A dark fiction on repression, utopia and the wild human spirit.
My breath is feral. I can hear myself panting. My skin exudes the scent of musk and undomesticated mud. From afar, I hear the sound of a loon wailing in its crazed laughter at the Moon. It is dark, but my eyes can see perfectly. I hear him first. His heavy leather boots make a dissonant chord in the symphonic orchestration of opossum hymn, owl melody and cricket choir. He is corpulent and strangely agile in his cumbrous body, creating an arrhythmic pulse in the beat of the woodland at night.
It happened on the thirty-seventh Stream…
Sybil has been a Dreammaker at the Company for some years when she is visited by a peculiar being that invites her to question her reality and what she has come to think of as Good and Correct. Over a three day liminal picnic she gains access to exiled parts of herself, realizes the dangers of living in an ill-fated utopian vision and begins the process of learning to listen to her own voice.
A peek into the book
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Sybil was making her way down the corridor again, back to the Beauty Lounge, for her hair appointment. Wilhelm had sent her a message telling her to get ready for an Extraction the next day and a Stream very soon after. He had then scribbled, in tight penmanship, under the typed font, the words, ¨Your hair is very distasteful these days, please fix it before you come to our appointment.¨
When she arrived, she found Gretchen smothered in green goo, wearing cucumbers for eyes and having her eyebrows plucked, sitting back placidly on the seat next to where her own hair would be done.
Gretchen was also a Dreammaker. They had met many times before but did not know each other well.
¨Sybil, is that you darling?¨
How Gretchen could tell it was her, hidden as she was behind the vegetable spectacles, was a mystery.
¨Oh sweetie, don’t be so surprised,¨ Gretchen said, as if reading Sybil’s mind, ¨It’s your smell, dear. I could tell it was you from even before you came in. There is something about your scent honey, unmistakeable, a bit like old gooseberries or fermenting rose vinegar.¨ She smiled and then winced as her Beautician plucked a particularly thick hair from where it was, apparently, not meant to be.
Sybil sat down as her Beautician placed a plastic apron over her chest and shoulders.
¨Miss Sybil, Mr. Grim has sent very specific instructions for what he wants us to do to your hair today, Miss. I am sorry, but I am going to have to cut quite a bit off this time.¨
Sybil tried to smother a whimper but whimpers, as everyone knows, are rascals, and this one popped onto the floor, toppled over the scissor tray, somersaulted into the trash bin and then leaped raucously out the window into an uncertain destiny.
¨I’m sorry Miss Sybil, I am just following orders.¨
As her Beautician began to comb back her hair and spray it with water, Gretchen let a shy grin wriggle its way through her very beautifully built cheekbones, ¨Maybe,¨ her voice was pregnant with mystery, ¨maybe you should get your hair dyed red, Sybil, just like Magdalena used to have.¨
Both Beauticians gasped expressively and then gave each other long looks. But Gretchen’s voice, perfectly crafted, dipped in caramel and dusted with sugar, poised itself seductively into her audience’s ears and not one of them was able to resist. The Beauticians pretended to make their bodies busy with their tasks, while their attention stayed steady on the conversation that was about to ensue.
¨Magdalena?¨ asked Sybil, taking the bait naively.
¨Oh sweet, young Sybil. You don’t know about Magdalena, my sweet? You truly do live up to your award’s name, ´Essence of Innocence´, honey. There’s a lot, I guess, that Anne and Bella don’t tell you then, I see. Maybe Mr. Grim just doesn’t let them. Oh well…¨ Gretchen’s voice faded masterfully into silence, waiting in ambush for Sybil’s curiosity to come searching for it.
Sybil squirmed gently in her seat. Unknowingly, Gretchen’s voice had taken her by the hand and she was now being led, quite willingly, into winding and uncertain paths.
¨Gretchen, no, I’ve never heard of Magdalena. Do tell me, won’t you?¨
Gretchen smiled again, even as another rebel hair got plucked away while trying to claim land rights on her side temple, and said, slyly, ¨Well, if you insist.¨
She began, ¨Magdalena was around many, many years ago, Sybil, honey, before any of us were at the Company. She was one of the first Dreammakers and the Director himself was on her case as a Teller. Her Recruiters were never very open about how or where she was found. Similarly to you, actually, she did not have parents or anyone who was taking care of her. Apparently, she too was lying naked, shivering in a corner, when she was finally tracked down and brought in.
