She didn’t know or couldn’t recall exactly when she had left the recliner room.
She was no longer naked. That was a relief. She inspected the loose, sleeveless shift that reached down to mid-thigh. It was joined underneath and had slits on either side. It was a pale colour, like a leaf that’s been bleached by the sun. The material was so light and insubstantial that it seemed to float on her skin, not quite touching it.
She was still weak, but she knew she could walk now. She had walked to this room. She could flex her ankles and wrists, she had almost complete control over her limbs. She had her name.
That was wonderful.
Best of all, she was alone.
Her mind was still blank. Restless, seething and blank. There was still that partition inside her head, behind which mute phantoms surged and struggled, a crowd of shapes thrusting against a stretched white curtain. She could sense them churning, throwing their weight against the curtain, as if desperate to be released. Yet she could hear only the faintest of sighs and whispers from their side of the divide. She could do nothing to invite them over to her side.
She had to find a way. To get out, to break free of the restricting veils surrounding her. Her mind as well as her body.
How to begin? Where to start? What manner of weapon or tool did she need to employ?
She hugged her knees closer to her chest and looked around. The memory of walking to this room was more like a dream than reality. She had been flanked by two attendants. They had told her not to run along the corridors because the floor was in some way fragile. It could not support the weight of more than four people at a time, along one length of passage.
￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼She hadn’t tried to understand what that meant.
The room she had been brought to had a curved, irregular shape. It contained no furniture. She could lie flat inside it if she wanted, with her arms and legs stretched out, and stand up straight on tip-toe with her arms extended upwards. That was about it: the room conformed to her dimensions with very little space to spare. The walls were knobbly, like the recovery room, and curved inwards at the ceiling. All visible surfaces in the room, including the floor, were a shiny sea-green in colour, giving off a slight luminescence. From the ceiling, a single tentacular light had been pulled down, its white tip dangling above her head, just within reach.
It was quite bright, this light. It shone uncomfortably close to her face. She put up her hand to push it aside and was shocked when it flinched away from her finger.
Wait! I didn’t even touch you, she thought.
She reached up towards it again. Had she imagined the movement? No: it flinched again.
That shouldn’t happen. She looked reflexively over her shoulder, as if expecting to find someone else there, watching her. There couldn’t be, of course. She was leaning against the wall. There was no space for anyone to sit behind her. But the sense of being observed persisted. She looked back at the lighted tip of the tendril that hung down from the dark ceiling.
Can I turn you off, she wondered. There was no other light in the room. If she could turn this one off, then even if there were hidden cameras she would be in darkness.
She extended her finger once again towards the light, without touching it. Okay. So you move away even before I touch you. But what if I –
She snatched at the light, tugging sharply.
Immediately, the tendril retracted, slithering with surprising force out of her grip, straight up into the ceiling. There it blinked twice and went out, leaving a faint after-image of itself against the surrounding blackness. The luminescence in the walls provided the only light now.
Oh! she thought. Oh! You move fast, don’t you? Though it was embedded in the ceiling, the tip of the light was still just visible. It did not look all that far away. She believed she could reach it if she stood up.
Her joints creaked as she got to her feet. She was extremely stiff. With one hand against the wall, she reached with the other hand towards the ceiling. It was quite a stretch. For a while, she wasn’t sure she could make it. Standing on the balls of her feet, she paused, then bounced up, and with the tips of her fingers bumped the still-glowing light-tip.
Instantly, across the ceiling and then more gradually extending down the wall surfaces of the room, a breathtaking projection bloomed.
The night-sky, in all its velvet blackness, sprinkled with diamonds, cold and magnificent, spread its unfathomable wings over her head. She knew it was only an illusion yet her skin prickled with delicious awe. She was standing alone in the Universe, with only the dark green floor beneath her feet to anchor her to the Earth.
She turned her head from side to side, finding – yes, she remembered these names – Cassiopeia, Orion, the Big Dipper. Her old friends, her favourites. The Pole Star. The Andromeda Galaxy. Sirius.
She raised her arms in gladness, embracing the vast expanse, her spirit soaring. These names had not vanished behind the curtain of oblivion.
For long minutes she drank in the sensation of being out-of-doors. She breathed in deeply, even as she chided herself for imagining that the air smelt different, that she could hear the sound of the ocean lapping at invisible rocks in the distance, because of course she could not. Then she lowered herself to the floor, her face still turned up towards the illusion of sky, smiling.
She did not even know that she had fallen asleep until she was awake again. She looked up at once to see if the constellations had shifted to accommodate the change of time.
Yes. She could no longer see Orion.
By her reckoning, that meant she had slept three hours, maybe four. She wondered why she could smell food. Then she looked around and saw that the floor was no longer bare. There were two covered dishes near her, plus a pair of hinged spoons and a napkin.
Excerpted with permission from The Island of Lost Girls, Manjula Padnabhan, Hachette India.
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