Authors: Maya Shepherd
When we finally reach the clearing with the caves, the sun is already behind us, announcing the new day. Its rays are warm, flooding everything with golden light. Although I’m completely exhausted, I can’t pull myself away from this beautiful sight. We don’t have this in the safety zone. Astonished, I stand still and turn around so I can look at the rising sun. I shade my eyes from the bright light with my hands and watch the sun wandering upwards through the tips of the trees.
“What is it now?” Finn is impatient, but falls silent when he looks at my face.
The golden rays make the dew shine on the leaves like diamonds. The forest floor, wet from rain, glitters and sparkles while pollen dust dances like fairies through the rays of light falling through the leafy ceiling.
I hold my breath. This is so glorious that I can’t tear my gaze away.
“Cleo, who rises with the sun.”
I turn, confused. That wasn’t Finn’s voice. It seems we aren’t alone.
A handful of people have gathered in front of the caves. At the sight of one face, my eyes go wide in disbelief. F701? I hardly recognise her. Her head, previously bald, is covered with dark fluff, while her cheeks shine pale pink. In the few days we’ve been apart, she must have gained several kilos, because she looks so much healthier—so much more alive. She’s wearing a little white dress that swings around her legs with every movement.
Smiling broadly, she approaches me and grasps my hand. Her eyes are shining and I can see grey flecks mixed into the otherwise identical light blue.
It’s not only F701 who is friendly. There’s also a young woman with long blonde hair. Beside her is a man leaning on his cane because he can hardly stand upright. He must be very old, older than anyone I ever met before. Long silver hair frames his wrinkled face, and his smile is friendly too. When he speaks again, I recognise him as the voice that spoke before. “Welcome to the rebels. I hope you like your new name.”
Before I can disagree, Finn gets angry again. “You can’t be serious! She’s one of them—she wanted to escape!”
“What better way to prove her humanity?” replies the old man, without reacting to Finn’s anger. “Look at her. She ran barefoot through the forest. She’s all scraped up. She must be feeling every muscle. If she had no feelings, she wouldn’t do that.”
His words have no effect on Finn. His whole body shakes with anger and his hands are curled into hard fists. “Who gave you the right to decide for everyone? Are you making yourself the leader now, or what?”
“Boy, no one means you harm. Trust the word of a man with life experience, that’s all.”
Finn doesn’t want to hear any more. He stomps towards the caves, but before the entrance he turns to us again. He points an accusing finger at me. “I’m not letting you out of my sight, got it?” It sounds like a threat.
I only nod, silently, because I have no idea what’s happening here. The answer seems enough for Finn and he storms off into the cave.
F701 pulls my hand to get my full attention. “Cleo, why did you run away?”
“Why are you calling me Cleo? I have a designation already!” I’m confused. This is all too much for me.
“Nonsense. People don’t have designations, they have names. You’re not a robot, right?” says the old man and approaches me with the blonde woman at his side. Behind them are Jep and Pep.
“My name is Iris now, that means Rainbow. Have you ever seen one?” says F701.
I shake my head. “What’s that?”
“I’ll show you. You won’t believe all the things there are to see here,” promises Iris, her whole face shining.
“If we’re doing introductions, then I’m Gustav,” says the old man, and holds his hand out to me like Paul once did. This time I grasp it straight away, if hesitantly. Surprised, he raises his eyebrows, then shakes my hand firmly. “Who taught you that? Not Finn, surely?”
“No, it was Paul.”
The blonde woman giggles. “I thought so. Anything else would have been a surprise. I’m Florence, and it’s nice to meet you.”
She doesn’t press my hand so hard as Gustav does, but rather gently, like a feather. It suits her whole appearance. Florence is at least a head shorter than me, although she has to be a few years older. She’s petite, reminding me of a picture of a doll with her long blonde curls. Only her cheeks glow rosy, complementing the violet blue of her large, almond-shaped eyes. She’s the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen, and I like her straight away.
“Let’s get you out of those wet clothes and clean up your scratches. It’s a miracle you can even walk.” Florence lays a hand on my shoulder. She has to stretch because she’s shorter, but I feel safe and welcomed. With Iris, I follow her into the cave.
