No Nightmare

Sound came first. Two distinct cycles of exhalation. The closer one was faster; mine. A high-pitched buzzing above. Tactile feeling returned gradually. At first, a cranial vibration coincided with a high ringing, receding quickly into the distance. Throbs followed, synced with my pulse, which was elevated but slowing. Light rays began to refract, supplying my retinas with images. The shock of brightness pierced me with another fleeting jolt of pain. My sight resolved onto a body prone on the floor, its ankles tied tight with surgical tubing held in place by knots more tricky than I know how to fashion, its upper body bound by a sterile white straitjacket. It was illuminated by two pairs of fluorescent rods hung from chains on opposite sides of the space, a uniformly cementitious enclosure, with the two of us staged dead center. It was dim, reducing the spectrum of visible color, depriving us of the appearance of warmth. I could see clearly aside from when folds of matter vanished into shadows cast by the body fore and aft. I oriented myself this way, though we felt rooted, buried even, certainly not aboard any vessel in motion, at least none my stabilizing equilibrium could detect. It seemed like a basement with no egress windows, stairs, bulkhead, or hatch. The captive was pleading to be released. There was no one else present.

“Please, please, please, please, please. Please, untie me. Please. Please. Please.”

Its voice was a tinny, high tenor, raspy from overuse, and its face, though despairing, was fresh and youthful—possibly thirty, but that’s my default guess for everyone. I am no stranger to syncope, but I’d never before come to already standing until then, when I did. My quivering knees unlocked, and I settled down into my joints. My heartbeat had yet to slow to a resting rhythm. Having such power put me in a panic. Not only am I not the kind of person to tie someone up, I also wouldn’t willingly stand guard over one, no matter what they’d done.

“Please, please, please. Untie me, please, please,” The captive continued, and still I did not know how to respond. Its calm despair wracked me with guilt. The request seemed reasonable, the situation unjust. The captive had every right to be indignant, and yet it managed to resist mania. It could have been thrashing about but was instead acting rationally, communicating clearly. In its simple, repeated plea, there was also a threat. An or else, an and then.

Beneath its crossed arms, it was unclothed. I couldn’t quite translate its length to a height, but it was of medium or smallish stature. Aside from its flushed face, its flesh was sickly blue, prickly with bumps from the chill. It was cold; I was also cold, though adequately clothed. Its bare flesh might have suggested sexual violation had it not been precluded by the necessary parts’ absence—not that there weren’t other possible sources of pleasure and ways of attaining it without consent, but the drive to pursue them had also been removed—from both of our bodies. Smell finally returned with the scent of something freshly extruded, like mildew resistant shower curtain liners. I could feel chemical endocrine disruptors wreaking havoc on my hormones, making me hungry. There were too many discomforts to keep track of. The captive’s bound body was not in visible distress. Its face was serene, not strained. It reminded me of a trussed chicken, ready to be browned.

Some people might have nevertheless found the situation arousing. My mother, for one. It’s taken her a few husbands to learn what she likes. I wholeheartedly wish for her happiness, but I don’t need to know all the details. She came to discover her preferences even before the Fifty Shades books, which she called “inaccurate, reductive drivel.” I may be more puritanical than is becoming to admit these days, though I think my own appetites, or rather, absence of them, are more complex than is the case for a common, repressed prude. Maybe there’s something fortuitous about learning what one knows about BDSM from one’s mother. Psychoanalysts would have plenty to say on the subject, but fortunately, I don’t know any. My second step-father, Adelbert, on his first appearance at a family Christmas gathering, gave me the 600-page illustrated Ashley Book of Knots with a wink that brought bile to the brim of my windpipes. To be fair, he is a seaman, but the convergence of his proficiency with my mother’s newfound desire, while convenient for them, made it impossible to empty my mind of thoughts, logistical questions, and scenes in which one’s mother ought not play a starring role. All this to say, while I may once have had a passing interest in learning to tie more kinds of knots—the way I’ve also never gotten around to learning regional species identification, celestial navigation, how to speak another language or even in a convincing accent—I never even made it past the introduction of the book I’d been given. In cases where it would have been a valuable source for a pressing task, I avoided it. The book is lofty and beautiful, clearly a work of passion. Snippets of the language remain lodged in my memory due to the intense focus I lent, in my one attempt, to repeatedly reading the same sentence over to avoid thinking about extratextual applications. “An uncomplicated strand is a palpable object … If we move a single strand in a plane, interlacing it at will, actual objects of beauty and of utility can result … which provides an opportunity for an excursion that is limited only by the scope of our own imagery and the length of the ropemaker’s coil.” It stayed—and remains, as far as I know—in the un-alphabetized reference section of my shelf alongside books about how to work wood with hand tools and repair Mark I Volkswagens and the Big Book. Just as I know that to delve any deeper into that functional volume would bring about unwelcome, whole-body nausea, I knew that freeing the captive would end badly for me.

