Erika Staiti

excerpt from The Planned Experiment

I exited the front door of my apartment building and entered the city of margins. I wasn’t sure how I would walk through it that day. I had heard that sandstorms might blow about, blurring everything. I knew that ill intentions could create the strangest environmental repercussions. I had to move carefully through the nexus.

I decided to activate the Poet. I had to. I couldn’t do this alone.

She appeared before me. She explained that she wanted to guide me out of the city of margins and through the entrance of the chambers, to where the second city lay. But she would be unable to guide me back if I ever wanted to return. I said I understood.

She led me to the community center at the corner of 14th street. I followed her down the endless flight of stairs. We descended to the bottom and I pulled open the metal door. I entered a small dark room and stood in the center of it. At my feet lay a plaque embedded in a large stone. I pushed the knob in the center of the plaque and two doors swung open. There were two paths; one a crawlspace into the future, the other blocked by a large unmovable brick that represented the past.

Sunlight was creeping through the crawlspace.

I could hear the sandstorm picking up back home. I kept my head tucked into my chest through the process. When I emerged, I was standing at the edge of a pier looking out into a vast sea that engulfed the pier on all sides. The poet was sitting cross-legged next to me, picking at her fingernails.

I could see a large ship far off in the distance. The poet said that I could board the ship when it arrived at the pier and it might lead me to the second city, or if not there, somewhere similar or just the same. I asked her how I would know if it was the second city. She shrugged, maybe you won’t.

All I could make out at this distance was an enormous stone sculpture that appeared to be sitting right at the helm of the ship. It was a bust of a man, a marble statue. I wondered who could be steering the ship if that mass of stone was sitting right there. I turned to ask the poet but she was fanning herself and refused to glance in my direction.

I paced up and down the dock pounding on my chest. I lit candles. I read books. I tried to prepare for the journey. The ship was approaching. It wouldn’t be long now.

Entrance to the future

I awoke to find myself curled up in a dusty wooden cabin in the lowest part of the ship. The cabin felt similar to a room I had been in before, but I didn’t know this because it was a memory I had long forgotten.

A large map was plastered along one wall. It was disintegrated, barely decipherable. Yellow newspapers were piled all over a table, rising halfway to the ceiling. A huge wooden chest lay in the middle of the room. I opened the chest to find a variety of small children inside, all half alive. They were previous selves of me, some more lively and present than others, but all lending to my current perception of things. They were chirping and squealing, trying to catch my attention so I would select them to bring along with me on my journey. I became aware that there were many other animals in the room as well. The animals were distracting me so I killed them all. Then I played a song. It was unidentifiable and it sounded like every other song about sadness and loss. I stood up from the piano and scrambled up the wall to get out of there, exiting through the muddy door in the hallway, children screeching behind thick cement walls.

It felt as though I was trapped in a prison floating on the sea.  I wondered momentarily if I had originally crept through the wrong crawlspace, but quickly put the thought out of my head. Perhaps I’d find a new way from here. I didn’t see the poet anywhere but I could feel her watching me.

I walked over the entire skeleton of the ship seven times underneath a glowing moonlight. At daybreak I found myself standing before the huge marble bust of a man, the statue that was steering the ship with its eyes. I climbed to the top of its head in an attempt to overtake the statue and steer the ship myself but the entire structure crumbled beneath me. Luckily, I didn’t break any limbs in the fall.

Jutting into my back, right where I had fallen, was a lever to a swing door at the bottom of the ship. I peered through the crack expecting to see the ocean beneath me but instead saw a large mass of people marching in the streets of a city below the sea, with slogans and signs and megaphones.

The poet appeared behind my shoulder. She said this city was an option available to me, should I feel compelled to descend into it.

I did feel compelled to but it was important for me to keep a top-down perspective, at least at the start. A skull got fractured. A car was on fire and no driver at the wheel. A thin orange haze washed over everything, twisted metal stretching upwards. A man opened his wallet and blood poured out.

Smattered through the crowd there were people known as the sisters. They had tried to band together and they also tried to each do work on their own. But none of it mattered. In an instant they all rose up, as a blue light cast itself around them and swept them away. No one in the crowd even noticed. The Poet whispered: “The sisters never had a chance. Many said their cause would have to be addressed later, not realizing that it wasn’t a cause but an awakening that needed to happen. And that it would have to be the first thing, not the last.”

I couldn’t bear to watch anymore. I had to enter. The poet nodded her consent. I knew I was destined to go there, because there I was.

I climbed down from the passageway, over the heads of the people, and dropped with a plunge into the center of the mass of bodies. There were specks of marvel inside, almost divine. Not divine like the presence of spirits older than everything in the world, but rather, a space filled with the possibility of something not yet born. It was euphoria and chaos combined. It was messy but it cleaned slates, shedding clarity on every imbalance that existed outside of it, placing everything in question.

They said:

“It was more than we bargained for, and everything we ever hoped for. It was everything great and terrible. It was also none of those things.”

They said:

“Some people thought this was the beginning of the end of the big machine, but we weren’t sure if it was even the beginning of the beginning of the end of the big machine. We thought that it was possibly a moment in an endless series of historical moments that never gets beyond its moment.”

Meanwhile, I was standing inside the belly of the march with my fist raised to the sky.

They said:

“If you don’t put your body with the people, then you are aligning yourself with those in power. You’re saying that you are okay with the way things are. There is an us and a them. Where you position yourself matters.”

They said:

“The barracks were huge storage bins sitting against the early morning light, coasting along a stretch of calm glistening water that reached out toward the bottom of the city skyline. Breathtaking, it was, and we were there. We stopped them. We broke things. We kept our clenched fists high.”

In the meantime my ship had sunk completely into the sea and I could no longer climb out of the passageway, back to the present, for there was nothing to climb back to. I had to stay in the future or the past, whichever it was, I couldn’t tell, but the voices kept circling through the mess of forms that I would have to get used to, here in the second city, the city beneath the sea, or somewhere.