Time Animal | Emelia Steenekamp

Before it starts your parent drops you off. They say: you will be safe here. I will visit you. Don’t do that with your mouth.

You sit down in front of the panel. On your desk is a pile of books and equipment such as stationery, thimbles, and a metronome. Your schedule has everything you need, says the arbiter. Note that in your first month we expect you to become familiar with the seven volumes written on deliberation in the lower limbs. The green book is your thought book. You will write in it daily, at 16h00, noting at least twenty-five thoughts. They will be divided into two categories, banal thoughts and philosophical thoughts.

Next, someone whose eye contact seems to ask more than you are able to provide tells you that your manner of walking needs to be made more comfortable; it looks stiff, stresses the nervous system. Then a person with a name that was popular in the late eighties informs you that it is important to forgive and you try to picture what that would mean for the shapes of your insides. A head of dispassionate hair says: revisit the severity, then follow its train.

A teacher takes you to your room, in which there is a bed with clothes on it. You are told not to wear this shirt with these trousers and to make sure that your hair is always tied up and that all nail decoration has to be approved by a coordinator. The bed tells the time and puts you to sleep until the early morning hours, when plants are dozing and teachers are yanking the arms of sleepy residents to understand blood pressure.

Breakfast table with others, new names and faces noted down. Follow them to the workshop where you have to make a statue for which you are given some shimmering blue gunk and people make fairies and horses and Jaco recreates a feeling he once had when someone was unhappy to see him inside a Pick n Pay and Alan makes a model of the house where he lost his virginity and Ellen sculpts the expression on her dad’s face when he broke his ankle for the second time. They are good at it (you are not). You want to create a sunset scene, which you envision as you fumble with the eerie clay, but you are envisioning the scene too much and observing the clay too little. Your creation looks like a dog. So now you want to leave the class but time is simply, empirically, not passing. You look at a clock and you look away and every time you look back it’s still the same and you wonder if there isn’t a way for you to utilise this suspension, but you are too tired.

There is a lawn for people to fidget and smoke on. So after class you are here on this lawn and the topic of conversation is laundry and how to do it in a toilet or bathtub. Then the topic of toilets leads to the topic of God and Jaco and Blom are quiet and everyone knows it’s because they don’t believe in God. Blom always says that she would like to believe in God, as if believing in God is a quaint thing like a special tea cup or a miniature house. You want to say something but the sun traps words in the fat under your skin.

The chancellor calls you into her office to tell you to work on your handwriting because it shows remnants of an attempt at emulating the handwriting of small-town kids who were objects of envy in 2001. The chancellor says it is embarrassing. You know. It is a special kind of handwriting, handwriting with a genuine designerly ugliness and desperation. You would dress with the same hunger if it weren’t for the uniforms.

Next up is lunch, where you find out about the thing that is happening to everyone who lives here, which is the wide disregard of a rule that forbids sexual contact between residents. Under the fidgeting and seminars and disputes about abnormal numbers, radars work at high capacity, scanning for desired objects. Often the same one is desired by many. But there are plenty of options, and so an inordinate amount of romantic and bodily ebbing and flowing occurs. Try this one out, failed attempt with that one, try another, wild sex in a corner, smelly, fluids dry on your hands. And so on.

You will learn that she is good at three things: arranging furniture, being helpful to the staff, and using her tongue on you. In class she watches you. You have to notate the frequencies of various sounds—a toilet flushing, a bug being crushed, a hard swallow. It’s surprising how often the correct answer is E. Many things happen right on E’s head. Then you have to compose a song based on mathematical catechresis, using the notes observed. Your composition works out surprisingly well, does exactly what melodies are supposed to do: wake up sleepy receptors that wait for music. They are grateful for the touch. The feeling follows you into the night, when you are outside with her. She inspects the melody, says it is beautiful, says would you like to lie on this feather duvet, look at the moon, let’s eat some dried apricot, do you feel empty, or phlegmatic? And soon your body is being licked. You feel the melody guiding the course of the wetness, and it’s almost as if the sensation is generated by your own skin, or as if the sensation is itself the spawning of something else, a kind of convoluted snake and this snake is pleasure like a liquid and you are looking up at the sky pretending that it is hanging below you. A finger on your clit makes you come, and you are released from the ground.

You will later learn that she is terrible at three things: transporting spiders in paper cups, not taking sleeping pills all the time, listening when people speak. But you do not know this yet, just like you do not know that five years from now you will be walking through a vacant hallway hoping that any person in the world would hear your floppy slippers and come to you, give you something, alter something.

At your first caucus the topic is Jane, who is repeating a project for the third time in a row. Eighties Name asks E how she feels about Jane’s situation and E says she feels that Jane will soon do better because she has been working hard. But then 80s says that that is a thought not a feeling, how do you feel. And E says well, she feels that Jane is making progress and this is very good. 80s gets pretty angry because obviously this is not the right answer. They stomp to the board and write THOUGHTS | FEELINGS. Under THOUGHTS, they write some examples of typical cognitive happenings. Residents enumerate corresponding FEELINGS.

Thought: I will say the thing. Feelings: Apprehension, excitement, lack.

Thought: These words are not right. Feelings: Dread, mortification, lack.

Thought: Everyone seems shocked. Feelings: Regret, disorientation, lack.

Thought: The man is angry. Feelings: Shame, horror, lack.

Thought: What is this rock slamming into my cheekbone. Feelings: Bewilderment, fear, lack.

Thought: My mother is looking at the potato salad. Feelings: Loneliness, terror, lack.

Thought: I am running away. Feelings: Ignominy, revulsion, lack.