“Please, the knot. Please, untie the knot. Please, untie me,” the captive said, moving suddenly and causing me to flinch, but it just rocked its hips side to side, momentarily freeing the flesh of each bare buttock, which, airborne, congealed like a small drop of condensation before flattening again against the ground. The captive was clearly aware of and in tune with its body. I suspected the captive was not just thin but fit; capable, not weak. The lower hem of the jacket was unfinished beneath a canvas belt, seemingly rough in a handmade way, with attached loops encircling each thigh, framing nothing in the way of genitalia, hardly worth notice or mention if I weren’t trying so hard to explain what happened.

Sexlessness isn’t uncommon. I think of mine as recent, but it’s been a few years now. Their methods are discrete enough that no visible scarring is left. The only evidence is the blankness, the substitution of a Barbie-like pelvic stump. It was a source of fascination at first—it’s impossible smoothness, the absence of nerves left to respond to my careful fingers—before incuriosity about bodies fully set in. It seems unlikely that full physical removal is medically necessary for their purposes, and I suspect that aspect to be symbolic. As objectionable as it may be, it does eliminate any confusion. Even with my full view of the captive, I couldn’t have known how long ago they’d been changed. Any post-pubescent virile male or premenopausal woman in a household earning less than the median income was offered the chance. In exchange, those operated upon got a payout. It was a variable amount, subject to some bizarre market fluctuations, but it never dipped below a life-changing amount for those truly in need. Think ten or twenty times an annual income. They claim the program brought the poverty rate down from 15% to 3%, which are just arbitrary numbers based on a yardstick they’ve invented and change at will, but I have seen firsthand how entire communities have benefitted from a small portion’s self-sacrificing windfall. With so many unshackled from wage slavery, statistical unemployment climbed, but they’ve stopped reporting the number, they don’t really need us to do their work anymore. It’s a well-branded but overt eugenics program designed to entice poor people to voluntarily end their family lines, sold with words like “mercy” and “dignity”, with even the most extreme right-wingers celebrating “a new era of the Welfare Queen”, but they’ve ignored the fact that our eventual absence from their world won’t make it any more habitable by them. I don’t know what math helps them justify the idea that my not having kids will extend the runway to address their own excess. At best it’s bought them another generation of searching for other ways to forestall inevitable catastrophe. There were and still are people holding out hope, fighting to reverse the balance and lure or force the heaviest resource consumers into changing their ways. Enrolling women is understandably more instrumental to their effort, thus their payouts are greater. Benevolent matriarchal rule has developed in poor neighborhoods. Women are banding together to invest in sustainable farming, modest energy generation, and climate-agnostic shelter enhancement and construction, all of which they freely share. The payout for men is inevitably less, but still appreciable. Many are simply trying to make the most of what life they have left, savoring the delight of not having to just scrape by. Even though they are less generous, failing to make their sacrifice more beneficial to others, people don’t hold it against them. They’re treated with benignancy, like a protracted assisted suicide. I admit that others may think of me this way.

I intended to keep up with the cause even after my operation, determined to be no less invested in righteous justice, to submit my body to their cruel system solely for the monetary gain, for which I had so many lofty plans. Though I had a wife, we’d already decided not to become parents. The government had tried to figure out if there was any reliable way to detect cases like ours: people who’d cash in without making an incremental contribution toward meeting their depopulation goals, but they couldn’t find a way to avoid letting on that they knew what they did if they were, in fact, aware of such private, personal matters. Publicly, they made the case that it was still a worthwhile use of taxpayer money since people like us could otherwise later change our minds. There’d also been talk about whether to allow existing parents to participate, or, on the other end of the spectrum, to limit it to unmarried singles, but they wound up removing most restrictions. I can’t imagine any of this is sounding unfamiliar, but I’m doing my best to elucidate what happened as thoroughly as I can.