The cave is made up of many small corridors and openings. Some are covered with curtains like bedsheets or other material, others are open to everyone. People are everywhere, and all so different that it’s hardly possible. It almost seems to me that no one here is like anyone else. They wear brightly-coloured clothes, some with patterns. Even their hair is all different colours. Blonde like Florence, black as night, chocolate brown, fire-red, and one boy even has hair as green as the forest. Some of them wear pictures in black ink on their naked skin.
I can’t stop looking at them. Each one is like a painting or a work of art. I doubt that they see the same in me, even though they’re looking at me with just as much curiosity as I have about them.
We turn into a narrow hallway, and at the end is another room with a grey curtain across the door. White steam crawls through the gaps around the curtain.
A steam shower?
It’s my first thought, as unbelievable as it seems. Would there really be a modern steam shower in this peculiar place? I would really enjoy that...It would be so good to let the dirt from this last week be released from all my pores.
Iris goes first through the curtain. More steam flows into the hall and enwraps me. But I’m greatly disappointed when I see where all the steam is coming from.
The room is completely filled with a big hole in the floor, where running water bubbles up to the edge. Steam billows from the water. There’s only a narrow path around the edge of the hole, and the only light in the dim chamber comes from fat candles.
Iris notices my reluctance and taps my arm encouragingly. “Don’t look like that, it’s much better than a steam shower. You’ll like it, trust me.”
“This is a hot spring, the only one in the whole cave system. In the evening everyone lines up to get in here,” says Florence, pressing a soft, pink towel into my hands.
Uncertain, I watch the bubbling hole. I don’t know what to do next. Undress, with Florence and Iris watching? That’s not right! Even though all human bodies are the same, in the safety zone every person still had their own room. Only doctors are allowed to see other people naked, and only for check-ups.
Eventually Florence seems to understand my hesitation and turns her back to me. “Sorry. Take your time and tell me when you’re in the water, then I’ll give you the soap,” she says kindly, if a bit embarrassed now. The situation suddenly seems just as awkward to her as to me.
I wait for Iris to turn around too, then I set the towel on the floor and open the zip of my ragged suit. It sticks, and only opens as far as my chest. A strong tug opens it as far as my bellybutton so I can slide out of the sleeves. My muscles throb so much that I feel like I can hardly move. Slowly I strip off the smooth fabric from the rest of my body, but I have to stop at my knee. It’s all bloody where I must have fallen on it. The suit fabric has stuck to the scab. It hurts when I pull it, but finally the wound breaks open again, and blood runs down my leg. I sigh with pain and step out of the suit.
Carefully I stick a toe into the water. It’s pleasantly warm and I dare to step in with both feet. I walk out deeper, the water stinging my wounds, until I am hip-deep. It’s unusual to feel so much wetness around me, wrapping me completely. The bottom of the hole is soft sand.
Still uncertain, I dip down so that my whole body is underwater except for my head. Embarrassed, I clear my throat.
Florence spins around instantly and smiles kindly, handing me a piece of solid soap. From the safety zone I only know soap in the form of a liquid or gas. This soap feels slippery in my hand—it’s not at all easy to rub it on my arms.
“So what do you think?” Iris asks excitedly.
I know she wants to hear that I like it, so I make myself smile. “Great!”
In reality I’m really not sure if I like the hot spring or not. Everything is so strange, so unusual, that I would have been happy to see something normal like a steam shower. It would have been like a piece of the safety zone. A piece of home.
After cleaning my body with the soap so that my skin feels clean again—it’s hard to see in this dim light—I climb out of the spring and wrap the pink towel around me.
I catch the worried look on Florence’s face when she sees my body. “You must be starving, but first we have to find you something pretty to wear.” She leads me and Iris through the cave system to another room.
This room is hardly any wider than the narrow hall, but it’s packed full. On one side there’s a stack of boxes in various sizes, a shelf with crates, and on the other side is a rod where dresses, pants and jackets are hanging. Under them is a row of wildly different shoes in various sizes. The choice is unbelievable. No wonder they all run around in all those colours.
