Solitary

By Blythe Hurley

LakeviewThe sound that awakens me in the morning is a low, buzzing hum. For the first few months it didn't wake me up; instead, my body would wake me when it was ready and the hum would already be present. I really felt it more than I heard it, back then. It was like a low rumble along the surface of the platform I sleep on, a gentle rippling against my skin.

Now, though, I wake when it first clicks on for the day. It is such a small sound, really, but one of the only ones I ever hear. I suppose my body is so much more sensitive to those things now. Anything beyond the blank white and steady hum of this room would be so delicious.

So. In the morning the hum starts and I wake up. The room is still dark, although soon it will be glowing with the dim light that I have taken to calling day. I pull on the thin, loose fitting pants that are left here for me. They are replaced at night, although I have never seen by whom. I haven't seen anyone for so long. I tried to stay up all night a few times to see who it was, but on those occasions I always found myself awaking groggy and tired the next morning, and I knew I would never see them just by staying awake. I would see them only when they let me.

My room is small and simple. A cot, a table. A slot in the door. After I rise and dress, I like to do exercises for a while. It lets me keep some sense of the passing of time, watching my own body grow and strengthen in response to the work I make it do. In my first few months here I tried to make marks on the floor or walls to help keep track of the "days," but I soon realized that it was hopeless. Whatever marks or scratches I might manage to make were gone again every morning when I arose. For a while I tried using my own body like paper to note the passing days; I would use a fingernail to scratch a small line in my leg. After two days of that, I found my arms bound behind my back in the morning, my head groggy and unsure of itself. Now I no longer try to keep track of the days, although the development of my muscles tells me I must have been here for some time, months or maybe even years.

Sit ups, push ups, chin ups on the doorframe of my tiny bathroom. Jumping jacks and jogging in circles around my small room, for my heart. Stretches and static pushes against the walls, too. I have nothing to lift or push to develop my body in any other way.

I don't stop exercising till my food appears. The sound it makes as it scrapes along the bottom of the slot in the door makes me think a human hand is responsible for the movement. I have never heard a voice or a footfall when mealtime comes. I have never glimpsed a hand pushing the edge of the tray. I used to try to watch through the slot, some mornings. No food appeared for days while I slept and sat with my head leaning against that spot on the wall, waiting. Finally I woke up, lying on the bed, with a tray waiting for me in my nook. I am never fed now unless I am all the way across the room from the slot.

This morning my food is better than usual. There is fresh fruit: apples, pears, and oranges cut in sections in a bowl. There is toast and a small bowl of jam. There is even coffee; this is a luxury I have had only once before since I have been here. It's black, and I've been given no sugar or cream. I would have found that unappealing before; now I savor it, taking a delicate sip of the hot, aromatic liquid and rolling it around on my tongue before finally swallowing it. The warm trail it leaves down my throat surprises me and I realize I have not eaten anything hot in months. Perhaps they were afraid I would hurt myself.

I might have once. I might again some day, actually. But for now it is simply lovely to have the steaming mug in my hands; for those few moments while I sip, it helps me not to think of anything but the warmth, the smell, the taste of it. I devour the fruit and eat one piece of the toast; I put another in the bag-like pocket of my pants to save for later in case they decide not to feed me again today. Sometimes I know why I have not been fed; at other times it seems without provocation.

After I have eaten I leave the empty tray by the slot. If I sleep, or use the bathroom, it will disappear while I am gone. If not, it will sit there all day and I will not be fed again. I have learned to take a nap at what seems like halfway through the day, although it makes it harder to fall asleep at night. I have learned that they know very well the difference between real and feigned sleep. I wish I could sleep all day. I have tried, but my body does not let me stay submerged in that lovely unconsciousness. I may stay in bed, but I do not sleep.

Now it is midmorning, or what I like to think of as midmorning, anyway. The light does not change throughout the day, growing and fading with the movement of the sun. The light has always been either on or off. If I wanted to, I could abandon these old formal divisions of time, stop calling things night and morning and afternoon. I could lose these old ideas. But I wonder what else I might then lose. Since I stopped trying to count the passage of days, things blur together in an uncomfortable, shapeless way that sometimes makes me feel as though I must be an old man by now. I have no mirror to gage any changes on my face. My body seems young enough still, but I wonder.

