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1. No One Liked That Girl
No one liked that girl, for certainly she was the kind of girl no one could like, beginning with that smell of hers – not musky or unpleasant, but not not unpleasant either, a kind of in-between smell we didn’t know what to make of, what even to call. We’d never smelled anything like it before, not you and not me, which gave rise to basic questions as to where she was from. In this absence of a likely origin, she was furtive, with an overall shiftiness of both demeanor and temperament that made her seem both cagey and unreliable, whereas we, we prized ourselves on our reliability, our most solid trait. On top of that, she was a whiner; a big-time needer. She even took seconds. Even though seconds were allowed, everyone knew not to take them; one person’s seconds was just less to go around the next time we sat down.
The list goes on. Don’t even get me started.
But liking, or not liking, was not part of the deal. We all came from somewhere, so like it or not, we did what they said, which went something like this: you had your room and she had hers, and if they turned out to be side-by-side, well, so much the worse for you, by which I mean me, for that’s where mine was, right next to hers. The rooms weren’t very big – in truth, they were very, very small, with just enough room for a bed and a basin and box – but also in truth, we were grateful for them, for compared to the places they picked us up from, ooh la la. What more could we want, after that, than a bed and a basin and box.
They left us alone like that for a while, just to let us get used to a thing like a bed. The bed had a cover you slipped underneath and a pillow attached for your head, and at first we were glad for all this, anyone would be. But after a few nights or so, they started the thing with the walls, which they could make the walls go clear like something, not water, running through them. You’d be sleeping in your bed, all nice and comfy, and suddenly, a blaze of lights and, bam, right next to you on the bed of the other side of your water-like wall, the wily, smelly girl no one could like, and now neither one of you was sleeping.
We couldn’t complain – see where that got you – but didn’t we need our sleep, the same as anyone? In the morning, there were our chores and our lessons. We needed our sleep to work and we needed our sleep to learn, but that didn’t stop them, and even though they must have had their reasons, we didn’t know what they could be. I’d curl my back to the wall, away from her sly little smirk, but I could feel it boring into me anyway. I don’t know why she smirked. No one did.
Eating took place in the same order as rooms, so if your room was next to hers, you had to eat next to her too. You got your food and took your place, and so did she. Sometimes the food would be hot, and sometimes it would be cold, but it never had a taste you could name, more like a mealiness. I’m not saying this for any other reason than that when your place was next to hers, like mine, the smell of her mixed with the taste of mealiness such that the one and the other got into each other, and even though you needed your food, as well, to work and to learn, who could eat that?
I, of course, was not the only one. The other one was you, on the other side of her. You didn’t smell at all, that I could tell. Your skin was smooth and white. And in your eyes, a kind of open friendliness. I liked that about you – what wasn’t to like? – even if I couldn’t ever tell you what I felt because of the girl between us that no one could like.
I wanted you to know and I wanted to tell you. Your friendly eyes were kind of green. I noticed that. I noticed your skin. I noticed your open friendliness. You were just a girl anyone could like, and so I did, but between you and me, the girl that smelled, so what could we do?
Looking back, maybe the difference between liking and not liking wasn’t that big of a deal. For one thing, what choice did we have? And for another, a time was coming when we were all going to smell. Not right away, not then, but not so far in the distant future, either – if you made it out of your room, that is. They didn’t tell us this, but we knew. We did our work; we learned our lessons. But what we did not let ourselves think was how the future was coming and you were either in it or not. That’s what the rooms were for. The rooms were for culling.
So maybe you think I could at least have signaled you at night when the walls went transparent and we could look through the room of the girl no one liked to the rooms of both you and of me – made a sign or something, let you know the thing I felt about your open friendliness and yellow eyes, as if that might have changed what was going to come down. I know I said green before, but a kind of yellow-green, or even golden. Golden eyes. Who has golden eyes? Only you.
But who can signal feelings when everyone can see? And across the body of the girl no one liked? We were lined up three in a row like that – first you in your room, then her in hers, then me in mine. Sometimes, all the walls would go clear at once, but sometimes, it was only the wall between the wrong girl and me – her and me, her and me – which made me think, when my own walls were all dark and I was drifting off to sleep, on the other side of her, was it her and you, her and you? In my little dark room, I would lie there thinking this: did she smirk at you the way she smirked at me? Did you lie awake beside her and look into her eyes, which were neither green nor golden, but just a dull flat no-color no one liked either? Could you even, maybe, smell her the way I sometimes could?
A lot of the time, though, it was our three rooms at once, one, two, three: you, her, me; me, her you. Lying there lit up, with her between us, I’d think about how much I liked the smooth, white skin of you, your open eyes, your gentle friendliness. If your room was next to mine, it would have been so easy. We could sleep and eat and write out our nightly reports side-by-side – you writing on your bed and me writing on mine. But without a way to signal you, we were totally dependent – not just you and me, but all of us – on the room they put us in when they brought us from where we had been.
You had your room. I had mine. She had hers.
I don’t know why they made the walls like that. On the other side of me, a boy with big balls and a lump in his neck. We didn’t not like him, but we didn’t not not like him either. Neither did we hold it against him, the room he was taking, the droop of his balls, for it was clear as day to all of us he wasn’t going to last long.
