Photo by Cynthia Frankenburg

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Prisoners of Our Own Delights

Being the lonely writer, I get along better with punctuation marks than with most people. As something of an outsider skirting along the fringes of the crowd, I often slip into that strange world where folks speak to you in third person and use air quotes all the time. “What’s the ‘creative one’ up to these days? She still coming up with ‘clever stories’?”

Well, clever’s not a bad thing. It takes clever to deal with those crazy people. I find myself being a little like Pac Man doing the chomp-chomp-turn, chomp-chomp-turn, ingesting all that linear thinking I think I have to think and running from the ghost-like memories that chase me.

Eight hundred years ago when I was but sixteen, our family of one mother and three girls had been slightly forgotten by our mother’s husband, our father, and we had no money to buy clothes for the chilly fall. I’d grown particularly ashamed of my worn-out patent leather shoes and tired of covering their fatigued shine with coats of clear nail polish.

We bumbled into the discount shoe store where my big-eyed sisters held their breaths, and Mother sighed loudly in the habit of one who can’t afford to do anything but. I was surprised the clerks even said hello.

We navigated the aisles like ships in the Panama Canal, one sister locked in front of the tasseled majorette boots and staring, the other squatted before translucent galoshes, touching the dull sheen of their mud-colored plastic. My mother inspected each handbag with tender care. And as for me?, The leather moccasins grabbed my attention, fringed around the ankles and decorated with real conchos, endowed with strips of sinew for the tying, and their soles! Oh, their double leather soles . . .

No one saw my hands reach out and stuff the moccasins inside my jacket. No one noticed my pitiful shoes, or considered the too-thin blouse I wore beneath the coat. No one guessed at the false pride I’d use to cover my transgression, or that I had the power to make things disappear. I walked out of that store with a new pair of “free shoes” and never once thought about getting caught.

Many fewer years ago than eight hundred, a handful of friends and I worked as volunteers in the North Carolina Native American Women’s Prison Project on the southeast side of Raleigh. We had gone through the rigors of this strenuous community-building project for about eighteen months and had grown accustomed to many of the rules, like: don’t bring valuables in your see-through plastic purse, bring in no item that can be formed into a weapon, and expect delays in entering the prison due to sudden lockdowns or frequent inspection of inmates’ quarters.

One evening, a volunteer of the program forgot to remove her silver bracelet, given her the night before by her husband on their anniversary. The jewelry, innocently worn beneath her lengthy sleeve, had gone unnoticed by the admitting officials in a rare moment of temporary blindness for which they could have lost their state employ. A long-term inmate, repeat offender on untold counts of petty theft, sat through the entire program beside the bangled volunteer. To this day, I consider that inmate more clever than me.

No one saw the inmate’s hand unclasp the silver bracelet from beneath the shirt’s long sleeve. No one noticed her nimble fingers pick it from the floor. No one considered its gleam diminishing somewhere in the shadows of her state-issued bra, and no one thought how she might spend it the next day—never mind it was really her magic she’d be trading away.

Many weeks after the stolen bracelet incident, our small volunteer group miraculously hosted the first powwow to be held within the walls of a U.S. women’s prison, or so we were told by state officials.

Among the many dignitaries attending this gala were officials from the regional Catholic diocese, beneath whose umbrella our group fell; high-echelon members of the North Carolina Indian Commission; the Eno-Ocaneechi treasure, John Blackfeather Jeffries from Hillsborough; and the crucial heart of the event, the drum, provided by our beloved Eastern Bull Singers out of Greenville, NC.

Adhering to the western-style traditions as best we knew them, we schooled our group of inmates in the art of making shawls and dancing in the traditional way. The thoughtful prayers they said for each strand of fringe tied to the shawl caused our fitful hearts to calm. Every right step they took gave us pause to honor and thank relatives long gone. The dignitaries appreciated being gifted by the women with original works of art, their framed handprints in all the colors of the world. In the circle, their shared handshakes became bridges spanning the universe.

Our prayer for them had been that societal reentry be made more bearable. We wanted each woman to know without a shadow of a doubt that we, the cleverest of shape-shifters all, proficient at disappearing in the trade of secrets and lies, adept at reappearing in bits and pieces, magicians existing somewhere between the prisons of our own delights and the boundless burden of absolute freedom—we, the benders of time and light, must choose our paths with care.