Cristina heard the voice of her newly born son from afar. She was quite out of it due to the anaesthetic but not completely unconscious. She knew it was a boy from the echogram. “May I see him?”
The nurse shot a look at the doctor. “She wants to see the baby before he is normalised.”
The doctor made no objection, “Let her see him for a moment.”
Cristina saw her little red-faced, angry son and at the same time those two useless limbs, the legs. On her face was a look of repulsion. The doctor said to her, “Don’t worry, we’re going to operate now. Maybe one day in the future we’ll be able to get people born legless. We’re working on it, and now go to sleep. The next time you see him he’ll be completely normal.”
The doctor came up to Cristina in his motorised wheel-chair and gave her the usual injection.
A few days later Cristina’s husband went to the hospital in the family car and took his wife and new-born son home.
The young married couple lived in a residential area, which meant that the blocks of flats had a space between them for aerial railway-like flyovers for people to drive their cars from one level to another in any direction. As the city had long since been given over to the car, the roads below were no longer necessary because no one ever walked Rather than build horizontally they had built vertically. There were electric rails for the cars, which connected the apartments to the central buildings, such as clinics, police stations, fire stations, governmental offices, and even to the industrial centre some distance from the residential area.
That afternoon there was a tremendous queue to enter the building. When the new family arrived home at last, the time for the baby’s bottle had passed and he was crying as loud as he could. The couple got out of the car, now parked in their parking area for their level, got into little wheel-chairs, which were very similar to the one used by the doctor.
Nothing in the house was out of reach from the wheel-chair. As soon as Cristina entered the kitchen she took from a machine the warm bottle for the baby. When the baby was asleep Cristina and her husband sat down in two armchairs, each with a reheated meal which she had taken from the freezer. Michael switched on the television and went through all the channels until he found a film. When dinner was finished the trays were thrown down a rubbish chute. At half-past eleven the television finished and the man and woman went to bed.
The electricity was switched off and all the city remained in darkness, apart from some emergency centres. Before falling asleep Cristina asked Michael, “Have you thought about the model and colour of the baby’s car?”
Her husband without moving answered her. “I have seen two models, both expensive, but we want the best for him to help him stand out from the rest, so that later he won’t be able to say we had embarrassed him. Tomorrow I’m going to the bank to organise the credit.”
Cristina asked him, “But what colour?”
“I had thought of ice-blue with a wine-coloured roof. What do you think?”
“How original and smart. How did you get to choose those colours?”
Michael, happy that Cristina agreed, explained, “The metal colours are not in fashion any more and we want the best for him.”
In his mind Michael saw his baby son in a couple of years’ time travelling on the rails in his little car. This vision made him happy.
The moonlight lit up everything it touched, even the face of the woman who was leaning against the window. It was cold but she didn’t feel it. The most important thing of all was the nocturnal beauty. The tall trees like guardians of the night swayed smoothly from side to side in the night wind. This same wind brought with it the aromas of herbs and flowers. When she had had enough enjoyment of nature, Sara closed the window and the curtains and went to the big bed where her husband was lying and reading. The bedroom was built like the rest of the house of wood and stone. The floor was covered with rugs in bright colours, the curtains and the bedcover were also in the same bright colours.
Sara got into bed and put her head on her husband’s shoulder to get warm and because she loved him. The book he was reading was one of many that were in the house. It was full of photos of past times. Seeing his wife sleeping, Bruno turned off the oil lamp and cuddled up to her. In the other two bedrooms their children slept.
The countryside was bathed in the moonlight and in some houses there was still light from lamps and people speaking or reading until the early hours of the morning, in spite of having to rise early.
So the sky like a big cape of black velvet covered two different worlds. In a denaturalized world no one had been able to dominate the day and night even though they had tried to. In the other world there was still a respect for nature, but the moon and the night don’t have favourites, they are only silent witnesses to man’s acts. They are a reminder of the magic, the mystery, and the hidden powers of the universe and of how little man understands them. Even when all this is finished there will still be a moon and a night.
When Cristina and Michael’s son was four years old he was quite stubborn, which is what normally happens with only children. He went to a nursery in his little car where he played with other children much the same as him. There was nothing special about this child because the majority were only children, with the exception of the few two-children families. The children dominated their parents and grandparents. There was no joy in working in one of these nurseries. The noise of the little cars and the children’s screams as they fought over the toys, helped to make their carers’ lives unbearable. The best time of day for these carers was when they closed the door after the little motorised monsters had gone home.
