October, 1980. Fifty-two hostages. The success or failure to free them would decide the next U.S. presidential election. Some believe the Reagan/Bush campaign made a secret deal with their captors to delay their release. Some even claim the deal was closed at a clandestine meeting in Paris attended by George H.W. Bush. To this day, despite serious investigation, this claim cannot be ruled out.
George thought he must have misunderstood. Thank-you notes? Had he really heard, I want you to write thank-you notes? Perhaps it was that he hadn’t actually heard it. This way of communicating was something he was going to have to get used to. He’d just finish forming a question in his mind, and then the answer would just be there. But he thought if he had the answer all along, why did he have to ask the question in the first place? And that was just one of the puzzling things about this place.
The room was cold and dank, and there were no windows. George guessed it was underground, which would explain why the air was so stale. The walls were mushroom-colored. There was no one else in the room, but he heard voices outside somewhere speaking a language he could not understand. He had heard the language before but couldn’t place it.
All he could really remember was the machine in the hospital with the oscillating green line and thinking that the doctors in their masks, gowns, and caps had been covered even more completely than a woman in a chador. He remembered feeling frightened that he could see only their eyes and not their faces. They had been shouting to each other, but then their shouting had become more and more distant until he hadn’t been able to hear them at all.
He got up from the bed and tried moving around to get warmer, but the cold came right up from the floor through his bare feet. He wondered why he didn’t have any shoes. You don’t need shoes, he thought. Then he frowned. How did he know this? It was like knowing he was supposed to write thank-you notes. He walked over to the small, wooden table and chair in the middle of the room. The chair was flimsy and had no cushion. There was a clear, non-retractable Bic pen and some blank 3” x 5” cards on the table. Cheap stationery. He picked up the notes and counted them. Fifty-two.
George walked back to the bed and lay down. Someone would have to be by soon to bring him some food, he decided, and he would just wait and ask them some questions. Except, thinking about it, it must have been hours since he’d eaten because he didn’t recall having a meal. And yet, he wasn’t hungry. Or thirsty. It’s just that it was so cold. He suddenly felt very drowsy, but he struggled to stay awake because he heard the voices getting closer. At last he could talk to someone, he thought.
⧫ ⧫ ⧫
It was very peculiar, this sleeping with your eyes open. It was more like watching a movie and not restful at all. In this strange movie, a mass of foreign-looking men, scary in their intensity, were storming what looked like a ransacked building. They were pouring in over a wall and through the windows and pounding and stomping so loudly that the building shook as if there were an earthquake. A group of them raced down a corridor, a door opened to a room, and it grew quiet. Inside, a man with a hood over his head, and his hands tied behind his back, sat on a stool surrounded by men with faces purple with anger. George was glad he wasn’t there, but then he thought he must be for he realized it … smelled. There was a strong. unpleasant stench of body odor.
George suddenly couldn’t see a thing and could barely breathe through the heavy cloth covering his face. His shoulders ached from the way his hands were tied behind his back, the knotted rope digging painfully into his wrists, and his hands felt sharp, stinging pricks from lack of circulation. He was very thirsty, and yet he felt a powerful need to urinate, but he was too terrified to ask for anything. He heard voices arguing in that language he’d heard before, and although he couldn’t understand what they were saying, he was certain the men wanted to harm him. They seemed to be quarrelling about what to do with him when an ear-splitting curse and a powerful blow to his jaw exploded simultaneously. Then two, maybe three of them, set upon him—screaming taunts, kicking him in his ribs, his back, his kidneys—with no finesse, but the pain, exquisite. Someone threw a bucket of cold water over him and left him shaking, each shiver like a thousand needles of fire and ice.
⧫ ⧫ ⧫
George woke with a scream. Or rather, his mouth was open as if he’d been screaming, but there was no sound. The memory of his dream was clear in his mind, but he couldn’t tell if his jaw actually hurt, or if he was only feeling the memory of it hurting. He remembered the ice-cold water and was surprised to find he wasn’t wet. And odd too, he was no longer thirsty nor did he have to urinate. Then the voices he had heard before started chanting, but infuriatingly, they’d get softer each time he actually tried to make out the words. He was certain he had heard that language before. The drone of the voices was mesmerizing, and he started feeling tired again but got up from the bed. He did not want to have another dream.
The table and chair yawned at him, and he sat down. Fifty-two cards. Okay, he could make a deck of cards and play solitaire. At least that would put a dent in the boredom. But as he put the pen to a card to draw the face of a king, what felt like an electric shock ran up his arm. He dropped the pen, and it skittered and bounced off the table. George inspected the table where the pen had landed and saw deep burn marks on the surface. He found himself knowing: not playing cards, thank-you notes. The pen was on the floor, and he bent down to retrieve it gingerly. He picked up one of the cards. He wrote, Dear, and paused to search his memory. He remembered there had been doctors trying to help him, but he no longer had memory of any of them, just the blur of their green gowns. Still. Maybe he was supposed to thank them for having been concerned. But surely there hadn’t been fifty-two of them.
George was getting tired again. He decided he would lie down on the bed and not actually sleep. But the moment he lay down he found himself yawning. The voices started chanting louder, and their rhythmic sound dragged him into a stupor. He saw a man, dressed in rags, lying face down in a dark prison cell. He couldn’t tell who the man was in the dim light.
