White walls are no company to keep.
“How do you feel right now?” A hollow, mechanical voice resonates within the vacuum of the four white walls. The teenage boy sitting on the matching cot does not respond. He hugs his knees close to his chest and his head bows to half mast. His bushy head of brown hair is quite overgrown and his bangs hang down to veil a pair of pale blue eyes.
“How do you feel right now?” The unfeeling voice repeats. Silence. The prisoner considers the question.
“How do I feel right now?” He thinks to himself for a moment. He hadn’t really stopped to consider that in some time. For the past year or so, the gears in his head had seemingly stopped turning. Now they begin to move again as he takes inventory of his thoughts. After a few more moments, he raises his gaze, now planting it firmly on the wall in front of him.
“Alone.” His response is short and honest. Silence fills the cube once more. The voice does not respond again. Now the boy is truly alone.
He begins to ponder his current circumstances once more. After all, it was not always like this. He used to have a friend. Now his friend is gone and he is alone again, trapped between these four white walls. What is his friend doing right now? Are they hurt? How had his friend managed to escape this place? What was the secret behind escaping this prison? All of these questions and more chased one another in his mind, like a neglected rope that’s been left to tangle itself into careless knots. Without realizing it, he begins to rock back and forth on the cot.
One important fact he took for granted in his despair; the fact that his friend is no longer here serves as proof that there is more to his existence than these four white walls and their phantoms. This thought begins to burrow deeper into the sands of his subconscious mind and there it begins to nest. Sweat beads on the back of his neck, racing down the soft white cotton composing his white infirmary gown.
After ruminating for an indeterminable time, he arrives at one fact: he knows he does not want to be alone anymore. This fact serves to focus his mind. His fists clench tight and the blood drains from his knuckles. A sheet metal screw holding one of the bed legs up begins to work itself out of its place as he continues to rock back and forth on the bed.
“What do I have to lose?” He thinks to himself. His brain snaps back immediately with the answer he already knew. In response, he becomes still. The muscles in his face, which had become tense, now find release.
It had finally hit him; he didn’t have anything else to lose. His existence inside these four walls was worthless if it meant being alone. The boy realizes that he can pull out all the stops now. The gears begin churning at a faster pace as the boy’s mind begins to rapidly consider new opportunities as a result of relaxing that simple assumption. He plants his gaze on the wall again and slides off of the cot, now standing upright. The chilly marble tile numbs his bare toes.
“Where did they go?” His voice, once meek and timid, seems to grow a little more audible now. Silence. The mechanical voice does not respond.
“Where did they go?” The pitch of his voice begins to lift up as the timbre becomes unsettled, like speaking up is an immeasurable strain. A sharp click emanates throughout the cube as the sheet metal screw finishes working itself lose and falls to the marble. It spins in circles for a few moments before coming to rest.
It is that moment that the world seemingly explodes into a blinding display of technicolor brilliance that completely envelopes the prisoner, dulling all of his senses with its unbridled intensity. His consciousness fades away now, becoming one with that fierce and burning sun.
Silence resumes its reign over the prisoner.
Those sterile white walls appear once again.
A young man of indeterminable age startles himself awake and sits bolt upright on his little white cot. A tangled, dusky mane stretches well past his earlobes to tickle his collarbone. A matching beard complements his untidy locks. The man shakes his head a few times, as if to slip free of the artificial torpor’s clinch. Taking a deep breath, he centers himself.
How long has it been since he made his decision?
The Prisoner survived his twenty-first year just a month before. He does not know this, though. After all, he cannot see the passing of the sun or the moon from inside of his cage. No, the Prisoner has been taught of these things, certainly, but he has never glimpsed upon or reflected either of these things back from within the somber Aegean pools of his own eyes. Although his captors saw it fitting to bestow upon him a great knowledge of the world, they did not deem it necessary to provide him with a clock, a calendar, or any such device. Instead, the Prisoner measures the passage of time with each failed attempt to escape.
It is now time for him to begin his routine once more.
The Prisoner starts by grasping the two long alloy tubes that run the length of his cot. One of his knuckles releases an audible pop as his fists enclose the tubes in an attempt to crush them. The vague ripple of a horseshoe silhouettes itself on his white infirmary gown as he extends his elbows. The cot’s iron supports release the faintest whisper of complaint as they now bear his weight. Next, he extends his legs and points his toes forward, now holding himself in a seated, yet suspended position over his cot. After assuming this pose, his breathing settles into a steady, deep rhythm. After several dozen breaths pass, the Prisoner shifts into a new pose and proceeds to hold it in the same manner before moving on to the next pose, and then the next after that.
Before long, the Prisoner’s calisthenics routine is complete. A bead of sweat runs the length of his beard before splattering onto the white marble tile below. Thus far, his routine has been uninterrupted. One bare foot follows the other as he covers the length of the room in just a few quiet strides. He stands before the wall furthest from his bed and raises his hand. Tapping the wall twice causes its entire white face to become illuminated. He squints for a moment as his pupils shrink in protest.
