Are We Men?

I wrote this one when I was eighteen. I fixed two spelling errors, but otherwise I've left it untouched. Some of it's overdone, but I am still awed at how relentless and unflinching my writing was.

Are We Men?

She crouched huddled in the far corner of the cell. Her back pushed into the cold walls as her eyes darted about wildly, piercing one by one each bar that formed her metallic prison. The pale shard of a diamond moon allowed but a slight luminescence to penetrate the coal black darkness. Despite the night, she could see her prison perfectly. Interjected between each bar fell glimpses of the bright world beyond, a world which she never seemed capable of bringing into focus. Only the bars remained in obstinate clarity.


As the bars flickered by, her gaze trickled over the vile sights of her cell. She sought to issue forth a great cataract to wash them all away, to relieve herself of the perpetual stagnancy of her existence. But nothing happened. The cell remained unchanged. And push as she might, her back would still not sink into the wall.


She had been a prisoner since before the dawning of her conscious mind. Her entire recollection of anything beyond the cell seemed to be contained within a single ephemeral flash of memory, followed by untold years within the urine-scented steel sanatorium. Or was it only weeks? Or was it centuries?


She knew neither who her captors were nor what they desired of her. She encountered only brief, blurred glimpses of them before they disappeared into the beyond. They never acknowledged her pleas or her cries, nor did they ever speak a word to her. She simply languished in silence and rotted away from within.


Among the shadows before her lay the implacable outlines of a life imprisoned. Her stomach churned and boiled as she glanced over the loathsome bowl which lay awkwardly inverted in the farthest corner of the cell. It was in this that a collection of stale pebbles was placed every morning. She suspected that these granite pellets were vitamins of some sort, a fabrication meant to imitate something edible. They tasted like ancient faeces, but she ate them nonetheless. She had learned long ago that they were the only form of food that would be made available to her. She had considered refusing to eat, but feared that this would be exactly what her captors wanted. She would not succumb. In a vain cry of protest, she made a daily ritual of toppling her bowl before it was to be refilled.


Beside her bowl, the water dispensary protruded from the wall like an oozing metallic pustule. On this day, a yellow, cupric fluid dripped silently from its rusted nozzle. In other instances, it had secreted a stale and lifeless clear liquid. On yet other occasions, it had yielded nothing at all. She felt that her scarred throat would leap from her body at the thought of the sickly nozzle. At any one time, it never released more than a single drop. In order to drink, she was forced to suckle like the spurned baby of some mechanical abomination.


To her left was the cracked side of her sleeping chamber. She always sat in the alcove its side created with the corner of the cell. It was the one area that felt at all secure to her. The sleeping chamber seemed to be some perverse attempt to make her feel comfortable with her captivity. Though it may have been meant to serve as a small shelter within the cell, it only felt like a cage within a cage. And in an ultimate, sadistic jest, this isolation trap was made of transparent plastic. It was not a shelter but a microscope: a single place where all of her actions could be observed freely and readily. She would have none of it. When she did sleep, it was in the alcove.


Resting directly across from her, beside her bowl, was the wheel. It filled much of the height of the cell with its cylindrical spider web form. Its many thin rungs reflected taunting glimmers of moonlight, and she cursed each one as it met her gaze. This wheel had once been her solace, her one outlet for the fulminating frustration of her existence. She would step into the cylinder of spigots and, in a flurry of frantic motion, vent all her frustration and rage. She reserved only the embers of hatred to burn in defiance of her captors. But now the wheel lay derelict. No longer could she find satisfaction in this cell-spawned collection of bars. Her rage was now internal. She never released it, though at times she felt that her churning stomach would burst in a nova of fury. There was no more solace in the wheel. When she had finished running, she would be exactly where she had begun, though she desired to get away. She pushed even harder into the corner as her mind sank deeper into its own black prison. Perhaps, she thought, if she pushed enough, the bars would melt away and allow her to pass. Her knuckles tensed and cracked as they drove into the shaven-wood floor.


As she pushed, her eyes swivelled upward toward her only salvation. No, she thought, it was one of two. At its sight, her body went limp. She knew that it was hopeless. She looked up and saw the single exit that the prison afforded, interjected within a section of bars in the ceiling. She knew that she would not be taking her leave. At one time, whenever she spied the opportunity, she would climb to the top of the cell and attempt to force open the door. But it was closed fast. During her final such attempt, she had fallen and landed upon the sleeping chamber, cracking its thin roof and side while bruising herself.


Now she sat huddled in the corner, as often she did, her knuckles cracking as her mind whirled. She tried not to inhale the stench of urine and faeces that permeated the cell, but quickly recognised the futility of the effort. Even her throat and eyes perpetually burned with the foul scent. From somewhere in the darkness, a slight shift in the air sent the smell spiralling toward her and caused the cage-wheel to squeak with a slow, maddening rhythm. It was the only sound in the cell. Again, her eyes shot out into the night, seeking now for some place of solace within her tormenting confines. As she knew she would, she found none. She turned at last to the ever-distant moon, which so long ago had ceased to pay heed to her lamentations, and she poured the fire of Hades from her mind into its core. She glared at it, but it returned only a faint shimmer of saccharine contentment. Could it hear her, she would have hurled at its pale face such an invective that any ears that it had would shrivel away in anguish. Yet it remained cool, silent and aloof, smiling down at her debasing torment.