Cristina’s son had his parents so much on a string that sometimes they were afraid of him. He was capable of getting up to all kinds of mischief in order to get what he wanted; break ornaments in the home, throw his parents favourite things out of the windows. He wasn’t unique, nearly all of them did similar things.
The water was icy-cold but this didn’t prevent the children from swimming in the lake. Every year the people of the forest obliged their children to stay outside their homes on the coldest nights, so as to learn how to take care of themselves without the help of their parents. It was a challenge. The teenagers who were between thirteen and fifteen years old had to make fires, set up a shelter, and swim in the lake. The origin of swimming across the freezing lake was forgotten, but it was the ambition of all the young people to do it. The crossing of the lake was held on the last day of the tests so that if they caught a cold it wouldn’t affect any of the other tests.
Sara wrapped her daughter in a blanket. Once inside the house she bathed the girl in hot water with vinegar to avoid pains in her body. Dried and dressed, Sara’s daughter had dinner and went to bed, tired after her adventures. The girl’s brothers, who were several years older, did the same. Sara was proud of her daughter for having carried out the tests so well. The sons were taller than their mother and had to lower their heads to kiss her before going to bed. In the wood cabin Sara and Bruno sat down to look at the photo album. On hearing a window opening Bruno stood up and went to shut it. His eyes saw the monotony of the white snow, black trees, and a pale sky without warmth. He went back to the album and saw the date on the flyleaf. The date of the exile was there. The day on which his parents, together with a few other families, were exiled from the city and condemned to live in the forest, just because they didn’t wish to possess or be possessed by machines or anything else of similar insignificance.
Quite some time before the great exile took place there was already something nasty and underhand occurring. Nothing was very clear but the atmosphere felt sinister and unpleasant to all those who just wanted to live their lives as their ancestors had done. In the city there was no place for lovers of peace and quiet, cleanliness, nature, animals, or any idea that was human. The fact that fewer articles were being published about the polluted rivers, lakes, and the earth, was a sign to the dissidents that something was wrong. There were fewer protests shown on television and if it hadn’t been for small conscious-stricken groups nobody would have known about what was taking place: pedestrians being knocked down, the construction of the rails, and the gradual abandonment of the streets by traffic and people. For those who didn’t possess a car, life in the streets was unbearable, because the authorities had decided that there was no room for people, only cars. But the last straw was when people were ordered to amputate their legs, because according to those in the administration, legs were an unnecessary encumbrance. Only people with cars mattered.
Since then the city was completely motorised. Where there used to be a city hall in the centre there was now a power station. From here the rails spread out in every direction delivering the energy needed for light and power for the little cars and the maintenance of all the buildings. The city became absolutely dependant on the power station. As they refused to accept the new rules, Bruno and Sara’s parents left the city.
Bruno shut the book and went to his bedroom. Every night he gazed at his legs. Many years had passed and yet he still remembered when he and a group of friends were taken to the hospital. The doctors had gone crazy and those in charge ordered that all operations had to be finished by midnight. Bruno’s father found out where his son had been sent and went to look for him. He took no time in finding him once inside the hospital. The doctor was an acquaintance of his and the two men knew that they were looking at each other for the last time. “If you and your children aren’t operated on before midnight you know will happen, don’t you?”
Bruno’s father took hold of his son’s hand, “I know what it means. Goodbye, Anthony.”
A few minutes before midnight, Bruno, his parents and the others with the same anti-car ideas were led to the outskirts of the city. A representative of the authorities told them, “None of you may ever return, nor your children, nor your children’s children. You have made a decision against that of the majority and we have no alternative but to exile you. From this red line painted on the road, it’s all yours, that land is yours. But take care not to cross the line back in this direction.”
After walking for several days and nights, at last they arrived at the spot where they now lived. Bruno never regretted their decision to leave the city except for a few small details. But as they had had so much work to do to get themselves established away from the city, the memories became so vague that at times people thought that they were dreams.
The snow was thick and heavy and this meant that Michael got home late. A short circuit in one of the rails had caused a power cut in a huge area. Michael had had the bad luck to be crossing from one line to another when it happened. The city council controlled the population with news reports issuing from the car radios. Interspersed between the news and advice soft, pleasant music was played, to calm a public that was used to everything working well. Michael, for the first time in his life felt really angry. How was a power cut possible in such a modern city? At first the snow was nothing to be taken notice of, but on seeing the deep layer that had fallen on cars and rails, they realised that it was no ordinary snowfall.
