The Factory and the Tower
There are so many versions of my story. In some, I fell to my death in the nets. In some, I found a secret passage and escaped the factory and the tower. In my favorite story, we strap the eagle’s feathers onto our backs. Then we burst through the plate glass of the 44th floor. We fly over all the factory smoke, like Icharus flying towards the sun, except we get away with it. We don’t fall. In the distance, the factory and the tower and its smoke stacks grow smaller and smaller. Just as Arjean promised, there’s a mountain and a stream and an abundance of trees. I’ve never seen so much green. The air is so clear in this place, and the sun is shining. Light filters through the leaves, and the rustling is so loud I can’t hear anything but the turning of the earth. I can’t believe I ever doubted her.
But first there was the elevator ride up to the 44th floor. I was occupied with different stories then—stories about people who breached the executive floors without clearance. A woman was reported to have made it into a kitchen where she engorged herself on caviar before she passed out on the floor. The guards harpooned her like a whale. Or maybe it was the man who was harpooned—the one caught naked, swimming laps in the president’s private pool. There were other stories, too—of other violators, of secret trials and corporal punishments, of banishment and death. All my life, I’d heard rumors of dungeons deep below the factory floors. There were always rumors about people disappearing, but I never knew a real person, no one’s aunt or brother or grandmother, who disappeared. These stories seemed apocryphal, yet I knew what I was risking.
Arjean’s suit made me look like a proper business woman. I pulled the sleeves down over my boney wrists, but they wouldn’t stay. The suit carried a whiff of Arjean’s perfume, a fragrance of ylang ylang oil and a splash of citrus.
“Don’t fidget,” Arjean said. She adjusted the official name badge that she had forged with my fake credentials.
She had named me Skyler. I had been using the name for months, but now it felt strange on my tongue. Maybe I wasn’t built for this kind of intrigue. It required better acting, and I was suddenly sure I didn’t have the chops. I felt like a lamb dressed in canine fur. Arjean told me to bark, but I only knew how to bleat.
The elevator doors opened in the back which threw me off even more. We were on the executive floor, and the amount of open space was overwhelming. I could have cartwheeled between the walls and furniture. I wasn’t used to the freedom. I could dance here. I could run. I was a girl who could stretch out my arms forever.
Except for the public spaces in the tower, my entire life had been lived in small rooms. I had learned to make myself small. I attended tiny, overcrowded classes with compact desks and hardly enough room to scratch. I lived in a three-room unit with seven other women. I slept in the middle of a triple berth.
Even the commercial floors were cut up as businesses developed. I was 12 when I first went to work at my mother’s kiosk on the fifteenth floor where I hawked bubbling, flavored oxygen to overtired second shifters. Last year, I took a second job in one of the call centers on 23. From a booth barely wide enough to stand in, I cold-called customers selling shares of lottery tickets, luxury foods and upper-level spa getaways. I was especially good at the spa getaways. My mother always said I had top-floor taste. She said I had delusions of grandeur, but I took it as a compliment.
The call center is where I met Arjean. After weeks as the top seller, Arjean said she wanted to give me advanced training. She said I was going places and she wanted to show me the way. She dressed in silk and cashmere. She always wore silver. Silver rings on her fingers. Delicate silver hoops on her ears. She was hard to overlook. She was difficult to deny.
That was three months ago, and we had been meeting secretly for two of those months, meeting in a small hideaway she had carved out of some subterranean level, close enough to the bowels of the factory to hear the grinding and groaning of gears, the hard bellowing of pistons hammering, the butchery of metal on metal.
It was one of the few places in the factory not being surveilled because, she told me, she had re-programmed all the cameras and bugs herself, sending dummy signals to the watchers.
“Arjean, that’s so dangerous,” I said. “What if something bad happens to you and there’s no eyes watching? The cameras are there for our protection.” I was repeating an axiom I had been told all my life—one that I believed until that moment.
She laughed at me, but it was a beautiful, light laugh I didn’t mind. She said, “I’m going to have to re-program you next.”
Then she kissed me. I had spent my whole life pressed up against other people, but no one had touched me like she did. No one had looked at me like Arjean looked at me. Full of possibility.
When we were underground, it was impossible to ignore how the factory never slowed its gears, never stopped its works.
And yet, the days I rendezvoused with Arjean in her hideout felt mystical. Like I was receiving hidden knowledge. She taught me mythology and literature. I loved the Hindu stories of Krishna. I loved the rhythm and language of Shakespeare. I loved her art books with glossy pictures of ancient oil paintings, my favorite a depiction of Daedalus and Icarus, both with wings strapped to their muscled arms but Icarus’s wings melted and falling apart.
