The Big Purple
by S. H. Mansouri
Four white walls, like porcelain drapes, met Maggie’s weary gaze in every direction. The box that housed her was semitransparent, and the only sign of life outside was the occasional shrouded shape that danced across the walls like a shadow play beneath a cotton sheet. The ceiling was open, save for row upon row of cold shimmering silver bars that shot horizontally across the sky. Translucent, brightly-colored plastic tubes were strewn throughout the inside of the box, curving along the corners like neon caterpillars.
She stretched her neck upward and breathed in a concoction of scents: acetone, formaldehyde, latex, and ethanol. The dark, empty space inside these four walls comprised the entirety of her existence. However, Maggie knew from the slightest inkling of hope that the world she truly belonged to was somehow much bigger than anything the box-shaped unit could contain.
The ground beneath her was a mixture of wooden shrapnel and cedar dust that cushioned her every step in the darkness. Groggy and languid, Maggie traversed the yard, climbed to the top of a red tube and gripped her paws around a metal nipple that hung down between the bars on the ceiling. She chugged voraciously from the water dispenser, her stomach expanding like a furry, brown balloon. Satiated, Maggie jumped down from the tube and scurried back to bed, where she burrowed comfortably next to her cellmate, Fran.
Maggie awoke just as the artificial lighting flickered on. It was binary, sunlight that rose and set at the flip of a switch. The light broke through uniformly spaced bars on the roof above her unit, casting a thousand striped shadows across the wood shavings on the yard. A small corner of the unit, near the front wall, was hidden from the light. It was the only patch of shade available in the cramped quarters of Maggie’s little world.
Her eyes, a tiny pink pair of pursed lips, took some time to adjust to the shock. Fran’s body pinned her against the inside of a blue tube they sometimes slept in, grinding her thigh bone into a rubbery joint near the middle of the tube. She squeezed herself flat against the inside of the tube and slid free from underneath Fran’s bony frame. If it weren’t for the fact that Fran was the most fragile and naive creature she’d ever run into, Maggie would have ditched her weeks ago.
Peering her head out of the circular entrance, she spied Betty, looming over the food container.
Betty was a wild card, a whirlwind of insanity, fury, and pain, doused with an unpredictable ferocity. She looked across the unit at Maggie, her beady black eyes taunting, and slowly began to squat down above the rim of the food container.
Maggie scurried back into the tube, first nuzzling, then frantically shaking Fran free from her dreamy state.
“She’s about to piss on the food supply again,” whispered Maggie. “Wake up, Fran.”
Fran squeaked, a high-pitched objection that echoed throughout the belly of the flimsy tube. She turned toward the light, yawned, and shook loose the newspaper scraps she used to fight back the chilling draft during nights when the heat was turned off. She was always cold.
Maggie ran to the entrance, bending her neck back to see if Fran was ready to go.
“Get up, you lazy albino! Do you want to starve today?” said Maggie.
Something far outside their tube shifted, then scurried away. Glossy eyes shone dimly from the shadowy corner on the front wall, like two twirling drains being emptied.
Fran ran to Maggie’s side, and they looked out onto the yard. Betty was nowhere in sight.
The two girls crept out, sprinted, and paused, repeating the same pattern several times over. Fran focused on avoiding a collision with Maggie’s rear end while she led the charge across the yard to the food container.
The air, normally humid with a hint of excrement, became thicker and more concentrated the closer they got to the food container. They smelled it before they saw it: the pungent odor of fresh urine.
Fran’s neck recoiled as her face puckered and wrinkled up. Maggie gripped the silver rim of the food container and poked her head over the top. A pile of perfectly edible food, leftover from the night before, had been sullied. It was clumped in large gobs where Betty had squatted, and in long trickling streaks where she had made her escape. The trail ended near the remains of a dismantled exercise wheel, a tower of mangled yellow metal and mesh in the middle of the unit.
“What are we going to eat now, Maggie?” mumbled Fran. She moved in close and squeezed her hands inside the crevice of Maggie’s armpit for warmth.
Maggie shuffled through the pieces of food that were still dry. She pulled out a single sunflower seed, intact and lightly freckled with large specks of salt, and gently handed it to Fran, who yanked her hands out from inside Maggie’s steamy pits and took the morsel. Fran cupped the seed with two hands and held it up to the light for inspection: closing one eye and measuring with the other like a proud prospector.
