by Thom Arrell
Part 1 appears in this issue.
The workers in the hall before him did not seem to be aware of anything outside their workspace. They just repeated the same movements without ever looking bored. They did not seem to be aware. Were these really his siblings? Was he like them?
The workers were assembling some kind of machine. They were all female. Acta had explained to him that this work did not require strength but precision; these workers had been designed to be able to provide just that. That they would all have developed arthritis at the end of the day was irrelevant: tomorrow a new batch of workers would be born with newly shaped hands.
Acta had left him to go do some work but, before she left, she had instructed him not to leave his position. That he was left to his own devices gave him the opportunity to reflect on his situation. The more he saw the meaninglessness of the existence of his fellow workers, the more he felt the need to do something about it. But Acta had told him that there was little he could do without being spotted by the cameras, and that would surely mean that they would terminate him. So he just watched.
Then, suddenly, Tesimo looked straight into the eyes of one of the workers. She could not have seen him, but she kept on looking in his direction, as if she had noticed something out of the ordinary but wasn’t sure what. Her part of the production line faltered, and she looked confused for a few seconds. Then she retook herself and resumed her work at a normal pace. But even then she kept throwing glances his way.
Now that Tesimo had seen her, he realized that she was not docile like the rest of the workers. Why hadn’t he noticed her before? Her blonde hair had been cut short like that of her — their — siblings, but unlike the other workers, whose hair was unkempt, she had actually made an effort to model it with her hands, even though no one would notice it. The look in her eyes hinted at intelligence or at least at something more than the mindless stares of her co-workers.
A strange feeling came over Tesimo. He didn’t know what to call it, but it was so strong that, before he knew it, he was looking for ways to reach her, to let her know that he was there. But there was a thick wall between them, and the slits through which he watched were not large enough to allow him even to stick a finger through. He could not find any way into the factory hall and, even if he could, how was he going to avoid the cameras? Acta had impressed on him that revealing himself would be suicide.
The hand against his back startled him, and he quickly looked around to see to whom it belonged. “You cannot save her, Tesimo,” his mother said. “Believe me, we have tried. There is not a day that goes by that we do not see a worker that doesn’t belong here, but the owners keep a close watch.”
“You rescued me,” Tesimo said, a sense of urgency in his voice.
“That was different,” his mother argued. “You...” Then she fell silent, knowing that her arguments held little validity.
“Would you do this for me?” Tesimo asked.
* * *
Her name was Odette. At least that was the name that Mother had given her. To be able to get her out, Mother had drawn some blood from a cut in the palm of Tesimo’s right hand. At first, he did not understand what it was for, why that red stuff was inside of him in the first place, but when he saw his mother rush into the factory hall, he quickly understood.
She rushed straight towards Odette and exclaimed: “Girl! Are you okay?” She grabbed Odette’s arm and inspected it closely, meanwhile repeating: “Just hold still, everything will be okay,” the same way she had done with Tesimo when he had woken up.
Odette looked confused, not knowing what was going on. The factory line on which Odette was working stopped. The workers that were on it took a step back and waited silently for it to be restored, as they had been taught to do.
Mother stood bent over Odette’s arm, in order to conceal for the cameras what she was doing. She took out the little plastic bag that held Tesimo’s blood and spread it over the workstation. Soon, it looked like Odette had had an accident. With only a little guidance, Mother managed to convince Odette to follow her out of the hall, meanwhile cradling Odette’s arm as if it had been severely wounded.
As soon as they had left the factory hall, a cleaning crew was called in to clean up the blood and, once the workstation was clean again, a manager reorganized the broken production line.
Minutes later, Mother came in with Odette. There was a red bloodstain on her sleeve, but Tesimo knew that the blood was his. “I reported her as recycled,” Mother said, “but, if they check the records carefully, they will find a discrepancy.” She said it more to the other cleaning ladies that had gathered than to Tesimo, but he understood the risk she had taken.
“Thank you, Mother,” he said, knowing that calling her ‘Mother’ was the only thing he could give her.
* * *
“Are we like them?” Odette asked. Tesimo remembered asking himself the same thing, but he had not found an answer yet. He had gotten used to Odette’s presence. It had taken quite some time, at least half an hour, but now he couldn’t imagine being away from her. Mother and her friends had given them as much privacy as they could.
Now they were sitting on the balcony of yet another factory hall, this one producing wooden planks from logs. Those were carried in by a small river that came from outside and split the room in two. The heavy sawing machines that stood in both halves of the hall were operated by the most physically trained workers that they had seen so far. Big bundles of muscles ran like cables across their arms and legs, but their physical prowess had come at a price: their heads were deformed, with ears and noses growing from their faces like cauliflowers.
Their eyes betrayed even less intelligence than those of their siblings. Every now and then, incidents with the sawing machines happened, and the afflicted workers were quickly carried out, much more roughly than how Mother had handled Odette. Many of them were missing fingers or even hands and screamed like wounded animals. Tesimo felt embarrassed; had he sounded like this?