Each day, Arjean revealed a secret, each secret harder to believe than the one before it.
She said the ugly skies and dull weather of the outside world were manufactured. One of the factory’s jobs was to produce smoke and smog to obscure the view of the factory’s perimeter.
She said the never-ending streams of viscous smoke were designed to discourage us from the middle-floor observation towers. If the only things to observe were the suicide nets and general, ruinous color of gray, overcast skies, people were more likely to stay inside.
She said the watchers watched less to protect us than to supervise us. She said the windows were covered with bars, not for our safety but to keep us in.
The mission of the factory was to produce money from the manufacturing and engineering on the ground floor to the luxury residences on the upper levels. To keep people happy, goods and foodstuffs came in on automated trains from other factories. But mostly, the factory produced everything the people in the tower needed and plenty more to export.
Arjean called her father the chief executive of a complex industrial web. Arjean called him a robber baron. She called him a lord of the manor.
“He might as well be king,” she said. “The factory is his kingdom. We belong to him. We serve at his pleasure.”
I didn’t want to believe her. My family had lived in the factory for generations. We had prospered, moving up the tower from factory workers to the professional class. All four of my grandparents had stood on the factory lines. But my mother taught kindergarten, and my father wrote code before he died. I barely remembered him, but everyone said my head for business had come from him. My family had invested our savings to open the oxygen bar on 15. The people I knew weren’t prisoners. They were entrepreneurs. They were happily married. They had raised children in the tower above the clanking of the factory.
“The children!” Arjean said. “It’s the children that make me cry, believing their parents’ lies that they must stay inside for their own good, for their own protection. Really, they’re born and bred prisoners.”
Her anguish for the children moved me. “I want to believe you,” I said, but it all seemed impossible.
Arjean said there was sunshine beyond the factory smoke, that people lived outside the factory and the tower, that there were beautiful wild spaces with forests and fields. A helicopter used to take her family to a small lake in the mountains where they camped and fished for weeks at a time. There were immense trees there growing wild that dwarfed the crepe myrtles and the banana trees in the tower’s atriums.
“The lake’s a nesting ground for bald eagles,” Arjean said. “You’ve never seen one, but they’re magnificent.” Then she told me about eagles—their extraordinary vision, their hunting skill, how decisively they attack and kill. She said her father had kept a live eagle on the tower’s top floor for many years, and when it died, he hung its enormous wings in his office as a reminder.
“I want to believe you,” I said again.
“Someday, I’ll take you to the 44th floor, and you’ll see everything. You’ll see above the factory smoke, out into the distance.”
“The tower only has 43 floors,” I said. “Everyone knows that.”
“Oh, honey,” she said. “There’s so much you don’t know. Damodara tells us no one in the world is happier than those who enjoy a vast horizon.”
“Which version of Krishna is Damodara?” I asked.
“The one with a rope tied around his belly.”
On the morning Arjean had selected, I woke early and slithered out of my berth. I was already dressed in Arjean’s suit when my mother intercepted.
“Where’d you get that?” she asked.
“I bought it.”
“How could you afford this?” She brushed the fabric as if it might singe the tips of her fingers. “You have the most extravagant tastes. I forgot the stork dropped you down from the top floor.”
She said these things so often that I began to wonder if maybe I had been born upstairs. Maybe I had somehow been switched, destined to live a life beneath my natural station.
I became obsessed with finding ways to reach the tower’s upper levels. I began to see mysteries everywhere around me. I questioned everyone’s true identity, believing half the people in the tower were wearing disguises and living double lives.
When my mother picked up on my new world view was the first time she took me to the doctor, worried the fumes from the factory were making me delusional. It happened quite often: the gasses could cause a sort of allergic reaction in some people. There were cases where patients made up entirely new life stories. I was given oxygen therapy, but afterwards, I still looked everywhere for secret passages that would lead to stairs that only climbed upwards.
The furthest I ever reached beyond my mid-level clearance was the 34th floor where the tower divides into four separate towers. At the center was a Romanesque atrium with a stone fountain. The running water created an atmosphere of movement. There were trees and lush plants in giant pots, elephant ears and ostrich ferns. There were song birds among the trees. I wanted to watch the birds fly, but their movement was limited. They were housed in habitats carefully designed not to look like cages.
The 44th floor was a maze with plush carpet. I suppressed the urge to dance as I followed Arjean through empty hallways. We entered a large office, all the furniture in the room darkly finished, heavy, with ornate embellishments. There was a wall of monitors covering the right wall, each monitor displaying various views within the factory and the tower. On the left side of the room were a giant pair of wings suspended from the ceiling by nearly invisible strings.
