Both, I say.
* * *
I can't remember much from
the time before; only the tangled remains of white robes,
prayers and mutterings, gifts laid out wrapped in silk and
muslin, kisses on my forehead and milk and salt issuing from
my mother. Milk when I was born, salt when they took me away.
* * *
The first time I met Selene,
I was terrified that I was undergoing an acute psychotic episode.
I was thirteen years old and had woken to find that I had
bled between the legs (a disturbing enough experience in a
place where unauthorised blood was taboo). The hormones and
the stickiness and the smell of decaying fish sent my sleep
awry and vivified my dreams.
I opened my eyes to a room
filled with blue light, dawn light that draped through the
small high windows like waterfall curtains, like milky silk.
The air was misty with remembrance. The walls were heavy stone
and the pale grey granules were what convinced me of realness
as I ran my fingers over them.
There was an uncomfortable
metal cot in the corner. On it lay a crumpled lump of sheets.
They sat up and said blearily:
'What are you?'
Then I came back.
* * *
Here I am, in a small room
of my own. To be truthful, it isn't completely my own because
I now share it. It is curved like a globethe coving
and the skirting board merging into the walls. Angles aren't
allowed here, scissor sharp and dangerous. I live in a lilac
I am currently submitting
myself to the weekly check. It looks like a beauty session,
except that the filaments of the brushes are used to electronically
check the moisture in our skin, our pulse, the presence of
bodily deposits and to sweep the possibility of pests from
our hair. There is no rouge here, no blusher or firm foundation.
The technician sands my nails down to nubstoes and fingers
both. My teeth are already squared by a diet of ruminant foods.
The process is finished and
the techniciana respectful, bow-headed wisp of a womanpacks
up her tools and wheels them away.
Luca and I look at each other.
Luca rolls her eyesthis is only the second time she
has put up with the check.
'I don't know why I have to
have mine filed,' I said mildly. I am a nail biter.
'How long have you been here?'
Luca asks. Her voice is stained with battlesmoke. I flinch.
I was not expecting a response. Luca is not catatonic, but
she is rude.
'Forever,' I say.
'And you haven't realised
that they're doing it to remove your weapons?'
'Of course they are,' I replied.
I am too tired to be angry; always too tired. 'They do it
to stop us from hurting ourselves and each other. Because
of our Condition.'
'Condition,' Luca snorts,
and she scratches ineffectually at the stump of her leg. It
is rounded, the skin pulled tight and sewn over the bone.
She refuses prosthetics.
A pip slides through the sound
system and into our ears. It says without words: Lights Out.
I am already sitting on my
bed and already wearing my night clothes (we are always in
our gowns). I get up, grasp the blanket and cast it into the
air to straighten it out, and then I climb underneath. Thick
weave wool itches over the thin tissue of my gown.
My official birthday was two
weeks ago. I can now legally share a room with another lifetimer.
Luca is older than me. She is new to the facility, and is
entitled to a private room for two months in order to acclimatise.
However, she asked to be moved since she didn't like the colour
of her walls.
'Cyan is a poisonous shade,'
she said, and then she laughed for no reason I could see.
There is a tacit understanding
in this. On the one hand, our carers ostensibly disapprove
of dependency, but on the other, they know that what will
happen will happen. Starved of contact, we cling to each other
like orphaned rhesus monkeys. It is one more strand that loops
us together, ties us to this world and secures us from the
next, so that we can do what we are meant to do.
I hear Luca's foot slap as
it hits the floor. She hops blindly to my bed and sets her
stump upon the mattress, creasing it. I roll away to give
'Fuck-bucket,' she whispers
as we lie still for a few moments. Her hair is dark and coarseit
smells of the outside. I worry that it might contaminate me.
She is crude and her muscles lie like knotted wood over her
bones and under her skin. The world is a terrible place, I
think, to make a woman so hard. I am better here; I am safe
I let her tickle my insides
with her blunt fingers and her tongue. I lie still, so still
because I am frightened of her. She says: 'Do you know what
it is like to be dismembered? To be pulled apart? I'll show
you. I'll stick my stump up there and split you in half. Would
you like that, bitch?'
Luca can bite and she tears
at my hair and hurts me, with her half leg resting over my
* * *
Today the vents issued forth
the faint smell of citrus to cleanse the corridors.
'I reckon she was a criminal,'
says another lifetimer from across the table. We eat with
plastic spoonsnothing sharp. Porridge is at nine o'clock.
We eat rice with roughage at twelve, stew at five and a light
pasta at eight for before bed time after the mandatory social
We all look at Luca-the-potential-criminal.
She is slumped over her porridge. If she does not make an
effort to at least look like she is eating, they will start
putting things in her water that will give her no choice.
Her straggly hair drips into the oats. It will be cut off
soon, shorn to the shining scalp.
'What makes you say that?'
'I don't know,' says the lifetimer,
a doleful woman with the facial features of a gnu (yeswe
know what a gnu is, and ibex and the oryx. We are well read
from a library liberal with any texts that don't contain suicide
'Does she hurt you?'
'Yes,' I say.
We stare with gentle curiosity.
Criminality means nothing much to us. We have nothing to steal
and she can do nothing to us that we haven't already thought
'Look at the lines around
her mouth,' says another. 'She's seen a hard life.'
'And her leg as well,' says
the first lifetimer.
'Maybe she was a soldier,'
someone suggests. Then we go quiet because a carer comes past.
They are distinguished from us in that they wear trousers
and t-shirtsas white as our flimsy gowns, but thick
enough to stand up to the rigours of the outside.
