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  • James O'Brien

My Beautiful Oubliette

I find the dark imperious, tyrannical, ambiguous, infallible but capable of kindness. It has many personalities. During each of the seven days of each week I can see light breach the seams and cracks above and I know how the days pass and the week. I sleep and wake and live in the breach. In it I can judge the quality of the days: bright day, gray day, dark day. All week I wait for the one hour when the latch releases and the hatch door falls open and in flows refracted sunlight like a flood of ghosts. Somewhere up there is an opening to the sky. Right there, to the infinite. For that hour, maybe less, once each week, light pours in, at an angle, through a hatch, down into the dark of my oubliette. Every seventh day I am given this gift and it has become the focus. I count the days with precision and so know the day if not the hour the hatch door will fall and on that day I am… almost happy, as I lay on my cot and watch and watch, waiting for the door to fall, thinking about how I will drink in that light (in my head I added 3 extra “l’”’s to “light”). It has become as vital to me as the sack of food and water and sometimes soap and one time a blanket and twice a precious paperback in my language lowered down through the weekly shaft of light. After so much time spent in unrelenting darkness, light is my reason to count the days, to mark and track the coming and going of the faint glow that seeps in through the cracks and seams, glowing, gray, glowing, weak, dreary light in season. How the dingy yellow canvas of the sack illuminates in the shed light. I stand in that luminous showering glow and grab at the sack as soon as it is within reach, but never do I jump at it. Once it is in my hands though I tear it open, pour out its contents onto the floor, drink and eat, berate myself for my gluttony, for my lack of foresight, my indulging. my refusals, my capacity for pain, for politeness, which kept me alive, for solitude, which has kept me alive, against my will, inside this darkness which seems to possess many personalities. It reminds me of people I knew or had known or hated. That happened twice, once when the darkness reminded me of the enemy, who held such power over me and all around me, the way both show no hesitation in making another afraid, and yet so many are drawn to them, to their immense practicality. Many of us seek them, sought them, the way some seek obscurity, they’ve something to hide. Or think they do. Each possesses an ability to use silence as a tool, and confusion as a weapon. The dark is imperious, tyrannical, capable of kindness, but also infallible. How can I deny it’s rightness? I know them. I trust there would come a grand gesture like the stars, like the very bare advent of a sunrise on a clear, frigid winter morning, and he will act the father of the prodigal. I can even see him in the darkness; his face looks like a loaf of bread. The empty sack disappears up into the light and through the hatch and is gone. But the hatch remains open, sometimes for as much as an hour. It is so kind, such a kindness, to let me sit in that shaft of light and drink and eat bread. The night before the seventh day is sometimes sleepless in anticipation. My optimism on those days is boundless. Perhaps that is an exaggeration. I think about bread, how it has become so delicious to me. I love its hardness, I love scraping at its sides with my tooth, I enjoy shaking out the small animals that lived inside it. I speak to them, apologize for the eviction, or for eating their babies; the thought of their invisible eggs no longer makes me gag or blanch. Sometimes I consume the animals themselves, though I never fantasize about them. Other times I think I might leave for them a crumb or two, but it is impossible. One day as I lay on my back staring at the glow seeping through the hatch, I crossed my legs and playfully let my foot swing up and down, like an anxious person who is otherwise happy with nothing to do. When I caught myself doing this idle happy thing I stopped immediately. My knee was hurting anyway. I thought about my poems, the ones I had written and the ones I couldn’t write down because I had no tools. More had come to me in my time in my dark oubliette than in all the years above. But how can I record them? I try to control their coming and going, working on one at a time, slowly so I might commit it to memory for some future when I have a pen and paper, a time I only ever believe will come during the seventh day of the week as I wait for the light, full of optimism. A poem: Into a river of fish I fell/fresh fish special/ring the bell! That day, after I uncrossed my legs, I worked on my latest poem for hours, just to distract myself from the waiting. Hunger, thirst, the day, stanzas and the seeping light all gathered and dispersed. I had stopped working and found myself staring so intently at the hatch I could literally see the faint glow fade to almost nothing. I felt confused. The dark was imperious, tyrannical, capable of kindness, but also infallible. It ruled me. I checked the calendar in my head. I checked my count of the days. I had had no food for two. No water since that morning. Food usually