Chapter 2: The Idealistic Talking Trees
With no clock in sight, I've no idea on what time I've woken up. The windows are boarded up too; not even an indication to day or night. At least in my white room with white walls, I had some sense of time. A white clock, blending in nicely; you'd have to look twice to notice it. Even though life's a mere routine, time still somehow slots itself in. A meaningless thing if everything runs on cycle, but useful for the educational purpose of time's existence.
Getting up from bed, an unfamiliar smell spears my nostrils. A starchy smell; burnt. Looking over to the table, a plate with silverware are immaculately placed on top. And upon the plate's some buttered toast. Great.
For a while I don't get up, wearily setting my gaze on the toast, then the duvet, the toast, the duvet again. If I was aware of time existing in this place, I'd say ten minutes passed before I decided to get up and have breakfast.
The toast – now completely devoured – leaves me unsatisfied. Recalling meals I had after early morning roundups consisted mainly of cereal, tea, coffee. Toast is served occasionally. Nothing special, but all still served as basic amenities to us. But with only one slightly burnt piece of toast settling in my stomach, I'm getting an insatiable thirst. Not one where you demand a cold drink in hand, but in fact, something warm. To create that languid, soothing feeling around your throat.
But soon after my frustration over no tea or coffee, the plan for the day floods my mind. 'He's given me a day,' I say to myself.
With no spare clothes to change into, I reach for the key kept underneath the bed's pillow. A silver key. Nothing unusual about that. Why silver? Perhaps they have silver above the wired surface. A possibility, anyway.
In spite of how close I am, walking towards the door, opening it isn't an idea that reaches my head. Something in my consciousness was telling me, 'don't do it. There's no point in this. Leave.'. Another part of me was saying the opposite, forcing me to open the door to face the truth. Already I'm split in half by my mind. Should I do it? I should? But I can't. No, I won't. Wait. Stop. I will.
Curiosity winning over fear ends up with me slotting the key into the lock. But as soon as I hear the ominous click, I stop. I stop doing everything. For a moment I'm frozen in a bubble, suffocating me.
Hesitation? That's a new feeling. But what's the point in that? I'm already here, no turning back now.
To give some solace, I close my eyes whilst opening the door. Then silence. I embrace it, it embraces me. Taking in a whiff of air, the fresh silky smell of it swims through my nostrils. My lips feel chapped, but this doesn't deter me from hoarding in more. More air. In the outside world. Sticking my tongue out, the cool hazy atmosphere settles on my taste buds before I gag. Wriggling my toes inside invisible shoes, I take my first step.
Exhilarating. A spiky – yet comforting feeling slithers between each toe. The soles of my feet are baked in a moderate heat; a gentle burning sensation.
And with all senses fully enveloped, my eyes finally open. Trees. Everywhere. The sunlight stabs at my eyes, though soon after, the trees shelter me from oncoming rays.
'So it's morning', I tell myself.
Despite my newfound discovery, I'm not bewildered. Instead I'm dispassionate. It feels as though my purpose here isn't to bathe myself in the sunlight, or take in the luscious air around me. I still have no idea on what 'purpose' is. Though really – not being ecstatic worries me. As matter of fact, it doesn't worry me, but infuriates me. Why can't I feel anything? Surely the forest surrounding me brings pleasure? A new environment is a nice change, isn't it? With that in question, I stride the parameters of the so-called cottage. Trees. Everywhere. There's no escaping them. There isn't one inch of space covered in trees, all colossal in height. It's as if they're put here to enclose you further, to irritate you. 'You may have surpassed the wired surface, but you can't see what's around you, can you? You're stuck. Trapped.'
In spite of being within the cluster of trees, a path still makes itself visible. Scattered with fallen twigs, its distance scopes out towards the horizon. You can't really make anything out on the other side, covered in a cloud of white mist. Who knows what's there. Not thinking, my body moves itself in the path's direction. The grass' silky texture slowly becomes distorted, with sudden pokes of blunt twig-ends.
The feeling's familiar: walking without any emotion. Trees to my left, trees to my right. With this continuum of 'only forwards', my feet are exposed to more distortion, more imperfections. Pebbles become present, become sharper, and then they start to flock in larger numbers. All I need now is a green-suited man called Stetson in front. I wonder what he's doing now. Probably watching everything I do. Waiting for that day to end, to send me back down there.
With my mind veering off Stetson, the mist persists to inhibit vision. Still there are the trees either side. The floor continues to worsen in terrain, flatten out and worsen again – as if to make sure your hopes don't go up too high. Once you think the surface is smooth, bearable for worn-out soles, it sucker punches that consoling comfort. As if life wasn't on your side for that moment, biased somehow. And your eyes – not being able to muster a fragment of the light ahead. The thick fog, the hazy curtain pulling down on you. Does it add up? How can anyone live like this?
Fortunately, the ground is blatantly visible: every edge or crack's obvious, without a need for a magnifying glass or tools of that sort. With an accumulation of hopelessness and fatigue, I slump down onto the forest floor. Life's been merciful; not a twig, nor jagged rock in sight. It's fresh grass, similar - if not identical – to the patch around the cottage.
