Within These Walls || Tom Okafor

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Image Credit: ©COSMOS

Within These Walls

by Tom Okafor




Gray. All gray. No azure brilliance stretching into infinite grasps of boundlessness; no clusters of feathery whiteness embellishing an endless blue. No skies, no clouds. Just a gray, bland emptiness.


It’s easy to be so inundated with an appearance that it––slowly––becomes your reality. We’re deluged in so much grayness we’re morphing into it. Merging with a lifeless, banal façade. But it is sin to think this way. For gray is good. These walls are good. They are life, and they are perfect.


There are two bald heads before my eyes, seven bare scalps staring from behind me, all bald-headed ten of us standing tethered to a queue in front of the Counsel Ward. I want to delude myself into thinking I do not look like them. I don’t want to look like them. I do not wish for my eyes to be as sunken as theirs, nor my lips as parched, neither my face as pale, nor my skin, like theirs, an outstretched, leathery reflection of scrawniness. But I trace my face, and my fingers find the semblance of the faces around me etched on mine.


The stale, thick, and hot air circulating the walls squeezes pebbles of sweat from my pores. I drag the dense air into my lungs, and my insides quiver, too weak to bear the influx. The tang of unwashed skin, the stenches of malnourished bodies, the reek of worn clothes fermenting with sweat, and clinging to open sores clog my nostrils. I do not know if the smell comes from me or from them. It doesn’t matter. For we are one. They are I; I am they. There is no me, but us. Although ugly, hungry, misshapen, and wretched, we’re members; we’re one.


“Francessina Francoff.” My name echoes from the gray speaker mounted on the roof of the Counsel Ward. “The counselor will see you now.”


I step out of the line and curtsey. The two members before me sneer. I can tell they’re female, like me. Although I do not see their breasts ripening from their coverings, their bodies are not as angular as male bodies would be. 


Oh no! I sin! There are no males, no females. Only members. I have divided us; I have sinned.


I drag my bare feet along the scorching floor to the entrance.


The doors slide open, and I enter. Swallowed by the greatness of the building, I feel even more sinful.


Seven off-white pillars run across the building, evenly spaced a few meters away from each other. The walls are draped with gray cloths bespangled with iridescent stones. The floor is laced with intricate patterns of shapes, and the ceiling is purged of all gray, bedecked with foils glowing a silver sheen.


The door to the waiting room further down the Ward clangs open, and I proceed with jaw-slacking awe into it. Inside the waiting room, the gray returns. I plop down on a stool at the corner, and the damned gray stares back at me. Sin tries to creep into my mind again. I roll the prayer stones off my wrists and pray, dispelling the sin, as I await a call into the Counselor's room.


Stone 1

Less is more. More is sin. Contentment is just. There is no less, no more. What there is, is enough. Within these walls, all is enough. Amen. All is enough.


Stone 2

These walls are safe. These walls are sound. These walls are comfort. They are peace. Warmth. They are life. My being. Within these walls, I AM. Without: I am not. I am lost. I am strayed. I am asunder. Without these walls, I cease; I unbe. Walls forbid! I AM. Amen. Within these walls, I AM.


Stone 3

I am satisfied. I do not know hunger, lust, nor desire. I am unable to need. Incapable of want. The imperfections that instigate hunger lie buried, dead with the old world. I am enough. Sufficient. Bounteous. Complete. I am perfect, yet not I, but these walls. Within: I am perfect. Amen. I am perfect.


Stone 4

Gray is good. Gray is life. From gray I have come; to gray I shall return. God is gray. Gray is God. The gray covering around my body is God’s arm wrapped around me. The cluster where I abide is God’s bosom; I am ensconced in it. These gray walls are the pillars of God’s house. I am in heaven. Amen. I am in heaven.


I slide my fingers to the fifth and final stone, and a voice interrupts my mediation.


“Francessina Francoff?”


I lift my face in the direction of the voice. The first thing I see is hair. Lots of hair. Strands of blonde heaven glistening down the shoulders of a woman. She’s not a member. She’s dressed in gray, yes. But not the gray of servitude with which I’m swathed. Hers is the gray of royalty, of beauty, of adornment. The gray of freedom. She is female, a woman. In her, I see the future I crave. In the curves protruding from her skin-fit dress, I see a destiny that has eluded me. In the cleavages mounted on her chest, I see mockery. And I hate her. I hate her so much I see myself sprinting to her and tearing the hair off her head, leaving behind a bloodied scalp. But I could never do it. With what strength? With these withered arms?


“Are you Francessina Francoff?” she asks.


I rise from the stool.


I am enough. I am good. She’s a relic of the past. She’s imperfect. I am perfect!


“Yes. I am Francessina,” I answer.


She smirks and sizes me up. “The counselor will see you now.” She struts away. I follow her to the counselor's office, and she lets me in.


Gray… still. Walls, table, chairs, drapes: all gray. The door shuts behind me, and then I see her. Her? Or him?