They suck our words away.
They have shaved heads, like the skulls of religious acolytes,
to prevent us from snatching at them.
During Mandatory Social Hour,
we are supposed to talk and share stories or play games of
chance or skill. The loser gets the opportunity to choose
the next match so that they have an advantage. Cards or blocks
or boards and questions. Somehow we all manage to win half
Luca doesn't talk or play.
She sits in the corner with her chin in her palms. My Condition
makes me cry unreasonably, randomly, like a shredded raincloud.
But the clouds in Luca's head make her want to rest, so we
leave her alone.
Maybe she was a thief or a
* * *
8:30 am: Wake up call. Showers
9 am: Breakfast Hour
10 am: Private Sharing Hour
11 am: Outdoor Recreation Hour
12 pm: Nurture Hour
1 pm: Lunch Hour
2 pm: Optional Denomination Hour
3 pm: Creative Hour
4 pm: Free Recreational Time (learning and entertainment)
5 pm: Evening Meal
6 pm: Optional Nap Time
7 pm: Group Sharing Hour
8 pm: Light Supper
9 pm: Mandatory Social Hour
10 pm: Final Checks and Night Time Ablutions
10:30 pm: Lights Out.
* * *
'You are older,' she observed,
sitting up in bed. Her voice held a rich weave of conflict.
I heard a measure of pride plaited with regret for my growing
up. It was shot through with a thread of pleasant jealousy.
'I knew that you would be returning.'
She smiled thinly and patted
the top of her cot. It was an invitation.
'What name do you have?' she
asked. It took me a few moments to rearrange her question
into an understandable form.
'I'm Selene,' she said. On
the edge of perception, through the thick door, I heard groans
and screams and the jud-jud-jud of uncontrollable sobbing.
A chill went through me, ruffling my muted mind.
'Where are we?' I asked, my
adolescent voice jagging.
The stone walls oppressed
me. I could feel the weight of them crushing down.
'This is New Bethel,' said
Selene. I saw the bed springs pressing into her thighs and
wondered that her skin didn't puncture.
I inspected her and she inspected
me. She saw the goosebumps rising on my skin and patted the
bed again. It looked like a metal cage.
'You are being cold. Come.
This time I obeyed. The stone
took away my blood-warmth. I was glad to wrap the dirty blankets
around my shoulders, even though it held the tang of fear-sweat
The light clogged by eyes.
Sun through fog. Midnight moon corona. A cataract window.
'Can you open the door?' I
'No. It close.'
We sat in silence. Her skin
smelled stale and her face was drawn and pulled tight across
her bones. People sometimes find that their skin goes baggy
and loose when they lose weight, like unleavened bread dough.
Selene was stretched. The arch of blonde hair at her brow
was a row of gold thread stitching her scalp to her skull.
Her face receded away from her nose. She must have been beautiful
before the stones ground her beauty away. There was gentleness
still, in the fragility of her breath and the way her hands
shook ever so slightly. There were bruises up and down her
I had no way of telling what
she thought of me, scrawny and chilled and bereft, with bones
too long for my body and my breasts just beginning.
'Are you in prison?' I asked.
'Of a kind. This is a hospital
for the brainsick. They do things to us here.'
I shivered. In the library
(I was now allowed free access, being fourteen years old)
I had read about institutions and the various barbaric practises
they'd used on people with Conditions. Maybe I had woven my
reading into an elaborate hallucination. When I came out of
it, I would tell the carers. They would help me. Until then,
Selene and I shared our warmth. She smoothed my bristling
crown and asked me about my mother. When I admitted that I
could barely remember her, Selene regarded me with compassion,
her sad eyes softened by the milk light of the moon.
'Better to not be remembering,'
she said. 'It is dislikely that I will forget my mother and
my popa or the little ones. Their lack hurts like a needle
in the arm, always.'
I was confused by her simile,
but I didn't ask her to explain.
Sleep crept up on us as shadows
widened the gaps between the stones. Before she shut her eyes,
she whispered: 'Be coming again next week please.'
I promised her solemnly. And
of course, as soon as I did, I knew that I could never tell
the carers, because they would find a way to stop me.
* * *
During the creative hour (three
to four p.m.), I watch Luca. She stands before her easel,
brush in hand. We are given a wide palette to work with, those
of us who paint. Others choose to write poetry or prose on
the consoles, engage in craft work, or music which the carers
record as it is improvised. We play with harps and xylophones
and computer programs that synthesize whalesong and wolfsong.
Usually I prefer the instruments, but today I shadow my room
She uses black and red in
copious clots. Her horsehair spirals on the canvas, creating
voids, vortices and siphoning tunnels of non-colour, around
and around and around.
'What is it?' I ask, from
around my amateur impressionist vision of lilacs, all good,
all natural. I like purple; it makes me want to cry less often
and not in the urgent, throat-hurting way. Once I cried so
much I thought my eyes would crunch and grind when they rolled,
from the salt lodged in the ducts.
'This?' says Luca, gravelly-harsh.
'This is what the world looks like from the inside of a bullet
wound.' She adds a staccato series of red splashes.
Her stump rests on a chair
for balance. She refuses to sit down. I can see the internal
battle written in sweat at her temples, her muscle and nerves
screaming for rest, fighting against her will.
In the end, the carers take
Luca's brush from her and lead her to a seat by the window
so that she can look down upon the meadow. Little white animals
grazed, their worlds limited by hedgerows and streams. In
the distance there are mountainsin the spring sun they
are the same lavender as the Creative Room walls.
'Try selling that one,' mutters
Luca as she passed me.