'Won't you enlighten me?' I shout. The trees turn a blind eye. More like a blind ear.
'Imagine if trees could talk,' I say to myself. And honestly, it's not a bad idea. With an abundance of the bastards, surely they'd have some form of communication. They can reproduce for a start. Same with other flowers. Sexually, asexually. Everything starts from somewhere.
'If they could talk, I wouldn't feel so…' And I have a thought. The word I'm trying to find, is loneliness. Lone-lee-nus. It's something I've never really felt until now.
And I love it. I stare off into the mist-protected sky above. Since nothing can be seen, it's really just the same. Whiteness, nothingness. No change at all. My arms thrust behind me as I lounge backwards, both of my eyes close.
This so-called 'loneliness' seems to regroup all emotions into one convoluted ball. Feelings that I'd never feel below the wired surface. Desperation, depression, highs and lows. I've never been touched by such humanity…but somehow it all seems oddly familiar. A familiarity uncanny to when I experienced pain.
'The pain of a broken wrist, to the pain of loneliness. They're both the same somehow – but at the same time completely different.'
Oh how I wish trees talked. The idealistic talking tree.
With my mind jumbled, grinded up in the imaginary food processor, I stop lounging around. Getting up isn't much effort, but with loneliness acting as a burden, walking a few steps is seemingly difficult. One step, two step, three step. Again this momentum cannot be broken.
Eventually after who knows how long, I reach a clearing. By now all sombre sentiments have left me. Even the trees have decided not to stick around so close, spreading outwards either side of me: 'Leave the bastard alone, let him venture into the world.'
In front of me is a cottage frighteningly similar to the one I was in earlier. 'Earlier': a word to use loosely with time constantly slipping away. Wooden cottage, with a wooden door, same windows; the only difference is the proximity of trees to the lonely abode.
My eyes peer towards the window. Strange. For some reason, they're boarded up too. Suddenly I'm having that empty sensation inside my body again. Loneliness? It can't be. It's more powerful than that, seemingly pulling all adrenaline and intense emotions together.
What's the word? The word? That – word. Oh. Oh I see. Fear.
The door about ten metres ahead creaks, echoing throughout the forest.
Another infamous 'feeling' the damned book talks about it. "Fear is not a gift. Fear is an embodiment of emotions that you should never hope to dream for. Something that you, under-surface-dwellers shall never feel. Lucky."
"Juko. So glad you could make it."
It's Stetson. Same guy with the green suit, same hat. But somehow there's a strange ambience around him. It's not something I can pinpoint, something that creates a physical difference between the Stetson I know, to the Stetson in front of me.
Though as a matter of fact, he's there. Living, breathing, being himself.
"I've got some tea brewing inside. Come on in."
Entering the cottage, Stetson ushers me to a chair. Minimalistic, with the uncanny resemblance of the one I sat on this morning.
"So, how is it?" he asks me.
Our eyes interlock in a trance.
"Life. As in life above the wired surface." Stetson brings over the teapot, pouring in the brew into each mug. "You've always wanted to know what life's like here. And you've got your answer. So, how is it?"
It takes a while for some form of cognitive thought. Taking in the talking trees, the languid texture of grass, a response comes about.
"Have I used up my day?" I ask.
For a while Stetson stares at the teapot. No answer.
Though finally: "You have used up your day, Juko. A shame really. With a question like that, I'm guessing you enjoyed yourself up here."
"Not really," I interjected. "I just want more time. Does everyone live like this up here? In fear? Feeling lonely?"
"Found any lumberjacks yet?" Stetson says, ignoring my question entirely.
That freezes a silent cloud above the two of us.
"Doesn't matter. Since I've never brought anyone to the surface before, I just want to see your reactions towards this. It's not surprising that you're willing to find out more about this place," Stetson says, a laugh trailing off at the end.
Though the end of his chuckle brings about a stale mood to the room.
"I've been meaning to give you this." Stetson moves over to a single bed. From underneath the pillow, he scoops up letter.
"This is God's 1st letter," he says. Nothing grand. To my eyes, it's just some creased lined paper. Nothing out of the ordinary. "Read it."
Stetson's veered away from my questions, but that doesn't bother me for some reason. Taking the letter, I open it up, stretching the paper slightly.
"God's 1st Letter: Your new image. If you have somehow obtained such a letter, then obviously you have made it above the wired surface. Which is great. Really. For you, I mean. Though if I were to be frank, I am not particularly happy with this. Depending on how much you have seen, you are not supposed to see what life is like. I imagine you have seen reiterations for reasons on not to go above the wired surface. This idea of gaining emotions of hesitation, loneliness and fear troubles me. Really, it does. But it is to your loss, whoever is reading this. I am sure you have met the man wearing the Stetson. A great guy. Not sure about your thoughts on him though. You may think that new emotions bring about a new insight on life. A new eye on life. But it is to your loss, I will say that again."
"Although before I leave you, sounding arrogant as ever, I will give you an offer. The Stetson-wearing man will ask of you, if you so desire, to have your memory wiped. Your vision of life above the wired surface will be cleared. In a sense, your mind shall be cleansed. The Stetson-man too, shall be free from these emotions. Both of you benefit. He is a great guy, you should get to know him."