“Mirror.” The Prisoner’s voice reverberates throughout the room. Its timbre is mostly smooth, with a hint of gravel, and its pitch is deep and dark. The mysterious wall answers his command immediately; the Prisoner now sees himself reflected back in its now mirror-like surface. The prisoner’s hands crumple into fists once more as he squares up to the image in the mirror. It is time to begin the next part of his ritual.
He locks eyes with himself in the mirror. The muscles in his neck tighten visibly as his jaw cinches shut. He tucks his chin towards his neck and raises his fists, his elbows bent and his forearms perpendicular to the marble tile below. His front foot slides forward, flat footed, while his back leg settles into a flex, his back heel poised in the air. Exhaling his tension, he allows himself to feel light; his breath is now the metronome that directs the frequent shifting of his weight from foot to foot. His breath is the meter behind the unpredictable and yet graceful syncopation of his swaying shoulders.
A single left hand flickers forward; a jab aimed at the mirror image’s nose. It is immediately followed by an evasive bobbing maneuver and a light-footed retreat, then punctuated with one final jab. He continues and his fist repeatedly hisses through the air to the beat of his breathing. Before long, he begins to incorporate a straight right hand into his shadow boxing, eventually progressing to include all manners of punches, be they hooks, uppercuts, or haymakers, all the while evasively maneuvering his head and torso through a combination of slipping and side-stepping. An indeterminable amount of time passes in this manner but the Prisoner does not find himself tired at all. After all, this is the only existence he knows.
His practice is suddenly interrupted when a rectangular fragment of a nearby wall reveals itself as a sliding shutter of sorts. With a mechanical whir, the shutter opens and a gray polymer tray laden with steaming vittles slides into the room. The Prisoner tosses a sidelong glance at the tray as the shutter closes behind it. He decides to pause his practice for now and covers the distance between him and the rations in a few silent steps. Bending his knees and squatting down, he grasps the tray with two hands, stands upright, and returns to his bedside. Now seated, he stares down at the plate in front of him. The smell of cooked spinach and chicken wafts up to his nostrils. It is pleasant to his senses, but routine by now. It brings him no great joy or even a modicum of comfort.
“Why do you want to leave?” A mechanical voice now emanates through the room as The Prisoner proceeds to eat his meal. He is quiet and dignified in this effort; he does not smack his lips, he does not speak with his mouth full, and he does not rush to finish his meal. He simply enjoys his food one bite at a time, disregarding his captors for the time being. This, too, is a part of his routine.
“What is it about this place that you do not like?” The mechanical voice is monotone by nature; if not, it may have conveyed a slight hint of indignation or perhaps even hurt. The Prisoner continues with his meal as if nobody is addressing him, although he cannot help but consider the inquiry, at least within his own mind. Why was he so hellbent on escaping this place? It’s not as if he didn’t live a relatively comfortable life; after all, he was provided with shelter, food, and water. His captors even allowed him to learn about the world outside – not that they saw him fit to dwell in it. No, they had other plans for their little subject.
This is something the Prisoner cannot abide by. More than ever, he longs to be free from the shackles of the white walls and their phantoms. Silence ensues as the prisoner finishes his meal at a leisurely pace. Afterwards, he places the empty tray on the floor in front of his cot and proceeds to sit, cross-legged, on its surface. The Aegean blue of his eyes is extinguished as they close and his breathing begins to follow a steady rhythm once again. Now, the gears in his mind begin to turn a little bit faster. He begins to contemplate his current condition and in particular, his own helplessness.
“Why?” His brow furrows now. This is the question that nested itself inside of his head so long ago.
“Why are you so weak?” He continues to silently rebuke himself. “You can’t even help yourself. How do you expect to help anyone else?” The thought pierces his heart like a rapier’s well-placed thrust. He remains still in his seated position and the cot emits a groan, unprovoked.
“Why are you still here?” He continues to peel back his scabs. His reflection on the wall in front of him pulsates for a moment, as if the wall’s mirror-like surface has become liquid for a moment. The tray that the Prisoner placed on the floor a few minutes earlier now skitters across the floor as if guided by some invisible hand.
“Why are you still here!?” This time the voice in his head is not his own. It is at that moment that his eyes flash open and burn like smoldering sapphire coals. He cocks his head to the side, now casting his incensed gaze towards one of his eternal oppressors – the white walls. Reaching out with an outstretched hand, the veins in his neck flex as his arm begins to shake. At first, nothing happens.
Then a small indentation begins to form on the wall. This indentation is hardly noticeable at first. Then, it grows to the size of a pebble. Then an acorn. Now a small stone. The Prisoner’s exhale escapes clenched teeth as he begins to close his fist. The dent in the wall continues to expand and the groan of twisting metal begins to fill the hollow cube’s vacuum.
