Across the Fence Story

Carving a path on the scorched, dust ground, the little girl went. The air was dry as a cracker and hot as iron. With eyes fixed on a hair-flick cloud above and her mind as spacious as the sky it hung in, she made her way. Empty as a balloon floating aimlessly into that serene blue.

The girl’s desert wanderings were broken by a three metres tall, metallic barrier. A perfectly constructed obstruction. The enormous chain-link fence stretched from east to west as far as the eye could see. The girl thought it marvellous. The most beautiful thing she had ever seen.

(She had never seen a tree.)

Her hand slapped her hand against the cold metal grate, making a clatter which penetrated the naked silence of the desert. Looking through the square holes, the girl found a world very different from her own. Greener.

The girl sensed a sudden cool breeze sweep through the air. But alas, it was merely the fleeting feeling of finding and immediately losing spontaneous hope. Her fingers ran along the grid-pattern of the wire. She sighed. Whatever metal this was, it was positively impermeable. Not even an industrial tractor would break through! In her mental-physical exhaustion, she slumped to the ground in the manner of a nihilistic drunk. She remained sitting cross-legged for many moments before she heard a noise that was unmistakably human.

The girl lifted her head and was at once subsumed by the presence of the being sitting across from her. She was entirely within that being’s expansive, oceanic stare. This being had shoulder-length, thick, glossy hair – which had flowers in it. Her skin was brown, her cheeks were rosy and the whites of her eyes shone as the moonlight. This being was a little girl her own age.

“Are you real?” the desert girl asked.
“Don’t be silly, of course I am real!” the girl on the green side replied.
The first girl gave the beautiful being a long looking-over. Finally she uttered “What are those things in your hair?”
“You mean these flowers?” the girl said, smiling joyously.

The girl with flowers in her hair looked as if she had just been introduced to the man on the moon’s mother-in-law. A moment of infinite speechlessness stifled the air. Finally she reached her small hand up and plucked a bellowing yellow buttercup from her crown. Her hand was just about small enough to fit through the square holes in the fence. The other girl reached her pale, sickly palm out to catch the buttercup as it fell. 

As the delicate piece of life made contact with her papery, tired skin, a surge of an inarticulable feeling rippled through her. Her bloodshot eyes were transfixed on this object so beautiful, so small and delicate, yet so complex. She was enraptured and she did not understand.

“Does it have a name?” she asked her benefactor.
“Sure. It’s called a buttercup.”
“And does it know it’s name? … Hello Buttercup, hello I am Marta.” Marta said.

The other girl exploded with laughter. “No! it does not ‘have’ a name. Flowers can’t hear you!… I think….” the girl opposite Marta said.

Marta went the colour of Uluru. She had a million more questions to ask but had no time, for far away, came the sound of a piercing whistle.

“Dinner time!” The flower-girl said. Marta’s heart fell. In a moment of unforeseen courage she said “Will you meet me here tomorrow at the same time?”. The other girl was still smiling. “Of course I will meet you. I’ll try to be here when the sun is highest in the sky”
“Ok…” Marta said.
“I’m Te by the way”
“I’m Marta”
“Bye Marta, see you tomorrow!”
Marta stood and stared as this incomprehensible creature skipped off into the wildly overgrown foliage behind her.

If the world were fabric, a massive tear had just travelled right down the seam. 

Te took her time getting back for dinner. She ran into all sorts of neighbours before reaching the family. There was a little chipmunk eating acorns. A bumble-bee feasting on a rhododendron. A slinking cat me-owing at her from a low branch of an oak. She was the last to arrive, but the rest of the community had not begun the meal until she took her seat. It was a Monday after all. After the meal, during the sharing circle, Te spoke of her encounter with Marta. She laughed about the strangeness of this pale girl who didn’t know what flowers were. People all around the table grew quiet and their faces donned serious, worrisome looks. Some exchanged solemn glances with one another across the table. They told Te about Marta’s world.

Te spent the rest of the evening in the meadow making daisy chains as unapologetic tears dribbled down her cheeks, splashing into the long luscious grass.

Marta ate dinner alone, in front of the eternal telescreen. She put the buttercup on a saucer of water. She yawned and fell asleep right there on the couch. Not long later she was awoken by the sting of a slap on her cheek. Her mother had scolded her for sleeping on the couch. She went and tucked herself into bed, placing the buttercup-saucer on her bedside locker before rushing into the sweet recess of sleep.

The next day Marta brought the saucer with the flower around town and showed anybody who cared to look. Most people shrugged. The lone buttercup had peeked the interest of a few of the very old and a few of the very young. Their eyes lit up and they were speechless with wonder.

