Chapter 1: Iron Womb
I wake up in a box of iron. I know nothing, remember nothing. There is one thought imprinted on my consciousness: You have been erased.
Disoriented, I’m swimming in warm darkness. Tepid air. Tepid metal. The inability to move. Limbs pressing outward, ineffective. My ribcage curled in on itself. No room to breathe. The back of my skull smashed against the box. Neck and spine aching. Heavy limbs. Not enough space. Not enough air. Suffocating. Dying.
There’s no way out.
I scream. It’s a girl’s voice. Am I a girl?
Flailing. Pounding. Hot blood under torn nails. Dry, shredded throat. I scream until everything stops.
An eternity later, I awaken in the warm darkness.
It’s happened so many times, I’ve stopped counting. I’ve stopped asking why. Dry snot on my face. Hollow insides. Despair. I decided long ago to give up and die. But it continues. Now I lie still in the dark. Floating. Drifting. Time malfunctions. My body winds down. I’m fading.
Cold air wisps across my cheek. The touch of death? I open my eyes and shut them as the light skewers my brain. Tentatively, I crack my lids open again. The image sharpens with each blink, a water-blurred lens coming into focus. Brown dirt in a vertical plane bisecting my vision. Eventually I realize I’m laying on my side. My cheek presses into cold earth. My right shoulder is crushed under my body, my limbs sprawled haphazardly. Who knows how long I’ve been like this. I lay blinking, unable to move, strangely fascinated with the colors and textures of the ground. Small stones and twigs rise dramatically out of the landscape from this perspective. Beyond them, only a few paces away, is a concrete wall.
I struggle to upright myself. Three attempts later, I manage to sit up, which I immediately regret. Starbursts chase black spots across my eyeballs. My stomach turns over. Heaviness sits on my chest. Each breath takes the efforts of my entire body. I’m certain I’ll fall over, but it passes, resolving in a dizzy, drifting haze. I blink and cast my eyes around, wondering where I am and how I got here.
Dirty walls of buildings, rusted corrugated steel panels and splintered, rotting boards make up most of my surroundings. An alleyway leads away from this enclosed area. Trash whirls across its opening and collects in a huddle against one wall. More is piled against a building next to a dumpster. A few feet away from me, the bleak grey sky is reflected in a puddle, oily patches on the water’s surface obscuring the shapes of the clouds. I scramble for the puddle on hands and knees, moving faster than I imagined I’m capable of. Thrusting my hands into the dirty water, I scoop it up, and drink. Some of it runs down my chin and neck, soaking whatever garment I’m wearing. It tastes foul, smells of something wrong, but I don’t care. It’s liquid. I drink handful after handful, then sit back on my knees, my shoulders slumping, hands dropping slack to my sides. I pant, then take deeper breaths. I sigh, a long, trembling sigh that releases all the tension from my body. Tipping my face to the open sky– as dark and cold and uninviting as I can possibly imagine it– my heart embraces it as a thing of utmost beauty. Open air, the ability to move– I am utterly thankful for these things.
There’s a noise from down the alley. Fear coalesces out of nowhere, seizing hold of me, compelling my body to move despite its weakness, its stiff joints. I thrust my feet under me and will myself to standing. Reeling against the dizziness, I throw my arms out and widen my stance to keep from falling. I have to get out of here. Now.
I’m only beginning to move when my mind starts translating what I hear. Footsteps. Male voices, low and laughing. There is nowhere for me to go. I force down a scream. My eyes fall on the trash piled next to the dumpster. I hike up the brown shift I’m wearing and wade into the heap of boxes and rags, sharp-edged tin can lids, moldy coffee grounds, greasy bones, and other rotten, rancid things. Sinking down in the filth, I draw it over my head. Something cold and slippery hits the skin of my neck, its stench filling my nostrils. I make myself still, hold my breath. And then the voices are right there, a few paces away from me.
Their cheerful conversation ceases.
“Nothing again today,” one of them says.
There is the sound of a boot scuffing the pavement, then the faint splash of water as it hits the puddle.
A second voice answers darkly, “Matt’s gonna think we’re slacking or something. Take the loss out of our pay.”
What loss? In the silence that follows, I feel my face turning red, my lungs wanting to explode. The sensation of suffocating seizes me again, the sharp memory of metal walls closing me in. I need to breathe. Need to scream. I have to dig down into the fear and extract every drop of willpower to remain still and quiet. The beginnings of a whimper stir in my belly, but I shut them down. Only a moment more. Only a moment.
“Nah,” a third voice finally says. “He knows we don’t miss any. If they haven’t dropped here in two days, we’ll surely get something tomorrow.”