The important thing, 80s says, is not to conflate the two categories. This is a crucial step towards greater clarity of consciousness. E will never understand the distinction. But there are other things E does understand that she cannot say. When she tries to explain, words get stuck in her famously heavy tongue, and when she does speak the sounds she makes seem not to come from her body. Whose pain is this? E asks. In a seminar she says: ergo, I was wrong. It does not care for me.

On Thursday you are given a moment. You go to your room and lie down. Those are your feet, at the end of the bed. Clouds roll on for some time and it seems like you’re always staring at your feet. They are so weird and fleshy you want to put them in your mouth.

Then comes a high-numbered day in the cold season when something happens, e.g. the sound of a digital bell saying it is time for mothers. Soft handbags and heads of hair pouring in through the door. Finally there is the instant in which one of them is hers, in which she also sees you. The look on her face is exactly what it would be, holding the sad time animal that grows between people. The animal is made up of everything that happened like the man talking about heads exploded by bullets and the dog with the weird brain and the sibling staring at ghosts in trees. Care. Eating food together. Punishment. Grey lawn with apricot tree. Cat buried under tree. Cat decomposing (still?).

Your mother says she worries, she asks how is the food, and the classes do you like them? You say: strawberries, rare stones, wash and joy before it sucks. Your mother says what? It’s just your brain, it’s okay. A thought passes, quickly (thank goodness).

You tell her that things are all right, sometimes the food experience is complicated. Classes also, sometimes sad, like dressing and undressing mannequins. You say you most enjoy the class for the study of objects that look like lizards from far away. It is a rich emerging field that will soon take the world by storm; sceptics will be wowed and scientists will be immensely grateful and life as we know it will be transformed. How impressive! Says your mother.

You show her the pet called Springtime. Residents take turns feeding Springtime. There is a roster for this duty, which is everyone’s least favourite duty. Springtime knows this, feels rejected, has a face filled with wide hungry eyes. People hate this chore because Springtime’s food is hidden every night and the person whose duty it is has to find it before they can feed the pet. There is also a roster for the duty of hiding the food, which is perhaps everyone’s favourite duty. They get to scan and skim and follow their chosen extremities into all the obscure corners they can find. Aside from the fence, there are no limits as to where the food may be put. It has been hidden in ceilings, ovens, buried underground, concealed by heaps of apples. Sometimes it is in intimate parts of the lodging area, laundry baskets and so on. A yearly prize is awarded for best hiding place, valuing both aesthetic effect and efficacy. Jane wins it for her innovative usage of steam-irons.

Correspondingly, failure to find the food is dreadful. So of course it happens that people scheduled on roster A (feeding) stalk people on roster B (hiding) to try to see where the food is hidden. This is forbidden and they are ALWAYS caught and then Person A has to be on feeding duty for a whole month, which takes a toll, leads to collapse. Like with Nadia—constables summoned, dogs sniffing for clues, all eyes averted to rest on any available still life.

You introduce your mother to the junior arbiters and everyone says things like so nice to meet you. They laugh at boring jokes because that is the way. The reason for this kind of talk is the isolated systems that impede proper communication between residents and arbiters. Arbiters and residents live in tubular systems made of glass. At the places where the tubes cross one another, the two groups can vaguely give and follow instructions mimed through the glass, but they cannot touch and when they look at each other they think maybe they need glasses. No one knows what it’s like in the other tubular system, so when the arbiters leave to go to their lives their existence becomes baffling. Do they watch TV? Do they eat food? Do they accidentally knock over a glass? Does their partner shout about having no fucking glasses left?

The only real thing you know about the arbiters is that one night Jaco was angry because sleep wasn’t working out so he went to the arbiter for medicine. The arbiter said no not without the doctor of medicine. Jaco storms to his room, storms back holding dirty underwear, throws it into the arbiter’s face, says you cunt maybe you’d be better at washing this. They are both shouting and the next day Jaco is told to apologise and so he does but on the lawn he laughs about how angry he can get but then he gets a little sad in caucus because his father is angry too. You tell your mother. Your mother says oh my goodness what a story. You say: my neighbours slammed a dirty unpleasant thing. Your mother thinks about the inside of your head. There are no words for a while and you stare at the road outside. Sometimes people walk by. Sometimes they peer.

Your mother wonders what to say next and sees the gate and says good lord what an ugly colour and you wonder if this is true. It has the appearance of a normal gate but this one has real power. It is not very high. It opens regularly and always leaves an uncomfortable gap, making you feel shy. When it is open its ghost stands cross armed, it says I dare you I dare you to stare at my gap. I dare you to move through it. The threshold is not omnipotent like a fairy-tale mountain that grows higher or crumbles or turns into a giant, but it is omnipotent in the way that time is. If you cross it, you will be altered, made dizzy, your arms and legs and head will buzz with the permanence of what you’ve done. You imagine gliding through the gap on giraffe legs. Dizziness will hit you like steam, evaporating you as you travel into wide avenues and big trees and silences at the bottom of swimming pools, feeling wholly untethered until the sun has given up on you and it is dark and suddenly you remember that you need things and your needs pull you toward a particular front door on which you knock before being led inside by someone ethereal.

As a special treat they gather everyone and play a video for the parents which showcases a musical performance and perfect trees. Then a bell rings over the low-fi piano sounds. It signals the suction of the outside world, sucking out the visitors. Everyone is all smiles and hugs. Your mother leaves and you want her to come back.

Emelia Steenekamp is a South African writer with a background in film-making, film scholarship, and digital art. They have been published or have work forthcoming in Academics Against Networking, Strukturriss, Club Plum, and Datableed.