The Cage Garden
by Tess Pfeifle
The barren wasteland that engulfed the country of Neamer permeated all forms of life. The flowers had no hue, the houses were always dusty and the people forgot a lot of the things they used to know before the revolution. I barely recalled the takeover; I was only ten at the time.
The Government, which had taken over only twenty years ago was unforgiving and harsh, and more often than not it beat the public into submission. After the revolution all elections and voting were suspended. I was too young to vote or even to understand voting, so I didn’t care much. I cared more about the rationing of chocolate.
People had already begun to forget to vote anyway, so there was no great opposition. My mother said she never voted. I remember her laughing green eyes and her rolling out fat pieces of pastry dough in the kitchen. I don’t remember much, but I remember that.
They took my mother, when I was young and the Government was also young. They put her in the Cage Garden. I had to walk by her every day. I began to forget how to feel after that, how to feel “sad” or ”happy” — or anything for that matter; it all seemed so foreign now.
I am not the perfect citizen, because no citizen is perfect. All the citizens just existed, like the towering buildings that made up the City. I lived on Tyrn Street, in a dingy, brown apartment that shook in the howling winds. Sometimes I could feel the harsh wind whistling through the cracks in the walls, blowing more dust into my apartment.
While walking to Work in the typical, unassuming half-dawn, with swirls of dust making the commuters cough, something caught my eye in the Cage Garden.
The Cage was a common punishment for crimes. Whether it was skipping the daily Moment Mass, where the Government was worshipped, or forgetting to turn in your time card at Work, the Cage Garden was an ever-looming threat.
The Cage Garden was a desolate field right before Lynch Street. It consisted of a few dozen wrought iron cages, which were hung only a few feet above the ground. Any dissenters were sent to the Cages. Little Kelly was sent to the Cage Garden early in the week, because she had demanded more rations. The Government had no time for insolence.
Being sentenced to the Cage Garden consisted of being locked up in one of the enormous cages and simply waiting to die. Prisoners were not given food or water; none of the prisoners ever spoke even though the Cage Garden was on one of the busiest roads in Neamer. Even if the prisoners had spoken, no one would have listened. No one remembered how to listen anymore. Men, women and, children were all equally subjected to the Cage Garden. The Government did not discriminate.
I walked by the Cage Garden every day and night, on the way to Work and on the way home from Work. I suppose everyone did; there was only one road to the City from the Neighborhood. I knew many who met death there. I was afraid of meeting my death there as well.
I was too scared to do anything too wrong. I studied the laws of the Government at a very young age, memorizing them so I would not end up like my mother. My mother would not want that, she wouldn’t want me in a cage.
One day I noticed something different about the Cage Garden. One of the cages was swinging wildly in the air and a strange noise was emanating from it. The sound emanating from the Cage Garden was like desperate screaming. But none of the Citizens ever screamed desperately. I hadn’t heard anyone scream in The Cage garden in very long time. Crying out while in the Cage Garden was simply unheard of, barbaric, even.
I thought about that scream all day at Work. I had always been diligent; it was a skill that was required of the Citizens. But I had secretly always prided myself on being more diligent than those around me. More often than not, I overworked at Work. I filed incessantly, editing and re-editing until what I had written down was perfect. Rarely did I stop to talk or waste time, sometimes I even forgot to go to the Restaurant to get the midday meal.
I asked my cube-mate, Kurt, the last time he heard someone scream. Kurt looked at me with dull eyes and responded in a droning voice, “No one screams in Neamer. It is too peaceful. Everyone knows that.”
I accepted this silently, as the Citizens were expected to.
After Work, I walked closer to the Cage Garden, and my ears perked up at a sound. The same strident noise as I had heard in the morning was emanating from the Cage Garden, and the cage was still swinging wildly in the unending winds.
Inside the cage was a man, but not one I had seen before. His skin was not pale and white like mine, like all of the Citizens’. It seemed weather-beaten, but by sun rather than by dust. His hair was dark, and no dust flew out of it as the cage swung like a pendulum, back and forth, back and forth. His eyes were the color of the grass that used to grow on the ground before the dust came, before the Government came.
The Government killed everything. It was rumored amongst only the most rebellious Citizens that Neamer had once had a different name. Neamer once was fertile and full of colors besides tan. The Government killed all life they deemed unnecessary. The Government believed beauty to be superfluous.
The man, with his grass-colored eyes, had noticed my momentary stop and I could feel his hand reaching for me. This man was not a Citizen. No Citizen reached, especially to another Citizen. I hurriedly walked home, disturbed at what I had witnessed.
The next day I awoke to the raging wind. I thought of the strange man and as I wandered into the waking world I wondered what strange land he could have come from. As I got dressed in standard Citizen attire, which consisted of a tan suit, a white shirt, a tan tie, and tan shoes, I realized that I was moving at an anxious pace. I had missed a button on my shirt. I hurriedly fixed the imperfect detail, knowing someone would notice if I didn’t. The Government did not take kindly to the unkempt.