After I have eaten I usually go into the bathroom, relieve myself, carefully wash my hands and face. I make a good deal of noise while I am doing it; I want whoever is going to take my tray to know that I am out of the room. There is no shower or bathtub here, just a sink and a toilet. I am not given towels, although I am given a small amount of what I believe to be soap. It works like soap, anyway. I do still occasionally attempt to wash my whole body at the end of the day, using as a towel the pants that I know will be replaced while I sleep. I used to do it more often but living as I do, alone and without contact, my own smells have become less important to me. Sometimes I remember how much time people spend worrying about their hair and their odors and it seems funny to me. As if that was what made us human.

After I have washed I come out of the bathroom. The breakfast tray is gone. Now is the time when I do my work. It is this that keeps me sane in here, this that keeps me quiet and stops me from bashing myself against the walls and waking up groggy as I had done after I realized my captors would not speak or let me see them. After I realized I would either have to go mad or learn to be alone here. I don't even know what I am being punished for, or for how long; all memories of my crime have been wiped from my mind. I suppose that is part of my punishment as well.

My job is remembering. Sometimes, when my spirits are higher, it is more of a game. Other days, when I would rather give in and curl up in the corner and rock back and forth like a monkey, it is truly work: the work of keeping myself inside this shell of a body. The work of keeping my brain from inventing diseases to keep itself busy.

Right now I am remembering music. I try to stick to one topic until my brain begins to get bored with it, until I begin to feel that the work is hindering rather than helping me.

So, remembering. Remembering music. Today I decide to think of songs from my childhood. I start with imagining the sound of my mother's voice. I suppose this is probably cheating: I don't believe I can really remember the sound of my mother's voice singing lullabies to me. But it makes the job more interesting, and that is really all that matters. I'm not a stickler for rules in this work.

My mother sang a song to me about a blackbird when I was a child. It was a song by the Beatles, and I can hear the music behind her voice if I try hard enough now. I try very hard.

First there is something keeping time, something simple, maybe just a hand clapping or a foot tapping. I don't know for sure but it isn't important that I have it exactly right. As long as I remember. Next there is a guitar, the notes liquid, echoing, clear. It slides out the melody. Next a voice, and I remember a man's mellow voice as well as my mother's singing, "Blackbird singing in the dead of night…." The music continues and I remember my mother leaning down over me as I fall asleep, the smell of her hair as it falls over my face and the feel of her skin soft and warm as she pushes the hair off of me and back over her shoulder. I remember the feel of her weight dipping the bed next to me and the sound of her voice continuing, "Take these broken wings and learn to fly." I remember her voice going on, "All your life, you were only waiting for this moment to arrive," and she held the note and the guitar was so lovely like clear drops of water dropping into a pool below and there was a scratching sound and I had to stop.

I have failed, screwed up the memory and let in something that wasn't part of it. I'll have to start it all over again. I open my eyes; what was that noise? Then I see it, and I almost scream.

There is a mouse sitting on the table in front of me. A small, gray-brown mouse cleaning its whiskers over and over with its small paws. Its coat is startling to me; it is so close, I can see the way its fur lays smooth and sleek against its skin, covering it tightly. Its whiskers quiver and move slightly in the air. Its paws look gnarled and claw-like—the skin is wrinkled and its actual claws look lethal compared to my own stubby fingernails. Its tail is smooth and longer than its body, curled in a lovely arc behind it. Its ears are small and pink inside.

"Hello, mouse," I whisper. "Where did you come from?" It stops its cleaning. It turns its wide ears to me and its whiskers twitch nervously. I can see its small pink nostrils opening as it takes in my scent, but it does not run.

I reach slowly into my pocket and feel for the toast I had stored there that morning. It is slightly the worse for wear, but I don't think the mouse will mind. I pull it out of my pocket as slowly as I can, tear off a small corner below the table where the animal can't see my hands moving, and gently slip the morsel onto the table.

