, the cracked bones of so many bodies.
Each night we listened over the din of coughs and moans for the hint of a low growl emanating from the vault. We wanted to ask, despite our ignored warnings. We wondered what became of them, all of those bodies, three wagonloads of human bones Alphius told us were removed from the college’s basement when the war settled in and the college became a prison. Three wagonloads. The only declaration the records had confessed. We wanted to know what became of McDowell, his bear, his crocodile, his specimens. We wanted to know what else was buried beneath the vault’s mud and dirt.
Henry McGinnis was the first to ask, regardless of our misgivings. A native of Jackson and renowned across Mississippi as an escape artist, he worked in the kitchen where the cooks tried to keep him in line. He scrubbed dishes. He mopped floors. He scraped leftover food into an enormous bin that controlled the danger of smallpox, a wildfire of red sores quickening its flame through the cells of the prison.
The kitchen was in the basement.
The kitchen was near the vault.
One night, while McGinnis chopped cabbage rations for the next day’s soup, trying to separate the leaves from the worms, he heard a growl and looked up. He felt eyes upon him, the same presence he had felt within the vault, but saw nothing except the food lockers and the empty chopping tables and rusted sinks. He continued chopping. He kept his head down. He dropped his knife when the taste of blood filled every corner of his mouth.
Officer Johnson, he called. In an adjacent room, putting away dishes. The only cook McGinnis felt marginally comfortable with, after Johnson had repeatedly asked about his escapes.
Johnson appeared in the doorway. He lumbered to the chopping table.
McGinnis looked at him. You hear that?
Johnson stared back at him. What you think you heard?
McGinnis looked away. He planted his palms on the chopping table. He feared to speak it again, a warning.
What happened here? he finally asked. Please. Please just tell me about Joseph McDowell.
Looking back on it, McGinnis told us, he couldn’t rightly say what his expectations were. He expected an answer, at least. Instead, the knife he’d set down upon the chopping table bore swift through the back of his hand.
McGinnis felt the knife before he discerned Johnson’s hot breath against his face. Johnson’s gaze was hard, his mouth too close, his fist still clenched around the knife.
You say that goddamn name again, I’ll kill you.
Johnson pulled the knife from McGinnis’s hand and threw it into the containment bin, metal clanging against metal. He tore out of the kitchen, his large form hulking through the doorway, and McGinnis sank to the concrete floor, a towel soaked in dirty dishwater wrapped around his hand and saturating quickly with blood.
You say nothing, you heard nothing, McGinnis told us. He was transferred to the mess hall, his hand useless for chopping but perfectly suited to picking up plates and waterlogged bread, a bandage wrapped tightly across his palm to keep out disease.
We say nothing. We avoid the vault. We hear the howling build. We see the sores multiplying on our cellmates’ skin. We keep in line, our mouths closed.
We know we can’t stop what storm is coming.
We are standing in the washroom, all in a line to pass one-by-one through a single vat of dark water, when a captain we have never seen bursts in and grabs Isaac Pinson.
Pinson has replaced McGinnis in the kitchen. Pinson has served food, quietly and dutifully. Pinson has in recent days grown pale and mottled, his skin flushed with the first pinpricks of rash.
We huddle closer, a shared nakedness. We eye Pinson’s skin, gleaming in the corner of our gaze, whitewashed and nude and exposed. We try to ignore the smooth slick of him. We watch as the captain pulls him roughly away, the pale sheen of his back beginning to sprout with angry sores. We listen as his shouts echo down the hallway, a receding sound moving him unmistakably toward the vault.
We are sitting in the mess hall, downing our hash riddled with pea bugs, when the same captain we have never seen moves importantly into the center of the room.
You don’t know me, he calls. But I am a warden of state health, and you are all aware of the growing danger of smallpox. I’m here to tell you that we believe we’ve contained the source, a young man who was serving you food.
We look away from the captain, at the surface of our plates. We try not to notice the molding bread, the rough cornmeal, the pea bugs dotting our hash. We try not to flip over the goddamn table in front of us.
We know many of you are showing symptoms, the captain shouts. We know the problem has been contained.
We bow our heads and avoid the captain’s eyes. Edmond chews his cornmeal. Alphius coughs and pushes his fork into his hash. As the captain stalks away from the room, we look away from one another. We avoid reading between the lines: that what will contain the problem is the dying off of inmates, the inevitable death of those showing symptoms, including Pinson alone in the dark.
