Wednesday, September 14, 2011


Late at night, after the specially invited First Class passengers had left the Captain's Table, and after the dancing had ended with couples, their masks removed, barely stirring in each other's arms, and after the stewards had taken away the abandoned glasses and ashtrays and were leaning on the four-foot-wide brooms to sweep away the coloured swirls of paper, they brought out the prisoner.

It was usually before midnight. The deck shone because of a cloudless moon. He appeared with the guards, one chained to him, one walking behind him with a baton, We did not know what his crime was. We assumed it could only have been a murder. The concept of anything more intricate, such as a crime of passion or a political betrayal, did not exist in us then. He looked powerful, self-contained, and he was barefoot.

Cassius had discovered this late-night schedule for the prisoner's walk, so the three of us were often there at that hour. He could, we thought among ourselves, leap over the railing, along with the guard who was chained to him, into the dark sea. We thought of him running and leaping this way to his death. We thought this, I suppose, because we were young, for the very idea of a chain, of being contained, was like suffocation. At our age we could not endure the idea of it. We could hardly stand to wear sandals when we went for meals, and every night as we ate at our table in the dining room we imagined the prisoner eating scraps from a metal tray, barefoot in his cell.

— from The Cat's Table, by Michael Ondaatje.

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