It was a cloudy day, therefore difficult to tell when the sun was highest in the sky. She tried asking her parents what time on the clock correlated to the time the sun was highest in the sky. Her Dad told her not to be stupid, that the sun had nothing to do with time on the clock. Her Mom told her to google it. Unsatisfied, Marta traipsed off back to the fence at some indiscriminate time in early afternoon. To her delight she found Te waiting for her, in the same spot.

Te’s beautiful vitality looked dampened somewhat, as a glum look plastered her face.
“They told me about your town, My folks did” Te said.
Marta hesitated, crossed her legs and sat down on the ground, placing her buttercup on her lap. She simply glanced askance at the concerted looking Te.
“They spoke about your people. Is it true? You don’t have any plants or animals on your side of the fence? People there worship fictional numbers instead of what’s around them. People don’t hug or kiss or eat meals with their family? The people with the smallest hearts are rewarded with the largest amount of power?” Te said, gasping for breath.

“So what?” said Marta. “That’s the way life is”
“No…” said Te “That’s only on your side of the fence.”

After a stretch of silence as long as a Zen priest’s yawn, Te finally said “I brought you this”, pulling a small object from her sweater pocket. Marta was astounded. It was porcelain white, but it wasn’t painted that way. It had no headphone jack or charging port. It’s form was perfectly spirallic, it’s owner clearly did not have practical storage in mind.

Te spoke of something called the ocean, where this thing called a ‘shell’ came from. She spoke of an endless horizon unbroken by tall buildings for millions of miles. She spoke of deep depths, of mysterious creatures and of a silent water-world with a million dazzling colours. It sounded altogether impossible to Marta, a fairytale. Yet the word wasn’t unfamiliar. She had heard some adults talking about it before. Something about putting pipes under the ocean. Extracting things from the ocean. Shrinking the ocean. She had never stopped to question what the ocean might be. But from the chatter, she suspected the ocean might be a kind of toilet with advanced plumbing.

Te lifted the sea-sell, reached her dainty hand through the hole in the fence, offering it to Marta. Marta held her breath and received it ever so carefully. Again, a wave of a nameless feeling rippled through her. Another piece of a jigsaw had just been connected. She had somehow become fuller. She couldn’t explain these things.

When Marta was home she showed the conch to every child who would listen and would not allow a soul to touch it. The conch took on an air of mysticism. Many of the children came up with rumours that the conch had special powers. Soon those rumours extended onto Marta herself. Some children swore they saw her floating in the air at night, hanging and swaying with the clothes on the washing line. Some swore they saw her reflection as they stared into the flushing toilet bowl after their business. Finally word made its way to the town president. To which, upon receiving the news, twitched his moustached upper lip and gave a grunt..

The girls had arranged to meet three days later, after Te’s community harvest festival. Marta couldn’t get her head around the idea of a harvest. To her, food came from the factory. The closest thing she could think of to a harvest was the opening of a sealed plastic packet of breakfast cereal and smelling that woody-grainy-cupboard smell rise for a moment before disappearing into the odorless, lifeless air of her surroundings.

Sitting across from Marta was a girl so rosy-cheeked and festive Marta had to wonder was she dead. The only time she had seen people looking so well was in their coffins. On her side of the fence it was seen as vanity to look well while working, living. It was only when people expired did the family invest some money to get the corpse’s make-up and hair done. ‘To leave a good impression’ on those still working, living.

This time Te brought out the gift immediately. It was an object Marta had seen before, in fairytales on the eternal telescreen. She didn’t realise these things existed in the real world too. It was as red as Te’s glowing cheeks. Shiny as a new car. Round as a doorknob.
“Want to taste one of our apples?” Te said. “I picked this one myself. I thought, ‘Maybe Marta might enjoy this one’.”
“It’s real?” asked Marta? “You can really eat it?” 

Te laughed her half-concerned, half-amused laugh and passed the apple through the fence.

Marta held it, tossed it around in her fingers, rubbed it to feel the smoothness, brought it to her eyes to see the fine details, brought it to her nose to smell it.
“Magic” Marta whispered, half believing the rumours the other kids were telling about herself, wondering what marvelous tricks the apple might perform when she brought it back home.
“Go on, take a bite” Te said.
“A bite? Eat something so perfect? Never” Marta said.
“Yes, it is perfect, you can say thanks to Earth for that. It’s good to appreciate your food. However, nature is abundant, there are millions of apples. It’s ok to eat this one.” explained Te. Marta stared at the glorious red thing, brought it to her lips and took a decent sized bite.

An extraordinary taste flooded her palette. With the juices, a fresh, new life force had surged into her limp body. It was the first time she had ever eaten something that didn’t come from a plastic packet. She almost jumped for joy.