Thief or soldier, I wonder.
She knows bullet holes and she knows how to take away value.
By not Creating, she is shutting up her energies in a retroactive,
unhealthy way. Not only that, she is effectively stealing
revenue from the carers. They sell what we Create to a public
hungry for our art. The money allows this place, this castle
in a valley, to exist with pastel globes, with no frightening
edges. They calm people, the paintings, sketches, music streams
and articles. They calm people and bring them good luck because
they are made by us. To them we are hermits, lightning rods,
latter day saints and icons.
I have found peace, of sorts,
because I have a secret in a place where there are no secrets,
and I have found a love just for myself in a place where love
Still, my natural anxiety
asserts itself. I haven't imagined Selene in weeks. I wonder
if Luca has anything to do with this, her presence changing
At night I have to find excuses
to leave the room. Sleep escapes me and I pad down the corridor
to the toilet.
None of the cubicles have
doors and there is a carer stationed on a chair at all times
to make sure we don't take in the dirty water or immerse ourselves
without authorisation. The carer smiles at me as I hike up
my gown and urinate gently into the bowl. I don't know her
name. We don't know any of their names.
* * *
They'd sedated her again.
That's what she told me it was, through cracked, moisture-less
lips. She moaned and made a cocoon of her bedding until the
first sting of the needle bled away. Then she cried, hard
and hopelessly against the blade of my shoulder. I felt her
'It is unpossible,' she said,
still slurring. 'I shall die here.'
'Shhh,' I said, and rocked
her back and forth. By now, through obsessive plundering of
the library, I'd worked out where I dreamed. This was the
past. I sat beside a living creatoran ancestor of the
psyche rather than the blood. She carried the same burden
I did and I felt her heart heave with the weight and the waste
'In the future it will be
better,' I promised, soothing her brittle hair. 'In the future
they will realise our value.'
'What is the value we are?'
she asked. Her eyelids spasmed, slapping her cheeks with lashes
so white-straw that they were barely visible.
'I dredged up the distant
memory of my induction talk, of the weekly assemblies at the
youth facility and of the information I'd sieved from historical
documents, my research during Private Hour.
'Sometime soon,' I lied, knowing
that later wasn't a possibility for her, 'scientists will
find that, as well as the commonly perceived dimensions, you
know, forward-back, up-down, side-to-side, tides of time,
movement in the electromagnetic spectrum and so onthere
are many others to explore. They will discover that the organic
mind is capable of generating and being influenced by its
own fieldthat emotion is not simply internal, but has
lasting and predictable input upon the rest of the world.'
'Mmmm.' My words had taken
on the rhythm and cadence of recitation. She was no longer
fighting the poison penetrating her veins.
'They will come to know that
'depressives' are a conduit for the negatives that result
from organic existence: that they absorb, obsess over, process
and punish themselves for the general malaise that affects
the gamut of living experience. They exist to suffer so that
others don'tso that the species can continue living,
killing, seeing those around them die and dying themselves
without tumbling into a consciousness of despair.
'This will be noticed, because
I cut off my speech because
she had fallen asleep. I nursed her until dawn when I found
myself drifting, despite the cold and the weight of her head
across my kneecap.
* * *
Today Luca broke some of the
equipment for Recreation Hour. She grabbed the hoops as they
were being passed out and snapped them, using her instep as
leverage. The carers were worried that she would use the splintered
tubes to cut herself, but she just threw them to the floor.
After that, she stood in the
centre of the yard and screamed, full-throated and raw-throated
until her lungs gave way and she could only croak. Maybe she
was angry because her one leg would not allow her to join
in. We must stay out in the yard for an hour each day regardless
of sunshine, snow or storm, to receive the requisite amount
of vitamin production.
Perhaps Luca is a soldier
or a criminal, and she only knows how to destroy. I watch
and imagine a giant pair of shears closing around her leg,
crunching through the bone and liberating the ooze of marrow.
I ask her about the hoops
in the evening, when she is nibbling and tasting my folds
of flesh. She lifts her head and growls: 'Shut the fuck up.'
Then later, when her fluids mix with mine, she pinches and
calls me a 'cum-dumpster'. I think she likes to imagine that
she is abusing me somehow, as though she wants to chase the
good and soft away. When I set my lips (and my teeth, just
a bit) to her nipples I wonder if I feel so very different
now than I did to my mother. I will never know. I can't have
children because of my Condition.
I miss Selene.
* * *
The colour chart on the wall
of the Social Hour room says this:
Reds: are signifiers of power,
anger and danger. If you are feeling particularly in need
of vitality and focus, please apply for transferral to a Red
Room. However, be aware that exposure will be limited.
Orange: is a colour associated
with joy and happiness. For levity of spirit and a temporary
release from Melancholy, please apply for transferral to an
Pink: is associated with femininity
and nurture. It is energising but more gentle than Red, so
if you are in need of visual and atmospheric comfort, please
apply for transferral to a Pink Room.
Green: is the colour of nature
and renewal. For reconnection to nature, please apply for
transferral to a mint green room.
Yellow: is a colour associated
with joy and happiness. For levity of spirit and a temporary
release from Melancholy, please apply for transferral to a
Blue: is a colour associated
with reflection, cool and tranquillity. If your mind is ill
at ease and you require relaxation, please apply for transferral
to a Blue Room. However, be aware that Blue may deepen feelings
Purple: shades are associated
with imagination and connection to spirituality. If you feel
that you lack creative impetus, please apply for transferral
to a Purple Room.
* * *
'I am here,' I said, and we
embraced each other.