“Breakfast,” said Fran with a grateful grin.
As she raised the seed to her quivering lips, a small drop of yellow liquid fell from the sky and landed on Fran’s first meal of the day.
“Hope you enjoy it; I buttered it for you,” said a voice from above.
Fran tossed the seed away before the first golden droplet could race down onto her upper lip.
Dangling from a single bar on the ceiling was Betty, her shadow swaying back and forth across the ground like a pendulum. She cackled maniacally, then gazed vacantly at Fran, who stood aghast. Maggie’s brow compressed inward, her eyes glistening slits that fumed with pent-up energy. Betty had crossed the line this time.
“It comes from the sky—from the purple serpent,” echoed Betty from above. “That five-headed dragon that lays out gifts for us and then snatches the breath from our very lungs. It’ll come for you sooner than you think, little white. The second you feel yourself safe inside that tube, all snuggled up and cozy next to your sister there, it’ll come. I fill the gifts with piss now; it’s the least I can do to repay the big purple.”
Maggie steeled herself, ran to the pile of jagged metal mush, and yanked down on it, toppling the yellow tower that Betty had so meticulously erected. She leaned back and said, “Do you ever close that twisted mouth of yours, Betty?”
Thin lines of red liquid bolted down Betty’s legs as they dangled in midair; she had gnawed them raw.
“Let’s see how long you can hold yourself up there now,” taunted Maggie.
“The two of you might think I’m insane, but I say you’re the ones who have lost your minds,” said Betty. “Do you believe this is the true world? It’s a box within a box, guarded by the purple serpent from above. Twice I’ve escaped, and twice I have seen the world beyond these walls. See for yourselves; escape and feel the wind and the sunlight on your faces. Out the door, through the halls and to the right, where the walls are made of glass. Then you will feel true freedom’s ache.”
Noticing that the madness in Betty’s eyes had waned, Fran pushed off from the food container, approached the base of the crumbled tower, and looked up to Betty with a wide smile on her face. She endorsed Maggie’s conquest with a short burst of laughter just before Betty spat out a green wad of mucus that splashed across her back. Fran jumped down from the base of the crumbled tower, scurried to the opening of her tube and cowered inside, scraping her back against the inner lining to rub off Betty’s putrid phlegm.
The confines of the shadowy corner creaked and ruffled.
The sky moved in ominous fashion. A small circle of shadow, like a black coin, expanded in one swift movement to the size of a God’s fist, slamming down on top of the roof of the unit, jolting the steel bars downward and bending them momentarily.
Betty fell from the sky. The pads of her feet passed through the soft upper layer of flooring as the bottom half of her body sank in deeper. Fran buried herself beneath soiled newspaper in her tube. Maggie sprang back and stumbled into the shadowy corner near the front wall.
“Stay still, be quiet, and wait,” whispered a voice from behind her.
Thunder crackled above the unit. Then silence, absolute silence. The light was extinguished and Maggie found herself in unfamiliar territory.
Inside the shelter of the shaded corner, Maggie sniffed, prodded, and poked her way around the short distance between herself and the swirly jaded eyes that had become a fixture on the front wall. Sometimes the eyes were open (usually following the onset of light before breakfast), and sometimes they were closed, matching the darkness so completely that Maggie could not tell if they were dead or sleeping. The eyes had been in the unit before any of the girls arrived, and would remain in the unit long after they were gone.
They belonged to Phyllis, an old, graying woman who limped out onto the yard only when she was hungry, thirsty, or needed to relieve herself. Then she would limp back along the same worn trail and disappear into a home that no one in the unit had seen or even approached, until now.
When her vision acclimated, Maggie saw the figure of Phyllis up close. She was longer and taller and grayer than any woman Maggie had seen in her short life. Her eyes were glazed over with cataracts and they did not move or focus or twitch. They only stared out emptily onto the yard through a small cutout square on a sheet of cardboard that leaned against the yellow metal framing of her corner fortress. Phyllis did not live inside a tube like the rest of the girls; she preferred instead to build her own home with scraps and materials that the big purple had stuffed inside the unit. Her marred wrinkled hands trembled unconsciously. Protruding gnarled nails wrapped themselves around a snub piece of cedar she used for a cane. Her puffy drooping face was expressionless, the result of either boredom or disinterest.
