No sooner had I finished my reading than Sixteen materialised next to my bunk. She turned her bleach-blond haired head left and right, as to make sure she would not be overheard.
“I think they put stuff in our food.”
I made the fatal error of humouring her:
Oooh, stuff…! I sat up on the bunk edge.
“Mind expanding on this a bit?”
“The pork they gave us at lunch tasted funny.”
“When was the last time you’ve had pork?” I investigated.
“Pork isn’t good for you.”
“And why is that?”
I know, I know. Pork has a high fat content. Pork goes bad rather quickly without cooling. But you have to put it into context. In this region, pork consumption dates back to the closing days of the last ice age. Cooling wasn’t a problem back then (as it isn’t now). And as for burning fat: Our noble tribal ancestors might have been lucky enough to chase a piglet through the frozen woods of central Europe once in a while, but more often than not they found themselves facing a 400 pound wild boar. That will level out your cholesterol…
Just like red wine, fast cars or beautiful women, pork is as good or as bad for you as you want it to be.
“It tasted like they’ve had mixed something into it. You know, to brainwash us.”
I tried my best to remain supportive whilst hurling myself out of the bunk.
“I don’t think that would be legal.”
Of course “they” attempted to brainwash us – it was the programme’s sole fucking purpose! But the warden and her thugs had other means to get in our heads. I for my part would welcome some drugs in my lunch.
“Maybe the food tasting funny was a side effect from drugging us earlier on, like, with water or stuff…”
Sixteen had officially promoted herself from inconvenience to annoyance. In the outside, non-tail-up-your-arse world I would declare people like her being punished enough with themselves and leave it at this. Here, where a confined space met a high potential of aggression, this tactic was bound to fail and would trigger dire consequences once it did. I had to strike a balance between avoiding her (which was mostly impossible) and stuffing her into her footlocker (which sounded satisfying, but would cost me dearly).
“No-one is brainwashing us. Handle your shit.”
Not even giving her the chance to respond, I walked away down the aisle. Right now it seemed the prudent thing to do, before I murdered somebody to death. It’s not that I’ve got a problem with socialising in general, but the spoiled, rich, utterly superficial and self-involved girl drove me up the wall. It was her, not me: With Ten I would have enjoyed the same silly conversation. I didn’t see the lanky girl, though. No idea what she was up to. Fifteen was already in her bunk, dead to the world, with the blanket pulled over her head.
Further towards the door Eleven was lying on her bunk, immersed in that book of hers. Not exactly bookish, she was artsy in a very endearing way – a thinker-hottie sporting the natural, non-interchangeable beauty so painfully missing in the overdone likes of Sixteen.
“What are you reading?”
I wasn’t really interested in her lecture, just eager to start a conversation with somebody who actually owned a brain to wash. Eleven looked up from the book, then turned it for me to read the title. The golden A Sword So Sharp shone forth from a green leaf artwork.
“It’s the first book of The Whispering Woods cycle.”
I’ve never had a thing for High Fantasy. Plus, I don’t like stories with titles trying too hard to be original.
“Is it any good?” I asked, hoping she wouldn’t geek out on me.
She lightened up at that question.
“It’s about a wood elf ranger, Leafwhisper, who’s hunting a vicious beast called the Galgrafain that has attacked her hamlet and wounded a forest god. She tracks it down in the lands of the Eswren, also known as the Dark Kindred, who deify the creature as their Maker.”
I had to ask…
“You don’t strike me as the kind of person who runs through the woods with a foam sword in their spare time.”
“You mean LARP-ing?”
I could think of other terms for that nonsense, but then again it was far more productive and character-forming than running through the streets with a Molotov cocktail. So I stuck with “LARP-ing”.
“Somehow I’ve never found the time.”
“Am I correct in thinking that you’ve found the time for other nerd stuff, though?”
She sat up in the lotus position.
“I don’t cosplay or do tabletop RPGs, if it’s that you’re thinking of. Mostly reading. I wrote some fan-fiction, also.”
“Yeah? You fan-fic guys have some pretty awesome stories out there.”
Eleven, whom I had experienced rather reticent so far, took my courtesy lie as invitation to open up. She had ended up as a pony after participating with her study group in an unannounced demonstration against a construction project in their favourite park. Been snatched right off the meadow. Wild-caught, if you will. Her favourite colour was green (who’d have guessed?), and she had a pet iguana called Paarthurnax.
“And I love to lose myself in books, now more than ever.”
“Like in thith one?”
I still lisped when not articulating precisely. I was well-advised not to get sloppy, or I would keep lisping once the swelling from my tongue piercing had gone. My thoughts jumped to Eleven’s piercings, especially the pre-DACC barbell that had used to adorn her left nip – according to her a remainder of an experimental phase.
“I’m glad the guard handed it back instead of locking it away with the rest of my personal belongings. I cannot think of a book I would rather have in here with me.”
