Stepping out of the police car, she is beautiful, elegantly groomed, and wears a gorgeous mink coat. She might be a high-priced attorney. But she is not. Her name is Natalia Flora. Her walk, her look, her clothes, all present proof of a woman of fine upbringing and proper manners, one of those women who rush downtown to the best stores in the morning, and who are seen in expensive restaurants at night.
She stands looking at the prison and notices the main building is shaped like a huge "E". Perhaps it is a memorial to Ekaterina the Great, she thinks. The architecture is heavy, a massive vault. The windows are closed forever and the whole structure seems like a sleeping monster. Only its jaws move, the great gates, lazily swallowing each new person.
"Follow me," the police officer says and heads toward the patiently waiting gates. As she crosses into the prison building, she sees a long dark passage with dozens of doors. Some are open. Some are closed.
Those must be cells, she thinks. She knows now she must have told the truth. Only the truth could cause her to be arrested and brought to prison out of the blue, so suddenly, so firmly.
"Stay here and wait. You will be called," the officer tells her.
Her eyes adjust to the darkness. Nearby are three male convicts waiting for processing. They stare at her. These men remind her of characters from the movie Evil Dead; short hair, skin and bones, and one has the word "thief" tattooed on his neck. She has never been so close to men like these. They are the real criminals, true creatures of the vault, she thinks. It is good there is a place like this to keep them away from good people.
"Damned smell of perfume," one of the men says. "Makes my head spin."
"Nice bitch," says the tattooed man, nodding toward Flora. "First time in jail?" asks the third one. In his prison uniform, striped cap and jacket, he looks more friendly than the others.
"Yes," she answers. "This is my first day here. Are those cells ahead, where people live?"
"Those are holding cells," he answers. "You can spend all day inside one waiting for processing, so in a way people live there."
Then more newcomers arrive and settle in along the passage. An officer approaches carrying a file folder for each convict.
"General inmates stay here. E.D. prisoners follow me," he commands.
Flora doesn't know which group to join so she stays and waits.
"Do you need a special invitation?" the officer barks at Flora. "I said, E.D. follow me!" He grabs her arm and yanks her.
As she scurries along, the prisoner in the striped jacket whispers, "E.D. stands for Especially Dangerous. Especially dangerous while being transported, and especially dangerous to society. They keep us separated. In case of war, all E.D.'s shall be immediately executed. Welcome to prison, my dangerous little sister!" Then all three men laughed.
The officer opens a door and pushes Flora inside. It is a tiny room, a cold box the officer calls "the glass." The room is so small Flora can only stand. She feels entombed, but is somehow glad she is alone and not locked in with the evil dead. She smells the air, examining the prison the only way she can. It is a mixed, heavy scent of moist concrete, cigarettes, and something she cannot identify.
The door opens suddenly and new officer says, "Stripes, outside!" Flora stands, not understanding. Just outside her door she sees the three convicts from the gate area. The friendly one whispers, "Especially dangerous prisoners are called stripes. Get out here!"
Flora is moved to the search room. A woman guard starts to probe her.
"Do you have narcotics, weapons or anything illegal?" the guard asks.
Flora says nothing but shakes her head to indicate she has nothing. The woman keeps searching. "When I ask if you carry anything illegal, you must respond," she tells Flora as she searches. "You are dangerous and you shall be inspected, very closely," she says softly.
"I am not dangerous," Flora counters. "I never in my life lied or did anything bad or hurt anyone. This is mistake. I do not belong here."
The guard stops searching and looks at Flora, "You do not belong here? You wear earrings with diamands and you say you do not belong here? Your fur coat cost thousands of rubles, and you say you are not dangerous? Go to your cell and think of what you just said," the woman says as she leads Flora out of the room. Another striped convict is already waiting to be searched.
"Don't argue with the guards," says the waiting prisoner. "They are always right, even when they are wrong. Stripes have no right to argue."