My mom aged out of eligibility for the program. Adelbert refuses on principle. He already has two sons, theoretically brothers to me, with whom I’m friendly but not close, both of whom are resisting the offer for now. The younger is a sushi chef’s apprentice in town at a restaurant we were never able to afford before, though my mom said it would mean a lot to him, so we made a point of visiting once we could. In the brief moment he had to chat between ladling miso soups we admired his carbon-steel knife, a gift from his boss. He was proud of its dimples and discoloration, signs of faithful use. It had taken him some time to find a job that suited him, and he’d stumbled into it by accident. His devotion to the work subsumed most aspects of his life. He ditched his belongings in order to fit into a shared apartment walking distance from the job, which took up all his productive hours so that outside of his shifts, he only had time for sleep and an occasional trip to the gym. Adelbert’s older son recently moved south and is being radicalized into militant conservatism. When I first heard my mom say so, I thought she was joking, but by way of substantiation, she detailed his new collection of guns, the kinds of emblems now present on his attire, and some horrible things he said about “foreign invaders”. As she spoke of the unfortunate turn, Adelbert hung his head, wordlessly ashamed. The one nearby has accepted my decision even though he doesn’t agree with it. I fear the older one won’t be so understanding.

After a few post-op months of keeping up my regular routine of organizing meetings, I stopped. I’ve been busy with other things. I took up survivalist hobbies, hence the reference shelf, under the guise of being able to share my knowledge, to pass down the benefit of my experience to those who, though not my own offspring, will survive me, but my pursuits feel purer in isolation. I also have to admit that I am not a natural teacher. Outwardly, people have accepted my justifications that after mastery, I’ll return to the fold, that until then I’ll at best only be taking up space, and at worst blindly leading the blind. They know, my wife and all of her collaborators, that I’ve been withdrawing, unable to be honest with them or myself, and they’ve let me. In spite of myself, I’ve grown complacent, resentful, resigned and fatalistic in a way I didn’t know how to fight on my own, but I am alone. Though I am still a man, the concept means much less to me. If someone were to argue with me about it, I would likely concede. Other societies have accepted notions of non-binary gender identities, though rarely without some degree of stigma. Our own cultural circumstances may be too preoccupied to invent and propagate new categorizations. Somewhat ironically, people seem coldly aware of the biological facts of my anatomy but devoid of the energy to hold it against us.

Even now as I try to explain, I’m shaking, I’ve got no control over my anxiety-singed muscles. My nerves are permanently wracked, forever scarred by the ordeal. It’ll seem convenient that there’s so much I don’t remember about how I got there, standing over the captive. I’ll be suspected of greedily alleviating my own conscience. I’m not making excuses, I wouldn’t even know how. At the beginning of the memory, there was momentary tranquility suddenly jarred into horror by the impossible situation and my failure to understand how I came to inhabit it. To be honest, it feels like it was a test. A test without a right answer, a dilemma with no positive outcome. The captive might not have known I was like it, as the evidence was obscured by my relatively substantial covering, though those of us who’d given up our sex are often able to sense this likeness, gifted with a heightened awareness like how those born blind can be especially sensitive to sound, smell, and touch as compensation for their visual void. This intuition is also similar and familiar to anyone used to gauging menace from first impressions. I desperately wanted to inform the captive of our kinship, but it felt irrelevant, even manipulative. I also didn’t yet feel confident that I could trust my own voice. The captive wiggled its toes and tried a new sweet-talking tone.

“Just loosen this knot here, please,” it said, the kind of simple request intoned like a cashier asking for payment, or an aunt in need of the gravy. The words did not betray whether its expectation was that I would comply or resist. I also did not know what to expect from myself. It seemed necessary to figure out my role, what kind of agent I’d been set up to be, whether I’d decide to fulfill that plan. Though I wasn’t the captor, I needed to figure out if I was guard or liberator. The captive was reasoning with me, appealing to my sympathies. I was myself, I knew who I was: my name, date of birth, location of residence and so on, but there had been a lapse. The continuity of my experience had broken. As I continued settling into myself, reinhabiting the active consciousness I was plunged back into, I summoned my convictions and realized that I’d have to free the captive. Even though I knew nothing about how or why it had come to be restrained, nothing could justify the alternative scenario in which I prolonged its bondage. At some point, I had begun weeping, which explained the captive’s changed approach with me. If our positions had been switched, I might have been hostile and aggressive or begging to negotiate, trying to discover some leverage. Its voice was soothing, intended to pacify me enough that I could act according to its wishes. Tears gathered at my chin, and I wiped them along with the snot on my sleeve, sniffing with a jolt to clear my nasal passageway.

The captive was calm and still while I trembled, imagining the forthcoming sequence of events. I knew that when I freed it, it would almost certainly retaliate against me for its circumstances. It had no reason not to turn the tables on me, to knock me out and tie me up. As a pacifist, I’d be hopeless in defending myself. The captive, on the other hand, clearly had some physical ability, otherwise, why would it have been restrained in the first place? The best-case scenario was its passive gratitude, though we’d then be stuck together, subject to the wrath of whoever put us there if or when they might ever return. The worst possibility was the one I’d been instinctually picturing in my mind since returning to it: my complicity was already so far beyond absolution that the captive would hastily enact its retribution, and the range of possibilities of how that might go was overwhelming. I’d seen myself hung from the light’s chains, my skull dashed against the wall, garroted with the very tubing I would loosen from its feet. I had to force myself, knowing it wouldn’t end well for me. There would be no good outcome. I finally spoke.