“Those are the eagle’s wings,” Arjean said. Then she led me behind her father’s desk to show me his framed photographs. Arjean was featured in several. There was a photo of her wading in a body of water. It was the lake in the mountains. She had told the truth about the lake, about the eagle’s wings, about everything. All that was left was to look beyond the factory’s smoke and ash and watch the sun rise.
The external wall was reinforced glass. I had never seen such mammoth sized windows. I had never seen any windows without bars on the outside. A far away crack of sunlight was splitting the darkness in two. When the sun became an orb in the sky, Arjean said, “See, no smoke from the factory. Nothing from here but clear skies.
I was enamored with the sunrise, but I was even more charmed by the eagle’s wings. I walked under them and stretched out my arms so I could fully grasp the eagle’s enormous wingspan. I raised my arms to feel the weight of the bird’s soft feathers, and a quiet but insistent alarm set off.
Arjean’s father flew into the room. I’d seen his image every day of my life, but only in portrait, only speaking in video. I’d never stood in a room with him or seen him in the flesh. Now, he was three dimensional. He was real in a way I hadn’t understood.
If Arjean’s face was a map of love, his face was a map of something more ancient, something even more arcane, the bony ridge above his eyes like mountains, his nose wide and somewhat hooked like Arjean’s but exaggerated, less delicate. His skin was taut, his jaw firm. His teeth were enormous. His hair was a lusty winter. His mustache, just as white, was waxier than I could have imagined, and as he judged my subterfuge, he twisted the ends of thick hair with his sausage fingers.
He had the eyes of an apex predator, black and lifeless, full of super-human ability, and I couldn’t look away from him. I knew he could sight prey three miles away. He could see fish deep in the water. He could see more colors than a human, colors with names I would never know how to imagine.
“How quickly babies with silver spoons in their mouths turn into young women with silver tongues. If your mother had known the trouble you cause, she’d have prayed for a son.”
I thought he was speaking to Arjean, but it was difficult to know. I pictured my mother and how she probably had wished I’d been born a son, been less trouble or been different somehow.
Eagles can dive up to 200 miles an hour. I could feel Arjean’s father ready to dive, and it scared me because he wasn’t the kind of eagle who sustained himself with small animals and fish. Not just squirrels and rabbits. He killed muscly, poisonous snakes. He killed big, barking dogs. He cracked their bones and swallowed the fragments. That’s how strong his constitution was. Sheep hearts were a delicacy to him.
He said, “I’m sorry for what’s about to happen. You have to understand. Everything I do is to protect you.”
“I don’t believe you,” I said. I considered whether even an apex predator could suffer from over confidence. He had driven life into a corner for so long, he didn’t realize his daughter had been taking expert notes.
“I’m in love,” Arjean said.
He laughed. “Love’s another name for madness. All love will get you is a dark house and a whip.”
He walked around his desk and pushed a button. Bars dropped from the office’s doorway, caging us together in the room. The alarm grew more persistent. The alarm roared in one loud burst after another. If I could listen long enough, I was sure I’d discover a pattern to the rings.
I looked to Arjean. Her face was tranquil. What the pattern of the alarm revealed to me was that she had expected this. Maybe she had even planned it. She winked a single eye at me as security guards appeared on the other side of the bars. Then she laughed, but it wasn’t light like I remembered when her mouth was full of secret knowledge. It was a hard laugh that scared me.
Guards in blue uniforms raised the bars, rushed into the room. One held a cloth over my face. I passed out. I don’t know what happened to Arjean. That was the last time I saw her.
When I manage to sleep, it’s always daylight in my dreams. I think about eagles and their broad wings. I dream of the scent of ylang ylang and citrus. When I’m awake, I try to recall the stories Arjean read to me, the mythologies and the Shakespeare. I think of Portia and the three chests her suitors had to choose from. Choose the right chest and win her love. Choose wrong and be banished. I feel like one of Portia’s suitors, and it occurs to me that the silver casket was the one that held the portrait of a fool.
Arjean, when I looked at you, I thought I was looking at a part of myself. Will I ever know what happened to you after the guards in blue uniforms dragged me to the elevator? Maybe you flew away without me. At all hours, I hear the thumping, grinding mechanizations from the machines overhead. I hear the roar of the furnace that powers the works. My heart beats to the same rhythm as the metal drumming of the factory’s immense pistons. Do you know I’m down in this dungeon underneath the factory, lying in my grave, another stone holding up the factory floor?