Each house had a generator for emergencies, but only as a temporary measure while there was maintenance on the grid. The boy was annoying his parents more than usual but that night neither his mother nor his father wanted to have problems, and after dinner he was put to bed with the infants’ television channel on. The TV set had replaced the doting aunt or grandmother.
The images on the television were of the city, the power cut, and the snow. According to the weatherman the snow wasn’t going to last much more than a couple of days and that everything was under control. The next programme was about animals. Like all those of their generation, Michael and Cristina had never seen real live animals. When they could no longer hear the sound coming from their son’s television the young couple went to bed.
The power cut was duly fixed, but there was a hostile atmosphere in the City Hall. The weatherman was facing the mayor and the councillors, each one in his or her electric wheelchair.
The mayor was not at all satisfied with the weather report and so he asked if there could be an error in his calculations.
The weatherman was offended, but as he was used to this type of question about his efficiency answered, “No, Sir. I’m sure there is no mistake. We have entered the data into the computer several times with varying forecasting models and the results are always the same.”
“How much food is there left in the warehouses?” The mayor then set his eyes on one of the men seated to his left. Without looking at anyone, the Health and Safety councillor opened a file and took out a computer printout. The mayor in his wheelchair moved quickly and grabbed the sheet of paper from the councillor and read it quickly. He gave it back, and said, “Gentlemen, according to the information from the computer we have to face a month of heavy snowstorms, some even worse than this one we are having now. Due to the state of the supply roads from outside, the normal deliveries of food won’t be possible, and at the moment we only have two weeks of food supplies left. This is not the only problem, the weight of the snow can cause a lot of damage, such as snapping cables, collapsing roofs, and blocking the rails. And when it melts we’ll have the problem of water. Where will all this water go and what damage will it cause?”
The mayor stopped talking for a few moments then said, “I suppose that somewhere there must be a programme for dealing with a possibility such as this?”
The councillors looked at each other blankly, and it was the weatherman who answered, “Sir, the programmes are up to date and there is nothing in the archives to help us.”
“But someone must know how to deal with this type of catastrophe.” The mayor looked round at all the men. Nothing. They knew nothing. “Very well. We have to take measures to prevent panic. I don’t want the general public to know the truth, especially that there are insufficient provisions to cover a month of snow. We have to keep everything and everyone calm. Weatherman, you must report that the weather is very much worse in other places and that the weather here is improving. I must insist that I don’t want them to know the truth about the situation. It’s not in our interests.” The mayor switched on his wheelchair to leave, and the rest of the flock followed him. The meeting room was empty but as they were leaving, through the window panes they had seen the snow falling in enormous flakes on buildings, rails, and the councillors’ cars.
Snow fell and covered all the city, just like an enemy that can’t be avoided. During the first days the citizens tried to get to work and carry on as normal a life as was possible under the circumstances. Following the mayor’s instructions every night the weatherman appeared on television doing his best to animate his fellow citizens. In order to avoid questions or bad temper from the television viewers they repeated their favourite programmes as well as two new kinds of competition, to distract them from the inevitable.
After the first week the councillors met once again in the council chamber. The mayor was the first to speak, “We have to ration food, if not there will be problems.”
The councillors were tired and worried, said nothing, just nodded in agreement. There was no other choice. The lorries with food were not arriving.
“Have you got a food rationing programme?”
The Health and Welfare councillor, to whom these words were directed, took from his briefcase a computer printout, “I have it here, Sir.” And he handed it to the mayor.
Reading it hurriedly, the mayor said, “Put this programme into effect immediately.”
“Yes, Sir,” and he left the chamber.
That night the food rationing was announced on television. The news was badly received by the citizens. They had never lacked anything in their lives. They were all incredibly spoilt, used to the best with the minimum effort to receive it. The result was that the day following the announcement there were queues from the very early morning to shop in spite of the snow. On the majority of the rails long lines of cars could be seen. It was a useless action on their part since every family was given their due, neither more nor less. Those who tried to bribe the officials in charge of handing out the food packets were taken to the police station to be charged for behaving against the public interest.
Cristina’s family was small so she received little, like most of the families. The boy refused to eat his dinner preferring something tastier. His mother tried to reason with him. “Please, you have to understand, we have no choice. Don’t be so antisocial, and eat it up.”
The child turned against his mother in his chair and screamed, “I want a proper dinner. I want something nicer. I’m not eating this!”
Cristina was frightened and setting her wheelchair on ‘fast’, she fled to the bathroom and stayed there until Michael got home. The boy had destroyed what he could. The living room was like a battlefield. His parents went into his bedroom and found him asleep in front of his television. He had found a box of chocolates and had dined on that.