In fury, she hurled herself at the cold, merciless bars, reaching her hands out beyond them to rend the moon from the sky. If she could but have touched it, she would have torn it to pieces and scattered its smirking ashes along the bottom of the cell. Still it smiled. She screamed at it, eyes wide and mad, nostrils flared and teeth bared, her arms pulling at the bars until it seemed that her tendons would unravel and explode out onto the cage. There was no reply.


Her teeth clenched as her entire body coiled into a single spasmodic mass of flame: she would knock the moon down by sheer force of will if need be. A blood vessel burst in her right eye. A moment later, her left incisor cracked. Her body relented. Completely spent, she withered to the bottom of the cage, panting as she released a spot of saliva onto the putrid floor. Her breathing gradually slowed. She wanted to crawl away and hide, hide away from this smiling demon in the sky who took such pleasure at her anguish. The arrogant thing would not respond to one so lowly as she.


Then it came. When she heard the voice, she did not turn. She knew its source. It was the first intelligible sound she had ever heard in the cell. The voice was calm, cool and arrogant. She knew who it was.


It asked her why.


She told it that if she didn't, they would win. i


It asked her how she knew that.


She fumbled in anger and her body tensed. She had simply always made that assumption; escape would otherwise have been far too simple a matter.


It asked her what her captors’ intentions were.


She refused to respond. ‘


It asked her what they would gain from the loss of their only prisoner.


She told it that they would gain satisfaction.


It asked her if they would go through the trouble of keeping her alive simply to reap a sadistic sense of satisfaction.


She asked it if it didn't watch her for the same reason.


It told her that she was obviously necessary for the completion of some cause.


She asked it what it was talking about.


It told her that she was intrinsic to her captors’ plans.


She asked it to shut up.


It told her that she was an experiment, a living toy that would be destroyed when its purpose was complete.


She tensed her wasted body, driving her fingers into the foetid floor.


It told her that, as soon as she had completed her task, she would be discarded.


Her breathing began to quicken.


It told her that the food and water were used to advance her progress.


She glared at the bowl and the pustule as they suddenly took on a new, horrifying appearance. Each was now doubly her doom. To continue to consume from them was to grant her captors what they desired. To do otherwise might have the same result. She was torn. She knew only that she did not want to hear any more. But the voice continued to speak.


It told her that she was under constant observation.


She drove her fingers into her ears, but still the voice could be heard. She rose and sprang to the overturned food bowl, her muscles screaming as she did. She frantically filled each ear with granite pellets. Still the cool, clear voice slithered on.


It told her that she would never be free.


She tore at her ears in rage, but to no avail. She screamed, flailed and beat the bars of the cage until her knuckles fell bruised and battered to her side. At last, weary yet infuriated, she prostrated herself on the round spokes of the silver wheel. The voice would not be silent.


It told her that the agony would never end.


With great effort, she pulled herself up onto the wheel, slipping within the small triangle formed by its axis. She began to walk. Her feet clicked over the spokes as they passed beneath her. She ensured that every step fell upon the vile reflection from above. Every living fibre screamed at her as she quickened her pace. Her very bones seemed to bend and creak as she started to run and the screaming in her mind began to drown out the maddening voice. Her eyes widened and her breathing grew heavy as feral saliva slipped across her cheek and her body was pushed beyond collapse. The wheel spun faster and faster and faster and faster as its spokes became a blur of whirling metal. But the bar that formed of the wheel's axis remained in perfect focus.


The wheel was spinning faster than it ever had in the past. Still she strove to run swifter as the voice and her screaming body competed for dominance in her mind. At last, as her every sinew released a final cry of agony, she stopped dead on the wheel and clung to it as it spun around. As she returned downward, she forced her head out beyond the wheel's silver side, held her breath, and closed her eyes. All the voices went silent.


The wheel was jarred from its axis and her limp body flew across the cell. As she landed in the sleeping chamber, its rear wall cracked and splintered with the force of her impact. She slumped to the ground. She spent a final moment staring at the convoluted sawdust that covered the floor of the cell, the only ground she had ever known. She thought of the irony of its struggle to conceal the baser matter of the cage. The faeces always found a way to the surface. Unable to move a single joint below her neck, she allowed her body to relax as she exhaled her final breath.


*            *            *


"Oh dear. It's curled up in its little house and it‘s all cold. . . "


"You tell him."


“Wha' happened?"


"Well, dear, I'm afraid your little friend has finished his time with us, and now he's had to go away."


"Not to worry, Johnnie. We'll go to the store tomorrow and get you another one."


"Aww. . . poor Mister whiskers. . . "

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