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Mark Chaiken

The door to the Narers’ room is open. There are always some Carers in their room.

Mrs. Fox is here now. I see that Aya is already here too, curled up in Mrs. Fox’s lap, even though she’s almost as big as Mrs. Fox, so really only the top half of her will fit and her legs hang down over the side of the big white chair where Mrs. Fox is sitting. Mrs. Fox is stroking Aya’s black hair. Her hand seems so small and pale against all that black. Mrs. Fox looks sad, but I cannot see Aya’s face, as she is turned away. Mrs. Fox looks up at me for just a moment, then looks down at Aya’s face, which I cannot see, and starts stroking her hair again.

Mrs. Wolf is sitting on one of the couches and I go over to her, half-sitting so that my face is pressed against her chest and my legs aren’t hanging down like Aya’s, but they’re partly in Mrs. Wolf’s lap and partly on the cushions. Mrs. Wolf is big, with thick legs and thick arms and a chest that sticks out in front of her, and she has grey hair that won’t stay underneath her white cap. Strands of it escape and float across her ears and her eyes so that she pushes them back and tries to force them to stay under her cap again. She has big green eyes that can see me when they’re not looking at me. All the other Carers do what she tells them to do.

The stiff white fabric of her uniform is rough against my cheek, and it feels good so I rub my face softly up and down against her. She smells like my sheets, clean and white, and this time I don’t resist my instincts, I let it all wash over me, the feeling of safety, when all the information is all right to know.

Mrs. Wolf’s hand is on the back of my head, heavy and comforting, but I hear her say, ‘Too close.’

I pull my face away from her chest and look up at her. She is not looking at me, she is looking at Mrs. Fox, and at Aya in her lap.

She feels my change in position and looks down at me now. With her arm she sits me straight up. She doesn’t force me. She doesn’t grip me hard. Her hand firmly suggests the position that she wants my body to attain, and my body obeys.

She stares at me with her big green eyes, but she is careful not to meet my gaze directly for too long, not with our faces so close together, and she looks away when she speaks.

‘Now what is the matter, dear?’

I press my face against Mrs. Wolf’s chest. She consents to stroke my hair, but only briefly before she pushes me back again.

‘What is wrong with Aya?’

‘There’s nothing to worry about, dear. She just had a bad dream. Is that what happened to you? Did you have a bad dream?’

From the way she asks me this question, I think she wants me to say yes. I see Mrs. Fox is still stroking Aya’s hair, but she’s looking at me as though she’s interested in my answer too.

I do not like to disappoint Mrs. Wolf, so it is hard for me to speak at first. ‘No. I have a piece of paper.’

Mrs. Wolf does not seem upset by this answer, so I am happy and continue.

‘There are words on the paper.’

Mrs. Swan freezes and lets out a little piping sound. I forget she is there except when she stops moving. Mrs. Wolf looks at her and raises one eyebrow. ‘Paper very often has words on it,’ she says, as much to Mrs. Swan as to me. ‘I don’t think we should make too much of this.’

I force my head forward, halfway back to Mrs. Wolf. Not enough to hide my words completely, but maybe enough so that the words are trapped between us, in the narrow space between our two bodies. ‘I read the words.’

Mrs. Wolf’s hand stops moving and instead it just lies on the back of my head. But it feels so heavy that my head is forced down against her chest, and I wonder if she means to silence me completely, to suffocate me for what I have said. Her chest heaves, up, down, up again, and then she releases me to breathe, pressing the side of my face instead to herself. Her hand resumes its rhythm over my hair. I succumb.

‘The words go away,’ I say, hoping to redeem the disappointment I know she feels.

More gently, Mrs. Wolf lifts me off her lap and stands up. She takes my hand and pulls me up to stand too. ‘Well, I think we should at least investigate the situation,’ she says as she starts to walk towards the door. She is holding my hand and I walk beside her. She releases it and takes my shoulders to propel me through the door ahead of her. I turn at her touch. From the corner of my eye I see Mrs. Fox looking down at Aya; and I see Aya, her head turned toward me now, tears in her eyes, but smiling.


‘Be careful how you phrase it,’ says Dr. Mason. ‘An enormous amount of information can be conveyed in even very simple questions. Keep it vague.’

Mrs. Fox gives him a strange look that involves her turning her head away from him to stare at Mrs. Wolf. But I can still tell somehow that the look is directed towards him. Mrs. Wolf does not say anything. She does not change her face. She takes something from the metal tray behind her and sits down.

