It was part of a devilish plan, meticulously devised and implemented, meant to obscure the shocking gap between their existence and that of the privileged.
Everywhere, first in schools and colleges, later at work, even in their homes the media fed them propaganda in quantities sufficient to poison the brightest and discourage the rest.The slaves had no idea of the pervasiveness of brainwashing that was leaving them weakened and vulnerable.
Ignorance was truly bliss. With what could they compare their existence, denied the right to visit other countries, or even read or see films about them? There was no money to travel anyway.
For their hard work they received ‘token’ currency, used by the tyrants as a means of control. The unconvertible paper circulating within the system was toy money, like the slips of paper in the Monopoly game. A hundred tokens a month were just enough to get simple food with a prolonged shelf-life, and an item or two of drab outerwear. But it was more than enough for a daily supply of vodka, for vodka was cheap. Half-drunk, half-conscious, they were not expected to complain.
All the housing was provided by the government. The citizens had to carry their identification papers with detailed personal information at all times. Their so-called passports showed their home address, with no right to reside elsewhere.There was no choice but to comply with humiliating rules because any revolt would be extinguished in a most cruel manner. The prisons and psychiatric asylums were always full.
This was the country where Talya was born. Talya, Talechka, Talusha, a girl with regular features, slightly squinting brown eyes and a dark complexion. They were abandoned on the steps of an orphanage, - Talya, a bundle of baby blankets, and her brother, a three-year-old who could not walk.
The totalitarian state, soaking in alcohol, drowning in the muddy rivers of oblivion, kept producing children that were physically and mentally deficient, human beings that no one wanted. Their parents didn’t care and would eventually finish themselves off with bottles of vodka. Few children were adopted, because most families lacked the means to support even their own.
Talya and her brother were provided with shelter by the government, and that was something to be grateful for. But the orphanage had nothing to help those who needed help most. The low-paid caretakers grudgingly performed their daily duties. These embittered women with sadistic inclinations found pleasure in taking out their frustrations on the orphans. Heavy bruises and broken limbs were not rare. Even a sign of disobedience was severely punished - just for spilling the soup, the guilty could end up in a dark room for hours. When the children got sick, the fear of punishment kept them from complaining till it was too late.
This one was born different, the way she was, but one would think she herself chose to shut out the world that was so unfair. Talya’s mind created a wall of thick opaque glass between her and the rest of the world. The chaos of maddening sounds and movements drove her restless to the point of screaming - the reason why children with her condition have temper tantrums. But she learned to block her ears and close her eyes when the noise around her became intolerable.
Her existence lacked novelty. She liked playing with the same toys, for hours arranging whatever was at hand in long endless lines on the floor. Most often, her toys were empty match boxes.
Hers was not a world of people but a world of objects. They often acquired a life of their own which was unpredictable, and then she got confused. Talya could relate only to the sameness, her anchor, and the unchanging meanings, her cues. The sound of water meant rain, and she had to cover herself with the blanket.
There were many fidgeting and rambling objects around her wherever she went. At first she followed like a puppy anything that came her way, but then she learned to distinguish between them by their smell. The strong odor of sweat and something else was disturbing and meant pain, and she would run away.
The girl answered questions with an abrupt yes or no, but she never started a conversation herself. Most often she would not respond, staring into space. But she could copy a page from the book with her eyes closed, and when she learned to count, she kept counting without a break. She did it so fast it was scary. At the moment they walked into the canteen, they heard her saying “Two hundred and fifty six!” or “Fifty four!” It could be anything: the number of chairs, the plates on the tables, or the children in the room.
The wall around the girl protected her in the kingdom of tyrants and slaves. Most of the time, she could not feel excited or low-spirited, no matter what happened.
It was quite another story on the days when she was brought to the Institute.
The government allowed teenagers like Talya, when they reached sixteen, to work at jobs that others would find abominable. Those boys and girls tended to the animals kept in the basement of the Research Center. Anyone else felt disgusted and would not last even for ten minutes because of the stench.
Talya was good at her job with the rats and the rabbits, and soon she was promoted to the dogs’ section. This part of the basement, never visited by others, had long rows of cages with thick bars. She fed the animals and took them out for a walk, and she knew instinctively when they were hungry or in pain.
Every now and then, Talya held the puppies in her hands, trying not to disturb the electrodes sticking out of the cork in their heads.
Here was the only place where the girl’s opaque wall became transparent.
It happened while Talya softly touched a dog’s silky fur. Sometimes she could not wait any longer and let the big ones out, kneeling on the floor, overcome with feeling so powerful that she couldn’t breathe. It squeezed and pushed her beyond the limits of her world till it exploded into myriads of tiny flames.
At the end of the day, the signal on the wall went off, and her routine was to make her way to the elevator. She pressed the blank button at the top of the board. The steel door moved aside, and she stepped out.
The room onto which it opened was very quiet, as usual.
Her head covered with a thick helmet and her eyes shut tight, Talya waited till her ears could single out the sounds, and they became human words. The girl answered the experimenters’ questions only with a Yes or No. Most of the answers she did not know, and then she kept silent.
The tickling feeling was not unpleasant, but she wanted it to come to an end. When it stopped, it meant they would let her go back to her canine ones.
Also part of her routine was to visit her brother, who lived at the Regional Hospital not far from the Research Center. At the Institute, they took pity on the girl and drove her to the hospital and back every couple of weeks.
Talya’s brother, born paralyzed from the waist down, smelled of sweat but did not make her feel scared. This time, he went on talking, but she could not understand any of it. Talya tried to shut out the noises by keeping her stare fixed on his thin leg, on a black fly on his leg because it didn’t move and was bigger than any other object in the room.
In the vast hospital ward that had no partitions, on the soiled mattresses close to one another, a sea of moving heads and arms was spreading its tides. The nurses dragged fluorescent lamps on wheels along the rows, the blinding light intended to kill the bugs.
The patients of the ward, men and women who were born crippled - some without an arm or a leg or both - carried on their existence as usual. They were swearing, crying, laughing, playing cards and sharing a cheap snack. Many of them had no visitors ever, and depended on the kindness of the neighbor on the next mattress, or on the nurse and the doctor who made their rounds on rare occasions.
The men followed the nurse with their stares, salivating over their own dirty jokes. They boasted of their masculinity, in the hopes of catching her eye, longing for a woman’s touch, for the sweet feeling of feminine flesh.
Even in this ward of the hopeless, people fell in love, experiencing jealousy, fighting and reconciling, as everywhere else.
The only place where couples could have privacy was the bathroom in an obscure corner of the ward. Every midnight, crawling shadows made their way in the direction of that corner. The couple waited for hours till the others were done, so that they could experience the sensations they were denied together with the rest. Then they closed the door and forgot about everything for a while, making love on the brown tiles of the cold and dirty floor.
Oblivious to the world of distorted lives and her own ignorance, Talya exited the building of the Regional. She waited outside, but the car did not come to pick her up.
All of a sudden, there was the sound of water around her. It meant rain, and she had no blanket to hide under. She started walking away from the hospital.
In the street, Talya was assaulted by objects of different shapes and colors, and by their loud voices. They were chaotically bouncing off each other, moving in all directions. Some bumped into her, making her want to scream. There was no escape from them, and she cringed.
Right in front of her, a big space appeared. It had no movement and no sound, an empty space of its own, and Talya stepped off the pavement.
In a country of peasants and workers, in a city of nine million people, a teenage girl dying under the wheels of a speeding truck was not unusual. The suicidal rate of the young was not only among the highest in the world, but was also a secret most diligently concealed.
The accident could never make it to the Evening News, even if a journalist happened to be watching.