Food. I wanted something to eat. It was that time of day. The brightness was shining down onto Balaclava’s cage at just that angle, so it was the hour for first feeding. The nervous energy spun my body for me, gave my feet a mind of their own. I got tangled up in myself, started tripping, toes snagging in the open mesh of the floor. Giving up for the moment, I retreated to the back of the cage and did pullups on the hanging bar to exercise a few of my limbs and burn off some of the nervousness.
I heard the melody on the punched keys as the door finally rattled, letting in the Clones with the carts of food. All of us were awake then. Some, like Persimmon and Malta, moved drowsily, peacefully. Others—Fracture, for instance, down a few cages on my side of the walk—banged against the cage doors with screams. I couldn't understand any of them, and as far as I know, they couldn't understand me. I had tried enough, that's for sure. But right then, it didn't take a genius to see what had everyone excited.
The shorter Clone—the nice one—brought me the tray, sliding it in to me through a cage within the cage that was unlocked from the outside, relocked, and then opened from the inside by some unseen force. Locked because some of us might have hurt them.
As I did every morning, I stared at her, trying to make eye contact, giving her the most meaningful look I could with my eye. For whatever reason, it’s hard to keep it open for any length of time, so it took serious effort. I had tried many expressions, but wide open seemed to have the most effect, to make her linger the longest, and that’s the one I put on that morning, hanging the head with the eye low to sharpen the angle I was looking up at her from.
And as it frequently did, it brought an expression to her face that I had learned signaled happiness, or at least relaxation. It was much the same as their expression for fear, which is confusing, but obviously I had a big gulf to cross. That day, though, I earned something more for my efforts: Utterances from her. I kept careful track in my memory of their exact sound. For whatever reason, I’m able to remember things like this perfectly when I want to.
That day's sounds: “God, you really are cute in a horrific kind of way, aren’t you?"
Some of the others I had memorized:
“Pat, is this normal? Come look at this new growth it has."
“Marker, sometimes I swear you are trying to say something to me."
This last one was among the more common. She would adopt a different expression when she made those sounds. It wasn't fear, but something else. The sounds obviously meant something.
She quickly moved on, leaving me alone in the cage with the food, which as usual was wrong, all wrong. I never know how I know it’s wrong, but it’s just not what I want to eat. It’s disappointing every single time. Still, you get hungry, give in. You've got to live. I always try to space out the eating over the course of the day so I’ll have something to do.
For a while, I used to make up songs to sing to myself, but that would bring them running in a frenzy, and a couple times they pricked me with something that made me fall asleep almost instantly (and in a cage this size, you’re going to land in something unpleasant if you fall), so I gathered they didn't like singing and I would only do that at night when most of them were gone, and then only rarely.
I like the songs. With one throat, I would sing a steady note, and with the other throat, I would sing around the first, making resonances and harmonies and atonalities in turns. The pulsing drone it makes would calm me, lessen some of the ongoing terror of being trapped here.
Persimmon sometimes acted like she was trying to sing along, but just as with her sleep, it was pretty hard to tell what she was intending, if anything. She is so much gentler than the rest of us. No claws or teeth that I have seen.
But the people were the key to my escape, and singing seemed to scare them, so I kept the songs to myself as much as I could.
Wasn't much to do then but watch. Most of the wing was quiet. Many of my neighbors were asleep or doing their own watching, eyes wedged into their own wire squares or threaded through on stalks. The most interesting thing was Balaclava chewing at one of his tails, the one with the spines. That was OK: the tails have always grown back. Balaclava has been through a bunch of them since I’ve been here.
Portyanka was my favorite. He had an iridescent blue coat of feathers and eyes with vertical pupils and a tail with scales and black, armored segments. And he had a cowl that he would pull over himself when he was scared, which is never infrequent here, a hood that had something in its skin that could change color, so that he seemed almost invisible sometimes in against the beige plastic walls of the crate. More than a few people were bitten reaching into his dark corner, not realizing they were near one of his mouths. He had teeth so sharp that they went through the heavy gloves sometimes and some kind of poison that could paralyze the Clones so that they seemed almost dead.