In the night, between broken dreaming and sleep, we hear the scream of Pinson’s voice and know the storm has rolled in. The clouds have darkened. We hear his voice from the vault, all the way up in the tower, before we hear the clattering of running footsteps, several officers rushing toward the basement. We hear a thunder of voices, screams, the rumbling of panicked shouts. Alphius leans into the rusted bars of his cell. Jax pushes his ear between the bars. We strain to hear what they hear, these officers filled with terror, what has spilled from a vault we know as well as the shapes of our own bodies. But we see only the remnants of what they found, all of us pressed against the stacked stories of our cellblocks, when they at last carry Pinson from the vault.
They drag him across the cement corridor down between our blocks, a smeared trail staining the ground. They drag him through the dark to the infirmary. But the moon leaking through the high-window bars splits a lighted grate across his body, lines that illuminate the unmistakable raking of claws into flesh.
We watch the limp form of him pulled across the cement.
We know already that he is dead.
We pull ourselves away from the bars. McGinnis huddles into his straw bedding. Marvin Tarkington covers his ears with the rough skin of his palms. We pull our burlap blankets around ourselves and bind our limbs tight, to kill the moon and its intrusion and the uncontained roil of our shaking.
In the morning, the blood has been cleaned.
A pale light crosses our cells, as if the night’s storm has passed without warning.
At breakfast, the officers’ faces are ashen. The cooks fail to meet our eyes as we travel down the food line. Not even Morris Wheatley, the rookie from Biloxi who has replaced Pinson on the line, looks up from sloshing gruel on our plates.
We eat in silence.
The officers ignore us.
As if they didn’t drag Pinson’s body through the opening between our cells. As if we didn’t huddle against our mildewed walls, settling into fragmented sleep only after we heard a mop dragged across the floor. A mop they knew we heard, a mop we imagined as saturated in red though we never moved from our beds.
It is only at dinner that Alphius tells us what he learned in the prison library.
He tells us that after lunch, as he shelved books, the library’s guarding officer watched as he worked. The officer sat in an armchair as Alphius immersed himself in the shelves, until he heard his name called.
Come here, Mr. Mays, the officer said.
Alphius stepped away from the bookshelf. The officer motioned for him to pull up a chair. Alphius opened a folding chair and sat before the officer.
Can I ask you a question, Mays?
Alphius nodded. Alphius’s lungs shuddered in his chest.
Are you a believing man? The officer’s voice trembled.
Yes, sir, Alphius whispered. Yes, sir, I believe.
Then let me tell you something, the officer said. He leaned in close to Alphius’s face and Alphius closed his eyes, remembered McGinnis, awaited the swift plunge of a scissor or letter opener. But the officer only whispered soft into his ear, so quiet Alphius thought he was mistaken.
You move as far away from here as you rightly can, the officer breathed, and you do it now before this place claims all of us.
Alphius pulled away. He met the officer’s eyes, pupils dilated to black. He knew then what bound the Union and the Confederacy, prisoners and officers alike. He knew that despite the officers’ jeers, every one of us inside that prison believed. He saw fear radiating beneath the officer’s skin and recognized his only chance to ask.
What did you see? Alphius said. Please, just tell me what you saw.
But the officer’s eyes fell away, a hollow gaze.
I saw nothing I could name in this world.
Then the officer spoke the name: Joseph McDowell. And the officer spoke a confession. He said McDowell still lived, still owned the building, still waited for the war to end so he could close the prison and reopen the college. He said McDowell paid the officers their salaries, a sum that held the price of silence. Silence for what, Alphius wanted to ask, but he let the officer continue, afraid to open his mouth and speak.
The officer watched Alphius. We are in charge of his secrets, Mr. Mays. We must keep his silence, at all possible cost.
The officer leaned in closer to Alphius and whispered against his ear what would come to pass: that McDowell was a medic. That he knew vaccines. That he also knew viruses. That he oversaw the officers closely, their dealings and decisions. That when the officers presented a specific plan about the outbreak of smallpox, which they would soon, Alphius should know it was passed down from McDowell, that he should run and never look back.
But there’s no way out of here, Alphius whispered.
Never you mind. The officer spoke over him. You just do it, and soon. Alphius sat back in his folding chair and wondered what it was that had made the officer speak until he shifted in his armchair and Alphius saw the sores on his wrists, the beginnings of rash snaking up beneath his sleeves.
