All she knew for sure was that she was glad she had never had children. After all, where would they be now? and what if she had borne daughters?
Part of the library in the bookcase left behind was a series of nature and science books, some ludicrously outdated, and assorted National Geographics in several languages. She read and read and read until most of the articles were memorized, and then she would make notes, and lists and cross reference the lists and make comparisons.
She compared the adult female lives of birds and primates and carnivores, herd animals, monogamous pair-bonded animals, but mainly solitary animals. Tigers and Bears. (NOT Lions, and Tigers and Bears, Oh My! for after all, lionesses lived communally and shared hunting and child-rearing duties among the group.)
But tigresses and she-bears, powerful, solitary, and burdened with the child-rearing while the male of their species went about his life hunting only for himself, fighting only for himself, and growing in size and stature beyond any reasonable threat that he may encounter. But she, smaller, less impressive, she was expected to hunt for many, feed many, let them nourish off her own body, depleting her hard-earned fat resources, for no extra reward, no extra status or territory, no respite.
In fact, if she were to encounter the very male who had sired these offspring, he would most likely look on them opportunistically, young flesh being easily disposed of and consumed and delectable to boot. And she would be expected to fight to the death if necessary, not by choice but by instinct – by nature, to sacrifice herself for these parasitic children who would grow to become competitors for the very food and territory which nourished and protected her, and in turn, them. An unfair fate determined by gender and place and birth, and one in which she could see more parallels than she wanted to admit. Nonetheless she was fascinated.
She could only read when the natural light entered by window, and then usually on her stomach on the floor, legs bent at the knees, ankles crossed, like when she was a little girl reading stories of princesses and towers and colouring in her picture books. This was by necessity, not for nostalgia, as she knew how dangerous it would be to be seen in front of windows when the street was busy and there were people about.
The window on the back room faced east and overlooked the least activity, but she couldn’t discount the sudden appearance of men raking or shoveling the grounds, or collecting trash or scavenging empty bottles, although through careful and extended study she had never, ever seen any evidence of humans from dawn through early morning.
Of the two men entrusted to enter the second floor apartment, only one ever thought to bring more books. Of course food and clean water were more important, and blankets, and toilet paper. When her brother forgot the toilet paper, he would motion to the stacks of books and magazines and laugh. He held her other friend in contempt, because he knew the secret, and equated the excessive love of books and literature with homosexuality – one example of his badly reasoned conclusions. But at least her brother was protective, and did feel responsibility, and more important than that, he was clever.
He had set in place a monthly no-questions-asked bribe to the tavern owner downstairs in order to keep exclusive access to the upstairs apartment. He had installed his own set of locks, both turn-key and dead-bolt, and rigged the electricity so that she could run small, efficient appliances off the tavern’s electricity meter without ever raising the monthly bill in a way to arouse suspicion.
Not that the tavern owner really cared; he had his own set of illegal activities – banned substances, gambling, and document forgeries that supplemented his already profitable establishment. And he was more concerned with his bribes to the landlords of his territory than to worry about what he suspected was simply a stash of contraband maintained by a brutish man.
Even though her brother acted out the traditional role and made disparaging comments about her ironic choice to remain hidden (and in a way captive) in order to retain her freedom, she knew he was proud of her spirit. He could easily have turned her in, or have married her off with or without her consent.
He was older, powerful, influential, wily and willing to engage in the ways of the world no matter how illogical or unfair or surreal the circumstances became. And no matter his disdain for her best friend Isaac, he would never make life harder for anyone just for opportunity or even for profit; it would have to necessitate loss of territory or another primal instinct. She even suspected her brother had a kind of admiration under his scorn for Isaac’s survival, for finding his own territory marked out in the dark neighbourhoods of the city.
She also knew he felt relief at sharing the burden of her survival with another, with one trusted, without ulterior motive for predatory gain, one who felt a solidarity that remained unspoken. Remaining hidden in plain view, yet not surrendering to the all-encompassing rules and morals imposed upon the citizens by the powers that be. Thumbing their noses in the guises of an idle stretch and scratch, casual and bored, yet deliberate.
When she was first ensconced in the apartment under cover of anorak and darkness, it seemed a grand adventure and a great rebellion. Weeks grew into months, months stretched into seasons, and the world outside and its circumstances became worse, not better.
What was thought a blip on the radar of her country’s development had become a blight, an ugly tumour nourished by hatred and ignorance, and crusted by the few at the top who were benefitting by the fear and dismay that gripped the ordinary citizen. In the guise of moral indignation and sacred authority, in a heartbeat real clerics were replaced by opportunistic scavengers, the skulking vultures and chattering hyaenas of so-called civilization. They spoke loudly and quoted holy scripture often, but in their eyes were the feral stares of wild animals. You could imagine them salivating not with the prospect of mass salvation, but with the spoils of sacrifice. Circular arguments ended with dares to challenge their moral superiority.