Portyanka and I could talk. Well, I say that, but that's not true exactly. I made noises, and he made noises back. At first it felt like we were imitating each other, but later we started to experiment, modifying slightly each time, quietly, trying to space out our noises so that we didn’t attract attention. I never could understand what he was trying to say, but I hoped it was something like what I wished I could tell him: You aren’t alone. Someone hears you. Someone understands. But I can’t be sure he ever knew that.
Portyanka was beautiful when the second-feeding light would hit him, reflecting so hard that sometimes my eye would water from it. But I would sit and stare; it is still the most beautiful thing I have ever seen. Compared to me, almost anything would be, though. I’ve seen myself a few times in the mirror, and I’m pretty plain. Seven limbs, most of them tiny, the two heads, one of which is pretty much just the mouth, fine brown fur all over. Boring. But Portyanka…
I do wonder what happened to him. We get used to seeing each other come and go—never get too attached—but still, you wonder sometimes. One day they took him out and he didn’t come back. That’s all there is to say. I like to think it wasn’t anything too awful. Sometimes coming back seems worse than the alternative anyway. Persimmon was alert and active a long time ago, but then one day, she came back from several days out of the cage room and she … wasn’t anymore. She still tries, but she lists to one side when she moves, and her sounds are slurred and … it doesn’t bear thinking about.
I miss Portyanka.
I’ve been on a few of these outings. I am missing one limb that they took for some reason—I had eight to begin with. Fortunately, I didn’t need it for balance, though there’s a spot on my back I can’t scratch anymore, and that drives me crazy sometimes, and the stump sticks there like something that’s supposed to drop off but never does. Sometimes they stab me with a bright, spiny thing. One time, that made me float around the little room, and I was able to look down on all the white coats. Some had shiny heads, some wore more white stuff over their scalps. I flapped a few of my limbs, thinking I might be able to swim up and out of there, into the world I think must be out there (where do the white-coated Clones live, for example? What’s the big light from the square that moves behind my cage?), but I seemed tied to my body. It was very frustrating. So close to escape.
Other times they put me in mazes or in front of screens where I have to pick colored blocks or they give me other activities. Nothing too painful, usually. But always, always I try to look them in the eye at every chance. I’m here, I try to tell them. I am like you. Well, at least in some ways.
They aren’t really Clones, of course (we’ve had a few twins—sets, multiples, real clones—here, so I know what that means). They have their own personalities. Some of them, like the short one, are nice to us. Others are aloof. Others are … that just doesn’t bear thinking about, either.
No, it’s just that they all look so weirdly alike. The differences between them are so minor that it’s hard to notice sometimes. Same number of limbs (though one of them was missing a finger on one hand—do they do these things to each other too?), roughly the same height, roughly identical white clothing. They all make more or less the same noises and sounds. It’s eerie. Frightening. They seem hidden somehow, like there’s nothing inside, no individual personalities. Sometimes I thought it must be nice to be able to understand others so easily, but the thought of being unable to tell myself apart from everyone else horrifies me.
Some of us get it worse than others. Jaxx. Oh, Jaxx. All teeth, claws, a defensive stench that he (?) doesn’t seem to be in control of. All he wants is to be left alone, and that seems to make it impossible for some of the Clones to do. Sometimes at night a couple of the bigger ones come by and try to provoke Jaxx’s most unusual skill, which begins with a low warning rumble that rattles the wire cages up and down the row, then proceeds to a blare and then—we’ve all learned to hold our breath now and cover up our ears as best we can—an explosive boom that leaves everyone dazed for a few minutes. The Clones giggle and stagger around and point at Jaxx and then see if they can make it happen again, prodding with sticks, banging clipboards against his door. It’s not hard to get him riled up. One time I saved some kibble from a feeding and tried throwing it at them to make them stop, but my aim is bad, and I don’t think they even noticed. Another time, I sang to try to distract them, but I ended up in a box without windows for a long time until I was floating around the room again and eventually the nice short Clone came and lifted me out. I feel horrible letting them do things like that to Jaxx (or anybody else), but getting myself hurt doesn’t help him either.