Te told her more about how food grows and about how her community doesn’t eat the factory food. Their food came from trees and from within the soil. It sounded too intimate to Marta’s ears. It sounded dirty, like sex. How could people be living so close to the earth? Sleeping so close to the ground? Eating things right out of her soil? Swimming directly in her waters? Walking under her sky minimally clad? A world where no factories to sanitize and refine the dirty things of life. Marta shuddered at this naturalness and affection of Te’s world. It all felt like a violation.

“We depend on the land for everything. So we always make sure to say thanks, it’s good to show appreciation, even just to remind ourselves.” Te said

On her way back to town she couldn’t stop thinking of the fruit forests and salad rows and bursting poly-tunnels that Te talked about. Going for a walk and being able to eat everything along the way. Although she knew it was dirty, she grew curious. She wanted to be there now, on the other side of that fence. Just to see. A hunger started to grow deep inside her. Something within her emerged, which wrestled with the thoughts of disgust. Although she couldn’t explain it in words, a longing was realised deep inside her. A natural longing for something natural, lost. Since she could not identify what it was clearly with her young mind, she simply began to long for another taste of that glorious red apple. The red apple shone in her mind’s eye.

Towards the end of her walk she was happily skipping, thinking of the red apple and already anxious for the day she could go back and talk more with Te. She was one foot past the first lamppost in town when a hand clamped down upon her shoulder. Nobody ever touched her unless she was in trouble. She immediately sensed danger.

“Never go back there again” she heard a low growl say. Her eyes travelled upwards and found the town president glaring down at her, with a stare so stern, she felt the backs of her shoulders melt. “You hear me? This lamppost is the limit. Understand?” he said. Suddenly she realised her parents were there, and many other adults too. The president addressed those ill-looking, concerned faces “What do you say this girl tries her hand in the factory? She’s had too much wildness already. Time to learn the ways of the real world and get to work.” Simultaneously, the adults nodded, solemnly.

The next day Marta saw another fence being erected. One that started at the first lamppost and went all around the town, closing it in, even further. Marta went to work in the factory. The days were grey and black. The only smell was of exhaust. The only joy was in leaving the factory and collapsing into bed. She worked all day alongside other young people who never spoke a word. What were they making? Teddy bears. 

Two years later Marta had grown to be a silent, miserable, greying young woman. Her entire library of memories were grey and nasuesting. All but three bright exceptions, three shining diamonds in the rough of her mind. A yellow buttercup, a white sea-shell and a red apple. The world was grey. Her skin was grey. Her memories were grey. The only colour were these three beautiful objects and the glow of that beautiful brown face across the fence.

It was only when the thought of ‘planned expiry’ crossed Marta’s mind, did she consider returning to the fence. During a dark, lonesome night in her bed, a single tear squeezed out of a dusty tear duct and slid down Marta’s left cheek. At that moment those three colourful memories rose to the surface of her mind. They reminded Marta of something she had long known, and long denied. She had to get to the other side of that fence. Marta vowed to do whatever she could to get beyond the town’s fortress and behind that fence that divided the world into livable and loathsome. It was her only source of light now. Her nightingale’s lamp which would guide her through the dark of her own perpetual night.

A week later Marta didn’t turn up to the factory. She left the town, saying goodbye to nobody. There was no feeling. She went to the most distant corner of town, behind the waste-water treatment plant and she climbed the fence. It was difficult. Her hands (as she had so often been told) were made for stitching plastic eyes onto teddy bears, not climbing fences. She had little strength to make it over the fence, save for a single undying mental determination to get to the land of joy. 

A solitary trek across the arid land never felt so lonesome. The land was scorched from the sun and choked dry from the lack of trees. She knew she would never go back to her town. She was in no man’s land now, a citizen of nowhere, a friend of no-one. All that existed in that present moment was this world between fences, and there was no insurance that she would be welcome beyond either of them.

When she reached the fence she instinctively shouted out for Te. Even though she had never done this before; called for Te, or shouted. She felt a certain sudden urgency encroach upon her. A sense that perhaps she was being pursued. She didn’t dwell on the thought, only shouted for Te louder. Her voice sounded like a scratched CD from the lack of use.

Eventually Te arrived at the gate. She had flowers in her hair and a shocked expression on her face. She was a woman now too. Tall, graceful and mature. As beautiful as ever.
“I thought I would never see you again” Te uttered.
“Let me come in there, please.” Marta stuttered.
“Marta. I can’t belie- It’s been so lo- How have -”
“There’s no time to talk. I need to get over this fence, help me”
“I’m sorry” Te said. “You can’t”
“What do you mean? Please … ” Marta said, hot, anxious tears running down her face.
“You can’t come. It’s not possible.” Te said, looking guilty.
“Look, I’ll do anything. I will work in the fields, I will be the cook, the nanny… I can’t work one more day in that factory.” Marta tried desperately.
“You don’t understand. You can’t come here, for the world on this side of the fence is but a concept.” Te said.