'Without you, I would have
been dying,' she says. 'I am counting the minutes until you
come again. And every each time you change. You grow so fast.
I swear you are an inch taller in a week.'
I didn't want to tell her
that for me, the in-between times constituted months and days.
She was my mother and I was
her daughter. It hurt me to see her muscles waste. She shuffled
around the room in a way so familiar to me that at first I
didn't realise that it was a movement I'd seen in mirrors.
One day she showed me the
straps on the bed. My expression must have horrified her,
because she assured me that they were for 'dislikely emergencies'.
Sometimes the world went so black that sheand the other
patients(I could see nothing patient about them. Drugs,
yes, but no patience)had to hit out at it to make it
'I am most lonely here,' she
'To be lonely is to be human,'
I said. 'It's perfectly natural.'
'Nature is very unperfect,'
Selene chuckled. 'Such silly things you say. No, I mean, it
is sad to be here with no friends. Do you have friend?' she
asked, with a touch of trepidation and just a little envy.
'Where I live, everything
is supposed to be equal. We are all supposed to call each
other friends, so none of us do,' I explained.
'That is wiseness.'
'Will you be my friend?' I
'Of course. So long as you
are being mine.'
* * *
Today is a bad day. It is
one of the days where my tiredness weighs me down so much
that I am unable to move my limbs. I miss breakfast, which
saps what energy I have left, and the sun through the window,
beaming over the green-furred vale, seems dark to my eyes.
Luca comes in and slaps me.
'Wake up!' she shouts. I wail
and fail to defend myself. Then I cry because she is so angry
that she must soon be sent away to one of the other facilities,
where they put the other sensitive people: the ones who suffer
from different Conditions that make them furious or manic
or not really part of this world at all. Luca is not Sad:
she is Mad or Bad.
The carers take her away and
one gives me a handkerchief that disintegrates when I blow
into it to stop me from smothering myself. I feel guilty because
it is my fault that Luca is going to be disciplined, but I
stop crying in time to go to the Sharing Hour. Talking about
how you feel is all good, all natural. There I tell the listening
carer about what I have dreamed the night before, what I feel
about Luca, what colour I think the air is today, what the
painting I did in Creative Hour represents, how my self-esteem
lies, what this ink-blot meanseverything except Selene.
Selene is mine, my woman to imagine, to cherish and to envision
Later Luca comes back into
the room. Her eyes, glittering with the intensity that only
black eyes can holdnarrow behind her straggles.
'I'm sorry,' I say as she
climbs under the sheets beside me. 'I should have left the
bed. It was my fault.'
'That wasn't the kind of waking
up I meant,' she growls, her fingers finding my pubis.
'What did youah.'
She smells of rage and hatred
and denial of self. In time she will come to smell of emptiness,
just like the rest of us.
But for now, I drink of her
and hope(Hope? What is that? A word in stories) that
I do not hollow her out.
* * *
The screams were louder, closer
and more insistent. I felt a spasm wrack Selene's spine. There
was a muffled thump of meat on metal and the screams stopped.
The sounds of human hurt meandered through corridors and shivered
through the grilles of the doors.
'Lithium,' recited Selene.
'Bromide, Insulin coma inducement, electric convulsive therapy,
food deprivation, social isolation, cages, rages, broken rulers,
beatings, dope, dope, restraining rope.'
'My mouth taste like meat
ash this morning. They do not tell me what they are giving
Her arms were bruised again.
I could make out finger-presses. There was a particularly
bad blotch on the arm farthest away from me.
Grey dove wings spread open
at her temples.
'I was section,' she said,
'by three men in blue. They say: we are here for you. This
has happened before, I think, but that the shirts were a darker
colour. I fight, I bite and scratch. They use their sticks
and I am caught.'
'Why did you fight?'
'Why did you not?'
'I was eight years old.'
'Lord forgive them.'
I sat in silence. I was uncomfortable
with her mention of religion. The silence became awkward and
generated a flame of anxiety in my stomach, so to puff it
away, I said:
'There are people who develop
a Condition as a result of trauma. Sometimes this is temporary.
Others slide into the Condition after years of low-level pressure,
like an unrewarding job, a trust-less marriage, bullying,
and perceived underachievement. And sometimes they are born
with it. That is what happened to me. The Condition, or any
Condition, is just a predilection toward certain hormonal
or electrical responses. Kedo Ergo Sum. We are anxious,
therefore we are.'
I smiled and squeezed her
hand, bird-boned, feather-frail.
'Something bad is brewing
here,' she said, and then: 'shush-shush.'
For the rest of the night
she rocked me and sang nonsense rhymes in a language I didn't
* * *
Today they simulated the smell
of mown paddock grass, sweet and semi-wild.
The breakfast fibre is carefully
measured so that it settles the system. My bowels move regularly,
the same amount at the same time every day, just before Denomination
Hour. I am shitting (oh, a word that I knew already, but that
Luca taught me to use) for most of the devotional time. That's
okay; many of us have given up on God(ess)(s). The rest, those
who haven't, hold their own beliefs quiet and closethis
is the time when they can pray in privacy.
Luca finds me slippering aimlessly
down a rounded corridor.
'Come with me,' she says and
tugs at me, a crutch lodged in her armpit. It presses red
skin. 'Come on!'
She moves fastslump-lurch.
She learns quickly; only a week or so new to this place and
already she knows her way through duck-egg blue, through sunset
rose and narcissi yellow to the double doors that lead to
'It's locked,' I say.
'So? Hold this.'
