They Meet in the Wall
by Subodhana Wijeyeratne
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3
They meet in the Wall, in one of the chambers housing a colossal battery of off-duty guns.
It is Neiva’s third day as Resident. The guards — their masks glossy and black and frog-eyed — usher her through the dawnless halls and along a walkway slung from the ceiling like a silver spine. They are tense, as if they expect the walls to come crashing down at any moment. But the rugged iron has stood longer than anyone remembers and survived more than they can imagine and, in any case, she knows, it is not the place they should worry about, but the people who work there.
Neiva can see them swarming in the twilight below. About and over and around the machines and pipes sprawling metallic and convoluted from wall to wall like some iron leviathan’s innards. Cadaver-pale and losing hair, crouching on their haunches, hands wrapped in grimy rags. Rubbing the machines down with grease or hauling parts or resting, expressionless and wheezing, in the shadows.
She wants to feel pity for them, but she only feels disgust. She wants to take pride in her assignment, but what she feels is something else. Something sour and sharp and taut like electricity. It can’t be fear, she tells herself. She has nothing to be afraid of.
She spots him the instant they get to the small group lined up for inspection in the hall beyond. Of all the shriveled wreckage standing in defeated lines in front of the giant pistons, he is the only one who stands straight and looks her in the eye. When she walks past he does not look away. Instead, he smiles and nods, as if he has been expecting to meet her. As if he were her equal.
She inspects them one by one and takes notes on a clipboard and dismisses them. Then she hands her report to one of the guards.
“No one?” he says through his mask, voice mangled by static.
“No one,” she says.
He looks at the clipboard, and back up at her. “What about 229-22E?”
“He looks healed.”
“His productivity is down.”
“It’s within parameters.”
“She seems fine, too.”
“Do you doubt my judgment?”
The guard freezes and then bows low. “No, ma’am.”
She peers down into the churning crowd. “Who is he?” says Neiva, pointing at the straight-backed man.
The guard looks. “1037-97E. He is new.” He pauses. “He volunteered to come here. Very productive.”
She licks her lips. “Send him to me.”
She returns to her examination room and fusses around amidst the stretchers, rubberized and reddish-brown, and the bullet-silver canisters of oxygen stacked by the door. But it is already as tidy as it will ever be and, in any case, why should she clean up for a drone? Still, when the guard eventually marches 1037-97E in, it is she who snaps to attention. The drone is serene and unafraid and holds a small brown paper package in his hands.
“Wait outside,” Neiva tells the guard.
The guard complies. When he is gone, Nevia picks up her stethoscope and listens to 1037-97E’s chest. It is clearer than that of any drone she has ever inspected. Then she turns a glaring spotlight onto his body. His musculature is firm and well developed. His hands shake slightly, and his heartbeat is elevated, and there is a little scar at the base of his neck. He smells clean and, where she gets a whiff of his sweat, it is rich and musky and not sharp like the other drones’.
She notes all this down as if it were necessary for her to do so. “Where’re you from?” she asks.
“Beyond the Wall,” he says.
“Did you have a name there?”
“What was it?”
“Vinay Seth.” He pauses. “What’s yours?”
She gives him the sharpest look she can muster and retreats behind her desk.
“You’re very healthy. I’ve never known anyone from beyond the Wall to be as healthy as you. In fact, I’ve known very few people this side of the Wall to be as healthy as you.”
“You look healthy,” he says.
“Of course I am.”
“Won’t you tell me your name?”
“What’s your work history?”
“I was at the orchards before this. And before that I was at the East Wall.”
“The guards tell me you volunteered to be transferred here.”
“From the orchards?”
He reaches for the package beside him. “May I show you something?”
He pulls out an orb the size of his fist, dappled red and gold and smelling sweet. Neiva’s eyes widen as he approaches and puts it down on the table.
“This is your favorite, isn’t? It’s like a Gala. At least, that’s what we called them, back where I’m from.”
