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The Fence

11 March, 2010

A man leaves his house, collecting an umbrella on the way out. Gustav is walking, as he does everyday, to work. It is a foggy morning. He discovers that his usual route is impassable because there has been another fire in the neighbourhood, and the sidewalk is blocked off with blue modu-loc fencing, so he crosses the street and continues along. He passes an elderly man sitting on the bench. The old man is always there but usually on the other side of the road from him, and he sees now how this man is consumed by revulsion, turning to glare over his shoulder before turning back and shaking his head, repeating, persevorating in his indignity.

Perhaps this man is responding to the loudspeakers that have overnight been attached to the lamp-posts, and through which a muffled voice now declaims point after belaboured point, in a steady cadence that would lull the listener if it weren’t for a wedge of excitement. Or perhaps it is from an older, unforgotten affront. In recent weeks a new vein of the virgin metal has been discovered, miles beyond the city limits in an area which was believed to have been exhausted in centuries past. A road race, the likes of which the town had never before seen, was duly announced. But Gustav mentally blocks out the loudspeaker. He decided a long time ago that he would no longer be concerned with the virgin metal and the pursuit thereof.

He is aware of today’s race, of course. Everywhere, everyone, it seems, has been concerned with little else. But since he made this decision to ignore the whole endeavour – a decision that had to be consciously made, contrary as it was — Gustav has found a sweet solitude like none that he had ever known, finding in this alone reason enough to cement his decision. If there were others like him in this town, he did not know of them. But he imagined that if they did exist, then they, as he, were revelling in this solitary exemption.

After a couple of blocks he needs to make a left turn, but finds that he is unable to because the whole street is blocked off. He walks on another block with the fence running along to his left with the idea of making the next left turn. This he succeeds at, but there is only a narrow path. There is now fencing on both sides of him, but he is getting closer to work so continues along the way. He is visibly reassured at being able to turn left again just a block from his workplace.

However, as he approaches his building, he sees that there is no gap and no way he can cross the fence to get in the front door. The fencing runs along and right past the far side of the building. There is no fencing along the back of the building, but neither does it letup there to allow him access to the area. Construction workers bustle about but the noise they make unloading the fences from the back of a truck drowns out any chance to make himself understood either to them, or to a short line of people slowly entering the back door, which includes co-workers.

He has no choice but to double back. As he makes his way back along the front of his building, where the lights are off and nobody appears to be home, he notices something new: there are rows and rows of fencing on his right, on the other side from his workplace. There is a gap in the fencing, and more space on the other side. Realizing that he is already late, he slips through this gap, hoping that he will somehow become disentangled.

He turns toward the city centre, where the skyline is just barely visible in the foggy distance, and continues his journey. From almost nothing a white noise arises around him, as the sound of a startled flock of birds taking off out of sight, but growing so quickly in intensity to the point that he must cover his ears, hunched over. The loudspeakers continue, but Gustav stopped noticing them long ago.

As he walks along like this, he passes a man coming the other way, wearing shorts and a racing singlet despite the chill air. Panting, this man has a jubilant expression on his face. The white noise is recognizably applause now. Cheers and whistling spread through a crowd, sightless and invisible because of the fog, with the realization that the race is over. “The metal’s won, it’s all over” a shrill voice shouts in the near distance, and a scrum ensues. Gustav briefly observes this totally spent and blissful man being rapidly buried by an ecstatic crowd. The human pile grows so quickly that the surrounding fences rattle and wobble slightly, clattering as bodies slide and heap against them.

Very soon he passes another runner and another, with increasing frequency. The runners seem to become progressively more exhausted and even frantic as they elbow each other, vying for position. He gets shoved to the side as two runners running abreast disregard his intended progress against the flow of the race.

He tries to accost some of the slower runners that are now passing him, but each of them seems determined in his or her way to make it to the finish line, and they all ignore him. A solid wall of a man barges him aside, and he staggers, almost losing his balance. Finally, one of the runners, emaciated, limping, and with gunk dripping off his face, comes to a standstill and uses Gustav’s shoulder to steady himself. They are both visibly exhausted. The injured runner is nearly delirious and seems confused and unable to understand anything that is said to or asked of him. ‘The metal, the metal!’ is all he can manage to say finally, pointing back in the direction from which he came — he rests his hands on his knees for a moment and finds the resolve to continue on to the finish line.

As he walks farther along there is nobody, and the fog in the meantime has thickened. No buildings are visible, but he notices that he is now ankle deep in ashes, which he kicks as a kid walking through autumn leaves, apparently lost in thought, but increasingly uncaring and listless. After a little while he picks up a vague metallic rattling, the sound of gates closing perhaps. Bewildered and slightly alarmed, he squints uselessly into the near distance. He looks around to see that the fencing on either side seems to have stopped, and relief visibly restores him. He kicks some ashes in the direction he had been walking, then turns and trudges with certainty off to his right.

However, he is soon confronted with another fence, which he follows to the right only to be cut off again. He follows this fence too, and again he is cut off. He is now walking in a square or rectangle, while the length of each side of fence appears to be diminishing. The metallic sounds are loud enough now that it almost seems as though the fence is being slammed into his face, but the fog is thick enough merely to feed his uncertainty.

Eventually, he is walking in a circle with a diameter of about two arm’s lengths. Could it be that the fences are moving closer, or is this just a result of his dizziness? He is beyond knowing.

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