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Surmel’s Litany

by Brin Manoogian-O’Dell

The guards dragged Surmel down the hallway. Surmel was only half-aware of this treatment. He had resigned himself to the dragging, after all. It was a natural result of being caught. He had endured it many times before and would most likely endure it many times again.

Instead, Surmel was focused on the Latin mass that was caught in his memory. This, too, was not unusual for him: he had been hearing this same mass for... since... it was hard to remember.

One of the guards held Surmel as the other opened his cell. The door opened, and he was thrown inside. The door closed. He remained on the floor, his legs weak from being dragged. He lay there, waiting for the interrogation... and for him. It would not be more than an hour, Surmel was sure of it, until he came.

All the while, the mass ran through his mind. Surmel thought over his most recent escape attempt. He had made it all the way to the roof of the building before they had caught up to him. He had been so close, but he had been close to escaping before. He would bide his time until he could reach the roof again.

Introibo ad altare Dei.

The minutes passed. The fluorescents in the ceiling buzzed and Surmel remained face-down on the tile. Even when he heard the cell door opening behind him, he made no movement.

The guards hauled him up roughly and propped him on the bench. Surmel sat up straight when the interrogator came in. If the interrogator saw disobedience, he would have the guards punish Surmel. Surmel saved disobedience for later. He waited.

“Surmel, how are you?”

“I am well today.”

“I am sure you know why I am here, that this is not a regular visit?”

“Yes. I tried to escape. Again.”

“That is correct, Surmel. Perhaps you would like to tell me your reasons this time.”

“I’ve said this before: I don’t need to tell you my reasons.”

Surmel sometimes longed to strike out at the guards, to hit them like they hit him. He wanted to trip them as they walked past, to see them fall face-first on the tiles, to kick them where they lay. When the guard struck him, he returned to these thoughts.

Judica me, Deus, et discerne causam meam de gente non sancta: ab homine iniquo et doloso erue me.

The questions did not stop with this but continued uninterrupted and the violent thoughts faded as the interrogation wore on. The guards were not the problem; they were controlled by the questioner, the calm interrogator. He held his clipboard in pale, calm hands, this man whose face remained blank. Twelve years, and his face remained blank! How could he stand it, to show no emotion? Each second it remained as expressionless as the tiles, yet with each second it spoke to Surmel, the whole face showing what the mouth only hinted. Those blank eyes would go spinning toward Surmel and away again. The cheeks and ears remained pale, not seeming to move with the mouth, but they also spoke.

“You will shatter. You will break before me again and again, forever, before a crack begins to show on me.”

Quia tu es, Deus, fortitudo mea: quare me repulisti, et quare tristis incedo, dum affligit me inimicus?

“Why are you so hostile to these sessions, Surmel? You know that we only want to help.”

“I don’t need your help.”

The second blow did not hurt as much. Surmel expected this one. He turned back to the interrogator, knowing that no amount of insolence would let him escape the questions. But after the questions...

“Surmel, do your attempts have something to do with an experience you had when you were younger?”

“I don’t know what you’re saying.”

“I think you do.” The interrogator paused before resuming. “Why is it, Surmel, that you always go first to the roof in your attempts?

Et introibo ad altare Dei: ad Deum qui laetificat juventutem meam.

Surmel was young. He felt young as some people feel old, trapped. He stood in church, watching the procession file down the aisle. Above him stood his mother and father, serene in their worship, but he could not join in this serenity. He was restless. He wanted to be outside, to stand beneath the sky and play in the snow. The sky was so nice that night. Still, the service was almost over. It ended with “Amen.”


“Surmel, your unwillingness to work with me on this is something I find disturbing.”

“I’m sorry.”

“I am sure that there is some future time when you will be honest in your apologies, Surmel. Until then, all I can hope from you is that you will answer my questions. Do you agree that these sessions are for your own good, Surmel?”


“Then I want you to talk to me. Tell me what you feel. Tell me what you remember.”

Confiteor Deo omnipotenti, beatae Mariae semper Virgini, beato Michaeli Archangelo, beato Joanni Baptistae, sanctis Apostolis Petro et Paulo, omnibus Sanctis, et tibi pater.

