Monday, 13 February 2012

The Unsubtle Cages (2001)

This tale was first published in 2004 in my NEW UNIVERSAL HISTORY OF INFAMY book, in a section featuring stories supposedly written by other authors. The author falsely accredited in this particular case was Thomas Ligotti, but the truth is that I was too unfamiliar with his work to write a proper pastiche. Nonetheless there's a flavour in the bleakness of what follows that is at least partly on his wavelength.

Alone in a new city, the traveller decided to visit the zoo. It might be a place to find conversation, if not with people then with animals. He had not spoken for almost a week. He took a tram to the relevant suburb. The houses and factories were low and decayed. Dunes of rust drifted down the alleys, covering abandoned machinery. The wind was cold and constant. Newspapers from the previous century flapped across the wider streets, full of yellowing politics and adverts which could not be answered. They roosted with angry vibrations on the sagging telephone lines which conveyed static, sniggers and deep breathing from the hub of the metropolis to its rim. He had already come far but this short journey seemed much greater. An adventure.
         He was the only passenger who dismounted outside the gates. They were neither closed nor open, but broken just enough to provide a means of entry. He climbed through. The zookeeper introduced himself. His name was Rotpier. He was not a malformed dwarf, but he acted as if he ought to be. He led the traveller past the compounds of lizards and worms. A few withered birds stood in groups on the tin roofs. Even Rotpier could not say whether they were part of the display or not. They were indeterminate. At last, the final cage was reached. It contained many other cages, all of different sizes. They stood idle, stacked in corners or on top of each other. They were worn and dented but perfectly serviceable.
         "What is the meaning of this?" asked the traveller.
         Rotpier blinked. "They have to be kept locked up for their own good. If they escaped, they might start caging beasts and people at random or according to their own tastes. Then they would return to the zoo with their new charges. The result would be an undisciplined collection, arbitrary and unplanned. Spontaneous, possibly automatic."
         The traveller stroked his chin. "I wish to buy one."
         "This is a very unusual request. I must consult my memory. Yes, I believe there is a precedent. Many years ago, a man called Belperron purchased a cage and took it back to his apartment, where he experimented on it. There are no laws against that. They are not expensive."
         The traveller removed his wallet and counted out the notes. Then the zookeeper hooked one out with a long pole. It was heavy but responsive. It could be dragged or strapped to a back with equal inconvenience. Perhaps it might be rolled, in the manner of dice, end over end. The traveller left the zoo and waited for the tram with sore hands. It came and he paid a double fare. He sat opposite the cage, looking through its bars at the sombre view beyond the window. If the environment was trapped there, he must be free. The illusion comforted him to his destination. He pushed his new possession up the stairs of his hotel. He positioned it in the centre of the room. And this space which was not really his, this rented volume of continued existence, already resembled a new zoo. And he its keeper.
         He waited for his first visitors.
         It seemed an original method of defeating his isolation. His previous attempts to meet people had failed. The nightclubs were shut, the parks and subways deserted or unbearably strange. But now he had created a solution through the medium of business. Men and women would pay to tour his little zoo. They might bring children with them. Also laughter. It was almost feasible. He paced the floorboards for an hour before he realised that he needed a live exhibit to display in the cage. The answer was to lock himself inside. He would be fed and enjoyed until he achieved satisfaction. He did not swallow the key, but squatted over it. He removed his shoes and curled his toes. It was even more lonely in this simple cell, an outcome he had not anticipated. He licked his lips anxiously.
         There was a rumbling from afar, as if a crowd was shuffling down the street toward his hotel. He imagined many outcomes. The authorities were coming to grant his zoo a licence or to close it down. The police were hurrying to arrest his prison and free him: a miscarriage of justice. He wondered why his cage did not return to the real zoo as Rotpier had predicted, with him as its trophy. The door of his room was closed. Possibly that was the reason. Or else it accepted the hotel as its home, validating the traveller's hopes. Then he imagined that the giant cage, the cage of cages, had detached itself from its location and was hunting its lost brother. He stood and gripped the bars facing the window. He was able to peer down onto the street. Rust dunes were shaken apart, settling evenly over the cobbles like the grains of a powdered sunset.
         All his guesses were wrong. He saw rooms, dozens of them, sliding over this new desert, a caravan of cubes, misshapen, humped domiciles with grimy windows and flapping shutters like eyelids. Through each pane of glass, the unwashed outline of a traveller congealed. They were equally lonely, but the sum of all their feelings was still a single loneliness. One at a time, the rooms entered the hotel, passed through the lobby and up the stairs. He heard them in the corridor, squeezing between the walls. Now he felt the hotel swelling, an ego of brick and rotting joists and tattered curtains. The rooms were adding themselves to the collection. The symbolism was too obvious. He closed his eyes in the knowledge that each exhibit was its own visitor. And he experienced a relief so slight it bordered on monstrous despair.