She can’t help herself. She reaches across the table and holds it to her nose. Then she closes her eyes and takes a deep breath and lets her imagination fill with a brief vision of golden sunlight and clear skies and an unblemished horizon. When she opens her eyes, he is standing there, watching her, and she is certain that the look on his face is the same as she had when she was looking at him earlier: spellbound and intense.
“Thank you,” she says.
“You’re welcome,” he says. “May I go?”
She cannot think of any excuse to keep him, and they have been alone together for far too long. She nods. He walks back to the door, and as he is about to open it she calls out to him.
“My name is Neiva,” she says. “Surogot Azvin Neiva.”
He smiles. “Thank you, Dr. Surogot. Remember to cut the apple up before you eat it. You’ll like it better in chunks.”
He’s right, and she wants to ask him how he knows this. But he is gone before she can ask him, and she is already frightened enough by how well he seems to know her.
* * *
It is midsummer’s day, and Neiva joins the exodus of drones heading up to the battlements along the giant stairs winding around the inner edge of a towering black shaft. Up on the blackstone battlements, the sky is unclouded, and the sunlight is naked and warm. Behind her are the crowded towers of the city stumbling off to a drab sea like a tribe of destitute giants gathering to do their ablutions in its brown waters.
Beneath her feet is the Wall, a thousand metres high and three hundred metres wide, curving off to the left and right around the buildings like a great shackle. And before her, pocked with craters and sporadic jets of steam, is an obscene waste of shattered trees and rotting foliage and poisoned earth running black and stinking to the middle distance where a milky fog chokes the view to oblivion.
The drones congregate in small groups, laughing and gambling. Vinay is not among them. She finds him off on his own, leaning on parapet and staring out over the waste. She walks up behind him, half-hoping that he will not turn, but he does. He smiles and beckons her over. This is not how things should be, she thinks vaguely. He should not be beckoning me. I should be beckoning him. Still, she approaches.
“Good day to you, doctor,” he says.
“Good day. Can you see your home from here?”
He chuckles. “No, ma’am. It’s altogether too far for that.”
“How long would it take you to get there?”
He is silent for a long time and, when she looks at him, he is looking at his feet, lips pursed. “I could walk for a thousand years,” he says quietly, “and still not get there, ma’am.”
A great geyser erupts and hurls a cloud of mud into the air. For a moment, the crowd falls silent, and the guards snap the safeties off their guns. But when they see what it is, they relax again and return to what they were doing.
“I don’t know what they’re afraid of,” says Neiva. “A siren would signal an attack. Besides, we have the Wall.”
“Perhaps the Wall is the problem.”
“Every year you pressure more and more of your poor to work these walls to keep the beasts out, and build bigger guns, and more poisonous shells. You’ve reduced your entire hinterland to this poisoned mess. All your factories and all your mines and all your teeming populace do many things, but nothing takes up as much of their time and effort and thought as building bigger and taller and more vicious defences. And yet, the beasts still come. And yet still, you barely repel each attack.”
“Well, what else are we to do?”
He turns to her and she to him, and it feels as if they have done this a thousand times before. Just stand around and talk. Just tune out the rest of the world and gorge their senses on each other.
“Has it occurred to you that perhaps they come because you build the wall?” says Vinay.
“Why would you say that?”
“In the old days, the Wall was ten metres tall, and so were the beasts. Then you built it twenty metres tall, and the beasts grew, too. Now it is a kilometre high, and the beasts who come are nearly as big, and the guns you need to drive them away are so loud they burst the eardrums of anyone nearby. The taller the Wall, the bigger the beasts.” He pauses. “Perhaps if there was no Wall, the beasts would not come.”
She could point out that what he has said is blasphemy. She could ask him how he knows so much of their past. But in the end she says, “You keep saying ‘you’. You built the wall. You oppress your poor.” She gestures to the others. “You’re here now. You’re one of them. You mean ‘we’, not ‘you’.”
He looks over the others and then at the guard lurking a few feet away. Then he turns away from her in silence and looks back out over the waste, and she knows well enough what he means by his silence. I am nothing like them. I am nothing like you. I am nothing like anyone you’ve ever met before, and you know it.
* * *
Copyright © 2018 by Subodhana Wijeyeratne