They have long, curly hair. It brushes against their shoulders but doesn’t flow past it. Their skin is a glorious black. Their face shifts with colors. Painted so beautifully, I wish I could steal the colors and fill the walls with them. There are no cleavages on their chest, and their shoulders are broad. They look like something from a painting. Perfect, in all the ways the word should mean.


“You have a beautiful name, honey,” they say.


“Thank you,” I croak, clearing my throat


“Come, sit.” They gesture.


I hurry to the seat.


“I hear you were praying," they ask.


“Yes, I was."


“Good. It’s good to pray. Less is more. Right?"


“Right. And more is sin.”


“Yes. Yes, it is,” they say. Then, their face contorts into a frown. They sniff twice, as though trying to catch a scent. They push their chair back and stand. “Follow me,” they say.


They take me to a drawer in the right corner of the room.


“Doff your robe, please.” They open the drawer and pull a fresh gray covering.


I slip my robe off my body. They raise their face at me, jerk backwards, and burst into laughter. The covering slips from their hands as they guffaw, and I snatch it from the floor. I turn my back at them and dress myself.


Their laughter ebbs. “I am so sorry, honey, but you are a sight!” Giggles escape their mouth. “My gray God, I have never seen something so skinny. Please come to the table. Will you?”


I leave my old covering sprawled, a spread of rotten gray, on the floor and proceed to the table, my head bowed.


I hate them now. They mock me.


They lift a paintbrush from their table, dip it into a bowl, and run the brush across my new covering. A sweet fragrance fills my nose. They sit, and I sit too.


“Thank you,” I say.


They hold my gaze. “Francessina, may I know why you have come to see us—by the way, our name is Patricius. So, why are you here?”


I shift in the seat. “I, I believe you know why.”


“That is not an answer,” they cut me off. “We ask, and you reply, aptly. Or you get out.” They grab a green apple from the table, bite a chunk from it, and a creamy inside is exposed.


It’s real! Not manufactured, like the ones we’re given in the clusters. Apples that reveal gray insides when eaten. Repulsive!


“Are you ready to answer the question, honey? Why? Are? You? Here?”


I sigh. “Earth… I want to go to earth.”


They drop the apple and wipe their mouth. “You said you were praying?”


I nod.


“So, what are you without these walls?”


Sane. Not scraggy. Not starving! "I cease.” I force the words out my mouth. “Without these walls, I unbe.”


“Yet you DESIRE… to leave. Why?”


Because I am tired and sick of this fucking cosmic nuisance! “It’d be an honor to serve. To help prepare the earth.”


“So, you wish to go to the earth as an act of service, huh?”


I nod.


They size me up, and they laugh again. I clench my fists. I swear, if they laugh one more time, I will swing with everything I’ve got.


“My gray God. You? Serve? Like this?” They wag their fingers at me and giggle. I do nothing.


“Honey, I can tell you’re lying. Not by some extraordinary... uh... what’s it called? Not power... No. Not source. Extraordinary… Gift! Yes, gift. Not by some extraordinary gift, but by merely observing you. You do not seem capable of offering much service. Are you sure you want to leave these walls because of your desire to serve?” They tilt their head to the side. The left edge of their lips curl upwards.


“Yes. It’ll be an honor to serve on earth, Patricius.”


“Well, so be it.” There is something in their eyes. A malice. A grim grayness. A certain darkness; lingering, liquid darkness. Darkness that can only be found in the vast void beyond the walls. There is a judgment in their eyes, and it scares me.


“You leave tomorrow. You can keep the robe. And please, do say hello to earth for me.” Their face twitches under the pressure of a restrained laughter.


I rise and curtsey, my eyes fixed on the half-eaten apple on the table.


“Thank you,” I say and leave.


***

I join the pack of members entering the chapel. The chapel bells clang above us, and we settle on our knees, facing the screen on the altar. The screen is about ten meters wide and is hung at the center, with four speakers fixed to its edges. Three pillars are placed on both sides of the screen. The pillars are bare and gray. And so are the walls of the chapel. There are no seats. No tables. The ceiling holds a painting of our world. A spherical gray planet surrounded by galaxies of stars interspersed with thick dark holes. Below the painting are the words: BEHOLD OUR GRAY GOD.


“Let us pray.” A voice echoes from the speakers.


And we pray. Our fingers trace the prayer stones as we proclaim the truths of our kingdom, stone after stone…


Stone 5

“We are members of one. One gray body. One gray soul. We are bound by the eternal grayness of our walls. Self is ceased. There is no me; there is only us. We are of one mind. One thought. We do not need to know. A question is a curse. An answer, a burden. Within these walls, we are free. We are one. Amen. We are one.”


Shouts erupt throughout the chapel. I join in on the celebrations of prayers answered. We congratulate ourselves with hugs. We are free. We are one. We are perfect. Maybe they believe it. But I don’t. Not anymore.


The screen lights up, and the voice from the speaker blares again. “Let us mourn the old world.”