“I am going to free you, please do not hurt me,” I begged, as if it was already the one in control of the situation and not the one currently at my mercy. The gap above its clavicle closed slightly, suggesting half of a nod, though not necessarily assent. As I bent my body down, I fought to contain my uneasiness, and the captive’s body remained placid but came alive, tensed with anticipation. I moved my hands slowly towards its feet, and I heard myself blubbering.

“Why are we here? I don’t know why we’re here like this. I don’t know what I did, what you did.” Sensing my words might’ve come off as an accusation levied, I quickly added, “Maybe nothing. I don’t need to know,” and began to work the knot.

“Yes,” the captive responded. “One does not always know.” It was tranquil. The tubing was cinched in a deceptively simple-looking loop. Now, with my own words flowing, I couldn’t stop them.

“Do you know? Nevermind, you don’t need to tell me. It wouldn’t be right. It isn’t right. This shouldn’t have happened. I don’t know what happened,” I babbled, instinctually trying to earn clemency with both word and deed. I freed a tiny bit of slack from one strand entering the bulk of where the tubing coiled confusingly around itself. The cord’s elasticity made it extra tight.

“What happened doesn’t matter. What matters is what’s happening.” I could not tell if the captive was concealing its hostility, luring me in, tricking me into believing in forgiveness for all of what I might have done. As I fussed with the knot, I kept waiting for it to lose patience with me. There was no apparent source of urgency, though I felt hurried. I fed a loose end through where it appeared to be tucked, but when it came free, the knot hadn’t lost any of its integrity.

“I wish I had a knife,” I said. It would save me time. Then again, it would introduce the potential for a greater threat. It would lead to yet another kind of violence. For the first time, I noticed the captive’s eyes torqued down in their sockets, gazing over its cheeks at my progress.

“That would change things, yes, but you do not need one,” it said. The captive had no choice but to believe in my ability to figure this out.

I did, and free of their binding, its legs rolled slightly outward to a more natural distance from each other. The captive did not attempt to rise.

“Please, this jacket, my arms,” it said, shrugging its shoulders, the canvas taught over the arms crossing its chest.

“I’ll have to roll you over to get to the buckles,” I said. The captive’s murmur registered as something less than assent, but there was no other way. With its legs free, it may have been able to generate enough momentum to flip over, but such a dramatic movement would have reflected the violence of its subjugation in a way that it had so far refrained from doing. I paused to allow the captive to suggest something else, and after it didn’t, I knelt on one knee at its side and levered a hand under its closer shoulder. As the captive’s torso twisted up to expose the breadth of its back, its legs gracefully positioned themselves to prop it on its side, preventing it from flopping on its face, and freeing both of my hands. I was careful to avoid touching its skin, though at that point I couldn’t imagine that would have made things any worse than they already were. Unlike the cord around the ankles, the series of canvas straps held fast by buckles were much easier to disengage. Sensing that I’d finished, the captive lowered himself flat. I raised up to my feet and took just one cautious step back, not wanting to betray my terror, waiting for it to remove the loosened jacket. At that point, it should have had a decent range of motion with its arms, but perhaps I had misjudged the captive’s agility.

“I can’t do it myself, please, pull it off over my head,” the captive asked. Maybe the jacket obscured further disfiguration, atrophied arms, an impotent upper body, maybe its limbs had been bound so long that they’d forgotten how to move, fine motor skills lost.

There was no way of doing this gently, but I went slowly, moving steadily. I pinched the fabric at its shoulders and began to tug. The captive lifted its head slightly and then continued to curl up, compressing its abdomen and rounding its back to free the jacket from where it was pinned to the floor. It slid easily, the neck opening only barely catching on its chin and then ears, but the captive adjusted as needed while I drew back. The integrated sleeves brought the captive’s arms up overhead and were the last parts to be set loose. Now completely naked, it sprang up in a wild maneuver, twisting midair to face me, and cocked its fist back, but this time I did not flinch. I was resolved, ready to subject myself to punishment. I do not know if it actually struck me, though when I regained consciousness I could feel no acute pain from a blow, just a full-body ache. I expect to be judged harshly for what I did or did not do. For what I let myself forget. Are you the one I freed? No. It can’t be. Please, untie me.  

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