|SILENT MOVIE by Carlton Herzog|
Joan Bonham didn’t hesitate to volunteer for the Fresh Start program offered by Roxton Biologics. Her moribund body was riddled with cancer. She would be dead within the year.
Fresh Start promised that her cancer-free, otherwise healthy head would be removed, kept alive, and then transplanted to a suitable donor body. Her head would be kept in a bubble dome. It would be fed oxygen, nutrients, and life enhancing agents. She would be fully aware of her surroundings and would be able to hear, see and speak.
Joan did not know that Project Head-Start existed as a recruitment tool for the CIA’s Project Chimera. That project’s goal was to acquire living human heads. Once those heads had acclimated to the loss of the body, they would then be weaponized: fitted with computer control chips, mounted on an explosive electro-mechanical chassis, and then remote operated individually or in swarms.
Although head removal and external life support had succeeded with chimpanzees and gorillas, it had never been attempted on a human. To be sure, the surgeons in question excelled in neurosurgery and were supported by the latest technology, but to restore a decapitated brain to full functionality proved daunting given the complexities of human neuroanatomy.
Joan’s surgery went well enough. Not once was she ever in any real danger. But her surgeons miscalculated the extent to which her senses were dependent on a functioning body. Despite their good intentions, they left her deaf and mute. Although she retained her sight, she could only see in black and white, and then in coarse celluloid tones reminiscent of silent movies.
The decapitation procedure had been so traumatic she lost part of her memory. She didn’t remember the surgery or why she had it. It took weeks before she realized that she was imprisoned in a jar, and even more to remember why.
When the surgeons found that she was both mute and deaf, they tried to communicate with note cards. At the very least, they thought, Joan could blink her eyes for yes or no. But in the aftermath of having her head removed, she could not control the lid movement. Sometimes they would not blink for hours. Other times, they would tear up and blink uncontrollably.
The neurologist had fitted her brain with sensors to measure blood and oxygen flow, as well as electrical activity. They attempted to monitor the changes in those vitals in response to questions. But the readings stayed flatlined, as if Joan were in a trance.
She didn’t sleep. Instead, her mind would drift between reality and fantasy. Sometimes she would see herself back in her body, talking, laughing, and enjoying life. Other times, she would dream of herself as a soldier in a hospital bed, arms and legs and face gone—including his eyes ears teeth and tongue. In time, the soldier would communicate with his doctors by banging his head on his pillow. His only wish was that he be put in a glass box and shown around the country as a grotesque example of the horror of war.
It was that recurring dream that jarred her memory as to the true nature of her situation. That revelation sent her around the bend. But there was nothing she could do physically to relieve the tremendous feeling of isolation and loneliness she now experienced.
Her mind pulsed with rage, firing off a chain of profanities. In her impotent rage, she cursed God and buttoned it with:
I HAVE NO MOUTH AND I MUST SCREAM.
Joan found little respite from her solitude in the past. Her parents had been gunned down at a mall mass shooting. She grew up in a foster home run by corrupt administrators and abusive caretakers. At seventeen she was raped. She tried to keep the child, but it died soon after birth. From there, she bounced from man to man and job to job, with several failed pregnancies along the way.
When she came into Fresh Start, she had spent the last five years as a streetwalker. She had worked without a handler. Consequently, she took her fair share of beatings. Thus, the cancer diagnosis was the cherry on the shit sundae that was her life.
She held onto her sanity by exploring the human condition and relating it to her own. That’s when the voices started. She couldn’t tell if they originated from her own mind and or if she had contacted some disembodied soul on the ethereal plane. One was especially chatty.
Everybody’s a prisoner in their own body. It’s just your cell is smaller than most.
Who or what are you?
I am the angel of your frustration. A fragmented bit of self out for a stroll. A psychic tourist, if you will. Or I could be nothing more than a sign of incipient dementia induced by this fresh hell of solitary confinement. Or pessimistic meta-induction from a lack of information.
Everything I’ve said is probably wrong.
You mean what I said, if you’re me. Sub-selves and the modular mind. The idea of a single me is an illusion. I contain multitudes, and you are one.
Okay, so I am an executive subset of you trying to jump into the driver’s seat while you stumble around in dissociative disorder. Crazy is as crazy does, or in this case thinks. But look on the bright side; if you’re talking to yourself, then you’re not alone.
After that exchange, Joan’s internal dialogues ran the gamut from the sublime—the nature of consciousness—to the ridiculous—who would win in a fight between cavemen and astronauts. Bizarre though they were, the exchanges kept Joan anchored to reality and helped her pass the time.
If she could see around her, then she would have had more to ponder since there were eleven more head jars. Some had heads while others had nothing more than brains fitted with electrodes and life-support. Each a self-contained isolated consciousness in this zoo of captive minds.