¨It is said that the whole corridor where she sat in smelled of intoxicating honeysuckle and inebriating lilacs. It is also said that she had a wild and exotic mane on her head, red like the blood of a pomegranate, hirsute like the peel of a rambutan, and untameable like a field of wild Afghan poppies.
¨No matter what her Beauticians did for her, that burst of tangles made her look like she was always ablaze.
¨The Director was, apparently, extremely taken by her and doused her in extravagant jewelry and clothing. It is said that, one time, he dressed her in a gown made purely of stag beetle shells and made her do her Stream in that outfit.
¨But Magdalena was never taken by the expensive clothes and jewelry, or the fancy food and perfumes. She was never moved by any of the gifts that the Director ever gave her, except for one. The strangest of choices, really honey pie, quite bizarre. She apparently loved a small fox pelt that the Director had given her, almost offhandedly. She wore it everywhere, Sybil, everywhere. There are rumors that she would even shower with it and sleep in it. After she passed, when her objects were being raffled off to Consumer fans, that pelt was apparently nothing more than wisps of fur stitched together by thin, decaying string. I never could understand that choice myself. If I had access to the things she was getting, Sybil dear, well I’d be in heaven.
¨In any case, Magdalena was, and still is, the biggest hit the Company has ever seen. In a short time, her Stream took over the entire Network. Audiences would pile in every Tuning Day and watch her with their big, wide eyes, watching her every move, listening to every single thing she would say. They drank her up completely. The whole idea of Merchandise began with her: tiny Magdalena dolls, pink T-shirts with her magnificent face plastered all over them, play makeup kits, Magdalena inspired doll houses, tiny Magdalena plastic kitchenettes for young girls to play in…the Consumers could not get enough of her, I tell you. They wanted her to be not only with them through their Stream Screen but with them all the time, inside their little homes, inside their little kitchens, inside their little bathrooms. Everywhere, Sybil, everywhere.
¨This was back in the days when the Director would be seen walking around the Company. People said they had never seen him so happy. Sometimes he would even be spotted skipping, now that’s an image, so delighted he was with the success of his protege. But then, trouble started to stir.¨
The two Beauticians seemed to come in closer, as if Gretchen’s voice had fastened itself around them, gently pulling them, luring them closer and deeper into the tale she was telling. Sybil too, had apparently forgotten altogether about the dreadful havoc and disaster that was happening to the top of her head and leaned in, wanting to get as close to the source of the tale as possible.
¨Trouble started when Magdalena forgot one of her scripts. It was one of the most iconic Streams she had. It was famously known as Script 37. She had repeated it so many times by then that it was absolutely incomprehensible how she could have completely forgotten the whole ending of it, but so she did. Even worse, the Stream was going on live. Mr. Walt had to practically coax the whole thing out of her as if she were a complete amateur. She barely got through it and, when she was unplugged from the Media Outlet, she apparently went into a long coma that lasted almost seven days.¨
Gretchen got quiet for a second. Her voice loosened around her listener’s ears for a moment as she craned her neck down. When her face came up again, there was something different about her, as if she had looked into an unexpected place and was trying to make sure she still had her footing. After clearing her throat for a moment, she continued,¨This is the part of Magdalena’s story that I can never fully comprehend, Sybil. The stories that come from those seven days are so wild and difficult to swallow, that a better part of me thinks it’s all a bunch of poppycock. It’s so beyond reason.¨
Gretchen shook her head and seemed to find her footing again. A tease of a smile came back to her and, with a tickle, she said, ¨But it makes the time go by as we sit here in the Beauty Lounge, doesn’t it?¨
Sybil nodded slowly in agreement and pretended to be nonchalant about what she was hearing. Inside, however, Magdalena’s story was like a boa constrictor, slowly wrapping itself around her insides and making it difficult for her to think or breathe anything other than what she was hearing.