lasted five days, water I made last – barely -- seven. Had I over indulged again? Had I miscalculated? Could I have been a day early? I was certain I had counted the days correctly. My heart was racing. It was like I was outside surgery waiting for the doctor with the news. I was sitting in the courtroom waiting for the clerk to get through all the preliminaries and announce the verdict. I watched that hatch like a sea captain’s wife and the sea. I watched with the vigilance of an army scout behind a boulder. I watched it with the stillness of a coyote over a rabbit hole. Its opening was my feast, my Sunday Mass, my divine day of rest, my sabbath, my sustenance, my survival. In this benighted dark it was my baptism. I paced and screamed a kind of angry despairing prayer full of accusations and entreaties. Quickly I regretted the accusations, the hostility. I begged for forgiveness. In the darkest dark after day had ended, I fell face down onto my cot. I cried, and I remembered the poet who had begged his patron lord: send my roots rain. I laughed, I don’t want for rain, I want for light, send my leaves light, but you refuse and I am dying, will die. I bit my hand so hard it almost bled. I tried to let myself suffocate, pressed into the thin mat but failed to die. I cried for food. Tearlessly I cried for water. But I screamed, and I bit, for the light. I prayed to fall asleep and never wake up, to die deep inside a dark hood of night without openings. Hours passed. I was refused sleep. I cried, stopped crying, and finally, finally began to drift. I dreamed, or thought I dreamed, but in the waking world something was stirring, and I heard the hatch door fall, clack, swing. The dullest glow reached the corner of my eye. I didn’t turn to look. So the supplied were here. I resented the sending of my roots rain when I had begged for light. A voice warned me. Take the food and water or it will be withdrawn. I jumped up, raced to the sack and only then did I see it flowing down, though something was different. Had I miscalculated the days and hours after all? Was it day now? I could see, up through the aperture, patches of a stranger darkness that almost appeared to be the very source of a new kind of light flowing down like a load-bearing pilar of sweet, soft vertical joy, not from a flashlight, not from a bulb or torch, not from a distant window on the sun. This was a light that shone surrounded by darkness. I moved back to the cot, sat a moment drinking and staring. I did not blink. I barely breathed. After two slow sips of water I rose and walked back toward the shower of light and, slowly, slowly, entered, first with a hand, then another. I could see the filth, the long nails, bones and veins through the thin skin in the penetrating light. I stepped in and let it wash over me with its tenderness. If light could be cashmere, if light could be silk, if light could be her mother’s skin to a baby. If light could be an infant’s skin to her mother. If light could be a stolid presence when no one else will join you, faith when no one will believe about what is inside of you. This light simply was. The gentle saint had called the moon sister, but this was the mother light, not a thing I could embrace, but something to embrace me, to hold me awhile in the darkness that had held me always, that sought to separate me from the world, the people, the day. I could see now, if the sun and rain are the seed, then the moon, even in its barrenness, the moon is the mother, the watcher over, the only true guide when darkness falls, moonlight was holding my hand as I stood motionless except for running tears. After thousands shed in this darkness, these tears were different, they came without thought or question, they came without pain in my soul or limbs, they came as an offering up to the light, tears to tell the moonlight that it had moved me, to show the light I was listening to its message. That I was its acolyte. I was its child. Slowly, inevitably, the light itself moved. I moved with it until I heard the hatch creek, its chains clank, it closed loudly, the dark resumed, but for a moment the breath of the mother lingered, remained visible in the seams. I made my way without sight to the cot, lay down on my back, and watched her breath fade. The dark regained its dominion. I felt warm. I felt tired. Heavy. The dark, it was imperious, tyrannical, capable of kindness, but also infallible. I shook my head and laughed in disbelief. Send my leaves light, I yelled; then, quietly, send my leaves moonlight.

🙟 About James O’Brien 🙜

James O’Brien lives in Oakland, California, where he writes about the aftermath of violence and a community of former victims working to bring safety and healing to their city. He is writing a book about Marilyn Washington Harris, who, after the murder of her only son in 2000, dedicated her life to transforming the dark, lonely, painful experience of losing a loved one to sudden violence, and became an icon of healing and justice. James has published much nonfiction (selected articles available at “My Beautiful Oubliette” is his first published fiction. James’s visual creations, known as “jimages,” can be viewed on Instagram: @icecityalmanac or at

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