In the mess hall, Alphius lowers his voice. He tells us that now is the time. Because at dinner, now: the officers are making an announcement. After dragging Pinson through the cellblock, what blood and claw marks they know we saw, they have hatched a plan of containment. Not of disease, we know. They must contain what we all know but won’t speak. They tell us they will inoculate all of us, a new vaccine sent by Pony Express from St. Joseph, Missouri. They tell us that Gratiot Street Prison will be one of the first to eradicate smallpox, that we are a test case for the future, that we will be injected in two days’ time.
They smile wide across the room, a lie we see stretched across their teeth.
Alphius leans close to his bowl of bean soup.
They intend to kill us, he says. Every single one of us, for what we saw. For whatever it is they’re trying to contain. The time to leave is now.
We see in his face that he has no plan, that nothing has emerged. Louisiana Jax grimaces. McGinnis eyes his bowl. But we all nod regardless, a movement that waterfalls around the table, that we know what will come if we stay. We know the shade of Pinson’s blood, a red we see in the stark strokes of burning afterimage. We know the certainty of claws, and of needles. Two paths with the same end.
In the night, McGinnis enters our cells.
After the officers have fallen asleep, dead tired in fear, instead of watching our cells as they once knew to do.
McGinnis pierces the locks and creeps into our blocks, a master key he found while cleaning the mess hall. Tennessee Edmond eyes the key. Marvin Tarkington asks how he found and concealed it. McGinnis shakes his head and looks away. He says escape is an art. I think I’ve found a way out, he tells each of us instead, words we nearly ignore as we watch the key, how easily it slides back into his pocket.
How it manifests our freedom, so close.
How even with his hand only half-healed, McGinnis will save us from this place.
He tells each of us, in each of our cells, that there is an irrigation ditch beneath the kitchen. That it is small, just wide enough to pass bodies through, that it leads from the kitchen through an earthen tunnel then beyond the prison to a hidden field.
There are problems, he tells us. There will be cockroaches. There will be maggots. It is a ditch intended for kitchen waste.
His eyes fall away from ours when he tells us this as well: that there will be the vault to pass, so close to the kitchen. That we must brave bearing it one last time, even in proximity, to pass through the walls of the prison and be free.
It is only the following morning in the mess hall, after McGinnis has slipped quietly from our cells with the promise that we will leave the next night after awaiting his signal, that we understand, all five of us together, what we have one by one agreed upon: that even in the separation of our cellblocks, knowing all night after McGinnis left that the next day would only bring us toward the vault, we regardless agreed across our isolation that every last one of us would go.
That afternoon, Gratiot Street Prison seems almost beautiful.
In its porridged sludge, in the brown grime of a dirtied communal washtub. Even in the coughs that echo through the hollow corridors, an orchestra of spreading disease, and the shifting glances of anxious officers. They hold a beauty of what is fleeting, what will end. Even at dinner, a final meal of pickled beef and crusted bread, even with the vault casting a long shadow across our plates as night swiftly falls, there is something terrible and lovely and ever-present that silences our table, the first day inside a stretch of indistinguishable days where at last we know we are awake.
As the captain announces the next morning’s inoculations, we look away from one another, avoid a matched gaze of knowing.
That night, when we hear the officers move away from our cells and fall silent, we wait beneath our burlap blankets until midnight approaches, when we know McGinnis will circulate and unlock our doors.
He comes to us as a ghost, his footfalls soft as an elegy. He slides the key through our locks. He motions for us to follow, beyond our cells through our now-open doors, those first steps as aching and sweet as sugarcane, a taste our tongues only hold in memory. We follow him down the corridors of our blocks, down the stacked stories to the cement floor, past the creaking bars of what cells have held some of us for nearly two years. We move beyond the sleeping officer assigned to guard us overnight, a sleep that tells us for certain that there is no inoculation, that there is no reason left for the officers to watch us.
McGinnis leads the way, followed by Jax. Then Marvin Tarkington. Tennessee Edmond. Alphius Mays at the end. We slide through the spiraling tower of our blocks and away down the corridor. Toward the mess hall, then down the first dark set of stairs. We move closer and closer to the vault, a specter we disavow by imagining the kitchen’s tunnel. We imagine the ditch, the field beyond it. We imagine our freedom and not these stairs, a descent we know well. We travel further down the turning ricket of stairs, all of us in a line, our breath bound so tight that we fear waking the officers with the roar of our heartbeats.
We arrive in the basement. Walls we know. The slick of wet limestone and the scent of damp earth and the scratching echo of rats and mice. McGinnis stops in front of us and listens, his head cocked down the black corridor of the basement. We wait in silence, our blood a cascade as it pounds through our ears. Louisiana Jax coughs. Tarkington glares. We stand as still as death as a low howl slowly grows in the corridor.
