Let me draw you a diagram of where I’ve been living.
Every day at the same exact time, I descend from my room down the long staircase right in the center of it, hidden behind a trap door. The stairs form a spiral, a screw that bores itself through the darkness of a space so vast & resonant my voice splatters, becoming a whisper that charms the serpentine steps, the foundations rattle & hiss – empty space begs to be filled, so I shout from the top, listening to myself degrade ‘tween the sounds of pattering footsteps. By the first hour down the stairs, I already feel a pressing weight in my chest, my legs dragging behind me like a bag of dead fish. At the start, my anxiety was so strong I kept away from the edges unburdened by handrails – now on the way down I’ll take little breaks; I let my legs hang from the stairs, kicking, floating in the black, feeling the concrete under my fingers.
Down the stairs you find a pale, unremarkable floor, enclosed by many long, dark walls colored in unremarkable hues; they stretch from one horizon to another, or fold into themselves to form segregated chambers, with metallic pipes that weave together like cobwebs into a ceiling; cold to the touch, despite their hot simmering in the halogen light. Separated by dark clasps of a shutter, lamps form islands of walls swimming in the dark that are inhabited with the looming shadows of thousands of mannequins of all shapes & sizes – static, still, hung in the air with limbs & skeletal frames. They have no faces, no expressions, only a head with sunken areas and their arms & legs are sinewy, thin, made of acetate resins, polyurethane foam, and vinyl.
My job – I’m the one who moves, adjusts, poses the mannequins. I make sure to arrange them across the many chambers, moving their arms & legs into the positions that represents the word uttered through a loudspeaker. My shift starts with a loud bell, it rattles in my ears like ten-thousand-foot bees, so loud the mannequins shake & quiver. “Beach.” The instructions are always vague, I’m uncertain of what is demanded of me but I carry out the command. There is no sand, no towels, no water, no birds or fish – I place one of the mannequins on an imagined shore at an unknown beach with his arms over his eyes, gazing into the beautiful blue. They’ve acquired names; though the mannequins are without sex organs and possess identical bodies, the little imperfections in their construction tells me who they are. “Vladimir,” I whisper, “I know by the crumbling nose.” I put Alyona beside Vladimir, and I sit her down, feeling her skin turning red in the sun, sand in her auburn hair, and the others forming castles, fortified walls & towers shapely & dark, losing shape and turning to clumps, a debt returned to gibbering waves.
All that hangs in the air is a veil of buzzing. It seems inescapable. I placed my ears up to the loudspeaker when it said nothing, and I could pick out little signals, though it forms only mushy scramble. The floors are littered with wires that lead to the lamps, all together a herd of insects, a choir of unique voices that hum. I get an urge to join them; I whistle, I ride the wave and my pitch rises to rattle the pipes, hearing it scatter into the many corners of the chamber. I hear a response sometimes, a crackling whisper too faint to be coherent, it never falls together into speech even when I walk into this hail of noises; I try to grab a word and it spills out of my grasp even when I push my ears up to a power line, feeling something tickle my face but I get nothing more than the thought that something is out there and I don’t know its purpose – I don’t know its name but I know its voice, gargling from an ocean of voices, spurting vocal garbage that has outlived its use but still clings & spills onto the shore, calcifying at the edge of my apprehension.
My heart is the only instrument of time I have. I’d listened to the wires for about ten-thousand beats, as I’ve done every day, but I’ve never learned anything from it. I pull my head away from the wires, and see Vladimir and Alyona through a window that overlooks my imaginary shore. I feel a sense of loneliness in me, like a caged animal in a zoo, so I drag a mannequin by its feet to the window and point its head outwards. “Andrey,” I can tell by his thicker insulation, and I place his hand up to the aluminum partition though he has no fingers with which to clasp mine. He watches Vladimir and Alyona, and I wonder if he imagines them as friends; imagines them as lovers, greedy little eyes watching her as his mind drifts to mundane thoughts. Little private moments like these make me nervous, I can’t help but cover the room in glances even though I’m the only one watching. I take Andrey’s other hand and place it by his pelvis; it impotently hangs, clutching onto nothing, but I hear the mannequin who watches from the darkness fall into a fit of laughter.
