Edited by Kate Dollarhyde

Copyedited by Chelle Parker

August 2020

751 words — Reading time: around 3 minutes

“812 years, 148 days remaining,” announces the wall as it wakes you up. You reach over to silence it for the rest of the day. Perhaps it is possible to practice a perfected life with a soundtrack. If so, that is a level of merit you have yet to attain.

Wash hands, face, teeth. The water is cold, its sound loud.

Dress: soft blue pants, lighter blue shirt. Always the same outfits laid out for you, immaculate as if they had never been worn. Do not question that. Stay in the present.

The door slides open. Step through onto the wooden porch. Do not listen to the door closing. Do not try to force it back open. Breathe. Take the three steps to the cushion by the low table. Sit down. Sip the tea. Eat the porridge. You have grown accustomed to the porridge, the warm salty lumpiness, though familiarity is not the same as fondness.

You have grown accustomed to all of this.

Breathe. Savor the smoky dregs of the tea. There is no rush. You have 812 years left.

Walk down from the porch. Walk away from the small, square, windowless darkness of your nightly prison into the four acres of your daytime jail. You are meant to be grateful for this expanse of grass and dirt, for the trompe l’oeil forest mural that lines the boundary, for the opportunity to cultivate a correct attitude, for the compassionate benevolence of your captors.

Tend the garden. Weed, thin, prune. Collect any pebbles you unearth. The pebbles are cool and gritty, clattering as you drop them in a metal bucket. Stone on steel, stone on other stones. An orchestra.

Basil. Mint. Dandelions. Dirt under your fingernails. Calluses on your hands. This is as close as you come to peace. If you do not look up at the fake sky — if you do not allow yourself to remember sunset, the Moon, Orion hanging low — you may achieve contentment. Stay in the present. This tomato seedling. This stalk. These leaves. Their green abrasive smell.

Return to the porch for lunch. A compartment in the wall opens. Remove the chopsticks, the bowl of rice and vegetables, the bottle of water. You mastered chopsticks in the first months. No, stop, do not think of what was.

After lunch, count the pebbles collected in your bucket. Thirty-two today. Two times two times two times two times two. Admire the serene certainty of numbers. Carry the bucket of pebbles to the boundary of your world, the painted plastic pretense of a forest you can’t enter. Lay the pebbles in a line, continuing on from where you finished yesterday. Eleven and a half full circuits now. Breathe.

When the sky that is not a sky darkens, go back indoors. Bathroom, bed, pajamas, desk, chair. On the desk: a steaming bowl of soup, a sheet of pale cream paper. Printed on the paper, a poem. A poem by Li Bai, one of many names you have come to recognize. You devour the brief lines speaking of frost and moonlight and home, read them over and over, trying to memorize them. If there is a lesson hidden behind the words, it eludes you. Only the poet’s loss, his loneliness penetrate.

When you finally eat the soup, it is long since cold.

Bathe. Go to bed. Sleep.

“812 years, 147 days remaining,” announces the wall as it wakes you up. You reach over to silence it.

Wash. Dress. Go out onto the porch.

Eat the warm, salty, lumpy porridge. Do not think of what you did, or failed to do, of whether you earned this punishment, of whether they will ever let you grow old.

Tend the garden.

Gather pebbles, lay them out like these wasted years, this so-called compassionate sentence stretching ahead for eight more centuries. By what measure is that proportionate? How can they name it mercy?

No. Cultivate calm. Weed. Water the seedlings.

When the sky that is not a sky darkens, go indoors. On the desk, a bowl of steaming soup and a book— A book— There has never been a book before—

How? Why? After so many years— Is this a reprieve you have merited through good behavior? Or a step toward rehabilitation? Or an act of benevolent kindness? Will the book still be there in the morning?

You’re shaking—

Breathe. For the moment, it is enough that the book is here. Lift it.

Tears, snot.

The weight of the book in your hands.

© 2020 Mary Soon Lee

About the author

Mary Soon Lee

Mary Soon Lee was born and raised in London, but has lived in Pittsburgh for over twenty years. She writes both fiction and poetry, and has won the Rhysling Award and the Elgin Award. Her work has appeared in Analog Science Fiction and Fact, Asimov’s Science Fiction, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Fireside Magazine, and Strange Horizons. Her latest book is The Sign of the Dragon, the story of King Xau, chosen by a dragon to be king, now available as an ebook with an illustrated print edition forthcoming in 2021.