Images flip through the screen, and we break out in wails. We smash ourselves against the floor; some even rent their clothes. Mourning the old world. Mourning their imperfections. The folly of their ways. Their colors. The disarray. The chaos.


Two girls fill the screen; one of them is as white as a faded dream, the other brown, the brown of the trees behind them. They hold themselves in an embrace, and while we mourn the sins of their desire, I wish for a time when someone would hold me that way.


We go through pictures and pictures. Beauty and beauty. They aren’t supposed to be beautiful to me, yet they are. How can they not be? The colors. The places. The looming buildings. The smiles on their faces. Smiles that glint in their eyes. I behold their beauty, and my wails reach a fever pitch. Cursed. Cursed. Cursed. We are cursed!


The images cease, and we rise. The screen flicks on again, and our gray planet is displayed. We rejoice, clap, and yell for victory. Then, the new earth as is being created is shown. But first, its desolation is displayed. Stretches of destruction. Buildings ablaze. Bodies littered the streets like specks of colored death. We fall on our knees and mourn anew.


Afterwards, we see a new earth. Members like us, dressed in colored coverings, cultivate the earth, clean its streets, rebuild its walls, and we rejoice. We dance, and we are merry. Our future is certain. It is bliss.


They disperse. I do not leave with them. My eyes are glued to the screen, and I see myself on the streets of the earth. Free from this madness. Cultivating a new earth. Building a home free from the deathly strokes of gray realities. I see myself whole. Perfect, with all the imperfections of the old world resurrected in me.


***

Today is yesterday’s tomorrow, and my gray heart leaps at the sight of the space vehicle. It’s happening! Finally, I am leaving!


I’m guided, along with nine other members, into the vehicle. Behind us, other members are gathered, and they cheer. As is custom, we turn and wave. Their cheers crescendo, soaring waves of lively gray. I do not care for their cheers. I cannot wait to leave. My bones ache within me. There’s a fluttering in my belly. I do not know what it is, but I think it is hope, and I embrace it.


Inside the vehicle, the gray guards help us don our suits. We settle into the seats, the doors shut, and we rise into the Upwing. A portion of the Upwing slides open, and for a moment I wonder why it is able to do so. Like a door was built into the roof of our planet. But the thought fades as soon as we shoot into the vast void.


We ascend into a blackness more alive than the gray within our walls. This darkness is punctuated with clusters of stars. Beautiful. The members on board with me applaud. Tears cascade from my eyes, and laughter boils in my belly, erupting from my mouth. I won! Yes, I won!


We sail through space. The members mutter amongst themselves. Their faces are lit like the streets of the old world when its nights are in full bloom. The gray guards observe us, giggling between whispers. I look through the glass windows to behold the great gray for the last time. Dislodged cosmic bodies speckle the void. My face reflects on the glass. For the first time, I’m aware of my appearance. I do not mind my sunken eyes or my blotched face. I admire my smile as it glistens in my eyes. But that smile sours when I see the shape beyond.


I dart my face away from the glass. I look around and find the other members chatting still. Don’t they see it too? I gaze through the glass once more, and my body quakes as I see it again. It can’t be. But there it is. Lodged in the void! A gray ship! Not a gray sphere! A fucking ship surrounded by boulders and boulders of cosmic matter.


I bound from the seat. “Liars!” I yell at the guards. They retreat. My fingers twitch, and my heart storms against my chest. The members throw their gazes at me, and their chattering ceases.


“I guess you got it figured, or do you need me to spell it out for ya?” says a gray guard with a scar across his chin.


The members rise from their seats. I fling my face from guard to guard. Four of them grab the space helmets hanging from the roof.


“You really thought you were going to earth? Huh?” the guard says, his tone taunting. “The earth is fucking gone! And you have been found guilty of dissension.” A smile crawls into his face. He puts the helmet over his head.


“Everybody hang on to something!” I yell. The members burst into screams of panic, and everyone scrambles to their seats.


The guards strap themselves against the wall of the vehicle. I fall to the ground and wrap my arms around my seat.


In an instant, the base of the vehicle clanks open and tilts. Screams erupt from my mouth, slamming my vocal cords against themselves. A hot, dense wind smashes into the ship and I am pulled away from my anchor and launched into the void.


My heart splinters into pieces. I moan and groan and wail but my voice disappears into the void. It doesn’t come back to me. This place swallows everything. I float in the darkness, drifting in the belly of death, cocooned by a distinct nothingness. My eyes catch sight of the forms hanging around me. Hundreds upon hundreds, galaxies upon galaxies of bodies, dressed in gray suits, floating in nothingness.





Tom Okafor is a Nigerian writer, a reckless daydreamer who loves to spend his time reading, writing, shuffling through Beyoncé's discography on Spotify, and—obviously—daydreaming.

He won the Smile Calls Writing Contest in 2023, and made the Shortlist for the 2023 Bold contest. His stories have been published and are forthcoming in Entropy Squared, National Flash Flood, Ibua Publishing Journal, A Coup Of Owls Press and Fiery Scribe Review.




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