Because Project Fresh Start was covert, none of the doctors wore name tags.
The doctors would often stand in front of her bubble and speculate as to her state of mind. Although she couldn’t hear some of their more insensitive comments, she felt more like a carnival sideshow attraction than a patient awaiting a transplant
There were four dramatis personae in all: one senior physician, in his mid-sixties. He had jowls that drooped on either side of his face like a dog’s testicles. Then there was the model handsome male doctor, the sort you would see on a cologne ad. There were two young female doctors, nubile and perky with large bosoms, sparkling white teeth, and bouncy, picture-perfect hair.
The young male doctor: “I feel sorry for her. It must be incredibly lonely in there. Cut off from everything and everybody with nothing to distract her. You must ask yourself what does this monumental shift in circumstance mean to her. What kind of inner calibrations is she making to adjust?”
The old male doctor: “It could be worse. She could be blind. Stuck in an unending blackness. At least she gets some stimulus from watching our repeated failures and arguments. We’re the floor show and she’s the audience of one.”
To which the young male doctor rejoined: “I don’t think so. She never cracks a smile. For me to be stuck like that would be pure hell. Besides, it’s creepy the way her eyes don’t blink. They just stare straight ahead like those of a ventriloquist’s dummy.”
The blonde female doctor observed: “I suspect something’s going on inside her head. If her hippocampus is intact, then she’s probably taking trips down memory lane with all its regrets, victories, successes, and failures. That might be painful since she’s had a crappy life. Maybe it’s for the best. The thing about solitude is that it forces you to face yourself. The empty landscape you’re stuck in yields a dialogue with the real you.”
The young male doctor agreed: “I concur. We use social media to create the lie that we’re connected to something larger than ourselves, when the sea of faces pointed down at phones rather than at one another says otherwise. So, if you ask me, solitude is a blessing. I like nothing better than getting away from everyone and everything so I can enjoy my own company. The silence of solitude is pregnant with the sound of meaning.”
The older male doctor noted: “Inside that jar, time is not human. It’s a cloud of otherness, outside normal human expectation. There’s no wristwatches or cell phones. No analogue or digital displays of the hours and minutes on our walls. Time is at a full stop in there. No longer a linear progression but a ceaseless waiting. She’s like a Burmese python at the zoo. All shiny and coiled like a still life on the other side of the glass. Not moving. Eyes wide open. Unblinking. Betraying nothing. Then in a flash too fast for your eyes to follow, the victim gets sucked in and slides down her throat.”
The young doctor said: “She wakes me up to all the things I take for granted. I get to walk or swim, fly in a plane and eat a good meal. Be around and do things with other people. Like anything else, too much solitude is a slow working poison that eats away at the soul. I think if she’s still in there, then she must hate the hell out of us.”
The transparent jar allowed Joan to look out onto a portion of the laboratory. It reminded her of her childhood: she had been a latchkey kid before going to the foster home. She would come home to an empty house while both her parents worked late into the evening. Her only company was the old black and white television set owned by the family. She would sit and stare for hours at one show after another, transfixed by the screen and oblivious to the dialogue.
In Joan’s jar nation, the silence was deafening. She couldn’t hear voices, a tap on her diaphanous cage, the crash of a dropped beaker, or the bang of a rudely closed door. The only medium of perception available to her was the ineluctable mode of the visible. Her macabre predicament forced her to think exclusively through her eyes. She spent her days straining her peripheral vision as far to the left and to the right as it could go, trying to read the body language and decipher the actions of the creatures beyond her borders.
She likened herself to a primatologist watching gorillas in captivity. She thought of herself as a disembodied Diane Fosse. It was clear there were leaders and there were followers. There were lovers and love triangles. There were conflicts over power and territory. A daily melodrama, sometimes overt, sometimes subtle, that occupied her mind and kept her from going insane.
She thought they would make an excellent flagship species for an alien zoo somewhere in the galaxy. Charismatic megafauna of earth on display for a galactic audience with a hunger for entertainment, in much the same way humans love to watch the fiendishly amusing antics of chimpanzees at the zoos on earth. Why not? Surely some alien species out there could watch these four and project their own lives and emotions onto them. Perhaps size up their individual traits and ponder their inner lives the way they were no doubt pondering hers. Captivity is as much a mirror as it is a transparency for both the observer and the observed
The younger male doctor—blond, blue-eyed, with chiselled good looks—had intimate relations with both the females, neither of whom were aware of his affections towards the other. Joan named him Ken. She named the females Barbie and Coco.
The older male was constantly groping and grabbing at the two females without success. She named him Uncle Creepy.
From time to time, Ken would have relations with one of his female colleagues in front of her dome. They did it deliberately. He would pull the couch directly into her line of sight. The female would make some larger than life facial expressions to signal her discomfort and protest at being watched by two unblinking eyes but in the end would submit.