She passes me a crutch and,
leaning precariously on one, she pushes her hands up the tissue
of her gown and into the wet place between her legs. She withdraws
something that glistens silver and uses it to fiddle with
the lock. It clicks open and she reaches back under.
'What was that?'
'You hide wire there?' I can't
comprehend the potential for bleeding and danger, and the
rules contravened. The crutch is taken from my lax hand.
'Yes. Shut your flap.' She
pushes the door open and hops through. I follow. She leaves
the door just to. No one would think to look for us here:
it isn't the hour of physical recreation, and routine, so
vital to our equilibrium, is instilled into us.
The yard is big enough that
a jogging circuit will take five minutes to complete. No windows
look out upon itwhat would be the point? The reinforced
glass costs more than the building materialand the walls
are double head height and washed with mint green.
Luca lifts her head to the
sky and laughs. It is a hot, cracking sound. Then, with glee,
she heads for the parallel bars.
'We are only supposed to use
them with supervision,' I warn.
'Fuck supervision. I don't
get no exercise.'
She balances herself between
the bars and lets go of the crutch. It falls with a flump
onto fine sand. With a grunt, she proceeds to elevate herself
with her arms alone and performs a series of push-ups. Her
face floods with blood and I worry that she might explode.
'You aren't supposed to do
that. Too much exertion brings on an excess endorphin rush.
It'll destabilise your equilibrium.'
'Fuck my equilibrium,' she
pants, strands of hair glued to her brow. She goes up down,
up down. I am anxious that they will notice how flushed she
is and how her eyes shine, but we arrive in time for the lunch
One of the temporaries on
my bench drums her bare heels against the floor and starts
singing the same line of a song over and over again.
I want cookies, I want
I want sweet things I can bake.
I look down at the stew, which
is chicken and potato with spinach and watercressthe
same as it always is. Brown juice trickles off my spoon.
* * *
I suspected that part of my
Condition stemmed from my memory. I could remember some things
with absolute clarity; I recalled the taste of rejection (rather
like rotten plastic), a phrase in a book describing the depredations
of slavery, the scent that hung in the air at the end of summer
when a grey lid was slotted over the sky. Those things came
out at night and swirl in the dimness and sneak in through
my nose and my ears and my half-open mouth.
Other things, like mother-love
and words of kindness, remained an echo of a hint of a pang
She was screaming when I dreamed
her, and her hair was spreading everywhere, like the waving
of her arms and fingers.
Miserable with fear, I crouched
in the corner and put my hands over my ears to block out the
howling. It didn't work.
There were two people holding on to her, one around her trunk
and the other catching a precarious grasp of her ankles as
her feet jerked and kicked. Her spine snapped straight like
a taut fishing line.
Another person was following
on behind, delivering orders.
'Watch that she doesn't convulse.
Move your hold to the top of her arm. Apply pressure.'
Selene crumpled onto the bed.
With the quickness of practice, the orderlies pinned her face
down and the doctor tugged at the waistband of her trousers,
exposing her shadow-dappled skin. He administered an injection
straight into the muscle-pad of her buttocks.
They didn't see me. They were
too intent on their job.
Selene's screams gave way
to a shocked burbling. While her limbs were flaccid, they
secured her to the metal bed by means of the straps. Then,
with a cough and a shuffle, they left, bolting the door.
I unfolded myself and crept
Her tongue was tapping against
her teeth, raising little bubbles of spit. She was speaking
and I tilted my head close to hear the words.
'They've took them away, they've
took them away, they've took them away, they've
She was restrained like a
stretched starfish, leaving no room on the bed. I stood on
cold stone and sang under my breath and something puzzled
Selene had said long ago that
loss hurt like a needle in the arm, but her injections were
routinely applied through the buttocks.
I found the solution in a
tattoo above the crook of her elbow. It was a series of badly
inked numbers stretched by growth and age.
Jacob's Ladders lanced through
the dirty glass, bridging the dusty air. I imagined Selene
riding them all the way up to the clouds and beyond.
* * *
They find Luca with the wire.
I don't know how she managed to hide itunder the soft
folds of the frame-less bed or within her own softnessI
They shave her head. She sits
under the razor with her jaw muscles pumping like heart chambers.
With her hair all fallen around her, she looks like a lifetimer
staring at the wall. Afterwards she doesn't move an inch,
even though it is Free Recreational Time.
'That was petty,' she says
to no one in particular.
'What was?' I ask, because
I am closest.
'They have me shorn like a
sheep, and all because I kept a secret.'
I feel a pang of fear when
I think of Selene.
'Oh they knew, yeah,' she
continued bitterly. 'They know everything, control everything.
It isn't just our nutrition or our sun exposure, or the colours
or the smells. They know where we are every hour of every
day, much good it does them.'
'It's for our own good.'
She glares at the temperature
dial on the wall.
'It would do us good to be
cold sometimes,' she snarls. 'Some of us need thicker skins.'
I take my leave of her and
go to the library to watch some archive videos. I feel vaguely
uncomfortable for the rest of the evening.
Days pass, all much the same.
The grass in the vale below becomes a deeper green and is
dotted with tiny yellow flowers. It's all good, all natural.
When I look out of windows, Luca sneaks up behind me and says:
'Isn't it a lovely white tower? Aren't you a pretty little
Rapunzel? Look, they buzzed away our hair. Who can climb up
She nips me with her chisel-teeth
and lashes me with her tongue, all to make me react. I refuse
to meet violence with violence: it isn't in me to. She makes
me afraid and the other lifetimers keep away from her as well.