Back in the glass, Flora has a sudden chill. The tiny room now feels like the inside of a refrigerator. For some reason she thinks about an old russian saying: No one has insurance against prison or poverty. She spends half-an-hour with that racing around inside her head.
The door opens with rude suddenness. Then her long walk begins. She follows a guard past dozens of doors and passages, down stairways, and through a web of catacombs is so tangled it would be impossible for Flora to find her way out.
The guard looks at her as they walk. He asks, "Why doesn't a nice lady like you just stay home in her kitchen, or curled up with a book? Why do you break the law?"
"I didn't break the law. I'm here by mistake."
"Sure. I know. Everyone says that. It's a mistake. Everyone is innocent. I don't understand people like you. Why don't you just live peacefully, within the law? Why should the taxpayers have to pay good money to give you a honey pot to live in?"
Flora stays silent during the taxpayer's lament. Then the journey is over. They stand in front of a blue cell door.
He opens the door and says, "Go." She takes one step into the room and the door slams shut behind her with a jarring bang. The room is larger than she expected. In the corner is a toilet. A table is in the middle of the room. Twelve plank beds are against the walls, all empty except for one. Flora stands silently, staring.
"There are only two of us here," a woman's voice says from a dark corner. "I'm Cipher. What's your name?"
"I am Natalia Flora."
"Flora. Ha! I bet here they'll call you Fauna. Here they turn everything backwards and upside-down.," Cipher says.
"At my job they call me Fauna, but not to my face," Flora responds, smiling.
"You don't have coworkers now," Cipher corrects. "All newbies talk like this. It takes time to understand you are not outside any more. Newcomers think it's only a dream, and tomorrow they'll wake up at home in their own beds. If you here as an E.D. prisoner, then it's serious. You will be in prison for years."
Cipher comes out of the shadows, into the light. She is a woman of uncertain age, but a certain profession. She has the bandit face of those women who stand along the road selling themselves until they reach an age when no one wants to buy them. That's when they become pimps and sell the younger girls. Her thin hair is pulled back and held with string. Her nose is flattened like a boxer's. There is no bridge in her nose. A disease ate it. One eyebrow is higher than the other and she has no teeth. Cipher sees Flora is shocked by the difference between her voice and her appearance,
"Am I beautiful?" Cipher asks. Then she laughs. "Don't judge convicts by their looks. You never know how you will look yourself at the end of your journey. What's worse, you will never know if you'll get out of here."
"It's cold," Flora says.
"March is cold this year," responds Cipher as she touches Flora's fur coat. "They bring hot water three times a day, but we can buy extra if you have cash. I know the guards here."
"I have some money," Flora says as she takes cash from her pocket.
"Marvelous. With this we can buy more than hot water." Cipher calls the guard. After brief negotiations and some name calling, the guard brings the order.
Soon, both women drink hot tea and smoke cigarettes. Cipher stuffs white powder up her nose and snorts like a hog.
"Is see you are a bourgeois," Cipher states. "You have the look of a newly rich woman. Listen to me. This is a cell for transients. In the morning they will take you to a general cell with some twenty women in it. There you will wait for your trial. A couple of months after the trial they will send you to another prison, or work colony, or wherever court decrees.
"I will teach you important things. I will tell you how to live and survive here. You will thank me for years to come. My advice will save you from many miseries," Cipher says as she stuffs a new pinch of white powder into her nose.
Flora leans forward to hear every word from her toothless mouth. She sees Cipher's face is the color of the gray wall. Shrouded in a cloud of a cigarette smoke, Cipher looks like a mystic prophet.
"First, don't tell anyone anything about your case. Everything has ears here. No details at all, especially if other people are involved."
Flora interrupts, "I have nothing to hide or say. I didn't do anything wrong."
Ciphers fingers fall across Flora's lips. "Stop! I don't want to hear. Just listen. Prison is a small world and our paths may cross again. If something you say now comes to light, I don't want you to think that I gave away your secrets. Say nothing to anyone. I tell you, keep you mouth shut."
