In the 2020 Literary Taxidermy Short Story Competition, participants were given the opening and closing lines of Brave New World by Aldous Huxley and Beloved by Toni Morrison. Their task was to stitch together one or more original stories using those lines as their start and end.
ONE TIN CUP OF FREEDOM
A squat grey building of only thirty-four stories. In its day, the Conclave was touted as an architectural and engineering wonder; its minimalist concrete walls fitted with gloriously large windows were like nothing before or since. Of equal note was the positioning of the building on its five-acre site. The northeastern wall of glass provided breathtaking views of the growing megalopolis up the hill. The southwestern side offered spectacular images of the greenery covering the protected parklands down to the fertile valley and beyond. Businesses stampeded to occupy this preeminent space, and for a number of years the structure was fixed in a multitude of silver oxide images captured by tourists and residents alike.
But that was one hundred years ago. The expanding economy led to a renaissance in city design and construction. Buildings raced for the clouds, in part to diminish the blemish of the Conclave, which pocked their view of God’s grandeur below. Businesses moved to modern facilities and, around fifty years ago, the county and state acquired the tired Conclave and converted it to house government and judicial offices, as well as incarceration facilities.
The commissioner’s offices consumed the penthouse level, the county offices the five floors directly below that, and the county and state judicial courtrooms and offices the six floors below that. The first through the twenty-second floors housed the jail. The cells in all but the first two levels were dedicated for the state’s short-term detainees. These were the lucky convicts, for their cubicles along the exterior of the building provided a variety of lively vistas.
The hardened criminals, confined to the first two floors and the two basement levels, were not so fortunate. The planners, in their wisdom, protected the public from seeing the barred windows on the lower floors by erecting a high wall around the building. This barrier assured that the prisoners within would be restricted to observing only sterile concrete and steel.
Even the “yard,” where inmates were allowed to congregate for one hour each day, provided only a view of gravel and sky. The greenery outside was to become only a memory to these unfortunates, a memory which dulled with time.
I know these things because I had been one of those select residents for over two decades. After my first two years, I found myself mimicking other lifers, wandering about, watching my feet. I shook myself. I would have none of that. Strength of mind and body were necessary if I ever hoped to rid myself of this horrid place. The weight room provided me with physical stamina, while the library enriched my mind and released my soul. But surprisingly, it was a routine, mindless chore which gave me hope.
During one of my shifts in the sub-basement laundry, I was moving storage boxes to allow room for installation of some new machines when I discovered a fissure in the monolith. I examined it closely and picked at it with my thumbnail. Had the engineers miscalculated in preparing their specifications? Had the contractors bungled their job? Or was it just the inevitable deterioration from age? I didn’t know and I didn’t care. To me it was a crack in the foundation of the world.
In a few days I was back with a tablespoon confiscated from dinner. They wouldn’t miss it. The pigs wouldn’t notice and the sheep didn’t care. They would secure another from stock to complete the next meal’s place settings.
The new machines were in place and I pushed aside the boxes. Yes, the zigzag fault was still there. I soon discovered that steel was stronger than fingernails. But, I was working with a spoon, not a drill. Only a small number of chips, some as fine as dust, could be collected during my laundry tour. I would pocket them, or place them in the cuffs of my uniform, and disperse them among their kind in the yard the next day, invisible in plain sight.
During one of my surreptitious scatterings, I imagined that the tiny gems were a lifeform unto themselves. Perhaps they thanked me for removing their shackles in that dark, damp dungeon, and reuniting them with their brethren, there in the open. Outside they could flourish and feast upon the mana from heaven, be it beams to warm, droplets to refresh, or a blanket of unique crystals to comfort. But then I thought, how sad that we, the monsters who tread upon them, failed to similarly rejoice in the bounty around us. No, most of us chose to study our feet.
I dispelled these thoughts and I volunteered for the next laundry shift, and then the next. The goons and my fellow detainees laughed and mocked me, jeering that I had “found my calling.” I laughed with them as I signed up for permanent laundry duty.
After a year and a half, the dusty concrete gave way to the sweet pungent perfume of Mother Earth. I filled my tin cup with spoonsful of soil as I dug through the bowels of the monster. To avoid detection, I limited my work period to twenty minutes. While the loam made for relatively easy digging, now I emerged with soiled hands and clothing. I had to flush my diggings, wash up, change into a clean uniform, throw my work clothes into a washer, and finally move the boxes back to hide my secret.
It was slow going. While at first I could remove several cupsful of dirt per shift, as my escapeway lengthened, my take was diminished to only one cupful. No matter. I felt free during my excavations. My daily hour in the library kept me sane, but my twenty minutes and one tin cup of freedom kept me alive. After ten years I gauged that I had dug beyond the retaining wall; its footings must have been shallow.
Driven by my anticipated emergence into the outer world, I began using my library time to research and define a path to my afterlife. I hatched a plan. Upon my rebirth, I would move quickly south-south-west down the hillside into the valley and then southward to the White River. This byway flows south-east for a few miles before it turns left, proceeding eastwardly to the Mississippi, my guide to anonymity.
It was another half dozen years before I pushed through turf, stood, and glanced back at that eerie edifice lurking in the predawn mist. I breathed deeply, exhilarated by the aroma of grass and cherry blossoms. Turning, however, I froze. Expecting an image akin to Pissarro’s Garden at Pontoiseg, I was instead greeted by Rembrandt’s Three Trees. Mother Nature’s glory awaited the sun, then only a glimmer on the horizon.