They have heard about the wire and decided that yes, she must
be a thief as surely she stole it. They cling feebly to the
carers when she stalks their way. Her pictures are of grey
mountains peaked with black spears that spike the cloud canopy,
or of castles made out of rib bones holding her in, for she
is at the heart of it all.
* * *
I didn't mention seeing Selene
restrainedas far as she knew I had never even been there.
We sat side by side, our calves
pressed against the freezing metal of the bed frame. She leaned
against the headboard, I against the footboard, feeling the
bars press into my rib-cage. The only allusion she made to
the incident is when she said:
'The nurses here are afraid.
The inmates are stirring.'
'Do you feel mad?' I asked.
'In a world such as this you'd
have to be mad not to.' She smiled with thinning lips.
'Do they feed you enough?'
'Oh yesenough tablets
to feast a bear and calm the belly of a wolf. I know what
it is to starve, my sweet, and this is not it.'
'I wish I could bring you
the things you need.'
'Food of the fairies?' she
laughed. 'Or books that fade with the coming of morning, like
puddles in summertime? You can't carry iron with you, I know,
so I will not ask for a file or a hammer to escape with. I
am misfortunate to have such a fey companion.'
'I love you.'
'I love you also.'
I loved an invention of my
own broken brain. But she seemed real when we talked and when
we gazed out through the tiny outlet into the outside world,
hand in hand.
'Sometimes,' she said, my
head on her shoulder, 'when the dusk falls and the sky becomes
a single blue, you can almost convince yourself that dawn
is breaking. But it is always just a trick.'
'Blue is for inner peace,'
I said. 'Do you feel peaceful?'
'I do when you are here.'
And that was the last I saw
of her, because the next day, Luca came.
* * *
I weave baskets with Luca
at my elbow.
'You know,' she says, canines
bared, 'they can take away the corners and the blades and
the books that tell you about people who jump out of high
windows, but if we really wanted to, we could just bite our
tongues and drown in blood. They can't stop us escaping if
we really want to. There's always a way.'
I glance aroundthis
is dangerous, seditious conversation. No one is listening,
to my relief.
Luca is too angry for me to
understand her. Clearly she doesn't understand me either,
because she grabs me by the front of my gown, her fingers
making tube-petals of the material, and hisses into my face:
'Wake up! Don't you realise,
they argue that we're a part of nature, but they're utterly
denaturising us. What about appetites and fresh air and temperature
and the real outside? And what about sex and babies and being
'We can't have children,'
I recite the mantra. 'The hormonal turmoil of birth could
push us over the edge.'
'Oh yes, the edge! They won't
push us, but they've made an art form out of dangling us just
above it! Just the right level of this and that and we'll
be depressed and not dead.'
She scares me. Her fists shake
me and pull a scab away, and the darkit is always there
and coiling inside like a hibernating adderbreaks loose
and moves into my cuts. I feel myself fall into it.
'Leave me alone,' I say. My
lungs are shallow.
'Why are you always so pathetic?'
Luca shouts. Her breath hits me like a hot hammer. 'They're
using you! They're using us! We're just human batteries for
hurt. We sit here in this castle, this miserable pinnacle,
and we hum the hours away. They use our minds, they use what
we create. They might as well open us up to tours so that
people can gawp at us.'
I don't think it is a good
idea to mention that a few times a year, the public are admitted
and that they walk like devotionals all-in-a-line with a carer
at the head and at the tail. Pain pilgrims.
Then as the robe tightens
around my neck, something marvellous happens. Light shifts,
time goes backwards and cream-yellow fades into granite, and
I am with Selene.
'I am so glad to see you,'
she says, wrapping her knot-jointed arms around me. 'So very
glad. I mislike what is going on. There is a storm coming.
Some of the patients I believe are
Her words are interrupted
by an ear-splitting noise: high and incessant like the wailing
of a baby. It is an alarm and it kicks me in the blood and
tells me to run and to be afraid.
Shapes flash past the door,
chasing shouts. I catch glimpses of white and flesh and the
sounds of panic.
'It is a breakout,' Selene
mouths, muted by the blaring siren. We hold each other tight
and ignore the fists hammering on the door. I thank nameless
things for the fact that bolts work to keep terrors out as
well as prisoners inside. We keep our heads down until the
racket goes away.
Luca releases me. Her lips
are twisted to one side and she regards me strangely. She
knows, I think, until I realise that she has torn my gown
and that my collarbone, breast and floating ribs are exposed.
I am happy to be escorted
away by two of the carers. They discuss in muted tones all
about Luca and how she is trouble and a danger; maybe she
should be sent to another centre. I am given a new gown that
lies crisp against my skin and teases the fine hairs by trapping
them and pulling every time I shift.
Before I met Selene I would
have been too poor in spirit to have made such an observation.
She has stirred the life in me.
It happens again. After lights
out, Luca is grumbling and I suppress a tremor of fear when
she hops up to my bed because I can imagine her hands around
my throat, or something similar.
She calls me a cunt-bubble
and slaps me a little before she begins to explore my navel
with her tongue.
There is a flicker of electrical
lightquite unlike the generalised illumination of the
pastel walls. It is ill yellow-green and sharp in the peripheral
vision. I have conjured myself to Selene and her room.
Her eyes sit in black-circle
pits. Time is taking her away.
'Tell me about your home,'
she says, so I draw a diagram for her in the dust on the window
'So there are still institutions?'
she says sadly. 'Like this one?'
'It doesn't smell like this,'
I explain, wrinkling my nose at the stench of urine and cabbage.
'It smells fresh and sweet.'