The two woman sit in silence, staring at each other. Then the old prostitute gives Flora a hug. "Kitten, I know you are having a hard time, but listen to what I tell you. Don't trust anyone. If you know someone's secret, you have them as a hostage. And as soon as you tell your secrets, you become the listener's prisoner.
"I went through this school a long time ago. I know how hard it is to keep everything inside. Listen to me. If someone had given me this advice on my first day in jail I would still have teeth. You are an attractive young girl. You need the attention of men. You look after yourself, I mean your finger nails, hairdo. Here in prison there are no men, but there are women who act like men. When you look pretty, you excite these women. Believe me, you don't need it. They are old horny sharks. Do you know what I mean, kitten?"
"I think I follow you," Flora answers. "You need to get rid of everything that brings out your feminity and emphasizes your beauty. Be simple. Like when you come out of the bath. No make up, no earrings. There is no beauty in a homosexual relationship here. There are no playgirls in swim suits. There are only old, stinky whores who think of their own pleasure. Believe me, for your own good, stay out of it.
"Give me your earrings. You won't need them." Cipher says. Flora takes them off and hands them to Cipher in a businesslike way. "Do you wonder why I am here? Why I am concerned and want to help to someone I see for a first time? Maybe because I have a kind heart. I used to help girls. I was a boss of the prostitutes on the Peripherique, the highway that rings the city. The called me Harem Mother. My heart bleeds when I see a little lamb like you amidst the wolves. I want to protect you."
Flora listens to the old woman and feels lucky she has met such a helpful person her first day in prison. Thinking of what would have happened if she had met one of the sharks scares her.
"You still have the look of a rich girl, " Cipher continues. "I tell you, in the morning you will join twenty other women. Most of them have a lot of emotional baggage. They were raped by their stepfathers. Abused by men. They have alcohol and drug problems. A new girl who looks rich and clean will awaken their anger and envy. I strictly recommend that you get rid of your fur coat and expensive winter shoes," Cipher says flatly. "Problems in prison happen because you have something the others don't, and they want to take it from you. Ownership causes problems unless you are in a position of power. Then you could wear this fur coat and get away with it. Only a leader with authority can have expensive things. All prison life is about rape and robbery. You will be hurt and cut down to size if others want what you have. Once they push you down, you will never rise again."
Without a word, Flora takes off her warm winter shoes and mink coat and gives them to Cipher, who smiles a toothless grin and hands Flora her tattered shoes and light jacket. It is cold and Flora starts to shiver in Cipher's flimsy jacket. Already she misses her coat and shoes.
Simplicity," continues the old whore, "is always first. You must be insignificant, small. You must be a gray prison mouse and blend in. Flow with the others. Never go against the stream. Don't stand out. Do not reach for the truth or you will break your neck. Always hide within the majority," Cipher says as she wraps herself in Flora's fur coat, checking the pockets.
"Do not help others. That would be seen as a weakness and they will take advantage of it. You will have to help them all the time."
Cipher stands and takes off the fur coat with a flourish. She walks around the cell holding the coat high for appraisal, in the manner of a merchant woman. Flora starts to sob, shivering harder now, overwhelmed by the immediate need to recreate herself or be destroyed. She thinks about home, the old Grandmother she probably will never see again, and about Leopold, her cat, who is now waiting for her to get home from work. Flora feels like a drifting ice-floe in a the dark unknown, and she cries.
"Don't cry darling. Everyone has their first day here," Cipher says, making her bed. "My first time in prison was terrible. I was fighting and didn't sleep for three days because I had to watch so no one to stabbed me with a knife."
In a moment, Cipher is in bed, covered with the warm fur coat. "You are trembling, kitten," She says. "You are so cold. Come to me, I will warm you up. It is important to have a good friend here in prison."