“She’s wounded, you know,” said Phyllis. “I can smell the blood. Best you pay no mind when she winds you up that way; it’s all she knows. What she needs is a mother, a willing ear, and a strong shoulder to lean on.”
The words seemed foreign to Maggie—not the meaning, but the tone—like they had been etched in stone and retold for generations as a rite of passage. Maggie could not recall her own mother, the first words she spoke, or the day she had been ripped away. A part of her protected Fran because of the story she had been constructing in her mind her entire life: the story that a mother was a superhero, a multifaceted seamstress who weaved confidence and safety from the fabric of a warm and tender heart, clothing her pups in blankets of love. But that was an illusion. The cold hard truth stood before Maggie, but she was not yet capable of understanding Betty’s plight.
“Wounded?” Maggie said. “Of course she’s wounded. She does it to herself. I’ve seen her gnaw her own arms and legs raw. Then she sits back and bleeds in the corner, wailing and whining on about a serpent, as if we’re all unaware of the beast from above.”
Phyllis sat back and watched the crater that held Betty’s fallen body. It shuffled and expanded, spewing chunks of debris until a tiny battered hand emerged.
“It’s the purple does it to her, Maggie. She’s not to blame, doesn’t know any different. She’s seen the world outside and can’t forget it now. It’ll be the end of her. How long you been here, child?”
“I don’t remember,” answered Maggie, her eyes wandering off in the darkness. “I only remember the transport: a unit like this, filled with the same artificial garbage, only smaller,”
“And how do you know it was artificial if it’s the first thing you can recall?” asked Phyllis.
“I feel it in my bones, I guess,” said Maggie.
“That feeling in your bones, it’s gone away from Betty—absent, just like her own sanity. The big purple’s all she’s got now. She intends to murder it, soon as she pulls herself together again.”
Phyllis pushed down on the top of her cane and slowly lowered herself onto a pile of shredded paper she had collected over the weeks.
“Why do you think its only women in here?” she asked.
Maggie could not remember ever seeing a man. Only the faint tinge of a memory of men existed, a brother, a different odor. Maggie did not answer.
“It’s because they kill each other. They tear into one another the moment they realize that God is a five-headed purple serpent. Us girls, we only tear into ourselves. So you see, Betty isn’t so strange after all. Men are extinct as far as I know, Maggie. The big purple killed them all.”
Betty pulled herself out from the soft flooring and rolled onto the open yard. She peered up to the ceiling, blood trickling from the corner of her mouth, and crawled back to the base of the yellow tower. She pulled a long piece of metal out from the crumbled shrine, shaped it into a circle and placed it on top of her head.
“Queen of the unit,” she shrieked up at the sky. “Come and get your queen, you purple bastard!” Her breath was labored. Fran watched her pant and scream and cry from the cover of her tube.
“What is the big purple?” asked Maggie.
“It’s everything,” said Phyllis. “It’s sustenance, thirst, reproduction, shelter and love—it’s punishment, experiment, rapture, and reward. All I know is that the big purple was here before anything.”
The lights flickered on again. The big purple lifted the ceiling and slithered inside, engulfing nearly half the space in the unit. It crashed and boomed, reaching for Betty, who twisted and writhed her body to escape. Two heads from the serpent struck out at her like pincers, grasping at the scruff of her neck. Betty dodged and darted into a corner near Fran’s tube. Five heads reeled back in unison, then plunged forward to where Betty stood, pinned against the wall. The moment they touched her, she peeled back her gums and sank her jagged, razor-sharp teeth into them.
The big purple snapped away, retreating back to where it had first worked its way into the unit. Betty’s body swung like a rag doll. She clung to its rubbery purple skin like a parasite, tasting the salt and metal of a God’s lifeblood. The force of the serpent’s recoil broke Betty’s grip and sent her flying across the unit into a rusty wheel near Phyllis’s fortress. She spit in protest before collapsing to the ground.
Maggie began inching out of the shadowy fortress, but Phyllis thrust her cane out, barring the exit to her home.
“Don’t help,” said Phyllis. “This is between her and God. If she survives, she’ll come out all the better.”
The big purple wrapped itself around Betty’s limp body and pulled her up into the sky. The ceiling closed down and darkness ensued with the flick of a switch.
“Go home, child,” whispered Phyllis. “Go and tend to your little one. Play with your memories, Maggie. Toss them and catch them and rearrange them until they come to the forefront of all that you know. And then, lock them away. You may find that the unit is where you belong.”