Walking to Work once again, I kept my head down as I passed the Cage Garden. But still I heard the man, the foreigner. I could feel him, his grass-colored eyes searching for something they would never find. The swinging had slowed but the screaming in agony, in rebellion took on a new, more desperate tone. When I got to work I thought about myself.
The Citizens were not supposed to think about themselves as individuals, they were supposed to think of the Government and Neamer as a whole. I realized that I did not know myself, not as I used to. Once, when I was young, I knew what I wanted to be, wanted to do, and wanted to feel. But now? Now I walk the same road every day. Now I want to do what the Government wants me to do, now I feel what the Government wants me to feel.
I stayed late at work, far past Kurt. My fruitless work exceeded the work of Kim, Ken, Kasey, Kent and Kayla. And I did it on purpose, so I would meet no other Citizens on my walk home.
I walked alone. Night had fallen and the harsh lights of the Buildings burned behind me. The quieter lights of the Neighborhood lay in front of me, but in the middle lay the Cage Garden. I heard the man screaming, but his voice was raspy now; it was beginning to sound like the dust.
I decided something for the first time: I decided the dust had gotten into the foreigner’s lungs. I felt good about this decision. I felt good that the Government did not think it for me. I walked up to the cage, where a small flashlight illuminated my face and the man’s face. I gazed at the man, and the man’s weary face with grass-colored eyes gazed back.
I reached out almost instinctively, and the man reached back. We held hands, we touched, and I felt like I used to before the Government. I felt good, and happy. Feelings that once were alien to me rushed back like the sheets of rain that used to fall in the spring.
I gasped at this sudden human contact. I was surprised at how wonderful the touch felt: warm and comforting. I had never had a chance before this to use the word “wonderful,” at least not that I could remember. The touch felt right, and I wondered why it was so wrong to reach for someone.
The man looked at me and whispered some words in a different tongue; at least, I thought they were words. After the man had spoken for a few minutes, I tried to form some comforting words. “You are not bad. You are not the Government, You are not a Citizen, and you are Good. I’m sorry,” I added.
I knew what the words meant. The man looked somewhat comforted and poured forth another set of words whose meaning I could not grasp. The words did not sound raspy or infected with dust. These words were the first clear words the man had spoken. I listened intently; I was always diligent.
“Adam.” said the man with the grass-colored eyes. And I remembered that used to be a name, before the Government started naming people.
I walked back home. A warm bubble burst in my chest. I did not know what it was, but I did not want it to leave me. As I walked back to my apartment, the wind created little dust clouds, and I felt odd. I went to bed and forgot about the never-ending wind. I dreamed once again of the man with grass-colored eyes.
The next morning I dressed excitedly, hoping to see the foreigner on my way home again that evening. There was another new word: “Hope.”
The next morning, I looked straight at the Cage Gardens. A gurgle of disbelief rose in my throat. The man with grass-colored eyes was gone.
I walked to Work. I was still a Citizen. But the walk to work seemed dreary compared to what the foreigner had allowed me to experience. I did not work as hard as I should have; I dawdled, doodled and dilly-dallied. People noticed. I did not care. I could not work today, at least not diligently.
I dreamed of the places the foreigner could have come from, places I would love to go. My mother had travelled quite a bit; she told me all about it when I was young. She told me tales of huge trees that towered over people like the buildings that towered over people in the City. She told me of the babbling and gurgling creeks that spoke the secrets of life that humans could never quite understand. I wonder if the man could have understood the creek talk.
I walked home, with people swarming all around me. A mass of people surging from the City back to the Neighborhood, a well-oiled machine. I stopped. People bumped into me and I muttered curses at them. They didn’t talk to me, though.
I stood still as people began to move around me, and I screamed. Loud and fully and passionately, I screamed for all the things I had missed, all the things the Government had stolen from me, but I mostly screamed for the foreigner. The foreigner with the grass-colored eyes who understood creek-speak and held the secrets of the world, screaming because the Government had killed him, screaming because I would never get a chance to know creek-speak.
As I screamed people stared at me. People stopped. They were confused. They hadn’t met the man with grass-colored eyes. If they had, they would be screaming too.
I closed my mouth and began to walk home, people still staring at me with their mouths wide open. I was sure I would get in trouble for this outburst, maybe demoted at Work, maybe evicted from my apartment, maybe even sent to the Cage Garden. But the man with grass-colored eyes gave me hope. He gave me the hope I needed to hold my head high.
I passed a girl. She was almost pretty, and I reached out to grab her hand. She stifled a scream, and I felt the warmth pass between us. I did it to another person, and another. I was trying to make my hope contagious. I would make my hope contagious.
By the time I reached my apartment, I was covered in dust. I had touched many people, but none of them had yelled at me. Many of them, I thought, missed the sense of touch. I went to sleep that night, dreaming of the man with grass-colored eyes and what he had done for me.
Copyright © 2012 by Tess Pfeifle