“Why are my memories so important?”

“I can’t tell you that, Surmel, but believe me, they’re very important.”

“I’ll try to remember.”

“Good, please tell me. Does that make you happy that I say ‘please’ to you?”

“I’m not sure, probably not.”

The third blow was also expected, but unexpectedly strong. Surmel’s head swam for a moment before the darkness around him started receding. Instead of letting consciousness slip away, Surmel willfully blacked out and slid down in his seat. The session would end with this.

Ostende nobis Domine, misericordiam tuam.

They had driven home through the snow that night. His mother and father had been cheerful, carefree from the church service. He hadn’t been so content. That snow swirled past the windows. He wanted to be outside, even if it was cold. He always seemed to be waiting.

Aufer a nobis, quaesumus, Domine, iniquitates nostras: ut ad Sancta sanctorum puris mereamur mentibus introire.

Surmel awoke to find his cell empty. His head ached. He stood up painfully and had to sit down again on the bench. While he rubbed his head with his left hand, his right felt for the crack in the wall.

It was impossible to find without the crack, but the loose brick was easy to pry out once it was located. Behind the brick was the wire. Surmel wondered why the guards had never found the wire. Surely, at least the questioner knew about it! Why was it the interrogator had never asked about Surmel’s methods of escape? How many times had he been out of his cell? It was surely too many to count. That was not the important thing, though. What was important was the escape. Surmel knew he would make it this time. He had a feeling.

Picking the lock was hard from the outside. It hurt Surmel to twist his hand around but he had to do it to reach. It took a few minutes to pick the lock but then the escape was really on! Surmel pushed open his cell door and ran out into the hallway. Which way to take?! Left, his mind told him. Surmel sprinted past the guard’s post. Where was the guard that day? He ran past the rest of the cellblock. Where were the others? Hadn’t there been others?

Surmel stopped, thinking over this new information. Hadn’t there been other prisoners? Where were the guards? Each cell stood empty. The entire cell block echoed only his footsteps.

What was it that the interrogator had said? Surmel’s past was important. What had happened that night, out in the snow?

Kyrie eleison.

He had run out of the house. The snow was falling crazily by then, blown about by the wind, gathering in drifts. His father had run after him. His father was not angry yet but he would be if Surmel stayed out much longer. He turned as his father crossed the street.

Kyrie eleison.

Surmel climbed the stairs. The sound of his steps rebounded through the empty cell block behind him. What had happened next? His father had stepped out into the road, but what had happened then?

Kyrie eleison.

His father was suddenly illuminated. His features were thrown into jagged relief by the twin beams. His father turned toward them, his happy expression changing to one of fear. Surmel watched the car strike his father, rolling over him. It turned, slid on the ice, and skidded to a halt, the headlights illuminating the street, illuminating Surmel.

Christe eleison.

No, it didn’t happen that way. Surmel tried to push his memories back down, tried to repress them once again. He was running again, up to the roof. The door swung wide with his push. That wasn’t how it happened.

Christe eleison.

His father lay, half-illuminated, still. There was no sign of motion within the car. The driver, too, was still, eyes wide and scared, staring out into space. Surmel walked from the sidewalk to his father. He knelt before the bent body, tears running down his face. He reached out his hand, brushing the grit from his father’s collar.

Christe eleison.

Surmel stood at the edge of the roof, looking down into the yard below. All around the complex, past the chain-link fences, stood mountains of fog. His mind was still turbulent and wild, but his body stood at the edge, perfectly still.

Kyrie eleison.

Through his tears, Surmel caught a sign of motion. He was there, the interrogator. He looked down on Surmel, expressionless as ever. Surmel’s mouth opened but no words emerged.

“Now do you see?”

“Yes,” Surmel choked out. “How are you here?”

“That is not important,” he said. “I am no longer important.” He gestured toward the car.

The light that shone upon Surmel had become brighter than anything he had seen before. He walked toward the light.

Dominus vobiscum. Et cum spiritu tuo.

Copyright © 2009 by Brin Manoogian-O’Dell

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