Phyllis watched Maggie slink out and across the yard to her battered old tube. Her eyes closed as soon as Maggie was safely inside.
“What happened to Betty?” said Fran. Maggie ignored the question. She took hold of Fran’s narrow shoulders and looked her square in the eyes.
“We’re leaving this place,” said Maggie. “The next time the big purple shows itself, we’ll escape.”
Fran was shocked. She looked around at the scattered shavings and newspapers, tracing the geography of their tube with her eyes, in short, nervous bursts.
“It’s warm in here, Maggie,” said Fran. “Why would you want to leave? We have everything we need: food—clean food, water, shelter … we have each other to keep company. Sure, Betty can get a little wild sometimes, but she’ll be gone for good soon, you’ll see. And the old woman will die off soon enough. We’ll keep it clean in here, there’ll be no fighting, no blood. We’ll make peace with the big purple. We’re family, Maggie … you’re all I have.”
Maggie played with her memory. She thought about Phyllis, the old woman who had come here from a place that she no longer remembered. There was something else outside of this dank unit, something before the big purple in the sky, before the poking, probing, and intrusion. She thought of Betty: bloody and battered, yet still fighting back with every ounce of madness she could muster. Fran’s plea, as cowardly as it sounded, was not so unreasonable if Maggie planned on living out the rest of her short life at the whim of an unknown God.
Make peace with the big purple, Maggie thought. The words washed over her like a sterile gown, masking the nascent stench of her body. Never.
“If you want to stay here, then that’s your choice, Fran. But after all I’ve done for you, make yourself useful. You’ll distract the big purple when I give you the signal. Don’t let me down, Fran. I’m counting on you.” Fran nodded, buried her head in shredded newspaper, and dozed off.
Click. Buzz. The light reflected daggers in Maggie’s eyes as she waited patiently behind her tube the next morning.
The roof of the unit creaked open and the big purple swooped down upon the food container, lifting it up into the sky. Maggie noticed the gap between the lifted ceiling and the wall nearest her tube. She straddled the tube and rapped on top of it three times with her tiny knuckles. Fran hesitated, glancing at the spot where Maggie usually slept inside the tube. Then, she made her move.
Fran sprinted out of the tube to the clearing where the food container had been. She hissed and scratched and banged her fists against the white walls like a banshee. The big purple returned, hovering over Fran, confused and hesitant to strike or move. Fran spit into the sky and snapped at the five-headed dragon. The roof moved up again. Maggie jumped. Her fingers found a ledge of the wall where the barred ceiling had been lifted. She pulled up with all her might, feet flicking against the wall as if she were pedaling an imaginary bike.
Fran glanced up and got one last look at Maggie’s pink pads before the big purple lowered the food container down on top of her. The soft upper layer of flooring cushioned the weight of the container, but Fran was trapped. She lay still, wedged between the food container and the hard impenetrable bottom of the unit. She curled herself up into a ball and wept.
Maggie squeezed between the gap in the ceiling, dropped from the outer height of the unit, and landed on a series of steel bars. She saw the unit from the outside now, as she stood balancing herself between two bars with legs stretched far apart. She slipped down between the bars and caught hold of one on her way down. She swung herself across them like an orangutan, skipping two or three bars when she could. Maggie found a large vertical pole near the end of the barred platform, wrapped her dangling legs around it and slid down.
The air from an open door tickled Maggie’s nose as her feet finally touched the solid ground. She looked up and saw that the white box she had lived in was placed in the center of a towering steel rack, like a treasure chest upon a bookshelf.
The big purple’s shadow grew exponentially. It loomed and stretched and transformed into a beast with covered feet and naked arms. White fabric waves swayed back and forth behind Maggie like a turbulent curtain tailing her. The big purple cursed, its black leather boots smacked against the shiny reflective surface of the floor tiles. Maggie saw that the big purple had left a large wooden door ajar upon entering the room. She squeezed through the door, guided in the darkness by the sweet smell of unfamiliar air.
Her legs had never moved so freely before; they pumped and pounded out in synchrony with every breath. This is it, thought Maggie. I’m free. It’s all coming back to me now. The big purple is no God.
