THERE WERE NO DAYS OR NIGHTS IN THE CAGE. Lights could be turned on or off by touching a darker patch of wall in the corners of each room, the illumination seeming to come uniformly from the walls themselves, with no discernible source. There were five small, functional rooms in the cage with beds; two of which were occupied by myself and Trudie.
Like my ancient companion, I soon began to keep track of time by counting my ‘sleeps’ and marking them down in one of the blank notebooks that were available in the library area, along with a modest supply of rather antique stationery. Whoever ‘they’ were, they certainly seemed to have a considerably in-depth understanding of human needs, and access to everyday items.
Trudie’s ability to read or write was extremely limited; her own notebook was filled with nothing more than page after page of tally charts, which she had diligently kept up to date with throughout her long incarceration. Every thousand markings she had used a new page, and there were no less than forty-five pages completely full of her tallies. At first I was staggered by this, not only because of the mind-boggling level of diligence it imparted, but also because assuming each tally represented one ‘night’ of a 24-hour cycle, the whole book added up to some 125 years – significantly longer even than Trudie’s own reckoning. I reasoned in time, however, from my own early experiences in the cage that it was unlikely for us to be able to follow this rhythm; I slept when I was tired, but there were no clocks in the cage so there was no way of knowing whether I (or particularly Trudie) had kept to a 24-hour cycle or whether (as seemed likely), boredom and lack of motivation prompted us to our beds more regularly.
My ancient and endearing companion quickly cautioned me against relying too heavily on sleep to counter my boredom. She had seen it happen with Elizabeth, who had grown vague and senile before her time. This perhaps may have been verifiable through Elizabeth’s multi-volume journal, which was also in the library room. However, the woman had written it in her native language of German, which I seemed only able to read and understand at a basic level. From what I could gather though, Elizabeth had come here in early middle-age and had survived up until her late sixties or early seventies; it was hard to tell exactly, although it was clear to me that she had provided three decades of essential companionship for poor Trudie, without which the old girl doubted whether she would have found the strength to go on.
In time, with Trudie’s guidance and repeated, soothing assurances, I settled into a routine. I would sleep, wake up, row or cycle to earn our breakfast (I refused to use the exercise wheel, thinking it too degrading). Trudie would insist on preparing food, though I would have been happy to do everything and allow her to take her well-earned rest.
‘Rest in peace is what they put on gravestones, or so I’ve been told,’ she would explain. ‘I’ll be doing plenty of that soon enough.’
After breakfast, I would bathe, shave, and read from the meagre library before exercise-earning lunch. Trudie would often doze in one of the many chairs padded with her shawls and exquisitely-embroidered cushions, though she never counted these dozes as proper ‘sleeps’. Following lunch, I tended to gravitate towards the ‘games and leisure room’, where there were puzzles to solve, a few utensils for various arts and crafts and huge jigsaws to work on. There was also a shabby old guitar, which I quickly discovered I could not even tune up nicely, much less play. After some time in this room, I would eventually have to exercise-earn dinner. In the ‘evening’ before sleep, I took to reading out loud to Trudie, who I would gently carry to the nature room and seat on a heavily cushioned and blanketed hollow, with her back to a sickly-looking, stunted beech tree.
Trudie had been unable to read or write at all when she first arrived, and although Elizabeth had tried to teach her, by that time she had already been already getting on in years and had been unable to make much progress. Hence, she had never read any of the books in the library. I had (rather stupidly under the circumstances) started by attempting to read Robinson Crusoe to her, but she had taken an immediate intense dislike to the story, and so I had tried again with Heidi.
Progress was very slow when reading to Trudie, because she liked to stop and chat about every little thing that happened in the story, to linger over both events and the impressions of the characters as if they were cherished members of her own family.
She fell in love with little Heidi instantly, seemingly able to relate very naturally to the small girl taken away from a home in the open air and the mountains she adored to a lonely, sterile, safe place, and she was frequently moved to tears as Spyri’s tale unfolded. She also found the grandfather to be an intriguing character – a man of advanced years who had chosen to live alone.
‘Such heart and soul, this story,’ she said thickly one time when she had grown tired and it was time to finish for the evening.
