Angela opened her eyes to a new day not knowing if it were morning. There were no windows in her room, and it could have been the middle of the afternoon, or even midnight. She heard no sounds except her own breathing, and when she awoke she inhaled and exhaled heavily, as if she had just completed a marathon race instead of having slept for hours. Perhaps she had slept for days. She had stopped wondering about time months ago. Now she simply slept for as long as she was able, then stayed awake for as long as was necessary.
She knew she would have to eat, that they would soon be coming with food, and had she felt stronger she might have spat it back at them as she had done when they first brought her here. But she had swallowed that rage a long time ago. Now Angela ate whatever morsels they gave her, and recently she had to restrain herself from thanking them. She feared the day might come when she would feel grateful that they had allowed her to live, when she might find herself smiling at them as if she understood and accepted the perfect correctness of her captivity.
She looked at herself in the small cracked mirror above the sink. Although her hair was stringy and unwashed, she remembered how golden it had shimmered in the sun. Her face was still quite pretty, and once she had heard one guard tell another he had never seen eyes quite that blue. The other whispered what a pity it was.
If only she had a piece of paper, a pen, even a crayon. Maybe this time she would show them that she could create something useful and lasting that mattered to them, something that in turn would make her matter. When Angela had first arrived they had eagerly granted the request of the eighteen year old girl and waited to see what gifts her imagination might offer them.
She had succeeded only in producing a few formless scrawls that they said were not art, and some rhymeless gibberish that they told her was not poetry. They took away the paper, the pens, and the paint brushes.
Not long ago, the tall blond guard who wore the keys around his neck had asked her if she might like to sing. Any tune would do, he told her. “Please, oh please, let me try!” Angela had begged. The next day he brought to her room a small cassette recorder with a blank tape. “Perhaps we will find the song bird in you where we were unable to find the artist. Sing, and we promise to listen,” he assured her.
For days Angela sang alone in her room, remembering what her mother had sung to her many years ago. “Hush little baby, don’t say a word. Mama’s gonna buy you a mocking bird . . .” A week later she handed the cassette to the man with the keys and simply said, “Please . . .” He stuffed the tape into his pocket and left without a word.
The next day the guard sat alongside her bed and informed her that he and the others had decided that she was no song bird. For a moment his words had sounded like an apology. She knew she would never see the tall guard again.
The wasted papers that Angela had filled with nonsense and the inarticulate squawks she had tried to pass off as music had convinced them that further efforts on their part would be foolish. From that day forward the guards who silently delivered her food seemed unwilling to even look at her.
Angela heard the key slip into the lock on the other side of the heavy door. She no longer pretended to be asleep when they came, because they did not care whether she were sleeping or awake. One of them always waited outside as the other entered. She heard the heavy jingle of keys and looked up. The keys were around the guard’s neck.
“You,” she said, but the word was only a statement of fact, not sparked with the warmth that accompanies the recognition of a familiar face. Once uttered, the word sounded idiotic.
“Yes,” he answered, closing the door behind him. He did not look at her as he set the tray of food on the stand alongside her bed. She had expected no further conversation, and when he spoke again his words startled her.
“They told me to say the other guard had caught a flu.” He pulled up the small wooden chair and sat, although the chair was too small and he seemed not to know whether to fold his legs. “There is no flu. They wanted us to talk.”
His statement was ludicrous. She had not had a conversation with him in months, and those few she remembered had been pitifully brief and one-sided. “I don’t understand,” she said as she selected a small bread crust on her tray. She had learned to keep her responses short, for the guards tired of her quickly.
“I’d like to know about God,” he said as if this were meant as an answer. “Tell me how you feel about God. Tell me about your religion, your beliefs.”
“I have no belief in God. I have no religion. Don’t you have some sort of records about that?” She felt immediately sorry she had asked, but the guard ignored the question anyway. He fidgeted in the small chair.
“You’re an atheist, then? Or an agnostic? You have opinions regarding God’s existence, or the lack of it?” He sounded almost hopeful.
“I'm an apathist. I don’t much think about it,” she answered as she nibbled at the crust. She picked up a slab of egg yolk with her left hand, ignoring the silverware, leaned her head back, and dropped the yolk into her mouth.
Her response oddly pleased him, although he did not smile. “An apathist? That was a joke you just said. Admittedly, not a very good one, but it was a joke. Then you have a sense of humor. Tell me another joke.”
Angela looked hard at the man, not certain about how earnest her guard’s question was. “A joke? You mean like why did the chicken cross the road?” The absurdity of her question seemed to increase the guard’s excitement.
“Yes! Yes! Tell me, why did the chicken cross the road?” There was anticipation in his voice as if he sincerely were interested in the chicken’s intentions, and when he leaned toward Angela for her response his face revealed the hint of a smile.
“Perhaps the chicken was an apathist,” she said.
The guard’s smile disappeared as quickly as if it were erased. “That isn’t funny. I'm sorry, but that isn’t funny at all.” His tone became flat, expressionless. He sounded like a man keeping some kind of score. No points for humor. Sorry. Next category.
“Can we talk politics?” he asked.
“Sociology? Science? History? Law? Philosophy?” His questions now had become a formality, a check list to be completed, filed, and forgotten.