Most of us kept our things inside the boxes they gave us to store under our beds. They had to go somewhere, so we stuffed them in there – our photograph of somewhere else, our half a second pair of socks, our button we’d torn from a thing someone we loved once had worn. Meantime, meals came and went. We all turned the color we turned from the color we were when they brought us in to the waxy, inside color of our rooms. Sometimes, a room would go dark for a while, and the next time it lit up, someone new, still the color she came in with, would be lying in the bed, her head on the pillow and a wary look to her that said, not now.
We always knew this was a possibility.
The boy with the balls that hung low, for example, when he left, they brought in a girl with hair in her ears. It grew in long strands down the sides of her cheeks.
By the time I figured out it was about the pairs, I’d given up all hope of you ever looking back but had yet to give in to despair. That, the despair, would come later, after you’d gone and I knew I would never again look at your smooth, white skin or your gentle eyes that turned out not to have ever been for me, but always for her, the girl no one could like. Between the one and the other, what there was – what sustained me – was both my hope and longing, and the things I thought about – the plans I made for us – how one day they would move that girl the way they moved that boy, and then it would be just you and just me, side by side in our rooms, so when the walls would clear we could lie there, hip to hip. You’d put your hand to the transparent wall and so would I. It was fine like that, so it went on for a while and had nothing to do with dreams. Plans are not dreams. Plans are plans. Plans make you powerful because you are the one in control, not them. My plan was to be a pair with you so we could go where pairs went, which, wherever that was, had to be better than here.
But oh, no, not so fast, because they never moved that girl. They could never move that girl because that girl was the point, and when they took you off with her, that’s when I knew I hated, not loved you both. That’s I knew they were the same.
2. The Gift of Common Memory
Prescience came to all of us in time. You couldn’t really avoid it, not that we didn’t try. There was plenty of doom as it was, why invite more from the future?
No one started out with it, of course. We started out small and full of cheery optimism, like everyone else, rambunctious giggles galore. We had rosebuds for cheeks and buttons for toes. They kept us like that as long as they could. It was the least they could do.
Then they put us in rooms and waited to see what would happen. The only question was: what would we develop into?
You had your room; I had mine. But we were waiting too. That’s what the rooms were for.
What I love about the time before they put us in our rooms is a word that will not do it justice, which is bedlam. The meaning of bedlam is uproar and confusion, although it once referred to institutions for the mentally insane, for of course it is well-known that the mentally insane are prone to scenes of uproar and confusion, unless we drug them into stupors, or let them drug themselves. Once, the mentally insane were also kept in rooms, but not anymore.
We are not insane. We are prescient instead.
For some of us, prescience goes both ways.
When we were all giggles galore, we romped in a vast room like a hall or auditorium, all of us together, rolling about in each other’s chests, elbows, and knees, slurping our food from our great shared bowl. We slept in long rows of small beds, for this is how we learned that we are all connected. In this, our noisy communality and joyous pandemonium, our seeds of dedication and purpose took root.
But in the rooms, no bedlam. Developing took concentration. It was lonely at first.
And yet, we did not stop to think: why us. Why us was clear as day to all of us, for we were we.
Because of the hole between your room and my room, I could sometimes hear you breathing. You breathed with a rasp that smelled green. Sometimes, I tried breathing back. It was the least I could do.
After a while, when our prescience came, it either came with a wallop or in dribs and drabs you could sometimes see but sometimes only sense. It was hard to tell which you wanted – a wallop or a drib and drab. Wallops were sometimes too much, but dribs and drabs took their toll too. Backwards prescience, the rarest of all, came with a stab of regret as useless as it was uncommon, so they gave you a box and said this is for your memories. Or sometimes, they gave you two boxes – one for your good ones and one for your bad. Included in memories was everything, everything that ever happened at all, to you, yourself, or humankind at large. As for me, I only got the one box, but ooh la la – you got two.
The thing about the boxes is they didn’t always work. Some of them leaked, or some of us maybe caused ours to leak, giving rise to the question: was backward prescience a failure of technology, or will?
Either way, the overall feeling about it was this: what good was a memory anyway? The joys of bedlam notwithstanding, what’s done is done, they said. You couldn’t change a stitch about the past.
Whereas, here were the functions of prescience: anticipation, preparation, mitigation, protection; see what is coming before it’s too late; nip things in the bud; fix them.
Compared to all of that, what earthly good was looking back?
But some of us, we couldn’t really help it. Either our box or our brain leaked. It was out of our hands. Most rarely of all, a kind of curiosity took hold, driven by such questions as: how did we come to be in rooms? what did people eat for dinner? is God dead?
Your room was the color of milk; mine was the color of pie.
In addition to our rooms, we had our traits. Your trait was wholesome; my trait was bulwark. I was the block in the middle, the finger in the dyke; you were the brook.