The mouse sniffs the air, then moves cautiously towards the bite of toast. It picks it up gingerly in its paws, turns, and runs back to the edge of the table, then slowly begins to nibble, turning the bread this way and that to get a better angle at the meal. Its whiskers twitch and I can see that it is watching me for any sudden moves, but I'm still amazed by how calm it appears to be so near me. Perhaps, I think with a wild burst of joy, it's used to people. Perhaps it knew whoever lived here before. Perhaps it knows the people who also live here, so close to me and yet essentially in another world. For some reason the thought fills my heart with irrational happiness; I can't see anyone else, or talk to them, or even hear them moving about, but they are there, nonetheless. The mouse is proof enough of that.

I tear off another small bite of the bread, but this time I hold it out in my fingers so that it will have to take it from me. It approaches me slowly, its whiskers moving and its nose wiggling the whole time. It takes the bread from my hands, hops back a few steps, and again nibbles away at its tiny meal. I know now it must have had contact with people or it never would have adapted so quickly to taking the bread from my hand. As it comes back for its third bite, I slowly bring my other hand out from the table. It sniffs at it, but doesn't back away.

After it has finished my entire piece of toast, it slowly begins to explore me. It sniffs gently at my hand, then gingerly takes a few steps up onto it. I don't move, letting it get accustomed to my scent and hoping it will see that I mean it no harm. It slowly explores my arm, crawling up my naked skin, sniffing as it goes. Although its claws are rough on my skin, it is still wonderful to have it there. As it makes its way up my arm to perch on my shoulder, I can see its small, beady black eyes looking at me. I hold out my hand next to my shoulder, and it climbs tentatively onto it. I hold it in front of my face. It wiggles its nose and sniffs at me, but doesn't seem to be afraid.

I think for a moment about trying to keep the little creature. There is a small, box-like space next to my bed where my pants appear every morning. I can keep it there, perhaps steal a tray to keep over the top. I can play with him and train him and stroke his shiny fur….

But I know, before I even debate it with myself, that I cannot do these things. And not only because they won't let me keep a tray. This mouse is free to come and go as it pleases; it sees people and hears sounds and does what it wants to do. I can't take that away from it. Besides, the mouse has proven to me that there are others here. I had known there must be, but as time wore on and I lost my sense of space and time and logic, I began to doubt that there were any other people left. Now I know they are here, and closer to me than I had thought possible. I set the mouse down on the table and stroke his tiny head with one thin finger. I can't tell if he enjoys it, but he doesn't move away from me.

"Jerome, step into your bathroom and close the door."

There is a voice, a voice in my room, a voice that has suddenly spoken my name. I had almost forgotten the way it sounded coming from another person's lips. Why are they speaking to me now, after all this time? And then I understand. They have seen it with me, this little mouse, and they are going to take it away. I wonder if the person who first trained the mouse to trust a human hand had played with it only at night. So they have come to take it away. I will step into the bathroom and close the door and when I come back the mouse will be gone. Unacceptable.

"Please," I whisper, and the mouse's head turns suddenly at the sound of my voice, quiet as it is. "Please, let me keep it for a while. Just this once."

Silence.

"I'm not hurting anything, and it can't hurt anything itself. Please."

"Get up, Jerome. Get up or you'll be gassed." The voice is still quiet, but the menace and certainty in it are not hidden.

I hold out my hand again and the mouse crawls into it. I cradle it carefully against me as I move over to my bed, slide behind it, and huddle myself against the wall.

"Please," I say. "Please." I know it won't matter, but it is all I can think of to say.

They don't warn me again. I wake up groggy and aching. I hope it is the next morning, although truly I have no way of knowing how long I've been out. The mouse is gone. Of course.

For the first time in a long time I begin my morning with violence. I get up, back up as far as I can, then run and slam myself into the opposite wall. I feel satisfied when a trickle of blood runs down my forehead, but not so satisfied that I don't get up to do it again. I don't intend to stop until either they or my own body stops me. I don't intend to stop at all.


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Copyright©2002 by Blythe Hurley.

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