‘Didn’t you feel the same for poor Robinson Crusoe?’ I asked her.
‘Not really. He had a choice,’ she replied almost immediately. ‘Robinson was seeking his fortune in trading with the new world when his fate came for him. He would have been well aware of the risks. Heidi was an innocent in the charge of emotional cripples who thought they knew what was best for her.’
It was soon after that little conversation, and ninety-seven sleeps into my incarceration, that the usually opaque glassy substance of the cage suddenly became transparent without warning while Trudie and I were eating one of her delicately seasoned omelettes for lunch. From one moment to the next, the whole cage seemed to become see-through and, for the first time, I was able to look up and beyond what had become my home these last three months or so.
The space beyond the cage was a dusty, reddish-brown in colour, and seemed to be rapidly growing lighter in hue. Shadows and silhouettes of incomprehensible shapes and designs were becoming visible in the far distance, although it was impossible to get any real detail of what they might be. I glanced around wildly, fearfully, but Trudie just kept calmly eating her omelette.
‘Don’t worry, dear,’ she assured me. ‘It’s only Them. I’ve been expecting Them around about now. In a few hours, They might come and have a look at us, see how you’re doing. They’ll be interested in you, Quin. Maybe They’ve been worrying whether you’ve eaten me or something.’ She chuckled around a mouthful of egg and chives.
I scoffed. ‘If they know enough about humans to provide a Rubik’s cube, I shouldn’t think so,’ I reasoned.
‘I’d just carry on as normal if I were you,’ she advised me. ‘You soon get used to it.’
But the rest of the ‘day’ passed, and no great eye could be seen from the brightening ochre world beyond the cage.
That evening, Trudie started to get a bit confused about what time of ‘day’ it was, or how to get from the kitchen and exercise room to the nature room. As often as not, she would make her own way there, shuffling slowly on her two canes along the corridor to the door at the end which slid open to reveal the cage’s largest room, a tennis-court-sized garden housing several stumpy trees and numerous plants and shrubs. The nature room seemed to have its own rudimentary ecosystem, although it was hardly a robust or healthy one, which included occasional sprinklings of rain and a selection of torpid, sickly-looking insects and spiders.
On this particular evening, I found Trudie in the middle of the corridor, looking around with a concerned – even slightly agitated – expression as if not sure which direction she needed to go. When I asked her what she was looking for, she stammered something disjointed and incoherent that contained the names Elizabeth and Ray. I calmed her down as best I could, and carried her to her usual spot in the nature room.
‘I’ve heard plenty about Elizabeth,’ I told her after I had fetched her a cup of tea made from the bunch of dried sage that had recently come down the chute. ‘But who was Ray?’
Trudie raised the shaking cup to her lips and took a loud, unsteady slurp. ‘Ray is my son,’ she replied simply as if it were self-evident.
‘Your son?’ I repeated gently, doubtfully. ‘How could you have a son, Trudie?’
She seemed barely aware that I was in front of her, staring instead deep into her teacup.
After several silent moments, she started to speak. ‘I’d only been here – oh, five thousand sleeps or so. No-one else had come to the cage yet. I’d grown up on my own, had to come to terms with the thirty-odd-sleep bleeding cycle on my own. It had scared me at first, but I’d eventually figured it wasn’t going to kill me.
‘A day came when I didn’t wake up in the cage, you know. Thought it was a dream at first. I woke up with my face on the grass in a meadow, surrounded by trees. Real, tall, healthy trees. Thought maybe I’d finally died and gone to heaven. Then I met the first people I had seen in over a dozen years. Other human beings, running around in the meadow and the trees, just as surprised to be in the open air as I was. Strange-coloured sky, more light green than the blue I remembered of home.
‘Most of us were shy at first - other girls and boys, men and women, from other cages, it seemed. Some knew how to build and start a fire. There was food and drink – wonderful food and drink! And...and dancing, and singing. This went on for three or four...days. Yes, days, I say. It would get dark, then light again. We lay under an orange sun. A beautiful young man became my friend there, we...there was an instant connection, and feelings I didn’t understand. We spent those days running and dancing together between the trees...and the nights in the meadow and the long grass and the wildflowers.’