Was it Humpty Dumpty or the Mad Hatter?, the Cheshire Cat or the White Rabbit? that had claimed that words were neither more nor less than he intended them to be, and that to infer and imply your meaning on his words, well “off with his head!”. She knew that quote was embedded in the world Through The Looking Glass, where nothing was quite what it appeared to have been once upon a time. But she couldn’t check, because that book belonged to her life well before this incarnation.
In the meantime she contemplated genus and species and Linnaean taxonomy and Latin nomenclature, that a long-dead language was the common identifier, and how that was appropriate after all. All we ever knew for certain was death, not its time or manner, but its inevitability.
She liked to believe in an afterlife, but felt guilty that her faith wavered in its existence. The afterlife she believed in had no human figures, no gender, no authorities, no species. She wondered if that was possible, and if it was blasphemous and displeasing to God to consider. She knew that the major monotheistic religions shared the Adam and Eve story and the Fall from Grace. Eve was the scapegoat, and therein was the justification in her eternal punishment and degradation on this earth.
She hoped for no gender in heaven, so she would not have to answer for Eve, otherwise she was willing to endure the eternity of the wrath of hell, expecting that male and female were punished equally. Funny to equate democracy with hell, when democracy was supposed to have been our earthly salvation (or at the very least civilization).
She knew from previous academic studies that the famed American Constitution declared all “men” created equally, but that at the time of its inception it specifically excluded Jews, and women, and blacks, and native Americans (so quaintly called Indians). And she supposed if they had thought about it in 1776 they would have excluded those like Isaac from the voting privileges as well.
In all the so-called advanced countries, the privileges were granted by authorities, not sacrosanct and equally inherited at birth. What had been granted could be relinquished, voluntarily or by force.
Her country had once flourished, but she knew history books were now being re-written to exchange heroes and traitors, to exalt those who were fallen, and to fell those who had been exalted. She had thought her country to be exempt, immune from the DE-volution it was experiencing. But now she knew nothing was certain.
There was an expression she had learned that only death and taxes were certain. Well she knew of those who evaded taxes, but as of yet, none who evaded death. That was the great equalizer and she thought of it often with blessed relief. At the same time she did not welcome it or try to accelerate its introduction.
She felt that she was not cowering in the darkness, hiding in a hole, but rather being clever – defying their imposed rules, and with every day, with every book she read, with every breath that she took under her own power she grew in spirit and in essence and individuality. That her self-directed thought, and original hypotheses, and creative direction were pleasing her creator, and proving herself worthy of paradise, in fact a wonderful addition to it. The sum is greater than its parts, and she was more determined than ever to be a greater part than she ever had considered before.
She liked to forget that the male tigers and bears were bigger and more powerful than the females, and instead think about the size and power of the females themselves. Compared to most members of the animal kingdom, and carnivores in general, the tigresses and she-bears were giants to be respected and given a wide berth. Except for those annoying child-rearing years, with young hanging on past adolescence and usually well into the next child’s appearance, there was an essential selfish wildness that was very appealing.
There were many species of bears and they seemed to cover much of the northern hemisphere although some had been wiped out as their habitat was appropriated by man. But she liked to think of pockets of bears, unknown to the humans nearby, that managed to survive and remain true to their nature. She liked the fact that they were omnivorous, which implied harmony with their environment.
On the other hand, tigers, the largest of the wild cat family had a much smaller initial habitat and were therefore much more threatened, but the parts of the world they did originate from were ancient and important and established by God, whether or not the white west saw it that way. Tigers were to be feared and respected. They were rarely man-eaters unless corrupted, and were even known to walk right past a human in their territory if unperturbed.
But of course, both the bear and the tiger trophies, in corpse form, are seen to enhance manhood. One example where the female originally had rare advantage, as the larger, more ornate, more impressive male was THE trophy to possess, but it seemed for a White Man, any lion or tiger or bear would do, oh my! But a female tiger, cunning and camouflaged, hunting carnivorously, yes that was a model of power, regal in its bearing.
She played back and forth on which she admired more, the tigress or the she-bear, although she was unlikely to see the true specimen in its natural habitat ever in her life span. Zoos didn’t count. And then when she played that back in her mind it made her laugh, for she was living in a form of zoo as well.
The back room faced east, and therefore sunrise, and the back-deck. At the far end of the deck was a fire-escape staircase, which was nice to know, but which was more threatening? an actual fire in the apartment, or being found and arrested?
She could dare to sneak out on the deck by dark of moonless night, quietly, barefoot, but not if weather conditions were to leave evidence. Footprints were deadly in the damp, or worse the snow, evidence of a feminine foot instead of a large male boot, evidence of inhabitation of the apartment rather than visitation from the back stairs. It couldn’t be risked.