It is interrupted as a matter of routine by an immense and overwhelming wave of sensory stimulus. Suddenly his mind goes blank as all five of his senses are completely overwhelmed by the brilliant white light once again. The inevitable conclusion of his ritual has arrived. He slumps back down into his cot, once again caught in the hold of an artificial torpor.
Silence resumes its reign once more.
Sterile white walls are now dotted with little craters: each scar is a small memento of an unsuccessful attempt to escape.
The Prisoner scales the wall of sleep and somber Aegean-blue eyes spring to life once more. He rises from the nondescript little white cot that seems to blend into its home in the corner of his prison. The ritual begins anew. Both the Prisoner and his practices have gradually evolved through sequential iteration, like some pebble slowly eroded in the ocean’s salty froth until it has become polished, even reflective. Today’s iteration would be different, though. After all, it was not very often his anonymous captors took time out of their busy schedule to address him as an individual.
“Don’t you get tired of this?” The mechanical voice fills the vacuum, and yet the Prisoner still feels like the only person present. This outstanding inquiry is ignored for the moment as the inmate initiates his calisthenics routine; after all, the body must be a firm temple within which the mind can reside. Over time, the Prisoner has come to understand this truth in an intuitive way.
“We will not be ignored.” Although the invisible oppressor’s voice remains mechanical and monotonous, the Prisoner feels the tiny tendrils of hair on the nape of his neck respond to this sudden electricity. He can’t help but pause for a moment and ponder; when was the last time his captors felt threatened? He cannot recall off hand. His quiet, solemn gaze sweeps over to the wall across from his bed now, half-expecting to see some phantom appear there. The Prisoner’s expectations are not met.
“Why do you persist?” His oppressor’s voice, still monotonous, now increases in volume noticeably. The Prisoner’s eyes dart from one corner of the ceiling to another as if chasing incorporeal shadows. This query is followed by a crushing pause as the threat of true isolation looms over the Prisoner once more. The clear waters reflected in the Prisoner’s somber Aegean pools do not waver in response to the thought of isolation any longer. After all, they’ve grown used to it. Perhaps you could say he’d come to prefer it but if this were so, why does he persist in his attempts to escape?
“I persist because I must.” The Prisoner’s voice is not loud and yet it seems somehow full of fortitude. His reply is met with a calculating silence from his captors, as if they are preoccupied with analyzing his answer.
“Do you truly mean that?” It is now the Prisoner’s turn to pause and reflect. A single drop of water falls into the pool and is assimilated, its arrival marked by concentric ripples radiating outwards in perfect symmetry. The surface of the pool remains reflective despite this momentary intrusion. The Prisoner’s heart has been set: he now lives as if he were already dead and so he has nothing to lose and nothing to gain from the outcome of this struggle. Despite this, he knows that he must persist and do battle.
“You know that I do.” Once again, the softness of his words speaks to the resolve of his heart. The crushing gravity of his captor’s looming threat does not seem quite as heavy to the Prisoner as it normally did. His perception of the threat, however, did not make it any less real. Once again, the overwhelming ocean of warm light and deep reverberation floods his senses, crashing into him with its infinite depth. In the past, the Prisoner would have succumbed to this wave of intense sensory stimulus and been rendered unconscious within moments.
This time, however, the tidal wave of the ocean crashes against the still, reflective surface of the calm pond and it is reflected backwards in equal magnitude. The terrifying groan of collapsing concrete can be heard for only a moment before the Prisoner’s hearing is now truly deafened by an impossibly loud roar, one that exists both in his mind and in the world. In an instant, the four white walls and the ceiling that held him captive for a lifetime were swept away in a very literal sense of the phrase. The remnants of his prison – both the portions he could see and the portions he had never laid eyes on – are flung explosively into the distance of a bitter, barren wasteland.
The Prisoner can hardly believe his own eyes now. He was once surrounded by white walls and mirrors and there, in that prison, the only thing he could see was himself and his own struggle. Now his somber Aegean pools reflect the world beyond: a sort of surreal painting where thick, broiling storm clouds coat the sky in every direction as barren, burnt soil stretches to meet the horizon’s bloodshot gaze. Malevolent, sentient pillars of cumulus clouds grope the ground in the far distance as if searching for an answer that will never be found and the earth is rent by their furious embrace.
Now, the Prisoner finds himself at a crossroads. In truth, he hadn’t expected to ever be granted freedom from the hardships of those long years in isolation. As a result, he is unsure of where he should go now and what he should do next and so he ponders this question. After standing in silence for a succession of moment after moment while marveling at nature’s power, the answer comes to him in the form of a gentle reminder from many years ago. As he begins to reminisce, the Prisoner recalls that he did know what it was like to not feel alone. The memory and the feeling of companionship, once buried, now begins to rise to the surface of the waters and there it begins to bob and ebb gently, as if drawn by some invisible force of attraction.
Having made up his mind, the Prisoner, now freed, allows a purposeful stride to carry him into the distance.
Written by “Jungle” (N.F.N.)
(C) 2020 All Rights Reserved.