The Caged Man

By: Ben Wright

Tags: vanity of vanities winter 2024

I have forgotten myself—no, I have remembered. Time has remembered, remembered that I am not what I was, not anymore. I have licked the salt off the walls in my time here, with you, in captivity. It was dry and crusted, loose paint coated my tongue, and left my tongue with the texture of sandpaper. We have been here all along, you and I, before the green hills browned in the summer sun, before the windstorm carried us into fresh exile. Do you remember awakening on the sandalwood shore? They gave us our daily bread with a little water saucer, made us flick our tongues at the floor like cats, the chains holding our paws back.

I would become an unnatural host; my spine would crest and crumble, loosening just enough to give a spare inch to my neck, thinning the guiding line of my corpus. I have lost the human shape; my skin hangs gaunt beneath its optical cavities, my nose is sunken into the bone, my teeth are rudimentary pyramids of rotting enamel, only my ears have kept their shape… No, they too have lost it, as all ears do, continuing to grow past the body’s half-life, why if I should live to a thousand I should imagine myself with dangling elephant ears, sweeping ticks from the savanna floor and inviting them to nest in my dead-grey canals. This was by design. I am an animal now, true, I always was, but now there is no mistaking me; I cannot go unnoticed. They will know when I arrive, they will have warning; children cower in the windows, women deadbolt the doors, men fetch their guns or if they haven’t a gun whatever blunt instrument they think capable of tuning up a ragged corpse. It does not matter; we are past that now. We cannot escape ourselves.

I do not know why I still live. As the man says, too much of anything poisons the reservoir; bread is toxic to me, water boils in my throat, milk congeals into mucus on my tongue. Life itself is anathema to my well-being. Some days I imagine myself cleaving my own flesh with a bone-saw and slipping it down my gullet, only to gag it back up; my blood frowns upon itself as it might a foreign object. Last summer my heart clotted itself in, the rest of me turned a sickly shade of blue and it was only the Surgeon who kept me going, that terrible man. I am of the conviction that surgeons hide behind masks not to keep the world and its contaminants out but to keep themselves and their villainy in, they must stockpile it for a day when Hippocrates is no longer watching from the heavens, if he ever was.

Have we an eternal home? No, I think not, that would be far too simple, and then, would the heavens not also become our eventual sickness? The appetites are made to eat, and keep eating, they will eat infinity in due time, but I fear they do not understand infinity well enough to consume it, and would just as soon eat themselves; everything is eating itself, everything has an expiry date. If there is an eternity, or an eternal us, it must be an organ without hunger; but if it has no hunger, what shall drive it? And if it has no drive, what shall it do? A car without an engine, that is the soul. Though it lives yet it is dead.

Still stirring, are we? You’ll remember soon enough. How can we forget, to forget is to die, and that was never in the cards for you and I. Only the happy may forget, and in forgetting cease to be, it is not that the good die young or old, it is simply that they die. Hate preserves a man, animus springs eternal, and even when we haven’t the bones to shape us or the flesh to move us still will wrath linger in this place, of its own accord. The world is built by angry men, not of manhood but of anger. We built houses so that the wind would not blow out our fires. And the greatest fire burns inside us. How could we not protect it? We know not what we are without it, for indeed without it we are dead. History is a tapestry woven in spite.

Here, let me bring you back to life – surely you will remember yourself prodded with flaming tongs, the day they poured hot coals onto the pink ribbons of your flesh, that roused you, you could not sleep through that, amber-streaked stones bounding down the chords of your back… I am sorry… Wounds of that gravity may yet heal but the memory remains. We do not heal to live. We heal that we might finally die.

But I do not want to die. I feel some perverse feather fluttering in my veins, tickling the bloodstream back to life. I have known only torment all these years, but some vile curiosity lingers, to know more, even if all I may know is worse than what I have known. I would know hell if it would grant me entry. The devil is a dastardly fellow, but I would burn my tongue with his sulfurous tea and cut my throat on pitchfork-crackers if he would offer me a seat at his table. I would not have it any other way.

Decency, they will say, was the first to go. Lies, lies. Though I know my path, I would not drag you along against your will. Where I am going, you may not wish to follow. So it goes. You may stay awhile, we may share tales, I will tell you sweet lies, I will invent an entire history of us that the real story might go untold. Remember – you and I were in a meadow, the grass was our headrest, the clouds were above us, one shaped like a dancing monkey, I gave you a passing glance with the bluest eyes and I could see that you were hungry, and I offered you my last bran muffin, yes, it was only bran, a real bran muffin, and no, the river did not sing, it was more of a gasping breath, gagging on bubbles, real bubbles, not the rainbow-ringed glass balls of fairy tales, and I offered you a hug, a real hug, and beneath the sickening warmth of my oily embrace you can feel the faintest edge of my jagged bones, my real bones, the ones you have known, stretched beyond their measure, and the grasshoppers will chirp faintly, they can see us falling away, they have learned empathy for sleep… It may yet be true, for though I have known only torment, I have not known everything.