The river rushed down the dam, falling from its bottled-up potential above, down the incline in a sheet as thin as glass, to the bottom where it crashed upon itself in a low roar and boiled away in eddies and diminishing waves otherwise unseen on the swift but tranquil current. A small clutch of boats huddled at the base of the dam, in shadow deep enough for their numbers to remain indeterminate, tethered hopefully to each other and tenuously to the shoreline. The mooring line groaned against the current as the boats strove to be nearby, and yet not too near.

As did I, standing in the darkness on the riverbank above. I idled, my hands jammed into my pants pockets, my position betrayed only by the intermittent glow from the end of my cigarette. I rarely smoked, but tonight I needed its help to fight off the simmering tension.

I was drawn here out of a vaguely morbid curiousity. I knew I could do nothing for the man across the river, but a quiet sense of unease somehow required me to be here.

Conscience in touch with humanity.

While there is a soul in prison I am not free.

When they turn on the chair, something's added to the air.

Perhaps my conscience was in touch with humanity. Maybe that's why I was here. But while that man's soul was soon to be freed from its prison, both in a penal and an earthly sense, the freedom of the rest of us would remain unchanged. Something would be added to the air, forever.

The dam had been built a century earlier to calm an ancient stretch of rapids and to harness its power for the sawmill which once gave the area its fleeting moment of commercial prosperity. The sawmill, and the settlement which rose around it, stood directly across from where I now stood.

But all traces of the sawmill and settlement had long since vanished, buried beneath the stone foundations of a small but vicious prison. Home to the hardest of cases, the condemned among them, awaiting either a lifetime inside the walls or the flick of a switch. The execution house stood alongside the riverbank, its death chair and window situated perfectly and cruelly to give a doomed man his final glimpse of the rushing river and the freedom he would never have. Just before the hood was affixed and his sight blocked forever.

I could do nothing, nor could the whispering men in the boats below. We simply needed to be near. It was all we could do to show the depths of our uncertain compassion.

Copyright 2003, P.J. Anderson
Italicized quotations are those of Nelson Algren, Eugene Debs and David Berman, respectively.