Florence lifts some crates out of the shelf. “What would you like? Do you have a favourite colour? What about a dress?”
Favourite colour...No one has that in the safety zone. Everyone wears clothes according to their designations.
“Anyone can wear white here, not just the Legion commanders,” says Iris, spinning in her dress so that its skirt swings cheerfully about.
All this is too much. I don’t know if I like one colour more than the others, I don’t know if I would feel comfortable in a dress. I long for something familiar, something I can control, something I can count on and understand.
Thankfully, Florence’s tactfulness comes to the fore again and she notices my confusion. “How about we try something simple first? But if you’d like a dress or skirt later, just say the word and we’ll dress you up.” She winks and hands me white underwear. Relieved, I drop the towel and slip into the clean things.
Then she gives me a pair of blue pants that she calls “jeans”, a simple black top, and black boots that remind me of my own from the safety zone.
Even though the clothing is still strange, I feel comfortable in it. It’s not that much different from my old suit.
“Don’t you want to look at yourself?” Iris pulls me farther into the little room. Beside the window is a big mirror.
I always wanted to know what I look like. I thought if I knew, it would help me recognise who I really am. But now? My own appearance shocks me. My skin is pale, as white as the dress Iris is wearing. I look like one of those pale corpses from the documentary.
My paleness makes the dark red scratches on my face and arms stand out all the more. Under the black top, I can see my ribs. I’m terribly thin.
My lips are cracked and my eyes—my eyes have speckles! The light blue is broken by dark brown patches. But it doesn’t my eyes look livelier, only dirty somehow. Dark fluff grows on my head, the same as Iris.
Beside me, Florence smiles. To see us side by side like this only makes her look prettier. Her skin shines gold in her bright blue dress with flowers in the pattern. I wish I’d never looked in the mirror, then maybe I’d be able to tell myself I’m beautiful like Florence.
Against my will, a lump forms in my throat, blocking my air, so that I start to sob. Tears roll down my cheeks for the first time in my life. In the safety zone, appearance meant nothing, because we were all the same. The sense of this becomes clearer to me now than ever before. I long for home so much that my heart hurts. Everything that seemed like control and injustice a week ago—now it seems safe and protective.
Florence’s face becomes sad too, and she presses me to herself. Her hair smells like sunshine and her skin smells sweet. “Dear one, it will get better. A bit of light, and Marie’s stew, and soon you’ll be stealing the show,” she whispers, while her hand rubs my back.
“We can grow our hair together,” suggests Iris sympathetically, and runs her hand over the stubble on her head. “I want hair down to my bum.”
I have to laugh at that, and I wipe my tears away.
“Come on, there’s goulash today, you’ll like that.” Florence reaches for my cold hand. But I only shake my head.
“I’d rather lie down and be alone for a while, if that’s okay.” More strange people, strange smells and strange customs? I can’t take that today. Also, since looking in the mirror, I feel so awful that I don’t want to punish anyone by making them look at me.
Florence sighs, then agrees. “Okay, then I’ll show you your room. You’ll be sharing with Iris.”
Iris jumps for joy and claps her hands. “I’ve set it up for us already. We have a pink curtain. Isn’t that great?”
I nod, although I basically don’t care what the room looks like as long as I can lie down there and hide from the world.
It’s not far to our room. We leave the clothes-room, pass through another small corridor back to the big communal room, and turn into a wider hallway where several doorways are partitioned off with fabric.
Finally on the left side comes the pink curtain. Behind it, a small room with two mattresses on the floor. On the wall above the mattress on the left is a picture of a dog. That must be where Iris sleeps.
Relieved, I let myself down on the other mattress and stretch out. The bed isn’t so soft as the ones in the safety zone, it isn’t tailored for me, but it’s better than sleeping on the floor.
“We can paint the walls in colour later, then it’ll be even prettier,” suggests Iris, but I’m so tired I hardly hear her.
“I’m going to bring you some of Marie’s stew, please try to stay awake that long,” commands Florence, before leaving hand in hand with Iris.
Alone. Finally. My eyes fall shut all by themselves when I roll over on my side. The gentle whisper of the wind is the last thing I hear before I sink into deep, relaxing blackness.