by Bruce Golden
I lie here, as I have lain for so long, like a crumpled fetus, waiting for an end that will not come. I beg for it . . . I pray for it. But even as I wait for a cessation to my terrible existence, I know it is only a seductive fantasy. I imagine release, escape, blissful freedom–for imagination is all I have left. How perversely ironic that the cause of my damnation is now my sole salvation.
The air reeks of disinfectant as it does habitually, and the only sounds I hear are distant murmurings. There’s a chill in the air so I clutch futilely at the lone, coarse sheet that covers me and open my eyes to the same austere wall, the same mocking shadows that greet me in perpetuity.
This time, though, I see a slight variation. Something is there. Something I can barely discern in the feeble light. A tiny, quivering, wiggle of activity. I strain to focus and see a caterpillar laboriously weaving its cocoon. Somehow it has made the Herculean trek to where the wall and ceiling intersect, and has attached itself in the crevice there.
As I lie here, I wonder what resplendent form will emerge from that cocoon. But even this vision is eventually muted by the despair that possesses my soul. I struggle not to reason, because there is no reason. Guilt or innocence, fact or fiction–they are concepts that no longer matter. All that matters are the gray ruins of my memories–memories that play out across the desolate fields of my mind. I cling to them the way a madman clings to sanity. In truth, I’m but a single, aberrant thought from slipping into the murky, swirling abyss of madness myself. So I try to remember.
I remember the carefree excursions I took to the ocean as a child–the warm sand, the cool water, the waves lapping at my ankles. I remember the university, in the days before reformation. The camaraderie of my fellow students. The give and take of creative discourse. Soaring over the sea cliffs on a crude hang glider built by a classmate. The girl with the bright red hair for whom I secretly longed. I remember many things, but always there is one tenacious, tumultuous recollection that intrudes.
It’s always the same. The same thunderous sound of cracking wood as my door bursts open. The same flurry of booted feet violating the sanctum of my thoughts. The same rough hands that assault and bind me.
I remember the looks of hatred and repugnance, the shouted threats of violence from unfamiliar voices. The relentless malice focused upon me was like a living thing. Time and space became a rancorous blur as I stood in the center of an imposing room, still bound, surrounded by more strangers. I was on display, the accused in a courtroom where only the degree of my guilt seemed subject to debate.
Much of what occurred that day is lost in a haze of obscurity, but I clearly remember the prosecutor’s embittered summation.
“The facts are incontrovertible, honorable Justice,” I recall him stating with restrained assurance. “A routine intruscan of the accused’s personal files disclosed numerous writings, both prosaic and poetical in nature, which can only be described as obscene and disturbingly antisocial. Public decorum prevents me from detailing the improprieties here, though the complete volume of these degradations can be found in the articles of evidence.
“In addition to the possession of these heinous works of pornography, the accused fully admits to authoring them. I say he stands guilty of counts both actual and abstract. I request that no leniency be shown by the court, and that he be sentenced under the severest penalties allowed for such crimes.”
I distinctly remember the prosecutor, indifferent but confident, returning to his seat as the presiding justice contemplated the charges.
Turning a stern glance towards me, the justice methodically asked, “Does the accused have any statement to make before judgment is passed?”
I remember standing there, befuddled by the ritual of it all, unable to accept the realization that it was my fate they were discussing. When it seemed I wouldn’t reply, the justice opened his mouth to issue the verdict, and I quickly stammered the only thing I could think of.
“I . . . I admit I wrote things that may be considered inappropriate by some, but they were simply meanderings of a personal nature, never meant for public dissemination. In no sense was I propagating the enforcement of my ideals upon society. They . . . they were simple fantasies, scribblings of an unfettered imagination, nothing more.”
“Surely,” boomed the justice, “throughout the course of this trial, if not previously, you have been made aware that, under our governing jurisprudence, thought is deed.”
When I failed to respond, he went on. “If you have nothing further to say in your defense, I rule, by law, your guilt has been determined within reasonable doubt. I hereby sentence you to the withering.”
I remember the clamor of hushed voices swelling like a balloon about to burst as the words were repeated throughout the courtroom.
The sound reverberated inside my skull, but terror and denial colored my reality. The withering. It was something spoken of only in whispers. No one I had ever known knew the truth of it. There were only rumors, grisly tales with no substance, yet the power to invoke dismay and horror.
Much of what happened next is a void of innocuous bureaucracy, but I remember the room where it took place. I was still bound, this time by sturdy leather straps that embraced my wrists and ankles. Except for the straps I was naked. Lost in the surreality of the moment, I felt no humiliation at my nakedness, but was overwhelmed by a pervading sense of vulnerability. I remember a chill in the room. There was a draft blowing from somewhere nearby. A single bright light was positioned so that it blinded me with its glare.