Prison Break For Dummies?
“Really that good, eh?”
“It has been translated into fourteen languages.”
“So has the manual of my microwave.”
“You are prone of sarcastic comments, aren’t you?” Eleven stated in a cooled-down voice.
And you are only hearing half of them, sweetie.
“No wonder Miss Kandrin is always so mean to you.”
“Sure, blame the victim,” I replied more snappishly than I should have had. I felt called out by her.
“I am not. But by now you know her reactions to certain triggers, and you know you cannot avoid the fall-out of those reactions.”
I sat down next to her, partly to prevent myself from acting even more like a bitch, partly because nobody else needed to hear my next words.
“Sadly I’ve manoeuvred myself into a spot where my sole existence is trigger enough for her.”
Eleven looked at me with sad eyes. She couldn’t help her sympathetic self. Now I felt really great about snubbing her. For the better part of a minute I said nothing.
“What do you gain by losing yourself?”
She turned her head to me again, hands and book still resting in her lap.
“The mercy of escapism in the best of cases. Also motivation to endure all the… you know…”
She made a snorting horse sound that caused her upper lip to touch her nose ring.
“By identifying with the main character.”
She flipped back a few pages.
“Leafwhisper has been captured by the Eswren and is now being put to the question: ‘Even under their most heinous tortures she stayed taciturn. Whisper supressed her screams of agony as the hot irons sank into her flesh, as her arms were twisted from their sockets, as her skin was scourged to shreds. Might they lay siege to her body as horridly as they wished, to her heart and soul they would never advance.’ This paragraph pretty much nails it.”
Ah, one of those stories where the heroine isn’t conveniently treated to a last minute rescue. Although suspecting that only readers of a certain proclivity could be cheered up by the scene recited, I did see Eleven’s point. The woman of courage, lost and at the mercy of her foes, fighting a battle of minds, besting them not through brute force, but through wit, passion and mental strength.
“How does it end?”
“She manages to escape into the woods. But weakened by a sennight of torture she is circled by her hunters once again. That’s as far as I’ve got.”
Eleven held the book out for me.
“I’m almost through, started it back in remand. You can borrow it if you like.”
“Thanks, but print is dead. You finish it first.”
The girl remained determined:
“Once I’m out of here, I have to reread the last few chapters anyway before starting the next part.”
Gingerly I took the volume from her. It was heavy, which meant many pages, which meant many words. Still it represented only one third of the story.
“Is that some Lord of the Rings clone?” I asked whilst skimming the blurb and musing how to get out of this.
“Nah. Middle-earth is for tourists.”
Perhaps I should actually try Ten’s method. Taking a mental cigarette break. Reading as coping strategy. Since the DACC haven’t had the widest range of literature, some cliché-laden fantasy novel had to do. I could think of more suitable works, though – The Heart of Darkness, mayhap.
Accepting Eleven’s offer, I swung myself back up into my bunk. It was about half an hour until lights out, so I would give it a try. Worst scenario, I would doze off early.
Here we go: first chapter of The Morning Woods – A Cock So Short.
“The trail ended before the moss-covered roots of a tree giant. Rays of sunlight danced through between the mighty branches, setting numberless leaves ablaze in all shades of green.”
Two sentences in, and I was already bored. If a book starts with dancing rays of light, chances are high it’s gonna be lame. Why not start with arcane fire raining down from the skies, I wondered. But having nothing else to do, I went back into Kitschwood Forest.
These lands are held sacred for æons, and woe betide the man that sets foot on them with fell intention in his mind. And so, on that rays-of-lightish forenoon, it comes to pass that three pity poachers draw the wrath of the ancient forest upon them by doing some poaching shit on wood elf turf. But be afeared no more, gentle reader, for a mighty heroine is at hand. What could have been a decent skirmish turned out to be as generic and predictable as the title artwork, with heavy-handed expositions on top of that. Being an elf and generally awesome with three hundred confirmed orc kills, Leafwhisper is of course super-quick and evades their arrows with ease, yet plants her own ones with deadly precision. Nobody is actually killed on the first pages, but the blokes get fucked up real good.
“‘Please have mercy upon us, fair lady Elf!’”
So, instead of cutting their bollocks off and nailing them to a tree of their choice, she gives them a lengthy speech about not wasting any deer’s life by hunting for profit rather than out of need.
Worst fears confirmed. Was that chapter even going anywhere? The half-arsed fighting scene might cause a teenage girl to hug her pillow in excitement, but the healthy dose of fairy dust that followed set us right back on track. I sighed and shut the book. After some seconds I sighed again and opened it where I had left the “action”. This time, to my utmost surprise, I kept on reading till the lights went out.
T. A. Wallgart; “The Whispering Woods — A Sword So Sharp”; Billreuth & Klopstock, Lübeck, 1998 (English translation)