Justin Lawrence Daugherty’s “In Every Room, A Prayer”


Charles Guiteau said he would build her a utopia in the woods. He needed everything to be perfect. He carted wood and stone into the forest and started building. He built first upon a cabin, lopsided and leaning. He added rooms and rooms. In each of those rooms, he wrote new letters to President Garfield and asked to be made into a god or a machine. He waited for Garfield to respond. As he waited, he looked at his wood-cut hands and asked each room why the man did not respond.

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She went into the woods, a reluctant traveler, and she saw the cabin and wandered each of its rooms. She found a map of the cabin: scrawled in red in the box of each room Guiteau had written, no Garfield, no Garfield, no. She heard Guiteau’s voice somewhere outside. He chopped wood. He stopped. “Too much waiting is a prison,” he said. She went to him and placed her hand on his chest. He breathed and dropped the ax. He looked at his hands, raw and red. “I am a voice in need of an ear,” he said. “I call and he does not hear me and I am waiting.”

He built more leaning rooms and she left the forest.

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He started a tower made of stone. He built it up and drew stars in ash on the stone. He asked her to go inside and wait for him when he was finished. There is no door, she said, and he nodded and swung his ax at the stone until he collapsed from fatigue. He told the trees he was an abyss. He told the river he was an angry hornet. He buzzed about the woods and called for her. He wrote to Garfield: I’ve built you a home. The name I will call you is in my throat, a nestled bird. Your name, here, here in this room I have created for you.

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Within weeks he had built six falling-down structures, one with nails jutting out like porcupine quills, one he had set on fire and watched burn before he put it out, the wood all charred black. She brought him fresh meat and berries and blankets to keep him warm. Guiteau banged his head against the doorless stone tower. He asked her if she knew where the bears slept. He asked her if he could crawl inside a bear and live in its stomach. Guiteau took her fingers in his mouth and when he still breathed, he swallowed her palm until he choked and still he held her and she wept for him and she tried to leave. He hunted bears for days following. Guiteau named their mythologies and called them all Garfield.

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Guiteau killed a bear and emptied it of most of its guts and wrapped the dripping carcass around him. He built wooden effigies of her and ate beetles in the dark with her likeness across from him. A young man on horseback came to him, said he had been looking for days. The man’s eyes seemed made of knives, his hands of bees. He delivered to Guiteau a letter from Garfield’s men. The letter commanded him to no longer write the president. The room he had made would go unoccupied.

He asked the young man to take a knife and open the jigsaw puzzle of his heart. He asked the young man to find in his heart a broken song. He said he could not invite in the man who would not come. He asked the young man to burn down his homes. The young man stayed and Guiteau asked him if he would come inside. He had more bear suits. He had so much to give, he said. We want to believe in a god that gives and gives and never takes away.

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Charles Guiteau bought a .442 Webley British Bulldog revolver with ivory handles. In town he searched for her. He told dogs in the street, he needed her fire. He howled after them. They sniffed at his wretched bear fur and whimpered. He called her name. He wrote to the president, All I want is one place to set my boots and one other to join me.

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Guiteau nailed doors shut and boarded windows. He painted the stone tower in the blood of more bears. He buried the bodies of the animals whose meat he had taken. The young man tried to convince him to go into town, to find help and a decent meal and new clothes. Guiteau buried the young man with the animals. He sang a hymn. He wrote a prayer on the wall of Garfield's room. He spun the ivory-handled revolver on the wood floor. He swallowed a bullet, hoping it would sprout a cluster of stars inside him. He asked the revolver why being alone was not always as frightening as having someone there to share in that lonesomeness. He loaded the revolver, asked it to manifest a bright-colored world.