“No . . . No . . . No . . . No . . .” Although Angela could not remember ever having had a discussion this long during her stay here, she wanted this conversation to end. “Perhaps I could tell you why the philosopher crossed the road? No, I guess you’re right. That wasn’t very funny either. I suppose you'll be leaving now?”
Her question had anticipated his next words. The tall guard rose from the chair with difficulty, trying to maintain his dignity when he could not get up with his first attempt. “I have one more question for you, Angela,” he said. He had never called her by her name before, and his doing so struck her as odd. He walked to the foot of her bed and turned toward her. “Do you know why you are here?” He asked this without malice or emotion, with only the desire to know her answer, as he had wanted to know about song birds and chickens.
“I'm here because you see me as a useless bird.” Having said the words, she knew they had always been on her tongue waiting to be spoken.
“I beg your pardon?”
“You know, the sparrow who can no longer fly becomes useless to the other sparrows, a burden to them. I've broken my wing, isn’t that right? And the flock has no further need of me.”
“I'm impressed,” the guard answered. “That is quite a creative analogy from one who knows so little of creativity.” He sat on the edge of the bed and moved close to Angela as if to reveal a secret. Instead, he reached under the blanket and grabbed hold of her right hand, yanking it out from where she had kept it hidden. He held her arm straight up and the pain caused her to wince. “But this isn’t exactly a broken wing, is it, Angela? It’s a wilted arm, a useless limb. It is not pleasant to look at, it serves no function, and it belongs to you. It is you.” The words came in furious bursts now, like machine-gun pellets, and he shook her withered limb as he spoke. “You see yourself as a wounded sparrow, do you? What happens if we take that sparrow and tie her leg to a string and swing her around in circles in a desperate attempt to make her fly? She struggles against hope to use her wings, her useless wings, and meanwhile we swing her around and around and around, wasting our energy, wasting our time, and in the end when we stop swinging her she comes crashing down to earth anyway. Our time has been wasted, her hopes have been destroyed. What is the point? Why even bother?” He let go of her arm, allowing it to drop.
For a moment Angela stared at the shrunken arm as if it were a foreign thing that did not belong in the bed with her. She spoke without removing her eyes from it. “A sparrow who can no longer fly can sing. And if she can’t sing, she can still feel, can still-”
“- Love?” the guard interrupted. “That’s exactly right, Angela! We asked this sparrow to sing, and she could not! But we realized she may be capable of love. . . the kind of love that could only result in frustration for her. Because the real question is, is she capable of being loved? Do the words she writes encourage love? Does her beauty or intellect in any way inspire it? It is unlikely that anyone would even try to love her because of that hideous limb. Not that all physical impediments are repulsive. Perhaps if she were only blind . . .”
“Stop . . . Please, stop . . .” Angela pleaded. Her brief taste of defiance had made her want to gag.
“You want to cover your ears, don’t you? You want to block out the words, make me go away, maybe you would even like to strike me,” he continued. “But you can’t do it, can you? That limb just lies there like a dead weight. Do you see my point?”
“I have my other arm . . .”
“. . .whose only function is to hide its companion. No, Angela, I'm sorry, but the time has come for us to stop swinging the sparrow’s string.” His anger slowly dissolved and he fell silent for a moment. He attempted to hold her wilted hand in his, but she pulled it away. Instead he took her other hand. “But first I have something I want to show you, something you need to see.” He sat on the bed and placed her fingers on his left leg below the knee. “Rub your hand along my leg, Angela. Does the calf feel peculiar to you? Congenital defect, they called it, like they called yours. The leg is gone, at least from the knee down. Amazing what they can do with prosthetics today. But, you see, I have my particular talents. I happen to be quite good at drawing people out, at enabling them to find a way to compensate for their physical shortcomings. And I can be quite decisive when called upon to make the kind of decisions that others would find distasteful. No one ever asked me to sing, or to fly. But when they came for me, I simply told them what I could do.”
Angela struggled to pull her hand free as her anger rose inside her like hot bile. “But you also decide who is to be exterminated! You decide who the state no longer regards as useful! What gives you the right--”
“This gives me the right!” he shouted, his breath hot on her face as he tapped her hand on the hard wood of his prosthetic leg. “This has forced me to find my usefulness to others, just as your pathetic limb has forced you to admit that you have none. And I have no intention of relinquishing my usefulness by allowing you to continue your hollow existence. I refuse not to matter!”
The guard’s renewed anger seemed to embarrass him, and he turned away from Angela. He ran his fingers through his blond hair in an attempt to collect himself, and when he again looked down at his leg he noticed that Angela’s hand was grasping it. Angela knew he had been unaware of her touch until he had looked. When his eyes locked with hers, her mouth curled in a bitter smile.
“I feel this,” she said as she ran the tiny hand of the wilted arm along his wooden leg. “I feel this with both of my hands, even the one you call useless. Tell me what you feel when I touch you. Does this prosthetic device extend all the way to your heart?” Angela tapped on the artificial limb as if she were expecting a reflexive kick.
“A curious question,” he answered. “You might have made a fine idealist if you had believed in God.”
She moved close to his face and whispered, “ . . . to get to the other side. That is why a chicken would cross the road, isn’t it?”
He paused for a moment to look at her. “Such blue eyes,” he said. “Such exquisitely beautiful blue eyes.” He called for the guards to take her, and within moments three entered the room and another two waited by the doorway.
She presented no struggle and went quietly with them. She wondered as they walked if one of them would take her hand.