Cristina and Michael’s son got worse with every day that passed and so did the rest of the children in the city. After the first fortnight there was nothing left to eat and now the council was talking about rationing the energy. But there was nothing to do. During the third week of the still heavily falling snow the energy plant was not working as it should have been and there were a lot of power cuts. It was then that Michael and Cristina decided to leave. But how and where were they to go?
“Michael, what is there at the end of the rails?” Cristina asked him one day.
“More rails, I suppose. Why do you ask?”
“Because there’s nothing left here and we have to try to do something. Don’t you agree?”
Michael, was not so clearheaded as Cristina. Since the snow had started, and then the rationing, and the upsets with the child, Michael didn’t know what to do or think. If Cristina wanted to leave, fine: and if she didn’t want to leave, that was fine too. As Michael had had no plausible ideas about how to face the situation, he let himself be persuaded by Cristina.
The following day the little family left the apartment. A few other people had had the same idea. But none of them knew what was at the end of the rails. The boy was in a filthy mood, but at least he was distracted in his little car. Crossing the city was not without difficulty, but at last they reached the opposite side from where they lived. There was nothing different at all from their own district. It was three o’clock in the afternoon when they could make out something strange in front of their eyes. The rail ended in a loop but at the farthest point away from the city there were side rails that went downwards towards the outside. Cristina saw them by chance, but a sign declared that it was prohibited to pass beyond that point. Ignoring the sign, the family continued on the descending rail, accelerating as they went downhill. There were other cars behind them. All were fleeing in the same direction. Towards what and where? At the end of the rail there was a building similar to a station, except that it wasn’t. It was the end of the line with no buffers! It was the point where the outside world began, and where the goods were taken from the road and loaded onto trucks on the rails. There was little activity due to the snow. There were no buildings beyond, only snow.
Bruno’s elder sons were out in the fields playing in the snow with their friends. All of a sudden the silence was broken by a strident sound in the distance, strange to their ears. They were afraid. They couldn’t imagine what it might be. Then another, and another. The eldest son, a handsome young man, said, “Let’s go home and ask someone what it might be.”
Bruno was cleaning some tools when his sons entered the house. “Dad, there’s a strange noise in the distance.”
Bruno looked at his son, “What kind of noise?”
“Something new, we’ve never heard a noise like it before. I don’t know what it could be. Please come and listen to it.”
His father was not in any hurry, outside it was still snowing, “Well, all right, let’s go. Where’s the noise coming from?”
The young man didn’t know and said so to his father.
“Are you sure you’ve heard something?” Bruno asked.
“Yes, Father, we all heard it, more than once.”
Once outside, Bruno heard it too. He couldn’t believe it. He knew that sound very well. It was far away. What memories it awoke! Saying not a word, Bruno took his sons home. Opening one of the photo albums he showed them a car and told them about the story of his family and the other families. The problems they had suffered. The illnesses and deaths.
“And now their fabulous city must be having a bad time.”
“How do you know?” asked one of the sons.
“Because they had everything. Only in the case of an emergency would they have to leave. Really the structure is not so new, and they have always lived with an excess of everything. A wasteful society.”
“But, Dad, what are they looking for? Where are they going?”
Bruno gazed at them attentively, “They’re looking for a place to live, eat, and sleep. Just as your grandparents and I did a long time ago.”
“How do you know what they’re looking for?” the son insisted.
“Look at the weather. They’re looking for shelter and food. They are defenceless outside the city.”
Bruno’s sons were open-mouthed. He told them everything he knew until it was bedtime. When their parents were abed the older boys took out the books to get a better look at what had been.
Night fell. Cristina didn’t know what to do, neither did Michael. They were both terrified; there was nothing around them and it was still snowing. The child was in a dreadful mood. “I want to go home,” he screamed down the telephone to his parents.
“Don’t be antisocial and behave yourself,” Cristina answered.
Michael was on the boy’s side, “This is your fault. What are we doing here?”
“And what are we going to do there? Die of hunger.”
Michael was furious, “We are dying of hunger and cold here. At least if we had stayed at home we could watch the television and who knows perhaps it’s all been fixed.”
The child started crying, “I want to go home. I want to go home.”
Cristina tried to keep everything calm, “We can’t go home. We have to stay here till dawn.”
On hearing these words the child began to cry with more fervour, “I want to go home. I want to go home.”
Michael turned against Cristina, “Look what you’ve done! Don’t worry, Son, we’re going home.”