"Another option is that you retain these memories. You will be sent back down below the wired surface and carry on with your normal life. However, I would not suggest you choose this option. The reason being, is that you will be monitored more often. Your freedom: limited. Bear that in mind, if you will."
I read over the letter once more, then handing it back to Stetson.
"The choice is yours, Juko."
With that said, an eerie grin stains Stetson's face.
After reading the letter and having tea, I'm given the opportunity to mull over my decision: whether I lose my memories on this place, or keep them. Toughie. Stetson's waiting outside whilst I lie on this bed. In spite of how dire this choice is, my mind's devoid of thought.
'You have to think. Choose. Refrain from the talking trees, the air. And the luscious grass. No wait, luscious air. Whoops, mixed it up…Do you want to remember? Remember all this? Hmm."
Before reaching deeper into the crevices of my consciousness, I stretch my arms upwards, followed by multiple clicks from my back. Both eyes close. I'm on the inside.
'Breathe. Relax. Take a moment to settle down. A vacation from constant thinking. Get a clear head. How can such a decision be so difficult? I have my own brain, my own mind. Why would I want to lose it all? This whole experience? Wait…Breathe. Relax."
The same words appear again. Like a never changing cycle. I give up. Completely.
Sitting up, I let a stream of yawns escape my mouth, also taking in the stagnant air around me.
At this point Stetson walks back in.
"You've decided?" he says.
"Definitely," I lie.
"Then tell me right now. I'm affected too, you know. Whatever happens to you, happens to me. I can't really do anything at this point. I'm like your subordinate. In a way – a part of you."
Standing by the doorway, his presence is ever more imposing. It would be rude to say he's an eyesore, but something about him here seemed unnatural, peculiar.
"I want to remember everything," I say, without thinking. I wasn't meant to let the thought get across to him. To anyone.
"Fine by me," he says, surprisingly quickly. I assumed he was taken aback, or somehow shocked by response. But here comes irony. A rapid answer, causing my heart to leap.
"Everything will happen by itself. Get some rest. I'll see you back down there. Night-night, Juko."
Before I can say anything else, Stetson snaps his right hand and leaves. Like he was never here. Some surreal hallucination projected from my subconscious state. Something weird.
'Today was crazy. New discoveries, talking trees. I still have to find a lumberjack. They must be hiding somewhere. I wonder if they live in these cottages. Lumberjacks with their' lumberjack wives and lumberjack children. What a mundane, peaceful life they must live. Trees falling, shouting 'timber!', then later on they'll go home to their' wives. They might have some grub ready for them when they get back. Beef stew, boiled potatoes, carrots, fresh greens. Yum. The family's famished; the family's full. What a turnaround. The family might play board games, have a sing-a-long. Who knows? But then the cycle starts again. Lumberjacks to the forest, wives to the hob, children to the fields. Probably how it works, I think.
I guess lumberjacks and I are alike. Living life like a routine. No drastic change, nothing special. Or different.
…I see why trees don't talk. They're scared. Scared of all the lumberjacks. Are lumberjacks bad people? Surely they aren't. But I guess it makes sense why trees daren't speak. What's the point? They'll just end up being chopped down and used for firewood. No mercy. Nothing.'
As the word nothing comes to mind, I drift off.
When I wake up, I'm in the same room. The white walls; they're everywhere, surrounding me. The same clock's on the wall, having no sense of purpose whatsoever. Surely enough it could jump of its hook, and walk out of the room without a care in the world. Time's not needed here. Get lost.
'Everything will happen by itself.' That's what Stetson said the last time I saw him, up there in that lumberjack-cottage. The memory per se seems distant from where I am now, though it's recent history. What does that phrase mean? For a while I continuing lying in bed, eyes open, focused on the ceiling above me.
It's Stetson, although I don't pay attention to him. I'm too induced in a daze of pensive pass-time, too comfortable in my bed.
"God wants a word."
The words weigh me down further into the mattress; a feeling close to suffocation. Hairs are raised, as a cold chill travels through me.
But in spite of the momentary tremor, fear subsides. Nonchalance appears again, taking its rightful place.
"Really?" I ask.
"Didn't I tell you? Everything will happen by itself. That so-called 'everything', is happening by itself starting from now. There's nothing you can do. Once it's started, there's no way back. In fact – there's no point trying to go back in the first place. It's your own fault for putting yourself into this position. You can't put a car back in reverse once you've driven into the ocean, can you?"
His words are heard, though not understood completely.
"Why would you drive into the ocean?" I ask.
"Why would you want to remember everything? God gave you a choice, didn't he? Our questions are similar, aren't they?"
The air's choking me, pinning me down; breathing's a struggle at the moment. Stetson looks towards my door, now wide open. Only now have I begun to see other surface-dwellers like myself, walking through the corridor. Since my room's at a corner, where two corridors meet adjacent, I'm surprised our commotion hasn't caused a swarm of people to appear suddenly.
"Have they finished morning service?" I ask.
Stetson simply walks out the door, saying nothing. And naturally, I follow him.