I was starting to get an idea where this surprising tale was headed, but I remained silent.
‘Later on, Elizabeth always seemed to have quite a negative attitude towards men, but that one – Roy, he said his name was, though we said little else to each other as we didn’t speak the same language – he was nice to me. He showed me what is between a man and a woman with gentleness and kindness. Such a charmer...’ she smiled toothlessly, her eyes grown bright with the telling of this most treasured of tales.
‘After three or four days,’ Trudie continued, ‘...I can’t quite remember exactly, we were having too much fun – I woke up again, and I was back here in the cage, on my own as ever. At first I thought it must have been a particularly intense dream...until my belly started to swell.
‘It was at this time that my first companion appeared in the quarantine room. It was that teenage girl I told you about when you first got here, the one who remembered everything about her old life and ended up wasting away. Hannah, her name was. Well, she was old enough – thank the lord – to recognise I was pregnant and to tell me what to expect.’
She then paused again and looked at me directly. ‘I’m telling you this, because I want you to write down the important bits like I never could,’ she told me quite distinctly, holding my gaze. ‘Heidi got her story, Gertrude should get hers too!’
I promised her I would do that, wondering what was prompting her to choose this evening out of the dozens we had already shared in each others' company.
‘Thank you, Quin,’ she said warmly then, and I believe it was the last time she ever addressed me by my name.
‘Anyway,’ she went on, ‘about three hundred or so sleeps after the humans had their picnic, Hannah helped me deliver a healthy baby boy, who I called Ray.’ It struck me that there was no melancholy or longing in her voice like there had been so many times before, only a kind of serenity that even seemed able momentarily to lift my own troubled heart.
‘It was an easy birth, Hannah assured me. She had two younger sisters and could remember her mother telling her about the experience of childbirth. I don’t know what I would have done without her there. But after the following sleep, my baby Ray was gone from the cage. I never saw him again.’
I sat for a long time in front of her, letting this all sink in.
‘Bastards,’ I breathed finally.
‘If you think about it,’ she said firmly then, ‘They did right by my son. They took him from here to a better place.’
‘How can you know this?’ I asked her despairingly.
‘I just know.’
Trudie seemed to have said everything she wanted to say on the subject, and so she asked me to continue with my rendition of Heidi.
We had reached the part where Heidi’s wheelchair-bound friend and playmate, Clara, had been taken up to visit the alpine hut which had been Heidi’s home.
Clara’s experience of the high mountain life and the clean, fresh air and mountain flowers after a lifetime of super-civilized restriction and overprotection had overwhelmed her. She had become so moved by her change of environment and perspective that, with the support and encouragement of Heidi, her grandfather and the goat-herd Peter, her health had dramatically improved and she had miraculously started to rise from her wheelchair and take a few, tentative steps.
As I was reading this chapter, Trudie made a quick gesture. She said, ‘I think I’d like to stop there.’ With a grunt of effort she tried to raise herself from her seat, as Clara had just done, but instead she just let out a long sigh and sank back onto her cushions. By the time I had moved forward to see if she needed my help, she had died.
Trudie looked very peaceful lying there underneath the small beech tree. She had managed to close her own eyes, and her mouth was fixed into the beginnings of a smile. For several long moments, the cage seemed enveloped in the thickest and most profound silence.
I kept staring at Trudie’s shrunken form; I had no idea how long for. She had been the absolute focus of my attention ever since I had arrived here from seemingly nowhere and no-when so inexplicably. The implications of her passing on my mental wellbeing seemed enormous, too much for my mind to contemplate, yet they lay in wait at the edges of my conscious awareness, waiting to tear apart all the resolve and stability I had built up around her indomitable strength over the last several weeks.
I had known at some level, of course, that she couldn’t have had all that much time left; yet I found myself unable to say goodbye now that the time had come. I stood up and wandered around the cage for several hours, not knowing quite what to do or where to put myself. Without the contrast of Trudie somewhere nearby, the nothingness of my existence seemed to come flooding back from all around.