She had learned that from the back room windowsill to the railing was less than one large stride. Through observation she learned that squirrels or cats or wind were likely to disturb whatever precipitation had already settled and therefore there was little possibility of evidence on the railing itself as compared to the deck. The railing was between 7 and 10 centimeters wide, plenty of room for balance and grip.
Another of the animals that fascinated her was the chimpanzee, and she had read that when a chimp saw a human’s bare foot it would exhibit a curiosity about the big toe, for a chimp’s big toe was opposable just as our human thumb is, and it seems they wonder at our deformity and therefore disability.
She remembered happier times of her childhood, when her brother would scale doorways, one foot on each side, toes splayed, much to the dismay of her mother for the dirty footprints he would leave behind, but much to the amusement of their father for his physical ability. “Monkey” was his nickname within the family, but not expressed to outsiders for fear of their judgment. She loved her brother’s easy ability with sports and adept coordination, and always hoped she could emulate it.
But back then, there was no time, she was immersed in her books, and her new worlds, and her ideas. Now she spent many hours in silence practicing stretches, stretching ligaments and muscles to their extremities, trying to stretch out the time with the exercise, looking for a mindless release with the physical pastime.
At the back window she preferred to think of herself as a tiger rather than a bear, and cat-like she would stretch one leg out, but then ape-like she would grip the railing with the first foot and then the next. In a limbo kind of exercise her full body would follow, and she would be squatting on the railing, gripping it with her feet and toes, but confident in her balance, bear-like she would prepare to rise vertically from her squat.
Isaac would bring her almanacs and newspapers and she always had a reasonable idea of when the sun would rise over the horizon and shine its rays upon the back of her pseudo-apartment. One would think she would enjoy spring or summer the best, but no, it was winter that was the most glorious.
As her bare feet gripped the wooden railing, they would melt the accumulated snow and the tingle of the cold temperatures would work its way up through the soles (or palms when she thought of chimpanzees) of her feet through her shins, knees, thighs, torso, arms, shoulders, neck and head. It was better when it was cold, you could feel more. So the whole experience was more intense. Then she was careful to balance herself perfectly on the palms of her soles, squatting, with her hooded robe still all about her.
Then came the best part, the Zen part, although she wasn’t Asian or Buddhist and had hardly studied it, she felt sure she understood its essence, its pureness, its unpolluted goals….
Very, very slowly in timing with the sun coming over the horizon she rose. The first half of the stance used all the muscles in her legs, and as she readied to stretch out completely, her arms came into play. With great precision she slowly stretched out her arms and as she passed an invisible point, she used her arms to slip the hood off her head and the robe off her shoulders. This she had practiced to an art. The robe slid down around her ankles but not off the railing. And as she stood, she lifted her chin high, closed her eyes, and outstretched her arms.
The morning sun, regardless of how frigid the local air was, warmed her, and she rose slowly, nakedly to meet it. She remained perhaps a full minute in pure naked bliss, kissed by the warmth of the sun, while the body heat of her feet melted the snow on the railing surrounding her toes.
This moment, this first light directed at her window, gave her a freedom she felt few could understand, and even fewer could appreciate. She never told her brother, as he would chastise her for the chance she was taking. She never told Isaac, as she felt he didn’t want to know about female nakedness.
So the moment, every morning, at dawn, as calculated through the almanacs, was hers alone. Well not alone, hers shared with God, a glorious moment of creation meeting creator. As the frigid wind contrasted with the warmth of the new day’s sun on her torso, the moment would be real, and realized, in the present, and incorrupt.
She felt like a tiger when she used the feline moves from the window to the balcony, she felt like a bear when she stood up to her full height, but most importantly, she felt like a woman when the sun hit her breasts and her face and her abdomen. And the warmth of the sun made her believe that God did love her, love her femaleness, love her individuality, love her unconditionally, and she knew no matter how many books she read, that this phenomenon would not be recorded, it could only be experienced.
And the experience of the journey from windowsill to railing and back again, taking only minutes of her day, made her more alive than she had ever been, even when she had her so-called freedom intact.
No one knew, no one saw, and yet she had performed this ritual for three seasons now, every morning, regardless of weather. The morning sun kissed her chin, her breasts, her womanhood, and blessed it. And quickly, quietly and with minimal trail the robe came back up, the feet went back in, the window sill closed, perhaps the railing mussed up with a broom, so that footprints could be squirrel or cat instead of human. And back inside to sleep and wait and nibble and read and wait again.
Neither her brother nor Isaac could promise daily visits, something was always coming up. So she spent most of her time alone, but she had a reason to get up in the morning. And she knew on some level that that was more than most people had, even before the unthinkable had happened.