Beyond the Bars

By | January 25, 2011

I meet with a group of writers every Monday night, and we usually have a short-story competition: we get a writing prompt and we have to develop a story from it in 15 minutes. This is my short story; the writing prompt is the first line in bold, below. Note that I did make a change to the name in the story because the original name was the same as someone I know. Also note that this is the only editing change I made after the story was written. This doesn’t mean that the story is perfect, but I wanted you to see the first draft of what will become a larger story. (Yes, these writing prompts seem to lead to real, actual, publishable writing.)

Most people liked to complain about the smell, but for Tessa there was something earthy and wonderful about the baboon cage.
It was day 42 or 43 when she realized this. And it was day 49 or 50 when she realized she hadn’t written anything down about her insights; indeed, she had lost any means of writing some time ago, and was reverting to a state where she looked forward to meals, to sleep, and to idly picking fleas or ticks or wonderful bits off the others – tasty morsels that somehow affirmed her being, her baboonity, her animal nature that reveled in sound and smell and feel.

The days were fading away as events or movement through time; now it seemed to Tessa that she was either “here,” awake and moving, or “not here,” asleep or dreaming or otherwise lost in some state that wasn’t quite thought and wasn’t quite stupor.

Already those beyond the bars were losing their familiarity. She acknowledged the pale roundness of the one who made meaningless noises and gestures to her, a face she recognized as somehow comforting or predictable, but the time had long passed when she felt a flicker of connection. Unlike the others in the cage, though, she still didn’t recoil in fear and shrieking when the strangers appeared; she still felt some faint sense of belonging outside and being with them, but that sensation was slipping away into a state she didn’t even remember to call the past.

She looked up, drawn by a light that flickered above her. It prompted her stomach to growl, and she felt her mouth water. Slowly she unwound herself from the embraces of the her fellow creatures and ambled over to the wall, waiting expectantly and patiently for the fruits and grains that dropped a short time after the light went off. She wiped her forehead with her hand, not for the first time noticing again that her fingers were now slender and long, and that her thumb was easily as long as her fingers. The idea that this was wrong was gone from her; it was now the way things were, and she was content with that.

The wall was blank, but a hidden door slid open, and she quickly withdrew the food provided. The others were still sleeping: they didn’t seem to be as motivated or as quick to remember that “light” meant “food.” They’d just have to wait their turn, she thought.

There was more than food in the tray this time. There was a flat, thin piece of something with tiny black marks on it. She held it up to her face and stared at it. She sniffed it, and then she licked it. Nope, there was nothing that said “food” or “good” to her. She shrieked a couple of times and then ripped the sheet into pieces, and fled with her food to her corner where she ate her meal in silence.

It was good to be alive, she thought. Good to be in this corner, good to smell her friends and lovers, a rich, enveloping aroma of belonging and closeness. Tessa was happy, and she ate in contentment.