I began practicing at night. Their sounds. I would pick one of the noises and work on it, trying to make either of my throats produce it, spit it out. The frustration was agonizing. The sounds just didn’t seem to fit. I would try till I hurt, till both throats ached. It was made harder by the fact of having to whisper; some of the sounds seemed to necessitate shouting while they were made.
So I concentrated on certain sounds that came easier than others. I had three or four of them down when I finally worked up the courage to try some out. I waited for the nice Clone to appear one day and, as she bent down to slide the tray of food in, I spoke. At least, I thought I did. I had to use both throats together to make an approximation of the sound. Spittle flew. I had to close my eye while I did it. The sound came out like: “BBbbbvvvpspth. Bbbbvvvvbbbuhh." The effort astonished me. I was shaking. I opened my eye to find Nice Clone looking at me strangely. She seemed to rush to lock the cage, and looked back once over her shoulder as she moved on down the line with the trays. I had hoped for more, obviously. But something had happened. It encouraged me to keep trying.
Each night, I would sit quietly whispering to myself, trying every combination of noises I could imagine. I tried to force my anatomy to produce the sounds I heard them making. I watched each day as the Clones came, trying to work out what it was the sounds meant. So many sounds to hold in my heads made it hard. But I made progress. Some sounds were easier than others, so I worked on those first. From time to time, I would try them out. Most of the Clones didn’t seem to notice, so I concentrated on the nice one.
She noticed. Whenever I’d try one of the sounds, she would react strangely, and in general, she seemed to avoid me, to hurry by each day. She made far fewer sounds of her own. I wondered what was happening. Admittedly, I was just guessing, hoping.
I started to watch how they used the sounds. Certain sounds seemed to happen only at certain times: when they first came in for the day, for instance. And some sounds only seemed to be used with certain of us or with certain other Clones. I started keeping a mental list of sounds and associations. Each night I practiced.
One day the nice Clone was putting my tray into my cage when I decided to try a new sound.
“Uhmmmeeeerreee-a-a-a-nyuh," I disgorged as I looked into her eye.
She paused, the outer door of the food slot open, the inner door still locked. For the first time in a long time, she looked back, obviously confused.
Something was working. I tried again, straining to get as close as I could to the sound I remembered:
She bent down closer, closer than she’d ever been. I could smell all her foreignness. I put every bit of strength I could find into one last try:
“Maryanneya. Chkkka." That last part came out without me intending it to.
She breathed in sharply. The tray, caught on her rapidly withdrawn hand, clattered to the floor as she ran out through the door.
I sat back in my cage, panting.
I didn’t see her for several days. I wondered if I’d scared her away somehow, used a sound that said I was dangerous, maybe. In fact, I saw fewer Clones in general for a while, and when they did show up, it was for shorter periods. There was very little interaction.
But eventually the nice Clone returned. She came in one day around second feeding, but she didn’t have a tray. She walked right to the front of my cage and looked at me for a long time.
She put out a finger and touched it to her chest and said, “Mariana."
What could it mean? My heart raced. My other head, the one without the eye, was compulsively cleaning my fur as it sometimes does when I can’t hide my nervousness. I looked at her. I wondered if it were a threat being returned somehow.
She didn’t look angry, though. I knew that look from when someone threw dirt on them or bit them or something. Her look seemed … curious.
So maybe it was a greeting of some kind? Several of us had sounds we made that signaled welcoming. So maybe she was expecting me to respond. Why would she have run when I made the sound originally, then, though? Still, I couldn’t think of any other reason. I didn’t figure I had much to lose. So I tried the sound again:
“Mareeannytttha." It wasn’t as good as the last time, but it was pretty close.
