The Right to Live
In my earliest memories, I am alone.
The world of my childhood is an isolated one. It consists of a single room, twenty steps wide and ten steps long. I have counted so many times, I know without even having to think about it.
The walls and floor and ceiling are all made of wood. Not a thick wood, strong and sure and protective, but a thin, flimsy wood, poor as the clothes on the backs of the people it holds. There are cracks in this wood, slats of in-between, after one plank ends and before the next begins, and I watch the outside through the cracks in my world.
Everything I know, I learn through these cracks.
I watch the people passing by, the children and the adults, walk, and I imitate their movement. I listen to them talk, and I learn to understand them. I listen to the children especially, because I learn the most from them.
It is from the children that I learn how to count the steps across my Room. It is from the children that I learn that the gold which pours through the slats in one of the walls sometimes is the sun, and when the gold disappears and the fainter white light replaces it, it is from the moon and the stars. I can even see them sometimes, through the big crack in the Wall Where the Light Pours Through. The soft moon and the bright sun and the friendly, twinkling stars. And when I look at them, it makes me feel warm, and I can almost believe that I am human and just like everyone else.
But I'm not. I'm a monster, and I don't deserve to play like the other children.
At least, that's what She says.
She is the only person who ever enters my world. I think She is the only person who even knows I exist.
She is small and bony, but appears as if She was once quite large and warm. Her face is full of laugh lines, but they seem like they haven't been used in Her lifetime, like someone else in some other body used those laugh lines and then forgot to take them off for Her. But maybe it is just me. Maybe it is the cold black eyes She stares at me with that make Her seem that way. Maybe She smiles when She is not around me.
She does everything for me. She is the one who empties my chamber-pot (a silly name if you ask me, but of course, no one asks me) once a day, and She is the one who washes me when I start to smell too bad. I love the washing-days, even though She is always very rough and my skin is red and raw afterward. When She touches me, I get the same shiver I get when I look at the stars, and I wonder if all people are as warm as She is.
She is also the one who enters my Room once a day to set my bowl of food down in front of me and tell me I am a nasty little monster pretending to be a human, and I don't deserve to play like the other children. She says this every day, and I often wonder why She is so repetitive. Does She think I will forget?
I know what monsters are. I hear about them in stories read to the children at night. In those stories, monsters are ugly, scary things that like to hurt people, especially little children. Is that why they lock me up? Because they think I would do that too? I wouldn't do that; I wouldn't hurt people. I think there should be a story about a nice monster, and I tell Her so the next time I see Her.
She doesn't like that at all.
Quicker than I can blink, She's across the Room and Her palm slaps me across the face. Suddenly, She's not so cold and distant anymore. She is screaming, and Her eyes make Her look like She's on fire. She screams and screams and screams, and then, abruptly, She stops. Her face is suddenly blank, like the Door slamming shut behind Her as She leaves and doesn't come back for more than two days.
The entire time, I am too frightened to tell Her that She is wrong. I never killed Her daughter.
I know what daughters are too. Daughters are a certain type of child. There are a lot of them here.
I hear people talking sometimes about how there are so many children here because they are all orphans.
Most children have parents, adults to look after just them and tell them they're special. But orphans don't. So the orphaned children wait here, and adults who can't make children, but still want some, come here and pick out a child to take home. I wonder once why no adults ever come in to see me, but then conclude that it's because no one would ever want a monster for a child. Perhaps She simply never bothered to mention me to anyone.
Sometimes I accept this.
Sometimes I accept, with that comfortable numbness that has become such a part of me, that I am a monster and I don't belong with them and that's just the way it is.
Sometimes I can't.
Sometimes I wonder. I wonder if I had parents once too. I wonder if they were monsters like me. I wonder if they were nice monsters, or if they were like the monsters in those stories.
Sometimes, I wonder if they were even monsters at all. I wonder if they were people, just like everyone else, and if they were very horrified when they had me instead of a nice, pretty, normal child. I wonder if they left me here to die.
I know about death. All orphans do. When your life ends, and you leave everything behind.
And whenever I think about this… whenever I can't accept and can't help but wonder… I can't help it. I scream.
The numbness, the nice, comfortable numbness, abandons me, and all the feelings it hides me from hunt me down and hold me to the ground and take turns biting at my legs and my arms and my face, until they get to my meat and my bones and my heart and they eat those too, and then I am nothing but them. Pain. Anger. Self-hatred. Loneliness.
The children become frightened by my screaming. They think there is a ghost in the walls. Maybe there is. Maybe that's what I am.
But I never scream for long. I get tired and my throat starts to hurt and no one comes to help me. Why would they? So I stop. And the numbness comes back and wraps me in its embrace again.
I quickly learn that screaming and crying don't get you anywhere except where you already are, so I find other things to think about. Less painful things.
I watch the moon and the stars and the clouds and I make up stories about them. I watch bugs crawl around through the cracks in my Room's wooden floor. I watch the children play together. I listen to them talk and soak in as much about the world outside (which is a constant, vague curiosity itching at the back of my mind) as I can from them. I look through cracks in the Wall Where the Light Pours Through to the only view I have of the world outside the orphanage. There is a tall tree in the yard, and beyond it are sloping red and brown tiled roofs, leading all the way to a great stone mountain, too far away to see properly.
Sometimes I lie by the Wall, rough splinters digging into my back, in the heat of the day when the sun is the highest, and I let the lazy warmth soak into me.
Sometimes, when I am pervaded by a certain morbid curiosity, I examine myself.
I am horribly thin. I know this from looking at other children and then comparing them to me. I can see all of the bones that hold in my stomach on either side (I think I once heard someone call them "rids", another silly name) with ease no one else can. My skin is a chalky yellowish-white. The only thing I like about myself is my hair, which falls to my waist. When it is freshly washed, it is a golden color, like the sun. I always try to keep it clean for as long as possible because when it is not clean, it is the color of the "piss" she tells me to "go" in the chamber-pot.
I have no clothes. She has never given me any, and I know better than to ask.
Sometimes I just sit. I don't think, I don't feel, I don't do anything but sit. And I can't see, and I can't hear, and I can't smell.
I am nothing.
I am nothing, waiting for someone to make me into something.
This is my world.
I do not question my world, or that I belong here, or that I deserve it, or that it is even something to be deserved. It simply is.
And if I sometimes feel… dissatisfied… or restless… it is only in passing. I do sometimes wonder what it would be like to live, just for a day, outside the walls of my Room, in the same way I wonder what it would be like to be a star.
It's nice to think about, but it will probably never happen.
The possibilities would be endless, but all those possibilities are forever beyond my reach.
This is easy to accept. I have never had any reason not to.
But sometimes, I look out at all the people who pass by me every day, and I think that I would never take the right to live for granted as much as they do. I would rejoice in my freedom every day of my life.
Such thoughts are fleeting, like a butterfly passing by the Wall as I dare to reach through a crack to brush my fingers against its wings… and the numbness is Her, and She bursts in and pulls me back by the ear and yells at me for so long, I stop listening to Her. She always says the same old things anyway.
And I feel a brief flash of something else as I curl up in the corner and pretend I don't exist again.
Anger. At Her. At the numbness. At myself, for giving in to them.
This, too, fades. I am nothing again.
I remember the exact day, the exact moment, when it all changed. The exact moment when She lost Her power over me.
Looking back, I remember it as the best day of my life.
At the time, I thought of it as anything but.