I did not sleep like I normally would have after reading to Trudie. Instead, I went back into the kitchen and exercise room and cycled and rowed like a maniac until the water tank was totally full and the chute had spat out so many miscellaneous items of food that they had overflowed the trough and started to roll out all over the floor. It seemed to me like I had to keep doing in order to keep being.
Presently, exhaustion started to set in and I staggered breathlessly over to the leisure room, a half-formed idea in my mind. When I reached the mysterious, nameless white stone sphere, I stood before it for several moments, lost in thought.
Over the weeks, I had experimented with it from time to time. It was horribly, agonisingly cold to touch – and yet that coldness could only be felt on physical contact. One millimetre above the object, it was impossible to tell that it was cold in any way. When I could stand to touch it, I could often make images of objects I had formed in my mind appear inside the sphere, though they never remained for more than a second or two.
I had asked Trudie what she thought about it, and she had simply shrugged and said it was a ‘fancy coffee table’ and that it had been there since she had been a young woman; perhaps ninety years or so. Things had a tendency to just appear and disappear or be replaced in the cage, she had told me. Oddly, she had never experienced its extreme coldness to the touch. I had told her about the images I seemed to be able to conjure in it, but she hadn’t seemed particularly interested.
Now, I placed both my hands on the sphere and, gritting my teeth against the cold, I focused my thoughts on Trudie. Sure enough, an image of her appeared in the milky blankness. Only this time, the image didn’t fade straight away. It opened its mouth and spoke, the words ringing clearly all around. They were words I remember her having said only a few days ago.
‘When you’ve sat in as much silence as I have, for as long as I have, I guarantee you’ll start to hear Truth. It’s whether you have the courage to listen, that’s the question.’
We had been talking about how she had ever managed to keep going for so long, in such an environment.
The cold became unbearable, and I snatched my hands away at last, crying out at the pain shooting up my arms like blades of whetted frost. I rolled around on the floor for some time, clutching my hands and arms close to my body and occasionally whimpering in agony. It seemed there was a price for using the sphere in this way.
Silence didn’t seem an option for me, I found myself thinking as I gradually recovered. I recognised the wisdom of Trudie’s words, but I was too afraid to hear the truth in silence. The truth which was, as far as I could see it, that I was nobody, no man at all; with no past, no future and now no companionship to distract me from the nothingness which threatened to devour me. I had to find an answer to it, something that would keep the terror of non-being at bay.
Slowly and disconsolately, I made my way back to where Trudie’s body lay and stared at her again, hoping for some inspiration. The only thought that came to me was that I should put the last big mark in her Book of Sleeps; one final mark for the longest sleep of all. When I reached the library area and leafed through her book to the last page she had been using, I found a message written in a spidery, illiterate scrawl. It said:
Dont be sad for me, Quin.
I nue peece and frendshipp in my long lyf.
Its mor then meny get bak home, I think.
Im gratefull, im content.
Thank yu for liting up my last days.
I felt an upswelling surge of emotion as I read her words, and tears sprang unexpectedly to my eyes.
That was not nothing! A silent part of myself observed wryly at the aching of my heart.
No – that definitely was not nothing.
As soon as I had acknowledged this, the words and tune of a song sprang into my head, and I started to sing it out loud, first quietly, then with growing confidence as I realised that I actually had a very pleasant singing voice. The chorus of the song went like this:
Lonely sister, lonely brother
Lonely father, lonely mother
Searching for the holy other
Lonely sister, lonely brother
Lonely father, lonely mother
If you need to find the other
The song seemed to open an entire floodgate of emotions for me, and when I had finished singing it, other songs came into my head one after the other; beautiful songs which I seemed to know perfectly though I could not say how I knew them or where from. Still, it seemed to suggest that I had a memory from before waking up in this cage, somewhere deep within, and that it had been triggered by my emotions.
I went into every room of the cage and sang my heart out; I sang over Trudie’s body, I sang in my room, I sang at the sphere (though I did not touch it again).
And finally, after I had sung myself hoarse, some movement above my head made me look up to the roof of the cage.
There, magnified into immensity by the glass of my now-solitary domain, a sky-blue eye was staring straight down.
They had finally come to take a look at me...
END OF PART II.
Click here for Part III, Change of Diet