This must be the beach – two lovers embrace as the sun passes through the thin grating of fine mesh. I stumble away from the shore, and there are drunken men stumbling into the street with sand on their lips, brushing the sweat from their brow as flies gather on decaying marine wildlife, their nostrils sipping on brine, and I can feel the broken seashells jab into the skin of my toes, covering my eyes with my hands to watch a seagull fly over me as a breeze hits my ears, perching onto the stairs, opening its beak to emit a loud bang followed by the clattering of glass. I smell it; the air fills with fine mercury dust, glittering like dew as streaks of light cover my vision, coating the lifeless mannequins with pearly snow.
I felt a sharp pain in my temples as I took the stairs back up to my room. I take one careful step at a time, dizzy from the vapor of the broken florescent lamps that hangs beneath the stairs, a silver billowing monster sucking up every last inch of space. I close the trap door behind me, throwing my weight onto it like I was being followed. There’s still a little bit of light coming through my windows and when you press your face up against it, faint impressions of something in the distance comes through the fog. I like to sit on my bed, feeling the cold glass on my skin as the howling of wind causes it to rattle under my fingers, wondering if there are others like me. I close my eyes – out of the gray mist form views of entire cities populated with sharp pyramids, glass at the top of their spires, and I’m seeing it as a bird would, my beak up to the glass, pecking a pointed rhythm and hearing mimicry of it in response.
On some nights, I have a strange dream. My body fills the chamber, growing until every possible inch is filled with flabby flesh and then contracting into a microscopic point. I put my ears up to one of those power lines again, pulling it closer, on my hands & knees. At first it’s that same old crackling, but then I hear something I’ve never heard before, something I recognize in there ‘tween the buzz & static. It’s different from the speech on the loudspeaker, softer & private, something that someone shouldn’t hear. “Hello!” I shout at the wires, pawing at them like a rabid animal, little dribbles of foam falling from my mouth. “Can you hear me?” When I wake up, I try to remember the words but it always seems like it’s up there on a shelf, I see it but I’m too short to grasp it. I don’t remember their meanings, but I remember the shapes of the words, the way the mouth opened & closed to form them and the tongue that dipped into the valleys and stroked the peaks of the pitches and it’s a song lodged in my head, a monument jabbed into the flesh of the hills above me, where its imposing shadow falls onto me, present on my skin no matter what alleyway I hide myself in.
I woke up with the words in my mouth. I repeated them to myself, I did it several times before walking down the stairs again, nonsense tongue-twisting that builds up and splashes around, ta-ta-ta-ne-ne-ne-oooo, river of spit gushing onto my teeth, spilling out into the room and crashing into the walls, flowing down into the cracks & holes as froth that fizzles in the ears, fizzing out into nothing. The stench is no longer there, but the silvery dust still covers the ground, shiny like pebbles as the light of the lamps strikes them. Inside the haze, the mannequins lay undisturbed – Vladimir stands at the shore, Alyona sitting beside him, Andrey watching them from a distance, and the corn salesmen, salt drying on their hands, and the skin of little dilettantes burning red, and the hats of children taking flight as their fathers drag them away from the shore. I fill the silence; I raise my voice, then lower it to a whisper to mimic the breaking of waves.
The loud bell strikes; the dust takes flight, showers falling from the pipes, and Alyona stirs at my side. “Love.” It seemed like a bizarre request. I feel myself remaining frozen, wanting to make sure I didn’t misunderstand, but nothing follows the announcement. Nothing ever does, and many beatings of the heart pass as flecks of dust collect on my shoulders; I’m idly watching Vladimir disappear into a sparkling shroud, the light shattering into pieces as it strikes them and irritating the air around me into seclusion. The castles & little shacks of the beach disappear into its twilight, the cars & tourists fade away, the hotels melt into black, peeling away the outside layers until there’s nothing but my eye caught in the clouds of mercury. I repeat the words again, just as I’d heard from the loudspeaker. “Love,” I mutter. “Love love love love,” but never after a repetition does the need disappear. “Love… love love love.” The falling particles force my eyes to close; the pain brings me to tears & sniffles.
I look for Vladimir in the dark, pulling on his arms, dragging him by his feet. I feel the shapes of his arms; I pull him closer to Alyona, forcing him onto his knees by cradling him, falling alongside him, clattering onto the two mannequins, feeling a pain in my knees as I rub my eyes. My arms extend, I open my hands, reaching for something – I feel Alyona’s body, my fingers stroking the inside of her thighs, traveling upwards, but I only feel the cold shape of a plastic pelvis when I reach the top so I pull her closer. I cover Alyona’s body with mine but her metallic frame is unyielding, and the bolts & screws that constitute her construction dig into my body. I squeeze where her breasts would have been, I envelop her neck with my hand, I grasp her face – the spongy skin surrenders to touch but reveals nothing, without a nose that grants her shape, without a mouth that invites, without eyes that watch.