⧫ ⧫ ⧫
George again felt his wrists tied behind him, but this time he was not blindfolded. As his eyes adjusted to near total darkness, he saw he was lying on a Styrofoam mat on a cement floor. He was alone, but foul-smelling puddles in the corners of the cell suggested previous occupants. Just outside the steel door he could hear a tinny radio playing classical music. An abrupt hush in the music let him hear the sound of a whip hitting skin and a man’s terrible cry. After another hideous scream, the music was turned up so loud it was distorted. George knew the man must still be screaming, and not being able to hear it was disconcerting. Somewhere down a hall he heard a metal door swing open and shut. He could not think which was worse—the fear that someone would soon come for him or the fear that he was completely forgotten and no one would ever come for him. He considered this for a very long time but could not decide, which made the fear escalate, and sleep elude him.
⧫ ⧫ ⧫
But he must have fallen asleep. Otherwise he couldn’t now be waking. He thought maybe he had heard someone about to come in and looked for the steel door but saw there wasn’t any door, only four identical walls. He was back in the room with the table and chair, and there was no music anymore and no smell. Funny he hadn’t noticed before that the room didn’t have a door. How the heck had he gotten in? Then George had the answer in his mind, but the answer was so terrible he pretended he didn’t know it, and then suddenly, he didn’t even remember what he had been thinking. He went over to the table and sat down. Fifty-two cards, fifty-two thank-you notes. And since a note had to be to someone, that meant fifty-two people. But he couldn’t remember even one person he could write.
As his mind drifted, he forgot to stop himself from wondering about who the fifty-two people might be, and instantly, he had a picture in his mind of a hotel room. He could tell from the electrical outlets and the ornate furniture that the room was not in America. He guessed somewhere in Europe, though he wasn’t certain since the shades were drawn. The room was well lit, but it was filled with shadows. The shadows solidified into forms, and the forms coalesced into people.
⧫ ⧫ ⧫
The Louis XIV-style chair was damned uncomfortable, and it was all George could do to keep from fidgeting. The other people in the room seemed both relieved and anxious, like they were close to wrapping up a big business deal that could still go wrong. At first he couldn’t quite place them. Except for one or two, they weren’t European. Mostly they were something else, Middle Eastern maybe, and a couple could only be Americans. Only one of them seemed like someone he’d ever want to have a drink with, a tall, stooped, white-haired guy who was insisting, “No, not in October, not until January!”
The foreign-looking men exchanged wary glances then spoke rapidly among themselves in the language he’d heard before. Finally they said, “Okay. Three more months, all fifty-two.”
That was when something flew out of George and settled into the form of a crow. The crow rested on his shoulder and grew larger and larger until he was eclipsed, just a tiny thing, and the crow flew off with a great flapping of wings.
⧫ ⧫ ⧫
The sound of flapping wings startled him, but when he woke he was alone again in the mushroom-colored room. He knew all at once who the fifty-two people were and that it was going to be hard to write them thank-you notes. He sat at the wooden table and squirmed as he rifled through the stack of blank cards. Then he had a wild thought: could an apology get him out of here? The answer was immediate and harsh.
Gritting his teeth, he picked up his pen and wrote: Dear—George couldn’t think of any of their names—Friend. I wish to express my appreciation to you and your colleagues. Thank you—he considered how best to put this delicately—for the opportunity you gave me to serve my country. As the strongest, freest nation in the world we owe it to the free nations of the world to lead, to stay strong, to care. Sincerely. Then he signed his name.
George didn’t see why he couldn’t write the same thing on the other cards, so he copied the same message over and over. He noticed that the black ink in the pen was running low, and he wondered if he’d be able to get through all the cards before it ran out. After he finished all but one, he shook the pen vigorously, but when he stopped shaking it he saw with astonishment that the pen was totally replenished with ink. Then, he saw that the card he’d just written was now blank, and all of the other cards were blank too.
It was taxing to write the notes all over again, but George was careful this time to handle each card gingerly and to not shake the pen. He’d started writing each a little differently to personalize them. On one he added, Take comfort in knowing you served your country with courage, honor, and pride, and on another, he decided to add some helpful advice that he wished he’d been more careful to follow: Tell the truth. Don’t blame people. Be strong. Do your best. Try hard. Forgive. Stay the course. He was nearly done, each card placed carefully after the next in neat rows. He took a moment to rub his eyes, but when he opened them he saw rows and rows of blank cards and the pen refilled with ink. The chanting started again, and this time the cadence was spritely, as if to mock him.
This was too much, thought George. This shall not stand. He picked up the pen defiantly and wrote on the top card: To whom it may concern: I can categorically assure you that I was never a participant in a scheme to keep any American held hostage. Please accept my word that I know nothing about anyone else’s involvement in such an insidious plot. I wish you all the best, and I hope this has laid to rest some of your understandable concerns.
He waited, but for a moment there was nothing. Then, one after another, the words he’d written slid off the card, and the card was blank and empty as before. The words dissolved into a splash of black ink that started to dance like spilled mercury, expand, and coalesce until its blackness filled the room. Something surrounded him, black and indistinguishable from the rest of the blackness, and he could feel its crushing pressure on his chest. At last the Being breathed one word, and as George turned the word over and over in his mind in awe, infinitesimally tiny pieces of the word spun off in brilliant bursts of light that sparkled and fell in the darkness. Suddenly, he too was falling at tremendous, gathering speed, past darkness, past worlds, until just as he thought he must shatter into an untold number of particles and dust, he felt himself caught by a great invisible hand that set him down with great care.
He opened his eyes to find that he had landed in the bed in the mushroom-colored room. From somewhere in his mind he heard, thank-you notes. I want you to write thank-you notes. George got up slowly, shuffled over to the table, and sat down.