Now outside the room that housed the unit, Maggie shot through dark hallways, sliding as she turned sharply around each corner. The scent became stronger. Down the hall and to the right, thought Maggie, where the walls are made of glass. The ground beneath her began to soften, adding traction to every stride as she made her way to the source: a blindingly bright room with transparent walls from floor to ceiling. The floor was covered in gray carpet. Maggie stopped at the end of the room and pressed her paws against a cool glass window. Her heart leapt from her chest. She was paralyzed with fright at what she saw on the other side of the glass.
Betty’s body was ripped in two. The top portion, from the waist up, lay close to the glass. Ants walked across her bones like tiny soldiers crossing a bridge. They carried pieces of her back and forth to a deep crevice in the sidewalk. Her yellow crown was slanted, delicately balanced between her half-eaten skull and the pavement. Her jaw was cracked sideways, painted with dry patches of blood mixed with saliva. She wore an oddly peaceful smile as if, in her last seconds of life, she was satisfied with her violent demise.
A large crow landed near Betty’s lower half. It cawed a brief eulogy, pecked deep into the fleshy torso, and lifted her half-eaten carcass up into the sky. Maggie watched in horror as Betty’s tail waved goodbye beneath the crow’s crooked talon.
Maggie looked up to a vent on the wall of the room she stood in, the source of sweet smelling air. Artificial garbage, she thought. She stood for a moment in the sunlight and watched trees sway back and forth in the breeze on the other side of the glass, her only reward for escaping the unit that day.
Before she could formulate her next move, Maggie was swept up by the tail. The big purple had caught up to her. She dangled upside down, swaying back and forth above miles of cool empty space. The blood that had pumped and pushed her forward, toward a new world that only briefly turned, now rushed to her head like a locomotive. It swelled and throbbed until her vision blurred, finally wiped clean as she lost all consciousness. The last thing she saw was a purple nitrile glove.
“Wake up, child,” said Phyllis, her old withered paw stroking the top of Maggie’s brown, bushy head. “It’s time to wake up.”
Maggie opened her eyes. She lay still atop a pile of cedar shavings in the shaded corner of Phyllis’s fortress. It was quiet, but the lighting droned on in the distance. Maggie rolled her head sideways, looked over to Phyllis, who stood hunched like a curved reed, and sighed the words in one breath: “Betty’s dead.”
Phyllis paused, stared off into the empty yard of the unit like she always had, reached over, picked up her cane, and lightly swatted the bottoms of Maggie’s feet.
“‘Course she is, dear. No other way to end up when you fight a fight can’t be won.”
“But you said she’d come out of this all the better. That’s what you said, Phyllis.”
“I said if she survived, child. Can’t come out better or worse if you don’t come out the other side at all. Now, I can see you’re all riled up and, well, I’m sorry—I truly am. How did she go?”
Maggie winced, then realized that the old woman couldn’t see a thing in the dark corner. Maggie’s eyes were sharp and even she could not decipher what lay but six inches in front of her.
“Ripped in two, like she was nothing, like a strong wind passed through her and decided the world was better off with two Bettys instead of one. I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Maggie.
“Then she made it outside again. That’s all Betty ever wanted. Must have been a bird or a cat, or maybe even a dog that did her in. Whatever it was doesn’t matter, most things out there are bigger than mice, Maggie. Best you stay in here; the outside world is no place for us.”
Maggie stood and stumbled over to the small cutout square. She saw the artificial light painted out across the yard.
“Thank you for taking care of me, Phyllis,” said Maggie.
She looked back at Phyllis with new eyes as she made her way out of the fortress. The old woman in the shaded corner had lost more than her sight; she had lost her light, the same light that had shined down on Betty’s bloody body. She had been in the unit for so long that nothing could have convinced her that the big purple was not a God, that all the men were not dead and that no one, no mouse or cat or bird, belonged in a small unit once they had battled their own false Gods.
As Maggie crept toward the mashed-up yellow tower she had so righteously brought down, she saw shredded bits and pieces of black and white paper flying out of the tube she once called home. Fran pushed every scrap of seed, shell, damp wooden peel and balled-up string in the tube out onto the yard. And when she was done, she sat politely at the entrance to her tube and rubbed her hands together, warming herself like a pleasant beggar. She waved to Maggie, then patiently stared up at the steel bars above the unit, waiting for her God to arrive.
Maggie reached the yellow tower. She pulled out a chipped metal rod, bent it with all of her strength into the shape of a circle, and placed it on top of her head.
“Queen of the unit,” she sighed.
Copyright © 2014 S. H. Mansouri