Sergeant Ibragimov’s uniform feels starchy, but has traces of an old, rank odor. It’s a few centimeters big at the waist, but his rope belt solves that issue. The officer told him this was the best fit they had. He counts himself lucky he got a uniform at all. The metal shelves in the guards’ office were mostly empty.
Ibragimov trails Master Sergeant Abdulin out of the office into a large hall lined with barred cells lit by large windows one story up. Prisoners line the cells on the outside, sitting end-to-end under tattered blankets. Some of them look at Abdulin and him for a moment and then shield their eyes.
The smell hits Ibragimov like a blast wave. It’s a fetid mix of prison gruel, body odor, sickness, and musty wool.
“This is the main corridor.” Abdulin drags on a cigarette. “Low-risk offenders.”
Flicking his cigarette away, he blows smoke out of the side of his mouth. “After a few days you don’t notice the smell.” He has a weathered round face and deep acne scars. His thin eyes scan the high windows for a moment as if taking in as much sunlight as he can before venturing further inside.
They approach a dimly lit passageway.
Ibragimov removes his hat and rubs his head, just realizing now that it’s giving him a terrible itch. Whether it’s customary to wear the hat while on duty, he can’t be sure. He saw some guards wearing theirs, others not. He decides it will be best to keep it on.
They walk to a large hatch painted an off-yellow that’s faded to a dirty beige. The latch on the other side clonks out of its housing. The door scrapes against the floor as Abdulin strains to pull it open. Ibragimov gives him a hand.
Ibragimov is smaller than Abdulin, thin but with solid muscle mass. The police training corps instilled in him the habit of daily morning calisthenics, which keep him lean. That, and his steady diet of rice and stewed vegetables.
They walk inside. His eyes adjust to the darkness.
“This is the inner corridor. Higher security.”
On both sides of them, long rows of solid metal cell doors stretch into darkness, each with only a small barred slot about the size of a rice bag.
“Stay back,” Abdulin commands, knocking his billy club against the cells. He maintains the same volume, perhaps for the benefit of the prisoners, when he turns to Ibragimov. “You have to let them know who’s in command. It is the only way to keep discipline.”
The prisoners cough and murmur.
Ibragimov is overwhelmed by the assault on his senses. He fights a gag reflex, and is suddenly grateful that he didn’t have anything to eat this morning. He wonders if he can endure this work. He would go back to farm labor in an instant if he could, if those jobs hadn’t dried up. He was lucky to get into the training corps. He reminds himself that this is one of the best jobs in the Osh region. He’ll make enough money to feed not only his wife and son, but his mother and father, his wife’s mother, and her grandmother, all of whom live with him in the village.
He covers his mouth, and tells himself that he’s very lucky.
“You will do rounds once every hour.”
Ibragimov waits for more details on what “doing rounds” entails, but none come.
“Block C and D are easy. Not much of a challenge.” Abdulin speaks a jumbled mix of Russian and Kyrgyz, and it comes off as broken Russian, like he’s an uneducated thug. It’s possible, Ibragimov realizes, that Abdulin got this job through a relative, and has no professional training. He may not even have a lot of respect for training. He has something he likely considers more valuable: experience working in this particular prison. Ibragimov noticed by the way Abdulin interacted with the other guards that he’s steeped in the fraternity of guards.
Ibragimov hopes to prove himself in the coming weeks so he’ll be accepted in the fraternity. During his trial period, he’ll have only three weeks to make a good impression, and be granted a permanent job.
They move toward a black minaret-shaped opening in the wall at the end of the hall.
“There’s one place left to show, and that is the pit.” They pass through the door and enter a dark stone corridor so narrow that its rough walls brush against Ibragimov’s sleeves. It bends and becomes quieter and danker. The reverberating noise of voices and clanging metal recedes behind them. Ibragimov hears a rat squeak as they traverse the uneven ground.
“This is the old prison. Built long before the rest.”
“But it is still in use?”
“Only for one prisoner.”
They emerge from the dark tunnel onto a bridge overlooking a large cellblock. A skylight splattered with pigeon guano bathes the cavernous recess in a yellowish-green haze. Not even old paint covers the crumbling stone walls here. A rusted chain-link fence stretches floor-to-ceiling along the bridge, with an iron railing in the center. Ibragimov is concerned the grated-mesh walkway clattering under their boots will collapse, but Abdulin walks across it confidently. He looks over the expanse of cells below and grips the fence, giving it a short rattle.