“You’re mad. Please wait at least till it’s day time.”
“No. We’re going now. It shouldn’t be too difficult to follow the same rails we came on but in the opposite direction.”
One more time Cristina tried to convince him to stay, “Please, don’t go.”
But Michael had difficulty started up damaged his car in the cold. “Son, start your car up. We’re going home.”
“I want to stay here to see what there is here. Stay with me Michael, please, please.”
“The boy doesn’t like it here and neither do I.”
“Michael, please, don’t go,” she begged quietly.
Cristina was crying but neither her husband nor her son took any notice.
“Goodbye, Mum. Let’s go, Dad, I’ll beat you. I’ll be the first one home.”
Michael turned to Cristina, “Are you going to stay?”
“Yes, Michael. I’ll let you know when I’ve found something or I’ll return.”
“See you soon, then.” And Michael went off behind his son.
Cristina cried and cried. The radio didn’t work but the heating did. In half an hour she was asleep.
A few kilometres away from that place, Michael hit another car that was coming towards him while he was looking for the boy. But the child had gone off the road when he was getting up to no good, he fell out of his car and died, frozen stiff.
When the snow wasn’t falling quite so heavily, Bruno and some men, including his own sons, set out in search of the sound. After a walk of a couple of days they came to the road. For the older men the sight of it woke up painful memories, and for the young ones curiosity. As they came down from the hill they saw a long line of cars trapped in the snow. The sound had been when they had crashed into one another. They looked more closely. Bruno and his eldest son opened Cristina’s car door. She was unconscious but alive. The young man’s heart gave a leap in sorrow when he saw her lack of legs, even though his father had warned him. Tenderly the two men wrapped her in a blanket to take her home on a sledge. Among the survivors there were some councillors. Bruno went up to one of them who was not in too bad a condition. “You aren’t going to bring your miserable city here. We are the exiled. All this time we’ve done nothing against you, but now you want to invade our way of life. We don’t have to accept you.”
The weatherman, who had left the city the same day as Cristina, said, “I knew about the snow. They didn’t believe me until it was too late. I’d like to stay here if my presence doesn’t offend you. Maybe we can learn from each other.”
Bruno wasn’t so sure, “What can a legless man do? A car here is useless.”
“I can teach you everything I know.”
“And if one day you want to return to the city, what then?”
The weatherman looked at him honestly, “If that day should come, I’d tell you. But I don’t think it likely. Look at it!”
Now Bruno and all the men paid attention to the poor legless weatherman, “There is no food. The energy plant was covered with so much snow that cables broke. When I left the city the plant was falling. The city without energy and supplies can’t live.”
“In other words it takes from other places and doesn’t give anything back in return,” answered Bruno who was now really tired.
“Yes, that’s it. I’m afraid you’re right. May I stay?” The poor pathetic figure without his only system for moving about from one place to another made those strong, robust men feel fortunate.
“Of course you can stay.” Bruno put a hand on the man’s shoulder in a gesture of having been accepted. The rest of them shook his hand.
Sara and her daughter bathed and dressed Cristina and later put her to bed. Mother and daughter exchanged looks on seeing the stumps she had instead of legs. Cristina had said something about Michael and her child. The men while looking for more survivors among the other cars, had found the boy, frozen to death. Michael and another driver were both dead in an entanglement of iron, plastic, and metal. Cristina received the news a week later. Her surprise at still being alive, and the fact that everyone had legs while she and the others from the city didn’t, terrified her, and she had neither the energy nor the desire to cry over the deaths of her husband and son. She missed them, but with the warmth of Bruno and Sara’s family around her she soon got over it. Besides all of this, she had to learn how to do new things. Indeed, she had to adapt herself to a new way of life.
When the snow had melted, the spring morning dawned over a cemetery of twisted, rusty iron. An enormous skeleton of rails, apartment blocks without windows and the skeletons of the dead. The city had died that winter and now there weren’t even rats. Nobody went near it, and it was forgotten.
In the forest Cristina and the weatherman and the other ex-citizens awoke to the spring and the perfumes of flowers and herbs. A green and fresh world. During that spring Cristina felt emotions that were new to her and she was happy. Bruno’s oldest son had made her a rocking-chair and she did all her new jobs while seated in it. A blanket in bright colours made by Sara covered the lower part of her body. What captivated Cristina most was the sincerity of the people. They lacked the sophistication that she was used to, but then neither did they have the hypocrisy nor the falseness.
© Copyright 2016 Georgina V Solly. All rights reserved.
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