Trigger warning: This story contains abuse (physical and emotional), murder, and suicide attempts.
The prison is a small building with one communal cell. The only other occupant is a man who smells like alcohol. He declares he got too drunk and they’ll put him in the stocks for a few hours later in the afternoon. He’s not bothered by the punishment.
I sit on the damp straw in the far corner from the door and the reeking bucket of human waste. I hug my knees to my chest and hide my face. It’ll only be a couple days at most before someone from my home is able to confirm who I am. Then I’ll be lucky to live through the night.
They take the man to put him in the stocks, but no one says anything to me. I’m alone with the shadows in my mind. The voices blur together in my head and I block out the world. It’s better this way. No feeling. No guilt. Just darkness.
A voice cuts through the gloom and says my name. I don’t stir until she repeats the call. “Jared?”
I look up and see Sarah at the window, clutching the metal bars. I don’t want to respond, but the bandage on her hand and the anxious look on her face make me feel guiltier. I can’t fix Boswell’s death, but I can fix what happened last night.
“Jared?” She knows I’ve heard her now that I lifted my head.
I slowly make my way across the room. I’m taller than her and my chin barely clears the bottom of the sill. She must be standing on something, a barrel perhaps. My stomach twinges. Why is she here?
Her lips turn up in the faintest hint of a smile. “I brought you something,” she says. She disappears for a second, then slips something wrapped in a handkerchief through the bars.
I unwrap it and find a biscuit. The memory of the woods all those years ago comes flooding back and shoves tears into my eyes. Ever since that moment, Sarah has been there, always ready with a smile or a scrap of food.
“I didn’t know if they would give you anything to eat. I know it’s not warm. I hope it’s enough.” Regret tinges her words. “I would have brought more, but Edmund wouldn’t approve.” She looks down. “I should go now.”
Without thinking, I wrap my fingers around her injured hand. She draws a sharp breath but doesn’t pull away. “I’m sorry.” I pause. “I shouldn’t have hurt you.”
“It was an accident,” she says simply. “But all the same, I forgive you.” She starts to pull away, but I don’t let her.
“Why do you help me? No one told you to. I’m cursed.”
Sarah looks me straight in the eyes. “You are not cursed, Jared. I help you because God cares for you.”
God doesn’t care for you. Every word of condemnation the minister ever thundered from the pulpit echoes in my mind. I shove the noise away and remind myself Sarah is different from all the other people I ever interacted with. I can trust her.
So perched on a barrel outside of my prison window, Sarah whispers a story of hope about a man named Jesus.
In the darkness that night, I still cling to the glimmering thread of hope Sarah gave me. The offer of forgiveness, rescue from my guilt and shame. The voices tug on the other end of the thread and I struggle to hold on.
Nonsense. It’s all nonsense.
But the thought of a God who would forgive me and wash away my sin slowly overcomes the voices. I still clutch Sarah’s handkerchief in my hand as if it’s a lifeline. I feel so alone right now, with the shadows of the prison walls surrounding me, only a puddle of moonlight at my feet for company.
I don’t know how to pray. The ministers always boomed grand words to the heavens, adding “Thee” and “Thou” every few words. Midwife Sasha prayed when a baby died, one hand to her heart, the other clutching a bottle. Mahala and Boswell never prayed.
I pull my knees closer to my chest and take a shuddering breath. “God?” The quiet echo of my voice startles me and I pause. “God? I-I’m sorry. Please forgive me.” I manage a few more stumbling words of repentance, then I cry my heart into Sarah’s handkerchief.
The day of my hanging is gray and snow drifts down around me as they fit the noose around my neck. The rough rope bites into my skin and I take a deep breath. My heart thuds in my chest and I search the crowd for Sarah. Mahala stands in the front, her arms crossed, looking ready to shove me off the platform herself.
I’m almost dizzy with anxiety, but when I finally find Sarah, I’m able to breathe a bit freer. I struggle to remember one of the verses she told me during my final days in the prison. The old voices are back, trying to shout out the familiar words I’ve heard all my life. I force them away. They are lies now. The blood on my hands is finally washed away.
“Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us.” ~ Galatians 3:13