But I could not wait, I had to animate myself. They would discover my absence and would begrudgingly but diligently take up pursuit. I took one step forward, then stopped. I lingered a long moment. What was I waiting for? I was free. Follow the plan. Move!
But I knew that I needed to remain free. The sun I longed for would also illuminate a lone traveler, out in the open for hours and hours.
I turned and looked up at the city, only now hinting of life. It was only minutes away. I could live, thrive in a city. I knew how to navigate its undercurrents, to become one with it, to become invisible. So much for well thought out plans. I hurried into the mist.
In just two short years I was managing the café, Laissez-Faire, a comfortable establishment where the sun streamed through its large front window to nourish my collection of flowers and ferns.
Ironically, Laissez-Faire was a five minute walk from the Conclave and a frequent haunt of its workers. One sunny day some regulars entered, laughing and joking, but mainly watching their feet. “Yo, Spoons! How about our coffee?”
“I’ll be right there.”
They took their usual table and began studying the menus, a pointless effort since they always ordered the special of the day. As I approached, I saw for the first time another pair of eyes, smoldering, penetrating, which were not focused on the menu, but on me.
I began filling cups. “What will it be today, gents?”
“I’ll have today’s special.”
“Make it three.”
I spoke to those eyes. “And you, ma’am?”
“I’m fine with just coffee, thank you. I had my breakfast earlier.”
I retreated to my station to place the orders with the cook, then turned to my polishing. My nickname and this eatery’s reputation grew from my twenty minutes a day producing a lustrous finish on its stainless tableware.
I looked up in response to an overwhelming feeling of being examined. Those eyes.
“May I have a refill?” she asked through thin, determined lips.
“No problem.” I refilled her cup with fresh brew, nodding toward the table. “Are you a new addition to the team?”
“Those guys? Heavens no. I was interviewing them and they insisted they’d talk to me only if we all came here. And I bought.”
She studied me closely. “Yes… I’m with the commissioner’s office, investigating an escape from the Conclave. You know anything about it?”
“Someone escaped from the Conclave?”
“It was several years back. You must have read about it, or heard about it. How long have you been here?”
“I’ve been here for years. You know, now that I think about it, I do remember reading about that. I assumed they caught him.”
“No, afraid not. You know, you look a lot like him.”
“The escapee. I mean, it’s hard to see much of you behind that thick beard, but your eyes….”
“I have criminal eyes?”
“Not necessarily, but they look a lot like… the eyes in the mugshot I have.”
I smiled and held out my arms, wrist to wrist. “You taking me in?”
She was silent, drinking her coffee, searching my soul with those eyes. A bell broke the spell. “Sorry, your friends’ meals are ready.” I trayed the plates, added one item, and retraced my steps to the corner table.
“Here we go, gents,” I smiled as I tabled their food. The narrow eyes over the edge of her coffee cup widened and blinked when I placed a dessert plate in front of her. “I know you’ve had your breakfast, ma’am, but I thought you might like this chocolate raspberry croissant with your coffee. It’s one of our specialties. On the house.”
The following weekend I was enjoying my morning coffee on my favorite park bench, not more than two hundred yards from the Conclave. A pleasant voice stirred me, “Good morning, Spoons, enjoying this beautiful day?” I looked up into those once foreboding orbs, now sparkling with cheer. The all-business mouth was now happily curled, displaying bright teeth.
“I am, care to join me?”
“Thank you.” She sat and breathed in the view.
“Awesome, isn’t it.”
“Would you like some coffee?”
“No, I’m fine.”
I filled my chrome thermos-top, which daily reminded me of my tin cup of freedom, and handed it to her. “I’m sure you need this.”
“I do, but I will accept it on one condition.”
She waved a small familiar bag. “Only if you will share this chocolate raspberry croissant with me.”
“Done. So, any luck hunting down your bad guy?”
“No, I just closed that file. Another unsolved mystery.”
“I’m surprised, you seemed so earnest. I was sure you would succeed.”
“I thought that I would, but all potential leads just petered out. It was time to put that one to bed.”
“The initial investigators thought the escapee would have made his way into the city, you know, hide within the masses.”
I reviewed what they found and did my own search, but found nothing. If he went there, he played his cards right.”
We sat quietly for many moments, both breathing easily.
“A few days ago,” she continued. “I came out here. In fact, I sat on this very bench. I looked upon this magnificent view before us and asked myself, ‘would not my fugitive, after essentially being under ground for so many years, be overwhelmed by this panorama and just run off down this hill, into the valley, and beyond. Why would he turn and go back into that dingy city?’”
“Good question. Did you come up with an answer?”
“No, I couldn’t get my head around where he might have gone. Tell me, you know people…”
“You mean, like criminals?”
“No, no, I mean you must have met and observed many people throughout your life. You must know how people think.”
“Well, assume for the moment that you spent years tunneling out of this lockup behind us. You finally emerge and stand here looking at the valley below. If you decided to take off into the light, where would you go? What course would you follow?”
“Hmm.” I closed my eyes for a moment and reexamined that roadmap I had seared into my brain. I held up my hand like a sextant. “South-south-west, south, south-east, east....”