Get ready to run, McGinnis whispers, then he takes off and we are running. We break into a sprint, a machine made of the sum of so many of our moving parts, limbs we haven’t moved in this way since the sky over St. Louis lost our gaze. We shuttle ourselves down the corridor, toward the waiting kitchen, our fists clenched and wheeling as we run. Though we hear the growl as it grows we push our bodies forward and onward and forever away from the vault.
We are still running when our mouths fill with blood.
We pull our hands to our mouths, an instinct. When we pull our hands away, there is nothing of dry skin. We pull our hands away and our palms are wet with the stain of real blood, a surge we cannot see but know by the taste and the feel and the flood.
Oh, God, we hear McGinnis whisper. His footsteps have stopped. His voice is gargling, his throat choked with liquid. We arrest our footfalls behind him, our lungs seizing, our breath full of the flood of copper. We taste the metal pooling inside our mouths, we feel the balled fist of our hearts.
We hear the thunder roll against our ears.
A growl so close, it radiates from our own skin.
And then McGinnis lights a match, what contraband he’s concealed in his pockets, and we see the blood falling from our mouths and the burning blaze of two red eyes and a shock of rough fur where the howl has pushed its breath through us and just beyond those eyes a translucent crowd of so many men and women and children, faces we discern for only a moment before the flame gasps out and we know the storm has gathered at last.
There is nothing left in this place but to run.
Down the corridor, toward the kitchen, away from the vault and its protector. To stick our steps to the floor, as surefooted as sheep, to move ourselves over cement slick with the trail of our mouths. To not imagine what eyes and claws and burled fur Pinson must have seen. To not imagine what the officers saw when they found Pinson, whether they knew the faces or only what ursine ghost guarded their stolen history. To not imagine McDowell, where he was, what plan he devised to bury all of us, what inoculation would kill us and protect this place and forever conceal what cracked foundation this prison was built upon.
And so we run. We push. We outpace a tornado.
We push ourselves beyond the threshold of the kitchen and Alphius Mays slams the metal door behind us and we run where McGinnis has run, to a tunnel of dirt as small as a pinhole, a tunnel under any other circumstance we’d have never risked. But in this light, the same eerie light we knew meant taking shelter in basements when southern storms once broke, we know to push ourselves past what limits we have known. Tennessee Edmond curls into himself, a tucked ball. Marvin Tarkington gasps for breath and crouches low toward the opening of the tunnel. McGinnis lights one more match. Alphius crosses himself. Louisiana Jax closes his eyes. We bind our limbs and our organs and the blood still beating from our mouths and we push ourselves headfirst through the earth, as if we could emerge on the other side anew.
We push. We crawl. We hear the growl as we move through maggots and cockroaches and worms clinging to earthen walls, through stagnant dishwater lined with black flies, through the stench of sewage and broken earth and the decayed rotting of stale food. McGinnis gags. Tarkington retches. Louisiana Jax stalls, a cramp in his gut, and Tennessee Edmond pushes at his feet, onward, a tunnel that if we linger will suffocates all of us. We push on, immune to the muck that laces our skin. We think of nothing but the sound and the pooling of our own blood, the growl and the negative space between its thrum and our ears, a distance we force and expand with the skinning of our knees and our hands.
We find the clearing before we can fathom it. A field. Silent beneath a wash of starred ether. A marbled black that dissipates to deep blue where the field ends and the horizon begins, the torch lights of St. Louis and the Mississippi River burning at the edge of the treeline. A city some of us once thought terrible, so far from our southern homes. A city at once beautiful and awful with the universe wheeling its stars above it, as if those sleeping inside their homes assumed the sky would always be there when they woke.
We sit in the grass. We run our hands over our mouths and find them dry. Marvin Tarkington wheezes. McGinnis pulls a cockroach from his leg. Louisiana Jax prays. Edmond rips a handful of dandelion from the grass and pulls it against his face. Alphius Mays lays prostrate upon the grass, his hands tucked behind his head, his face tilted away from the earth. We watch the sky, constellations all five of us once knew to name.
We see the shape of the prison beyond the field, a dark silhouette against a night illumined by starlight. The former college’s corkscrew towers, its eaves piercing the dark sky like heavy knives. We blink and listen. We hear only silence, the sky hushed of thunder. We feel the dewed grass beneath our hands. We watch the prison, remote, twirled towers kept in our gaze until the pull of the earth is too great to ignore, until we forget what we know, until we slip away through the grass, nameless as ghosts.