The smell is overpowering. Ibragimov stills his breath.
“The locks hook into the electric grid, but nothing else is updated.”
Ibragimov looks down at what at first look like abandoned cells. They’re dark, except for one in the far corner at the bottom, where a shadow moves, cast from what appears to be a small flame inside.
Ibragimov has many questions, but doesn’t speak. Abdulin will tell him what he needs to know, he reasons, and he doesn’t want to be perceived as a nuisance.
Abdulin takes out a cigarette and lights it. He looks at Ibragimov as if to answer his unspoken question, but then looks behind them, and a smile creeps onto his moon-like face.
“It is our lucky day,” he motions to the tunnel. “It is a feeding.”
Ibragimov turns around. From out of the dark tunnel, two guards walk onto the bridge holding the arms of a handcuffed prisoner. As they approach, he can make out the shackled man’s pitiful whimpers. He has a doomed look in his eyes, and his face has gone white.
Abdulin takes a big puff on his cigarette. “A troublemaker.”
They continue walking past them, and stop at the corner of the catwalk, where behind a padlocked door, an exposed circular staircase encased in a cylinder of fencing descends into the pit.
One of the guards takes a key from his belt and opens the padlock.
The prisoner snaps out of his daze and jolts his body as if to run off. They grip him more tightly.
“Whoa, horse. Whoa,” Abdulin chuckles as he tosses his cigarette through the fence into the pit.
“Wait,” he says to the guards. “The new man will take him down.”
The guards smile and nod, relieved that Abdulin has given their job to Ibragimov.
Ibragimov feels a churning knot in his stomach. He forces himself to walk toward the prisoner.
Yellow tape droops across the middle of the stairs marking a perimeter. One of the guards opens the stairwell gate, careful not to cross this threshold. This is when Ibragimov spots the bodies. There are two, both prisoners, a few steps down on the stairwell. From the look of them, a few days old.
Ibragimov takes a hard swallow and grabs the prisoner’s arm firmly, and then moves carefully down the stairs.
“Don’t fall in,” one of the guards says with a big smile. The other laughs.
Ibragimov walks down another few steps with the prisoner, over one of the bodies, just up to the perimeter tape.
“That’s far enough. Push him,” Abdulin says. “We have to move the tape. This other one is higher. You see?” He motions to the body closest to the top of the stairs, just past the tape.
“Could be he only fell this way,” one of the other guards says.
“Still, better to be safe.”
Ibragimov doesn’t understand, but feels it would be best to do as Abdulin says. The prisoner is weak and scrawny. Ibragimov overpowers him easily and gives him a push. The wretch stumbles down the stairs as Ibragimov jots up them in a hurry.
One of the guards yells, “Run, rookie! Run!” The other guards have a good laugh.
The prisoner falls out of the stairwell at the bottom. He gets up and limps toward the center of the pit. Ibragimov moves closer to the fence to get a clear view. The prisoner walks forward toward the lighted cell, as if no longer afraid. After a few more steps, he falls to his knees, whimpering.
A figure inside the lighted cell moves toward the door. Ibragimov can’t make out his features, only long, dark hair falling over his face.
The prisoner hunches over in the center of the pit like a slave in the arena bracing for the unchaining of the lions. Then he begins scraping his bare fist against the hard, dirty floor in broad strokes, seemingly with all his strength, scrawling what appears to be a message. Soon, lines of blood from his scraped knuckles begin to reveal that he’s writing a series of numbers.
“What are the numbers?” Ibragimov finds himself asking. He turns to see the others standing back, away from the fence.
He tries to get a better look at the figure in the lighted cell. As he does, the figure’s gaze moves from the prisoner up to Ibragimov. His eyes seem to pierce through the distance between them, as though he’s looking into his soul. Ibragimov quickly backs away to stand with the others, trying to shake off the strange feeling.
That’s when Ibragimov hears the cracking sound, like a hammer on concrete.
He peers over the lip of the bridge to see that the prisoner is no longer writing. The top of his head repeatedly rises, and then thrusts down violently. He continues this motion until he falls over, limp.
Abdulin motions for them to move back into the tunnel out. “Show is over.”
One of the other guards chuckles. “Welcome to Taldyk.”