Vladimir lays beside us, watching as Andrey did, dead & still, savoring every little movement between us. He’s caught us, he was watching in the closet. He saw through the window. He’s angry, he’s jealous. He’s doubled over in lust, stroking himself as tears fall from his face. His eyes are red, his lips are parted. He’s whispering, he’s shouting; he wants me to stop, he wants me to go on. “_!” He’s hissing. “_!” I press my face up against Alyona’s but taste only a strange bitter wax on my tongue. “_?” Vladimir is standing in the corridor, his loose jaw hanging beneath shiny dead eyes, his rounded body a reflection in a puddle of water, beard & red lips & swollen cheeks disappearing into the dark ripples of my own face that spill from my forehead to the edges of my neck, to the blades of my shoulders. Aloyna lays dead beneath me, droplets of sweat dribbling onto her plastic cheekbones, mixing together with the mercury and I feel a torrent of disgust welling up into my stomach. I press my hand into the connection between her torso and the head, but the metal feels cold to my touch, and it doesn’t yield no matter how I squeeze. My hands move to her temples instead, but I find myself lifting up her head, as close to me as I could, before smashing it back down on the concrete.
I couldn’t sleep much that night, the journey back up the stairs left me so drained that I couldn’t repeat the words I’d heard before. I tried to form the shapes with my mouth, but none of them seemed right – a grin, the rounded shape, pursed lips, my tongue nested between my teeth, curling; I can remember that it happened, but nothing more. I laid in my bed for too many heartbeats to count, awaiting another transmission, but I heard nothing. I went down onto the floor, pressing my head up against the power lines but heard only the soft whine of electricity. No song comes to mind; my mouth is left hanging open with only spittle falling from it, a dull patter filling the chamber as I descend the stairs, my arms limp and my body hanging dead from the trees; a soft gust adding a delicate sway to a lifeless mass.
I find Alyona, what was left of Alyona, I find pieces where I left her. There are sharp metal fragments from which the limbs broke off, and screws & springs & insulation cover the ground, bits of which crackle under my feet. I poke into something but I’m not sure if it was her leg or her arm. None of these pieces seem to mean much anymore; they’ve become only raw material, without function, and I couldn’t even imagine what use they might have had before. I say “Alyona” to myself, and laugh – it’s ridiculous to attach a name like that to this heap of nothing, and I kick a long chunk of something into the darkness, clattering, filling the chamber with the echo of it bursting into garbage.
I woke up with my head resting on the steps of the stairs. I’m not sure how long I’d been sleeping, I couldn’t count the beating of my heart. I feel a wind brush my skin, particles of oil & mercury forming droplets on my skin, rousing me from the fog of my own thoughts. I reach for the shores and a school of fish swims through my hands, fading into a depth too blurry to reveal its horizon and I try to grasp for one of them and I open my hand but find only crumbling dust that fell from the light fixtures above me. I rub it between my fingers before letting it fall onto the floor; the other rooms seem to have disappeared into the haze, as if the other chambers had atrophied away and what was left was only the isolated island of my surroundings, and I cannot remember what was there before and I cannot imagine even what should be there and it seems to be staring at me with its blank nothingness, studying my response.
Another night of fitful sleeping, I lie awake most of the time listening to my own heartbeat. I draw shapes in the moisture that accumulates on the window as I search for things in the fog, though nothing seems to reveal itself anymore and the boredom is starting to feel like a monstrous burden. Sometimes I’ll descend the stairs, to see if the voice will return but it never does. I await the instructions of the loudspeaker but am greeted only with a buzzing that persists through every step, that follows me into every corner. I pace around restlessly, pieces of Alyona cracking beneath my feet, losing track of the hours, walking among the many mannequins who no longer need me as they assume their own positions, with their taut limbs extended, poised as the steel springs & plastic joints sustain their facsimile, unconcerned with the presence of a voyeur. I touch their bodies, my hands trace the edges, fingering the angles as I follow their curvature but I’m unsure of what it was meant to represent, nothing seems to cohere into a solid shape; when I turn to face one of them I see only a reflection rippling in water and a sense of grief suddenly strikes me as if I’d lost something dear to me. I don’t know what it is I’ve lost but I’ve decided to remain within the chamber, hoping the ripples of the water will subside and reveal an image – I await its return, unsure whether I’d recognize it when it comes.