'But still you are there and
nowhere else. Why?'
'They had to collect us up
and bring us together, to prevent problems with self-esteem.
When the results of the findings were made public, people
learned to appreciate those with the Condition, for if we
had it, it meant that they didn't. They began to bring gifts
and thanks. When I was born and the Condition was detected
in me, the gratefulness had turned into a form of veneration.
This was problematic, because constant love and appreciation
rid many of the Condition, which dispersed proportionally
throughout the population. Low level dysfunction was the result.
People started to become idle and suffer from unexplained
ennui and grief. They began to ask of everything: 'what's
the point?' The Condition, weakened because it was suffered
by many, caused fewer deaths, but it still prevented people
from living properly as well. In the end, to save the fabric
of society, known sufferers of various Conditions were collected
and taken away to places where they could be monitored and
maintained. It is a form of conservation. You see?'
Selene nods uncomprehendingly.
'Never mind,' I say. 'Youyou
never told me why you were Sectioned.'
She smiles like a serpent.
'I drove the wrong way around
a roundabout and I laughed the whole time,' she says. 'It
felt so good that I decided to do everything the wrong way.
Then I began to talk to people who were there. Sadly other
people were deranged: they believed that they didn't exist.'
Luca waits until her mouth
floods before she confronts me.
'There's someone else, isn't
there?' she challenges through jellied lips. I wriggle, discomforted.
'You know,' she says, dangerous air at the back of her throat,
'in geometry, the strongest shape is the equilateral trianglethree
points of contact. You can use it as a perfect fulcrum and
it will always sit solid on the base. But remember that human
beings aren't fucking geometry.'
She rolls over and spread-eagles
herself so that I have to find refuge in her bed. It is cold
where her body hasn't been and I shiver.
In Sharing Hour we have a
group session. We are asked to imagine an animal-us. I am
a mole, small and soft and blind. Luca is a horseshe
draws one later fleeting like fast ink across a foggy shoreline,
a horn on her brow, mane and tail and withers flaming.
What would Selene be? She
would not be an animal. She would be a drop of quicksilver
flung through the air. She will magnetize toward me and blend
back into my life, I hope.
* * *
They are moving Selene somewhere
and I can't stop them. They push the bed with her on it (Why
didn't I wedge the wheels, ever?) out of the door and then
they rumble into the uneven corridor, the left-rear wheel
tick-ticking spasmodically at the line of every flagstone.
She moans and cries and flaps her bonded hands like plucked
'Where are you taking her?
Where are you going? What are you doing?' I cry, I beg, I
This is not my dream; this
is my nightmare, all lucidity drained away like lymph from
a burn. They can't see me as I patter, not caring that my
feet are run over. They can't hear me as I scream myself dry
and they can't feel me as my fingers slip from their white
'Diane,' she says, her tongue
'Yes, yes, I am here. Don't
worry, don't worry. I'm right here with you.'
'You're taking her away,'
she mumbles. I can't see her pupils but her eyes are open,
mostly. 'You're taking her away.'
She isn't talking to me. With a cold shock I understand that
she's talking about me.
'Oh, no. Oh, no-no-no-no.'
Oh, I know, I know, I know
She is not my construction,
my surrogate family, my hallucination. I am hers and they
are taking me away.
I stand stock still and a
white-coat walks past me or through me or something.
I open my jaw as wide as I
can to tear out a scream, but although Selene winces and my
eardrums pop, it does nothing to arrest the steps of the white
The trolley rattles around
a corner and I follow. They go up an elevator and I wind my
little finger around Selene's as the wire winches us up. Down
another corridor decorated with hyena laughs and rubber rooms
and sleeves that wrap you up forever.
We go into a room that hums
and I cry my own alarm as they tape electrodes to her head
and remove the metal from her person. They put a strap over
her tongue and she tries to bite them.
'Don't worry,' I say through
carrion lips. 'Don't worry. They don't know what it does because
they are only human.' My eyes are covered in red sand. 'Like
when they cut and snip all through the middle. They just don't
Electricity fills the air,
robbing it of moisture.
'They'll start to learn more,
love. They'll learn how to treat us. Oh, it'll go bad for
a whilebut in the end we'll get it right.'
I hold on to her hand tightly.
Whatever they shoot through her system, I will share. I will
conduct it away from her. It will earth itself through me.
'In the end,' I whisper.
The white coats move away.
Selene rolls her head as far as she can in the harness and
meets my gaze. Her tongue roves around the bit uselessly.
* * *
I cried so hard that I dehydrated
myself until I became a husk and kept the neighbouring lifetimers
awake at night. I stopped eating, drinking and blinking.
I was diagnosed as extremely
unstable and taken away from the main floor into a holding
room where a carer sat with me at all times. They spooned
me food that I absorbed because I had been taught to and they
tried to make me talk. It was like Sharing Hour every hour.
I didn't feel the first shock,
but I felt the severance, and as I snapped forward into now,
I knew that I would never see Selene again.
causes short term memory loss. I hope that she found solace
in the right kind of non-remembering. But something inside
me couldn't chase away the shadow of whipping limbs.
I felt numb, as though the
blood flow to my brain was restricted. Sometimes I tried to
stop up my nostrils and forbid the air entry because of the
things that came into me with it.
The carers treated me to massages
and took me into therapy rooms where I watched up-lit bubbles
shot through columns of water, fizzing and changing colour.
I played with fibre optics and made patterns with projectors,
and they thought this was a good sign, but I didn't speak
They made me milk-shakes to
cover the bitter taste of the drugs they put in them, and
because I couldn't be bothered to wash or comb my hair, they
washed for me with gentle soft sponges.