For most of us, developing started start with a dream. We’d wake up, a cry on our lips, as if from another language or world, and wouldn’t know what to do. You couldn’t really hide it – no one could. Oh here and there, a wily child or furtive adolescent could keep it secret it for a while, the way we hid our private appetites and musings. But once you had one dream, you were going to have more. You could try to breathe it in all you wanted, but one day it was going to breathe you out.
Our dreams were like windows. When we saw what we saw out the windows of our dreams, you can just imagine what happened to whatever was left of our rosebuds and buttons. Prophesy, they told us, is a gift.
The way to tell the difference between prescience and memory was, one, you woke up with a clutch at your heart, the other, a sear of remorse.
What we learned in our dreams was to breathe, you in your milk-colored room and me in my pie-colored one. There was something fundamental about breathing that prepared you for the time they were going to plug you in to a window of your own looking out on a world without walls or beds that is no-color at all.
It’s not no-color, you prophesied, but it’s close, a kind of dun.
When you said that, I knew your time was coming, but in my backward prophecy I could still see the color the world was before it was dun, which was the color of root. Root is less color than dun, you might say, but not to me. Dun’s a dead color and root’s a living one. Also, my root-colored world was brimming with things and your dun-colored one was, you said, almost entirely empty of them. No trees, you said, to shade the people; not even beds for them to sleep in.
The others lay in their rooms, moaning the cries of their lips from their dreams, but because your time was growing close, we bided the time remaining to us the best we could as I tried to teach you my gift of common memory.
Oh, you said. Oh, you said. Oh!
I alone could tell if what we were seeing had already happened or if it was still to come. That’s why my room was the color of pie, stained from the memories leaking from my box, so thick and pie-colored, you could almost taste them, is what I told you through the hole where we talked.
What is the color of thick? you said.
The uselessness of backward prophecies is all they can tell you is where you have been.
Don’t cry, they told us, over spilt milk.
For a while I put mine in my box like they said, but they piled up fast, every night another common memory – ancient or fresh, ordinary or rare, brutal or tender – until finally my box overflowed and my room filled with ideas about the way things used to be. For example: clothes for your feet were once known as shoes; shoes came from cows; cows were beautiful animals with many stomachs and wet, brown eyes and something called cud. The future grew out of the past then, which no one forgot. This knowledge had a smell to it, like the mattress you slept on or begonias.
But even as my room filled up, yours remained devoid of anything but you, a holy circuit, for your dreams, unlike mine, had a purpose, and so they came for them each morning, clearing them all from your room before we had breakfast.
Now that you’re gone, I think about that sometimes – the emptiness of your room, the fullness of mine. Thinking that, I better understand how bedlam was never an accurate word. I just picked it because it was there. In the vast room we once shared, all of us together, there was a communality of frolic and skin. Skin is a warm thing until you plug it in. Maybe there was uproar and confusion, but it was pleasant uproar and confusion – lively and full of human spirit, like love, even if we were just rosebuds and buttons. You need to be more precise about words that you choose, if you want to stay in your room with your dreams, which like it or not, is better than windows with views.
The word I chose correctly, though, is love. I nabbed it and used it and because that is precisely what I meant – I loved the time we spent all together before we were sent to our rooms, I loved the things that passed between us through the hole shared. Sometimes, through the hole, all I heard was breathing. Your breathing, I thought. Then I closed my eyes and this is what I saw: not a glass of milk or piece of pie, not a button or a bud, but a pasture and a barn. The pasture had creatures in it, with snouts dug deep in the dirt. Inside the barn, more creatures with udders being milked.
Because your time was coming close, we talked until my tongue got hot and furry. There was so much to tell before they plugged you in and made you look. Plugging in is for protection, just the same as looking out to whatever it is that is coming to turn the whole world to dun.
Another word for rooms is fortress.
You breathe in, you breathe out. That is the most you can do.
When I think about your room now, I think of all the words I know. All of the words share common letters, but none are what I mean.
The walls were too thick to shove anything through, only our voices. That is the nature of fortresses. But you could blow wind in my ear. When you blew wind in my ear, this is what I heard: wind. But I could also hear things like asparagus and rain and what you were afraid of when they took you to your window, which was going to be soon. You were afraid that if they took you to a low window, you would be close to the ground, but if they took you to a high one, you could see far. You were afraid it would hurt when they plugged you in. Because you didn’t know how gentle rain could be, you were afraid of that too.
Be afraid of missing me, I wanted my wind to blow back in your ear, but in the absence of a human memory, once you were gone, you were going to be gone, so what I did instead was this: I opened my box and blew everything in it as hard as I could through the hole in our thick wall to you.
Katharine Haake is the author of five works of fiction, including the eco-fabulist novel, The Time of Quarantine, and a hybrid lyric, That Water, Those Rocks. Her writing has long appeared in such magazines as One Story, Crazyhorse, The Iowa Review, Shenandoah, New Letters, and Witness, and has been recognized as distinguished by Best American Short Stories and Best American Essays, among others. A collaborative piece she did with artist Lisa Bloomfield is in the permanent collection of the Los Angeles Museum of Art. Haake is a recipient of an Individual Artist’s Grant from the Cultural Affairs Department of the City of Los Angeles and a Professor of Creative Writing at California State University, Northridge.