Tesimo laid his arm around Odette’s shoulder. It was strange how the touch of her comforted him, in a completely different way than Mother’s embrace did. She seemed to feel the same. “I think we are privileged,” he answered, “to be here. To witness. To live.”
“Doesn’t it make you sad?”
“Does what make me sad?”
“To witness. I can see only injustice.”
“That’s not true. That we are up here instead of down there is a sign that extraordinary things are possible. That Mother is willing to take risks is a first crack in the injustice that you see.”
“But it will be gone tomorrow. We will be gone tomorrow.”
“But we are still here now.”
“Aren’t you afraid to be recycled?” Odette grabbed his arm a little more tightly, and he thought he could feel her tremble. He took her head in both hands and planted a kiss on it, as Mother had done when he had been feeling sad, himself.
“We are still here,” he repeated, “against all odds. Why would we spend the time that we still have by being afraid?”
* * *
“Mother?” Tesimo asked.
“Why is their hair turning grey?”
With his right hand he rubbed his shoulder, where Mother had just injected him with vitamins. She had said that he and Odette needed them to stay strong. Odette had flinched at the pinprick, even though Mother had warned her that it had been coming. “I am not sure if your digestive systems are able to process fresh fruit or even vitamin pills,” Mother had explained. “I’m afraid I am forced to give you both an injection.”
“Their hair is turning grey, Tesimo, because they are getting old.”
“Then why is my hair not turning grey?”
“Because you are an albino, Tesimo. Your hair will eventually change color but, at most, it will become silver instead of grey.”
“What about me?” Odette added.
Mother stroked Odette’s beautiful hair. It had grown considerably since she had been rescued and now reached her shoulders. “Different people grow old at different rates, Odette.”
“Now you sound like the owners, Odette. Workers are people.”
She showed Odette the grey stroke on her own temple. It was not as large as that of most of the workers. “I dare you to find a grey hair on Acta, and she is older than I am. People are different.”
“But why have the workers been designed to grow older?” Tesimo noticed.
“They have not been designed that way, Tesimo,” his mother replied. “At least not by the owners. It’s how we all work: when we grow old, when our productiveness decreases, we need to make room for the next generation. There is nothing sad about it. It’s just how it works. Even I will die eventually.”
“Don’t leave us, Mother,” Odette said.
“I will not,” Mother assured her. “Normally, my working day would have ended by now, and I would have gone home. But today I will stay with you as long as is needed.” She didn’t say ‘Until you die’, but Tesimo knew that was what she meant.
* * *
“Don’t close your eyes yet,” Tesimo whispered.
He and Odette were lying close together in a bed that barely fit the two of them. Tesimo had wrapped his arm around her to save room, but also because her back against his stomach felt strangely comfortable. Mother had made them undress to their underwear before they crawled under the sheets, and both of them had been amazed that they were... different. Mother had said that it was because they were both special.
“Are you tired?” Odette asked as she grabbed his arm and pulled it against her chest. “I am, but I don’t want to go to sleep just yet.”
“Then talk to me,” was Mother’s reply. “Tell me, have you enjoyed today? Was I right in rescuing you?” She stroked their heads as she had done when Tesimo had woken up.
Odette ignored the question. “Mother? Where will we go when we go to sleep?”
Mother thought on that carefully before she replied: “You will go to a place where there are no factories and no owners, and where you are free to do whatever you want.” She smiled sadly, as if she would have wanted to go there herself.
But Odette wasn’t convinced. “Will you be there, Mother?”
Mother’s expression turned even sadder as she said: “No, honey. You will be truly free. No sour old cleaning ladies to tell you where to go.”
“Then where will you go?” asked Tesimo.
“I will stay here, in the factory. To make sure that others like you will be rescued as well.”
“I am glad that you saved us, Mother,” Tesimo said and Odette made a confirming noise.
“Why is that, dear?”
“Because I got to meet Odette,” he replied, and he was rewarded by a squeeze on his arm. “Life in the factory seems horrible to me, but the worst is that all the workers we have seen today never got the chance to talk to each other.”
Mother smiled again, but it was still a sad smile. “Even if they had been allowed to speak, they probably would not have understood each other. I hope that the two of you realize how special you are.”
“So are you, Mother,” Tesimo whispered and, if he could have kept his sleepy eyes open, he would have seen a genuine smile on her face.
Mother did not reply but only stroked their heads. When both Odette and Tesimo fell silent, a tear rolled down her cheek.
Then Tesimo stirred once more. “Mother?” he whispered, barely audible.
“Yes,” she answered, and her tears flowed freely now.
“You’re welcome, Tesimo, you’re so very welcome.” Then she felt his body relax into sleep. She reached down and held them both tightly, her tears staining their blankets.
Copyright © 2019 by Thom Arrell