Cold and Dark Return to the High Plains

moon over the snow

I walk the outskirts of town, the cold and dark are everywhere.  The darkness has returned to the High Plains.   From daylight’s savings until the return of sunlight becomes perceptible again in January are the low parts my year.  I don’t mind the cold, but I miss the light.

The cold can be clarifying tonic on the High Plains.  It is not suffused with the dampness of Eastern cold.  It is a freeze-drying cold.  Bracing is the word for it.  The darkness can be disorienting, but the cold wakes you up – keeps you focused on the fact you are still alive.

Moonlit Night on the Dniepr – Arkhip Kuindzhi – 1880, Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow. Public Domain.

Tonight is cold and brightly dark, punctuated by the shine of a waning moon, though still nearly full.  It has been a tough past few days on call on the High Plains.  The darkness and the holidays bring out dysfunction and mental illness.  Without a clearly lit path, people quickly wander back into their own darkness.

A razor-thin slice shy of freedom

For the second time in 12 hours, I am reapproximating the flesh on the left forearm of a man in chains – offenders as the guards say.  The same man. Two cheeked fragments of a razorblade did the work, the second one not found in time.  I had known he was serious about wanting to die.  While stitching up the wound when it was only 4 inches long, he had calmly made small talk.

Disinterestedly watching me sew his numbed arm, “I guess it is harder than on the movies.  In them it is one smooth slice and they die quick.”

I pulled my running vicryl suture, the fatty subcutaneous tissue tightening. He didn’t flinch – a good anesthetic field.

“The body is designed not to die,” I replied. “The body wants to survive.  I might not be able to get your tattoo back to what it was before.”

I ligate an small oozing vein, luckily for his blood volume, he didn’t know the vital vasculature is quite a bit deeper.

“That’s okay.  It’s just their to cover the name of a girl who isn’t my girlfriend no more.  I don’t suppose you can tell me this, but what’d I do wrong?  Where’d I miss?” He asked.

“You’re right, I can’t tell you that.”

That was the first time. After stitching his arm back together I thought about the safest place for him.  Prisoners don’t have a lot of options.  A locked unit for prisoners in the county hospital 2 hours away?

The prison guards assured me he would be watched and would have access to telepsychiatry within several days.  All the options sucked, this one seemed as good as any other. I discharged him back to their care with signed orders for follow up. I even asked them how they were going to keep him from ripping it back open – they had had an answer.

just looking for some peace

Within 12 hours, he was back.  The wound twice as long, but only minimally deeper.  Still no muscle or large vessel damage.  Killing yourself with a half-inch long piece of broken safety razor is not for the faint of heart.

Shit, I think.  I should have found harder for a different solution.  Clearly that didn’t work.  Was I cavalier with his safety?

Me: “So, how did you get another razor blade?”

Offender/Patient(O/P): “I had another one hidden.”

Me: “Where was that?”

O/P: “Well, I can’t tell you that, its privileged information.”

He sprouted a mischievous grin.

“Was it somewhere sensitive?” I pushed.

“No.” He seemed ashamed of the implication. “I had it cheeked.”

shit, he had a back up plan…

A different facility would not have been any safer – he really wanted to kill himself.  Who tries to kill himself and holds something back, just in case he fails?  Someone who knows life is worse than death.

Me: “Well, why do you want to die?”

O/P: “I just want some peace. I’m tired of my shit getting fucked with, of me getting fucked with.  I am not affiliated, so everyone fucks with me.  I just want to be left alone to do my time.”

(Affiliated, if you are not familiar, means not in one of the prison gangs)

Me: “How much time do you have left?”

O/P: “Well, I am up for parole soon, but I don’t have much hope for getting out.  My latest possible release date is 2024.”

Me: “What would it take for you be able to want to live that long?”

O/P:  “Just to be alone, in peace, doing my time.”

Me: “Like solitary?”

O/P: “Yes.”

I place the last 3-0 prolene horizontal mattress suture – for strength, just in case he has another back plan.  Well-approximated, I muse.

the lonely moon

Sitting on the hill, I take in the pale moonlight glancing off the water tower.  It sands in front of the red warning lights of the wind turbines on the distance ridge, which are blinking in unison.

The guards placed O/P into a prison van and took him to the state penitentiary’s system infirmary.  He would be kept shackled the entire time, to prevent a similar incident.  Likely shackled to a bed, with minimal to no freedom of movement. Additionally, the guards assure me he will have urgent access to mental health resources.

I don’t know what this man did to be in prison.  The prison nearby holds serious offenders.  He likely needs to be in prison to protect the rest of us.  Whatever he did was probably enough to sacrifice his right to freedom.

I can’t help see the irony in his desperate attempt at finding peace.  Trying to free himself from his current version of hell, he lost the last of his freedom.

I take in the peace of the night.  The moonlight reflects off the recent shallow snowfall.  My breath freezes in the air and slowly drifts off, without any perturbation. I think about Johnny Cash’s classic – Folsom Prison Blues.

Well I know I had it coming, I know I can’t be free
But those people keep a movin’
And that’s what tortures me

Shit is fucked up, I think to myself.  I start to slide into my cerebral self-flagellation.  Am I supporting the prison-industrial complex?  Am I profiting from it?  Who am I kidding?  Continuing to breathe in this world necessitates a tarnished soul.

I watch the bank of red lights blink.

O/P seems to have accepted his sentence of time.  I cannot and do not want to pretend he is a gentle man or a kind man.   True compassion doesn’t require a made- up story to make the person worthy of it.  He probably needs to be where he is.

Nonetheless, I do wish him some peace and hopefully it does not require his death.





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