The others make noises of disgruntled agreement, and the footsteps move away, down the alley.
I try to last as long as I can after they’re gone, but they’ve barely left when I lose the ability. Gasping in air, I gag at the smell that assaults me. I launch to my feet, trash falling from my hair and shoulders. Scrambling from the pile, I press myself hard against the wall, farthest from the alley. The ragged breaths I rake in are thick with a stench that clings to me. My back is wet. My skin crawls at its own filthiness.
Forcing my disgust away, I plunge into the puzzle amassing in my mind. These men were looking for something that wasn’t here, though they expected it to be. Something that would be dropped here. Something that would profit them, or the man they work for. What could possibly be dropped in an alley? What kind of coincidence is it that I am suddenly here? Dropped here. Me. They’re looking for me. Slavers.
I repress another scream, clenching my fists, squeezing my eyes shut. The darkness sends my mind involuntarily back to the cube. My body convulses. As my eyes fly open, the words appear in my brain, burned there, like the ones before them: You have been warned. With them, a gate opens in my mind. I can place myself in this world. I know its laws. I know its ways. As for myself– everything that was me– it is gone. Forever. I have been erased.
I run my fingertips lightly over the center of my forehead, exploring the mark there, its edges swollen and raised, my skin tender and stinging with the newness of it. My hand trembles. I take it away from my face to look at it– long, slender fingers. Pale skin. Fingernails blackened with blood. My palms are blue and bruised from pounding against the metal. But it’s a young hand. That’s one strike against me. Please, please, don’t let me be pretty.
I tear into the pile of trash until I find a piece of broken glass. Wiping it with the hem of my shift, I notice my long, shapely legs. Does my face even matter? I tilt the glass in the grey light, repositioning until the surface collects my image. I stare at it– a transparent rendering of myself. Large, dark eyes. Clear skin. Full lips. I hurl the glass away from me with a cry of frustration. It splinters into a thousand shards against the concrete wall.
I’m shaking from my core. My body and mind want to collapse in on themselves. That is the last thing I can allow.
I find myself counting slowly backward from one hundred. Ninety-nine. Ninety-eight. I must calm myself. I must think. Ninety-five. Ninety-four. If I do something stupid now, I’ll regret it, probably for the rest of my life. Ninety-one. Ninety. Eighty-nine. I must form a plan. Eighty-seven. I need food, and shelter. A place to hide until I can regain my strength. Eighty-two. Eighty-one. Anyone who sees me could sell me out as likely as help me. Slavers reward handsomely for pretty girls like me. Seventy-two. Seventy-one. Seventy. Sixty-nine. I need to disguise myself. Need to make myself unappealing. More trouble than I’m worth. Sixty-five.
I stop counting and consider the pile of trash. Before I can balk at the idea, I begin pulling out any rags I can find. There’s a good mess of them, stained with things I’m sure I don’t want to identify. They are damp in places, stiff in others. I find a large piece– it looks like a torn and stained bed sheet– and make a sort of robe out of it. Smaller bits I wrap about my head, catching my hair up in them. As I do, my fingers pause, briefly rubbing one silky lock. It falls just below my shoulders. I hold it in front of my face. Dark brown, the color of coffee beans, or bitter chocolate. I wrap it up tightly in the piss-scented rags, carefully covering the mark on my forehead, then smear my face and pale arms with dirt. At the bottom of the pile I find something sticky and red. I paint blotches on my exposed skin. On my face. On my long fingers. There are slight calluses along my fingertips, running all the way down my pointer finger, and across the top ridge of my palm. I will never know how those calluses got there.
Grief hits me for the first time. But I cannot afford it now. Later, it can come, when I’m away from here. I’ll allow it then. The sorrow curls up inside me and settles down to sleep, waiting for its time. I focus on this moment, this task, checking myself. My brown shift is covered. I cannot see my face, but my hands look positively frightening. Small strips of rags are all that’s left in the pile, so I tie them around my legs, stacking them to make fake pant legs. I add dirt and gunk to my feet, then drape an extra piece of rag over my head like a hood to hide my face. Cocked head. Crooked posture. Surely anyone who looks twice at me will find themselves moving in the opposite direction. I practice a wet, throaty cough to go along with the blotches. When I’m happy with it, I steel myself to move on. I step toward the alley looking a hundred years old. I feel a hundred years old. Yet, I am born today from an iron womb.
Text Copyright © 2014 Kate Wrath . All Rights Reserved.
This work may not be published, reproduced, etc, without the express written consent of the author.