She looked at me, her eyes wide. She turned and looked at the wall that reflected the room and made a gesture—I had no idea what it might have meant, or why should she would signal to a reflection. But it seemed to get a response, so I said it again:
“Mariana." That time was better. “Mariana! Mariana!" I was yelling. Her eyes got red, which scared me, but she didn’t seem angry. This was something new I’d never seen before. I tried out some of the other words I’d been collecting.
“Bvbelleeekalavvvya! Ummmyalta! Innajecteeeon." My energy was fading but I didn’t want to stop. “Bahleekalava! Balacalva! Blaclaclvvaaa…" It broke down into gibberish.
The nice Clone was smiling. She put her finger out and pointed it at me and said, “Marker."
I still had no idea what it meant. But I knew which words went with which of us, roughly, which gave me more clues. I started to piece it together.
Mariana was a term she used to refer to herself. A name, like Umlaut or Minerva. This puzzled me at first, not realizing that they were truly individuals, but eventually I worked it out. And I was Marker. That was their name for me. I wondered what it meant.
After that day, they took me out of the cage room and put me by myself. I couldn't understand why they were punishing me. One of the only bright sides was that Mariana would spend much of the day in the room talking to me. Once she tried to scratch my main head, which would have been nice, but I can't really control the second one, and it snapped at her, and that was that.
She would talk for long parts of the day. I lost track of time because there were no windows in the new room. I could tell you all the sounds she made. A good part of them, anyway. But as with the things she said to me in my old cage, they made no sense to me.
Progress was made, I thought. I learned her terms for a bunch of things—hands,food, cage, that kind of thing. I knew she called me Marker, and I would spin around and stupidly yell, “Marker! Marker!" again and again, wanting so badly to communicate, wanting not to be alone.
But it never really happened. She started using sounds that just made no sense to me at all. She would say them over and over again until her face got red and her eyes got wet, but whatever she was trying to impart, I couldn't follow it. I would lie awake trying to decipher what she was telling me, if it meant anything at all. I thought about it until I hurt. But it was like trying to talk to Portyanka—we knew each other's sounds, but the languages were completely different.
After a while, the word the Clones began using around me more and more was “parrot." They seemed unhappy when they would say it. I felt destroyed. I could feel how close I'd come. I tried yelling the words, louder and louder. “Marker! Mariana! Cage! Dish!" Mariana would put her hand to her face. I tried one I had heard her say: “Jim, can you buzz me out? I've got to get home." She ran out of the room.
They put me back in the cage room. I couldn't figure out where Mariana had gone. I would yell until my throats bled, and then I would whisper. The Clones wouldn't look at me anymore. There was only one thing I felt I could do: I began singing whenever I was awake. I knew they didn't like it, but really, it was the only thing that would comfort me. It was like I had to.
One afternoon just before second feeding, they came and took me to one of the rooms with the metal tables. “Marker," I said, as they fastened me down with cords, and I feel asleep. When I woke up, I was back in my cage. I started to sing, but no sound came out. My throats stabbed me. I tried again. Nothing but a gasp came out.
It has been years. I never saw Mariana again, though I think about her most days. Today, though, the strangest thing happened: Malta started singing. He had never made a sound before, but he sounded just like me, just like my old songs. I pinned my eye up against the wire cage and banged against it. They had moved him down a few spots, and I could just see his tawny fingertips through the mesh as he sang. It was beautiful. I banged against the cage with all my might, trying to tell him how wonderful it was to hear.
The door opened. The Clones entered. They unlatched Malta's cage and put him in a heavy bag that cinched at the top. That was several hours ago.
I heard. It is good to have sung.
# # #
"The idea is more about making fun of the mindless maze of cubicle culture, and all of its ROI, synergy, spitballing, helicopter views, leveraging, productivity, and "circling back" glory."“Right at the start people [made] spreadsheets and graphs and took it very seriously."
Great post by way of my friend Erich Campbell. To be creative is to struggle, in my humble opinion. Art is the record of the fight. Not only nothing to be ashamed of, it's the name of the game, as this post points out, and to boot, some strong practical advice. Well worth checking out. Thanks, Erich.
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