‘Can you tell me what this is?’ Mrs. Wolf is sitting across from me on a low stool. It is much shorter than she is, and her knees are sticking out in front of her, out from under her stiff white skirt. Her knees are covered in thin white fabric that clings to her skin, and I can see that she has big round knees, pressed together like friends. She is holding a card almost two-thirds of a meter from my face. There is a slight tremor in her hand, though maybe that is caused by the breeze from the ventilator high up on the wall. I can feel the air stirring the hairs on the top of my head. I want to raise my hand to smooth them down. I don’t like the sensation of the air moving across them, disordering them. It feels like someone invisible is standing behind me, breathing down on me.

There is no-one standing behind me. Mrs. Wolf is sitting in front of me, holding the card up. Mrs. Wolf is asking me a question. The card is a question.

On the card are printed thick black lines. My sight tells me that the lines are thick and distinct against the white background, but still I can only see them as blurred, as though my mind refuses to focus as sharply as my eyes.

I think Mrs. Wolf is asking me something about the black lines on the card. Should I tell her what they look like to me? Should I tell her what my eyes see or what my mind sees? Mrs. Wolf and Mrs. Fox and Dr. Mason are all staring at me so hard that my skin begins to itch.

‘It is a card with black lines on it.’

Dr. Mason leans back. The muscles in his face relax so that he is almost smiling. But Mrs. Wolf is still looking at me like she’s expecting me to continue, and I see that Mrs. Fox is opening her mouth as though she’s saying something, though no sound is coming out. And then it seems to me that she is not saying something, she actually is making a sound, just one sound, even though I still cannot hear anything, and I hear her making that sound in this room, right now, but not now. There is sound and there is no sound.

Mrs. Fox’s mouth is closed again, and there is no sound.

The lines snap into focus. ‘They make the letter A.’

Dr. Mason jumps when I say that, and I can smell the sweat I see beading on his forehead. But when Mrs. Fox looks at me her eyes are slightly creased up at the corners.

‘Yes, the letter A. How do you know that?’ asks Mrs. Wolf. She alone is showing no reaction, and there is no change in the tone of her voice. I think that my answer does not surprise her, and that she knows the answer to this second question she is asking.

‘You teach me.’ I do not know if these words are true. Mrs. Wolf doesn’t say anything, still doesn’t show any reaction, just nods her head.

‘When did I teach that to you?’


She is silent for a moment. ‘Good,’ she says, and stands up to join the other two. Her knees crack as she rises.

‘I knew we shouldn’t even have asked. It’s always better to leave well enough alone and remain ignorant.’ Dr. Mason hisses at Mrs. Wolf and Mrs. Fox, angry and scared and not afraid to show it. I understand. I am not supposed to know the letter A.

‘What’s done is done,’ says Mrs. Wolf. ‘In any event, the information doesn’t appear to have led to breakdown. Since we’ve started down this road, we need to continue. There may be important answers here.’

I wonder if I should tell them that I know the other twenty-five letters too, upper and lower case. And little a as well. I wonder if there are some letters I don’t know, whether there are some letters so upsetting that I can’t even be told they exist. I don’t say anything.

‘Are you insane?’ Dr. Mason is trying to keep his voice down, as though he thinks by speaking softly he can pretend I am not there. Perhaps I am not there if he pretends I am not there. Perhaps I only remember being there. ‘That’s completely outside of protocol! Think of the damage you could do. Contamination on that level could compromise the entire program. We can contain a single letter, but actual reading? Do you want them all to freeze?’

‘As I said, Dr. Mason, what’s done is done. This decision has clearly already been made. Though, of course, I have no more memory of teaching her than she has of learning. But you understand how these things happen. Now, if you please, I have work to do.’

Mrs. Wolf turns to lift another card from the metal tray, but she doesn’t show it to me yet. Dr. Mason is standing perfectly still, refusing to accept dismissal. They look at each other for ten seconds exactly, neither moving.

‘Dr. Smith and Dr. Miller will hear about this!’ Dr. Mason sputters at last, and almost runs from the room.

Mrs. Wolf turns back to me, still not revealing the card. Mrs. Fox is standing behind her, red-brown eyes that have been smiling silently the whole time now relaxing into calm observation. Mrs. Wolf blinks at me, but Mrs. Fox does not.

‘The letter X,’ I say.

It will be.

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