In the end they took readings
of my pulse and took samples of my blood and brainwaves and
asked me to fill in questions about what I thought of myself.
I ticked the boxes but I didn't speak.
How abnormal on a scale of
1 to 10 do you feel?
How often do thoughts of self-harm occur to you?
How often do these thoughts take the form of hypothetical
On a scale of 1 to 10, how obsessive would you say these thoughts
They monitored my weight and
food intake and watched me in the toilet to make sure I didn't
force myself to regurgitate.
Generally they treated me
with the same respect they always had, ushering me along with
delicate finger-prods and murmurs.
In the end they decided that
even though I couldn't talk, I was no longer a liability to
myself or those around me. My arms grew fatter again and I
opened and shut my eyes at the normal rate. I could create,
as long as I was not asked to sing.
There was an inch of fuzz
on my skull by the time they decided that I was stable and
released me back into the general facility.
'I missed you,' said Luca
the violent. I stared at the place her voice came from, blind
to the movement and deaf to the vibration and the meaning.
She came over to me and let me share some of her warm and
I gave her cold in return.
* * *
There was an incident today
in Nurture Hour.
Some of us tend to the vegetables
and herbs, while others collect eggs from the chickens with
the clipped wings. We eat potential livessometimes I
know the cooks open a shell to find a network of veins inside.
That's all natural, all good, say the carers.
In the greenhouse, I was pulling
dead heads from an edible rose when a lifetimer two rows away
got up from the bench and without saying a word, knelt by
the strut that held the glass screens in place. Methodically,
she began to mash her forehead against it. Other lifetimers
ran away, panicking like flightless geese, their gowns flapping
bonelessly. I simply stood and stared.
Pretty soon there was a bloody
smear on the glass. She carried on with rhythmic determination.
The only sound she made was the crunch of bone on galvanised
metal. Luca's words came to mind: there's always a way.
The carer with us was young
and inexperienced, and she tried to drag the lifetimer away
from the wall. The carer was afraid of blood and every time
the lifetimer was moved, she simply, doggedly returned to
the same spot.
Luca came. She limped up on
both crutches, set herself down on the floor behind the cracked,
leaking lifetimer, one thigh on either side of the woman,
and wrapped both arms around the lurching body. Luca was strong.
She resisted every forward lunge with a flex of her muscles.
She tired the lifetimer, and when the woman went limp, she
set her out in the recovery position and staunched the head
wound with part of her bundled-up gown. She was not ashamed
to be naked.
* * *
'So, tell me the story, Diane.
The story of what happened. All of it, from your perspective.
I can steal you some paper and a pencil if you like; I know
where I can get some from. One of the bitches in catering
owes me a favour.
'Do it because you aren't
allowed to. That's reason enough.'
I considered for a while,
my mouth sewn up.
* * *
'Know how I lost my leg? Of
course you don't. You're too damn placid to be curious. I'm
going to tell you anyway.
'I went abroad a lot. I was
an activist. I used to go to war zones and give out clothes
and medicine to refugees. One time I thought I could train
to clear mines. You can see how that turned out for yourself.
There's nothing like having shreds of your own leg blasted
into your mouth to make you lose faith in humanity. It tastes
like raw pork and iron, in case you're wondering, which I
know you're probably not.
'I bet the other girls were
stirring up all sorts of shit about me. Well, it isn't true,
whatever they said.
'This placeit makes
me sick. Maybe it's just because it doesn't suit me. You seem
to be made for itI've never seen you get excited or
agitated. Maybe you like the walls. Maybe you're sensitive
to all the colour therapy and stuff. Fair enough. And there
is something in what they sayabout moodpressure,
atmosphere and all that. But something about this stinks as
well. All good, all natural, they keep saying, except that
it isn't. Maybe it would be pointless to try and maybe they're
rightif you or I get better then someone else would
have to be depressed to balance it out. But maybe not.
'Both ways, they're profiting
from us, and that makes me bitter. And for as long as I'm
bitter, I'm here. Like you, for as long as you're alone, you're
unhappy so you have to stay here. It's a self-supporting process.
They have no intention of letting us go.
'At any rate, I don't think
we should be singled out and made different. If we're so natural,
then why can't we be a part of everything else? And why don't
they try to do more than simply make us survive? As far as
I'm concerned, this,' a tap of a finger on the tip of the
abortive leg, 'is the same as this:' a tap at the temple.
'They both don't work quite right, but something can be done
about them. I don't see why a problem with the brain has to
be viewed differently to a problem with the body. Fix it if
it's chronic and life-threatening, or makes you miserable.
Deal with it if you can, like I choose to. But at least give
us the choice to do it our way. Do you see what I'm getting
She rocks me in her arms.
'You're hunting for something
inside yourself, aren't you? I can tell. A bomb breached me,
but you are bleeding on the inside. Something deeper bust
up your integrity and made you into mash. Now I can't put
you back together, but maybe I can help you do it yourself.
If we find a way to be happy then that's the same as finding
the way out. We don't need no hair to let down,' she runs
her fingers through the bristle on her scalp. 'We don't need
no one to climb up and save us. There's always a way, and
our way out is in here.' She taps my skull, dull. 'You have
a rope in here, all coiled up. You just have to learn to let
it lead you, find a window to dangle it out of. Stop letting
it gag you. I've stopped letting mine strangle me.
'Now are you going to talk,
or are you going to kiss me, or both?'
I open my mouth in the darkness,
and the dark stays outside of me.
'Both,' I say.