Three others were in the room. One I designated the “doctor,” and two men who assisted her. They went about their business with systematic efficiency, seeming to ignore my obvious presence.
Then, without really acknowledging me with her eyes, the doctor began explaining the procedure. Paralyzed with fearful anticipation, I failed to absorb much of what she said. I remember only bits and pieces. Something about “hormonal injections” . . . “osteo and rheumatoid mutations” . . . “effects which bypass the brain.”
The technical details of her explanation became a mere backdrop when I spied the row of hypodermics. Its length extended beyond absurdity, and when she reached for the first one I braced for the pain to come. However, after a few minor stings, I felt only a pinching sensation as needles were inserted with care into my thighs, my forearms, my neck . . . and on and on until each violation of my body no longer mattered. I must have passed out at some point, because when I awoke I was in another place.
I have no idea how long I was asleep, but as I weaned myself from unconsciousness I felt a stiffness that convinced me I had been lying there for some time. I tried to move but couldn’t. I saw no restraints holding me down, so I tried again. I was successful, briefly, if you consider inducing a stabbing pain somewhere in my back a success. The pain convinced me to forego any further attempts at movement. So I shook off the vestiges of slumber and tried to recall with more clarity what had happened.
Oh, that it could only have been a horrible dream. But my reality had become a nightmare, one I hadn’t yet grasped in its fullness. I know now nothing could have prepared me for what I was about to learn.
After I lay motionless for some time, a white-coated attendant approached me and bent over to engage in some sort of interaction with my bed.
“Where am I?” I asked, my voice cracking with dryness. “What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I move?”
The attendant made no sign he heard me. Instead he pushed my bed into a corridor that stretched on without end. The wheels churned below me as we passed cubicle after grim cubicle. In the dim light I saw other beds, beds occupied by inert bodies. The shadows and the constant jog of movement prevented me from seeing more until we came to a halt. The attendant departed, leaving me as naked and helpless as the day I was brought into this harsh world.
The alcove where I had been left was much brighter, and it took time for my eyes to adjust. Unable to turn my head without great pain, I could look in only one direction. Facing me was a metallic wall or door of some sort. The metal’s sheen was highly reflective, and in its mirrored surface I saw myself.
Rather, I saw what I had become.
I have no idea how long I screamed before my cacophonous lament attracted a swarm of attendants who quickly sedated me. But I’m sure I wasn’t the first, or the last, to wail in terror inside those somber halls.
I try not to remember what I saw in that hideous reflection. But I can’t forget that my fingers are now gnarled deformities, my arms shrunken and folded against my chest as if my tendons had shriveled. I know the slightest attempt to move my legs will cause indescribable agony that writhes up through my hips and assaults my spinal cord. I can try to forget that my once wavy hair has been shaved to a coarse stubble, but the feeling my lips are dry and cracked is ever-present, and too often my skin is aflame with a devilish itch I cannot scratch.
Warehoused like a spare part that no longer serves any purpose, my days passing into years, I suck sullen gruel through toothless gums and wait for the impersonal touch of an attendant to wipe my body clean. It is a morose whim of fate indeed, that even such routine maintenance is a welcome diversion to an otherwise monotonous subsistence.
Trapped in a useless husk, perched on the precipice of lunacy, I turn inward for deliverance. From a place deep within I rise and soar high above other lands, gliding lazily into other times. They don’t know about my journeys. They think I’m a prisoner of this room. They don’t know I become other people–bold people, curious people, people who commemorate their adventures in rhyme. I don’t tell them about the improper thoughts that creep into my head. I still dare to imagine the unimaginable, but no one knows. They won’t find me in here. In here I don’t allow myself to dwell on past transgressions. I seek no pity nor submit to reproach. And, no matter how seductive its siren call, in here I resist the longing for sweet death.
Instead, like the caterpillar, I wait to emerge from my cocoon, spread my glorious wings, and fly.
Bruce Golden’s short stories have been published more than 150 times across a score of countries and 30 anthologies. Asimov’s Science Fiction described his novel Evergreen, “If you can imagine Ursula Le Guin channelling H. Rider Haggard, you’ll have the barest conception of this stirring book, which centers around a mysterious artifact and the people in its thrall.” His latest book, Monster Town, is a satirical send-up of old hard-boiled detective stories featuring movie monsters of the black & white era. It’s currently in development for a TV series. http://goldentales.tripod.com
This story was inspired by health problems my mother was suffering through. I wondered, what if such physical problems were a form of torture or punishment in a dystopian society instead of a medical condition.