Sometimes these assignations would take place late in the evening. At others, early in the morning. But Joan had no way of directly knowing when since her jar didn’t face any clocks. She existed outside of time, as well as sound, smell, touch and taste. She gained a rough measure of time of day by the moments of the lovemaking relative to when the other two arrived for work. A prolonged gap in work followed by a tryst meant the morning; a workday followed by a tryst meant the evening.
It struck Joan as odd that they performed these acts without fear of being caught. It struck her that there was no closed-circuit television feed in the lab. That reinforced her feeling that Fresh Start was shady and outside the law. But she couldn’t point to any one thing that smacked of criminality, beyond the veil of secrecy around the project.
Over time, facial expressions and bodily language took a decided turn toward the worse. What had begun as a harmonious work environment had become increasingly strident and venomous as disclosed by various snarls, sneers, eye rolls, obscene hand gestures seen and unseen, animated arm flailing, object hurling and rapid mouth movements.
Sooner or later one of them will kill the other. Just a matter of time.
Joan’s prophecy came true. First, Ken and Barbie arrived. No sooner had they turned on the lights than they began tearing at each other’s clothes. They didn’t waste time with the couch. They went at it on the floor directly in front of Joan’s cage.
Joan swept her gaze over the two. No sooner had Ken penetrated Barbie and begun his rhythmic thrusting than Coco entered the laboratory. She had a look of horror on her face, a look that quickly turned to rage. As Ken tried to stand, Coco drove a scalpel deep into his eye, pushing it in with her palm. She collapsed on top of Barbie.
Although Joan considered that she should be repulsed, she was grateful for the bloody entertainment. It had all the charm and titillation of a horror movie. In that moment, she felt lucky to be an audience of one.
Even as these thoughts rumbled through her mind, Ken rolled off Barbie and collapsed next to her. The blood from his eye sockets pooled on the floor around him. The supine Barbie raised her hands to protect herself. In the meantime, Coco had grabbed another scalpel and pounced. She stabbed at Barbie’s face. Coco stabbed her rival’s palms and forearms with the fury of an inmate shanking a rival gang member.
After numerous stab wounds, Barbie’s bloodied rival dropped her arms. Once defenceless, Coco shoved Barbie’s head to the side and drove the scalpel into the ear canal to kill the brain.
A moment later Uncle Creepy walked into the laboratory. His facial expression exhibited a restrained jubilation. He knew that in exchange for his silence, he would get Barbie all to himself.
Joan watched as he helped the murderess up and gave her a hug. She was crying. After several pats on the back, they parted. There was a discussion. Then they started arranging the bodies. They grabbed the two scalpels, wiped them down, then placed one in the hand of Ken and one in the hand of Barbie.
Joan knew the plan without hearing a word of it. The two still standing would say they either walked in on a lover’s quarrel and saw the whole thing or found them like this. In their minds, there were no credible witnesses to dispute their account.
The patrol officers and homicide detectives arrived soon thereafter. In assessing the crime scene, they pointed at Joan. She could only guess at what was being said about her. Most likely, it would be she can’t speak or hear. She is catatonic. Her eyes are frozen open. Incapable of seeing anything, let alone testifying.
The detectives came over, looked her in the eyes, and rapped on the dome. Joan tried to move her mouth and blink her eyes but got nowhere. Then she had a revelation. She could control her nostrils. So, she flared them.
One of the detectives tapped his nose and flared his nostrils. Then he pointed to Joan who did the same. This back and forth happened a few more times. Satisfied that Joan was aware and capable of a crude olfactory Morse code, one of the detectives took out a pad and wrote:
FLARE YOUR NOSTRILS TWICE FOR YES AND ONCE FOR NO IN RESPONSE TO THE FOLLOWING QUESTIONS:
DID THE TWO DOCTORS HAVE A FIGHT AND KILL EACH OTHER?
DID THE OTHER TWO DOCTORS HAVE ANYTHING TO DO WITH THE MURDERS?
ARE THEY THE KILLERS?
The detectives repeated the questions until they were satisfied that Joan had seen the murderers and was competent to offer limited witness testimony. For her part, Joan was as delighted as any isolated person can be that she had broken through her prison of solitude.
Human Services liberated her from the confines of the laboratory. She gave closed door testimony that helped convict the two doctors of murder. She also became something of a celebrity, giving a brief interview on Sixty Minutes via the nostril communication method.
After all that, she was taken to a special government facility for neurological restoration of her speech and hearing centres. That having been successful, she now enjoys a fuller life surrounded by family and friends as was originally intended when she joined the Fresh Start program. Although she is still waiting for a donor body, she plays chess with the help of an aide. And she has developed a fondness for silent movies.