Marta was shocked. Questions fluttered around her head like dazzled birds. She simply stood, silent. Te continued

“We are a concept. Another way of living. A life in harmony with ourselves, with each other and with mother nature. We live in the perpetual moment. But this world has not yet been physically built. We are only the concept, the imaginings. We need people who live on your side of the fence to build it” Te said. 

Although what Te had said made very little sense, Marta had no time to be confused. Her sense of being followed intensified moment to moment.
“How do we build it?!” she pleaded.

Te’s turned her head to face the ground. Perhaps he didn’t have an answer for this one. A breeze blew which made her long skirt ripple. Marta took in the sight of her beautiful features as she stared softly towards the ground. She didn’t look to be thinking. She was at ease in the pause, at home in the silence, letting her words come to her with the flow of the wind.

“I have one final gift.” Te said softly.
And so, she lifted her up her hand elegantly as in times of old and stretched it through the notch in the fence. This time her hand was completely empty. It held no treasures, no fruit. What could possibly be the gift she was giving?
“Take it” Te said.
“I don’t understand!” said Marta, abundantly perplexed.
“Take my hand” Te said.

Marta lifted her own hand, quivering with uncertainty. She lightly touched off Te’s draping fingers. Te’s hand felt soft and coursing with life energy. Gently, Te took Marta’s sickly hand, in a soft yet firm grip. Marta felt as though she was rising two centimetres off the ground. Not once in her life had somebody given her touch that was not a scolding. 

“Pass it on” Te said. “This. This very thing is the string that holds the bunting together. This is what holds up the world.” 

Marta was flooding with emotions and questions which would not formulate into words. She merely uttered “What do I do?”
After another pause Te nodded and slowly began to speak “Remember this… They tell you are an individual and that the onus of your life is all on you. That is a lie. Remember this. We are knots in nets of relations. Behind the individual mask we find an ‘I’ that is always a ‘we’. What you call ‘Marta’ is but a collection of relations, a story of relations with other people. It is important to realise this, in order to abandon that idea. Remember that Marta, and things will begin to rise.”

With those words, a furious volcanic sound appeared within earshot and grumbled louder by the second. Marta whipped around letting go of Te’s hand. Both girls watched as a white helicopter lowered to the ground. A mini-sandstorm was created by the propellers winds that almost blinded the girls. Deafening, blinding, intrusive. It was enough to send Te fleeing into the sprawling foliage from whence she came. Marta observed painstakingly as a step-ladder was lowered down to the ground and a man in a suit climbed down the steps. In a moment of humiliated horror she realised who it was. The town president stepped out. “ ‘Marta 341’ – You are under arrest”

Marta stepped forward, for there was no possible chance of escape. Her guiding light had been replaced by something much deeper, and this made her confident that she was okay. She did not understand everything, but she did not need to. She trusted in Te’s wisdom. She had one final gift to show the people of town. She kept it in a pocket of her heart.

She was arrested, brought to the jailhouse but was released on parole a couple of days later, for she was a vital member of the factory personnel. People were complaining of teddy-bears who had no eyes. Her presence at work was crucial. On her first day back, she walked straight up to her one friend in the whole factory. A girl who had once picked up a pin which Marta had dropped, and to whom Marta said ‘thank you’. She went to that girl and she took her hand. She girl thought this was terribly strange but she could not deny how it momentarily made her heart beat with more flair.

That girl went home and she held her husband’s hand.
Her husband went to work the next day and held his co-worker’s hand.
He went home and held his daughter’s hand.
His daughter went to school and held her classmate’s hand.
He went home and held his sister’s hand.
She went outdoors and held her aunt’s hand. She went to work and held her secretary’s hand.

And so rippled through the town and by the end of the week they were all two centimetres off the ground. Only Marta knew of Te and Te’s world and she knew they would have to rise much higher to get there. But she also knew that they would have to rise together, for it was a life lived together that they were rising towards. They had to string themselves together like bunting. Different, each individual with their own vibrant colour, yet dependent on one another. 

Together they would overcome the worship of the fictional numbers. Together they would overcome the wreckage of all that was not-human. Together they would overcome the veneration of the small hearted men who ruled the world. But how could they become alive to the seriousness of the mess they were in, alive to the horror, and not be able to put their faith in something as simple and as soft as friendship?

And so, they rose, together.

“Of all the things which wisdom provides to make us entirely happy, much the greatest is the possession of friendship” – Epicurus

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